- onNovember 14, 2014
- Vol.16 Summer 2012
- byHa Seong-nan
- The Woman Next Door
The power went out at ten past midnight this morning. While people were asleep, all the electronic home appliances stopped working. The children who woke up were peevish; they missed the hum of the refrigerator and the whir of the fan, sounds as comforting to them as a lullaby. Housewives who opened the refrigerator in the morning found blood dripping from the pork in the freezer, the meat a dark red. The Popsicles had melted, leaving wrappers full of soft mush pooled around the sticks, and the marinated spinach gave off a sour smell. It gets so humid in July that food goes bad in no time. Everyone was calling the 123 hotline.
Even up to the early ’80s, power failures were very common. Students cramming for their exams would have had to study by candlelight and sometimes, these candles caused fires. Since 1997, though, all this has become history.
This particular power failure wasn’t that extensive. The affected area was limited to Kwangmyǒng Complex D and Rose Towers 1, 2, and 3. It could have been a worn-out line or even a bird on a high-voltage line. Birds perching on high-voltage lines are safe as long as they don’t touch anything else. But if they nod off and touch another line, zap!
I looked at my map and checked the utility pole in question: No.021/8619E. I stepped into the alley with the poles marked 8619E. The alley went down a steep hill with a sixteen-metre-tall pole every fifty metres. The sun was hanging over the vents on the roof of Kwangmyǒng Complex A. Not yet ten and it was already sizzling.
Before I knew it, I was at the bottom of the hill. Behind me were the eight concrete utility poles whose number tags I’d been busy reading on my way down. I’d developed a habit of calculating distance by the number of utility poles I passed. Three hundred fifty metres later, I was finally in front of No.021.
I had worked in Kyǒnggi Province before they transferred me here. Back there, not a day went by without a power failure. The cause? Magpies. They sometimes built their nests on top of the transformers and came in contact with the line, or a porcelain insulator had broken off. Maybe to magpies, utility poles looked like oak trees, sturdy enough to hold nests that would last a lifetime. So not only did I replace transformers and repair lines, but I also had to move the nests into trees. But where would you find magpies here in the city? City children would never see a magpie except in a picture book about birds.
Climbing utility poles was a piece of cake. At the technical high school, they called me “Monkey Boy.” There were fifty practice poles rigged up on the school grounds and we had to go up and down them all. I set the speed record.
I strapped on my leather tool belt crammed with gear and was about to start climbing when I stepped on something spongy. It was a pair of black leather dress shoes filled with water. They weren’t left behind by a drunk. Although the spines were crushed in and the heels were worn, they were placed neatly side by side, as if someone had removed them at the front door. I felt a drop of water. I looked up. Was it starting to rain again? It had been raining on and off until it had stopped earlier this morning. From the first peg two metres above the ground, a wet suit jacket hung, water dripping from its hem. It was the same guy who left had the shoes there.
The metal pegs zigzagged up the pole, my gaze locking onto each peg as I climbed. The dark street lamp loomed above, staring down at me like the Cyclops. Two pegs above the suit jacket, on the other side of the pole, hung a damp pair of men’s trousers. And on the next peg, a white dress shirt with its sleeves rolled up was flapping in the wind. The breeze must have dried it out during the night. Above that hung a sweat-stained undershirt and looped around the next peg was a necktie, still knotted. Next, I met a pair of socks swaying back and forth in front of my face like a pair of tired balloons. I tilted my head back and looked at the very top of the pole to see a pair of men’s briefs, dense black pinstripes on white, streaming like a banner in the southeasterly wind.
The man had taken off his shoes, hung his suit, then removed the remainder of his clothes one by one as he made his way up the pole, shedding even his briefs to hang at the top. He would have been a sight to see, sitting atop the pole without a stitch of clothing; his naked form must have resembled that of Adam, the first man. Like birds sitting on high-voltage lines, he would have been tense, making absolutely sure he didn’t touch another line. This is not something a drunk would attempt. Besides, the first foot peg was nailed far above my head and I’m pretty tall for a man. I bet he was sober. It crossed my mind that maybe he was from a technical school, too.
I climbed past two transformers and the street lamp, and from that point, I was looking down at the long stretch of the 6600-volt line. I loosened my tool belt and strapped myself to the pole. I had once seen my seniors reconnecting a line. They had repaired the line without shutting off the power. There was a running joke that some of them could make electricity dance between their thumb and forefinger. This time, luckily, the transformer hadn’t burned out. It must have been the metal buckle from the man’s belt. The wind must have brought it in contact with both lines. The metal buckle must have tripped the automatic shut-off function when it touched the lines.
There was no one around. I heard music from a pump organ and children singing; maybe there was an elementary school nearby. When I reached the top of the pole, I saw the street I’d walked down. I could even see the playground of an elementary school, hidden until now by a wall. Little kids in sky blue gym suits were doing sprints in time to a whistle. I leaned back in my harness, set my feet against the pole and gazed down at the scene sixteen metres below. Everything that had been three-dimensional from ground level was now clearly spread out like a vast blueprint. I shielded my eyes, bringing far away scenes into focus. In an apartment building across the street, a fifth-floor window opened and a girl with long hair looked out. Our eyes met. Flustered, she disappeared and the window banged shut. The organ wheezed every time it hit a G. The children sang, or rather screeched, at the top of their lungs. With a fingertip, I picked the fluttering pair of briefs from the pole. On my way down, I deactivated the shut-off. The man’s clothes that I had removed on my way up littered the ground.
The inside pocket of the suit jacket contained a small address book that looked like a business organizer. I searched his pockets, but the wallet was gone; someone must have taken it. The rain had soaked through the lining and left the organizer with yellow splotches, making it look like an antique world map. The dates were arranged in a grid, and the boxes were filled with miniscule handwriting. I had trouble making it all out because the ink had run. One thing was clear, though—he led a busy life. Three whole pages were crammed with names, dates of birthdays and wedding anniversaries. The next section was left blank. He had then used the remaining pages for what seemed to be a diary. The wet pages clung together. I did my best to separate them, but they ended up torn instead. I eased myself against the pole and read, skipping the parts that were difficult to make out. From time to time, I would tilt my head back and glance up at the top of the pole.
Having shed his skin, where could the man inside have gone?
On the roof of a building, an enormous billboard stands on two steel columns. “Heaven on Earth. Escape to Hawaii.” A Hawaiian maiden smiles down at the street. She wears a floral print bikini and a string of flowers around her neck—a lei, they call it. Stretching out behind her is the Pacific Ocean, its dazzling colour changing with the light shining on the coral reef. Young men with sun-browned bodies ride surfboards, balanced precariously on waves. Completing the picture are coconut trees crowned with clusters of coconuts. I could almost taste them.
The bus moved in fits and starts. I stood clutching a plastic strap overhead and looked out the window, up at the billboard. Wedged in between the rear-ends of the people behind me was my right hand. In that hand was a briefcase, and in the briefcase was a bunch of catalogues with business cards stapled to the covers, along with some nicely packaged gum and candy. It had been a while since my arm had gone numb.
Every time the driver slammed on the brakes, the women shrieked. Every time the bus tilted way over, the breasts of the woman standing behind me rubbed against my back. Every time we came to a bus stop, I found myself pushed farther back by the swell of the new arrivals, and every time a body blocked my view out the window, I craned my neck to see. The next stop was announced. Someone rushed for the door, bumped my head, and knocked my glasses loose. They hung crookedly from my nose, but I didn’t mind.
It is always congested there and I’ve looked up at the billboard every single day for the past two years. The advertisement was one travel agency’s ploy to entice tourists to Hawaii. Two years of direct exposure to the sun and the exhaust fumes from all those cars stuck in traffic have turned the colours of the ad. The paint is peeling and even the lei around the girl’s neck has lost its luster. But her smile remains the same, just as it was two years ago when I first saw her. Since then, I’ve been looking up at her, whether I'm hunched up like a turtle in my down parka, peering over steamed up glasses, or in the rainy season, oblivious to the rainwater trailing down from my umbrella on to my shoes.
One day, that girl started to smile at me.
The third dealership of Chrysler Korea is located at a busy downtown corner. The sides facing the two main streets are each fitted with an enormous pane of glass from floor to ceiling. It’s only when you get closer that you see a little “Entrance” sign on the automatic sliding doors. It’s like a blemish on the glass. From sunrise to sunset, light spills directly in through the glass. As I waited for the crosswalk signal to turn green, I looked across to where I work. The dealership looked just like a greenhouse.
Whenever I sit in my office, I can’t help but make eye contact with the people walking by on the street. There is a cluster of buildings nearby: City Hall, two department stores, bus terminal, and banks. In the office, you can’t even perform ordinary acts such as blowing your nose or tightening your belt to keep your pants from falling down without someone noticing. You never know when someone’s glance might wander in. The entire setup—the desks, chairs, every last flower pot—revolves around the cars on display, not the people who work here. What kind of amenities come to mind when you think of a regular office? Well, you won’t find them here. For example, not even a picture hangs on the wall. You don’t want people looking at it instead of the cars.
I polished the glass until it was time for the morning pep talk. A day didn’t pass without the glass getting dusty and smudged. In the three years here, I have mastered the art of cleaning windows. But I still don’t know what it takes to be a top-notch salesman. What I know is that if you moisten some newspaper, wipe the glass, then remove the remaining moisture with a cloth, the glass becomes so clear that a bird is likely to crash into it. The display window is as big as the screen at the Taehan or Piccadilly. High up on the window is “The World Chooses—Chrysler” written in fancy swirls.
During the night, someone had thrown up outside. There’s a backstreet right around the corner full of bars with the lights down low and names like “The Red Rose,” “Casablanca,” “Ruby,” and “Winter Wanderer.” It must have been someone from one of those places, trying to catch a taxi. The vomit was splattered all over the bottom of the display window. I filled a watering can, sprinkled water onto the glass and carefully wiped away every last trace.
Inside the show room, there is a luxury sedan waxed to a brilliant luster. It’s set up on a round platform and there’s a device underneath it that makes it turn around and around all day long. The effect is amazing. Car buyers can’t take their eyes off it, at least until it goes all the way around. With the money you’d need to buy the car, you could buy yourself a small apartment on the outskirts of Seoul. I’ve been here three whole years and I still haven’t sold that Chrysler.
Maybe my luck will change today.
Sometimes there’s no one here, not even Miss Kim the receptionist. Then I’m the one who watches the office. When that happens, I like to get up on the platform and climb into the driver’s seat. The seats still have their plastic covers. The genuine leather seats have that new-car smell and the gear stick responds smoothly to my touch. The wooden knob is the size of an egg and it fits perfectly in my hand. You can even see its oak grain. I know every single word in the brochure for this luxury sedan. If you’re going to sell a product, you have to know everything there is to know about it. When there’s no one else around, I’ll chant the phrases of the advertisement. “The ultimate high-speed driving experience—feel yourself become one with the road.” Plus, there is a gyroscope half-set into the dashboard. When the car is in motion, this round object is constantly turning. The ride is so smooth that you can almost feel the earth go around. Cream-coloured airbags, front and side, for both driver and passenger. In my mind, those airbags have gone off over a hundred times.
The morning meeting began before I finished polishing the glass. Each day begins with this twenty-minute pep talk. This is the one time of day when all forty or more salesmen are together in one place. After that, everybody’s day ends at a different time. At the pep talk they all stand in lines, dressed to kill. This “meeting” is all for show, for other eyes only. For example, the average height of our forty plus salesmen is 178.6 centimetres and the women who are hurrying off to work at City Hall or the department store are sure to steal glances. I rushed into the meeting and stood in the very last line.
Just before we hit the floor, we gathered in the lounge out back. This “lounge” consists of two benches in the empty space outside the men’s bathroom. Things you can’t find in the rest of the dealership are all here, such as ashtrays and wastebaskets. You can have a smoke, learn the latest way to knot your tie, or drink coffee out of paper cups from a machine. What I do is fix my tie in the latest style and put some mousse in my hair. While I do this, I get to hear stories of getting kicked out of a building by the security, slipping in flyers under the windshield wipers of cars in an underground parking lot and then running into a salesman from another company coming from the opposite direction who’s been doing the exact same thing…
I recognized her right away.
I’ve always worked Sundays. We’re all supposed to take turns, but when their Sunday comes around, they always manage to weasel their way out. The usual? Weddings or funerals. I’ve covered for them a couple of times, and now, they just take it for granted. Not that I have a family or girlfriend to spend my Sundays with, anyway. And it’s not a complete loss when I’m the only salesman on Sunday, because everyone who comes in is my customer. Once I even sold two cars, even though they were compacts. My commission was pretty good, not a whole lot, but still pretty good. I raised the metal screens that covered the twelve hundred-square-foot dealership and went inside. I flipped the switch for the platform and spent the rest of the time polishing the glass. The morning flew by before I was even half done.
I had my nose to the glass, using my breath and fingernails on a particularly tough spot when I saw the hazy reflection of a woman. Her car was parked on the street outside the display window and she was gazing at the car on the revolving platform as if in a trance. I hurried into my office, rolled down my sleeves and put on my suit jacket. We’d been instructed to dress neatly to keep up the reputation of Chrysler. The woman had on cat-eye sunglasses that looked really good on her oval face. In her arms was a Maltese sporting a red bow. She drew closer to the display window and peered in at the car. Her nose was so close to the window that the glass fogged up. She kept nibbling her bottom lip, seemingly unable to decide whether to come in or not. She took a step towards the entrance and the doors slid open. She took a step back and the doors slid shut. I shuffled some papers and tried to look busy at my desk. The doors kept opening and closing. Finally, she came in. She had a way of walking: only her hips moved, while everything above seemed to hover motionless, a vision floating on air. Her face was very familiar. She removed her sunglasses.
“Hello, may I help you?”
My voice, resonating with confidence, sounded good even to my own ears. I picked up that little trick, listening to the other salesmen speak in their deep, polished tones. I may not be a top-notch salesman, but I do know the basics. The most important thing a salesman needs is a good memory, hands down. Before I knew what I was doing, I pointed at her.
“Heaven on earth, escape to Hawaii? That’s you, right?”
I was so excited I was practically shouting. That’s who she was—the Hawaiian maiden on the billboard. There was no way I wouldn’t recognize a face I stared at for a good ten minutes every single day when my bus was stuck in traffic. I was seriously about to faint. Faith can move mountains, as they say. She must have taken pity on me for gazing at her every day and decided to honour me with a visit. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but that’s what I was thinking.
“So someone actually recognizes me. And I’m not even famous.” The woman smiled sheepishly.
It was her in the flesh—the Hawaiian maiden. But unlike the brown-skinned model on the billboard, the woman before me was fair. I had imagined someone short and plump, but she was my height, and she was so thin that her cheekbones stuck out. The billboard guy had painted a plumper version than the real thing. She gave me a cheerful smile, just as she had from the billboard. She moved closer to the car and stroked the gentle curve of the hood.
“Wow, it’s beautiful,” she spoke softly, as if to herself.
“Would you care to sit behind the wheel?”
She hesitated a moment, then handed me her dog and climbed in. The car continued to rotate, with the woman at the wheel. She pressed every single button on the dashboard. The windows went up and down, the driver’s seat went back and forth. Each time the car came back around, I could see her examining every single feature.
“So, what’s Hawaii like? Is it really heaven on earth?”
“There were too many people. A pickpocket stole all my money,” she answered breezily as she turned the steering wheel.
She opened the mini fridge in the backseat and even pulled out the ashtray with the banana plant engraved on it. Meanwhile, her dog drooled all over my tie. I sensed that she wasn’t going to buy the car. From my three years of experience, I’d learned enough to tell the difference between someone who was serious about buying and someone who wasn’t. We called it “getting the vibe.” I wasn’t getting the vibe from the woman. Or was I wrong?
“I’ll think about it.”
She took her dog back and stepped out of the dealership. Even after she had gone outside, she peered into the display window a couple of times. She went to her car parked on the street. It was a Le Mans GTI, a model discontinued in 1995. The car accelerated out of sight.
I was outside polishing the display window, but I think the manager had been watching me from behind for a while. Before stepping into the dealership, he said, “Being good at cleaning windows isn’t everything, you know.” I made a note to myself.
I saw her again today.
I got off at Seoul station and took a cab to the Hilton. The Namsan Loop was filled with couples taking romantic walks. The young taxi driver kept crossing the median line because he was glancing out the window so much. Thinking of using the men’s room before I went up to the eleventh floor, I wandered around looking for the bathroom and ended up going all the way down to the basement floor. Lighting from a stage escaped through the crack of an open door and illuminated the wall in front of me. A poster announcing “Yi Kangja Fall/Winter Collection” hung in the lobby of the Crystal Ballroom, a spacious concert hall. The ticket table was deserted. The fashion show seemed to have started a while ago. Standing by the door, I glanced into the ballroom. Positioned around the room were round tables draped in white tablecloths that people dined at while watching the show. Under the brilliance of the stage lights, models were walking out in time to the music. At the very front of the T-shaped catwalk the models paused, struck a pose, turned around, and walked back. They were all wearing dark eye shadow, similar to the kind of makeup a flashy singer named Kimera had worn—was it ten years ago she had come to Korea? The fall line ended and winter wear appeared, displaying leather and fur. She had on heavy eye makeup, but this time, too, I recognized her right away. She was wearing a silver fox fur coat that came down to her ankles. I recalled what a customer had once told me. If a fox suffers a lot of stress, the fur loses its sheen. That’s why they electrocute foxes; they have to be killed in a way that doesn’t damage the pelt. Under the blue stage lights in the silver fox coat, she was mesmerizing. I asked a staff member standing near me what her name was. Her name was Yi Minjae.
“You mean you don’t know her? She’s a top model these days.”
When I got to the eleventh floor, I was an hour late. I pressed the buzzer to Room 1105. The door didn’t open. I tried the handle, but it was locked. It seemed that the middle-aged woman who had introduced herself as Mrs. Han had gotten tired of waiting and gone home. When I thought hard, I vaguely recalled her mentioning that her husband was supposed to come back from the States either yesterday or the day after. She had made me promise many times not to be late. I had lost my chance to sell the car on the revolving platform.
I walked the distance of five or more blocks. It’s already been days since I planned on replacing the soles of my shoes, but I still haven’t been able to go to a repair shop. For the last three years, I’ve bought more shoes than I’ve sold cars. In an underground parking lot, I had been slipping in flyers stapled with my business cards under windshield wipers and I was just starting to come up to ground level when my cell phone rang. It was Sanghyǒk.
“Man, it’s been a long time. You remember me, right? You know, pimples, the one who always got caught by the student head and got his head shaved into a cross shape with a hair clipper? Yeah, I guess only an idiot wouldn’t remember me. I managed to get your number from Sǒngjin.”
Sanghyǒk said that he was getting married the day after tomorrow. Good-natured threats spewed from the phone. It’d be a statutory holiday that day so I’d better have a very special excuse if I planned on not showing, that if I weren’t there, it was over between us. It was only after I hung up that I realized I hadn’t seen Sanghyǒk for over ten years. It seemed that I had last seen Sanghyǒk at our high school graduation, but I couldn’t recall his features. As if there wasn’t more than one kid with bad skin and bad haircuts.
So this is how I ended up going to Sanghyǒk’s wedding. Without even sticking around for the wedding pictures, we started drinking. The drinking continued even after the bride and groom left for the airport.
“Hey, Sǒngjin, long time no see. Haven’t seen you since last year.”
It seemed like Sǒngjin had been keeping in touch with our high school friends. A chunky man came and squeezed in next to me. I was watching the wall TV in the bar. It was playing the music video Thriller; Michael Jackson, made up like a zombie, was dancing with other zombies and prowling the night streets. I tried to sing along, but couldn’t remember the lyrics. Suddenly, Chunky smacked me in the back of the head.
“You retarded or what?”
The glass I had been holding tipped over and I ended up spilling beer on my crotch. Feeling my head, I looked up at Chunky, but just like Sanghyǒk’s face, I didn’t recognize him.
“I got fat, so that’s why you probably don’t recognize me.”
Wedged in next to me, he bullied me into remembering him by telling me one anecdote after another of all the times he had caused trouble in high school.
“It’s all coming back now, right? Oh, this one will really make you remember.” Between his stories, Chunky would smack my head.
As we hopped bars for more rounds, our group shrank and in the end, it was the eight of us, including Chunky, Sǒngjin, and me.
“Leave the finishing touch up to me. Trust me, you’re not going to believe this place.”
Ushered by Chunky, we hailed two cabs and crossed the Han River Bridge. After we got out of the cabs, we had to walk deep into a backstreet. We stopped in front of a yellow sign with the words “Here’s Looking at You” in black. Like a warning sign at an intersection or a deadend, this sign would stay in my mind long after I had sobered up the next morning. A metal screen was pulled down at the door of the brothel. But when Chunky rattled the screen, an employee opened the door for us. We swarmed down the stairs all at once. The ones in front lost their footing and fell. We laughed and talked boisterously like a group of high school boys. The hall was lined with frosted glass doors. We were swept up into a room behind one of these doors and inside, hung a gigantic poster of a scene from Casablanca. Draping his arm around a girl who had rushed into the room, Chunky hollered for Madame Kim. An enormous middle-aged woman came in, swinging her chest. The flesh that stuck out of her clothing looked like thick lards of fat. The high slit in her skirt invited furtive glances at her thighs that were wrapped in black fishnet stockings. Her flesh also bulged out from the stockings, imprinting her skin with diamond patterns. Right then, girls crowded into the room. As the disco ball spun, fragments of light fell on the large table. A girl who had climbed onto the table grabbed my hand and tried to pull me up. As I was trying to stand up, something heavy hit me in the back of the head. I collapsed onto the table.
When I finally woke because of a raging thirst, I found Chunky—the one who had called me a retard—passed out beside me, snoring. The rest of the guys were sleeping in their wrinkled suits, having collapsed on each other some time in the night. Their snores going together at the same time sounded like a chorus sung by a clumsy group of off-beat, tone-deaf children. I went into the bathroom, turned on the tap and drank straight from it. Only after I had washed my face with cold water did my mind clear up a bit. The room wasn’t big, but it was clean. My head throbbed. I felt my head and found some gauze stuck on it. In the dark, I found Sǒngjin and shook him awake. Sǒngjin rummaged through Chunky’s suit pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes and two ten thousand-wǒn bills. We found our shoes and came out into the hall. The carpet in the hall was the colour of red bean paste. The plush carpet absorbed the sound of our footsteps. Just then the doors of the elevator opened from behind and a couple stepped out. Even though my back was turned, I could see everything through a full-length mirror that hung in front of me. A balding middle-aged man was drunk out of his mind and had his arm slung around a woman’s shoulders. Supporting him, the woman was wandering down the hall, looking for a room. The woman had on cat-eye sunglasses. Sunglasses in the middle of the night? They attracted even more attention. Even in the dim light of the hall, I recognized her right away. It was Yi Minjae.
We came out of the brothel. The river was right across the street. An aging janitor, lugging a cleaning cart, was sweeping away the vomit we had puked up the night before. We sat down side by side on the waterfront of the Han River and had a cigarette.
“My God, we’re turning thirty next year—I can’t believe we’re still living like this. Maybe the night is to blame. Or maybe we’re just used to this lifestyle. You know what they say, old habits die hard.” The voice that traveled up my vocal chords was not my normal voice; it was the deep salesman voice that I used when talking to customers.
Sǒngjin’s laughter mixed with the sound of the river. “Hey, are you sure you’re okay after Chaebǒm hit you in the head with the beer glass?”
I smoked my cigarette to the filter. “Chaebǒm —you mean Chunky?”
Sǒngjin lit another cigarette for me and said, “Yeah. So now you finally remember him? He was so pissed off you couldn’t remember him that he said he knew how to make you remember. Man—we got so wasted last night.”
We ate some soup to cure our hangovers with the twenty thousand wǒn we took from Chunky’s pocket, and said goodbye.
Having loaded three passengers, the early morning bus sped along. The billboard came into view and we quickly passed it. I turned around, and with my arm resting on the back of the seat, I watched the ad grow smaller. The bus stopped to turn left. Right then, I saw the pupils of the Hawaiian maiden move. It looked like she was searching for someone very cautiously, afraid of the attention that she might attract. Like rolling marbles, her pupils rolled and rolled until they froze at a point in the intersection. Our eyes met. She smiled brightly at me. What? How can a picture smile? I blinked hard and shook my head. Was it because of my head injury? The bus circled the building. When I looked again at the billboard, the maiden in the ad had disappeared. She was gone, just as if someone had cut out a figure from a magazine or newspaper.
My front door was open a crack. I was certain that I had locked the door when I had come out on the morning of the day before. I had even turned the handle to double-check. On the entrance tiles, there were water marks. The moment I stepped into my apartment, I could smell the sea. Nothing was leaking or dripping. I looked carefully at the water marks. They were wet footprints.
There were wet prints even on the linoleum floor of the living room. I placed my foot on top of a footprint. They were made by a person with small feet. The water seeped into my sock. The footprints led to the master bedroom. I gently pushed open the door. A woman was lying face-down on the bed. Her back was tanned purple. With every breath, her shoulder blades stuck out, then sank back into her skin. Breathing heavily, she turned over. Her long hair was plastered to her face like ivy, but there was no mistaking who she was. It was Yi Minjae.
Yi Minjae slept for a long time. I went out into the living room and waited for her to wake up. I didn’t even wonder how she had found out where I lived or why she was sleeping in my room. She came out into the living room. Her eyes were a little swollen, but it was definitely her. She walked towards me, moving her hips in her peculiar way.
“I really don’t know what kind of woman you are.” I was a bit angry because of the incident at the brothel.
“I’m not Yi Minjae. I’m the woman you see in that billboard. Come with me. Just promise me that you won’t get tired of my cheerful smile.”
She continued to smile brightly even while she talked. Yi Minjae, I mean, the maiden on the billboard, stroked my shoulder.
It was the bus driver who shook me awake.
I raised the metal screens and stepped into the dealership. I flipped the switch for the platform and went to the bathroom to get some water to clean the display window. During the night, someone had thrown up right in front of the glass. Having filled the watering can, I was stepping out of the bathroom when I saw somebody in the driver’s seat of the car on the platform. It was Yi Minjae. Her hair was dyed blond and it now came down to her shoulders. She looked like a Barbie doll. Having seen me standing in the backdoor of the dealership, she smiled brightly.
“So, you’ve finally made up your mind?” I got the vibe as soon as I looked at her face.
“Do you think I could test drive it?”
“You sure can, Miss Yi.”
I got the key and climbed into the driver’s seat. She had moved into the passenger’s seat, opened the glove compartment and was busily examining every feature. As soon as I started the car, the dashboard lit up. The gyroscope began to turn slowly.
“The fox fur coat looked really good on you the other day.”
“Oh, you were at the show? I didn’t think you would be interested in things like that.”
“I just happened to see it. And that’s not the only place I saw you. I also happened to see you somewhere else…”
Her face, reflected in the rearview mirror, hardened. “Don’t get smart with me. I’m not that easily pushed around. You want to sell this car, don’t you? Then why don’t you just open the display window so we can start?”
“Sure thing, Miss Yi. All clear for take-off.”
I pressed hard on the accelerator. It was only after the front wheels went down the platform that I remembered the display window. I had to deactivate the sensor before taking out the car. I had completely forgotten that the glass was there in front of me, because it was too clean. It was my fault for polishing the windows so much. The car went right through and shattered the huge pane. There wasn’t enough time to step on the brakes. Glass poured down the roof of the car and Yi Minjae shrieked as she covered her face with her hands. The car cut across the sidewalk and crashed into a streetlamp. With the blare of the horn, my entire vision was veiled in white.
When I came to my senses, my face was wrapped in the airbags that had deployed from the front and side. The airbags were cream-coloured, just like in the brochure. Then I remembered Yi Minjae in the passenger seat. Her face, too, was wrapped in the airbags.
Yi Minjae fractured her collarbone. It was from the force of the airbags. When I went to go see her, she had on a neck brace and was watching TV in a half-reclining position. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming and hurled the bouquet of roses that I had brought.
Because the demo car was insured, Yi Minjae’s medical bills and the cost of replacing the bumper were covered. Again, I had lost my chance to sell the car on the revolving platform.
As usual, it was congested there and, as usual, I looked up at the maiden on the billboard. The next stop was announced. Someone rushed for the door, bumped my head, and knocked my glasses down to the floor. People rushed to the door and stepped on them. The left lens cracked into five pieces, but I didn’t mind. Through the crack in the lens, I now saw five maidens.
The rain-soaked suit slowly shrank as it dried. I folded his suit, underclothes, socks, and tie into a neat pile and stored them in an empty cardboard box. The shoes had started to mildew, so I tossed them into the recycling box. I tacked up a note on the electric pole the man had climbed: “Whoever is looking for his suit and personal belongings, please make all inquiries to the following address: Taegwang Apartments, Building A, Suite 207. Tel: 345-2100.”
Once in a while, I would receive a prank call. Yet as time passed, even the prank calls stopped. When I passed by the pole, I saw that an ad covered my note. An art school for kindergarten students. To keep my note out of people’s reach, I climbed the pole once again. At the very top of the pole, I placed the paper with my contact info and climbed down.
I started to pay more attention to the calls our company received. I thought that he might climb another pole and set off another power failure. But the calls were usually inquiries concerning bills and payments. Blackouts were uncommon in 1997, but even more so in 1999. When I go out to eat or find myself downtown and notice extremely clean windows, I have an urge to go inside. If I wanted to, I could walk inside and introduce myself to the man working in the restaurant or shoe store. Recently I saw his shoes again—the pair I had thrown out. A Filipino man collecting recycling boxes full of old clothes and shoes was wearing them.
I’m still waiting for his phone call. But I know that a snake that has shed its skin doesn’t come back for what it has left behind.
My habit of calculating distance by the number of poles I pass has been replaced by a sudden urge to climb to the very top of a pole. I also want to place my banner at the top. Yet, up until now, I have been able to fight that urge.
* Translated by Janet Hong.