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FICTION

[Excerpt]Today’s Fortune

  • onMarch 16, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byHan Changhoon
Today’s Fortune
Tr. Kerong Lin
2014

 

The neighbourhood was still. Sunlight glinted off the tips of the icicles hanging from the eaves. The muffled bark of a dog cut the still air, which was immediately reclaimed by silence. The trees on Shikjang Mountain in the distance were shedding their thick foliage, trembling noiselessly as they grew slender. The surface of a brook, which trickled out from beneath some rock deep in the mountain down to a reservoir, was hardening into frozen white scales.

A woman with permed hair hurried past in baggy pants, the line of her bloomers tracing the curve of her well-rounded bottom. With great difficulty, Yong-pyo tore his magnet-like gaze away from her and sped up. Watch your eyes, mouth, and hands—the resolution he had made when he left the house.

He pulled his truck to a stop in the small vacant lot in front of the village. In a patch of sunlight, a group of children were huddled around something on the ground. They were touching it, their noses practically buried in whatever it was, and then raising their heads to look around. Their faces were flushed a ruddy red from the cold. Yong-pyo grinned. The kids gave their noses a swipe with their sleeves before lowering their heads once more. It looked like they were preparing to fly a kite.

“Eggs, eggs, get your eggs! Big fresh eggs, twenty for one thousand eight hundred won, thirty for three thousand four hundred won! Cheap and fresh, produced hygienically on Taehwa Farms!” blared a loudspeaker from Yong-pyo’s truck.

Sparrows took to the air with a flutter from the hedge of thorny orange trees.

“Bah, be quiet.” The door of the Secheon Corner restaurant, slashed diagonally by yellow tape, rattled open. A woman appeared from the building, which stood on one side of the empty lot.

“G’day,” Yong-pyo said, greeting her.

“Geez . . . thanks to the sound of a certain jerk’s mike, I can’t have a good day,” she answered.

“Haha, how’s business?”

‘‘What business?” she scoffed. “Everything’s frozen solid. God, why is it so cold?”

“People still come in the winter, though.”

Thanks to the park, the Secheon area was packed with people from spring—when the weather cleared and began to warm—to autumn, when the leaves changed color. Even in bitter winters like this one, cars were always coming in and out, and somber-faced teenagers continued to pass by.

Because of the fairly decent restaurants at the entrance of the park, it seemed like Secheon Corner, looking always on the verge of collapse, had been pushed into the shadows by the march of progress. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The restaurants and shops in front of the park’s main entrance, about 300 meters past Secheon Corner, were the perfect place to spend money.

 

 

The area even boasted a fountain amongst the new buildings. As such, the establishments drew families on outings, employees attending such-and-such a company’s staff dinner, and young people who wanted to meet up.

However, to the middle-aged or elderly, who made up a good portion of visitors, the restaurants and their boiled meat and fish stews, 10,000 or 15,000 won a bowl, were no different from the trees or streams that attracted tourists, because they were as uninterested in them as in the instant noodles their grandchildren would make for themselves.

For these older customers, who wanted a nice spot to park their rear ends, there was no better place than the floor of the cheap, quiet Secheon Corner. It was an old-fashioned eatery, so the first thing you could expect was makgeolli, with kimchi as the side-dish, and if the tourists weren’t big on picking at kimchi, they could crack open cans of grapes or peaches. It was a comfortable place to drink and be merry, a place that bustled with folks whose age showed in their hair. Secheon Corner’s reputation as a go-to place with real appeal was no groundless rumor.

Yong-pyo thought back to the first time he came here in a truck last autumn. In the vacant lot in front of the wide store, two separate drinking groups were deep in a game of yut, to all appearances getting along well. “It’s a gae, it’s a geol!” the grey-haired players had roared, thoroughly drunk. The prize pot had been considerable. The winning team had barked orders for more beer, waving 10,000-won bills, and there had been a side dish of squid, warped from the heat of the fire. You could say that the vacant lot, wicker mats, and games of yut helped fund the store.

“No one comes around these days,” the woman complained.

“Hey now, the word is that your place is bringing in good business.”

“Whatever—just give me twenty of ’em.”

He wrapped up twenty eggs, and after receiving 2,000 won, gave the woman her 400-won change. This was the wholesale price he offered businesses. The woman went back inside, muttering complaints about the cold, and Yong-pyo took out the O Seobang medley he’d been listening to yesterday and replaced it with a Hyeon Cheol tape.

“A blossom that would burst when I touch you, that’s what you are . . .”

Picking the right music to go with the neighbourhood was also a sort of sales strategy.

“Garden Balsam Romance” ended, but even after he passed through the neighbourhood, still no customers appeared. He drove into the village. Right past the wall of Secheon Corner and the hedges of persimmon trees, mandarin trees, and cherry trees, was the house of the district head. A dog’s barking, heard all the way from the edge of the neighbourhood, was coming from this place.

“Hey, lower the volume, will ya?”

A wrinkled face under a fur-lined military-style hat appeared over a stone wall that was crawling with a dense mess of dried vines. It was the district head. Yong-pyo turned down the music and got out of the truck.

Yong-pyo greeted the man half-heartedly and surveyed the area. He couldn’t just leave now, Yong-pyo decided. In the barren yard, enveloped in sunlight, an eyebrow-raising scene was unfolding.

There seemed to be a bit of a problem going on with a pair of dogs. A yellow dog in heat was propositioning a black dog, submissively offering her rear end. But the black dog was twice her size, and enthusiastic though they were, they hadn’t yet managed to couple. The black dog, who clearly had some shepherd blood, had mounted the other dog and was thrusting with great effort, but his target was a hand’s width above where he was actually making contact.

Although the sight of them failing at their goal was pitiful, the one agonizing the most was the district head. Holding a cigarette between his fingers without smoking it, he stole a glance at Yong-pyo through narrowed eyes and flicked the butt far away. Meanwhile, the black dog made another attempt at entry but came up empty.

“She’s offering, but you still can’t do it, you moron. I’m tellin’ ya, that’s the shit-hole.” Unable to watch any longer, the district head stuck his hands out under the black dog, who immediately complained, whining as his legs buckled. The dog’s expression was a plain warning not to interfere. So, dogs can also have that kind of expression, Yong-pyo mused, surprised.

“Stay still, you dumb bastard.”

The dog just wouldn’t have any of it, whimpering and squirming.

“What’s going on?” a voice called from outside the wicker gate. The voice belonged to a man who in terms of grey hair and wrinkles could have been about the same age as the district head.

“Hey, just dropping by?” the district head greeted him.

“Yeah, what’s up?” the other man said.

“This dumbass dog can’t find its way home and is losing it trying to hook up. My God . . .” the district head shook his head.

“Sounds like you’re having as hard a time as the dog,” the friend chuckled.

The district head slapped the dog’s rump. “I told you to stay still,” he roared. The mutt yelped, but didn’t run.

“If that doesn’t work, you should just take his place,” the other man said.

Yong-pyo could have turned a deaf ear and kept walking, but couldn’t help snickering. And that’s when he realized the district head was aiming an angry gaze in his direction.

‘‘You’re about to drop dead, you old geezer, and you still don’t know how to talk in public?” the district head spat at his friend while still facing Yong-pyo, his expression reading, perfect timing.

“If you came to sell eggs, then sell them and get a move on. Why are you sticking your nose into other people’s business?”

Jesus!

‘‘What are you talking about? What am I doing?”

“Stop whining and get lost!”

Somehow Yong-pyo felt mistreated. On the other hand, shouldn’t people like him leave a better impression on the locals, good relations with whom could fatten his income? Yong-pyo discreetly lowered his head.

“You bastard. Bringing bad luck on all of us.” The district head hurled his parting insult at Yong-pyo over the wall. Yong-pyo suppressed the rage that leapt up in his chest, ruing the fact that it was his own laugh that had started it all. He had violated the first of the three rules he had resolved to follow: watch your mouth.

 

[. . .]

 

Without a doubt, today was a terrible day, through and through. He just wanted to sleep. After tidying up the cartons in the truck bed once more, he started off in the direction of Daejeon. Forget about the rest of today’s route. I just want to go home, lie down, and get some rest. He had been trying so hard all day to keep his mouth shut, but on days like this that were total train wrecks, it was best to just avoid doing anything altogether. Is today the only day? I should just stay home.

Coming up on a city bus that was making a stop, Yong-pyo moved instinctively into the passing lane. He crested a low hill, and just as the city of Daejeon came into view, a voice from a loudspeaker brought him to attention.

“Egg truck, pull over. Egg truck, pull over.”

Looking in his rear-view mirror, he saw a patrol car following him.

What a mess. Yong-pyo sighed.

“Egg truck, pull over. Egg truck, pull over,” the patrol car urged again from behind. The long rectangular lights on top of the patrol car whirled as if they were alive.

“Honestly, I just have no luck today.”

He stopped the car on the shoulder. The door of the patrol car, which had stopped in front of him, opened, and a broad-shouldered policeman saluted and then approached.

“It’s been a long day, eh? Your driver’s license, please.”

Yong-pyo had years of driving experience under his belt. He knew how to handle a situation like this.

“Please, cut me some slack, just this once. I was in the standard lane, but I had to switch because I was passing a city bus.”

Yong-pyo flashed a smile that he hoped would leave a good impression, and decided that if he ever met this Lady Luck, he would give her a good beating.

“You committed an illegal lane change. Hand me your license, please.”

“Come on, do you really have to ticket someone like me, a man living day-to-day? Please, just this once. How much do you think I make selling eggs? Don’t do this, please let me off just this once.”

The officer looked this way and that way, indifferent, a little restless. Yong-pyo launched into a possible compromise, mustering as much patience as he could.

 

 

“I wasn’t even able to make my daily quota today. Really, I’m telling you. In fact, I was just on my way home. I’ve packed it in for the day. Please, do me a favor, who do you think I am, a criminal?”

The officer, staring impassively at the supplicating, head bobbing up and down occasionally, finally nodded.

“In that case, you could settle with a ten-thousand note.”

“I couldn’t even make enough for gas today.”

“Geez, listen to this guy.”

“Well then, just give me a ticket for not maintaining a safe distance.”

“For five thousand? No way. Ten thousand.”

However, he won over the officer in the end.

“You really are something . . . but we’ll do your way. Just give me five thousand and we’re square,” the officer conceded.

Yong-pyo was someone who, even on a normal day, thought policemen deserved a raise. Anyways, let’s just count the money and get out of here, he thought, rummaging through his pockets. However, he only came up with three 1,000 bills and a few coins. He looked through his money pouch, but there were only 10,000 bills, bound by a rubber band. He took out one of them.

“I don’t have any fives.”

“Okay.”

The officer went back to his patrol car. Yong-pyo lit a cigarette and waited. Even if the day had been terrible, he’d finally bargained something down to what he wanted. Caught by a trooper, he’d salvaged he situation with a 5,000 bill—a gain was a gain. Then again, he had lost 5,000 won. As he thought this, his eyes suddenly bulged. The patrol car, which had been idling, had taken off! That bastard!

Unbelievable. No matter how rough a day he had been having, after all the sucking up he had done to reduce the fine to 5,000 won, now the officer had taken off with the money he had barely been able to keep. Yong-pyo’s eyes glazed over. They must look down on my money because I’m an egg peddler . . . today has been an absolute mess and I just want to lie down, but now my money too . . . Was today going to really be terrible down to its very end?

That motherfucker. Yong-pyo started the car as curses slipped out of his mouth.

He had not gone far when he caught up to the patrol car. He came up close to the patrol car, which had been riding in the passing lane, and turned up his loudspeaker. “Patrol car, pull over. Patrol car, pull over.”

He saw the shocked face of the officer through the glass.

“I repeat, pull over. Patrol car, pull over.”

The patrol car sped up.

Oh-ho, trying to run, are you? No respect for my truck. Well, it’s about time I saw what she can do in fifth gear. Let her rip!

He switched gears and floored it. With all the traffic, the patrol car wasn’t going very far.

“Patrol car, pull over. Give me my five thousand won!” he blared, turning up the loudspeaker to the maximum. Finally, the patrol car pulled over, Yong-pyo close on his tail. Passing cars slowed down and lowered their windows to gawk . . . The officer came running over.

“What the hell are you doing?” His face bore a threatening expression.

“We decided on five thousand, and you’re going to make good on your word. How could you take off with my ten-thousand like that?” Yong-pyo said, defiant in spite of it all. Their two voices resonated through the loudspeaker. The patrol car honked at the officer, who glared at Yong-pyo before removing a 10,000 bill from his pocket, tossing it toward him, then running back to his car.

Yong-pyo stared at the patrol car as it disappeared into the distance. Passing drivers applauded him and one man gave him a thumbs-up, but he didn’t notice. The hazy sunset was hidden behind the city off in the distance. He fiddled with the 10,000 note. His heart was still pounding, and because everything had happened so quickly, it seemed like it had been a dream. The money came back to me after all . . .

He recalled Yong-sun, and immediately knew what he was going to do with the money. He would buy a generous amount of samgyeopsal and go over to Yong-sun’s place. He did some rough calculations in his head—enough samgyeopsal for three adults and one child, plus the soju for his brother-in-law—and he would have two thousand left over.

Perfect. That’d be just enough for A-ram’s ice cream.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Han Changhoon
Translation copyright © 2014 Kerong Lin
Reprinted with permission from Asia Publishers

Author's Profile

Han Changhoon (b. 1963) debuted in 1992 when he won Daejeon Ilbo’s New Writer’s Contest with the story “Anchor.” He has since received several awards, including the Hankyoreh Literary Award in 1998 for Mussels, Violet Prize for the People's Writer in 2007 for Song of Youth, and the Heo Gyun Literary Award and Yosan Literary Award in 2009 for I like It Here. He wrote the screenplay for the movie Unforgettable (2015) based on a story from his collection, Island, I Live the End of the World (2003). His works in translation include I like It Here (Literaturnaya Uchoba, 2017) in Russian. Han is known for his frank and humorous portrayal of life in small towns and farming and fishing villages, featuring the dialects of Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces instead of the standard dialect of big cities.