- onJune 19, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byKim Ae-ran
- Run, Dad!
Mom’s a taxi driver. At first I figured she took the job so she could keep an eye on me as she threaded her way through the streets of Seoul. Then one day I surmised that maybe she drove a taxi because she wanted to run faster than dad. I imagined the two of them running side by side, now one in the lead, now the other. Racketing through my mind were images of mom’s face, twenty years of resentment stamped on it as she hit the accelerator, and dad’s face when his whereabouts were discovered. Maybe mom thought that the best revenge wasn’t catching him, but running faster.
Mom found the taxi job tough. The distrust directed at an underpaid woman driver and the ridicule of drunken passengers were hard to take. It didn’t stop me though from asking her regularly for money. Had I plastered politeness on top of my inscrutability, I think mom would have felt even worse. Of course, she never gave me more money because she felt she owed it to me. She gave me what I asked for, but I didn’t forget what she said: “Everything I earn goes up the kid’s hole while I fuck myself trying to make a living.”
It had been a normal run-of-the-mill day for me. I got lectured by mom for eating with the TV on. I had to listen silently to her long-winded account of a fight with a passenger the night before. She got so worked up telling the story that she threw down her spoon and cried, “Fuck it, was I so wrong?” She was looking for solidarity from me, so I had to give a good answer. And as I slipped into my runners, I had to explain to her how I proposed to use the 10,000 won I had asked her for. Half-slumped over my desk at school, I watched the trainee teacher struggling to swallow his nonexistent saliva. For a fatherless child, there was nothing particularly bad or different about this very ordinary day. At least not until I got home.
Mom was sitting glum-faced in the middle of the room. She had a one-page letter in her hand. The envelope, torn open roughly, lay on the floor, the same floor she had once stabbed with the scissors. I knew from the address that it had been sent airmail. Mom couldn’t read the letter, but she sat there looking at it, filled with a strange feeling of foreboding. Her face betrayed her unease; she was like a woman from the country who didn’t know what to do.
“How long has she been like this?” I muttered to myself, snatching the letter. “What does it say?” she asked, looking at me intently.
The letter was in English. I began a groping explanation of its contents, aware that it involved some loss of face for me. At first I didn’t understand, but after reading it two or three times, I realized that it held very important news for us.
“What does it say?” she asked again.
I swallowed. “It says dad’s dead.”
She looked at me with the darkest of dark faces.
Mom always reacted with a witty remark when I wore that kind of expression. I wanted to say something witty too, but I couldn’t think of anything appropriate.
In a way, dad had come home—gossamer like—in the mail, twenty years late. Dad had come home—like a statement of good will, motivation unknown—like thunderous applause at the end of an interminable play. A death notice with a strange intonation. In the end, maybe dad’s reason for running to the four corners of the earth was to tell us that he was dead. He had traveled to distant places and had come back now to tell us he was dead. But dad hadn’t really been racing around the world; he’d been living in America.
Dad’s son sent the letter, which I deciphered in bed with the help of a dictionary. This is what it said. Dad married in America. I was a bit surprised by this. I couldn’t understand why he had abandoned mom unless he didn’t want a family. Either he loved the second woman a lot, or it wasn’t as easy to run away in America. A few years later he got divorced. The exact reason for the divorce wasn’t specified, but I guessed it had to do with his basic incompetence. His wife demanded alimony. Dad hadn’t a penny so he offered to cut her grass every weekend. I remember hearing that in America you could get reported to the authorities by your neighbors for not cutting your grass. She promptly married a man with a lawn the size of a football field.
Every week dad pressed the doorbell as promised, stuck his face in front of the security camera, said “Hello,” and trudged in to cut the grass. Imagine it. While she sat cozily in the living room drinking beer with her new husband, he crouched down outside tinkering with the lawnmower. In the beginning they might have been a bit put off by him, but I'm sure she said to her husband, “Don’t pass any remarks, John.” Dad soon became irrelevant. When he looked through the thick glass wall of the living room and saw them making out, he revved the engine and strode up and down outside. The boy who sent the letter insisted that this is what dad did—maybe he wanted to give his dad’s bereaved foreign family some words of comfort. What kind of kid, I wondered, would write so pryingly and in such detail? Obviously he didn’t think he was anything like his dad. I imagined the pair’s lovemaking in the living room. Nipple and breath stuck fast to the glass; the blinds hurriedly pulled down. I look at them from a great distance, my eyes slit in a frown. Brrrng! Dad charges with his lawnmower. But his attack peters out, and he goes back to striding impatiently up and down outside. When the woman couldn’t take it anymore, she gave him the latest automatic gasoline model as a present. But dad insisted on using the old model in the shed. He went around the garden making the same awful din.
Junior High Entrance Ceremony © Cho Jang Eun
One day dad and the new husband had a fight. It began when the new husband started criticizing the way dad was cutting the grass. Dad held his tongue though it was killing him; he just kept cutting the grass. The new husband’s griping went on and on; eventually he began to curse. All this time dad had been silently cutting the grass. Suddenly he lifted the old lawnmower with its furiously whirring blade and charged. The new husband slumped to the ground in a blue paroxysm of fear. I don’t think dad had any intention of hurting him, but unfortunately, he did get hurt. Now it was dad’s turn to react with shocked dismay. At the sight of his own blood the injured man lost all control. Every curse in the language poured from his lips and he ended up reporting dad to the police. Dad took fright. He hesitated for a moment, then ran to the shed, saw the new lawnmower in the corner, hopped on it like a gunman jumping on his horse in a western, and with his heart pounding, switched on the ignition, spurred the mower out of the shed and dashed out onto the road. Dad fled at the top speed the mower could muster, scattering the smell of fresh grass cuttings behind him. Where was he heading?
The letter ended by saying that dad was killed in a traffic accident. The son said the family had been truly saddened by his death. They held a simple service at the cemetery. Regrettably, the son said, he never liked dad very much. When he was a kid, he said, dad left him in front of the TV to go to work and he used to wait there all day. That’s how he grew up. He was hoping now he would be able to forget dad. Though he had never met his foreign half-sister, he wanted me to know that he also grew up waiting for dad, so he knew the pain. “I found your address in my dad’s belongings,” he continued. “My mom doesn’t know I’m writing this letter.”
It all seemed like lies.
Actually I was the real liar. I told mom that dad had been killed in a traffic accident, but I didn’t tell her what kind of accident.
“Why is the letter so long?” she asked.
“English is always longer than Korean,” I said.
Then she asked if there was anything else in it. How he lived, who he lived with? Was there really nothing else? No one knew the answers to these questions. She probably wanted to ask why he’d left home that night. But then again maybe that was the one thing she really didn’t want to ask. “Dad . . .” I began. She looked at me with the expression of a whipped puppy. “Dad always felt bad,” I said. “He felt guilty all his life. That’s what it says here.” Her eyes danced. I chanced a further comment. “And mom, this bit was really lovely.” “Which bit?” she asked with trembling voice. I showed her the bit that said he came to his wife’s house every week to cut the grass. “This bit here,” I said. Mom looked like she would burst into tears as she looked at the part of the letter I indicated and rubbed it fondly. It was the first time I ever saw my witty mom who never cried with a lump in her throat.
That night mom didn’t come home until dawn. I lay in bed with the covers pulled up under my chin and thought about dad, about his life and death, and about cutting the grass, that sort of thing. But still he keeps running around inside my head. Images that have been in there for so long aren’t going to disappear that quickly. It occurred to me that I kept imagining him because I could not forgive him. Maybe the reason I kept him running in my mind was that I was afraid I would charge at him and kill him the moment he stopped. I felt sad. I better go to sleep, I thought, before this sadness dupes me.
Mom came home after the peak-fare time ended. I thought she’d try not to wake me, that she wouldn’t put on the light, that she’d take off her clothes very carefully. Instead she poked me in the ribs.
“Ya!” she cried. “Are you asleep?”
I stuck my head out from under the covers. “Are you crazy? My God! The taxi driver’s drunk!”
Mom said nothing. She just laughed and tumbled down on the covers. She curled up small like a clenched fist. I thought of tossing the bedcovers over her but didn’t. In a little while, she slid in under them, maybe because she was cold.
In the dark mom’s breathing gradually got gentler. She smelt of cigarettes. I was angry with her. You’re bad, I thought, folding my arms. Mom had her back to me, sleeping like a shrimp. I was staring up at the ceiling. The long stillness caressed her breathing. I thought she was asleep, but suddenly she spoke, curling up even more tightly into a ball. There was no trace of malice toward the dead man in what she said.
“So, what do you think, is he rotting OK?”
I didn’t close my eyes all night long. I kept looking at the ceiling, reviewing the various images of dad in my imagination. I saw him in Fukuoka, crossing Borneo, approaching the Greenwich Observatory, turning by the foot of the Sphinx, going through the Empire State Building, climbing the Guaddaramas. My laughing, racing dad. Suddenly I realized that all this time he had been running in the blazing sun. I thought I’d imagined everything he needed for running. I dressed him in those luminous pink shorts, put on his cushion-soled runners and his airy running vest. But isn’t it strange that I’d never thought of giving him sunglasses? I’d forgotten that even the most rubbishy man in the world gets sick like everyone else, likes the things everyone else likes. All those years I was picturing dad in my mind, he was always running, his eyes sore and swollen from the blazing sun. So I decided tonight to put sunglasses on him. I imagined his face. He wore a little smile; he was filled with anticipation but trying hard to conceal it. He closed his eyes, like a boy waiting for a kiss. With my two big hands I put the sunglasses on him. They suited him really well. He’ll run better now, I thought.
Translated by Kevin O'Rourke
Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture,
vol. 1, 2007, pp. 233–239.
Copyright © 2005 by Kim Ae-ran.
Translation copyright © 2007 by Kevin O’Rourke..
Reprinted with permission from Azalea.
Kim Ae-ran debuted in 2003 with “No Knocking in This House,” which won the Daesan Literary Award. She has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for “I Go to the Convenience Store.” “Knife Marks,” the story excerpted here, received the 2008 Lee Hyoseok Award.