- onJanuary 5, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- byKwon Yeo-sun
As soon as he stepped onto the estate, the two pairs of women who flanked the entrance greeted him in a single voice. He frowned, startled by the abrupt chorus. Although they hadn’t meant to shout, when their high-pitched tones trained for years in customer service came together, the effect was harsh. He could even pick out a voice that was thick, murky, and unpleasant. Together the women bowed deeply from the waist and then straightened, arranging their features into pretty expressions that looked like question marks, as though waiting for him to give them their cues.
He blinked slowly, his face still set in a half frown. A man of average height in his early fifties, he had a classic and elegant face, like that of a veteran actor in an old movie. Just as a flawless structure is bound to have, his appearance had a precarious edge and brooding silence. He gazed at the women with eyes so clear and direct that it was impossible to guess what he was thinking.
The women in dark blue mini-dresses to his left were completely different in both face and figure, but their smiles were identical like a pair of gloves. On his right the women were dressed in light blue mini-dresses. The one with the puffy eyelids who looked older than the rest stepped forward and bent her knees in a small curtsy. But his gaze moved past her and landed on the girl standing behind her.
She was tall, but looked very young, and her dress, from which a delicate ribbon hung, was the most risqué out of all the dresses the women were wearing. Just as you might be able to see through the flesh of a young fish to its bones, her skin was so pale and translucent it seemed the outline of her ribs would show if the piece of fabric that barely covered her body were removed. Her flesh was both dangerous and provocative; it invited you to touch it, but also elicited a violent urge that made you want to wreck that delicate and tender flesh, the way you might be tempted when holding a young fish in your hands.
“Can I see your invitation please?” asked the woman with the puffy lids. Her thick voice, which had stuck out immediately from the rest of the voices, did not match that of a service representative, but it had an elastic quality, like that of a trigger that would release a rusted bullet. He turned his gaze from the young fish to her. He felt the thorny sadness and stubbornness given off by women who had long been ill-treated. He started to put his hands in his pockets and then shook his head.
“I don’t think I brought mine with me.”
A bitter smile spread across her lips. “You mean you don’t have an invitation?”
Her voice cracked on the last syllable, as her customer service etiquette waned. One note shot up, while the other came out flat and low before it finally cracked, so that it seemed as though there were two different speakers. He grinned at the bizarre duet.
“If you don’t have an invitation, I’m afraid you can’t come in.”
She added a reluctant apology and then looked down at him sardonically, as though she’d forgotten her manners completely, with an expression tall women reserve for short men. They stood staring at each other’s faces, faces that lost more appeal the longer each of them stared. Right then, from the direction of the banquet hall, a skinny man approached, stirring the air with his lanky crab-like legs, making his pants billow.
“Representative Park! Welcome!”
At the title “representative,” the woman with the puffy lids glanced at his suit. He wasn’t wearing a parliament pin. She took a step back.
The skinny man bowed deeply. “Thank you for attending, sir. We know how busy you must be. Why don’t we head inside? Mrs. Yeom has been waiting for you.”
“Ah, Mr. Koo! I forgot my invitation, you see, so I’ve been stuck out here.”
“What do you mean your invitation?”
Koo, Mrs. Yeom’s secretary, glared at the woman with the puffy eyes. Behind lids that were shaded with the color of raging waves, her eyes filled with the terror of a shipwrecked person. Somehow placated by that expression, Park stepped forward and said, “Actually, we were having a nice little chat, weren’t we? Not having my invitation on me was just an excuse.”
Before Koo could say anything, he added in a quiet, suggestive voice of an accomplice that was loud enough for the women to hear, “Where on earth did you find such beauties? Remind me to ask Mrs. Yeom. By the way, I heard she isn’t feeling well. How is she?”
Changing the subject, Park glanced to the right. His gaze passed the woman with the puffy eyes who looked as though she were about to weep with gratitude, and stopped on the young fish girl, her blue ribbon drooping like a graceful fin. Her pink jelly-like lips formed a cute and dazed O. That small round hole was probably several times smoother and softer than the exterior which resembled silken tofu, bringing to mind another rapturous opening, which would surely be like mist or soap suds; it looked like an irresistible invitation to that translucent abyss.
“She broke her arm…” Koo said respectfully.
“What? How?” Park asked, removing his gaze reluctantly from the girl.
“She was skiing in Sapporo…”
As though he didn’t want to hear Koo’s tiresome explanation, Park straightened his somewhat narrow shoulders and started to walk quickly. “What? Skiing in Japan during a time like this? I really don’t understand her sometimes. But anyway…”
They headed toward the blue banquet hall. “Those girls were really something…”
The four nameless models strained their ears, aware that the men were talking about them, but they could hear nothing except for Mrs. Yeom’s warm greetings and Park’s laughter.
The dishes rattling on the carts that rolled across the blue carpet, the guests’ conversations, the music the band played, and the occasional bursts of muffled laughter, like the sound of the TV coming from next door. The smells of meat and fish cooking on the grill and the different sauces and spices, the faint scent of alcohol, and the subtle perfumes and air freshener announced that the blue summer gala held at the estate of Mrs. Yeom, the widow of the late Kim Seongwon, was in full swing.
“Welcome, Rep. Park!”
“It’s been a long time, Mrs. Yeom.”
“If you didn’t come tonight, I was planning on never seeing you again.”
Park laughed briefly at Mrs. Yeom’s attack that zinged like a tart fruit. She touched her splinted right arm and stretched out her left hand.
“I know you’re a busy man. Thank you for coming.”
“You always seem to have the air of a female warrior about you. And now you’ve even suffered a wound. I have to admit, I’m a little afraid to set foot into your fortress.”
Despite his words, Park stepped easily into the air-conditioned blue banquet hall and grasped Mrs. Yeom’s outstretched hand.
“Oh, please. To think my arm was in this condition with the gala night looming closer. The stress made my ulcer come back. I’ve been surviving on congee for the last several days. I could just crawl into a hole, greeting important guests in this sloppy manner.”
“In my humble opinion, the sling really becomes you.”
“Now what kind of nonsense is that? How could you mock an old, injured woman?”
Those were her words, but Mrs. Yeom knew full well that she had not yet lost her loveliness. Just as Park had said, she was, with her sling that was wrapped in dark blue velvet, making a bold and original fashion statement that night.
Mrs. Yeom was an expert at transforming herself, just as one would expect from a famous designer who dominated the fashion world. Behind her angular face lived various women who were of the same age. However, he felt as though that night’s contestant, whose jet-black dyed hair was twisted up in a French pleat and whose shoulders were sheathed in a dark blue shawl the color of stormy clouds, was perhaps the most arrogant of the women he had been presented with so far; everything declared it, from her sling studded with small crystals to her navy blue leather dress that was lined with sapphires down the sides, and even her velvet heels from which dangled silver rings.
On the stage a band played, sitting in a semicircle around a short woman, and on top of a marble plinth in the center of the hall was a giant blue ice sculpture of the Buddha in lotus position. The tables and chairs that lined the walls around the hall were covered with blue cloth, which was obviously that night’s theme color. There were roughly fifty to sixty guests.
“Mrs. Yeom, I have to say you’re causing a lot of problems…” Park said, as he settled into the seat he was shown.
Immediately Mrs. Yeom jutted out her chin as though preparing herself for a challenge. He continued by saying that Mrs. Yeom suffering an injury was in essence an anti-national activity, that if someone such as herself got injured, it counted as a state loss, just as the death of her husband had been. When he continued on in this flattering manner, as a sign of satisfaction and modesty, she looked at him with affection and sat down beside him.
“That’s that, but Park…” Mrs. Yeom said in a friendly manner, removing the honorific from his name, as though they had been on intimate terms for some time. “Let me pick your brain about something. In the aftermath of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong incidents, what are your views on the strained relations with North Korea? Do you think they will improve any time soon?”
“This is what I think, Yeom,” he said, following suit and addressing her in a casual manner. “It’s a matter of great concern. If we look at the stance that our current government is taking toward North Korea…”
Like a spokesperson making a public statement, he said what was common knowledge in a clear yet languid tone, while Mrs. Yeom pretended to be an earnest and attentive listener. She then interrupted him abruptly, raising her palms in the air as though to tell him to calm down.
“Hold on a minute there!” she cried.
While Park—who wasn’t at all worked up and didn’t need to compose himself—was struck with bewilderment, Mrs. Yeom began her counter-argument. However, he couldn’t make heads or tails of her argument; after all, her sole purpose for questioning him was to announce to all those present that she was able to engage in a lively debate with a politician. Even while making an impassioned speech, she took notice of who walked in and out of the hall and was even able to, like a praying mantis, signal a server who was passing their table with just one look.
“Let’s see here, what would Rep. Park like to have? Steak? Or maybe some sashimi?”
Park cringed inwardly at Mrs. Yeom’s voice, which had the syrupy quality of lounge madams addressing their male clients.
“I normally don’t eat anything raw during the summer, but since this is your home, I can rest assured—”
Before he could finish speaking, she interrupted with a witty proverb, “But one must still eat before attempting Mount Kumgang! Ha ha ha!”
Mrs. Yeom’s pride swelled at the thought that not many hosts could use a more fitting allusion to offer their guests refreshments while discussing inter-Korean relations. Because that pride was about to shoot through the roof of the banquet hall, she had no clue that her opponent didn’t consider her comment to be the least bit witty and that he especially couldn’t stand the shrill, hearty laughter of middle-aged women.
“Sure, Mount Kumgang,” he said dryly. Frowning, he gazed at the voluptuous figure of the waitress. Her silk pants that looked just as filmy as a woman’s scarf revealed every line and curve; he was certain she wasn’t wearing any underwear.
“I read somewhere, what was the book called? It was a very well-known book, but the title escapes me now. Anyway, the author said…”
Because he was watching the waitress bend and then straighten up, revealing more of herself each time, he didn’t pay attention to Mrs. Yeom’s descriptions of the book that had made her tremble with such emotions. When she saw the grimace on his face, which was the expression his face assumed whenever he became engrossed in something, she seemed to grow uneasy and said quickly, as though throwing a spear toward a new prey, “So that’s why I invited Mr. Hong Suncheol tonight.”
When that piece of information succeeded in shocking Park as she had expected, Mrs. Yeom lightly pursed her lips together with satisfaction.
“Mr. Hong Suncheol, as in the one who secretly…”
Mrs. Yeom leaned close and whispered, “That’s right, he was recently exiled. Although it isn’t public yet.”
“How is he able to … so when is he arriving?”
Mrs. Yeom drew back and confessed that things had turned out to be a little complicated. The investigation, which had seemed nearly finished, became delayed indefinitely because of a security issue; she had received the unfortunate news from the National Intelligence Service that afternoon that he could not be released to attend a private function. At her words, Park wore an expression that seemed to say, Obviously. How could you have managed to arrange that?
“That’s too bad,” he said.
“Instead, Reverend Hahm will be joining us.”
“Reverend Hahm? I see.”
Park nodded gravely. He could not help laughing to himself, for the two had nothing in common, save for the fact that they had been invited to Mrs. Yeom’s fashion gala. When he pictured the dignified reverend gazing upon that ghastly statue of the Buddha, his mood lifted a little.
“Mr. Shin, welcome.”
Mrs. Yeom, who had been anxiously watching Shin Jintae hurry over to them from a distance, changed her demeanor as he came closer and stood up from her seat.
“Rep. Park, please let me introduce you,” she said, addressing him formally again.
Shin held back the curses that threatened to spew out when he saw the way Mrs. Yeom’s glance moved over his clothes, and sank into the seat next to Park.
“Introduce me? For crying out—” Shin said. “I’ve known this guy for more than half my life.”
“Is that right?” she said.
“I guess so, now that I’ve said it. Rep. Park, our tiresome relationship goes back more than thirty years, doesn’t it? To think, I have to come to a place like this to finally get an audience with you.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know who you are,” said Park.
At his words, Mrs. Yeom’s powdered shoulders flinched. But Shin continued easily without missing a beat.
“I expected as much. I know you’re busy with important national affairs, but shouldn’t you come down from your lofty tower once in a while to mingle with us common folk? Would it hurt to show your face at least once at an alumni meeting? Since you’re always stuck in that shitty place—Mrs. Yeom, excuse my language—in that crappy assembly hall, of course you’d forget my handsome face. When did you get here anyway, Hyeong? You must’ve gotten here while I was in the can.”
Mrs. Yeom was astounded at the fact that Shin called her bathroom, which was more gorgeously decorated than most living rooms, a can. Shin was about to pour whiskey into his glass but stopped and asked Park, “Where’s Onan?”
“He didn’t want to come in, so I sent him home.”
“What the hell’s the matter with him? Hasn’t changed a bit, I see.”
Shin looked as though he were going to say something more, but closed his mouth. Mrs. Yeom didn’t know who Onan was, whether he was a foreigner or an alien, but emboldened by Shin’s casual manner toward Park, she too decided to adopt a breezy tone to address the assemblyman.
“Rep. Park and I were just discussing Reverend Hahm. I’m sure you’ve heard of him, the reverend from Cheongnin Church. He will be attending our little party tonight.”
“Is that right?”
Shin emptied his whiskey glass at once and set it down forcefully on the coffee table that emitted an emerald gleam.
“Did you happen to read his article in the paper recently?”
The instant she saw Shin’s face stiffen, she quickly changed the subject. “Of course I realize you’re not a religious person. But I only ask because I know you read extensively. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I was really moved by his words that he was assuming all responsibility and repenting for everything.”
When the two men remained silent, her face became pensive. Then straight away, like some female protagonist in a tragedy, she gracefully held up her uninjured arm and in a grave and fateful manner, she pointed at something in the distance.
“Oh, there’s Mrs. Song. I really should go say hello. God knows I’ll get an earful if I don’t ask how her fashion show in China went! By the way, do stay until the end. Tonight’s fashion show will truly be wonderful. You won’t be disappointed. And make sure you stay for the post-show ball. Enjoy yourselves!”
Mrs. Yeom stretched her blue pearled lips into a wide smile and tossed her shawl over one shoulder, turning her body that was squeezed into the navy blue leather dress. When she left, Shin leaned toward Park and cursed in a low voice.
“Damn! Can you believe her vulgarity? I swear she’s gotten worse after her husband died. And this stupid color party thing has gone completely downhill.”
“Color party” is what Shin Jintae called Mrs. Yeom’s color-themed fashion galas that were held every season.
“The one in spring wasn’t this bad. How can something change so much in one season? Inha Hyeong, just look at all the morons here tonight. Not one person from business or finance! If I’d known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have bothered coming.”
“Jintae, how can your potty mouth have gotten worse?” said Park Inha happily, as though he had finally met someone he wanted to talk to, while he loosened his neck muscles by moving his head in circles.
“Doesn’t it make you want to swear? Did you see the expression on her face when she saw me?”
Inha stopped moving and said, “Hey, didn’t you publish her memoir once?”
“Yup, and I did her a service, I might add. Here, why don’t we have a drink together? It’s been too long, Hyeong.”
Jintae got a whisky bottle from a server and poured Inha a drink, gesturing at the table across from them with his chin.
“Damn it, look at the old drunk I got stuck with tonight.”
The old novelist Seong Munyeong sat where Jintae gestured. Inha, when he had been a college freshman, had once seen him from afar. He had followed one of his seniors to a function called, “A Night for Suffering Writers.” Seong, who was starting to develop a literary reputation around the time, had announced unexpectedly that night that he would use all the proceeds from his breakthrough novel for the release and care of his fellow writers who were imprisoned, and had received fervent applause. He must have regretted what he had said, because all kinds of rumors started to circulate after that, about how he had broken his promise and used every excuse to get out of what he had said. After that, people whispered behind his back, saying how even the integrity of his writing had fallen.
“I don’t know what the old man heard, but he barged into the office at lunch today and stuck to me like a leech. You know how he has a certain knack for that. You should have seen their horrified faces when I walked in with him tonight. Skeletal Koo, that dried-up pollack’s head, and Mrs. Yeom, like a waterlogged seal. The ugly girl who let us in—the one with the freakish blue shadow painted over her swollen eyes—oh, I bet you she had hell to pay.”
Inha snickered. It was a genuine laugh that had slipped out by accident.
Seong Munyeong, who had once enjoyed such popularity that three or four of his novels were on the bestseller list at one time, was talking excitedly to several elderly celebrities gathered around him. Just then, he happened to catch sight of Mrs. Yeom, who was making her way across the hall with her dark blue shawl draped around her shoulders.
“Oh, there goes Mrs. Yeom! Still as lovely as ever. But I bet you don’t know this…”
The elderly women who sat around the writer had deep, dissatisfied frowns carved into their thick makeup, as though they were ridiculing him. Whenever malicious gossip spewed from his lips, the women acted as though they didn’t care to listen, but in the end they all leaned toward the old writer, who reeked of stale cigarettes and alcohol, and strained their ears so that they would not miss a single word. This time too, as though they were saying, “So what are you saying about Mrs. Yeom?” their yellow eyes came to rest on Seong Munyeong.
“Mrs. Yeom sure has moved up in the world! She really has. Are you catching my drift?” he chattered excitedly, as the attention of the women became fixed on him.
“She is the most successful one to graduate from her school by far. It’s the truth, all right! That school’s gone now. Now what was the name of that school? It was in the southern part of Gyeonggi Province. The name was, let’s see here, Yeong…. cheon….chan….hmm, what was it now…”
The writer, who had been faltering, trembled all of a sudden under great emotion and cried, “That’s it! Yeongchun Girls’ Technical School!”
At his words, everything around him grew chillingly quiet. After having emptied another glass of whiskey, Shin Jintae was in the middle of dipping a piece of whiting sashimi in sauce, but at the old writer’s words, his arm jerked as though he’d been electrocuted.
“That piece of shit!”
Whenever he published a public figure’s memoir, Shin always carried out careful research, unable to break his habit from when he used to be a journalist; he had done the same for Mrs. Yeom. His investigation had unearthed that she had attended a trade school and had worked as a bookkeeper upon graduation before catching the eye of the late CEO Kim Seongwon. There was not one mention of any of that in the information Mrs. Yeom’s personnel supplied him; her background had been laundered clean, stating that her highest level of education was a master’s degree from some design school in the countryside. Jintae, too, packaged the information into a polished memoir and even managed to make a tidy sum from the sales. But if the old drunk was spilling the beans about Mrs. Yeom, he must have somehow heard this from Jintae’s own publishing house.
“What a goddamn mess. Where the hell did he get that information? He’s killing me! The most important thing in this business is confidentiality. He could ruin me overnight.”
Jintae shoved a few pieces of the sashimi in his mouth. He stood up, determined to drag the old man out of the banquet hall before he could give away any more scandalous information.
“Anyway, shouldn’t you be launching some sort of campaign about now?” Jintae shot out. “You should release a book by the end of the year, get the ground ready, so to speak, before next year’s election. Why don’t you leave it up to me? Goddamn it, I guess I can’t even stay for the fashion show because of that stupid drunk. You know the girls who greeted you at the door? Boy, were they loud, I almost thought I was walking into a Chinese restaurant! But there was one fine piece of ass there, did you notice? With the skin of a baby. Even Marilyn Monroe would look ugly next to her. Anyway, I bet you she’ll blow up like crazy in the next three months. You just watch. I heard from a special source she’ll be coming out half-naked in the show tonight, but just my luck, I won’t get to see it. Hyeong, come out to the next reunion, okay? And make sure you drag out Onan, too. After all, how many years do we have left anyway?”
Translated by Janet Hong
Kwon Yeo-sun (b. 1965) is the author of four novels: The Blue Opening, House of Clay Figurines, Legato, and, most recently, Lemon; five short story collections: The Virgin Skirt, Pink Ribbon Days, Red Fruits in My Garden, The Nutmeg Forest, and Hello, Drunkard; and a book of essays: What Do We Eat Today? She has received the Sangsang Literary Award, Oh Yeongsu Literature Award, Yi Sang Literary Prize, Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Tong-ni Literature Prize, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. The Japanese translation of Hello, Drunkard was published by Shinkansha in 2018.