- onMarch 24, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
- byPyun Hye Young
- Evening Proposal
Tr. Park Youngsuk and Gloria Cosgrove Smith 2011257pp.
Kim’s friend ordered the funeral wreath. It had been more than ten years since Kim had seen this friend, who now recognized his voice on the phone. Perhaps he was an inconsiderate person, or merely acting like one, as he completely neglected the formality of greeting Kim or inquiring about his well-being. Without introduction, he simply described the condition of an ill, bedridden man. Only after listening for a few moments did Kim realize that the person on the phone was a friend from long ago and that the ill, bedridden person was an elderly man whom Kim had often visited during the period when he used to correspond with this friend.
Kim paid little attention to the friend’s incessant chattering on the phone. Instead, he wondered how the man had obtained his new phone number, since Kim had taken over the florist shop only quite recently. He was also struggling to determine just how old the elderly dying man would be now. He would have been surprised to hear that he had already died, but hearing that he was still alive was also quite surprising. He did not mention this to his friend, not wishing to seem unsympathetic especially at this moment when they were talking to each other again after such a long time. Kim could not remember exactly, but he felt the elderly man must have reached an age at which no one would be surprised at his passing.
“He’s unconscious, breathing with the aid of a respirator as unconscious people do, and exhaling slowly,” the friend reported. “Every time he exhales, I nod my head cheering him on, but then I look at the clock.”
Kim was unable to tell whether his friend’s voice was expressing grief or disappointment. “The doctor said it was unlikely that he would still be alive this afternoon.” The friend paused for a moment. It seemed as though he was waiting for Kim to say something, possibly to ask the location of the hospital so he could visit, to express sympathy, or perhaps to provide some words of comfort. But Kim said nothing. The friend sighed.
“Please do me a favor with the wreath,” he said. Kim agreed somewhat reluctantly, as though he had no choice. He was thinking that doing this friend a favor quite likely meant he would receive no payment, and it was not as if they were really friends. Their relationship was so tenuous that they could easily be considered to be strangers. However, it seemed mercenary to be dickering about money when the elderly man was dying.
Without mentioning anything about payment, the friend then asked for Kim’s mobile number and gave him the name of the funeral home, which was located in a town Kim was not familiar with. Merely to continue the conversation, Kim was about to ask why the mortuary was located in that town, but he changed his mind. In a telephone conversation such as this, suddenly taking place after more than ten years, there was really only one thing Kim wanted to know: How had this person obtained his phone number? Their only connection was that they had worked for the same company for a short time. It would even be difficult for them to recognize each other in a photo that had been taken at a company event. In any such photo, they would have been standing quite far apart, and their relationship had definitely not changed over these past ten years.
“You are coming to the funeral, aren’t you?” the friend asked. Kim hesitated and before he could answer, the friend added, “Of course, you are. In any event, who else should we contact?” His tone of voice indicated that the matter was not open for discussion, nor was he talking to himself. Kim was about to explain that he was out of touch with all of their acquaintances from ten years ago, when this friend, not waiting for a response, and as though he was thoroughly displeased with Kim’s reluctance, suddenly raised his voice.
“Never mind, I’ll do it!” he said. He then gave Kim the name of the organization that was sending the wreath. It was an organization Kim had never heard of. Feeling that it would be rude not to inquire, Kim forced himself to ask what this organization did. But the friend abruptly hung up on him, saying that he had to return to the hospital. There were no goodbyes just as there had been no greetings at the beginning of their conversation.
Kim wondered if he was somehow responsible for this friend’s cold and rude behavior or if it was merely his personality. He reflected on long past events until he was eventually reminded of some letters his friend had written. It was during the period when Kim decided to resign from their company, which was under legal management as a result of severe financial pressure caused by the company’s inadequate expansion. The employees had voluntarily accepted a wage reduction in order to stabilize the company’s situation, when Kim was recommended for a position in another company in another city. The person who recommended him was the same elderly man who was now dying, and this friend had criticized him for taking the new position. He claimed that Kim had no sense of comradery and accused him of being selfish and calculating.
Kim was told about this criticism by another person with whom he’d now had no contact for a long time. Criticizing a person for being selfish makes no sense, Kim thought. Everyone is selfish. If his friend had been recommended for the position, he wouldn’t have hesitated to take it. But his friend was hurt by what he felt was Kim’s uncaring attitude. He sent letters to Kim’s new company citing several mistakes Kim had made. The result was that Kim was talked about behind his back for a time, until the whole matter gradually blew over. As a result of this experience, Kim concluded that friendship had nothing to do with a degree of affection, but was a feeling that was valid only when it was dedicated to, and reaped benefits for, one of the persons involved. He calmly recalled the event and the scars it had inflicted, but the process of remembering did leave him sad and resentful about his long forgotten past.
He wrote the name of the funeral home on the upper part of a memo where orders for items and their places of delivery were haphazardly scribbled. He would have remembered these without looking at them, but seeing them now reminded him that he also had other orders to attend to. Not that they had to be attended to before doing anything else, but certainly they did have to be taken care of. Also other urgent events might arise at any time if not today, then tomorrow, or even in the next five minutes. It was impossible to predict. That is what self-employment is like.
He tried to find someone who could deliver the wreath and the condolence money that he would donate for the funeral expense. Considering the elderly man’s age, even though Kim didn’t know exactly what it was, his funeral could take place at any moment. So it was appropriate to be prepared for mourning. According to the friend, the elderly man had been unconscious and not recognizing anyone for a long while. Even if Kim hurried to get to the hospital, he might not be able to arrive before the man died. Realizing this filled him with compassion for dying humanity in general, but his feelings were not at all personal. After transferring to the other company, Kim had felt an obligation to the elderly man and expressed his gratitude with greetings and gifts. One year, it was a box of apples for the Harvest Moon holiday, and for the Lunar New Year holiday, a basket of dry shiitake mushrooms. Another year, he gave a box of pears of superior quality for Lunar New Year’s and a box of Hallabong oranges for Harvest Moon. And now, now there would be the wreath for which he would surely not collect any remuneration. His gratitude had been great, but not great enough to remember after all this time.
The funeral home was located in a town three hundred and eighty kilometers to the south. Kim was annoyed.
“The news of someone’s death should not be sent out to those who have been out of touch for over ten years,” he proclaimed frowning. He tried hard to think of someone to call, but everyone he phoned was occupied with other matters. They had important appointments or responsibilities that couldn’t be postponed.
“No, the news of a person’s death should be sent out far and wide to everyone,” said the man who ran the florist shop next door to Kim’s, “because it too often happens that someone who has not heard of a friend’s death will come up to you and ask about him as though he is still alive. This happens you know. I lost my high school buddy of thirty years. He was physically the strongest among us. Some friends still don’t know he’s gone, and they ask after him. When I tell them he is dead, I realize all over again that he’s gone.” He swallowed his words as he remembered his dead friend. “I wore this to his funeral,” he added sorrowfully as he handed the black jacket to Kim. Kim nodded.
He did not really understand the man’s sorrow, but after hearing this story about his having had this buddy for thirty years, he was able to fairly precisely guess the florist’s age. Previously he had thought of him as being much older than he actually was because of his graying hair.
“But this jacket is too big for you and too old,” the man said to Kim.
“It’s okay. It really doesn’t matter with this kind of jacket,” Kim replied despite the fact that the long sleeves completely covered the back of his hands.
“You’re right. It’s not as if you are going for an interview,” the man said, nodding his head, but he advised Kim to fold the sleeves back twice.
Kim was about fifteen centimeters shorter than the average man. He recalled that he had stopped growing when he turned fourteen. His father had passed away then, and for some time, Kim believed that he stopped growing because of the emotional shock of his father’s death. It wasn’t until years later that he realized he was wrong. One day as a grown man, he went to see a traditional doctor about unbearable pain he had in his shoulder. In the doctor’s office, he happened to see a poster on the wall that read: “How to Estimate the Maximum Possible Height of One’s Growth.” The method involved using the heights of both parents and going through several steps of simple calculations. He used his father’s height based on his mother’s dim memory of his being one hand-span taller than she was. Although it wasn’t supposed to be exact, the result of his calculation showed Kim’s maximum possible height as only four centimeters taller than his present height. Kim smiled sadly remembering this.
He recalled his childhood when his father’s sudden death forced his mother to work three shifts at a nearby factory leaving him home alone. His friends teased him about being short, and he often got into trouble because he had too much time to kill. He also blamed his father’s death for the disorderly path his life had taken and mercilessly accused his father of abandoning his family and leaving him with nothing but this meager height. He realized now how wrong he was about all of this.
As he started his car and was about to leave, Kim remembered his dinner date with the woman. He could postpone the date for one or two hours, but even then he still wouldn’t be likely to get back on time. He had already broken this date with her twice. He apologized to her for his carelessness, and she, as usual, said she understood his situation. Kim sensed that she was concealing her disappointment behind her carefully articulated response, and this displeased him. Instead of being angry she expressed curiosity about what he had for lunch and how he had spent his weekend. She often wanted to talk about incidents in her daily life and to discuss matters that required choices.
Each time she attempted such conversations however, Kim suddenly had a customer to take care of and would have to immediately hang up. A few days later when she called again, it seemed as though she had hesitated before picking up the phone to ask how he was. Then she became embarrassed at Kim’s unfriendly response. At a loss, she began to spew out words that were far from courteous. When he had a customer and needed to hang up, she hurriedly bid him goodbye in an ambiguous tone of voice that expressed both relief and sorrow for his having to hang up and her not having time to make amends for what she had said. Later when he was busy or even in his free time after hanging up like that, he would be reminded of her face. It was expressionless, her mouth remaining closed as she sat among a group of people on social occasions. She was a quiet woman who would now and then suddenly make some inane comment which elicited ridicule. She would inappropriately tell jokes relating to topics that people had already stopped discussing, jokes which confused everyone and at which no one laughed. Then she would put on a serious face, as though she had never meant them as jokes at all. Observing all this, Kim would be initially nervous. Then gradually he became displeased, but he felt totally helpless. This was the behavior he often manifested when he felt embarrassed, when he lacked confidence because of being conscious of his short stature.
She also frequently gave him gifts. It was obvious that she had spent considerable time carefully selecting each of those ordinary, inexpensive items, so they would not feel burdensome to him. There were books he had mentioned in passing that he wanted to read, a handy suitable wallet or some useful item for his florist shop. She carefully wrapped each of these gifts for him. But this attention that she paid to his needs was lost on Kim who consistently unwrapped and received her gifts with utter indifference. He even gradually grew to dislike her smell. It likely came from her perfume, or shampoo or possibly the conditioner that she used. Whatever it was, it spread like the odor of mixed flowers. The fragrance that Kim did like could hardly be called a fragrance at all. It was a complete lack of smell. It wasn’t until after he took over the florist shop that he realized that even the best fragrance could easily become an unpleasant odor when flowers mingled their fragrances.