- onSeptember 4, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- bySeo Yoo Mi
- Temporarily Human
It seemed like a good sign that the first day of the new year was a Saturday. Office workers tied down to their jobs had been excited and looking forward for months to the long stretch of holiday. Travel companies rushed to launch special holiday packages, and they sold like hotcakes. Many people went on trips of varying lengths by car, coach, train, or airplane. Those who remained in the city partied and sent off the old year and welcomed in the new. It was wonderful to go on a binge knowing there was one more day left to recover from hangovers and indigestion.
On New Year’s Day, the city was up and moving early. While many people had made New Year’s resolutions not to sleep in, many others, still in the mood of the previous night, were wandering around the downtown area and the entertainment district. As the day broke, people poured out into the streets to meet friends for brunch, to dine out and go to the movies with their family, or simply to start New Year’s Day differently for a change.
Climate change had brought about a prolonged period of cold weather, but the city looked much warmer as the sun set and the streetlights were lit. Snowflakes fell softly, like dust or lint. But those who noticed were noisy; some spat loudly, others cursed, as had become their habit. Many people took out their phones to take a picture of the falling snow. It was the first the city had seen this winter since the “first snow” that had practically melted before hitting the ground. Jaws dropped, and a collective “Wow” rose from those walking on the streets or even sitting in cafés orbars, looking out the windows. On the first night of the new year, the fluttering snowflakes put on a decent show.
The man got ready for work in the morning earlier than usual. Turning up early was crucial because it was the first workday of the new year and also the first day after the long holiday. The rumour about new personnel decisions that started in early December had snowballed into something that felt real. He secretly pinned his hopes on the upcoming decisions. He couldn’t afford to lose out on a promotion anymore.
The man stood in front of the mirror with his hair cut, face shaved clean, shirt white and suit well pressed, looking ambitious and confident. But his shoulders sagged the moment he arrived at the front door of his apartment building. It had snowed so heavily overnight that the snow came up to two-thirds of the glass door’s height. It was easily higher than his waist and stood like a barricade. He pushed with all his might, but the door and the snow outside it wouldn’t budge. After a few more tries, he gave up, panting. He couldn’t possibly do this alone.
The man looked back and forth at the doors of apartment number 101 and apartment number 102. Behind the door to his left lived an old woman in her seventies and behind the door to his right a guy in his thirties who struck him as a judo wrestler. Although he didn’t actually know the guy, he had seen him a few times coming back in after smoking a cigarette. After checking the time, he rang the doorbell of 102 four times, but received no response. He waited impatiently before he tried pushing at the front door again. No response there, either. Unmindful of his distress, time was passing, merciless and silent. He didn’t have much time now.
He was taking out his cell phone, thinking he should at least call his wife, when the door of number 102 opened. The resident poked his head out, looking not entirely awake. The warm scent of alcohol wafted out through the open door. “Did you . . . ring the bell?”
“I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“Who’re you? What do you want?”
“I live on the fourth floor. There’s so much snow outside that the front door won’t open. I thought if we worked together, it’d make things easier for me, and for you, too, later when, you know, you leave for work.”
The man from 102 put on his flip-flops and stepped outside. “Gosh . . . that is a lot of snow . . . I’m sorry, but . . . I think it’ll be quicker if you ask someone else for help. I don’t go to work anymore. New Year’s Eve was my last day.”
While the man from 102 yawned and talked, the man kept quiet, not sure what to say in response. On the one hand, he was angry with the man for being selfish. On the other, he felt guilty for having awakened him. He also felt pity, as the man was too young to be out of work.
“Even if you manage to open the door . . .” said the man from 102, taking a quick look out at the street, “I don’t think you can make it to work today.” He then went back inside.
Ignoring what he’d just heard, the man tried pushing the glass door a few more times. It felt like a wall.
The other side of the door was too quiet. The street in front of his apartment building was usually crowded with people going to work at this hour of a weekday morning. It was the fastest route to the bus stop in a densely populated neighbourhood. But now the street was deserted. There were no footprints or traces of anything on the unbelievably thick snow. Without sound or movement, the scene outside the door looked like a freeze-frame image, as though life had vanished or ceased to exist. Only the fallen snow flew about bleakly in the blowing wind.
Still, the man feared being late to the New Year’s kick-off meeting and getting chewed out by his department head. The sweat glands under his armpits became active even though it was cold—so cold, in fact, that his breath was visible and his fingers numb.
He looked up and dialled his co-worker’s phone number. While waiting to getthrough, he remembered that his co-worker lived in a different city, and wondered how conditions were there. His call was picked up by a machine: “The number you have dialled is busy . . .” He tried again, only to get the same message. Where should I call? He was trying to choose between 119 and 112 when the Citizen Service Call Centre’s number popped into his head. He dialled it immediately. Unfortunately, it turned out that he had remembered the number in vain: “All of our operators are currently busy . . .”
Still holding his phone, the man repeatedly threw himself against the glass door. When it became almost certain that he would be late to work, he prayed that this situation was not specific to just his neighbourhood, but was a regional disaster, which would be a legitimate excuse to give to his boss. Once he stopped moving, it became silent again, so much so that the vibration of his phone in his pocket felt like an aftershock. A call from his section head had never felt better since he’d joined the company.
“Mr. Kim? Yes, I’m snowed in, too. My apartment building has a couple of guards on night shift. Not that they can do much about it. This has been a long holiday, you know. Anyway, let’s wait and see how things go. Going to the office seems impossible for now anyway . . . I’m sure they’ll figure something out. I’ll let you know if there’s any change in the situation . . .”
Repeating “Yes, sir,” the man finally relaxed. Only then did his sweat-drenched undershirt and white shirt begin to feel unpleasant.
When the man re-entered his apartment, his wife, who was feeding their four-year-old daughter, looked at him in surprise. “Did you forget something?”
“No. It snowed too much. I don’t think I can go to work.”
His wife put down the spoon and opened a window. The man had worked for his company for less than a year, and the fact that he couldn’t go to work was clearly unnerving her more than the amount of snow.
“Don’t worry. The entire company is off.”
“Oh, my God . . .” his wife groaned once she stuck her head out of the window. He stood next to her and looked outside too. The colour of the street had changed completely overnight. The heavy snowfall had covered everything on the ground impartially and equally. The base of the buildings were buried in the glistening white snow. It looked as though someone had planted telephone poles and trees directly into it. Over one meter deep, the snow looked like a hard slab of concrete rather than soft material that would make crunching sounds under your feet. More snow had started fluttering down again.
The TV world was at peace. Commercials and soap opera reruns aired as scheduled without a hitch. The news program did a wrap-up of major accidents that had occurred over the holidays—a three-car, rear-end collision on a highway, a factory fire in the city of “A,” and the heaviest snowfall this city had ever seen. They only showed a few scenes of snow falling in large flakes. Apparently no footage of snow-blocked roads was available. On seeing the snow on TV, his daughter jumped up and down and exclaimed, “Snow!”
“Look, it’s on the news. That’s why I can’t go to work. How can I when I can’t even open the front door?”
His wife nodded.
The man stretched himself out on the sofa, as though he originally had this day off. Even though he hadn’t done any work, he was famished and began to feel tired. Having finished feeding their daughter, his wife prepared a meal for him.
First thing the next morning, the man went down to the front door of his apartment building. Fortunately or unfortunately, the height of the snow seemed to be about the same as the previous night, though it was possible to push the glass door slightly outward. But going to work still seemed out of the question because the crack in the door was only wide enough for a four- to five-year-old to slip through. He pressed himself against the glass door for a peek outside. The viewoutside his apartment building was as dreary as a graveyard, with the dusky street, the unlit stores, and the stubborn snow showing no signs of melting. At least it was clean, with no footprints. The man tucked his hands under his arms and hunched his shoulders. He remembered his section head saying that he would let him know if there was any change in the situation. He was confused for a moment whether going to work or not going to work would mean such a change in the situation.
As heart-warming as it might be to see a family huddled together in their home on a cold winter day, the story of what was really going on in their house or in their minds wasn’t necessarily heart-warming. This family of three had been confined to their house over the holidays. Since their daughter had a nasty cold, they couldn’t go on an outing or trip. The only time they had gone out was to have dinner at a nearby rib restaurant. Throughout the holidays, the man had spent his time watching TV or playing online games.
Meanwhile, his wife had bustled around vacuuming the floor or hanging the laundry to dry. His daughter, probably aware that it would be boring to be with her dad playing games, had tagged behind her mom the entire time. He had found the girl trailing at her mom’s heels to be adorable and wanted to be a good dad to her for a change, but when he had tried to play with her, the girl curled her lips and jerked her head away, saying, “I don’t like Daddy.” Strangely enough, he would get hungry again as soon as his wife finished the chores around the house and sat down for a break. Although it was mealtime, he felt like it was a crime for him to feel hungry.
The boiler was always running because of their daughter’s cold. The temperature in the house was higher than necessary. Even though his wife insisted that it wasn’t hot, her face was red. Their daughter’s nursery school had closed for vacation since before Christmas. His wife, who’d had to stay with their daughter and struggled to take care of her the whole time, heaved a heavy sigh now that the man’s holidays had also been extended. When mealtime approached, she would fan herself with her hand. Even though she just served instant ramen as one of their three daily meals, her face became redder and her fanning more frequent. When his wife sighed, the man would sneak out to the balcony.
The man felt as though his apartment was shrinking. When he was sitting on the sofa, the ceiling would move downward and the walls approach him, eventually trapping him inside. Escaping into the computer room made no difference. The room was sealed in all directions, like an airtight container. He, his wife, and their daughter were like kimchi in a jar, fermenting and bubbling up according to their condition and size. The container would expand to the brink of bursting but manage to keep its shape by letting the air out when he went out to smoke or his wife talked to someone on the phone. The longer he stayed at home, the more he missed his desk at his office. He felt that where he really belonged wasn’t his living room sofa or the chair in front of his home computer, but that hard iron desk and that exit staircase where he exchanged silly jokes with fellow smokers. Despite his wife’s complaint about letting the cold air in, the man kept going out to the balcony.
He put a cigarette between his lips, and was lighting it when he noticed someone at the front door of an apartment building across the street. It was the first outsider he’d seen in two days. The woman in a black coat was desperately trying to dig her way through the snow into the apartment building. A trunk and suitcase lay at her feet, suggesting that she had just returned from a trip. She was trying hard to open the door before her hands froze and her strength ran out. After an unsuccessful attempt to reach and pull the handle through the hole she had dug, she tried pushing her body against it. When this didn’t work either, she panicked, tripping in the process. She seemed to be looking for someone she could call out to for help, but the street was deserted. Resignedly, she went back to struggling with the snow. The man had finished smoking the cigarette, but still couldn’t take his eyes off the woman. She looked like an ant floundering in cake frosting.
“A friend of mine told me that her husband went to work today . . . I was wondering if maybe you should have, too.” That was all the man’s wife said while they had dinner. Although her eyes were downcast, her face hinted at something resembling doubt, anxiety, or resentment. Even though the man himself had thought that it would have been better if he’d gone to work, it hurt to hear his wife say that. But he kept quiet in order to keep peace for the remainder of the evening.
The roads and streets completely blocked by the heaviest snowfall in history are slowly but surely being cleared with the help of the police, military, and citizens.
The reporter aboard the helicopter covered different areas of the city. People in knee-high boots and safety helmets were diligently shovelling away the snow. On the screen, they looked like Lego soldiers.
Having confirmed that the front door of his apartment building was open, the man also got ready to leave for work. At the front door, it was apparent that an adult had walked out, clearing a path through the snow. He wondered which of the residents had done it and how, but there was no way of finding out.
After a deep breath, the man walked down that path, but it soon came to an end. It was necessary to turn left to reach the main road, but the path in the snow led to the right. Standing at the dead end, he looked around. He couldn’t even tell the road from the sidewalk. Supposedly, the police and military were conducting snow removal operations, wherever that might be, but this area was still covered. Supposedly, as announced on the air, shovels and safety helmets had been provided in places along the roads, but he couldn’t see them either. Left with no other option, the man used his leather-gloved hands to clear the snow, inching his way forward. He looked around many times, but not a soul could be seen. It seemed as though the city had ceased to exist, leaving nothing but the man and the huge mountains of snow. People couldn’t possibly have just disappeared altogether, could they? He swallowed hard as he remembered the disaster movie he had watchedlate at night a couple of days earlier. The snow that had been pressed under its own weight for days was as heavy and solid as earth. As the leather got wet, his gloves quickly became damp inside.
He found a sandbox and a shovel in the snow. He dug all around them, but couldn’t find any safety helmet. The shovel seemed too old and rusty to serve its purpose. But he chose the shovel instead of his wet gloves. His frozen hands were red and sore.
The man’s movements were slow because he was dressed in a suit and tie picked for the first workday of the new year. He always wore a suit to work. He liked to wear them, though he complained they were uncomfortable. Before he knew it, suits had become the kind of clothes that he wore most frequently and suited him best. His jacket and pants were already wrinkled, but he wouldn’t tuck the legs of his suit pants into his socks or roll up the sleeves of his jacket. The work was tough, but he put up with it expecting that once he made it to the office, he would have a story to tell and his bosses would start thinking of him differently. It was tedious yet also honest work in that it allowed him to move one step forward with each shovelful of snow. He bore ahead, thinking about a legendary movie hero who was the sole survivor in the world.
It took the man over an hour to reach a point that he normally would have walked in ten minutes. He was unused to physical labour and it tired him out quickly. His office was roughly an hour away from home by public transportation. At this rate, it was difficult to even estimate when he would get there. His shirt was soaked in sweat, and his shoes, pants, and underwear were wet because of the waist-deep snow. His shovel was getting slower and slower, and the snow-covered road seemed to have no end. His shovel-gripping hands had already blistered. He turned his head back to find the meandering path that he’d been digging. It looked as though he’d been zigzagging instead of going straight forward. With each gust of wind, the chunks of snow he’d shovelled away tumbled back down.
From very far away came what sounded like the engine of an excavator. The man stopped shovelling and looked around him. But nobody, nothing was visible. If he listened closely, it sounded like wind blowing in from afar. But he wanted to believe that it was the sound of a snowplough at work. The city hasn’t stopped removing snow, and they’re rushing over here to continue their operations. Wait for a couple of days holding out at home and the roads will be cleared for sure. Cars will be back on the roads and there will be traffic jams as if it never snowed. Believing this to be true seemed easier than shovelling his way to work. Even if I make it to the office, there’ll be no work for me to do anyway because our factories or partners are off, too. So why bother going through all this trouble? The man slowly put down his shovel. His ambitious plan to make it to the office no matter what had fizzled out before he knew it.
The man’s ringing phone couldn’t have been better timed. He frowned, looking down at the caller ID. It was his department head.
“Yes, sir, Happy New Year! I’m sorry. I should have called you first.”
“Do you think this is about New Year’s greetings, Mr. Kim? Where are you? You’re the only one in our department who hasn’t come to work.”
“I am? Oh . . . I’m on my way. The front door wouldn’t open because of the snow . . .”
“Do you think it snowed only in your neighbourhood? It snowed everywhere. Where’s your discipline? We gave you a couple of days off. I’d expected you’d use that time to clear snow and get ready to come to work. No wonder you don’t amount to anything. No tact. No spirit. If I were you, I’d be ashamed to still be a deputy section head at your age. Didn’t you say you’d do your best in the new year? It’s always when you’re drinking that you say you’ll work hard. The company is a joke to you, isn’t it? Is making a living a joke?”
“No, definitely not a joke . . .” was not what spilled from the man’s mouth. He lied and said that he was almost there and would definitely hurry up. His mind was blank, as if it was not the snow but his brain that he’d shovelled away. After hanging up, he checked the time. There were roughly two hours left until the deadline his department head had set for his arrival. He felt even more hopeless than when he had faced the waist-deep snow. He tucked the legs of his suit pants into his socks and pushed up the sleeves of his jacket. The reason he hadn’t seen any people wasn’t that they had disappeared. It was that they had started leaving for work last night. The front door of his apartment building was also open because someone had pushed against it all night long. He picked up the shovel, mentally kicking himself for his own complacency and incompetence.
People compare snow to soft cotton candy or a cosy cotton comforter because they don’t really know snow. Try shovelling some, and you’ll realize that you’ve only scratched the romantic surface of snow. Frozen snow is as sharp and dangerous as shards of glass. Just bumping or scratching against it can make you bleed. The man licked the blood off the back of his hand, and then thrust down the shovel with his foot. Removing knee-deep snow during his military service had been easier than what he was doing now. Heavy as wet sand though it had been, the snow then at least hadn’t stood in his way or strangled him. The man felt as though it was his life rather than this city that had been hit by the heavy snowfall. The weaker his arms and legs felt, the more he wished he was a mole.
“Where are you now, Mr. Kim . . .? Why are you still there? I didn’t know what was going on here, either, until I decided to come to work just in case. I would’ve been in deep shit if I hadn’t come. Who’s coming with you?”
On hearing the man say that he was alone, his section head heaved a big sigh. “You can’t act alone in an emergency situation like this. Do you think I gave you the list of emergency contacts for nothing? I gave it to you so you could use it in this type of situation. Why can’t you be flexible? Don’t you wonder how the others made it to work on time? They did it by digging individually for two days and then together with their co-workers when they met up in their neighbourhood. That’s social life. That’s office life. There’s work you should do alone. And there’s work you should do with others. You should know which is which without being told . . . Anyway, hurry up. Everyone’s waiting for you.”
He said that the man and Yoo from another department were the only two in the entire company who hadn’t come to work.
“I think Yoo will be okay, at least until tomorrow, because he’s been getting good reports and his department head is soft. But as for ours, you know he’s a dog. Besides, you’re on his blacklist. He’s saying he’s going to put you in a blender and drink you up once you get here. Don’t you know that bastard hates losing? Haven’t you learned things like that yet?”
His section head, having come to work but with no work to do, preached on and on. “How many times have I told you? Office life is 99 percent about relationships. Use some tact. Bow your head to people. Try to please them, even if you don’t feel like it, okay? Honestly, it’s not like we’re here because we feel like it.”
The man’s body was getting cold as the sweat dried. He had to try to work the shovel clumsily with his one hand while holding his phone in the other. The only thing fortunate about this situation was that Yoo’s home was located about halfway between the man’s home and the office.
It was a little surprising that Yoo hadn’t come to work. He was a prime candidate for section head in his own department. He was definitely on a fast, if not the fastest, track to promotion while many deputy section heads and section heads were stuck with their positions forever. A workaholic type, Yoo was not exactly good at relationships. But his reputation wasn’t bad, either. Several times the man had seen Yoo stay in the office to work extra hours. The profile of Yoo sitting at his computer and looking at his monitor was so still that he might as well have been fixed to his computer desk. Yoo was on a totally different level from those who simply killed a few hours after dinner pretending to work.
A little past noon something appeared before the man’s eyes. It wasn’t his office building but another shovel diligently clearing snow. It looked bigger and more robust than his own. The green shovel was ceaselessly clearing snow. It wasn’t until reaching the path the man had been digging that the other person looked up and caught his breath. It was a young guy who looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. Armed with a functional jacket bearing an outdoor brand name and logo, the guy looked like he could survive even if he was thrown onto Mt. Everest. The sun glistened off the goggles the guy was wearing. The man was ashamed of his wrinkled suit that had gotten wet and dried out repeatedly, but he was so glad to meet someone in the snow-covered wilderness that he awkwardly gave a nod.
“On your way to work?” The young guy spoke first, wiping off his sweat.
“Yes, my bosses are raising hell with me for being late, but my body doesn’t seem to move as fast as I’d like it to.”
“Same here. My boss grilled me when I asked him if I should still come to work when a natural disaster had struck. I can’t believe I’m shovelling here.”
While the young guy took a sip from a bottle of water, the man lit up a cigarette. They exchanged a few words about the golden holidays that had left them feeling worse off than others, and the heavy snowfall that even the national weather centre hadn’t seen coming. They also talked about how life was tough and the world was becoming a more difficult place to live in.
“Our salaries stay the same, but prices keep rising. Working years are limited, but average life expectancy is increasing. Medical costs keep rising, and crime is increasing. And the weather is going crazy all the time . . .”
Listening to the guy going on and on as if reciting rap lyrics, the man nodded. He thought that it had been a long time since he’d shared an honest conversation with a stranger, and felt comforted by the unexpected fact that they spoke the same language. The conversation livened up instantly. “Exactly. Life is war. With all this pressure from above and competition from below and all around, just hanging in there is hard enough as it is. On top of that, a heavy snowfall has made it this hard to go to work. Who knew? At this rate, I’m not sure if I’ll even make it to work today.”
“You know what? I got into a big company by working hard in school and everything so I wouldn’t have to labour like this. But I don’t think anything much has changed. Basically, I’m leading a life with little time for myself. I should have joined the ‘A’ Group instead. They didn’t work today. Now that’s what I call a real big company.”
At the words “big company,” the man’s warm, sweaty body rapidly started cooling down. As it turned out, it was neither his rusty shovel nor his wrinkled suit that he should have been ashamed of.
“I think we were meant to meet. Give me a call when you’re in the area, so we can have a drink together. I think we’re speaking the same language, and in similar positions, too.”
The man took the business card handed to him by the guy. The familiar logo of a big company was clearly printed on it. The man hurriedly grasped his shovel after saying something vague about how he was out of his business cards. His heart had turned cold because even though they might speak the same language, he didn’t think they were in similar positions. The young guy in goggles receded toward the left. From the back, the guy looked like a snowboarder at a ski resort. The snow felt as though it had become about twice as hard and heavy as before.
He discovered things like a toppled-over food waste bin or a No Parking sign in the snow. Every time his shovel hit something, the man found himself spitting out a curse. The snow alone was enough of an obstacle to his way to work. He tried to reach Yoo by phone a few more times, but Yoo wasn’t answering. He became tired of waiting to get through.
Back in summer, the entire city had been hit by heavy rain. The roads had been flooded and some of the subway lines had stopped running, causing a major delay for people trying to go to work. Most people had failed to punch in their cards on time, some coming to work an hour late and others at noon. The man had arrived at 11 o’clock, despite having run hard, soaked to the underwear. A rumor had circulated that Yoo had been the only one in the entire company who’d been exactly on time.
“Technically, he didn’t arrive on time. I heard he stayed in the office last night. He didn’t go home because he figured he wouldn’t be able to come back on time the next day if he did,” Park had said, putting a cigarette between his lips.
“That’s just like Yoo,” Koo had said, chiming in with a hint of both admiration and sarcasm.
“I don’t get it,” the man had grumbled. “Is coming to work on time such a big deal?” Park had crushed the paper cup in his hand. “No wonder they say you suck, while Yoo rocks.”
Koo had responded with a sighing laugh. The man had also laughed off the whole thing, knowing what Park and Koo were like, each with their share of getting kicked around and picked on.
It was unbelievable that Yoo, normally so passionate and committed to coming to work, hadn’t arrived yet. But whatever was keeping Yoo, it was fortunate for the man that there was still a co-worker left to go to the office together with. I’ve got to get a hold of Yoo. That’ll make it easier for me to get to the office. Judging from the fact that Yoo hadn’t been answering the phone, Yoo was most likely also clearing snow. The man became anxious that Yoo might beat him to the office.
As the man approached the downtown area, he began to notice people making their way through the snow. Yoo’s studio apartment wasn’t very far away from where he was. Last spring, the man and several other deputy section heads had been there, drinking into the night. The relatively new studio apartment had been clean and its interior luxurious. How much is a place like this? What’s the actual floor space? They’d asked these questions while looking around the apartment. I wish Ilived alone in a place like this, the man had murmured, drunk. Even then, Yoo had been frowned at for worrying about going to work as they emptied one bottle after another.
The driveway of the apartment building had been swept clean, probably because it was in the downtown area. The man pressed the apartment number at the front door, and waited for Yoo to answer. It was ringing and ringing but no one picked up. He can’t be home. The man prayed with all his heart that Yoo hadn’t gone very far. He pressed the call button several times while having a cigarette break, but Yoo wasn’t answering the phone.
What’s keeping you so long? A text message from his section head had arrived. It was already two p.m. The man grabbed the shovel and worked it mechanically. He cleared the snow faster and faster. But he was just as quickly getting tired out. While he was taking a break sitting in the snow, he felt like lying down and taking a nap. At that moment, the snow didn’t feel hard or cold. Instead, it simply felt like a wooden bench in a park. It even felt as cosy as a cotton comforter that it made him want to dig forever into it. Squatting down, the man nodded off, until the chill woke him with a start.
The man’s shovel hit a bundle of waste paper. The frozen paper bundle was as heavy as rock. The man began shovelling it away when a Chinese restaurant leaflet fell from between the sheets and landed on his shoes. The palm-sized leaflet had pictures of three kinds of food printed on it: jjajangmyeon, jjamppong, and fried rice. The black and red colours of the food couldn’t have looked more vivid against the white snow. The man realized that he had been shovelling through breakfast and lunch. Slowly, the smells of jjajangmyeon and jjamppong rose inside his head. They were the kind of flavours that filled him with a wistful longing, as though he hadn’t tasted them for a long time. His mouth began to water. He felt that eating a large bowl of jjajangmyeon would give him enough strength to make it to the office. When it comes right down to it, we all work for food. He took out his phone, as if possessed.
He doubted that they could deliver, but dialled the number anyway, thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to try. As it was taking a long time to get through, he was convinced that they would never pick up the phone. He felt as though he was making this call to confirm that he couldn’t have jjajangmyeon. So the man was struck speechless when a deep voice said, “Hello.” Not until there was another “Hello?” did he manage to ask, “Is this a Chinese restaurant?”
“Yes, this is Jinseonggak restaurant.”
“Can you deliver now by any chance?”
“What’s your address?” asked the owner of the Chinese restaurant casually, as if he had no idea that the city had been covered in snow. My address is . . . The man looked around. “I’m not in a building. I’m on a street. Can you still deliver? . . . There’s a hospital and a real estate agency around here.”
“Oh, I know where that is. Yes, we can deliver. One large bowl of jjajangmyeon? OK.”
The man hung up the phone, but stood blankly. His stomach was growling. Only this hunger felt real, whereas the whole conversation he’d just had over the phone felt like a joke. While he was waiting for the delivery, time was piling up on his shoulders instead of passing him by. At this rate, he felt as though his shoulders were going to snap under the weight. He looked around him. With no cars and the stores closed, the city was silent. There was no sound of an approaching motorcycle carrying jjajangmyeon. Will the jjajangmyeon really come? He took out his phone to see how much time had passed. There is no way they can deliver through this snow. He took a handful of snow and put it into his mouth, only to spit it out. He thought he must be crazy to stand there waiting.
Then a person wearing a helmet appeared at the end of an alley to the right, effortlessly shovelling away the frozen snow as if it were light, soft flour. His movements were as flexible and rhythmical as if he were rowing. As a result, the distance to the man closed quickly. “Fast Delivery” was written on the helmet. The delivery man with the helmet saw him and raised his right hand high up in the air. The man just blinked, unable to believe his eyes. As the writing on the helmet declared, the delivery was indeed fast and accurate.
The delivery man put down his metal delivery box and took off his helmet. Surprisingly, he turned out to be a middle-aged man with greying hair. His shoulders and shoes were covered in snow. “Once you’re done eating, just throw away the bowl.”
“Amazing. You deliver under these conditions?”
“Snow or not, I’ve got a living to make.”
As soon as he handed over the bowl, the delivery man put his helmet back on and strode away. A coupon had been left neatly on top of the bowl.
He split the disposable chopsticks with his frozen hands, ending up with two uneven halves. The smell of the jjajangsauce and the warmth of the disposable bowl were so vivid that they almost felt surreal. The man sniffled as he held the chopsticks and proceeded to mix the sauce with the noodles. Eating the jjajangmyeonwhile awkwardly standing up, the man wondered if he was on The Truman Show with the world watching him, not because he was a celebrity worth watching but because they simply wanted to have fun laughing at a random guy doing stupid things in a panicked situation. If that was actually the case, the man thought that he was doing a great job of meeting their expectations. After all, he was juggling between using his chopsticks and wiping his runny nose with the back of his hand, and in so much of a hurry to devour the entire bowl that he dropped one of the chopsticks in the process. He searched the snow in vain, and eventually ended up scraping the remaining jjajangmyeon into his mouth using the other stick. In any event, the bowl was emptied clean. There wasn’t time to feel shame or self-pity.
There was about one-third of the way left to the office. He had ignored a text message from his section head and a call from his department head. He had also refused to take a call from his wife, although for a completely different reason. He just shoveled. He just walked. When he took a break, he would slowly look around the street, stretching his back and turning his head from left to right. Although he had ignored the phone calls, his desire to talk to someone had never been stronger.
There was an unlit convenience store across from him. On seeing the store sign, the man felt like drinking one of those hot cans of coffee. Things that used to be part of daily life not long ago were now buried in the snow and out of reach. A snowman as tall as the man stood in front of the convenience store. It had round eyes and a smiling mouth. The man paused to look at it. A snowman with a smiling face standing in a world where snow was wreaking havoc and causing life to fall apart felt like an ironic joke. The man imitated that smile in spite of himself. His dry lips cracked with blood.
As he continued ploughing ahead, his shovel hit something hard again. With no time to lose, he hurriedly pushed the shovel down with his foot, but the blade wouldn’t go in any deeper. He put his shovel in a different spot, about a meter away. But again it stuck. Not a toppled-over newspaper stand or bicycle, but something much larger seemed to be buried. He turned to the side to dig. Then the sound of music came from somewhere, like an echo. It was a song by a woman with a faint voice, and the melody sounded familiar. The man stopped for a while to listen closely. Though a ringtone, it was still the first music he’d heard that day. His phone vibrated in his pocket, but the man ignored it. The music had stopped, but it resumed when the man started clearing snow again. It was the same melody as before and growing louder the more snow he cleared. The man worked his shovel, following the sound rather than the path. It wasn’t until he’d wiped away the snow with his hands that he located the source of the sound. It was the cell phone of someone buried in the snow, and it happened to be frozen stiff inside suit pants.
The man knelt down and started digging out the snow with his shovel and hands. There emerged from the snow black shoes, feet, and woollen suit pants, in that order. Sniffling, the man carefully dug through the snow with his frozen hands. Steam streamed out of his mouth. The person’s suit jacket and white shirt were frozen stiff with their creases intact. His dark red silk tie was frozen solid, like caked blood. Both of his hands were clutching snow, hiding his fingers from sight. It looked like he was curled up in a ball, and part of his upper body was still buried in the snow. The thickness of the snow layer indicated that snow had continued to fall on top of him even after he had fallen down.
The sun was going down fast. The man was cold but his face sweaty. Wiping away the drops trickling down his face, he carefully cleared away the snow. His hands were shaking as if digging up an ancient relic. He exposed shoulders, a neck, and then a bespectacled face. The man was going to try to check for a pulse, when he sank to the ground. It was Yoo, who had been neither at home nor answering the phone. Hey. The man shook Yoo’s body. A bead of sweat fell from his chin. Wake up. The familiar melody played again on the phone. Hey! The man’s voice calling out to Yoo trembled. The man picked up Yoo’s phone and held it to his ear, but couldn’t say anything. Here, in the snow, I’ve found Yoo. Those words solidified into ice in the man’s mouth instead of coming out.
The sun had set, and dusk was falling. I think I can make it to the office if I keep shovelling like this for another hour or so. The man looked in the direction of his office. And he looked back at the path he had been digging. It would be quite a distance to go, whether moving forward or going all the way back. Besides, the man was much too exhausted. He crouched down beside Yoo and caught his breath. He was becoming drowsy, but opened his eyes wide to prevent himself from dozing off. The snow didn’t feel hard or cold but simply like a wooden bench in a park. Everything was crumpling before his eyes like crushed paper.
Translated by Soyoung Kim
Seo Yoo Mi came into the spotlight in 2007 when her novels Fantastic Ant Lion’s Pit and A Cool Step Forward won the Munhak Soochup Writers Award and the Changbi Award for Novel, respectively, in the same year. Other works include the novels Your Monster, Beginning of the End, and Holding Turn, the novella Crack, and the short story collections Temporarily Human and The Day Everybody Leaves.
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