- onOctober 17, 2016
- Vol.33 Autumn 2016
- bySong Sokze
She must make a choice now. Up ahead she can see a mailbox lettered with Kim Yosan’s pseudonym, “Kim Young-sun” and the address of River Village. Because postmen and deliverymen can’t go all the way out to River Village, Yosan built a mailbox here so they could leave mail and parcels inside.
If she turns toward River Village at the mailbox and walks into the mountains, the Mercedes might just leave. The trail looks so forbidding that it’s probably impossible for a high-end passenger car to drive on. But Sae-mi might cause an even bigger problem if she appears too interested in the mailbox. The men tailing her must not learn of River Village’s existence or, God forbid, ever go there. Never ever.
But if she just passes by the mailbox and pretends she has nothing to do with it, the car will continue to tail her. She might get the chance to ask drivers in passing cars or tractors for help, though. This seems like the best choice. There’s no guarantee, however, that she will remain unmolested while walking along the road, and she will also have to endure terrible anxiety. What to do? If she had a cell phone, she could dial the emergency numbers 112 or 119 to ask for help, but she got rid of her phone a year and a half ago when she moved to River Village. She got rid of it out of the paranoia that her location might be tracked through her cell phone, but River Village is too remote to receive cellular signals anyway. The men riding in the Mercedes don’t know that Sae-mi doesn’t have a cell phone. That’s probably why they’ve been carefully following her all this time.
Sae-mi stops walking and fumbles through her pockets as if she’s searching for her phone. With her head bowed, she glances out the corner of one eye at the men seated within the car to gauge their reaction. The car stops. There is no reaction. The entire car is as dark as sunglass lenses, making it impossible to look inside.
Three men wearing sunglasses are seated inside the darkly tinted car. In the driver’s and front passenger-side seats are two men wearing identical Ray-Bans. The thick black frames ring large black lenses that completely shade their eyes, even from a head-on view. The two men wearing the same sunglasses are also dressed in identical suits of the same label. Like soldiers of the same squadron, their black shoes are also the same brand. They’re gangsters: gangbangers, racketeers, thugs, wiseguys, mafiosos, hoodlums, whatever you want to call them.
Sitting in the back seat is Yang Jung-mook, the head of the organization. Prosecutors commonly refer to such people as kingpins, but kingpins prefer the moniker, boss. The similar terms Oyabun and Big Brother aren’t used so often nowadays, but refer to the same thing, whatever you want to call it. Jungmook is wearing a silver-gray suit and light-brown Ferragamo shoes. He clearly stands out from his underlings who are clad in black from head to toe. He’s wearing Versace sunglasses. The thin silver frames are coated with a reflective material that’s even harder for light to penetrate than black-colored sunglasses. Between his lips is a long, thin cigarette as thin as his sunglass frames. With a gold Cartier watch on his wrist, he tries to light a cigarette with his Dunhill lighter. This simple action has been delayed for quite some time, on account of the doe-like girl.
“Nowadays it’s hard to even find natural beauties in the sticks.”
Picking up on Jung-mook’s interest in the girl, Choi Myongchol adds this commentary. Jung-mook had ordered his underlings to gather at training camp to work out while he and two of his men departed for a famous tofu restaurant operated by some grandmother. Although it wasn’t a restaurant in the true sense of the word, customers still came to enjoy her famous tofu, but when Jung-mook arrived, she told them to come back next time because she needed to harvest beans before she couldmake tofu. Jung-mook chuckled good-naturedly and was on his way back from the restaurant when he spied Sae-mi. A single car might not pass by for half-an-hour here in the middle of nowhere, but here of all places Jung-mook has spotted a girl much more delectable than tofu walking along a local road with just one lane in each direction. He commands his men to drive as slowly as possible behind her so he can feast his eyes upon her.
Myong-chol, the boss’s right-hand mind and trusted driver, likes to boast that his girlfriend, the madam of the hostess club Oh-Five, is hotter than most girls working at hostess clubs outside Seoul, although she’s not quite at the level of the girls at the hostess club Top10. According to Myong-chol, however, whether girls work at hostess clubs such as Top10 or clubs in the provinces, they’re almost all plastic beauties who’ve gone under the knife to improve their looks.
Most of the women walking on the side of the road in Taegang Township are old ladies who are in their seventies, on average, having worked in the fields for over fifty years, and the only young women out in the provinces that come to Jungmook’s mind are the virtuous brides from the Joseon Dynasty who followed their young husbands to the grave and were later commemorated with Pavilions of Feminine Virtue built in their honor. Along this country road fringed with pine trees, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see a ghost but he was surprised when he set eyes upon a rare natural beauty instead.
She has a pale white, oval-shaped face with a slightly abbreviated chin. Her face bears no traces of makeup, yet her eyebrows are neither too faint nor too heavy and can be seen clearly despite the distractions of the vast rural environment. Although her nose is a bit short, it looks cute because of its fullness at the tip, while her red lips are appropriately sized. Her breasts are neither big nor small and her buttocks are firm. Sufficiently tall, her flawless body achieves an overall harmony of form. Although Sae-mi looks like someone he’s seen before, he doesn’t recall having seen her on TV or in any magazines. In any case, she’s beautiful. Just perfect.
She’s carrying a basket and is wearing a gray-colored cap and tracksuit. The words SAN FRANCISCO are emblazoned across her chest. The numbers “1849” are embossed on the back of her tracksuit. Although she’s wearing clothing that covers her wrists and ankles, she would turn heads in the middle of summer wherever she went. Although maybe she wouldn’t look so out of place at an indoor roller-skating rink. Incidentally, there was a time when Jung-mook had liked the pop song, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Because he had learned English all by himself while in a juvenile detention center, he could at least make out the words San Francisco, despite not knowing the lyrics very well. Whenever tone-deaf singers sang this song at karaoke clubs, he would cry out “San Francisco!” unabashedly with them. Whenever he heard this song, Jungmook was reminded of a famous old gangster named Park Chol, who had retired and emigrated to somewhere deep in the Canadian Rockies. He also wondered about what would happen to him in his dotage, and felt a bit—just a tinge—of sadness. But this innocent song was ruined for him about ten years ago when it became the soundtrack for a TV drama about a couple having an affair. Whenever people heard this song, they would suddenly put on serious expressions as if they were the hero in the drama, making Jung-mook want to puke, so he stopped listening to the song. Many years passed. Time flows like water. It was time to forget about what he had disliked. Lee Sae-dong, sitting in the front passenger seat asked,
“Boss, are you thinking of putting her on a white platter and enjoying her slowly? You want me to catch her, Boss?”
Jung-mook lightly kicks the back of the passenger-side seat. “When you see wildflowers on the side of the road, do you pluck them all out and stick them in a vase in your room?”
Enough said. It wasn’t necessary to elaborate by saying things like, Don’t you know it’s much better to see flowers in bloom? And what about other people who’ll enjoy the sight? Do their eyes grow out of their asses? Silence is golden, and an absolute necessity for gang bosses in particular.
“I don’t grow stuff like flowers in my room, boss,” Sae-dong responds.
The boss doesn’t say anything.
Myong-chol turns around and says, “Sae-dong is raising a spider as big as his hand in his room, boss.”
“What kinda spider’s as big as your hand?”
As Myong-chol intended, Sae-dong reacts the wrong way to the boss’s exclamation. As Sae-dong turns his head to reply, specks of spittle fly from his mouth.
“Boss, I used to raise a baby turtle. It was only as big as my hand in the beginning. No matter how much I tried to feed it, it wouldn’t eat, so it croaked in just a week, boss. I was pissed off, so I went to the pet store and asked them about it, and they said the turtle got an eye infection, boss. When their eyes get infected, they go blind and can’t eat a thing, boss. That’s why the baby turtle starved to death.”
Myong-chol, quick to read the situation, tries to stop Sae- dong’s blabbering.
“Wahwah, I’m moved to tears . . . I can’t listen anymore. Enough already!”
“Wha—? Boss, the girl’s disappeared!”
While they were busy talking, the girl had vanished without a trace at a fork in the mountain trail that resembled the way virtuous girls during the Joseon-era would part their hair. The mountain trail ahead of them was only three to four meters wide and looked like a tractor could barely navigate it. In the center of the trail, the grass had grown tall over bumpy terrain, making it difficult to drive over as the ground would scrape the bottom of the chassis. Although Jung-mook’s car could raise its chassis as high as an SUV’s at the flip of a switch, he didn’t want the bottom of his Mercedes to get scratched.
“Maybe she went to take a piss.”
Weren’t you guys keeping a close eye on her? When you start flapping your traps you forget about everything else! But Jungmook simply vented inside his head, leaving these comments unexpressed.
“She disappeared all of a sudden, just like a ghost! There’s nowhere to hide around here, boss.”
Looking closely at the side of the road, Jung-mook’s eyes suddenly go wide, the way that blind Mr. Shim’s eyes must have opened wide when his vision was restored at the sight of his daughter Shim Cheong, who had cast herself into the sea as a sacrificial offering.
“What are those plants, I mean trees, growing next to the road over there?”
“I think they’re weeds, boss.”
“Not those, but the plants next to them . . . they’re not weeds or trees . . . maybe they’re hemp?”
“Boss, how can those weeds be as tall as trees? Those weeds have no shame, boss. By the way, what’s hemp, boss?”
“Hemp is related to Cannabis, which is related to marijuana. Get out of the car and go pick some. And also go see if that girl rolled down the hill or what.”
After instructing Myong-chol to park the car on the side of the road, Jung-mook lights a cigarette. After Myong-chol and Sae-dong get out of the car and enter the brush, Jung-mook lowers the windows. He’s able to recognize hemp thanks to the gang bosses he worked under as a teenager. As the youngest in his gang, he was often sent by his Big Brothers to cut down the hemp growing by the railroad tracks so they could smoke it. In those days, finding enough to eat was a challenge. But they were so loyal to each other that they would even share single beans. They used their fists and looked down on those who merely postured. They also didn’t know much about drugs. Whenever they got hold of some, they just tried a little bit. To them, people who produced marijuana or crystal meth to sell weren’t really gangsters, but two-bit peddlers. Back in the day, they were always hungry, but at least they had their pride. Jung-mook was no ignoramus, however. Although he dropped out of middle school, he completed his formal middle and high school studies by diligently preparing for the GED while imprisoned in a juvenile detention center.
As Jung-mook exhales long puffs of smoke, all he can see is a swarm of dragonflies hovering above the mountains, rice paddies, fields, weeds, and brush in his field of vision. Dragonflies occupy the top of the amphibious insect food chain, and as larvae they eat larval mosquitoes, midges, mayflies, tadpoles, and small fry. When fully mature, they grow wings and use their excellent vision and mobility to devour adult mosquitoes, midges, and mayflies. But eventually dragonflies have to land.
“Fly fly dragonfly, dragonfly fly by me.” He can recall the childhood song he used to sing that was supposed to help catch dragonflies. When they finally landed on foxtails or laundry lines, they were caught by children and killed. Once covered by insect nets dragonflies had their wings mercilessly crumpled between children’s fingers before they were injected with alcohol to preserve their bodies as specimens to be mounted in an insect collection. To sit is to die.
Jung-mook couldn’t catch dragonflies. He was unable to. It seemed like he would squash their bodies and wings if he grabbed them, and he wasn’t interested in catching squashed dragonflies. Once he realized he couldn’t catch them, he stopped trying. But he could still possess them. All he had to do was take them from kids who were good at catching them. Jung-mook had the talent of being able to take away other kids’ dragonflies by just making a fist and scowling. Once Jung-mook realized this, he no longer needed to worry about catching dragonflies. He converted dragonflies into other goods. POGs, balls, boxing gloves... or was it a baseball glove that he got first? Marbles, POGs, dragonflies, balls, baseball gloves, baseball bats, boxing gloves... and finally, money. Once a baseball bat and boxing gloves came into his possession, Jung-mook accumulated other children’s belongings at a greatly accelerated pace. His range of juvenile victims also broadened considerably.
Although Jung-mook wasn’t a dragonfly, ever since he became a gangster, he has never stayed in one place for long. His life has been an itinerant one. It goes without saying that he’s never owned a house and he’s also never been married. If he needs a house, he can borrow one or simply steal one and then sell it when he’s done with it. He deals with women the same way. He might live with a woman for a while and then send her away when he gets tired of her. He’s never done that to his children, but that’s because he doesn’t have any. He has a family, though. The toughs who follow him wherever he goes are his family. As in the case of other gangsters, the men with whom one controls a region, an industry, or an era are called one’s family.
“Hmmm, where did this chick run off to? Just a moment ago it looked like she was going to pull out her cell phone, but then she disappeared into thin air just like a dog fart. Phew, it is really fucking hot out here in the country.”
Once out of his boss’s earshot, Sae-dong begins to bake under the oppressive heat while looking around.
“You’ve got to hand it to our boss. He’s got a sharp eye for anything pretty or delicious. Never misses an opportunity. He’s a true genius. If there’s a Nobel Prize gourmet category the boss is sure to win it.”
“Hey shithead, the Nobel Prize is something that’s traded between the world’s big-time gangsters, so why worry about something that’s none of our business? Hurry up and find the chick or the cannabis, whichever comes first, and we’ll be done here.”
Translated by Peter Jun Go
Song Sokze is a poet and novelist. His short story collection The Amusing Life is set to be published by Dalkey Archive Press at the end of 2016. His works have been translated into English, Chinese, French, and German. He has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Dongin Literary Award, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. His short story “The Man Who Writes Stories” was adapted into a Korean movie titled Dance with the Wind.