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FICTION

Spectators

  • onOctober 18, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byYoon Sunghee
Spectators
2010
309pp.

As soon as he saw that the van had flipped over, Younger Uncle hated himself for what he’d said about his mother’s cooking that morning. His ex-girlfriend was right after all; when she left him, she said, “You don’t know how to sugarcoat anything.”

“Mom, are you okay?” he yelled toward the van. But his words got buried under the screams coming from up the road and didn’t reach the van. He thought: If something happens to Mom, I’m going to starve myself and die. As he crawled toward the van, he had a gut feeling that his right leg was broken. “Is everyone all right?” he screamed.

There had been no fog when they left. After the family ate the soybean paste stew Nana made, they did rock-paper-scissors to see who would do the dishes. Everyone threw rock except for Auntie. Auntie, who threw scissors, refused to do the dishes, saying they had rigged the whole thing when she had been in the bathroom. But when Nana rolled up her sleeves and said, “Why don’t I just do them then?” my shocked aunt dashed up to the sink.

Father gazed at the tourist map that was hanging on the wall and said, “There’s a Buddhist temple nearby. Should we go?” Mother said a temple was bound to have an important artifact, and that it was their duty as parents to take a picture of their child beside it. So we all went. Nana, who was embarrassed to be seen in the bathroom slippers she had taken from our lodgings, didn’t want to get out of the van, but I said, “But Nana, I really want to take a picture with you.” We stood in a row and scooped up the mineral water from the temple fountain. As she drank the water, Nana was glad she had listened to me and stroked my hair.

At the temple entrance, Grandmother bought Japanese cornelian cherries. “What’s that for?” I said, popping one she handed me into my mouth. “You’re supposed to boil it and drink it. It’s good for enuresis,” Grandmother said. “What’s enuresis?” She explained that it was bedwetting. I spat it out. “I don’t wet my bed!” The color of my spit was red. Father said that he would never go on a family trip again unless my uncles got their licenses as well. Younger Uncle asked why he should get another license when he already had one. At that, Father said, “You think you can drive a van big enough to carry the whole family with your regular Class II license?” Older Uncle was going to say he had a motorcycle license, but held back. “Both of you—” Just as Father was about to launch into a tirade, Auntie interjected, “Then I’ll get one. The kind where you can drive a ton of people. After all, someone needs to know how to drive a bus for when we get married and have kids.”

Nana looked at her watch and thought she could be back in time to open her restaurant, at least for the afternoon. The watch she had on was an old one Mother had used during her schoolgirl days. After Mother had gotten married, Nana had found it inside Mother’s empty vanity drawer. When Nana kept checking the time, Mother suggested going for some sashimi before heading home. “Now that you mention it, we should have seafood if we’ve come all the way here.” At Grandfather’s words, Father headed toward the pier. The pier was crowded with people who had come to eat. It took over half an hour just to get into the parking lot, and Father, who wasn’t used to driving such a big car, scratched the bumper of the car in the next spot as he was trying to park. After he found the car owner and handed over a hundred thousand won to fix the bumper, there wasn’t even thirty thousand won left in his wallet. It was then that he realized he had spent too much on the trip. “Let’s just have sashimi at home.” He said it was a waste of money to pay three thousand won per person just to be able to sit in a restaurant. “Three times nine is twenty-seven. We could buy another halibut with that money.” Grandmother, who hated crowds, saw the lineup to the women’s bathroom that was more than ten meters long and took Father’s side right away. But Father, who had said he could buy more fish if they didn’t eat at the restaurant, bought a single rockfish. “Why are you buying just one? Don’t you know how many people there are?” asked Older Uncle. Father said he didn’t like halibut. In the end, it was Older Uncle who bought the halibut. “Why don’t you get a sea squirt, too? You know Mother likes them,” said Father, thumping Older Uncle on the shoulders while he paid.

In his more than ten years of driving experience, he had never seen a car’s brake lights loom so big. That’s what Father told the insurance company representative who came to the hospital. He’d thought that the car in front had been backing up. Even while slamming on the brakes, he knew that it was too late. His right tire popped and the van spun once. At that moment, Older Uncle, with his arms crossed over his chest, had been staring at the back of Father’s head, resolving not to give him even a bite of the halibut. Younger Uncle was smoking with his head sticking out the window. I was playing Twenty Questions with Auntie. The moment she asked, “Does it move?” everyone was swept to the right. Instead of smashing into the car in front, our van crashed into the guardrail and flipped over. My head banged into Auntie’s. I saw Younger Uncle get thrown out the window. The van slid down the hill upside down. The change from Father’s pant pockets slipped out and pelted him in the forehead. A coin was stuck to his cheek, but he couldn’t move his hand. All he could think was that they could have avoided the accident if they had eaten at the restaurant.

“Is everyone all right?” Grandfather’s voice came from the back. “Answer me! Grandson?” “Uh,” I said. I wanted to say, Yes, I’m okay, but I’d bitten my tongue and had trouble speaking. Grandfather called each of his children in order from the oldest to the youngest. “Number one, you okay?” Father said he was fine. “Number two?” “Here,” said Older Uncle. “Number three?” When Younger Uncle didn’t reply, Grandfather called again, “Number three?” Just then, from far away, I heard Younger Uncle’s voice. “Number three, is that you?” Grandfather shouted. “Yes, I’m okay!” said Younger Uncle. “Go get help!” Grandfather cried. Younger Uncle picked up a broken branch and clambered up the road, using it like a cane. “Number four, are you okay?” Grandfather asked, but Auntie said she couldn’t really tell. “My head hurts, but Dad, shouldn’t you first check if Mom’s okay?” “Your mom’s fine. She’s holding my hand right now.”

Father, who was staring dumbly out the cracked windshield from the driver’s seat, realized right then what a pathetic husband and son-in-law he was. “Honey, are you okay? And Mother, how about you?” My mother didn’t reply. All of a sudden, Father became afraid. “Honey, I’m sorry! If we had eaten at the restaurant like you said, we wouldn’t have gotten in this accident. I’ll listen to everything you say from now on.” He started to cry. When I heard him cry, I suddenly grew afraid. I started to cry, too. “Don’t cry. We’re okay,” Mother said, her voice thin and shaking. Nana then said, “Don’t cry, Baby. Nana’s still here.” That instant, I wanted to confess to her that I had wet my pants. I mumbled “enuresis” ten times, the word Grandmother had taught me.

When Younger Uncle climbed up the road and saw people sprawled along the shoulder, he didn’t even feel the pain in his right leg anymore. All the cars he could see were tangled up in the accident. He guessed it was the same story for the parts of the road that were shrouded by fog. The fire that had started from the explosion of a truck’s fuel tank was spreading from car to car because of the wind. The news that night reported that there had been 15 deaths and 52 injured in the 39-vehicle pile-up. Younger Uncle cried out to the people watching the cars burst into flames for help.

Grandfather said we shouldn’t move until Younger Uncle returned. “You have to be very careful. Or you could become disabled for the rest of your life.” Grandfather had wanted to become a firefighter when he was a boy. But an ever dutiful son, he had never told Great-grandmother about his dream. He called each person’s name without stopping. To Grandmother in this moment, he had never felt so dependable. Until this incident, she had regretted, every time she looked at him, her decision to marry a man who couldn't even kill a cockroach. It was on their honeymoon when they had gone to a nearby hot springs that she’d discovered he was a coward. After making arrangements to meet again at the entrance in an hour, Grandmother had gone into the women’s pool and Grandfather had gone into the men’s. Perhaps ten minutes later, Grandmother’s name was announced, saying that her husband was waiting outside. Grandmother got dressed again without having dried herself properly. “What’s the matter?” she asked. Grandfather said that there were men with tattoos who looked like members of a gang in the men’s pool. “I’m scared. I can’t go in.” She still remembered his trembling voice. But she now turned her head and looked at him. Blood flowed from a cut on his forehead. “Your forehead,” she said. “It’s nothing. I’m fine,” he said.

 

 

Nana squeezed her eyes shut and tried to picture the sunrise she had seen that morning. She wanted to try making a wish again. But instead of seeing the sun come up, she heard the voice of the girl who had said that it was a trip only if you knew you were going back home. Mother became convinced that we needed to have a family picture taken when we got back home. I’m going to get rid of that grandfather clock and hang the family picture there, she thought. For some reason, she didn’t like the grandfather clock. Every time the clock struck, she held her breath and counted the number of times it struck. She would then feel as though the day had passed much too quickly. In high school, she had once stolen a portrait from the photo studio located in front of her bus stop. It had been a family portrait of the class president, but because it was displayed in the window at the studio entrance, all those getting on and off the bus could see it. If she remembered correctly, the portrait hung in the same spot for three years. When the class president’s father passed away, he asked the studio owner to take it down. The owner refused. “That’s why I offered to take your family portrait for free. If you want it, first bring me the money for the photo.” After hearing the story, the students in Mother’s class decided to meet at the bus stop at midnight. One girl brought her brother’s dumbbell. As they were about to break the window with the dumbbell, a boy with the nickname of Edison shouted, “Wait!” from across the street. Not a single car was on the road, but still he waited for the “walk” sign to come on. Beside Edison stood a man who looked exactly like him. “This is my dad!” Edison’s father removed a ring of keys from his pocket. In less than a minute, he had the photo studio’s door open. “By the way, my dad’s not a thief,” Edison said. As Mother returned the family portrait to the class president, she said shyly, “I don’t have a father, either.” But her words didn’t comfort him in any way.

Father wanted to fall asleep with his hands between his legs, like the time he was trapped inside the icebox. His eyes kept closing, but each time, Grandfather cried, “Number one, are you okay?” Older Uncle remembered the time he had wondered what it would feel like to fall from a rooftop. But now he prayed, I won’t ever think of doing anything like that again. He suddenly wanted to see the little girl in the pink pajamas. Only if he hadn’t sent her away, she would have come along on the trip with them. Then she would have flitted here and there, looking after the whole family. Auntie felt as though she had once heard a story like this on the radio. She pictured herself writing a letter, saying that her entire family was in an accident, but that no one was hurt. What should the first sentence be? Should I say that my dead grandmother appeared to me in a dream? She shook her head. That’s such a cliché. As for me, my mouth kept filling up with saliva. Every time I swallowed, I tasted blood. I wanted to spit, but I couldn’t because my face was on Auntie’s shoulder. A few days later, as Auntie was getting discharged from the hospital before me, she said that her shoulder got warm every time I’d breathed out. And that had filled her with relief.

At last the ambulances arrived. The firefighters ran like mad. Younger Uncle followed them, hopping on one foot with his right foot in the air. “Please, help!” A firefighter turned and looked at Uncle. “Hold on. There are people who are in more serious condition than you.” Uncle thrust the branch he’d been holding into the ground and then hopped off his left foot with all his might. He had thought to leap like a pole-vaulter, but the branch snapped under his weight and he collapsed on the ground. The firefighter stopped running and looked back at him in surprise. Uncle quickly grabbed hold of his legs. “Look down there, there’s a van,” he said. The firefighter saw the van at the bottom of the hill.

As he was watching the evening news, Mr. Kim caught a glimpse of a van getting towed away with one of its sides completely crumpled. When he tried to make out the license plate, the scene changed to a tangled wreckage of cars with everything charred but the frames. He turned off the television. He finished the rest of his instant noodles, making sure to chew thirty times so that he wouldn’t get indigestion. When he was in university, he had learned about the death of his best friend on the news. At the time, he had been eating jjajangmyeon at a pool hall. The television set that hung from the ceiling told of how a man in his twenties had been stabbed to death in broad daylight. For a long time, the screen showed a white chalk line on the asphalt in the shape of a body. As though someone had gone around the body with white paint. He imagined what it must have felt like to lie there. He thought how his own body might fit inside. Because the right arm was stretched up, the chalk line looked like a sketch of a robot flying up into space. Although the news soon moved on to the next story, Mr. Kim continued to stare at the television set. Much later, he found himself still holding his bowl in his left hand and wooden chopsticks in his right. He used his chopsticks to pick up the cold, swollen noodles that had stuck together in one big clump. He took a bite. It didn’t taste like anything. After that day, he could no longer eat jjajangmyeon. If he were to even think about it, there was a nauseating smell of pork fat in his nostrils and he felt bloated like he had indigestion. That was why he first finished his instant noodles before checking to see if the crumpled van on television had indeed been the company van. Because being filled with a sense of guilt at the sight of instant noodles would be a terrible fate for a bachelor. After he finished eating, Mr. Kim threw open the living room and kitchen windows and did the dishes with the wind hitting him head on. He then called the news station and asked for the van’s license plate. The reporter told him that he couldn’t check the plate number, but could tell him the names of those who had lost their lives or been injured.

Father wasn’t at the hospital that the reporter mentioned. At the thought that Father could be burned beyond recognition, Mr. Kim waited until the patient finished receiving emergency care. It was only when the nurse asked if he was the husband that he realized the patient was a woman. “Please notify her parents. I’m sorry, but I don’t know if she’ll make it past tonight.” At these words, Mr. Kim got up from his seat, saying that he needed to use the restroom. He approached the crowd of people outside the emergency room and asked which other hospitals the injured from the pile-up had been sent to. He learned they had been sent to a total of five different hospitals. He managed to find Father at the fourth hospital.

Three stitches in the forehead was the only treatment Father received. He thought he had fractured his right shoulder, but he had simply dislocated it. Mr. Kim confessed that he had hoped Father would get a flat tire when Father had criticized him for the shoddy state of the company van. “I must’ve been crazy!” He beat his chest with his fist. If the right tire hadn’t popped, the van would not have hit the guardrail. Then the van would have collided head on with the freight truck in front. Behind the van was a sedan, carrying a newlywed couple who had been married two months. Behind them was a speeding 10-ton truck. While the van rolled down the hill, the two trucks crushed the newlyweds’ sedan, crumpling it like a piece of paper. Flames shot up from the freight truck and spread to the sedan. The bodies of the newlyweds were so badly burned that it was impossible to distinguish the husband from the wife. “So because of the flat tire, we’re still alive,” Father said.

Mr. Kim went around the hospital rooms, thanking each family member for having survived. The family had been separated. When Grandfather complained, asking why the family had been split up, the nurse gave him an earful. “What a thing to complain about. You should count your blessings! There are more than five people who don’t even know if they’re going to make it through the night.” When he heard these words, Grandfather realized what a miracle it was for him and his family to be alive. Although he had never been a religious man, he went up to the hospital rooftop and yelled toward the sky, “Thank you!”

Older Uncle and Younger Uncle were at a different hospital. While the firefighter pulled each person out of the van—the same firefighter whose legs Younger Uncle had grabbed—Grandfather had said more than five times, “Please send us to the same hospital!” But he hadn’t replied. After a fire killed four of his fellow firefighters, he no longer made promises lightly. He never said things like, “Everything will be fine. Just trust me.” Mr. Kim wanted to see my uncles as well. So Father and Mr. Kim took a cab to the hospital where my uncles had been admitted. It was the first hospital that Mr. Kim had gone to.

Older Uncle thought that if the passenger seat hadn’t caught on fire from Auntie’s candles, he would have been sitting in that seat. Whenever Father drove, he always sat in the passenger seat and read the map for Father or flipped through the radio channels or changed the cassette tapes. Older Uncle was the last to be pulled from the van. The firefighter pointed at the passenger seat that was completely caved in and asked, “No one was sitting there?” When Uncle shook his head, the firefighter said, “That’s a miracle right there.” That’s why the first thing he said to Mr. Kim was, “I’m sorry. We set fire to the passenger seat by accident. But if that hadn’t happened, I would have died.” Mr. Kim sat on the bed and told my uncles how the coffee stain had gotten on the seat. He told them how upset he would get every time he saw the stain, because it made him think of his ex-girlfriend. Once he’d almost run over a boy crossing the street because he hadn’t even seen the crosswalk. “So I’m glad you burned the seat up,” he said.

*

“Is there nothing exciting going on in the world?” Nana asked the reporter who had come to cover our story. “I mean, what’s so special about people like us?” To Nana, making it out alive from an overturned car did not count as a miracle. One of Nana’s regular customers had been run over by a truck without suffering any broken bones. There was even one who had canceled his ten-year wedding anniversary trip with his wife because she had gotten in a car accident, but a terrorist bomb explosion had broken out at the hotel where they would have stayed; dozens of hotel guests suffered casualties. “Do you want to hear about the man who almost died when he fell in wet cement?” She had told me this story three times. For ten years, he had always come alone to have his pork hocks and two bottles of soju, but he had stopped coming one day. I wanted to ask her if she had liked him, but I didn’t.

The reporter asked Nana if a thousand-won bill she spent ever came back to her. “How are you supposed to know that? It’s not like you write your name on money,” said Auntie whose bed was next to Nana’s. “My parents did. They actually wrote their names on a thousand-won bill.” When the reporter started to tell the story, Nana made her way over to Auntie’s bed. The reporter said, “My grandfather was against them marrying. And my father wasn’t brave enough to go against my grandfather. When my father was young, he was almost run over by a car, but Grandpa threw himself in the way. That’s how he got his limp. So he reminded my father how he got his limp, and at those words, my father gave my mother up.” Everyone in the hospital room stood up and listened to the reporter. “As they were breaking up, my father realized he’d never even given my mother a ring. You see, they had nothing to give back to each other. Right then, my mother took out a thousand-won bill from her wallet. She wrote her name on it. Then she told my father to write his name on it.” That thousand-won bill, with their names written on it, went into the can of the homeless person who was begging in front of the park. That night, the homeless man bought himself some noodles with the money and the noodle shop owner gave it as change to a man who had come to Seoul from the city of P on business. After that for three years, the thousand-won bill circled the city of P. “My father went on a trip to P and found that thousand-won bill. He paid a road toll and got it back as change. If it weren’t for that thousand-won bill, I wouldn’t have been born.”

After hearing the reporter’s story, Nana took out a brush from her bag and brushed her hair. “Hmm, all right then. If you’re going to take our picture, the least you can do is take a nice one.” As though he were self-conscious about the wound on his forehead, Father kept covering his forehead with his hair. Just as the reporter was about to take our picture, he cocked his head and asked, “But didn’t you say there were nine people in total?” “Oh, you didn’t know?” said Father. “They’re at another hospital.” The reporter scrawled something in his notebook and muttered, “Why couldn’t they keep the whole family together at the same hospital?” When he heard these words, Grandfather shouted, “We’ve got to count our blessings!” The shocked reporter dropped his pen. He had bought the pen to commemorate passing his employment entrance exam. It was the first gift he had ever bought himself and he had even gone so far as to get it gift-wrapped for five-thousand won. He had held onto it until the first day of work and as soon as he was assigned a desk, he sat down and unwrapped it. He then resolved to always chase the latest news, enough to need a new pair of shoes every month. It was because of that resolve that he refused to cover the story at all when Grandmother suggested he just take a picture of the seven of us.

“You could take a picture of the other two later and then attach it beside our picture.”

“But I’m receiving IV treatment right now.”

“Why don’t you bring those two over here instead?”

“We should go there. They broke their legs, remember?”

“I really think it’s so weird that our story is newsworthy.”

“What newspaper did you say you were from again?”

While the whole family clamored, the reporter sent a text message. Shortly after, his phone beeped as a text came in. After reading the message, a smile spread across his face. “It’s not everyday you get to take a family picture with everyone in a hospital gown.” At the reporter’s words, we all nodded.

That’s why we all ended up going to the uncles’ hospital. We climbed into the reporter’s van. “I told myself I’d never get in a van again,” said Grandfather as he climbed in. Younger Uncle’s right leg was broken and Older Uncle’s left leg was broken. My two uncles, who were in wheelchairs, positioned themselves in the center and the entire family stood around them. I stood between my uncles. The bruise on my forehead had spread down to my eyes, making me look like a panda bear. So I made a V sign with my fingers and covered my eyes with my other hand. The reporter cried, “One, two, three!”

The next morning Grandfather paced the hospital lobby waiting for the newspaper to be delivered. He borrowed a pair of scissors from the nurse and cut out our picture. He then folded it and put it in his wallet. But he never took it out again to look at it, not once while he was alive. It was the first and last family picture we ever took. 

 

Translated by Janet Hong

Author's Profile

Yoon Sunghee has written five short story collections and one novel. She has received the Today’s Young Artists Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, Hwang Sun-Won Literary Award, and Hyundae Literary Award. Her book Spectators is currently being translated into Chinese and Spanish.