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FICTION

Armbands

  • onMarch 25, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byYun Heunggil
Armbands
Tr. Lee Chang-soo
2011
319pp.

 

It was quite a sight to behold, the way Jongsool swaggered around the village, all puffed-up with self-importance. He had been at it since early spring that year. No resident in the village of Igokri would dare get in his face about it because they were well aware of his nasty temper and what would happen to them if they messed with him. They would just keep their distance and be content with shaking their fists or sticking out their tongues at him behind his back. Oblivious to all the sneering and jeering behind his back, Jongsool continued to strut around with the pomposity of a king on his throne.

There was a big gulf between the opinion Jongsool held of himself and what the other villagers thought of him. Jongsool acted as though he had gone overnight from a lowly magpie to a majestic hawk. In the eyes of the others, though, the transformation didn’t get him past being a dipper at best, and the general consensus was that he had been a far better man when he had been in the “magpie” stage.

This is how Jongsool had ended up being the watchman of the Pangum Reservoir, a body of water surrounded by three villages—Igokri, Angjookri and Bupgyeri.

“We must find a watchman for the reservoir no later than today,” Choi said emphatically, edging his butt away from where he had been sitting on the heated floor. The area was near the furnace, and it was burning hot.

“I know, but . . .” Igokri’s village head Iksam murmured with a troubled expression. Choi was his distant uncle. Iksam had been at great pains to keep that relationship under wraps from the other villagers for fear of the damage it could do to his reputation, but it was an open secret.

“But what?” Choi pressed.

“I’ve scouted around nearby, but the right person hasn’t shown up.”

“That’s because you’re waiting for someone to show up out of the blue. You gotta put everything else aside and hit the streets looking for possible candidates.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing these days? The problem is no one is willing to work for the wage you’re offering.”

“Then, are you going to handle the job yourself? It’s not just the residents here. Think about all the anglers who’ll flock here come spring, looking for water choked with fish. Are you sure you can keep them from poaching on your own?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s just that I’m at my wit’s end, and I just can’t keep sighing.”

“Why the hell keep the floor so hot, wasting coal? It ain’t cheap!” Choi said with a huff, still shifting his butt around on the floor.

His task of finding a watchman would be a whole lot easier, Iksam thought to himself, if his penny-pinching uncle was willing to up the wage a little bit. He was angling for an opportunity to tell his uncle as much when the door creaked open and his wife padded in with a small low table laden with liquor.

“I heard about a bum in this village who’s a real fishing nut,” Choi said out of the blue, without so much a glance at the table his nephew’s wife was setting down beside him.

“What’s this guy’s name?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Wai? Did you know ‘wai’ is a blanket in Japanese?”

“Ok, ok, I got it. His name is Jongsool. Jongsool Lim.”

“What kind of clown is he?”

Iksam gave a wry grin in response and turned to his wife standing uncertainly in the corner, shooting her a look, telling her to leave.

“Well, I’d characterize him as a man without a single unlikable thing about him, however hard you try to find one. He doesn’t have any land to farm. He has no nest egg to start a business of his own. His bloated ego wouldn’t allow him to hire on as a day laborer. So, he’s just content to let his old mother cook for him and spends his days sitting on the embankment with his fishing line in the water as if he were on some kind of relaxing vacation without a care in the world . . .”

“‘A man without a single unlikable thing about him.’ What an apt expression to refer to a sleazebag like that!” Choi said with a grin. Iksam smirked, too, at the absurdity of the description.

“Does he have the grit to make him worthwhile?”

“Gritty doesn’t begin to describe him. He grew up drifting around from town to town and getting into fights. Many times he nearly beat the hell out of me for trying to stop him from fishing in the reservoir.”

“Perfect!” Choi blurted out, slapping a palm on his knee.

Iksam’s small eyes went wide at the sudden vehemence in his uncle’s voice.

“That’s the man I’ve been looking for. Bring him over to me at once.”

“But that’s just letting the fox guard the henhouse. You don’t know the risks you’d be taking by putting him in charge of guarding the reservoir . . .”

“That only proves you’re still far from being in my league. I didn’t win my sixty years in the lottery. So shut the hell up and bring him over right now.”

Iksam’s jaw dropped and stayed that way for a moment as he suddenly caught on to what wicked scheme his stingy uncle was up to. He called out to his oldest son through the closed door.

“Taepoong isn’t back home from school, yet,” came back the voice of his oldest daughter, Hwasoon.

“Then, you scoot over to Jongsool and tell him I want to see him right now.”

Choi had been a farmer in his previous life. He used to own quite a few acres of farmland near the City of Iri. When an industrial park came to that area, he sold the land for a big windfall profit. With the hefty nest egg in his hand, his latent business sense began to shine through. To cash in on the boom that was sweeping over the city he jumped into real estate, which netted him a small fortune. He had plowed the money into transportation, buying trucks over the following years to build the respectable trucking company he now owned. His acquaintances would often quip about his flair for business, saying how it would have been wasted if he had remained a farmer.

“Is Jungok’s grandma home?”

Jongsool heard someone, a girl, calling for his mother through the gate or what remained of it. He peeled himself off the floor where he had been sprawled out, sitting up slowly. He opened the door lazily and looked out. It was Hwasoon, the village head’s daughter.

“She isn’t. What’s up?”

Hwasoon took a few cowardly steps back, looking frightened like a small animal facing its predator.

“I have a message for Jungok’s grandmother . . .”

“Can I take it for her?”

“It’s from my father. He wants Jungok’s father to come by my house.”

Jongsool almost laughed aloud at the girl’s apparent timidity. The message was for him. But she was trying to relay it to him via his mother who wasn’t home at the moment.

“Tell your father that Jungok’s father is tied up with something. So he needs to come over himself if he wants to talk to him,” he thundered.

At this command, the girl took off, running out through the gate like a scalded cat. His gaze followed her, her long hair flying behind her and her round firm bottom swinging side to side. So adorable. I could eat her up in one bite, he thought to himself. A year earlier, Hwasoon had quit school after middle school. She had since blossomed, with obvious hints of mature young womanhood all over.

Jongsool heard next-door kids babble about a black sedan parked outside the village head’s house. Yet he was completely clueless as to what possible business Iksam could have with him. If that car belonged to that fella named Choi, then he could be here for only one reason—people sneaking in to fish on his reservoir. If so, Iksam was barking up the wrong tree. Jongsool hadn’t been anywhere near that reservoir all winter because he saw no point in freezing his butt off out there.

Having downright rejected the village head’s summons, Jongsool burned with restless curiosity, which finally got the better of him. He was bored to tears, and his fists were itching for a fight and his mouth for a quarrel. As far as he was concerned, walking away from someone trying to pick a fight bordered on the unethical, particularly, as now, when he was spoiling for one. He ambled out of his house, leaving it unlocked. There was nothing valuable to be stolen, no wife to be shanghaied.

On his way over, he spotted a single crow standing alone in a barley field, which was now a vibrant green with the spring thaw just around the corner. The swarms of crows cawing loudly in the fields were long gone, having left for some unknown destination—except for this loner. Jongsool picked up a stone and threw it in the bird’s direction. It didn’t budge. Irritated, he let loose a torrent of stones, which finally sent the bird flying away.

“My, Big Bro in this house has a knack for getting himself a new car on a village head’s wage,” Jongsool barked as he swept into Iksam’s courtyard. As if on cue, a door swung open, and Iksam poked his head out through the rectangular door frame, with a grin plastered on his face.

“Either you stop calling me Big Bro or take that chip off your shoulder.”

Taking that as an invitation to come in, Jongsool stalked into the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a weasel-faced old man sitting on the far side of the floor. Feigning a total lack of interest in the old man, Jongsool started in on Iksam.

“So, what did you want to see me about? You have something good for me?”

“Cut the crap, and say hello to this gentleman here, Mr. Choi. He is the CEO of a company, and he owns the reservoir as you may already know.”

“Look here! Although I’m down on my luck right now like a paper kite without a tail, I used to terrorize people when I hung out around Dongdaemoon Market in Seoul. That place has got real high-powered CEOs, and I beat the crap out of many of them. Now, you introduce me to people who run a real-estate agency, a tobacco shop or other mom-and-pop stores and call them CEO, I laugh at them.”

“No. This gentleman is nothing like that. He owns the largest transportation company in the city.”

“Still, that doesn’t mean shit to me. He may be your CEO, but not mine.”

Having made clear what he thought of the old man, Jongsool plopped down on the floor, cross-legged, his hands thrust into the front pockets of his pants, folded over his crotch. He held his head high at an angle, his gaze focused on a corner of the ceiling, looking as if he were about to start whistling. Iksam looked mortified beyond speech at the sight. Choi cleared his throat a couple of times and, with a dry laugh, spoke for the first time since Jongsool had entered the room.

“Young man, you’re one hot-headed tough guy, like I heard.”

“Let me make it clear to you. I’ve never fished on your reservoir these past few months. Naturally, I haven’t caught any of your fish, not even a minnow, let alone a carp.”

Jongsool was set on playing tough, putting up a blustery front.

“We aren’t accusing you of anything,” Choi burst into a roar of laughter, which deepened the hollows in his cheeks, his dark reddish face etched with deep lines from his previous life as a hard-working farmer. It was a laughter he had carefully cultivated sine he had started selling houses. Yet, the general opinion among his acquaintances was that it looked out of place with his small-featured face. Maybe it needed more work.

“You strike me as a person I can work with. I might as well put you in charge of guarding the whole reservoir. You’re welcome to fish there once spring sets in. Catch as many fish as you want. Would you be interested in making some dough while you’re at it?”

Those words raised a red flag for Jongsool. He was certain the old fart was up to some kind of funny business. Fully alerted, he divided his suspicious look between the old man and his nephew.

“Congratulations, Jongsool. Now, you can catch any fish you want, whether it’s common carp for sashimi or crucian carp for a fish stew,” Iksam chimed in, his mouth curled in a twitchy grin.

“That is, on the condition that you keep other anglers away from the reservoir. How does working as the watchman of the reservoir sound to you?”

“Watchman!”

Now, Jongsool knew what the two men were up to.

“What the hell do you take me for?”

He shot to his feet, trembling with anger. Alarmed, Iksam lunged forward, clamping his arms around one of Jongsool’s legs.

“Hold your horses! You’re as impetuous as a groom who accuses his bride of cheating the day after their wedding. Now, sit back down. You can decide whether to be angry or not after you’ve heard us out,” Iksam said, tugging on Jongsool’s pant leg like a girl clinging to her boyfriend about to walk out on her.

“I’m not asking you to work for nothing. I’ll pay you fifty thousand won a month if you take the job.”

Unfazed by Jongsool’s angry outburst, Choi began to lay out his offer without turning a hair. For a man of stocky build, he was full of pluck. His words, however, only added fuel to the angry fire already stoking inside of Jongsool. He shook off Iksam by violently swinging his leg as if he was going to kick him.

“Make no mistake! This person in front of you is a dragon, not the eel you think you see, although it’s presently lying in the gutter licking his wounds!”

“There’s more to the offer,” Iksam rushed to add. “Mr. Choi plans to keep you on as a fee collector once the reservoir is opened to the public as a paid fishing ground next year or the year after.”

“That all depends on how you make up your mind,” Choi said calmly, still not a crack in his confident facade.

Yet, Jongsool’s breath was now coming in short bursts, as if he had run miles without stopping. He shook his finger at the other two men as he spoke.

“Just because I’ve fallen on misfortune and am rotting away in this goddamn backwater for now doesn’t mean you can treat me like a piece of dirt. What’s a watchman, uh? A freaking watchman? So, you think I’m only good for a slave job worth fifty thousand won a month? Then you’ve got another think coming, ‘cause as pathetic as I may look to you right now, I was once flying high, and people would address me as ‘CEO.’”

That wasn’t a lie. His beginnings at Dongdaemoon Market had been as a humble street vendor. Soon, however, he was running a street-food cart. Then, he started trading in merchandise smuggled out of US military bases. In those days, people around him would frequently call him “CEO” whether they meant well or ill by it. His wife had referred to him as “CEO” at first, too. That woman, after bearing him a daughter, had run away with a land surveyor’s assistant who had often shown up in his village when the development of a nearby mountain was in full swing. It was a beer joint he used to patronize frequently where he had met his wife first, and they had moved in together without getting married.

“Don’t get so riled up, young man,” Choi said. “A man needs to be able to take stock of his present situation and adapt himself to it no matter how glorious his past was. Only then can he be ready for his next big break. Don’t you agree? So, give my offer some serious thought.”

Inspired by Choi’s undaunted persistence, Iksam again joined in to persuade Jongsool.

“I’d jump on the offer if I were you. What’s to complain about earning a paycheck while you’re catching all the fish you want? It’s not like we’re asking you to take a shovel to dig a pit or something. All you’ll have to do is put on a watchman’s armband and stroll around the reservoir . . .”

“Did you say an armband?”

That word made Jongsool’s ears prick up. It hit him with such force it left him in a stupor for a moment.

“You mean the thing you put on your arm?”

The question was so naïve it made Choi burst into another roar of that deep-throated laughter ill-fitting for his stature.

“Where else do you wear an armband? Never heard of one you wrap around your crotch like a diaper!”

“An armband!” Jongsool exclaimed to himself. They were talking about that blasted thing you put on your upper left arm!

Choi was a sharp-witted man. He caught on to one of Jongsool’s vulnerabilities in his stunned reaction to a word uttered in passing. And he moved in for the kill, zeroing in on that vulnerable point of defense, like a mouse nibbling away at a single point in a wall to make a hole.

“I’ll make you a nice-looking armband, with the word ‘guard’ stitched in big red letters on a white background if you want.”

The numerous armbands Jongsool had directly or indirectly encountered in his grueling life flashed before his eyes. He was living in a nation governed by armbands, with a history dotted with numerous episodes featuring them. That history was now beckoning him, seducing him like a woman flirtatiously lifting one edge of her billowing skirt, catching him in a moment of weakness.

He flashed back to those wretched days of street vending when he had to run from street to street, chased by the market’s security or night guards, lugging along his heavy wooden stand, which was the sum of all his assets then. And the city officials who had frequently descended on him to disrupt his food cart business for alleged violations of the traffic code or other regulations. And the black-market operation he’d had a hand in, which channeled merchandise from US military bases or prostitutes catering to American soldiers to market vendors. And the fierce turf war with another gang that was in the same business of breaking state monopoly and customs laws. The rival gang ratted him out to the police, so he got caught red-handed while toting an illicit American-made color television and was locked away for years for aggravated economic offenses.

At every corner he turned, there had been someone with an armband to thwart his desperate efforts to earn some dough, as it must have been the case for numerous other people throughout history. Somehow, he had always found himself cowering before armbands. They had been the bane of his existence. How he had resented those armbands that came in different colors with different letters on them! And how he had coveted them!

Now, that single word, “armband,” was tearing down all his defenses, and he was helpless to do anything about it.

(Excerpt from pp. 9-21.)

Translated by Lee Chang-soo

Illustrations ⓒ Amy Shin

 

Author's Profile

Yun Heunggil is a novelist and professor of creative writing at Hanseo University. His representative works include The Rainy Spell, Armband, and The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes. He is the recipient of numerous awards (the Korean Literature Writers Award, the Korea Creative Literature Award, the Hyundae Literary Award, the 21st Century Literature Award, and the Daesan Literary Award), and his works have appeared in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese, and other languages.