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While They Laughed

  • onOctober 17, 2018
  • byYoon Sung-hee
While They Laughed
2011

 

My nephew was a new high schooler with 129 numbers in his contacts list. “Why don’t you know more people, Uncle?” I told him that the first of every January, I delete the numbers of people I hadn’t talked to in the past year. I had 34 numbers on my list. “You know Grandma couldn’t stop worrying about you until she passed away, right?” “It’s ’cause I’m the youngest. You wouldn’t understand because you’re the big kid of the family,” I said, and he stuck out his tongue, shaking his head. “You know I taught you how to do that, right? When you were five.” I told him I taught him other cool things, too. Like how to laugh off insults from someone stronger than you while silently cursing his ass. My nephew had a lot of funny names on his list. His dad was labeled “Da Capo.” (My oldest brother, seventeen years my senior, was the biggest nag in the world. I whipped out my phone and changed his display name to “Da Capo” too.) His mom was labeled “Calcium Supplements.” (My sister-in-law was a short woman who fed the kid three glasses of milk a day.) His best friend was labeled “Polaroid.” He said the reason was a secret. “A secret, huh?” I wasn’t really curious but I acted like I was. Although I couldn’t slip him too much pocket money, I knew what a good uncle was supposed to do: share tons of secrets. “Which one’s your homeroom teacher?” He gave me his phone and dared me to find it. “Hint: where the snow never melts!” It was “K2.” Apparently the teacher would stand up every homeroom period with his fist clenched and go, “Aim for the top! Reach for the peaks with everything you have!” It reminded me of myold principal—the guy’d make us all stand outside for school assemblies, rain or snow be damned. He taught the whole school these stupid callisthenic exercises where you had to twist your butt left and right. We had to do them before the start of every assembly. I was in grade six. That was the year my nephew was born. I went to see him at the hospital and as he lay in his little crib, I vowed: “Hey kiddo, your uncle’s gonna be a really funny guy from now on.” That was why I was all smiles when the newspaper reporter came to the school to cover us doing those stupid ass wiggles at every assembly. The photographer snapped pictures of me beaming and sticking out my rear. The principal made every class pin a photocopy of the article up on their bulletin board. (I once went on a blind date and said to the girl unpromted, “I was in the newspaper once.”) After that, the principal got me to stand on the stage and do the exercise in front of everyone. I could see the whole school from there. The first part of the routine was the breathing exercise. I took a breath, but I couldn’t spit it back out. I could feel my face going red. It felt like my chest was swelling up, like it’d grow into a balloon if I let it stay that way and I’d fly up to the sky. The principal smacked me in the back with his huge palm. “Sorry. I was smiling because I have a nephew now, not because I liked exercising,” I told him. The mic broadcast that to the entire school. All the kids laughed. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the sound of 1,800 people laughing. My nephew had me labeled on his phone as “Fe.” “What’s this supposed to mean?” He shook his head. “You didn’t really do well at school, did you Uncle?” I replied honestly that I had not. He explained that “Fe” was the chemical symbol for iron. “’Cause it’s ironic that you still need to grow up. I’m telling you this as your nephew.” In retaliation, I took out my phone and labeled him “Fe” too. “’Cause you gotta grow up and learn the meaning of irony,” I told him. His phone rang. “Is it Polaroid?” He nodded. I went to sleep while he chatted. And I had a dream. Someone was looking at me through a magnifying glass. I got very small. Like an ant. Someone blew on me, like with a hoosound, and I flew off. I knew I would never open my eyes again. I wondered what my friends had me labeled as on their contacts lists. I remembered the time I first learned to swim. The moment I first dipped my toe in the water.

 

My nephew was the one to give my friends the news. Yeong-jae was 12 on my shortcuts key, Min-gi was 13, and Seong-min was 14. Only Seong-min picked up. He cheered when he saw my number because he hadn’t gotten a single call all week. Yeong-jae’s phone said the number was suspended by customer request. Seong-min took a cab to see Yeong-jae even though it was only ten minutes to his place. That was kind of moving. Yeong-jae was eating instant noodles. “Want some?” he said when he saw Seong-min. “No.” “I cooked two packs today. You can have half.” Yeong-jae always cooked one and a half packs, and no one could make one-and-a-half instant noodles better. “You must’ve been starving. I gotta tell you something, so finish your noodles first.” While Yeong-jae ate, Seong-min went through his closet. “You need to borrow clothes or something? Got yourself a girlfriend?” The best items Seong-min found were ripped jeans and an Adidas T-shirt. (And the Adidas shirt was actually mine, the one Yeong-jae borrowed and never gave back.) “Why’d you suspend your number?” “I got money off my mom saying I was going overseas on vacation,” Yeong-jae replied, guzzling the broth. Seong-min waited for him to down the last drop before telling him I’d died. “But the fucking doctor said he had another six months left.” (And I’m planning sweet revenge on the bastard at this very moment.) Yeong-jae threw the pot. “You couldn’t have told me before I ate my noodles?” Seong-min pointed at the pot rolling on the floor. “’Cause I knew you’d do that.” Yeong-jae and Seong-min went to Min-gi’s house. They took a cab again. It was 2,800 won but Seong-min gave the guy a 5,000-won bill and didn’t take the change. Min-gi was in the bathroom, as usual. “He’s been there three days.” His mom wasn’t even surprised anymore. She said he’d brought his sleeping bag inside.Yeong-jae knocked. “Hey man, I gotta use the bathroom.” It was a while before Min-gi answered, “Hey. There’s another one in the master bedroom.” Seong-min knocked too. “I’m here too, Min-gi.” They asked him if he was doing his business. (Yeong-jae said that you could get a stroke if you heard shocking news while taking a dump.) Min-gi said no. Seong-min and Yeong-jae exchanged glances and nodded. They said together: “C’mon out. We gotta go to the funeral.” Min-gi asked hesitantly, “Already?” “Yeah.” Pretty soon I heard running water. “You crying, man?” “No,” Min-gi replied, “just washing my face. No worries.” They dropped by the department store on the way to the funeral. Back when I was hospitalized, we’d been joking around, like, “If you’re still alive in six months, we’ll each give you a million won.” I was pretty sure I was gonna win, so I was laughing. They showed me the savings account they made. They needed to put in five hundred thousand won per month for six months. They’d only gotten to make one deposit. I asked them, “If I die before that, make sure you show up in some fancy suits, yeah? And rock some sunglasses.” So they bought three black suits. Yeong-jae looked like a model with his height, but the hiking shoes stuck out like a sore thumb. “Goddamn, no dress shoes at your age?” Min-gi said, wearing dress shoes he’d only bought last year. “Says the guy who needs to lose that gut,” Seong-min said, tapping Min-gi’s stomach. They bought matching shirts and debated whether to get the shades. (Buy ’em, c’mon, buy ’em, I mumbled.) “I need prescription lenses.” “The old folks are gonna tear into us.” “To be honest, I’m broke right now.” Bastards. They skipped the shades.

 

They had funeral parlor yukgaejang five times in three days, the moochers. But I saw them put the savings account book into the condolence money box and decided to let it slide. Yeong-jae sat next to my drunk uncle and forced himself to listen to him ramble for five hours straight. “Where is that brother of mine?” my uncle asked and borrowed Yeong-jae’s phone. “Is that you?” he yelled into the phone. “I can’t hear you.” Yeong-jae had to take the call instead. “Hello?” he said but then jumped to his feet. It was early in the morning and the parlor was almost empty. “Does anyone here speak English?” No one raised their hand. Seong-min and Min-gi quickly ducked their heads. “Sorry,” Yeong-jae said in stilted English and hung up. My uncle showed him a number scribbled in his notebook and asked him again if he’d dialed the right place. Apparently it was my dad’s number in Canada. (You mean he’s not dead? I asked my uncle. He picked his ear.) At the crematorium, Min-gi bought three boxes of ginseng juice and handed them out to the guests. (Who knew he had it in him? Everyone used to call the guy a dunce.) After the procession ended, the gang dozed off on the bus. Yeong-jae woke up Seong-min and hissed, “You were snoring, man.” Seong-min told him about the dream he’d just had. “We were all in high school. Hanging from the horizontal bars. The gym teacher blew the whistle.” Yeong-jae furrowed his brow. “Why do they call it a whistle, anyway?” He stopped paying attention to the story and kept repeating, whistlewhistle, under his breath. “We started doing chin-ups when the whistle sounded. But nobody could do it. We were kicking the air. I thought we looked like one big octopus, with eight legs swinging like that.” I started wondering how many legs octopi actually had. “You crying?”Yeong-jae put his hands around Seong-min’s face. “Nah, I’m fine,” Seong-min said, “It’s just these stupid seventeen-year-olds who couldn’t even do chin-ups, y’know?” Someone snored. I wondered if it was Min-gi but didn’t look back.

 

 

They walked into a rain shower on the way back home. “Hey, a gazebo,” Yeong-jae said, and they began running. “That’s a barbecue restaurant, dumbass.” They blended into a group coming out of dinner and got themselves vending-machine coffee. It was free. “He’d be pretty impressed if he could see us now.” So I applauded. Getting free stuff was my favorite thing in the whole world.After coffee, Min-gi said, “Should we go back and at least turn the heater on?” My place would get humid after it rained. It was so bad that I had to redo the wallpaper after the rainy season every year. “You think he left the key under the flowerpot?” Yeong-jae asked in a mumble. They pulled off their ties, stuffed them into their pockets, and got up. Then they crumpled their paper cups and tossed them into the trash. Nobody scored. “Figures,” said Min-gi. The key wasn’t under the flowerpot. Yeong-jae opened the shoe cabinet and found the key in my old running shoe. Yeong-jae cleaned the boiler filter, Seong-min took care of the piled-up dishes, and Min-gi stretched out on the sofa. I have no idea why his parents named him with the Chinese character for “swiftness.” The same goes for Yeong-jae’s parents, actually. His name can mean “prodigy,” but he had the lowest IQ in our gang. “My back hurts,” Min-gi said from the sofa. It sagged in the middle. Which made sense, since I’d taken naps on the thing for ten years. “What was that movie we watched again?” Seong-min wondered. It was when we’d all been retaking our college entrance exams. (Who’d have thought we’d be stuck in exam prep so long?) We’d all signed up for the same prep courses. “That’s when it all started going wrong.” Yeong-jae said that we’d have been better off going our separate ways after high school. “Nah, the biggest problem was us having the same taste in chicks,” said Min-gi. It was probably just because it was springtime. We were in math class, with a teacher who got so passionate his underarms got soaked after an hour of teaching. But he messed up two whole problems that day. Not like we’d known, but he confessed. “It looks like I got two problems wrong today.” He looked like he was about to cry. That’s when someone said, “It’s all right.” We turned. There was a girl sitting there with a pink hairpin in her hair. The girl we fell for at the same time. Min-gi said, “Bros before hoes, yeah?” So we decided to settle things like men. First, we raced—ten laps around the track. I bought new running shoes for it, for all the good they did. Second was chin-ups. A grade schooler passed by wondering, “Why’re all those adults on the bars?” Third, jump rope. After that was running backwards. We all tripped at the same time so that one was a draw. We even tried traditional wrestling. Min-gi was the strongest so he won that one. In the end, Yeong-jae was the victor. We pooled our money for Yeong-jae’s bouquet. “We were pretty cool back then.” Seong-min lay on the floor with his feet on the sofa armrest. “Your feet stink.” Min-gi’s nostrils flared. “Yeah, but my back’s warm,” Seong-min said. Yeong-jae never did give her the flowers when he went to ask her out. While we were competing, she was getting double-eyelid surgery—which the doctor botched. Yeong-jae said he could see the stitch marks every time she blinked. We took the poor guy out for drinks. “I never tried braised monkfish before.” He gorged himself on the side dishes. Yeong-jae got drunk and suddenly stood up and walked over to the next table. Then he gave the flowers to some guy drinking there. “The hell?” The guy got pissed and threw the bouquet to the floor. They each grabbed the other by the collar and got into a fight. We wanted to stop them, but we were too drunk to even stand. Yeong-jae wound up his fist, and Seong-min said groggily, “Where’re we going for round two?” The man lost a tooth. “Goddamn, wish there’d been a dentist in my family . . .” After the incident, Yeong-jae decided to become a dentist. Only for a bit. We couldn’t sign up for classes the next month. We pooled our tuition for Yeong-jae’s settlement, but it wasn’t nearly enough. We started working part-time handing out flyers, when a “make-five-million-a-month” ad on one of the flyers caught our eye and pulled us into a pyramid scheme, and a dozen of our old friends into debt with us. We lost a lot of friends. That was why we couldn’t stop being friends after that. We didn’t have anyone else. Yeong-jae stole a scooter for money. Min-gi wasn’t as gutsy, so he stole a bike. I stole my oldest brother’s car. His license happened to be suspended for a DUI. Somehow we paid off the settlement and it was almost exam time again. “Whose bright idea was it to steal the sofa again?” Min-gi was lying on the sofa and Yeong-jae sat lightly on top of his gut. It was the day of our entrance exams.We went to the movie theater because they let test-takers in for free. But they didn’t let us in. “You can’t come in for free if you haven’t taken the test.” It was unfair. So we paid for our tickets and watched a movie anyway. It was about these four guys. I dozed off while they were hitchhiking somewhere, and when I woke up, they were still on the road. We sat around in the lobby after the movie and chatted about it. “Why were they traveling, anyway?” I asked, and the guys said it was a good thing I didn’t take the exams. Min-gi explained that they weren’t traveling—they were looking for a good place to kill themselves. “I’m real proud of myself. I’ve never thought about committing suicide.” “Me too.”“Same here.” “I . . . have.” To be honest, I had thought about it. When my brother found out about me stealing his car, he didn’t get angry at me. He just stopped talking to me. “Nice sofa,” someone said. Probably Yeong-jae or Min-gi. It was green, with a cigarette burn on the armrest. “Swear to god, it wasn’t me.” Yeong-jae said that he’d covered his face with one arm when we stole the sofa. “Me neither.” “Not me.” (Come to think of it, I think it might have been me. I remember poking my finger in and out of the burn hole and wanting to take the sofa.) I thought we deserved a refund for a movie that put the audience to sleep. “So let’s take the sofa.” They’d clapped. Seong-min and I grabbed the front and Yeong-jae and Min-gi got the back. “Just tell ourselves we’re sofa repairmen,” said Yeong-jae, or Min-gi—whoever was behind me. So I told myself that we were the best damned sofa repairmen in the country. “This is gonna take a while to fix up,” Seong-min declared loudly, and the people who stood around the theater entrance made way for us. It was a pretty majestic addition to my pathetic little studio apartment, which only had a set of blankets.

 

The guys argued about who’d get to take the sofa. “How ’bout we play rock-paper-scissors for it?” I gave Seong-min a disappointed look. It wasn’t like us at all to make it so easy. “How about we describe what we did yesterday? Whoever’s got the funniest story takes the sofa.” Min-gi smacked Yeong-jae in the back of the head. I did too. “We were at the funeral yesterday, dumbass.” I looked at them and remembered how we’d made bets on who’d go for his military service first. The most beautiful bet of our lives. We went to a florist and each bought one of the same plant. The florist said they blossomed into pale pink flowers in the spring. “Whoever kills his plant first has to go first.” All four blossomed the next spring, but Yeong-jae’s was yellow. Min-gi theorized that it was because he’d pissed into the pot instead of watering it. Maybe the flowers turned us into good boys somehow, because we all straightened up that year. We even donated 300,000 won to a charity for kids with heart conditions. Anonymously. The plant’s still growing on Min-gi’sbalcony. We’d also made bets on who could dig out the biggest piece of earwax. Seong-min won. It was the size of his pinky nail. We bought him a nail clipper set as a prize. Suddenly, Min-gi got off the sofa. “What’s up?” “Figured something out?” “I gotta take a piss,” Min-gi replied. Halfway through, he yelled, “Let’s say the biggest idiot here gets the sofa.” They shared the most idiotic moments of their lives. Yeong-jae went first. “It was in second year of middle school. I climbed up to the roof to see the full moon at Chuseok when I suddenly wondered, how many street lights are in this neighborhood? So I counted them all. Took me three days.” Next was Min-gi. “Not studying in high school.” The others booed. “You can save that one for when you’re fifty,” Yeong-jae said. “Then gimme a minute.” Min-gi closed his eyes and pretended to think. Seong-min said, “Going on a walking tour in middle school. Never complaining about my food.Never staying out overnight. Other than that, I’m pretty much always an idiot.” Immediately, Min-gi broke his silence. “Looking at Google Earth. I look at these alleys in countries I’ve never been to and feel like the saddest guy in the world.” (I fessed up too. Going to the public bath and never asking someone to help me wash my back. Times like that made me feel really stupid.) Yeong-jae voted for Min-gi, and Min-gi votedfor Yeong-jae. Seong-min said his own story was the most realistic. But we had a rule: no self-voting. So Seong-min got the others to tell one more story each. Yeong-jae pointed at him and yelled, “Having a friend like you is proof that I’m a dumbass.” That was when Min-gi pointed at the picture frame on the desk. “Look at us, smiling for no goddamned reason.” It was a photo of us, in front of the grilled clam place we started two years ago before the business crashed and burned. We’d grill our own food in the deserted restaurant, going off in pairs so we’d look like two separate groups and make the place seem more popular than it was. Seong-min stared into the picture for a long time before tossing a towel over it. And he made his choice. “Min-gi wins. Take the sofa.”

 

When they lifted the sofa, they found my favorite CD. I’d always thought Seong-min had stolen it. I felt real bad about it, so I didn’t get angry when I saw him pick it up and put it in his pocket. The old lady taking her laundry down on the rooftop stared at the guys, these three grown men hauling a green sofa away. “Do we take a taxi or what?” Yeong-jae wondered. “Obviously,” Seong-min replied. As if on cue, an empty taxi showed up. But the driver demanded 10,000 won when distance-wise, they only needed to pay a quarter of the fare. “Screw it, let’s walk.” Seong-min, who’d once traveled the whole country on foot, let the driver go. But they’d barely gone five minutes when he said, “Let’s take a breather.” They put down the sofa under a tree and sat. “I feel like ice cream,” Min-gi said, but no one went to get some. Little kids in yellow backpacks passed by carrying balloons. The guys got asked, “Mister, what are you doing?” about thirty times. And every time, Yeong-jae would go, “This is a moving car. It’s taking a break for a bit.” A few of the kids backtracked from the crossing. They squatted in front of the sofa and wouldn’t move. “What’re you up to?” Seong-min asked. “We wanna see the car go.” “Where’s the steering wheel?” “How do you ride it when it rains?” Yeong-jae was forced to tell the truth. One kid started crying and set off a chain reaction: “You’re so mean, Mister! Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Min-gi burst into tears with them. “You’re right.” When he started crying, the kids stopped and ran off in a scare. Min-gi’s mom sprayed salt at the guys when she saw them at the door. (I almost got exorcised by the salt.) A water buffalo-leather sofa sat in the living room. Mine suddenly stopped looking so majestic next to it. The stains stuck out more and the burn hole seemed bigger. “I’m putting it in the bathroom,” Min-gi said. His mom picked up a hula hoop and threw it at him. “Over my dead body!” Five minutes later, the guys were kneeling in the living room getting an earful from Min-gi’s mom. “Have you boys ever footed the bill when you went out with your family?” Seong-min thought to himself, My family never takes me out. “Take the thing and go,” Min-gi’s mom finally said, and went to the bathroom. I heard the door locking. “Now want to lock myself in here forever.” Min-gi gave a full bow toward the bathroom. And the guys picked up the sofa again and left. The security guard warned, “Oversized recycling? Make sure to put a disposal sticker on that.”

 

Yeong-jae grabbed three cans of coffee. He opened them up and handed them out to the guys. They put down the sofa by the parasol table outside the supermarket and drank their coffee. “I’ll take it,” Yeong-jae said, and Seong-min said he’d known the moment he went to get them coffee. This time, Yeong-jae carried from the front. In the back, Seong-min and Min-gi took turns letting go of it. Every time they did, Yeong-jae said, “Feels like somebody’s sitting on it.” (I was. The whole time. I jumped on it a few times too.) Their collars were getting drenched. Min-gi unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt. Seong-min took off his jacket and put it on top of the sofa. I spotted red flecks on his white shirt, probably from the yukgaejangbroth. Yeong-jae’s studio was on the third floor, and the stairs were steep and narrow. The sofa leg hit the railing when they turned the corner. “It’s sturdier than I thought. Must not be as cheap as itlooks,” Min-gi said, examining the leg. Yeong-jae’s room was too small. There wasn’t even room for a chair, so he had to sit on his bed instead. Yeong-jae had spent years there prepping for his entry-level public service exams. “Where’re we supposed to put it?” Seong-min asked. “Forget that. Air out the place already. What the hell is this stink?” Min-gi pointed at the window. “Fat lot of good that’ll do. There’s a wall right outside.” Yeong-jae picked up the pot lying face down on the floor and put it on the counter. “I can make room here,” he said, pushing away the books strewn around the floor with his foot. When they set up the sofa, there was no space left in his room. He had to climb over the thing to get from the bed to the bathroom, and he’d have to eat his food standing at the kitchen counter. “This ain’tgonna work.” Min-gi shook his head. I did too. “Looks like I’ll have to take it,” said Seong-min. Yeong-jae responded by flopping down on the sofa and refusing to get up. Min-gi and Seong-min knew how he was. So they flopped down on his bed and waited for Yeong-jae to break the silence. And they all fell asleep. (I took a detour in the meantime. My nephew was meeting up with Polaroid and trash-talking me. I gave him a pat on the head and came back.) When Yeong-jae woke up, he looked around his room. Where the sun never shone even at dawn. And he realized that the cushions weren’t that great. “All right. You take it.” He kicked the sleeping Seong-min.

 

The steep stairs were harder on the way down. The sofa bumped against the same spot on the railing, leaving a big dent on the leg, but nobody cared. They happened across a grade schooler snacking on a rice ball and banana milk. “Are you throwing that out?” he asked. “No. We’re sofa repairmen.” The kid swallowed without even chewing and said, “Nice to meet you.” He was the eldest son of a family that’d been making sofas for three generations. The guys put him on the sofa and took him all the way to school. They offered to carry him to his class, but he politely refused saying one of his classmates walked with a limp and he’d feel bad about showing up like that. “Since we came all this way, let’s make a bet.” They put the sofa down under a sycamore tree. Seong-min picked up a half-flattened basketball lying by the hoop. “Ten shots each.” Min-gi didn’t even score once. Yeong-jae got three. Seong-min got two. While they were shooting hoops, a dragonfly came and landed on the sofa. “What’s this thing doing out? Fall’s almost over.” Min-gi crept toward the sofa and reached out. The dragonfly didn’t move. “You think it’s him?” “I’ve heard of people reincarnating into butterflies, but dragonflies are a new one.” Yeong-jae and Seong-min sat on the ground with their hands under their chins, staring at it. (Could you possibly get any denser? I stuck out my tongue and shook my head.) There was a breeze. The dragonfly took off. The guys waved at the sky. “Take care.” They picked up the sofa again and went on their way. An old man with a cart full of recycling offered to give them a ride, so they loaded the sofa on top. They pushed it from behind. They took the sofa down at the intersection, and Min-gi took out three expired lottery tickets. “This is the only paper I have.” He put them on the cart. “Oof, that’s heavy,” the old man chuckled. The guys put the sofa down in front of a car wash and watched the cars get cleaned. (I’d developed a distaste for water and watched from a distance.) And they dropped by a used furniture place to see how much sofas went for. They ran into a middle-aged lady cleaning a sign and let her use it for a bit. The sofa got wet, and they took the long way around through the alleys to let it dry. That’s when they heard someone say, “Please help.” They took the sofa and went over. An old lady lay collapsed on the ground. Her little granddaughter was clutching her hand. In the lady’s other hand was a plastic bag. An apple rolled out into the street. A truck passed by over it, but the apple was safe. It avoided a white car, a motorcycle, and a taxi. I watched it cross the road. It stopped right on the yellow line. In the meantime, Min-gi lifted the old woman and lay her on the sofa. Yeong-jae took off his jacket, rolled it up, and put it under her head. Seong-min called an ambulance. I watched the apple. It sat onthe center line and refused to budge. The apple was red. The old lady opened her eyes before the ambulance arrived. “I’m going to be all right, dearie,” she said to her crying granddaughter. The paramedics said she had to get a check-up at the hospital, but she was adamant about going straight home. That was when Min-gi whispered something in her ear. The old lady went right to the ambulance without another word. With the bag of apples still in hand. “What’d you tell her?” Yeong-jae and Seong-min asked. “It’s a secret,” Min-gi replied. The guys couldn’t take the suspense and offered to let him off sofa-carrying duty if he told them. “Then I’ll tell you when we get there.” Seong-min lived on the rooftop of a five-floor building. Luckily, the elevator went up to the fourth floor. There was a note on his door. “You’re two months behind on rent, son.” (The year he turned twenty-five, he’d told his parents, “I’ll pay rent from now on, so please don’t nag me.”) Seong-min tore off the note from his dad. “You know what, Min-gi? Getting nagged at is better than paying rent.” Seong-min measured the sofa with his hands. It was thirteen spans. “What I told the lady was, ‘Your granddaughter really wants to try riding in an ambulance.’” Seong-min went into his room and considered where to put the sofa. He heard Yeong-jae and Min-gi laughing outside. Seong-min opened the window and saw the backs of their heads as they stood on the rooftop. And the green sofa just lying there next to them.Seong-min mumbled, “Over there’s not bad.”

When Seong-min said to leave to sofa outside, Yeong-jae went, “One sec” and disappeared somewhere. Min-gi grabbed some flowerpots and plywood from a pile in the corner and made a makeshift table. The plywood was warped, having long been exposed to the elements. “How’re you gonna put anything on there?” Seong-min asked. Min-gi sat on the sofa and put his feet on it. “Like this.” Seong-min sat down beside him and put his feet on the plywood too. “I should bring my flowerpot and put it here,” Min-gi said. It wasn’t long before Yeong-jae came back with a massive parasol under each arm. “What’s that?” “Where’d you get those?” Yeong-jae opened one up and pranced around the rooftop. “Stole ’em!Still got those skills, baby!” They argued for a while about how to stand the parasols up. Min-gi said they should stick the parasol shafts to the sofa back, and Seong-min suggested hanging them up on the clothesline. That was when Yeong-jae lived up to his name for once. He grabbed the biggest flowerpots and stuck the parasols in the dirt. And he put the potted parasols on either side of the sofa. They sat down again. The sky peered out between the parasols. “Stapler,” Min-gi mumbled. “What?” asked Yeong-jae and Seong-min. “Dunno why, but saying ‘stapler’ makes me feel good.” Min-gi went, “Stapler” again. Yeong-jae said, “We’ve all got little magic words like that”, tapping him on the shoulder. “‘Gum in the keyhole.’ That’s my magic spell,” Seong-min said. (I closed my eyes and imagined a factory spewing endless streams of canned food. Whenever I missed my dad, I would imagine machines at a factory making hundreds of thousands of cans. And that made me hungry quick.) “Got any grub?” Min-gi asked. Seong-min went down to his parents’ place on the fourth floor. “Get us something good,” Yeong-jae said to the back of his head. Min-gilay his head on Yeong-jae’s leg and sprawled lengthwise on the sofa. “Grow up and fix this stupid habit of yours.” Yeong-jae began shaking his leg. Min-gi’s head shook too. “You’re making me motion sick.” Seong-min came back with shopping bags in both hands. He set out food on the twisted tabletop. They ate japchaenoodles, pollock fritters, green chili pancakes, and seasoned bracken. “Wanna try starting a restaurant again?” Min-gi said, eating a pollock fritter with his hands. Yeong-jae picked up a noodle and threw it at his face. “I’m not letting you guys drag me down again.” The noodle stuck to Min-gi’s face. Seong-min snickered. Yeong-jae threw one at him, too. Seong-min dodged. (I was standing in front of Seong-min. The noodle went through me and landed on the rooftop floor.) Seong-min plucked a noodle too and threw it at Yeong-jae. Min-gi threw a fritter at the other two. Yeong-jae and Seong-min threw seasoned bracken at him. Food rained on the sofa. A piece ofspinach from Seong-min landed on Min-gi’s upper lip. “Looks like a moustache.” Min-gi peeled it off and put it in his mouth. “And it tastes like spinach.” The guys burst out laughing. They laughed with their hands over their guts, bent over like they’d never laughed before in their lives. While they laughed, they went on a journey far, far away. Min-gi saw himself fifteen years into the future. He’d lost weight. He had a beard, which looked surprisingly good on him. So he laughed even harder. Min-gi was changing tires on a quiet roadside. It was more difficult than it looked. He put the flat tire on the ground and sat on it with a cigarette. It’s peaceful, he thought, puffing smoke. Yeong-jae was a middle-aged man on fifteen pills a day. He’d studied so much for the civil exam that he was a walking encyclopedia, and he even went on a trivia show and became a champion. The prize money was 45 million won. Seong-min laughed with his eyes shut and met me. “How’ve you been?” “All right.” We said hello. I thanked him for taking good care of the sofa. His daughter—who didn’t look a thing like him—peed on it, his wife got angry and kicked the leg, and he got drunk and stayed up on it a few times. “But how am I seeing you, man?” he asked. I told him the truth. “You’re dead too.” Tears ran down his face when he found out he wouldn’t live past forty. But Seong-min was still laughing. (I tried laughing with them too. And I took a quick trip to the other side of the world. My god, I ran into these four kids stealing a sofa from their principal’s office.) The laughter finally died down, and the guys had no idea why they’d been laughing in the first place. But after they laughed, they started feeling confident: “We could even fly to the moon.”

 

Translated by Slin Jung

Author's Profile

Yoon Sung-hee has authored the novels Spectators and First Sentence and the short story collections A House Made of LEGOs, Over There Is It You?, Cold, While They Laughed, and Resting on a Pillow. She has received the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Today’s Young Artists Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and Hwang Sun-Won Literary Award. Spectators was published in Spanish as Espectadores (2017).