I go to the convenience store. At most a few times a day, at least about once a week, I go to the convenience store. And of course, in between whiles, I always end up needing something.
Seoul, 2003, when appointments and chance encounters and disasters disappeared like someone else’s moving boxes. To us, staring vacantly at our empty hands, came the convenience store, like a legend the origin of which was lost in the mists of time. Like a husband’s mistress seated in the family living room, playing innocent. Or else like time vacuum-sealed in food cans. Nothing to arouse suspicion.
For Seoulites in 2003, habit became an issue as important as salvation. And so the pallid ones, who are constantly racking their brains to address the issues faced by the Seoulites of 2003, gave us the convenience store. Many at that. And they appeared in an instant.
Countless people come and go at the convenience store. Who are they? It’s impossible to know for sure, but they must all be people with at least one photo album of their own. People who, while running in second place at the school sports day, were startled to make eye contact with the kid in first place looking back; or else scrounged money from their sibling to meet up with a girl; or looked at the questions on only the first page of every mock exam book they got; the sort to have searched for words like “genitals” or “sexual intercourse” in the dictionary, despite knowing full well what they meant. Or people who will one day. But we cannot recognize each other. That kind of thing hasn’t become a habit for us — not yet.
People I could have met once, or maybe not, dropping into the convenience store a few times a day. Among them, there will be a young couple eating cup ramyeon after having sex in a private video room, and there might be a woman buying some milk, thirsty after having an abortion at the nearby hospital, then an unemployed bachelor out to buy cigarettes after getting a scolding from his father, or an artist who cloaks his work in anonymity, someone who’s just lost his job, a spy, perhaps even Jesus disguised as a beggar. But the convenience store doesn’t ask. It is truly the warmest, most magnanimous welcome.
This place is a residential neighborhood near a university. There are a grand total of three convenience stores here. Centered around the housing development, the three convenience stores form a triangle, less than thirty meters apart from each other. An LG25 is beside the housing development, a Family Mart is right across the road from it, and a 7-Eleven is just a little way from Family Mart.
In a straight line from the housing development is LG25, turn once and you get to Family Mart, turn again and there is 7-Eleven.
I can’t remember when the three convenience stores appeared here. Things were constantly appearing and disappearing in this place, and shops that appeared once would then appear again. Cheap B&Bs, PC lounges, coffee kiosks, pubs, churches … From some moment or other the convenience stores came to sit among these shops like a neatly dressed transfer student.
The store I most often went to was 7-Eleven. There was no reason in particular, just because of the location; on my way home, it was the store that would first catch my eye. I always popped into the convenience store at the hour of day when homebound cars formed a long twinkling Christmas garland on the road. On the way home, the 7-Eleven would be standing there, its sign shining bright. That place, baring its insides through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, as though it had nothing to hide. As I passed by 7-Eleven I’d begin to doubt, “Could there really not be one thing I need among all those many items?” Then, like a teacher gently patting a student’s head, telling him the correct answer to a math problem he got wrong, 7-Eleven would send me away with something in hand.
I’ve got toilet paper at home, but you never know when it’ll all get used up, so I’d buy toilet paper. I don’t have any rice ready at home, but since rice is something one always cooks to eat, I’d buy a can of tuna. Since I’ve bought a can of tuna I’m going to have to eat it with rice, and if I have a meal like that I’m going to want to wash it down with something sweet, so I’d buy some yoghurt to drink.
One day the owner of the 7-Eleven in his green uniform vest spoke to me.
As our eyes met unexpectedly, the barcode reader in his hand scanned the cup ramyeon with a practiced swipe.
“You live around here?”
He had copper-colored skin and a well-padded frame. As I handed over the 650 won for the cup ramyeon, I said “Yes,” and hurried out of the 7-Eleven. But from then on, every time I went to the 7-Eleven, the man started talking to me when I went to pay.
“You a student?”
“Here at K University?”
“Which university are you at, then?”
I vaguely answered with the name of a university. And after that I thought, oh god, surely the next question won’t be “What are you studying?” He asks,
“What are you studying?”
No doubt if I said I was majoring in literature he’d give an impassioned speech about his literary outlook, and if I said I was majoring in art he’d roll out whatever famous artist he knew. If I said event planning or international relations I’d be pelted with even more questions, like, “What’s that all about?” “When did that major appear?” “What do you do after graduating in that then?” and then later he’d say that he “knows” me.
I lied to him. Culinary engineering. With that he tried a joke,
“O-ho! Then you must be great at keeping house!” The man started to go on, “So, when are you due to gradua …”
If at that very moment the microwave hadn’t let out a ping, and a well-heated plastic bowl of microwave rice hadn’t been safely handed to me, he might even have gotten as far as asking, “So, what’s your favorite position?” As I began to hurry away, carrying a plastic bag with a 7-Eleven logo, he was talking to the high school girl who’d been waiting behind me in line.
“How’s your older sister? The one at that city university …”
From then on, I stopped going to 7-Eleven.
A mobile snack stall appeared between the LG25 and the housing development. Selling things like tteokbokki, sundae, and chewy fishcakes in clear broth, it was run by an elderly mother and her young son. The stall was always busy with people sick of the instant midnight snacks of the convenience stores. When I got hungry in the night, I went too, of course. There I bought exactly two thousand won worth of deep-fried ugly dumplings mixed in with tteokbokki. The mother and son didn’t ask me what I was studying, but when I bought tteokbokki they would add an extra fried dumpling or deep-fried sweet potato slice. Adding something extra to my serving, the old woman would always lower her upper body toward me as I stood on the other side of the stall.
Just like any other time, I went to the food stall to buy tteokbokki. That day, the son was running the stall all by himself. The son looked to be in his late twenties and was fair complexioned, but had an unrefined way of speaking. As he was coating the fried ugly dumplings with spicy tteokbokki sauce, like the 7-Eleven owner had done in the past, he began to ask me this and that. I responded inattentively to his questions. Like his old mother always did, he bent forward to add some thing extra to my order.
I held my breath until he returned to his usual posture. He asked me what I was studying. After hesitating for a moment, I lied: “Korean literature.” With genuine curiosity, he asked me what you can do with a degree in Korean literature. I blurted out whatever came to mind, “Well, you can become an academic, or maybe a journalist, or else a teacher.” Thinking about it now, it was said in a tone that had no sincerity, but it didn’t have any ill will either. But behind the steam billowing up from the vat of soup, the man’s expression darkened. Standing before me, stirring away at the fishcake broth with a long ladle, he thought for a while, and then spoke in a depressed tone.
“I graduated from university, too. I’m just doing this for a simple life.”
An awkward silence swept between us for a moment.
From then on, I didn’t go to the food stall anymore.
After that, all of a sudden it became a problem whether or not I should greet them when I walked past, the son in particular. If I did start saying hello it would become a real pain, having to do it every time I walked through that bottleneck a few times each day, but then I was worried about how they’d see me if I didn’t. When I had to walk by the thought would start bugging me from a few meters away. But I passed without a word. To me that was the more natural, more comfortable thing to do. If they and I spotted each other we’d avoid each other’s gaze and pretend ignorance, as if by common agreement.
The second convenience store I frequented was Family Mart. In the Family Mart, the person at the counter was a woman who looked to be in her late forties. The woman had loosely permed hair and tattooed eyebrows. Surrounded by merchandise on all sides, the woman always looked dead bored. I sometimes ate cup ramyeon there with my back turned to the woman, to get out of range of her bad temper.
Family Mart did the slowest business of the three convenience stores. It was probably because, unlike the 7-Eleven, the owner was unnecessarily unfriendly. There was just one time when the Family Mart got reasonably busy. It was when the LG25 shop across the street closed. The LG25 store sign had been taken down and the insides were being completely done up at a brisk pace. The very first thing the Family Mart woman did then was to remove the plastic tables where customers could sit and eat their instant ramyeon or rice porridge. The woman had gotten busy, and the plastic tables where customers would eat and kill time had suddenly become an annoyance. That woman probably couldn’t even have imagined that a few months later the far bigger and brighter Q-Mart would appear in LG25’s place. After the opening of the Q-Mart across the road, business at Family Mart quieted down again to how it had been before. But I kept going to Family Mart. Because someone who lives alone as I do needs a fixed line of movement, fixed habits. What made me stop going to Family Mart was when the woman asked to see my ID when I put a pack of condoms on the counter. The reason I was buying condoms at the convenience store in the first place was because the vending machine at the subway station was too far away, and I didn’t have the courage to go into, or the audacity to come out of, an adult specialty store. Thinking that a moment of embarrassment was better than being irresponsible, I defiantly put down the pack of condoms as if to show my hand in a card game; just then the storekeeper who looked bored out of her mind, maybe because she really was bored, asked me with a look of suspicion,
“How old are you?”
As I fumbled with my wallet trying to get out my ID card, aware of the curious looks from people in line behind me wondering what was taking me so long to pay, I broke out in greasy sweat. In an instant that woman had carelessly shamed a female customer who’d contemplated the purchase of a single box of condoms ten times over, and even bought snacks she didn’t need along with it. From then on, in addition to 7-Eleven, I stopped going to Family Mart altogether. For large-chain convenience stores, be it 7-Eleven or Family Mart, losing a single customer was no big problem, but still, at the time I thought of my boycott like some terrible revenge. The feeling that every time I bought something at Family Mart the woman would be thinking to herself, “It’s the girl who bought condoms, the girl who bought condoms” — well, that also probably played a part in my not going there anymore.
So, through these timid and trivial experiences, with fair enough reason, my last convenience store of choice became Q-Mart. The first defining feature of Q-Mart was its automatic door. Like a beast with a keen sense of smell, the automatic door at Q-Mart would be all curled up, and then if a customer peeped in it swooshed open wide, with a woof. The automatic door always opened as if to offer salvation.
The couple who ran Q-Mart were in their late forties. They probably opened Q-Mart with voluntary redundancy payouts from the financial crisis a few years back. I couldn’t know for sure. But because the couple had such a gentle physiognomy, I grew certain about my guess. People with such personalities, seldom suspecting anyone even at that age, tend to have always lived in environments that make them soft. They don’t know about fraud, betrayal, exploitation, or inequality. They are probably people who’ve earned as much as the effort they put in, or else more than they really worked for. There is a kind of cruelness hidden in this softness, one that they themselves are unaware of. Even if that isn’t the truth, the reason I force it into truth is that having done so my circumstances feel less painful by comparison. In that respect, without realizing, in such moments I might resemble one of the Black youths who looted Koreatown during the ‘92 LA riots. By disparaging this soft couple, I’m able to be less envious of their environment. I am honest and so poor, and they are rich from their dishonesty. Virtue is my reward; values are like the merchandise in the convenience store, so they can be exchanged in the same way.
The second thing about Q-Mart was the music. There was always music playing inside Q-Mart, usually quiet relaxing classical music. The music in Q-Mart makes the customers linger longer by the products. Like slowly bending down to pick up pretty leaves on a walking path, at Q-Mart my movements picking up a pack of Yangban gim or Jeju SamDaSoo bottled water become elegant. The reason I feel a kind of reassurance every time I go to the convenience store is probably because, by going there I think that I am buying everyday life, rather than merchandise. As I walk home rustling a plastic bag, I become not a struggling student or a woman living in solitude, not anything but an ordinary consumer and denizen of the city of Seoul. At the convenience store I buy KleanNara toilet paper, Io drinking yoghurt, the ten-liter rubbish bags issued by the Dongdaemun district office, NiceFeel sanitary pads, and Dove soap.
The final thing about Q-Mart is the part-timer. The employee there is a disinterested young man in his mid-twenties who doesn’t say much. He isn’t a handsome hunk, but he’s got the kind of face where the more you look right at it the more you feel a kind of warmth. But without reason to stare right at it, he’s got one of those faces that you can see going past a few times every five minutes if you stand at the subway station. Of course, whether he’s the fairest of them all or the ugliest around has nothing to do with me. What’s important to me is simply whether he’s talkative or not. The young man at Q-Mart only says to me what is completely necessary. Things like, “That’ll be 2,500 won” or “Shall I microwave this?” or “Need a straw?” I like that a lot. When he puts the barcodes of different products up to the scanner, the monitor facing the customer shows everything, the price of each item and the total amount to pay. If we’d wanted to, there was no need for us to say anything at all.
The till at Q-Mart was usually occupied by that young man. The owners weren’t there much of the time. It might have been that I saw the young man so often because his part-time shifts and my trips to the convenience store coincided.
Wearing the green uniform work vest with the Q-Mart logo, he fits right in with Q-Mart. He is formal and professional, and that is sometimes sexy to me. Sometimes with his Times New Roman way of speaking, sometimes with silence, sometimes with his social rank conveyed by the uniform — that “wearing” a certain role makes me imagine the body hidden underneath.
Having only been going to Q-Mart, I once went back to 7-Eleven for the first time in ages. I suddenly wanted to eat the triangle-shaped gimbap sold there. The three convenience stores all had pretty much the same stuff, but there were some products that varied a little. While there were places with loads of imported products, there were others where Korean products were the main attraction, and others with lots of good options for midnight snacking. In the middle of the night, when I jaywalked across the road in my tracksuit to 7-Eleven, the owner smiled broadly at me like he always had done.
“Long time no see.”
I gave a slight nod as a polite response. Taking strength from my reaction he asked again, tenderly.
“Why haven’t you been coming by?”
After picking out the gimbap I took a look around the store. Everything was in its right place, and also where it always was.
“That’ll be 700 won.”
The man by the till stared straight at me. He was waiting eagerly for my payment. As the twinkle in his eyes was so naïve, as though I just thought of it, I started fishing around in my jacket. But there was nothing at all in the pockets. I searched here and there in my clothing trying to find my wallet. In front of the man, smiling as he looked at me being all flustered, I broke out in cold sweat.
“Um … I think I forgot to bring my wallet.”
When I made the excuse in a feeble voice, the man gently pulled the triangle-shaped gimbap towards him in a stealthy sweep and said,
“You’d better go get it.”
Q-Mart is around 700 square feet in size. Along the walls on both sides of the store are huge glass-fronted chillers and freezers. Arranged inside are mainly things like dairy products and frozen foods. Against the wall farthest from the automatic door, there is another tall chiller. That one’s mainly for soft drinks. Behind the glass wall with the automatic door, there’s another freezer and inside that is ice cream. So it’s like the inside of Q-Mart is enveloped in a square of giant chillers and freezers. And in that it’s not particularly different from other convenience stores. The convenience store is a place where a different kind of time passes than in the outside world.
The counter at Q-Mart is right inside the automatic door. Behind the counter various spirits and cigarettes are on display, and to the right there’s a rapid phone charging station. On the front face of the counter there are newspapers and lottery tickets. The newspapers are displayed down below, meaning customers hold out the bottled water, toilet paper, and razors they want to buy over Chan Ho Park’s beard, over President Kim Dae-jung’s smile, or over the bowed head of a rock star caught taking drugs.
After returning from a visit to my hometown I realized I’d left my phone charger behind. A call came from home saying they’d send it to me. For the time until the parcel arrived I decided to charge my phone at the rapid charging station at Q-Mart. Each of the convenience stores was equipped with such a phone charging station. It cost one thousand won for a thirty-minute charge. I gave my phone to the young man at Q-Mart. Wearing that green vest, the young man opened the back of my phone to check what kind of battery it had and then put it into one of the compartments in the charging station.
“What should I use as the secret code?” the young man asked.
Not knowing I’d need to make a code for charging my phone too, I couldn’t think of anything and was getting flustered. With his finger poised above the keypad the young man looked at me blankly.
I blurted out, “Zero-seven-two-four.”
That was my birthday. Mumbling “Zero-seven-two-four …” the young man pushed the maybe “secret” maybe “code,” who knows, into the machine. I watched for a moment as he fingered my birthday.
“Can I pay?”
A guy pushed in front of me. The guy handed over a baby bottle and the young man scanned it. Curious what the guy buying the baby bottle looked like, I turned my head but he’d already hurried out. Having taken my 1,000-won payment, the young man no longer had any business with me. I stood waiting at the counter for the thirty minutes to pass. When I got embarrassed standing right in front of the young man like that, I snooped around inside Q-Mart, pretending to be looking at the products on sale. On my way around I must have gone too close to the automatic door, so it swooshed open. Taken aback, as if to prove my innocence, I took big deliberate strides backwards. But the young man didn’t really pay me any attention. Having wandered around the aisles of metal shelves for a while, I bought a few more items that I had no real use for.
After thirty minutes the phone charger finally flashed, signaling the charging was complete, and the young man requested once more.
At the same time as I whispered “Zero-seven-two-four …,” a man said, “Can I pay?”
The man had put five packs of toothpicks on the counter. It was the “university graduate” bachelor from the food stall I hadn’t been going to for a while. Our eyes met. Thankfully he left quickly, pretending not to have noticed me.
A few times after that, I went back to Q-Mart to charge my phone. With the high-speed charge my battery didn’t last that long. The young man would ask for a secret code and every time I answered with the same “zero-seven-two-four.” Even after I got the package from my home in the countryside, in fact a few times more, I charged my phone at Q-Mart.
Frequenting Q-Mart, the biggest delusion I was under was thinking that because I hadn’t said anything about myself to the green-vested young man, my private life wouldn’t have been revealed in the slightest. As far as I knew, Q-Mart was a world of “Welcome” and “Thank you.” It was only proper that his interest should be in the items he was selling, my interest in the items I was buying. But having been a regular customer at Q-Mart for some time, I realized that without my awareness or will, my information was being run through that scanner he held day after day. For example, he knew all my preferences. Things like, which bottled water I like best among the four or five types on offer, whether the drinking yoghurt I often buy is strawberry flavor or apple, which I preferred between black rice and plain white rice. If he wanted, he could also work out the size of my room. Always buying the ten-liter rubbish bags, there’s no way I could be living in a large room. He’d also be able to know my relationship status. A woman who comes in at all hours of the night to buy microwave rice, a young woman who buys her own household necessities, that woman only taking one set of disposable chopsticks would surely be single and living alone. He knows my hometown, too. When I went to send a box of winter clothes back home for storage, he confirmed my address as he took the service charge. He knows the frequency of my periods. He sees me as I buy sanitary pads at regular intervals. He sees me putting a pack of condoms on the counter face down. From my food habits to my sex life, he “sees” everything. Because the convenience store is a place that sells everything. By the virtue of Q-Mart being my most long-running regular place to shop, without having a single conversation, without saying a word about myself, he’s come to know more about me than any other. He might even know habits of mine I’m not aware of myself.
He doesn’t ask what I’m studying. I want to tell him. It would distinguish me from just some woman who comes in to buy rubbish bags. I’m not saying I want to start some love affair with him. Just that I’ve become displeased with him knowing so much about my personal life. His knowing all and staying silent, his indifference, has come to feel unconvincing. I became curious about the young man who doesn’t say anything during the one minute and thirty seconds it takes to heat a pack of rice in the microwave, or the twenty seconds it takes to warm a carton of Seoul Milk. I take my insides out in front of you multiple times a day and reveal my eating habits and excretions, but you, there in your green uniform, are always indifferent. I don’t know a single thing about you. But in a neighborhood where they know me at 7-Eleven as the student of culinary engineering, at the food stall as the student majoring in Korean literature, at Family Mart as the woman who bought condoms and looked underage, where everyone knows different things, he’s the only one who might actually know the slightest truth.
I imagine. One day, in the middle of the road faced by all three of the convenience stores, a woman is hit by a car and killed. All three of the store owners, so the witnesses, come out testifying that they “know” her, but all their statements are different. In their mismatched testimonies the convenience store owners will start to doubt their memories, and change their minds, saying that actually, no, they “don’t know” her. In the face of three such denials, then, what happens to the woman? Who does she become? It’s just like the way that, as he texts with his back to the counter, no one can know who the recipient of that convenience store young man’s heart is. Even if someone was to run out into the road right now, curious about all this, the answer wouldn’t be found. And so I don’t go out into the middle of the road, I go into the convenience store instead.
It was Christmas night and Seoul was frozen solid. The street was quiet, the neighborhood deserted, with everyone celebrating downtown. Such-and-such insurance company had been advertising since autumn that if it snowed on Christmas Day, they’d give all their policyholders a payout. Snow had been falling since morning, and my younger sister who’d recently taken the university entrance exam was coming to Seoul to visit some cram academies for students retaking the exam. The plan was that she would first come to my place and spend the night, go to Noryangjin the next day to find out about the different options, and then go back down to our hometown. Having already gotten the call that she was on her way, I strolled between the PC lounge and eateries nearby, not straying out of the neighborhood. But at around ten p.m., not long after the call from my sister saying that she had just arrived in Seoul on the last bus, I got an urgent phone call from a friend. In an agonized voice she complained of a stomachache and asked me to come over. I grabbed my cash card and phone and set out. But for a moment I didn’t know what to do. My younger sister didn’t have a key to my room. If it was just a matter of an hour or two I could have told her to go wait at a PC lounge, but there was no way of knowing how long I might be at the hospital with my friend. On top of that, my sister didn’t know her way around Seoul. I could try leaving the key with one of the shops I often went to, but it was already late in the evening and being Christmas, most would have been closed all day anyway. I didn’t want to leave my door key with just anyone. Not knowing what to do, I hesitated by the door. And just then only one person came to mind — the green vest-wearing young man at Q-Mart. He was one of the few people in this neighborhood who knew me. I headed straight there.
When I got to Q-Mart, the young man was tending shop on his own. He was scanning a plastic-tray dosirak; he took cash from his pocket and put it into the till. It seemed he was taking the opportunity to have a meal while it was quiet. When I stood in front of the counter catching my breath, the young man looked at me as though I was strange. I hesitated for a moment and then began to speak in a murmur.
“Um, excuse me but, I’ve got a favor to ask.”
Not putting down the packed meal he was preparing to eat, he said to me,
Before broaching the subject of the key, I thought it would help if I explained first how well we knew each other.
“You know me, right?”
Still holding the plastic packed meal, he stared into my face.
“I … live around here … always bought Jeju SamDaSoo water and This Plus cigarettes …” The young man’s expression was still blank, so I started needling him, “I’d buy KleanNara toilet paper and always only 10-liter trash bags, and when I bought microwave rice it was always the one with black grains in it — you know me, don’t you?”
He wore an awkward frown, as though he was trying to remember a woman he’d spent a drunken night with. And then, at last, he opened his mouth,
“Sorry Miss, but SamDaSoo and This are things everyone buys.”
The words brought me up short. He stared at me serenely. The key that I couldn’t hand over was still in my pocket, my palm holding it sweaty.
Around that time, the snack stall disappeared. There was talk that they had opened a big eatery in a different neighborhood, that the convenience store owners had reported them to the authorities, or that the old mother must have fallen ill. I was a little curious about what became of them, but felt relieved that I’d no longer have to deal with the discomfort of passing by the stall.
Exactly six days after Christmas, I was lying in bed doing nothing at all. With no television in my room, I was just curled up idly under my quilt. A news broadcast covering the New Year’s events was leaking in intermittently from next door. The anchor’s voice was all aglow with the excitement of seeing in the New Year. Just like at Christmas, everyone would have packed into the city center where there’d be things happening. Feeling thirsty, I groped around in my mini refrigerator. Inside there was a solitary, empty water bottle. I stayed snuggled in the covers for a while and then in the end I got up. I left wearing a warm jacket, with my phone and a few thousand-won notes shoved into my pocket. Now I was up I felt slightly hungry, too. When I stepped out into the street it was snowing.
Q-Mart was quiet. Eleven p.m. on the 31st of December 2002. In the completely empty convenience store the young part-timer in the green work vest had his head down texting someone. Along with his message the time it arrived would be forwarded to the recipient. I passed through the long aisle and stood in front of the chiller cabinet. I picked up a bottle of water, and from the next chiller I took out a packaged portion of dumplings. When I got to the till the young man stopped writing his text message and put his phone up on the shelf behind him. Remembering the incident at Christmas, I tried to gauge what he was thinking. It looked as though, just like that time, he didn’t recognize me at all. Or else he was acting indifferent. But it didn’t matter which it was now. My friend had recovered in no time, and with the help of the landlord my younger sister was able to get into my room. The young man held the bottle of water to the barcode reader. That moment there was a buzzing signal. In the middle of what he was doing, the young man turned to the shelf behind him and checked his phone.
“That’s 2,800 won.”
Having checked the message the young man wore a slightly disappointed expression, and took out a carrier bag.
“Heat it up for me please.”
I held out the packaged dumplings. There was a gospel hymn playing in the convenience store. It was just him and me inside. Leaning against the bar table along the window, I looked at the scene outside. The street was empty. As soon as I moved from the till to the table the young man took up his phone again and started pressing on the keypad. Like you would when someone has just sat down on the seat next to you on an intercity bus, the seat where you had your bag, I just stared out of the window. The cars were racing by at whatever speed they liked. Every time one passed the thin layer of snow on the ground was swept up in a flurry. The 7-Eleven sign was shining brightly as usual, and the pea green sign of the Family Mart was also dazzling to the eyes. The young man checked his phone a few times more, but there was no sound to indicate an incoming message.
Someone came into Q-Mart. It was a man in his late twenties wearing a blue baseball cap pulled down low. The man passed along the metal shelves picking out this and that.
It was just then, out on the road there was a sudden screech. Me, the young Q-Mart clerk and the man in the baseball cap all looked outside. Beyond the glass wall of the convenience store, right in front of our eyes, a high school girl rose into the air and was thrown down on the asphalt. In front of the crossing, there was a silver Sonata stopped as if in shock. Then, as though recovering its senses, the Sonata suddenly began to make a break for it at full speed. The young Q-Mart clerk ran straight outside. I just stood there frozen to the spot. Through the window I could see people starting to gather. Among them was the woman from Family Mart. It looked like people were using their phones to call the police, their lovers, their families. The girl’s head was smashed, and her pale lower body was on display beneath her upturned school uniform skirt. People were forming a circle around the scene, but perhaps because it was so gruesome, no one approached her.
I went over to the counter. The man with a blue baseball cap worn low had just taken a fistful of the lottery scratch cards displayed on the counter and was shoving them inside the chest of his jacket. I hurriedly turned towards a display on the shelves, but at the same time an incoming text alert sounded from the phone on the shelf. For an instant, the blue baseball cap man and I made eye contact. It was as though I’d stopped breathing. Again, I tried to avoid his gaze, but with a ping the microwave stopped turning. In the taut gaze between us that sound jumped out light and clear, as though from the well-glued string of a musical instrument. The small deep-set eyes met mine. In this place where all things were fresh, for some reason his eyes looked utterly wounded. And … I’d seen him somewhere before. Pretending to keep cool, I scoured my memory for where I’d seen his face. Where was it? Did I see him at Family Mart? At LG25? Where was it again? But I couldn’t remember him. Only the thought slipped past that he, too, like me, might be someone who doesn’t exist if there is no convenience store. Soon afterward the young man came back inside Q-Mart, short of breath. The blue baseball cap man and I stood docile by the counter.
“Did you see? Her panties are on full show.”
Without the slightest response to the young Q-Mart clerk’s agitation, the blue baseball cap man paid for a pack of gum and rushed out. I stood completely still for a while, my face drained of all color. Having been staring at my face, as if the thought had suddenly occurred to him, the clerk went over to the microwave.
I took the packet of heated dumplings he held out to me. Even after my transaction was complete I stood motionless in front of the young man, and he stared at me as though I was being odd. I thought it wouldn’t be right for me not to say anything to him. But my mind drew a complete blank. After what felt like ages, I blurted out an evasive line and left.
“You got a text.”
Only then did I approach the scene. There was still a large crowd gathered, and on the road snow was falling on a steaming puddle of blood. The snow melted as soon as it touched the blood. The strange thing was that the Family Mart woman was extremely worked up. Pointing at the schoolgirl, lying there with her eyes wide open like a wooden horse at the circus stunned by an air rifle shot, the woman was loudly explaining something to the crowd.
“Would you believe it, she asked me to go get her a box of coke, so I went to the storeroom, and in that time she’d taken a load of cigarettes and run off. So I went after her, and because she was in such a hurry she just ran out into the road.”
It seemed the police car and ambulance hadn’t arrived yet. The schoolgirl who’d stolen cigarettes was still left untouched on the road, and the people who’d gathered around shooed away the kids who came out to get a look. Just then I saw the blue baseball cap man, who’d been waiting at the lights to cross the road, walking towards the schoolgirl. I watched him carefully. The man, who a moment ago had stolen a fistful of lottery scratch cards, who had a weight of despair heaped up in his chest, was getting closer and closer to the schoolgirl, who lay on the road with her head smashed in and her legs open, her panties on display. I watched the figure of the blue baseball cap man in a state of high alert. He made his way through the crowd, went over to the schoolgirl and stooped down. Then he carefully lowered the schoolgirl’s skirt, which had been thrown up on her chest.
Even after the man came and went, the schoolgirl’s eyes were still wide open.
I went to the convenience store the next day, and the day after that. No incident took place there in the meantime. The green-vested young man at Q-Mart changed a few times, but because the men there always wore the green work vest, it didn’t matter. I went to charge my phone there a few more times, but the owners got rid of the charging station and started selling disposable phone batteries. There were a few heavy snows, long rains and fogs, but it didn’t matter because they were nothing unexpected. If, once in a while you want to hear some “talk,” go to the 7-Eleven with the chatty owner.There you might see a teacher who expelled two kids who were caught locked in each other’s arms in a video room eating instant cup ramyeon; a man who forced his woman to have an abortion, thirsty, coming in to buy beer; and that unemployed youth, still getting scolded by his father, will come in, having run out of cigarettes again. And with that, this record about nothing taking place will finally become trivial.
In that place where there has never been a public holiday, I — in that place that pretends to know what I need, I — didn’t really meet anyone, never held anyone close. In between trips to the convenience store, I had a breakup, went to see him again, and realized that I am capable of wanting to kill someone. But no one knows any of this. That warmest, most magnanimous welcome is so unfamiliar that I hover around not knowing where to look. If you happen to go to the convenience store, take a good look around you. When the woman beside you buys water in the convenience store, it’s for taking pills, and when the man behind you buys razor blades at the convenience store, they’re for slitting his wrists, and when the boy in front of you buys toilet paper, it’s for wiping his sick old mother’s behind. At least, you never know. You can call this to mind sometimes, or not, it’s all the same. Q-Mart, 7-Eleven, Family Mart, won’t know. The convenience store doesn’t care about me, it cares about water, toilet paper, and razor blades. And so I go to the convenience store. At most a few times a day, at least about once a week, I go to the convenience store. And strangely enough, in between whiles, I always end up needing something