LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE

SHORT STORY

I Go to the Convenience Store

corner

At the eightieth birthday party for my mum’s oldest brother, my relatives kept telling me over and over how well I looked. Every time, I responded with, “I quit smoking last year. It was my New Year’s resolution and I’ve kept it.” No one asked after Mum. If my uncles had happened to ask how she was getting on, I would have responded, “Yeah, she’s gotten ten years younger. Even her laughter lines are gone. If she keeps at it she’ll become even younger than my stepdad.” Mum asked me to tell them that she’d caught the flu but I didn’t. Mum’s brothers, who’d once so cherished their baby sister, couldn’t bring themselves to ask me how she was. After all, it had been those same uncles who flipped the dinner table. The soup from a spicy seafood stew had splattered in all directions, and my stepdad scrubbed the wallpaper for a whole day. He even left a query in an internet forum saying, ‘Please tell me how to remove kimchi juice stains from wallpaper.’ One of the comments said, ‘Re-paper the wall.’ An even funnier response was, ‘Cover the stain with a picture frame.’ Funny huh? “Maybe we really should hide the whole mess with a picture frame. That would be nicer to look at.” My stepdad laughed. Mum didn’t. I laughed. What he said wasn’t funny, but it still made me laugh. The stains on the wallpaper came out completely. Even still, I bought them a load of ten picture frames. Saying they had no photos to put in them, Mum and my stepdad started traveling, and as the number of photos taken at their holiday destinations increased they also started collecting pretty frames. In the end the living room walls were covered with picture frames. My uncles wouldn’t know that, because they had turned over the dinner table, their youngest sibling and her husband had come to spend at least ten days out of every thirty off on holiday. They had nothing much else to say when they saw me, so my uncles just kept telling me that I looked well.

And with that my aunts, who were sitting at their sides, followed up with more. “Did something good happen?” “You look really well.” And my cousins, who were slowly becoming carbon copies of my uncles. My cousins’ wives and husbands, too. “You must be doing well.” “Your face looks better somehow.” And I, too, would respond with the same line. “Yes, I’m well. I gave up smoking last year.” I stood in front of the mirror in the toilet and examined my face for a long time. My reflection didn’t look well at all.

My older cousin, who was sitting at the same table, came back from the buffet with a plate piled high with grilled short ribs. Sang-hyeon was my third uncle’s youngest son. Word had it that he’d quit his seventy-million won a year office job to go down to the countryside and farm grey mullet. I was curious what kind of fish grey mullet were, but I didn’t ask. With the ribs to accompany his soju, my cousin finished off a whole bottle. There were only bones left on the plate. I ate smoked salmon salad. Having heard repeatedly how well I looked, I didn’t reach out for the meats on offer at the buffet. “Do you know who the first person was to give me alcohol?” I said to my cousin. He asked who it was. I pointed at him. “Me? I don’t remember it.” He said that and got up from the table. It was when I was ten, or maybe eleven. I can’t remember what kind of gathering it was, but I do remember very clearly my cousin giving me beer. Every time I took a gulp my cousin put a peanut in my mouth. A few moments later, Sang-hyeon came back with some beef tartare. With the raw beef dish as our drinking snack we shared a bottle of soju. “You should come visit. Grey mullet is more delicious than salmon. You can eat as much as you want.” Sang-hyeon gave me his business card. I put it inside my phone case.

My fourth eldest uncle, the head teacher at an elementary school, got up and sang a song. It was a song titled ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie.’ Before the song had even finished my eldest uncle was in tears. “I have to hurry up and die if I’m to see my son.” Because this was an over thirty-year-old drunk habit of his, none of my relatives tried to stop him. I had a photograph of my cousin who had died in the sea at twenty-seven, having gone to the beach with some friends. When I was in the second year of middle school, my mum was in a car accident and had to spend some time in hospital. She broke her leg and hip. The hospital was near my eldest uncle’s house, and because they had an empty room, since my cousin and his wife had moved into their own place, I lived at their home for a while, until my mum came out of hospital. On days when I didn’t want to go to school, I’d hide in my dead cousin’s bedroom and sleep all day long. And then when I woke up, I’d go through the desk drawers. That was when I stole the photograph. My cousin was standing on top of a big rock with his arms folded. His hair was short. Like a soldier. As the photo was taken from below the rock, looking upwards, his legs looked long. In the photograph, the finger of whoever was taking it was also captured. I gazed more often at that finger than at my dead cousin’s face. A slender finger. Almost certainly that of a young woman. Did that woman cry when my cousin died? Did she go to the funeral hall? It had all happened before I was born.

Before I left for home I gave an envelope to my eldest uncle. “You don’t have any money.” My eldest uncle waved his hand. “Mum told me to pass it on to you.” I folded the envelope in half and tucked it into my uncle’s suit pocket. I shook hands with my cousin Su-hyeon who, with the untimely death of his older brother, had become the next in line to be head of the entire family. “All the best, cousin Su-hyeon.” “Why don’t you call me youngest uncle?” Su-hyeon joked. For some reason I had mistaken my cousin, who was already a young man by the time I was born, for my mum’s younger brother. When I would call out to him, “Youngest uncle!” my cousin would always say, “Yes?” Whenever that happened, all our relatives would burst out laughing and I could never understand why they all thought it was so funny. Everyone got caught up in teasing me, and not one of my relatives bothered to explain the truth. It was only at my grandfather’s funeral that I found out that he wasn’t my youngest uncle but actually my cousin, and the highest-ranking cousin in the family tree at that. “You couldn’t even pick up on that? Even though every man in the same generation has the same syllable in his name?” My other uncles all made fun of me, calling me an idiot. I cried. Because it was a day when it was alright to cry. “You did good to quit smoking.” “Take care.” All thirteen of my older cousins, male and female, each said, patting me on the shoulder. Their wives and husbands, too. When the thought occurred to me that the best thing I had done in my life was quit smoking, I felt a bit pathetic. It felt like I’d become a kid who had never once been complimented in his life. So, even when the bus home came, I didn’t get on, and just sat at the bus stop. I wanted to be, a little, cold. Want to cry. Want to see you. Want to sleep. Want to go. Want to leave… I thought up different lines with ‘want to’ in them. Achoo. I sneezed. My bus came for the seventh time, and mumbling, “I want to get on, I want to get on,” I got on the bus.

When I got back home, Jo was lying asleep on my bed. The thermostat had been turned up so high that the room was stifling. I tried nudging Jo’s leg with my foot. “Long time no see.” Jo didn’t get up. When Mum remarried and I said I would move out, it was Jo who was the happiest about it. The routine of having to kill time at a PC parlor whenever his parents argued was now over. Saying that it was a gift to mark my independence, he even got me a new electric lock for the door, one that opened with a code. Every time he came over he would go on about how he’d worked an extra job just to pay for it, but he’d also set his own birthday as the passcode. I turned down the thermostat and opened the window to let in some air. A kid with a blue rucksack was crouched down in the middle of the street examining something. A car stopped in front of the kid and didn’t move until the kid got up. They didn’t sound their horn. That driver is a good person, I thought. The number plate was 1732. Let’s have that as a lucky number this week. I decided that when I bought a lotto ticket I would definitely include the four numbers 1, 7, 3, and 2. Achoo. I sneezed. “Caught a cold?” Jo asked. I closed the window. Achoo. I sneezed again. “No. I’m alright. When did you wake up?” Turning around, I saw that Jo was still lying in the bed. “No, I didn’t sleep. I heard you coming in, too,” Jo said with his eyes closed. Having come and gone from here as though it was his own home, it was last summer when Jo had stopped dropping by. “I’m not coming over anymore until you get an air conditioner.” That was what he’d said, but that wasn’t the real reason. It was because he got a girlfriend. In order to buy dinner for his girlfriend,

in order to buy coffee, in order to go to the cinema together at weekends, Jo needed money. So he went to work at six every morning at his parents’ shop and fried savories. Courgette slices in egg batter, stuffed green chillies, mung bean pancakes, perilla leaves folded and stuffed with meat, kimchi pancakes, and flat meatballs. The things Jo fried were piled into boxes and delivered all over the country. Working and dating and sleeping. Working and dating and sleeping. In that space of time, summer passed and autumn passed and half of the winter had passed by too. I wasn’t hurt. It meant I was able to complete my last semester without a single absence. “Where’d you go?” Jo asked. I told him that I’d gone to my eldest uncle’s eightieth birthday party. “Was it a buffet place? Must’ve been good. I’ve been waiting for you without eating while you were off at a buffet.” Jo mumbled with his eyes still closed. “They would’ve had beef short ribs. And sushi. Did they have grilled prawns, too?” I covered Jo’s face with the quilt. “Be quiet, will you?” And with that Jo responded. “I’ll be quiet if you make me some ramyeon.”

I opened the refrigerator, looking for an egg, and there was some leftover stir-fried fishcake. I added it to the pan and boiled the instant noodles. “Come eat.” I set up the small table with a picture of Snoopy on it. It was a picture with Snoopy lying on the roof of his doghouse getting snowed on. When I ate alone I’d count the snowflakes on the table as I chewed on my food. If I did that I didn’t get indigestion. Originally I’d wanted to buy the one that had a picture of Schroeder playing the piano, but I couldn’t get hold of it. When I placed the ramyeon pan on top of Snoopy’s red kennel, Jo got up out of bed. His hair came down to his shoulders, as though he hadn’t had a hair cut in a long time. “What did you put in the ramyeon” Jo grumbled, picking out a bit of carrot that had been in the fishcake. “There were some leftovers so I just put them in. You like stir-fried fishcake anyway.” Jo said that he liked stir-fried fishcake and also liked ramyeon but he didn’t like ramyeon boiled up with my leftover stir-fried fishcake. Still, he ate heartily. Seeing Jo eat like that made me hungry. “I’ll just have one pinch.” I picked up as much as I could with my chopsticks and stuffed it into my mouth. After one mouthful I wanted to eat another and so I stuffed in another mouthful. Jo pointed at the pan with only salty soup left in it. “I didn’t even get to look at more than a few strands.” I added a bit more water to the remaining soup and boiled up another packet of ramyeon. I only put in half the soup powder. Watching Jo eat, in the end I stole another mouthful. “This jerk who’s had all he can eat at a buffet really has no conscience at all.” Jo grumbled. When the ramyeon was all finished I went over to my desk and took a piece of paper folded in half out of the drawer. “You have to count today as just one.” Jo said, but I added two lines. With that the five lines of another jeong character for ‘right and proper’ was completed, and that made nineteen in total. Ninety-five times. Jo promised to buy me something when I had made ramyeon for him a hundred times. “Do you want some more ramyeon” Jo lifted the covers and lay down again. I couldn’t be bothered to do the washing up so I pushed the table aside.

Sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed, I went back to the game I’d been playing the day before. Unable to break through the twenty-fifth level, it’d been two days and I still couldn’t progress to the next step. “Yeom?” Jo called my name. When I turned around, he took the pillow from under his head and gave it to me. “Sit with this behind your back. You’ll get backache. And you have to think simply if you want to break through that level.” After saying that, Jo closed his eyes again. I only had one pillow so when Jo slept over, I had to roll up a towel to use as a pillow. Jo was a terrible snorer, but strangely enough when he was using my pillow he didn’t snore. I turned over my phone to turn the screen upside down and stared at it for a long time. But even so I couldn’t see the answer. Then suddenly, I thought. He’s a guy who wouldn’t give up that pillow, no matter what... I tried putting my hand right above Jo’s nose. “You asleep? Are you sick?” I felt Jo holding his breath on purpose. I ended the game and went online to look at what the most popular searches were that day. “Jo, it says A’s going out with a man two years younger than her.” Jo liked the singer A, and about three years before he’d even been to her Christmas Eve concert on his own. He didn’t suggest we go together and I was genuinely grateful to Jo for that. “Yeah.” Jo responded. “Jo, apparently a high school student who stole bread from a convenience store committed suicide.” I said. “The owner of the convenience store didn’t go to the police but only on the condition that the student bring in a hundred times the price of the bread.” “Yeah.” Jo responded. “Jo, a thief stole a safe and was trying to make a getaway when he was crushed under the safe and died. Funny huh?” Jo responded with an uhuh. “But it turned out that there wasn’t a single penny in the safe. Even funnier huh?” Jo responded with, “No.” “Jo, there was a terrorist who made a bomb and sent it by post, but the postage wasn’t enough so it got returned to sender. He didn’t even realize it was the thing he posted himself and tried opening it, then the bomb went off and he was killed. Funny huh?” Jo didn’t make any response at all. “Jo, so you’re sleeping, huh?” And with that Jo responded. “I’m not asleep. And, that article’s strange. What terrorist would reveal his real address when sending a bomb in the post?” Hearing what Jo said, I realized it really was a strange article. “Strange. Strange.” Jo mumbled. “The more you say the word ‘strange’ over and over the stranger it sounds.” I said. I typed ‘strange things’ into the search bar. I went into a few of the blogs that came up, but there were lots of people just writing about how strange not very strange things were.

The sun went down. It had gotten dark but I couldn’t be bothered to get up so I didn’t turn on the light. A song with the title ‘Strange Things’ came up in the search so I gave it a listen. I listened to it once and then listened to it once again. As soon as the song finished the alarm beside my bed went off. It was an alarm clock my form tutor had bought for me when I was in the second year of high school because I was always late. Eight habitual latecomers received the gift of an alarm clock from the teacher, but we all kept being late. Jo sat up and hit the alarm clock with his palm. With that the alarm stopped. The alarm clock barely made it through two years before getting faulty, but that was already after I’d graduated from high school, so there wasn’t much reason for me to wake up early in the morning anyway. The faulty alarm clock went off at irregular intervals, and each time it rang I was reminded of things I’d completely forgotten, so in a way I was making good use of it. When I’d forgotten about leaving a pan on the stove. When I almost missed Mum’s birthday. When a TV show I had to watch was just about to start. If you want to talk about strange things, couldn’t you call that a strange thing? I was trying to think if there was anything I was forgetting today, when Jo got up out of bed. “Why? Turning on the light?” Jo flicked the switch. “No. Going home.” He said that and then turned the switch off again. “Jerk.” I got up and turned the light that Jo had turned off back on. I was about to hit Jo’s back as he was putting on his shoes, but I didn’t. Despite all that, he was a guy who’d sent my mum a box of assorted fried savories last Chuseok. It seemed Mum was secretly waiting to see if he would send another box this Lunar New Year. “I’ll see you off.” I picked up the jacket I’d thrown down on the floor. The jacket was warm. Jo said, “There’s no need.” “I’m only going because I’m bored.” I shoved my bare feet into my trainers.

The alleyway was narrow and dark and it took more than ten minutes to walk to the bus stop. “That’s why the rent’s cheap,” the landlord had told me when I came to see the room. “This neighborhood’s weird. How can every house have its own nameplate at the entrance?” We walked along the alleyway reading each and every one of the names on the nameplates. Every time Jo came over he’d deliberately take the longest route through the alleyways, and he said it was because on that way he went past a house that had a nameplate with his name on it. Following Jo, I turned right at the fork in the road into an alleyway. As I walked my feet got cold. After walking for a while Jo pointed out the nameplate with his name on it. “That’s my house. What do you think?” I could see a big red plastic basin stuck up on the roof. “What’s that?” Jo thought for a while and then responded, “That’s where I bathe in the summertime.” “Must be great. Already having bought a house in your twenties.” I patted Jo on the shoulder.

As soon as we got to the bus stop, Jo’s bus came. He didn’t take it. We perched on the bench at the bus stop and looked at people’s shoes. Three smart shoes. Five sneakers. Four boots. One pair of slippers. Slippers in the winter. Just the sight of it made you cold, and with that I realized that my bum was freezing. Another bus came. It stopped a little way past the bus stop. Jo walked slowly towards the bus. “Jo?” Looking at his back I called out to him without thinking. “What?” Jo looked back at me. In that time the bus left, leaving Jo behind. “Shall we have a drink?” I said. With that, Jo smiled.

We ordered two beers and a fried chicken. It was a place I’d been to with Jo last spring. That time Jo ate two whole fried chickens all by himself. Before the chicken they brought us out a bowl of some puffed snacks that looked like jawbreakers. Jo only picked out the green ones. Yellow, orange, red. We called these snacks traffic lights. I put a red one in my mouth. And I took a sip of beer. The snack in my mouth melted, making a crackling sound. Before the chicken had even arrived, Jo emptied a glass of beer. “Over here!” Jo shouted towards the counter. When the waiter approached, Jo lifted up his beer glass and put it down again. A little while later the waiter came back with the fried chicken and a fresh glass of beer. I finished the rest of my beer and gave the empty glass to the waiter. “They must use clean oil here. It’s tasty.” Jo could tell now just from the smell whether oil was fresh or not. “You’ve become an expert.” I told Jo that he should go on one of those TV programs where they search for food masters, that if he went on and won, then who knew, his parents’ shop could become famous. We shared the drumsticks peacefully, taking one each. A drink became two and then three. A couple of female students in school uniform came and sat at the table beside ours. “One spicy fried chicken and two half-liter beers over here please.” The waiter didn’t ask to see the students’ IDs and brought over the two beers. They clinked their glasses together so hard some of the beer spilled out. One of the students only ate the red snacks and the other only ate the green ones. “Over here, mister! Couldn’t you just give us red and green cherry corn please?” The owner stuck his head out of the kitchen and replied bluntly. “Nope.” The two of them finished their drinks in no time and ordered another. Jo lowered his head and whispered to me. “Aren’t they underage?” I said to Jo, “These snacks aren’t called traffic lights but cherry corn.” Cherry corn, of all things. They were nothing like cherries. “What does it matter whether it’s traffic lights or cherry corn or whatever? Selling alcohol to minors means they could lose their license.” I was about to tell Jo to think back to how old we were the first time we had a drink, but didn’t. It was at Jo’s parents’ place. Of course, we’d snuck in after the shop was closed. As though she’d heard our conversation, one of the students glared at me. “Don’t worry. Because we’re not high schoolers.” Apparently, the two of them had gone to high school together, and since graduating they occasionally put on their uniforms to meet up for a drink. They said that drinking wearing their school uniforms made the alcohol taste better. Hearing that, Jo apologized. In a short time the two women had swallowed down five beers and a whole fried chicken, and then left. “Bet they’ll keep going till they’ve been to five different places tonight.” Jo laughed. “How could anyone want to wear their school uniform again?” “Exactly.” As though he’d suddenly thought of something, Jo grinned. “I really don’t wanna go to school. Could you ask me why?” Jo said. “Why don’t you wanna go?” I asked. “Does there have to be a reason?” Jo shouted in a suddenly angry response. His voice was so loud that everyone on the other tables stared at us. We laughed into our hands. It was a game we’d often played when we were in high school. I don’t wanna eat lunch now, could you ask me why? Why don’t you wanna eat? And then you had to respond with anger. Does there have to be a reason? We called that “imitating Charlie Brown and friends.” We met in the first year of high school at a school club called “Peanuts.” On the poster advertising it, there was a picture of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, so we’d each thought it was a cartoon club and gone along, but it was an English study group, reading the “Peanuts” comics to learn English. Jo asked all kinds of questions to the students in the year above who led the group. Things like, how come Snoopy doesn’t get haemorrhoids when all he does all day is sit on his roof? After six months we were made to leave the group. In that time we became best friends, and we’d learned Charlie Brown and his friends’ way of speaking, so we could speak to each other like the characters in the cartoon. For instance, if we met in the canteen we’d say something like this. My food tray is always sixty centimeters away but sometimes it’s like it’s ninety centimeters away. “Shall we go out drinking in our school uniforms too?” Jo said. “Have you still got yours? Even if you do, you’ve gained weight so it won’t fit.” I counted my school and army uniforms as the two things I never ever wanted to wear again. “Oh yeah! There’s the army uniform, too.” Jo folded his arms and looked as though he was thinking of something. After ages, he opened his mouth. “Then how about going for a drink in our army uniforms?” I threw a red cherry corn at Jo’s face. “You must be crazy.” The red cherry corn hit Jo’s face and then fell into his beer. “Wearing our army uniforms and not uttering a word about the army. How about it? Whoever brings up the army has to pay for the drinks.” Jo took a gulp of beer. Hearing what Jo said, it seemed like that wouldn’t be too bad either. Because if there was a wager involved I was confident. “How about buying all the drinks for a month?” “Deal.” Jo responded to my suggestions. Never lost in a wager. I’d even written that on my resume for a game design company. I was sure I’d make it through to the interview but I didn’t get a phone call.

Before putting on my army uniform I sniffed it. Last year, when I came back from reserve forces training, I threw it into the bottom of my wardrobe without washing it, but luckily it didn’t stink of sweat. Even so I sprayed it with Febreze all over. As I stepped out the door, I remembered that I’d left my wallet in my jacket pocket. I’d win the bet anyway. Should I go back in or not? I hesitated a moment. I couldn’t be bothered to undo the laces of my army boots so I shuffled back into the room on my knees. I took out some emergency money from between the pages of a book and filled up my wallet. And then I took out the photo that was tucked into one side of my wallet and put it in the left chest pocket of my army jacket. I gave the left side of my chest a pat with my palm. With that I suddenly thought of a different photograph. The one of my dead cousin that I kept hidden behind my first birthday portrait. I flicked through my photo album and found it. I took out the photo that I’d put in my left chest pocket and put in the photograph of my dead cousin. And again, I patted my chest, twice, with my palm.

When I got to the bus stop Jo wasn’t there yet. I sent Jo a text saying ‘I’m here!’ ‘Soon!’ came the reply. And a taxi with Jo in it really did stop in front of me ‘Soon!’ This guy who would walk all the way home after the buses stopped running, saying that the taxi fare was a waste of money, was now riding up in a taxi before it was even dark. “Did your belly get round, too, from frying so many meatballs?” I teased,

pointing at Jo’s belly. “Today I’m a fatso. Yesterday I was a fatso. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a fatso.” Jo said. I laughed. It was the line of Snoopy’s that me and Jo liked best. Today I’m a dog. Yesterday I was a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. At one point, it even became the in-joke for our entire high school class. Today I’m last. Yesterday I was last. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be last.

“Let’s go have some coffee,” Jo said. “Coming here in the taxi, all I could see were cafés. But I’ve never seen two men in army uniform having coffee before.” Hearing that, I didn’t think I’d seen that either, not even in a TV drama. “So, where shall we have this coffee?” There was no need to wander around looking for a coffee shop. We sat at the bus stop and there were more than five places in view. Jo ordered an Americano. I looked at the menu for a long time, then ordered a caramel macchiato. Jo laughed. It was definitely in ridicule. We sat side by side at the table along the front window. The caramel macchiato was so sweet it hurt my tongue. Why do I always think of sweet things when I’m wearing my army uniform? Such drab thoughts went through my mind. I saw a couple wearing the same padded jacket, only in different colors, standing by the crossing waiting for the lights to change. When the green light came on, the man let go of the woman’s hand and started running. I saw a delivery moped ignoring the traffic lights and driving through the crossing. I saw a man with plastic-framed glasses throwing a cigarette butt into a flower bed. I saw a grandpa and grandma in hiking gear eating fishcake skewers by a roadside food stall. “Ten.” Jo said just then as he gazed out of the window. “Till now, ten people have walked past wearing red scarves.” I stirred the coffee left at the bottom of my cup with a spoon. “Do you know how many calories are in that? It’s the same as a bowl of rice.” Jo said to me. I responded, “I’ll be exercising tomorrow, so don’t worry.” When we were drinking alcohol we’d often talk all night long, but as we were drinking coffee now, we had almost nothing to say. So me and Jo just sat staring out the window. “Let’s leave when we see someone wearing shorts.” Jo said. A woman with a massive rucksack suddenly stopped and stood right in the middle of the road. The people passing by stopped one by one and started saying things to the woman but she didn’t move. Even a foreigner who was walking past stopped and said something to her. “What’s going on?” “If you’re curious, go and ask.” “Don’t want to.” Jo stood up from his seat. “What? Are you going to ask?” “No, toilet.” While Jo was off in the toilet, the people who’d been surrounding the woman slowly dispersed. When Jo came back even the woman with the rucksack had disappeared. “Huh? What happened?” Jo asked. I didn’t answer him. No one walked past wearing shorts, obviously. Now it was only the two of us left in the café. The barista walked by carrying a rubbish bag. “Let’s go for a drink.” Jo stood up. “Yeah, it’s the middle of winter, why’d you decide to find someone wearing shorts in the first place?” I complained. Jo pointed at the barista who was cleaning up. He was wearing shorts.

When we got outside it was so cold my body trembled. When we’d been drinking coffee inside I’d been thinking of spicy marinated whelks with beer, but now that we were outside I wanted to have something with a steaming broth to go with the drinks. Jo pointed at the bar across the street. It was a place with loads of red light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Jo looked both ways, then ran across the road. I got out my phone and took a photo of jaywalking Jo’s back. I waited for the lights to change and then crossed the road slowly. “How sad would it be if you were hit by a car wearing your army uniform?” I said to Jo, who was waiting for me on the other side. Jo took a dig too, “It must be great to have such a thoroughly law-abiding spirit.” When we opened the door of the bar, all the staff shouted “Welcome!”in chorus. The noise was so loud I jumped in shock. And the menu was so thick that I jumped in shock again. It had over twenty pages. After looking at the whole thing, from the first page to the last, there wasn’t a single thing I wanted to eat. The photos inside looked as though they’d been taken several hours after the dishes had been made. We asked what sold well and the waiter recommended the spicy mussel stew and stir-fried pork soft bone. “Then give us that and a bottle of soju.” The pork soft bone was spicy as hell, and just like its name, the spicy mussel stew was even spicier. Jo chewed on the carrot sticks that they’d brought us while we waited for the food, giving off a loud crunch. He said he didn’t like spicy food anymore. He didn’t like the sweat that came out when he ate it, and didn’t like the tears that came when he ate it either. I ordered an eggroll for him. We said cheers. I drank a glass of soju and had a few spoonfuls of soup from the mussel stew. I ate the stir-fried pork soft bone. Jo had a piece of the eggroll with each glass of soju. Before long we’d emptied a bottle and ordered another. Eating the pork soft bone, I suddenly wondered which part of the pig soft bone came from. Jo said that he didn’t know what part it was but he did know that its original name was ododok bone. Chewing on the soft bone, I thought about whether it made an ododok sound as I ate. It seemed like it did, and then again like that wasn’t exactly it. We emptied another bottle of soju. I ate all the stir-fried soft bone on my own. “Remember that terrorist who died after getting the parcel he sent himself? If you think about it, it’s really pathetic.” Drunken Jo said. “I once posted a gift to my girlfriend when she said she wanted to break up. A checked shirt. And then a few days later, a parcel came addressed to me. When I opened it there was a shirt inside exactly the same as the one I’d sent to my girlfriend as a gift.” Jo thought that his girlfriend had sent it to him as a gift of reconciliation, because she had said now and then how it was her wish to go on holiday wearing matching clothes. But then when he went to try it on, the shirt was so small that he couldn’t even get his arm into it. He realized that it was the parcel he’d sent to his girlfriend not long before. He’d written the addresses of the sender and recipient in the opposite places. “Being killed by his own bomb, what a fool.” Saying that, Jo emptied his glass. And then he ate spoonful after spoonful of the mussel stew soup. “It’s spicy. Spicy. Cigarette smoke is also spicy. The winter wind is spicy, too.” Jo mumbled. “And my girlfriend not answering my calls is spicy, too.” I poured Jo another glass. “Cheers.” Jo just drank.

Jo yawned. He had a habit of dozing off in the middle of a night out. And then, when everyone else was wasted, he’d wake up and try to get them to go for another round of drinks. “It’d be nice if it snowed on a day like this.” I mumbled, looking at the window. The outside wasn’t visible, only the inside of the bar was reflected in the glass. Even though it was the small hours of the morning, customers kept coming in, and the staff still called out to them in a loud chorus. Seeing as the people coming into the bar didn’t have wet hair, it probably wasn’t snowing. “The weather forecast said that there’d be heavy snow.” Nod nod. I drank another glass while watching Jo’s head dropping and lifting, again and again, as he dozed. I ate the eggroll that Jo had left as well. “Jo, shall I set you up on a blind date next week?” Jo nodded. “Jo, shall we go on holiday? How about Africa? If that’s too far, nearby Thailand is fine too.” Jo nodded again. “Jo, you can’t make it big before I do.” Nod nod. “Jo, it’s my birthday next month, buy me a present. There’s a watch I want.” Nod nod. Teasing Jo while he dozed was fun. I got out my phone and selected video mode. “Jo, from now on each time you sleep over at mine you have to pay up thirty thousand won for accommodation.” Jo nod-nodded. “Jo, you like me, don’t you?” Nod nod. I kept filming Jo dozing. “Jo, are you happy?” Nod nod. After filming that I turned off my phone. Waiting for Jo to wake up, I fell asleep too. In my dream I saw my mum who’d gone with my dad to be part of the studio audience for a live comedy show. At eight months pregnant Mum kept laughing and didn’t even feel her tummy starting to hurt. And then, at long last, when Mum felt the pain she took hold of Dad’s hand. Dad’s face wasn’t visible even in my dream. All that was visible were his hands. The story of my birth at the broadcasting station was reported on the nine o’clock news that night. “Yeom, when you get your first paycheck, you have to buy me a suit.” I could faintly hear what Jo said. My head was about to drop down, but I managed to hold it up. “Yeom, can’t we live together at your place?” I shook my head. I heard Jo sniggering. I opened my eyes. As Jo had paid for the coffee I paid for the drinks. “So anyway, why aren’t you talking about your time doing military service? You always do that after a couple of drinks.”

We came out of the bar. “Shall we go home?” Looking at his watch, Jo said that in just an hour the first bus would come. He only lived a short taxi ride away, but Jo said that there was no way he could take a taxi two times in one day. We walked a little. “Must be snowing.” Jo looked up into the sky. Snow really was falling. But after a few steps the snow suddenly stopped. Jo turned back. It was only snowing in one place. Looking closer, it was a snow drift on a roof being blown off by the wind. We stood there getting snowed on. “Jo, does snow heap up? Or is it stacked? Or is it overlapping?” Jo stretched his hands up towards the sky. “What are you talking about? It’s all the same thing.” Jo said. I confessed to Jo that I had never made a snowman. Jo said that he had made them often because he used to have to look after his younger sister for his parents who were always busy at the shop. Perhaps because the snow had all been blown away, it wasn’t falling anymore.

Jo started walking again. I followed a step behind him. Stopping in front of the entrance to an apartment complex, Jo spoke. “Have you ever taken a walk through an apartment complex in the small hours? It’s not bad.” Walking around the inside of the apartment complex, Jo and I counted the total number of units with lights on. There were only two. “Getting up at four thirty in the morning? There must be a grandma living in that apartment.” At my words, Jo replied that might not be the case. “Why do you think it’s someone up early? How do you know it isn’t someone going to bed late?” There was still snow piled up in the playground. Jo felt the snow. It was frozen solid, his finger wouldn’t poke into it. “Looks like we can’t make a snowman.” We sat on the swings and then got straight back up again because the seats were so cold. At the entrance to the car park someone had made a snowman. Jo discovered it and ran over. There were eyes and a mouth drawn on, but it didn’t have a nose. I searched around in my pockets. There was a hundred won coin in there, so I made a nose with that. It wasn’t pretty. I put the coin back in my pocket. I tore a button off my army jacket and made a nose using that. It even had nostrils. Telling me to stand beside the snowman, Jo took a photo with his phone. “As it was you who made the nose, this is no different from your very own snowman. It’s what they call the finishing touch.” Jo said, as he snapped away. I showed Jo the photograph of my cousin that I had kept in my chest pocket. Jo stepped up onto the pavement and made the pose my cousin made in the picture. I crouched down on the ground and took a photo of Jo like that. To make his legs look long. To catch my finger in the frame a little. Looking back and forth from the photo I took to the one of my cousin, Jo asked, “But who is it?” I told him that he was the cleverest person in our entire family. “How old is he?” “Twenty-seven.” With that Jo asked, “So he’s the same age as us?” “Silly. How can you see a black and white photo and think he’s our age? No. He was twenty-seven. When this photo was taken.” Jo took the photograph and went beneath a streetlight. Standing beneath it, Jo stared at the image for a long time. Seeing him like that from afar, something rose in my chest and I began to cry. Embarrassed at myself crying for no reason, I kicked the snowman. Having frozen and started to melt and frozen again, the snowman didn’t break apart. Jo approached and put the photograph back into my left-hand chest pocket. And with his palm he patted my chest twice. A car came out of the car park. It was the person in the apartment complex who left earliest for work. The janitor discovered us and asked us what we were doing. We replied that we were on our way to reserve forces training. And we hurriedly left the apartment complex.

There wasn’t a single person waiting at the bus stop. We sat on the bench at the stop watching a team of street cleaners load garbage bags into a garbage truck. It didn’t feel as though a new day was starting, just that another day had passed by. “Are the small hours of the morning the start of the day or the end of it?” I asked Jo. “Between when the sun sets and when it rises. Where does that fit into the day?” Jo sat with his arms folded for a long time, thinking, then responded. “Isn’t it obvious? It’s the time where yesterday and today overlap. That’s why alcohol tastes the best then, too.” The garbage truck roared past in front of us. “You know, I’ve been thinking.” Cautiously, Jo began to speak. “I think I’ll work at my parents’ shop. Not just part-time work. I think it wouldn’t be that bad to inherit the work my parents did.” I imagined how Jo would look wearing an apron with the name of the shop ‘Happy Assorted Savories’ stitched into it; the shop which hadn’t closed its doors for even a single day during the past twenty-five years. “I will grow old just like that, at the hotplate. Just like my parents.” Jo sighed. I responded that it probably wasn’t such a bad idea. “When the time comes, I’ll go to your eightieth birthday party and sing for you. I’ll sing at my mum’s eightieth, and at my stepdad’s eightieth, and then I’ll sing the same song at your eightieth birthday party, too. I’ll sing a song for everyone.” I hummed ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie.’ Before the song had even finished, the bus came. Jo stood up. “Jo, how about going back to mine for ramyeon? I’ll make it for you.” Jo thought for a moment and said he didn’t want to. Then, without looking back, he got on the bus. I sat at the bus stop and finished the song I’d been humming.

I walked around and around the alleyways, looking for the house with Jo’s name on the nameplate. I was sleepy. I yawned. I thought it would be great if it could snow for a few days on end. If the snow piled up and piled up. So that it would be impossible to tell which snow it was that fell yesterday, which snow it was that fell today, and which snow it was that fell tomorrow. I thought. I won’t leave any footprints in the piled-up snow. I’ll spend this winter laying my footprints over those made by other people. Finally, I found the doorplate with Jo’s name on it. Lifting my head I saw the sun rise above the red basin.

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