The novelist Yang Gwi-ja has enjoyed a combination of critical and commercial success experienced by few Korean writers. Born in 1955, Yang made her literary debut in 1978. The publication of her best-selling collection of linked stories, The People of Wonmi-dong (Wonmi-dong saramdeul), established her as a major writer, respected in the literary community and applauded by readers from many different social backgrounds for her sensitivity to the plight of the common man amidst Korea's breakneck drive for industrialization.
Yang's more recent novellas and novels reflect her acute awareness of the contradictions faced by the country's intelligentsia and newly emerging middle class since the inauguration of a civilian government. In The Hidden Flower (Sumeun kkot), a novella honored with the 1992 Lee Sang Award, a writer searches for answers in a world turned upside-down. Yang's recent full-length novels, invariably record breaking best-sellers, have combined the psychological and the political, probing what it means to live in Korea today.
The People of Wonmi-dong collection portrays life in a neighborhood of Pocheon, a satellite city of Seoul, in the early 1980s. It revolves around several themes-alienation in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society, the loss of a sense of community as outsiders move into the neighborhood, hoping for a better life, the deterioration of traditional values, and the search for something to replace those values. In it, Yang uses succinct writing and humor to capture the essence of modern Korea in transition. The stories are linked through their characters and recurring issues in the changing community.
In the story presented here, the proprietor of a neighborhood photo studio finds himself entangled with a mysterious newcomer, the proprietress of a local tearoom. Torn between his sense of obligation to the woman and his fear of being ostracized by his community, the man takes the woman out for a "last supper," hoping to tie up loose ends and salve his stinging conscience. Relief does not come easily, however, and the story ends as hopeless as dust tossed by the winter wind.
The Tearoom Woman
The taxi let them off in the middle of the plaza in front of the train station. There was barely room to move; cars swung into the turnaround, oblivious to the crowds, and pedestrians jumped out of the way just in the nick of time. It was always this way at year's end. The new department store to the left of the plaza added to the confusion. Even before the store's construction, the plaza had been packed with passengers streaming from the endless succession of subway trains that arrived and departed on the Seoul-Inch'o※n line and people trying to catch taxis. "It's overflowing," O※m muttered to himself as he strode into the waiting room. The woman followed, one step behind. The waiting room was just as crowded. The long lines of passengers only now leaving Puch'o※n looped in layers in front of the ticket booths. Everywhere he looked, the crowds fidgeted, and people laughed for no reason at all. They were all infected with the year-end mood, rushing about as if they had important business but all the while keeping one eye open for a little fun. Where should we go? He glanced at the signs-Chemulp'o, Songnae, Kuro, Chonggak-but at the same time tried to think of someplace else. The train rolled on uninterrupted, shaking the waiting room, and the passengers started to run as soon as they had pushed through the turnstile. Like all well-prepared travelers, they were dressed in so many layers they could have rolled in the snow and still kept warm. He looked at the woman beside him. Her hands were thrust deep in the pockets of her old trench coat, and the toes of her scuffed shoes, which should have been replaced long ago, tapped the cement floor. "Let's not go too far." They had to come back anyway so there was no point going too far. That's what she meant. He listened to the jingle of coins at the ticket window and looked up at the subway map again. To the left was the sea, to the right, the glittering city. Suddenly the ticket inspector seated by the turnstile exploded in anger. Hey you! Get over here! he shouted. The man couldn't move quickly because of the small electric heater he was straddling. All he could do was wave his hands. A boy dressed in a nylon windbreaker took a few steps backwards, then turned and ran from the waiting room. The inspector didn't pursue him. He seemed to expected something like this. It was a letdown, though, after the way he had shouted. He must have been testing his vocal chords. When O※m was the fugitive's age, he had pulled up the back of his tattered sneakers and buttoned his shirt whenever he heard the faraway whistle of a train. He had spent the whole day hanging on the iron gate of the local train station waiting to catch a glimpse of the trains that passed through his remote mountain village. No sooner had quiet returned to the turnstile than a minor scuffle developed at the ticket booth. O※m watched as a man who insisted he had been shortchanged argued with the clerk who swore he had made no mistake. Then he turned to the woman.
"We could go to Inch'o※n for some raw fish. . ."Actually, he had no desire to take her to the sea; things would just get out of hand there. He had brought her downtown because he wanted to make her feel better, but he didn't want to make things any more complicated.
"Let's just eat dinner and head back," she said. But from the look on her face, it was clear she had no appetite.
"All right. Let's see if we can find some place decent."He tried to smile. She looked at him and he could see from her eyes that she would be more cooperative now. They stepped outside and were swept up in the crowd of the plaza once more. To the left was the department store, to the right the taxi stand. Vendors, their pushcarts illuminated by bulbs hanging from a long electric cord, were encamped in both directions. A cassette tape vendor was hawking pirated tapes from a pushcart, his speakers blasting as if they, at least, were the real thing. Beside him stretched a long row of tent bars on wheels. Oh my hometown station where the cosmos flowers bloom! All the local girls will come out to greet me. . . The customers in the tent bars tapped their chopsticks to the beat of the song blaring from the speakers. O※m and the woman would have to go to the other side of the intersection if they wanted to find some decent food. As they waited for the light to change, he noticed a neon sign up ahead.
"See that?" he said. The woman looked. Three words in a neon rectangle-Puch'o※n Wedding Hall-blinked on and off at the top of a five-story building. First each word blinked separately, then came the word Puch'o※n, followed by Wedding Hall. After that, the rectangle blinked, and the individual words flashed separately again. They stared at the sign. After the seventh interval the whole sign, rectangle and letters, lit up the night sky. "I don't like it," the woman muttered. "I think it's funny," he said, smiling as he watched the dark rectangle light up again. "I've hated that smart-aleck thing from the day I came to Puch'o※n." She stepped into the crosswalk ahead of him. I guess her spirits haven't lifted, he thought. His face filled with worry as he watched her march stubbornly ahead. While they waited for the second light, she explained.
"What's the point except to tease innocent people? Not all of us get to have a wedding ceremony with a white dress and veil. It hurts enough already. Why does that stupid sign have to flash all the time?"What could he say? It hurts enough already. O※m had said the same thing the night before when he was trying to smooth things over with his wife. "She hurts enough already. What's the point of stirring her up?" he'd asked. "Think about it. It's not like I'm going to marry her. I'm not going run off with her in the middle of the night, so what's the point of going after her? I was just trying to help her. She's new in town. She doesn't have anyone. You know how much I love you." He had spent the whole night begging and pleading, but his wife had dashed over to the tearoom and made a terrible scene anyway. That was this afternoon. He had left his wife at home in bed, where she had retreated, proclaiming she was too ashamed to face the neighbors. He then wandered the streets aimlessly for hours, returning to the woman's tearoom only a short time ago. Had she taken to her bed too? he wondered, or would she be sitting under the red light, greeting her customers as usual?The lights were out at the Han River Ginseng Tearoom. At the Seoul Beauty Salon next door, Kyo※ng-ja was still working busily. Every evening at eight she pulled down the shutters and went home. It was only a few minutes past seven now but dark as ink. Next to the brightly lit beauty salon, the tearoom looked like an abandoned house, lonely and miserable. In the darkness, even the tinted blue glass was as somber as death. After all she had been through that day, she must have gone somewhere. Worried the neighbors might see him, he quickly headed toward the Brothers Supermarket. The women who frequented Mr. Kim's store for dinner fixings must have been home in their warm rooms, discouraged by the cold. The streets of Wonmi-dong were empty. The only sign of life was a stray dog lingering on the icy street in front of the butcher shop. O※m walked toward the dark tearoom once more. The sudden drop in temperature had caused frost to form on the beauty salon windows. Kyo※ng-ja wouldn't spot him unless she was on the look-out. O※m hesitated a moment, then pushed on the tearoom door. He must have pushed too hard, unconsciously assuming that it was locked. The door, which he had thought was firmly bolted, flew open. "Oops!" He quickly pulled his hand back. The door remained open, however, refusing to swing shut. Leery of the inky darkness inside, he reached out to push the door closed. A human voice drifted out of the darkness. "We're closed today. Come back tomorrow." It was clearly her voice. Then she recognized him before he discovered her seated in the dark. "Go to the playground. I'll lock up and meet you there."Apparently she hadn't been crying. Relieved to hear her voice unchanged, he did as he was told. As he walked toward the playground, he glanced back and saw the light in the show window of his photo studio was still on. The faces of a young Namgung Won and Mun Hu※i smiled broadly into the street. He stared at the studio, thinking as others must now: Those two are the only happy people at the Happiness Photo Studio.
They passed the Puch'o※n Wedding Hall and walked for some time. There were several restaurants, but they took no notice. He didn't want to go to just any restaurant; it was going to be their last supper. She didn't seem interested in eating. They walked on aimlessly, following other pedestrians whose breath formed clouds of steam behind them. O※m ignored the woman's old shoes as they passed a shoe store. After the shoe store gaped the entrance to a basement pub where a doorman dressed in a British cavalier's uniform bowed incessantly, welcoming prospective customers. O※m ignored the pub too. If she wasn't hungry, a dark corner in an inexpensive beer hall wouldn't be a bad idea, but he could hardly ask her to go to a drinking place. He wouldn't be able to look her in the eye if he did. She had practically lived in a tavern for eight long years. She had once told him that in those eight years she had drunk more than the average man could put down in a lifetime. She was always so animated when she spoke of the past. She said that if she didn't stand proud and firm, some know-it-all would jump on her, demanding to know why she hadn't made a new start sooner. According to her, the best way to subdue the fine ladies and gentlemen who thought you could climb out of the gutter any time you wanted was to be completely honest about your past from the very beginning. Her names were as numerous as her past lives: Ok-so※n, Kyo※ng-a, So※ng-mi, Yo※n-ju. And in that list of names were layer upon layer of experience. As Ok-so※n at the One-Heart Kisaeng House in Seoul's Myo※ngnyun-dong, she had flown from room to room with such frequency she had to change her white padded socks three times each night. She was happiest when she spoke of her days there. It was a house rule: no one was to sell her body, no matter how much they were offered. Powerful gentlemen pulled out checks and quarreled over the women, but the proprietors never handed over a woman. She often said that if she had stayed at the kisaeng house, she could have turned herself around. Regrettably she hadn't. It was in a T'oegyero beer hall called the Stagecoach that she perfected her skills as a hostess. She then took over the So※ng-mi Corner of the Planet Stand Bar in Myo※ng-dong, hoping to earn her independence. It was during that time, when she was going by the name So※ng-mi, that she had a hot affair with a fellow who was something of a gangster. She ended up moving in with him. After that, there was a string of room salons on the outskirts of Seoul, and as she got older, she was reduced to working as a barmaid at a little dump in Ch'o※ngnyang-ni. Anyway, by that time, she had enough experience to feel confident that she could sit at a table and sell her laughter, as long as it sounded youthful and continued to flow like a spring. With her experience and skill, the barmaid job wasn't particularly difficult, but when she found herself pushed aside by younger women and had grown tired of being treated like a retired kisaeng, she decided to leave Seoul. It was remarkable that she had lasted until she was thirty-it might as well have been sixty or sixty-one in her line of work-but if she didn't start earning more money while she could still wear makeup, who would feed her later on? Each time she changed her name, her makeup got a little bit thicker, and she said she hadn't aged a day since she turned twenty-seven. Even now she insisted she was only twenty-seven.
There was nothing more foolish than asking her real name. "It was Madam Hong, right? Hong what?" he had asked when he first met her, and she had replied, "What name would you prefer?""It's not just my given name. I've used lots of surnames-Chang, Kim, Yun-whatever's convenient. I've never used Hong before. I'd like you to call me Chu-hu※i. What do you think? Hong Chu-hu※i."After they passed the movie theater, a pediatric clinic, a furniture store, then a bicycle shop appeared. Before they knew it, the street was dark and nearly deserted. How did we get this far? he wondered. He decided to turn back the way they had come. There was no sign of a decent restaurant. That's the way it was in Puch'o※n. The streets in the bustling commercial district were short, and the vacant streets long. The crowds flocked to the lights at the center of town around the train station in order to avoid tumbling to the dark periphery. They were greeted once more by the British cavalier and passed the soft lambskin rug of the shoe store. Next to the shoe store was a restaurant specializing in Cho※nju pibimbap. The woman stopped. "If we must eat. . ." she murmured. Then she raised her voice. "We already feel lousy. Might as well have pibimbap." Did that mean she was feeling so lousy it didn't matter if she ate pibimbap? He wanted to say that they hadn't wandered through the cold streets just to have pibimbap; he wanted to insist that they find a better restaurant. But he didn't. Maybe he was the only one who thought this was going to be their last supper. He couldn't guess at the silent woman's thoughts. The Cho※nju Club-he looked at the sign again. It didn't look so bad. It wasn't a cheap place. He opened the door and guided the woman through. She squared her shoulders and walked inside. Her hair looked disheveled in the bright light. He liked the natural way she pinned up her long hair, but the strands that had escaped the pin looked messy. He imagined his wife pulling that hair. No, she couldn't have. Once they were seated, O※m scrutinized the woman's face. Her eyes hard and cold, his wife had told him she had gone to the tearoom and smashed everything she could get her hands on. He was afraid she might have hit the woman.
"What are you looking at?" she snapped as she took a sip of hot water.
"Nothing, just. . ." he stammered. He couldn't ask her straight out.
"You're afraid she might have scratched me, aren't you?" She thrust her face forward for him to inspect. There were no scratches. "My nails are longer than hers anyway," she murmured, then suddenly she looked serious. "I'm not much for fighting, but I've never lost to a woman who bragged about her devotion to one man. Your wife, she didn't look that tough, so I let her off easy."She wore the triumphant expression of a bully who had conceded a toy to another child. No, that was what she was trying to look like. Still, O※m was grateful and proud of this woman who shook off the incident earlier in the day, an incident that, depending on how you looked at it, could have been extremely traumatic. "Shall we have some grilled beef?" he asked, as if her haggard appearance was due to a lack of red meat. She shook her head; O※m didn't push the point. Feeding her meat wouldn't compensate for what his wife had put her through. Actually he was worried that she might think he was trying to pay her off with one lousy meal. At that very moment, the words 'Wonmi-dong' burst from a private room where a group of men were dining. The man and woman from Wonmi-dong both shuddered and looked down at the table.
She had become a resident of Wonmi-dong the previous autumn. Wonmi-dong's 23rd precinct, simply described, was shaped like one of the ladles they used to use in peddlers' inns. Packed tightly along the handle of the ladle were the Wonmi Wallpaper Shop, O※m's photo studio, Sunny Electronics, Kangnam Real Estate, Im's butcher shop, and the Seoul Beauty Salon. Across the street were the field where Old Kang raised his vegetables, the Rose of Sharon Apartments, and Brothers Supermarket run by Mr. Kim, head of the local neighborhood association. At the point where the handle ended and the ladle's bowl began was the main intersection of the 23rd precinct; there a variety of shops came and went, opening, then quietly disappearing before another new shop opened and closed once more. There was no getting around it, really, since the neighborhood had always had more little shops than houses. Besides, there were no customers to be found in the empty lot across the street. The trouble began when the Han River Ginseng Tearoom opened for business in the triangular storefront right around the corner, just past the Seoul Beauty Salon. In the words of the women of Wonmi-dong, a foxy tramp, who sat in her shop with little to do except tempt men and charge 1,000 won for a cup of ginseng tea, had come to town. The women of Wonmi-dong all hated her, almost as if they had agreed to in advance.
After opening the tearoom, the woman frequently appeared on the streets of Wonmi-dong. From the long hair cascading over her shoulders, she looked like a young unmarried woman-a hundred yards off at least. Up close, when she passed on the street and offered a shy-well, at least not a bold-smile, you might think she was an older unmarried woman. It wasn't until he had focused his own camera lens on her that he realized that she was well past the age that she could be called either a young or old maid. The first time she opened the studio door and, in a small voice, called out, "Anyone here?" Mr. O※m somehow felt it fortunate that his wife wasn't in. He didn't know why. He hadn't been to the tearoom yet, but he had seen the woman on the streets of Wonmi-dong on several occasions and, impressed by her long hair, felt her appearance at his studio was not something to be taken lightly. Of course, she didn't have any personal business with him. All she wanted was a photo for her ID. He had expected her to be flirtatious in her eyes or gestures, out of habit if nothing else, but she wasn't much of a talker. She could have introduced herself as the proprietor of the new tearoom and invited him to drop by sometime, but she didn't. That appealed to O※m too. What a remarkable woman, he thought, considering she came from a crowd who permed and dyed their hair, wore garish shades of nail polish, and took their sunken eyelids for canvases, painting them a thousand shades of eye shadow. While he prepared for the photograph, she smoothed her hair and straightened her collar like any other customer, glancing up occasionally at the camera that stood its ground like a black monster.
He seated her in a chair and carefully examined her face through the lens for much longer than necessary. She had tied her hair back in a unbecomingly tight ponytail; only her face was magnified to fill the lens, so he was free to inspect her eyes, nose, and mouth in full detail. She looked much older than when he had seen her in passing. It seemed meaningless to try to label her as a beauty or not. Actually, compared with the faces of other women that age, hers was cleaner, almost sharp looking. But on closer inspection, he could see that was simply because the unusual shadow of experience along her prominent cheekbones and under her eyes made the fearless round eyes seem softer. He turned on all his incandescent lights, pulled the black camera hood over his head, and focused on her handsome nose. He must have swallowed hard at least once as he stood under that black hood. For some reason, he was nervous. When he touched her head to raise the face that seemed a bit too low, when he placed his hand on her shoulder to correct her posture, he felt as if the two of them were creating a work of art together, him giving instructions and her obeying. He hadn't felt that way for a long time. He may have been running a shabby neighborhood photo studio, but he had once dreamed of a bright future as a photographic artist. In his youth he had wandered unfamiliar places for days, searching for green moss on roof tiles, the round age rings of trees, and wild flowers trembling in the country wind. As a small boy, he had lived near the railroad station and dreamed of leaving; later, he did leave, without the slightest regret. He couldn't attend college or receive any formal training because his family was poor, but he cherished what he believed to be a unique artistic insight, which rejected conventional shots of well turned-out models and majestic mountain landscapes. He may have been a third-rate photographer who clicked at every face he saw now, but he wore the artistic spirit that he had once possessed like a medal around his neck.
"Photography is much harder than I thought."The woman had surely never endured such a long sitting for an ID photo, and when she expressed astonishment at photography's challenges, he discovered a unique talent in her. From her tone, she seemed to have already grasped the joys and sorrows of the photographer's profession. Other people had said the same thing to him, but they spoke out of politeness, nothing more, nothing less. She said it sincerely, with a straight face. It was intriguing to find a sincere heart behind the straight face of this woman who made her living pouring whiskey and selling cheap laughs under the red lights of the tearoom each night. Perhaps these were the eyes of someone who had lived in pain for a long, long time, he thought. On occasion, when passing City Hall, he saw people sitting inside big black cars. They never walked through the gate. They rode their car to the main entrance and waited until their driver opened the car door before they placed their shiny shoes on the pavement. Their faces were covered with thick masks, unfathomable and impossible to read. They looked angry even when they were smiling, and when they were angry, they always wore a smile. To him, they were a riddle. There was nothing to be learned from their faces, even if he scrutinized them through his camera lens, nothing but the texture of their skin.
Throughout his life-and he would soon be forty-he had existed in two separate worlds: the world that came to him through his retina, and the world inside the camera's lens. Each world spoke in its own unique voice. Of course, he had abandoned the world of his camera long ago. He had suppressed one of the voices. His third daughter was born, and, as he grew older, he naturally came to realize that a life devoted to his children was the only one left to him. The age of carefree optimism had passed. When he first came to Puch'o※n, there was a real estate office in every other storefront, and before long beauty salons were opening with the same frequency. Now photo studios were popping up in every third storefront. He had brought in video tapes to rent in a desperate effort to survive and offered a free enlargement with every roll of film processed, because all the neighboring studios were doing the same. The number of customers ordering baby pictures commemorating their children's first one-hundred days or first birthday had dropped off dramatically. It wasn't simply because of competition from other studios. According to Mr. Pak from the Kangnam Real Estate Office, demand was down now that people had only one or two kids, instead of four or five. It was only natural. The Happiness Photo Studio owed its survival in large part to the Little Star Kindergarten out on the main road. Since last spring when his wife's sister got a job there as a teacher's assistant, O※m had served as the kindergarten's in-house photographer. Whenever the kindergarten had a special event, he dashed over and took the children's pictures. He got three hundred won a print, including the cost of the film and labor, and was always paid on time. His wife volunteered to handle publicity for the kindergarten whenever the opportunity arose, because it was an important source of income for them. Chasing after the children and clicking away with his camera, riding in the van with them on field trips or picnics, consoling crying children, sometimes carrying them on his back, O※m could hear his artistic inspiration creaking and crumbling. He knew that his own wife thought it was funny, but he held fast to his belief that he had a unique artistic spirit.
His wife hadn't always been like this, but lately he sensed that she was defying him. She must have forgotten the days of their courtship when he had stroked her long hair for, despite his insistence that she wear her hair long, she chopped it short and wore it curled tight in a permanent wave, a style that he hated. As he watched her slap on makeup without the slightest thought of artistic harmony, he couldn't imagine what she, at the ambiguous age of thirty-four, neither young or old, could be dreaming of. She was no longer the wife he had known so well.
After a long wait, the pibimbap arrived. The waiters busied themselves with the customers who were drinking and smoking up the private rooms with barbecued meat. The stoneware bowls in which the pibimbap was served were too hot to touch, and the rice sizzled at the bottom. The circular arrangement of the meat and vegetables on top of the rice was appetizing and added to the dignity of the heavy bowls. It was a simple table but substantial enough to make him feel that pibimbap wasn't such a bad choice after all. They mixed the contents of their bowls in silence. Before picking up his spoon, O※m had thought of what would happen after dinner. She had probably thought the same thing. He had a nagging feeling: They had to go back sooner or later, but wasn't there something, somewhere, to keep them busy for an hour or two? He also felt sorry because she was missing a day's business at the end of the year when there were so many drinking parties. The Han River Ginseng Tearoom barely had enough customers to pay the rent. It was in such an out-of-the-way spot; hardly anyone passed except people from the neighborhood. She had put all her savings into the deposit on the place, but she seemed less concerned about this than he was. She felt free now. She had spent her entire life getting fleeced, but there was no one to take her money anymore. She didn't push the customers too hard since, as she said, she had enough to feed and clothe herself. Long ago after the initial terror of her arrival in Seoul disappeared, she had been overwhelmed with despair; she was sure she had taken the wrong road. Her despair ran deep and far until she realized that it was much more comfortable to keep lofty words like dignity and truth at a distance. She said that as she grew older, she had grown sick of scrambling to make ends meet.
"Woman, you got a long way to go before you'll make a livin' at this. Ain't many folks who'll buy a cup of ginseng tea in the first place, even with the waitresses fawnin' all over 'em. And look at you, just sittin' there, doin' nothing! This business is doomed-doomed, I say!"Mr. Chu, her self-appointed 'Older brother,' voiced this conviction every time he visited the tearoom. He thought nothing of offering his frank opinions to anyone. Chu was forever lecturing his errand-boy So※n-gu on his business philosophy. Perhaps it was because of the pleasure he took in educating So※n-gu that Chu did not let the boy go even now in winter when business was slow. Instead he had the boy live with his family in their room off the wallpaper shop. O※m knew Chu well and was grateful that he hadn't figured out what was going on between him and the woman. Still, he prickled with anger when he heard Chu giving her advice.
"Why don't you try something like this?" O※m asked. He meant that there were plenty of other businesses, like restaurants for example, that didn't rely on liquor sales the way her 'tearoom' did. "How did that come up all of a sudden? Why do you say that? Are you going to marry me if I open a restaurant?" she asked in a dry tone as she wiped her mouth with a napkin. "All of a sudden? Who's acting funny all of a sudden? What, are you angry?""See, you can't even give me a straight answer. Don't you realize a leopard can't change its spots?" That was one of her favorite sayings. She also had a habit of saying things like, "Do you think I wanted to be born a leopard?" in an aggressive tone.
A group of young men and women who looked like office workers poured in, and the restaurant soon grew noisy as a public market, the laughter from their private room reverberating throughout the restaurant. There are always a few jokers in every crowd, no matter where you go. O※m didn't have that talent. He despised the boring way he talked. If only he could make her feel better, entertain her with a few witty stories. . . The woman repinned her hair and stood up. She looked much neater now.
They had forgotten the cold, but it rushed over them when they stepped outside. The temperature must have dropped as night fell. The woman's thin autumn coat couldn't have offered much protection. Now where? He looked around. If he went home now, without offering her a word of comfort, he'd regret it. Once the rumor spread through the neighborhood, they wouldn't be able to meet when they liked. He had never meant to prolong the relationship, but he hadn't expected it to end in this sudden disaster either. Why had it turned out like this? He glanced at her once more. Her face, unprotected from the cold, revealed her age. Had she said she was thirty-one, or was it thirty-two? "I'm past my prime," she had once said when they asked her age. "Time sure flies," Chu replied, and that was last she spoke of age. The two of them stood hesitantly outside the restaurant amid the stream of passersby. "You go ahead," she said, but he didn't move. She hadn't said where to go. His three daughters went to bed early. They had probably already dropped off to sleep, but his wife was certain to be seething with anger still. "Go," the woman repeated. Where? he asked with his eyes. She pointed to the taxi stand in front of the train station. Buses that passed through Wonmi-dong were lining up just across the street, but each one was packed with people heading home. So many people, he thought. Crowds bustled wherever they went; he couldn't stand it. The taxi drivers, taking advantage of the holiday season, accepted extra passengers without hesitation, and the street vendors, who jammed the sidewalk, tirelessly called to their customers. The vendors looked as if they might sink into the ground under the weight of their clothing. The woman walked toward the taxi stand. Lacking an alternative, he followed. So now he was supposed to go home and take care of his wife? Perhaps that was why the woman kept urging him to go; she was thinking of his wife. If his wife found out they were roaming around downtown like it was perfectly normal, on today of all days, she might give him his walking papers. In the end, he would return to his wife and three daughters-there was no place for the woman in his life-but he was still afraid of his wife.
Why doesn't she let her hair down? Her bare neck troubled him. He felt badly for this woman who didn't have the sense to buy a decent winter coat. He was angry at her family, though he had never met them. There was no one left in her hometown, but she had two brothers, one older and one younger, in Seoul. Her aunt, who had taken care of them after their parents passed away years ago, lived somewhere in So※ngnam, on the other side of Seoul. Before the woman had moved to Wonmi-dong, her few remaining relatives took turns asking her for money. Naturally, they've had an easy life while she worked the bars. Whenever she had saved up a little money, someone always showed up needing it, she said. Besides, it seemed she was born to help others. She had sacrificed her youth to help them, but not one of them lived well now. One woman's youth was no match for poverty's persistence. Now that she was past thirty, her family had given up on her. They realized she was a dried-up spring, a machine that had outlived its usefulness. He knew that she had used all her money to set up the Han River Ginseng Tearoom, but he would never forget his surprise when he stepped into her room for the first time. He had sensed a mutual attraction, but since his house was only a short distance away, he had never imagined going into her room. That night she had said she was going to lock up early because it didn't look like there were going to be any more customers. If only he hadn't gone into her room, if only he hadn't seen that cold, lonely room, things wouldn't have turned out like this. He felt a vague regret as he stopped beside the woman and waited for the streetlight to change.
The Seoul Beauty Salon and the Han River Ginseng Tearoom were in the same building; neither had living quarters in back. Kyo※ng-ja rented a room elsewhere and commuted to work. She looked up to his wife as an older sister and often complained how inconvenient it was not having a room in the back of the beauty salon. A backroom had been added to the tearoom by the young couple who had run a noodle shop there before the woman's arrival. After going to all the trouble of building the room, they had left the shop after only a few months. Since then he had heard they were running a tent bar near South Puch'o※n Station. Anyway, the room was across from the cramped kitchen, which consisted of a gas stove and a sink. He was amazed at how cold and empty the tiny room felt, and the ceiling was so low O※m couldn't even stand. It wasn't a room; it was a dog kennel! She glanced up at him as he stood by the door awkwardly, stunned by the bleak room and unable to sit, and plugged in the electric blanket that covered the floor. Come to think of it, the floor was cold as ice. Apparently they hadn't installed an under-floor heating system. The room's only furniture was a large beige cosmetic case. Crouched in this room that made even a cosmetic case seem luxurious, O※m realized they would be sitting knee to knee when the woman returned from the kitchen; he felt terrible. There were a roll of toilet paper, a wastepaper basket with no lid, and, on a stained pink pillow, one strand of long hair and a foil envelope of pills. Later, the woman told him they were liver pills; she took them with beer. Her clothes hung from nails, and they didn't cover a single small wall. Though brightly colored, none of them looked as though they were worth anything. The woman treated him to three large bottles of beer that night. She said that she had run out of money after decorating the tearoom. That was why the room seemed a little shabby, but she claimed she found nothing lacking. Still, she seemed embarrassed. She brought in the large stereo cassette player from the tearoom and started looking through her tapes, but the cassette player made the room seem even smaller, and she decided to take it out again. That was the night she asked him to call her Chu-hu※i. Unable to leave her alone in that empty room, he kept telling himself, Just a little longer, just a little longer. They ended up drinking soju. She drank a lot and kept slumping into him. There was no avoiding it; the room was so small. Each time he caught her, he felt sorry for her. She was so thin. Her rounded, emaciated shoulders felt like a child's plaything as they touched his chest and fell away. He took her shoulders in his arms once more, those shoulders that had supported her through more than thirty difficult years. "Yes, you'll always be Hong Chu-hu※i to me," he said as he stroked her hair.
She wouldn't be so cold if she let her hair down. He looked at her bare neck once more. He felt helpless: When would she earn enough for a decent coat at that little tearoom?"I need to go to the drugstore," she said, pointing across the street as they headed for the taxi stand.
"Indigestion?""No, I ran out of my pills."He recalled the pills wrapped in foil, but didn't ask. The woman bought many different medicines at the drugstore. All of them for her liver, she said. Some time ago at a high school reunion, he had casually asked a classmate who ran a drugstore about the pills she had been taking.
"You know these barroom hostesses? Doesn't all the liquor affect them when they get older?""Of course, are you kidding? Men can hardly stomach the stuff. How could a woman take it night after night? It doesn't take long to hit them. After a couple years hostessing, their faces get yellow. They often look fine on the outside, but their guts are worse than a seventy-year-old's. They try to get by on this medicine and that, but they suffer."O※m recalled his friend's words as he watched the woman step into the brightly lit drugstore. She said something to the pharmacist who frowned, his hands stuck deep in the pockets of his white coat. She raised her hand and said something else. Only then did the pharmacist move slowly to the display case and return with a small box. The woman paid and came out. The pharmacist stuck his hands back in his pockets and stared blankly into the street, as if he wondered what the world was coming to, as if he couldn't have understood even if he tried.
O※m mimicked the pharmacist's blank expression as the woman approached, but she didn't spot him immediately. She headed toward the parking lot, then stopped, and looked around as she stuffed the package of medicine in her pocket. Dozens of pushcarts filled with fruit lined the sides of the parking lot; pedestrians fumbled their way between them. She seemed to be having trouble locating him. He watched her for a moment as she stared into the distance, then started walking slowly toward her. When she discovered him, happiness and relief flashed in her eyes, then disappeared immediately. At that moment, a man in an old felt hat appeared like a shadow behind her. He had a dirty muffler wrapped around his neck and wore an old overcoat with wide lapels, the kind most people would have thrown out ten years ago. "You let Cho※ng-ja go! Where's Cho※ng-ja?" The woman pushed the man's clenched fist away.
"Old man's a nut. Let's get out of here."O※m glanced back once or twice as he followed her through the crowd. The man in the felt hat was frightening young women; their screams pierced the air. He scurried around the square, the hem of his overcoat dragging on the ground. People waiting in the taxi line tsked at the sight. "Living's no better than dying," sighed someone at the front of the line. Taxis carried away passenger after passenger, but people kept attaching themselves to the tail of the line. As they inched forward, the north wind assaulted them, clawing at the woman's throat. The line behind them was long, but there were still many passengers ahead of them. He regretted their decision to take a taxi. She would be warmer on a crowded bus. What's more, the package of medicine filled one of her pockets, one of her hands was left defenseless in the freezing cold. He quietly took her hand. The icy fingers fidgeted against his palm. A train shook the ground as it passed through the station, and the fruit vendors called out for customers. "Thirty tangerines for a thousand won," they shouted as they stuffed the fruit into plastic bags. Under normal circumstances, he would have bought some tangerines or apples to take home. He found it difficult to ignore the fruit carts whenever he passed the station. His three daughters pouted if he returned from one of his rare visits to Seoul without a bag of something to eat. Chu from the wallpaper shop had two sons to O※m's three daughters. The men often boasted of the joys of child-rearing. When the garbage truck came, O※m carried the trash and heavy yo※nt'an cinders out to the street, and when his wife was busy, he even brushed and tied his daughters's hair. He was happy to do it. At least his daughters still had long hair. And until yesterday afternoon when she found out about the woman from the tearoom, he even ran errands for his wife, sometimes dashing to the market to buy salted mackerel for dinner. He believed that he always put his three daughters and wife first, although he had seen the woman on occasion and treated her with more than the usual feelings.
It was only a guess, but he was almost certain that Kyo※ng-ja was responsible for telling his wife about the woman. She must have looked out her window at the beauty salon and seen him going to the tearoom. Had Kyo※ng-ja told anyone else before she talked to his wife, he wondered. The line in front of them grew shorter, and as their turn approached, he thought of his predicament once more. Maybe the rumor had already spread among the neighborhood women who hung around the beauty salon. He had tried to be careful, visiting the tearoom only occasionally, though he would have liked to go every day. It was no use. There were already more than enough reasons for rumors to blow up like balloons around them. Whether they were aware of it or not, the women of the neighborhood had reined in their husbands the moment the Han River Ginseng Tearoom opened its doors. They first clucked with disapproval when they saw this woman, who could hardly be called young, running the place on her own, without the help of a single waitress. The women were the first to recognize the faded destiny of the tearoom wedged in that isolated corner. The building's owner said that he had been getting angry looks from the neighbors ever since they found out the tearoom was transformed into a bar with partitions between the tables at night. Even Mr. Kim from the supermarket pretended to be angry. Why should a bar find its way into a residential neighborhood when there were plenty around City Hall, he asked. Kim was the one who regularly visited Kangnam Real Estate whenever a storefront came on the market for fear that a new grocery store might open in the area. He supplied the tearoom with soft drinks and beer but had been disappointed with the size of the orders from early on. O※m cringed at the thought of all those people he saw as soon as he got up every morning. He also wondered how the woman felt. She hadn't said a word the whole time they were waiting. What is she thinking? A whistle screeched from beyond her stiff shoulders. Everyone turned in the direction of the sound. It was a boy with a wool cap pulled over his ears. He quickly hid the whistle behind his back. The people looked nervously at the green riot police bus, which stood stubbornly in the station plaza, steel bars over its windows. He had once been searched for no reason at the entrance to the underpass. Young people dressed like university students had to open their book bags. Suddenly he recalled the ID photograph he had taken of the woman.
"Where are you planning to use this photograph?" he had asked when she came to pick it up. He was proud of the photo. It had turned out as he had expected. But she didn't show the slightest interest in the result of his efforts.
"I was thinking of getting a new ID card.""Oh, so you've lost your ID? That can be a real bother. You'll have to make several trips to the ward office."She smiled ambiguously.
"I didn't lose it. I just wanted a new one."Then she paid for the photo and left. His wife must have been watching from the backroom. "I guess she doesn't have anything better to do. What difference does it make if your ID card's old or new?"He thought of asking if she had gotten a new ID card, but didn't. He could imagine why she had wanted a new one. She was probably sick of the mess on the back. He guessed that she wanted to erase the address register that shackled her each time she moved. "I hope the 23rd precinct of Wonmi-dong is my last address," she had once said. "I don't have the energy to move someplace else where I don't know anyone," she had added with a wilted smile. Whenever he saw a train as a child, he had longed to board it and go. After getting into photography, he was forever thinking of places to go in search of subjects. And now he dreamed of moving the Happiness Photo Studio to a better spot, a nice corner in Seoul if possible. She probably felt the same way. She was forever leaving in search of someplace else, failing, then leaving again, only to fail once more. That must have been how she ended up in the 23rd precinct. What seemed a trap to one person could be a new tomorrow for another. He never could ask her about the new ID. Just as his feet were beginning to feel permanently frozen, a taxi stopped in front of them. It was warm inside the taxi. The driver flicked on the meter, and O※m told him to go to Wonmi-dong. The woman pressed her hands to her cheeks, then spoke at last. Almost as if the warmth of the taxi had melted her lips.
"Back there, I saw a beggar at the entrance to the underpass."He didn't know what she was talking about. "A beggar? So you've been thinking about a beggar all this time?""Didn't you see him?""I'm not sure.""He had a piece of paper stuck on his back. And it said. . . well, he was a beggar."He asked her what the piece of paper said.
"It went like this: ' I'm a truly pitiful person. Help me.'"He smiled, not knowing what else to do. She carefully repeated the words: "'I'm a truly pitiful person. Help me.'""And it didn't say why he was pitiful?"Then the driver interrupted.
"The man's a nutcase. Retarded or something. Someone made the sign for him.""I guess so. Why would anyone in their right mind go around with a sign like that on their back? Even a beggar. . . " The woman looked out the window without finishing her sentence. The driver signaled for a right turn and turned onto the road leading to Wonmi-dong. As they passed City Hall, she asked him to pull over. They still had a way to go, but O※m paid the fare and got out. The woman turned down the dark road that followed the back wall of City Hall.
"Let's go our separate ways here."She tried to smile instead of saying goodbye. He looked into the distant darkness. They had wandered the cold streets all evening without a word about what had happened. So many thoughts were going through his mind; he couldn't speak. "You take the main road. I'll go this way," she said, pushing him in the direction from which they had come.
What about tomorrow? he almost asked. He didn't want to confirm the fact that there was no tomorrow for them to share. No, maybe he wanted her to confirm it. Her seeming lack of concern bothered him and he couldn't speak. He was the one inconvenienced by the rumors, not her. As long as she remained in Wonmi-dong, he would never escape his neighbors' wagging tongues. It was cruel of her to not even pretend to understand his predicament. Earlier, when they were leaving Wonmi-dong, he had felt sorry for the abuse she had taken from his wife, but now, as they returned, he wanted this woman, who seemed as solid as a rock, to console him.
"I don't want O※m Chi's mom coming after me again. From now on, let's pretend we don't know each other," she said before darting down the road. He stood listening to the dizzying sound of her footsteps, then started after her. She was already some distance ahead of him. The electric sign outside the Seoul Beauty Salon was off. The woman used the faint light streaming from the Brothers Supermarket across the street to insert the key in her door. O※m hid in the darkness, slipping into the tearoom only after he had checked to make sure no one was around. "Don't turn on the light," she said in a low voice. She must have known he would follow her; she was right beside him. He fumbled his way across the room, kicking aside the things in his way, and lifted the curtain that concealed the kitchen. The woman locked the shop door behind them.
She was more accustomed to darkness than he. She found the door to her room without much difficulty, opened it, and turned on the light. He followed without hesitation. Once they had closed the door, no light escaped. The room was like a wooden box, without a single window. They stood looking at each other, both stooped because of the low ceiling. They were shivering. The woman plugged in the electric blanket without a word. Her hands were visibly shaking. It was cold. It seemed even colder than outside. The cold air seeping from the walls made his shoulders shake. She kneeled on top of the quilt that covered the electric blanket and stuck her hands in the folds behind her knees. So he had come back to that room after all. He lifted the quilt and draped it over her shoulders. Then he embraced her, quilt and all.
"It'll be warm soon."He pulled her closer. She buried her face in his shoulder and murmured something. She must be telling me to go, he thought. He squeezed her tighter. "Come inside. It's warmer in here." She lifted the folds of the quilt. He sat beside her, the quilt pulled around the two of them. Slowly warmth spread through the electric blanket. Her breath touched his neck. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder again, and the quilt slipped down. Soon the woman took off her coat and tossed it to the other side of the room. She was wearing a violet sweater. She nestled in his arms. As he searched for her cold lips, O※m wished she would turn off the light. He didn't want to see the room, the dirty walls pressing in on them, the low ceiling. Her forehead touched his cheek. She had closed her eyes. She looked as peaceful as a newborn infant.
They lay side by side and listened to a dog barking in the distance. She spoke first. "It must be late. You should get going." His face ached where the wind had chafed it. He was afraid to get up. She turned to him and heaved a low sigh.
"Do you know what O※m Chi's mom said?"He couldn't answer. "She told me to leave. She said she didn't care if I sold tea or booze, just do it in Seoul, not here."His wife was capable of that and more. Pack up and get the hell out of here. You meet my husband one more time and that'll be the end of you, she must have snarled. Was this woman going to follow his wife's orders? Only then did he comprehend that the realistic solution was right in front of him. If one of them had to leave, she was the obvious choice; he was certain of that. Then the woman spoke.
"Why should I leave? I'm not going anywhere. What does a woman like me have to be afraid of, just because they're gossiping about me and some man? I've put everything I own into this business. I'm not going to walk away from it now. I mean it. I'm not going to go, no matter what.""But. . . " she paused and thought for a moment. He held his breath, waiting for her to continue. The neighbors' whispers, his wife's incessant surveillance, the unrelenting stream of stories he would hear about the woman whirled through his head. Now that he thought about it, he had expected her to leave. That's what he thought would happen, wasn't it? He tried to convince himself that he hadn't been wandering the streets that night just so he could get a firm answer from her, but now he was waiting for her to speak.
"It's not like I don't have anywhere to go if I get pushed out of Wonmi-dong. I can go somewhere. But I don't want to sink any lower than this. I've felt so thankful that I've been able to live this well. . . You mustn't come here again."She meant she would never give up this life. She's right, he thought, trying to agree with her decision. No one needed her. The many people who had clung to her in the past clearly would ignore her now. Her only resource was her ability to pour drinks and sell laughter while gulping pills that she didn't even know the name of. If someone made this woman give up the Han River Ginseng Tearoom, the result was clear as day: she would lose the measly deposit she had put down on it and end up living in the streets, an ugly raven. Or her sickness might worsen and she would slowly die in the backroom of a house somewhere. He bolted upright and began putting on his clothes. No sooner had he slipped out of the quilt than he felt goose bumps cover his body. He spread the woman's coat on top of the quilt and turned the electric blanket up a notch, but he still couldn't leave the room. He felt as if he was casting her into a lonely field and abandoning her.
Wasn't there some way of warming the room up? Then he recalled the kerosene heater in the tearoom. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, then groped around the tearoom. It was only about thirty feet square. Somehow she had managed to fit four tables in the triangular space. Partitions had separated the tables, but in the darkness he saw they had been knocked over and the chairs and tables had been pushed out of place. His wife's work, no doubt. Perhaps that was why the woman had insisted he not to turn on the lights. His heart pounded uncontrollably as he searched for the heater. He located it, carried it to her room, and turned up the wick. The woman didn't move. She simply lay there, watching him. Only after the musty smell of kerosene soot had filled the small room did the old heater seem ready to function properly. The woman didn't have anything shiny and new. He waited for the flame to come alive, then turned up the heat. The handle, stiff with age, creaked with each turn. The woman turned to face the wall. "Hurry up and go," she said.
After spending the night awake, with her back to him, O※m's wife, and even his three daughters, acted coolly toward him the next morning. It hurt to see the girls tagging after their mother, ignoring him this way, but what could he do? He choked down a few spoonfuls of rice and went straight to the studio. His wife made the children cry for no apparent reason and wore an icy expression that sent chills through his body. The studio felt empty, like an abandoned house, though he had only left it for a day. He opened the lid of the yo※nt'an stove and found some red coals left. He sat down and warmed himself. From his seat by the stove, the outside world was clearly visible through the window. The weather was cold, just like yesterday. There were fewer people on the street and even the sun was reluctant to show its face, making the day especially gloomy. Ordinarily he would have thrown the door open to air out the shop and mopped the floor, but today O※m was in no mood to rush outdoors. Inside his three daughters and wife glared at him coldly, and outside his neighbors would laugh at him with scorn. He wanted to cry at the hopelessness of it all. Then Mr. Chu from the wallpaper shop flung open the door and walked in. A curious smile played on his lips, and from his restless movements, it was clear that he had been waiting since dawn to make the visit. O※m was right.
"So tell me, it is true? You know, that business about you and Madam Hong?"Chu spoke in a whisper in case O※m Chi's mom was listening, but to O※m his voice sounded like a bolt of thunder. "Ah, come on. Not you too?""Hey! Do you think it'll just blow over if you play dumb? The women are all stirred up about what O※m Chi's mom did yesterday."O※m just looked at him.
"So when did it start? O※m Chi's mom's in bed, right? Boy, are you in a fix! And we thought you were such a devoted husband."It wasn't long before Mr. Pak from the real estate office sauntered in, as if he had just dropped by for a visit.
"You son-of-a-gun, you! So when did you start building that Great Wall? You've just got a natural talent with women, yep, a natural talent.""Why are you all. . .""Yeah, he's got talent but one thing's missing. How come you let the wife catch you?"Chu winked at him, and Pak lowered his voice.
"Anyway, you're a naughty boy. Having all that fun without giving us a piece of the action. It's not fair.""No, it wasn't like that. . .""Then what's all the talk about? You're the one who told us about all the ass you were gettin' before you got married. So how can you deny it? Habits ain't that easily broken. Still, it's kinda low. Don't you agree, Brother Pak? There's plenty of fresh young things down at the Prairie Coffee Shop. Why'd you pick Madam Hong? She's just a worn-out old barmaid."Chu had gone too far. O※m should have gotten angry for the woman's sake, but what could he do in the face of the two men's teasing?"So what do you say? The day after tomorrow's New Year's Eve. Why don't we go over to the tearoom and have a New Year's Eve party? She can hardly overcharge us if her boyfriend's with us. You're buying, aren't you, O※m?""Please stop."O※m grimaced, and fortunately Chu gave up and left.
"So you think you can last till New Year's with O※m Chi's mom breathing down your neck? She still looks pissed."Pak tsked as he left the studio.
The sky grew ominous as the day wore on. By afternoon the sun, which had shown itself at intervals, was hidden behind the clouds, and a north wind had swept in. O※m stared out as he listened to the wind rattle the windows. What was she doing at that moment? Did she have many daytime customers? There'd have to be customers for her to turn up the wick on the heater and drive the cold air out. He worried about her sitting alone and lonely. His wife gathered their three daughters together and went out, as if she were leading a demonstration. Her sister rented a room nearby. Perhaps they had gone there. Or maybe she was hanging around the Seoul Beauty Salon, watching the comings and goings of the tearoom. Chu must have been busy. He hadn't shown his face since morning. Though Chu teased him mercilessly, the time wouldn't have dragged like a cruel punishment if he stopped by. O※m considered going to the wallpaper shop but quickly discarded the idea. How could he endure the stares of Chu's wife? If only the woman would leave, then everyone would forget the tearoom incident. As long as she remained, nothing was left for him except the hopeless lashing of time. He understood the woman but at the same time resented her. He also hated himself for his own weakness. If he liked her, shouldn't he be more straightforward with her? He should have protested when Chu spoke so crudely of her. A worn-out old barmaid, a sick old barmaid? Why did he have to call her that? O※m then recalled what his wife had said. "Have you no shame? What do you see in that filthy tramp? How could you touch her? Who knows what she's been up to!"Pak poked his head in the door, though O※m would have preferred a visit from Chu.
"This weather really sucks, eh?" Pak wrapped himself around the heater and shook his head. "Boy, is she tough. Yep, she's one tough woman."He was obviously was referring to the woman, but O※m didn't know what to say.
"Someone wants to set up a discount cosmetic shop in the tearoom's spot. You know, now that I think about it, that's the perfect spot for a cosmetics shop.""Who is it?""A friend of Kyo※ng-ja's. Looks like Kyo※ng-ja's going to go in with her, but Madam Hong just won't listen."Pak tsk-tsked again. I'm not going to go. O※m recalled what she'd said.
"You know, it looks like you're gonna to have to talk to her. I just spoke to her myself. I went to the tearoom. I told her to take her deposit while she can and go someplace else. I said you'd look like a fool as long as she stayed in the neighborhood. And you know what she said?"O※m hung his head.
"She said, 'What does Mr. O※m have to do with me?' According to her, you chased after her of your own free will. She didn't even bat an eyelash in your direction, so why should she leave? She made a big fuss. Holding her head up high. Why, she came at me with this blue fire in her eyes. Nope, she ain't no ordinary woman, that's for sure.""That's because you're telling her to leave before the lease is up."That was the only excuse O※m could come up with.
"The lease ain't the problem. If nasty rumors start spreading through the neighborhood, it won't do her any good either. The building owner agrees. He wants to get rid of the tearoom and replace it with the cosmetic shop. It's only a matter of time before they get rid of her. Everyone would be better off if she left now, while we're asking her nicely, but it looks like she's gonna cause trouble till the bitter end."Pak frowned and complained how hard it was to get even the smallest commission. A new tenant had appeared and Pak had intervened, so it was only a matter of time before the woman was thrown out. "Why should I leave? What does a woman like me have to be afraid of, just because they're gossiping about me and some man?" He recalled the stubborn look on her face. The outcome was clear now that Pak was bent on getting his commission. So what would happen to the woman? She had said that she didn't want to sink any lower, but it wasn't Pak's hand shoving her toward the cliff's edge. In his fear, O※m saw his own dark hand pushing her.
"Why don't you have a word with her? To tell you the truth, I set up the deal 'cause I wanted to help you out. After all, it's best for everyone if we get rid of her kind as soon as we can. Understand? Well, I'll be going now."As he opened the door, Pak said, "Oh," and turned back. "On my way in, I noticed something had fallen off of your sign. Don't just sit there brooding. Go out and fix it."Wind pushed through the door as Pak went out. It would be a long time before darkness came, but the studio was already gloomy. What was Pak talking about? O※m opened the door cautiously. Scraps of trash blew through the street. Even the bare trees seemed to be rubbing their arms, howling from the cold. He looked up at the sign. 'Happness Photo Studio' The i in happiness had blown away. A chill ran through him, as if what he knew as happiness would be lost forever if he didn't find that letter and put it back in its place.
'Happness Photo Studio.' All that remained of the i were traces of the glue that had once held it. Where had it gone? He searched everywhere for the scrap of plastic. He looked under every piece of trash lying in the street. Tangled lumps of dust floated through the air like swarms of butterflies.
In this wind, the letter could have flown miles by now. He abandoned his search and looked up at the sign again. 'Happness Photo Studio.' The woman's face came to him from between the letters. Whether she left or not, he would never find that letter again. Shoulders sagging, he dragged himself back into the studio. And the wind kept on blowing.