Life, a short story

When he woke, the house was still and flat. Like a sheet of paper. The bed had been placed in the center of the family room, suspending Jin here, weltering in an impotent body against choppy storms. Someone had left the small lamp on in the living room. With his body turned to his right and his two hands stacked against his cheek, he could see the world in its downcast yellow light. He heard crashing waves in the seashells of his hands, and from somewhere beyond this time he heard the screech of seagulls, upset, flapping and hovering with nowhere to rest. Opening his eyes slowly like shutters, from here he could see the small square painting on the far living room wall. He had spotted it that morning lying here pondering its sickly mimicry of sunlight, its smirch of yellow, green, and pink. What did it mean?

At the hospital, he had laid in this same childlike pose. His daughter Mijo’s lawyerly voice demanding assurances had woken him. Have all the appropriate tests been done? By whom? He listened to her screeching, flapping. She could be so critical, so loud, which he knew was a way to subdue her own inner fears. He had let his consciousness rise, hearing his three children – Mijo, Sujo, and Juno – his children’s defiant drumbeats, beating wildly, knowing nothing of fear, knowing nothing of war. Raised behind invisible walls in a vast temperate life.  Different from his, from hers, their unrestrained hearts bursting with interrogation, searching out answers to defend against doom, repeating: Is this the best course? How long? When will we know how long?

He had peeked open one eye in a wink and closed it again to block the harsh fluorescent light. Poor children. They stood jostling at the foot of his bed, their heads bucking, their torsos lined up like horses ready to run. Show them your valor, he thought, resolving to intercede, to break through the rolling sheets of ocean. He stretched through the rousing stormy rains, his voice reaching through a cotton sleeve with his arm, his dwindling hand, the tips of his fingers playing a piano. He asked the oncologist, “What are my chances,” a question on the measure of life. And the doctor answered brightly, “This hormone treatment will give you two years.” Neither long, nor short, a matter of luck for an old man like him.

Now, he laid on a steel table, as if captured in another unwanted photo his wife had taken. Along the border of the room, his recliner sat, its arms empty and pushed against the life-size photo of the children his wife had mounted like a monument on the wall.

In a grand gesture he tossed open his sheets and lay there listening to the silence, the thrumming beneath his ribs. He heard scratching at the fence along the side of the house, the rustle of plastic bags, aluminum cans scattering across cement. Would there be a scrimp of something to eat? Maybe a wild raccoon had found its way up the canyon. His mouth felt dry, pasted with a saltless boil of meat and radish in the air. He slid his tongue over his smooth clean teeth. His inhalations gently puffed at the back of his throat. Get up. Get up. And gingerly he sat up and eased his legs over the side of the bed.

His feet dangled, and he kicked his right foot. He patted his knees. “Come on, now,” he said, squeezing his toes into the carpet, feeling light on his legs. To test their sturdiness, he tightened his buttocks and squatted on his heels.  He rose, pinching the sinew along his femurs and then took slow halting steps toward the kitchen. To his left, the piano bench had been moved to make way for the bed. He tapped his fingers on the wood covering the piano keys, then laid his palm flat as though leaving a handprint on a wall. Someone had closed it as if there would be no more music for a while.

Straight ahead he saw the austere dark lines of the dining room table, a large binder left open on the tabletop. He paused because his back ached dully, as if part of him pulled away from life. The heavy silken drapes reminded him of the small altar in the church chapel, a building set apart from the main sanctuary. His bare feet reached the cool hard planks of wood flooring. In the far corner of the dining room a floor lamp stood like a centurion behind the china cabinet. He followed its dim gray glow through the high window, swallowed up by the long moody night.

He brushed his hand over the soft back of a kitchen chair and leaned his knuckles gently on the table. The thin metallic blinds covered a tall kitchen window, its bladed edges quivering with evidence of living room light. There was no horizon, no abyss.

He lifted his knees in a march. Thank you, old chums. The soles of his feet knew the wood. From memory he moved assuredly into deeper darkness, past the chairs and into the kitchen. Blinds covered the picture windows in front of the kitchen sink. The wall cabinets rose to the ceiling, closed shut, surrounding him in a cave. The cabinets disappeared into shafts of shadows filled with brittle useless dishes, cookware, holding nothing but space. He felt no reverberating strife, silent arguments, no nonsense.

On the counter in the far-right corner next to the stove he could see distinctly only the geometrics: the cylinder of his coffee burr, the sphere water pot, the trapezoid filter perched there like a collar. At that moment he thought of a clean white plate, a blurred bottle of olive oil, the salt and pepper mills that fit in his fists, all arranged there in a simple fashion as he had left them; no one had tampered with his life. He thought of warm angel hair pasta, squirts of fresh cherry tomatoes and steamy salt-and-pepper noodles swirling in his mouth before a soft spot of radiance slid down to his belly.

Hungry, he took a few steps and stood in front of the refrigerator, an old two-door model with the cooler on the right and the freezer on the left. The door shelves rattled with bottled supplements that Chella bought in Koreatown from scoundrels. Who knew the truth of what the ingredients were, chemicals, or poisons? When he tried to protect her, he knew she ignored him. Irritatingly she fell for their lies, but he let this go considering her feelings. He could not stop her. She could choose what she wanted to eat, what she craved. There was nothing more to be said. One of the back lights was out, so everything sat suffused in green: the leftovers from supper, an old carton of soymilk, unused leafy chard sitting over the pointed heads of the sweet red yams he had bought to bake for her from time to time for her breakfasts. No one had baked the tubers. Pushed off to the side were jars of dijon, capers, and a stub of hard salami he liked to have with a fresh tartine on days he walked to the grocery. He could see the orange block of Wisconsin sharp cheddar through the cheese drawer, the thick white mold hungrily feeding along its edges. 

He closed the refrigerator door and opened the freezer. The bright bulb lit everything in white, two shelves full of trays of beef bone, two small whole chickens, things he would use when fresh for the best flavor. In his old age, he had cultivated the habit of fixing his mind on the day, what happened in the moment. Unlike his old wife, he saw little sense in storing food for long. But then he noticed the carton of ice cream from Christmastime when the grandchildren were visiting. As he reached for it, uncontrollably, he uttered, “Oh, good show, good show!” Suddenly, that was the only thing he wanted. He grabbed the quart of vanilla and cracked open its lid, sticky and smashed on one side. And when he opened it, he found the caked cream encrusted with long frosty white whiskers. He squeezed one side of the carton to loosen the cake, prying into it with his thumb and forefinger until he held a large, disjointed piece, an obelisk in front of his face. He began filling his mouth, one morsel after another. The white light shined into his squinting eyes through his lashes. A star sparkled. Savoring each cold concentrated bite, the sensation of delight dissolved over his teeth, his tongue, until the carton was finished. He licked the sweet cream from his fingers, put the empty carton back in the freezer, and started walking back through the kitchen, past the alter and toward the chiaroscuro of the living room in the lamp light. He rolled along the balls of his feet as he went.

He paused to look toward the front door. In the dark he could still see that the bolt was turned; the door was locked. The heater began sputtering through its vents, its empty pipes, letting him know its machinery was working. He could hear its steady wakening, its rumblings through the walls, the staircase, and then up to the bedrooms. He turned his head upward toward the upstairs ceiling and listened intently for Chella. There were no sounds of hers. There were no footsteps, no creaking floor boards, no faint voices speaking in Korean on video, no rickety sounds of the closet door sliding open and closed, no waterfall of the shower – just the familiar disquiet of Chella, upstairs, sleeping. Like a sheet of paper.

That was the ricochet he heard, their world in its place. Clicking the sweet cream on his tongue, he walked past the piano, snapping his fingers to Dvorjak in the rhythm of old trains. Ba–ba–pa–pa.

He climbed on all fours into his bed and rolled onto his side as his mind issued a command to speak. Say something, it said, as he detected the mechanics of his jaw in motion. His eyelids closed. Over the rhythm of the trains, she needs me, it said.

Then it darted hurriedly ahead, casting another soundless flicker. His mouth formed the silent words – not yet.  He rested his cheek snugly against the pillow. I am a lucky man, he thought, waking, in an unexpected puff of breath. *

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