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For eight years Taegun Lee, team leader of the Seoul City Transit Authority Sanitation Special Decontamination Cleaning Crew, got up at six. And even after six months on unpaid leave he still did. He woke, drank and cleaned. His place wasn’t dirty – he had won the battle against the toilet bowl, executed the dust clumps that resembled dead mice clinging to power cords and cleansed the bachelor funk from all the pillows – no, he cleaned for the same reason he gulped soju in the morning: it made waiting easier.
Just as he finished his first bottle of soju and grabbed his brush to work the bathroom grout, he tried to have hope. He tried to focus on cleaning, not his cell phone on the bed stand. It couldn’t continue forever. The world would come back to its senses. But the waiting sickness crept up his throat and back into his thoughts. The lie. The hoax. The amazing sleight of hand that tricked an entire country.
Jumpers had flung themselves in front of the trains then poof. Gone. Except for a rumpled pile of clothes chewed by the train wheels, there was nothing. No blood, no severed parts, nothing but clothes. It started as a rumor and a collection of cellphone videos. Amazing camera tricks Taegun had thought. An overzealous prankster with convincing props he had said. But when the CCTV footage was “leaked” onto YouTube of the bodies disappearing at the moment of impact, the world lost all sense. Witnesses came forward. Families wailed on camera. UFO hunters investigated it as abductions. Blink spotters camped on the platforms with cameras hoping to see someone jump. North Koreans declared it was the result of imperialist oppression. Talk shows cancelled amazing dancing dogs to interview mystics with frizzy hair lecturing on the illusion of life and the soul. 2QToo made a music video at a train station for their song “All The Soul Needs is a Lollypop” and it hit number one on the K-pop hot twenty. And suddenly, the word “oblivion” formed on people’s lips.
Life insurance companies refused to pay. There was nothing in their policies regarding oblivion. Even the mobsters stopped throwing people in front of the trains. Then there were no bodies. No blood to spray off metal. No far-flung limbs to collect. No work.
Taegun was working a black stained corner of bathroom grout when the phone rang. He tripped over the bucket of on his way to the bed stand. It was Pimples, a co-worker. He wanted to see Taegun at the Irish Pub at noon.
“You heard something?” Taegun said.
“Can’t say, Boss,” Pimples said.
“I’ll see you at noon.”
After hanging up Taegun tried to breathe. Noon. He could wait till noon. But even as he opened a new bottle of soju and smelled the spilled bleach in the bathroom, he knew another call would come: the call to come back to work.
It had felt like a bad flu but Jinoo figured it was lung cancer. The doctors had said it was a bad flu. He coughed the yogurt-like phlegm onto tissues that proved it, they said. That was before pain pitchforked his temples and jackhammered his bones. Whatever it was, Jinoo knew it wasn’t the flu. Or pneumonia, fatigue, sinus infection, stress, or anything else the doctors told him in condescending flat tones. Whatever it was, it spread like wildfire scorching a mountainside.
The IV’s began to change and the doctors said things would be okay, in kinder tones. “I feel like shit,” Jinoo said.
“That’s how you know you’re getting better,” the doctor responded without looking up from his clipboard.
“How would it feel if I wasn’t getting better?”
Outside the glass door to his private room, Jinoo heard the grim voices of doctors and his wife and his grown daughters. Then a drug haze would descend, trapping him in a ball of fluff and piking him in the middle of it with shattering pain. This was no flu. And these painkillers were no cure.
He asked his wife to tell him what was wrong. “You’re sick,” she said and nothing more. When the haze lifted enough and the visitors were gone, he put on his glasses and looked at the IV bag. Some dreadful English word that naver.com translated: “A drug to comfort the dying.”
Jinoo had made his money from not telling people everything they needed to know. That was the duty of a loan agent. No words of loan consolidation, loop-poles, or other possibilities. Just don’t lie – that leads to lawsuits. But for them to invoke the right of family, that old code that the family could decide not to tell the ill of their impending doom, was extreme. Distrustful. Then the wave of rage crashed into his consciousness. He wasn’t sure why at first. Was it death? Loan agents weren’t known to live long lives.
No, what it was, the thing that made the tinted yellowed walls of the hospital room burn before him was the money. The insurance money. His wife and his two daughters were after it. And they believed – rightly so Jinoo would have admitted himself if he wasn’t in the throes of beating his book Verbal Mastery: Getting What You Want against the handrail of his hospital bed – that he would do anything, any treatment, any mystical callings from shamans, no matter the cost, leaving his family with only enough money to buy two rolls of Kimbap.
While his peers drove BMWs and Benzs to high-rise apartments in Gangnam, he drove a Bongo to his three bedroom in Bucheon. They lied, cheated, cajoled, and threatened their way to money; he had been as honest as he could. They whored and drank in room salons. He drank cheap vodka at home. He married and had been faithful to the right kind of wife his parents had approved of and no matter what absurd thing she asked for – jump rope tutors for the girls, a French bidet – he relented. All of this living right only to die without any sort of bang to his life. This world was indeed not fair. He had earned that money and he would be damned not to spend every last bit of it.
But he had been denied. They would feed him numbing drugs and he would have to wait through all the smiling faces coming to say goodbye while they counted down the hours for their blood money. And after he died, he would go to a heaven where these people would be someday.
For the first time since his military service during a bitter winter a kilometer from the DMZ, when the order came to refill an Olympic sized pool with only a tablespoon, he wept. And he wished for oblivion.
Oblivion. A wonderful nothingness. It occurred to him: he knew how to get exactly that. No one would get anything. Jinoo set the book down on his lap and reached for his phone.
No call came. At eleven, after a cup ramen and six glasses of water and two cans of beer, Taegun took a shower and brushed his teeth. He wiped the splatter of toothpaste from the mirror, careful not to rub in circles. Rubbing led to wispy scratches. He took out the trash and noted the light breeze, a bright sun, the rumbling buses. Before, on fine days like this, when a jumper leapt in front of the trains at least twice a week, Taegun felt like a cleanser, a worker of god, a restorer. He walked up the street passing people in their thick coats, avoiding glances of street vendors who knew him.
There was no sunlight in the Irish pub. The owner had never been to Ireland. The owner, a woman with tattooed eyebrows and a wrinkle-worn scowl, said that Europe was all the same. As Taegun got a bottle of soju from the refrigerator and a flat pint of Cass and a bowl of stale tortilla chips that looked and felt and tasted like salted woodchips, he spotted Pimples skulking over his pint at one of the tables in the darkest corner of the pub. Even with a six-month beard, the naked splotches of pale acne-scarred skin showed like mange.
Taegun made his way over to the table, set his drinks and tortilla chips on the table, nodded to Pimples and set to shaking the bottle of soju and pouring a bit of it into his beer.
After a moment, Pimples spoke. His hair was greasy and didn’t move on its own. His hoodie was missing its string. Without work or a wife he looked feral. Desperate. “Boss, I’ve got news from Sergeant Baldy.”
Did they find the hoaxer? A body? Hope rose up in Taegun. No matter what it was, jumpers from stairwells, burning monks meditating in the middle of the tracks, or the common suicide from the platform, it had always been Baldy who greeted him at an incident. A straight-talker who always spoke with one hand stroking his comb-over. The Sergeant never wavered in his belief that this was a hoax. Don’t worry we’ll get the bastard who did this. Bodies disappearing? How the hell would that happen? That’s like saying that a Dokkaebi pisses from the clouds to make it rain.
Taegun tried to remain calm. “Yeah? Well, what did he say?”
“Yeah, it’s just –” Pimples sighed. He shrugged. His eyes looked glazed. Finally, after a sniff, he said, “They’re terminating the investigation.”
There was nostalgic chatter of retired construction workers by the tinted window, men who had had long careers and now had the time to complain about the shoddy work done by those who came after them. The hum grew as guys getting off for lunch entered the bar. They came in with the bright light, their pink ties glittering. As far as Taegun was concerned, he wouldn’t be too bothered if one of them stumbled into the kerosene heater and set the whole building on fire. He wouldn’t run out the door. It wasn’t just the news piercing into his chest, it went deeper than that. What if the city never called him back? That was possible. Likely. A near certainty. What if the world never came back to its senses?
Taegun brooded about having to get a job, maybe scrubbing toilets in hotels. He could go back to school. Study and get one of those jobs where he sat behind a desk with a shirt and a sparkly tie. He couldn’t imagine what that would be like. No steam cleaner, no meter-long brushes with swivel heads, no gravel, no blood, no suds, no stinging smell of all purpose cleaner, no searching for that one missing body part – no moment, after everything had been rinsed, of a clean gleaming piece of metal with only a slight dent of memory.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts he didn’t register that Pimples was talking. He saw Pimples’ mouth moving but the words didn’t seem to have any meaning. “Huh?” Taegun croaked looking up from his beer. “What did you just say?”
“Boss, I’ve got an Uncle. Well, an ex-uncle in-law, an uncle of Juyoung’s.”
Taegun gulped the rest of his drink. He was going to need more very soon.
“You know, the loan collector guy.”
“He needs help, our help.”
“I need a drink.” Taegun stood up holding the soju bottle by the neck ready to club someone.
“Boss, he wants to jump in front of a train.”
Back in his room, drunk, Taegun stewed. Hours before there had been the slight glimmer of hope – the world could come back to its senses. It couldn’t be that stupid, could it? Yes, it really could. Instead of thinking of ways to make undercarriage cleaning more efficient, he laid on his bed clenching the sheets as if he were stuffed. And now, Pimples’ ex-uncle in-law, wanted to jump in front of a train so he could disappear. Disappear? The thought sent the walls spinning, closing in on him – he no longer understood anything in the world.
As a child, Taegun had kept a pack of wet wipes in one pocket and a plastic bag for trash in the other. Classmates had tormented him for his curiosity of squashed pigeons or ant-riddled mushy mice baking on the pavement. It wasn’t so much the fascination for wrecked flesh and bone – all the kids had that – it was his desire to clear them from the street. His first day on the job, when he looked up to the windshield of the subway train and saw the bloody eyeball stuck to the wiper, his desire proved to be an asset. But now they had taken that away from him.
And then, just as the ceiling above was drooping and the blackness of despair descended on him, something gasped within him. He was not crazy. The world was, not him. Bodies don’t disappear. He had seen far too many broken mangled pieces of dead wreckage to believe that. Only the fools who had never seen ivory bones sticking out of hands would believe in disappearing. Suicide was real. To deny it would be like denying that baking soda didn’t bubble, bleach didn’t burn, shit didn’t stink.
He reached for his cellphone.
“Pimples, tell that fool that we’re in.”
From the moment he ripped the IV from his arm Jinoo expected to be stopped. But after he struggled into his sports coat and yellow hat, and dragged himself across the room and into the squeaky wheelchair, no one came. Shouldn’t a nurse sitting at the station or a family member sulking in the waiting room would hear the commotion? Shouldn’t someone would come and ask, “Where are you going? You should be in your bed. Do you need more pain killers?” But no one came. The casters of the wheelchair rattled with each beleaguered pump of his arms down the empty hallway. No one stormed out of the waiting room. None of the nurses at their station stopped clicking their mice.
When Jinoo reached the elevator a cough broke through his throat. He looked back down the hallway. Not a soul. If he yelled that he had a winning lotto ticket, would they come? He struggled to keep his concentration, to keep the elevator button in front of him. Yes, they would come. As he tried to reach for the button something held him back. It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. Someone was supposed to stop him – stop him from disappearing.
His hand felt heavier. The weight of drugs and disease and all the bullshit whispered for him to go back. Maybe he could indulge himself and ask for a hand job from the nurse.
No, he decided. There was only this button, the lobby downstairs and the cold night outside. If he were lucky, there would be a drink of vodka.
The elevator bell rang and he slowly wheeled in. The door closed on him and retracted. Please clear the elevator doors it said. After one final push the doors closed.
An hour later, people did come looking for Jinoo: Pimples and Taegun. Jinoo was behind the designated bus stop in an alley by the bags of trash. He slouched in his wheelchair with his yellow hat tipped over his eyes and his sport coat hiding the blue-checkered hospital gown. He woke and struggled to lift his head. His nephew in-law looked as worthless as he did when his niece brought him to his daughter’s nineteenth birthday party. Only now he had a beard and got out of a Tico instead of dismounting from a fried chicken delivery scooter. The other man breathed through his mouth.
“Uncle?” Pimples asked.
“Vodka,” Jinoo said. Vodka was the only thing he wanted now – not to see these two, not to think about money, just vodka.
“Let’s get you to the car,” Pimples said.
“Is he okay?” Taegun asked and Pimples looked long and hard at Taegun. “Right, but –”
“Vodka!” Jinoo said, speaking down to the ground.
“When we get into the car,” Pimples said.
“Vodka, goddamn it,” Jinoo looked down the road. Some of the lights were out and the road was dark. “Vodka.”
They stopped by the first convenience store and Pimples ran in. Taegun looked back through the rearview mirror at Jinoo. His head still hung, leaving only the top of yellow hat. The hat looked like a yellow coffee bean.
“Mr. Jinoo, right?”
“That’s a nice hat.”
As if lifting some massive basket of rocks tied to his head, in the way peasants used to hundreds of years ago, Jinoo lifted his head and looked into the rearview mirror. He licked his lips and cleared his throat and said, “Eat shit.”
Pimples returned and handed a green bottle of soju back to Jinoo. “They sold out of Vodka.”
Jinoo grunted and took the bottle then grunted some more. He couldn’t open the bottle. Pimples cranked open the cap for him and Jinoo raised the bottle to lips and gulped it, spilling it on his cheeks, the jacket, the backseat.
What would it all look like in the morning? Taegun would need to sprinkle the seat with baking soda over night and vacuum it in the morning, before the call came.
Pimples opened another bottle took a swig and offered it to Taegun. Before Taegun could reach for it there was the thump in the back. Jinoo reached for the next bottle. His eyes were glassy, lost. Pimples relinquished the bottle and Taegun watched Jinoo drink without closing his eyes. Where would those eyes be in the morning Taegun thought.
“Let’s get this over with,” Pimples said.
Taegun put the car into drive.
Jinoo didn’t speak all the way to the hidden alley behind the construction site jutting from the train station. His chin was down to his chest and a small string of drool spotted on his chest and soju – maybe piss – darkened his pants. He was able to stand, albeit grasping onto the open car door. Pimples hadn’t said that Jinoo would be so medicated, so unable to walk. Taegun was beginning to lose faith in the plan. But each took a shoulder and the three proceeded over the crackling gravel.
In the shadows of the skeleton of beams rising into the sky, they stopped for breath. The construction walkways were icy – wide enough for only a single man, protected by hand rails draped with construction blankets. It was a difficult way up. Taegun had imagined this all would be simple. Similar to dropping off a buddy at a date: wish him well and don’t get in the way. Never witnessing a thing. But this – the back seat of his car, a man hanging off his shoulder unable to raise his gaze above his slippers – was entirely different. Taegun had only considered the phone call afterward, a needy voice begging over the phone to come to work. Not this.
The blankets flapped with the breeze.
“Ready?” Pimples said.
“Yeah,” Taegun said.
“I meant him, boss.”
Jinoo drooled. Then he made a noise that sounded affirmative.
They stopped at the corners. They huffed and held on to exposed pipes. They wound their way up the structure. Finally, they reached the walkway without the blankets, without handrails, a red beam open to the space above the tracks. Pimples and Taegun panted and held up Jinoo.
And like a pair of far off buoys, the headlights of the train came around the bend. The flat voice of the station below spoke. The train is approaching. Please stand behind the yellow line.
“Uncle,” Pimples said. “Uncle?”
Drool dropped from Jinoo’s mouth.
A terrible thought flashed through Taegun’s mind: what if he doesn’t take the step?
The power lines shifted and moaned.
“Is he dead?” Taegun asked.
“Uncle, it’s time. Wake up,” Pimples tapped Jinoo’s face. He felt his neck. “He’s not dead.”
The thump of the train grew louder. Taegun could feel it through his shoes. Thump, thump… Thump, thump.
“Uncle?” Pimples asked.
Staring down from the beam at the glinting dark tracks below and the raked gravel, everything seemed so orderly, so pristine to Taegun.
“He’s out of it.” Pimples said.
Taegun opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“Jinoo, Jinoo” Pimples shouted.
Thump, thump, … Thump, thump…
Taegun tried to speak again. His jaw moved but everything was caught up in his throat. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He should be checking on steam cleaners and bottles of solvents, cleaning the debris, clearing the bodies. Bodies… They had always been bodies. Silent bodies in the way of the living. Not believing a thing, asking nothing, just there in the way. Driftwood littering a beach. Fools had changed that. They had buried the truth. They had taken that from him and put him here.
Metal brakes squealed. The voice of the station spoke, behind the yellow line…
“Boss?” Pimples asked.
Taegun’s hands moved quickly, swatting away Pimple’s arm and suddenly Jinoo dropped off the beam. There was a flash of light and a crack louder than any storm he had ever heard. The lights of the station went dark. There were wails from the metal and the wheels and the people of the station below.
The retreat was swift in Taegun’s car. Stray cats bolted from the headlights and they hit all the red lights on the way to Pimples’ hotel. Taegun turned on the heater to keep their breath from fogging the windows.
“Did we just murder him?” Pimples said as Taegun stopped around the corner from the hotel.
“No,” Taegun said. He checked the rearview mirror and killed the engine.
“We murdered him.”
Taegun stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused, glazed. “We –”
“He wanted a suicide,” Pimples said.
“We didn’t push. He fell.”
“I don’t know, boss.”
“We don’t always get what we want,” Taegun looked back up the rearview mirror. Something moved far off in the distance.
“Doesn’t feel that way,” Pimples said getting out of the car.
There was a way he slunk across the parking lot. Heavy. Loud. Telling. Taegun looked back at the rearview mirror as the sirens of a police car came and went. He saw the top bar of the folded wheelchair in the back and he reached for the bottles on floorboard in the backseat. The start of a scary thought flickered in his mind but before it could it could take hold, the siren of a second cop car passed.
The sky outside was turning from black to cobalt and as Taegun opened the door to his apartment, his phone rang. A body was found. Could he come in? Of course, he said. Somehow the words left him with tension. He felt no different.
When he arrived at the station the sun was up and it was cold. But he was sweating in his custom-made cleaning suit. It rubbed against his elbows and knees like it didn’t fit.
The police were gathered by the tarp-covered body. Pimples was already spraying the front of the train. He didn’t look back.
Sergeant Baldy came up and shook Taegun’s hand. “Long time no see,” he said then sniffed the air. “Were you drinking all night?”
He hadn’t had a chance to spread the baking soda in the car. How could he not notice?
“Bottle broke in the car.”
“I won’t tell,” Baldy nodded toward the tarp and sighed. “Jumper. Crispy. Fell into the power lines, bounced off the train.”
Taegun looked up to the beams and walkways above. Baldy pointed to where he thought Jinoo jumped. He was close. High above the beams the clouds were long and wispy.
“Almost nothing left,” Baldy brushed his comb-over. “It’s all over the news and I’m hoping this’ll come back a murder. But that wouldn’t be my luck would it? Mobsters start tossing people? Nah, I bet it’s just some cocksucker deciding to shit on my investigation.”
“I thought that was done,” Taegun said.
“Not done just undermanned. Now fucked by ashy over there deciding to jump leaving us holding a dustpan. Everyone’ll start jumping and that sorry sack of shit that set up the whole sham will–” Baldy shook his head and gritted his teeth. “I’ll let you get to your thing. Got a body that I can’t identify. Good to see you Taegun.”
From the train to the tarp, there was no mess. No large splotches of blood. No hunks of flesh. No sharp gouge in the gravel. Everything seemed in its place, normal. If it weren’t for the horrid charred smell in the air, he wouldn’t know that this was an incident.
It all felt wrong.
About midway between the train and the tarp was something small and white and round. He knew it would be an eye. Jinoo’s eye, that hadn’t blinked in the car as he swilled soju. There would be more eyes from people falling from the sky, leaping from the platform, waiting on the tracks, just as before.
Taegun took a couple of steps toward it. It wasn’t an eye but a plastic bottle cap. Why wasn’t it Jinoo’s eye? Suddenly, he dropped his bucket and bent over and threw up.
The policemen looked back at him. Pimples looked back at him. Everyone looked at him and Taegun could feel their disgust. Baldy walked over, “Broken bottle my ass.”
What was wrong with him? Taegun looked back at Pimples who shook his head. He had been around death his whole life and now a bottle cap beat him? He looked again from the train to the tarp. Nothing. There was nothing.
“Brother,” Baldy said, “if you’re a mess, you got to get on out of here.”
Others of the cleaning crew were placing Jinoo, the remains of him, on a gurney. Him. Had he pushed him? Had he killed him?
Taegun puked again.
“Damn it, just go on home. Catch a cab.”
“No, no,” Taegun held up his hand. “No, no, I’m okay. Just a bad breakfast.” He stood and forced a smile. As all the eyes of the cleaning crew, Pimples and the police watched him, Taegun breathed deep. This was his job. This was his purpose. Even though he had that sick feeling in his stomach that everything was just plain wrong and might never be right again, he said, “I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay. I’ve got a job to do. I’ll be okay.”
A job to do. A thought that seemed so pure and so foul at the same time. Even as Baldy cussed him and Pimples trotted toward him and the vomit climbed in him again, he tried hard to keep that thought intact, clean, there.
Joe Milan Jr. is a writer who teaches in Seoul, South Korea. Check out www.joemilanjr.com for some of his other short stories and essays.