Eugene Chang was a finalist for the 2006 Jaewaedonpo Literary Award (South Korea). He recently finished his short story collection Chicago Monologue. He lives in Nashville.
6:00am. The alarm rang loudly. Chris woke up. He scratched his head. Jimmy lay on the mattress in the living room. Jimmy pulled the blanket over his head not wanting to get up. Chilyong came out from the bathroom. He had a yellow towel saying “Chicago Soccer Club” around his neck.
“Wake up. We have to eat breakfast,” Chilyong shouted while he dried his hair. Chris had half-opened eyes as he straggled to the bathroom. Chilyong took the blanket away from Jimmy. He kicked Jimmy in the butt. Jimmy hesitated a little and got up. He put on a mahogany shirt he wore the day before and followed Chilyong to the kitchen. Chilyong opened the refrigerator. He took out bread and soy milk.
“Bread and soy milk again. Don’t we have noodles or something?” Jimmy grumbled.
“What? Who finished a whole box of ramen noodles in three days?” Chilyong said.
Jimmy picked up the bread with a smirk on his face. Chris came to the kitchen. He wiped his face with a paper towel.
“Man, you should use the towel in the bathroom, not a paper towel in kitchen,” Chilyong scolded Chris like a stepmother.
“Anyway, when do we all get a vacation? How come I’m always tired?” Jimmy yawned and poured soy milk in a Styrofoam cup.
“That’s why I keep telling you to stop watching videos till two in morning.” A piece of bread fell out of Chilyong’s mouth.
Jimmy replied he would quit his job soon. He massaged his lower back. Chris reminded them that Mr. Lim had promised increased wages and paid vacations soon.
“What the heck. Do you really believe him? He said that six months ago. Look. He says he’s an elder at his church so he has to go every Sunday. But he forces his employees to work on the Sabbath,” Jimmy complained.
“Let’s stop talking about meaningless things,” Chilyong said. He got up.
Chris and Jimmy followed him.
. . .
Interstate 90 wasn’t as congested as they predicted. They arrived on time at the beauty supply store in South Side. Mr. Lim, who was completely bald, drank coffee in his tiny office.
“Look, Mrs. Higgins, I don’t know why. I just can’t start the day without drinking coffee,” he declared.
Mrs. Higgins was skinny like a chop stick. She was in her forties. Still, she looked like she was over sixty. Mrs. Higgins married an American G.I. in Dongdoochun, th Korea. Then she moved to America. Her husband played drums for his rock band. He was an alcoholic, too. He beat Mrs. Higgins with his drum sticks when drunk. A year ago he struck her for forty minutes like a drum solo. Afterwards, he said he had no passion left for playing drums. Eventually, he left her.
Mrs. Higgins bitterly smiled. She said she couldn’t drink coffee. Mr. Lim had to leave to play golf. He ordered Chilyong to display chemicals on the empty shelves.
“Mr. Lim, I’ll pray for you to win money playing golf today.” Jimmy changed his tune from earlier.
“Thank you. Anyway, keep an eye on Negroes. They’re always ready to steal. Especially the ones with ‘Jesus is my boss’ shirts. Watch out for those lazy bitches.” Mr. Lim left the store.
He opened his white Lexus. The lid on his coffee popped off. Hot coffee spilled over his hand. Mr. Lim sharply screamed as if he were delivering twins.
. . .
A black mom and her daughter suspiciously sent a signal to each other in the corner. Chilyong noticed them and watched carefully. He caught a black girl trying to steal a blonde hair-piece last month. Mr. Lim praised Chilyong and took all the employees to a fancy Chinese restaurant, The Forbidden City.
Chilyong saw the daughter take a can of hair spray. She tossed it to her mom who quickly put it in her jacket. Chilyong’s shiny broken English hit the air.
“What you do over there?” Chilyong rushed to them. “I see you my eye, I see you my eye!”
His high tone voice made the black lady’s face even darker. She didn’t back off. She struck back screaming. Chilyong pointed to her jacket.
“I saw her steal hairspray!” Chilyong tried to put his hand in the mother’s jacket.
“Don’t touch me!” she screeched insisting he couldn’t touch her body which was the temple of the Holy Spirit.
“I calling Chicago cop. I calling FBI,” Chilyong shouted. He took the mobile phone out of his pocket.
The black lady took the hairspray out from her jacket. She smashed it to the ground.
“Son of a bitch!” the daughter spat and followed her mom.
“Fucking bitches.” Chilyong’s nostrils were shaking.
Mrs. Higgins called Mr. Lim to tell him what had happened. Mr. Lim was on the seventh hole. He lauded Chilyong’s accomplishment over the phone. Chilyong humbly said he was just lucky.
. . .
Chris was cooking Korean barbecue in the frying pan. Jimmy looked at the pan full of pork. Chilyong was glowing with pride.
“You’re just incredible. How could you tell they were thieves? Is it because you’re a thief yourself, taking money from the register?” Jimmy shook his head and glanced at Chilyong.
Chilyong said he could figure it out just by looking at someone. Chris put some pork on plates. Chilyong and Jimmy were quick to eat it. Their chopsticks clicked away busily. Chris’s cell phone started vibrating on the floor. Setting his chopsticks on the table, Chris picked up the phone. It was Thomas. Chris used to work with Thomas at the warehouse on Addison Avenue.
“Hi, Thomas. I know I should have called you. But you know how busy life gets. How is it going?” Chris asked.
“I’m with my friend Alcohol right now. You know,” Thomas answered with a chuckle.
Chris said he would stop by tomorrow. He hung up the phone. Jimmy shook water from some lettuce. Jimmy asked him why Chris stayed in contact with Thomas. Chris didn’t say anything and ate some rice.
Chilyong quipped, “It’s a waste of time. Don’t ask Thomas not to drink.”
“Hey, I heard from Youngwoo that Thomas brought a gun to work one day. Fortunately, he didn’t have any bullets,” Jimmy commented with worry.
Chris didn’t let a word come out of his mouth. Thomas was drinking every day since he lost his wife. His wife had worked at the drycleaner near Northwestern University. A couple of months ago, she ran away with a Mexican pants-pressing man she met there.
“What the fuck is this? Why did I come to Chicago? Look at me. My wife ran away with a Mexican guy. I will look for them. I’ll kill them both. I swear it. I’ll shoot them and kill myself.” Thomas poured more soju in his stomach and cursed.
. . .
Chilyong cleaned up the table. Jimmy tore a piece off of an adult magazine page. He used it as a toothpick. Afterwards he called his girlfriend Carrie. She went to an art school downtown. They had met at The Paper Plane on Lincoln Avenue. Jimmy lied that he was a student at Northwestern University. He claimed he was majoring in general business. She completely believed him.
Chilyong complained that Jimmy was selfish. Jimmy should introduce Chilyong and Chris to some girls as well. Chilyong said he hadn’t had a girl for the last six years. He even threatened that Jimmy would regret it if he continued to be selfish. Jimmy saw Chilyong’s serious face as a rotten potato. Jimmy promised to let them meet some of Carrie’s friends in the future. Jimmy flew out of house like a swallow.
“Let’s go out to the balcony,” Chris told Chilyong.
Winter breezes blew through Chris’s hair gently. The vivid night view of downtown invaded Chilyong’s eyes.
“No matter where you are in Chicago, you see Sears Tower. It looks like a big black cock,” Chilyong said.
Chris laughed and brushed his hair.
“I don’t know what the heck I’m doing here. I work at beauty shop, come home, eat, watching TV,” Chilyong said. He put a cigarette in his mouth.
“You’re not the only one living like that,” Chris said. He took a cigarette as well. “Is there anything that could make our lives better?”
“At least Jimmy has girl,” Chilyong said.
“Come on man, let’s drink some beer.” Chris threw his cigarette at the Sears Tower in the distance.
. . .
Jimmy parked his car near the Adler Planetarium. Shimmering lights from the buildings on Michigan Avenue shattered on Lake Michigan. Jimmy was slipping Carrie pants down. Carrie erotically sighed. He put his head between her legs.
“Ah!” Carrie screamed louder.
The John Hancock Center across the lake turned to purple.
. . .
Jimmy opened the door. He carefully crept into the apartment. He knew the room despite the darkness. He was about to lie down on his mattress when he heard a voice in the bathroom. It was Chilyong speaking with his mom.
“Mom, please wait for me. I’ll save money and send it for your surgery. Don’t worry about me, mom. You know me, I get along anywhere. Chicago is such a beautiful city. How about Minjung? I heard she works at the restaurant.”
Jimmy listened to Chilyong’s conversation. Chilyong came out of the bathroom. Quickly, Jimmy lay on his mattress pretending he was sleeping.
Chilyong went out to the balcony. The John Hancock Center was watching him with indifference. Chilyong smiled with the effect of a lonely winter.
. . .
“Man, sushi lunch at church? What great payback it is!” Jimmy exclaimed.
“I guess they collected some money.” Chilyong picked his teeth with a toothpick.
It was Sunday afternoon. They had just returned from Chicago Korean Presbyterian Church.None of them was interested in anything about election, predestination, or salvation. However, they each had existential reasons for attending. Chilyong went for meeting a woman with American citizenship. Jimmy went for the free lunches. Chris went because he didn’t want to stay at home alone.
Chilyong talked about a new girl that had come to the church. He said she was full of sexual energy, looking for a man to press her hard. Chilyong spilled a lascivious smirk. He clenched his fist hard. He said he was the man who would satisfy her purpose. Jimmy laughed at him saying Chilyong needed to look in a mirror.
Chilyong got angry, “I tell Carrie truth about you, Jimmy.”
“She doesn’t know the home number, just my cell number,” Jimmy smiled.
“Well, I’ll call her at this number.” Chilyong produced a hidden card.
Jimmy’s face went dead.
“Last night, when you were asleep, your phone was ringing. It said ‘My daling.’ I’m very disappointed Northwestern student doesn’t even spell right for ‘darling.’ You miss the ‘r.’”
Chris, who was listening to their dialogue, broke down laughing. Chilyong laughed along with him. At last, Jimmy laughed too. Their laughing spread throughout the small apartment.
. . .
Darkness engulfed Thomas’s room. He was eating instant ramen noodles. His eyes were like ponds where nothing could live. He took a bite of radish kimchi Chris had brought last week. He got up suddenly and went to the kitchen. He grabbed the cheap whiskey and drank greedily. A tear rolled down his face. He bit another radish kimchi.
. . .
Chris looked around the Happy Beauty parking lot confused. Mrs. Higgins was not there. She always came first. At noon, he heard the news from her sister that Mrs. Higgins had gone to the hospital. No one was sure how sick she was. She was in serious condition, though. Mr. Lim had a wrinkle between his eyebrows all day. Mrs. Higgins often worked seven days a week. Chris sometimes told her she needed to take a rest. She didn’t listen. She told him it was better to work than stay at home. Mrs. Higgins had a decent character and cared for others. Her lunch was taken at the warehouse after everyone had theirs. She ate the same thing everyday: tofu and kimchi. One day Chilyong asked her how she could eat the same lunch all the time. Her reply was a lecture on the rich nutrition of tofu and kimchi. Now, Mrs. Higgins was in hospital fighting to live. Chris felt like praying for her.
He closed his eyes, “Heavenly Father. Be close to her. I acknowledge that every life is in your hands. Please heal her pain and have mercy on her. Father, she has nothing but you. You said if I have the faith of a mustard seed, I could move a mountain. I don’t ask you to move a mountain. I pray to you for Mrs. Higgins. Father, I trust you and I pray in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.”
. . .
A black coffin holding Mrs. Higgins’s body was being lowered into the ground. Chilyong wept hard as he remembered his own sick mother. Mr. Lim wiped his tears with a white handkerchief. Mrs. Higgins had been in the last stage of uterine cancer. She had known about it for a year. She didn’t have any passion for living longer. She desired to leave the old world and enter the new world.
“God, take care of her spirit. You know she had a painful life here,” Chris grumbled at the air.
. . .
Jimmy walked fast. He was meeting Carrie at the coffee shop. Carrie waved to him from the table. She looked exceptionally pretty wearing a pastel green sweater. Jimmy sat on the chair.
“Jimmy, let’s forget the coffee and go to a bar,” she got up and said.
They visited The Paper Plane. The bar was packed with Korean people. A waiter with a shaved head guided them to the table at the corner.
“What would you like to order?”
Carrie ordered snail with vegetable and two bottles of beer. The waiter brought the beer first. Carrie poured beer into glasses and handed it to Jimmy. She held the glass high for a toast. Jimmy gave a puzzled look and clinked glasses with her. She ate ground bean. The waiter came to the table and took the empty bottles. Carrie ordered two more beers. The waiter nodded and said nothing.
“What’s wrong with you? Are you okay?” Jimmy asked.
“Hey, I’m paying for everything. There’s nothing wrong with this,” she defended and took a cigarette.
Jimmy lit it for her. She inhaled and spit out the smoke. It interrupted his vision for a moment.
“Jimmy,” she tenderly called his name and glanced at him, “I’m going back to Seoul.”
Jimmy was instantly shocked. He knew she would go back one day. But he didn’t expect it would come so quickly. He took a cigarette from his pocket. The clock said it was past two. Only a few were left at the bar. He put his fingers in her pants. Carrie began breathing sensually. He touched her deep inside. She squeezed her body and whispered in his ear.
“Let’s get out of here.”
They arrived at the park. Nobody was around. Carrie slowly inched Jimmy’s pants down. She helped him come inside her. His lips were shaking in ecstasy. He moved his waist hard. Carrie was screaming and clutching his body. Her face was shattered in Jimmy’s drunken eyes. They kissed and shared each other’s breath. Above them shiny stars were all over the city.
Jimmy didn’t say anything as he drove. Carrie leaned her head on his shoulder. He turned his face and looked at her. She was in such a tranquil mood. Carrie grabbed his hand. He took interstate 90 and went downtown. Citrine lights were twinkling. He got off at the Ohio exit. The car hit Michigan Avenue and he made a left turn. Jimmy drove fast on Lake Shore Drive as the John Hancock Center appeared in the back mirror.
He rolled down his window. Thunderous wind from Lake Michigan slapped his face.
“Carrie, I’m sorry.” He disrupted the silence.
Carrie’s hair blew high hitting the ceiling of the car.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy repeated, and his voice evanesced into the lake.
“What are you sorry for?” Carrie shouted above the sound of the wind.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m just sorry.” Tears flooded Jimmy’s eyes.
. . .
It had been two weeks since Carrie went back to Seoul.
“Jimmy. Sorry you don’t have nipples to suck anymore,” Chilyong chuckled while he put tuna in the spicy kimchi stew for dinner.
Chicago Cubs and LA Dodgers were playing on WGN. Chilyong was a huge fan of the Cubs. He asserted the Cubs should invest money like the New York Yankees if they ever wanted to win the World Series. The Dodgers’ pitcher stared at the Cubs’ batter. It was the bottom of the ninth. Runners were on second and third. LA was leading three to two. The closer threw the ball. Strike. It was a hundred mile fast ball on the outside. The pitcher could have let the fourth batter on the base by intentional walk. But he decided to handle him. The entire crowd in Wrigley field was up cheering and stomping their feet. The pitcher threw the second pitch. Strike. Chilyong was biting his nails. The pitcher wiped the sweat on his forehead. He threw the third ball. It was nowhere close to the plate. Still, the batter swung his bat. Strike out in three balls. The Cubs continued their fifth losing streak for the third time this year.
“Cubs just waste money on that useless guy. They need to trade him whatever reason,” Chilyong put on his blue Cubs cap and said. “Let’s get some beer.”
Chris took the keys on the table and followed Chilyong.
. . .
The grocery store was crowded. A lady with breasts like Patriotic missiles caught Chilyong’s eyes.
“Wow. Look at that,” Chilyong sent sincere respect for the size of her breasts.
“Man, she’d think you would rape her.”
“Just a second. Okay, I capture picture of her. I use it later in bathroom.”
Chilyong took cheap beer from the refrigerator. Chris wanted fine beer since they had gotten their pay checks. Chris put back the cheap beer and picked one from Germany. They stood at the cash register. The Patriotic lady was right in front of them with shampoo and soap in her hands. Chilyong looked back and forth between the soap and the lady. He momentarily thought how he would like to be a soap bubble on her body. It would be the beginning of eternity, Chilyong deemed. The lady spotted Chilyong and walked out.
“Is that all?” the cashier asked.
“That’s it,” Chilyong answered quickly.
. . .
Chris and Jimmy were giggling as they put their ears on the bathroom door.
Chilyong had gone to the bathroom half an hour ago. He was masturbating. Close to reaching climax, he sounded like a man with bird flu. All of a sudden, Chris threw open the bathroom door. Jimmy took a picture of Chilyong with his phone. The master of masturbation made the novice mistake of not locking the door.
“Man, you guys really interrupt my only hobby,” Chilyong came at Jimmy like lightning and erased the phone’s evidence. He went off to his room and locked the door. “Good night, kids.”
. . .
Thomas’s eyes were bloodshot. He had pills in his palm. Thomas popped the pills in his mouth, gnashing them with his teeth. It felt like the devil had dominated his tongue. He couldn’t stand it. He threw up. Creamy water spurt from his nose and mouth. Thomas rushed to the sink. He loathed himself. Clenching his fist hard, he punched the fridge door. His skin peeled back and blood came out. Thomas looked at it. He licked the blood.
. . .
Rain drizzled down that morning. It got thicker by noon. Mr. Lim nervously looked at the sky. He worried he might not be able to play golf. He had lost three hundred dollars on golf to Mr. Kim, the owner of Joy Cleaner, last Tuesday. Chris was busy arranging boxes. The small wooden box Mrs. Higgins used for her lunch caught his eye. He missed her. It felt like he could hear her voice.
“Chris. Chris,” her skinny voice snuck into the warehouse.
“Mrs. Higgins, where are you?” Chris called out.
“Chris, I’m in the most beautiful place you could imagine. I’m not sick anymore. I didn’t even say goodbye to you, Chris. You were always so nice to me. I remember that always. I truly thank you,” she whispered through the rain. “Chris, I came here to tell you one thing.”
“What is it?” Chris eagerly craved to hear.
“Chris, you should escape Chicago. You must get out as soon as possible. You belong to the light. You must go back where you came from. Go back.”
The sound of heavy rain stabbed Chris’ heart. He had to use the restroom. Unzipping his pants he peed in the toilet. It sounded similar to the rain outside.
Chris lit a cigarette and went outside. Tiny droplets landed on his eyebrows. He was reminded of a soft tofu restaurant in Seoul he often visited when it rained. He carefully walked through the memory in his mind. He visited the soft tofu restaurant on the east side of Seoul. An old lady greeted him. She said her son had moved to America leaving her alone. Chris ordered soft tofu jigae. She brought it and said it was for free.
“Thank you for your kindness.”
He finished the soft tofu and left the restaurant. Chris kept walking. He arrived at the apartment where he used to live. The video shop next to the apartment was still there. He discovered the hair salon with its open sign. He touched his hair and went inside.
“How I cut?” a lady smiled and asked.
“I don’t know. Cut whatever you want,” Chris watched himself in the mirror.
His black curly hair was snipped and floated to the ground. The lady was so fabulous at making style. Chris looked in the mirror. He liked his new look.
“Man, what are you thinking? Let’s get out of here. Time’s up.” Jimmy and Chilyong found Chris in the warehouse.
Chris looked at the clock on the wall. It was 8:09 pm.
“It looks terrible. You should let me cut your hair next time,” Jimmy rustled Chris’s head.
“How ‘bout we go pig feet house?” Chilyong recommended, getting in the car.
Chris and Jimmy nodded their heads saying nothing. They arrived at the pig foot house in Niles.
“Changchodong Pig Foot House.” Jimmy read aloud the blinking neon sign and went in.
“We’ll have soju and medium pig feet.”
A waitress with a deep wrinkle on her forehead took the order.
“She looks like she just got out of hell,” Jimmy muttered.
“Anyway, you know which part of body has most wrinkles?” Chilyong asked Chris. “The ball,” Chilyong answered his own question and separated his chopsticks.
“Come on man, just pour some soju,” Jimmy was holding a glass.
Chris stared at the parking lot outside. He could see rain falling on his car’s front window. Ruby color neon landed on Chris’s lips. Chilyong saw it and imagined how Chris would make a pretty woman. Jimmy put salt around his soju glass and drank it.
“Have you had a margarita?” he asked.
“Matahari? I have ‘bout six months ago.” Chilyong didn’t even get the name right.
“Stupid man. It goes like this.” Jimmy took another shot with salt.
Chilyong said Jimmy needed to stop drinking like a jerk. Chilyong emptied his glass and gave it to Jimmy. Chilyong poured soju into it. Jimmy swiftly finished it and took a cigarette. His face suddenly darkened.
“Chilyong, how is your mother? Does she get sick a lot?” he carefully asked.
Chilyong looked annoyed and managed to stay calm. He filled his glass with soju with an absent look. He looked at Chris and Jimmy for several seconds. Chilyong smiled and drank his soju. The alcohol went deeply into his spirit. He said he wanted to change the subject. But an awkward ambience existed.
“Do you need money for her surgery?” Chris continued.
Jimmy poured more soju in Chilyong’s glass. Chilyong opened his mouth.
“She’s really sick. Can’t even walk. My sister quit high school and working at restaurant kitchen. My sister takes care of her.” Tears welled in Chilyong’s eyes. “It takes lots of money for surgery.”
As Jimmy listened to Chilyong, he drank half the soju. He smashed the bottle on the table. A group of guys sitting next to him stared at Jimmy.
“Fuckers, making so much noise,” one of them told Jimmy.
Jimmy sent them axe eyes.
“Look at that fucker’s eyes; they’re coming out.” Four men at the table laughed at Jimmy.
The anger in Jimmy exploded like a volcano.
“What the fuck did you say? Huh? Who said that? I’ll kill him!”
Jimmy grasped the bottle and smashed it to the table. He didn’t stop. He threw the table and went completely insane.
“I’ll kill those fuckers.”
Jimmy threw empty bottles and dishes in the air. The men at the next table seemed scared of Jimmy. The lady owner snatched the phone and called 911.
“Cop, cop. Come here fast, fast. Crazy man. Korea crazy man, killing. Here wait for me. Korean. Now come on! Now.” Her broken English stunned even Chilyong who was the king of broken English.
“You called the police? I’ll burn this shitty pig foot store!” Jimmy threatened.
Chilyong held Jimmy’s arm tightly as he led Jimmy out of the restaurant. Chris drove the car and got out of the parking lot in a hurry.
“Man, are you crazy? What the heck was that?” Chilyong lit a cigarette and handed it to Jimmy.
“I don’t know. I just… I don’t know.”
Jimmy took a deep drag.
“Wait a minute. We didn’t pay.” Chilyong threw his cigarette out the window.
Jimmy worried that the owner would describe him as a robber. Chris said if he went back and paid the bill everything would be all right.
. . .
“I display incredible tolerance because I know you’re a good person.” The owner of the restaurant counted the money Chris gave her for a second time.
Chris bowed twice saying how sorry he was.
“Anyway, you guys should be careful; DUI mess up life.” She pointed out the headlines in the Korea Daily Newspaper. It said “Police force doubled to stop DUIs.” Chris looked to the corner and went to the bathroom holding his pants.
. . .
The Chicago night was getting darker. Koreans were not found just in Korea Town on Lawrence Avenue anymore. Koreans had moved to the suburb areas. They headed home after work every night. Nobody knew where they were going. Nobody knew what they wanted. Maybe, Mrs. Higgins was right…. Chicago was a tomb for them.
“What you doing, man?” Chilyong tapped Chris who was writing something on a notepad. “Are you writing letter?”
“Not really. I just write whatever I like to write,” Chris responded.
“Then you’re writing a memoir.” Jimmy, who lay on mattress, defined Chris’s writing.
“Memoir? Where you heard that shit?” Chilyong was astonished by Jimmy’s knowledge.
“Keep in mind that I attended Northwestern.”
Chris took a cigarette pack and got up. Jimmy and Chilyong followed.
They went on the balcony. The lost wind stopped to communicate with them. It was an especially gorgeous night. The downtown skyline was spectacular as usual. Chilyong lit up cigarettes and gave them to Chris and Jimmy. They spit out smoke with deep sighs. None of them had a clue what to say. It was always the same pains, the same disappointments, and the same complaints. Chris wanted to say something special. But he couldn’t think of anything. A few minutes of awkward silence flowed. Chilyong lastly opened his dried lips.
“You guys go to church tomorrow? It’s Sunday.”
“Church? Hell… let’s go. We don’t have anything to do anyhow,” Jimmy said indifferently.
“What do we do after church?” Chilyong’s questions continued.
“Man, I don’t know, maybe take a nap.” Jimmy held both arms high and yawned. Chris, who was standing between them, remained in silence.