By Yi Nam-hui
Translation by Gabriel Sylvian
Editor’s note: This will be the first of several parts of Yi’s short story.
Eunmyeong cocked her head sideways every time she saw the sign, thinking how odd the two words sounded together. Heaven and …Litter? … Litter from Heaven?… or maybe…. a Heaven of…. Litter?………… There was only a blank space separating the words. Maybe it did not matter how you read them.
If you walk straight down Picasso Street from the front gate of Hong’ik University, you find a Buy the Way convenience store sign. “Heaven Dust” was the name of the live music club hidden away on that corner. The club’s sign resembled the Coca-Cola logo, with the club name in big red letters against a white background and the words “Alternative, Punk, Grunge” appearing at the top in tiny script. The first time the sign caught Eunmyeong’s attention, it wasn’t heaven and litter that came to her mind. She had imagined a desert. A desert swept over with yellow sand and inundated with dust. She could not open her eyes. It was a howling wilderness, the wind unfurling her hair as she stumbled to the right and to the left, its thunderous roar blocking her ears. No communication was possible, either with words or gestures. Fenced in within her own loneliness, she was forever in isolation there, even when others were around her…. Somehow pulled to the place, she descended the stairway and opened the door insulated with sponge fabric. Inside the club, she saw a group of young kids amateurishly playing their favorite songs. Eunmyeong met a kid named Yi Chorogi there. That was autumn of last year.
Eunmyeong had just then broken up with her boyfriend, and had started taking aimless walks. This was her regular habit that she fell into each time one of her love affairs ended. She would leave home at lunchtime and just wear herself out walking until late at night. Only after that would she go home. She had no goal in doing this. Like a marionette pulled by unseen wires, her feet would just keep moving and moving, as though they could not be stopped. The continuous, repetitive motion cleared her brain and emptied her thoughts. The autumn was very dry that year. The asphalt baked in the sun’s heat, and people wandered the streets wheezing like thirsty dogs. A ghastly thirst seemed to be on everyone’s lips and their faces bore hard, stern expressions. Very few people ever slowed their steps. The streets were always filled with an impatient stream of people. They did not look behind them nor did their gaze ever rest in one place. They seemed more like objects than humans as they hurried along their way just passing each other by. That was the way people walked around then. It was as though they were treading water in desperation to keep themselves from drowning. Swept along by the wave, Eunmyeong walked on and on busily like everyone else. Sweat oozed from her back. She had neither a destination nor plan to end up in any particular place. Time flowed on like that and as time passed, the green summer leaves gradually turned blackish-brown, decayed and crumbled. The hot sunshine gradually cooled. The wind became brisk, with flashes of winter in the offing. Eunmyeong rolled down her sleeves and fastened up her buttons. She put on a cashmere sweater rank with the smell of moth-balls. She would have to stop walking at some point, but she didn’t know where that place would be. She had come as far as the Hong’ik University area, and had glanced across at the Heaven Dust sign from pure thirst.
“Eunmyeong, you’re a little different from the other people who come here. I’m not sure in what way, though. You seem out of place, and some of the kids are afraid of you…I’ve been meaning to ask you, why you act so strangely every time you come to the club.”
Chorogi chattered on, her face red from drinking. The kids who had been singing and whooping it up had left the club, and now it was much quieter. Records started to play again. It was Chorogi’s favorite song by Radiohead: “I’m a Creep.” The song sticks out its gut and cries, ‘Yeah, that’s right. I’m a creep. So what?’ Someone behind them yelled, “Hey, Greenie! It’s your theme song! How about going up to the mike and giving us a live version?” Without turning her head, Chorogi grumbled, “Go suck your own dick!” Of course she said it quietly so that only Eunmyeong could hear. Chorogi was not one to go around parading insults. She knew well that the girls who did so were looked down on.
“Do you know that every time you come to the club you always stop dead in your tracks at the top of the stairway and just stand there motionless? Why? If it’s because you hate coming here, you wouldn’t come here as often as you do. If it’s because you can’t afford the place, you wouldn’t come and buy me drinks. …anyway, you do it every single time I see you!”
Eunmyeong did not realize she had that habit until Chorogi pointed it out to her. She would find herself pausing and looking up at the “Heaven Dust” sign, her body trembling at the thought of that desert. Each time a chill ran down her spine as though she had been thrown into the desert and abandoned. Although she wanted to be able to say that she hated the idea, that it was in fact warm human relations that she wished for, in fact the image gave her a faintly pleasurable sensation.
“Do I? You know, it’s because the club’s name is so strange. I was going to ask about it, but then I forgot. What’s with the “Heaven Dust”? Heaven and litter? Isn’t that a strange combination? What was the owner thinking when he stuck those two words together?”
“‘Dust’ doesn’t mean litter! It’s like powder, you know, like dirt particles. It’s powder that sends you straight up to heaven. That’s what it’s supposed to mean.”
It was then that Eunmyeong finally realized that for the last two months she had gotten the meaning of the English word “dust” all wrong. How could she not have known that the word “dust” meant something powder-like? Was it the onset of Alzheimers? She smiled bitterly. It was often like that with her. When she studied German, she had mistakenly confused the English word “brief” meaning ‘short’ with the German word “Brief” meaning “letter.” She had once mistranslated “brief season” as “season of the letter.” At any rate, her blunder made her feel foolish in front of Chorogi.
“Still another meaning of ‘heaven dust’ is ‘cocaine.’ Though only people in the know would really get that.”
As she explained, Chorogi gave “cocaine” its proper English pronunciation. She was careful about pronouncing English words like a native. Chorogi somehow gave the impression of being familiar with the term. Suddenly Eunmyeong wondered. Had Chorogi ever tried cocaine?
Eunmyeong had no idea.
Even after they had known each other for half a year and lived together for several months, Eunmyeong still knew almost nothing about Chorogi. If she had to write a resume for Chorogi, the only line she could fill in with any certainty would be her name. Then again, whether Chorogi was her real name or not, who her parents were, the circumstances of her growing up–Eunmyeong did not know any of those things for sure. If she brought such matters up, Chorogi would shrug her shoulders like an American and answer, “Why do you ask me such fucking stupid questions? Why do you always ask me about things that have nothing to do with who I am?”
Eunmyeong could never find a reply and would be left feeling awkward and embarrassed.
The regulars at the club called the kid “Greenie.” While sitting at the club, one’s ears soon got used to hearing people constantly yelling, “Hey, Greenie, how about blah blah blah?” When Eunmyeong mustered the courage to ask the bartender, he explained to her that “green” was the English translation of Chorogi’s name. A short girl came over, thinking they were talking about her, and showed interest in the conversation. The bartender indicated Eunmyeong with a nod of his head and winked. The girl did not attempt to make any show of reserve. She gave a sharp grin, moved towards Eunmyeong and tapped her on the shoulder.
“It’s cool because it gets attention! Don’t you like it? I simply love the name Greenie! I decided if I ever have a screen name it’s gonna be ‘Green Lee.’ Hey, are you new here? I haven’t seen you before.”
That happened about one month after Eunmyeong started coming to Heaven Dust. It was the first time anyone approached her at the club other than the staff who worked there. Winter had come.
Chorogi was not a petite woman, but she certainly gave a “cute” first impression. Her face was white and clean, though not exactly pretty. Just how old she was, Eunmyeong wasn’t sure. She was terrible at guessing people’s ages. At times Chorogi looked like a junior high school student, and at other times like a mature young woman. She usually wore a sweater emblazoned with an assortment of brightly-colored horizontal stripes over which she wore a black padded vest. Below, she wore tight-fitting leggings and knee-high boots like a Nazi officer. She went around with her bright face half-covered by a baseball cap worn crammed down over her head. That about sized up her appearance. She never wore a skirt. She could be mistaken for a boy, but there was something about her that spoke strongly of a refined style. Soon Eunmyeong realized that by associating with Chorogi she was herself becoming an object of people’s attention. She could not tell if the stares stemmed from jealousy or curiosity. It was as though Chorogi had a dazzle about her that got her noticed. Anyway, going around with her gave Eunmyeong a feeling of pride.
About four times a week, obscure bands performed their music at Heaven Dust. Eunmyeong could not tell if they were amateurs or professionals. It seemed the bands were more into showmanship than music, giving mere imitations of foreign grunge and punk-rock singers. For them, “dirty” and “weird” were compliments. They acted as though their highest purpose in life was to dish out hate and be loathed in return. Accordingly, all sorts of “incidents” cropped up at Heaven Dust. Eunmyeong often went to see them. She had a really great time watching the performances of the kids trying so hard to stand out from the crowd by acting differently from everybody else. It was all interesting, sure, but after enjoying a dose of their lively enthusiasm, Eunmyeong felt she had slipped back to a younger age. She had to admit she did not know any of these music groups. She had heard the name of one band, “Best Friends’ Toilet” but their songs were unfamiliar to her. She had seen an article in the newspaper reporting that an underground band of that name had been banned from public broadcasting. The article claimed that they had been blacklisted by the entire society because they spit at the TV cameras and attempted to smash up their instruments on stage.
Eunmyeong thought, To heck with this society’s “lowest-common denominator” mentality being forced onto us by words like “social ethics” and the “morals” and “universal values” of the “average person.” It’s really sickening. Was the band’s behavior really such a big issue? Wasn’t that how any real underground band behaved? Didn’t they exist to challenge the status quo? The bigger problem was what turned out to be the band’s calculated nature. Wasn’t it weak of them, after the article came out, to get scared and apologize for their actions, and to go back being fearful, docile, good kids? Suddenly trying to act all grown-up, so conscious of the eyes of others. That really stank. What’s with a society where everyone has to act. think and respond in exactly the same way? It was enough to suffocate a person………
“Ugh, you’re nasty! You make me wanna barf! Get the hell off stage!”
They performed only rarely, but whenever “Best Friends’ Toilet” took the stage, Chorogi would stomp her feet and catcall. She hated them. Of course it was not because they lacked vocal talent. She admitted she liked their sound. It was because of their fear, she said. Their swift capitulation to the demands of the older generation proved they were just imitating the music and lacked actual substance.
“You’re always so hot-headed, like you’re at some kind of war with the older generation”
Eunmyeong, past the age of thirty and her hard edges rounded, worried about Chorogi.
“Isn’t that what being young is about? I think in every age youth exists to reject the path taken by the previous generation and attempt to move beyond it. Where would rock-and-roll be without a spirit of resistance? When you were my age, Eunmyeong, you looked and acted differently from kids today, but didn’t you complain about what needed changing in the world?” You did, right? Have another drink!”
How much could Chorogi drink? No matter how many glasses Eunmyeong bought for her, Chorogi would drink them right down one after another. As a result, both women ended up spending a lot of money. It was a concern in the back of Eungyeong’s mind. But who cared about health? Talk about “making a future for one’s self” and such things, was not even dreamt of in that place. Such a comment would be shouted down from the first syllable as out-dated, sneered at and called a heap of crap. There, time was reckoned only as “here and now.” Future and past did not exist. Even if they did exist, the kids would have kicked them in the ass. Everyone there was happy. You could say they were in heaven.
“Hey you’ve been coming here every day lately. But aren’t you a little early today?”
The bartender acknowledged Eunmyeong as soon as she entered the club.
Chorogi had disappeared. Every single day for nearly two weeks, Eunmyeong had come to the club to ask the bartender, and any of the regulars she ran into, if they had seen Chorogi. Obviously, they knew the two had been friends. That fact had been great fodder for the club’s rumor-mill before, but now everyone was tight-lipped, shaking their heads as though she were questioning them about a missing UFO. Eunmyeong did not know that the people at the club looked on her behavior as senseless. They were pretty annoyed with her, but they did not bother to tell her that. It was, after all, her problem and not theirs.
..6 PM… The club was still empty. One kid, drunk or asleep, was sitting hunched over at a corner table. Even the owner was not there yet. At ..six o’clock.. the club started getting ready for business. Nowadays it was still light outside at six in the evening, even after the bluish twilight set in. Except for alcoholics or those unsure about the bar’s schedule, few people were so impatient as to come to the club at this hour. It would be a good two or three hours before the atmosphere picked up and really got going.
But Chorogi had been different. Of course, she liked the clamor and bustle of the club at around ..9:00.., but she also liked the tranquil atmosphere at ..6:00.. when the club opened its doors.
“You know! When the scent of damp wood comes up from the freshly-scrubbed floor, and the tables and glasses are all polished clean and in a line, and the bartender’s shirt and all the hand towels are laundered and gleaming white! All ready, standing at attention, just waiting for us! Wow, it’s so exciting! You think, ‘It’s finally that time!’ Nothing tops having your first drink of the day then. My heart beats pitter-pat. I start looking forward to whatever fabulous thing is going to happen next that evening.”
Eunmyeong sat at the bar counter and fixed her eyes right on the bartender. His shirt really did gleam white. He was absorbed in washing and stacking glasses, humming to the song coming from the speaker: “Ee-ya-ya-ya-shock-ing-shock-ing.”
“A bottle of Miller. And could you turn that song off?”
Eunmyeong’s peevishness was already showing in her voice. The bartender cast a sidelong glance at her and discerned her mood.
“You don’t like the band?”
“They were okay at first. I liked them. But I’m tired of them now. I hear ‘shock-ing shock-ing’ yelled out everywhere I go. I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
The bartender uncapped a bottle with a pop and pushed it towards her from where he was standing.
“Shall I put on Radiohead? You like “Creep”, don’t you?”
A sarcastic smile rose faintly to his lips. Was he ribbing her for looking for Chorogi? Was that why he was playing it cooler with her than usual? How exasperating. Radio Head was an English band that Chorogi liked. She had sung “Creep” as often as the lead singer Tom York, and probably even better than he.
What self-confidence that kid had! And how sarcastic she could be! And how cold…….. No one could match her. But what had become of her? Why no trace?
Once again, the image of Chorogi came vividly to her mind. Eunmyeong swallowed her first drink of beer and furrowed her eyebrows. She suppressed the frustration welling up inside her.
“Hey, Jeolsu. I came here because I’m worried sick. So listen to me without kidding around. It’s been two weeks since Chorogi disappeared. I’ve got to find her because I have a really important problem. I’m about to lose my mind. I really am. Why is it when I ask where Chorogi is, all of you look at me like you’re making fun of me? I don’t understand it. Am I to believe that there’s not a single person here who knows about Chorogi? You’re all regulars and have been singing here for a long time.”
“You’re really being pig-headed. I told you I don’t know. The only thing I can tell you is only that no one here gives a damn about where so-and-so lives or what they go around doing and that sort of thing. I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but…if people leave, they’re forgotten. What’s gone is gone. Nobody wastes their time, and embarrasses themselves, by going on and on about them. There was another person looking for Greenie before. She came one time and then that was it. Don’t ever, ever look behind. You’re wasting your time, Eunmyeong. I’m telling you this for your own sake.”
Everyone misunderstood her and had shut the door to their heart. As soon as she realized this, Eunmyeong felt exasperated and helpless. But all the same, she could not tell them the whole story. If she told them all that the reason she was looking for Chorogi was because the kid had taken her computer, they would shut their mouths even tighter. She tried to make the bartender understand somehow. She spoke slowly and chose her words with care.
“That’s not what I mean. I don’t know how to explain it. …This is a serious problem related to my job. If I don’t see Chorogi, there’ll be trouble. Four to five months of work will go up in smoke. Think about my situation, please. If I see her, I won’t bring up any other topic. I have just one question for her. One answer is all I need and once I get it, I have no more business with her. Really…..A friend would know. Don’t you know any of her good friends who used to sing here?”
Eunmyeong decided she would explain—however indirectly—the reason she was searching for Chorogi. The bartender nodded his head.
“Their band broke up a long time ago. The lead vocalist got signed up as a commercial rap artist and that was the end of it. That happened quite a while back, though.”
“Surely there’s an old friend of hers I can talk to?”
“Gim Heuiwan is an art student at the university here. …Maybe they’ve stayed in contact.”
“Heuiwan? How do I find this friend?”
“I hear Heuiwan plays at a club called Time Out. The group is called ‘Crying Peanuts’ or something like that. The club is way down the street there. Keep going down till you see the First Bank on the corner, and it’s down that alley, in the basement. It’s a cinch to find. Don’t be shocked when you go in there, though. It’s a pretty rough club…Anyway, I think they may be meeting these days.”
Eunmyeong bolted down the rest of her beer and stood up. She decided to head for Time Out.
Chorogi had a strange morning habit. She always woke up from her sleep and rose from bed at sunrise, no matter what time she slept the night before (Of course it was lunchtime before she got up for the day). With eyes open in the early morning hour, she would stir around outside for a while with no aim in mind, then go back to bed. There was absolutely no reason for her to do this. She sometimes exclaimed that she was like a baby bird that could not help but ruffle its feathers and chirrup every time the sun rises. According to her, she had tried to break the habit, but her eyes would open automatically. Then she would wonder what was going on outside, go out and then return to bed. “Well, what is it you wonder about?” Eunmyeong thought the habit peculiar. “Why wouldn’t I wonder? The weather might have changed. Or maybe the world went to pieces while I was asleep.” Those were her words, but Chorogi’s face was void of expression like she did not wonder about anything at all.
It was the same on that morning two weeks ago. The kid’s naked body, having grown cold during her sleep, cuddled itself into Eunmyeong’s arms, which caused Eunmyeong to wake up suddenly with a start.
“Oh! Why is your body so cold? It’s like ice!”
Eunmyeong would always yell out in surprise.
“It’s raining outside now. I just got rained on. I’m really sleepy. Leave me alone, hm?”
Muttering, Chorogi lay down and immediately fell back into slumber. This time, it was Eunmyeong who woke up suddenly and had to get out of bed.
..Seven o’clock… Time to rise. Sure enough, it was raining outside. Outside the window, in the milky-gray light of early morning, narrow raindrops were softly falling. The rains were marking the change of seasons. The ends of Chorogi’s short, green-dyed hair had gotten wet and were dampening the pillow. The track suit she had cast off was lying in the bathroom door like a rag. Eunmyeong removed Chorogi’s arm from around her neck and slipped out of bed. She drew cold water from the sink faucet and soaked her face in it for a long time. The fog clouding her head slowly lifted. She had to hurry. It was going to be a busy day. She had to write and send off a column this morning, and then she had a lunch appointment. Although she had known it yesterday, she had put off the work until today, instead spending last night lounging around with Chorogi watching a video. She made coffee and took a seat at her desk. When she opened the window, a breeze flew in, making the notes pinned to the memo board flutter. She winced at the sight of the biggest note, headed with the words “Colony and Mother.” It troubled her every time she saw it.
The note was an indictment of Eunmyeong’s laziness. “Colony and Mother” had been progressing at a snail’s pace for several months now. She had given herself over to having fun, and progress on the novel was all but nil. The beginning part was really terrific. There were certain facets of the project that really engrossed Eunmyeong. The novel began with a reflection on herself, her mother, and her maternal grandmother. The three lives seemingly bore no relation to each other, but in Eunmyeong’s mind, there were a number of mental pictures that stuck in her mind, things she had personally seen or stories she imagined she’d heard. The first memory was the sight of her grandmother squatting down on her heels on the narrow verandah in the middle of the night, while Eunmyeong’s maternal grandfather slept with another woman in the room inside. Another picture was when Aunt Yebuni, the daughter of grandfather’s concubine, entered the nunnery. On that day, her grandmother spent all afternoon drinking coarse rice wine with another woman. It was not only that the two of them were exchanging cups with red, drunken faces. They were like two staunch comrades who had shared many years on the battlefield together, between whom there was a total understanding. Eunmyeong had wondered about the pair, when someone whispered to her that the woman was Aunt Yebuni’s birth mother. Eunmyeong could not forget that scene, and had tried to explain the situation of the two women from various angles.
But since Chorogi moved in, her time and energy for the project had not been up to her usual par. Her writing fell short of the mark both in terms of length and quality. Perhaps it had been a mistake to let Chorogi move in. She hated to admit it, but in her one-room apartment, she was feeling cramped by her presence. She should have realized that from the beginning.
“The kid doesn’t pick up on signs. She does whatever she likes whenever she likes.”
Eunmyeong suddenly felt a strong hostility, and she grumbled to herself. (But she also had to admit the fact that after two days of Chorogi being gone, she grew worried and had ended up at Heaven Dust scouting after her whereabouts.)
Eunmyeong took a breath and turned on the computer.
With ..11:00.. just minutes away and with the column still unfinished, she began to mentally flounder. She placed her feverish hand on the back of her neck. Her hand was hot and sticky with perspiration. The kid had just gotten up. When she got up, Eunmyeong’s frustration escalated. Eunnmyeong shuddered. She was at her wit’s end.
“I’m busy. Take your hand off of me.”
To be continued…