Translated from Korean by Br. Anthony
There are two people. They prepare cards by drawing a grid, five squares horizontal and five vertical, a total of twenty-five squares, on sheets of paper. They fill in the numbers in their own way in no fixed order, and cover them so the other person cannot see them.
A says: 0 erased.
B says: 17 erased.
A says: 4 erased.
B says: 22 erased.
A and B decide on who goes first and then take turns speaking the numbers, and at the same time erase or cover the numbers on their cards. The numbers are the same, but the positions where the numbers are erased or covered are not the same. The positions of A’s 0 and B’s 0, A’s 17 and B’s 17 are different. The 4 of A and the 4 of B, the 22 of A and the 22 of B are located in different places. A and B do not show each other their cards. The game consists of each concealing the places where the numbers are placed and erased on his card, while each tries to erase or cover a complete row or column first.
The number of squares on a Bingo card is unlimited. 3×3, 5×5, 10×10, as well as 100×100 are possible. The game can start at any time, anywhere, as long as you have a grid of empty squares to fill in. Likewise, there is no limit to the number of people who can participate in Bingo. Two or more people need to get together. Whoever can first erase the numbers on the squares in sequence, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wins. Even if it’s a hundred or ten thousand squares, the rules don’t change.
Bingo may also not be a matter of numbers. The numbers can also be replaced with names of fruits, foods, objects, plants or animals, minerals, cities, countries, or places. Depending on who is participating in the game, the Bingo board can be filled in with anything related to shared memories. If you were classmates, you can enjoy Bingo with questions about your classmates or memorable events from your childhood, and historical facts and questions about social and cultural topics if you are familiar with society.
But sometimes things you can’t imagine fill in the blank squares of Bingo.
When I first came across Bingos, I couldn’t help but be surprised. It was my first day at work.
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The snow had stopped falling briefly when I arrived in Seoul. There was about a week left before my first day at work, but I had come up early. I thought I was lucky. If I had hesitated even a little, the road to Seoul might have been blocked by snow. Seoul looked bewildering, with people busily repairing damaged roads and removing snow, but I got off safely at the Express Bus Terminal though it had been a slow journey, with people struggling and clambering on account of sudden avalanches. Once I managed to find a coin motel near the city center, I had to stay locked up in my room.
The television broadcasted special news programs every day, saying that the damage was serious, with power and gas supplies disrupted due to the heavy snowfall, roads cut off, roofs and walls collapsing, and the number of missing persons increasing rapidly. However, rather than discussing the causes and symptoms of the abnormal global climate, or the formation of a disaster-recovery committee, the scenes in which a reporter holding a mic wandered through the streets and alleys covered in heavy snow interviewing people were impressive. When a shivering reporter asked, “I heard that the damage here is serious because it’s snowed a lot?” the people who were clearing the snow in the alleys or lifting up collapsed vinyl greenhouses would laugh, even though they had been crying. Yes, the damage was serious. But it was inevitable, because humans are powerless in the face of natural disasters. But aren’t humans the smartest animals on the planet, able to cooperate with each other? We must overcome it together, folks, we are strong. Don’t despair, let’s all fight together. Mostly, it was this kind of talk, this way of speaking, this kind of expression. People with faces stained with tears and reddened by the cold, on being told “Cheer up, Mr. Kim!” smiled warmly and all sang the same song. I was puzzled. Heavy snowfall was an unavoidable natural disaster that humans could not prevent, but for the victims it was a sudden disaster in their lives. It’s safe to say that no one can maintain their composure in the face of disaster. Those who analyze the causes of disasters, diagnose situations, and calculate the expected damage and recovery methods are all people who are one step away from the path of the disaster. But on the TV screens, everyone was smiling.
The maximum number of troops had been mobilized, and they were working hard to repair the damaged areas, while collaboration and volunteer work between neighboring cities and villages was being carried out as much as possible, while—without any sense of frustration or resentment—donations, financial support, and contributions flooded in from all over the country. Even in the face of heavy snow in the middle of winter, this country and society are full of warm hearts and warm hands. The news reported that constantly like an injection, in the name of reporting. Sure, our society is still united by affection! Although we curse and say that politics is a hoax, that the gap between the rich and the poor, unemployment, and the difficulty of finding a job are all getting worse every day, our society and people’s lives are still just the same as ever! As I laughed at such things, I grabbed another can of beer. When I was drunk, I felt futile anger rising, and only pessimism and gloom ached deep in my guts, driving me to think: to Hell with it, let’s get buried deeper, deeper, let’s all get completely buried in the snow. The week went flowing past, neither too short nor too long, and soon it was December.
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Even though I had an umbrella, every part of me, my head, shoulders, knees, everywhere, all were soaking wet. I had brought along a spare pair of socks, but I didn’t change because my shoes were already so wet. Shaking off the snow that was sticking to my shoulders, I entered the head office on the third floor of Dongin Construction’s Seoul headquarters. After making sure no one was there, I sighed and took off my coat and scarf. The heating was on full blast, so my frozen cheeks soon melted and itched a bit. As I wondered about what kind of work I would be doing in the future, I watched the second hand of the black steel clock hanging on the wall mark off the time second by second.
The Boss’s office was quite simple, furnished only with a desk and chair, a sofa and table, but the fabric of the swivel chair and the material of the leather sofa all made a luxurious and sophisticated impression. A wide wooden table was placed in the center, and a soft ivory sofa surrounded it. I sat down carefully on the sofa. I placed my hands neatly on my thighs. A classic dark blue phone was lying on the table, which had been wiped clean of any dust, and I was taken aback as I looked at it with its dial-buttons. I shook my head involuntarily.
Be nervous, but don’t show that you’re nervous.
Have your weaknesses, but don’t expose them.
Familiar phrases flashed through my mind. Do something, but don’t tell outsiders what it was. This type of sentence was the first rule instilled during compulsory education for all employees once hired. The company showed a flexible attitude as if it was ready to accept anything from its employees, but acted coldly as if it would never tolerate anything. Make a mistake, but don’t let the people around you know it’s a mistake. Love, but don’t reveal the reality or object of your love in front of others. Ride the heat and the cold, go through the ups and downs, dislike, hate, forgive, have faith, make friends, feel fear, tremble, get drunk, but all this must not be exposed to the others. The combination of sentences connected by the conjunction but was both generous and firm, making it impossible not to be tense, always sticking out both waist and chest.
I was nervous. But I should never let the Boss know that I was nervous. As if conscious of a bump on the tip of my tongue, I was reminded of the same thought over and over again, shaking my shoulders, applying saliva to my lips, straightening my clothes, and trying to stiffen my legs and straighten my back. About an hour after I had gently placed both hands on my thighs and tucked in my chin to the fullest extent, the Boss opened the office door and came in.
I jumped up and bowed. The Boss, who was newly installed in the headquarters, looked up and raised his right hand to his chest when he spoke. His gestures seemed so light and relaxed that I reflexively shut my mouth.
So you’ve arrived.
The Boss looked at me without any expression, before walking over and collapsing into the depths of the sofa. Then he slowly closed his eyes, as if he was about to open his lips and recite a poem at any moment. Be nervous, but don’t be caught off guard. I tensed my facial muscles in order to make it seem that I was showing moderate innocence and awkwardness as a newbie, but had enough restraint and control to maintain a poker face in the first meeting with the Boss. I tried not to lose my faint smile, but my lower jaw trembled a little, regardless of my will.
The Boss was just over five feet tall, and skinny, but he had quite a bit of fat around his upper stomach. If he had a protruding stomach, that meant he often drank beer, but although he drank beer, he didn’t touch the side dishes…Those were the thoughts that crossed my mind. His hair was neither thick nor thin, gray hairs were barely noticeable, and his forehead was rather narrow. The short, thick wrinkles on the forehead were more prominent due to its narrowness. The white shirt and dark navy-blue suit were well ironed and neat, and his chestnut shoes had been wiped clean. He looked to be in his early fifties, and he had a normal face with no distinguishing features, other than the narrow forehead.
It’s been snowing a lot; wasn’t it going hard?
It was okay.
My boss asked, and I answered. The Boss fell silent again. It was a really heavy snowfall, it was hard going. I was worried. I should have answered something like that, allowing the Boss to continue with, Yes, it’s the first time in my life to see such a heavy snowfall. Five minutes, and another five minutes passed.
The Boss placed his left leg over his right and spoke again.
Do you know about bad breath?
Yes, I know about it.
What about it?
It refers to a smell emerging from the mouth.
I brought out only the gist of what the Boss wanted, without any frills. I had learned the thing to be careful about in the face-to-face with the Boss was to avoid unnecessary frills. It was important not to be impatient or embarrassed, and to continue to provide the answers the Boss requested without hesitation. The Boss raised his eyes, but he spoke with a tone suggesting that sleepiness was creeping over him.
That’s like an answer from a dictionary.
He replied with a kind of yawn, his body slumped on the sofa, as he untwisted his legs, so I felt obliged to say I was sorry, looking crestfallen.
What is there to be sorry about? There’s nothing wrong with that.
Sixty-five percent of adults live with bad breath.
I deliberately responded quickly and vigorously. The Boss continued.
How about you, maybe…?
No bad breath…well. I don’t think I have any.
I tilted my head for a moment, and the Boss laughed, Ha!
You see, bad breath occurs when food is not properly removed from between the teeth, when you have been hungry for a long time, when you are a smoker, or when your metabolism is not running smoothly due to aging. For women, it gets worse during menstruation.
I listened carefully to his words. Tick tick tick. The sound of the second hand of the wall clock could be heard, mingled with and emerging through the gaps between the Boss’s words. Concentrate, just concentrate, I kept saying to myself, but the honest and precise footsteps of the second hand rang loud in my ears like an unwelcome bell.
For instance, if you are a smoker, the sulfur compounds in cigarettes combined with the low oxygen level in your mouth cause bad breath. Spitting by smokers with bad breath is a serious problem. The more often they spit, the worse their bad breath.
Even while I was adding my chorus to the Boss’s words, tick tick tick, the regular sound of the second hand was audible.
How to get rid of bad breath? If you know, please tell me.
For a moment, I felt dizzy, and closed my eyes once.
Don’t be nervous.
The Boss had a gentle expression on his face. But when I saw his thick eyebrows wriggling slowly, my pulse, which had been pounding thud thud thud, started beating more quickly, thudthudthud. I swallowed hard.
Bad breath… Maybe they should go to the dentist?
I couldn’t understand why the Boss was continuing this conversation, but I had to keep quiet. I had completed a tedious and arduous training over the past year in preparation for my first job. It had been a tiring time, both physically and mentally. All of the documentation about me must have been delivered to the Boss and been read thoroughly. Not only about bad breath, but also family relationships, academic background, sexuality, personality, hobbies, friendships, to say nothing of underwear size, sexual orientation, scalp condition, presence of misaligned teeth or athlete’s foot, and the number of cavities, maybe there was nothing he didn’t know about me. But I couldn’t understand why he was asking such questions. Was it a kind of final interview? What to do to get rid of bad breath? Don’t be tense, don’t show you’re tense. Concentrate, just concentrate. I tried to shake off the fifty thousand idle thoughts running through my head. But the main thing was to not show perplexity.
The Boss said.
You can’t just go to the dentist and get rid of it. Bad breath is a pretty persistent disease. Listen well. In order to get rid of bad breath, you must receive treatment in a certain order.
Yes. First the dentist, then otolaryngology, then internal medicine, and finally psychiatry. You should memorize that. There’s nothing wrong with knowing.
What order did I say?
Dentistry, otolaryngology, internal medicine, and psychiatry in that order.
Right, right. For instance, the Boss continued, we can tell about a person’s various diseases just by the smell of their mouth. Bad breath is a starting point for detecting deeper diseases.
If it smells of sour acetone, it’s diabetes, if it smells fishy, it’s lung disease. If it smells like cheese, it’s sinusitis or atrophic rhinitis. If it smells of rotten eggs, it’s liver failure. If it smells of ammonia, a problem of kidney function such as uremia or renal failure should be suspected. Of course, there are obsessive-compulsive patients who worry too much about bad breath when they don’t have seriously bad breath or even have no bad breath at all…If there’s anything here that reminds you of something, please tell me.
The Boss, who had been leaning against the back of the sofa, slowly straightened up as he asked. I slowly rolled my eyes. I couldn’t really get a sense of whether I should reveal what I was reminded of or not, or of what kind of expression I was showing now, tick tick tick tick. What kind of expression should I be showing in one second’s time? Bad breath? Why the hell bad breath? I momentarily coughed lightly, and then I was surprised to find myself coughing in front of the Boss without asking for permission.
Well…I’m not sure.
I shook my head as cautiously as I could.
I felt a rush of regret, realizing I should have answered that I was reminded of something, but there was no room for retreat. The Boss stroked his narrow forehead with a wrinkled hand.
No. Saying you’re not sure might well be the right answer.
What do you mean?
Bad breath, I mean, bad breath.
Yes. Bad breath.
Sixty-five percent of adults live with bad breath, what a country!
I mean, the way this country doesn’t smell bad.
I blinked my eyes. It was not easy to decide whether to ask What? again or what I should do.
No smell, none at all! Whether it’s a stink or a stench, the fact that in this country alone the smell that should normally emerge wherever people are breathing, doesn’t emerge!
It was unclear what the Boss meant, but I kept my mouth shut and smiled in an attempt to hide my embarrassment.
How naïve you look!
The Boss passed the palm of his hand over his dry face, then looked hard at me.
I’ll show you something funny.
He pulled at the bridge of his nose, and frowned again. Without realizing it, my mouth was watering.
Do you know about Bingo?
After bad breath, this time Bingo, I hesitated for a moment. I had been taught during education sessions not to hesitate, but on my first day of work, I was already showing countless signs of hesitation. It was a kind of frustration, I felt unsightly, like an actor before he even appeared on stage, with his feet tied with ropes behind a blackout curtain.
Yes, I mean Bingo. B-I-N-G-O. B-I-N-G-O.
The boss hummed through his nose, separating the syllables.
Bingo is…Isn’t it a game? Competing to win by erasing the numbers written on a card one by one.
No, the Boss interrupted. His head was twisted upward.
Bingo, I mean Bingo. It’s a dog’s name.
The boss shrugged his shoulders and shrugged again.
Come on. I’ll show you something funny.
The Boss jumped up from the sofa and took the lead. I hurriedly followed him. In the brief moment as he was leaving the office, the Boss threw his head back while holding his breath, as if highly amused. Tick tick tick. The ticking sound got closer and then faded away.
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I’ve always been just an ordinary guy. To the extent that any other term is useless. My appearance, personality, academic background, and home environment. I was clumsy at hiding my feelings, I was embarrassed to stand up for myself, and being confident was the most difficult thing of all. The world was a place where I found it difficult to know what to pick every time, like a random number table arranged chaotically. Before making a choice, I always hesitated for a long time, and after making a choice, I was confused. If I chose this, I blamed myself for not having chosen that, and if I chose that, I would exclaim that this was the right choice, tearing my hair and regretting it. I read the phrase “Life is choice and concentration,” in a book, and lived with that in mind, but there was never a time when a confirmation came to me saying, Yes, life is choice and concentration.
And so everyone called me Pan.
I wanted to be a better person. There were only two things in my life that made me feel better. One was poetry, and the other was a girl in the same class named Yeon. Both were dazzling and tear-jerking ‘beings’ to me.
I didn’t feel that I had any sense of duty or special affection for Korean literature, but I enjoyed writing poetry for some reason. I was often moved by the reverberation of the language used in poetry, the melancholy, the anger, and the affection inherent in the semantic network of the language, and the subtle face of the poem showing a vague expression while expressing heartache. When I wrote poetry, I felt as if I was sending a letter of condolence to my life. Even if I couldn’t write well, I continued to write. Writing well or poorly was not something I considered at all important. Sometimes, invariably my older friend Yeongpo would come and snatch the poetry book I was holding in my hand or the A4 paper on which I had typed a poem I had written myself, like a starving animal in search of prey. He was a senior member of the literary circle organized within our department, and after entering school at a late age, and repeatedly dropping out and delaying graduation, he was seven years older than me. I called him “Yeongpo Hyeong,” “Older Brother Yeongpo.”
Well, how shall I put it? Pan, you’re being overly ethical.
Every time I showed him a poem I had worked hard on for days and days, he would read it greedily as if devouring a piece of bread. Then, with an expression of regret on his face, he used to put a white cigarette in his mouth and light it with a lighter.
Yeah, it’s too nice. Since when was poetry so ethical? Poetry isn’t like that, poetry can’t edify; um, we can get nothing out of poetry, never, not even in a dream; poetry, um, mustn’t be like that; poetry is just poetry; people shouldn’t discover anything through poetry; um, only that is true; it’s when a poem is simply poetry, that’s when we are moved; so what I mean, um, is that poetry isn’t like that, um.
With his eyes fixed on a distant spot, going um, um, and exhaling cigarette smoke, Yeongpo used to spit out these vaguely familiar words like a rapid-fire gun. The words came flying like bullets and landed with a plop, plop sound between the folds of my brain. Since I was aware deep in my bones that I was no good at writing poetry, I naturally nodded as I listened to my friend. At those times, I thought that the time spent writing poetry, the time spent listening to and talking about poetry, or perhaps the identity and origin of a love for poetry, were all the same.
Then what the heck is poetry, I used to ask him from time to time. Then he would reply in incomprehensible terms: Poetry is poetry, what else? Or again, Poetry must not be avant-garde; Poetry must not follow logic; Poetry must not be submerged in metaphors; Poetry must not be a house built on a structure; Poetry should not function as an end for end’s sake or as revolution for revolution’s sake; Poetry is just a lonely dog wandering outside a village watching the sunset. A dog? If I asked again, he would clack his tongue, hold an empty glass over his head and shake it, or tremble like a leaf as he sat on a stool with his arms crossed, then pass out. At such times, I would struggle to support him, his limbs fluttering like wet paper about to tear at any moment, and carry him out of the bar.
You neighborhood dogs who woke and barked together / once midnight was past, / Farewell, / I will bark alone.
Yeongpo Hyeong enjoyed memorizing lines of poetry, and when he got drunk, he would sing them as songs with nonsensical melodies attached to them. I used to follow suit, memorizing, muttering, and singing with him. Farewell, I will bark alone, I will bark alone. On nights when I staggered, supporting him toward his rented room located beside a side door on a hillside while listening to his mournful, low-pitched songs, I always had the impression that a big round moon was following at our backs clapping. I would try to walk faster. When my legs got tangled from drunkenness and my Elder Brother fell and went rolling, I would rush to grab him, while the song continued, the moon would stand waving a hand, until I picked him up and went staggering on, then the moon would quietly follow us again. On countless nights our songs and the clapping of the moon were in perfect sync with each other. When I was going back down after laying him in his dark dank room, he couldn’t bark, but a wailing song in his rough voice would pursue me without stopping: I’ll not be able to bark, not be able to bark. It contained a feeling of determination and sadness combined, and the way back down the hill was sometimes sad and very dark.
Still, I was fond of Yeongpo, who was always acting in a crazy way, like a real brother, so I used to look for him whenever I couldn’t see him. He was the type to stand out easily everywhere, but he often popped up in unexpected places. When the guard at the gate, known for his kindness, secretly beckoned me to come in, I would find him hidden under the desk in his office drunk and asleep, and once, when rain was pouring down in the summer monsoon season, there he was lying on his back with arms and legs splayed wide without so much as an umbrella in the middle of the sports ground, that was a sea of mud. When I pestered him, holding an umbrella over him: Yeongpo Hyeong, what are you doing here? He replied with eyes closed: Writing poetry. Watching him sing and write poems while drunk or out in the rain in his ghastly prime was a grim, pathetic sight for me.
Besides that, he was everywhere in the school, including by the small lake or the fountain on the campus, near lawns, in empty classrooms, on the rooftop of the canteen, or on the bench by the side gate. Unfailingly holding a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of soju in his hand, he would giggle, saying, I’m a dog, for sure, a dog that can’t drink is the prototype of a poem; or rather, not so, isn’t a dog without the price of a drink the essence of poetry? However, at times, he would hand me a thick notebook containing several pages of long poems, and scratching the back of the head bashfully, say: it’s garbage, read it and burn it. He did not forget to add bluffing words, saying that incineration was a more sacred act than writing poetry.
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I followed the Boss down the hallway. It was a long, narrow corridor that seemed to be less than a yard wide. Small halogen lamps hung tightly packed from the center of the ceiling, and the floor was covered with gray marble. The walls seemed split in half, painted white on the top and blue on the bottom. Doors were placed about three yards apart, and there was a TV between each door and the next. I couldn’t hear the sound because it was muted, but the screens were on so that I felt as if I was in a video art exhibition. All kinds of TV programs, such as news, entertainment, current-affairs discussions, and dramas were being aired. The TV screens were full of people’s dynamic movements, but it all looked very theatrical.
Despite the endless bright light from the screens, the hallway felt really dark. The Boss, who was shorter than me by a head, passed in front of a host of doors and TVs and went striding ahead. I looked down at the back of the boss’s head and followed him closely. Bingo’s the name of the dog next door, B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O, Bingo is his name, Bingo is his name. The Boss kept humming the refrain like a repeat sign, keeping time with his shoulders and head.
I recalled standing in front of the first-floor entrance of Dongin Construction for the first time, before I entered the office. The total number of floors in the building was sixty-three, but the Boss’s office, which I reached by elevator after being directed by a receptionist in the lobby, was only on the third floor. There was something a little strange about this space, for it was surprising such a long, narrow, dark hallway existed in a building boasting such an enormous size. Although I was walking on a flat surface, it felt as if I was walking up a ramp at an angle of about five or ten degrees, and although it looked as if it stretched out in a straight line, at some point I felt my body had turned a corner. Like someone hiking up a slope or climbing a dirt road up a neighborhood mountain, I began to lose my breath. In order to keep my balance, I had to put my weight on the toes of my shoes. The TVs filling the wall at regular intervals did not decrease in number. I walked on and on, still feeling I was climbing.
You can also take the central elevator, but well, since it’s the first time.
It was not until we reached the end of a long hallway with no doors or windows that the Boss turned around and spoke to me.
You should walk a lot, for your health’s sake.
My forehead and back were drenched in sweat, but the Boss looked relaxed as if it was nothing at all. I moistened my dry lips with my tongue and curtly replied, Yes.
Here we are. It’s this door.
At the Boss’s words, breathlessly I grabbed the handle and turned it. When I opened the door, a small space of about twenty square yards appeared. As soon as I entered, I saw a dainty ivory-colored washbasin. In the center of the sidewall, a cream-colored cabinet and a sofa for two covered in black fabric stood side by side. A small metal desk and chair were located close together near the window at the far end of the office.
Is this my office? I asked.
That’s right. It’s a new extension. In today’s society, there is no place that isn’t a building site, inside and outside. Considering we are all members of society and workers, it may be natural and fortunate that the entire world is a building site. Even so, daily life with dust blowing in front of your eyes all the time is a bit rough. It’s murky. That’s also the reason why we need regular eye care.
The Boss made a gesture, checking the cabinet and sofa for dust by wiping his hand over them. I slowly walked toward the desk. For this day, I had been educated for over a year. Had lived according to a set timetable. Had digested the planned schedule and learned as instructed. Sometimes I was a trainee, sometimes I was an entrance exam student. Anyway, I believed that after completing all the training courses, I must have managed to get an above-average score to be assigned to the headquarters. And now finally, I had entered a space that could be called mine.
What kind of work will I have to do in the future?
I stood at the desk as I asked. There was a twenty-one-inch monitor and a small laptop on the desk. The Boss approached me, crossed his arms, and nodded, saying, It’s better not to rush too much, look down there at your feet first.
Those are the documents you need to look at.
Under the desk, there were so many documents piled up evenly that even the chair could not fit in. In terms of a box holding about forty apples, they would fill five boxes. At a glance, I could tell they had been oxidized under pressure for a long period of time and were in a badly worn state.
Much of it has been computerized, of course, but still. Reading something is better.
The Boss tapped his hand on the desk as if knocking. Yes indeed, I agreed. When I saw them piled up like sedimentary layers, I felt as if I had stepped into a world of designated and divided labor. The piles of paper seemed to remind me that my job was of a ferocious nature, like looking into a widow’s curse, the bottom of which was rarely glimpsed. I was taking my first steps as a member of society who works, receives money, lives, faithfully performs the given tasks, receives regular payment, and continues living. Before I could feel any emotions, such as being thrilled or cramped, the boss called me and said, Come here, why not take a look at this for a moment? The Boss was approaching the wooden blind behind the desk and chair. He held the white cord in his hand, ready to raise the blind at any moment. His expression was ambiguous; I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or angry. Thinking he was someone whose expression could never be read at any time, I took a step forward.
No, stay there. It’s good there. That location is just right for the view.
After stopping me from moving, he immediately pulled the white cord down without a moment’s hesitation. The blind creaked and folded upward in a flash. One side of the wall was made entirely of glass. And I saw such a sight that I can only say, it was amazing.
Saying that, the boss held his breath and laughed again with his arms crossed. That’s Bingo, that’s Bingo. I couldn’t believe my eyes, even when I saw it myself. What did all this mean? It was not surprising. Even at that moment, I knew time was passing, tick, tick, tick, but I could not make any kind of thought obey my will. I was overwhelmed by the huge and colorful world of Bingo, its outward appearance.
▴ ▴ ▴
Yeongpo Hyeong. What will become of us?
It was certainly a typical habit of mine to keep calling him in vain, wanting to hear him answer. When someone was with him, he would duly answer without making a fuss. Hyeong, Yeongpo Hyeong, I would call and whenever he replied What is it? there was something plaintive like the ring of iron in his voice.
Poetry writers, um, don’t think like that.
Why? I asked again.
Why, you wretch. Um, do you write poetry when you think about what you will become when you grow up? Right now, um, thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner tonight, my head is splitting.
I’m curious, though. What will we be like in ten years’ time?
Pan, do you really not know what’s going to happen to us? Yeongpo asked, putting the cigarette butt under the sole of his shoe, rubbing it out, and turning his head. I just fiddled with the plastic wrapping from the cigarette pack without saying a word.
Capitalist society is not as complicated as you might think. It’s as self-evident as a tobacco leaf that burns straight down and turns to ash. The wealthy guy lives well, and the poor guy can’t, um, there are only two possibilities. There are no metaphors in life, only plain speaking. At this moment, looking globally, there is nothing that big to be seen.
For example, then he paused.
If you look at this whole country, are there more people thinking about what to have for supper right now, or are more people wondering how they can have any supper tonight? Well, I didn’t mean to show off. I’m just giving an example. It’s very important to give examples in life.
So, after all, it’s about money?
He shrugged, exhaling cigarette smoke.
Call me something different, another name.
What about Minus Four?
At that moment, Yeongpo glared, looking serious, so that I bowed my head and giggled. It was funny to see his left and right eyebrows curling up differently, as if he was playing a trick. I guessed the name Minus Four was a phrase from his favorite book of poetry, but I pretended not to notice, and imitated the sound of a horn, toot, toot. The name Yeongpo has been a source of sorrow since I was born, but it’s a happy world to live in as a Zero. I’m a mountain of debts and I’m not even thirty years old.
Yeongpo made a sound like heh, heh, heh, and laughed as if he found that madly funny. Even though he laughed out loud, his shoulders kept getting narrower and more bent so that I felt a strong desire to hug his small body hard. It seemed to be a moment when for him the number of debts to be repaid was glimmering in front of him more than the verses of poems to be written. I wanted to know about him, his family, his debts, but I couldn’t easily ask him. When someone is pushed to the edge of life and is sitting slumped having a hard time, I was young enough and frightened enough not to be able to reach out a hand.
All we have to do is bark, bow wow. Just bark.
Just bark. Yes.
There’ll come a time to grow rusty.
As the poet said, it’s nice to get old and lose your cares. Well, after all, if we grow rusty, surely life is a matter of having no choice but to live growing rustier and rustier? I’m certainly curious. I reckon that one day, at a given moment, when a single dry leaf comes rolling in, I’ll remember, Ah, I barked a bit, back then.
I don’t know if he laughed with an um um, or smoked a cigarette with an um um. I can’t even remember if he was looking gloomy, amused, or spiteful. It was just a melancholy conversation, and those were days when we pursued those lonely conversations. But still I remember, it wasn’t bad. I couldn’t say it was good, but I couldn’t say it was bad either. Even if he spat out only vague words, even if he sang poems when he was drunk with tunes that didn’t fit the words, even if after he had read a poem I had written he held forth at length saying poetry’s not like that, whatever, everything, I just reckoned he was calm. I don’t know if it was because I was just such a person, not special or superior to anyone else, not sensitive or subtle, just an ordinary kind of person, and therefore incapable of the least shadow of foreboding. In any case, I reckoned simply that I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Yeongpo Hyeong didn’t come to school on the day of his graduation. I spent the day holding a bouquet of bright yellow freesias for him in my left hand, and a bachelor’s cap and gown in my right hand. His rented room had been vacated, and after that there was no way of contacting him. Eccentric as he had been on campus, no one had seen or contacted him outside of school. He disappeared without a trace, not only from the graduation ceremony but also from my life.
The only time he contacted me was on my graduation day, two years later. When I received a notification that mail had arrived for me, I went to the department office, and the assistant handed me an envelope with no sender’s address. When I opened it, I felt an indescribable sadness rising from somewhere deep within me. The bewilderment of How on earth? the resentment of Really! and the yearning of Where is he now? mixed and combined. When I pulled out the book of Hwang Tong-gyu’s poems from the envelope, my head felt as if it was going to explode. It was the thing that Yeongpo Hyeong had treasured the most, that he had held rolled up in his bag or in his hand every day, and that he had read from I could not count how many times, with its dark brown cover, the edges worn, frayed, and tattered. Apart from that, there was nothing else in the envelope. The address and name of the sender were not written down, and there was no sign of even a small folded note. The only thing he told me about how he was doing was the one book of poetry he had owned. On the white page behind the front cover of the book, he had simply scrawled a single phrase.
This is not Hell, this is Seoul.
▴ ▴ ▴
They’re Bingos, said the Boss, and I couldn’t help doubting my eyes. So that was a Bingo! That was the only thought that flashed through my head like an electric current, so that I couldn’t even open my mouth. The scene beyond the window reminded me of a huge ball, a vast beehive like some kind of empire, something you might see in a nature documentary. Transparent glass windows, all of the same size, encircled it, looking like a giant with open arms, and a circular city was built inside. Hundreds or thousands of people could be seen moving peacefully in the divided space, separated into different floors. I was standing in the office, only about twenty meters away from them. In that twenty-meter gap, there was only an empty abyss, with no bottom or end in sight.
Bewildered, I moved closer to the window and put my hand on it. I felt a cold tremor, and for a brief moment I grew dizzy. The sight could be compared to a thirty-to-forty-story apartment building sliced with a knife like the cross section of a fruit, so that I could see, at a glance, how each person was living. One was fetching a cup from the kitchen, another was lying on a sofa, another was standing in the middle of a room holding a toothbrush, brushing their teeth, while another was giving a pair of sneakers to a five or six-year-old child in front of a candlelit cake on a table, and yet another was sweating in a yoga pose. Another was sitting cross-legged watching a baseball game, while another was sitting at their desk wearing headphones and shaking their head; one was lying on their bed turning over the pages of a book; and another was staring at a computer monitor as if bewitched.
What…is this? I asked, standing in front of the window and unable to tear my eyes away. I was amazed to see so many windows, so many floors, and so many people, and I was astonished at the way my eyes could see so many things at the same time. When I looked down past my feet, the office where I was located seemed to be on the thirtieth floor, and the circular city where the Bingos lived stretched upward to an unfathomable height.
This is the core of Dongin Construction. It’s like the heart. The entire sixty-three floors form the world of the Bingos, the Boss said.
We’re on the thirty-third floor, and that means there are another thirty or more floors above us. Plus the basements, of course. Everything exists here. Supermarkets, saunas, parks, schools, hospitals, banks, police stations, fire stations, government offices, shopping malls, movie theaters, zoos, coffee shops, PC rooms…maybe it would be faster to find something that wasn’t here. Everything found in any normal city is available here.
Everything in any normal city?
That’s right. There is nothing lacking for life here. It’s a small, but enormous world for them alone.
A world for them alone, you say. And you say they are called Bingos?
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so I opened my eyes wide. Even though they were clearly confined like prisoners in a prison, like bees in a beehive, or birds in a cage, the people seemed free and peaceful in their expressions and movements. They looked gentle and generous, like something locked up in a gift box and waiting for it to be opened. Suddenly, I remembered the words of the Boss when he said Bingo was the name of a dog. As he said, if that was Bingo and Bingo was the name of a dog, then they must at the same time be Bingos and dogs.
A while ago, you said Bingo was a dog.
The Boss’s expression brightened like someone opening his very own sealed envelope.
That’s easy, there’s nothing difficult about it.
You’ll find out later, he exclaimed reassuringly, looking out of the window over my shoulder.
As you might expect, the Bingos can’t see us. There are as many windows as there are Bingos and no Bingo can be bothered by those windows. They are windows for us, but walls for them. We have to watch the Bingos twenty-four hours a day. I hope you will carefully perform your task of observing the movements of the small children and pets, and take care of them well. You’ll have a chance to meet your colleagues soon, so don’t be in a hurry or rush.
The Boss turned around and gave me various warnings.
33T99. That’s the number of the district you’ll be in charge of. Let’s wrap up today by going through the paperwork in the office. The real work starts tomorrow.
But I . . .
Just as the Boss was standing in front of the door, about to seize the doorknob and turn it, I shouted urgently. The Boss’s long, slender eyes as he turned and asked, Is there something else? somehow made me feel cold.
I mean, I thought this was a construction company, and although I still don’t know the details, I’d heard that I would be in charge of something to do with that. But, me, here.
Here? What about it?
I mean, here.
I shut my mouth as I felt my back growing hot. Be cool, exclude emotions. I had learned how not to lose my cool even in the face of countless situations, and I was trained through the education I had received. Even if they were only simulations, I had been placed in countless situations while traveling around the country. I had closed my eyes and turned away, faced with demonstrations where civilians were collapsing in a sea of blood, and had learned how to act ruthlessly to innocent people. Questions were unnecessary. Really. I was not here to act as I wished, but to act as directed.
Yes. But here…it’s not snowing.
It was something so surprising that I couldn’t help saying it. The whole outside world was being overwhelmed with snow, the heavens and the earth were suffering under the constant heavy snow, yet this place was cozy and calm like a warm greenhouse, and it was soft without any humidity. I felt confused, as it was impossible to determine which of the two scenes was truth or fiction.
Yes, you’re right. This is a place where it doesn’t snow. A place where snow can’t fall. It’s not freezing, it’s not falling apart, it’s not afraid. The characters for Bingo 氷庫 mean ‘icehouse’ and that is, all by itself, already completely frozen. Snow falling over a block of ice only makes the ice colder and harder.
The Boss put his hand on his chest and said, Work hard. Ah, I hope you don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a construction company, that’s no lie, you’ll soon face the world of real construction, don’t worry, he added, holding the doorknob and turning it calmly. I was left standing there alone. Soon after, the phone rang.
You applied for a single-person accommodation, didn’t you? Please wait a moment and you will be taken there.
A woman’s completely mechanical voice came through the receiver. I put down the phone and stared blankly at my shoes for a while. I felt similar to when I had to wait for someone all day long as if turned to stone, holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bachelor’s cap and gown in the other. I felt a bit lonely, a bit depressed, a bit resentful, and a little bit kind of resigned, and felt my face heating up red. A feeling of guilt that all these situations I had encountered and the life journey that led me to this point were all mine got on my nerves.
▴ ▴ ▴
33T99. That was the company’s access code I was given. I had become the manager of the ninety-nine Bingos living in area T on the thirty-third floor.
▴ ▴ ▴
Hyeong. Yeongpo Hyeong. I’m calling your name. Can’t you answer? Yeongpo Hyeong. Are you far away? How far? How far apart must people be in order not to be able to call each other? I’m on my way on a train now. I am being shaken as I write this letter. The rattling of the train’s wheels, coupled with my heartbeat, puts considerable strain on my tired, depressed body.
Yeongpo Hyeong. I wonder where you are, what you are doing, and whether you are still alive? If you were here, you would tell me: Don’t be curious, the world is a place where there is nothing to ask about, and you should muzzle a dog barking question marks. I know. I know. That’s all I know. The fact that you stayed beside me and then disappeared, the fact that I lost you a long time ago, those are now useless facts. I am going to Daegu. According to the schedule, next will come Busan, then Masan, then Gwangju, then Chuncheon, and the last destination should be Taean. I can’t say for sure if I’ll ever be able to return to Seoul.
After you disappeared, I just frittered away the rest of my time at University. Like a ghost, I couldn’t figure out what I should do. I just wrote poetry by myself. Just wrote. Constantly alone, like a well-trained animal, with friends dating, working, struggling to save, and rushing to get married. I live every day thinking about whether it is wrong to write poetry while going back and forth between convenience stores, gas stations, snack bars, and PC rooms. I entered the Spring New Writers’ Competition several times and failed. I realize that writing poetry is not a matter of mastery or proficiency. When I open my eyes, I write poems, tilt my head, live working and sleeping. Both then and now, hesitating at every moment, always disoriented.
When I realize I am far too ordinary, I am already on the verge of turning thirty. Around that time, my father often summons me in the middle of the night and fills my empty glass with soju.
The world is a harsh and barbaric place in which to pursue romantic dreams, and youth does not last very long.
My father looks away as he says that. Around that time Mother also often sits at the table in the dark kitchen, opens her bankbook and taps on her calculator.
Your student fee loan is about to expire.
Mother mumbles as she bites the tip of her ballpoint pen. I am not strong. I can’t be brave. If you don’t have talent and you don’t even have time to work hard, then you end up thinking there’s nothing you can do about it. I spend a boring, squalid time filing resumés, waiting, failing, applying again, waiting and failing again. I endure. One day, I take the special recruitment exam for new employees of a construction company, a government-affiliated support organization, and pass. I got the job by pure luck, without really deserving it, but anyway I’ve got a job before it’s too late, and I feel relieved.
Hyeong. Yeongpo Hyeong. Then I found myself alone. I’m not hoping for a sign of compassion. How many stop signs lie in ambush everywhere in life? I’m clearly broken now, like a traffic light that won’t turn green. Sorrow is sorrow, pain is pain, and the two never disappear. I am defenseless before them at every moment. However, in that case, just as water cannot wash away the cuts made by a knife, I have no choice but to bow my head and live with sorrow, and pain.
I am on my way to Daegu. What I will do there, who I will meet, what will be different, whether I will be able to return to Seoul again, I do not know yet. Not knowing is sometimes reassuring. It is more comfortable not to know than to know. If I had known in advance that I would suddenly be alone…no, no, I hate to even think about it. I am stuck in time. Life is violent and I’m scared, so it’s hard to let go of my helplessness. I just think that I need to come to my senses. I just keep reminding myself that I have to do what I can, and that I have to work hard to do what I can.
Yeongpo Hyeong. I can call as much as you like. So why won’t you answer me? Would it be wrong? Yeon is no longer with me, either. Aren’t you curious about her? On that day when I was silent for a long time waiting for you, and you didn’t come, Yeon was crying in the empty graduation ceremony space, which was cluttered with deflated colored balloons and petals that had fallen to the ground. She kept crying as if she already knew, with an expression that had already encountered the anticipated sorrow. Did you make some kind of promise to Yeon? Yeon cried sadly, and I just watched. Come to think of it, I am someone who knows nothing deeply. However, I do know who she was in love with when she joined our group, and why she frantically attended every noisy drinking party although she never wrote a single line of poetry and was not really interested in poetry writing or talking about poetry.
Sometimes she would be standing at the end of the road when I came back down after helping my drunk friend to his room. She would be waiting for me as if it was a habit, holding things of his I hadn’t taken care of at the bar, and rubbing the soles of her sneakers on the asphalt. Thank you, I would say, and she would smile and hand them over. I would ask, Why don’t you give them to him directly when you come to school tomorrow? but she would always smile brightly and reply, No, Jisoo, you take care of them and give them to him. I would put his things in my bag. His stained poetry book, and an old leather wallet with worn edges.
Yeongpo drank a lot, I hope he’s okay?
Yeon would stroke her neat bangs bashfully and ask.
Uh, he’s a bit drunk. He’ll know it when he wakes up in the morning.
Well, he’s always like that, isn’t he?
He’s so playful.
I see Yeon grin as she says, So playful. Looking dismayed, I somehow seem unable to take my eyes off her. Short, she swings her slender limbs as she walks, and when she smiles until her cheeks are dimpled, the white snaggletooth near her left molar is visible. With a ponytail tied loosely, she’s as cute as a nine-year-old kid, and I can’t take my eyes off her. I reckon it would be good if Yeon kept smiling.
Any news? No? What about you?
On the campus without him, Yeon and I exchange a few words in passing. The same words every time. When a new day begins, we should say something new, but our conversation doesn’t change. A month passes, a year passes, and words become unnecessary. He’s gone, no news, no sign of him, so we soon grow apart. She no longer appears at meetings. Occasionally, I have a drink with her in a dark pub in a back alley of Jongno. We fill a plate with ribs and memories of him as snacks, pouring cloudy dongdongju into our bowls and emptying them. Pouring again and emptying again. One bowl for Yeon reciting his favorite poem, another bowl for a clumsy recitation of his own poem delivered at a group meeting, and filling bowl after bowl as we insult and curse the person named Gi Yeongpo, who disappeared without a word, without a trace; bowl after bowl, getting more drunken. And we walk the night streets again like in the old days, chattering, then falling silent. Many times.
If I had been a better person back then, if I hadn’t stopped thinking about wanting to be a better person, would my relationship with Yeon have changed? Was that it? No. Not so. I know. Knowing that it wouldn’t change, I must have moved away, thinking I’m glad I’m not a better person. I am a coward.
Hyeong. I took a leave of absence, then returned to school several times, and graduated on the same day as Yeon. We parted without taking a single picture of us standing next to each other in our gowns. I hear a rumor that Yeon is preparing to take the exam for a job with a newspaper or broadcasting station, but that’s all. It’s been a long time since I saw her. Hyeong. Yeongpo Hyeong. The train is speeding headlong. It’s carrying me forward silently along the railroad tracks. Where are you?
Where? Hyeong, can’t you answer me? Where are you?