Written by Sam Moser
Hotel management had their wings pinioned. That’s to say someone surgically amputated their pinion joints with sharp scissors to render them flightless. A few months back, as part of a concerted business strategy to attract more young couples, the hotel had decided to obtain two mandarin ducks for the lobby pond. Mandarin ducks keep their mates for life, and as such, they have come to represent fidelity, peace, and plentiful offspring. The idea was that they would be the lobby’s spiritual pièce de résistance, a mascot of the resort’s overall romantic milieu. The intended illusion was short lived, however; the female died that winter from a bacterial infection in her wing, leaving her partner to a degenerate solitude.
Spring had just begun, and most suites at the Royal Hotel were booked for a month solid by tourists wishing to herald the birth of Jeju’s famous king cherry blossoms. The Royal Hotel, or simply “the Royal,” was the pearl of southern Jeju Island. It was a massive building, an eight-tiered octagonal edifice of white that surged from the black basalt at its feet. The grounds surrounding the hotel formed a peninsular embankment that was lined by fields of rapeseed flowers, swelling with a signature aureolin yellow that ran down to the ocean like paint, and then, without much warning, poured off the obsidian cliffs and into the primordial entropy of salt, wave, and rock 70 feet below.
A hushed “geonbae,” barely audible from the now empty dining hall, floated through the crack in the kitchen door to the tune of clinking shot glasses. It was well past closing, and everyone had left the hotel restaurant for the night, all except two waiters, who sat drinking around a wide, stainless steel table in the corner of the kitchen. A single lamp hung over the table and bathed the walls in a hazy, incandescent glow. Earlier that day, a 75-year-old dishwasher had been fired, and though the old man had already left the hotel for the last time some hours before, the two waiters thought they should at least do something to commemorate him.
“He’ll be alright,” said the older waiter, a man in his early 40s. He was the closest thing to a friend that the old dishwasher had in the kitchen. “He can always make some money picking cardboard in the city.” After all, it was not that unusual to see the elderly collecting trash on the side of the road. He knocked back a glass of soju.
“But I heard he’s not well,” said Minjae. The younger waiter had been hired that same week, straight out of university. He had decided to move back from Seoul to his parents’ apartment in Seogwipo, hoping to save up some money while he studied to become an English teacher. He threw the soju to the back of his throat, politely covering the glass with his hands. Minjae refilled his elder’s glass, supporting his pouring arm with his left hand under his right elbow. “How will his wife take it?”
“She passed away a couple months ago.” The older man pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.
Minjae’s eyes drifted down to the cigarette in the man’s outstretched hand.
“No, thank you. I’m okay.”
The older man stood up and turned on the stove hood, mechanically placing the cigarette in the cradle of his lips. “He’s lived alone ever since his wife passed.”
“How did she—?”
“Alzheimer’s.” He turned on a stove burner and leaned over, lighting the cigarette in his mouth. Sitting back down, he crossed his right leg over his left and blew a plume of smoke towards the kitchen vent. The man brought the glass to his lips, the cigarette still dangling between his index and middle finger, and winced at the liquor’s familiar causticity as he swallowed.
“Is it true what they say?” asked Minjae.
“I heard he tried to kill himself.”
He nodded once. “He waited two days after her funeral. His neighbor found him.”
“Why did he do it?”
“Who can say?”
“Won’t he get his pension?”
“No. Hasn’t saved much, either. He put a lot of money into his kids’ education. That was his pension.”
“What will he do?”
“I know he gets something from the veterans group, and I’m sure he can get a welfare check from the government. That depends on if he can prove his children are unwilling or unable to support. Do you have any idea how shameful that must be to admit that your children have neglected you? I don’t think I could go through with it.”
Minjae understood perfectly well. Though his parents were not particularly well off, he knew they would do anything for him, spend any amount of won to help him succeed. After all, they had lived separate lives as migrating “goose parents” until he had graduated from high school. When Minjae was 12, he moved to Jeju with his mother to enroll in a British-run private school, and his father stayed behind on the mainland, tied to work, all in order to give him an upper hand for when he would have to take the suneung. Their final sacrifice was to support his choice to become an English teacher, despite their wishes that he choose a better-paying career. He was their only child. Did he have it in him to abandon them in their old age? He didn’t like to think so.
“Nevertheless—” The older waiter took another drag from his cigarette. “It’s not enough. He’s in quite a bit of debt. His wife—”
“But you said he has kids.”
“They all refuse to support him, financially. He said to me once that one of his sons refuses to return his calls.”
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, thought Minjae. It seemed to him to be the worst kind of punishment imaginable, to be forgotten. He thought again of his parents.
The older man began. “You know—”
“How about we talk about something else?”
“Let me speak.”
Minjae was silent.
“Now, if he had raised his kids properly, they’d be with him, supporting him. That’s my thinking. That’s how I’ve raised my children. Once they stop respecting you as they should, the rest will soon follow.”
“I’ve offered him money,” resumed the older waiter, “but he had too much pride to accept it. He would go on about how he ‘didn’t want to be a burden,’ and how he didn’t want to harm his children’s chances of success. It’s out of our hands.”
Though he was young, Minjae could tell things were different than they had been before. Like reading the rings of an old tree, he could see a disruption in the grain of his country, an unraveling of the fabric that had wrapped it for centuries.
“What did he do before coming here?”
“Car plant. A decent-paying job, actually. Well, decent enough to get his kids through all the private academies. Now look at him, a mouse in an earthen jar.”
They raised their glasses in agreement and took a drink. Minjae, ever sensitive to the emptiness of his senior’s cup, poured him another. Setting the empty bottle back on the table, Minjae put his hands in his pockets and directed his eyes to the tinplated face of the moon, visible through the kitchen window. “Aigo,” he breathed.
A cloud blocked the light of the moon, revealing Minjae’s reflection in the glass. It seemed as if the room was sagging in around him. Just then, Minjae felt the subtle shadow of a thought ripple over his slightly buzzed brain, almost unperceivable to his consciousness, like the brush of a feather over a forearm. Or perhaps Minjae was unwilling to perceive it, unwilling to accept his own embryonic thought. It was the void he sensed, a shade of the solitude in which the old man existed, and he shuddered at such nothingness. It was like imagining the bottom of the ocean, like being exiled to the moon. There were others, undoubtedly, forming a vast archipelago in the void. The cloud passed, and the room inhaled like a lung.
The older waiter blew out a trail of smoke, watching it dance in the amber light. He opened his mouth slightly as if to speak, then, thinking against it, closed it once more. He took another drink and reflected. After a minute the waiter began again: “I asked him what it was like to grow old once. This was before his wife had passed. You know what he said? He told me ‘it’s like getting in a hot shower that gradually grows cold.’” The older man was staring over Minjae’s shoulder, as if talking to someone far away.
“Watch it,” said Minjae, gesturing to the ember between his fingers. Sitting up, the older waiter leaned over the table to crush his cigarette butt into an empty glass, yet missed it entirely, pushing the ashes into the table. “You know, Minjae. You should really find a girl.” With a wavering hand he offered another bottle of soju. Minjae politely took the bottle and filled both glasses, however he had no intention of finishing his own.
“Do you think they’ll let me work more shifts next week?”
“Ah, I see,” the older man said with a smirk.
“Does she have a name?”
Minjae sighed and glanced at his watch.
“Don’t let this whole business bother you,” the older waiter said, leaning back. “You’re young. You need to enjoy life a little. You know, the old man would tell me stories of the times—right after the war, way before you or I were born, when everyone you knew had nothing. The whole country was nothing. Look where we are now.” The waiter hiccupped and put both hands on the table, letting out a shallow laugh. “What I’m trying to say is don’t saddle yourself with the misfortunes of the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself someone to love—or at least something to love. Don’t let it go, you hear?”
“I understand, I think,” said Minjae. He stood up. “I’m sorry. I should be getting home. My folks are probably worried.”
“I’ll close tonight, then”
“Turn the light off on the way out, will you? I’ll be right behind you.”
He did and looked back towards the interior. Moonlight was streaming in through the kitchen window, turning the naked metal of the table to ice.
“He’ll be alright,” said the waiter without looking up.
“Need help getting home?”
“See you tomorrow, then,” he said, bowing his head.
Minjae walked through the lobby on his way to the parking lot. He noticed the solitary drake, drifting listlessly among the indifferent koi fish. He wished he had brought something from the kitchen to feed it. ‘You’ve been abandoned too,’ he thought, another tired tradition slipping away into the obscurity of night. ‘Look where we are now,’ he thought.
On the car ride back, Minjae carried on the conversation in his head. The shower. The water’s hot and you’re young. Life’s enjoyable, maybe even great. Then gradually, almost unnoticeable, the water grows tepid. You blink and it’s cold, uncomfortably so. The laws of thermodynamics are working against you now. You’re 80, fastened to a body well past its twilight. A ragged coat on a hanger. The water’s unbearably cold and you consider stepping out of the shower.
When Minjae returned to his room he fell onto his bed, exhausted. Yet as he lay there he was not able to find the numbing embrace of sleep. It was so dark in his room that he couldn’t tell if his eyes were closed or not, yet the swirling movements in his mind were vivid and restless. He could see his mother and his father, and he could see them floating away, silently, into oblivion, beyond the reach of memory. He knew he loved them very much, and it disturbed him that he had the capacity, and yes, sometimes even the unthinkable impulse, to leave his parents behind and live his own life. ‘Was it their fate as well,’ he thought, ‘to become living gwisin, ghosts unable to find peace, damned to drift over the dirt like a whisper in a noisy room? Can I be a good son and still desire to have my whole life?’ These thoughts carried him into the morning.
Golden daylight filtered through the curtains of his bedroom window. He gave up trying to sleep, slipped on a sweater over his nightclothes, and stumbled out into the kitchen to make some coffee. He looked out the balcony window of the apartment and took in the fiery tranquility before him. There were thin, white clouds in the distance, casting their shadows onto the shimmering mosaic of the ocean’s surface. The same sun that set the night before was rising again, as it ever had, heralding the emerging day. Minjae fixed his eyes on the razor-sharp equilibrium of red and blue that split the morning in half, and he wondered if the old man would ever find such serenity.
A couple months later, the mandarin escaped from the hotel lobby by climbing up the rocks that lined the pond and waddling out the front door of the lobby while it was being propped open for a guest. The first thing the valet saw after the thump was a flurry of red-white feathers drifting down in the hot glare of the headlights, reminding him, oddly enough, of cherry blossoms.
Sam Moser is a 2014-2015 ETA at Jeonmin Middle School in Daejeon.