The John from Jongmyo Park
by Guava Yun
The day I received my second eviction notice, I looked around my one-room apartment for something to sell and realized that the only thing left was my body. What remained had sentimental value: a rosewood folding table and a rusted vanity. Who would buy such old things? I thought of Young Ja, who was also in her seventies when she began working at Jongmyo Park. She lost her job as a Yakult saleswoman when the motorized carts came out, all because she couldn’t get the license to drive it. When I called Young Ja, she told me to meet her at the park that afternoon. I said that I still wanted to consider my other options, and she just laughed.
I walked down the concrete hill to the bus stop on the main street. It was a windy day to go to a public park, so I was happy to see the bus in the distance.
“Does this line stop at Jongmyo?” I asked the driver as I got on.
“Yes, grandma,” he said. “If you sit up in the front, I’ll let you know when we arrive.”
The driver signaled to me, and I got off at Jongmyo Shrine. By the stone wall, a young girl and her grandmother were sitting on the ground next to a cardboard box full of holes. Even without seeing the yellow things, I could hear their sharp chirping noises. Chirp Chirp Chirp, Chirp Chirp Chirp. The old woman picked up a chick, cupping it in her thick hands.
“I don’t need one,” I said.
The little girl smiled, swiped the chick from her grandmother’s hands, and excitedly put it back into the box.
I gave the old woman some change. “Get your granddaughter some candy.” I regretted it when I heard the coins clink against her silver ring.
I crossed into Jongmyo Park, which was full of retired old men, hundreds playing board games like Go. The place had plenty of stone benches, old trees, flowers, peaceful fountains, and even a pond with koi fish. I waited by the bronze statue of Lee Sang Jae, where Young Ja had told me to meet her. I stood there a while, looking at the lengthy inscription. Then I finally spotted her. She was standing beneath a large maple tree. The leaves had changed color—red, orange, and yellow—just as they had every year, but this sight never failed to fill my heart with awe. The other women beside her whispered to the men passing by. Young Ja struck the interest of a man who had a mauve scarf draped over his shoulders. As they walked together down the trail toward the alleyway of motels, she placed her arm around his. From afar, it looked as if they were a married couple strolling through the park.
I was watching the leaves falling from the trees when Young Ja returned. We sat side by side on a stone bench. I scanned her once over. Young Ja had a blue birthmark above her right eye, which looked like a bruise. She had done her makeup in such a way that the dark spot looked like eyeshadow, and her lips were painted a shiny red. I waited for her to tell me what had happened, but she didn’t say anything about the john with the scarf.
I leaned back, pressing my hands into the cold stone bench. “Has anything come of these encounters, Young Ja?”
“Well, I can afford to have a drink now and then.” She spoke in a friendly and cheery voice, which made her sound simple minded.
“What I mean is, have you met someone who would—”
“We’re not young girls trying to fix our fate,” she said, staring at me blankly.
“Why do these old farts want women like us anyhow?” I brushed off the pebbles that were pressed into my palm.
Young Ja took a Bacchus-D bottle from her purse. “Those young things are hard to keep up with, and they charge at least twenty times what we ask.” She twisted off the lid and handed me the drink. She suggested a pick-up line. “Here, for a boost of vitamins.”
A man wearing a forest-green windbreaker approached us. His belly button pressed against the creases of his shirt. Young Ja nudged me. I twisted off the lid and offered him the energy drink without a word. He downed it in one go and handed it back to me. I left the empty bottle on the bench and followed him to a love motel.
The uneven ground was dimpled with dirty puddles from the rain. I did not know his name and he did not know mine. And he walked ahead of me. I missed the chance to link arms with him like I’d seen Young Ja do. I was relieved that the motel was only a short walk from the park. As I followed behind the strange man whose face I had already forgotten, I briefly thought about borrowing money from loan sharks. Maybe I would die before I would have to pay them back.
At the motel, I stood behind him, while the man paid to rent the room for an hour.
The motel room smelled like an ashtray, but there were no cigarettes in sight. There was a small bed and a nightstand with an alarm clock. The man took off his jacket and pulled down his drawers. Standing by the bed, he asked me to use my mouth. My jacket dragged on the laminate flooring as I got down on my knees. His penis smelled like an old wet towel. The unexpected odor made me gag, and I spat onto the floor.
“Eh-yyeee-shi.” He slapped me and pushed me off. I looked for his wallet as he put his pants on. My knees ached as I got up. I handed him his jacket. He snatched it from me and stormed out. I was dizzy and angry as I left the room empty-handed.
Young Ja was sitting in the same courtyard twisting a red leaf like a pinwheel. As I told her what had happened, I felt resentful of her carefree demeanor. “That’s a shame,” she said, wiping away my tears.
“Why do you live like this?” I asked. “I don’t have any children, but you do. Why don’t you go to America to be with your son?”
“Let him study to become a doctor,” said Young Ja. “The trouble is that we Koreans live forever. I may have another thirty years left in me.”
“You raised him, doing everything in your power to feed, clothe, and educate him. Now that you’re old, he has a duty to take care of you.”
“What duty? It’s 2015.” She patted my back as she spoke. “There are nice men here like Mr. Park. He’s everyone’s favorite. He likes to talk and even dance when he’s in the mood. His kids give him pocket money every month. I can set you up with him and we can split the fee.” Young Ja scribbled down the details on a gum wrapper. “He’s nearsighted, but he has a nose like a dog. Go to the bathhouse.” She took out 5,000 won from her coin purse.
I had nothing else to lose. I took the money and the strip of silver paper.
From the bus stop, I walked home thinking of what I had to do. I stepped on all the dried brittle leaves. My nails need to be trimmed, crunch crunch, should I dye my hair, crunch crunch, my skin is dry, crunch crunch, what’s my newest pair of underwear, crunch, crunch, crunch.
I stopped by the corner store at the bottom of the hill and picked out a box of black hair dye with the help of the attendant. He was a foreigner, a tall white man.
“What color are you looking for, grandma?” he asked in Korean. He had an accent, but I could understand him.
“Something to cover my gray hairs.”
“How about this?”
I looked at the price and nodded. In his vest pocket was a pack of American Spirits. I handed him the money. “Can I get a cigarette from you, young man?”
On the way out, he helped me light it. The warmth filled my chest, but I couldn’t stop coughing. The first time I tried cigarettes, I was dating an American soldier just after the war. When he offered me a cigarette, I slipped one between my fingers as I’d seen women do in Hollywood movies, but after two puffs, I coughed so much.
I must have looked like a fool again.
At home, I sat in front of the vanity mirror and applied the black dye with a brush. In the bathroom, I rinsed my hair until the water ran clear, then scrubbed every inch of my body to get rid of any dead skin. I went out to the street corner, which had a pot of overgrown Bongseonhwa flowers. I crushed the orange-red petals in a mortar with a pestle and covered each nail with the mixture, using plastic wrap to keep the little mound of flowers in place. I picked out a zebra-print shirt and a long wool skirt for the next day. Then I rubbed Vaseline all over my body. I felt clean.
When I woke up in the morning, I peeled the plastic wrap off and washed my hands. The petals had left a fragrant residue. My nails and fingertips were bright orange. I rubbed the flowers on my lips and cheeks then tossed them. I wasn’t hungry, so I drank a cup of water and lay under the covers until it was time to leave.
I sat in a window seat on the bus. As I looked at my reflection in the window, I felt a strong desire to make a good impression. I plucked some grey hairs that were shining in the sunlight like fish scales. My heart raced. I imagined undressing, revealing the droopy skin over my thighs.
My knees locked and loosened as I got off the bus. I quickly realized that the love motel was very close to the one from the day before, which meant that Jongmyo Park was close by.
Near the front of the three-story building, there was a large cherry blossom tree, the branches nearly bare but with the last few flowers holding on. I thought it was an odd sight to see: the delicate flowers in the middle of autumn. The wind floated down the little translucent petals, which were lit against the afternoon sun. I closed my eyes and embraced the petal shower. They landed all over my clothes. I had left the countryside for Seoul, but these little flowers brought me back to the orchards, to the wooded mountains behind my childhood home, the stream where I had bathed, and the bright green rice paddies that swayed in the wind.
When I opened my eyes, the petals were moving on my sleeves. That’s when I realized they were long-winged fire ants. They were flying out of the dumpster behind the almost-naked cherry tree. I was covered in fire ants! I stood without moving, without taking in breath. Then, I shook them off like a shaman undergoing a trance. In the distance, they still floated around like soft petals.
The neon sign of the motel wasn’t lit up, which made the building look deserted. I forced a smile to relax my tense body and entered through the automatic doors. Avoiding eye contact with the attendant at the front desk, I slipped into the elevator.
Mr. Park was waiting in room 222. I went down the hallway, slowly recalling the swaying rhythm of my hips. I patted down my hair and then knocked on the green door. When it opened, I was surprised to see that the man was only a little taller than me. Our eyes locked and I moved my gaze to his large ears and said, “Mr. Park, you are as handsome as the rumors.”
“Oh, you flatter me,” he said, inviting me into the room.
The place was bigger than my apartment. There was a bed, a television on the wall, and a big bathtub in the middle of the room. There were no pipes connected to the tub. It stood there like an island.
Mr. Park lingered awkwardly by the door. It was odd how uncomfortable he seemed. Young Ja had said he was experienced, but men could play coy this way. I sat down on the edge of the bed, and he came to sit beside me.
“I didn’t get your name,” he said, looking down at his palms.
“Ms. Jini.” I caressed his wrinkled fingers.
He let go of my hands, took out his wallet, and paid me.
“Let me get us some drinks,” I said. I counted the cash as I walked down the hallway to the snack store by the front desk. He’d given me 30,000 won, which would be enough for a crate of charcoal briquettes even after giving Young Ja her share.
The attendant at the front counter walked over to the shop, popping her gum loudly. I was suddenly hungry as I looked through the aisles of chips and candies. I put a bottle of makgeolli, caramels, and a can of peanuts into a basket. She handed me the change and two paper cups.
I waited for the elevator, but it was taking so long that I took the stairs. Mr. Park was not handsome, yet I so badly wanted to please him. If we had met in my youth, I would have passed him by. I wouldn’t have allowed a single exchange of words after catching a glimpse of those goofy ears on such a small head. Had I finally learned, no matter how often I had heard it when I was young, that looks fade, and a toad-like man is more dependable?
The door had been left ajar.
Mr. Park was holding two remote controls. He had accidentally turned on the air conditioner instead of the television.
“I never know how these things work,” he said. “The one at home is much simpler.”
“Just leave it. It’ll be nice and cool in here.”
I poured the makgeolli into the cups.
“I don’t want to drink too much.” He looked at me and chuckled. “It affects my performance.”
“We can have just one or two drinks,” I said.
The conversation flowed as we drank.
“Do you have any kids?” he asked me.
“No children,” I said. “What about you, Mr. Park?”
“Four kids. Wife died a while ago.” He poured a handful of peanuts into his palm.
“Did you love her?”
He cleared his throat, then rubbed his chin as though he were recalling her face.
“I don’t know why I asked,” I said, quickly. “I know what it’s like to spend a lifetime with someone you don’t love, and it’s not as terrible as it sounds.”
“So you didn’t love your husband?”
“I had a relationship with a married man right up until his death. And I only regretted it when he left everything to his wife.”
“They say a man prefers his concubine to his wife.”
I popped a caramel into my mouth. He took off his shoes and then reached over to take mine off, but feeling resentful at that word, I moved my feet. “Concubine?”
“That’s such an outdated term, isn’t it?” he said, rubbing my back. “Times have changed. Children of concubines, I mean, second wives, conduct ancestral rites these days.”
“I never had any kids with him.”
We were silent for a moment, but it was just long enough to feel that guttural unease from being with a stranger.
He sucked on a peanut and spat it out. “It’s hard to chew.”
“I should have bought chips. Would you like my caramel?” I said, trying to keep a smile from turning into a frown. I offered him one from my pocket.
“No, it’s fine. I like the saltiness.” He tilted the tin can of peanuts in my direction.
I declined. “So, what was your wife like?”
“I feel like I barely knew her,” he said, taking off my shoes. “There are remnants of her, like the patches on my socks, the aloe vera in my kitchen, our kids, especially my daughter who looks just like her. But I can’t remember the last time I had held her close.” He cleared his throat twice. “We slept in separate rooms for a long time before she passed.”
We sat facing each other and I thought we were about to kiss, when he pulled out a portable radio from his pocket. He extended the silver antenna and put his face close to the speakers as he adjusted the dials. When he found the station he had been looking for, he put the radio back into his sweater pocket and offered me his hand. “Shall we dance?”
I waved my arms in the air. The somber, sweet strings of the kayagum roused a bounce in my shoulders. He worked up a sweat moving his hips back and forth. And something possessed me to take off my clothes flirtatiously as we danced, one piece at a time.
When I thought we were ready to get into bed, Mr. Park handed me his glasses and asked me to bathe him. “I can’t reach my back anymore.”
I was touched that he wanted to clean his body for me. I helped him into the hot tub in the middle of the room. I hung his glasses over the edge of the tub before climbing in. His back was covered in dried spots and open sores, and his toenails were overgrown. His ears and nostrils were full of white hair.
“How do you turn this damn thing on?” I asked, looking at Mr. Park, who was sitting in the tub with his arms crossed. The room was chilly from the air conditioner. “You’re going to catch a cold without the water on.”
“Is this the switch?” he asked, groping the silver spout. “I can’t see very well.” He squinted as he examined the tub on his knees and then covered his face with his hands. “How the world changes so quickly in the blink of an eye.”
I got out of the tub to inspect the outside for faucet handles, a knob, or anything to press or turn. Mr. Park also climbed out of the tub. When we were about to give up, I noticed a tiny silver button and pressed it. Hot water rushed out from the faucet and the openings in the tub. We laughed so hard that our eyes filled with tears.
The warm water covered our bodies. I scrubbed his back with a coarse green shower towel. The dead skin peeled off like black eraser shavings. I scrubbed every inch of his body with soap. I was winded after giving him a bath, and by the way he was slumped to one side, I imagined he was too. Dragging our tired bodies into bed, we kissed, our breaths heavy from the labor. He set his watch on the dresser and put his glasses back on.
He held my breasts with as much pleasure as if they were lucky talismans and rubbed his soft groin on my legs. Soon, he fell asleep swaddled in my arms. There was nothing more intimate than a limp penis. I felt a sort of claim over him. I deserved him more than anyone. I placed his glasses on the nightstand. I tucked him in underneath the white motel blanket, held him closer, taking in the aroma of his clean skin.
I rested my head on the edge of his pillow, then fingered the wiry hairs sprouting from his thick ear. He shivered as he slept, like a leaf on a branch in the wind.
Published on March 9, 2022