"Where you going?" the young Korean man said.
"Work." Brian said.
"Do you know bus number?"
"Yes. The 720. It goes right by my school."
"OK. I just want to help. I like to have English friend."
"OK. Thanks." He covered his nose and mouth with his arms as a diesel-spitting bus lurched away.
"My name is Richard. What’s your name?"
"Brian. Nice to meet you, Richard."
"You are teacher?"
"Yes," Brian said, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve.
"Good. I want to make English friend. You live here?" Richard asked.
"Yes. I live right there," Brian said, pointing at the building behind the bus stop. "On the roof."
"Oh, good. We are neighbor. I live in this villa, on third floor."
"Maybe we can meet sometime. You like beer?" Richard asked, making a bottle-drink gesture with one hand.
"You like soju?"
"Sure. A little," Brian said, hoping not to get invited out for soju.
"Good," Richard said, a broad ingenuous smile on his face. "Maybe we drink together sometime, OK?"
"Sure. Sounds good. Here’s my bus. See you later."
"Hi, Brian," Richard said, standing outside Brian’s door. A biting wind whistled through the spaces between the four rooftop shacks. Richard pinned his hat to his head with his left hand while holding fast to a plastic Family Mart bag.
"Oh, it’s you. From the bus top yesterday. Umm . . . sorry I forget your name," Brian said.
"My name is Richard."
"Oh, right. Richard. How are you?"
"I am fine, thank you. And you?"
"I’m good," Brian said.
"You are busy?" Richard asked
"No, not really. Come on in." Brian had been staring at his laptop screen for the past twenty minutes, feeling obliged to email his parents but not coming up with the right words to type.
"OK. Thank you. I brought some beer," Richard said, holding up a plastic two-liter bottle of Cass.
"Good man. I’ll get some glasses. Umm, have a seat," Brian said, removing a stack of folded T-shirts and underwear from one of the two steel chairs wedged beside his kitchen table.
Brian’s apartment, part of his teaching contract, consisted of a kitchen alcove with a fridge and two-burner countertop gas range, a main room large enough for a bed, clothes rack, and small table, and a comparatively roomy bathroom with a toilet and washing machine. There was no bathtub or separate shower compartment, just a hand-held shower line coiling out from the wall. Brian had to be careful to unplug the washing machine before each shower to avoid electrocution.
None of the windows was quite flush with the wall, allowing mosquitoes easy access through the gaps. In corners where lengths of ceiling trim weren’t quite long enough to reach, great gobs of caulking had been squeezed to hide the shortcoming.
"It’s not much, but it’s home," Brian said. "Hey, are you hungry? I was just going to make some ramyun noodles."
"You like ramyun? Good. OK. I would like some," Richard answered.
"OK. Here’s a couple of glasses."
Supporting his right elbow with his left hand, Richard poured a glass full of Cass beer for Brian. Brian then poured for Richard in the same manner, the Korean pouring style one of the first customs he’d picked up.
"Oh, good," Richard said with a goofy, innocent giggle. "Good. Do you like kimchi, too?"
"Uhh, well, not really," Brian said. "Sometimes I eat a little, but I don’t like a whole dish of it, you know?"
"Ahhh. Too spicy," Richard said.
"No, not really. I like spicy food, but I find kimchi kinda sour and . . . fishy."
"Ahh. Some kimchi has fish in it. Maybe you like mool kimchi . . . umm, water kimchi."
"Hmm. Maybe. So, what do you do, Richard?"
"I have beer with Brian," he replied, sounding a bit confused.
"I mean what is your job?" Brian said.
"Now, I’m a soldier," Richard said.
"Really? You don’t seem like a soldier," Brian said. The young Korean didn’t exactly have long hair, but neither was it a military cut. His clothes were casual, and he didn’t appear particularly fit.
"Actually, to be frank. Now, I study English at a hagwan—a language institute—in Kangnam."
"Yeah, I know ‘ hagwon.’ I work at a hagwon in Bundang."
"OK, I don’t understand, though. If you’re a soldier, why are you studying English in a hagwon?"
"Ahh, well sometimes when man does military service . . . there are different ways. My father helped me, so I study English."
"I see," said Brian, not really understanding, but wanting to move the conversation along.
"In Korea, family member help family member."
"Good. Of course. They do that in Canada, too. Usually. Sometimes," Brian said.
"So, what do you want to see in Korea? I want to show you something."
"I don’t know. I haven’t seen much. I’ve been into Seoul a few times. I went to Gyungbukung Palace and Insadong. Let’s see . . . I read in a tourist guide about a folk village around here somewhere. There’s a bunch of old-style houses and that kinda thing. Do you know where that is?"
"Folk village?" Richard said, pronouncing it villagee. "Yes, I know. I take you there. When do you want to go?"
"Wow. I don’t know. Anytime on the weekend is good for me."
"OK. Next Saturday, I take you."
From the window of the bus to the folk village, Brian saw a two-block area bathed in red light.
"What’s that place?" he asked Richard.
"The red neighborhood. You can meet beautiful girls. You like beautiful girls?"
"Me, too. Let’s go together next time."
"Umm. Really? I don’t know . . ."
"I went there before. I had a foreigner friend from America. I taked him there. He really like it. He go every weekend."
"Yeah. I only go a few time."
"Really? Ummm . . . is it expensive? I mean, how much?"
"It’s not expensive—maybe 60 or 70,000 won. The girls are so beautiful," Richard said, looking off in the distance out the window and smiling.
"Really? Wow," Brian said, glancing back over his shoulder toward the area now out of sight.
About twenty minutes later, their bus lurched up to the gates of the park. Richard led the way, explaining to Brian about his country’s traditional houses, farms, and ways of life. Brian snapped photos of everything, from outhouses to grinding stones to thatch roofs to children jumping up and down on an old-style seesaw.
"What’s this?" Brian asked, standing next to a huge old oak tree. Circling the trunk of the tree was a waist-high pile of small rocks. Long, brightly colored cloth streamers hung from the branches. They fluttered listlessly, though Brian couldn’t detect any breeze on that humid afternoon.
"That is old religion. Nature religion. Put a rock here for good luck."
"Cool," Brian said, kneeling down to get a better angle to frame Richard in the shot in front of the tree. "Smile."
"No, not here," Richard said, turning his face and striding away from the tree. "No picture there."
"Oh, OK. Sorry," Brian replied, not wanting to cause any cultural faux pas. As he tried to push himself up from his kneeling position, a battered old cat wandered by and rubbed against his calves. Brian reached down and scratched the cat’s back, bringing loud joyful purrs. The cat was a calico, with patches of gray, orange, white, and black spattered over its coat like random drops of paint, like a living Jackson Pollock. Its tail was stiff and half gone, and both its ears were missing large ragged chunks. Brian made sounds with his tongue to get the cat’s attention as he tried to frame it for a photo, but the cat suddenly tore away, scampering up a path the two men had not yet explored.
"What’s that place?" Brian asked.
"That like a priest home," Richard said. "But not priest. Mudang. Like old religion. Do you want your fortune? She will say you."
"Sure," Brian said, "why not. But how much?"
"Umm," Richard said, approaching the small thatch-roofed house and peering at a faded old sign. "Man won. Ten dollar."
An old woman in long skirts and a ripped cardigan stood outside the door. She was holding and stroking the loudly purring cat Brian had tried to photograph. A pair of rainbow-mirrored Oakleys wrapped around her eyes, so Brian couldn’t tell where she was looking. But he felt her eyes on him.
She spoke abruptly to Richard, enunciating with a guttural throat clearing sound for emphasis. Brian could make out the sounds "Bak-wee-bul-ay! Bak-wee-bul-ay!" over and over, but didn’t understand.
"What is she saying?" Brian asked.
"Oh," Richard said. "She say she closed now. No fortune."
The woman then cleared her throat, pulling up a thick green wad of phlegm from her lungs, and then spat it on the ground between herself and Brian.
"Bak-wee-bul-ay!" she yelled, and then stomped down hard on the wad of phlegm.
"Let’s go," Richard suggested.
"Good idea," Brian agreed, and the two strode away back down the path as the old woman wiped foamy spittle from her lips and chin.
"Hi, Brian," Richard said, standing outside Brian’s door, sweating in the muggy Suji night. "Are you busy? Long time no see."
"Hey, Richard," Brian said, "Uhh, yeah . . . I’ve been kinda busy lately."
"Oh, OK," Richard said, a hurt look in his eyes.
"Who there?" demanded a voice—husky yet feminine—from within the apartment.
A sly, conspiratorial smile replaced the hurt on Richard’s face.
"It’s my friend," Brian said flatly, "Richard."
"Tell him go way!" the woman said. "I busy."
"Just . . ." Brian began in frustration. "OK, come with me," he said to Richard, exiting the apartment and firmly closing the door behind him. "Let’s get out of here."
"Hey!" they heard as they walked down the stairs, "Hey, Bye-un, where you go?"
They went across the road to the Family Mart, bought a bottle of Cass, and headed for the local park. Old men sat on the benches drinking soju or makkoli, carrying on loud, violent-sounding conversations. Kids ripped around the brick pathways on inline skates or scooters. Parents knocked shuttlecocks around with their children, the racquets punctuating the humid night with whooshing rips of air.
"Richard, Richard," Brian said, "I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into."
"You are not happy? Who is she . . . that woman?"
"Her name is Happy. I met her in Suwon. What happened to you that night anyway?"
"I waited for you until one hour. I didn’t see you. So, I go home. Sorry," Richard said.
"Ahh. That’s OK. I don’t know why, but she—Happy—took me out to drink. I don’t know where we went. There were a lot of small streets. We were in this little tent restaurant. We drank a lot of soju. I don’t remember much, but the next morning, we were together at my home. She hasn’t left yet. She won’t leave, man. She’s moved in."
"Uh-wha?! Really? She won’t leave?"
"Well, she leaves sometimes, but she always comes back."
"You let her back in?"
"Well . . . yeah. But she also has her own key now," Brian said.
"But you don’t want her there?"
"Well . . . at first, it was kinda nice. Someone to come home to and . . . you know. But now . . . shit yeah, I don’t want her there."
"Well, I like my privacy . . . I like to be alone, to have my breathing room. You know my apartment—there’s not much space."
"Yes, it small."
"And . . . and I like my place clean. She’s not the cleanest person. She never washes the dishes or throws out the garbage. We’ve got cockroaches now. More and more every day! I hate those little fuckers."
"Wait a minute—what you have? Culloachee?" Richard asked.
" Cockroaches. Cockroaches. Ugly little bugs, little insects," Brian said, and used a handy twig to scratch a cockroach in the dirt in front of the bench.
"Ahh, I see," Richard said. " Cockloachee. OK. That not good."
"No, it’s not. It sucks. The first time I saw one scurry out from under my bed, I jumped. It was a big one," Brian said, holding up his hands about six inches apart. "I tried hitting it with my bathroom slippers—my shower shoes—but they didn’t help much. The bottoms aren’t flat. They have little boxes of air and the cockroach just hid inside them. I chased the little bastard around the room for ten minutes before I finally got him.
"But the next day there were more. And the day after that there were even more. I bought some roach motels—those little metal circles to kill cockroaches—but Happy keeps throwing them out. ‘They poison,’ she says. Ahhh man, I don’t know what to do."
They sat in silence for a while enjoying the coolness of the beer cutting through the humidity. From the corner of his eye, Brian thought he saw the frosted glass window of his apartment slide open a crack. He felt Happy’s eyes boring into him.
"Your apartment—it your hogwan’s apartment, no?" Richard asked.
"Yes, it is."
"Maybe they can help. Have you asked your sajangneem—your owner?"
"Uhh . . . no, I haven’t. I’ve thought about it, but . . . well, you know. I don’t really want to ask him for help," Brian said.
"Here is Korea," Richard said. "The boss helps the worker with many thing."
"Yeah, maybe I will ask him. Hey, since this is Korea, I think I should call you by your Korean name. I don’t want to be rude. So, what is your Korean name?"
"No, no. That OK. You call me Richard. Korean name is hard to pronunciation. Richard. Richard is good."
"Really? OK, if that’s what you want."
That night, Brian drifted off uncomfortably. The thin sheet clung to his sweat-soaked flesh as he flipped from belly to back repeatedly. The motor of the old fan croaked like an old bullfrog but any cooling breeze it created was aimed at Happy. She sat at the kitchen table, her eyes entranced by the bluish glow from her cell phone screen as her fingers communicated with people Brian neither knew nor cared to ask about. His thoughts drifted hazily to his clean old suburban bedroom. Who back home would believe this scene that quiet Brian has gotten himself into? he wondered as he finally succumbed to slumber.
In his dream, he was packed into a 747, cruising over the Pacific when turbulence hit. The oxygen masks dropped, purses, plastic cups, and inflight magazines bounced and flew in every direction. Despite the chaos and panic, Brian somehow knew it was all a dream. He kept his earphones in, his eyes glued to Apocalypse Now as the jumbo jet spiralled downward.
When the plane actually hit the water, Brian’s dream suddenly but naturally shifted. Darkness. He was in a cave devoid of life but filled with chittering and skittering sounds. Knowing he really did not want to see what was making the noise, he couldn’t stop himself from reaching into his pant pockets for a box of matches. "I know this is a dream," he told himself. "I never carry matches; I don’t smoke." But his fingers still fumbled the tiny drawer open and pulled out a wooden match stick. His throat still constricted. "This is just a dream. This is just a dream," became his muddled mantra. His fingers rubbed gently, almost lovingly, against the abrasive strip on the side of the box. Taking in a deep breath, he told himself: "This is just a dream, so you can do it. What have you got to lose?"
His wrist flicked. Pungent sulfur fumed into his nostrils. And the walls of the cave came to life. Rows and rows of cockroaches, revolting in their perfect symmetry, skittered across those walls in repulsive rays, their black lines emanating from a blacker hole in the center of the cave wall directly over head.
"By-un! By-un!" a voice bellowed from that hole. "Don’t sleep."
With a spasm, he awoke and bolted upright, unthinkingly scratching at the insides of his elbows.
"By-un!" Happy scolded. "I tell you don’t sleep. I need smoke. You go."
"Hey Jae, can I talk to you for minute?" Brian asked his boss.
"Sure, come in. Sit down. What’s up?"
"Umm . . . I’m having a little problem with my apartment."
"Problem? What problem? Power? Water? Too hot? You need a fan?"
"Well, I wouldn’t mind that air conditioner you promised, but no, that’s not the problem."
"Right, right. Air-con," Jae, said, making a note of it on a scrap of paper from the haphazard pile on his desk. "I’ll keep looking for one."
"OK, thanks. But that’s not the problem."
"Not the problem? OK, what? Loud neighbor? Maybe cockroach?"
"Actually, yeah. I do have a problem with cockroaches, but—"
"OK. I can help with cockroach," Jae interrupted, shuffling through the mess of paper on his desk. "Ah, yes. Here it is," he said holding up a small tube of what looked like deep brown crazy glue. "Take this. Put a little dab of this stuff in each corner in your apartment. This kills cockroach."
"Umm," said Brian, taking the tube from Jae. "Thanks, but that’s not my main problem either."
"Not main problem? What’s your main problem?"
"Uhh . . . I don’t know how to say this. There’s a woman in my apartment."
"A woman in your apartment? What woman? Who’s this woman?" Jae asked.
"Uhh, heh-heh. You see, I met her in a . . . a place where men pay . . ."
"Where men pay? Did you go to Itaewon?"
"No, I didn’t go to Itaewon."
"I told you not to go to Itaewon! Foreigner always get in trouble in Itaewon. Too many soldier. Too many foreigner."
"I didn’t go to Itaewon."
"You didn’t go to Itaewon?"
"Oh. Good. Don’t go there!"
"I won’t. I won’t."
"Good. So, where did you go?"
"Yeah. Suwon. That city with those castle walls—Hwaseong Fortress, you know?"
"Ahh," Jae said, " Suwon . . . Suwon."
After a long pause in which he kept expecting Jae to say more, Brian finally spoke: "So, uh, this woman."
"So now you have woman in your apartment. How much you pay?"
"Well, I don’t think that’s important, really—"
"How much you pay?"
"Uhh, I think about a million every month."
"One million? Half your month salary. OK. OK."
"OK. I talk to her. I change locks. OK."
"OK, great," said Brian. "Thanks."
"Hey, Jae?" Brian said, standing at the office door.
"Hi, Brian. Come in. How are you? Good?"
"Uhh. OK. Here’s that tube of cockroach stuff you lent me. You said you wanted it back."
"Right, right. Did you put a little bit in each corner?" Jae asked.
"So no cockroach now, huh? I told you it worked good."
"Well, actually there’s more than ever. I can’t stand it. They get into everything."
"Really? This always works."
"Well, whenever I put that stuff in the corners, that woman keeps cleaning it up. It’s weird, I mean that’s the only time she washes anything."
"That woman I told you about a couple weeks ago. The one I met in Suwon. You said you were going to talk to her."
"Oh yeah. That woman. Don’t worry. I talk to her. I change locks. Don’t worry."
"Do you know when you’re going to talk to her?" Brian asked.
"Yeah. Very busy these day. I talk to her soon. Don’t worry."
"Thanks," said Brian.
"Yeah, no problem."
"Hi, Brian," Richard said, standing outside Brian’s door. "Long time no see. You busy?"
"Hey, Richard," Brian said and quickly stomped down on a cockroach that was trying to scurry out into the Suji night. "No, I’m not busy. Not unless you call spending all my time killing cockroaches busy."
"Ahh, cockloachee," Richard said, "I hate cockloachee. Ha-ha."
"Who there?" demanded Happy.
"It’s my friend," Brian snapped over his shoulder. "Never mind who it is!"
"Tell him go way!" the woman said. "I busy."
"Sure you are," Brian said. "OK Richard, let’s go."
"Hey!" they heard as they walked down the stairs, "Hey, Bye-un, where you go?"
"Never mind!" he yelled up the stairs at her.
"You don’t look happy," Richard said.
"Really? No!" Brian said sarcastically.
"Really," Richard insisted. "You look sad and angry. What about some beer?"
"That’s the best idea I’ve heard in weeks. My treat this time," Brian said.
They sat down on the same bench in the little park beside Family Mart. Though less humid than their previous meeting, the night was still warm. Beads of humidity formed on the ice-cold bottle, and Brian swirled his fingers in the dampness and then salved it into the red, raw skin on the insides of his elbows. Brian took a good long hit of Cass and exhaled noisily.
"Oh good!" Richard said. "You drink like you Korean now."
"Heh. Thanks, I guess," Brian replied.
"Brian. Your payday is Thursday, no?"
"Yep. Sure is."
"You wanna go Suwon Friday night?"
"Are you kidding me?"
"No. I wanna go. It fun, no?"
"Well, sorta, yeah. But I still have that woman living in my place."
"Oh yeah," Richard said, "that woman."
"Do you think I could call the police? They could make her leave, couldn’t they?"
A pained expression overtook Richard’s face. "Police? No. Not good idea."
"You are foreigner. She is Korean. Also, you pay her in Suwon. Police no help you."
"Oh," said Brian. "Umm, do you think you could help me? Could you talk to her?"
"Yeah. I’d really appreciate it. It would help me so much!"
"Oh," Richard spoke reluctantly, "OK. I talk to her tomorrow."
"Thanks a million," Brian said, clinking his bottle against Richard’s. " Cum-bae!"
"Hi . . . uh, an-yong-ha-say-yo," Brian said to the elderly woman peering out at him suspiciously. "Richard? Richard home? My friend . . . uh, ching-gu," he said pounding his chest with his right fist. " Ching-gu."
The woman’s face lit up in amusement, and she covered her giggles with her palm. Wordlessly, she closed the door, leaving Brian to wait and wonder if she was getting Richard or just wanted him to go away. Just as he was turning to retreat back down the stairs, the door sliced open again.
"Yeah, Richard. It’s me. Are you OK?"
"So-so," Richard said quietly. "Please come in."
"Take off your shoes."
"You can wear these," Richard said, placing a pair of thin green slippers at Brian’s feet.
"Uhh, OK. Thanks."
"Welcome to my home," Richard said, leading him into a large room. "Please sit down. You want some tea?"
"Yes, please. That would be nice," Brian said. He looked around, but there were no chairs or sofa, so he sat down cross-legged in the middle of the laminate-covered floor.
Richard went into the adjoining kitchen to boil water for tea. The old woman sat on the kitchen floor looking at Brian through half-closed eyes. She spoke to Richard sharply, keeping her gaze on Brian.
"This is my mother," Richard said. "She wants to know if you want eat some Korean pear. It very delicious. Very juicy."
"OK. That sounds great," Brian answered. He met her gaze, bowed his head slightly and slowly said, " Kam-sa-ham-nee-da."
Richard’s mother chuckled, echoed Brian’s greeting, and continued to stare at him.
"I must sound stupid to her when I speak Korean."
"No," Richard said, "not stupid. Cute. Like three-year baby. Very cute."
"Well, that’s so much better," Brian muttered to himself as Richard went into the kitchen.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Richard returned with a tray of tea and sliced pear. He placed the tray on a small, low wooden table he’d set up beside Brian.
"Please," Richard said, "eat deliciously."
"Thank you," Brian replied, grabbing a tiny fork and spearing a section of pear with it. "Wow. This is really nice."
"Thank you. I hope you like," Richard said. He then turned to his mother and told her something. She grunted in reply, keeping her eyes on Brian.
"So . . . uh, did you talk to her today?" Brian asked.
"Yes, I did. But she not go. Sorry!"
"It’s OK. Thanks for trying."
"No problem. But I told my mother your problem and—"
"You told your mom?" Brian interrupted, his face flushing red. He snuck a quick glance in her direction then quickly averted his eyes from her inscrutable gaze.
"She think my grandmother can help you. She come tomorrow."
"Your grandmother? She knows, too? She’s coming here to help me?"
"No problem. My grandmother, she know thing. She know old way. Before, she was mudang. Like woman at–. Ah, she know plant and seed and ghost. She help you."
"Ghost, eh?" Brian said. "Well, OK. I wish you hadn’t told everyone, but I’ll take any help I can get. Thanks."
"No problem. Don’t worry. Grandmother help."
"Who there?" demanded Happy around a mouthful of dry ramyun noodles. "Ahh jajungna. I watch TV!"
"Hold on. I’ll see," answered Brian, listlessly kicking at dozens of scurrying cockroaches on his way to answer the knock at the door. "Hi, Richard."
"How are you?"
"I’m fine, thank you, and you?"
"Who there?!" repeated Happy.
"It’s my friend Richard!"
"Where my money? Ask him ‘where my money’?" she yelled.
"Never mind her," Brian said. "I’m OK. What’s up?"
"I brought my grandmother," Richard said, then moved aside as his grandmother appeared out of the mild Suji night.
"Oh, hello. An-yong-ha-say-yo," Brian said, slightly bowing his head to the old woman.
"Mmmmh," the wizened old woman grunted in reply, gazing up through half-closed eyes.
"Who there?!" yelled Happy again, as a pair of cockroaches sped past Brian’s feet out the doorway.
The woman, her back permanently bent at a nearly 90-degree angle, moved with a speed that belied her age and stature. Her feet shot quickly from beneath long colorless skirts, smushing the two rogue insects underneath brilliantly white Nike Air Max running shoes.
She then brusquely pushed her way past Brian and into the small apartment, fluidly flipping off her shoes at the doorway before entering the living area. Happy stared at the old woman with angered surprise, but remained silent, munching away on the dry ramyun. Richard’s grandmother paced the room, clucking her tongue at the ubiquitous cockroaches. Finally, she stopped beside the bed upon which Happy lounged, watching TV. The old woman stared as the younger one tried to avoid her gaze. The grandmother grabbed the girl’s left forearm and twisted it so that her palm faced up toward the old woman’s eyes. She traced some lines on the palm with a gnarled finger and let it drop back onto the bed. Barking some harsh-sounding words at Richard, she turned around and left the apartment.
"Come with us for a minute," Richard said.
"OK," Brian replied, slipping into his shoes.
Happy sat and sullenly crunched the ramyun as she watched them leave. When the door thudded closed behind them, the cockroaches slowly emerged from their shadowy hiding places.
As they stood in front of the his building, Richard and his grandmother conversed and Brian kept listening for the sliding of his apartment window three floors up. Eventually, the old woman turned to glare at Brian and then walked into Richard’s apartment building next door.
"How about a Cass?" Richard asked cheerfully.
After getting the beer, which Brian insisted on paying for, they made their way back to the park bench.
"Grandmother say she know how to help."
"Grandmother also say that American cockloachee deserve woman like that."
"Oh. Did you tell her I’m not American?"
"Yes. She say you look like American, you talk like American, you are American."
"Don’t worry. I help, I help."
"To be frank, my grandmother sister married American soldier long years ago. In war. She move to America and never come back. So, Grandmother angry still."
"I see. That’s too bad."
"Yeah. Too bad," Richard said, taking a long hit from his bottle of Cass.
"So," Brian began, "what did she say I should do? How can I get rid of Happy?"
"Cat," Richard announced.
"Cat. You need pet cat. Cat is dirty animal. People don’t like cat. Happy don’t like cat. Cat chase cockloachee, kill cockloachee. Cat chase Happy back to red neighborhood."
"Hmm. I see. That’s OK. I like cats."
"You like cat? Really?"
"Yeah, I had a pet cat back home. Where can I get a cat? Is there a pet store near here?"
"No. You can’t buy cat. You have to catchee cat."
"Catch a cat?"
"Yeah. You watch garbage at night. When cat family come to eat, you catchee baby cat."
"I help, OK?"
"Yeah, sure. Thanks a lot, Richard."
"You hear that?" Richard asked. Rustling was coming from within a stack of small pink garbage bags.
"Yeah, I hear it," Brian said. "How many do you think are there?"
"I don’t know. Three, four? Many than one."
"OK. You stay here by the alley. I’ll jump in and try to grab one," Brian said.
"OK," Richard said cheerfully. " Fighting!"
His back slightly hunched, Brian tip-toed toward the pile of pink bags. When he was about four feet away, the rustling suddenly stilled, and a black cat head popped up, staring directly at Brian.
"Oh shit," he whispered and launched himself into the pile of bags. The four cats rummaging within scattered, but Brian was able to catch the mother by the tail. With a spit and growl, she turned on him, launching a maelstrom of claws and fangs at the hand and arm that clutched her tail.
"I help you!" Richard said, seeing his friend’s trouble, and leaped into the trash pile. Brian’s grip on the cat’s tail loosened from the impact and the pain. With a final hiss, the mother cat disappeared down the alley.
"You OK?" Richard asked, now standing and wiping chunks of stale rice and soggy kimchee from his pants.
"Oww . . . no . . . eesh," Brian moaned, examining the bleeding punctures and gashes along his right forearm.
"Oh. That look bad. Come with me. I help you."
"OK," Brian said, following Richard into his apartment building.
Richard’s mother and grandmother stared at them as they entered the apartment. Richard spoke to them quickly in Korean. His grandmother then retrieved a dark amber bottle and some bandages from the bathroom.
"Please sit," Richard said, motioning toward a low table strewn with small white dishes half-filled with various vegetables, beans, and tiny fish.
Brian sat, his legs splayed out in front of him. Richard’s grandmother squatted down beside him and roughly grabbed his forearm.
"Ahh! Careful!" Brian said.
The old woman chuckled, looking into Brian’s eyes with genuine mirth. She spoke a few words to Richard.
"She says you are not a baby. You have man trouble, so don’t cry like small boy."
Brian laughed gently in spite of himself. "OK," he said to the old woman, "do your worst." A childhood memory came somersaulting into his consciousness: his own grandmother with her strict Swiss gaze, grasping his jaws with one hand while forcing a great spoonful of rancid-tasting cod liver oil down his gullet. She had the same mean-mirthful look that beamed from Richard’s grandmother’s face as she clutched his arm.
She poured the dark, bitter-smelling fluid from the bottle onto some gauze and gruffly rubbed it into his wounds. It stung like hell, but he smiled through the pain up at the old woman. She made a couple of remarks, then chuckled and gently applied the bandages.
"What about some tea?" Richard asked.
"Sure. That’d be great."
"Does it hurt?"
"Yeah, but I’ll be OK."
Richard’s mother and grandmother cleared the dishes from the low table as the two men sat drinking green tea. The old woman, a dish of dried anchovies in her hands, left the apartment. A few minutes later, she returned, approached Brian, and said, " Yogi," holding out a black kitten by the scruff of its neck.
"Uh-wha?!" Richard exclaimed happily.
"Oh," Brian said, surprised. "Thank you! Kam-sa-ham-nee-da."
"Mmmmh," the old woman grunted.
"What that?" Happy demanded, trying to peer into Brian’s clasped arms.
"This," Brian said revealing the kitten nestled in his arms, "is Bok-su, our new pet cat."
"What?" she yelled from the bed, scuttling herself up into the corner. "No, no. Cat dirty."
"No, she’s not. Well, she is a little, but we can wash her. She’s cute." Brian released the cat on the floor, and it immediately began chasing the fleeing cockroaches that scurried under the chair and bed.
"No, no! Get it out! GET IT OUT!"
"Settle down. Give her time to settle in. It’ll be fine."
"No, no! Oh chingiro!" she said, shuddering in disgust.
Brian filled a small dish with water and placed in on the floor for Bok-su. He then crawled into bed, yanking some covers from Happy’s grasp, as she remained cleaved into the corner.
"Relax," Brian said smugly. "Try to get some sleep. It’ll be OK."
When he awoke to the hydraulic screeches of garbage trucks the next morning, Bok-su was curled up beside him and purring. The floors were still, and Happy and all her belongings were nowhere to be seen.