Quietly Mr. Park closed the heavy blue steel door behind him to avoid waking his wife and four year old granddaughter. It was around 9:00 a.m. and they were still in bed. His son and daughter-in-law had already left for work.
As soon as the elevator hit the bottom from the eleventh floor he lingered. Where should I go today … art museum, city library, the eastern market or the Pagoda Park?
A modern art exhibition was going on at the art museum, including Picasso. He did not care for the paintings of Picasso and thought that Picasso was drunk when he touched the white canvas with his wild brush. The city library? No. The moss and yeast smells make his nose and arms itch. Also, he has read almost every book in the library about ships and submarines over the last five years. He decided to go to the Pagoda Park and play chess or cards with friends.
He got a free ticket at the subway ticket counter and went down the stairs for the Blue Line in the direction of city hall. The Pagoda Park is five blocks away from the city hall.
The transportation is free for people over 65 in Korea. Mr. Park is only 61 but he looks much older than 65 with wiry gray hair, sagging eyelids and deep wrinkles on his face. He is taking advantage of his appearance. Luckily, nobody asks him for proof of his age.
The rush hour crowds bumped his left and right shoulders at the subway station. Since the narrow escalator slid down with a load of people, he decided to take the steps. His legs were getting weaker, shaking and getting cramps. He stopped for a few seconds and slowly walked down to the train stop. With morning commuters and students, the inside of the train was quite crowded. There were people sleeping, reading papers and talking on the phone constantly but nobody offered him a seat.
He stood up among the businessmen who were reading “The Daily Economic News” while standing. He could read over their shoulders: “Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme”, “General Motors Bail Out Request”.
Mr. Park just shrugged his shoulders and murmured to himself angrily. There are a bunch of thieves, large and small anywhere, everywhere in the world. He continued to himself, Put them in jail, all of them, forever.
The city hall is seven stops away from his home. He still has lots of time to be at the Pagoda Park around noon. He continued to stay in the seat and went to the final terminal of the Blue Line at the Yonsei University. It took about one hour. He did not get off the train here. He rode on again in the same seat back in the direction of city hall. Now the inside of the train was almost empty. Several merchants sold goods. The first one was selling umbrellas for ₩2000 ($2.00) and the second one was a blind person selling chewing gum by holding it on his left hand. His right hand held a white cane and the recorder dangled from his neck with music of “I Will Tell The Story”. The next one was selling white socks, and on and on until inside the train was getting crowded again.
It was only 10:30 a.m. In order to kill time he took the Yellow Line to cross the Han River heading to the Incheon Terminal (suburb of Seoul). He was almost two hours on the train, and around noon arrived at the city hall stop.
He saw his group a few yards away but instead of joining them immediately, started to step on the cherry blossom flowers’ pods covered with white and pink colors under the trees in the park. He has never appreciated natural wonders; never counted the stars in the sky and never had any touching feeling in his heart about the flowers. He started to count pods, one, two, three, ten, one hundred … He was extremely happy, comfortable and relaxed. A big grin spread over his mouth. He mumbled, Why couldn’t I escape from my stress and concerns by using tools enjoying natural beauty and wonders before?
“Mr. Park, lunch is ready. Today’s lunch is kalbi tang (beef rib soup),” the loud, humorous Mr. Kim called. His voice was loud enough that everyone in the park could hear him. The cafeteria in the Pagoda Park serves free lunch to seniors. The group that Mr. Park belongs to is not impoverished seniors. They come here to meet friends and to cast off their anxieties about their families and relatives.
The park was crowded with small children running around. Several groups were playing cards and chess games. A group of merchants were selling cigarettes and lighters, makgeolli (Korean traditional opaque white rice wine) that is usually drunk from a bowl, egg rolls and seaweed sushi and others. The exercise groups, Tai Chi, and jumping ropes were seen.
Mr. Park joined this group after he lost all of his savings. He did not have a place to put his mind and heart. He ended up coming here and met Mr. Song and Mr. Kim. They became very close friends to Mr. Park, more than anybody else, even though they had known each other less than five years. He was not as close to his wife, his high school and college friends and, or his son.
Putting their heads together, they were looking at a picture of Mr. Song’s 37 year old nephew. Mr. Song and Mr. Kim were trying matchmaking with ladies in their neighborhood. Actually Mr. Song brought several copies of pictures and short personal histories of eligible ladies. Mr. Park thought matchmaking was the most silly thing in the world that they were doing but they were having a great time over the potential wedding and addition of new family members.
Mr. Park ignored the nasty comments they made about his appearance. It is a miserable life for Mr. Park, living with his daughter-in-law under the same roof. Much more than just oppressive. He had to be so careful about everything as a father-in-law. In the morning first he has to dress, because he cannot go to the kitchen in his pajamas. He has no private life at all. He thinks his daughter-in-law feels the same way. But now there is no alternative, no way he can leave his son’s house and live in a separate apartment.
Mr. Kim, who was the production manager at Daewoo, greeted him. “Hey, Mr. Park, you look pale like paper. It seems that last night you worked hard with your wife. You can hardly even stand up.” Mr. Park ignored him and did not look at him.
Mr. Song, who has a pharmacy across from city hall for 42 years and is semi-retired (handed the business over to his son) said, “Yes, what happened, Mr. Park?”
Mr. Park did not respond.
Rice balls, kalbi tang and kimchi were on the table as side dishes. They were busy eating lunch. Then Mr. Kim spoke with his mouth full of food. “Any news from your untrustworthy ex-partner, Mr. Lee?”
“Mmm … mmm,” Mr. Park tried to start to talk.
Quickly Mr. Kim interrupted. “Mr. Park,” still in a very loud voice.
“Shee. Be quiet,” Mr. Song warned Mr. Kim.
“Mr. Park, what are you doing?” shouted Mr. Song across the table.
“Oh… nothing,” Mr. Park murmured ignoring the two comments from friends.
“Look at this picture. She is so cute and sexy.” Mr. Kim put her picture in front of Mr. Park’s nose and continued, “She is like a live salmon on a chopping block flopping its tail, so fresh and lively.”
“Ohm,” Mr. Park nodded.
Mr. Park asked for a cigarette. He quit 20 years ago. He wanted all his evil memories to fly away in its smoke.
“If you catch him, Mr. Park, twist his neck like this and kill him.” Mr. Kim stood up and showed with a gesture how to twist his neck.
“Mr. Kim, sit down, calm down. Everybody is looking at us.” Mr. Kim sat down and put a spoonful of rice into his mouth.
Five years ago, when Mr. Park retired from the Hyundai Ship Construction Co., he got a lump sum as a retirement package. News spread about Mr. Park’s retirement and his lump sum retirement package throughout the town. Old high school and college friends approached him with great investment opportunities for his retirement money.
His wife insisted, or rather demanded that they put the money in the bank and collect interest for the rest of their lives but he felt that his age of 55 was too young to start collecting interest and stay home to babysit their grandchildren. With over 30 years of industrial experience he could start a second career. And with the additional income he dreamed of travel, going to the symphony and the opera with his wife. Also, he could buy the black pearl necklace for his wife’s birthday that she had wanted for fifteen plus years.
Mr. Lee was president and CEO at Kyundo Industries, Ltd. in Incheon near Seoul. He was a high school and college classmate and they had known each other for more than 40 years. Mr. Lee was a leading, prosperous businessman in Korea and abroad. He had a plant in Indonesia and in the Pittsburgh area in the U.S.A. Kyundo manufactured industrial boilers to supply the petroleum industry.
Mr. Lee promised Mr. Park a ten percent stock option and the director of marketing position was verbally offered. Because of over 40 years friendship Mr. Park naively accepted the offer without any signed paperwork.
Mr. Park did not get any official offer and hardly connected and talked with Mr. Lee for about one year. Mr. Lee was out of the country most of the time on business, especially in the U.S.A.
Mr. Park could not face his wife directly and started to avoid her. They spent more and more speechless moments. Many sleepless nights caused him migraine headaches and an ulcer. A couple of months later he found out that Mr. Lee disappeared and Kyundo Industries filed for Chapter 7. Later Mr. Park found out he was not the only victim of this untrustworthy friendship. His money was gone. He could not bear the reality of his friend’s betrayal.
Mr. Lee was gone. His apartment was locked. Nobody knew his whereabouts … in Korea or in the U.S.A. Mr. Lee had planned a new life for several years ahead and had made careful arrangements about hiding the money for his future. He transferred the money someplace and put his apartment and other valuables in his wife’s name.
Yesterday Mr. Park found out that Mr. Lee is in the U.S.A. He bought a house in Orange County, California and has enough money for the rest of his life.
Because of his anger, Mr. Park could not sleep at all. Last night he could not even lie down on the bed. He was looking for a cigarette. He had quit smoking a long time ago. He could not find one. Mr. Park blamed God. The world is not fair. His lifetime savings were gone like tissue paper down the toilet through his dearest friend. And this friend who gobbled money is living comfortably outside of Korea. Mr. Park wanted to blame somebody … God, his wife, his ex-company or Korean society, not himself. He did not even care why this successful company had failed or what the motivation was behind Mr. Lee’s disappearance.
If his wife knew, he would get more scolding. He has had enough of unbearable words from his wife. He must just be grateful that his wife did not divorce him or kick him out into the street. He wanted to commit suicide at the subway station, not just once, but many times.
Is this my fate? If it is, God, you are too cruel to me. I worked night and day for my family and dreamed that someday I would take my wife to Morocco to see the café made famous in the movie Casablanca, Venice boat riding, Athens and buy a black pearl necklace in Tahiti. She wanted to have this for her life. There is nothing I can do. Now I have to ask her for lunch money.
“That’s why I could not sleep last night,” Mr. Park whispered. You almost could not catch his words. He continued. “He is in California and bought a nice house and he will have a comfortable life with the hidden money.” Everybody was quiet from this unexpected story.
Everyone finished their lunch but Mr. Park’s rice bowl was still full. He could not swallow his food.
“Mr. Park, you have to think about yourself. You have at least another 20 or 30 years to live on earth. You seem on the edge of killing yourself.”
Mr. Song continued, “We are friends for four or five years now. It is a short time compared to other friends, college classmates, but our friendship with you is worth more than anything else. I cannot stand any more of your pessimism and miserable attitude. Nobody likes to be around someone like you.”
Mr. Song still continued, “Be brave and strong like a Spiderman. Think about it this way … you lost your assets, such as your house and everything by fire or hurricane or tornado and think that you are a lucky man to still be alive.”
This preaching did not appeal to Mr. Park. He liked to have another powerful comfort, he did not know what kind.
Hey, friends, you did not have an experience of betrayal from a trusted friend since childhood, he murmured and stood up quietly and left the hall.
“That guy is on the edge of killing himself,” Mr. Park heard this behind his back. It echoed in his ears.