By Yongsoo Park
Lee rolled down the metal gate at the usual time, then turned to the boss, who was standing there, looking on and twirling his ring of keys. The boss would decide about the awning. "Roll it up. It looks like it's going to rain."
The awning had to be rolled up on such nights that threatened rain. Otherwise, all sorts of bums would flock underneath it in search of dry ground.
"Get here early tomorrow. It's payday."
"Yes, of course, sir."
Then, the two men went their separate ways. Lee, toward the subway, while his boss drove away in his cargo van. Just a few months ago, at the height of the tourist season, there had been three workers at the store. But, now, the tourists, had gone elsewhere like fickle birds, and Lee, alone, was left to run the store while the boss ducked in and out at odd times to check on things.
The day had been a long one. And now that winter was near, night seemed to stretch on while the day came and went before it even registered in his head. Lee was used to this phenomenon, but on this particular night, he found he simply could not return to his tiny rented room near the end of the 7-line without a refreshing drink.
There is something about men like Lee, perhaps all men in general, which drives them to seek the comfort of a drink on certain nights of the year. There is no explanation for such a thing, but it is the same force that propels two friends who have been apart to lead the other for a drink upon a chance meeting on the streets. Thus, it happened that Lee remembered Han, and stopped midway down the stairs leading to the 4-train and resurfaced to the streets.
Lee spotted Han immediately. The young manís right shoulder drooped at an odd angle, and he was smoking in front of the store facing the neatly arranged rows of fruits. Lee walked up to him quietly and wrapped his arm around Han's shoulders as if he were still a schoolboy.
"Hey, Mr Lee. What are you doing here?" There was genuine welcome in the young man's voice.
"You gotta keep your eyes open. I could've made off with a nectarine," said Lee as he picked up the fruit and tossed it gently from one hand to the other.
Han smiled and offered Lee a cigarette. Lee took one, and the two smoked together.
"How's business?" asked Lee.
"Ah... You know how it goes. Itís always slow."
"Is the owner around?"
"Nah, he's got his little brother-in-law manning the place at nights." Han then motioned with his chin to the young man with glasses sitting behind the cash register.
"He looks young," said Lee.
"They brought him over from Pusan while he was still in school to help with the store. He hasn't even been to the army yet."
"One of those, hunh."
At this, the two chuckled. They continued to smoke, but their shrinking cigarettes and the look from the brother-in-law told Lee that it was time for him to go. Before leaving, Lee arranged for Han to meet him at the Honolulu later that night.
Located in a quiet back street near the Main Street bus depot, the Honolulu, despite its name, was one of Lee's favorite places to eat and drink in the entire city. Not that he had seen or knew much of the city. Even though it was his thirteenth year in the city, the place to him was only everything that lay along two subway lines.
As the train came out of the long dark tunnel into the long darkness of Queens, he stared at his reflection in the window on the subway door and thought about the thirteen years that had passed like a few months. In that time, other men had somehow managed to carve out homes, families, and new lives for themselves, but he had gone round and round in circles. He had long attributed that to bad luck, but he wasn't so sure any more. With each passing year, the faces that rode the train with him looked younger and hungrier than he did. Even now. It was nearly midnight, but there was no seat for him. He would have to stand all the way to the end of the line.
The Honolulu was nearly empty, and the two waitresses who seemed to be there all the time seemed to greet him with genuine eagerness. Times were hard and only the die-hard drunks came there to drink away the few hundred bucks they made. Of course, Lee didn't mind this. He had no family and little else to spend his money on. And what mattered was that he was able to get his favorite table in the very back, from where he could study the two waitresses as they strolled in and out of the kitchen.
He sat down and ordered a bowl of cold noodles and a bottle of soju. He didn't like the taste of beer with his noodles. And eating cold noodles when it was starting to get chilly out made him feel young and strong.
Han showed up around one.
"I'm sorry I took so long, Mr Lee. It took a long time waiting for the train."
Lee told him not to worry. Han apologized again before ordering fried dumplings and squid.
"You must be tired," said Lee.
"Ah... You know, Mr Lee. It's all part of the job."
The two men laughed and poured each other some soju.
"It's good of you to come visit me," said Han.
"I'm sorry I didn't come by sooner. It's just difficult to find the time sometimes."
"Yes, I know."
Lee took another drink. The soju felt smooth as it traveled down his throat, and he could feel his cheeks warming up.
"It's good to see you, Han."
"It's good to see you, too, Mr Lee."
Lee ordered another bottle, then teased the waitress about her schoolgirl voice. She smiled and brought him his order. He was starting to feel the effects of the soju. He felt like talking.
"You know, Han. I've never told you this before, but I thought it was just shameless how that bastard fired you. You had every right in the world to ask for a better pay."
"It's okay, Mr Lee."
"That's just it. It's not okay. That bastard had no right to fire you. You were a good worker. You were never late, and you did everything that had to be done."
"It's okay, Mr Lee. That's just how bosses are. If they weren't, they wouldn't be bosses."
"You're a good man, Han. Some guy does you wrong, but you're big enough to let it pass. You're a good man."
Lee grabbed the bottle of soju and poured Han another drink. Hand downed the glass in one shot. Lee urged him to another, then another, then another after that.
"To tell you the truth, Mr Lee. I was pretty shocked myself when he told me to go home. When I asked him about a raise, he first said that he'd think about it. Then, later, he calls me aside and tells me that he thinks it'd be best if I stayed home from then on. I guess he just got angry that I'd even dared to ask for a raise." Han's face was reddening both from the soju and from the sheer indignation he felt about the whole incident.
"Yes, yes. I can just imagine."
"Mr Lee, what did he say about me afterwards?"
"Don't worry about things like that, Han."
"No, Mr Lee. Please. What did he say about me?"
"It's not worth it, Han. He's a man without shame."
"Mr Lee, please. I want to know."
"He had the shamelessness to say that you weren't fit for the store. He said that you were stealing from the register."
Han's mouthed open slightly. Then, he poured himself a drink and downed it quickly. "That son-of-a-bitch. Is that really what he said?"
"I told you he's a man without shame."
"He didn't mention anything about me asking for a raise?Ē
"No, but, don't let it get to you. We figured that was what had happened."
"I'm sorry, Han."
"It's okay, Mr Lee."
"We should have stuck up for you."
"It's fine, Mr Lee."
Lee slammed his fist on the table. "No, Han. It's not okay. We should have all asked for the raised together. That way we could have forced him to listen to us. That's what we should have done. Instead, we let you down. I'm sorry, Han. I'm very, very sorry."
"It's okay, Mr Lee. I don't blame you. It was nothing to do with you."
"That son-of-a-bitch treats us like dogs. We work twelve, thirteen hours a day. Seven days a week. The bastard has no right to tell any of us to stay home. Who does he think he is? Just because he sells goddamn T-shirts to stupid Americans, does that make him general? Does that make him president?"
"It's okay, Mr Lee. There's nothing we can do. It's just how things are."
"You're a good man, Han. You're a damn good man."
The two poured another drink for each other. Then, each insisted that the other have just one more before they each reluctantly but gleefully downed their glass. They continued in this fashion to drink and talk of their miserable lives long into the night.
The awning was still rolled up when Lee showed up at the store forty-five minutes late. He had not yet recovered from his night with Han. There had been a trip to another noodle shop, then a long taxi ride through the rain back to his room. He remembered Han getting extremely angry at one point and screaming at the Hispanic driver for driving too slowly. He didn't quite remember how much money he and Han had spent, but he was grateful that it hadn't been his payday. He could have easily drunk a week's worth.
"What are you trying to do, Mr Lee? I make a point to tell you to come to work on time, and you show up late looking like a bum. You know business is slow these days. What are you trying to do?"
"Iím sorry, sir. I overslept." It was the truth. And the had made it to the subway platform just as the doorís on the express train closed in front of him.
The boss took a long sip of his coffee. "Mr Lee, you're a good guy. A hard-worker. That's why we kept you here."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"I donít know what to make of this today. You've never been late before, and you do everything that needs to be done. I know this isn't an easy job. And I know there are stresses,Ē he paused. ďJust don't let this happen again, okay?"
"Yes, sir. It won't happen again, sir."
"Good. Now go on out. The awning needs to be rolled out."
Lee stepped outside and started to roll out the awning. He felt weak, and the awning creaked as he turned the metal bar to roll it down. There was an unusual coldness in the air, which he took as a sign that the winter would be harsh. But, he felt warm inside. He was glad heíd gone to see Han. And today was his payday.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004