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From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number 18, Spring 1983, First Quarter: GUILT PAYMENT, by Ty Pak

Posted by BAMBOO BUCKAROO
Monday, October 31, 2011 7:45 PM




                                                       Nostalgia

     I eased myself behind the counter of my bar, the Harbor, sipping iced tea. It was about 8 p.m. Jim Cannon, the bartender, wasn't due for another couple of hours. Until then I could handle the slack business myself. The air conditioning purred quietly, banishing the humidity outside. Embroidered tapestries, depicting Oriental myths, covered the walls. Lacquered Korean furniture, inlaid with Mother of Pearl, decorated spaces unoccupied by the booths. The Harbor might not be a swinging place grossing thousands of dollars a night, but so long as it paid for itself and gave me a minimal income, I wasn’t too concerned.
     It had been nearly ten years since I'd established my residence in Honolulu, but I still felt like the eternal peregrinator. I couldn't help feeling that nothing really mattered in this alien abode. Whether I was a howling success or not, there was nobody here to whom I cared to either brag or lie. However well I might get to know these people, Korean or not, I would be a mere statistic to them, just as they were to me. Only those bygone friends and acquaintances of my youth seemed to matter. I felt like a man on vacation away from home, or, in my exalted moments, like a prince traveling incognito, ready to put up with inconvenience or contumely. I couldn't take anything too seriously. Nothing really touched me deeply enough to arouse me. Perhaps this was why they thought I was a good guy. I didn't drive a hard bargain. When I saw my counterpart in a contract tensed and trembling to gain at my expense, I smiled and gave way. It was all superbly comical.
      With such a sense of detached amusement I was minding the bar that evening when who should walk in but Donam Hyon. It had been drizzling in that wishy-washy way typical of Honolulu in February and Donam was hugging a plastic raincoat tightly around him. He flopped down at a stool at the end of the bar by the door. Minutes passed but he made no move to look in my direction. He had thinned, and a sandy bristle covered his lower face. It had been over ten years that I hadn't seen him, and I would not have recognized him had it not been for his eyes slanting upward at the corners and his sharp nose that chilled whoever he glared at. There was none of his ferocity, dash, hauteur.
      "Donam," I said, grasping his hand with great emotion. He seemed taken aback. There was the smell of whisky on his breath. "Don't you remember me, Wonchol Song from Moon Rock Village, Pyongyang County?"
      "Wonchol Song," he repeated mechanically. His eyes widened a little with a ray of recognition. He said, "What on earth are you doing here?"
      "I'm asking you the same question," I said.
      After that he came to the Harbor almost every day and we went out to drink. It seemed cheap and mercenary to entertain him at my own place. After his retirement from the Korean army as a Lieutenant General several years before, he had been unemployed or rather refused to besmirch himself in the rotten Korean system. He preferred to receive his pocket money from his then wife, who owned a dry goods store. She was his sixth or seventh -- he couldn't be sure -- not counting the first one he'd married in North Korea. He was attractive to women and had no trouble in attaching himself to them, but the women he lived with could not put up with his temper and all left him after less than a year. The one he now lived with and who had brought him over to America had had the longest tenure. She had lived with him for four years and their mar¬riage seemed solid. Janice, whose maiden name was Chang, operated a successful beauty parlor on Kapiolani Boulevard. After her American husband was reported missing and presumed dead in Vietnam, she went to Korea and met Donam. She was marrying a general, cashiered or not, and that was good enough for her.
     It did my ego good to be sought after by Donam, even though I had to pick up the tabs. Childhood fixations, such as an inferiority complex, are the hardest to get rid of. We were born on different sides of the tracks and I grew up envying him and his family. They owned the very land we tilled and lived on. Now I felt equal, perhaps even superior, to him, a wreck of a man who lived on a woman's earnings, on reminiscences of his brilliant past, which was perhaps never quite so brilliant when he lived it.
      In 1944 he married the richest and prettiest girl in the county, and that was the year I got the draft notice from the Japanese Imperial High Command. I fled to Manchuria where our family had relatives, immigrant farmers eking out a bare existence. Then I became a bit bold and went to Japan by freighter. I wanted to see the world. Of course I got picked up in no time and sent to a South Pacific island. After about a month, seeing hardly any action, the war in the Pacific was over. I was a prisoner of war and shipped by the Americans to South Korea. The country was divided, the north under Russian rule and the south under the U.S. There was no traveling or postal exchange across the 38th Parallel. For at least a couple of years, however, people took chances and went back and forth, especially with the merchants who bribed the guards on both sides and smuggled goods and people. I had neither the money nor the temerity to attempt it and bided my time to go and see my relatives, thinking that the division was only temporary. I had really no compelling reason to go back. A third son had no place in the Korean household. My elder brothers took over the management of what little property there was. I had no wife or children.
      Then one summer day in 1946, I believe, I saw Donam in Seoul leading a band of university students parading in front of the Capitol to oppose the Soviet-sponsored plan to make Korea U.N. trust territory. Their placards called for a free Korea without Communism. Donam, like the others, wore a headband with letters written in blood, and shouted the slogans, eyes popping and veins rising in his throat. The pro-American band he led was met by a pro-Soviet group coming from the other side of the Capitol. There was a frightful scuffle. They fought with rocks, sticks, and knives. A company of American-trained policemen arrived and charged into the melee, firing their carbines and swinging their clubs. The band of Communists scattered. Six lay dead, and thirty injured, several critically. The pro-Americans, who remained, were taken away in the waiting police vans. Proven innocent Donam and his men were released after a few days. I went to see him at his lodgings in Mallidong.
      He was full of patriotic fervor and cursed the evil times on which the country had fallen. The defeat, of the Japanese was to usher 10 a new era of national glory for Korea, but she lay flat on her back, etherized, numb, cut up. He bemoaned the lack of leaders who could awaken a new national awareness and inspire and channel the energy of youths like him. He hated Communism as the ideology of bandits. He had his personal experience to prove it; The Communists had dispossessed his family of all their land. They would have been killed in the summary "people's court" trials, but they were just a step ahead. Engaging a south-bound merchant for a great sum of money, they left the county. The larger part of the way was by train. They had forged papers to show that they were going to visit relatives in Hwanghay Province. But the rest of the way, about thirty miles, had to be on foot through the mountains. By this time, contrary to their original understanding, the exodus had swelled to half a dozen families. It was a pitch dark night when they arrived at the border. Suddenly the whole earth seemed to light up. Search lights zeroed in and bullets fell around them. Dogs barked and the Red border patrols, obviously tipped off and waiting, closed in. The families scattered and crawled in the thick brush. Donam and his wife were separated from the rest of the family. They ran as fast as they could in the general south¬ward direction.
     "So what happened to your parents and the rest?" I asked after a good minute of silence.
     "They got them," he said. "They must have."
     He stood up abruptly, knocking over the chair. His eyes were fixed on a spot in the wall, and he stood as if he weren't aware of my presence in the room.
     "I killed her," he said, in a thick voice. "I choked her to death."
     I was stunned and concluded that he was speaking metaphorically. I laughed and put my hand on his shoulder. He pushed me off and continued the narrative. They'd had to run as the patrols were right behind, but she wouldn't move. She was having one of her fits. This rich, pretty wife was an epileptic, which was not known to him until after they were married. Her family had the illness carefully controlled with expensive medicine, and the outside world hadn't known about it. Donam took over the medication program and looked after her well, so well in fact that even after she came to live with him, her illness remained a family secret. It must have been the days of exertion and stress that brought on her untimely seizure. As the armed men searched, poking around with their bayonets, she started frothing, gurgling, kicking. At first he put his hands over her face, but it was no use. He put the knapsack on her face and bore down on it. The soldiers' search lights missed them. When they turned away, he got off and removed the knapsack. She was dead.
     He came to see me a few weeks later. He had on a military uniform with a First Lieutenant's insignia. Inexorable determination possessed him. He was now going to wipe out all Communists from the fatherland, so we could go back to our homes in the north and regain what was rightfully ours. He then told me that my relatives were all right the last time he left them. After all, I thought, they didn't have much to lose and perhaps they were better off under the Communists. But I didn't tell him that.
     Donam distinguished himself in the anti-guerilla campaigns and reached the rank of Major before the war of June 1950. In the ensuing turmoil we lost touch. The Communist invasion was swift. In three days Seoul was in their hands. On the morning of June 28th, the People's Army marched into the city, displaying their huge Russian-made tanks and guns. The Red flag was up in front of the Capitol, and Stalin and Ilsung Kim's giant portraits draped the City Hall. Millions lined the streets, puzzled and curious, mostly caught in the crowd while returning to their homes after running away from the unpredictable shells that exploded all over the city during the night. Nobody had thought of leaving the city until the last minute, as President Rhee had kept reassuring them that there was no danger to the city, while he and his government slunk away, dynamiting the Han Bridge behind them.
     That night, while the populace was still confused and the Red Army came to a temporary halt in their push southward, I decided to flee south. The banks of the Han were guarded by the Red troops and no civilian could cross the river. I knew a spot up the river. The north bank was a cliff with pines and rocks, but the southern shore edged a level plain that stretched for miles, planted with rice and barley. I had gone there several times for fishing and knew the terrain rather well. I eluded the guards and swam across. It was still a few weeks before the summer rains and the crossing was not too difficult although the current carried me further downstream than I had anticipated. Thus I managed to escape the hunger, the conscription of all males from fourteen upwards, and the daily air raids that plagued the three-month Communist occupation of Seoul. I also missed the devastating finale, the fire baptism of U.S. naval bombardment which razed the city of Seoul to the ground just prior to MacArthur's Inchon landing.
      In fact, I had a rather good time of it. I was a war-profiteer, if you will. It was all a chain of events beyond my control. When I reached Tayjon, the temporary capitol, the Communist momentum resumed and the Rhee government and military were moving south to Pusan. Through an acquaintance I got a job as a temporary truck driver for an army supply unit. When I arrived to report back at the unit after a delivery, the place was deserted. I had the empty truck all to myself. There were thousands clamoring for transportation to the south, willing to pay any amount. They gladly parted with their life's savings to drive to safety ahead of the thousands of refugees, weighted under their bundles, dragging themselves along the dusty roads. When I got to Taygoo with a truckload of passengers, I was a rich man, with a truck nobody claimed. Eventually I owned several more trucks and had dozens of employees. I went into a few other ventures, import-export, construction, furniture, scrap iron, with varying successes. At one time I had visions of becoming a tycoon with the livelihood of thousands at my mercy, making and unmaking regimes. But quickly I realized my limitations. As things settled down during the post-war years, the ones with the ruthless tenacity to be really big took over.
     I decided to buy the New Korea Theater, then up for sale. It looked like a steady income without much hassle. I was still worth several million dollars and was content. But nothing is secure in life, especially in Korea. In 1960 Rhee went under, following the student uprising. That didn't affect me, but in 1961 General Park pulled off his military coup and things changed. The new regime had to get their funds and promulgated the "Illegal Wealth" act. My accountant's nephew was in league with the coup leaders and they confiscated all my assets, including the theater and the house. In addition they were drawing up charges against me. Fortunately I had accounts receivable in America and by pulling some strings managed to emigrate.
     As I said, it was about two months ago, in February this year, that Donam first showed up at the Harbor. He was a godsend to me. Here at long last was my link with the past, which was to make my existence meaningful. Our daily meetings never seemed to exhaust our material. After all, we had our ups and downs through two wars and four governments. His compulsory retirement from the Army took place under Park, who never trusted anybody other than those from his own province (and naturally got killed by them). The Park regime offered him some civilian jobs but Donam did not accept. He had only contempt for Park and his upstart minions. The scum had risen to the top, crowding out quality, he said. Curiously enough, neither of us had much to say about Hawaii. We might have been two tourists passing through, with no possible interest in the local affairs.
     In the short period since our reunion I could see him visibly deteriorating. He drank to excess, although plainly he didn't hold his drinks too well. Then he began to alarm me with his odd stories. He was hallucinating. He said he saw at the Ala Moana Center a young corporal he had sent out on a scouting mission. He was a boy of seventeen and fearless, always volunteering for dangerous missions. But one morning he complained of a headache and begged to be excused. Donam had already formed the plan of action and it was too late to change. He was angry at the boy's malingering and slapped him before sending him on. The corporal stepped on a mine and died, his body mangled beyond recognition.
     "I followed him from the store but lost him in the crowd at a street crossing," Donam said.
     "Don't be silly," I said. "You said there were eyewitnesses to his death. They must have identified him somehow, by his dogtag, for instance."
     "But they could have made a mistake," he persisted.
     I held my peace. Then, his drunken eyes boring into mine in intense concentration, he said, "In case anything happens to me, you take care of Janice, take over . . . kind of . . ."
     "What nonsense is this?" I shouted. "Number one, nothing is going to happen to you. Number two, Janice is quite capable
of taking care of herself. Number three . . ."
      I was furious, genuinely indignant, as if he had proposed something vile and obscene. As his sodden mind strayed elsewhere, the topic was dropped, but the thought recurred and intrigued me. I had run into Janice on the way to pick Donam up or drop him off and exchanged only the barest formalities. But somehow I had convinced myself that she was the sort of Oriental wife men dream of: understanding, forever yielding, obedient, self-effacing, and yet a rock of strength and wisdom one could count on in time of need. She was Donam's wife. Our relationship appeared in a new light, as if some profound destiny was evolving to join all three of us. I let my fancy range.
      Clearly the alcohol was weakening his brain. I tried to divert him to other pleasures like movies, chess, sports, music, even women. But nothing interested him, especially not women. In fact they seemed to disgust him. When I took him to the Blue Cloud, where willing "hostesses" clung like little chimps, Donam gave such a frown that none dared to come near. I had to avoid the subject of women altogether. He was probably never unfaithful to his wife, a blessing few Korean wives could boast, but I did not know whether that made him a good husband necessarily.
      Then there was a hiatus. He did not come to visit me for a whole week. I could have called but frankly I needed the break. I'd had quite enough of him and began to have second thoughts about our friendship. Wasn't nostalgia or regressive attachment, romanticized as homesickness, patriotism, love of one's kin and country, in fact a sort of Oedipal arrest? I attended to the postponed errands related to my livelihood at the Harbor with more seriousness and purposefulness.
     The respite was not to last too long. He called and told me to meet him at a bar. I had other things to do and arrived a little late. He was waiting, having drained several glasses of whiskey on the rocks which, however, seemed to have only sobered him up. I apologized for being late, but he cut me short.
     "I saw a specter from the dead," he said.
     "Another of the men you sent to their death?" I asked.
     "No, it's that woman," he said, shivering.
     I didn't know whether there were any other women involved in his life except his wives. Then I remembered his first wife, her tragic death, and the overwhelming effect it had on him as he recounted it. I was about to tell him that he had had no choice, that it had taken place a long time ago and he should forget it. But he spoke first.
     "I didn't tell you about her all this time," he said. "That's why I wanted to see you specially tonight."
      It was in November 1950, during the northward thrust of the U.N. forces under General MacArthur, he said. They had recaptured Seoul and were pushing on as fast as a marathon¬er could run, meeting practically no resistance. Donam, promoted to Colonel, was in command of a vanguard regiment on the western front. The Yalu River with Manchuria beyond was within a day's march. A bus arrived from Pyongyang, the recently liberated North Korean capital, with some thirty or forty entertainers. Donam distributed them among his junior officers, taking none for himself. But as he had just turned into his bed, his adjutant knocked at the door. He stood with a girl of about seventeen, and begged him to take her, since it was the wish of the entire staff. Otherwise they could not enjoy themselves.
     There was only one bed in his tent, and he made her take it, meaning for himself to sleep on the floor. She did not refuse and quietly undressed. Then he noticed her exceptional beauty, the gentle rise of her bosom, the curving back, the tender waist, the soft dimple of her belly. He stepped toward her, removed the blanket, and pressed his body on her. Suddenly, the girl began to froth, gurgle, and kick, the whites of her eyes showing. Without thinking he picked up the pillow and was smothering her. The girl wriggled off the bed and begged him to forgive her. She had put on the epileptic act because she was too tired from the trip and didn't want to be bothered. A storm of rage seized him. He pulled his pistol and shot her under the belly. An ambulance came and took her away to the evacuation hospital, where he was told she died.
     The incident was a trivial matter. People died like flies. Along the roads, in the fields and mountains, corpses, both civilian and military, lay scattered or piled in all stages of decay. Death was a commonplace to which everybody had developed an insensitivity. The death of a whore, especially recruited from the liberated population of North Korea was the least significant thing. A soldier could shoot a North Korean because he didn't like the way he walked. All he had to say was that somebody had told him the wretch had a cousin in the Communist Party or in the Red Army. Donam's men, who removed the wounded girl from the tent, thought that she was a spy either trying to steal something from the Colonel or do him some bodily harm. No question was asked. When the bus came the next morning to round up the women to take back to Pyongyang, the conductor did not even miss her.
     But Donam could not sleep the rest of the night. The following few days her face danced before his eyes, and he made bad tactical mistakes, killing half of his men. Fortunately, this coincided with the general debacle as the Red Chinese armies came rampaging in on the confusedly retreating U.N. troops, and Donam's errors weren't recorded.
     "I saw her a week ago at the bank," he said. "I followed her to a restaurant nearby, Korean Barbecue. She was greeted there by the waiters as Madam. I stood outside and watched her through the window. She looks, she is, the Pyongyong girl I told you about."
      "The one you shot in the stomach'!"
      "Yes. "
      "How can she be here? Corpses don't get visas."
      "No, those at the field hospital could have made a mistake."
      I protested in vain. He wanted me to go and confirm her identity. This was his only salvation. All these years he couldn't do anything; whenever he meant to do something, a voice accusing him of murder unnerved him. If she was alive, he would be a free man. He could start a new life. He would stop drinking, start a business, love his wife. But he had to be sure. I was the only friend he could trust with such a task. Besides he had figured out a simple foolproof strategy: I should go to her, saying that I was the doctor at the field hospital who had treated her gunshot wound.
      Donam called every day to ask whether I had gone to find out. After putting it off as long as I could, I set out on the absurd errand. It was a charming little restaurant with about fifteen tables, all clean-swept and well-appointed. I could spot the Madam immediately from his description. She sat by the cash register at the entrance. I ordered a plate of steamed mandoo, meaning to go to her after it with the memorized script. But after I'd finished the dish, I lost courage. Finally, after ordering several superfluous glasses of beer, I went to the counter and stammered out my part.
     Perhaps my hesitation and inexperience in play-acting made me sincere and credible. She was quite understanding and said that she'd been in Pusan during the war and no¬where near Pyongyang, although that was her birthplace and the rest of her family was there. After apologizing as best I could, I left the restaurant feeling like a fool. But as I neared his house, I began to realize the consequences of this discovery to Donam. I came up with an expedient. I told him that I had seen her indeed and she was the right woman. She'd almost died but pulled through, thanks to modern antibiotics. For a long time her single obsession was to find Donam and pay him back in kind, but time had healed her hurt and she was now well settled and had forgotten all about it. But she never wanted to see Donam again. So in God's name he should stay away from her.
     Donam listened, rapt, with a radiant smile on his face. I could not believe that he was so gullible. I was uneasy, shifty, and showed all the signs of an unpracticed liar, and any detached observer could have seen through me, but such was his need to believe that he did not even ask for any further corroborating details.
     "She is alive," he exclaimed. "I never killed her. Things are going to be different with me. I know it. You'll see."
     He embraced me with tears in his eyes. I didn't hear from him at all after that until a few days ago. Janice called me from the hospital. I was to come at once to the emergency ward. When I arrived, she told me that Donam had hung himself with the electric cord from the ceiling at the attic in the house. When she cut him down, he was still alive, but the doctor did not give him much chance. His windpipe had collapsed and his lungs had been damaged. But Donam wanted to see me. The doctor opened the door and ushered me to the dying man's bedside. His face was contorted and swollen. He breathed with difficulty. Janice whispered in his ear, and he struggled to focus his feverish eyes on me. He stretched out his hand for me to hold.
     "Thanks," he gasped. "I had to ask her forgiveness. You see it had to be real to work." He died a few hours afterwards, in delirium.
     "I don't understand it, I don't," Janice said. "Everything was to have been different. He was going to work for a contractor in town. He even asked me out to dinner. Of course we had gone out sometimes, but it was always at my suggestion and insistence. He was loving and considerate and even wanted to have babies. Then today he returned, drunk and beside himself, his hair disheveled and his clothes torn. He shouted everybody out of the way and went upstairs. I heard a noise, went up on tiptoe, and found the chair knocked out from under him."
      At his funeral Janice conducted herself with composure. The coffin was covered with flowers and there were a goodly number of mourners, mostly her friends. I was angry for some unaccountable reason and could have knocked over anybody that crossed me. "Epilepsy!" I muttered, biting my lips and suppressing my tears as I saw the coffin lowering into the pit and heard the hollow ring of the first shovelful of earth.
      I took Janice back to her house. We were silent in the car. She sat, staring out the window, in her black mourning dress that seemed to wrap her like some precious, fragile thing. I will protect and honor you, I swore, restraining an overwhelming impulse to throw my arms around her and weep. The word "destiny" echoed in my ear.


* * * * *

Bio: Here's Ty Pak's bio from the back cover of the issue:

Born in 1938, Ty Pak lived through his country's liberation from Japan in 1945, its division under U.S. and Soviet occupation, and the trauma of the Korean War, 1950-1953, during which his father died. After getting his law degree at Seoul National University in 1960, he worked as a reporter for The Korean Republic and The Korea Time until 1965 when he came to the U.S. and got his Ph.D. in English at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. Since 1970 he has been teaching and writing in the English Department, at the University of Hawaii. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Pak is married and has three children. He finds the natural and cultural climate of Hawaii an inspiration for his fiction writing.

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