- Pojangmacha People
I am thinking of the sad old men I knew. The salt on their drunken foreheads, a sorrow. Of souls stained deep with glutamine and guilt. O, the beauty of MSG. I'm thinking of comfort, the kind rising out of the bodies of blood soups and strangers. Of longing. Inside the tiny drinking tent, the haloed bodies of haejang-guk, the mother of all soups, the soup that chased away tremors and trauma and money troubles and time and time and more time, that soup. The bodies. The into-the-wee-hour-drinking bodies, the sitting-with-bottomstouching-is-just-fine bodies, the bodies sweating out their failing livers, those bodies. Tired and failed as they were, huddled together inside this tiny domed cathedral were their tiny lives, powered by a tiny light, the 1970s-oppressive-cum-underground-guerrilla light, powering the dim city and its people and their small dreams, past the curfew. O, how holy was this light and this coterie, the men lurching headlong into this bloodbath of comfort, the guk chasing away their daily hangovers and bad deeds, only to pass on their karmic debt to their only sons, pass down the bloody mess of their lives. How its biliary notes and fraternal bodies bosomed, not mocked, their chronic bad lives and livers.
My father. I'm thinking of him, but not him. Of souls cursed and caressed inside the pojangmachas inside a village. No, not a village but a nation full of sad, sad, old men, with their jaundiced faces riddled with the pock marks of postwar trauma, with their deadly breaths, who lowered their sorry heads into guk after guk, who fawned over their women and children, even as they beat them senseless. The women. I'm thinking of my dead grandmother and my mother, their mothers' mothers, the women gathered at the hair salon next to my grandmother's house, the one with the outhouse. The outhouse. I'm thinking of a childhood lost to dreams, of dreams lost, then found scribbled on the walls of an outhouse, a shit hole brimming with no-good fathers and husbands and lovers, and later of sons.
And the women who made them. [End Page 208]
When he drank, only when he drank, my father smeared the brown goo with his bare hands all over the wall next to his bed, the smell so terrible it'd wake everybody up, the women. It was a house full of women without husbands or fathers or keepers. The boorish drunk, the women must have thought, who defied even the worst of their imagination about the war they and their mother have had to endure and the bad men made worse by the war. Torn up by years of drinking, his weak constitution would make him go on the bed prepared specially for him by my grandmother. When he drank, and only when he drank, my father broke through a kind of barricade that he'd self-imposed between himself and the world that had become wholly unpredictable; he was enabled, albeit temporarily, to become just a little more authentically terrible than his usual, more guarded, terrible self.
My father and his father and his father's father all died from an alcohol-induced liver failure in their mid-fifties. While my father was alive, I saw him all of five or six times, and though I couldn't tell whether he was, in fact, intoxicated each time I saw him, he might as well have been, since he was a most sullen human to be around. He cracked a smile not once. His face, a brown jaundiced earth with its deep grooves and cracked furrows, a once-rich gorge now gone dry, would not have tolerated one. He was unpleasant and awkward around people. More precisely, he was reliably capable of inducing the kind of discomfort felt deep in the bellies of people when confronted, say, with a foul-smelling wounded animal in a cage corner, inspiring, at once, empathy and terror. They want to help and free the hurt animal but aren't sure whether he is safe to approach...