Or had she? Some things he knew for sure. His name was Han Mo-Sae. His wife was Han Young-Ja. They had been married forty years, possibly fifty. The wife would know. They had two children: Timothy and Christina. They would always be his children but they were no longer kids. He had to keep remembering that.
Tunes. He was good with tunes. He could retrieve from memory music he hadn’t heard in decades. “The Mountain Rabbit,” “Ich Liebe Dich,” Aretha Franklin’s “Operation Heartbreak,” which he had first heard in his twenties on the Armed Forces Network in Korea. He had a good singing voice. He had been Tenor 1 in the church choir; years before that, he had led off the morning exercise song in the schoolyard. These performances had given him an appetite for praise and notice, although no one, seeing the old man he had become, would know it.
His wife had no particular distinction—had had none, even in youth. How could she? Her childhood task had been survival. She was the oldest of three sisters who were orphaned as they fled south during the Korean War. In Busan, she had worked on the rubber processing line, removing trapped air from rolled products. She told him about it years later, in another country, sitting on a weedy patch of campus lawn. Once, she had snapped a dandelion stem, allowing the milk to run. Did he know that the sap of the dandelion was a form of natural rubber? Latex? It was one of the few things he learned from her and he never forgot it. It altered in a small and precise way his notice of trivial things: the soles of his shoes, the elastic in his waistband.
They had met in Philadelphia—when was this, the 1960s?—through the area’s one Korean church. He was working toward a master’s in mechanical engineering; she tailored and mended for a dry cleaner. At church, he was a star. His fine singing voice, the impressive school he attended. But at the university, he was struck dumb. Every morning, he would tear out a page from his English dictionary, memorize it, and eat it. Still, the language would not take. And things grew worse. He began to dread not only the classroom, but also the grocery store, the post office, the blank pages of his dissertation.
One night, he had gone to Young-Ja’s rented room. As he removed his shoes, he noticed a hole in the toe of his sock, which he made no attempt to hide. He was too good for her—that much was assumed. She made no argument for herself. She had not made herself up or even changed after work. Her hair was short, like a man’s. Her hands were rough. Her dark sweater showed snips of thread and lint from altering other people’s clothes. In a glance, he could see the perimeters of her life: the toothbrush in a cup that she brought to the communal bathroom, the single hot plate, the twin mattress on the floor.
Yet she brought to the low table a fermented bean curd stew still bubbling in its clay pot. How had she come up with such a thing in Philadelphia? That smell. It was the bean paste. Soybeans, charcoal, and honey placed in an earthenware vessel, buried deep in the frozen ground and over the seasons grown elemental. It stank of home.
They helped themselves from the same pot, bringing the silken onion or softly crumbling potato onto their plates of rice. They dipped again and again into the pot with their spoons. And then, stinking softly of garlic, he took hold of her wrist, drawing her down as she rose to clear the table. She showed no surprise.
Afterward, she asked for his sock, to mend it. The meek look of her bent head, her fluency with the needle, his deflated sock in her hand, had caused a movement in his pride that he didn’t know then—or perhaps ever—to call love. Still, he began to spend nights, which he had previously devoted to his studies, at Young-Ja’s place. And when he received news through an aerogram that his mother had died, when she was no longer around to be disappointed that her only, late-born son would not live up to his educator father, his thoughts turned to marriage.
Yes. That was how it had transpired.
Now, in later life, he began to see her with new fascination. That wife of his. She was always busy—cooking, cleaning, nagging, blindly pulling out of parking spaces without a rearview glance. Even now, she was bustling about on some mission that didn’t involve him. She emerged from the bathroom, having drawn on eyebrows and applied rouge. He noticed a new fullness to her hairdo that revealed itself, as she came into the natural light, as a hairpiece. He followed her into the kitchen, where she acquired keys, phone, and bag. It came to him, what she was doing. She was leaving.
This made him anxious. He realized that with her gone, he would be obligated to himself. To remember to eat. To remember that he had eaten. To turn things off after he had turned them on. To zip his fly. To occupy the present moment. Suddenly, he hated her. He watched her jam her feet into her shoes, then bend to recover the collapsed backs. He hated her right down to the wayfaring look of those shoes.
At the threshold, she turned back for a moment. A change came over her expression, and he wondered if she had intuited his anxiety. But no. Whatever she saw was behind him, further down the hall, and caused what was honest about her face to come into bloom. Be good! she cried to that vision. Then opened the door and walked through it.
What to do next. He placed his hands in his pockets and took them out again. He straightened a neat stack of mail on the entryway table without a glancing interest at their contents. Looking down the hall, he noticed the boy. Of course, the boy. He took a closer look.
The child was small, definitely under five. There was something about him that didn’t seem perfectly Korean: some touch of dusk to his complexion and gold to his curls. The shirt he wore was yellow and read, “Happy.” But the boy himself looked neither happy nor unhappy. He looked how he looked. Small. Temporary. Everything about him would change in another five years. In five minutes.
“Well,” said Mo-Sae, heartily.
Ignoring this, the boy turned toward the kitchen. Mo-Sae followed. “What you looking for?” he asked in English.
The boy braced to open the fridge and surveyed the contents. He didn’t seem interested in the child-size packs of yogurt or bendy sticks of cheese or even the various Korean side dishes in little containers. Instead, he pointed to a can of Coca-Cola on an upper shelf.
“This?” Mo-Sae asked, even as he took it down.
The can was so simple, so presumptuous, as was the child’s belief that an adult could open it. Mo-Sae held the cold, weighted shape in his hand, considering it. He felt his judgment was being tested. Was it wrong to give soda to the child? What would Young-Ja say? But at the thought of his wife and her little criticisms, he grew bullish. After all, he had had his first bracing metallic taste of cola as a boy. It reminded him of the K-16 Air Base in Seoul. The grinning GI’s. As a boy, Mo-Sae had served as a kind of mascot for them. They would strap a helmet on his head, ask for a song, teach him to swear. How easily the memories came to him: Hershey’s Tropical Bars. “Good-Bye Maria, I’m Off to Korea.” He remembered how one soldier, a wondrously black man, could pop the cap off a cola bottle using only his strong white teeth. He wished he too had some entertaining way to open the can for the boy, to bring him to delight.
“Watch this,” he said, although he had no plan. He tried a twisting motion on the tab. Nothing. Perhaps, then, a countering motion. The tab began to loosen, then broke off. This filled him with a frustrated gall that automatically made him think of his wife. “Yeobo?” he shouted. “Yeobo!”
Where was she?
Was she somewhere laboring over her devotions? Wiping down the leaves of her showy house plants? Shala-shala-shala with church women on the phone?
Then it dawned on him. Had she left him alone with the boy?
He began to move through the apartment. There were signs of her. At least half-a-dozen pairs of reading glasses; some unfinished work beside a sewing basket; something simmering on the stove. But no wife.
He entered the living room, which was set like a stage for the occasional visitor. Matching armchairs angled as if in conversation. An ornately framed print of a peasant couple praying in a wheat field. A bowl of fancy dusty candies. Even the piano bench wore little crocheted socks. This was all Young-Ja. All this stuff. When had she turned so aspirational?
At that moment, what appeared was the boy—appearing also in Mo-Sae’s cognition—as he struggled to drag a large toy bin down the hall. Mo-Sae moved to help but was dissuaded by the child’s look of fierce refusal. When he reached the living room, he threw his weight into upending the bin. Toys dumped everywhere. Mo-Sae surveyed the mess. He should have been angry at this demonstration, which, he suspected, was aimed at him. Instead, he was transfixed. A stray block. A plastic soldier. A marble on the run, which he nabbed.
Now he was fully engrossed—sorting, retrieving. Puzzle pieces, dinosaurs, cars. He put them in files, rows, ranks, and columns stretching across the living room floor. As he worked, he swore under his breath to mask the pleasure of having something to do, to make that pleasure seem obligatory. T.S. Tough Shit. Fuck it got my orders. Goddamn Jodie. Goddamn Gook. Fucking Biscuit Head, shit for the birds.
When he straightened up, he noticed that the sliding door was open. As he drew closer, he heard whoops and shrieking laughter: the sounds of some exclusionary fun. He saw a boy standing on a chair to look way down over the balcony railing. Below, other children played in the communal swimming pool. Waist-high, the boy was clear of the railing.
Mo-Sae was suddenly overwhelmed with love for the boy, that yearning posture pitched against the open air. He was so small and his frustration was so great.
Mo-Sae called to him. “Danger,” he said.
The boy did not move.
“Down, Jonathan,” he said. The name had come to him.
In a few steps, Mo-Sae crossed the balcony and seized the child around the middle. A naïve fight went up in the live body: sharp kicking feet, valiant muscles.
“Yeobo!” Mo-Sae yelled as he attempted to embrace the struggle.
The kid wrestled free and ran back into the house. Mo-Sae found him back in the living room, breathing hard and scheming. When he saw his grandfather, Jonathan deliberately plowed through the organized toys with his feet. As Mo-Sae approached, he shouted, “No, Grandpa, no!” and picked up a car as if to hurl it.
Young-Ja always rushed home, handbag gaping, outracing disaster. She felt her heart do just what her doctor had said it must not do as she thought of the pool, the gas stove, the three-lane intersection beside their apartment. Sometimes the anxiety kept her homebound, but little by little, she would start again, coming up with errands that were really excuses to leave. Stamps, prescription pick-ups. Sometimes she would drop by T. J. Maxx for the small pleasure of buying something she didn’t need or, as it invariably turned out, even want.
She was never gone long.
This afternoon, she even left a length of pork belly simmering on the stove with some peppercorns and a spoonful of instant coffee. She told herself she would just run to the bank and deposit the monthly check her daughter gave her for childcare. On her way out, she glanced at the mirror. She felt a complicated sense of recognition at her reflection, not unlike the feeling she had toward the look of her full name, Young-Ja Han, written out in her daughter’s hand. Payable to.
As she waited for the elevator, she heard the door of a nearby unit opening. She realized that she had been listening for it.
“Damn chain latch.”
It was Mr. Sorenson. He had trouble with small physical tasks, like opening jars or unhooking a latch from its runners. Sometimes she wondered if he kept his eye to the peephole and watched the elevator all day, so canny were their afternoon meetings.
“Young-Ja!” he called. “An-yeong-ha-sae-yo?” He knew a little Korean because he had been stationed near Seoul during the war.
It always caught her off guard, how handsome he was. White hair, blue eyes, profile like an eagle. He was always bringing her things—jam-centered candies, cuttings of begonias. Always telling her things. Once, he told her he had an organ at home and promised to play it for her someday. He expected her to believe, or act as if she believed, that an instrument of such occasion and size could fit into their modest units.
Still, she gave him what she could in return. Her docile attention. Half-smiles. A secret.
It had been right around the time that Jonathan was born, three years ago, that she had been diagnosed with a condition. She had left the doctor’s office determined to tell no one, not even the children. Especially not the children. But on her way home, she had run into Mr. Sorenson. In his presence, she found herself seeking the exact name of her condition. She could only remember that the doctor had said something that sounded like “a tree.”
“Atrial fibrillation,” pronounced Mr. Sorenson. “Increases your chance of stroke by five.”
Since then, it had become part of their routine. “How’s that atria,” he would ask, and she would become acutely aware that she had one. Actually, two. One on the right and one on the left side of the heart, according to Mr. Sorenson. It gave her a feeling of strangeness toward her body and all its functioning parts, as if they were not to be taken for granted.
Today, he handed her a medicinal brown bottle. “Take this,” he commanded.
She took the bottle.
“No, not all of it,” he said, seeming annoyed that she had not understood the precise measure of his generosity.
This embarrassed her. She was not a person who took more than her due. Even in her discomfort, she performed the small service of loosening the cap of the bottle before returning it to him so he would not have to ask.
“Organic India Heart Guard,” the label read.
“Take some,” said Mr. Sorenson. “Take ten.” He shook some capsules into her palm and counted them, moving each pill across her palm with the stiff index finger of his stricken hand, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 times.
“Now,” he said. “These are from the bark of the Arjun tree. Buddhists call it the tree of enlightenment. You know Buddha, of course. He’s Oriental.
“See here,” he continued, reading from the label without needing glasses. “Take with food. Take twice a day. Do not take if you’re nursing or pregnant.”
He looked at her with private amusement. His still-keen blue eyes. “Any chance you’re pregnant?
“Come on. Smile.”
When she returned home, Mo-Sae was in the living room, reading the Chosun Daily. He had a certain frowning expression when he was with a paper. She had once been fascinated by this look, had wanted to come under it herself: the look of a man exerting his personal opinion on the ways of the world, the movement of nations. Now she only snuck a glance at the front page to check the date of the paper he was reading.
The headlines referenced the historic summit between North and South Korea, the first such meeting since the country was divided. Could this be the start of reunification? Would there be an easing of military tensions? An opportunity for family reunions?
Last month’s news.
She rubbed her hands, dislodging the sticky, warmed pills that Mr. Sorenson had given her. With that gesture, she reclaimed a kind of housekeeping competence over her mood.
Casting a brisk, efficient glance around, she noticed that the living room was neat and yet strangely occupied. Whatever had happened in her absence, it would never tell. All the toys that she normally swept into bins were categorized and lined up across the floor, some by size, some by type, some by color, some by fancy. It unnerved her, this carefully presented nonsense. The room was empty of the boy.
“Where is he!” she demanded.
“Don’t say who! You know who! Jonathan! Where is he!”
“Jonathan?” asked Mo-Sae, half-rising from the chair. “Why he was here just a moment ago.” He had started doing that: coming up with likely versions of the past that became fixed in his memory.
The boy was not inside the hall closet, hiding in the bedroom, the bathroom, the bedroom again, not crammed into the storage ottoman, suffocated in the front-load washer, splattered on the concrete from a five-story fall. She could not stand Mo-Sae’s forbearing attitude as he trailed her on her frantic search. She whirled to face him. That uncharacteristically meek look. She wanted to beat it out of him. You! No! How!
But then, Jonathan simply appeared, in full view of the door through which she had just entered. She wondered that he hadn’t called to her sooner.
Later that day, in the absence of tragedy, she and Mo-Sae sat in the living room with Jonathan lining up cars between them. The radio was turned to the Christian station, which played arrangements of hymns. “Just As I Am without One Plea.” “Rock of Ages.” Mo-Sae sat in an armchair with no other occupation. She sat on the floor, with one knee hugged to her chest, snapping the scraggly ends of mung bean sprouts onto a spread section of the newspaper that Mo-Sae had been reading. All this talk of reunification. “Permanent peace.” “Long road ahead.” Her thoughts turned, with gentle reluctance, to the past.
That little room in Busan that she and her sisters had shared—so small that at night they had to sleep alternating heads and toes. They lived above a noodle shop, and day and night, as they went up or down the back staircase, they would pass the open kitchen door. Inside, the red-faced ajuma would work flour with water and a pinch of salt, cutting the dough into long ribbons, lowering the noodles into steaming vats—never once offering them a bowl.
How young she had been then, yet how like an old woman. Her work at the local rubber factory left her always tired, always short of breath, blisters between her fingers, curing fumes in her nose, a constant ringing in the deep cavities of her back teeth.
Once, she had come home from work to find her middle sister missing. The room could be swept in a glance. There was no trace of her. Only her youngest sister crouched in the corner. Her rising panic had felt almost euphoric, how her fatigue lifted, her aches vanished, and the spirit of drudgery and depression that accompanied her suddenly found clarity and purpose. She ran back into the streets, easily skirting the iron bicycles and slow oxen pulling hopeless carts of merchandise. The road beneath her pounding feet began to slope downhill, and she felt the easy momentum, the blood pumping into and out of her heart, her living body.
She realized that she had returned to the factory. There, in the last light, she could make out a humped form on the dusty road alongside the factory wall.
Even now, she could feel between her thumb and forefinger, the tender curl of Young-Soo’s ear as she gripped it, hard, right at the lobe, and yanked her to her feet. She could still see the look of distant amazement on her sister’s face, lagging in dreams, emphasized by the dust in her eyebrows and lashes and hair. She had never struck Young-Soo before, but that night she discovered a taste for it. Nothing else could express so well her outrage, her longing for their mother, her need to connect again and again with something solid, resistant, and alive—shoulder, cheekbone, the open mouth that housed the teeth.
That was how it had been. She had forgotten. Her sisters had married and left her charge. They had emigrated—one to Germany, another to Australia. In later years, she had received news of them. One was divorced. The other unexpectedly died of a reaction to penicillin. Distant news, by the time it reached her. Here, in America, she had a different life, a different set of fighting instincts. When she had her own children, she never once laid a finger on them, no, not when they mouthed off or frankly and freely disobeyed. If anything, she was a little shy of them.
She glanced at Mo-Sae on his armchair, half-expecting to find him asleep, with the sense that here was her life. Yes, his eyes were closed. It was that time of day. What did the doctor call it? Sundowning. She had been told to expect increased confusion, even agitation. She had been told that the only way to respond was with patience and kindness. Patience. Kindness. What did they really mean between husband and wife? Sometimes she felt that patience and kindness could be stretched so far in a marriage as to become their opposites.
She studied the face tipped back on the armchair, unconscious yet holding fast to mystery. A face already given to absolution.
Did he know?
She could never directly ask him, never actually say the word Alzheimer’s, chimae, in English or Korean. She would rather pacify, indulge, work around his nonsense. Perhaps this was patience and kindness. Or perhaps it was the worst possible way to be unkind.
Sometimes she wondered. Was it all an act? Would nothing really remain? In the middle of the night, did a dawning horror sometimes spread over his soul? Or did he really think, as it seemed when his defenses were up, that all the world was in error and he was its lone sentinel of truth and fact?
“Number 276,” Mo-Sae suddenly said, as if responding to something she had said aloud. His eyes remained closed.
“That hymn on the radio. ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ It’s number 276 in the hymnal.”
And then sometimes he could do that: remember something so far-fetched that she would be forced to admit, as the song said, that there was still strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
It was in this mood that Young-Ja took the call from Elder Lim’s wife the next day.
“Mrs. Han,” said Mrs. Lim, as if no time had passed. “Is Mr. Han aware that we have a new conductor at church?”
It was not such a big church. Everyone was aware. They had also been aware when Mo-Sae quit the choir in a show of outrage over the incompetence of the previous conductor.
So why was Mrs. Lim calling now?
Young-Ja listened as Mrs. Lim complained. That the new conductor wanted to do the entire Messiah for Christmas, not just the Hallelujah chorus. That he wanted to do it in English. That he wanted to hire professional soloists. She waited for Mrs. Lim to reach the point of her conversation.
“So-therefore,” said Mrs. Lim.
There it was. That turn of phrase.
“Would Mr. Han consider re-joining the choir? At least for the Christmas cantata?”
Young-Ja had told no one at church about Mo-Sae’s condition. She had only considered it a blessing that Mo-Sae quit the choir when he did instead of blundering on, forgetting lyrics and missing cues, until the truth became all too apparent.
And now he was being asked to return.
“Please,” said Mrs. Lim. “We really could use some strength in the tenor section.”
Young-Ja told Mrs. Lim that she would consult with Mo-Sae. But this was disingenuous. Even as she hung up the phone and approached him, she was almost certain that he would refuse, recalling past indignities.
As a matter of fact, he did not. Instead, he seemed gratified by the phrase “strength in the tenor section,” savored it in a way that made her curious about his inner life.
So she took on this new worry.
Over the next few months, Young-Ja spent longer hours at church, waiting in the fellowship hall for Mo-Sae to finish rehearsals. Afterward, when the choir gathered to drink barley tea or Tang, she would watch Mo-Sae as he licked his lips and looked for conversation. When his conversations cycled back to certain themes, or grew incoherent, she would intervene, negotiating his annoyance as she set the listeners free.
October, November. As the holidays approached, Jonathan brought to their home a child’s understanding of time. Pumpkins for Halloween. Turkeys for Thanksgiving. In the countdown to Christmas, rehearsals intensified and she had to take Mo-Sae to the church on certain weeknights. The days grew short and full. She rarely had time for her own errands now, busy as she was with the various tasks Mrs. Lim assigned her for the choir. She rescheduled her doctor’s follow-up, and then rescheduled again. She hardly saw Mr. Sorenson, although once, as she was unloading dozens of binders in boxes from the elevator, he emerged from his unit. He did not offer to help. In fact, he did not even seem to notice the boxes, or her struggle to move them. Instead, he waited for a moment in her attention to present her with another cutting in a plastic bag, its roots swaddled in a wet paper towel.
The Christmas cactus, he began in his lecturing way, would bloom in late December with a biological sleight of hand. Every twelve hours, she was to take it out of a dark closet and give it full sun.
She nodded. But what she realized was that Mr. Sorenson’s gifts were not free but finicky, and came with a burden of care. Indeed, when she remembered the cutting, days later, it had completely wilted.
As for Mo-Sae, no one complained of his behavior in the choir. If anything, they said that his voice was as youthful as ever.
Then it was December. The sanctuary was decorated for Christmas. The tree, the wreaths, the needlework banners of shepherds and trumpeting angels. The pulpit had been removed to make room for the risers, giving the sanctuary the look of a stage.
Earlier, Young-Ja had dropped off Mo-Sae in the choir room. She had helped him with his robe and positioned him beside Elder Lim. Now, as she sat in her pew and looked around at the Christmas decorations, she thought that she would lay her worries down. She saw her son, Timothy, come up the aisle with his wife. With his glasses and slightly irritated look, he reminded her strongly of a young Mo-Sae. And yet Timothy was now a father with children old enough to be left at home alone.
Then Christina entered the pew. Jonathan was at home with Sanjay, she said when Young-Ja asked.
The choir members started to file in. Young-Ja quickly identified Mo-Sae, but he maintained his stage presence and looked straight ahead. Next came the soloists, distinct in tuxedos or dresses, taking their seats behind four music stands. Young-Ja felt her children settle into a humoring attitude.
When the new conductor strode to his place, the audience didn’t know whether to clap. As a congregation, they only ever said “Amen” after the choir sang on Sundays. But the conductor settled the matter by immediately turning his back. He gestured and the choir stood. He opened his palms and the choir opened matching black binders. The music began.
Young-Ja could not tell if the singing was good or bad, but she could see a new unison of attitude in the schooled faces, the binders that were kept open but hardly consulted. She noticed Christina and Timothy exchanging a glance but could not read its meaning. The music was long and wordy, with laughing scales—ha ha ha—sung soberly. Mo-Sae seemed to be keeping up. At times, she didn’t hear the music at all but found herself mesmerized by the flashing lights of the Christmas tree. At times, she recognized certain passages of scripture: Comfort, comfort ye my people. For unto us a child is born.
At times she caught moments of tuneful beauty.
She noticed a pattern. One of the soloists would stand to introduce a change in the music. The choir would take up a response. The same phrase would be passed around for some time among the various voice parts, altered and yet the same. She saw Mo-Sae in compliance, his mouth opening and shutting with the mouths around him.
“He trusted in God . . .”
“That he deliver him . . .”
“Deliver him . . .”
“Delight in him . . .”
“Deli-ha-ha-ha-ight in him . . .”
The tenor soloist stood up.
“He looked for some to have pity on him,” the tenor sang, “but there was no man . . .”
Then: movement in the risers.
Young-Ja was suddenly alert to the worry that had been pacified through the long listening. She felt that worry, which had been vague and formless, grow distinct as Mo-Sae sidled out of position on the top riser, setting off a wave of shirking among the choir members that blocked his path. With great seriousness of purpose, he came to the front of the stage. He took his place beside the tenor soloist, who had just launched into the melodic part of his solo. He opened his binder. He opened his mouth. He too began to sing.
Nothing could be read in the soloist’s expression. Perhaps that was what made him a professional: the ability to keep singing, keep pretending. And no interpretation could be made of the choir director’s turned back, from which a conducting arm continued to emerge and retreat in time. Or of the choir members who presented three rows of staunch faces.
But Mo-Sae’s face was laid bare to scrutiny. The expression on it was high-minded and earnest, but also a little coy, as though he was struggling to disguise his basking pleasure.
What was he possibly singing? In which language? To which tune? Or had he somehow learned the tenor solo on his own? He was not behind the microphone so no one could hear. But anyone could see from the childish look of surprise that came over Mo-Sae’s face that he was straining for the high notes that came forth in the soloist’s voice.
So there it was. The spectacle.
Young-Ja could do nothing but watch, to feel that there in the spotlight that she had never once sought for herself, her private miseries had become manifest.
Ultimately, it was Christina who made her way to the stage; who waited, hands folded, until the tenor solo had ended; who took her father gently by the arm and led him down through the pews with no sense of apology in her posture or pace. There then seemed to spread through the congregation a spontaneous kindness, a collective will to look away, to appear absorbed in the musical performance so that Young-Ja, Timothy, and his wife could cast about for their things and make their escape.
Afterward, things were different. Better, almost. Now that the secret was out, the church members treated her like one of the New Testament widows. They saw her as devoted, praiseworthy. They never asked Mo-Sae to rejoin the choir or even take part in a real conversation. Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.
And yet, sometimes she took the opposite view. She was not really a widow so she was not really free. While Mo-Sae was alive, she could not pretend that he did not exist in some real, sometimes inconveniencing way. Others might pretend, but she had to look squarely into the question of Mo-Sae’s dignity. It was up to her to reclaim it from this point forward in a more complicated, arduous, thankless way.
At the start of the new year, she ran into Mr. Sorenson. He was leaning on a footed cane.
Just a fall, he told her. But his son (he had a son!) was convinced that he was too old to be living alone. Party time over. He was getting shipped out to a retirement community near Orlando. “You know Disney World? Mickey Mouse?”
He asked her, with new formality, whether she had a moment to step inside his house. He had something for her there.
Of course she did. Her life was once again full of such empty stretches, affordable moments.
The apartment was clean but smelled faintly of cooked cabbage and bleach. Over the recliner was a crocheted blanket in a classic granny-square, telling of some bygone female presence in his life. A few open boxes where he had started packing.
“Twenty medium-sized boxes,” he said in a false, hearty tone. “That’s what I get to take with me.”
She noticed a handsome burnished instrument. It looked very much like an upright except it had two sets of keyboards and a variety of pedals. He caught her looking. “What you have there is a mint 1960s Hammond B3.”
So it was true about the organ. She had only ever seen one in church, which had supplied her with an idea about pipe organs.
“I ask you,” he said. “Can something like this be made to fit into twenty medium-sized boxes?”
She heard the bitter note enter his tone. She sympathized with it. But she also gently refused it. There was nothing she could do for him, that they could do for each other. They belonged to whom they belonged.
He seemed to understand this.
“There she is,” he said, abruptly, drawing her attention to a large plant on a stand beside the organ. “Christmas cactus.”
She dimly remembered he had given her a cutting of the same name. But it had never produced anything like this riotous display of flowers.
“All yours,” he said. He wouldn’t be able to take living things with him on the move either.
As he watched, she struggled to wrap her arms around the pot, the leaves coming right up to her face, into her nose, obscuring her vision. All the spiky, hot-pink, white-tongued flowers.
Afterward, she would sometimes meet him coming and going from the garbage disposal down the hall. Divesting, he said. He offered her useless things. Baseball cards, cassettes, souvenir spoons. He gave her some more full-grown plants but never anything that had yet to put down roots. He didn’t give her a phone number or an address to reach him once he was gone, and she didn’t think to ask.
One Sunday, shortly after the Christmas incident, her children had come to her. Something had to be done about Dad, they said, sternly, with loving intent.
Yes, said Young-Ja with gentle amusement. Who was disagreeing? Something had to be done. But what?
They had no solutions. They were all so smart and competent, so young in their conviction that they would not grow old. But who among them was prepared to take their father in? Or who would stand to see him in a home? Even so, who would pay?
She gazed at them, loving them with a freedom she had not felt since they were small. She was glad, so glad, that they did not know about her own ailing health. She knew that she would get up every morning and muscle through, as she always had. She had in her body the proof. The cancer in her kidney when the children were young, impossibly young. The alarming growth on her left eye, spreading toward her pupil. The aches in her joints, the stiffness in her back, the headaches from the Perc fumes. Each time, she had rallied, had made a habit of exceeding doctors’ expectations.
Even now, she felt in herself a steadying of purpose, a long view opening up. Of course, she would be the one to provide a solution to the problem of Mo-Sae. That was why her children had come to her. To ask her to relieve them of this burden. And hadn’t she known that this time would come? Hadn’t she known from the moment she had taken his torn sock in hand with an offer to mend it?
She had offered other things as well: a way out from his hated degree program, a way to make a living. It had been her idea to purchase the dry cleaners from her old employer—the business through which they had bought their home, put their kids through college. They had bought it through her savings. Even so, she had known that at certain rocky junctures of their marriage, Mo-Sae would find in this a convenient source of blame. Indeed, she had seen this plainly on his face that night when he had taken the stage: the still vibrant longing for attention and applause.
Be that as it may.
She had borne him his children and set his tables. She had served him red ginseng in autumn, deer antlers in spring, marrow soup in winter, and medicinal chicken stuffed with licorice root in the summer seasons of his life. As things got worse, she had taken in his smell, coaxed him to bathe, clipped his thick yellow toenails, and boiled stains from his sheets. She had not neglected to bring him the plenteous pills—the regulators, inhibitors, uppers, and downers—that would perhaps prolong his life, with a glass of water set on a saucer.
And after all was said and done, after he had been laid to rest, she knew that she would not rest. She would put up his stern framed photo in the living room. Exhort the children and grandchildren. Make regular visits to the cemetery, where she would upkeep his memory with ammonia, an old toothbrush, and a handful of flowers.
Watch the boy, Young-Ja had said.
Now she is gone, swept out of the house on one of her errands. Well, good. When she is around, she is always watching him, testing him, bringing as evidence the dry toothbrush or the empty candy wrapper.
The phone rings.
What! he shouts in Korean, then remembers to pick up the receiver. “Hello!” he shouts in English.
It is his daughter, his Christina. Young-Ja apparently isn’t answering her cell.
Christina seems surprised, almost irritated, to hear that her mother is not home. She asks him where exactly Jonathan is, what exactly he is doing. She tells him to get a pen and write down precisely what she says: “Mom call Christina as soon as you get home.”
He writes nothing. As soon as he hangs up the phone, he heads to the pantry, where he lords it over the products on the shelves. His good privilege. His bad choices.
He notices the boy watching him. “Come here, little one,” he says, wooing.
They assess their choices. Beans, grains, glass noodles. Dark viscous liquids decanted into unlabeled glass jars. The faint smell of dried anchovies and sesame oil. Ingredients, not food.
Through the open window, they hear a distant mechanical melody. The boy identifies it. Ice cream truck.
“Grandpa has no money,” says Mo-Sae, patting his pockets. “Nothing.”
But the boy has a solution, bringing an old coffee can full of change. Mo-Sae picks up some coins, which have complicated pictures. Then he remembers that these are American coins. He returns them to the can, which is surprisingly heavy. “Aren’t you rich!” he jokes to the boy. But what really stirs in him is sadness. This is his wife. This is the evidence of her life. A handful of small saving actions.
The boy tugs him toward the front door. He wants to go out. But Mo-Sae is deeply reluctant. He thinks that if he crosses this threshold without his wife, if he walks through the hallway with all its identical doors and goes out into the open world, he will lose all orientation. He will never find his way back. Still, when the child puts a hand in his, Mo-Sae is filled with belligerent affection. The belligerence briefly flares against Young-Ja, wherever she is, as though he will prove something to her.
He tells himself not to forget, not to forget, but by the time they reach the ground floor, he has forgotten why they are there. He looks out at the world beyond the lobby, the parked rows of cars and adjacent apartment buildings. What do they want from him? But the belligerent spirit warns him not to disappoint the boy. He notices a pool, gated and empty, and he tells his grandson in a rousing voice that when he is just a little older, Grandpa will teach him how to swim. They walk in that direction. At the gate, he fiddles with the fork latch. Surprisingly, the latch obliges and the gate swings open.
Mo-Sae and his grandson kneel beside the deep end of the pool. They lean over the water, which moves in dangerous fascination with sunlight. The boy has brought with him a can of coins. He drops a few into the water and watches them sink. As Mo-Sae takes in the boy—his absorbed, attentive attitude—he thinks it will be a pleasure to watch him grow. To teach him to swim or ride a bike; to eat spicy foods; to pour an older man’s soju with both hands. For a moment he truly believes that he, Mo-Sae, will do this. That he will be permitted such responsibilities.
He does not stop the boy from tipping the entire can of coins into the pool, wondering himself what interesting consequence might result. It is only afterward, as he and the boy look down on the sunken heap, that he realizes that he has misjudged. He grows aware of the music of an ice cream truck, which had been making its rounds, and realizes that the simple act of buying a child ice cream has become absurdly complicated. The boy himself seems to realize this, setting off a howling show of disappointment. The sound puts Mo-Sae on high alert. He feels that if he cannot get that noise, that resistance, that blame to stop, he is in danger of losing all sense of judgment. He tries to seize the boy by the arm but the boy takes off, running through the parking lot, into the lobby. Mo-Sae spots him just as he enters the elevator, reaches him just as the doors slide shut on them.
Now that they are in that enclosed space, the boy cannot run. In frustration, he jabs at all the black numbered buttons on the panel, as high as he can reach, and turns to Mo-Sae in defiance. Whatever motion he has set off, Mo-Sae is powerless to stop it. He feels something engage, deep inside the elevator shaft, and the gears begin to shift. The elevator car begins to rise, but only for a moment. On the second floor, it stops. Its doors open and then close. On the next floor, it stops again. Open, close. The doors keep opening and closing on identical hallways, and Mo-Sae realizes that he has no idea which is his own. Still, he begins to find his panic subsiding. His breathing slows. This small space is manageable. Its lighting is plain, its corners exposed. The boy also becomes quiet.
On the fifth floor, the doors open onto a scene with a difference. An elderly man with a cane is waiting to enter, so Mo-Sae and the boy exit the elevator car. Glancing down the hall, Mo-Sae notices that a certain door has been left ajar. Could it be their own? Had they left it open? No matter. They will find out soon enough. They head toward the open door. Walking through it, they see themselves reflected in the entryway mirror. They see paired shoes lined up neatly on the floor. That is when Mo-Sae realizes that by happenstance or miracle, he has gotten home.
Time passes. The sun goes down.
Mo-Sae feels in himself a lengthening of the patience and waiting with which he occupies his days. He moves about the house, looking for helpful things to do. The fact that Young-Ja is not home does not particularly trouble him at the moment. He clears the kitchen table, wipes it down. Shit, he says softly to himself as he waters the plants. Goddamn. The phone rings from time to time. He lets it.
In the living room, he sees Jonathan, remembers Jonathan. The boy is asleep on the living room sofa. His open mouth, his sticky grasp. Mo-Sae brings a large towel from the bathroom and lays it over the boy, to make his sleep seem more intentional.
A knock on the door.
Opening it, Mo-Sae is momentarily surprised to find a dusky stranger in doctor’s scrubs. But of course, it is the son-in-law. The son-in-law is apparently Indian. Mo-Sae suddenly feels a sharp sympathy for his wife: how she must struggle with this!
“Mr. Han? It’s Sanjay? May I come in?”
Sanjay’s manner is pleasant, suggestive. Crossing the threshold, he knows to remove his shoes. “Christina sent me over. She went straight to the hospital. She says you weren’t answering the phone.”
Mo-Sae isn’t sure what to do with that information. It brings something deeply unwelcome to his sense of well-being, shows it as precarious. But he is also afraid, perhaps more afraid, to expose his confusion before a young man.
Sanjay moves deeper into the house. In the living room, he notices Jonathan lying on the sofa, lightly sweating under a towel. “Oh,” he says. His face, beside the boy’s face, suddenly seems inevitable. “He’s sleeping.”
The two stand over the boy, not knowing how to progress from there. Young-Ja would know. Mo-Sae wonders why she is not around.
Sanjay’s cellphone vibrates in his pocket. He walks to the far side of the room and takes the call with his back turned. Mo-Sae watches and listens, newly aware of Sanjay’s scrubs, the authority of his uniform, which seems bound up in the mysteries of his one-sided communication.
“Christina? I’m here. How’s she doing?
“So what’s the whole story? They found her where? In front of which bank?
“How is it possible that nobody knew?
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.
“Who’s the attending? Maybe I’ll give him a ring . . .
“Jonathan? He’s fine.
“I said he’s fine. He’s sleeping.
“You want me to stay with him? With them?
“Well, what do you want me to tell him?”
Sanjay hangs up and looks toward Mo-Sae. He puts on a professional, chummy guise, telling Mo-Sae not to worry, that Young-Ja is in good hands, that the attending physician is a buddy of his. But Mo-Sae senses something false in his execution. When Sanjay falls silent, it is a relief for both men.
Only, moments later, he is at it again. It seems this son-in-law of his can’t keep still, can’t keep quiet. He consults his phone. He looks around. “I see you grow spider plants!” Sanjay says, suddenly delighted. “Oh, and begonias! Christmas cactus!” He seems profoundly relieved to have stumbled on certain matters of fact.
You like plants?
“Just a hobby of mine,” says Sanjay, walking toward a plant with flat, sword-shaped leaves. “The scientific name of this one,” he tells Mo-Sae, “is ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue.’”
Mo-Sae notices that Sanjay has lost all his discomfort and resumed his jokey doctor act. Perhaps this is part of Sanjay’s bag of tricks, to deliver bad news after his patients feel at ease. He watches Sanjay probe the soil in the pot with two diagnostic fingers. “Just don’t over-water,” Sanjay says. “Some plants thrive on neglect.”
Once again, silence. There is a waiting quality to the silence.
Then it occurs to Mo-Sae that Sanjay might be waiting for him to provide the next direction. That he, Mo-Sae, occupies a certain position as the father-in-law. That he has a certain power of permission and refusal.
Go, says Mo-Sae.
You can go. Then come back. Just leave the boy. Let him sleep. I will keep watch.
“Oh, no,” says Sanjay immediately. “Christina said I should stay.”
But moments later, he relents. “Maybe I’ll just run out and grab a bite? I noticed a Carl’s Jr. on the way over. Haven’t eaten since breakfast. In and out of surgeries all day.”
Still, he wavers.
What, he doesn’t trust Mo-Sae with the boy?
“Is okay,” he says to Sanjay. “Go.”
After Sanjay leaves, Mo-Sae goes out onto the balcony, bringing with him pieces of the mystery that he couldn’t put together in his presence. Why was Sanjay here? What is the meaning of that phone conversation?
Warily, he circles the matter of Young-Ja’s absence. But what can he make of it without her help? In all the ways that she is not what he had wanted—in her homeliness, her surprisingly conventional taste, her imperviousness to art or beauty, her stout resilience—she provides the resistance that distinguishes the reality from the dream.
Below, darkness. The headlights of cars pulling in and out of parking spots. There is some pattern to their coming and going. If only he can figure it out, he will be able to make sense of other things as well. But as he applies his concentration, he becomes distractingly aware of certain sounds.
The lights are tricky and misleading, but the sounds are actual sounds. They are coming from a nearby unit, perhaps through an open window. He senses the dawning of recognition, waits for it.
Of course. It is an organ.
An unseen musician is playing. Tentatively at first, as though it has been a while since he has been with an instrument. Chords, half-scales, just noodling around. Then, with growing conviction. The notes begin to come together, fall in place, mustering up to the start of a song. Yes. There’s the tune, faintly ridiculous, jaunty yet nostalgic. And here are the words, right there in his memory like a gift time had bestowed:
Take me out to the ballgame
Take me out to the fair
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks
I don’t care if I never get back
As it sometimes happens, he simply begins to remember. His name is Han Mo-Sae, born 1940, ten years before the start of the Korean War. His wife is Han Young-Ja. Born 1945. In 1960, they met in Philadelphia. They married, bought a dry cleaners, Kim’s dry cleaning, and never bothered to change its name. They have two adult children.
Those very children have talked. He has heard them speak. In this very balcony he had sat, not so long ago, with his eyes closed, pretending not to hear as his wife and children gathered around the kitchen table to discuss the problem of his continued existence. Who should care for him? Who should take him?
If he feels an old flicker of indignation, a last assertion, it is easily extinguished. Oh, he doesn’t blame them. He loves them. He gets the impression that he is already looking back on a life; a life divested of time, ego, and even regard; a life weary of its own argument.
A motion-sensor light momentarily illuminates the pool, then goes dark.
Once, he remembers, his father had taken him swimming in Sokcho Beach. He enters the memory. His mother sits on a blanket by the rocks, under the pine trees. She waves. His father is in the ocean, motioning for Mo-Sae to come deeper into the water. His father has taken off his stern black scholar’s glasses, which he is never without. Mo-Sae sees him, framed against the sea and the sky; he can tell that his father’s nearsighted eyes, squinting, are unaccustomed to taking in the long view. Still, his father beckons, tells him not to be afraid. Tells him that swimming is like singing. That there is a scary little moment of trust, and then . . . nothing. You find that inside you are made of lightness and air.
Mo-Sae wants to move toward that moment, to move deeper into its memory.
But not just yet.
He senses that there is still something for him in this place, holding him back, staking its claim. He goes back inside the apartment and walks from room to room. He turns on every light inside the house. A pull of the chain under the tasseled lampshade beside the sofa, and he notices the sleeping boy. The lamplight catches what is gold about his curls, his skin. There is nothing but innocence and conceit in those thin arms and legs. The expectation of tender-loving care.
Where are his father and his mother, Mo-Sae wonders as he picks up a fallen bath towel and places it over the boy. When will they be back? Who will keep watch until they return?
As the evening turns into night, Mo-Sae sits beside the front door, hugging his knees to his chest. He has angled his stance to keep the sleeping boy in his sights. He watches vigilantly so he will not forget.