The End of the Coffee

All over the horizon—above the heavily forested Asian hills—was the color of molten iron but there was no heat in the sunset air. The sun–a coal barely different in color from the sky. Only the light on his face through the bus window told heat survived somewhere in space. It was the bottom of Korean winter.

Angelo smiled and stared at the sun through his closed Caucasian eyelids. His exhaustion dissipated. He was entirely wiped out but for a few minutes he felt like he was coming out of a nap and not riding a nearly sleep free three day weekend. His feet were sweating and his ankles burning in the maladjusted bus heat. He didn’t notice. He was thinking about the right thing.

He was on the way back to Suwon from Kang-nung. He had to get out of Suwon occasionally. The sight of other occidentals was rare enough outside of Seoul and the hog-won but times were even that much was unacceptable. He tried to figure out the reason. He even talked with the other expat teachers about it. It never solved it. It just made him speak sweetly and keep his eyes to the ground.

Suwon was just a subway trip to Seoul. The occidental teachers liked to do things on the weekend. He went with other teachers a few times to see movies or go shopping. One Sunday he’d gone to Seoul with two female teachers; one Canadian and one American. In the subway terminal the American girl, Diane, had dropped a handful of change at the slot to the ticket seller. The man had reacted with verbal violence. She had taken an immediate attitude back at him, though neither understood the other. It lasted for a nasty two minutes escalating until her walking away.

Diane came back to them and said, “What the fuck was his problem? Jesus, did you see that?”

“It’s rude to throw money here,” Angelo said.

“I didn’t throw it,” she said, “I pushed it to him.”

“You dropped it. Same thing to him.”

Bullshit. I pushed it to him.”

“I’m not saying he was right to get mad at you. I only said that Koreans don’t like it when you throw money.”

“I didn’t.”

“It wouldn’t kill you to try to fit in, learn some Korean customs.”

“It wouldn’t kill them to clean up this filthy garbage heap of country either and learn some manners. The other day I was in a restaurant. This rich a-ji-mah has her little boy at the table and he’s standing on the chair over the table when she takes out a plastic bag for him to piss in.”

“That kind of thing with kids is acceptable in Korea.”

“It’s not acceptable to me.”

“We’re in Korea.”

“So I have to learn to be a pig to fit in?”

“No, that’s not what I meant. You just, you just ought to tolerate them a little. What do they know, right?” Angelo said.That was the last trip he took with any of the teachers except his housemate Dexter.

The first day out in Kang-nung had been fantastic. He stepped off the bus a hundred meters from the market on the water. He headed down and though it was already noon he felt like it was dawn. Rows of shops and stalls curved around a tiny road that hugged the docks over the sea. A dozen places had museum quality collections of fish, which would all be in bowls soon. There were schools of fat cuttlefish, morays, bright purple things like little sunfish, scorpion fish, cucumbers, monkfish, fish the colors of African flags; he’d never seen most of them before. Angelo stood smiling at their beauty and range with hope that they weren’t as rare as they looked, but knowing they almost certainly were getting that way. Knowing that it was buying the lean years that were lurking behind the millennium. They were going to ravage small industrial nations like Korea. Shove them back to the bottom of the deck. Emblazon their third world status for another thousand years. Angelo thought about how beautiful the day was and it was all easy again.

He ate Korean sashimi and sushi in a restaurant alone and managed to avoid conversation with anyone trying to meet or be kind to a foreigner. Sashimi was sometimes hard to get down but it always sat perfectly. It always made him feel better. He thought of dolphins and sharks and natural histories where the right thing wasn’t thought about: it just was.

He walked around a corner where the market stalls opened up onto a dock. The boats spilled their nets into hundreds of plastic barrels and containers there. The boats. It was a logjam of colored wood pushing to the dock, and to erase the horizon line. Angelo fumbled for his camera like it would disappear before he captured it, like it hadn’t been the same every single day. The camera clicked and nothing changed then.

The sun on the beach was warm and wonderful. It felt like summer. The water was so clear he could see through the waves before they broke. They looked like emerald dust in a fine suspension. He watched Korean couples on the beach. Kang-nung was a lovers’ town. Its beach was high and white with millions of tiny white and purple shells. There was a tiny island just offshore where divers moored rubber rafts.

During the afternoon hundreds of couples went by him. None of them talked to him. They were there to disappear and do things they couldn’t at home, like hold hands. It was perfect. This was how he preferred to see Korea and Koreans. Young and innocent and in love but not in denial. This beach was the only place it was acceptable to hold hands and perhaps even kiss. He didn’t see one person over thirty-five all afternoon.

There was a girl walking up the beach toward him. He knew she was coming at him. She was white. Korean girls did not gravitate to him. He was handsome enough and the Korean girls all told him so but he hadn’t had as much as a kiss. He was aware that one of the other teachers at the hog-won had slept with not less than four Korean girls lately. Angelo would have liked a Korean girlfriend but there was some line he was unable to cross. He’d been alone for almost four years. It was feeling much too long.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey. Sit down.”

She put her towel down and sat next to him.

“I’m Angela.”

“Well, I’m Angelo.”

She laughed. “Really?”

“’Fraid so.”

“How come you aren’t here with a Korean girl? All the guys from my school have hooked up with Koreans.”

“They’re so naïve. It would be like a dating a high school girl. Doesn’t appeal to me, though I guess I can see the allure. Why aren’t you here with a boyfriend?”

“A Korean? Ugh. No thanks.”

“Some of these guys are really handsome.”

“I don’t think so.”

He supposed it could have been some kind of compliment and not what it sounded like. He said, “I guess everybody’s got their taste.”

“You Canadian?”

“American. You?”

“Canadian.”

“What brings you to Kang-nung all alone, Angela?”

“Just trying to get away from the work situation for a couple days. With a group for the weekend. Nobody I like too much. I wanted to see the beach alone. Better than with a bunch of guys who want a foreign girl friend, you know?”

“I guess,” he said. She was very cute without being at all beautiful.

“You teaching English?” she asked. He nodded. “Yeah, me too. How do you like it?”

“I love it.”

“Really? Not me. It’s impossible to work here and the money just isn’t what was promised, you know. What do you like about it?”

“I love kids.”

“Yeah, me too. They’re so cute.”

“…Yeah.”

“What brought you to Korea? No work at home? Because Canada’s a real drag right now.”

“I had my dream job offered to me right before I left and came here.”

“What was it?”

“Park ranger.”

“Where?”

“Olympic National Park between the Puget Sound and the Pacific.”

“I know where that is. I’ve been there. I went to school in Vancouver. I simply could not handle a job like that. I would get so lonely. Why did you duck out on it?”

“Too many reasons. This was just far enough away from them.”

“Why here?”

“It was there and I love anything foreign from me.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I love anything I don’t understand.”

“Okay, why?”

“If I can’t understand what people are saying, they can’t seem petty. They seem ideal and beautiful and every benefit of every doubt is upon them. I see a Korean man and woman together and their words are melodic. I imagine them speaking in tongues of angels about tomorrows that I can’t understand because I’ve fallen away. But when I know what they’re saying… You know what they say, familiarity breeds contempt.”

“I don’t know if that’s true.”

“You don’t need to.”

“You’re a strange boy, Angelo.”

They drifted into the polite exchange of telephone and pager numbers that foreigners in foreign countries are obliged to do. It was easy for Angelo to do without hesitation because he never answered the phone anyway.

The sun was going down and it was getting cold. They made a half hearted plan to meet the next day because that’s what men and women did. But when it rolled around Angelo was late and she wasn’t there.

Angelo tried to find a room again. He met with the same results though he tried even more places and walked till his feet were rubbed raw in his shoes.

He resigned. He went down to a sheltered part of the beach beneath a stone wall and with some good long grass. He had an excellent jacket and longjohns and wool socks. He put on both pair of socks and all his shirts and used his rolled up bag as head rest. Between physical and emotional distress Angelo had always had a clear preference. He’d rather be uncomfortable than emotional. This night tested him. He found himself focusing on the events that brought him out of America. It made the night seem less important. Made the voice, suggesting how to rate and deal with this event’s meaning, smaller.

By dawn he was so cold that he couldn’t feel his hands and feet or face, and he was happy to get up and try to walk himself dry of dew. The sunrise made everything good again. That was the beach’s major claim to national fame. There were many more people on the beach than there had been all the day before. Hundreds just around him. More foreigners now but still not many. When the sun started to light the sky he might as well as been alone. He didn’t see or hear anyone. Just the sky.

In that clean place he thought about Alex.

He couldn’t eat breakfast. He decided to get on the room problem early this time. He realized his mistake. It was Sam-il-jol, equinox weekend. And the town was filled with lovers and college students and families and business friends on teamwork building weekends and vacationing teachers and a good slice of the population of any town within a four hour drive. Angelo couldn’t find a room again. He quit trying after he felt his feet bleeding at the heels. He hoped some rooms might open up after dark. He went down to the beach. The sun was warming slowly but there was a bit of a wind till noon.

He had another good day doing the same things but without much walking. He took a long nap propped against an old dock piling. He had to change socks a couple of times because of his feet. He had a cup of tiny sea snails from one of the vendors along the beach road and watched the light change on the water at dusk.

He couldn’t bear to look further for a room. He asked someone for help. He wound up in a yo-in-suke. It was as dirty and as horrible as he’d expected. The space heater was broken. It put out more gas than heat into the windowless cubicle. Angelo turned it off after three useless trouble shooting sessions. The sleeping mat was worn thin and though it had been cleaned it was stained with sex and vomit.

He tried not to move as he was somewhat warm on one side if he didn’t. His mind was working out his real problems; thinking of home. Thinking about the right thing so much that his eyes wouldn’t close. He fell asleep as the winter sun was rising.

The a-ji-mah who ran the yo-in-suke woke him an hour after he fell asleep. He had no idea what she wanted. He was in a stupor. He picked up his bag and went to the beach. It was too cold to stop moving. His eyes were burning; one, quite painfully around the lid.

He went in a streetside restaurant that had heat. He ordered o-dang in soup. He tried to use the spoon. He couldn’t get it to his mouth before his shaking emptied it. He drank from the bowl and didn’t touch the o-dang. Its fishy smell was worse than any real fish and it made him queasy.

He had to head back home. Back on the bus. Back to work. Since it was a holiday it was going to be at least five hours going back. At least he could sleep.

At the ticket window in the station he said, “Suwon pyo han-jang ju-se-yo.”

“Mo-yo?” she said with her mouth hanging open.

He repeated it. She repeated it. He repeated it. She repeated it, as one syllable, “Mo?” which was pretty rude. The man behind Angelo was about to step around him to buy his ticket beside Angelo.

Angelo said, “Su–won. One,” and held up one finger and proffered the correct ticket price. She passed him his ticket. It was right. Normally he was complimented on his accent.

He bought some water and crackers and got on the bus. The first few miles were pleasure. The scenery, the peace of sitting down and the comfort of warm fingers and feet. It quickly turned into a typical bus ride in Korea. Every time he fell asleep he was woken; a cell phone, a kid screaming, cars laying on horns, an old lady yelling at the old lady sitting next to her to get her to look out the window, the bus driver’s Japanese trot tapes played much too loudly, his own sweat in the bus heat and humidity of human breath.

Getting off the bus in Suwon he tried to wave off a local JW passing out a sheep laden pamphlet. He said, “No, thank you, really. No, I don’t speak Korean, thank you. No, ani, han-gul-mal aneyo,” in that tone that was always there now; the hyperpolite; the unreal consideration for others whom he neither knew nor could possible owe deference. He wound up with the pamphlet in his hand, unable to even throw it away once around the corner. Corey had called this tone of his the icing. Well, specifically she had phrased once in this way: Ain’t that just the fucking pink icing on the shit cake. He only took that tone when he was already approaching what any remotely poetic psychiatrist would have to call in court a haze of killing rage. Therefore he had no response for her. It was enough to be able to sit down on the kitchen floor and pretend nothing mattered that much; love or anger. The real bitch was that now he himself was the only reminder of her. She’d left nothing physical behind that wasn’t combustible with a squirt of lighter fluid. In those first hours of decisiveness and packing he was ready to admit he had been the engine of their destruction. That was like him. But it was a mistake. It made many things too late. Four years later he managed some objectiveness about it. The final line was that hows really didn’t matter and the whys were unintelligible to everyone he’d ever talked to.

He was teaching mornings at Samsung and they had a cafeteria lunch for everyone. He enjoyed it. The food wasn’t the best but it was varied. He’d had more variety of Korean dishes there than in the restaurants around the hog-won. One day it was fried egg, jiang stew, rice, kimchee, Korean collar greens and jerked minnows. He ate with a couple of his best students. It wasn’t for them to practice English or Angelo to pick up Korean. Koreans never talked much at meals. Angelo just liked them. He lifted his smooth metal chopsticks with one hand put the egg on the rice and began to cut it up and stir it in. With his left hand he put hot go-chu powder on it and the soup. He picked up a spoon with his left hand and began curling the long water bean sprouts from the soup onto it to eat them cleanly. One of his students said something in Korean to another. They all looked at Angelo. Angelo understood the verb–they were talking about him eating. A moment later his student said, “I think you eat like a Korean.” Angelo said, “I love Korean food.” This was the most Angelo had said at their lunches in two weeks.

It was Monday night but he wanted to check mail and get some lessons together for the morning. The school was right next to the bus station.

Only Wally and Jasper were there when he walked in. Ms. Bae came in right behind him. He didn’t hear her on the stairs so he decided she was coming out of the bathroom. Jasper was always there, he expected that. But he wasn’t really happy to see the others either.

“Hi. What’s wrong?” she asked when she got around him.

“Nothing.”

“You look terrible.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean you look really tired.”

“I happen to be.”

“You should get some rest.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“What’s wrong with your eye?”

“Pink eye, I guess.”

“What’s that?”

“An infection.”

“Do you want to go to the doctor? I can take you.”

“No, it’ll be okay in two or three days.”

“Why are you here?”

“Just to check mail and grab my lesson plans.”

“No mail,” Wally said.

“Yeah, I saw.”

He went to his shelf. It was papered in Valentines and six word love letters. His cassette tapes held a pile of candy and lollipops from spilling onto the floor. There were three stuffed animals and two green glass jars, in the shapes of a heart and a star, filled with neon colored origami stars. There were six or seven cartoons of him ranging from silly to artistic.

He pulled off the books and blank sheets he’d need to do his plans. Ms. Bae stood behind him waiting for him to turn around.

When he did she said, “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” he said and followed her into the office.

“There’s a problem…”

“Okay.”

“The extra money that Mr. Kim said you could have. I think he’s changing his mind. Because of the Samsung situation and you know that the economy in Korea is having some problems. So, maybe, you won’t get the extra money.”

“Okay. No problem.” Angelo had worked a month of fifty-five hour teaching weeks—covering for a teacher who quit without a word and disappeared into private teaching in Seoul—on the condition that he received what amounted to almost time and a quarter. The fifty-five hours had been class time. He had put another two hours every night into getting the lessons together for it. He’d been given no curricula.

“I’m really sorry, Angelo, I tried to talk to him.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“But I’m really sorry and I want to make you understand.”

“It’s okay. I said, ‘It’s okay,’ and I meant it.”

“I can talk to him again if you want me to.”

“Okay. Don’t worry about it if it’s a problem.”

“But I want you to understand.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, you see, nowadays we have to look at how we hire and how we pay the teachers and Mr. Kim is thinking about moving some of the teachers into a house so that he can save some money. And the school is not doing so well.”

“Okay.”

“So you see?”

“Sure.”

“But I’m still sorry about it.”

“Okay.”

“So, how are you doing these days?”

“Fine. Just need some sleep and I’ll be perfect.”

“I think you are a really nice guy.”

“Thanks.”

“I think you are the nicest teacher here. But in my opinion you are always alone.”

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t mind.”

“You never have any problems.”

“I try.”

“Because all the teachers, they usually are complaining about something. The food or the telephone or the mail or the classes.”

“Well, I like it here.”

“That’s good. But you never talk. About anything, I think.”

“Nothing to say, really.”

“You know, the money. I never know if I’m explaining right. My English is not very good you know.”

“Your English is superlative. You know more idioms and expressions than any Korean I know.”

“Uh, I don’t think so.”

“You do. Ask anyone.”

“Well, because I don’t want you to be mad. If you want I could talk to Mr. Kim about it.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not mad.”

“I just want to make sure that you understand about how we must do things in Korea.”

“I understand,” he said. His voice didn’t crack or menace, it told the truth. She let him go then. He walked out of the office past Jasper who watched him go and Wally who didn’t look up out of his lesson plans.

His first week in Korea he had attacked a list of things that were going to make his life better. They were each right things to do; they were all solitary things. He was learning Korean. He was working out with a dilettante’s boken forgot by the yankee who had lived in his apartment before; the toy sword gave him splinters. He was reading a physics book and trying to do the problems at the ends of the chapters. He wasn’t sleeping with any of his students.

The right thing was the right thing. That was all there was. The ease of the right thing, however, was eluding him. The lack of ease in the right thing was making him mad. The madness was not making him opt for the wrong. The madness was making him lean toward the only alternative; the nothing.

Tuesday morning he came into school an hour before his first class so he could make some paper fish for a spelling game. He felt better with some sleep. His eye wasn’t bad at all. It felt worse than it looked but he knew it clearing up.

He checked the mail on his way in. It was the same as the night before. Just a couple of old news gazettes that had been in there for months. Children poured up the stairs past him. Calling his name, “Ain-juh-ro!” and touching his hands.

He checked the mail shelf upstairs. Maybe another teacher had brought up some letters. It was empty too.

Christi, Eric, Manfred, Jennifer, and Dexter were there at the big teachers’ table. One of the Korean teachers was there. It was cold. The little gas unit was cranked but someone had the windows open as usual. Angelo closed the windows.

He got a chair, put some of his class stuff together, and then went out in the stairwell to get some hot water to drink. He saw a group of his students playing up and down the stairs. One of the boys was pushing a girl who was trying to get up the stairs around him.

Angelo yelled, “Ha-ji-ma!” And they did stop. Angelo glared at him for a few seconds and then went back in the school.

He went to Miss Maeng’s desk to ask about the bus schedule for him to leave Samsung earlier. She looked behind him and said, “Oh my god.”

He turned and saw, through the glass door, the girl laying at the bottom of the stairs bawling, holding her head. He walked quickly out to the stairwell. Miss Maeng followed him. There were six kids standing wordlessly on the stairs looking at the crying girl. Angelo looked them and said, “Nu-gu ha-sumnida?” Four of them pointed at Hyun-ho.

Miss Maeng had scooped up the crying girl and walked her into the office to take care of her.

“Ya! Hyun-ho! Come here.” The boy stared at him, Angelo knew he understood him though. “Come here. Yogi o’a.” The boy came over. “I told you not to do that.”

The boy was twelve years old, Korean. He was ten and a half by a Roman calendar. He walked reluctantly then quickly to Angelo. This was the the third time in two weeks that Angelo had yelled at the boy for one thing or another. He had been lighting paper fires with the heater in class and he had been carving with a Swiss Army knife on his desk. Angelo had taken the knife and yelled at him but apparently that wasn’t getting it.

Hyun-ho stopped in front of him with his face down.

Angelo said, “Hands up.” Hyun-ho shook his head; not understanding, not wanting to. Angelo put his hands up in mime. Hyun-ho put his hands, palms up, before him. Angelo slapped them hard. The sound made the other kids in the hall jump. Hyun-ho grimaced. He shook his hands out. Angelo waited a moment, staring in the boy’s dry eyes, then said, “Okay, goodbye.” Hyun-ho shuffled off, blowing on his hands.

Angelo walked back in. Jennifer was hovering between the crying girl and the door.

“Angelo, what were you doing out there? I saw you hit that boy,” she said.

“His hands with mine, yes.”

“You can’t just hit kids.”

“That’s how it’s done here. Korean teachers use a stick. But I’ve seen broken blood vessels in palms from that. I use my hand so I know exactly how hard I hit them and I only do it once.”

“Are you nuts? Hitting kids? I don’t care what Koreans do, you should know better.”

“Koreans hit their kids because they love them.”

“Don’t give me that crap.”

“Okay.”

Everyone in the office was following along. Wally chimed in: “Spare the rod, spoil the child, eh?”

“No,” Angelo said, “Spare the justice, corrupt the will.”

“What?” he asked with one of his gestures that Angelo interpreted to mean he was trying to be funny.

“Forget it. I’m going to the supermarket. Anyone want anything?”

No one did. Angelo went to Miss Maeng’s desk first to see if the girl was okay. She wasn’t crying much now. Miss Maeng asked if she should call the boy’s parents. Angelo said no. He knew that could garner a beating if the boy had a traditional family.

He went outside. There were four girls and boys playing fighting tops on the freezing street surface. They mobbed him.

“Hey, Yoon-ju, where’s your homework?”

“It’s in my bag,” she said.

“You better have it in class or else.”

They followed him to the end of the street and let him go into the supermarket alone. He bought some chocolate, the first he’d had in a month, and some juice and ramen in a styrofoam cup.

Coming back out he found a couple of students playing by the road. The boy was stutter stepping into traffic between parked cars, playing with the girl, not watching the traffic. Angelo grabbed his pack and yanked him onto the sidewalk.

“Be careful,” he said. They boy stared at him with wide eyes.

The girl said, “Are you going to kill him?”

Angelo laughed. Her English caught him off-guard. He said, “No, he just has to be careful of cars.” She nodded and yelled at the boy in Korean.

As an act of purest optimism he checked the mail as he went back into school. Digging under the old stuff he found a letter addressed to him. It had probably been there since Friday, buried by another teacher. He recognized the handwriting. He held it to his chest for a moment, smiling with his eyes closed.

He ran up the stairs.

Christi saw the letter and said, “You got mail?”

“Yeah,” he said and folded it and put it in his shirt pocket.

“I never get mail. Do you have class now?”

“In an hour.”

“Aren’t you gonna read that?”

“Later.”

“How can you stand to wait?”

“Don’t know.”

“I couldn’t handle that. Why don’t you read it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because,” said Jasper, “Tagg’s better than you. He’s confident and happy in in his life. He doesn’t want this place to spoil his enjoyment of the letter. He’s waiting till he gets home and maybe takes a shower and has a beer and puts on a comfortable shirt and gets his feet warmed up. Because he’s better than you and me. Isn’t that right, Tagg?”

“I never said anything like that.”

“No, but he thinks it all the time. Don’t you?”

Angelo looked at Jasper. Jasper smiled.

“What’s the matter with you, Jasper?” asked Christi.

“Good mood is all.”

Angelo set his class stuff out and found some scissors in the other room. He got ready for class. His five kids’ classes went quickly that afternoon because he was ready for them. When he was prepared he was a better teacher and therefore his students were better. Everything was fun that way. Even little Yoon-ju had her homework for a change.

He went back down to the office from his last class. There was a two hour break for dinner and preparations for adult classes in the evening. He went digging behind Miss Maeng’s desk for a map of North America that he’d seen before.

He saw the coffee filter back there by all the tea stuff. It was a stand alone filter holder for making coffee a cup at a time. It was still steaming. He said to himself, I do believe I will have a cup of my good Seattle brew. His mood was arcing.

Then he could not believe what he was looking at. The bag in the can was empty. There were black specks against the bean-oil coated aluminum and in the corners of the bag inside it. He knew he was gonna scream. But that wouldn’t do it so he wouldn’t.

All the teachers were there; all five of the Korean staff and all eight of the occidental staff. His peripheral vision told him that most had coffee cups in front of them. That meant nothing in Korea. It could be tea, cola, or juice in any cup. He stared into the can. He could not believe it. He tried to look harder thinking the fault was his because he could not believe. The bag in the can was empty.

“I cannot…” he said. “I cannot… I can’t… for once this time. You know, I can’t… you make me do it and then it’s nothing…”

“What’s that?” asked Christi who was closest to him. “Are you talking to yourself again?” And she said it friendly too.

“Who,” he said loudly enough to stop all conversation, “is drinking coffee right now?”

“I am,” said Wallace and raised his hand without looking up from his lessons.

“You used the end of the coffee?”

“Yeah, I did. Sorry. I didn’t think about it.”

“You used the last of it. That cup was the end of the coffee. The bag was half full on Friday when I left. Half full.”

“You said we could all have some,” Wallace offered.

“Yes. Yes, I did. I said you could have some. Some. You finished it. You finished my Christmas can of Seattle coffee.”

“Use the grounds—they’re fresh—I just made this cup. I’ll make you a cup right now. Where’s your cup?”

“I don’t want a cup from grounds.”

“It’s just as good. They’re still fresh.”

“That’s not the issue, is it?”

“I’m sorry about it. I didn’t know it meant so much to you.”

“What?”

“Angelo–” Dexter started and then stopped when Angelo looked at him.

“I said I was sorry,” Wally said, “Look I’ll get you some more.”

“How are you gonna do that exactly?”

“Um, I’d rather not talk about this, this way. We should talk about this alone, okay?”

“No, it’s not okay. I asked you a question. You’ll do me the kindness of answering. How the fuck are you gonna get me more coffee from a shop in First Hill that you never even heard of?”

“Watch your mouth,” said Jennifer.

“Stay the fuck out of it,” said Angelo.

“Don’t speak to me that way.”

“You stay the fuck out of it!” Angelo said stabbing a finger at her.

“Hey, Angelo! Cut it out. This room is full of kids,” Eric said.

“You’re right about that much.”

Angelo put his things roughly on his shelf and walked out of the office. He went up to an empty classroom.

“What the hell is his damage?” asked Jennifer.

“Hey, don’t. He’s under a lot of stress,” Dexter said.

“From what I’d like to know,” Wallace said. Dexter threw up his shoulders because he was a good person. He’d rather pretend he didn’t know than explain it.

“Okay,” Eric said, “Fact is, you drank the last of his coffee. That’s like taking the last imported beer outta somebody else’s fridge. He was mood swinging like Tarzan there, but frankly what you did was plain old fashioned wrong.”

“Well, excuse me.”

“Ain’t got time for that duty,” Eric said.

The Korean teachers were talking in wounded tones about the same things in a much more polite Korean.

“I’m gonna go talk to him,” Eric said.

“Don’t. I’m telling you,” Dexter said, “You guys don’t know. Just leave him alone for the week and everything will be fine.”

“Somebody should talk to him,” Christi said, “See what’s up.”

“I agree,” said Eric.

“I’m telling you. Don’t do it. I really think it’s not a good idea.”

“He needs to have a chance to get it out. It’s hard for all of us here,” said Eric.

“And you’re gonna help him?” asked Dexter.

“Talking always helps.”

“Yeah,” said Jasper seriously, “Eric oughta go,” then chuckled to himself.

“Whew, be my guest,” said Dexter, “But I told you.”

Eric walked upstairs after Angelo.

It took a few tries to find the room. Angelo was huddled in the dark, under the blackboard, on the floor. The nine little halogen bulbs in the ceiling sparked on as Eric flipped the switch in the hall. The room was big enough to hold twelve student desks around the three walls in view of the blackboard. There was an air-conditioner side by side with the heater.

Angelo had his face down in his arms resting on his knees when Eric walked in.

“Hey,” Eric said, “You crying or what?”

“I fucking hate you all,” Angelo said flatly into his folded arms.

“Yeah, I know, bro’.” Eric sat down against the concrete under the board next to Angelo. Angelo didn’t look up.

“You think I’m kidding but you should just take it at face value and leave me alone.”

“I will if you tell me what’s really bothering you.”

“He drank the end of the coffee.”

“Yep. He did.”

“You all did it.”

“I had a cup myself yesterday. Some really good coffee.”

“It was mine.”

“I know. Where were you this weekend anyway?”

“What does it matter?”

“Just wondering.

“Leave me alone.”

“You still haven’t fessed up.”

“You want to know what’s bothering me?”

“Yeah, I really do.”

“Say it.”

“Say what?”

“Say, I really want to know what’s bothering you, Angelo.

“I really want to know what’s bothering you, Angelo. I really do.”

Angelo sat up. He hadn’t been crying; his eyes were bright and tight in the corners. He said, “I hate you. I hate being one of you. I hate being associated with you. I hate looking like you. I hate listening to you all talk about things you don’t know anything about. I hate being nice to you because none of you notices. I hate doing your work for you because you can’t do it right. I hate that I came six thousand miles to escape you and you’re all I see here. I hate the way things are done here. I hate the gossip. I hate the fact that North Americans always have to talk about everything. I hate the scheduling. I hate the way Koreans will do anything to avoid a fight. I hate the trash fires. I hate the way Koreans treat dogs. I hate the Canadians because they think they’re different. I hate the petty ethnocentrism that you all cling to. I hate your bad grammar. I hate the complete lack of privacy here as well as the lack of respect from you all who ought to know better. I hate that I’m going back to Washington in two months. I hate that everyone at home is just like you people. Small minded, bigoted, scared of their shadows, who believe that if you stick together in your stupefying routines you will achieve freedom from personal culpability. I hate your mysticism and your conclusion jumping and your fucking assumptions and your logic leaps about everything that you don’t know shit about. I hate your whining about the decisions no one forced you to make. Worst, I hate talking about it just barely more than I hate biting my tongue all goddamn day. I hate the fact that you’re all too thick to understand any of this and just leave me alone before it’s too late to stop.”

“…Stop what?” Eric was calm. His face was concerned.

Angelo rubbed his hands together and put them in his armpits.

“Did you draw straws to see who was gonna come up here?”

“Nope.”

“Well, you did it, okay? Your job’s done. You checked in on me. You can report in. None of the rest of you have to feel guilty now. You can hate me back. It’s better that way.”

“Hey, you’re the only one talking about hate.”

“You think I don’t know that!?” Angelo’s voice peaked for the first time. “You think I’m not aware that you find all this bearable while I don’t? You think I don’t mull this over at night before I can sleep?”

“I’m gonna go,” said Eric, standing up. “If you need to talk about any of this stuff or you want to tell me the rest of it. I’m around.”

Angelo went back to looking at the backs of his arms while Eric went to the door.

“Just one thing I forgot to say. Thanks for the cup of coffee, Angelo. I mean it. It was really good.”

“Don’t try to ease your conscience on me. Just go.”

“Really, Angelo. I’m sorry about it.”

“Yeah.”

“I did mean it. What’s right is right, Angelo.”

“What did you say?”

“I meant it about the coffee.”

“Not that.”

“What’s right is right.”

“Why did you say that?”

“I don’t know. Just sort of thought of it. I wanted to thank you for real. You were right to be mad.”

“Who told you to say that to me?”

“No one, Angelo, Jesus Christ.”

“Get out of here but now!”

“Christ, Angelo. You think about why I stood here and took this from you, huh?”

“Go ahead and try and turn it around so this is about you because in this moment, in the clarity of this moment, I know why; a lot better than you.”

“Jesus,” Eric said. He threw his hands up and walked out.

“And turn the fucking light out!” Angelo heard his foot steps coming back in the hall and the lights went out. The street light put Angelo in a square spot against the wall, under the heater.

“Way to back yourself into a corner, Tagg. You’re it,” he said to himself. It didn’t make him grin. He sat still. He ran his hands through his hair and heard paper crinkle in his pocket. He remembered the letter. It cheered him.

The street light was enough to read by. He opened the letter and started reading.

It was off a real typewriter. He had got through the first two pages of its six when he heard someone opening doors looking for him.

Christi came in without turning the light on. Angelo looked up at her and smiled. He’d always liked her. She was what she was. He’d even imagined being married to her one afternoon in a sleepy daydream on the school bus.

“Hey, man,” she said.

He had the letter hanging in one hand. He said, “They put OshKosh and Whisky both down. She was only fifteen. They’re still asking about the Park job. My mom got a letter for me.

“…Alex. Alex turned four. Four already, my God. I mean, I knew—I thought of little else that week—but seeing it in print…

“…Four.”

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah…”

“Who’s Whisky?”

“Dog food.”

“Huh?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Who’s Alex?”

“Something someone took away from me because I was doing the right thing.”

“Uh, I don’t get it, Angelo.”

“Doesn’t matter to the State of Washington or her mother, why should it matter in this little classroom in Korea?”

“You can tell me about it if you want. I’d like to hear,” she sat down in the teacher’s chair nearby.

“No… thanks.”

“We’ve all got problems, Angelo. We’ve all got pain and stuff we’re trying to deal with.”

“Yes, we do. He drank the end of my coffee.”

“I’m just telling you. Please relax. Everything is cool. Everybody here likes you a lot. And nobody really likes Wally. Man, he gives me the creeps. When he was a kid he was the one every other kid hoped their mom wouldn’t invite to their birthday. A couple of us told him off after you left. He’s gonna apologize to you for real.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Hey, don’t do that to me. I understand the way you feel. There’ve been about a hundred times I felt like doing what you did.”

“Really?” He asked without a shred of curiosity.

“Yeah, really. …You know, what you said downstairs was little over the top.”

“I suppose.”

“You ought to say something to Yoon-mee and Mrs. Bae. They’re really freaked out.”

“What do you want me to say to them?”

“Just something.”

“Like an apology or an explanation?”

“Whatever you can,” she said weakly.

“Apology means I wouldn’t do the same thing again. An explanation presupposes a receptive listener with some rudimentary ability to understand.”

“Angelo, why are you doing this? You’ve never been this way before.”

“As far as you know.”

“There’s got to be something else bothering you. I want to help if I can.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I like you.”

“Why?”

“You’re usually a great guy.”

“As far as you can tell.”

“Why are you doing this, Angelo? Just tell me, please.”

“How do you know it’s about anything past the coffee?”

“I’m not stupid.”

“Why do you need to know?”

“I care about you. We all do.”

“No you don’t.”

“That’s not fair.”

“You think—because you’ve been in the same rooms with me for some months—you know something about me. You don’t.”

“Sure, I do.”

“What’s my favorite color? …No? Have I ever had any broken bones? Have I ever been to Korea before? …Do I have any children?”

“No, you don’t.”

“You sure?”

“Of course I am. You’d be a great dad. Why in the world would you be here if you did?”

“That would be a very astute question to ask.”

“That’s not fair.”

“You’re right. None of that is fair. I could have hidden a million things from you. So here’s a question that you can answer. A simple, out in the open one to prove that you do care. What color are my eyes?”

She took a surreptitious glance but he had closed them already.

“They’re brown.”

“My hair is,” he said opening his eyes, “My eyes happen to be blue just now.”

“It doesn’t mean anything. It certainly doesn’t mean I don’t care.”

“Yeah, it does. You’re like everyone else. Too scared to look someone in the eyes even once and notice the smallest thing about them. Remember it, care about it, let it matter to you.”

“That’s stupid. Of course I care about you. That’s not a measure of caring. Ask me about the trip to Sorak-san. I remember that. I remember what you said then because I do care.”

“You think you do care because you feel pain. But pain and caring are not the same thing. Can’t you understand that? That caring and wanting to avoid pain are not the same thing. There is nothing important to you in life but your pain. And that is in fact the least important thing there is.”

“Well, maybe some of that is right but you’re the same. You don’t know me any better than I know you or care any better.”

He looked her up and down liked he’d never seen her before.

“I’m gonna go way out on a limb here,” he began, “When you were a kid your family moved around a lot. You had a special doll or toy or blanket that you always kept with you. You lost that blanket or whatever. You cried for almost two weeks. Is that close?”

“Yeah… that’s weird. How do you know that?”

“You wouldn’t believe it.”

“Try me.”

“It’s on your face, in your tone of voice, the little things you say sometimes. Because of who you are, something like that would have had to have happened to you sometime.”

“I’m a totally different person that when I was a kid. Even when I was a teenager.”

“No, you’re not,” he said.

“You don’t know that.”

“Okay, I don’t know. I didn’t know what I just told you. Just tell yourself it was a lucky guess and I don’t know what the hell I’m on about, huh. That we all change everyday and there’s nothing as permanent as an ideal, or an emotion that lasts longer than your hormones or gut or the weekend can sustain it.”

“I don’t get you.”

“Because I’m obvious.”

“That makes no sense,” she said, audibly wearing down.

“You remember when you lost this thing and you thought the world was ending? You’d never felt so much pain. Even the things that were done to you by others didn’t hurt as much as losing that thing of yours.”

“Stop it.”

“You thought the world was ending. Say it.”

“I don’t know. I was just a kid–what the hell are you trying to do to me?”

“The world wasn’t ending. Not even your little version of it. You’ve never lost anything. Pain is logarithmic, literally. Everything is relative. That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know. It’s not really your fault. It’s mine.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Christi. It’s what’s letting me do this to you.”

“So, who’s the letter from?”

“Oh, this? This. This is my exponent. …Get it?” He laughed. The sound was wildly deprecating.

She couldn’t find anything to match it. He wouldn’t stop. She knew she was about to cry. She walked out of the room then. He dwindled to a normal sounding chuckle.

He figured no one else was going to come talk to him. He drew in a deep breath and held it until there were white spots swimming in vision. He drew slow breaths quietly. He was getting warmer but his fingers were still stiff. He remembered the right things. He remembered the letter. He raised it up in the street light and read it all.


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