Things That Disappear (an excerpt)

June 13, 2023
translated by Tamina Hauser

A photograph taken from over the shoulder of a man driving a car
Photo by Why Kei / Unsplash

Jung’s Yong-jun’s short story “Disappearing Things,” from his collection A Walk along Seoulleung, won the Moonji Literary Award in 2019. The story’s protagonist, Seong-soo, lost his young daughter in a terrible accident. After that, his life became full of unknowns. The one thing he knows is that his mother, who declares to her son, “I decided to stop living,” will not change her mind. The story, excerpted here, begins with mother and son setting out on an impromptu trip to Ganghwa Island. 

Sitting in the lounge on the second floor of Gimpo Airport, I watched the people walking by. An old man wearing a mustard-green golf cap, dragging a silver suitcase; a couple walking side by side, passports in hand; a young man with a shoulder bag; a flight attendant heading to the food court for a late meal; a janitor constantly mopping an already-clean floor; and security guards patrolling in regular intervals. I sat upright, wearing a gray suit with a blue tie said to make a good first impression. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” How should I answer if someone asked me this? I checked my phone countless times to see if it was set on vibrate or silent mode. It was exhausting and distressing to wait for a call from someone I can’t schedule a meeting or get in contact with. He just kept saying he was busy, and repeated the same words in a polite tone whenever I did manage to get in touch:

“Don’t worry. It’s a done deal. Just be patient.”

I believed him. I had to, but I wonder how many of my competitors heard the same. After quitting my job, I created a CCTV system unrivaled in terms of performance and price. Although it doesn’t have the backing of a famous brand, it’s definitely an attractive product, considering its economic feasibility and effectiveness. Several companies contacted me, and I got an opportunity to bid for its use at the newly built airport. I hadn’t taken on the challenge recklessly. The concerned party had suggested it first. However, right before we sealed the deal, their behavior became strange. Starting with a request to lower the unit price even more, they made ridiculous demands, and now they keep beating around the bush. Were they testing my patience? Was it fun to do that?

I’d been going to work at the airport for months, though no one had asked me to. A job with no desk, no co-workers, and no pay.

I pictured people like me who believed those words, because they had to, wearing suits and sitting in hard chairs for hours. Like me, they’d be carrying a thick binder under their armpits, staring straight ahead. I’d been going to work at the airport for months, though no one had asked me to. A job with no desk, no co-workers, and no pay. How much longer could I keep this up? I could get by for a month or two by slowly eating away at my severance pay, but eventually it’ll run out, and when that happens I might regret it, thinking I should have opened a convenience store or fried chicken restaurant instead. I just sat here with a blank look, all sorts of rubbish piled up at my feet. Prospects. Expectations. Foreboding. Imagination. A future filled only with doom and gloom. At that moment, my phone rang. Not the call I’d been waiting for. My momentary disappointment when I saw the caller ID immediately turned to fear. The anxiety and worry I’d been suppressing spread in my heart. I held the vibrating phone in my hand, took a deep breath, and answered the call.

“Seongsu, what are you doing?”

“I’m working.”

“When do you get off? Will you work late?”

How should I answer? And also, why was she asking me that?

I couldn’t grasp the true emotions buried in my mother’s voice. But I could tell her tone was different from usual. That she hadn’t just called to ask how I was doing.

“I’ll be done soon. Why?”

“Umm,” Mom said, stalling for time, “I want to go to Ganghwa Island. Could you take me there? . . . I just wanted to ask.”

“Ganghwa Island? Why?”

“I want to go. And see the sea.”

So why? I wanted to ask, but it seemed she’d just say, “Never mind” and hang up. With a calm voice, I asked:

“Where are you? At home?”

“Seonyudo Park.”

Why there? I wanted to know, but instead said I’d be there soon.

On my way to see my mother, I kept making mistakes. I took a wrong turn, arriving twenty minutes later than expected, hit the brakes too often, and went too slow in the first lane. The driver of the lorry behind me kept blazing his headlights, then roughly overtook me, opened the window, and swore at me. I didn’t hear what he said and didn’t feel bad. I was so beside myself. I kept thinking about what my mother had said last week. My thoughts were jumbled and my heart uneasy. What should I say when I saw her? Should I persuade her? Get angry? Or just play dumb?

I could guess the weather based on the tip of her nose and her cheeks, which had turned red.

Mom was standing at the Seonyudo Park bus stop on top of Yanghwa Bridge. She had a polka-dotted scarf wrapped around her neck and mouth, and a khaki wool cap covering her thin, sparse hair. She was wearing black boots and a thick coat reaching down to her ankles. In her left hand was a large bag. Greeting me brightly with the words “Thank you, Son,” she got in and sat down next to me. I could guess the weather based on the tip of her nose and her cheeks, which had turned red. Turning the heater up, I asked:

“Why Seonyudo Park?”

“I told you I’ve been wanting to go. When I was vacuuming this morning, I wanted to go somewhere. Then I remembered this place. It’s also in Seoul. If you take a taxi, it’s right there. I came because there was no reason not to go. Why, is that wrong?”

“No, not wrong per se, but it’s cold.”

“You said you’d take me. Then changed your mind, saying there was nothing special there.”

“So was it nice?”

Mom laughed softly. Her slightly drooping left eyelid seemed to be drooping more now.

“Nothing special. I shouldn’t have come in winter. It’s too cold.”

* * *

Olympic Boulevard was blocked in both directions. The car in front struggled to get into the express lane, signaling and hesitating for over a minute. The brake light flickered on and off like an emergency signal. I got annoyed, as if my mother was responsible for all of this.

“If you wanted to go on a trip, you should’ve told me earlier. What’s with Ganghwa Island and Seonyudo? You called so suddenly.”

“You should’ve told me you were free. I thought you wouldn’t have time because of work.”

“If you knew I wouldn’t have time, you shouldn’t have called.”

Having said that, I shut my mouth. A few words were enough to make me angry. I didn’t want to, but I kept nagging. I didn’t want to be annoyed but kept getting emotional. I thought I’d continue berating her if I opened my mouth, so I turned on the radio. A song I didn’t know was playing. Mom looked out the window, repeating how happy she was that her son was taking her to Gwangha Island. We stared out the windows, listening to people whose faces we couldn’t even make out laughing and chatting among themselves. My mother’s words from last week lingered in my ears. Even if I pretended not to hear them and focused on the sound of the radio, the words kept piercing me like an awl.

“I decided to stop living.”

Translation from the Korean

Korean author Jung Yong-jun began his literary career with the short story “Good Night, Oblo” (굿나잇, 오블로), for which he received the 2009 Hyundai Literature Prize for New Writers. A Walk along Seoulleung, a collection of short stories, is considered a new turning point in Jung’s world of art. His short story “Disappearing Things,” contained therein, won the Moonji Literary Award in 2019.

Tamina Hauser is a translator and editor based in South Korea, currently enrolled at LTI Korea’s Translation Academy. In 2020 she won the LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators with her German translation of the short story 파묘 (“Grabauflösung” [Gravedig]), by Hwang Jung-eun. As part of the 2022 ALTA Emerging Translators Mentorship, Tamina is working on an English translation of Bak Solmay’s full-length novel Future Walking Rehearsals.