I'm a father on Saturday afternoons from twelve until two, at the rate of 15,000 Korean won an hour. My kids are Lou, 8, and Brian, 6. Lou is the cheeky precocious one who asks too many questions about my Friday nights, and Brian is the whiny sissy boy who is still too young to have any real talents besides crying and wetting his pants at the same time. My wife is Lee Ho-Geun. She puts the coffee on for me. And once in a while, she makes a mean bean paste stew.
Under the loose guise of teaching the kids English, I come over to the apartment and hang out for a couple hours. Sometimes we play chess, other times we play Chinese chess. But in all the times I have been there, I have never once seen their father. I don't imagine they see much of him, either. So far as I know, he has not left his plexiglass bank telling chamber ... bank telling, telling banks ... since the Lee Family Ski Trip last December.
It's Saturday. My alarm - this time, "Eye in the Sky" by Alan Parsons Project - startles me into a confused sort of awakeness. After three hours of sweaty sleep with a tornado tearing up my stomach, I have difficulty re-locating the Lee apartment, though I've been there maybe fifteen times. I am lost in the Korean morass of rectangles and squares. I finally straighten out the numbers in my mind - building 206, room 503 - climb the five flights of stairs, tidy my hair in the peephole reflection, dial the security code, 3, 2, 7, um, 2? ... The wife pops out and tells me to take the kids to the park and teach them how to play basketball, in English.
The three of us bring a sad collection of deflated spheroids down to the sandlot between apartment buildings. I dazzle them with a few missed layups and a series of airballs from behind the three point line. Then, I rebound while they granny shoot at the hoop. The only things they're managing to hit are each other. Enthusiasm wanes and our shoot-around dissolves into a soccer-like sport where we're punting the basketball around, and then we're just drop-kicking assorted deflated spheroids at the backboard. We experiment briefly with dodgeball, but the ball is so light, the wind so strong, the kids so weak that it feels like we're playing on the moon.
We get fished into a pickup soccer game with the usual neighborhood riffraff, The Kid With The Prominent Earlobes, The Kid With What Seems Like Nine Fillings, The Kid With Five Dimples Minimum, The Bob Hope Kid ... I am drafted in the first round by The Prematurely Balding Kindergartener, who strikes me at first glance as a shrewd and loyal general manager to be playing for, someone with experience. Brian is on my team. Lou winds up on the other team. The family has been divided.
The other team takes a commanding three to nothing lead early on, partly because The Bob Hope Kid is a juggernaut, partly because the ball is bigger than our goalie, partly because our lone defenseman, Choe Seong-Ook, is sulking and throwing sandballs at the ground. Lou gets cranky and demands that I stop going easy, so I humor him and do some trotting around in circles. I refuse to take any shots on goal. Legitimately trying to score goals in pick-up soccer games against kindergarteners makes you a pervert.
I try to suspend my disbelief and get caught up in the game, but my imagination doesn't fire me up the way it used to when I was ten, when the kids on the other team – whether best friend, churchy kid down the street, unibrowed heir to a local vacuum repair empire – in their striped rugby shirts and dusty Starter jackets, in the flurry of elbows and name-calling, took on suddenly evil hues. Those transmogrifications don't happen today. They are just little kids and I'm their big lumbering servile oaf, an oaf who gets rebounds, shags balls, climbs fences to retrieve things that have been thrown or kicked too far, an oaf who can't move one way or the other without crushing the tiny humans scuttling between his legs, an oaf who is drawing a crowd of ogling fans, who is feeling like a real sicko in doing something wholesome for once. While the kids chase each other around, the oaf stands at midfield, arms akimbo, casting a small Forrest Gump shadow in the early afternoon sun, waiting for a cleared ball to come his way so he can pass it to someone smaller than him.
The score is seven to two, them. A duststorm has kicked up and the game seems to be winding down due to mutual exhaustion when a skirmish breaks out. I decide to be cute and, reaching into my pocket as I trot towards the squealing mass, I produce an off-yellow bus pass, roll my tongue in a high pitched mock whistle, and stand there officiously holding the bus pass up in the air, hoping my idiocy does not go unnoticed. Lou glances up and smiles nervously, nudges his friend, hey, hey, get a load of this big creepy foreigner my mom makes me hang out with, and then there's a scream as The Prematurely Balding Kindergartener knocks Brian to the ground and pounces on top, clawing with both hands at Brian's face.
Brian fights back, grabs both of Baldy's cheeks and yanks down as hard as he can. Baldy punches him in the neck. Brian screams and spits upward, but the spitwad comes splattering down on his forehead, so he screams louder. I grab Baldy by the shirt collar and pull, looking around, hoping some nearby Korean adult will be drunk enough to intervene ...
... but the bystanders have cleared out and it's just me and these little kids on a deserted playground, surrounded on all sides by 14-story apartment buildings but completely alone. Brian and Baldy are both bleeding from the eyes. Every time I manage to subdue them, one dashes past me and roundhouse kicks the other in the chest. Taekwondo. I scream, "Stop, stop, stop," but my voice comes out weak, the sound waves dissipate instantly, scattered by the wind.
Baldy's face is flushed purple and caked with orange, somebody's blood. He's kicking Brian in the gut, trying to rip Brian's face off like a mask. I grab them both by the arms and pull. I am amazed at how tiny and fragile they are, and yet they overpower me, I can't make them stop, though I stomp, bellow, belt out sermons ... Sons of South Korea, peace be upon thee! Peace be upon thy greenish-brown heavily militarized peninsula overflowing with soju and kimchi! Peace be upon thee, ye corporate supermen of the future! Ye aspiring Woori Bank bank tellers! Ye Samsung Life Insurance life insurance brokers! Thy destinies grin sadistically at thee! Fourteen-hour school days! Drunken sexcapades in dimly lit karaoke rooms! Two Starcraft channels! And lo, one day at the end of the rainbow, feathered fedoras and hiking! Nay, drunken hiking! ... but to no avail. They are determined to kill each other, these two six year-olds, calling each other fucking sons of bitches in the sort of Korean that even I understand.
In the swirling dust, the flailing arms, the loogies ... I experience a flashback: grade four, John Beckett brings his yellow hamster, Peaches, to school ... decides Peaches really ought to mingle with the reddish hotdog-shaped class hamster ... drops Peaches into the cage ... in a flash the two furballs are one ... it's a moment before we realize they are tearing each other to shreds ... John, a classic Steinbeck Lenny if you knew the guy, miraculously pries the hamsters apart without crushing either of them in his meaty paws ... but it's too late ... when he holds Peaches up to the light, the critter's right eyeball is dangling out of the socket ... a sad little black circle, like the pupil of a plastic googily eye ... Peaches is trembling with what appears to be hamster rage, but is completely silent, no squeaking or anything ... Johnny's crusty lips tremble, these big blue bags well up under his eyes, he starts to weep ... Peaches, look what he done to Peaches ...
I separate the kids at last. Lou has pinned down Baldy. Brian has collapsed and is weeping into a tree trunk. Their faces are smeared in blood.
"Go home," I tell Baldy. "We go home, you go home."
He's staring, fascinated with the blood on Brian's face, like he wants to make more of it.
"I am big," I say, "you are small. Go home."
Baldy is unfazed, but Brian gets up and tearfully tromps home. Baldy spits in Lou's face and kicks out of the pin, gets to his feet. He charges and tries to tackle Lou, but I fend him off with a basketball. Then, with a strange Van Damme-esque "get into the chopper" sideways head toss, I gesture for Lou to go home. Lou disappears around the corner and then - truly strange - it's just me standing there in this empty sandlot, aiming a basketball at a bloody child who is glaring at my torso like he wants to fight it.
"Hey. Go home."
When I get there, Lou is waiting for me in front of apartment building number 206.
"See you next time," he says, waving.
"Should I come up to check on Brian?" I ask. "He seemed, um, bleeding."
"No, that's okay," Lou says, "but thank you for help in fight. Now I sleep."
A nap sounds good. I give Lou the victory sign and walk home. The clouds have snuck in and it's suddenly cold. The tail end of my coat keeps kicking up in the wind. High school girls float by in their black uniforms - crows or nuns, pick or choose - giggling at me as I pass, spitting out phrases like "Where are you prom?", "I'm pine thank you and you", and "Puck you". Giggling, giggling, giggling. I give them the peace sign. As I walk, sucking on the right corner of my moustache, "Get Together" by The Youngbloods plays in my mind, and this fades neatly into "Everybody's Talkin'" by Harry Nilsson as I'm coming up the stairs to my apartment.
There's a note on my door from The Bostonian, who I have been unintentionally but not accidentally avoiding since he and The Torontonian cremated that cat a few weekends ago. He wants to know where I've been. I shrug to myself. Where have I been?
If I could have any superpower, or if there is any superpower I suspect I may already have, it's obscurity.