My Mourning Commutes with Mr. Kang (Part 1)

This morning started just like any other. I ran out the front door of my apartment with a slice of buttered toast hanging on my lips. My hefty backpack swung wildly as I jogged to the car waiting out front. I imagined my driver was chuckling as he always did. After 11 months, I was still always a bit late.

I threw my bag in the back and smiled at Mr. Kang’s crinkled eyes in the rear view mirror. He was a happy old man, but a bit too far gone to be working as much as he did. Aside from his distinct smell and general confusion, there was no end to the amount of random crap I would find in his car. Since our commutes began, I’d encountered heaps of treasures like piles of broken toaster ovens, mounds of stained documents three reams high, stacks of bowler hats, bouquets of dead flowers… The list goes on. But aside from his quirks, we enjoyed each other’s company, and I got some fun stories out of our strange time together.

Mr. Kang’s 3 GPS’s simultaneously shouted directions at him. After nearly a year, he still used all three to get me to the exact same building he’d always driven me to. He looked down, mumbled something to himself, and we were off.

I looked out over the swaying rice fields and bright blue sky as we drove. It was a perfectly crisp autumn morning. Today was the first day that fall had really settled in South Korea, and I’d been missing that nip in the air. I thought back to my home in Boston, and dreamed about finally going back in late October. Only 2 more weeks of classes until the end of my contract, and I was set to return to the busy city, with its harbor boats and a home that smelled of spiced cider and homemade brownies.

I didn’t realize how wide I’d been grinning at the thought until I caught my reflection in my phone. I shook off the wistfulness and pulled out my schedule to begin planning my English lessons for the day.

I stopped rifling through my papers after a minute or so. The car was unnaturally quiet today. Usually, it was filled with Mr. Kang’s lengthy one-sided conversations. 99% of what he said was usually lost on me. I’d been studying Korean since I’d arrived last year, but that was hardly enough to keep up with his rambles. He never seemed to mind, though, and I didn’t have the heart to ignore him. Hundreds of commutes later, I’d perfected my simple nods and smiles to encourage his monologues. Regardless of language barrier, I’d like to think it helped him to have an ear. It made me happy too, watching him talk and imagining what he was telling me.

We’d just come back from a long vacation for Korean thanksgiving, so I was expecting loads of stories to fill up the day’s hour-long commute. But today was different. Mr. Kang’s usual, excitable self felt solemn. His shoulders were rigid, and I caught his gaze darting away every time our eyes met in the mirror. He looked disturbed.

“Are you okay, Mr. Kang?” I asked.

The car jerked a bit to the right. I glanced back to look for an obstacle in the road — nothing was there. Mr. Kang’s knuckles were white on the wheel.

“I’m okay, thank you.” His voice was shaky.

“Are you sick?” I asked. I searched through my backpack for some stray Advil. “I have medicine.”

“No thank you,” he muttered. His head snapped to the right as he stared towards the passenger’s seat for almost 30 seconds, his eyes unwavering. My palms grew sweaty as I looked from him, to the road, and back again. I was about to ask him to turn back when he reached over to his glove compartment and snapped the latch.

The little door opened so fast that it nearly snapped off its hinges. All at once, dozens of squishy… things spilled out onto the floor, covered in some brackish brown goo. Mr. Kang gasped and tried to scoop them back up, his hands completely leaving the wheel. The car accelerated and slowly started drifting over the median line.

“LOOK OUT!!” I screamed, my heart pounding as I desperately clung to my bag. Mr. Kang looked back at me, then spun to the wheel and jerked us back into our lane. My body was thrown into the car door, my head slamming into the window. A sharp pain shot through my temple, blurring my vision. I tried to shake it off and looked out of my window at the scenery whirling past. I didn’t realize that the oncoming produce truck had been laying on its horn until the sound was drifting off behind us. We must have missed it by inches.

Our car flew faster and faster down the country road. “Please, stop! Please!” I yelled, too shocked to think of the words in Korean. “Mr. Kang, please!”

Mr. Kang’s widened eyes bored into me from the rear view mirror. The world continued to rush by faster as he started babbling a slew of Korean at me, faster than ever. The only thing I understood was his final phrase:

“I’m sorry.”

His arms violently spun the wheel to the right. Horrified instinct made me curl down and hug my legs as tight as I could. For a moment, I felt the ground disappear from under the wheels, until we crashed down hard against the earth. Debris battered my back as the car rocked and tore forward. Horrible snapping sounds drowned out my own screaming, and for a while, those were the only sensations I registered. I cried out for help, for anyone. I was sure I was going to die.

It took me a long while to realize our momentum had come to a full stop. I’m not sure how long I had been sitting there. The thing that hit me first was the rancid smell of something rotten. My breath still came in heaves as I clutched my backpack. All I heard was my own breath and a gentle rustling outside my window. I opened my eyes.

The first thing I saw was the goop from the glove box smeared all over my shoes. A few of the squishy objects laid at my feet — I realized now that they were rotten persimmons. The stench combined with the journey and the head wound was beyond nauseating, but my adrenaline lifted my head higher. That’s when I saw Mr. Kang’s body lying there, only a few inches from me. His head lolled at an unnatural angle, snapped back towards me. A tiny, bloody tear ran down his wrinkled forehead from the corner of his wide, unmoving eye.

That’s when I threw up.

I jerked my car handle and was knocked back by a flood of water rushing through the door. The shock of cold sent me reeling before I fumbled for my seatbelt lock, then rolled out into the open water.

A dark part of my brain recognized the irony. Part of me always knew I’d die in the water, seeing as I’d never learned how to swim. Luckily, I was able to find the ground with my toes, jutting my chin above the water, and made my way over to a pile of green, oblong stones about 10 feet away. I clambered up onto the lowest in the stack and sat. Strange fibers on the stones tickled my legs as I brought them up from the water. I did my best to regulate my breath as I looked back and up towards the sky.

Or, at least, where the sky would be. In its place, the source of the loud rustling sounds came into full view. Even if I didn’t believe what I was seeing, they were unmistakeable — stretching towards the clouds, gigantic stalks of green and tan rice plants. The stalks were big as tree trunks, bending to and fro in the wind that blew through the ripening plants.

A large plop startled me from behind, followed by another, and another. Grains of rice, half my size, falling into the water of the paddy beneath me. Not stones I’d climbed onto, then — gigantic grains of rice.

Never in my life have I ever been as overwhelmed as I was in that moment. Everything had shifted so quickly that I didn’t have time to process much of anything. Maybe a lifetime of video games prepared me for the fantastical, or maybe the human mind can truly suspend that much disbelief when push comes to shove. But everything in me told me to take a deep breath, accept all that I was seeing, and simply move forward.

Wherever I was, I had to get out.

I took stock of the surrounding area. The car was crooked and propped against a stack of earth, now completely filled with water. I thought of Mr. Kang still strapped in the driver’s seat…

I swallowed and looked elsewhere. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but plants and water. Moving through the water was going to be quite the trick. If the “scale” of everything was correct, I suppose, getting out of the rice paddy would be a hell of a feat. If I was any sort of athlete, I would have considered climbing a stalk to get a higher vantage point, but those falling rice grains had a long trip down… I couldn’t risk it. I could always go back to the car and search for anything useful, but the thought of even looking back at it churned my stomach. It was too overwhelming.

Through the thick rustling of the plants, a small, piercing cry emerged.

A second later, it grew louder. And louder.

A harsh, wailing sound of a human. The sound of a small child. A boy. Here, in this place with me.

His cries turned to screams that grew louder and more desperate. It was a painful sound, but it was one of something alive, and that was all that mattered in that moment. I looked down at the water around me and saw a ripening rice grain, green and fuzzy, drifting past my perch. I zeroed in on the cry directly east, then leapt onto the floating grain and hoped. The fibers scratched at my arms as I dipped into the water. Bubbles drifted up as I cried out below the surface, but soon I’d bobbed up and into the air again. The cries were straight ahead of me now. I gritted my teeth and kicked as hard as I could.

Progress was slow and horrifying as I propelled myself forward. A few times, the wind blew so hard that ripples in the water forced me back. I shrieked and narrowly avoided giant falling rice grains around every corner. But I kept kicking, yelling as loud as I could in response, “I’m coming! Hold on!”

Eventually, I rounded a small stalk to see a boy perched on another small pile of rice grains. His cries seemed endless, my ears physically in pain now from the proximity. “Hello! Hello!” I yelled.

I kicked up to the base of the rice pile and scrambled my way up the sides. I struggled to get purchase on the slick grains with my cold-numbed hands and feet, when the cries suddenly stopped. A small hand extended down towards mine. I looked up to see the boy’s face, streaked with tears, staring down. I grabbed his hand and made my way up to the top of the rice pile.

I plopped next to his small frame, drenched and shivering. He looked up at me behind a mess of shaggy black hair and put his arms around me, rubbing my back and shoulders to help me get warm.

I couldn’t help but chuckle through my chattering teeth. “I’m okay, sweetheart, thank you.” He warmed me up for a bit longer before he returned to sit, sniveling by my side. I struggled to take in the sheer smallness of him.

“Are you okay?” I whispered. In hindsight, I guess my question was a strange one, given where we were. But I’m only human — it was all I could think to ask.

He paused. “I’m not okay,” he said. “I’ve been stuck here for so long.”

“It’s okay, honey. I’m here.” I reached my arms around and rubbed his tiny shoulders. I wasn’t sure if he was speaking English or if I was speaking Korean, but we understood each other perfectly.

“Why are you stuck here?” I asked.

He looked down at his hands, his hair falling into his face. “I made my mom and dad so mad. I was supposed to save the fruit for our friends and for presents. But I just wanted to try one…” His lip quivered as he reached into his pocket, and pulled out a bright orange persimmon.

“I had just a little bit, and then my mom found out. She got really angry. Then when dad came home, mom lied and said she ate it. Then he got even more angry than mom did.” My throat tightened as I noticed the shades of purple and yellow peaking over the collar of his T-shirt. I loosened my grip on his shoulders.

“My mom was really sad. So, she threw her ring out into the farm. But later I saw her crying and looking for it, so I thought maybe she wanted it back, and…” He pointed ahead at a small glimmer between the swaying reeds. A large, shining band of silver and gold peaked out from beneath the surface.

“I finally found it. But I’m not strong enough,” he cried, wiping his eyes. “I thought I could help her. But I’m too small. I can’t pick it up.”

“Don’t say that,” I whispered, wiping the hot tears from my own cheek. “Hey there, listen to me — I’m here now, okay?”

I brought a hand to the boys cheek and turned him towards me. “You did so good! You needed help, so you yelled, and you yelled loud. So loud, that I knew exactly where to find you to help. You did a great job. You really did.”

He sniffled, and nodded.

“We’re gonna go get that ring, okay? Come on.”

I grabbed the boy’s hand and helped him down the stack of rice. “What’s your name?”

He took a big breath. “Sung Jin.”

I chuckled. “One of my students has that name. It’s a good one.” I shook the hand I was holding. “Nice to meet you, Sung Jin. I’m Fiona.” I smiled. He nodded.

“Look how cool this is, huh? It’s so big!” I gestured to the ripening rice grains. “You could have just one grain of rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Isn’t that crazy?”

“Yeah…” The boy smiled just a little, rubbing his eyes.

I grinned back, as wide as I could muster in the moment. “Now here’s what we’re going to do, Sung Jin. You get to ride on my shoulders, and we’ll bounce and bounce our way over to the ring, okay? Then, once we get there, we’re going to puuuull that ring right out of the water. And then you’re gonna give it to your mom, and she’s gonna be so happy, isn’t she?”

Sung Jin nodded emphatically, his eyes set on the gleam in the distance. On the count of three, I hoisted him up to my shoulders, held his hands, and hopped down into the frigid autumn water.

The water level rose higher as we edged closer, rising to just below my lips. I did my best to steady my shaking limbs. The ring was almost within reach.

“Okay Sung Jin,” I said through chattering teeth, “We’re gonna go over and get that ring. You stay up in this perch by the reeds, and I’ll go underwater to the other side. As soon as you get there, you start pulling, okay? You pull as hard as you can.”

There was a pause for a moment, before he released his right hand and stuck a thumbs-up in front of my face. I laughed, straining away from the water. I took a deep breath. “Okay, ready? One, two… three!”

Sung Jin released my hands and tilted forward as I stuck my face into the frigid cold water. For a moment, my body tensed in the cold, completely motionless. It took all of my might to force my legs to kick until I reached the base of that twinkling ring. I blinked up to see Sung Jin just starting to pull. I grasped the bottom of the ring, dug my heels into the soft earth below, and pulled…

But nothing happened. Not a budge. I let an air bubble go as I tried to dig deeper, pulling upwards as hard as I could, but it was stuck hard. The effort left me struggling for air, so I kicked upwards towards the surface… but nothing moved.

I glanced down to see my feet stuck ankle deep in the clay-like soil. Panic shot through me like lightning, my air escaping even faster as I desperately yanked on my legs. The cold was weakening me by the second. My lungs were already deflated and pained. I tried to reach up through the water towards Sung Jin, but he was gone from his perch above the ring.

All at once, my panic turned to hopelessness. For the second time that day, I was sure I was going to die.

As my eyes began to close, a dark shadow appeared from behind me. Two small arms wrapped around my own. At first, they were as small as Sung Jin’s, grasping the backs of my forearms as I held onto the ring. But as quickly as they appeared, they began to morph. The shadow behind me grew larger as my back pressed against a figure now larger than mine. The palms and fingers and forearms of those tiny arms grew until they swallowed my own, grasping the ring around my hands with an immense strength.

I felt the small pop of the huge ring as it released from the thick soil. I looked up at the figure behind me, his face spread into a strong, familiar smile, as he pushed up and off of the ground. His head crested the surface as we carried the ring up, and up, and up…

I gasped, sputtering through the surface of the water… and was no longer in the water at all. I threw my arms to my sides in search of Sung Jin or the ring, and hit something hard on my left with my knuckles. I recoiled back and focused to see the black interior of a car. Mr. Kang’s car.

I opened the car door and practically threw myself out onto the asphalt to take in my surroundings. It was warm. We were in front of my teaching building. I was on the familiar street at my teaching site, surrounded by familiar buildings. I was completely proportional in size to my perfectly normal surroundings.

I looked at the car — not a single scratch on it. No trace of the horrible rotted fruit, and not even a trace of Mr. Kang — the driver’s side was empty. All I found inside was my backpack and a single fresh persimmon, resting on the right back seat. In the rush, I hadn’t even noticed my right hand still balled into a fist. I opened it to find a small, delicate, silver and gold ring.

It was then that I realized once more: when the brain is overwhelmed with too much information to process, it simply doesn’t process anything. It functions on muscle memory, and kicks into overdrive to simply carry you forward from one point to the next. And after all that I saw — still shivering from water that wasn’t there, still feeling the grasp of hands that didn’t exist — all I could notice was that it was 9:50 in the morning, and my first class started at 10. So I simply grabbed my backpack, shut the car door, and walked into my building to start the day.

The next 7.5 hours were as much of a blur as the first 2 had been. I know my students were concerned about my far-off stare and total lack of charisma, but I did the best I could. I checked that ring on the windowsill more often than I blinked, just expecting it to disappear in front of my eyes.

“Hello, teacher! Last student of the day!” my student called, opening the front door.

“Yes, come in,” I mumbled, my eyes still trained on the window sill. I turned back to flip open my student report book when I stopped dead in my tracks. The student pulled out his chair and took his seat across from me. His tousled black hair was lightly spiked at the front, his cheeks rosy above the wide, toothy grin that spread across his face.

“Sung Jin.”

“Hello. How was your holiday? Did you have good time?” he smiled.

“Sung Jin,” I said, still looking into his eyes. I stood up from the table and shuffled over to the window sill.

“Teacher? Are you okay?”

I picked up the ring, walked back over to the desk, and held it out in front of me. “Is this..?” I looked up at him.

Sung Jin’s eyebrows furrowed as he glanced at me, then down at the ring. His eyes grew wide as he gasped. He leaned forward.

“Where… Can I see?” he whispered.

I handed him the ring, watching his eyes mist over as he took it from my hand. He turned it back and forth in his palm and studied every detail of it. A tear trickled down his cheek that he quickly swept away with his wrist.

“Where…” he struggled to find the English. “Where did you find? Why me?”

My breath caught in my throat for a moment. “I… found it. In the parking lot. Is it yours?”

He shook his head in disbelief. “I… it is mine. It is very important.” After a long pause, he smiled up at me. “I have not seen in so long.”

He closed his hand around it and shut his eyes. “Soon, I am get married. I will be so happy to give to my fiancée. This special ring.”

I reached over and placed my hands over his, not caring for the tears that rolled down both of our cheeks. “She will love it,” I said.

Without a word, Sung Jin pulled his hand from mine, and stuck a thumbs up in front of my face. I laughed harder than I should have. He looked a bit confused, but was too distracted by his good fortune to care. I figured it would be too hard to explain — especially since I didn’t understand it myself. With a last smile, Sung Jin ran out the door, dialing a number on his phone as he went.

I took my other driver’s car home at the end of the day. Part of me was relieved to no end that I only saw Mr. Kang in the mornings. But most of me was dying to see him waiting there, just to know that he was… still here. I spent the majority of my ride home fighting back tears, telling myself that he was probably fine, if his car had come back unscathed from… whatever that was.

But at last, as I walked through the door, relief came as I received the same text I’d gotten every work night for the past 11 months:

“See you tomorrow. -Mr. K”

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