Everything Belongs to Us / Yoojin Grace Wuertz
They had come to the roof for three days to watch the strike at the Mun-A textile factory. It was April, the early mornings still damp and gray, the sky a ragged blanket thrown over the city. In the pre-dawn, the women gathered like ghosts around the factory yard and formed rows as if on lines etched into the concrete. They sat shoulder to shoulder, close enough to link arms and share warmth. The drumming began with the sun. At first the rhythm was simple, almost laconic. Pum-pum-pum-pum. The pulse rolled over the street like slow thunder, beckoning. By seven thirty, the strike had mustered full force. Three hundred women in khaki uniforms overflowed the narrow yard onto the sidewalk, fists in the air, chanting, shouting, singing. Neighborhood workers watched from behind windows, as if still under curfew. Pedestrians hurried to cross the street.
Dull tan slacks, matching blouse, and navy kerchief: They were an industrial army trained to sew buttonholes and block seams with military precision and discipline. Throughout the city each morning, the public loudspeakers broadcast the president’s slogans: Work cheerfully, courageously, for a more prosperous nation! Let’s be industrial soldiers for a brighter future! If the thrust of the rallying cry was somewhat diminished by the staticky sound quality, more warbling than exalting, no one was surprised. As with most aspects of President Park Chung Hee ’s administration, the objective—and the means—called for force, not finesse. The industrial army did not need a special sound system. It needed earlier mornings, later nights, unity, focus. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice.
So these were the soldiers. Skinny, pale-faced girls and women built like furniture, all limbs and angles. Even in protest, they maintained orderly ranks, churning out dissent with the same single-minded efficiency with which they had created cheap exports for Western markets. They marched in unison, danced in unison. They shouted in antiphonal ecstasy, two megaphones leading the call-and-response that never flagged. When individual voices grew ragged and hoarse, fresh voices took up the amplifiers, rejuvenating the whole. And the drums beat on like a sonic spine.
From a distance, their rigid organization made them appear simultaneously mighty and destructible. They were a focused defiance, conspicuous and easy to stomp.
Guarantee basic labor rights! We are not machines!
Throw out the illegal union election! Union revote!
On the roof across the street, Sunam and his new sunbae, Juno, stood watch. Juno Yoon was a year above Sunam at Seoul National University, the most prestigious college in the country, and Sunam vigilantly took cues from the older boy. Just getting to SNU was an accomplishment, requiring a grueling entrance exam that demanded years of around-the-clock preparation. Succeeding there put you in a different category altogether—it was a chance to become part of the professional elite. The best students transformed from pimply, stressed-out nineteen-year-olds to national assemblymen, judges, doc- tors, chaebol business leaders, and famous scientists. And the fastest ticket to success was gaining entry to a special group known only as the Circle—a kind of social club, founded by the heir to an enormous shipping fortune. Juno was already a member. As Sunam’s sunbae, Juno was meant to be his elder, mentor, initiator. Sunam might squirm under the older boy’s brash shows of authority, but as the younger, or hubae, he had a lot to gain from being considered Juno’s protégé.
“Look alive, Sunam,” barked Juno. Sunam snapped his eyes open as wide as he could. In the previous days, the chanting had grown so embedded in his consciousness that he lay awake at night frantic with exhaustion while the echoes of slogans cycled relentlessly through his mind. After years of rigorous exam preparations, he was no stranger to painful mornings, to burning eyelids and limbs that felt waterlogged with sleep, but dragging himself here for this third day had taken more willpower than any other morning of his life. You are lucky, he told himself in the sternest mental voice he could muster. You have an opportunity ten thousand young men would gladly snatch from your hands. You made it. Now climb.
It was 1978, only a generation after the end of the Korean War, which had flattened Seoul to a pile of rubble. Almost every family had been touched by recent memories of poverty. Sunam’s family had been relatively well-off, but even he could call to mind the lean years of his childhood. While he had never been forced to skip any meals, he re- membered the gnawing preoccupation with food, always hungry for more. At school, his first- and second-grade teachers served gruel, ladling out extra portions for the skinnier, clearly malnourished kids with their eyes huge in their heads, their skin white and flaky with a kind of fungal infection that seemed rampant in those days. He often wondered what had become of those classmates, if their families had managed to pull themselves up.
So a university degree might not have meant the difference between life and death, but for Sunam it meant a job in an office rather than a factory or steel mill. It meant the ability to buy an apartment in a new, high-rise development equipped with indoor plumbing, a kitchen installed with a washing machine, a TV in the living room, and—one day, perhaps—a car. And Juno was not just any sunbae, but a personal friend of Min Ahn, founder of the Circle. All of the Circle ’s members were hand-selected by Min and his cronies. The bullying, the twenty- four-hour demands, the nonsense ritual humiliations—it was all part of the process. A survival game. If he made it, Sunam would gain entry into a rarefied world of status and privilege. If he failed, he ’d be a nobody. No connections, no tribe. He would stay in that middle heap of life—better off than most, perhaps—while his lucky peers broke away into unimaginable echelons.
To survive, there was just one rule: obedience. Blind. Unflinching.
Thirteen hours the first day. The second, fourteen and a half. The predawn mornings, the thunderous drumming, the eye-watering monotony of watching three hundred women in the throes of misplaced democracy—it was all terrible and life draining, uncomfortable, boring, tedious. What were they doing here? Why this place, this strike? Sometimes hours would pass in stultifying silence. Watch, Juno would say, but nothing more. Watch for what? Sunam knew better than to ask, but the boundless uncertainties filled him with panic. Surely he was missing something of critical importance. Something crucial to his future, which he would learn only in retrospect and regret for the rest of his life. From the moment he greeted Juno in the morning, bowing ninety degrees from the waist, to the final moments of shadowing him an exact half step behind to his bus stop home at night, Sunam wrung his mind for clues. There was nothing.
Eight o’clock. Juno observed the scene below with a hand shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun. Built like a judo wrestler, Juno was thick and short, with biceps that strained against the fabric of his windbreaker. He had a soft, murmuring voice, which could sound deceptively contemplative even as he cut to the bone. “This is the third day, Sunam,” he said in his way, the octogenarian to a toddler. “I hope you’ve gathered some conclusions.”
Sunam cleared his throat. “About the strike?” “Yes, Sunam. About the strike.”
“It seems nothing has changed.” “Does it. What else?”
“They seem well organized.”
“Well organized to strike in front of their place of work, you mean.” “Yes.”
“Sunam, I know you’re a smart guy. When I ask you what conclusions you’ve reached, it’s because I assume you’ve considered the various possible outcomes. Now. I’m tired of this two-word baby nonsense. What conclusions have you reached? And be smart about it.”
So this is what he should have prepared for—an analysis of the strike. Sociopolitical ramifications. Labor. Leadership. Democracy. He had been so busy thinking about himself that he had not bothered to consider those angles. Strikes were what you walked past every day in Seoul. Small, big, the same one, a different one. For most people trying to live their lives and stay out of trouble, strikes were simply obstacles to avoid. Some people might feel a perverse desire to stand by and gawk, but reasonable folks didn’t want to risk getting mixed up with the crowd and possibly taken for a sympathizer or fellow activist. Same for the campus demonstrations at SNU and other universities, called “demos” for short. The campus demos were more political and less practical in nature than the labor strikes—protesting the president’s repressive Yushin Constitution and demanding transparent, democratic elections. Sunam considered these issues the domain of hippies destined for lives on the fringe, not for him. What conclusions had he reached? Sunam had less than a second to think, and he blurted out the only thing that came to mind.
“I don’t care about the strike, really. My conclusions were possibly that you were a labor sympathizer or had some interest in factory girls. They’re not too bad to look at, I guess. Some of them are kind of pretty.”
Juno’s expression did not change, which Sunam took to be an auspicious sign under the circumstances. “Some of them? Tell me which.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly make a list.” “And this is your serious answer?”
Sunam chewed his lip, regretting his moment of flippancy. “No.” “Then try again. Tell me what you see.”
“I see factory workers demanding better conditions. I see that if they don’t get back to work, they’ll probably lose their jobs and have to go back to their families in the country.”
“The factory will easily replace them.”
Juno looked at him closely. “We ’ve been here three days. Do you really not know?”
Sunam froze. A bad idea to bluff. Slowly he shook his head. “Activists, Sunam. Some of those girls are college students. Some are even from SNU. They go underground and work in the factories, pretending they’re like anyone else, but they organize strikes and union votes.”
“Is that legal?”
“No, of course not.”
“But even so, what does that have to do with us?” Sunam asked. “You’re not a labor sympathizer, are you? What difference does it make if some of the workers are students?”
“I happen to have an interest in one of the students,” Juno said enigmatically. “I like to keep an eye on her.”
“An interest? Are you . . . in love with one of them?”
Suddenly Juno let out a booming laugh, which stung Sunam as much as being slapped in the face. “You really are a baby, aren’t you? Love? Is that so important to you?”
“I know someone like you doesn’t just take ‘an interest’ in a girl for no reason,” Sunam said, attempting to flatter Juno’s ego. “Who is it? Will you tell me?”
“I intend to marry this girl,” Juno said matter-of-factly. “You’ll laugh if I say it’s fate, but she and I are fated to be together. I’ve known it since I was a ten-year-old boy. It’s the perfect partnership and I intend to see it happen.”
“This sounds like love to me, sunbae,” said Sunam.
Juno shook his head. “You haven’t heard me,” he said. “Not love, Sunam. Just good planning.”
The hours of the morning passed in the same monotony he had endured over the past two days. The women yelled. The drums clattered and crashed. Pedestrians streamed by. Juno barely spoke a word, giving no further indication of what they might be looking for.
It was uncomfortable on the roof with nowhere to sit except the hard, dirty floor. Sunam felt his eyes burning with boredom. The ceaseless noise settled into the recesses of his eyes and temples, stirring a fierce headache that made his vision hazy with pain. Juno seemed impervious to the ruckus, as if he were enclosed in a soundproof capsule. Sunam tried to imagine what sort of girl would inspire such stoic concentration. He assumed she must be very beautiful for Juno to overlook the fact that she was an activist.
At lunchtime, Juno sent him to bring up noodles from the restaurant downstairs. “Hot noodles in soup. Don’t spill.” The idea was to bring it back up as quickly as possible so that it was still steaming when he arrived. There were four flights and a roof exit, no elevator. The restaurant ajummas, wary of customers’ complaints about stinginess, filled the enormous steel bowls to the brim. It was impossible not to spill.
Sunam was ascending the final flight with the heavily laden tray, sweating from the effort of simultaneously rushing and holding still, when he heard the drums kick up as if someone had suddenly removed a sound barrier. The bass hit him in the chest like a fist. Scalding soup splayed over his hands and shirt. Cursing, he abandoned the tray and ran the rest of the way, taking the steps two at a time. On the roof, noise overtook everything. The drumming was ramped to a frenetic tempo, reverberating against his rib cage, bouncing beneath his feet. The chanting rose like a groundswell, an intensity so fierce that it could only be described as a roar.
He ran to Juno, who was leaning on the roof to take in the full scope of the street. “What’s happening?” he asked. His voice was immediately swallowed by the noise.
“Cops,” Juno shouted.
They strained over the edge of the roof to catch the line of gray police vans pushing through the street. Red lights whirled over the sidewalk. The eagle police insignia multiplied over every surface as cops rushed out of vehicles. Traffic was stopped and metal barricades erected. Already clots of bystanders, who evidently had nowhere better to go and did not mind risking their own skins for the sake of witnessing a spectacle, were jostling for position.
The protest drums beat on louder, faster, against the encroaching line. Banners rippled and bobbed like a platoon of sails.
Guarantee basic labor rights! We are not machines!
Throw out the illegal union election! Union revote!
“Watch,” Juno said in a low voice.
Men in riot gear streamed out of the vans with a terrible clatter of body-length metal shields and helmets. They moved like automatons, pre-choreographed and bulky in their thick leg and arm padding. In minutes they had flanked the gate, six deep. Dark blue uniforms showed up flat and rich against the faded factory khaki. Light glinted off their visors and helmets. With silent precision they planted their shields at their boots, resting white padded gloves over the edge in a posture of casual aggression. The movement unfolded in increments, suggesting the next step, building fear. The effect was of a slow, calculated escalation.
Below, a male voice boomed from a bullhorn. It was the factory foreman in shiny black pants and company jacket, his large bald spot creeping out from beneath the bottom of his cap. “Ladies, you know this is an illegal protest. Let’s just get up and go home, shall we? Take the day off. We ’ll get back to work tomorrow. Better yet, get to work now. We ’ll get in a half day at least. You know what happens next. These men would rather not work up a sweat. Let’s not tire ourselves out for no reason. . . .”
Across the yard, the drums took on the slow, predawn beat. Pum.
Pum. Pum. Pum.
The foreman’s voice warbled from the bullhorn. “This is your last warning.”
The riot police stood ready, shields raised. A line of cops in regular uniform moved in, batons in hand. In the front row of the strike there was a sudden flash of movement. A young woman stepped away from the line, pulling the khaki blouse from her body and dropping it at her feet. Her white bra stood out for a speechless moment before it too was unclasped and thrown to the ground. For that instant, all there was her body. Flesh. Pale breasts. Heaving rib cage. Her black hair was wild against her skin. Raising her fist, she resumed the chant.
The effect on the ground was immediate. Cops froze mid- movement. The crowd seemed to lurch toward the topless woman, the collective attention shifting violently to her body. Sunam let out a gasp, stunned by the unfolding scandal.
All around the first topless woman, her colleagues were following suit. Garments fell like discarded skin to the ground. Young, old, thin, heavy, pale, dark, taut, women stood with their breasts bared, united in defiance. The chanting hushed. Drums fell silent. No one moved. The sirens continued to spin, splashing red lights over the scene, but for an extended moment the women were captured in perfect stillness. They had become inviolable, their determination stronger than any army. A young voice screamed, “You call yourself men, attacking unarmed women? Touch us now if you dare.”
The first man out was powerfully built, with short arms and thick, muscular legs. He moved in with firm, measured steps as if to say, Look, I’m coming. You’ve had your fun, now it’s over. When he grabbed the young woman by the arm, low near her wrist—a small mitigation toward her exposure—his manner was brisk, almost paternal. Sunam sensed the danger brewing under the surface, the kind of final-warning patience he recognized from his own father before a total explosion.
It happened so quickly, he could process it only in retrospect. Wresting out of the officer’s grip, raising her fist against him, the young woman spit in his face. Sunam saw the unmistakable jerk of her head, the split-second delay. Then the response. The officer tackled her to the ground, folding her body under his as easily as if she were a reed. He had her under his knees, her face and chest pushed against the ground. His fists came down between her shoulder blades—three sharp blasts—until she went limp.
The rest of the force rushed in. With only their bodies for weapons, the women threw themselves on the ground in an attempt to make themselves heavy. They clung to anything stationary and entangled themselves around each other’s waists like lovers. The men pried them apart with boots and batons and dragged them across the street into the waiting vans, two men to each girl, hoisting her by the wrists and ankles. Others who ran were herded back. The youngest workers hid their faces from the staring crowd and sobbed against each other’s slumped shoulders. One woman fainted and was laid out on the asphalt, her face strangely composed in the midst of the blood and havoc. There were girls who fought every step, who struggled and clawed and kicked to hold ground. One woman twisted like a trout on the line, her body a heaving muscle in protest. She was nearly naked, dark nipples flashing and the waistband of her pale pink underwear pulled low over her hips. Finally the men swung her down and kicked her until she curled up tight, arms wrapped overhead, exposing the pale contours of
There was no more center. Each was fighting for herself, running for herself. After so much noise, individual shrieks evaporated like weak echoes. There were hands everywhere, grabbing the easiest circumference: shoulders, necks, ankles, thighs. Clothed or naked, it made no difference. Everywhere, bloodied women were being pushed into vans. Behind the barricades, the mob grew rowdy.
Sunam felt simultaneously paralyzed and hypercharged, as if his muscles would jump out of his skin and plunge into the mob below. The memory of those women, statuesque and strong, standing their ground against uniformed police, already seemed like a dream.
“The cars are full,” he said to Juno. He was surprised to realize his voice was steady and unchanged, as if nothing had happened. “They can’t take all of them.”
“They’ll grab enough.” “Enough—for what?”
“To make an example. Enough to get names on a blacklist. Those women will never work again in Seoul. Effective, I’d say.” Juno glanced at him. “Shocked? Get used to it, Sunam. Power always wins. That’s life.”
“So this is what you wanted me to see? Girls being beat up?”
Juno made a strange sound, sucking his teeth and releasing air in an explosive click as if closing a lid on the whole pathetic situation. “Don’t be melodramatic. I didn’t know this was going to happen. But it’s a good lesson for you, anyway. You see how it is when people make stupid decisions. They were in enough trouble as it is and now they’ve only made things worse for themselves. Bad gamble. They should have been smarter.”
“But that girl you’re interested in—”
“Is none of your concern at the moment.”
“Did you see her? Was she . . .” It seemed too personal to ask if she was one of the women who had taken off her clothes. Surely Juno would not like to answer that question. Instead Sunam stuttered, “I mean, what if she got hurt? Were you able to see . . . ?”
“She’ll be fine,” Juno answered curtly. “I told you, don’t worry about it.”
“But I could help you,” said Sunam. “If you needed me to do some- thing. I could go down there. I could deliver a message or—whatever you needed.”
Juno stared at him with unconcealed puzzlement. “Sunam, I can’t decide if you’re incredibly idiotic or some kind of savant. You must be a genius to be this dense. Do you actually think I want her to know I’m watching her? You think I’m going to send you down there to deliver a message? Tell me, what kind of note did you have in mind? ‘I know you’re in the middle of a police raid and all, but I just want you to know I have my eye on you’? Use your brain, man.” For a second, Sunam thought Juno would reach over and slap him as if he were a delinquent fifth grader who had failed to do his homework. Juno sighed. “Anyway, even if I wanted to send a message, what makes you think I would trust you with something so important? You haven’t even managed to deliver a bowl of soup correctly—” Sunam suddenly remembered the lunch he had abandoned on the stairs. It had slipped his mind completely.
Sunam knew his face must have turned deeply crimson. The burn spread over his cheeks and blazed down his neck. Hot tendrils of shame wrapped around his throat. Of course Juno wouldn’t want to reveal his position to the girl. He, unlike Sunam, conducted his life with calculated, measured calm. He would never rush into impetuous action with some puerile idea of rescue. Just thinking about what he had suggested flushed Sunam with a new wave of mortification. “I’m sorry, sunbae. You’re right, I wasn’t thinking. But give me another chance. I know I can do better. Let me do something to prove it to you. Anything.”
Juno peered down at the mob below, apparently considering his proposal. Sunam braced himself for whatever difficult task would be required of him. This time, he would not let his sunbae down. No matter what was asked of him, he would approach it with the utmost care and seriousness.
“Doesn’t seem to be clearing up anytime soon,” Juno murmured. “It’ll be a mess for a while.”
“Are you going somewhere? Would you like me to hail you a cab?” “Me? No, I’m fine where I am,” said Juno with an exaggerated drawl. He grinned. Whatever he had in mind, he was enjoying himself. “But you seem eager to get places. Bet you’ve never seen a naked girl up close, eh? Go ahead, Sunam. Enjoy yourself. Grab yourself a souvenir while you’re at it. I’ll wait.”
“Sure. I see a bunch of ladies’ underwear lying about. Of course, it’s nothing fancy, but you’re not picky, are you?” He had never seen his sunbae look so happy; it was a task that had no purpose other than to humiliate Sunam. “I don’t want you saying I never taught you anything.”
“You want me to bring up . . . underwear?” he asked incredulously. “And be quick about it,” Juno said in his normal voice. “After that you’re going to get me another bowl of soup.”
Our flights had seemed an interminable distance just a short while ago, but now Sunam wished it were much longer to save him from the humiliation of this fool’s errand. He paused on the step where the now congealed noodles remained where he’d left them. Yellow gray floes of fat clung to the bloated dough. Slimy onions lay slick and sweaty on the thickened broth. Only recently this had been a delicious meal. Now it was an inedible wreck. Somehow the awful state of the noodles seemed to mirror the mess he was always making of his own life. What should have been a pleasure turned grotesque. So much wasted potential.
He had no choice but to go forward. Let me prove myself, sunbae. Ask me anything. Let me, let me! Downstairs in the lobby the door was crowded with onlookers, all the building’s employees and customers smashed up against the windows to catch a glimpse of the action. More police vehicles were arriving, sirens flashing. The first vans must be packed by now, but uniformed men were still herding the workers into custody and fighting back the crowd, which was growing thicker and more unruly. Sunam shoved his way to the building’s exit, still hoping to get out. The closer he got, the more unwilling people became to give up their spot, pushing him back with dirty looks as if to say they had paid good money to get these seats.
“I need the door. I’m leaving.” Sunam jabbed desperately at the air above his head, illustrating how quickly he intended to disappear. “The door,” he shouted again. The folks guarding their positions finally relented, letting him pass.
Immediately the crowd swallowed him up and swept him toward the barricades, the crush as powerful as a dragging riptide. Sunam threw his weight against it, but it was no use. There were moments when he felt his feet lifting off the ground, a sickening lurching sensation he had never experienced even during the worst commuting times. This was not a simple matter of too many people in a limited space. This was havoc fueled by the dark electric buzz of violence, the giddy tinge of sex.
People he could smell but not see were shouting in his ears. Boots connected sharply with his ankle. His feet were trampled. A throaty voice yelled, “Move it!” and someone else laughed, a high, hysterical pitch. There were long minutes when nothing moved, every shoulder and elbow jammed in gridlock, followed by sudden slides when the crowd heaved in a collective stumble. These were the times to maneuver if he could anticipate them and move quickly. He tried to identify a path out, but the street was narrow and his only recourse was to push against the flow of the mob, back toward what must be its end. From the roof he had seen where it started, where it thickened and became a throng, but once he had stepped out onto the street, there was no sense of dispersing or ending. He was stuck in the middle, unable either to escape or to get what he ’d come for.
Sunam saw a wedge of space opening up in front of him and pre- pared himself. Maybe he could still make it to the barricades. And maybe once he got there the crowd, in view of the cops and contained by the metal gates, would be more manageable. With a huge effort, he twisted away from the shoulder lodged against him and hurled his weight into that tiny opening.
Brown mottled teeth sneered in his face. “Relax, college boy— enjoy the show. What, scared?”
Another voice. “Look at him, he’s never seen a woman.”
Sunam caught a flash of oily stubble. The second man had on a blue jacket identical to his friend’s, same filthy sleeves. There were three of them, probably unemployed millworkers. The smell of their grease stung his nostrils.
“College boy, time to become a man!” Two stubby fingers jabbed at Sunam’s groin. A gurgle of a laugh, like a cough bringing up phlegm, sprayed in his face. The fingers jabbed him again, harder. “Wake up! Come back when you grow something.”
With the pretext of being shoved themselves, they slammed their bodies into him, laughing. They hit him repeatedly, slapping his face and grabbing his crotch with exaggerated, fake apologies. He knew these types, workers who hated college students for their educated privilege, who believed their own working-class backgrounds earned them the right to harass anyone they wanted, to assuage their sense of inferiority. Sunam shoved back, trying to put bodies between them. But the crowd shrank away, leaving a halo of space around them.
Sunam was outnumbered three to one. The first guy was built like a ram, with a bulging brow bone and shoulders that seemed to round in with the weight of his muscles. “Get him a better view,” he taunted. “Let him get his first eyeful, at least. Help him, boys. There are things you don’t learn in college.” They poked and prodded, delighted with their new toy. “A day off from school today, a field trip? No girlies at school want to show you any of this?” He mimed squeezing a pair of nipples. “No fun in the library?”
The others were smaller, barely any weight on them. If it weren’t for their bullnosed leader, Sunam might have considered fighting. But pinned in with no exit and outnumbered, he knew it was useless. The big one was squinting at him with an appraising eye. He flicked his flat bovine nose, releasing a wet-sounding sniff. “Now. Let’s have your jacket,” he said.
Sunam wore a calfskin leather jacket, a graduation present from his parents. Our proud firstborn. Wear it well. The jacket fit him perfectly, the tan color creamy against his skin, the long sleeves and waist hitting his tall frame at just the right length. He felt like a young heir in that jacket, cosmopolitan and undeniably first-rate. The thought of losing it, and to these guys, made his jaws clench. “Funny,” he said. “I think your jackets suit you perfectly.”
“A sense of humor on this one,” said Bullnose. “We won’t kill you because you’re funny. Now hand it over.”
“Can’t do it,” Sunam said.
A blow landed between his shoulder blades. A jab, not hard enough to take him down but serious. When he turned around, there was a switchblade in his face.
“We won’t ask you again.”
Slowly Sunam shed the precious garment and handed it to the side- kick, the one with the knife. Bullnose grinned with his bad teeth. “Come on, fellas, we’re done here.” Now the crowd parted. They split to let the gang pass as if for a presidential motorcade, huge margins opening up like a sea parting. Then they were gone and the mob swallowed Sunam up again.
He didn’t know how long it took for him to get beyond the crowd. It was like wriggling through a tunnel blind. He did it person by per- son, pushing past one set of shoulders, then another and another. Their scents seemed to rub off on him, smells that lingered in his nose long after he had left them behind. Drenched in sweat and shivering, he stumbled his way out. The sound of the police sirens, people hooting and shouting, receded so gradually that he couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment it went away. Even after he faded into normal pedestrian traffic, he still sensed the roil of the horde as if they were pushed close behind him.
At the first empty alley, Sunam sat down and fumbled for a cigarette. He lit it with shaking hands and inhaled deeply, feeling the hot smoke travel down his chest. He finished it and lit a second, hoping that the fire and nicotine would spur him to go back and fulfill Juno’s ridiculous task. He smoked it down to the last bit, his fingers pinched tight against his lips, but it was the same. No epiphanies, no new courage.
Slowly he got to his feet. Juno would be waiting. Going back empty-handed was like delivering a resignation letter when he desperately wanted the job. But not to show up at all—that was the ultimate cowardly act. To explain about the jacket would be just an excuse and make him look weak besides. He had failed. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his fault, that it might have been impossible to do what Juno had asked. He already knew his sunbae was interested only in sending him on impossible errands, apparently to see how he coped with the humiliation of failure. There was no need to demean himself further with sad stories.
Sunam flicked the cigarette into the gutter and tucked in his shirt.
“Wait,” a voice hissed from deep in the alley. “Don’t go.” Sunam looked behind him but saw nothing. He felt a queasy flicker of doubt— was he hearing things?
Then he saw her.
A young woman crouched behind a battered wooden pallet. She was barefoot and her khaki pants were shredded at the knees. Sunam saw a smear of blood on her bare shoulder. No shirt. He realized she must be one of the factory girls, escaped from the riot. She had some- how made it all the way out here in the initial chaos but could go no farther without attracting dangerous attention.
“Please help me.” She was as small as a child, her body narrow enough to hide behind a box. She had the uncanny look of a hungry cat. Wide, unblinking eyes, as fierce as they were frightened. Warily he watched her, as if she might spring. She was as light as air. She could cover the distance between them in a single leap, disappear like a mirage. She said, her hands fluttering over the sharp ridge of her collar- bones, “Please. If you could give me—I mean, I need—”
“How did you even get here?” he interrupted. They were at least five blocks from the factory.
“I ran.” She had a gulping way of speaking that made her words sound swallowed rather than spoken. Glancing at him, she gave her head a slight shake as if he had asked her a confusing question. “Are they looking for me?”
“You should go home,” he said. It seemed crazy that she should be lingering around here where anyone could see her. He remembered what Juno had said about the blacklist. “You should go home and say you weren’t here at all.”
“But—you see, I can’t.” She seemed emboldened by his mention of home. “I think there’s a market around the corner. I can’t give you any money now, but I’ll send it to you, I swear.”
He realized she was unwilling to say the word shirt, calling attention to her nudity, but that’s what she needed. She could not come out of the alley and go home without it. A shirt.
He backed away. “I’m sorry—I can’t,” he mumbled.
He turned and ran, knowing she wouldn’t—or couldn’t—call after him. He told himself that someone else would come along to help her. A nice older ajumma. The girl was one of the lucky ones, after all. She had gotten away. All she needed was a shirt.
“I’m sorry!” He yelled it this time, buoyed by sudden inspiration. A shirt.
He ran around the corner to the market she ’d mentioned. It was a small hole-in-the-wall store, the owner a grandmother who sat cross-legged on a low stool, eating an apple with big cracking bites.
“A lady’s shirt,” he said. He motioned toward his own chest as if that would clarify what he wanted. “An undershirt.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word bra. An undershirt was good enough. It would do. He could rough it up and make it just right.
The grandmother motioned to the corner where she had them piled up, rubber-banded by size. Sunam picked the smallest one, sleeveless and stiff, a bit of lace at the neck. The new cotton was thick and glaringly white, but he already had a plan. He would soak it in the puddle outside, make a few tears. He would drag it along the curb and trample it until it was dingy and gray. He wondered if there was any way he could simulate blood.
He had the golden ticket. Finally he could proudly say to Juno, Look, sunbae, I did as you asked. He had completed the impossible task. And it had cost him less than a pack of cigarettes.