Foster’s plane was late arriving at Incheon International Airport. For the past hour the guy in the row behind him had jabbered about the Russians who’d shot down the KAL 007 in ‘83. Depressing. Then there was a mob at the cab stand as he tried to get to the hotel downtown. He was tired, hungry, and in desperate need of a drink.
This was not good. Worse was the message waiting from a Samsung rep when he checked in:
“So sorry, Mr. Foster, an unexpected meeting of great importance has intruded. May we reschedule our conference for Thursday at ten o’clock a.m.?”
Well, yes, Foster thought, I can fucking rebook my return trip and pay the cost. I can act the tourist for two days because I have nothing better to do.
It was the game they played. Koreans, Chinese, Japanese. Keep the clients waiting and then obfuscate until they’re so pissed they’ll agree to anything. This was a simple deal he was negotiating on behalf of his client, a software firm in New York. A win-win.
He sat on the bed and put in a call to his soon-to-be ex-wife to remind her to get the dog to the vet’s. Susan was the woman who shared his name and now shared another man’s bed. Of course she was out. At ten in the morning in Westchester County what else would this woman be doing if she wasn’t at the country club or in someone’s sack? Before he left, they’d decided it was best to separate. Best bet on his return to La-La Land would be to find a place in the city. A good bet also that his father-in-law would invite him to leave the firm when he learned of the split. Dad had other problems with an indictment over some questionable political campaign contributions.
* * *
His attitude turned to one of amazement when he walked out of the hotel and into the crisp morning. Seoul’s tired streets now looked like Fifth Avenue. Here was a Benetton, nearby a Coach, and a Starbucks on every corner. America, with its potholed roads, crumbling buildings, and panhandlers, was a second-class country in comparison. Those who could afford it sequestered themselves in Westchester’s world of gated communities or behind an acre of manicured lawn.
It had been 41 years since he’d been in South Korea, wearing green fatigues then and reading the war news in Stars & Stripes. As a second lieutenant in the Army Security Agency’s 177th he’d been 50 miles south at Camp Humphreys in the village of Anjeong-ri. It was the best year of his life for its simplicity in spite of the fact that he froze his balls in the winter, the natives were so poor they cooked their rice over grass fires, and boredom made other guys want to kill themselves. He had been angry then that he hadn’t been assigned to ‘Nam where he could have come back with a trophy before the war ended. Something. A Purple Heart, a war story, even a Cong’s ear. An ear would have delighted his father-in-law over the young man’s machismo. Happier even than Foster finishing Columbia Law, marrying his daughter, and joining his firm. Instead, he had been sent to Korea, a thousand miles from the action.
Over drinks at the hotel, the Samsung rep — “Call me William, Mr. Foster” — asked if he’d been to Korea before.
“My second visit here,” he answered William’s question. “I was in Anjeong-ri, near Pyongtaek. In ’73.”
“Pyongtaek now is a bustling city. Quite large now. Anjeong-ri close by also modern. So many good hotels and restaurants. Camp Humpreys will soon be the largest military installation in our country. A home for U.S. Forces Korea.
“You were in the Army, William?”
He smiled and sipped his tea. “I was an Army sergeant. Two years on the DMZ until maybe five years ago. We are all patriots, Mr. Foster. Even as a Samsung employee, I am happy serving my country.”
The best memory of Korea? Foster had analyzed the situation immediately and chose a steady girlfriend from the stable of women in Anjeong-ri. His new girlfriend worked in the company mess hall.
Pak Chung-jae was a bit taller than the others, her black hair was long, she had fine features and small breasts that were high on her chest. She led him to restaurants and told the cook to substitute chicken instead of dog meat in his yakamishi. And she taught him to use chopsticks, a necessity since the mess sergeant was selling the troops’ food on the black market. She was also only the second or third woman he had slept with and was a gracious lover. Appreciative of his attention and gifts, although it might have been the money he showered on her.
While he had a room at the BOQ, Chung-jae rented a clay brick house with a thatched roof for them just outside the back gate. It was an agreeable understanding — hers with whatever family she had and his with Major Yorty, the CO who was shacked up in the BOQ with another waitress. At four o’clock, when duty ended, Foster would stroll out the back gate, take the chogi trail through the paddies and go home to his hut.
“I want to go to Anjeong-ri, William. What’s the best way to get there?”
* * *
William insisted on guiding him to the train, accompanying him to Anjeong-ri, finding a hotel for them both, and seeing that he would get back to Seoul safely the next day. On the train ride down the next day, Foster watched the scenery pass while recalling little crumbs of events.
Chung-jae had been ravishing in a body-hugging silk dress with its Mandarin collar. “We no go Club tonight, Foster?” she asked one time. There was probably a band playing, usually some group from the Philippines.
“I’m tired, baby,” he’d said. “How about we stay home? I want to read a book. Or I could teach you to play gin.”
“Maybe you read book and I see my girlfriend. Okay? Come back soon.”
“How about two hours I meet you at the Club?” Already Foster was a mediator.
He laughed. “What the hell does ‘machts nichts’ mean?” Like most jo-sans, she spoke a pidgin of English, Japanese, German, and French, all brought to Korea by U.S. troops on rotation. The girls chattered about “beaucoup beer” or “We go my huichi.”
She glared at his stupidity. “I don’t know! Is your language, not mine.”
And there was Chung-jae saving his cigarette butts in a jar. “Jesus, honey, that’s filthy,” he’d said. “I’ll give you a pack of cigarettes!”
“For kuji papa-san,” she explained, giving him her benevolent smile.
One morning, a very old man in a long white hanbok coat and black horsehair hat was waiting at their shoji paneled door. Chung-jae handed him the jar of tobacco, which the man put in a pouch with his long pipe. “Komapsumnida,” the man gravely thanked Foster.
She saw the question in his eyes and said, “Kuji papa-san. Very poor.”
So he learned. It’s bad luck to whistle at night. Tie a string around your finger to get rid of a headache. Wisdom both weird and wonderful. Her intelligence and compassion were only constrained by her difficulty with English. Often, Chung-jae called Foster her kuji-ma honcho. The Number One Bum. But she was kidding. He thought. Other times she said she loved him.
* * *
“Let me walk around by myself, William. See what I remember.” William was in his late 20s. There was nothing for him to remember.
Foster dropped his bag at the hotel and headed out. The front gate of Camp Humphreys advertised new residential towers that were coming. By the back gate of the garrison that still looked familiar to Foster there was a demonstration. Women — a dozen older women — held signs and chanted. Bored police in helmets stood at the edge of the demonstration.
Gray panthers? Foster jerked his head at an attractive younger woman wearing a red Aeropostale sweatshirt, obviously the new generation. “What’s happening?” If she didn’t speak English, he’d ask someone else.
“The women are very angry they are being kicked out of their homes. The U.S. is taking their land to make the base bigger.”
“Shit, that’s rotten. Is anyone going to pay them for their property?”
“The government calls them whores.” She waved a hand at a few seedy clubs on the street. Long time ago maybe some of them, but my mother is there. She is no whore.”
Foster stood and reflected. The girl turned to look at the demonstrators. A part of him was tempted to ask if he could buy her a coffee, have some conversation, maybe a drink that would lead to — well, something. “I was here. A long time ago. Nineteen seventy-three. I spent one year at Camp Humphreys.”
“Maybe different now.”
“I had a friend, Pak Chung-jae.” He laughed. “She was the only reason I didn’t go crazy. So cold. I nearly froze that year.”
The girl stared at him, and he could see she was really in her early forties. She squinted. “That is my mother’s name.”
“Pak Chung-jae?” She nodded.
The coincidence was impossible to accept. That he had come back to a small town to be warped back four decades, wiping out experiences of law school, marriage, a career, and now divorce. It was as if he was being ripped back from a fearful world to one of ancient seduction.
“Will you introduce me?” He choked over the four words.
The girl waved her hand in a downward motion and a woman separated from the crowd, lowering her sign. She wore no makeup except for a bit of lipstick and was clothed in a cardigan and wool skirt, with a scarf over her black hair. Appearing to be in her early sixties, her face was unlined but red from the cold wind.
He bowed slightly. “An-yŏng-ha-se-yo. Hello. Chung-jae? I am Foster. Do you remember me?” From the corner of his eye, he could see the young woman staring at him and then back at her mother.
Chung-jae looked him up and down, her eyes scrutinizing his face and then his clothes, his very American look that Foster knew reeked of beefsteak and whiskey. Her hand touched his sport jacket as if verifying his reality. “I remember.” Her voice was low, but triggered memories of three hundred nights in their thatched hut. Of simpler times before he entered the world of custom-made clothes and offices in tall buildings. Before acquiring Susan, a too-large house, serious expenses, complications.
“I am here on business. I wanted to see Anjeong-ri one more time.”
“You said you would come back. I waited.”
Perplexed, Foster said, “I was in school. I couldn’t come back.”
“What I say before, kuji-ma honcho. All American bullshit.”
“No, that’s not fair. Look, can we go somewhere and talk? Can you tell me how you have been?”
“You want to meet your daughter? She is right here.” Chung-jae tugged at the young woman’s arm, saying something to her in Korean.
“But, how can that be? I never…”
“Of course you never. You never tell me where you go in America. I ask at base and they laugh at me. I get lawyer and they laugh at him. Then no more money.”
Slowly, Foster put his hands on Chung-jae’s shoulders, drawing her closer the way a boat would meet the dock. The girl began to cry and then covered her eyes with her arm.
“Her name is Chun-hei. First word means justice, second means grace. You know what means ‘grace’?”
Foster nodded. “A blessing, maybe also clemency. Clemency means forgiveness.” His world was folding in on itself. His marriage, his father-in-law, his practice were fading. Perhaps they wouldn’t be there when he got back to Westchester. He wondered which was the real world and which the dream. His legal training and education warned him not to act precipitously. But hadn’t he always been prudent? And what did that hollow world get him except a lot of money?
“May I ask forgiveness? Chun-hei, may I greet you as my daughter until…”
“Until what?” Chung-jae snapped.
“Until we become a family. Some kind of family. In some kind of home I no longer have.”
Of course he would have to have his paternity proven. But embracing Chung-jae and her daughter could anchor his life with purpose.
Chun-hei’s eyes were red. “An-yŏng-ha-se-yo.” She bowed her head slightly and then her hands went to his chest, and she smiled. “Father.”
His arms went around her and he wondered if there was redemption for his years of wasted purpose. Even if he lied and there would be no family, he saw another path leading out of the dream world.