Chapter 188

Maru gave himself a shake after getting up. He put on a coat and socks that he hung next to his bed.

“You’d best wear a scarf. It’s very cold outside.”

“Thank you.”

He wrapped the scarf Moonjoong gave him around his neck. Moonjoong was dressed in hiking clothes, with a cane in one hand and a bag in the other.

‘A cane?’

It wasn’t a walking stick that people liked bringing to hikes, it was an actual cane that old men used for walking. Did his knees get worse? Moonjoong smiled lightly when Maru looked at the man worriedly.

“It’s just a prop. Don’t worry.”

“A prop?”

Maru recalled that the old man of the book walked with a cane as well, the old man liked to go out on walks in hiking clothes with his cane when he was off work. Moonjoong was in character already.

“I’ll hold the bag, sir.”

He put the bag over his shoulder and walked downstairs, he could hear faint sounds of breathing in the dark room. Suyeon was lying down on the sofa, while Geunsoo slept right below her.

“They’re young.”

Moonjoong smiled silently and put a blanket over the two of them. Maru noticed that Suyeon’s eyes were a little puffy, she must’ve cried. A vixen like her, crying?

‘I guess she just yawned a lot?’

They put a blanket over the two of them before stepping out of the building. Moonjoong got onto the sedan next to Geunsoo’s car, Maru followed and sat in the passenger seat.

“We’ll head downtown first. I know you probably have a lot of questions, but please just observe for today.”

The car slid forward with a slight tremble, it ran over the unpaved road with ease at a good pace. Moonjoong drove a lot like how he lived, Maru noticed. When they finally left the mountain range, they were greeted with asphalt. The sun still hadn’t come up yet, they crossed the cold fog and headed straight to town.

Since the region was surrounded by mountains, they didn’t run into a single car on the way. The sun reared its head as they drove. After driving for a full two hours, they finally reached the city. The little farms dotting the scenery finally disappeared and their view started getting slowly replaced with grey buildings.

“Let’s eat first.”

Moonjoong parked his car next to a beansprout soup restaurant. There were about seven people in the restaurant right now. It was eight in the morning, so the people eating here were most likely to be nearby factory workers. The bottles of makgeolli on their table was proof enough of their difficult workday.

“Do you like bean sprout soup?”

“Red, white, I’m a fan of both.”

Moonjoong smiled as he ordered two bowls, an old lady got up from her seat to prepare their meal. She scooped some rice into each bowl before pouring some soup on top, Maru noticed that she actually poured off the soup several times and replaced it over and over again.

“This takes a lot of work, but it really changes the flavor of the rice. Finding a place that still does something like this brings joy to my heart.”

Maru set up the spoons and chopsticks as Moonjoong spoke. A little later, the old lady put the two bowls on their table.

“Enjoy your meals.”

“Yes, thank you very much.”

Maru sprinkled a spoonful of red pepper powder over the white soup before taking a long sip. The hot, refreshing broth slid down his throat, the taste of it was incredibly savoury. Just as he thought he’d have a very nice meal for himself, a hand suddenly entered his vision. The hand was holding some roasted mackerel, an omelette, and some stir-fried pork.

“Have some of this, too.”

The old lady put the food on their table with a little smile, Maru found himself a little confused. This was a little too much food for appetizers.

“Please, you don’t have to.”

Moonjoong spoke with a bit of an embarrassed look, the old lady smiled nervously herself before turning away.

‘Eh?’

That just now… felt like the type of nervousness that a young girl would show.

“Do you know her?”

“...A fan.”

“Aha.”

No wonder the lady kept glancing their way.

“Shouldn’t you give her a signature or something?”

Moonjoong instinctively looked sideways at that question, Maru looked over as well. Right next to the old calendar that turned yellow with age was a piece of laminated paper. Looking closely, he could make out the words ‘Yoon Moonjoong’ written on it. Maru smiled a little at Moonjoong’s embarrassment, so he had a side like this to him as well.

“Please come again.”

They stepped out of the store after their meal. The weather was cold still, but the soup in their stomach made it feel less so.

“I won’t be talking much from now on. I might even pretend I don’t know you. Don’t feel offended by it.”

“I understand.”

Moonjoong cracked his neck sideways before leaning on his cane with a deep sigh, Maru let out a small exclamation as he watched the man deflate. The old man in the novel invested his all into his children and lived by picking up trash paper. It would look odd if someone like this looked healthy, so this was why the senior was losing weight.

“Follow me slowly.”

Moonjoong suddenly sounded a lot colder than before, he also walked in a hurried pace as well. His feet took off almost as soon as his cane reached forward, it was almost as if he was getting chased by something. Maru followed him from a bit of a distance.

The place Moonjoong headed to was the town hall. Or rather, the little pavilion right next to it, there were a bunch of old men sitting in it. There was a drum burning hot with a fire nearby where even more old men gathered next to it, either staring forward with blank expressions or conversing with each other.

It was nearing nine now. The old men just kept coming, Moonjoong stumbled forward himself and took a seat on one of the chairs nearby. He was staring emptily into the air, making him look entirely different from his usual self.

Just like this, he blended in.

Maru slowly inched forward towards the pavilion himself, he didn’t want to interfere. There were a few Korean chess boards at the pavilion, two old men were playing a game at the moment.

“Is Kim not coming?”

“Dunno. He’ll come when the time comes.”

“Wasn’t he stumbling around yesterday?”

“He’s been like that all the time. Here, checkmate.”

The chess piece moved with a loud clack. Maru sat a little bit away from the two old men, this place seemed to be the hot spot for the elderly people in town. Maru observed Moonjoon from a distance. What did the Senior come here for?

Eventually, a white-haired man walked up to Moonjoong. That was when the senior finally opened his mouth to extend a greeting. The white-haired old man must’ve been a friend Senior made here. Maru couldn’t hear anything about what the two were talking about, but they were clearly having a good time.

For a second, Maru was reminded of Ganghwan. Moonjoong’s face overlapped with Ganghwan’s as he remembered the story about living with homeless people for several months. The white-haired man moved away after talking joyfully with Moonjoong, Maru observed the man carefully as well. This old man had an old bicycle. There was a plastic shopping basket that one would see in grocery stores attached to it, which was filled with scrap paper.

Moonjoong stood up to walk towards the old man, the old man handed Moonjoong the basket before disappearing somewhere else. Maru stood up when Moonjoong waved for him to come closer.

“I will be picking up scrap paper from near here now.”

“What should I do?”

“Nothing. Just watch.”

Moonjoong pushed forward the rusty bike. He moved without stopping, he was clearly familiar with the geography of the neighborhood. He spun around the local store to find some paper and turned towards the house on the other side of the street. There was a bunch of paper, plastic, and other miscellaneous trash laid out right below one of the streetlights. Moonjoong dug through the pile of trash picking out the recyclables himself.

Right then, a woman walked out of the house next to the streetlight with a massive frown.

“Hey! Old man! What do you think you’re doing, going through the trash like that?”

Maru made sure not to intervene here.

“I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up afterwards.”

“You’re too much. Aren’t you the person who ripped a hole in the trash bag last time?”

“I’ve never done such a thing.”

“Liar. You obviously live off of doing stuff like that. Tsk.”

The woman clicked her tongue before throwing a bag of trash in front of Moonjoong.

“What the hell does he think he’s doing at that age? No wonder there’s no one taking care of him.”

She stepped into the building spewing incredibly hurtful insults casually, Maru walked towards Moonjoong with a frown.

“Are you alright, sir?”

“I’m fine. I’m used to it.”

Moonjoong smiled as if nothing special had happened, that smile of his rubbed Maru the wrong way. It was the type of smile found on a businessman during an important transaction.

More so than what the lady had just said, Maru was disturbed by this smile. It felt like the entire person changed, the person who always said wise words to him was nowhere to be found. Instead, the person standing in front of him was an old man sick of life.

Moonjoong motioned for Maru to move away. As soon as Maru did, he went back to digging through the trash. After he was done, he grabbed his bike to move to his next destination. By the time he was done and was back at the town hall, three hours had passed. The original owner of the bike was standing next to the building.

“Thank you.”

“It’s nothing. I’m sorry I couldn’t get you more. I’m still very bad at this.”

“This is still enough for a bottle of makgeolli. I’ll go sell it quickly, so just you wait.”

The old man disappeared with his bike. Moonjoong sighed and sat down on the bench next to the town hall, it was a small distance away from the pavilion.

“It smells.”

“Because you sorted through so much trash. Is this even worth it? I feel like I can get a sense for things just by observing how you work...”

Moonjoong was horribly abused. For someone as respectable as him to be insulted so early in the morning, how was any of this helpful towards acting?

“Feel, yes. Observing is enough for you to get a feel for how things are. People are smart, after all. But you see, having a feel for something and actually doing it are two completely different things. If I didn’t do all of this myself, I wouldn’t have gotten insulted. If I didn’t experience this, my character would be incomplete. I can obviously leave what I can imagine to my imagination. But if I can do it, I might as well try it.”

Moonjoong looked down at his dirtied hands with a proud smile, it was the smile of someone who created a masterpiece.

“Are you satisfied?”

“Of course. Thanks to the lady, I learned what kind of an environment the old man was living in. Well, I’ve heard things like that plenty of times already though.”

“Plenty of times?”

“I tried picking up scraps of paper in Seoul before I came here. There were some who wished me good luck. But most people looked at me like some object of amusement. It was very interesting. The people who so kindly asked me what I was looking for when I was looking at the pile of trash with a suit on… Suddenly looked so cold and hateful when I wore dirtied clothes. Humans are very judgemental.”

Moonjoong wiped his hands on his pants as he stood up, the owner of the bike had returned with a bottle of makgeolli.

“The rest of today will look like this, so take what you can from it.”

Moonjoong looked like he was born here as he walked towards the bike owner. He laughed loudly and blended along with the rest of the old men, but the laughter of the men here had a tinge of sadness within.

“You see, my daughter...”

“My son, he...”

“My grandson...”

There were many stories being exchanged between the men. None of them was ever about themselves. Maru was able to realize from it what life looked like when progress ceased, the only thing that remained was a terrible sense of loneliness.

’An old man… and the old man.’

The real twilight struggles weren’t as far away as he thought.

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