Yang Ganghwan took off the newspaper covering him.
“Phew, doesn’t look like my face was paralyzed, at least.”
There were a bunch of homeless people sitting around the bus terminal. After all, it was winter, and the terminal was warm. Ganghwan had been living here for around two weeks now.
The person who walked up to him with a bottle of soju was Mr. Kim. The man who was the leader of the homeless here. He was the one who decides who sleeps where.
“Drinking, so early in the morning?”
“I’m drinking because it’s the morning. Looks like you’re still doing well, that’s good. Here, have a shot. It’ll warm you up.”
November. It was getting a bit too cold to keep warm with just a newspaper. The walls of the bus terminal stopped wind from getting in, but the temperature was still cold enough to paralyze a man. Paralysis, to a homeless person, was a worse outcome than death.
Ganghwan accepted the shot of soju. He felt his stomach warm up a bit.
“Stretch a bit. Your bones are going to rot away if you just curl up like that.”
Ganghwan nodded, and started stretching. His stiffened muscles were screaming at him. That was a good sign, at least he could still feel pain. According to Mr. Kim, things were really bad for you if you woke up feeling good. Because you were too numb to feel anything wrong with your body.
“Now now! Stand up! We need to leave this place squeaky clean!”
Mr. Kim started waking up all the homeless people. Each one of them started cleaning up after their sleeping areas. To begin with, Mr. Kim was the person who entered an agreement with the terminal to begin with. Most people didn’t know this, but the homeless would go elsewhere when the terminal was open for the public. They didn’t stay in places where they would attract attention, and they always cleaned up before they left. They didn’t get into fights with passengers, and they made sure not to leave behind any unwanted smells.
“Mr. Park! Clean up your clothes!”
Mr. Park nodded at Mr. Kim’s words. As soon as the homeless people managed to clean up, the passengers started coming in in droves.
“Now now, let’s get out of here.”
Mr. Kim told the employee that they would be leaving with a smile. Right then, a thirty year old lady ran into one of the homeless people. It was Mr. Hwang, a person Ganghwan was familiar with. The man came to the terminal about three days ago, and unfortunately still had his pride with him. He often said the words, “if it wasn’t for that guarantee...” under his breath.
The woman who ran into him looked him over with a disgusted frown, her eyes made Mr. Hwang flip over.
“You bitch! How dare you look at me like that!”
Ganghwan ran over to stop him immediately, just a single report would send off all of the homeless people here out into the streets. Mr. Hwang alone could easily chase everyone out of here. Ganghwan dragged Mr. Hwang away, as Mr. Kim started talking to the lady.
“Lady, are you okay?”
Mr. Kim looked pretty normal, dressed in clothes ready for a hike. He also looked like a wealthy individual to begin with. With Mr. Kim talking, the lady calmed down pretty quickly. He walked her over into the terminal naturally.
“Mr. Hwang, you need to calm down.”
Ganghwan took Mr. Hwang to the bathroom before any employees noticed them. Mr. Hwang angrily huffed before turning desperate.
“How did I end up like this...”
“Go wash your face and calm down a little. Mr. Kim’s handling it well out there, I think.”
Mr. Hwang smelled a little of alcohol. Ganghwan shook his head before stepping back outside. He could see the woman from before heading off to the bus stops with a ticket. She didn’t seem to have made a report, thankfully.
“He’s in the bathroom.”
Mr. Kim sighed frustratedly.
“I saw him drinking yesterday… I knew this would happen.”
“The lady? She didn’t say anything?”
“I told her to think as if she stepped on poop, she looked scared and left right away. Sigh, this is no good… If we get on the employees’ bad side before it gets really cold, we’re in big trouble.”
Mr. Hwang stepped out from the bathroom. He bowed slightly to Mr. Kim with an embarrassed expression before walking away.
“It’s because he still has that pride, that damned pride. He won’t be able to recover with it.”
Mr. Kim told Ganghwan to work hard before walking away, the man was probably headed for the job market. He probably wouldn’t be able to get anything done, though. After all, the job market was overflowing with people in their 20s. Mr. Kim, who had been a factory manager back in the day, got hit badly during the Asian Financial Crisis, and never recovered. He divorced, and that’s how he ended up becoming who he was now. A homeless man for six years and counting.
Ganghwan stared as he watched Mr. Kim walk away. This terminal was filled with homeless people, the “failures” of society. He had to wonder, did the people who made fun of the homeless know? That each one of these people used to be CEOs and heads of a department back in the day?
They failed because of circumstances out of their control, and were laughed at regardless. Ganghwan smiled bitterly as he took out his notebook, and started taking notes. He needed to write down exactly how he felt. He needed to write down what he ate in the morning, what happened during the day, how his body felt right now, what the scenery was like, and everything else. He took as detailed notes as he possibly could.
Afterwards, Ganghwan got two cups of coffee, and offered one to a bus driver he got to know a few days ago. As they started talking, the radio was announcing the daily news.
- The residential properties in Gangnam soared in price by about 20% recently.
“I should’ve fucking bought that land back then.”
“I heard prices rose by a huge amount?”
“Nowadays you can earn hundreds of thousands just by sitting if you have that land. There’s a bunch of people sleeping on the streets, and some lucky few are sweeping in cash just because they happened to have the right property… I don’t know if I should say that this world is disgusting or stupid.”
The bus driver watched as some of the homeless started walking away.
“Those guys are very unfortunate as well. They must want to see their wives and children, but can’t because they have no money. Damn it, it all comes down to money and its ability to ruin a family just like that.”
The bus driver left with just that. Come to think of it, the way people looked at homeless people were all different depending on their age. The older they got, the more sympathetic they became. Probably because they knew how easily they could become homeless themselves. Just a single mistake, and they could become one of the many people sleeping at a bus terminal.
“Oh, Mr. Kim?”
Mr. Kim appeared with a bottle of makgeolli, instead of going to the job market like Ganghwan thought. Alcohol? At this time of day? That was very unlike Mr. Kim. Most people had the assumption that homeless people did nothing but drink, but that was absolutely false. Of course, there were those who blindly drank their lives away in despair, but the vast majority spent their time working hard and recovering. Of those, Mr. Kim was the type that stuck to a very strict schedule. That shot of soju he drank every morning was more like medicine to survive every day. It absolutely wasn’t something he drank for pleasure. But the makgeolli in his hand right now… It was clearly for entertainment.
“What happened to work…?”
“I wanted to send you off.”
Ganghwan trembled a little bit after hearing those words.
“I thought you might be leaving around today. How would you like a drink?”
* * *
Ganghwan threw on some soup stock over dried noodles, and crushed it up. Voila, a wonderful drinking food. The two of them started drinking at the park near the terminal.
“So, what do you do?”
“Act? Why are you here, then?”
“I need awareness if I want to act properly.”
“So you’re saying that being homeless is helpful for you?”
“Yes. I am playing a homeless person, after all.”
“Haha. I see that my first impressions of you were right on the mark now.”
“What did you think of me?”
“I thought you were insane.”
Ganghwan exploded into laughter after hearing that.
“It was already strange to begin with, watching a young man like yourself come into our community. You looked very much alive as well. Er, it sounds a bit awkward with me saying this, but being homeless requires you to give up everything. Pride, face, power, everything. We have nothing, so we need to act like we have nothing. At that point, we can start to see if a person’s truly alive or not.”
Mr. Kim was saying some scary things like it was normal to him. Ganghwan felt a bit apologetic after hearing this.
“I’m not trying to blame you for anything, it was just a passing comment. Anyway, did you learn anything?”
“Yes. I learned a lot.”
“Good to know. Thank goodness you had something to learn from this hellhole.”
“Hellhole’s a bit strong of a descriptor, isn’t it? I mean, this is still a place where people live.”
Ganghwan poured Mr. Kim a full cup of makgeolli. After that, Mr. Kim started talking a lot about his life story. Even things he didn’t typically talk about were shared during their shared drinks. Every once in a while during the middle of a sentence, Mr. Kim would wipe off tears with his blackened hands.
“You know now, Mr. Yang, that we aren’t like this because we want to be, right? If you look at the TV, everyone treats us like sinners. Like cockroaches that don’t even try to recover, and instead leech off of the donations that come their way. I want to say a few things to the people that complain about us. What do you know about us?! You bastards! I was a CEO too! I used to donate left and right! Did you know that? You bastards! But my factory went down. It was all my fault, so I have nothing to say. I have nothing to say...”
Mr. Kim’s rage was heated, and at the same time, very desperate. The man, who never showed any anger in front of homeless people, was venting like he wanted to let out all of his frustrations on this one day. Ganghwan listened, and engraved those words in his head. By the time Mr. Kim finished talking, he’d broken down into tears.
“Why are you crying, Mr. Yang?”
“What, can’t I cry?”
“Of course you can cry! As a matter of fact, I’m thankful that you’re crying for me!”
Mr. Kim poured Ganghwan a cup of makgeolli with a jovial laughter.
* * *
Miso headed to the theater with a single ticket in hand, the show was just about to begin. She was here to see a play by the name of ‘A Human’s Repayment’ and planned on visiting the dressing room before the play, but her tardiness led her to the audience seats.
The entire theater was packed full with 300 people. Miso tried to get a ticket herself, but it was sold out within minutes on the internet. The ticket she had now was gifted to her by one of the cast members.
“I wonder when Ganghwan will come out.”
Two girls, presumably in college, were whispering next to her. As Miso thought, Ganghwan was still as popular as ever. He was one of those eccentric actors who left a popular private theater to go to a no-name theater in a regional city. He made his name there for a while before getting scouted into a company in Seoul. From what she’s heard so far, all the big theater companies in Hyehwa station were trying to scout him right now.
‘He was born to be successful.’
A prodigy. That was the only word she could describe him with. But she wasn’t jealous. She knew how much he had to work to get to where he was now. As a matter of fact, she felt ashamed when she started comparing herself to him.
‘He’s worked enough to deserve all that attention.’
The man spent an insane amount of time practicing. As she spent a few minutes observing the stage, the lights went out. The sound of the wind blowing started coming from the speakers.
The play was about to begin.
* * *
Breathless. That was how Miso felt at this very moment. She was certain that this was shared by everyone else in the theater. This was a play for adults. Not in a sexual way, no. But in a violent way instead. Not a physical violence, but a mental one. The actors brutally acted out the cruelty of modern-day society, the cruelty that only humans were capable of.
It was insane. The person who came up with the play, the people performing the play… They were all insane. Worst of all…
The spotlight turned on, focusing on a single man.
Car horns were blaring around him, and the sounds of people talking were being played all around them. Amongst all the noise, the man spoke a sentence that marked the climax of the entire play.
“I saw a sentence written on a bridge on the Hangang river. ‘I want to go home’. Seeing that, my friend said he wanted to go home. Back to his wife and child. He said he wanted to go back.”
The man stretched out his hands. They were trembling lightly.
“Do you know what I thought? I saw those same words and thought, ‘I want to die.’ Those words that sounded so warm to you… were the same words that gave me this urge to throw myself off of that bridge.”
The man kneeled, Miso could hear the girls next to him moan. They were absolutely taken by the play, by that actor on stage.
“A failure. A loser. A nobody. That’s probably what you think of me. But know this, I didn’t become a failure on purpose.”
The man slowly raised his head. His expression, a concoction of rage, loss, despair, fear, and… a silent call for help. He looked at the audience with this complicated expression.
“You were… Just a little more lucky, compared to me. Remember this. You could be next. This cold, desperate hellscape could come to you, next. So I’ll pray for you. I’ll pray that you can survive when that moment comes.”
The man fell backwards. Flop.
And with that, the stage turned dark.
* * *
No one said anything. The audience left almost as if they were afraid of talking to each other. Some people were even ripping apart their pamphlet angrily, others were shivering nervously. Everyone had different reactions, but it all seemed to mean one thing.
They never wanted to see the play again.
Miso shook her head. This play wasn’t going to earn much money, unless it ended up becoming a sensation or something. It would probably get forgotten completely. Because… it invoked too much pain in the audience.
“It hurts too much.”
It would honestly be better if it was just sad. At least then people would watch it again. But this hit the audience exactly where it hurt, and it hit again and again. Miso found herself running into the dressing room as soon as she got outside. She knew the play would be good because he was performing, but to think it’d be this good… She quickly greeted the staff she knew before jumping straight into the dressing room. She could see Ganghwan erasing his makeup in front of one of the mirrors.
“Oh my ass!”
Miso slapped Ganghwan’s head with her pamphlet.Previous Chapter Next Chapter