Jin-Soo taps an apple with the golf club. It flies over the sidewalk and onto the lawn, rolls for a bit, disappears into a hole. He shuffles backwards a step, takes aim at another apple, and swings. It vanishes too.
The sidewalk is getting cleaner, he thinks. Above him, a crab apple tree is not finished dropping fruit on the concrete, not by a bit. For another full week, he will be having the pleasure of removing apples from the sidewalk, where they would otherwise squish under the feet of children walking to school.
“Why you doing that?” comes a voice.
He turns to see a child in a t-shirt and pink shorts. “Cleaning,” he says.
“Broom?” suggests the boy.
“Golf,” returns Jin-Soo, waving the club. “School time. No school for you?”
The child smiles. “I’m Anton. No school.”
September should not be this hot, thinks Jin-Soo. He thanks the apple tree for its bounty of shade and its little treasures. The street is quiet; around the corner and up the hill is a school, where he imagines wonderful things are happening. He beckons the boy closer. “Tell no one,” he says. “This is golf. Come take.” He puts the club into the boy’s hands and lets him swing. He misses by a large amount, almost as though he couldn’t see the apple Jin-Soo had lined up for him. He swings again and misses by a greater margin.
“Hmmm,” says Jin-Soo, looking at the smiling boy. “No school?”
The smile broadens. “No school for me.”
Where Jin-Soo grew up in Tongchon, everything was white. Buildings were white; shops were white; buses were white, and cars were inevitably white but streaked with whatever grime managed to crust itself onto them due to the dust flying in from the farmers’ fields to the west. East, at the edge of a beach, began the Japan Sea, but what was Japan anyway?
In 1958, he was told that he would be a farmer, so off he went to the west to grow millet. In the fields, he cut the grass – for millet was nothing but a tall although very beautiful grass, one that in this case people could eat. “I am growing grass for us to eat,” he would tell his siblings. “It doesn’t taste good raw. Very bad.” He would make retching sounds to amuse his brother and sister.
In the farm fields, Jin-Soo discovered machines. Few worked well, and most had fallen to ruin where they had stopped working. The labourers merely strode around them, but Jin-Soo considered them carefully. He worked on one, stripping it of pieces that he reassembled with his little fingers so that when the millet was golden and sent its nutty flavor into the wind towards Tongchon and the Japan Sea, he had a portable scythe with an adjustable band that would allow him to extend his reach far beyond what his arms would normally supply. He became, as a result, the best worker in the field.
By the next year, he had convinced the farmer to let him fix the broken machines. He was the first to ride a repaired one, humming along the field of waving grass under a cloud of diesel fume, which like smoke signals flew towards Tongchon and the coast, and the Sea of Japan.
“Orange juice,” says Jin-Soo, handing Anton the glass. He watches carefully as the boy brings the glass to his lips, then twitches and spills the liquid onto his t-shirt. “Dear lad,” he says, “more slow.” Anton beams. His hand shakes as he gives back the glass.
“Sorry,” says the boy. “Bit retard.”
“Bad word. Not use please.”
“Have a better word?” he asks, hopefully.
Jin-Soo thinks, but gives up. “Now golf,” he announces, “is very proper. Take hold.” The boy takes the club, and gets the grip wrong. Jin-Soo plies his fingers off and rearranges them, then steps back. “Now swing!”
The club hits the sidewalk and grinds to a halt. Jin-Soo shakes his head and tells him to try again. This time the club flies out of the boy’s hands and onto the lawn. Anton’s puts his hands on his head and opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.
“Hmmm,” says Jin-Soo. “Maybe gloves help?”
“Maybe gloves help,” repeats the boy.
“Maybe not?” he repeats again. He takes off his top and wrings it above his head to drink the orange juice soaked in it. The liquid comes out like it’s been spurted from a real fruit rather than this stained white t-shirt with a faded photo of an eagle on it.
By 1970, Jin-Soo’s hands were golden, just like the millet, but they were still small – far smaller than those of his brother and sister. Some might even have called them delicate. As his siblings sat at the table and completed their schoolwork, Jin-Soo tuned the radio, trying to hear the broadcasts from South Korea. Sometimes, dashes of music would appear, and they would together dance. At others, a serious voice discussed matters that occurred on foreign lands. In this way, they learned about a famous singer who had been charged for possessing something called cannabis, and that a World’s Fair was to open not far away in Japan, wherever that was. Together, they wondered if these things were not somehow related.
But as the year drew onwards, the radio broadcasts weakened. The music faded. Jin-Soo found himself on the roof of the house, laying wire around the chimney until the broadcasts strengthened once more. Later in the year, he discovered that other signals were travelling the air. He dismantled the radio and took to the dump at the edge of town, scrounging for parts until he had found a crude, cracked screen. Little fingers danced with the elements of an electron gun; the cannibalized parts of the radio served as the tuning instrument. Soon, the house was filled with images grown in the south, of other lands and faraway places. Jin-Soo and his family huddled around the instrument, the curtains closed, the doors locked, as they watched the launch of a rocket that was intended for a planet named Venus – wherever that was.
But it was after the harvests, as the cold started to creep in, that Jin-Soo started work on a device to improve the signals on the screen. In the small of the house, with a soldering iron in hand, he began tracing a mechanism on a bit of tin, segregating electrical currents into individual segments – some that he allowed to go fast, others that he slowed, until he had augmented the signals that he sought to attract to the little home in Tongchon, at the edge of the coast.
“I hear you’ve been playing with my son,” says the woman. Anton is next to her, beaming.
“Golf game,” returns Jin-Soo. “Fun.”
She has very bright hair, and very tight trousers. And lipstick and breath that smells of bad tea. “You know he’s not normal, right?”
Jin-Soo shrugs. “Normal enough.”
“I mean, he can’t learn things. We’ve tried to put him into a special school. Tutors. Linguists, therapy, all those things. He just can’t do it. So he stays at home, and I do my best.”
“No school ever for me,” admits Jin-Soo. “Still, live in Canada now, in big house. And play golf.”
“With crab apples?” she asks.
“Practice for big game,” he returns.
“Biggest,” he smiles.
She stares at him. “Listen,” she says. “Just be careful what you do with him. Don’t make him think he’s okay. Understand?”
“Not okay!” chimes in Anton. And with that, they walk across the road and down the street, to vanish into their house.
“Who was that?” asks Seok, coming out.
“Neighbors,” says Jin-Soo.
“Okay. Dad, I’m going to work. Need anything from the store?”
Jin-Soo considers. The day is bright. He’s been to the stores where his son shops: they are huge, like the sea, and they have aisles of devices and accessories. He’s walked those aisles, and become lost in them until Seok has had to have the store people call for him over the PA. He turns to his son, and shakes his head no.
The party official had come in 1974. She’d been served tea and biscuits, as she sat at the table with Jin-Soo.
“What have you produced?” she’d asked. Jin-Soo had slid the device towards her, and she’d tapped at the keys, staring at the screen. “What does it do?”
He’d turned on the power and shown her. Images had flipped across the screen, computations and numbers that Jin-Soo had learned from the textbooks of his siblings. He’d explained carefully the abilities of the device, and how it could be used to undertake complex things – and how he could make it better, if he had more resources, to solve the most difficult problems. “It can be used to help predict weather patterns. Ocean currents. Design ships and cars. Rockets. It can be used for communication, and even to optimize food production.”
The official had stared at him blankly as he’d continued. Occasionally, she’d looked at the device, but had not touched it again, almost as though it offended her. She’d signaled to her men – two dark shadows wearing hats over their dusty uniforms. They’d picked up the device and taken it outside.
“We the people have many strengths and abilities and need no aid,” she’d said. “But possibly your device will be helpful. We will evaluate. And if it is useful – this will be a good thing you have done for the State.” Her face had twisted into a knot. “Thank you.”
She’d risen, and Jin-Soo with her. “But am I not to continue this work?”
The official had stared at him. “What is your occupation?”
“Are you good at it?”
She’d turned to him a final time at the door. “Then all is well.”
Later that night, Jin-Soo had been at the ocean. The Sea of Japan, they had called it. He’d waded into the waves, naked. Moonlight had confirmed the size of the waves, and the immensity of what lay before him. He’d swam so far that night, hoping to be caught by a deep current that would propel him through the darkness, that he had almost drowned. Back on the beach, he had cleared his lungs of salt water.
The next day, he’d returned to the farm. In the middle of the field lay a tractor that he had once fixed, its frame rotted by the sun, its energies expended.
Jin-Soo hands Anton the modified golf club. It has oversized grips now, and its weight has been modified to make it top-heavy. More importantly, it has a handle at the end, cut from a shovel. This allows Anton to grip the thing without having to wrap both his hands around the shaft, an act he simply cannot do.
September is still hot. Crab apples are still falling, but they are diminishing in number, and the sun seems to find more and more places to look through the branches at what the old man and his protégé are doing.
“One, two, three, four,” repeats Anton, as he swings the club. He misses the apple.
“One, two, three, four, five,” says Jin-Soo. “No forget five! Move back one step. Back little bit. Don’t forget five. Now swing!”
Anton swings. The club crushes the crab apple, spurting juices in every direction.
Seok comes out of the house and leans against his shiny car. “Dad, this is a bit ridiculous.”
“Not ridiculous. This is readiness for big game.”
Seok shrugs. He traces Anton’s movements as he swings repeatedly, missing in every case. “Maybe he’d be better at a different game.”
“No. Golf,” says Jin-Soo. He leans towards Anton. “Now listen, you add five. Now you add five.”
“One, two, three, four,” says the boy. He stops and looks around, repeats the words under his breath. Closes his eyes. Opens them. “One, two, three, four,” he barks, and then, from no where, out slips another word: “Five!” And the club swings, striking the apple square. The little thing flies from the sidewalk, over the grass, over the hole, then over the hedges near the house as it traces a way upwards. Jin-Soo follows its path, and Seok is right next to him. They are shading their eyes, following the path of the apple as it streaks over the house and into the blue sky.
“Five!” cries Anton, hopping on a leg.
“Holy shit!” cries Seok.
“No, not shit,” says Jin-Soo. He’s lost sight of the apple, but the sky, he thinks, looks very familiar – and fairly endless. Behind him, Anton has set up another apple, and Jin-Soo turns to look at him. He lines up the club. Firms his grip. Stares at the apple carefully as he braces his hips. The boy’s lips are muttering, counting again. It’s only when he’s successfully finished the numbers that his body moves.
It was not until 1986 that Jin-Soo had decided that all was not well with being a farmer. He’d urged his wife to expend the last of their money on preparations, and then one dark night they’d taken their little boy and left the village. A long, dusty road had taken them south to the water, where they’d climbed aboard a small boat and been taken to a set of glimmering lights on the horizon.
The hold of the ship had been crammed with people. Seok had been sick many times as they’d travelled the waves. “It’s not too much to bear,” Jin-Soo had urged the little boy. “Dear lad, truly, it’s not.” And the waves had continued their barrage against the ship, until finally they’d reached a long lay of land, some place called Japan.
There, they’d spent a year in a camp. Jin-Soo had taken work in a ginger farm, and made enough money to put together papers to immigrate. First it had been the Philippines. Then Australia. Then America, which they’d reached by airplane just as Seok had turned twelve. There, Jin-Soo had worked on a fruit farm, gathering grapes in the harvesting season, and tying vines in the spring. They had been in Arizona, then Idaho. Kansas. Michigan, where it was cold. Georgia, hot with the ocean. And finally Canada, where snow flew and flew and flew. But in all these places, Jin-Soo worked the land, always the land, an activity for which his hands had long been conditioned – no matter that his fingers were still small, what some might even call delicate.
Jin-Soo sits at the desk. His son is at work; his daughter-in-law is at school, teaching. Anton has gone home, laughing for all the world to hear. Jin-Soo had given him the club, and told him to show his mother how he could use it. Already, Jin-Soo has gathered a set of real golf balls, for now, he thinks, it is time for the boy to enter the big game.
In front of him is a computer. All the workings are contained behind the screen, which itself is immense. That screen is dark. The power is off. Jin-Soo considers the thing. He can see his reflection: it is the image of an old farmer, beaten by sun and dust and the travails of the long open fields that are required to nourish the people. But it has been a long time since he has been in the field, such a long time that he barely remembers the experience anymore. Now he is here, in this grand house, waiting patiently for grandchildren to appear.
He grasps the computer and flips it onto its screen. A screwdriver neatly opens the screws on the back, and he pulls apart the case. Inside is a mess of wires and circuits, and boxes that are harder to open but he manages anyway. A soldering iron is at hand, and diagrams he culls from the books that his son collects. He works all day, even skipping lunch. By the end of the afternoon, he has reassembled the device. It is heavier now, and there is a smell of iron in the air. But when he looks into the screen, the reflection is definitely still that of a farmer, nothing more than that. He grins.
Later, Seok comes home. “Something to show you,” says Jin-Soo, drawing him to the office.
“Is this about that boy? His mother called me. She was crying.”
“Apples almost finished. Next time, real balls, and soon a proper golf course.”
Seok sighs. “Deb will be home soon. What do you want to show me?”
“Sit,” says Jin-Soo, lowering his son into the office hair. “Look at screen.”
“Dad, what are all these tools for? Have you been messing with the computer? Do you have any idea how much this thing cost?”
“Made improvements,” says Jin-Soo. “Now it do some things you won’t believe.”
“Dad, since when do you know the first thing about computers…”
“Watch. Just watch,” interrupts Jin-Soo. He puts a hand on his boy’s shoulder. It is something he used to do with his brother and sister, too. He receives letters from them at times, talking about North Korea and how it has progressed, but that there is little food now. It is becoming more difficult for them and their families, and he wonders often about bringing them here to this place, this Canada, despite its cold and its snow.
But for a moment, he stops thinking about that. He stops thinking about anything, and looks at the rectangle in front of him, with its reflection of the old farmer and his Canadian boy.
The screen is really dark. Totally blank.
And then, after all this time, he turns it on.
Seems like a grimy world but still made of wonder, no?