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       Das Road, p.1

           Brian Bakos
 
Das Road


  DAS ROAD

  by Brian Bakos

  Copyright 2013 Brian Bakos

  Table of Contents

  One: Oori Nara Korea

  Two: Summer of Indecision

  Three: The Long Way Back

  Four: Mad Pursuit

  Five: Restless Interlude

  Six: Underground Realtor

  Seven: Stages of Revolution

  Eight: Into the Maelstrom

  Nine: Home Again

  Reading Group Guide

  Connect with the Author

  Brian’s Other Books

  One: Oori Nara Korea

  Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me. – Anthem, by Ayn Rand

  Chapter 1: Wild Ride to Choon Chun

  I don’t know where I am! A crowd is squeezing me in its claustrophobic grip. I hate crowds. Steps appear in front of me; the mob forces me upwards.

  Then an empty seat emerges, and I plop back into Korea. The alcohol murk in my brain retreats a little. The Korean guy sitting next to me looks over, his face brightening like a Christmas tree.

  “Glass Sonseng!” he cries.

  A sobering chill tingles up my spine. I can think more clearly now.

  “Who?” I say.

  The man’s Christmas lights dim.

  “Are you not Mr. Jon Glass?” he says in English.

  “No!”

  “Excuse me ... uh, your sunglasses ... I am very sorry.” The man turns away.

  I hadn’t meant to raise my voice, but what the hell is going on? This is the third time this week somebody has mistaken me for this Jon Glass character. First a couple of tea room girls and now this guy.

  Who the hell is Jon Glass?

  The guy next to me looks mid 30’s or so and is friendly enough, but I’m in no mood for company. I stuff my bag under the seat, retaining only my camera.

  Koreans pile aboard – middle-aged women adjumonis carrying bulging pochecki scarves, high school boys in camouflage school uniforms, elderly men maneuvering with walking sticks. The pungent smell of kimchee hovers in the still June air, betraying the contents of one pochecki.

  My claustrophobia kicked in again. This crowded space seems to be no longer an ordinary bus – more like a coffin on wheels. I fight the urge to jump up and push my way back outside. I close my eyes, and the blessed soju buzz returns – three big slugs worth.

  Who is Jon Glass?

  The name rings a faint bell, but I am certain I’ve never met him. The ID gaffs are unsettling, especially people’s acute disappointment when they realize that I’m not him.

  Somebody takes the aisle seat across from me. Eyes still closed, I fantasize about who it might be. Is it some lovely yoja, perhaps, hoping to share the ride with a dashing young American?

  She’ll be looking over at me right this moment thinking: “My God, how fortunate I took this bus today!”

  Or maybe it’s Yun Hee herself.

  Right! She’s heard of my imminent departure and has rushed here to make up with me. I’ll be aloof at first, slowly letting her back into my good graces. Then I’ll take her hand across the aisle and –

  Fingers, tough as old leather, stroke my bare forearm. I jerk as if from an electric shock; my eyes pop open behind the sunglasses. An ancient haraboji in white robes and a horse hair hat is sitting across from me exploring my Caucasian forearm.

  He mutters in amazement, something to the effect: “Goddam, look at this hairy Westerner!”

  My seat mate finds this amusing, judging by his broad grin. So nice that he’s entertained.

  “Would you rather sit by the window?” he asks.

  “Yeah, thanks.”

  I move over.

  I study the man surreptitiously. He might be a public school teacher, as he reminds me of the English instructors at my middle school. He has that ‘down at heel’ dignity of a man with good status but low income, and his English isn’t bad.

  The driver, a short, husky guy with close cropped hair, bounces into his seat with authority. The bus girl shuts the door, and we start moving through the Seoul outskirts – crowds of people maneuvering along the sidewalks, dingy little stores and repair shops, bus and automobile traffic spewing a poisonous miasma. Not exactly the National Geographic ambiance I am always seeking.

  But soon we are cruising past beautiful green rice fields and small villages. A light rain begins, and the tires hiss along the pavement. The miles roll by pleasantly. I pull the lens cap off my Pentax and gaze into the glassy depths. The lens glitters at me gold and blue, a Jewel Eye promising romantic adventure.

  “Very nice camera,” the man beside me says. “Is it Japanese?”

  “Yes.”

  He gives a thumbs up. “Japanese cameras, very good. Japanese people, not so good.”

  I smile, not wishing to overtly disagree. I’ve never met a Korean yet who doesn’t hate Japan. This guy might be old enough to remember the brutal Japanese occupation, too.

  “My name is Mr. Jong.” He offers a hand. “I am English teacher at boys’ middle school in Choon Chun.”

  “I’m Tyler Lakatos,” I say.

  “Glad to meet you,” he replies. Then he continues with typical curiosity. “Why are you in Oori Nara? You don’t look like G.I.”

  He’s slipped the Korean phrase for ‘our country’ into his English.

  “I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer,” I say.

  “Peace Corps very good!” Another thumbs up. “You know Mr. Jon Glass? He is also Peace Corps, I think.”

  “Is that so?” I say.

  Mr. Jong counts on his fingers, folding the thumb in first, Korean style. “Mr. Jon Glass – he can drink, he can sing, he can fight! And number one with girls, too.”

  “He sounds like quite a guy,” I say.

  Then the standard questions begin: “How long have you been in Korea, Lakatos Sonseng? Are you married? How old are you?”

  “One year. Single. Twenty-three years old.”

  By this time we’ve reached the mountainous areas of Kang Won Province, and the gyrations of the bus cut off further conversation. Something has gone haywire with the driver. Ignoring the wet conditions, he careens the bus down the steep, curving road much too fast, then guns the engine for the ascent. We rock fearfully in our seats.

  “Aigoo, chugetda!” Oh, I’m going to die! A passenger exclaims.

  The driver growls something in reply and yanks us into another descent. My stomach churns. I’ve always prided myself on being philosophical, but when the going gets tough, an alcohol buzz sure helps. Mine is fading fast, though. I raise the Pentax and begin snapping pictures out the window. In the rectilinear world of the viewfinder, at least, I am invulnerable.

  A mist has settled on the treeless mountains, making the scene mysterious and inviting. Green rice fields nestle in the low areas, along with little thatch-roofed farm houses. Elegant white cranes take flight from a field.

  Click, wind, click, goes the Pentax.

  At every valley and picturesque village I want to get off and explore the impenetrable mystery lying at the root of all life. But this is an express bus, and the driver won’t stop – besides, he’s crazy.

  We zip past a billboard touting the government reforestation program. Each year trees are planted on the barren slopes, then poachers hack them down. Each year people in picturesque little villages die in mudslides from the denuded hills.

  The driver whips us through a gut-wrenching turn, and Jewel Eye clicks the last frame on the roll of film. I pack away the camera and pull out my smokes. Mr. Jong’s face is a pale, stony mask through which he is trying to maintain some dignity. I offer a cigarette.

  “Oh, thank you.” He accepts with a shaking hand.

  Just as I light a match, the bus begins ski
dding out of control on a curve. A horrified gasp shoots through the passengers. A precipice looms outside the window, and my stomach drops over it without me. I jerk my eyes away.

  Isn’t your life supposed to flash before you in such situations? All I see is the match flame burning huge as a forest fire. The bus becomes deathly quiet. Then my terror suddenly vanishes, replaced by a deep sadness.

  This is it? I’m checking out before I have accomplished anything worthwhile?

  I glance out the window again. The world is moving in nightmare slow motion. The sky is pitch black, and the hind quarters of the bus look ready to swing over the edge, taking us on a leisurely, backwards plunge into the abyss.

  Well, let’s get it over with already!

  But then the driver, with skill matching his recklessness, brings the machine around safely. All wheels bite the pavement now, and we begin an ascent back to the world of the living. A collective sigh issues from the passengers. I light our cigarettes.

  Whatever madness that had possessed the driver seems to depart, and he guides the big vehicle across the mountains without further incident. I resume sightseeing.

  Without my camera eye, things should look ordinary again – the familiar scenery, my aimless life. But things have a clarity now, as if the world has been etched into sharp glass for me.

  Yes ... Jon Glass.

  Choon Chun appears, nestled in its humid valley.

  Mr. Jong has taken a liking to me, or maybe he just feels like celebrating his survival. Anyway, he invites me out for a night of drinking, beginning with dinner at his house. The bus rolls into the station, and we passengers trundle off.

  I clap the driver on his shoulder. “Thanks for the ride, pal,” I say in English. “It was ... real.”

  2: Tea without Sympathy

  “I wonder what I am good at? Not at love, it escapes me.” – Valentina, speaking in La Notte

  “I need tea now.” Mr. Jong says.

  We enter a nearby tabang and take a table near the back. It is the usual type place – dimly lit, a largely male clientele. Pretty girls circulate around bringing drinks, flirting, stopping occasionally to have a cup. A television set mounted high on the wall blares a Korean soap opera.

  Mr. Jong downs a cup of tea and smokes a cigarette. Tension drains out of him. Compared to the distressed person on the bus, he now looks as fit as the New Socialist Man, though that’s a bad analogy to use on this part of the Korean peninsula.

  “I must go home and tell my wife to expect a dinner guest,” he says. “We have no telephone, unfortunately.”

  “Sure thing.”

  “Please excuse me, I’ll be back soon,” Mr. Jong says.

  He departs, and I settle back with my coffee and cigarette.

  Tobacco smoke curls luxuriously, hovering over me like an old friend. These Korean cigarettes aren’t half bad, if you stick to the top brands. Deferred exhaustion from the booze and the bus ride try to overcome me, I might nod off were it not for the chatter coming from the television.

  On the TV screen, a young couple dressed in traditional clothes is having a worried conversation. Their surroundings are all smashed up, like an area in a combat zone. This must be one of those melodramas about the Korean War era.

  I look away and rummage in my bag for a fresh roll of film. Exotic East Asia is constantly passing before me, and Jewel Eye must be prepared to record it with Ektachrome snapshots.

  My whole life seems frozen like a snapshot. Not an ugly picture, by any means, but not all that fabulous, either. How close had I actually come to the end today? Have I been reprieved, by God presumably, so that I can move on to accomplish great things – experience great adventures?

  Or am I just fishing for insights like those dickheads back in college with their drugs and mystical religious experiences? It wasn’t God who saved me, after all, but that crazy bus driver.

  I’ve already missed the great adventure my government offered to every male of my generation. I could have walked into any recruiting station and said: “Gimme that one-way ticket to Vietnam!”

  Of course, I might have survived and come back home totally messed up, like my brother Victor ...

  The drone of Korean issuing from the TV abruptly changes to the harsh rasp of a different language – Russian? I look up to see a character dressed in a Soviet military uniform barking commands at the young couple. The girl is shrinking away in terror while her man tries to put up a brave front, failing miserably.

  The actor portraying the Soviet officer wears a peaked cap pulled low to obscure his features, but I can tell he is a real Caucasian rather than a made-up Korean. His performance is scary. Even from this side of the screen he is intimidating – a man of great ruthless power who might unleash it any moment. The actress probably doesn’t have to work very hard to look frightened.

  The scene fascinates me on some primitive level, as if I am there myself. The Soviet officer is advancing on the couple, pulling out the riding crop from under his arm ...

  “Agh!” The tabang matron reaches for the channel dial.

  A soccer game replaces the soap opera, and I snap back to reality as if from some low-budget nightmare. A tabang girl sits down across from me. Man, is she cute!

  “How are you?” she asks.

  “Oh, fine,” I reply. “Would you like some tea?”

  She nods and gestures to one of the other girls to bring her a cup. Looking at her perfect face with its almond eyes and rosy health – obvious even in the poor light – I understand why I worked so hard to learn Korean. Why else study a language except to converse with beautiful women?

  I start a chit-chat conversation. I’m really rapping the Korean mal now!

  “You speak our language very well,” the girl says. “How long have you been in Oori Nara?”

  The usual battery of questions follows, but I don’t mind. She wears a subtle perfume which blends with the cigarette smoke into an intoxicating incense.

  What’s her background, I wonder. She likely started working as a waitress or a bus attendant. Perhaps she is sending money to her family so they can pay for their eldest son’s schooling. That’s how it works among the poorer classes; girls don’t count for that much. The family honor rests with the male heir.

  I’d thought I would be taking an Asian beauty home with me – Yun Hee, a teacher at the boy’s middle school where I taught English. Things were going great with her. She even took me to meet her family, which is the ultimate sign of a Korean woman’s interest.

  Then, a couple of weeks ago, Yun Hee informed me that her parents frowned upon ‘international marriage’ and had located a more suitable Korean fiancée for her. He was a man of good education, she said, with much potential for advancement in his career. They would be married in the Fall. She wouldn’t have to work any more and could settle down to being a dutiful wife.

  When I managed to scrape myself off the floor, I phoned Mom to say I was quitting the Peace Corps. Then I disposed of my meager furnishings, moved out of my house, and got drunk every day.

  Now I am on my farewell weekend to Choon Chun, the best town in Korea. Monday, I’ll officially resign and pick up my plane ticket home. But right now, I am enjoying the company of the pretty tabang girl. She sips her tea, eyes smiling coyly, while I sip in her beauty. Our table makes a pleasant little world of its own.

  Then the atmosphere changes drastically. Chairs scrape along the floor, angry mutterings. The girl’s smile fades, her apprehensive eyes look toward the door.

  “Son of a bitch!” someone snarls.

  I twist around to see a couple of beggars moving down the aisle toward us. One is an elderly woman, toothless and gray, the other is a little boy maybe four years old. A wave of hostility follows them like a blast of freezing air. The tabang matron rushes forward and speaks angrily to the old woman. The little boy walks on alone and stops right beside me.

  Our eyes meet. I am astounded by his appearance. He looks more white than
Korean, with a rounded Western face and light, wispy hair. Almond eyes give away his mixed parentage. He must be the illegitimate offspring of some American G.I. – a man who is back in the States now unaware, or unconcerned, that he’s left a child behind. The little boy extends a chubby hand toward me.

  “Get out!” shrieks the manager, seizing the boy’s arm and propelling him towards the door where the old woman waits in stoic humiliation.

  “Hey!”

  I begin to stand up, but the tabang girl grasps my arm.

  “It’s all right,” she says, “don’t worry.”

  Some bastard at the last table kicks at the little boy as the manager drags him by. I fling off the girl’s arm and stand up. She rises to block my way.

  “Please, Sonseng Nim,” she pleads, “sit down!”

  I brush past her toward the door. The man who kicked at the boy is chortling with his buddies, proud of his achievement. As I pass, I shove his chair hard, pushing him against his table. The laughter stops.

  I reach the door and bump into Mr. Jong.

  “What’s the matter?” he asks. “Was I gone too long?”

  “No, uh ...”

  I hear somebody coming up behind me and spin around, expecting the hero I’d jostled to be coming back for more. It is only the girl. She holds my camera and shoulder bag.

  “I’m so sorry.” She thrusts the items into my hands.

  She and the tabang matron, both mouthing apologies, escort us out the door. Throw us out, actually.

  “Looks like I missed some excitement,” Mr. Jong says.

  “Yeah, right,” I say.

  “For a moment I thought Mr. Jon Glass was here!”

  A taxi is waiting for us, and we get in back. I scan the street but see nothing of the old woman or the boy.

  God damn! It’s the same rotten deal all over the world. Innocent little kids get screwed while the slime balls laugh at them. A thumper headache is building behind my eyeballs. I massage my temples with rigid fingers.

  3: A Night on the Town

  “You must keep company a long time with a man before you know him thoroughly.” – Sancho Panza

  We arrive at a bland new subdivision on the city outskirts – an area of straight lanes and uniform little walled-in houses lacking in picturesque, meandering ambiance.

 
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