Kkwabaegi by SJ Han

Kkwabaegi

I’m losing track of the days that passed since I’ve been laid off. I watch the sun rays crawl across the cramped living room. I’m lying just next to that jaundiced trapezoid of light splayed on the wooden floor, watching dust particles fall lazily like November snow. Around noon, I summon the will to dress up and go outside, though I have nothing planned. I’m simply someone that understands the perils of bad habits, if nothing else.

It’s hot outside. The air’s like a sigh against my skin, warm and restless. Just outside the apartment complex, I notice an old man selling kkwabaegi out of his truck. There’s always someone selling something out of a truck around here: tomatoes, cabbages, melons – but baked goods are a first. It almost feels wrong to see it all piled in a cargo bed. I unintentionally make eye contact with the vendor, his pupils dulled and slightly off-focus.

“Were these baked this morning?” I ask.

He nods.

They almost certainly weren’t. My mother once owned a bakery. I used to do my homework by the window, lulled by the smell of fresh bread and the muted gold of soft lighting. It stayed open for just over a year. She broke into tears when she had to shut the place down, more than when her father or my father passed. As far as she was concerned, the world had plainly rejected something she made, and by extension, her. It was one of those things I didn’t get until I was older.

I buy a dozen, bothered by a long-forgotten image of muffins and tarts tumbling toward the wastebin. I don’t know if I feel bad for the seller, or for the pastries themselves. The man nods at me again as he hands me my change, as though he’s reaffirming that his bread is freshly baked.

An hour later, I’m slightly upset when I return home from my stroll. I toss to the floor my bag of leftover kkwabaegi, soggy and sticky from the sugar melting. Nothing much happened: I couldn’t find any new job openings, and my mind was going runny from the heat. I did encounter a homeless man lounging in the space between worn-down brick buildings, the whole of him fitting on four newspapers. I tried offering him some kkwabaegi, partly because I thought he’d gladly take anything I gave him. To my surprise, he got angry with me, yelling that I was stepping on his bedding. He pushed away my outstretched arm, and my gift fell pathetically to the ground.

Lying back down on my yellow trapezoid, elongated and farther along the room than before, I contemplate whether I should’ve done more than walk away. I picture myself pressing down on my foot as I pull it from the homeless man’s newspaper, making it tear just a little – that’s when I suspect I’m going mad. I see the bag limp on the floor and sigh, wondering if I should’ve bought cigarettes instead.

That night, I try sleeping in the car. If worse comes to worst, I might put the room or the car up – who knows? I find the time-worn Hyundai in the underground parking lot, then lock myself in. The car used to be my mother’s; she didn’t drive me around a lot, but she once took me on a ride to all the bakeries in the district, right before she put in her savings into opening her own. Gripping the wheel with both hands, she seemed excited – unusually talkative, even – as if the hardest part of starting a bakery was finding a street without anyone selling bread.

I wish the world worked the way she thought it would, sometimes. The passenger seat can’t recline, and there’s a mosquito buzzing into my ear. The occasional car crawls by, the headlights tearing into the layered shadows of motionless objects. The bag of bread peeks out solemnly from the glove compartment. I can’t sleep. I start the engine and drive, both windows down all the way. I get off at a bridge over the Nakdong River. The night sky is damp, and few vehicles swish by. From above, the water’s surface feels so far away. I’ve still got a bag of cold bread that I neither want to eat nor throw away, so I tear small pieces to drop into the water, over and over until the bag’s empty.

A man briefly interrupts me. He asks me if I’m fine. I think he’s one of those volunteers, the ones that make sure people don’t jump. I ignore him as I shake the last few crumbs into the river. He raises his voice twice, then takes a few steps back. It puts my mind at ease, picturing small fish nibbling away at nourishment falling from the heavens. I’m dusting my hands off as I return to my car. I’ll be alright, I think.

SJ Han is a bilingual writer living in Seoul, South Korea. He is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. His work is published or forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, The Café Irreal, Typishly, and Laurel Moon.

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Image (modified): Yi Jaegwan Public Domain

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