run while you can

My Two Cents (Prose/Correspondence).

Agency and the Self

Boston Public Library. Copley Square. Winter 2014.
It was a big room, mostly empty, with windows lining one wall and waxed wood floors. Luis sat with his back to the vast open space. He was facing a young man, probably half his age, who was seated opposite him. The window wall stood beyond the young man. They had just shaken hands, but Luis had already forgotten the boy’s name. He adjusted his posture and focused on maintaining eye contact.
“My father worked nights as a janitor, you see. I used to go with him, at nights, and clean office buildings in the city. I am from this place. I have lived here all my life.”
The young man nodded twice, slowly. “On your resume here, it looks like there’s a gap in your work experience.”
“Oh, yes. Two years. I was a college student.”
“You didn’t finish? No degree?”
Luis positioned his hands atop his knees. “I didn’t finish. My funds ran out.”
The young man’s face contorted. He made some notes. His pen moved quickly across the paper in front of him. He looked up and caught Luis off-guard. “What were you studying?”
The question seemed to have little bearing on the position to which he had applied. “Well, I was a liberal arts student. Eventually I became interested in computer science.” Luis straightened. He recalled the name of the interviewer, Jared. Jared had begun smoothing his hair. He was leaning back in his chair.
“Well, Luis, I have to say, you’re overqualified. What are you doing here? This is a job for people with criminal records, no work history, little education. Sure, English isn’t your first language, but we’re doing fine. Don’t get me wrong, I worked as a janitor myself for a long time. I understand about your father too.”
Luis withheld from blinking his eyes, and he noticed them starting to sting. “I want to go back to school. I want to finish my degree. Look at my experience. I have cleaned the laboratories of chemists. I clean everything. I can learn fast, and I will work hard. You should not worry about my qualifications-” His stinging eyes widened.
“Not worry about your qualifications? It is my job to note qualifications.” Jared righted his own posture. “Sometimes the best candidate is not the most qualified. And some jobs are better left to the under-qualified.”
Luis looked to his left, his right, the empty room waiting at his back. His feet were already on the floor. “When I would go to the offices with my father, I would watch him all night. I was young, eight years of age, nine perhaps. And I watched him.” Luis stared at Jared. The boy’s head bobbed along with his story.



Broad daylight. Boston, MA. Spring 2012.

Inundated with social engagements, he was esteemed for his facility with language. He was a confident thirty. His apartment was well arranged, empty at a glance yet teeming with treasures. He always entered through the door as if emerging from some hostile, foreign world. This place was him, one-hundred percent.
He mulled it over and decided that he could use a good bath, that the bath would do him some good, so he fixed the bath and a drink, sunk into the tub and sipped.
He soon decided a shower was what he really needed, so he pulled the plug and took the clean slate approach.
The water blanketed his body in warmth, immediately replenishing itself, following his contours. He applied more shampoo than normal, enjoying the excess soapy froth. The radio within him chimed, almost echoing throughout the tiled room.
“This new story could be put as such,
‘Don Quixote rides again.’
Nothing magical, just mental.”

The shower ran quick, ten minutes or less, usual. He dried himself with a thick towel that still smelled of fabric softener. In front of the mirror he rehearsed.

“I plead an either/or fallacy. The buzz surrounds either those that make themselves omnipresent or anticipation builds while absence makes the heart grow founder.
“I have been a recluse for far too long, intentionally removing myself, refusing to answer correspondence, opting not to join the e-world, so to speak. This will stop. I have hired a team of incorrigible youth to handle my pubic self. These folks will arrange press conferences, signings, interviews, et cetera. I am to be begin the arduous duty of standing behind my life and my work, honoring you, the public’s, invitations. This much I owe: to reveal myself as unsurprising and ordinary; to execute life routinely; to remain true to my moral code of conduct.”

He had been fiddling with his hair all along. Clothes had been laid out for him on his bed. He knew they were there; he wondered what they might be, a tie perhaps, his brown leather belt and dress loafers. There wasn’t a whole lot of time left before his seven pm broadcast. There would be people, possibly self-proclaimed ‘specialists,’ to aid him with make-up. Cameras have been known to add poundage and amplify skin imperfection. He winced. His radio cut-in.
“Perhaps this isn’t the best time.
There is still time to call it off.
No promises have been made.
Who needs promises anyway?
My work is my word.”

Baby beaks. Tenney Park. Madison, WI. Summer 2012.

Six packs, a six-pack, and ‘sick’ leave.

Unwillingly expecting. One-room. Summer 2011.

The teacher’s office was quickly becoming a swarming beehive. At its center, the expecting queen was about to burst. She stood vertically, her thin arms propped against the small of her back. Her posture suggested she was at least a year pregnant. The shirt she was wearing had once fit as a dress.
She was rattled. She was not accustomed to being the center of attention. She was ready for a break. Three months leave were hers in an hour’s time. But, to her dismay, a sweating chocolate cake was poised on the table in front of her. She heard her bloated stomach growl. Embarrassed, she smiled at the women beginning to surround her. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, celebrating the coming of her second child. She hardly saw the point.

Barely through her first trimester, the doctor had told her that she would be having a girl. She was in disbelief. Another daughter seemed wrong; this child was supposed to be a boy. The doctor must have made a mistake. A female doctor might be under qualified, she had thought. She sought a second opinion.

The cake continued to mock her. Cake meant nothing to her. A birthday here, a house-warming, an anniversary, all, the same sweaty cake. Still, the desire to eat overwhelmed her. She controlled herself, staring in every direction, avoiding the dollops and layers of cream, the chocolatey monstrosity.

The second opinion had produced the same results: she would bring a second daughter into this world. When she told her husband, he too was in disbelief.
“We already have a daughter… I don’t trust that woman doctor of yours.”
“Yes. I know. I visited a male obstetrician. He…he…”
“Yes.. yes.. What did he say?”
“I.. he..” she stammered, “…a girl…”
“I see. We will try again.”
“Yes,” she replied; only she didn’t want to try again.

The chatter in the office intensified. One person remained quiet, the only male in the entire room. He never said much. She knew why. He scarcely spoke the language. Still, in silence, surrounded by women, he appeared at peace. She caught his eye. He approached.
“Ms. Cho a girl will come she said. Congratulations! I my two sisters have. Older sister and younger sister. Three kids. Really, for you, congratulations!”
She nodded. He ought to study, she thought.

Her pregnancy had been long. Longer than usual. Well past the eight month mark, the obstetrician had told her that she should consider a Cesarian. Knives scared her. The thought of cutting one human from another seemed unnecessarily gruesome, as if unassisted birth wasn’t gruesome enough. But her husband had told her the procedure was for the best, both for her and their unborn child.

The home economics teacher grabbed a knife with authority and began cutting the cake. This woman had a motherly aura. This woman had had her two children. This woman had raised her two children.
Being a mother twice-over was unnerving. She imagined two little ones: crying, feeding, messing… The home ec teacher endearingly nudged her. As queen, she took her sliver of cake first, before anyone else. She was handed chopsticks. The incomprehensible boy took his slice next. He and Ms. Cho, the Korean English teacher, began chatting, incomprehensibly.
“She will have a baby.”
“Yes. I know.”
“It will be a girl.” Ms. Cho accepted her cake-in-a-cup. She broke the last set of chopsticks in two, handed a set to the boy, and kept one for herself. (The office wasn’t well supplied with eating equipment.)
“She is pregnant.”
“I understand.”
“She will have a baby.”
“You told me.”
“It’s difficult,” Ms. Cho said, fiddling with her half-size chopsticks.
“Excuse me? To have a baby?”
“To eat.” She laughed, “And to have baby…”
A male math teacher burst into the room.
“Congratulations,” he slurred as he strategically grabbed a cup-full of cake and began devouring it with his hands.

Glowing. Seolbong Park. Summer 2011.

Tick-tock, talking to myself.

No qualms here. Icheon, South Korea. Summer 2011.

Dear Ben,
As you count down the days to your month-long stateside stay, I offer the following tidbit:

Don’t over-think home. Going home ought to be instinctual.

In vigor,

The colour you like.

A friend visits the fruit stand. Icheon, South Korea. Summer 2011.

Yongwoo’s heavy breathing became audible in five minutes flat. Stretched out similarly (flat), his afternoon nap was not unfolding according to plan. His floor was only softened by a thin sleeping mat, quite customary in his culture. There was no need for a sheet. Heat surrounded Yongwoo; even at ease, he sweat profusely. His clothes, which he had opted not to remove, were soaked. This rest was to be brief, no longer than thirty minutes of shuteye. The sun had taken a toll on Yongwoo; his flesh was a rich tone, darker than normal. His voluminous perm bounced in sync with the oscillating fan. His eyes were closed; his mind, open.
Yongwoo attributed his mindset to travel; he was at home in the east, though an individualistic outsider. The upright wardrobe on his right stood as proof, housing an assortment of oddities, his choice clothes. ‘Where are you from?’ was a question Yongwoo heard often enough on account of his appearance . He was born and raised a Korean; his native soil, right here, under his feet. Yongwoo had lived away from home a mere year, split between Australia and the Philippines.

Yong had spent two moons creating an enterprise that, at present, had gone idle. Fresh fruit juice, that’s what he sold: several varieties, some sour, all sweet. Word got around, as it will in a small town, about Yongwoo and his juice.
“Two big-size blenders, two foreign workers in bow-ties, photographs from abroad…for real?”
In the past weeks, his fruit supply had dwindled as townspeople curiously gulped down his new commodity. His foreign friends had needed to move feverishly, spinning liquid bliss for impatient patrons. Yongwoo barely had had a moment to reveal in this snapshot of success.

But that was already the past. Today, heat and humidity collaborated in a mutual effort to keep citizens behind closed doors, under the consumptive care of air conditioning. Yongwoo had left a seemingly evacuated market to find solace in sleep. He was exhausted by inactivity. He had sold a mere thirty drinks over the course of six hours. The 60,000 won in his pocket was discouraging. He was losing money; his fruit ripened all the while, spoiling itself in the summer sun. Upon the sleeping mat, Yongwoo attempted to clear his open mind.
Thirty years old, he observed about himself, no wife, no girlfriend. His recent blind date had gone great, he thought, but that was a week ago. He had followed up, sent word, wanting a second date. There had been no reply. He sighed. Sleep wasn’t coming so easily.
His parents were after him about the fruit juice operation. Yongwoo’s older brother had fallen flat on his face after attempting to open a bakery. Clearly mom and dad feared the same for their younger son. Until now, anxiety lacked traction. Yongwoo’s juice stand had been, well, fruitful during its first weeks. His foreign friends even worked for free. His family helped cutting strawberries, pineapple and all sorts of other natural sweeties. Still, today’s slump hurt. Fighting the weather was foolish.
‘Where are you from?’ echoed in his head. Yongwoo felt a foreigner, anything but at home in his homeland. His perm was considered eccentric by the general public; his beard and mustache were construed as indicative of impoverishment. Even the colour of Yongwoo’s skin was against him. A shade darker than the majority, his flesh linked him to the laboring class. It was no wonder women kept their distance.
Yongwoo rolled over, allowing the circulating air to dry his damp back.
He didn’t want a woman concerned with status. He wanted a woman with a positive mind. He didn’t want wealth without worn hands. He wanted to work for his money. Most of all, he wanted to keep these concerns at bay. He wanted his old complacency back.
The alarm rang. Yongwoo’s thirty minutes were up. He moved to the lavatory and splashed his face with palmful after palmful of water. He raised his head and examined himself in the mirror. Yongwoo liked what he saw. The water had cleansed his cloudy mind. A smile broadened across his face. He would return to the market and continue selling juice.
One cup at a time, he told himself, blend it up.

Like lemonade. Icheon, South Korea. Summer 2011.

Man to ‘Man.’

Swift said it would be like this.* Icheon, South Korea. Spring 2011.

Dear Ben,
(Again) I must intervene in order to protect our future. Aesthetically, the blog is doing fine. My main concern, the main concern within of survival center, is appeal. In other words, our quarterly growth projections are grim. We’re so far removed from ‘relatable’ that we might as well be an alien life form. (I shouldn’t have spoken inclusively. You’re the one that’s not down-to-earth.  You’re  not accessible, dude ; you’re in outer space, groaning about outsiders calling your life an adventure. For chrissake, set ’em straight.**)

You’re a second-nature citizen in South Korea. Sure, the notion of complete cultural assimilation is about as likely as your admittance into an all-girls school (feminine is not female). The bright white spotlight known as your ethnicity, your language, hell, even your radical notions of individuality set you at odds in an Asian atmosphere. Still, sprawling sky-rise apartments, three-syllable full-names, and the underground thrift scene have become commonplace. Even life at school, life as a teacher, appears part and parcel of your domain. Many girl students are motivated; the boys are largely disinterested, more concerned with getting out of/into a worthy fight or finding a girlfriend with good teeth and fair skin. ‘Teachering,’ the term you’ve used to describe role-playing as an educator, has resulted in a myriad of new voices. Students with variant English abilities stick to a specific sub-set of sentences, the staple phrases; communicating with adults has prompted pidgins into flight: fall or fly. Language, you can now candidly assert, is the most complex system absorbed and executed by the human brain.
But perhaps I’ve got everything wrong. After all, I am the flexible; you are aging, fast-drying cement. The time has come to let hand-prints be pressed. The mind adapts much more slow than the body. All I’m asking is that you open yourself to being impressed.

Gainfully exploited, forever yours,
Julius Keen

With further respect to our content… even I must admit that, your poetry, spoken aloud or internally, has its moments.  You’ve got style, but style was never your weakness. Your weakness is mood (this ought to be clear enough by now).
“Teacher, you go to the crazy hospital?”/ Not yet, Nahee, not yet.

*You’ve found yourself a stranger in the land of Houyhnhms; interaction can’t get any stranger.
**The term ‘straight’ is in no way linked to sexual orientation. The expression ‘set ’em straight’ aims to depict dizzied individuals in need of some straight talk.

A good run [away].

Lonely conversation pieces. One-room. Spring 2011.

Dear Ben,
Ten months. Ten months living six thousand miles from home. Ten months is not necessarily an accomplishment. Still, ten months is long enough to contemplate the complete loss of a home. Home, after all, can quickly become a shell: easily carried about, easily left behind…
The well-worn path between your residence and work place never ceases to amaze. Rice patties are year round entertainment, changing ever-so slowly with the seasons, dead set on matching your mood. The road is narrow. At present, tiny plants rise on both sides from the depths of shallow water. Everything is relative.
Only two months remain. Your intentions for this year, your year away, have seen periods of invigorated attention and periods of trudging devotion. You’ve got a hundred pages of correspondence, three markedly-unfinished novels, and a hefty collection of piss-poor poetry. Looking on the bright-side, you’re a better cook than ever before, and you’ve forced your way through some cumbersome literary cornerstones (new, tasty uses for tofu and To the Lighthouse respectively stand out in specific).
My conclusion is that you need another year without a home. You’ve got a room of your own; oughtn’t that be enough? Write words that bring unity to chaos; finish the painting, even if only to reuse the canvas for another catastrophe. Keep working on tre flips too.

Best of luck; fingers crossed on avoiding the employment axe.
The sentimental, sensitive twenty-something teen,
Julius Keen