THE BLACK TIE
Mr. Baek didn’t tie his own tie. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how, but when he did, his wife would let out a sigh and say, aigo, when will my suhbahng learn to tie a tie. With authority and control, she would unknot it to tie it up again. When she had it around his collar, measuring the lengths on both sides, it was as though she was tugging on the reins of a horse before its race – firmly but gently. While his wife groomed him for work each morning, Mr. Baek gazed upon her in admiration. Her brows furrowed, and her brown eyes were clear in the light that showered in through the bedroom window. When Mr. Baek saw this, he felt as if he had done something right with his life. Her eyes moved left and right, and when she was done, she would take a step back to review her work. Only then would her eyes meet his. He loved her look of concealed satisfaction.
Mr. Baek saw a crease about his wife’s cheek in the sunlight that he hadn’t noticed until now. He planted a kiss there, and went off to work.
“He’s from Gwangju?” asked Mr. Moon, head of sales. Mr. Park closed the door behind him on the roof. “Where’d he graduate?”
“Some college in the countryside, I suppose,” he replied as he lit the cigarette held between Mr. Moon’s lips.
Mr. Park was one of the seniors in the division. He crouched down and lit his own, careful not to blow smoke over to where Mr. Moon was standing. Mr. Moon, leaning on the railing, looked down at the crowded street. It stretched far into the sunset that was about to sink into the narrow opening between buildings. People moved quickly in all directions, bumping shoulders, spilling coffee, and waiting in line for the bus. Mr. Moon exhaled and the smoke disappeared into the roar of engines and the sporadic honks, some long and some short. Mr. Park looked at the closed door. He took a long drag on his cigarette. Mr. Moon peered down the endless rows of tall office buildings. He squinted as the bus his eyes were following, travelled westward into the spilt yolk of the evening sky.
“Well, how the hell did he get in?” Mr. Moon loosened his Hugo Boss tie, hawked, then spat. “Does he have some sort of back?”
“I’m not too sure, sir.” Mr. Park scratched his head. “I don’t think he knows anyone here.”
“What’s a guy like him doing in Seoul? That’s when you know your company is going under. You hire a bunch of unqualified hicks for cheap. But that’s not going to improve our situation.”
Mr. W. Park, a junior, opened the door to the roof, carrying three cups of coffee, one held between the two cups in each hand.
“You’re taking your time.” Mr. Park stood up and lifted his hand in the air, bluffing a strike. “Little shekki.”
The junior flinched and spilled some of his coffee on his hands.
Mr. Moon took a sip from his cup. “Look at them. They look like roaches from here.”
It was six o’clock and Mr. Baek was getting ready to go home. He smiled at the thought of coming home with fried chicken for his wife. He packed his things with a light heart and walked towards the elevator.
“Hey new guy,” Mr. W. Park said as he trotted towards him, frowning. He seemed ready to go home as well. “Listen, I have to be at a friend’s bachelor party in –” He looked at his watch. “Half an hour.” He glanced to see how far the elevator was from reaching the floor. “But I haven’t finished my route today. Do this for me and – ” Mr. W. Park shoved the files into Mr. Baek’s arms and rushed into the open elevator. “Thank you!”
Mr. Baek was left alone in the dim office hallway. He unpacked his things and called home to let his wife know that he would be late. Mr. W. Park was his senior. Mr. Baek was two years older than Mr. W. Park.
His wife had set the table for two. She ate alone, her spoon and metal chopsticks clinking against the bowls for the rice and the meager side-dishes: kimchi, fried eggs, and stir-fried anchovies. In her husband’s seat were phone bills and papers from the bank. The TV faced the white wall and the couch. It was tuned into the news channel and the reported could be heard saying:…And there is a steep rise in the suicide rate in teens due to the degree of stress brought on by grueling education programs…unemployment is a major factor in the high suicide rate in male adults….
Mrs. Baek coughed. Her cheeks were burning and she felt a wrenching pain in the left rear of her skull.
The baby cried from the bedroom.
The route was an apartment on the outskirts of the city. A young lady opened the door at the first home, greeting him in a Jeolla dialect. Mr. Baek felt a sudden rush of joy at the familiarity in her intonation. She invited him inside for tea. The small one-room was filled with boxes, and it wasn’t clear to Mr. Baek whether they had just arrived or were all packed up to leave. Her husband had just passed the bar, and was looking to find work in the city. Her voice and her accent filled his ears and he felt warm and right at home. It was a gentle reminder that he and his family weren’t the only ones in the city from Gwangju.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking. Nothing’s really set in stone yet.” She brought out the tea and some yugwa snacks. “But I have a good feeling he’ll find a firm here soon.”
“I’m sure he will.” Mr. Baek smiled as he sipped his tea.
“But we still have a lot of bank loans to pay back.” She sighed. “If this doesn’t come through I don’t know what we’ll do. As hopeful as I try to be, sometimes I can’t stop thinking about it. You understand, don’t you?”
He nodded. “The interest rate is outrageous.”
“They might as well skin a flea for its hide!”
My boss is two months late on my pay, so I had to crack open my savings to pay rent. Mr. Baek wanted to tell someone this information. Someone who wasn’t his wife. Someone he didn’t have any responsibility for. But he scrapped the idea as soon as he saw the sentence form in his head. He was slightly taken aback by how honest he was willing to be with this stranger.
Mr. Baek asked her whether she and her husband were aware of the current real-estate climate, and presented her with a brochure that outlined the projected trends for Bundang in the next decade. She listened very closely and perused the colorfully organized charts in the brochure. She told him she would show it to her husband. Mr. Baek thanked her for the tea, and hurried to the next house on his list.
A middle-aged woman opened the door just an inch and glared at him. “What do you want?” Mr. Baek was caught off guard and his Jeolla accent slipped in as he introduced himself.
“Not interested.” She shut the door before he could finish his lines.
He knocked again. She opened the door slightly wider this time and revealed her face. The woman looked like a Russian doll – her hair permed like broccoli, eyes blotted with blue eyeshadow, rosy cheeks, and red lipstick. Mr. Baek was startled, but he performed his lines about the real-estate trends.
“What’s wrong with you? I said I wasn’t interested.” She shut the cold metal door on his face. He could hear her mumble, “…This is Seoul…not the countryside….”
After he finished Mr. W Park’s routes, Mr. Baek stopped by a pojangmacha to have a drink. It was a quarter to midnight and there was a couple in the corner chatting and drinking and laughing. The blue and red plastic chairs were in disarray, so he had to lightly kick them aside to walk straight to a table. He poured himself a shot, and the owner, an old lady, brought out a bottle of soju and a bowl of fish cake soup without saying a word. Mr. Baek phoned his friend, Sangwoo.
“Baek Jung, you shekki, how long has it been?”
“Four months, I think.”
“Has it been that long? Time just flies, doesn’t it? How’s the baby? Your wife? What’s going on?”
Mr. Baek drank, and he soon found himself laughing and exchanging the bits and pieces of memories he had with Sangwoo when they were in college. When Mr. Baek’s family business went bankrupt, his father had left his mother with a single note that read: I’m sorry. It was unsettling for him to think that his father could be roaming around in Gwangju or Seoul or anywhere else in this tiny country. He had thought this when his father left him, and he still thought this now. The old man was a coward. Mr. Baek’s mother fell ill a few years later, and passed away. Had it not been for his friend, he knew that he would have killed himself. Sangwoo was with him at lunch and dinner everyday until they graduated. And it was on his way home from Sangwoo’s place one evening that Mr. Baek first met his wife; waiting for the bus that wouldn’t run until the next morning. He walked her home that night, and with that almost unrealistic cinematic encounter, he had felt an unusual tingle – perhaps of desire, perhaps of hope.
Mr. Baek’s glass lay empty. The laughter died down. He looked beyond the glass to the blue plastic chair on the other side of the table. Slightly tipsy, he was reminded of the reason why he had called his friend.
“I’ve hit a wall. My boss is two months late on my paycheck. The interest on my bank loans is stacking up. I’m breaking into my savings – the money ma left for me. I don’t know what to do.”
“I told you you’d regret it. You leave a perfectly nice home and a fine job here as the senior in sales – and for what? You’re not even happy. It all looks fancy on television and brochures, but you can’t have any of that unless you’ve got the money. Normal people can’t have that shit. It’s a mirage. That’s how they lure in you in. With images. Nobody cares about your well-being. Everything’s about money up there. You remember Yoon? Yeah, the head of that entrepreneur club in college. Well, he died in a motorcycle accident a few weeks back. Do you know how much his family received from the life insurance company? 2 million won. I mean, shibal, that’s money, but that’s all we’re worth, Baek. It doesn’t change the fact that his wife’s now a widow and his kid’s going to grow up without a father. Once that money is spent and gone, there’ll be nothing but a fat ugly zero next to his name.”
Mr. Baek took the long way home. He had never been very good at handling his liquor, but he tried to sober up before he came home. He went through the park and down to the track below the small bridge where he would occasionally see runners pass by. Sometimes bikers overtook the walkers and honked their bike bells. Mr. Baek would smile and move aside to let them pass.
There was a small brook that ran under the bridge and divided the two tracks. He looked up at the packed rows of apartment buildings on the other side of the brook. They were tall and formidable from where he stood, their shapes looming and tied together by the darkness. The lights on their facades were like stars he could only admire from afar.
A young man, dressed in a black suit a size too large for him, sat on the side of the track with a bottle of soju in his hand. He chuckled and mumbled something to himself. Mr. Baek couldn’t hear what it was. The young man muttered, as if an incantation into the open air.
His black tie hung loose around his neck.
Mr. Baek closed the front door as quietly as he could. He tiptoed across the living room to his daughter’s crib and craned his neck to kiss her on her forehead. Our little Mirae, he whispered. She moved gently and stretched her arm in the air, skimming Mr. Baek’s cheek. There was something soothing about the way his daughter slept; her mouth slightly open and her relaxed eyelids.
He heard a cough from the other side of the living room. He moved toward the sound – alcohol still on his breath.
“Is that you?” asked his wife.
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Baek asked.
“It’s just a cold.”
Mr. Baek felt her forehead. “You’re burning up. We should go to the hospital.”
“It’ll pass. I’ll be okay after a good night’s sleep.” She held his hand. “It’ll pass.”
“Come in Mr. Baek.” Mr. Moon gestured him to enter his office. “How can I help?”
Mr. Baek squinted as he sat down in the chair across from his superior. The three panels of windows behind Mr. Moon let in an overwhelming amount of light that cast a shadow on the man’s face. The panels were like a folding screen displaying framed images of the sky, the sun, and the heads of other buildings of respectable height. The TV in the corner of his office was on the sports channel and showed horses at the starting gate, tails swishing, breathing heavily, and stomping restlessly. Mr. Moon turned down the volume.
“I’m here about my pay, sir.”
“What about it? Are we not paying you well enough? Did you get an offer elsewhere?”
“No, sir. It’s just that –”
“I haven’t received any for three months,” Mr. Baek said, “and I really need the money.”
“Oh, if it’s about that, you should speak with Mr. Park. He deals with that kind of stuff.”
“Well, I did and he told me to come speak with you, sir.”
“How long have you worked with us, Mr. Baek?”
“Five months now, sir.”
“You know Mr. W Park? He interned here for two years – no pay. And look where it got him. He’s employed.” He leaned forward and Mr. Baek could just make out his large eyes. “Look, I understand that you’re doing some good work for us. Your performance isn’t too bad. But the company is going through some major changes. Even some of the seniors aren’t getting a raise. Let’s think of this as a work-in-progress. An internship, if you will.”
“But I was hired as a full-time employee, sir, and I’m not here for a raise, I –”
“Many people from Gwangju would kill to have a job in Seoul. And you have one. You and your family live in the most privileged city in the country. I’ll have a look into whether we can arrange some sort of an allowance when I discuss your place here with the committee. As of now, we just don’t have the resources to help you, Mr. Baek. Think of this as a long-term goal.”
Mr. Baek’s face went pale. His mind went blank and his heart beat like the sound of hooves on dry dirt.
Mr. Moon watched the race from the corner of his eyes. There was a cheer that roared quietly from the TV. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of a horse that fell at the last turn before the finish line.
“Shit,” Mr. Moon muttered, “lost again.”
Mr. Baek, along with a dozen other workers, was let go at the end of the month.
The baby fell asleep in his arms. The clock ticked in the hospital room. His wife lay unmoving on the bed. Mr. Baek was informed that she had suddenly passed out on her way home from the grocery store. The doctors couldn’t say what the problem was. “Most likely malnutrition and too much stress,” the doctor said. But that was what they said about anything they didn’t know the cause of, Mr. Baek thought.
All they knew for certain was how much the expense was going to be. Mr. Baek was presented with the paperwork on his way out for some air.
He reviewed the bill. He was short one digit.
Mr. Baek left the bank with nothing. His credit appraisal has been denied. The baby was now awake in his arms. Her eyes wandered and she pointed at her father and laughed. Where am I going to find the money, he asked himself. He dragged his legs a few blocks and got on the bus to go home to get some shut-eye. He muttered the question again and again until the words lost their meaning under his breath. His eyes were bagged by fatigue. On the bus, he saw an ad that read: Your child should get a head start. Because the right pre-school will set them on the right route. Don’t fall behind. An after-school academy for a brighter future.
The baby, seated on his thighs, looked at Mr. Baek and pulled at his cheeks and giggled. Her eyes were clear and curious and mirthful.
When they were home, he laid his daughter down in her bed. After a while, he watched her sleep through the wooden bars of her crib. He watched her round belly rise and fall, and held her tiny fingers in his hand.
Mr. Baek opened his desk drawer in the living room and pulled out a file. He opened the document inside the folder, and let out a muted laugh as he saw, in one bolded number, how much his life would be worth.
With the claw of the hammer, Mr. Baek pulled out a nail he had secured into the wall when he and his family had first moved in. The wall would have been perfect for a family photo. Every household seemed to have one in their living room. He tugged on the knot of his black tie to ease the grip, pulled it over his head, and nailed it to the ceiling.
Mr. Baek stepped onto the chair. The tie hung loose, unmoving. Through the noose and through the open living room window, he saw the façade of the apartment facing his. A girl in a high school uniform stood leaning on the railing, smoking. A woman flung open the balcony door, grabbed the girl by her collar, and beat her back with her hands. Mr. Baek could vaguely hear the yelling and swearing and crying from his apartment. “…You’re a student!…You think I go to work every damn morning so I can pay for your cigarettes?…Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Then, the girl replied, “Soohyun smokes too!”
Mr. Baek smiled. He laughed out loud. He hadn’t heard himself laugh in a long time. He laughed until he felt hot tears trail down his cheeks. He put his head through the noose. He could feel his legs shaking. He took a long breath, but the trembling made him slip off the chair. The tie tensed and tightened, his hands, instinctively reached to cut it loose. He saw the girl and her mother going back inside their living room from the balcony. The mother slapped her on the back one last time; a hard, but a caring slap. He gagged and kicked in midair. There was a knock.
The tie ripped, unable to hold the weight of his wriggling body. It was a cheap tie. It didn’t even have a brand name. Mr. Baek gasped for air, his eyes bulging in fear and shame. The nail was still in its place with a piece of the black tie fixed to the ceiling.
The baby began to cry from her crib. He heard the knock again.
“The concierge told me about what happened to your wife.” It was old Mrs. Woo from next door. “My goodness, I’m sorry. This apartment will have your family in our prayers. Did you eat? In difficult times, you have to eat and keep strong. There’s nothing you can do if your body is malnourished. And I know you’re a busy man. You probably don’t have much time to do your own cooking, so I made some porridge and side-dishes for you to have tonight, and to take to work. My suhbang loves that jangajji, you know. Well, I don’t want to keep you for too long, you seemed quite busy, I knocked for two whole minutes! You go back to what you were doing and if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call. If you need me to look after your kid while you’re busy, that’s fine too. Just let me know. I’m here to help. An old lady like me, I don’t have nothing special to do!”
Mrs. Baek was awake. She lay still in her bed, her eyes wandering about the room. She didn’t say anything.
“Too much stress, the doctor says,” Mr. Baek told her, holding her hand. She rolled her eyes in attempt to lighten the mood. He smiled.
“Where’s our Mirae?” she asked.
“She’s with Mrs. Woo.”
“You don’t have to be at work?”
Mr. Baek shook his head. He cleared his throat. She inched her hand toward Mr. Baek’s tie, and muttered, “Aigo, when will my suhbahng learn to tie a tie.”
“Should we go back?” he asked her finally.
She paused and thought carefully. “No, this is our home too.” Mr. Baek let out a sigh and nodded.
“I like Mrs. Woo. She’s been very nice to us,” she said.
“I like her too.”
“It’ll get better,” she said. “It’ll pass.”