I call Hae-jin “Jin” because of his love for drinking in the morning. According to him, with the infinite uncertainty of the world, a man should drink hard in the morning and love nothing before noon. In the afternoon, though, anything is possible.
I sit across from him in his favorite park in downtown Daegu, South Korea, with the lifelike chess figurines spread across the plastic Chinese chessboard. It is similar to a Western board but with a few key differences. The king remains trapped within a few squares called a palace, and pieces move on lines rather than spaces. Some of the pieces are different as well. Bishops have morphed into elephants, and the queen has split into two ministers who guard the king at all times inside the palace. The biggest difference arrives with Jin’s favorite piece, the cannon, which hops over one piece and strikes the piece hiding behind. The piece that thought it was safe from all the action.
“You need to move your pieces together,” Jin says. “Right now you’re playing like your dick’s in your hand. If you want to do that, then do it at home.” He moves his cannon to the middle of the board so it points at my palace.
I move a minister to protect my king. “Maybe you were born with your dick in your hand,” I say. “Maybe you glued it there a few years ago so you wouldn’t lose it.”
“The blood on your head hasn’t dried, and you declare war,” he says. “Must be the dick in your hand.”
Jin adjusts his pieces, so they all face forward. He wants them to watch the coming bloodbath on the board, the feast of my youthful inexperience. “I’m speaking, but I’m not sure you understand.”
It’s early on a Wednesday, our normal chess day. Because Jin long ago retired from managing convenience stores, he tutors me on chess and drinks whatever liquor is on sale and grows drunker and bolder, drunker and bolder in a tumbling cycle. At almost eighty, he’s full of chafing truth and little else. At his age, he is an established elder, an untouchable in Korean society, and he loves to create minor emergencies.
Last week, he spent two hours protesting at the local department store over the outrageous price of designer shirts. He carried a multi-colored shirt over his head like a flag and walked up and down the aisles, demanding to know what color Korea had turned to allow a simple shirt to be sold for over two hundred dollars. “Would you want to wear this shirt?” he asked random customers who shook their heads and shrunk away. After his protest, security evicted him from the store with the shirt still in his hands. Today, he wears it with his old felt hat and looks unusually fashionable.
“You know what we do here?” he asks.
“You kill me in chess?”
“We listen to each other’s stories,” he says. “When you get older, that seems to be the only reason to do anything.”
A woman in her mid-sixties wearing a blue nylon track suit walks by our table in the park, and he wolf whistles at her. His wife died a decade ago from an ailment he refuses to name, so he enjoys his afternoons in a park famed for elderly one-night stands. Around the park, retirement nightclubs and motel rooms cater to an aging population who act like teenagers thanks to a rising pharmaceutical industry. I know he misses her by the tone in his voice when he speaks of her, but he rarely mentions her. I do not even know her name. That is how I know he must love her. He keeps her close to his chest like the elephants on his back row, a subject requiring protection.
“You never tell me your stories,” he says. “I want to hear your stories.”
“Your stories are better, teacher,” I say, using his title in the traditional Korean way. We speak in a hybrid of Korean and English when we struggle to find the right words.
“There are no bad stories,” Jin says. “Just cowards afraid of speaking.”
“Thank you,” I say. I want to fight back against his insult, but I know he needs to make me hurt for a moment before he tells me a story, which is the reason why I am here: to listen. I love his stories although I am never sure if they are memories or lies. He tells his stories with his whole body and with character voices, and he reminds me of an ideal grandfather I never had who might tell me semi-magical stories of giant trout in the river that never get caught unless you whisper a secret into a river reed. I move my castle towards the center of the board, ready to start my counterattack when the moment is right, but that moment is not now.
“When I was young,” Jin says, “I fell in love with a prostitute during the Korean War. During those days, everyone was a prostitute if you had the money, but this one prostitute said she would never sleep with me regardless of how much I paid. I gathered up my pay each month and offered it to her, but she always told me no and to wait till after the war. Then something real could happen. I have to tell you, son, she had the face of a poem and the body of a dream. Do you know that kind of woman? Do you know what it’s like to touch a woman like that?”
I nod as I study his side of the board. His knight moves onto my side.
“She died before the war was over, but a friend of mine told me that she loved me. I don’t know why she loved me, but my friend swore she did. I don’t understand it to this day. I never wanted a girl like I craved her, but we never said anything to each other openly about things like that. We just laughed. I kept asking. She kept refusing. I raised my offer to mountains of money I would never have, and she refused. I just kept making that imaginary mountain of money bigger and bigger, and the bigger it got, the harder she laughed.”
“Sounds sweet,” I say.
“It was the middle of a war,” he says. “We did things like that then. We wrote long letters on scarves that we tied around our ankles to identify our bodies—letters that promised everything when we could deliver nothing.”
“What did your letter say?” I ask.
“You’re about to lose,” he says. He moves his other knight towards one of my ministers, and I see his pieces coming in a swarm. They are nearing my palace, and I try to image myself as the king on the board, standing on the battlements, watching the opposing troops wheel and scream while they approach my gates. My ministers fret behind me and talk of slipping out the palace’s back door.
He picks up his bottle of soju, traditional Korean liquor sold in little green bottles. He swirls around the last of what rests in the bottom of the bottle, examines it, and then throws it back. He allows himself to feel the burn of the liquor before spinning the bottle on the table and looking up at me, which serves as my invitation to buy him another bottle, the fee for my chess lesson.
“Teacher, I’ll get that,” I say. I pick up the empty bottle and drop it off in the trash as I walk over to the convenience store next to the park. I pluck a few fresh bottles from the fridge and take them up to a teenage cashier playing on his cell phone. I cough, and after a moment, he puts down his phone and stands.
“They don’t do anything,” the cashier says as he rings up the bottles. I have been here before, and he knows that I am buying the soju for my teacher. “They just get drunk and wait to die.”
“Maybe,” I say. “You don’t think they do anything else?”
“I don’t talk about what goes on in the motel rooms,” he says. “So much alcohol and time wasted.” He bags the bottles, and I take them without saying anything more. He likely sees most actions as wastes of time as if life after retirement should be placed into the large, green recycle bins in the park. This way their time could be processed and given to the young in packets of minutes and seconds. For him, all time needs a name and purpose, and I had neither of those to give.
In the minutes I have been away, Jin has talked two older ladies over to our table. “And maybe we could go dancing later?” he suggests to the two ladies. “I’ll be free soon.”
The two women laugh and tell him they will see him later.
“Come by if you’d like a drink,” Jin says as they walk away. He holds up the soju in the air as if they needed proof, but they are already gone.
“You’re killing my game,” he says to me. He uncaps the soju and pours himself a small amount into the same plastic cup from earlier in the afternoon. He shoots it down, pours himself another, and stares at it like the clear liquid might hold a secret. “I never had a son,” he says. “I tried plenty, but I never actually had one. That’s maybe the one regret that I have. I sometimes think of everything that I would like to teach him. I could teach him how to speak in English and how to shoot a gun. I’d teach him the things to say to a girl to make her feel special. I’d teach him a lot of things. A lot.” He looks at the board for a minute, toying with an elephant before moving a castle back towards his palace, a defensive move. “Don’t think I’m getting soft on you. I’m not that kind of guy. Now move and think before you do it.”
I look around down at the board but have difficulty seeing the next move. Every move will sacrifice another piece, and I feel like I need every piece on the board. I select a knight, but Jin shakes his head. I grip a cannon, and he gives me a curt nod. I move it alongside his palace, and he dangles his fingers inside his palace trying to decide what piece to move.
“Now tell me a story,” he says. “You owe me a story.”
“I ran away from home once when I was ten,” I say. “I packed my backpack in the evening, told my parents I was leaving, and went to my elementary school playground. All night I swung on the swings, slid down the slides, and climbed on the large, round metal ball that stood to one side of the playground. I fell asleep on a table near the soccer fields watching the moon. It looked huge in the sky. I remember desperately wanting to see the man in the moon, but I never found him. I fell asleep staring up, hoping to find a familiar shape up there.”
“When did you go home?”
“The next day, I played until my grade came out for recess in the morning, and I joined them. I went home after school. My mother never said anything about it. She asked about my day, and we continued like I had never left.”
“That’s a good mother,” he says. He pours himself another drink and looks around at the park for a minute, smiling. He seems to note the colorful pagodas with their blue roofs, sloped in gentle arcs to mimic the surrounding mountains. He looks out at the blue pond in the middle of the park and watches a woman drag her finger in the water, causing ripples to spread across the surface. “But that’s a terrible story,” he says. “Maybe I should do the storytelling from now on.” He moves a pawn towards my palace. “I want the end of this game to be different from our other games,” he says. “I want you to win this time, but you have to earn it.”
I look out at the board, unsure of what piece to touch.
“Kill me,” he says. “But you have to want it.”
I fumble with my pieces, and he stares at me. He no longer fingers his soju cup or stares off at the pond or the old women walking circles around the park with their hair done up in black rolls.
“I’m not sure I’ve taught you anything,” he says.
I pick a cannon and move it along the side of the board until it attacks the side of his palace.
“Think of the lines. Every line on the board ends at the palace. At this point in the game, you should only think about ending it. Remove options. That’s what your opponent is doing.”
I look at the board, but I cannot see the end of the game, and for a moment, I doubt I want to see the end of the game. The end of the game means silence and a long bus ride home, and I know there are still stories I want to hear and stories I would tell if I could only find the words.
He moves a knight to the edge of my palace. “That’s the best I can do. You’re one move away. Find it.” He stands and grabs his soju bottle and walks over to another table of old, retired men who are playing cards. They deal him a hand. He never looks back at me: a lesson in itself.
I stare at the board with its maze of lines and pick up the figure of the king from Jin’s palace. I scrutinize his little pewter face. He looks scared too at not knowing how to find the ending. Beneath the stoic lines of his nose and mouth, he must think of the moment when the troops storm the walls, as they always do, and he is left alone in the darkness, muttering stories about the days the ministers laughed at all of his stories.
Dr. Ryan Thorpe is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute where he teaches writing and humanities classes. He is the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review, the editor of The Blue Tiger Review, and is the founder and director of the Shanghai Writing Workshop. He writes columns for The Global Times and Sixth Tone, has published in numerous literary journals. More information on his work can be found at rythorpe.com.