My friend F’s call came in the middle of December, when the snow would not stop coming down and Manhattan was all but paralyzed. He said he had to get to New York right away but couldn’t find a hotel room since it was Christmas, and he asked if he could stay with us for a few days. My wife and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment so all we had to offer was a loveseat in the living room, but we told him he could come if he was OK with that.
I wouldn’t say that F and I were close. He wrote poetry and worked as an editor at a publishing house. He was known in the literary world as a poet and even more well-known as a talented editor in the publishing world, but he and I had little in common. Most people who work in publishing stick to domestic literature, but he was unusual in that he specialized in translations of American genre fiction. If I had to find one thing I held in common with him, it was the fact that he worked at the same publishing house as my wife before we got married. But she said she had no memory of ever actually talking to him. She said he used to come to work, build a wall of books on his desk to seclude himself from the world, pore over manuscripts all day, and then leave. For someone like him to ask if he could stay with us, his reason for coming had to be pretty important.
He showed up in a cab at our place in Brooklyn. He said he’d been to New York a few times on business, to inquire about rights for novels, but it was his first time in our borough. His bag was small enough that he’d been able to carry it on. He kept bowing and apologizing for putting us out. During the brief time it took for him to get out of the cab and enter the building, the snow had piled up on his shoulders. He carefully brushed it off, scraped his shoes clean on the doormat, and tried to wipe away the snow that had already melted into his coat. We had dinner together. When we asked him what had brought him to New York in such a hurry, he hesitated, stopping and starting several times, before finally telling us the whole story.
“My father passed away. Or at least, that’s what I was told.”
“Your father lived in New York?” I asked.
Several days earlier, he explained, he’d been contacted by a private investigator in New York. Since he edits mystery novels and crime fiction for a living, it wasn’t difficult for him to understand the English in the detective’s email. At first he thought someone was playing a mean joke on him.
“Isn’t that just like something out of a Paul Auster novel?”
“And in New York, no less.”
According to the email, his father had passed away recently in Queens, and his dying wish was to have his ashes scattered in Korea and for his son, since he probably had a son somewhere, to carry out that wish. The private investigator said he was hired by a woman who’d been living with his father. The email included his mother’s name (and even the Korean spelling), and his birth date was more or less accurate. His father remembered him as being born on February 7, 1980.
“I always thought my birthday was March 10. That’s what it says in our family register. But he might remember it more accurately. Or it could be the lunar date.”
His mother had died when F was fifteen. He’d gone back and forth between his aunts’ houses until he started college; after that, he was on his own. When his mother was dying, she’d called him to her side and told him all about his father. He was two years younger than her and had studied art, just like her. They’d dated in college and lived together for a while, but right after he was born, his father left.
“It was 1980, you know,” he said, and smiled bitterly. “So I asked if he’d disappeared in the Seoul Spring, during all those demonstrations, or in the Gwangju Massacre.”
But his mother hadn’t even remembered that there was such political turmoil in 1980.
“That man didn’t care about any of that,” she’d told him. “He was always a little strange, living in his own world. He was soft-hearted, so he always had women wrapped around him. I found out later that he was seeing several other women when he was with me. I was the only one who didn’t know.”
His mother had raised him on her own while teaching art lessons to neighborhood kids in the living room of their small, low-income apartment. There were men he called “uncle” who’d come over and spend the night, but he never gained any siblings. When F started talking about the men in his mother’s life, my wife suddenly got up and made a big fuss about peeling fruit and putting out cookies, as if she felt uncomfortable to hear it, but F was indifferent, like he was talking about someone else. Some people are like that: reserved and introverted at first, but spilling all of their dirty secrets, and in a blunt, cool-headed kind of way, the moment they open their mouths. I’d heard once that whistleblowers tend to be like that. That they’re not talkers by nature and usually keep to themselves.
Rumors that his father had been spotted in the US reached him and his mother through multiple sources. But back in the ’80s, it was difficult to even get a passport, let alone leave the country. In the ’90s, his mom began her battle with cancer, and five years after she’d been diagnosed, she died.
“I’ve read the words ‘private investigator’ a million times while editing crime novels, but who’d have thought I’d be contacted by one myself?”
“What did he say your father did in the US?”
“Rumor has it he was an artist, a painter. But his education was in thievery.”
Each time he talked about his father, his face contorted. I could tell he was bitter.
“Do you think you’d be a different person today if your father hadn’t left you?”
My wife poked me in the side.
“I wouldn’t have written poetry,” he said.
“I would have been a painter instead. Since my mom was always teaching other kids how to draw and paint, I also naturally starting drawing from a young age. But each time I tried, she would smack the back of my hands with a wooden ruler and tell me, ‘Go study! Go read!’ She told me that men who touch art turn into assholes. So even though I liked art better, I got into poetry. Like a left-handed person forcing himself to write with his right hand. That’s why my poetry is so terrible.”
It didn’t occur to me to lie and tell him his poetry was fine. As a matter of fact, I didn’t like F’s poetry very much. Writers would sooner say nothing about another writer’s work than lie about it. My wife comforted F instead.
“Don’t say that! A lot of people love your poetry.”
He was unswayed by what she said. I liked that about him. I thought to myself that I should take another look at his work. Maybe there was something to it that I hadn’t uncovered yet.
The next morning, F woke up early and made a big fuss about getting ready. Actually, for all I knew, he might not have slept at all. My wife set the table with bagels and coffee, but he barely ate. He was wearing an all-black suit.
“I figured I should wear something like this,” he said in explanation.
The funeral had already taken place, and most likely all he had to do was take care of some paperwork, but there was no harm in wearing black anyway. It was one of those cheap, off-the-rack suits that you buy when they’re on sale at the department store and only take out when you have a wake or a funeral to go to. Suits like that look OK when you first buy them, but they lose their shape after they’ve been to the dry cleaners a few times. That’s because the parts that should be finished with stitching are glued instead. From behind, it looks sloppy and shapeless, more like an old Korean overcoat than a Western suit jacket. Even his black shoes were scuffed white at the tips. That said, it was a look suited to a poet and editor. Somehow I wouldn’t trust a well-dressed editor. As for poets, that goes without saying.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Thanks, but that’s OK. What would she think if two Asian guys in black suits came banging on her door?”
He laughed for the first time since arriving. Was it Vonnegut who’d said that laughter was a way of coping with the fear of death?
“I’ll be fine going alone. It’s not like I’m bringing his coffin back with me.”
He wanted to deal with it on his own. Find out for himself what his womanizing father had done with his life after leaving him. See what kind of woman he’d lived with, and in what kind of home.
“All right. We’ll see you later, then. If you need any help, just call.”
“My dad’s the one who needed help. Not me.”
We thought he’d be back sometime in the late afternoon, but the whole day went by with no word. My wife prepared a Korean meal, and we waited at the dinner table for him. I got angry at first when he didn’t show, but later I started to worry.
“Don’t you think the private investigator’s email sounded a little suspicious?” my wife asked.
“What if it’s a new form of phishing?”
“Who would bother to lure in and kidnap a poor poet? What would they gain from that?”
“Do you have his phone number?”
“He didn’t leave one. I only know his email address.”
He didn’t return until the next morning. He showed up at our door suddenly, not a word of apology, a lavender-colored jar in his hand. It was clearly an urn for his father’s ashes. My wife reached for it in spite of herself and took the urn. He collapsed on the sofa in exhaustion.
“Can we get you anything?”
“I don’t suppose you have any hard liquor?”
He drank a double scotch. There was something different about him. He wasn’t the same person who’d left our place the morning before. I couldn’t say exactly what it was, but something had definitely changed. I thought maybe he’d gotten a shock of some kind, but there was more to it. He was acting like a soldier who’d walked into an ambush and had to fight for his life until backup arrived and he was finally able to catch his breath. There was no trace of the man who just the day before had sought to conquer his fear of death through bad jokes. He downed two double scotches in a row and then suddenly started talking frantically.
It was his first time in Flushing. All he knew about it was that a lot of East Asian immigrants lived there. He’d stayed in Manhattan on each of his business trips. Never dreaming that his father was so close by. F had transferred subway lines until he reached Flushing. When he came out of the station, he was momentarily bewildered. Was this China? Sidewalk eaten up by signboards and stands, hordes of Chinese people walking by and talking loudly, touts shoving fliers at pedestrians, the smell of vegetables stir-fried in hot pepper oil. A red fire truck passing by with its siren wailing told him he was still in New York.
He headed for Northern Boulevard. In front of a Chinese-owned jewelry shop, he paused. A sign in Korean, “We are buying gold,” had caught his eye. The shop had identical signs written in English, Chinese, and Spanish to advertise the fact that they purchase gold. What did they do? Run the sentence through Google Translate? On the subway, as well, he’d seen signs written in awkward Korean posted by the New York City Transit Authority. “Get on safe, even if busy.” There were worse ones. “Train surfing will get you hurt all over and then dead.” He felt the urge to take out his red pen and edit them. He wanted to forget about the complicated issue of his dead father’s ashes and sit at his desk and fix bad sentences instead.
But before he knew it, he’d arrived at the address sent to him by the private investigator. Since he’d followed the Google Maps app on his iPhone, he’d made no wrong turns. It felt strange to think that a manmade satellite in outer space had guided him to his dead father. Didn’t Yuri Gagarin say, “I see no God up here,” after going to space? There’s no God, but there is Father. He’s watching me through the eyes of a satellite.
He rang the bell. A woman came to the door. She was a dark-skinned black woman with skin like ebony, and was much younger than he’d expected. She was tall and slim. Naturally, he assumed he was at the wrong address. But then she spoke.
“You must be Peter’s son from Korea. Right? Come on in.”
It was dark inside. He sat on the sofa in the living room. His eyes slowly adjusted. There was a faint smell in the air, like a cheap scented candle that had been left burning. It was a modest home. Shoddy Christmas decorations hung on the wall, and a meter-high Christmas tree sat in the corner. The woman offered him wine. Her name was Alex White. She told him she’d immigrated to the US from Jamaica when she was very young.
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” he said. “What was your relationship to my father?”
“He was my partner.”
The word partner didn’t mean much to F. When Alex saw that he didn’t know how to respond to that, she brought out a shoebox. It was filled with photos of her and his father. There was even one of the two of them lying next to each other in bed, and a Polaroid of them sipping cocktails next to a pool at a resort. The man named Peter in the photos looked healthy. His chest looked more muscular than F’s, and that confidence that you only sense from men who’ve been loved by women their whole lives was beaming straight into the camera. His round, cleanly shaved head gleamed. He reminded F of a lion lazily licking its paws on the plains of the Serengeti. The leisure, the hidden aggression, the brave cunning.
“Peter was a wonderful man,” Alex said dreamily.
“How long were you together?”
Alex thought about it for a moment.
“About two years?”
“Only two years?”
“What? Two years is a long time.”
“How did he die?”
“He had cancer.”
“What type of cancer was it?”
It was important for F to know. Recently, his doctors had begun asking about his family medical history. His mother had had breast cancer. So it wasn’t a good sign that his father also had cancer. If his father was indeed twenty-four when his mother got pregnant with him, as she’d told him he was, then he’d died before his sixtieth birthday.
“Pancreatic. He lived for only two months after the diagnosis.”
Alex brought out his ashes.
“There’s nothing else for you to take. Peter was a great guy, but he wasn’t wealthy. From what I heard, he lived off of women his whole life. He had a lot of female admirers.”
“Can I ask you one more thing?”
“You’re young and beautiful. Why did you live with someone as old as my father? What I mean is, what exactly did you find appealing about him? You say he had no money.”
“Thank you for the compliment. But I have to correct you on a couple of things. First, I’m neither young nor beautiful. Now, now, don’t get me wrong. Back when my ex-husband and I were married, I was a looker. This house was originally my ex-husband’s. When I first set foot in this country, I was just a little black girl with nothing but the clothes on my back. But I’m not young anymore. And second, Peter didn’t look that old. Of course, I have a hard time telling how old Asians are. But Peter was a powerful man. I never imagined that he would have a son like you.”
“I see. I understand what you’re saying. But what I mean is, what was it about him that attracted you to him?”
“Hmm. Peter was . . .,” Alex thought hard for a moment. “Noble.”
“Maybe it was his bloodline, but he was dignified. He told me your family is descended from royalty?”
His father was indeed a Yi, but he’d never heard anything about being from one of the royal families. F had taken his mother’s last name, which was Kim. Alex said that when they first met, his father had told her he was descended from Korea’s last royal family of the Joseon Dynasty and that that was why he had no choice but to live in exile. She said that he’d immigrated to the US to escape the oppression of the dictatorial military government that hated royals.
“He used to say Koreans couldn’t live without a king. That a country that had been ruled by kings for over two thousand years would eventually go back to being a monarchy.”
“What kind of work did my father do? I heard he was an artist.”
“An artist? Something like that.”
Alex smiled slyly.
“Something like that?”
“He did makeup for dead people. Do they have that in Korea?”
“We do, but it’s a little different. You leave the casket open here for mourners, but we don’t do that in Korea.”
“He was very good. The pay wasn’t bad, either. Of course, he spent it as fast as he made it.”
“Did he drink, or gamble?”
“No, he invested in beauty.”
“He didn’t paint?”
“Not that I ever saw.”
Alex held out the urn. As she did so, she asked him to pay her back for the funeral expenses and the private investigator’s fees. Her tone made it clear that she would only give him the urn if he gave her the money.
“My father left nothing behind?”
She was blunt. Her voice had changed completely from when she’d shared her memories with him a moment ago.
“Don’t bother looking around like that. I told you this place belongs to me. Peter was living with some other woman in the Bronx and didn’t bring much with him when he moved in.”
He finally realized why Alex had hired an investigator and invited him to the US. She’d paid for his father’s funeral and wanted to be compensated for the costs. F took out his wallet. He didn’t have enough cash. Alex told him there was an ATM at a gas station not far from her house. F went to get money. When he handed her a bundle of cash, her face brightened.
“Oh, wait. His clothes. You should take those with you.”
Alex took F upstairs. She opened the closet to reveal a row of suits.
“I don’t need these,” F said.
“So it’s OK if I donate all of them to the Salvation Army?”
F ran his hand over the clothes hanging there. They felt good under his fingertips. They were soft and fine and sturdy. The fact that the fabric had touched his father’s skin appealed to him.
“I can’t take all of them. Only a few. They’re keepsakes, after all.”
“OK. It’s all the same to me either way. Oh, and his underwear is in the bottom drawer.”
While they were talking, the doorbell rang downstairs. Alex went down to get the door and soon came running back up.
“You’d better come down.”
A young Asian man was sitting in the same spot on the sofa where F had been sitting a moment ago. He was wearing a black suit and even had a similar build, which made F feel like he’d floated up out of his body and was looking down at himself. The other man obviously got a weird feeling too when he saw F coming down the stairs. He sprang up from the couch the moment he saw him. Alex stood between them with her arms out like a football referee trying to stop a fight.
“He says the detective contacted him too,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Alex called the private investigator and spoke to him. When she hung up, she looked disconcerted.
“It seems the detective passed the case on to his partner in Korea. They did the search in Korea and sent the official email from their main office. The Korean detective did send them several leads, but they didn’t expect more than one person to show up.”
“There are no private detectives in Korea,” F said sullenly.
The other man, who was standing there awkwardly, said, “It was probably one of those ‘errand services.’ Don’t they also tail people and do background checks? Illegally, of course.”
F shook hands with him. He said his name was J. J had received the exact same email. Both of their mothers were named Kim Hee-gyung. It was a common name. They were both born in Seoul in 1980 to women named Kim Hee-gyung who had studied art. Even stranger, both of their mothers had passed away. Either the man named Peter had dated two art students named Kim Hee-gyung at the same time and had sons by both of them in the same year, or one of them was not related.
“The detective said they couldn’t take responsibility for this mishap. The evidence they were going on was attached to the bottom of the emails they sent. He also said the email doesn’t guarantee that you’re genetically related to Peter, and that obtaining confirmation is entirely your responsibility.”
J seemed to have trouble understanding Alex. So F interpreted. J thanked him. F gave him his business card.
“I work in publishing.”
J took out his business card. He was a salesperson for a company that imported medical equipment. J asked what he thought about getting a DNA test right away.
“I’ve heard it can take weeks at the earliest to get results in the US,” Alex said.
They both had to get back home for work soon. There were no Christmas vacations in Korea. Nor would it be easy to come back to get the DNA results. The inconclusive conversation continued over the dinner table. Alex opened a California merlot. They had Bohemian steaks for their main course. These roasted potatoes are delicious, J said.
“Sitting at the table with two people who look like each other makes me feel like we’re some kind of family,” Alex said.
“Americans have a hard time telling Asians apart,” J said, glancing at F. “They think we all look alike.”
“What do you do with the ashes of a father you never lived with?” F asked J.
“Good question. It just seemed like I should come get them.”
“In that case, should I take them back with me for now?”
J reacted strongly.
“I had to take off of work and sit on a plane for hours to come all the way here, too. I can’t go back empty-handed . . .”
After they’d gone around in circles several times, Alex offered a suggestion.
“This might sound like a stupid idea but . . . what if the two of you try on one of Peter’s suits? They must be at least ten years old by now, maybe older. It’s possible he had them made when he was around your age, so you could both try one on and whoever it fits better can take his ashes first. Then, after you get back to Korea, you can get a DNA test.”
Since there was no other solution, they went along with Alex’s arbitration. She went upstairs to get a suit. Based on the lining, it was a high-end Italian-made suit. It had long gone out of style, but even at first glance, you could tell it was nice.
“Seems that’s the thing to take, and not the ashes,” F said bitterly as he tossed back a shot of scotch.
J went into the other room and tried on the suit first. Alex looked him over with a keen eye and asked F, What do you think? Little short in the arms?
“It looks too small,” F said.
“But it’s not a bad fit,” J protested. F tried the suit on next.
“The moment I slipped the jacket on, I knew. Even the waist size on the pants was just right. When I stepped out of the room, it was game over. They were both speechless. They knew there was no contest. And especially, the look in Alex’s eyes . . . She looked like she was seeing her dead lover come back to life. To think that he got that kind of look from women his whole life, that Peter . . . I was so jealous.”
F jumped up from the sofa as if to reenact the moment. Then he did a little spin, like a fashion model, in front of my wife and me. We hadn’t realized until he stood up that his clothes had changed. We just thought there was something a little different about him. We took a close look at the suit. The shade was similar to the suit he’d left in that morning, but it was closer to navy. The jacket was wrapped tightly around F’s upper body like a suit of armor. The design looked like it was straight out of Scorsese's Goodfellas. It hugged his body perfectly but without looking uncomfortable. He looked like he could get into a fight with the person standing next to him without ripping a single seam.
“We each plucked a couple of hairs. We gave one to Alex and one to each other. We also split the ashes. J jumped up and left as soon as he had everything.” F continued. “He plans to get a DNA test as soon as he’s back in Seoul. I guess he’ll do what he has to do. I took Peter’s toothbrush too, just in case. From what I’ve seen on American TV, you can get DNA even off of a toothbrush.”
“What’ll you do if he’s not your father?”
“I’ll send it all to him. Why would I need someone else’s father’s remains?”
“And the suit?”
F was tight-lipped and wouldn’t answer my question. We all fall in love with certain clothes. And sometimes that love can be very strong. My wife also asked him something she’d been holding back.
“By the way, where did you sleep last night?”
This time as well, F did not answer. The frightening thought hit me that this poet who spent his days editing crime novels behind a secluded desk in a publishing house might not be who we thought he was, and I too kept quiet. After he packed and left for JFK, my wife cleaned the apartment from top to bottom like she never had before. As if to erase every last trace of him.