Watch and learn
No one told you not to be glued to the tv, since no one else was home. You took off your school uniform drenched in sweat as you turned on the tv, the brown box in your parent’s bedroom. You knew you were too old for Pokemon, but habits were hard to break. Instead, bolded text and male adults in suits filled the screen. You checked the owl clock hanging above your mother’s mirror, but it showed that you were not mistaken. It was 4:30pm, the Pokemon slot. In hopes that the scheduled cartoon will come on, you kept the tv on. Then, you walked to the fridge ten paces away and grabbed a whole pack of yakult and five straws. You seated yourself on the edge of your parent’s bed. You didn’t bother to rip the plastic wrap that bounded the five plastic drinks. You poked the five straws into the five yukult. When you lifted your eyes to the flashing screen, there were people wailing out on the streets. They were young and old. Some wore pajamas. Without realizing it, you were on your feet. Your hand felt the warmth of the tv that held the picture of smoke rising from the mouth of a subway tunnel. Then, an old man filled the screen. His poster read a woman’s name. It was his daughter’s. She was on her way to an interview, he said. She had not wanted to go, he said. You glimpsed your uncle’s face in that man’s. Little shocks pulsing through the machine pricked your fingertips. The man pounded his chest, crumbled in regret. He had made his daughter go, he said.
* * *
You sucked on the skinny straws like it was air. It crackled and pulled you to see that you finished one. Onto the next straw, you moved your lips. Then, more people came on the screen. What may have been beady eyes were hidden behind the tear-swollen flesh folds. They refused to open like clams. They reminded you of the Pyo family photo that hung by the doorway. Just by the eyes, you could not tell if you were all crying or smiling. One and the same. Flip of a coin. Beforehand, you were unfamiliar with the word: tragedy. On the other hand, comedy partook in your life on Saturdays and Sundays at 9pm. The same tv you were watching proudly presented GAG Concert with characters marked with moles and missing teeth. Every time, your mother had laughed with a hand covering her mouth. The tv now held rows and rows of people collapsing on their knees and ankles. Your legs, too, decided for you that this was no standing matter. Crouched on the floor, you felt a buzzing at the tip of your head. Your one hand was hot, but now felt cold. It felt like your brain was falling asleep. You stopped sucking on the straw.
* * *
The salty wetness on your lips and face reminded you of your dry throat. You stayed put, because the firetrucks on screen stood still. No action. No saving. They looked like they were on a fieldtrip like the one you’ve been on years ago. Watch and learn, children. When you grow up, you can be brave fire fighters, too. The only ones prepared seemed to be the anchors. Their professional, standard voices fire-proof. Daegu chamsa, they repeated. The same smooth voices rattled off a number. Beckoned, you gripped the phone next to the tv. Your fingers obeyed the voice. Another voice at the end of the line thanked you. They charged you chun won, the price of being moved by a catastrophe. You wondered if your parents would notice it on their next bill. Thirst entered your mind.
* * *
Again, news substituted your cartoon time. You wondered how many of your preteen classmates were also aging with you in front of their respective screens. Your mother was home, watching over the rattling steamer. She told you to go study. You were determined to stay seated. The conductor had escaped. You repeated after the anchor out loud. Your mother responded, That’s a relief. No: he had abandoned the passengers. You repeated that, too. Your mother didn’t hear you over the screeching steamer. Like a balm, a church hymn seeped into your mind. Something about bugs, bugs being sinners. Pastor Kwon loved to talk about snakes and bugs in his sermons. You had forgotten about the squeeze tube yogurt. It had warmed in your sweaty palm. It felt, suddenly, too real. You put it back in the fridge.
* * *
Citizens on the screen screamed for justice, The conductor is less than a bug. The rolly pollies you used to collect didn’t count as bugs, but the maggots inside the dead rat out in the forest definitely did. You felt the presence of an army of maggots crawling up your throat. You gulped them down. You held them there. Flammable, they announced. Flames would have licked them clean to the bone. That was what happened. Bone clean were the twisted metal that had melted halfway. You could burn in hell, Pastor Kwon would have warned them. Now you knew better. Hell was real and only 200 kilometers away.
Taeyin ChoGlueck: "I am a poet and playwright. My experiences range from immigrant to second generation, from Korean to Korean-American and Minnesotan/Midwestern identities. A large portion of my life is being the Co-founder of InterAction, a diversity catalyst nonprofit. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Juked, Ricepaper Magazine, Kyoto Journal, and others."