If only she had not misread “The Chef's Mail” as “The Chef's Nail,” none of this ever would have happened. It all began a few months ago, at the moment Jung misread that sign hanging outside a shop. When she saw the sign reading “The Chef's Nail” from a distance, she took another look at the note on her cellphone. She had thought that the client was a restaurant, but upon seeing the sign she was momentarily confused as to what sort of business it was.
Jung wrote advertisements for a local newspaper. She was a person who saw countless signs and read countless company names each day. But a chef's fingernail? That struck her as being not so much novel or fresh, but bizarre. It probably would have been fine to call a nail art shop “The Chef's Nail.” She didn't want to think of it as the name of a restaurant, though. With a sign like “The Chef's Nail” hanging over them, the patrons eating there would certainly have a sneaking suspicion that the place was filthy. But that phrase was not to be found anywhere. The sign read “The Chef's Mail,” and the shop was an Italian restaurant. It was just a brief incident.
That brief incident led to the printing of five thousand copies that were scattered around area shopping centers, houses, and alleys. Somehow Jung had ended up writing “The Chef's Nail” in her ad as well. The two ideas had become entangled in her mind, leading to this confusion. “Mail” had transformed into “Nail,” and that word was printed without raising the slightest suspicion from anyone. It was Jung's responsibility, but there were others whose eyes had let them down as well. It was, after all, a company where even a draft with the date “November 37, 2010” on it could be approved. In the end, it was right after the lot had been printed and distributed that Jung's manager noticed the difference between “Mail” and “Nail” and frantically called for her with the same urgency that one might call for an anticonvulsant. At that moment, Jung was standing in front of the office door, putting her thumb against the fingerprint reader at the start of the day. Her fingerprint hadn't changed in the three years she had worked there, but all of a sudden she was getting a message that her fingerprint wasn't recognized. Please try again . . . please try again . . . she obeyed the electronic voice and tried again several times, but it would not recognize her fingerprint. She took out some hand cream and rubbed it on her thumb. It could be because it was too dry.
“What are you rubbing on there? How can you be doing your makeup at a time like this?”
Her manager appeared, planted in front of her, as soon as her fingerprint was recognized and the door opened. Behind him were 15,000 stickers with the word “Mail” on them. There were three places in the advertisement where “Nail” was mentioned. Jung took those stickers and visited one hundred distribution centers. She affixed the stickers one at a time to all the papers that had not yet been distributed. Her thumbprint began to gradually wear away. The misprints were as filthy as fingernails in a dish of food. The misprints that had already been distributed were as horrible as fingernails that had found their way from the food into the mouths of patrons.
“I'm telling you, if we put these stickers on the papers, there will be people who will peel them off to see what is underneath.”
Kwak, a newer employee at the company, made this comment as she helped Jung with the stickers. Kwak said that she was one of those people, and that the sticker just piqued her curiosity. Jung was not one of those people. And she was not the type of person to make this sort of mistake often. She consoled herself with the thought that she had just been unlucky enough to have been scraped by a chef's nail. She might have continued to think this way had she not gotten her buses confused on her way home that day. She got on the wrong bus and ended up going far out of her way. She should have gotten on the No. 4, but when she got on she found herself on the No. 8. The lines for the No. 4 and No. 8 buses always stretched out from the stops, and the ends of those lines were twisted like a pretzel. It was easy to get them confused, but before that evening Jung had always gotten on the No. 4. She had never even thought of it as challenging.
There must have been a lot of people like Kwak who peeled off the stickers, because the company received several phone calls complaining about the ad. And Jung's thumbprint still didn't work too well with the fingerprint reader. Even after she rubbed on some hand cream, the machine reported her failure.
“Is your thumbprint faulty now, too?”
It was only when she heard her manager make this comment behind her that she realized she was holding up her left thumb when it was her right thumbprint that was on file. She had simply switched right for left, and—because she had switched right for left—her thumbprint was not recognized. So it was that she came to be judged faulty.
“Now take Jung here,” her manager said at a company dinner after work one day. “Even after making such a big blunder, she is unruffled.”
Then he said that her fatal flaw was her tendency to slip up so many times these days. What her manager said usually went in one ear and out the other, but the phrase “these days” caught her attention. Since she had misread that sign that one time, she had been making a lot of trivial mistakes. Confusing the hand that held a gum wrapper with the hand that held a train ticket, or even squirting dish soap into a hot frying pan. She sometimes stood in front of the automatic book return machine and accidentally put in a book she had intended to mail instead of the book she was supposed to return. She had even bought some Listerine at a convenience store, twisted off the cap, and nearly drunk the mouthwash. She had confused it with an energy drink. It was all because she was overworked, Kwak said. Wait, had it been her manager who had said that? Anyway, someone had said something like that. That everything was because of overwork, that all deaths in this world were ultimately death from overwork.
When they had finished dinner and were getting ready to go out for drinks, Jung found herself standing in front of a fish tank outside a sushi place. She was with her coworkers, but it felt like she was standing there alone. A mackerel inside the tank quickly turned around. The current was so strong that the fish could not but turn, and thus the tank felt like the ocean. That mackerel might have even thought it was swimming under its own power. There were only two ways to find out if it was swimming passively or actively: the current could be stopped, or the mackerel could leap out of the tank. But outside there was only hard asphalt.
“Our company is like that fish tank,” Jung said to no one in particular.
As soon as she said this, a few of her coworkers pretended to climb into the fish tank. They were fine with being swept away like that. They were cub reporters new to the paper.
“Isn't that the way of the world?” one of them said. Everyone laughed. Jung laughed, too. She did it to suppress an impulse. She had suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to take a dive. Not into the tank, but out of it. That is, into hard reality.
The next morning, she ran into her director in the elevator on the way up to the office. Her director, who was on the phone, motioned to Jung for a pen. Jung quickly reached into her bag, took out a pen, and held it out to him. At that moment her director's face froze. Jung's face froze as well. What she had brought out of her bag was not a pen but a piece of dried pollock from the night before. While they were out drinking, one of the cub reporters had slipped the pollock into her bag.
“It reminds me of the expression on your face.”
The unexpected appearance of the gray, shriveled pollock struck Jung speechless. For a moment she thought that she really did look like the dried snack from the night before. Her director must have thought something similar. Jung explained herself. It was just a mistake, it wasn't intentional. Her director seemed to understand. But then he said: “I think you need a vacation. What's inside your bag and what’s inside your head is all jumbled up, that's why you're confused, isn't it? What if you were to confuse the brake pedal with the accelerator?”
Jung wanted to protest—why did you sign off on a draft with the date November 37, the person who made up the date November 37 is still working here without a problem, it was just a single mistake—but she made no sound. The elevator door opened and that day Jung had no work to do. She put her thumb up to the fingerprint reader on her way home at the end of the day, but it didn't recognize her thumbprint. Well, that was to be expected. She wasn't an employee at that paper anymore.
Technically speaking she was being transferred to a different department, but it was actually part of a restructuring at the paper, and in this way Jung leapt out of the fish tank. She felt relieved that she didn't have to hold her thumb up to a machine that everyone rubbed their hands all over. When she thought of the fingerprint reader as a toilet in a public restroom, she felt a little less hurt. Kwak followed her out of the building a few steps and asked where she would go next.
“I guess I'll just ride the subway and read a book or something.”
Kwak looked at her with pity in her eyes and held out a business card. She said that it would help. Jung mechanically looked down at the card and then put it into her bag. And thus she fell onto the asphalt street. It was an escape. But still she couldn't shake the feeling that she was a piece of trash that even the trash can rejected, and she grew depressed.
Since she spent all day at home, every day felt like Sunday, no matter what day of the week it was. The next day was Sunday, too. And the day after that. After three Sundays in a row, Sunday was no longer Sunday. On the fourth Sunday in a row, her misgivings became reality. According to the natural sequence of events, she received a call from the apartment manager. She was informed that she had to leave the apartment within forty-five days of her resignation. Jung knew about the regulation. She just hadn't thought that the regulation would be applied to her so suddenly and against her will. The reason she had stayed with the paper despite the long hours and low pay was the company housing. It was an attractive benefit to someone like Jung, who came from a different region. Jung had been fortunate enough to get an apartment only a year after she started working for the company, and thus she had lived comfortably the last two years. But not anymore. She didn't know if this was also part of the natural sequence of events, but she was also notified by her boyfriend that he was leaving her. They had both been so busy that they might have seen each other once a month at best. With her employment, housing, and love life brought to an end all at once, Jung suddenly found herself independent. The vacuum made her so uneasy that she felt something like ecstasy.
Jung lay down on the sofa and stared at the wallpaper across from her. Eight years of city life passed before her eyes. The first home she had chosen in this city was on the third basement level of a building. Depending on how you looked at it, it was either on the second basement level or the third. That meant that if she jumped as high as she could she would be on the second basement level, and if she fell back down to the floor she would be on the third basement level. There was only one thing the house didn't have: windows. The reality exceeded anything she had ever experienced or could ever imagine. In every house that Jung knew of, or in any house that Jung could imagine, there were windows, whether big or small, but here was clearly a house with no windows. Although, depending on how you looked at it, you could say that there was a window. Except that it wasn't a window in a wall, but in the floor. When she opened the window facing downward in this third (or second) basement level house, she found a flight of stairs. And at the bottom of those stairs was a storage room that was about a quarter of the size of the room above. Jung put things that she wasn't using at the moment in that storage room, and she did not open it back up until the day she left that house. On the day she left she opened that downward-facing window and took the things out of the room, but then she immediately set them out with the trash. She couldn't remember what those things were.
After that basement place and two rooftop rooms, the fourth home Jung chose was on the second floor of a corridor apartment building, and only then did Jung feel that she had truly settled down in the city. Both the floor and ceiling of the house were warm and toasty. That home was the one she was living in right now. But soon she would have to look for a fifth home.
When she found the strange writing on her front door, it really was Sunday. After five or so Sundays in a row, when Sunday actually came around, Jung opened up the door to set out the dishes from her delivery food, just like she did every other Sunday. The cold air rushed in. She was relieved to see that she was not the only person putting dishes out in the hallway. But in the very next moment she noticed a difference between her apartment and her neighbor's. It was a number. On the front door of Jung's apartment, the number “237” was written in marker. Judging by the excessively straight lettering and positioning, it looked more like a notification than graffiti. There was a rumor that criminals marked houses where someone lived alone. This might be something like that. The 237th target, or maybe the target for February 37—no, wait, the 37th was a date that would only make sense at her old company, wasn't it? Jung stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it, but this was no time for growing hazy on cigarette smoke. If this disaster were not to pass over her home, then she had to at least make sure she wasn't in its way. Because of that “237,” Jung scoured the corridor apartment for the first time from the first floor to the top. She didn't see another “237” anywhere.
Jung had no idea how long the number 237 had been written on her door. Had she not broken up with him, she might have called her boyfriend about now. Of course, when she thought back over the past, there was probably a greater chance that she wouldn't have. On their one-year anniversary, he gave her a vibrator. It was not the sort of gift you gave a girlfriend on your one-year anniversary, but Jung laughed. Jung gave him a lighter, but he just smiled awkwardly and said: “I quit smoking.” The steaks were growing cold on their plates. Jung didn't actually like steak all that much. Her boyfriend didn't like steak all that much, either. Neither of them knew why they were sitting there with steaks on their plates. They spoke on the phone a few times after that, but that night was the last time they saw each other. Only now did Jung take the vibrator out of the box. She flipped the switch as she held it in the air. The vibrator cleaved the wind and burrowed into the air. But these were just words in her mind; she could not know what effect this gently vibrating instrument would have unless she brought it into her lonely core. To look at it, it seemed no more than a quiet wind vane.
Before dawn the next day, the notification spread to all the doors of the apartment building. Jung slept late. She did not feel well after breathing in the cold air of early morning. She agonized over whether to mark all the doors with 237 or to continue on with 238, but in the end she chose 237. After all, unless the numbers were meant to be counted backward, she would rather not be the first victim in that building.
“I see you've only ever done business with us on credit,” said the bank employee. A loan was impossible. She called here and there, but could not find a suitable job. The bag that she always wore over her shoulder was lying crumpled by the front door, where she had left it on the day she had leaped out of her old job. When she held the bag upside down, about twenty business cards fell out with the rubbish. She couldn't tell where she had gotten them, whether from clients or just randomly on the street. The one that read “Bookworm Advertising Agency” must have been the one that Kwak had given her.
Within ten days she was working again. All she had to do was ride the vibrating subway from six in the evening to eleven at night, stylishly reading a book all the while. The company had around five hundred employees in the Seoul metropolitan area alone. The amazing thing was that this company had been operating for fifteen years already. In secret. It was hard to believe, but until she found a new job it would do as part-time work. The pay, 15,000 won an hour, was not bad. It might even have been better than her salary at her old job.
“A man is reading a book with flair. He's completely engrossed in it, and he even laughs from time to time. So what would you think? Wouldn't you want to know what book he is reading? Or how about a woman, quite the intellectual, who can't take her eyes off a book. When women pass by someone wearing a nice perfume, they will often quietly ask what fragrance it is, won't they? Sure they will, if they are curious enough. But they won't even have to ask what the title of the book is. Because this woman is reading it so the title is clear for all to see. Wouldn't you be curious? But, anyway, is that your real name? Jung Bangbae? Like the subway station? Ha ha, we'll have to assign you to the No. 2 line, then.”
A manager at the Bookworm Advertising Agency looked at Jung's resume as he spoke. There was something about his appearance that reminded her of her manager at her old company. The manager was relieved to see Jung's neatly trimmed fingernails. It had already been two weeks since she had been to the nail art shop, so the edges of her fingernails were worn, but the manager didn't catch that detail. The “bookworms” were essentially walking billboards, so they had to be smartly attired. Jung passed that test with ease. They recognized her experience with the local newspaper as well, so her training was completed in just a day. Usually it took two days, they said.
“Don't underestimate the job. But once you get used to it, you'll find that no job is easier. All you have to do is sit on the subway and read books. You know those subtle product placements in movies? The ones that make the audience buy a Coke when the movie is over? In the same way, we are planting book titles in the subconscious of people riding the subway. Our bookworms just have to expose people to the titles often. Of course, it's important to make sure that people are aware of you as you read your books on the subway. It's no use if people just think of you as an extra and pass you by. The advertisers investing in you will be disappointed, too. It's a waste of their investment, after all.”
The manager told her that readers these days did not have time to choose their own books, so someone had to arouse their curiosity. That was precisely what the bookworms did.
“I guess these advertisements are effective. Do you sell a lot more books?”
The manager sniffed. “We have been in this business for fifteen years.”
Jung was deployed on the evening subway. Now her coming to and going from work was proven not by a fingerprint reader but by a transportation card. The transportation card, which was provided to her by the agency, was examined by the agency on a monthly basis. On the subway, people did not look in front of them or to either side, but straight down at their knees. There were more people who read books or stared into the palms of their hands, where they held all sorts of video players, than people who looked around them. In order to grab their attention, she needed to catch their eyes from the moment she got on the subway. On her first day on the job, Jung wore five-inch heels and an eleven-inch miniskirt. Jung looked over the subway map—this was all part of the plan—and took an empty seat. Then she checked her cellphone—this, too, was part of the plan—and took a book from her bag. On the bright yellow cover was the title: The Slug's House. This was the book that Jung had to read.
After reading about ten pages she laughed once. It felt a bit awkward. A light “heh” would have been perfect, but no “heh” came out and her smile seemed too forced. She glanced up and locked eyes with a woman sitting across from her. Jung quickly glanced back down again. After twenty pages she laughed again. This time the “heh” didn't sound right. When she thought about it, she realized that she was not the type of person who laughed aloud. Her laughs had always been silent. She took a pen and a ruler out of her bag and underlined a portion of the text. She felt the eyes next to her boring down on the book. After a few more pages, her shoulders felt stiff. The most important thing to remember was not to lay the book down on her knees or her bag for long periods of time. She had to hold the book up lightly with one hand, or perhaps two, so that those sitting across from or next to her could see the title. Jung stood up and gave up her seat. The No. 2 line—the only circle line on the Seoul subway—had already completed one circuit. She was back at the start. According to her training, she should have read about forty pages by now. Jung was turning the pages too slowly. The muscles at the corners of her mouth began to spasm ever so slightly. For that trip around the city, she was the only person who had occupied the same seat. She had been reading something, but in the end she had come back to the start. She didn't remember a single line.
“He gathered up the slugs and put them into a jar filled with coarse salt. He closed the lid and, five minutes later, opened it again to find the slugs gone. Only a sticky fluid remained.”
Jung began work with those lines. From page 237 to page 242 was five stops, from page 242 to page 250 was eight stops, and as she moved back and forth like this in the subway, she realized that she had adapted to the current and was swimming under her own power. After seven in the evening the human tide rose, and sometime after nine it ebbed back out again. No matter where she began her journey, it took around ninety minutes for the No. 2 line to complete a circuit. Jung worked non-stop for two weeks, three circuits a day. One day her nose was buried in the book, and when she looked around she discovered that she was alone. There was only her own reflection in the window, barreling through the darkness. A reader, with a book drawn up above her nose, breathing into the pages.
Three weeks passed, but Jung read the same book, always starting from the same place. She would have to read this book for another month. At first it was tedious, but it became a little easier when she thought of it as the script of a play. Jung's facial expressions improved day by day. She even cried twice. Crying was of course many times harder than laughing, but Jung succeeded at wringing out tears after only three weeks. Even when the tears fell like hailstones on the slanted pages, she did not forget to regularly—but naturally—turn those pages. One of those times the woman sitting next to her held out a tissue and asked her what it was she was reading that made her cry so. The other time no one said anything to her, but they could not hide the fact that their gazes were fixed on the book she held. Of course, Jung was not crying because of the book. The tears simply came out like any other waste product. Jung did not usually cry, but it wasn't too difficult if she thought of it as work.
When she lifted her eyes from the book and glanced into a corner of the subway car, she saw a tiny speck crawling slowly across the floor. It was a slug. The sight should have been strange, but instead it was familiar. It was because of the job. Reading The Slug's House every day, even if she did not put her heart into those lines, they grew familiar. Jung always followed the same course, but one day she deviated from this course. All she had to do was follow the main No. 2 line, but she got onto the branch line at Seongsu Station instead. It was because the words that had first given birth to the error in her mind passed by her once again. It was not “The Chef's Mail,” but clearly “The Chef's Nail.” Even the font was visibly similar to the font used on the sign. The sign that Jung had misread, the sign that did not exist anywhere on this earth. She was supposed to ride the No. 2 line to Sincheon Station, but Jung followed “The Chef's Nail” and got off the train. It was the title of a book some man was carrying. She walked, branching off from the circle line as she went. Only those few printed letters were her signpost. But somewhere along the way she lost sight of those letters.
Jung looked at her calendar. She only had two weeks left before she had to leave her apartment. She ran into the apartment manager on her way to work, and he asked when she was going to move. Jung replied that she was looking for a new place. That was the truth. Before she left for work she looked around this neighborhood and that, but there were no suitable houses to be found. Jung wasn't that picky. Naturally, a few of the houses had fatal flaws—although the flaws were so many that even the word “fatal” was not sufficient to describe them. Jung didn't want to live in a rooftop room or in a basement apartment. Her two experiences with rooftop rooms had taught her that the heating bill could sometimes be more than the rent, and her experience with a basement apartment was that it came with a nearly atopic rash caused by mold—although she didn't know whether mold really caused atopy—like a tax added onto her stay. Yet as she looked for a house on her limited budget, Jung gradually grew more tolerant. While Jung had been learning that sunlight or windows were not prerequisites for a home, she had grown old. No, she had been worn down.
Even though it was company housing, no one Jung knew lived on her floor. There were other companies besides the paper Jung had worked for that used these apartments, so most of the residents were unfamiliar to her. And yet it seemed like her neighbors knew about her resignation, that she was living on borrowed time. Jung lived in the last apartment on that floor, and in front of the apartment next door was a pile of cabbage large enough to block her way—it was kimchi-making season again. A slug was slowly making its way from the pile toward Jung's front door. Jung blinked hard. She was back on the No. 2 line.
A man walked through the first door on the second subway car and stood in the middle of the car. Her advertising would lose its effectiveness if she looked away from the book for too long, so no matter who passed by she buried her nose in her book. Just then, though, a few words rang clearly in her ears: The Chef's Nail.
“The title of the book I have written is The Chef's Nail. This is the only copy of this book in the world. I wrote it myself—well, of course, I did—I mean that I wrote the book with my own hand. You'll see when you look at it, of course, but it is all written by hand, and I wrote the page numbers myself, too. I even bound it with thread. From the birth of the story to the packaging of the book, I did everything myself. A book is like a door: you have to open it to go inside. And once you go in you might never come out again. The hardcover binding is quite heavy. And expensive, too. This is a hardcover book. But how wonderful is the world of books! Please enter my book.”
With his white padded jacket and the red scarf wrapped around his neck, the man did look something like a chef. As the chef took the book by its cover and opened it, the pages inside spread out like a folding fan. He looked like an accordion player. The book did not sell. A few people looked at the chef with curiosity in their eyes, but even at 30% off, the price of 56,000 won was far too steep for something being sold on the subway. Even if it was the only book of its kind in the world. But it was The Chef's Nail. This was the third time these words had appeared before Jung. The first time was an error, the second time was real, and now she stood at a fork between the two. The frequent appearance of those words made Jung uneasy. And they also made her curious. She stood up.
It was a black hardcover book, roughly the size of a restaurant menu, with three hundred pages in total. On the front of the book in gold lettering was written “The Chef's Nail,” and on the back was a sticker that read, “List Price: 80,000 won.” The contents of the book were similar to the book of Genesis. It was a very long list of things. There were not only people but also animals, plants, and even works of art, as well as things like car tire brands and limited edition lipstick. This list of things was not arranged randomly; instead, one thing led to the next, like a word-association exercise. So, for example, the chef's fingernail led to a heel insert inside the sneaker of the customer who ordered the food the nail was discovered in, and this led to the address of the factory where that heel insert had been made, and this led to a postman who delivered mail to that address, and this begat something else, which begat something else, which begat something else until it was shown that the whole world was in fact connected. She could not read it all in a single night. Jung flipped through the book from beginning to end, spotted her name somewhere along the way, and then quickly flipped back through the book to find that section. But it was not there. There didn't seem to be any words that even looked like “Jung Bangbae.” It wasn't exactly an interesting read, but as she read it she couldn't shake the feeling that she might discover a thing or two somewhere that had something to do with her. According to the book, the chef's nail possessed a mystical power, so all those who became aware of it were somehow connected to each other. Jung wondered if the same wasn't true of herself. Perhaps that fingernail, which had not been emasculated but remained virile, had bewitched Jung without her knowing, and as she thought this she forgot all about the fact that she soon had to leave her apartment, and that she had to find a new job. But she couldn't remain in that state the whole day.
When she opened the door on her way to work she discovered a memo stuck to it like an eviction notice. It said that she had one week left in the apartment. She was thankful that at least it had been placed in an envelope so no one else could see it.
While the subway spun round and round the waist of the city like a hula hoop, Jung read her book. But she simply read mechanically, following the same routine as always—she wasn't actually reading the book.
Jung ran into Kwak about an hour before she was to get off work. Kwak smelled like she had just come from dinner with her coworkers. Jung felt a little awkward to think that she was making such earnest use of the business card Kwak had given her. It was embarrassing, too. She was on the job, but this was an unexpected interruption, so she closed her book. However, she did not put it back in her bag but placed it on her lap. They sat next to each other and flowed in one direction. After a few words from Kwak, Jung realized that the business card Kwak had given her on the day she left the paper was not the card for the bookworms. What she had given her had been a coupon for three free Thai massages. A coupon the size of a business card. But when Kwak asked if she had enjoyed the massages, Jung thanked her. She did not mention the bookworms. The massage coupon was probably already past its expiration date, and even if it wasn't, it would already be heading for the great wastepaper basket of the city. Whatever the case, the result wasn't bad. Had she not taken this job she would have never come to own The Chef's Nail. And she was now working at a pace that suited her, with an enthusiasm that suited her, was she not?
Kwak spoke. “Do you remember what you said? About that mackerel at the sushi place. We still talk about that sometimes. Even now. Me, though, I'm just going to look ahead. If you give your body up to the current, you don't have to think about anything else. Even if it is a little tiring. If a mackerel just watches the tail of the mackerel in front of him, he won't have time to think about whether he is really swimming or not. I'm just staring at the rear end of the mackerel in front of me right now, you know? I'm swimming my heart out.”
Jung mumbled: I looked to the side instead of looking ahead, and I saw my own reflection in the glass of the fish tank, that's why I was fired. Kwak looked at her for a moment with pity in her eyes. After Jung left the paper, she did not contact anyone for fear of seeing or hearing such sympathy. Not even her friends who lived in the same city, and especially not her parents, who lived in a different city. It was probably easier to bare her soul to the people at the nail art shop, the beauty salon, and the skin-care center. But even that now felt awkward.
“Ah, I almost forgot!” Kwak said, as if she had just remembered something, and took something out of her bag. For the fourth time, The Chef's Nail appeared before Jung. This time it should not have appeared. Jung already owned the only existing copy, so how could another The Chef's Nail appear? And at the same size, the same thickness, and the same color at that.
What was different was the price. Kwak had been on her way home from covering a story when she bought the book for 48,000 won.
“This is the first time I've ever bought anything on the subway. Look at the title! I had no idea it actually existed. Maybe you read this book and got confused? The author himself was selling it, saying that it was the only one of its kind. I read a little of it, but it doesn't seem to be all that interesting.”
A brief look showed that it was nearly the same. Jung did not tell Kwak that she too owned the book, or that she had paid 56,000 won for it. Kwak asked Jung where she was getting off. Kwak seemed to think that Jung had already moved out of the company apartment. Jung answered her question with another question.
“Do you know how long it takes for the No. 2 line to make a full circuit?”
“I don't know. Two hours? An hour?”
Ah, Kwak nodded. Kwak's stop was still a way off, so Jung got off first. It was Sindorim Station. After the train carrying Kwak left the station, Jung sat down on a bench on the platform and took The Chef's Nail out of her bag. She rubbed her thumb in the dust on the platform floor and then pressed her thumb against a corner of one of the pages. That faulty thumbprint looked as subtle and profound as some nameless nebula. These spirals that everyone had, but that were the same for no two people . . . in this way Jung's thumb left its imprint on the page. Now Jung had a book that was different from all other copies, from all other chef's nails. She put the book back in her bag and took out The Slug's House. The next train was already pulling into the station.
The subway flowed over the rough and uneven city at a constant speed. The commuter subway wrapped around the city's waist like a tape measure. Jung glanced at the names of the stations arranged at even intervals on the subway map, like gradations. On occasion there were two stations that seemed to be farther apart, but that was where a new station would soon be opened. Those endlessly expanding subway lines looked like they would eventually be tangled together like strands of hair in a shower drain, and they made her dizzy. But when night came, the subway became a little more peaceful. It ran up and down, or down and up over the city like an iron. It was a peacefulness that did not matter whether or not Jung was there. Even if she weren't there, the subway would continue to iron out the city.
A slug crawling across the floor of the subway car caught her eye. The slug crawled slowly toward the door and then stopped in front of it. At last the door opened. Jung watched to see what the slug would do. How would the slug cross a void that was some ten times the length of its own body? Wouldn't it fall into the gap between the door and the platform? Neither happened. Right before it reached the door—that is, right before it attempted to cross the void—the slug was stepped on. The solid object was flattened and left behind a green stain.
“Restructuring,” they called it. Half of the bookworms were fired. Jung barely survived. But she was subject to a telephone evaluation from her manager. Her manager recited: “Buying an item while on the job: one time. Chatting for a long period of time while on the job: one time. Leaving the route while on the job: four times . . . .”
As a result, Jung only received half of her monthly pay. There were no shadows underground, but it seemed that an unseen shadow had attached itself to Jung. Eyes were everywhere. Jung was being monitored. Above those who read were those who pretended to read, and above those who pretended to read were those who made sure they were pretending to read. Only then did Jung discover that the bookworm monitors made more than the bookworms themselves. Of course, not just anyone could be a bookworm monitor. You had to be promoted. Her manager told her that she would have to give it more effort. He told her that some of the new bookworm employees held doctoral degrees, were Miss Korea winners, or had been actors from the Daehangno district.
“The economy is so bad these days, people are desperate to find work. You know how it is.”
Jung did not want to do any more or any less, she just wanted to live somewhere in the middle, but that was the hardest thing to do. Those who stopped in the middle fell to the bottom. After all, those who had fallen while leaping for the top had grabbed on to the middle on their way down. Jung had an idea of what sort of attitude she had to maintain if she wanted to stay in the middle. For starters, since she had entered the tank, she had to swim around at the speed demanded by the tank. Jung did not have a speed regulator. And so, once again, Jung was swimming around inside a fish tank.
Jung went to work regularly and, with her nose buried in her book, stole glances at the world beyond the letters, the world beyond the book cover. She knew that she was not the only player on the stages of these six- or ten-car lumps of metal, but when she first saw the evidence with her own eyes she was a little ashamed. Jung saw as many as three people holding The Slug's House. They could be bookworms, or they could be actual readers. One woman deliberately, although not so openly as to be discovered, bumped into other people. She was using a more direct marketing method, either picking up The Slug's House when it fell or taking it from others when they picked it up for her. For thirty minutes she repeatedly bumped into far too many people and dropped her book. Of course, it was quite effective. As the book was repeatedly dropped and picked up again, the title and cover of The Slug's House was more actively exposed. One man was dozing off. He would repeatedly doze off while holding The Slug's House in one hand and then wake up again and continue reading. Dozing off while holding the book he was supposed to be advertising would be a definite black mark, but there was something so unique about his expression and his posture that he drew a lot of attention, and that was a plus. What the agency demanded was that The Slug's House be driven into people's subconscious, so just because he was dozing off while reading a book did not mean that he had failed to advertise that book. He was clearly succeeding at attracting attention, and he was deflecting all of those gazes with The Slug's House. Another woman was just quietly reading The Slug's House. Her actions were basically what the bookworms required, but there was nothing special about her. Jung spoke to her.
“If a mackerel just watches the tail of the mackerel in front of him, he won't have time to think about whether he is really swimming or not. I'm just staring at the rear end of the mackerel in front of me right now, you know? We have to swim our hearts out.”
The woman didn't reply. Just a person reading a book within the human tide, with an expression like a dried pollock. The woman was Jung herself.
The subway read her movements. Her transportation card, the CCTV cameras, and many people that Jung could not recognize all read her movements. She would soon have to leave her apartment. She had three days left there. Her cellphone rang so much that it interfered with her work. It was enough to put a crimp in her image as a natural reader. She turned off the ringer and buried the phone deep in her bag. Some time later she checked the phone to see that she had gotten six calls and one text message. The message was from the apartment manager. Someone was waiting for the apartment, so could she please pack her things before the end of the week. This person was scheduled to move in next Monday. Strangely enough, though, she read these letters from a distance, like she read the sentences in the book she read for work. It didn't feel like it was happening to her. Jung laughed cheerfully once every ten minutes, and more often than that she underlined a line in the text. As she did so, she thought about where she could go in three days. And she was skilled enough not to let those thoughts show. She had become quite skilled.
“Oh, it's snowing,” someone on the subway said. Truly, beyond her book the snow was falling like a powdery drug. She almost felt she would become intoxicated.
In the blizzard the No. 1 line came to an occasional stop, and the No. 2 line circled the drooping city as if it were choking it. Like a pair of handcuffs tight around the wrists, or like a rope around the neck.
On the day a cold front launched a surprise attack over the snow that had not yet melted, the subway was filled with the smell of mothballs. Fabrics like alpaca fleece, wool, and nylon shrugged off the weight of their hibernation and mingled together. Jung watched as the number of slugs grew exponentially within that smell of mothballs.
Jung returned home mechanically. Sunday was already over and it was twenty minutes into Monday.
Your stay has expired. Your belongings will be collected this morning and stored elsewhere.
Not long after Jung entered the house the doorbell rang. It was the manager. Jung held her breath. A confrontation between a tenant and a landlord, just like she had seen on the news, was taking place right here, right now. She had not yet found a new place. She had long since turned off her cellphone. She didn't want to turn it on. At the sound of pounding on the door Jung became a nail being struck by a hammer. If there had been another door in the apartment, she would have fled through it.
Jung opened up The Chef's Nail, which might have been just one of many copies, and fumbled for the part she had been reading like one might part a child's hair. Jung liked how the pages within the book spread out like a folding fan when the two hardback covers lay flat on the ground, so she had deliberately chosen not to use a bookmark. Jung put one of the pages up to her ear and bent over. She put the page under her cheek like a pillow, and as the next page rose up toward her nose, she covered her face with it like a blanket. What would it be like to just lie here quietly between the pages and be pressed flat? There was no other way to compress time within space—that is, to seize flowing time—but pressed flower art. Beneath the weight of time and space, moisture would evaporate, and she would be preserved for all eternity. Those moments that had been preserved in Jung's book had already become a handful of pressed flowers.
If she listened carefully, between the thudding sounds of the manager pounding on her door, Jung thought she could hear another sound: the echo of a book reading itself, tired of the time of this world, weary of the space of this world. The motions of a book that, all the while feigning innocence, was digging a way out with its back foot.
When morning came, an emergency key was used to open Jung's door. When the manager opened the door and looked around the inside of the apartment, there was nothing in sight. It was an empty house, as if the previous tenant had moved out.
At that moment, Jung was on her third lap around the No. 2 line. Jung had left for work far earlier than usual. She might not have even been working. The slug moved slowly over the page. It seemed to be gnawing not at leaves but on the wind. As Jung watched, the slug crawled over the letters like an eraser, but then disappeared without a trace. It had gone back into the book. Everything was as it was before. With consummate skill, the slug had been compressed from a solid object to a flat surface. Jung underlined some text. In mid-underline, she decided to go there herself. All of the names in The Chef's Nail were granted their own necessary reason why they had to appear in that book. If that place truly did exist, there was no reason Jung could not go there. Jung cocked an eye at the subway map. The subway stretched out in all directions like an umbilical cord. The last stops might not even be the last stops. If she kept going beyond the last stops and the train depots, the umbilical cord of salvation might stretch on.
It was already past time for her to go home. She could not even guess how many times she had circled the city. Jung put The Slug's House into her bag and took out The Chef's Nail. The two pages that spread out looked like windows. As she read the book where names begat names and so on and so on, Jung rode the subway from one end to the other. The subway stretched from the No. 2 line to the No. 5 line to the No. 8 line, and even on to the No. 12 line. As she stared hard at page 237, the page furtively slid aside like a door. Time beyond the last stop, beyond the train depot approaching in the form of a long and dark space. When this time passed, the world of The Chef's Nail would open up before her. Jung moved through subway lines that had not yet been born, into earth that had not even been dug. And at long last she entered into the book. From solid object to flat surface.
It was her fifth home.
If only she had not misread “The Chef's Mail” as “The Chef's Nail,” none of this ever would have happened. No, if only she had not confused The Chef's Nail with The Slug's House, none of this would have happened. But even if it had not been for all the confusion, maybe these things would have happened anyway.
Jung entered into the book as she had hoped, but the chef's nail was nowhere to be seen, either in letter or in life. It was only when she saw a single slug crossing the street like a comma some way off that she realized: she had come to the wrong place. The world she had wanted to enter was that of The Chef's Nail, but somehow she had entered The Slug's House. She had clearly put The Slug's House in her bag and taken out a different book, but she must have confused her right hand with her left, her work with what was not her work, night with day, and many other pairs of things. It was probably because of overwork.
Jung read the letters that flowed beneath her body, letters that were bigger than her body.
“He gathered up the slugs and put them into a jar filled with coarse salt. He closed the lid and, five minutes later, opened it again to find the slugs gone. Only a sticky fluid remained.”
As she crawled over these sentences, the air and gazes shriveled up Jung's body like coarse salt. Jung felt like a slug stuck to the page of someone else's book, and she shrunk even more. In the distance she saw that third basement-level house with the window in the floor, her first home in the city. A person as small as a slug that had lost its home went inside the house. The low sound of a vibrator could be heard, and then black letters began to pour down like rocks. A few of those letters squashed the house. As her shoulders were crushed and her back was bent, everything was flattened. There was not a trace of her left where she had passed. Jung Bangbae was left between the lines.
By the time Kwak opened the book, Jung had already been crushed to death between the pages. Somewhere after page 237 was Jung's epitaph. But there was no one who could read that epitaph. Kwak saw that the pages after page 237 were all stuck together and would not come apart, and she thought it odd. She stuck her long fingernails in between the pages and tried to pry them apart, but those pages stubbornly kept their mouths shut tight, and she only succeeded at tearing out a small piece of paper, like a piece of flesh.
The book was also a relic of Jung. On the CCTV footage, it didn't look so much like Jung had thrown herself onto the tracks as it did that she had leaned into the book and her whole life had ended up falling over. After that footage hit the news, the number of people reading The Slug's House exploded. There was no way of telling whether it was an expansion of the Bookworm Advertising Agency or whether the number of actual readers increased, but one thing was certain: Jung's death made The Slug's House famous. The woman who threw herself in front of the train with the book held tightly in both hands drew the attention of many. A few people who knew that the woman was Jung felt goosebumps on their arms, but as with all goosebumps in this world these, too, soon disappeared. Those who had seen Jung on the subway regularly said of her suicide: she was always reading a book. Sometimes she cried, sometimes she laughed.
The No. 2 line went round and round. Kwak thought of the night she had ridden the subway with Jung. She had sensed nothing strange at all from her. Jung was just ordinary. Except that Jung's statement that it took eighty-seven minutes for the No. 2 line to make a full circuit, now that she thought about it, somehow seemed significant. Kwak did not have the time to test those eighty-seven minutes for herself. Kwak moved into the company apartment on Monday. She did not know that that was where Jung had lived, but it wouldn't have changed anything even if she had known. From the company apartments to the office it was four stops on the No. 2 line. It was time to get off.
As Kwak went to put her book in her bag, the book flapped like a bird. And then it flew up from her bag, through the metal roof of the subway, and into the sky. The rustling sound grew as loud as a storm. Tens of thousands of books that had lain quietly underground spread their pages like seagulls and began to fly upward. Some of them flew low and some of them flew high, and they passed through an entire world. At that moment the letters flew off like feathers. The books flew up high. Several meters in the air, with their mouths open wide, they flew off in search of other targets, yawning as they went.
The subway car with the hole in its roof flowed on without incident, and people read their books. A few lines of wind blew in.
© Yun Ko-eun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Charles La Shure. All rights reserved.