The world was full of precious garbage. Woo-jin passed through it on his way home from work, scanning the field at the end of the runway for aluminum cans, bits of copper wire, rare earth elements scavenged from junked computers. He found a beer box, but whoever’d left it hadn’t put the empties back in their cardboard cubicles. He kicked the box and swung a plastic bag of rescued leftovers from his finger. As a professional dishwasher he only rescued food from the trash when he was certain none of his coworkers would catch him. If they spotted the clamshell box on top of the Hobart washer they’d think it was an order somebody never picked up from the takeout window, and if they happened to see that the burger inside had a bite out of it, they’d think it was Woo-jin who had bitten the bite rather than it being a burger that had already had a bite taken out of it. He’d scraped this particular burger out of a plastic basket along with congealed gravy fries.
Patsy, his foster sister, was going to want that burger, Woo-jin knew. He could either eat the burger and gravy fries now, in the field, and go home stuffed but not have to share with Patsy, or he could show up with the food and have Patsy yell at him about who needed the three-quarters of a burger the most. Patsy was always talking at him about how lucky he was with his job because of all the free food. If he showed up empty-handed she accused him of not bringing food home on purpose. The only times she was really grateful was when he’d bring home a whole pie. Usually the pie was apple, or rather rhubarb. Sometimes, when he had to decide between taking something home that both he and Patsy liked or something that only he liked, he went with what only he liked so he didn’t have to share. And if he didn’t bring anything home he had to start right in and cook something for her anyway because usually she forgot to eat and was in a mood and yelled at him like he was a dick. Even though it was she who was growing penises out of her tits.
A UPS plane came down low like an earthquake riveted to the sky.
Glory hallelujah here was a can of Bud Light! He shook the remaining pissdroplets of beer out of it and slipped it into another white plastic bag, the one that wasn’t holding the food.
Did he even like his foster sister? Patsy? He never really asked himself that question, considering her as unremarkable as the clothes he schlupped to his body or the route he walked to work. Patsy simply was. What was she anyway? What did she do? While he was at work? It was like she was part house, part TV, and part something to give the plumbing to do, a way to collect money from the government in exchange for growing drugs and tissues in her plus-sized body. She was a pharmer. How it worked was this—she’d eaten herself to a size that meant she couldn’t move too good, and not moving too good meant one time she hurt herself in a bad fall and permanently messed up her back, and because her back was messed up she couldn’t get a regular job, and because she couldn’t get a regular job she was perfect for the job of pharming, which involved lying in bed most hours and watching inspirational videos. So she got money every month that let her eat enough to stay as plus-sized as she was and not have to get a job that asked her to move around, not like Woo-jin’s where the word hustle came routinely sputtering from the lips of the manager. As in hustle you bastards, we got the whole Elks Lodge to feed. Patsy plugged her face with food and her eyes with TV. She wobbled with anger if Woo-jin didn’t feed her the food they got from the money from the checks and the extra trash-saved food items from the restaurant where Woo-jin put in double shifts to pay for her to eat.
Woo-jin kicked a car muffler that was, for some reason, there. A plane took off, looked like a private jet, blowing his hair all over the place as it passed overhead.
Woo-jin didn’t feel particularly hungry. If he saved the three-quarters of a burger for later, Patsy would definitely want some and might even try to eat the whole thing. If he ate it now he’d at least get it to himself but then might get really hungry later and have something not as cool to eat, like ramen noodles with no flavor packet (Patsy liked to double up on the flavor packets, so by the end of the month the only ramens left—the ones she’d taken the extra flavor packet from—tasted like packing material). There was also the issue of the fries to deal with. Even fifteen minutes after they’re out of the deep fryer they start making the eater depressed on account of the coldness. Once the fat starts to congeal, well, forget you ever lived, pal. So it was because of the threat of congealing fries and the possibility he’d never get to eat the whole three-quarters of a burger that Woo-jin popped open the clamshell container and sat on a piece of airplane equipment. It was like a big refrigerator lying on its side, painted green with some sticky-outy parts.
Far down the tarmac a two-seater rose wobbling into the sky. The sky was looking purply and airbrushed like a druggie band album cover. Patsy knew a lot about druggie bands and their secret messages. She’d showed him some of the album covers in books she got at Good News Bookstore. What kind of good news was that supposed to be? News that guys in studded codpieces were controlling his mind to make him hail Satan and abuse cocaine like a goatfucker?
Woo-jin squirted ketchup from a packet he’d stashed in his jacket. He’d only taken one because technically it was stealing, so he had to make it go a long way. No fry could get more than a droplet of ketchup. It was a rationing decision. It bothered him that he’d dishonestly taken the packet, but what was he going to do? Eat congealed fries without the ketchup, like a mentally ill person? No thanks, guys. When the fries and burger were gone he put the clamshell back in its white plastic bag and proudly declared silently that he was not a litterer. In fact, he was the opposite of a litterer. Remembering the reason he’d taken a detour through this field in the first place, he looked around to see if there were maybe any redeemable cans lying around. When he looked behind the big metal piece of forgotten machinery he saw the dead girl.
Woo-jin was first all like There go the bugs—oh no there go the bugs! because three guesses as to what was crawling on the girl’s face. She was an Asianish-looking human wearing a dirty white button-up fancy-style shirt, black pants, and one black leather boot with the other foot just bare, hanging out there. Woo-jin’s three-quarters of a burger and fries rose up through his trunk and horizontally departed his face. He fell to his knees on the opposite side of the refrigerator-like machine and wheezed, then slowly rose and looked at the dead girl again, thinking, Please no bugs this time, but again there were the bugs! Bugs all over!
Woo-jin stumbled west toward the frontage road feeling—what’s the best word—probably bad. Not because some girl was dead with earwig accompaniment, but because now there’d be complex questions someone was going to ask him. Most likely a cop. He didn’t want to talk to any of those social people. He’d grown up talking to social people, sitting in waiting areas with complimentary brochures with titles like Suicide’s a Huge Bummer for Everyone while the smart smiling lawyers made decisions about him in closed rooms. His ears hurt from coldness, paradoxically throbbing and hot. Patsy would have all sorts of opinions about the dead girl and would probably get him in trouble for not doing something differently. What could he possibly do? He had no phone and couldn’t see the benefit of sticking around. He wished he hadn’t eaten that burger. No wonder the much-appreciated guest had sent it back.
Woo-jin was twenty-five and Korean. At least in his skin he was; he’d never been to Korea. He lived in the Pacific Northwest. More specifically, he lived in a shithole. The shithole in question was some subsidized housing between the freeway and a construction storage area where backhoes and skid steers and cement trucks and cranes shoved raw material into piles at obscene hours. The trailer looked like it had been shat out of a mansion. When he showed up, shaking in his body at the door, he found Patsy where he’d last seen her, hogging the whole couch in the front room lit by TV, eating melted cookie-dough ice cream out of a gallon bucket with a wooden spoon. How much did she weigh? North of four hundred. She had a pink bow in her thin hair and was missing a front tooth. The TV was showing some action, some lady in tight, butt-complimenting leather pants firing machine pistols with both hands as she exploded backward out a skyscraper window pursued by guys in suits with semiautomatics mouthing the slow-motion words, Tell us where the messiah is or you’ll pay with your [bleep]ing life. Though he’d never seen the episode before, Woo-jin recognized this to be Stella Artaud: Newman Assassin, from all her billboards.
“What did you bring, bitch?” Patsy said.
“I brang nothing.”
“Then what’s in that plastic bag?”
Woo-jin was surprised to find the takeout bag with the empty ex-burger box still inside, dangling from his finger. “It was a burger.”
“You ate my burger?”
“It was a bad one. I threw it up.”
“You are so so not fair. All you get to do is eat free food and drink free soda while I grow tissues all day.”
“I wash dishes, too, you know,” Woo-jin said.
“You look like you saw a phantom of the opera.”
Woo-jin confronted the kitchen-like area and found a glass that he filled with water. Then, he drank it. “I saw a dead body,” he said, and started feeling the ennui. That’s the misnomer a caseworker had used for it one time. A hellish onrushing of fanged empathy.
“I need you to lance my boils,” Patsy said. Woo-jin slunk back to the living room, meaning he turned around and walked two steps. Patsy sat sweating under three flickering fluorescent tubes, her head small compared to her neck. Bandages covered her left shoulder where they’d last extracted tissues.
“I’m sorry, Patsy. I feel it coming.”
“What did you say about a dead body?”
“I said I saw it in a field. It was a girl, a nicely dressed girl. Bugs crawling on her.” Woo-jin picked his mouth guard out of his shirt pocket and slipped it between his teeth. He tried not to look at Patsy’s thick and sweating face because that would make it worse, but he couldn’t help it and now he started thinking about how mean he had been to eat her burger. How selfish. This meant it was building, the flying, multitentacled, and fire-breathing ennui attack. He took off his shoes, making it as far as shoe #1, aka the left one.
On TV Stella Artaud landed on the moon roof of a limo, climbed inside, and received a drink from Dr. Uri Borden, as played by Neethan F. Jordan. Who. Woulda. Thought.
“My boils!” Patsy said. “I need my boils lanced before my caseworker comes.”
Woo-jin pushed back the ennui by turning his thoughts to that old standby, puppies in party hats, and fetched the boil-lancing kit from the bathroom. Actually there was no room separately called the bathroom, only Patsy’s room where the toilet was. For convenience. Patsy’s walls were decorated with some of the finest unicorn posters in all the land. There was one of a unicorn being ridden by Chewbacca that Woo-jin appreciated. Sometimes while taking a dump he’d wish he could ask Chewbacca for advice. Like: where can I get one of them fly utility belts? Patsy’s boil-lancing kit: where was it? Here it was sitting on top of a Harlequin paperback. It looked sorta like a gun. Except instead of shooting slow-motion bullets this gun poked and sucked boils.
Back in the living room Patsy had rotated on the sofa so the ass was up and the panties pulled down to show the butt with the boils on it. No one had ever measured the butt but Woo-jin guessed it to be nine miles wide.
“Hurry and get it over with,” Patsy said. “The workers will be here soon and I don’t want to get penalized again for hygiene, lack thereof.”
“You’re talking like a TV person,” Woo-jin said, “with the lack thereofs.” He pressed the gun to the first boil and squeezed the trigger; the hiss and wheeze of puncture and extraction.
“What was this dead person thing about?” Patsy said.
“This dead person thing was about me sitting there wishing I still had a burger.”
“You were such a liar about that burger.”
“I was not a liar.”
“You’ll have to go to the mart later for pork rinds and chipotle ranch. What more about the girl? The dead one.”
“She had face bugs. She looked like a nice person. I should call the cops, right?”
“I can’t understand you with the mouth guard.”
“But I don’t wanna eat my tongue.” Woo-jin dropped the boil gun and dug his fingers into his chest. Hyperventilating, he fell to his knees then clawed around on the carpet as if underneath it were some fancy-pants answer to his problems. Gravity appeared to be shifting to the left, wanting to suck everything in that direction. Woo-jin crawled against the leftward pull to his hammock. Shivering, sputtering, blinking, he pulled himself into the netting and attempted to unwad the thin gray blanket.
One time on TV there was a show about historic animation guys who made the cartoons way back in the day. They’d draw their pictures on sheets of clear plastic and layer them like a sandwich, making the action go with the background. The ennui was kind of like that, with the world of real shit serving as the background layer, going about its real shit business while on top of it, layer upon layer, were sheets of dread, planes of condensed suffering, a thickening wall between Woo-jin’s regular ole self and the black hell of emotions. It was almost worse that he didn’t pass out when he had an attack. Instead, he had to watch people looking at him, hopefully someone like Patsy who’d gotten used to these attacks, but sometimes, when the ennui hit in public, some stranger bending down low gawking at him clinging to a newspaper box, or commuters ignoring him as he writhed on the concourse of a bus station, their eyes saying, This freak’s on something nasty. Sometimes cops picked him up and were pricks about it until they could prick his finger and get a whole history from the sesame-seed-sized droplet of blood they fed to their vampiric Bionet monitors. Oh. This guy’s got an actual condition. He ain’t an embodiment. After which they’d maybe toss a blanket at him and make sure he was as far as possible from respectable citizens. And all the while he couldn’t make his body move through space like it was supposed to, only vibrate shivering regardless of the temperature.
Now, in the relative safety of his hammock, through his eye slits, he watched Patsy pull up her drawers and mumble curses about burgers. Predictably her suffering was the primary tributary to the ennui. He saw her for the prisoner of her own body that she was, sensed acutely the tragedy of her not understanding her own enslavement. Then deeper. The chorus of shrieks!!! He’d seen in a magazine that one painting by that one guy, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The sound generated by that painting was what he was dealing with here. Like wind whistling in your ear, except multiplied, skull-rattling, sourceless. Here’s where the mouth guard came in handy. Woo-jin bit down so hard his jaw began to ache. A couple times he’d come out of the ennui unable to open his mouth for over an hour. Now he rode that clattering thrill ride of skeleton bones down, down, down, fingers grinding like machines in the gray blanket, gurning his face around the mouth guard, trying to bring into his mind the calming presence of Chewbacca on that unicorn with his fly utility belt, snot jetting out of his nose, a real winner of an ennui attack here, folks, and then, most horrible of all, he found himself wearing the dead girl’s face. He couldn’t see it, wouldn’t dare seek a mirror, but he trembled, convinced that the face was superimposed on his own, its mucousy underside squirming to find purchase on his own contorted visage.
Woo-jin whispered, “Patsy? Is my face my own face?” but she didn’t seem to hear, and if she could she couldn’t hear words, just squashy sounds of a choking variety muffled by the rubber half-circle stuffed into his mouth. Besides, she was primping for her case worker Hattie’s visit, rearranging the bow on her head, bored by now with this kind of activity from her trailer mate/foster brother, still smarting from her unbegotten burger. Patsy pressed her thick thumb to the remote control and changed the TV from sequences of slo-mo artillery to Fashion Tips for the Beautifully Obese, on Discovery. Onscreen a naked woman was being prepared for her fitting, rolls of fat obliterating any view of adult content regions. Like a rivulet of suffering feeding into the tributary, this new source of sad humanity bled from the TV into the empathetic response portion of Patsy’s brain then amplified into Woo-jin’s ennui attack, which had previously begun to level off in terms of the intensity. As it picked up again, Fashion Tips for the Beautifully Obese’s host measured and marked the TV woman’s arms with a felt-tip marker. Chewie, where were you when you were needed most?
Woo-jin fell out of the hammock, which was no surprise. This happened all the time. Which was why underneath the hammock there were throw pillows and gold shag carpet into which had been ground bits of bark, hair, a gum wrapper, toothpicks, the bitey plastic clip from a bread bag. The peak of the attack had definitely passed and he slid into a numb, thrumming part, quiet and immobilized. The door seemed to knock itself then Hattie let herself in. She was a mom-looking woman with glasses and frizzed hair, wearing a brown artificial-fiber pantsuit, encumbered by a gaudy purse overflowing with notes, nicotine gum, and half-drunk bottles of water. Her assistants, two younger guys in white jumpsuits and latex gloves whom she referred to as Thing One and Thing Two, trailed her burdened by equipment in sturdy metal cases, which they began to unload.
“Patsy! You look fabulous!” Hattie said, hugging part of the woman. Patsy got kind of quiet and blushed. It amazed Woo-jin every time that the same Patsy who gave him such ball-busting moments for cutting her toast wrong turned into this meek mouse of a gal once the extractions went down. Hattie spread her belongings out on the kitchenette dinette table, pulling out a stethoscope, cramming a VHS tape into the mouth of their VCR. “You’re really going to love this week’s installment,” she said, pressing PLAY. As the tape started, she took Patsy’s hand in her own and rubbed the dimples of her knuckles.
On the TV appeared the boilerplate intro, the same thing they saw week after week. There was a beach with silhouetted lovers hand in hand, a waterfall, a rainbow over a field where a tractor tilled in the distance. The music was solo acoustic guitar, plaintive yet uplifting. A title materialized over an image of a grainy sunset: YOUR GENEROSITY AT WORK and beneath that the Bionetics logo. After which the music picked up tempo, into a we’re-getting-things-done kind of deal. Shots of busy streets, a race car driver flashing a thumbs-up, a human pyramid of enthused cheerleaders. Then into the meat of the program, the part that had been changed from the month previous. There was a dark-skinned kid playing trucks in a preschool with other kids, making the usual truck noises. Over this came recorded narration from a confident-sounding man. “Juan was born without thumbs. Many of the activities we take for granted he just couldn’t do. Now, thanks to your generosity, he can open jars, climb the rope in gym class, and even high-five his friends. No more high-fours for Juan. Thank you so very much—” Here the audio cut out for a second. Hattie’s voice came on and said “Patsy.” Then it returned to the man’s voice, saying, “The reconstructive surgery we were able to perform with tissues you provided made all the difference. Thank you!” Then followed three or four more segments such as this, each showcasing a person who owed their new livelihood to Patsy. There was a blind guy who could now make out shapes, a quadriplegic who’d begun taking baby steps. Patsy sniffled through the reel, moved. Woo-jin had never watched one of these reels during an ennui attack before. He felt no empathetic response to this sequence of vignettes. Where he should have been soaking up these folks’ suffering he felt a blankness. Different from nothing, blankness had a border around it, edges where he felt something. He circled around the feeling as Hattie rubbed one of Patsy’s shoulders and offered her a tissue and Things Two and One plugged all manner of instruments and monitors into sockets and laid a tarp on the living room floor. This was all prep before the part with the blood and freaky noises, the part Woo-jin hated most. Hattie helped Patsy disrobe and sit on a fold-out carbon microtube chair. The assistants orbited her, swabbing, lifting curtains of flesh, pressing various equipment against unidentifiable parts of her anatomy. Hattie slipped in another tape for Patsy’s enjoyment, a live music concert by the singer Michael Bolton.
Here goes, Woo-jin thought. Went it did. He turned to the wall, making himself not see, but his hands couldn’t block the high-pitched dental whine of the saw and the vacuum’s irregular sputtering. Worst was when it smelled like burning hair. As they removed kidney tissue from her knee, Patsy quietly sang along to Michael Bolton’s ballad about a man loving a woman so much that he’d sleep out in the rain if that’s the way she said things oughta be.
Woo-jin woke in his hammock. There were talking people in the next room. He was killer hungry. Always happened this way after the ennui attack, the ravenousness, and this time it was worse because he’d projectiled his burger at the sight of the dead girl’s buggy face. Woo-jin crawled out of his hammock and peeked around the doorframe into the living room, where the Things were finishing their cleanup, rolling the tarp, stuffing bloodied paper towels into a garbage bag. Hattie sat with Patsy on the couch, petting her hair. Patsy was covered with bandages and doing her usual postextraction crying bit, while on TV once-thumbless Juan was playing Wii with the best of ’em.
“It hurts,” Patsy said. “It hurts worse every time.”
“Oh, you dear, sweet girl,” Hattie said. “You just take your medicine and think of Pegasus, riding free through the clouds.”
“A winged unicorn is not a pegasus,” Patsy sniffed.
Woo-jin crawled to the fridge as though his stomach was propelling him across the floor. Nobody seemed to notice him even though the trailer was hardly eight feet wide. One Thing was saying to the other, “Yeah so like I heard this one guy down in Argentina or whatever grew a whole human head in his abdominal cavity.”
Woo-jin at last arrived at the fridge and upon opening it to the jangle of condiment jars everyone’s head turned and considered him in silence while on the screen commenced a racquetball tournament for recent transplant recipients. Inside the fridge were red-bagged specimens of biological valuables, a picked-over turkey carcass, some Pabst Blue Ribbon, celery, a jar of Tom & Jerry’s hot-buttered-rum mix, fake sausage oddly enough made out of meat, one dead banana, ketchup, muffins, a lone pizza roll, and what Woo-jin was really looking for, peanut butter from Trader Joe’s. Barely able to stand, he leaned against the counter and found a spoon, then retired to his corner.
He heard Patsy say, “My foster brother never does nice things for me. He just has his attacks and eats the last of the cheese. I always tell him to bring me things from the store and restaurant but does he? All I ask for is a free hamburger or maybe a slice of pie? Something to show he cares?”
Hattie said, “It’s hard to have a no-good foster brother. You hang in there and recover, lance your boils. And guess what? Next time you get to see someone special. Santa Claus!”
The medicines were kicking in and Patsy started to say something but slurred the words like a demoralized tape recorder. Woo-jin hastily ate his peanut butter, sticking his mouth up with it. Hattie said, “Let’s get out of this cesspool,” then left with Things One and Two, who carted away ice chests packed with harvested tissues. The VCR still played images of happy people engaged in healthy outdoor recreation, breathing the salty ocean breezes on a catamaran or taking in the foliage on a misty mountain trail. Woo-jin slipped in another spoonful of peanut butter and this seemed to represent the tipping point of his mouth’s mobility. He might as well have eaten cement. He could no longer move it at all. A line of buttery drool trickled down his chin. Patsy, for her part, had become more debilitated on the couch, her sagging and bruised form occasionally hiccuping as she settled, asleep, to dream of sea turtles and Neptune, who called to the sea nymphs with his conch-shell megaphone. Hattie and co. peeled out from the dirt driveway in their van. Woo-jin stood in the living room, his mouth immobilized. He knew he had to return to the dead girl.
The steady clang of machines hypnotized Woo-jin as he left the trailer that morning, jar of peanut butter in one hand, spoon in the other, his mind still carbonated from the ennui attack, feet taking him around the crumbling brick buildings of Georgetown to the edge of Boeing Field, where planes roared and dipped like immense predatory birds. Oh, if only some action hero of yore were to give Woo-jin a pep talk and reinforce his nerves as he walked through the grasses, retracing his path to where a police helicopter now sat, its blades spinning lazy-like, slower and slower as if the thing was nodding off to sleep. Three or four cops were gathered around the fridge-like contraption, taking pictures, spitting profanities into walkie-talkies, drinking coffee, a clump of vaguely authoritative-looking humans in nonetheless shabby police uniforms. This was like a TV version of something that was actually happening, an instantaneous reenactment in which the original experiencers of an event immediately reexperience their experiences for the cameras and fake their initial reactions. Woo-jin stuffed another goopy wad of peanut butter nervously into his mouth. He came to the congregation of officers—two men, one woman, a helicopter pilot smoking a cigarette—and raised his spoon-holding hand as if wishing to be called upon to speak.
“Who the hell’s this guy?” said an officer with a wide head topped with a flattop. Another, a skinny tall man drinking a short coffee, nodded at Woo-jin. “You know anything about this?”
“Wooolmph mmmr,” Woo-jin said. “Wwrrmmth hmmph.”
“What are we waiting for?” said the skinny tall one. “Get this fellow a glass of milk!”
“I’ve got some milk in the bird,” the pilot said, and quickly located some two-percent and a glass, which he filled with a steady hand. The glass was translucent brown and pebbly and would not have looked out of place neglected behind a sectional in the Midwest. Woo-jin nodded his appreciation, consumed the refreshing glass of milk, smacked his lips a few times, and said, “I saw the body last night. Coming through the field.”
“That’s nice,” the wide-head cop said.
“I saw her when I came through looking for cans and eating my three-quarters of a burger. She had face bugs!”
Woo-jin couldn’t see the body from where he was standing. It was hidden behind that big green thing. The officers frowned like they suddenly remembered they had work to do. The woman cop rolled her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail that yanked up her eyebrows.
The skinny tall one said, “Well, thanks, but we have it covered here.”
“But I saw her. It made me puke. Who is she? Am I under arrest?”
“You’re not under arrest,” said the chopper pilot. “Can I have my glass back, please?”
Woo-jin handed back the glass, now frosted with milk film.
“We’ve got lots of work to do here, so you best be on yer way,” the woman cop said.
“So you don’t think I killed her?”
Laffs all around. “Hoo boy. No, we’re pretty certain you didn’t kill her,” wide-head snorted.
“We could book you anyway, if it would make you feel better,” skinny cop said, to his colleagues’ guffaws.
“Who is she?” Woo-jin asked.
“You mean the body?” skinny tall said. “We haven’t gotten that far yet. We just got here.”
Woo-jin said, “I want to help find the killer.”
More laughter, louder this time.
“The killer!” the chopper pilot snorted.
“Find him!” the woman cop laughed.
Nervously, Woo-jin started in again with the peanut butter, goops and goops of it shoved at the tooth-ringed hole in his head. “Woolf,” he said.
“Get the guy more milk,” wide-head said. The chopper pilot refilled the glass and handed it over. Woo-jin drank as enthusiastically as before.
“Thank you. I really could help you guys find the killer.”
“Get the hell out of here,” skinny tall said.
Woo-jin, upset but not really understanding why, decided to push his way through space by walking. Time to go to work anyway. The ground scrolled beneath him with its broken pieces of crud, rodent carcasses, pebbles, fibers, the granularity of byproducts. He crossed the oily Duwamish into the ruins of South Park, ghosts of Mexican restaurants and a store where cell phones once were sold, Sunday circular advertisements pushed along by an underperforming wind. This was the shortcut he took to the staging area in West Seattle. A cat trotted in front of him with something purple in its mouth that didn’t look like food, and Woo-jin realized the thing hanging out of its mouth was part of its mouth, and the cat looked at him as if it rightly understood Woo-jin had nothing at all to offer it. Woo-jin wondered briefly about the people who used to live in this neighborhood and their broken empathies. Their absence struck him like the musty sweet odor from a discarded cola bottle. Why, by the way, hadn’t the cops taken him up on his offer to assist with the dead body? They’d seemed more interested in standing around looking cool than investigating the appearance of a dead girl in a field above which airplanes screamed. Time and again Woo-jin butted up against the intelligence of other people, the walls of confusion from which they peered down on him and leered. In times of fresh panic he wondered if he might be even stupider than he suspected he was, and maybe these smiling case workers and librarians and such noticed deficiencies in his brain that he himself could not begin to appreciate due to the fact of his being somehow fundamentally flawed in that department. Maybe their occasional kindnesses were a way of humoring him. Maybe he wasn’t even smart enough to see their secret cruelties.
There were dilapidated houses and something that used to be a gas station, structures absent of human life, remnants of foundations, charred heaps of cracked wood and bricks, as Woo-jin came to the parts of the neighborhood reclaimed by the trees. Trees pushed up through the concrete in what was once the middle of the street, birds clinging to branches, watching. The road became a path, and the path disappeared into weeds and thicket, but Woo-jin knew the way. He emerged onto a sidewalk and spotted the revolving sign of his employer, Il Italian Joint, a hundred paces away.
Il Italian Joint mostly served the workers going to and from the New York Alki staging area and it was Woo-jin’s job to make sure the pots were clean. Great quantities of soups and sauces bubbled in these pots and, once emptied, they needed to be scrubbed. The heat baked a thin, nearly impenetrable layer of food to the bottoms of the pots, which Woo-jin attacked with a number of scrapers, wools, soaps, and picks, chiseling the solidified minestrone or marinara until the pots gleamed silver. He wondered on occasion if it was possible for the food to chemically fuse into a new sort of compound with the steel. Maybe the cooking process became so intense that it negated the difference between the organic food material and the ore-based material that constituted the pot and the only way to truly clean a pot would be to actually scrape away layers of metal at the bottom. His implements seemed inadequate for the task. He scraped and sweated over the pots and never really got one to the clean state of his satisfaction. Each pot it seemed he polished to a level of just-adequate cleanliness. He fantasized about sandblasting them.
Woo-jin’s boss was this guy by the name of Sandford Deane whose eyes always looked closed. And yet he still managed to not often bump into things. He was supposed to be the guy who greeted valued guests at the door, but often ended up out back behind the grease bin smoking the cigarettes he called fags. He was supposed to be the owner of this place, or pretend to be, but everyone knew he was just some actor in a stained tuxedo going table to table complimenting the guests on their fashion decisions and asking if they’d care for a glass of port on the house. The real owner of Il Italian Joint was a company in Shanghai. Sandford Deane stood in as a representation of what the owner might have looked like had he been a human being instead of a collection of codes and spreadsheets, meetings, and quarterly reports in sexy buildings. He was standing in the doorway next to the Dumpsters when Woo-jin tumbled through some shrubbery into the near-empty parking lot.
“I’m early I think,” Woo-jin said.
“You’re early every day. You could at least use the time to do something useful, like masturbate,” Sandford said.
“But I’m a dishwasher,” Woo-jin said, slipping past his boss, snatching his apron off a hook by the back door. “I figured out the ultimate pot scrubbing device.”
“Diamond-coated steel wool.”
Sandford nodded. “That, or we could start scrubbing the pots with lasers.”
“Lasers.” Woo-jin clenched his eyebrows at the thought, pushing his way into the kitchen’s greasy yelling and clanking. “Lasers.”
The wash station looked like it had been hit by a car bomb. Three guys from the previous shift were standing basically gaping at the pile of dishes, spraying a bowl here and there, overwhelmed by the madness of it all. The three dishwashers were Pontoon, Ben o’Winn, and Bahn Kan, fellows comprised of scraps of ethnicities, doused in food particles, and enduring some kind of experiment in sleep deprivation. Waitresses screamed at cooks, something burned on a stove, and a couple sauciers were trying to rescue one of their kind who’d gotten trapped in the walk-in freezer. Pontoon held out a spatula with something black stuck to it. Ben o’Winn trembled and whimpered from the stress. Bahn Kan scratched one sideburn, the only one he had, and said something in a language that sounded like Vietnamese but with a lot more sighing.
“Sometimes maybe you guys could do a better job with the dishes,” Woo-jin said sadly then started telling them what to do. Pontoon hauled a pile of clean dishes back to the prep area. Ben o’Winn snuck to the edge of the dining room and commandeered the bus carts. Bahn Kan fetched Woo-jin an orange soda. Woo-jin roughly counted the dishes in their precarious stacks, assessed the number of pallets on the dishwasher, considered the time of day, anticipated the rate of new dirty dishes arriving, then let the part of his brain that washed dishes for a living kick in and do its shit. He almost felt like he was sitting back and watching a robot do the job. He was the best dishwasher in the world and he had the gold medal to prove it, from the previous year’s Restaurant and Hotel Management Olympics. The medal hung spattered with grease and soap on the wall behind the washer. Often, when feeling discouraged by the rate of dirty dishes coming in, Woo-jin glanced at the medal, smiled, and recalled how he’d defeated the Red Lobster regional champion in pot scrubbing by point-nine seconds. Sometimes dishwashers from out of town showed up at the back door of Il Italian Joint, hoping to watch Woo-jin work. Tonight the champion’s arms wheeled over the mass of forks and coffee cups, fruit rinds and disintegrating napkins, smears of Bolognese, ramekins, cigarette butts, hardened macaroni and cheese, the fossils of burgers and fries, and steadily the pile shrank in the curling steam. By midshift the pile was obliterated and the three ineffectual dishwashers skulked home to their television sets and prescription medications, with sitcom theme songs stuck in their heads, falling asleep into the routines of hideous dreams. For a while, work had pulled Woo-jin’s thoughts from the previous night’s morbid discovery, but as the dinner rush thinned out her face came to him again, floating phantom-like in the steam.
“Yo, Mike.” It was a waitress named Sally who commuted a hundred miles both ways. An older woman, she was always showing pictures of her grandson to her coworkers, who would smile and say he was cute despite the ghastly facial deformity that nobody wanted to acknowledge. Sally held Woo-jin’s shoulder and repeated, “Yo, Mike.” He looked at her. She had thought his name was Mike since she started here two years ago and no one had gotten around to correcting her, including Woo-jin. “Are you okay, Mike?”
Woo-jin glanced around at the spotless dish-washing station and the dormant kitchen beyond. Everyone had gone home, it looked like.
“I am definitely not okay.”
“Walk me to my car. I’ll give you a cigarette.”
Sally was on who knew how many painkillers and her body seemed to generate little bursts of static electricity as she walked. Woo-jin hauled the last of the trash bags and Sally locked up. From the parking lot they witnessed the erratically lit-up skyline of New York Alki peeking over some nearby houses and businesses. Sounds: distant construction banging, two guys yelling in the near distance, a piece of cellophane scraped along the asphalt by the wind. Sally took his arm and hugged it close under her own and, choked up, said, “Sometimes I think you’re the only person who knows I exist.”
Woo-jin’s guts fluttered as this old waitress’s manifold sufferings bled a path into his nervous system. She was going to tell him again about her grandson and all the cruel things the neighborhood boys did to him, how they taunted him about his facial challenge, murdered his cat, knocked his special-ed books out of his hands onto the ground. Woo-jin really would have rather avoided her by slipping out the back door at the end of his shift but nightmare visions of the dead girl had mesmerized him at his station long after the last cup had been dried and shelved.
“I don’t know what to do with those boys they’re so cruel. What would their parents think if they knew they were giving wedgies to my poor Donald? Well, they’d probably laugh, being cruel and unthinking themselves. That’s where those boys got their cruelties, I’m sure.”
Woo-jin said, “They don’t know what to do with their suffering, so they give it to your Donald.”
Sally sighed. They’d made it to her car, a North Korean something banished from a factory. “Even though you’re a retard, Mike, you have a gift. A gift for understanding all the ways people feel like crap.”
Woo-jin wanted to tell Sally about the dead body but knew she’d only nod and let the horror of it slide off the protective surface of her own woes. He found her tragic this way, stewing in the nasty things that happened to her immediate family but incapable of feeling anyone else’s pain. Sally’s eyes were glossed over almost like she was sleepwalking, maybe to prepare for her commute. But then Woo-jin understood she was looking over his shoulder at the construction rising behind them into the night.
“Doesn’t it blow your mind,” she said, “that of all the places they could have picked to rebuild New York City they picked Puget Sound?”
That night Woo-jin passed again through the grass and trash near Boeing Field. The chopper, corpse, cops, etc. had of course disappeared. The sky reeked of jet fuel. He found the big dead machine and the spot where the dead girl had been, now a dead-grass outline, a snow angel without snow. The ennui attack came fresh and out of nowhere, so fast he didn’t have time to slip in his mouth guard. Woo-jin crumpled as overhead a cargo plane came ripping down with a belly full of parcels. The air took on the appearance of a multitude of rippling threads. He was on the ground, nose bleeding, jaw clenched, jerking his torso. He spotted a Coors can through the slit of one eye and there flooded a choking series of sadnesses for its crumpled and abandoned form. An unloved, forgotten object hoping only for swift disintegration to its original elements. Wait a minute, he was feeling sorry for a beer can? The ennui attacks used to feel like they were at least showing him something; this one was like riding the tip of a thrashing bullwhip. Here then came the hallucination: a night world seen through the thermal ripples of a campfire. No longer in the soggy bosom of the Pacific Northwest, he was surrounded by desert, atop a mesa of sorts. Blood rode the breaths out of his nostrils as his twitching self in the field receded behind a curtain of perception. He peered more fully into this seizure dream and saw the campfire ringed with carefully placed objects—a refrigerator, a tire, three stuffed animals, a pile of books, a full-length mirror. He crawled toward the latter, which was tilted up to reflect trillions of deceased stars back into the cosmos. An unforgiving wind ravaged the mesa, stretching the flames like curls of taffy. His hands, cracked and covered in layers of dirt and dust, clawed across the rocks. When at last he pulled the mirror down he found it a window into the face of an impossibly old man, toothless, skin beset by sores, lips peeling, eyes cloudy and almost blind. A gust of wind came across the mesa again and seemed to push Woo-jin back into his own body, convulsing on the ground outside Boeing Field. He smelled shit. Before he passed out he reached over and touched the beer can and drew it to his chest as if he were comforting an abandoned kitten.
Noon. Consciousness and a punishing sun. Woo-jin coughed and spit blood and snot. Was it—gawd, he’d bitten his tongue. A small charter plane rattled across his vision, departing and entering peripheries. He made it up on one elbow. An ant crawled up a nearby stalk of grass and this occupied Woo-jin’s attention for several minutes. His body unpersuasively argued against gravity. He rubbed his eyes and turned around.
There was the dead girl again, lying in the grass exactly as he’d found her the first time. Woo-jin nodded and sat on the big machine.
“This isn’t real,” he said. “I’m just remembering you.” He tossed his Coors can at the body, striking it in the chest. Maybe if he looked away then looked back, she would disappear. Didn’t happen. “Oh well,” he said.
Woo-jin headed homeward, stinking, bloody, incapable of walking a straight line. Semi trucks blasted past, inches away, on the road. One step to the right and he could’ve put an end to this BS. But he wanted something to eat; the cafésmells of Georgetown tormented him. A couple tourists veered out of his way as he passed them on the sidewalk and in the window of a music store that only sold vinyl he witnessed this haggard, face-fucked-up vision that he thought must be a Halloween mask.
Woo-jin heard the helicopter as he approached his home but couldn’t formulate the thought that it might have anything to do with him. This one wasn’t a cop ’copter. It was a big lifter, like the kind they used for construction on New York Alki. It hovered over the spot of land where the trailer stood, with cables attached to the mobile home’s four corners and a man in a helmet and flight suit standing on the roof. This guy gave a thumbs-up and slowly the trailer creaked and broke free from its moorings.
“Patsy!” Woo-jin cried. He saw parts of her through the various windows, fleshy mounds of arm or back, it was hard to tell. Her face appeared in the window above the kitchen sink. She was not happy.
“You never came back to feed me!” Patsy yelled. “What the Jesus were you doing all night?”
“Patsy, where are they taking you?”
The helicopter rose, the cables strained. Woo-jin sprinted, leaped, and grabbed a dangling portion of the porch.
“You left me to starve to death!” Patsy yelled, her face red, popping out cartoon stress droplets.
Flight suit guy bent down and hollered, “You’re gonna want to let go, son! We’re only going up from here!”
“Where are you taking my sister?” Woo-jin yelled as the two-by-four he had been holding on to groaned with slippy nails and he tumbled ten or so feet to the ground. A flower pot with a dead flower in it thunked him on the head, inducing a swirl of stars and chirping birds. Flight suit guy and Patsy both yelled at him, maybe revealing Patsy’s destination, but over the chopper’s blades and head bonk confusion there was no hearing for Woo-jin. In a great whirl of dust he shut his eyes tight and did his best to cover his mouth. The helicopter headed east, toward the Cascades, trailing the trailer from which Patsy did her best to wave good-bye.
“I shouldn’t have eaten her hamburger,” said Woo-jin. He lay for some time in the dirt, wondering when he’d need to head back to Il Italian Joint for another round of dishwashing. After a time he came to feel he was being watched. Sounded like wind chimes. He opened an eye. Standing nearby was the man from the neighborhood who demanded to be addressed as the Ambassador. None who knew his real name felt compelled to share it. He was just the Ambassador, nearly seven feet tall, hair in tight dreads, wearing the primary colors of an African wardrobe, big dangly cubist earrings, and a fat ring on every finger. His scepter was crafted from a toilet brush duct-taped to the shaft of a plumber’s helper, decorated with pipe cleaners and words of positive reinforcement written in tiny script circumnavigating the handle. He also sported a great white beard and a pair of sunglasses he’d discovered in a ditch.
“Ambassador,” Woo-jin said, “I could use some help.”
“You certainly could,” the Ambassador said, leaving the thought hanging.
“Maybe you can find a helicopter and convince them to follow the guys who just kidnapped my sister and have them yell out their window at the other helicopter to have Patsy throw down some extra pairs of my pants and shirts and stuff.”
“Or I could let you borrow a deluxe sweatpant-and-shirt ensemble,” the Ambassador grinned.
The Ambassador helped Woo-jin to his feet. They stood a moment inside the foundation where the trailer used to be. Sun baked the dusty afternoon air. The Ambassador invited Woo-jin to join him in a constitutional, and as they walked he bore his scepter across his chest. They passed the Denny’s and a do-it-yourself car wash place. A few people bowed as they proceeded, paying the man his respect and casting a wary eye at Woo-jin, whose hairdo looked like it had been barfed up by a cat. They traversed the parking lot of a metal prefabricator and came to the Ambassador’s three-story, mid-twentieth-century home. A freshly painted white fence restrained a postage stamp of a yard resplendent with gerbera daisies, nasturtiums, and great purple gouts of lilacs. The Ambassador unhooked the gate and led the way up the cobbles to the porch, where a gallon jar of sun tea absorbed UV rays. Inside, the Ambassador pointed Woo-jin in the direction of the mud room and adjoining bathroom, and provided a plastic garbage bag for his soiled clothing. This was the fanciest shower Woo-jin had ever seen; to use it he felt he might need an engraved invitation. He stripped down and groaned disgustedly at what he’d done to his undershorts, then climbed into the hot shower and puzzled over the abundance of scented soaps, selecting a bar of artisanal lemongrass-oatmeal soap after some deliberation. As the caked-on dirt slid off his body he recalled the previous night’s vision, the man in the desert with his refrigerator and stuffed animals and full-length mirror. Who was that character? An insane dude somehow invading Woo-jin’s freaked-out mind space on an astral plane? Yeah, probably. Or he could have been something manufactured by Woo-jin’s imagination, though he doubted that, having little confidence in his brain to make up cool things out of the blue.
Then there was the dead girl. Again? She’d showed up again? He wondered if he should get in touch with one of the police officers who’d so kindly given him a glass of milk and told him to get the hell out of there. Or maybe they’d just dumped the body back where they’d found it. Unlikely. They had big storage units for that kind of thing. Or cemeteries.
Woo-jin, clean, found a tracksuit getup outside the bathroom door and slipped into it. The sweatshirt was a zip-up, and both it and the matching pants were a blazing red with white piping. On the left breast of the sweatshirt were embroidered the words “Official Delegate.” At the sink he located a jar of his favorite brand of hair gel and pulled his hair into its usual spikes. With an electric razor he shaved what little stubble he’d generated in the last twenty-four hours. He admired himself in the mirror. He looked like a sex machine. Whatever sex was.
Woo-jin found the Ambassador in his front room, sitting in a ornate, baroque-looking gold and vermilion chair next to a matching love seat. The walls were done up with tastefully muted pinstriped brown wallpaper. The whole place looked official, like it was just waiting for big-time state business to go down. Like some guys in suits would show up and shake hands amid stuttery camera flashes. The Ambassador motioned for Woo-jin to sit. In rolled a room-service cart with two of those silver round tray thingies, pushed by a gaunt waiter-type. As Woo-jin took his seat, the waiter revealed a meal of artichoke and feta lasagna, green salad with sliced pears and an herbed kumquat vinaigrette, garlic-lime mashed potatoes, asparagus, an assortment of rolls, mineral water, a dish of sorbet, and a slice of raspberry cheesecake. Woo-jin about passed out.
“I thought you’d be hungry,” the Ambassador said as his famished guest attacked the food. “Any day now,” the Ambassador continued, “the delegation will arrive. I have prepared thirteen years for the delegation, studying the lifeworks of the world’s great diplomats. I am uniquely positioned to represent the interests of humanity to our otherworldly visitors.”
Woo-jin had heard the Ambassador’s spiel before, mostly on the corner of 12th and Vale Street, but he nodded politely, with asparagus hanging from his mouth, as though hearing it for the first time. He’d used the guy’s soap and was eating his food, after all. Pretending interest was the least he could do.
“At one time I was without direction, without purpose, see? Convinced the universe was a mad game of entropy and meaninglessness. I looked upon the pursuits of office workers and engineers as trivial or worse. I saw them as despicable drones manufacturing the methods of their own suffering. Oh, I was among them, making my money, driving my fancy car, with season tickets to all the sports teams and bar tabs at the finest brasseries, what have you. I was going crazy in the stew of my own success and self-loathing, drowning in another man’s vision, rewarded beyond my imaginings. I was hollowed out and no matter how much money I threw into the void of my sadness I couldn’t fill it. I treated women like disposable Bic lighters. I failed to communicate my emotional life in any way. And then one night I took too much cold medication and went out onto the balcony of my condominium. I looked upon the Seattle skyline, brilliant and glittering like a jewelry box beneath a full moon.”
“Here comes the good part,” Woo-jin said to the camera, raising his glass of sparkling water.
“Indeed. For when I looked up into the sky above Queen Anne Hill I discovered a gigantic celestial head gazing down upon me. The next day I would call the customer-service line of the cold medication company and ask whether giant celestial heads were a known side effect of their medicine. As it turns out, they were not. The celestial head had a large forehead, brown hair, a square jaw, and intense eyes. Some blackheads on the nose. Caucasian fellow. He looked down upon me and affirmed his reality by asking me to get a pen and paper. Numb, I did as I was instructed. ‘Okay,’ the celestial head said, ‘I want you to write down a couple things. First, the Mariners will lose tomorrow to the Oakland A’s, 3-2, with closing pitcher Cody Montero walking in the winning run. Shortstop Vic Garbler will get a hammie in the sixth with runners on first and third and two outs. Once these two events are confirmed, you will have the confidence to know that I speak the truth, and that you really need to do what I say. You will resign from your job, effective immediately, and submit to the purposes I design for you. From now on you will be known as the Ambassador. You will take all your money out of your 401(k) and invest it in a company called Argus Industries. They’ll announce their IPO next quarter. Pour as much money as possible into this company. Wait a year. After the stock splits three ways and hits $179 a share, sell. With your profits, buy a house in Georgetown on Orcas Street and make sure it is immaculately maintained and staffed. There you will live and wait for further word on how you should fulfill your duties. You have been assigned the incredible responsibility of greeting a special interplanetary delegation. Don’t fuck this up.’ And with that, the celestial head disappeared behind some cumulus clouds. The next day, the celestial head’s prophecies came true. The Mariners lost in the manner described. I was in a bar when it happened, staring up at the TV, confirming what I had written down.”
“So did you quit your job on the spot?”
“No, I did not. The following night as I was watching a rerun of Stella Artaud I heard a voice coming from the direction of my balcony, calling my name. I went out to find the celestial head frowning at me. “How come you didn’t quit your job like I said?” it scowled. I replied, “How do I know you’re real?” The head rolled its gigantic eyes and said, “Look, you need more proof? Adventronics’ stock is going to go through the roof tomorrow. Call your broker first thing and buy as many shares as you can, then sell in the afternoon for an over 200 percent profit. I’m not yanking your chain. And once this occurs I expect you to devote yourself to your duties as my ambassador.”
“So the following morning I did as instructed, and made a killing that day trading the stock of a company that made electronic Advent calendars. I do believe I made over $90,000. And yet I still didn’t have the heart to quit my job. That night as I lay in bed, drifting to sleep, I was jolted awake by the celestial head screaming my name. I hurried to the balcony in my pajamas and gazed up to find the face red with rage. ‘so you take my advice when you can pocket a fortune, but you still don’t have the balls to devote yourself to the responsibilities of an ambassador. I’m starting to wonder if I picked the wrong guy altogether.” And with that, the head spat at me, a gigantic volume of garlic-scented saliva that coated me completely and took over an hour to shower off.
“That night I drafted my resignation letter and began getting my finances in order. I also settled upon the design of my scepter, constructed of a toilet brush symbolizing cleanliness through abrasive methods, and a plunger handle to symbolize getting situations unstuck and moving.
“I looked in amazement at all I had written down. The next day I purchased and staffed this embassy. And now I await further instructions.”
Woo-jin said, “Do you know where I could catch a bus to get to Il Italian Joint? My shift starts soon.”
The Ambassador rose grunting from his chair. “I’ll have my driver transport you. Pierre!”
Pierre appeared: short guy, pasty complexion, snappy outfit. He looked like someone who’d been convinced erroneously that he was a chauffeur when he was actually hired to kind of pretend to be one. He bowed deeply and waved his gloved hand in the direction of the front door. Woo-jin thanked his host for the shower and the new clothes and the food. He ached to get back to the steam and suds of his wash station.
After a short ride in a comedian’s idea of a limousine, Woo-jin was dumped in front of Il Italian Joint. The place was packed with drunken idiots and their significant others spilling food all over the floor, screaming at the waitstaff, sending entrées back to the kitchen, and selecting the most cloying, earwormy tunes from the juke. Sandford Deane wore a tux with tie askew, disheveled hair, eyes looking like they’d recently shed tears. Woo-jin was early and Sandford accepted this turn of events with biblical-quality gratitude. “Oh thank you dear God, we need you in the kitchen asap, Woo-jin. Our savior!” Sandford clung to the champion dishwasher’s shoulders for a moment like he was hanging on to a piece of buoyant jetsam in the midst of a hurricane. “By the way, I have a special treat for you.” Sandford reached into his tux jacket and withdrew something fuzzy and shiny. “It’s the diamond-encrusted steel wool you requested. I had it flown in from Berlin.”
“Excellent!” Woo-jin said, bursting into the kitchen where the dishes were piled literally to the ceiling. Pontoon, Bahn Kan, and Ben o’Winn has started removing ceiling tiles to make room for the growing mound. Upon entering the kitchen the harried sauciers and waitresses paused a moment then erupted in cheers. Sally called out, “Mike! You’re just in time!” The three dishwashers who’d so thoroughly proved their incompetence hugged one another and buried their heads in each other’s shoulders with relieved weeping. Woo-jin cartwheeled past the fry station, popped into a midair somersault, and landed with scissoring double splits in front of the wash station. It pretty much helped the whole look of the performance that he was wearing a tracksuit embroidered with the words “Official Delegate.”
The busboys kept bringing more dirty plates, coffee cups, lipstick-imprinted stemware, napkins smeared with remnants of dessert. The Hobart hissed and trembled, pumping out clean dishes to the point of exhaustion. It struck Woo-jin that this situation might be one of those mathematical “story” problems. The machine could do a pallet of dishes in a minute and a half. But how many pallets’ worth of dishes arrived every minute and a half? If it was any number over one, it would be impossible to ever clean the dishes at a rate that would completely diminish the pile. In fact the pile would keep growing until it engulfed and overwhelmed Woo-jin and the wash station. Then again, there was a finite number of dishes in Il Italian Joint, wasn’t there? But what if there were trucks pulling up to the loading dock, delivering shipments of new clean dishes every minute and a half? Then it would be mathematically impossible to clean all the dishes there were to clean. Well, that would be true if the dishes kept getting dirty and the stream of valued guests remained constant. Maybe there was a line of tour buses outside filled with valued guests, ensuring that dishes would continue to get dirtied. But after a while the food would run out. Unless, of course, there were constant shipments of new produce, pasta, cheese, etc. The dishwasher, Woo-jin came to understand, was the center of the restaurant universe. Without the dishwasher nothing could happen, and yet he knew he was the lowest-paid person working here. On the plus side, that diamond-encrusted steel wool was doing a bang-up job on the soup pots.
Over the course of the evening the pile of dirty dishes did shrink, but too much was troubling Woo-jin for him to take much pleasure in the achievement. Even at the end of the shift when all the dishes were stashed and the wash station sparkled he wasn’t settled and knew he was about due for another ennui attack. Absentmindedly he slipped in his mouth guard in preparation. He looked forward to going home, collapsing in his hammock—oh, that’s right. Where was he going to sleep tonight? He three-pointered his apron into the laundry on the way out and exited through the back door, where he was met by a plainclothes police officer. Tall guy with a mustache, smelled like peanuts. Under a flickering, bug-fouled light he introduced himself as Officer Wiggins.
“You’re Woo-jin, am I correct? Woo-jin Kan?”
“No one says my last name usually. They think ‘jin’ is my last name.”
The officer put his hands on his hips and swiveled a bit, subconsciously stretching. “I understand you came across a body last night just north of Boeing Field.”
“I did. I already talked to some cops about it who gave me a glass of milk.”
“I heard. And I also understand you came across this body again around noon today.”
Three thoughts piled up in Woo-jin’s head, three thoughts too many. It took him a while to get them unjammed. He stood there, drooling around the mouth guard, nodding to himself as he began to understand. There really had been another body that looked like the first. Or—second thought here—maybe the cops dumped the same old body where they’d found it. Third thought: how did they know he’d seen the body again if he hadn’t told anyone?
“You need a ride?” Officer Wiggins said. “I’d like to bring you by the station to see something. Don’t worry, you’re not under arrest or anything. I was just hoping you might be able to help us sort this thing out.”
It was true, Woo-jin did need a ride. Wiggins cocked his head at his police mini-chopper. Soon they were levitating above the Il Italian Joint parking lot, rising above the tree line into the cloudy night. Woo-jin craned to catch sight of New York Alki growing on what had once been Bainbridge Island. A concrete seawall circled the island, keeping the waves from eroding the new contours of the shoreline. Huge, blocks-long banks of halogen lights lit acres of scaffolding as hundreds of cranes swung their loads to re-create the greatest city the world had ever known. The new Chrysler Building stood alone in a five-block radius, waiting for its neighbors. On the north end of the island, crews felled trees and demolished abandoned houses, carving and reshaping the land with bulldozers. Harlem looked to be pretty much empty at this point, except for a tiny Apollo Theater glowing in the woods.
“What do you make of this?” Wiggins said, jerking a thumb toward the construction. It was so rare that Woo-jin was asked for his opinion on matters that didn’t involve dishwashing that he didn’t know what to say, or whether he actually had an opinion. Wiggins continued, “If you ask me, it’s a huge waste. Rebuilding Manhattan when Seattle can’t even get its act together to build a monorail? And the congestion it’s going to bring to the region, don’t get me started.”
The chopper veered east, over the dome of Pioneer Square. This was the kind of night perfect for the appearance of a gigantic, celestial head, though Woo-jin couldn’t imagine coping with the demands of such an apparition. The chopper landed atop the city administration building and they hustled to an elevator. Heading underground, Woo-jin said, “Hey, you fly a helicopter. Do you know anything about when houses, or really trailers, get yanked up and moved to another place by a helicopter?”
“Like what happened to your foster sister,” Wiggins said. “That I can’t talk about. But I can tell you she’s safe and will be taken care of.”
“What about my stuff? My clothes and posters?”
“I’m sure you’ll come across some more clothes and posters before long,” Wiggins said as the elevator doors opened on the morgue. Overhead speakers softly floated the idea of an instrumental version of “Do the Hustle.” The walls, floor, and ceiling were painted a painfully bright white. There was a reception area where a thick woman murmured into a headset. A vase of lilies. Wiggins clipped a visitor’s badge to Woo-jin’s collar and offered him a clipboard filled with legalese. “Just sign here,” he said. Woo-jin did as instructed. Through double doors they entered the stainless steel sanctum of corpses, an echoing hallway the size of an underground bus station, walls of cabinet doors behind which rested bodies in various stages of investigation. A gloved, balding, middle-aged guy with a Muppet Babies tie poking out from under his lab coat met them and nodded a quiet hello.
Wiggins said, “This is Dr. Farmer, our forensics director. Dr. Farmer, I’d like you to meet Woo-jin Kan.”
Dr. Farmer’s hand, covered in latex, squished and squealed as Woo-jin shook it.
“This is the fellow who happened upon the deceased?” Dr. Farmer asked.
“Indeed,” said Wiggins.
Dr. Farmer directed them to a portion of the wall. He took hold of a handle and pulled out the slab. Woo-jin steadied himself against the wall as the coroner lifted the sheet. The young woman’s clothes had been removed and thank God there were no more face bugs. Still Woo-jin reeled. Wiggins steadied him and Dr. Farmer began talking a string of words that Woo-jin knew nothing about. Anterior, posterior, medial, cranial. Woo-jin looked for the cameras to see if he was in fact on a highly rated medical drama. No dice. He was really here, in a morgue.
“Now,” Dr. Farmer said, “here’s where we come to the curious part of the case.” He pulled out another slab and yanked back the sheet. It was the second body, identical to the first. “Our tests indicate these are not twins. Their profiles are 100 percent identical. By all appearances, these two bodies are exactly the same person.”
“They’re not clones?” Wiggins said.
“They don’t bear the watermarks of clones,” Dr. Farmer said. “And their profiles are unregistered. I considered the possibility that they were born off the grid but that wouldn’t explain the precise similarities in scarring. See here above the lip—tiny identical scars. And here on the left ring finger—you can still see the markings of three stitches from a cut she once received. Identical abrasions above the left knee, on the right buttock, and here, just a couple centimeters from the clavicle. Remarkable. In addition, the contents of their stomachs were identical. And the cherry on top, so to speak, are the identical stab wounds to the heart, made with an identical instrument—likely a flat-head screwdriver—to precisely the same depth. I’ve never seen anything like this in thirty years of forensic science.”
“And the state of decay?” Wiggins said.
“Even though they were discovered a day apart, tissues indicate both bodies expired three days ago.”
“And the only link between the two that we’re aware of is that this guy happened to discover them,” Wiggins said.
“I’m not a murderer,” Woo-jin said. “I’m a dishwasher.”
“We know,” Wiggins said. “We’re just trying to find out how someone managed to kill the same woman twice and leave two bodies.”
“We’ve got our theories,” Dr. Farmer said.
“But unfortunately our theories are lousy,” Wiggins said.
“Something something qputers, something something time,” Dr. Farmer might as well have said.
“What?” Woo-jin said.
Wiggins spoke slower. “We think,” he said, “that her selfhood has gone into superposition.”
“Can I be excused?” Woo-jin asked.
“I suppose so,” Wiggins said.
“I was about ready to head out,” Dr. Farmer said. “You need a lift?”
Woo-jin nodded. “I would appreciate a ride back to my foundation.”
Wiggins gave Woo-jin a business card and a pat on the back. “Don’t worry about your sister, Woo-jin. She’s going to be a-okay.”
In a parking garage that smelled of desperate cigarettes, Woo-jin got into Dr. Farmer’s black sedan then spiraled up and out onto the street.
“You’re a doctor, right?” Woo-jin said.
“Maybe you can tell me what’s wrong with my brain?”
Dr. Farmer nodded. “I have some passing, layman’s familiarity with your condition but I’m a doctor of dead bodies, not live brains.”
“If I was dead, would you be able to tell what was wrong with me?”
“Certainly, but I don’t advise that you die just to find out.”
“I keep having ennui attacks.”
“That’s the layman’s term for it. Though ennui really means ‘boredom.’ From what I understand your attacks are related to the part of your brain that manages your empathetic response. Are you familiar with Abraham Lincoln?”
“The guy from the penny.”
“A great American president. He grew up in Illinois, very poor. His family had nothing and lived in a little log house. But young Abe learned to read and taught himself about literature and law and became one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. One day when Abe was a boy he was walking down a dirt road and passed a turtle that had rolled over onto its back and was helpless. It troubled him to see the creature suffering but he walked on anyway. The farther he walked, though, the more troubled he became, until the thought of that turtle lying helpless was more than he could bear. So he walked back nearly two miles just to flip the turtle over.”
“Lucky turtle,” Woo-jin said.
“I’m telling you this because Abe Lincoln was born with a cognitive tendency similar to your own, an abundance of empathy. And this tendency to feel the suffering of others was one of the reasons he became such a great leader.”
“I’m not a leader. Just an official delegate.”
At this they arrived at the lot of Woo-jin’s former home, now nothing but a ring of cinder blocks. Dr. Farmer yanked the parking brake and leaned over. “Say, I couldn’t trouble you to suck my wiener, could I?”
“That would trouble me a lot,” Woo-jin said.
Dr. Farmer shrugged. “To each his own.”
With Woo-jin deposited at the dusty trailer site, the coroner departed in a cloud of sedan-generated dust. Woo-jin walked to the place where the front door used to be and stepped over a cinder block. Here’s where the living room would have been, overflowing with Patsy screaming for takeout. The TV would have been over here, broadcasting competitive defecation championships. Woo-jin turned in a circle and imagined what used to be in his line of vision, the bric-a-brac that had ascended to the heavens. Around this time he would have typically gone to sleep, pulling down the shades and curling fetally in his hammock. But there were no shades to pull or hammock to swing from so Woo-jin found the place where his hammock would have been and lay down in the dirt next to a newspaper advertisement that had blown under the double-wide long ago.
The ad was for women’s hosiery, specifically the kinds that reduce varicose veins and provide a more shapely figure. An old ad, from when people used to care about those kinds of things. All the models pictured were probably dead now, maybe even in Dr. Farmer’s morgue, waiting for someone to slice them open and formulate an opinion about them. Look at them, yearning to be thought attractive. The gutters of Woo-jin’s eyelids filled with tears. Oh, so this was going to be the trigger. He bit down on his mouth guard and closed his eyes, letting the attack fuck him over. He twitched on the bare ground like a fish about to get clubbed. The steady drumbeat. It smelled like mushrooms and old socks down here, dryer lint and cobwebs. The ground took on the appearance of being illuminated by the moon. He turned over and got blasted with the vibrant rippling flames of the campfire. It was the mesa again, the high windy desolation. The ring of objects around the flame: a refrigerator, a tire, three stuffed animals, a pile of books, a full-length mirror. Woo-jin pulled himself up on his elbows. The wood smoke burned his eyes and may not have been wood smoke at all; it smelled of petroleum and dead creatures. He rose and looked around. The world below the mesa was nothing but bluish desert darkness in every direction. In the distance he made out something constructed, a gigantic letter T formed from white rocks lying on the desert floor. He approached the mirror and held out his hand, which appeared to be his own, and in the mirror confirmed the dumb reality of his own face. Next he considered the refrigerator. It was a model with a combo ice and water dispenser, one door for the freezer, the other for the fridge. He pulled open the fridge door and found it fully stocked with food. It hummed a bit as the fan got going. He located a pile of wrapped sandwiches, an apple, a bag of cookies, some bottled water, and took these over to the tire, where he sat and began to eat. Was that refrigerator even plugged in? It didn’t appear to be. The power cord snaked behind it like a tail.
Woo-jin ate. The sandwiches were a perfect harmonization of condiments, cheeses, vegetables, and meats. One of them had this incredible pesto aioli. After finishing three sandwiches Woo-jin bit into the snappy apple. Dang! That was one fine piece of fruit. Finally, the cookies. Just the right chewiness, with chunks of chocolate, raisins, and cashews. At the end of his meal, Woo-jin stuffed his trash into the cookie bag and tossed it on the fire. While he’d been eating he’d forgotten about his troubles but now, under the cosmos, on what seemed like a vast soundstage, he wondered about the dead girl and if he was somehow responsible for her turning up dead twice. He was beginning to miss Patsy. And where was he supposed to live?
Woo-jin turned to the pile of books. He knew how to read well enough, how to get trapped in sentences and scratch out some words when needed, thanks to the various foster parents who’d made sure he didn’t die and made him learn to read so they could keep collecting the foster-care checks. From time to time an older kid, somebody smarter, had read him a book and he recalled the reassuring process of blobs of ink turning into flapping lips and tongues. The book on top of the stack was a paperback without a cover, its pages yellow and blunted at the corners, eroded by sandy wind. He kicked it aside and looked at the book beneath it. He read the title once and read it again.
How to Love People
by Woo-jin Kan
Funny there’d be a book by another Woo-jin Kan. He picked it up and turned it over and looked at the picture of the author, a guy who looked kind of like himself but older, spiky hair gray-flecked, slightly smiling, a peaceful expression. He looked like the kind of guy who had his shit together, clue number one that this was a different Woo-jin.
He turned the book back over and opened it to the first page.
This is your future brain sending a message to your past brain. For serious. Here’s what you have to do to get Patsy back. You have to write this book you’re now holding. It’s one of the only books the Last Dude has to read, so make it really good. He needs to read your book so that he can make the messages about why we got extinct. He’s writing them out in the rocks down there in the desert. You have to quit your dishwashing job and write this book. What’s the book supposed to be about? Who knows, you haven’t written it yet, but at least you have a title ha ha ha.
You think I’m joking? Since I’m your future brain I know what’s about to happen to you. You’re going to find that dead girl again. What I say is true and you really have to follow these directions. Seriously, bro.
Your (Woo-jin’s) Future Brain
P.S.: For serious. You have to quit Il Italian Joint and become a full-time writer.
As Woo-jin’s eyes turned from the page to the sky, his mind got sucked back through some sorta tube, flailing, a squeal of astral velocity, as if he were recoiling from the strange fact of reading something yet to be. His head went smack against the ground as the day began anew in Georgetown, Seattle. There was the women’s hosiery advertisement again, now drained of emotional oomph. Woo-jin’s tracksuit was filthy. He stood, twisting the kinks from his joints, mouth painfully dry, hair flat on one side of his head and cantilevered in perpendicular spikes on the other and sort of fuzzed-up on top. He stepped over the cinder block where the door used to be and shuffled in a direction that seemed to have been chosen for him. His legs snapped back and forth and walked him through a playground nestled between an off-ramp and some train tracks. A cargo plane scraped the wind.
Woo-jin spoke a sentence through streams of spittle. “I want to figure out what’s going on here.” Speaking aloud surprised him. Like a thought had escaped his brain through a hole in a fence, scampering out into the open where ears could pick it up. If he had a celestial head like the Ambassador, that certainly would have been convenient. He would just ask his celestial head, “Hey, fill me in on what the deal is with the dead girl and this dusty place with the campfire with the refrigerator, books, stuffed animals, and a mirror. Oh, and the tire. And Patsy being yanked up into the sky. And my future brain, who says I’m supposed to be an author.” His celestial head—he imagined him as a gap-toothed black man with an afro—would say, “Thanks for asking. Here’s exactly what those things mean, my brother,” and proceed to untangle the knot in Woo-jin’s brain that seemed only to grow tighter the more he picked at it.
Now beyond the playground and its ghost children frolicking on dirty equipment, Woo-jin came to a concentration of warehouses, inside of which were squirts and clanks and whatnot, noises supposedly connected to purposes. Coming to the corner of 12th and Vale he found the Ambassador sitting on a milk crate with his toilet brush scepter.
Woo-jin said, “You ever heard of a book called How to Love People, by Woo-jin Kan?”
“I don’t have time for books like that when I’m always consuming economics and political science texts,” said the Ambassador. “Unless this love book of yours is an economics book. In that case, yes, yes, I’ve most definitely read it.”
“Maybe it is about economics.”
“I thought you said you wrote it.”
“Another Woo-jin Kan wrote it. Or maybe it isn’t a real book at all.”
“In that case,” said the Ambassador, “you might try getting it published.”
“That’s a really good idea.”
Was it afternoon already? Looked like it. Soon it would be time for work again, the nightly river of flatware and crockery. A metro bus pulled up smelling of french fries, biodiesel. The Ambassador gently touched Woo-jin’s shoulder with his toilet brush scepter and said, “Someday soon you’ll witness the most epic peace talks in human history,” then boarded the bus and asked the driver if it stopped near Rite Aid.
Woo-jin walked to the lot just north of Boeing Field where the body had appeared and appeared again. His legs carried him beyond the field, through South Park and up the road to Il Italian Joint. When he came to the back entrance he found piles of dishes literally spilling out the doorway into the parking lot. Thousands of them, encrusted from lunch rush. At first he stepped over them but the closer he got to the kitchen the harder it became to not break anything. He quickly found that the best way to navigate the dishes was to get prone and sort of swim through them. In the kitchen, the dishes reached a little higher than head level. With a modified breaststroke Woo-jin was able to keep his head above the line and edge closer to where the wash station was supposed to be.
“Bahn Kan? Ben o’Winn? Pontoon?” he called. “Sandford?”
Apart from some indeterminate hydraulic hissing, the kitchen was empty of noise. Sandford Deane’s head popped up beside him from under a platter, wearing a colander for a hat.
“Thank God you’re here, Woo-jin. Pontoon, Bahn Kan, and Ben o’Winn didn’t show up. It’s up to you to turn this place around,” Sandford said, wiping a soggy crust of bread off his forehead. “I even got you some diamond-encrusted platinum wool.”
Woo-jin paddled over to the Hobart and got down to business. As he shoved dishes through the machine the dish level slowly began to drop. Midway through his shift the dishes were only up to his calves. Tirelessly, he converted dirty dishes into clean ones, an act of prestidigitation as much as sanitization. Dinner rush came and went and by the end of the night the wash station was empty. Woo-jin dunked his apron into the laundry and grabbed his card to punch out. Sandford clapped him on the back, congratulating him on another evening for the record books.
“Thanks, Sandford. But I won’t be back tomorrow. I’m quitting right now.”
Woo-jin’s boss looked aghast. “But you’re the best dishwasher in Seattle. In the world, even. What will you do instead?”
“I’m going to write a book,” said Woo-jin. “A book about how to love people.”
Sandford shook his head and retrieved the gold medal from the Restaurant and Hotel Management Olympics then solemnly placed it around Woo-jin’s neck. It looked good with the tracksuit even though the tracksuit looked like shit. Woo-jin stood a moment imagining a national anthem, not the new one, but the old one, the one with the terrorists getting castrated in front of their weeping children. How many hours had he spent in this kitchen, blasting caked-on food off porcelain surfaces? It had been his first and only job, started almost two-thirds of his life ago. He imagined a montage to go along with the national anthem, a series of slow-motion shots of him scouring pots and scraping baking sheets, drinking soda, punching his time card. All those good times seemed a prelude to this, the decision to write a book, which apparently he was going to have to figure out how to do. On the way out past the Dumpsters, Sally the waitress hugged him and said, “Good luck, Mike. We’ll say we knew you when.”
Woo-jin had no idea what she was talking about but he didn’t let on. He walked into the backdrop of New York Alki rising amid northwestern cedars, helicopters swooping and jets crisscrossing the clouds, past trembling warehouses, across the sludgy Duwamish, into the only neighborhood he had ever loved, Georgetown, coming to the field where he had twice discovered a girl’s body. He was going to write a book! He almost skipped at the thought.
Up ahead was the big unknown machine’s silhouette in the dark waves of grasses, like a sea-tossed dinghy weather-ing a storm. Woo-jin came to the indeterminate and aban-doned technology and looked to the place where he’d found the body.
There she was again.
The same girl, in the same place, in the same position. Same black hair, white shirt, black pants. Woo-jin leaned over and puked, witnessing the remnants of the sandwiches, apple, and cookies he had devoured on the wind-battered mesa the night before, introduced into this particular plane of reality. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked again.
The girl grabbed his arm and screamed, “Help me! Help me! Help me!”