Sample Chapter From Teakettle Mountain: Dinner With Young Trimalchio

Then came another friendly face in this whirling fashion show of well-meaning Koreans, yet another smiling, middle-aged woman whose skin tone suggested that she had paid a dermatologist obscene amounts of money to drain every drop of pigmentation from her cheeks—chromatic liposuction for a woman who does not want to look like herself, the reverse of a Boston coed who takes daily dips in a vat of orange tanning lotion.

Despite speaking almost no English this fellow teacher at Sasang Elementary somehow communicated the desire for me to come over to dinner on Friday, and so I did, because there was honestly nothing else happening in my life at that point. After school I ventured out with her as well as a recently-hired homeroom teacher, or a small nice thin young woman with modestly pretty looks, who as a younger Korean was the designated translator—ventured out with her, with them, to the apartment building jungle.

They were everywhere. They surrounded us. It was like wandering among the Moai of Easter Island. They were great, staggering monoliths, and each seemed to pulsate with the music of Philip Glass, and demand to be filmed in slow-motion from helicopters swinging through the sky. When humans have become fossils these structures will astound the aliens who visit Earth on interstellar archeological expeditions.

We rode an elevator to the seventeenth floor without conversation, stepped into a small dim gray linoleum hallway, and knocked on her door, which was opened on the second knock by Young Trimalchio.

His eyes exploded when the door beeped and swung aside. He screamed, ran back into the apartment, jumped twice, and then returned to the shoe containment lobby like a happy puppy. He had a bowl cut that went down his neck and alongside his ears, shaped like the straw roof of a medieval Korean hut, with the straw jet-black instead of yellow-brown; and teeth that could have gnashed through an entire savannah of elephant grass. He was about fifteen years old but taller than me. He barked out his hellos as I stepped inside the little lobby and fought to slip out of my shoes, while my host and our translator waited behind me, as there was only enough room for one to enter at a time.

The right shoe held down the left while the left foot pulled itself out and settled onto the minuscule vestibule floor, pressing hard against the back of the right shoe as the right foot swung up onto the floor of my first real Korean apartment, uncontaminated by Noserian foreignness, followed soon after by the left foot. My skills were and still are amateur regarding removing my shoes while standing, but people here can whip off their shoes in a heartbeat without stepping onto the floors of the little lobbies they have before the door of every apartment, lobbies they regard as unclean, an airlock between the purity of the house and the void of the outside world.

This apartment was the Korean Dream born out of the not-so distant past’s cataclysmic wars and famines. The family had stagnated under the Joseon, got colonized by the Japanese, torn in half by the Russians and the Americans, and then propped up with decades of free money in the name of fighting communism: and now they possessed three or four bare rooms. A table low to the hardwood floor before a gigantic TV, a wall of huge windows overlooking the infinite apartment buildings basking in the smog like iguanas, an unused treadmill in a bedroom (or what I should call a sleeping room as it lacked a bed) whose walls were lined with shelves of glossy textbooks, as well as an English Bible lying on a squat dais on the floor, opened to where Leviticus is telling us how we ought to punish our runaway slaves. Aside from a few stiff family portraits, there was no decoration, chairs, or couches.

If you turn on Korean TV and watch one of the myriad reality shows that follow celebrities and their children, you’ll find almost the exact same setup, every time. Trimalchio’s mother had led me to a node in the network.

I sat on the floor at the low table with the smiling small nice thin young woman with modestly pretty looks, and she wasted no time in explaining that she wouldn’t be able to translate for us because, as she put it, “I can not English.” A modest smile followed. Then before we could do anything else Trimalchio threw himself down at the table with an English children’s book about rabbits and commenced reciting it from memory.

“In a wonderful hollow there lived a pair of beautiful hares,” he said, he sung, gazing into me as though he had revealed the formula for a theory of quantum gravitation. Sweat ran down his temples from his matted hair in silver rivulets. I nodded and encouraged him to continue with raised eyebrows and shoulders, a grin tinging the edges of my fat sensuous lips.

His mother placed a cluster of rinsed grapes as well as the boy’s cousin—a pimply young woman who had studied English in the basement of a church in America for a year, though her shyness rendered her mute—before us, and then his mother returned to the kitchen. Trimalchio lifted the entire grape cluster with one hand and stuffed it into his mouth, chomping the grapes to wine, which ran down his cheeks like winter’s drops from eaves of reeds, while he continued to recite the text of the children’s book that lay unopened on his lap.

All attempts at smalltalk with the two young women failed before unscalable facades of faint smirks and avoided eye contact, while Trimalchio himself was unable to answer the simplest questions (“How are you doing?”) despite his admirable memorization skills. Through everything he continued his recitations.

Just before the main course arrived the small nice thin young woman with modestly pretty looks made an excuse in Korean and, probably sensing catastrophe, got out while the going was good. Plates of kimchi, sprouts, still-boiling soup, and a lukewarm spinach-egg concoction (later revealed to be pajon) were whisked before us like hockey pucks over a skating rink, and someone somehow mentioned that our host didn’t usually cook, and that she’d been preparing for my visit for days. Trimalchio was chomping on such an enormous mouthful of wet yellow sprouts that they were falling down his chin like a wizard’s beard. His mother sat, saw how he was humiliating her family, and snapped at him, whereupon he sucked the sprouts into his throat in one gulp so as to continue displaying his raw babbling mnemoysne.

I laughed. He laughed. His cousin smirked and looked at her untouched steel bowl of rice. His mother threw her head back with a healthy guffaw, and then swung forward and asked me, totally spontaneously, her face still grinning with all the sentimental warmth it could muster, in a syrupy tone that still yet clung to her outburst of joy—“Al yoo ah Kuh-lee-shtyian?”

“No,” I said.

“Ah,” she sighed. The molasses smile remained shining on her face, hardened with politeness, but all the sugar had drained away. This was the only complete English sentence to come out of her.

We finished dinner, and the mother brought the dishes back to the kitchen. After waiting a moment or two for the sake of politeness I stood in the middle of Trimalchio’s unending rabbit speech and initiated a long series of bows, scrapes, and thank you’s, all while shimmying toward the door, but the mother stopped me.

“Peekuhneek!” she shouted, leaning out sideways from the kitchen like Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, my illustrious ancestor. “Peekuhneek!”

“What’s she saying?” I asked the cousin with the spray of acne.

Her entire body jolted as she hunched her shoulders and darted her gaze into her lap. The movement swept individual strands of her long black hair high up around her neck in slow anime.

“Pee…kuh…neek!” the mother enunciated, as though addressing a toddler.

“Oh!” I said. “Picnic!”

“Yessuh! Pee-kuh-neek!” Her head fell back fully horizontally, and such warm laughter rose from her lips—like an ululating theremin!—I thought she’d ask me if I were a Christian again.

We were walking on the street in single file because there was no sidewalk on a four-lane highway packed with enormous silver SUVs that were whooshing past like a Hollywood chase sequence and nicking us with their side mirrors. Beyond everything, the sun—that same star which shone with such luminous splendor over the dreams of my waking youth—was setting through the haze, rushing into the blue mountains beyond the Nakdong River and the airport swarming with enormous airplanes like dragonflies over a lilypond.

After much tar and cement, and after waiting another six agonizing minutes for the crosswalk light to change, we eventually reached the Samnak Riverside Park, which stretched for miles along the Nakdong River, but there wasn’t a grass blade in sight. The Koreans had cleared them away for fields of dirt, baseball diamonds, tar bike paths, and parking lots. There were some squat, desiccated trees, supported (or should I say being crucified) on several wooden stakes each, and mosquito clouds swarming under the fluorescent streetlights, and then the pervasive reek of mountains of human shit.

“Dong naymsay,” they kept saying, swatting at their noses, wrinkling their faces. I later learned that this means “shit smell.” Dong also means east and neighborhood, and it’s a common element of masculine praenomina (remember Kang Ho-dong?), but nobody thinks that’s funny, and if you somehow manage to crank out a few puns, like, look, this eastern neighborhood smells like Kang Hoe-down’s shit!, everyone will roll their eyes.

We wandered the dark for an hour, sweating like roasted pigs, and finally settled our tinfoil picnic blanket on a field of cement tiles. The mosquitoes sensed the Jewish strains in my mongrel blood and didn’t bother me, but they coated the Koreans with a second layer of fur, drinking their sweet uncorrupted ichor, so racially unadulterated that some believe the race is descended from its own distinct clan of primates. After five minutes we left. On the walk back the mother asked me to tutor her son, which is illegal on paper at least, and I declined, because it was still over a year before I’d accidentally impregnate my girlfriend and start to give a damn about money.

At that exact moment, nine thousand hours away, that dear money, which had given me a life of relative comfort, melted into thin air—at the exact moment I noticed its existence, it darted off, like a fairy, gone, swept into a dandelion cloud, vanishing into the sweet rain-scented forests of the glowering bog gods and mountain-leaping bogatyrs, gone forever, gone, gone with the wind!

Thus concludes the Dinner with Trimalchio as told by the historian Iancydides.

I ran into him two years later in an elevator, and let me tell you something, he’d really calmed down.

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