short fiction

Sonny Goes Home

Stephen O’Donnell

I wake to darkness. The walls and the bed beneath me quaking. The bomber has already passed over the city. North to the DMZ. A single aircraft, seven jet turbine engines and how much kerosene and how many on the flight crew and ground crew. To intimidate the enemy. To disturb the sleep of allied civilians.

Asleep again to strange, tangled dreams of home. Faces I have not seen in months rise up as out of cloudy water. Voices I have not heard. Food I have not tasted.

Wake again to the light under through the papery blind. The junkman’s recording in the street. COM-PU-TER, COM-PU-TER. Calling for scrap metal. Before I left to come here, my mother had told me I wasn’t going home, that I would be an outsider, heritage or no. I came later to see how true that was.

The headmaster shakes his head again. This is a problem for me. We are looking for a western teacher here.


It is what the parents want, Marco says. What can I do?

I look at my papers on his desk. At the glass walls of the classrooms.

He is rubbing his chin now. Perhaps we can try somethings. Let me see. He is sweating heavily. He wears a white vest underneath his white shirt and both are soaked through with sweat. Everything is a scheme to him.

There is a night for parents, he says. Friday night. If I cannot find a western teacher today you will come to that and you will teach in the school after. We will sign a contract Monday morning. He is still rubbing his chin. If I cannot find another teacher, of course.

Of course, I say.

He stands up and then he nods to me and I nod back. He leads me back toward the elevator.

You family are Korean?

My father.

Oh, he says. He speaks a few words of Korean.

He left when I was a child. I can’t speak it.

You don’t know Hangugeo?

Not really.

Good good good, he says. I will tell the parents you are American. I will tell them your great-grandparents went to America.

At the parents night I stand at the back of the classroom, uncertain why I am here. Unsure of how the hell I will be able to teach a class. The room fills slowly with parents. They smile and grin but do not speak to me. Marco busies himself with the computer at the front of the class. The presentation begins in Korean. I keep expecting him to call me forward but he doesn’t. My throat is dry and all I want to do is escape, to drown in beer.

When it is over and the parents have filed out he approaches me and claps me on the back.

Okay, he says. So I will see you Monday and we will sign the contracts.


Some of the parents ask me why you are there.

Why the fuck was I here? Okay, I say.

You will have to help me to organise the visa.

I nod at him. No problem, I say.

I get out of the lift and stroll home. The road is a constant stream of traffic even this late in the evening. I cross the street under the civil defence tunnel and stop into a German-themed bar for a beer. I still have money in my account. I can afford the cheap comfort of it. I cannot face the bare motel walls yet.

I have come out here to be with him. But he is always away. Always visiting family. Always missing. The bottom has dropped out somewhere back along the way. The months and the vast distances and the thing died unfed in the dark. I don’t know where. Only woke one day and realised it had been over a long time. We live as stellar bodies, orbit one another coldly, do not touch.

In the late morning I take the slow train to Busan. An hour round the headland. Pine trees and bare rock. The rock splints like what I think of when I think of Ithaca, of homecomings.

The narrow market street, teeming with life. Octopus and squid. Hanging ducks, slices of beef. The intestines of oxen. A stench to drive the crust of beer from my eyes. I go on. Down the street between the huge hotels. In the summer the beach fills with holidayers. Now the shore is almost bare.

I stand and watch the swell of the grey waves in the blue of evening. A sign in the sand prohibits campfires and shamanism.

An old man pushes a chestnut into my hand. Better to have food, he says and pushes several more.

I trudge back to the main drag and look for a quiet place to eat on a backstreet.

The waiter approaches me, speaking Korean.

I wave my hand and then touch my chest. Waygook.

Ah, he says and swallows and composes himself eagerly. America?

Canada. Yes.

Okay, he says nodding. Canada. English menu?

Yes, I say. Yes. Please.

A blind woman is sitting at a table beside me, fork in one hand. The other hand presses noodles inward from the edge of the bowl. Head tilted. As if listening to the wheeling of the earth.

I eat the fried chicken. The spice warms me through, makes me sweat. There is life in such flavour. Better than anything. The waiter brings the bill and I leave a few thousand won extra as a tip.

I am three blocks down the street when someone taps my shoulder. The waiter, red faced and sweating.

No, he says. Shaking his head. In Korea we do not tip.

I take the few coins from him and apologise and he bows and goes back up the street.

I walk among the warren of love motels with their hourly rates and secluded cashiers windows and I am so full of loneliness I want to scream. The whores on the backstreets, pink lights among the immaculate shrubbery. I stop at one window and move on when the girl smiles at me. Another beer before the train home. The shore patrol of the United States Navy, going bar to bar.

On the first day Marco tells me my name is Sonny. We sit in his office. He has put a picture of his family on his desk. In the picture he is fat. He has lost a lot of weight. Marco, the strange face of a fat man come thin. As if this new face he wears had eaten its way out from under the old layers. Like most men who have lost weight he wears loose fitting, out of date clothes, garishly coloured as if to draw attention to his new, slimmer physique. Only his eyes are unchanged now; they are the same eyes in the photograph that seem to stare from the depths of his skull, hungry.

Is easier I think for the students, he says. He hands me a passcard with a picture of my face and Sonny written on it.

Whatever you think, I say. He must have spent the weekend at that. Seong Lee, bastardised, hammered into Sonny. Lee must’ve been too obvious.

He shows me the different rooms of the academy.

We have camera to watch the students. You point to it and say I show your mother. They listen.

A larger room with a small electric hob and three sinks.

This is cooking class. Do you like the cooking?


You will have to come up with the recipes.

No problem, I say.

There is only one class the first day. Sullen teens, the boys with fuzz on their upper lips and girls with thick glasses. All of them tired, deferential to me like whipped animals. They are trapped here until 10pm. A gaoler and his wards. Poor bastards.

What are your names?

Before the class started the assistant told me the students have chosen English names.

Why? I ask her.

She shrugs. Everyone need choose an English name, she says.

Petrol, the first one says.

Ok, I say. Petrol. Are they fucking with me? Petrol it is. What in the goddamn Jesus. But no one smiles. No one laughs.

Next person?

A month later I see his name written on an exam. Patrick.

After work I walk the lonely streets of the Pacific night. Passing a woodworker’s shop close to my apartment a man stands outside smoking. As I pass by he calls me something worse than a cunt to my face.

My mother video calls. Asks me how I like it. Am I eating. How am I being treated. I tell her it is fine. I do not tell her that is how they treat me. Or else they speak to me as if I understand and then they snigger and curse at me when I gape at them like a mute. This has happened more than once but I do not tell her. I do not tell her I feel like I am drowning.

So I go roaming these light-splashed streets in a winter coat. Past the metalworks and the fishmarkets and karaoke rooms. Beneath the blinding glare of huge electric billboard screens. The roaring constant traffic at the rotary. Black wind in the elephant grass along the Taewae.

From the apartment window I can see to the refinery lights on the edge of the city. Across the street I can see a run for a dog. She is surrounded by pups and they gambol back and forth. My co-teacher tells me this is a dog restaurant.

Only the older people still eat dog, she says. My grandparents’ generation. A hangover from our famine, like the spam.

In one of the bars a group of westerners are rolling about, laughing loudly. I pay for another beer at the bar and one of them nods at me.

How you finding the ROK?

The rock?

Republic of Korea.

Oh. I take my change from the bartender. Right. It’s ok.

You from the states?

No, I say. Canada. You?


I think I’ve heard of it. How do you like it here?

He leaned in conspiratorially. Can’t get a handle on things. It's just tough man, just tough. I miss food, you know? The comforts of home.

Yeah, I say.

And the air here ain’t no good neither. They’re going about it all wrong, all that nuclear power and heavy industry. Gets into your nose and throat, every morning there’s blood in the tissue.

How long you been out here?

About fifteen years.

I took a drink of my beer. Fifteen years and griping every day of it. A decade and a half of complaining. Wouldn’t you go back home?

And do what? Teach for no money? They wouldn’t even let me near a school at home.

What? Why?

I came out here running man, staring down eight years. Cost me thousands just to get the right paperwork. For a few stamps.


If I get caught so much as jaywalking I’m looking at deportation. Deportation and the big bird home. Straight to jail, do not pass go.

What’d you do?

Nothing man, stole a bit of money, got my hand wedged into the till someplace.

Another dismal Monday. Driving back from the foreign office with the alien residents card in my hand. In the small photo they have removed my moles and blemishes. Widened my eyes. Digital butchery.

Congratulations, Marco says. You are now here for a long time.

I ask about his weekend to fill the dead silence in the car. He talks about the weekend.

I go for a massage. When I live in New Zealand one time I go for a massage and they send a man. Marco snorts. I would not let a man touch me.

Why? It’s just a massage.

That is strange to me, he says and sniggers.

You afraid you might be tempted?

Hah. That is not a problem here.

What’s not a problem? Gay people?

Yes, he says. In Korea, we do not have these problems.

I nod and watch the city spool past the SUV window. Whatever you say, Marco.

The academy slowly took on more and more children. Slowly my free hours were cut down, disappearing entirely. Ten hour shifts with only a five-minute break every three or four hours. Most of the younger kids are little shits. You’d know they come from money just by the sneering arrogance of them. It didn’t matter to me.

What can I do? This is not good. The parents will complain.

Under the constant black marble of the camera lens. Scowling as he comes in. A desk has been flipped over while my back was turned. Sweat on my collar.

What is this about? Marco asks. Eyeballing me like I’m already costing him money. Like I’m the one flipping furniture.

I shrug.

Marco and the kid speak in Korean.

Oh, Marco says. The other boy eat his lunch. As if that explains it. Then Marco leaves without another word.

I pass out crossword puzzles and pace up and down.

In the later classes the kids would be older, college age. Most of them would fall asleep at some stage. I couldn’t bring myself to wake them. In a year or so they would all be drafted anyway.

One night I even got Marco drunk, got him to admit the system was lunacy.

Sitting in the glare of the restaurant with the wet noodles and the pork wafers sizzling on the huge grill in the middle of the table.

You are funnier when you drink beer, he tells me. Maybe we will get you drunk before the class and the students will have the fun.

This is the first fucking sensible thing he has ever said.

The cab driver jabbering away on the way home. Smile and nod and try not to drive my fingernails into my palms. He is looking at me now. A question asked. I shrug and he grunts, curses me.

After please and thank you the next phrases I learn are the curses.

I stagger into the empty apartment. Window open and the rain falling slow and hard all night long. The hot wet air. Long market alleys. The brood bitch outside the dog restaurant whines all night. Her pups have been taken from her.

One of the children has burns in her arm. She speaks about her father extinguishing cigarettes on her the same way she describes a ballet dancer or a bug she’s seen.

I go to Marco when he’s alone in his office. Can’t you do something about that poor goddamn kid? Have you seen her arms?

He puts his fingers together. Adopts a concerned look on his face. This is a big problem for me. Maybe I could go to the police?

So go then.

But they will do nothing. The father is rich. This is a rich city and he is a very rich man. What can I do? The parents will just move the girl to another academy and I will lose her fee.

Jesus Christ, I say.

What can I do? I have a family, a boy to feed.

I leave his office.

Marco has not paid us. He has bought a new bus for the school children and he has paid for it upfront. Our pay is already more than a week overdue. The other teacher tells me we will not be working until he pays us. We are late to work, late to our classes, we make no effort to teach. Marco scowls at us as if we have wounded him terribly.

The following week the receptionist does not show up for work. Hannah comes in and sits meekly at her desk without talking to me.

Is Rhea late?

She looks at me and shakes her head. Something happened.

What? Is she alright?

She is ok. We got drunk on Friday. She drove the new van into the wall outside.

I laugh. Jesus Christ.

So she has been fired. I have to pay back for the repairs or he will go to the police. She put her head in her hands.

Ah fuck him, Hyun-ae, that’s his fault. He brought that shit on his own head. Maybe if he wasn’t such a cunt he wouldn’t get treated that way.

Four weeks pass before we are paid.

It was always dark by the time the work finished, you were part of the night time crowd. The night well underway by the time you got out.

Civil defence drills with the underpass designated a safe place to die when the big one gets dropped.

He has moved out his belongings. I realise it when I come home one night. The neighbours hear a wail in the middle of the night.

I am hungover. The girl with the cigarette burns tells me I look tired.

I am tired, I say.

Between classes I lock myself in the bathroom and weep. I try to stop but I cannot.

Neon in the rain, the hard tropic rain. Regular as heartbeat. And then the autumn. Dark nights, woodsmoke in the air and wanting to be home, be home again. Just for a few minutes. The journey back so close and so damn far. I check the flight confirmation regularly. It still does not seem real. Long hours in those small rooms. Blind to the emptiness in your heart.

I tell Marco I am leaving.

He is pale when I tell him, grows paler yet. There is no face-saving for him in this.

My sister is getting married. What can I do, I say. I have to go home.

Do you think you can go and come back?

I don’t have the money, I say. What can I do?

Strangers enjoying Sunday. Sunset on the river. The reeds and the mountains and the mosquitoes. Six thousand miles from home. Never felt an ache like it. The sun going, gone. These pagodas and faces I will never see again. Sweating so bad in the night, waking in terror.

I drink wine alone on the cliffs that last weekend. The shipyard lights across the water and the wind gritty with salt. Scraps of clams and chips of musselshell scattered along the shore. Burnt out from the wine, watching freighters at anchor along the coast. The old ajummas in their wetsuits along the rocky shore.

Come here and roll my sins into the ocean. Roll yourself after them. And people come and pose on the pier where women have died, stand in the sun on the pier where someone’s whole life was washed in a wave of white water.

I hike along the coast. Down in the water a sheep floats, rotting in the foam, dank cotton gathered shapeless in the water. I head back toward town. My last week before me. Quantifiable hours.

The waiter in the dockworkers café nods to me. What is it you want?

Nothing, I say. Absolutely nothing.