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    Loves Error

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    I parked the car and was about to call the man I had spoken with earlier when someone knocked on the window. Rolling it down, I saw a man who looked to be in his late sixties to early seventies, leaning towards us.

    “Yer here?”


    Noticing the man’s appearance, Woonu hunched his shoulders and tucked his neck like a soft-shell turtle. Seeing how he made direct eye contact with him, it seemed that Woonu wasn’t afraid of him, just worried about receiving a scolding. The man turned around, glancing back slightly. Though there was nothing special about his ordinary face, his eyes glinted with ferocity.

    “Follow me slowly.”

    The man, wearing shorts, had peculiar, bulging scars on both calves. I turned the car around and started down the road in the opposite direction from where we had come. Once we reached where he stood, in front of a certain alley, he knocked on the roof of the car. Woonu fumbled with his seat belt buckle before finally managing to unbuckle it. I got out of the car before him and stood facing the man.

    “Used to be a real pain findin’ a spot to park here, but the redevelopment’s caused everyone to run away. It’s all empty, so ya can just park yer car. No fuss or nothin’. If yer fretting ’bout the car, though, ya can just park it in the lot over there and walk the rest of the way. How about it?”

    “I’ll just park here.”

    When I faced him directly for the first time, the sharpness I had initially felt in his eyes had entirely disappeared. His lower jaw, mottled with a scraggly beard, and neck bore scars similar to those on his calves. There was a faded tattoo on the back of his hand and the middle of his forearm. It seemed to be Hanja, but it was far too smudged for me to make out the characters. After pulling out a cigarette, putting it in his mouth, and lighting it, he looked at Woonu. His left hand, which was clenched and then unclenched, had no more than three fingers.

    “What’re ya waitin’ for? Let’s go.”

    After hearing the man’s words, Woonu was about to step into the alley when he turned back to look at me. For some unfathomable reason, I nodded. A look of relief crossed the rascal’s eyes. Feeling as resolute as a knight on a quest to rescue the people offered as sacrifices in a cave, I stepped foot into the alley cloaked in darkness.

    The man spat out his phlegm, making a lot of noise as he walked. Woonu followed after him, fanning away the smoke with his hand, seemingly adverse to the smell of cigarettes. What bothered me the most, however, was neither the phlegm nor the smoke, but the sound of the man’s slippers dragging. We made a few turns in the narrow, dirty alley. The flickering streetlight illuminated and then dimmed over the flying insects that swarmed around it. The man swore at the trash someone had carelessly littered and took a few more steps, finally stopping in front of a certain gate.

    The supporting part of the paint-peeled iron gate was, strangely enough, made entirely of wood. The man, whom Woonu referred to as “ahjussi,” kicked the low, narrow door with his foot. My body tensed, feeling like he was declaring war on me. Given my size, I had never been intimidated by anyone before, so I thought I could scare him. If it came down to a fight, there was no way I couldn’t handle a man of average build who was well over sixty. The stiff door opened with a sharp sound. Contrary to my expectations of a fight, the man entered with a smile.

    “I keep forgettin’ to oil this damn door. Nowadays, it refuses to budge ‘less ya give it a good kick. Gah, phooey!”

    “I’ll fix it up for you.”

    “Will ya? Ya know, that… that double-u dee thing. The thing Taewook used the last time he swung by.”

    “Yes, I know what it is.”

    The man, smiling and patting Woonu on the back, bent down and went in first. Woonu followed him in. I curled up, careful not to step on the phlegm the man had just spit out.

    In the yard, where a water tap stood, were two long wooden poles propped against the ground with a clothesline strung between them and a small flower bed planted with lettuce and other greens. I had not seen laundry dripping with water in a long time. Only hand-wrung laundry dripped like that. It felt strange to hang laundry on a twilit night.

    Mom treasured the clothes my maternal grandmother hand-stitched when she was still alive. Those clothes were never put in the washing machine; instead, Mom scrupulously washed them by hand and gently wrung out the water before hanging them out in the yard. Jaehee and I would squat under the clothesline on sunny days, spreading our palms to catch and lick the water droplets that fell from the wet clothes. Then we’d giggle together as we’d see Mom shoo us away, disapproving.

    Along the narrow, dark brown jjongmaru were three paper-covered doors, and beside them was an old-fashioned kitchen. I noticed a swallow’s nest under the low-lying eaves. My own house was a hybrid, inspired by Hanok-style homes and tailored to my parents’ tastes, but the man’s house was truly a bizarre and outdated abode. The iron door the owner had kicked open seemed to be the newest thing in the whole house. The house had an asymmetrical appearance, perhaps due to its construction, which seemed to be done with careless abandon and a jumble of several materials.

    The man groaned as he climbed onto the maru, kicking off his slippers. As Woonu removed his shoes and stepped onto the maru, the wood creaked beneath him. The ceiling was low enough for Woonu’s head to brush against it, and he looked back hesitantly, signalling me with his eyes. I climbed onto the maru as well, bending my knees and bowing my head.

    The man opened the first door and stepped inside, sliding over a pair of cushions for Woonu and me to sit on before grabbing his back and disappearing elsewhere.

    The room, seemingly barren of daylight due to its lack of windows, had several frames containing old, faded photographs, as well as certificates and medals strewn about. Occasionally, the flickering fluorescent lights hummed.

    Among the various photographs in the frames, there was only one of Woonu. It was a photo taken in what appeared to be a botanical garden, depicting Woonu, two boys who looked older than him, the homeowner in his younger days, and a petite, beautiful woman.

    Woonu’s face had changed little since childhood, except for the loss of his chubby cheeks. Large, clear eyes, a high nose, and distinct lips. His eyes resembled those of the young woman standing beside him. The woman looked very sad, with the corners of her mouth turned down. The young Woonu was clutching a part of her skirt with his tiny little hands. The man standing beside her looked at her with a gaze full of affection.

    “Did you live here?”

    “Yes. Until I was fourteen.”

    I was about to inquire about the owner of the house, Woonu, and the person named Taewook, whom I presumed to be his son, when I sensed another person’s presence. The man returned, carrying a faded plastic tray with two apples and a small plate.

    Despite missing a few fingers, the man peeled the apple with ease. As I watched the peel come off in a long, continuous, and unbroken strip, I suddenly thought of my mom again.

    “Lemme get straight to the point. How much does this fella here owe ya?”

    The house owner’s gaze was fixed on the fruit knife.

    “The debt Hanggu owes me is a life debt. His mom’s life.”

    “Why are you making him repay it instead?”

    “That’s between me and Hanggu, so mind yer own business. Now, lemme ask ya, how much cash did ya lend him?”

    The amount had to be big to prevent Woonu from stowing away. I added another zero to the 4.5 million won.

    “45 million won.”

    Woonu’s eyes, as wide as they could possibly be, turned to me. The hand peeling the apple came to a halt. Without lifting his head, the man glanced up at me, then placed the knife down on the table with enough force to make it thud.

    “45 million?”


    “He owes ya 45 million?”

    He adjusted his sitting position, raising one knee. I gulped, feeling nervous about lying. His sharp gaze pierced into my eyes. I didn’t avoid his stare and lifted my chin.

    “Why do you keep asking the same question?”

    “Not 4.5 million?”

    “It’s 45 million.”

    “Seoul fella, you some kinda loan shark? Tryin’ to rip us off? Explain to me, step by step, how this debt got to 45 million.”

    It was fortunate that I had persisted in writing outlandish novels. Even if he grew suspicious and wanted to refute, I had a ready excuse, believable enough for him to concede. As I crafted my words, I came to a realization: the most believable fiction always contained a kernel of truth.

    “An acquaintance of mine, who owns a private hospital, found this friend collapsed on the street and treated him. However, he insisted on being discharged, claiming he had no money and causing a scene about paying the hospital bill. He ended up damaging some new medical equipment by mishandling it.”

    The man proceeded to look at Woonu with an expression that seemed to say, “Aigoo, this little rascal,” before shaking his head and tutting.

    “The equipment costs hundreds of millions, but this is all that’s needed to repair it. And yes, you’d be correct. I am indeed a loan shark. The reason we even got to know each other in the first place was because my acquaintance told me about his troubles with a kid who didn’t have the means to pay him back. I covered the damage for him.”

    I once had the opportunity to conduct a face-to-face interview with a member of an organized crime syndicate through the introduction of my editor-in-chief. The man, in his late forties, was neither burly nor tattooed. His vocabulary was sophisticated and intelligent, and his conduct was free of vulgarity. Though his attire wasn’t overly formal, he still wore a neat suit, and he was a man who, in reality, held no criminal records, and had even completed graduate school. Even the car he drove was a domestic model, one that was commonly seen. Nothing about him stood out. Such a man handled hundreds of billions of won a year.

    Nevertheless, I straightened my shoulders and puffed out my chest like a peacock, imitating the gangsters from Korean movies shown during Seollal or Chuseok specials. I even scowled to wrinkle my nose. Whether I would manage to fool him or not, it was go big or go home.

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