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Pocket Money

Mi Jin Kim

In the late evenings Olympic Billiards was crowded with young players and hawkeyed boys who watched more games than they played and men who moved between the tables and never played. The pool hall was twice as wide as it was long. It was a bright place, ice blue under the halogen bulbs; the tables were clean, and they played music at low volume and infrequently. Tacked above the unused coat rack was an old framed photo of Bill Clinton that had been there since the place had opened. At the back was a counter with stools. Regulars knew not to sit on the stools, leaving them for the employees of the pool hall. The girls behind the counter were older than most of the regulars and unfriendly. They sold sodas and pretzels and dried squid on a deposit system: you deposited your credit card number and afterward, whenever you wanted, you withdrew snacks and cigarettes. No alcohol was served now, and it hadn’t been since a boy had died some months ago in a drunken brawl.

The place had been recommended to me by Man Suk, who knew about all the different joints in Koreatown. Olympic Billiards was owned by wealthy Korean brothers who only hired immigrants. The Persians working valet for the restaurant downstairs, Blue Night Sushi, did double duty as security for the pool hall. “That’s something you might do,” Man Suk told me after he took me to the pool hall that first night. “Manage the Persians for the boys in the hall.” He talked about the job as if it were a done deal, but he never introduced me to anyone and didn’t tell me who I could go see to find out about it. Man Suk was a difficult person to be friends with. You couldn’t ask him for anything because once he found out you wanted something from him—even if it was something he’d offered to you in the first place—it meant the end of the friendship. He had, however, paid for my yearlong membership to the pool hall. I could come and go whenever I wanted.

I had borrowed enough money from some fellows in Seoul to see me through three lean months, but I was nearing the end of them now. If I couldn’t find a job, I would have to go back. Sometimes I thought about finding a woman. If I found a woman, I could marry her for my papers and get a real job, maybe work construction again. No one wanted to hire a Korean without papers, and when I asked Man Suk about it, he said a guy like me would sue if I got hurt on the job. With or without one I would have to go back anyway, but there was nothing to go back to, and no one was waiting for me at home. The options open to me didn’t look good, and it made me feel foul to sit there in my rented room and think about what a low place it was that I occupied in the world, which was a low and foul place to begin with.

I showed up at the pool hall every night, but no one came to me about a job, and I was no friendlier with the employees, who kept to themselves. To Man Suk I said nothing, of course. Sometimes I got hopeful about scrounging up money somewhere, walking into a bit of luck. Around Man Suk I was careful to act as though such things weren’t a thought to me at all.

He took me out to a meal every other night or every third night, and afterward we played a bit of pool with fellows he knew. When Man Suk was not at the pool hall, I liked to stand alone with my back to the blacked-out window near the counter and watch the action. I was always thirsty after standing for so long, but I had no credit card to deposit with the unsmiling girls at the counter. Soft drinks have a way of sounding precious and delightful when they’re being opened and drunk by other people. After putting in my hours at the pool hall, I went home and sucked the water out of my bathroom faucet.

Eventually things turned friendly with one regular, a short fellow with fat Buddha ears who went by a name I didn’t know a Korean could call himself. After I strategically lost some money to him, he asked my age and told me I could call him brother. He was almost forty years old, but his fatness shaved off a good decade. After I paid him, we went out to the balcony to smoke.

“What kind of name is Enoch?” I asked.

“Get you some religion, boy.” He kept a half-drained Coke can as his ashtray, and every time he tapped his cigarette, the ash made a nice sound as sizzling meat would make: sssshhhaa. “A Koreatown church will give you everything you need: old clothes, furniture, hot meals on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, women, girls.”

“I don’t know.”

“A lot of women in the church.”

“I need money if I want a girl.”

Enoch considered this. He pulled up his mouth and shrugged. “This is true.”

I looked across the street at another blue-painted joint with blue lanterns hanging over the door. The sushi restaurant downstairs had blue doors and walls too; the pool hall’s sign and carpet were the same Egyptian blue. When I pointed this out, Enoch said the only thing he knew was that all the blue joints were owned by the same Koreans.

We went back into the pool hall. I stood back and watched Enoch. He came in every night, but he looked for fast players who played short games because he liked to pay the hourly rates rather than go in for a membership. After a while an employee came over to give Enoch a hard time.

“Yeah, but,” Enoch said after the employee had given his spiel.

“Yeah, but? Finish your thought.”

Enoch rested his double chin on his cue stick. “No thought at all, brother.”

The employee calculated aloud the various ways Enoch might save money by paying for a yearlong membership.

I stopped listening at this point and paid attention instead to the way an older man was watching the employee. When it was clear the employee had lost Enoch’s attention completely, the man shook his head a little, and the employee moved away. The game went on, and I watched as the man disappeared behind a yellow door; the employee moved around and around the pool hall; Enoch waved a boy over and ordered a Red Bull. He’d won, but he was also pleased with himself about something that had nothing to do with the game.

“Give me your number,” Enoch said suddenly. “We can have gamjatang where my girl cashiers. She’s working tomorrow night and we can eat for practically nothing.”

I patted my empty pocket. “It’s been about two days since I lost it on the bus. Still no sign of it.” He clicked his teeth sympathetically before leaning his head back to pound the last of his Red Bull. His throat was ringed with skin tags where his flesh met the band of his T-shirt. “Come by here tomorrow night. We’ll meet up and go over together.”

Soon after he left, I stationed myself at the back of the pool hall by the counter. The shift change happened at midnight. The skinny young Koreans who worked the early-evening hours disappeared one by one and older, wilder faces emerged out of the back rooms. An employee the regulars called Guatemala came out of a back room zipping up a black pullover all the way to the top so that only half his beakish face showed. He came over to sit on a stool in front of the countergirls. He watched the action over his shoulder, his body angled at the countergirl called Eun Hae. She looked very young and fresh and everything about her was sweet, even the way her black bra straps slipped out from under her sleeveless chiffon top. After Guatemala moved away she punched some buttons on the credit card machine, and as it spewed out its paper entrails, she looked me over without pretending not to look me over, which interested me.

Guatemala hadn’t been away two minutes when he came over to her again. He zipped his pullover up and down and up again, and when he asked her something in English, she readily responded, her tone and mannerisms transforming her into a girl totally foreign to me. I realized I’d mistaken her for a normal Korean girl; that washed away some of the brightness of her gaze, and I decided I’d go home early.

In the morning I found a tortoiseshell cat banging around the trash cans behind the boarding house. It didn’t like my presence at all. I stared it down even as it threw everything it had at me, hissing and screeching, swishing a black tail that swelled to twice its size. I sat on a cinderblock and shook a bag of shrimp-flavored crackers at it until it calmed down. We opened the bag together.

“Acting crazy is for crazies,” I said. “You’re not crazy, are you?” I wagged a cracker at it until it padded over to me. He sniffed it but wouldn’t eat out of my hand. Cats have got queer tongues. When they lick you, their tongues feel like the way new tires sound over gravel.

We finished the crackers. The morning was hot, so I made him a lean-to out of a ramen box. As I enticed him to take shade inside, I thought about going to see Man Suk later. I’d spent the last of my money to keep my room at the boarding house. I needed the pool hall job but asking Man Suk for it directly was out of the question. Sometime in the middle of my thinking and dozing, a homeless woman in a ratty college sweatshirt appeared silently. Despite her quiet ways she scared away the cat. That annoyed me right from the start. She paid me no attention as she rooted through the trash cans that belonged to the boarding house. I pretended to be drunk and pulled my baseball cap low over my face. When I leaned back against the wall, I could spy on her through the sun-bright gap between the bill of my cap and my nose. She worked fast. In no time at all she’d pulled out cans and glass jars and old light bulbs. She stuffed these into an old duffel bag slung over her thick shoulders. It rattled and sang as she zipped it up.

When she moved away, I got up and followed her from a distance. She walked down Olympic Boulevard, digging through the occasional bin but never staying very long at any one place. It seemed she had her favorites. Only at these special bins did she let herself linger, examining items of refuse as though each held extraordinary value and only the size of her duffel bag was keeping her from taking them all. She extracted hundreds of cans and other recyclables in the hours I followed her, but she disturbed nothing and left no signs of her foraging. In silence she stamped cans down to nothing and emptied bottles of their liquids before stashing them in her duffel bag. At one point she found a children’s picture book and this she looked over carefully before tucking it into the band of her sweatpants. She was small and dark and thick everywhere, except in her hands, and she worked quickly, so quickly we reached the recycling center before noon.

Just before she went in, she turned and glanced behind her as if she knew of my presence. I ducked into a Korean-owned auto body shop across the way. Inside I asked the Hispanics for the owner who came out wiping his hands on a rag.

“What kind of trouble is it?” said the owner.

“It’s my piece-of-shit Kia. Whenever I start the car, the tire light keeps coming on. I’ve checked everything out myself. There’s nothing wrong with the tires. I don’t know why the light should keep coming on like that.”

The owner nodded. “That’s no trouble at all. You put the key in the ignition but don’t start the engine. When the tire light comes on, press down on the brake a couple times, slowly. Start the engine on P and tap the brakes. Light should turn off.”

I thanked the owner and asked him what I owed.

“Nothing. Have you parked the car out front? I can do it for you now, if you’d like.”

“No, that won’t be necessary. I walked over from work.” I mimed digging, patting down my empty pockets as if I were looking for my wallet but the owner lightly shoved me out the door. “Come back and see us when you’ve got real trouble,” he said.

I walked out into the noon sun and baked under it as if I were waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green. At the recycling center the homeless woman was loitering out front, talking to another bum and sharing a cigarette. They smoked it down to nothing and she finally moved away. Her duffel bag had deflated to an eel across her back.

She moved back up Olympic, swinging her empty Trader Joe’s tote bag as she walked. She stopped by a liquor store and came out with an AriZona Big Can. We moved onto Western and stopped in front of a Bank of America ATM where she stamped the empty AriZona can down into a pastel-green UFO. She took a rest in an alleyway that was empty of everything and everyone, even pigeons, and there I showed myself and shoved her down onto the ground.

She looked past me as I did it, her eyes wet. There were age spots on her brown toad’s face, a patch of black whiskers across her upper lip. It repelled me to do it, but I dug inside the waistband of her pants to check if she’d stashed her money there. She had, tucked under the children’s book. Those damp bills had been clinging to the dead wires of her wild bush like bits of tissue and sanitary pads and love notes as you might find in a shrub near a high school of ill repute, and there was I, plucking the lot of it. I kicked her over onto her side so she wouldn’t look at me as I ran out of the alley. Once I was back on the street, I looked for a plastic garbage bag and with it I wrapped my bundle of cash. It was mostly wet fives, the old kind of bill bearing a face carved entirely of blue-martian peaks and valleys, those belonging to that assassinated president, the one so fond of tall hats such as our old yangban used to wear.

There was a men’s bathhouse near the pool hall where a fellow could wash and rest for eight dollars if he showed up before four o’clock. Most days eight dollars was too much money for a bath, but today had been a good day, and I didn’t want to spoil it by waiting in line behind four other fellows for the single stall back at the boarding house.

I went in and bought myself a token and washed myself and scrubbed each of my paper bills with a bar of the cucumber-scented soap the sauna gave out for free, and afterward we dried ourselves on the heated floors of the large, open sleeping room. I bought a hard-boiled egg for a dollar and some rice punch that had been chilled in such a deep part of the cooler it’d nearly frozen into slush. Warm and filled with food, I dozed for a while then went out into the evening. It was early yet and cool; the sky was violet. I moved down Sixth toward the pool hall with twenty-three dollars left in my pocket, which was a hard truth to accept.

I met up with Enoch and together we walked over to the restaurant where his girl cashiered. We shared a large pot of gamjatang and Enoch’s girl charged us only for our bottle of soju, which impressed me because it seemed to me she wielded a lot of power for a waitress, and one so small and ugly. I took out some of my cash to leave her a nice tip, which pleased Enoch greatly, I could tell. We walked back to the pool hall with our arms around each other’s shoulders and I thought, Now here’s the end, here’s where I get off.

But surrounded by fellows having a good time in a bright room with a good-looking girl watching the action behind her counter, you don’t get to thinking about getting off the ride just yet, so I joined a game with Enoch and two fellows. That’s what I was doing when Man Suk came and told me about a job. I had all my money riding on that game, but when he told me to follow him downstairs, I handed my cue stick to a kid who’d been spectating and went out of the pool hall.

Down in the parking lot the Persians were playing hacky sack. Man Suk spoke to them in what sounded like Spanish. They spoke back in sullen tones, and the hacky sack disappeared into someone’s pocket. I realized it was Man Suk himself who managed the Persians for the owners of the pool hall. He walked past Blue Night Sushi, and we crossed the street, right to the blue-painted joint I’d pointed out to Enoch. There was a little sign posted to the left of the door with the English words Salt Water carved into dark stone.

“It’s a noraebang,” said Man Suk. “They’ll pay cash, and you can take home your share of the tips. Grand opening is next week.”

When we went inside, the few employees there greeted Man Suk deferentially but informally at the same time. Two wispy youths with similar dry-haired shag cuts came out from behind the counter, where they’d been stacking soju glasses into a pyramid, and poked gentle fun at him for something he’d said last week to a man they referred to as the manager of the place. I was relieved to learn that I wouldn’t have to work under Man Suk. The fact of his getting me a job as he’d promised elevated him substantially in my mind, but it seemed to me he was one of those fellows who lives exactingly by the rules known only to his own mind and looks down on everyone else for failing to intuit them.

“This is the joker I was telling you about,” he said to the employees, clasping my shoulder. “Go show him around.” He took a seat at the bar and called over a handyman who’d been testing out the POS on the hostess stand. We left them as they got into a conversation about the poor sound quality of the speakers installed in Blue Night Sushi.

There was nothing much to see in the main room which was partitioned into a sort of receiving area which included the bar and hostess stand and a waiting room behind a screen where you could sit with three or four others and watch pop music videos on a curved television. I followed the employees out of this main room and down a hall which had been painted gunmetal black and was mirrored on the ceiling. There was another bar in the center of the room, twice as large as the one in the front, and standing behind that was another employee who paid us no mind as he marked up an MCAT prep book.

“You work at the pool hall?” said one of the employees, the only kid with an American name on his badge. If it was to be believed, he was called Joey.

I said I’d been coming and going there for a while.

“We made a poor show of it in the soft open last week,” said the other employee, who had bad skin and a bashful smile. He was called Tae Won. He asked me to please call him Teddy. This, despite his name badge identifying him as T.W.

“No one knows what the fuck they’re doing here,” said the one called Joey.

“How many of you are there altogether?” I asked.

“Six guys, seven now that you’re here. Boss doesn’t like part-timers. You’ll have to show up every night if you want to work for him.”

I said that that would be fine.

At something in my expression, Joey told Teddy to tell me what the hell it was I was supposed to be doing here. Joey seemed to find the idea of my training, or the training itself, funny. Teddy went to the bar and got us cans of Sprite. It was warm but fine, the first soft drink I’d had in weeks. “Mostly you’ll have to figure shit out for the customers when the songs won’t play or they play out of order or the mics don’t work.”

“And kick out drunks and put them into taxis,” Joey said. “Put SpeedTown into your phone. Here’s their business card. We only use SpeedTown.”

“You want to sell bottles and shots,” said Teddy. “But with cheapos you’ve got to let them think they can just order beer and stay on beer. You watch them. Soon you’ll be able to figure out if loading them up on free snacks will sell them on moving on to shots and bottles or if they’ll just stick with the beer. Fruit platters come with shots and men won’t order those unless a hostess comes in.”

“There are hostesses here?” I asked.

“You new to noraebangs or something?” said Joey.

“Just to this one.”

“Well, what do you think this place is?”

Teddy let out a yawn. He was missing several teeth, although he could afford very nice shoes. “Aw, leave him alone. You’ll pick it up,” he said to me. “Just get acquainted with the machine and the programming and the remote. There are manuals in the manager’s office.”

They went off to look for snacks in the kitchen, and I looked around the place. I went into the VIP rooms, which were large and smelled of carpet shampoo, then slipped into one of the regular rooms. Regular rooms were less private; their doors were glass. I turned on one of the machines and sat back on the low sofas and cawed into the microphone. My voice shot up and cracked down the walls.

Man Suk opened the door and popped his head in. “Come see about a uniform.”

I took a medium-size black shirt and black pants and Man Suk told me to get my hair cut more stylishly. He looked at my shoes. “Throw those away,” he said. Then he took me and Joey and Teddy to see the fellow who managed the place.

The manager was called Ko. Ko said and did nothing as Man Suk spoke at length about the importance of loyal employees. I watched Ko as he rubbed his lean, handsome face with the backs of his dark hands. He had large black eyes, which were shadowed, and thin lips and his black hair was combed back from a high, brown forehead.

“This is the kid I was telling you about,” Man Suk said, finally, after he’d run out of steam. He took a seat on a couple of cases of toilet paper.

Ko stopped rubbing his face and didn’t look quite at me as he introduced himself pleasantly enough and in a lightly self-deprecating way which made everyone laugh.

I stepped forward, and we shook hands.

“Can you start next week?” he asked.

“I can start now.”

That made Joey and Teddy laugh.

“Good, good,” Ko said. “Come by when you can and learn the ropes. Hours are five till two, every night. We open on holidays. That okay with you?”

“That’s okay with me.”

“Man Suk told you about the hair?”

Joey and Teddy touched their heads, but I didn’t. They looked at each other. Teddy shrugged his shoulders. It was Joey who finally spoke up. “Hyung, I know you’ve told us before, but I can’t pay for a haircut at Atelier until I get my first paycheck.”

I looked at Man Suk, who looked unbothered by the conversation. He sat picking at his teeth with the corner of a business card. “Atelier girls are good,” he said.

“Everyone goes to Atelier,” Joey said.

Ko said nothing.

We trooped out of his office. I wanted a glimpse of the hostess girls, but I saw only electricians and the same studious fellow behind the counter. Ko took his place and passed around shots of what he called the house special, a salty, snappy little thing that flamed down my throat and slimed my tongue with something that tasted of the white stuff in pomelos. Ko then gave each of us three hundred-dollar bills and said we should buy good shoes and good haircuts and not to show up at work ever looking less well-off than our customers. “Never let anyone feel guilty about spending money here,” he said. “If the employees of a joint look good and healthy and careful, then customers feel it’s a good place to go. They won’t question their coming. They want to have a nice place to go. They’ll come back if they think you’re nice too.”

After that I took a bus home but the walk back to the boarding house took me hours. I got off at the wrong stop because the way the Americans say Sepulvedaand San Vincente sounds nothing at all like the way I see those letters in my mind, and it was like waking from a dream when the bus shot past the right stop, and the right way to call those streets coiled out of those speakers. But I didn’t mind the walk. My pockets held more money than I’d had in weeks. I smoked two cigarettes and I smoked them freely, knowing I could now make enough money for all the packs I wanted.

In my room I found an old hanger that the previous boarder had left behind, and I hung up my new uniform. I lay on my mattress and admired the way it swayed this way then that in the breeze that came in through the open window. It was a body hanging from a rod, or kelp in dark water—that depended on how you saw things, and who you were.


About the author

Mi Jin Kim was born in Seoul and grew up in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she was a recipient of the Henfield and Frederick Busch Prizes in Fiction. Her work has appeared in Crazyhorse. She lives in South Korea. Her story in this issue was edited by Laura Preston.

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