For personal reasons I cannot tell you my name. I can tell you I’m twenty-seven years old and I’m a professional recorder player, or maybe it’s recordist. I’m not sure. We’re not a highly sought after bunch, generally. Regardless, I play the recorder at a professional level. Seriously.
Moving on: I decided to backpack through Korea because it’s a small country and I grew up with Korean friends whose parents made delicious food and invited me to eat with them whenever I was over. Second, it’s possible visit every nook and cranny in a few months. Third, I’ve heard Korean people are notorious consumers of alcohol.
Basically having no employment at the time and money saved in the bank, it just sounded like a good idea.
I was arrested on my sixth day in the country.
Up to that point I had eaten Korean barbecue and got drunk on Soju and seen a couple interesting sights, all in Seoul. I had not had sex with any Korean women, although I did find them to be quite attractive overall. Big anime eyes, legs like lighthouses reaching up to the heavens, the butts of ten-year-old boys and the silken hair sought after by the Tang Dynasty of China.
I shared a fleeting moment of eye contact with a cute girl on the subway from Seoul Station but it was short lived.
The charges put against me were false, or so I claimed. Regardless there wasn’t much I could do. They found some really shitty weed in my backpack. I did buy the weed and it was shitty. Apparently Korean authorities are not cool with marijuana. I was staying at a guy’s house I’d met the night before and we drank a great deal and flirted with some girls and whatnot. I guess for unknown reasons he rifled through my bag, found the weed, made a call to the cops, and left before I woke up. I have tried replaying the night in my head and I can’t remember if we smoked together or not. Whatever. My hangover was brutal and when the police started banging on the door I couldn’t think of any good reason not to answer. I did and they found the stuff, and that was that.
Any time in a foreign prison is unfavorable – even if it’s cushy, which really, it was for the first while. My cell was decent, and for the most part I only slept there in my reasonable cot, a tightly bundled collection of straw, and I masturbated in there four times. I played Chess in the morning with old Korean inmates and a Korean version of dominoes in the afternoon with a different group of old Korean Men. Sometimes at lunch I played cards with a group of guys affiliated with whatever the Korean equivalent of Yakuza is. I think. They had a great many tattoos between them and spoke mostly with hand rolled cigarettes hanging from their lips. They spoke no English and I don’t speak Korean, but we got along well enough during the games. There were a few violent outbursts but never directed at me, so if I kept my cool and didn’t let on that some urine had trickled into my underwear it was all good.
The worst part of prison was the heat. No air conditioning. The second worst part is basically prison is boring. They had books and TV’s but everything was Korean, and so didn’t do me much good.
On the sixty-fourth day a guard came into my room and roused me from sleep. I was glad I wasn’t masturbating when he barged in. I had thought about it, as there was a quite attractive and tight specimen of the female Korean persuasion on the television in the rec room for the better part of the afternoon before a guard noticed all the erotic energy and turned it off. In fact, I sensed the change in the room and looking back can say with some certainty that everyone present wanted to loosen their pants, pull out their penises and jerk off – and then no doubt take naps. Anyway, after the guard woke me up he dragged me along past some locked doors and made some turns and finally set me down in an uncomfortable chair in a small room that smelled of cigarette smoke. The ashtray on the table was in fact smoking and there were several butts smashed and bent inside. A few minutes later a Korean guy in a suit came in and sat down across from me. Neither of us said anything for a long time. I had never been in a situation like this before so had no idea what to do, and I presumed he was quiet for his own reasons.
Finally he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and lit up. He didn’t offer me one, which was fine. I don’t smoke.
I lied and said I was Canadian.
“How have you liked your time here?”
I thought about it and answered honestly, “It hasn’t been bad.”
I had no witty response to that.
“Do you recognize me?”
Usually I’m pretty good about remembering a face, but I couldn’t place him. In this particular situation the old adage that Asian people look alike proved to be true. He put the cigarette in his mouth and unbuttoned the sleeve of his shirt and rolled it back.
I felt very stupid. Apparently a suit and tie and slicked back hair can change a man. He was one of the Korean guys from the occasional lunch time card game. I told him I recognized him. I was also feeling a bit flustered and nervous. Without another word he rose from his chair and left the room, closing the door behind him. Feeling further confusion I stayed seated. This was prison after all and being a foreigner I felt that my chances of being raped or killed or whatever would increase if I got up and left on my own.
I sort of drifted off to sleep.
A while later I woke up with a jolt. I was still in the chair in the little smoky room. Someone knocked on the door and then entered. It was a different Korean gentleman, a squat fat man but he looked like he could kill me easily if he wanted to. He wore a gray suit that fit poorly but there was no way I was going to tell him that. He sat across from me and appraised me with his yellow-red eyes. A moment or two later he set his arms on the table and started shaking them in a weird little rhythmic pattern. I watched as a long leather sheath began to crawl out of his shirtsleeve until it was on the table. He grunted and gestured for me to take it and open it. I already knew what it was but I did as instructed and removed the recorder from its case. He mimed playing and grunted at me again, which I took as a cue to play for him. It was odd. He stared at me with a half-frown on his face and listened while I ran through some basic scales. After about a minute he motioned for me to stop and stood up. He walked to the door, turned around and saw I was still in the chair. He grunted and waved me over. I took the recorder and followed him. I had forgotten about the tattooed guy for the time being.
He led me down several halls and around a few turns. We passed guards who ignored me completely. I had the impression that the man I was with had some serious clout. We stopped at a closed security gate in the inner workings of the prison. Wherever we were, it was far off my radar. The guards unlocked several mechanisms and pulled aside a huge iron door that screamed like a banshee. They waved us through and on the other side was a little girl in a typical Girl Scout uniform standing beside a large boiling pot. Making it even more odd was the girl was white and said hello to me in English and offered me a hotdog, which she plucked from the pot with long sharp tongs. Someone should inquire as to the safety of items like that in a prison. I waited for the squat man’s approval before I touched the hot dog, for fear of a sudden and violent ending to my life, but he snatched the first one and grunted at the girl and she gave me one too. Before I had my hands on it he grunted at her again, she said, “Oh, yeah. Almost forgot,” and snapped her fingers. I’m not lying – a perfectly straight row of jalapenos appeared out of thin air on my hot dog. She snapped her fingers again and just the perfect amount of mustard and ketchup made racing stripes on either side of the peppers. I ate the hot dog in stupefied silence. The girl said goodbye and turned her attention to her boiling cauldron of wieners.
The man didn’t think much of anything and so I kept following him down the concrete corridor. The walk seemed to take a long time but I wasn’t getting tired. If anything I was extremely curious now as to what the heck was going on. The hallway gradually got a bit narrower and doors were now visible on either side. The man stopped at a door and looked at his wrist where there was no watch. He checked his pulse for a full minute and then grunted for me to do the same. I placed my fingers on my neck and listened to my heartbeat. In a terrifying moment of unreality the squat man in the gray suit belched a monstrous echo-inducing burp and grabbed my right wrist in both of his. His breath smelled like the innards of a pig and he held on much tighter than I would have liked but I had no chance of breaking free or making a run for it, so I submitted. He worked his powerful fingers into my wrist and massaged until I noticed a small bean type shape under my skin and I could now feel it tickling my nerves. He pushed and prodded the little bean thing got moving and crawled into my hand and down my middle finger, and by now I was almost crying from the ticking sensation. My knees were feeling rubbery when finally it plopped out of under my fingernail and flopped to the floor. It was a bright orange cockroach. I’m pretty sure it shot me a look like, “The Fuck, guy?” I had the impression it wasn’t happy with the free-fall, but I know next to nothing about the psyche of insects so take from that what you will. Under normal circumstances I would have been petrified and shuddered in revulsion, but I could only try and capture my breath from laughing and crying.
The little orange cockroach skittered down the hallway sniffing at the different doors, or maybe it was prodding with it antennae – I don’t know. It did eventually crawl under a door. The man followed it and pushed the door inward. He held it open with one hand, and with the other gestured for me to take the recorder out of the sheath and be ready. I did what I was told, still wiping tears from my eyes and feeling an odd sense of giddiness. I entered the room.
I need to remind you again that this is all true. I’m not a crazy person and I didn’t dream this.
On a reclining chair in the middle of the room was the tattooed man from earlier, his hair still combed perfectly. He was wearing a hospital gown and his face expressed a great deal of discomfort. His legs were up on the shoulders of a large woman who I should have mentioned was between his legs. She was in doctor’s whites. Neither of them took notice of me.
The squat man in the gray suit jabbed me in the chest with a finger. I took up the recorder and put it to my lips. My mouth was too dry to play and I remember specifically feeling a desire for a pineapple juice. As the thought coursed through my mind the tattooed man screamed in agony and the large woman lifted her arm up from between his legs and held a glass of liquid covered in plasma and blood. The squat man took it from her and brought it to me. He said something in Korean. I don’t know how I knew but I did – it was pineapple juice. I slugged it down and felt an immense sense of purpose and poise. I have never felt more powerful in my entire life. I began to play the recorder. The musical achievement of that day should go down in history as the single greatest performance in the history of the universe. Tears streamed out of my eyes as my mouth and lungs operated on a spectrum of consciousness that hasn’t been discovered. And all the while the tattooed man screamed in pain, and all I could make out from the scant angle I was provided given the girth of the large woman, was that he was giving birth to something and it was killing him.
For unexplainable reasons none of this seemed shocking or out of the ordinary in that moment.
The squat man in the gray suit was completely nonplussed by everything. He stood near the wall and occasionally felt his pulse.
I played and played, invention and inspiration dancing wildly inside my mouth until I saw the large woman slide away in her stool. She turned toward the squat man and me and showed us a perfectly formed Dodo bird, an extinct creature. The tattooed man slumped on his side with a faint smile on his face. I haven’t given much thought as to what a man might look like upon giving birth, but I immediately recognized the face of a proud father. The bird hopped down onto the ground and shook like a dog, sending chunks of sinewy something or other all over the room. It squawked a sound of a time unknown to me and started Tutting about the room.
I stopped playing the recorder and the room turned silent. I felt funny in my head and could sense my legs giving out. That’s the last thing I remember.
When I came to I was alone in a hotel room in Seoul. I thought for sure that it must all have been a dream – everything from the marijuana to the cops and especially the prison stuff. It couldn’t be real. I stood up and stretched. I was still wearing my prison jumper and there were specks of blood on it from the newborn baby Dodo. I know this sounds crazy and that you don’t want to believe me. But it’s true. I promise. I still have the recorder.