Everything in Its Place
By Choi Jung Wha
Translated by Ji Won Park
“That eczema is taking a while to heal,” said the department head as I was taking out my camera from the cabinet. From the dry tone of his voice, it was hard to tell whether he expected a response. Just as I was about to reply anyway, the cicadas began crying and forced me to pause. It was September, but they still sang from time to time. Their songs would instantly drown out any silence and leave me feeling cleansed, as if cleared of all within me.
“I’m hoping it’ll go away with the summer,” I said. Thank you, cicadas, for letting me keep the explanation short.
The eczema had lasted all summer. It created brown spots on my palm like some small animal had peed all over it. There were areas where raw pink flesh budded through the cracked skin. Yellow discharge ran from the bumps that had flared up. Yet there were areas that were neither pink nor yellow and did not hurt, which instead had developed unseemly reptilian scales.
“That’s not what a young woman’s hand should look like,” the department head warned. “Shouldn’t you do something about that?”
The eczema hadn’t improved even as I’d taken my meds on time, gotten eczema shots now and then, and sterilized the affected areas every morning and night. It was the third time the wounds had come close to healing only for the inflammation to spread again and for scabs to form and fall off. I had become quite numb to the itchiness, the sharp pain, and the heat accompanied by the swelling, but his very choice of words triggered another itch.
Last summer was when the City of L began systematically demolishing its buildings. The buildings were felled one by one like livestock succumbing to a plague. A group of workers wearing black jumpers with the large white words “Korea Construction” on their backs would tear down a perfectly fine building and abandon the ruins in their desolate state. The former residents would quietly move away and a new building would shoot up in a matter of months with a brand-new sign, as if to say nothing happened. One day, I saw a job posting for taking videos and photographs of the buildings’ interiors for record-keeping. I applied without giving it much thought and ended up getting the job. I had become tired of working with people every day, so the idea of working alone in an abandoned building appealed to me. But spending almost all the work hours alone, observing every nook and cranny of demolished remains was more of an ordeal than I had imagined.
I tried to keep a professional distance from my boss and stuck to strictly work-related topics in our conversations. The personal banter started all because of the eczema. The condition spread so fast that anyone who shared the same office would have noticed it and brought it up. The problem was that the banter only ever concerned the same old topic of my eczema and could not expand its territory beyond it. The department head was like a cat that wouldn’t let go of the mouse in his interrogations about my hand. The sheer repetition was difficult to bear.
I took out some ointment from my desk drawer and applied it to my afflicted palm. Then I got up to leave with my bag over my shoulders. On the hourly log for site inspections, I put down “10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.” in red. Two hours should have been sufficient, given that the building only had five stories, but an hour’s buffer made things easy in case of any unforeseen circumstances. Most employees preferred to report an extra hour; even if the work ended on time as expected, who would complain about getting paid more? Besides, there were days when the field work went past the reported timeframe. The extra pay and overtime work were bound to cancel out in the end, making the reporting close to being honest.
Looking out the bus window while munching on the kimbap I bought from a street vendor put me in a picnic mood. I felt cheerful as I saw buildings and passersby showing off their unique shape and color against the glowing sunlight. But the scenes lost their luster within a few stops. I had something of a visual hallucination where my surroundings gradually turned black and white. These hallucinatory episodes had been frequent ever since I started the job.
At the time, I was exposed to a lot of stimuli. Contrary to my previous expectation that demolished buildings would be dead quiet, the buildings turned out to be the noisiest places in all of the City of L, itself already a city swarming with people. Inside the buildings I saw no one, but heard the voices of many, from every corner. Everything pre-demolition was there, though in spirit rather than in figure. Recently, I even came across remnants of a fire. I witnessed too much in the ash-covered objects. The former building spilled its secrets as if it had been waiting for me all this time, and I went to great lengths to capture all of them on camera.
The experience was so draining that I found it impossible to go out and meet people on the weekends. I just lay in my room doing nothing, without so much as putting on music. I willfully shut myself off from any sound or movement, except the occasional chirping of birds outside the window or the curtain’s dance to the wind.
The department head was going crazy in his own way. Sitting at an office and sifting through photos of similar-looking debris all day must have been as demanding as being in the scene. I noticed something was off about him recently. He had begun eyeing me strangely after reviewing my work. He seemed to blame me for all that was in the video recordings and photographs.
He must have been viewing the photographs as works of art when they were, in fact, no more than a record-keeping tool. It’s only natural, of course, that he should see a certain incongruity in them. There was a natural order even to their disorder, their ashen colors and distorted shapes. They contain human traces but no humans, and even those remaining traces were demolished. But I did not make them up and they are not my creations. They are the City of L itself. They are indistinguishable from chaos. If anyone deserves suspicion, it’s the department head for trying to gauge me as a person from my photographs. I only document scenes of destruction; I have not rendered them as would a set designer. But he keeps searching for intent in the files I submit. He carefully scans each video clip and throws me skeptical glances as if I am a villain harboring plans to take down the Great and Refined City of L.
Looking at a photo, and then at me, like we were some exotic animals at a zoo, he crossed his arms. He seemed to think there was something wrong with the photos, that I had staged them.
He stuck his face back to the monitor and shook his head. He slowly opened his mouth, prepared to investigate a great mystery.
“By the way, Ms. Yul,” he asked. “How long will that hand take to heal?”
Before entering the building, I stopped by the convenience store and treated myself to cup noodles. Not because I wanted to eat, no. I always suffered from heartburn right before going into a site. The false sense of hunger must have been my body’s polite way of saying that it didn’t want to proceed further. I knew what it needed wasn’t food but I invariably paid a visit to the convenience store and had the fastest option available: instant ramen. The plastic lid the size of a person’s face served as a plate for the curly noodles, which I barely chewed before swallowing. This ritual kept me fulfilled for a short while. The artificial flavors of the soup put me in a better mood. I once heard of a colleague who carried around liquor in a hip flask and sipped from it throughout on-site operations. For people with low alcohol tolerance, like me, instant ramen did the job just fine. It had the effect of day drinking in inducing euphoric effects so that I could walk past the entrance with the confidence of a distinguished guest walking into an invite-only party.
Making it past the entrance was a small win. As with other things in life, the job was a battle against time and willpower.
I first zoomed in on the door. In the case of collapsed buildings, the side door railings near the exit were often broken and sometimes even bloodstained. The exit was a fairly reliable measure of the building’s overall damage. This building, I estimated, had undergone mildly destructive injuries. After taking pictures of the broken door hinge and a half-burnt doormat that had flown inside, I stood staring at the soot-blackened window, trying to imagine what the outside would have looked like from there. Whatever that was outside, I must have had walked past it on the way to the building, but couldn’t recall anything. Even so, I made up scenery against the darkness of the window, and that scenery stayed with me forever.
Everything was in its place. My touch wasn’t going to improve anything. I felt desperate to get out of there.
“Working inside ash-colored buildings can’t be good for your mental health,” people told me. “Just as staring at a white piece of paper gives you the illusion of colors.” But what would they know, never having worked there? The analogy that likened the building interiors to a blank paper simply didn’t make sense to me.
Whereas the scenes from everyday life lost their color in my hallucinations, the buildings’ gray interior became painted over in brighter shades. I would often encounter rainbows among the dust. Sometimes, rays of sunlight would make their way through the soot and cast blindingly beautiful illuminations on the destruction. I would stand gaping at the birth of new images amidst the darkness of broken forms. From the shards of sunlight that fell on the stairwell, I gained strength to make my way up another floor.
Two women with their heads wrapped in towels sat on a faux leather couch. One was watching the TV and the other flipping through a magazine with a face that suggested nothing could have been more boring. The hairdresser was cutting the hair of a girl who seemed about twelve.
“Just a haircut, please,” the girl announced and sat down on the free end of the couch. The snipping of the scissors and the rustling of hair as it fell on the floor made me imagine that everything in the world was made of light and thin material. The circle of black that had formed around the girl easily disappeared when the hairdresser stepped on it.
“What’s with the hand?” the woman who was watching the TV asked, eyes fixed to the screen.
“Eczema,” I said. “Really a hassle in the summers.”
“Eczema?” She glanced over at my hand and, finding it not too interesting, went back to her TV.
Initially, I tried to pronounce the word clearly to make others understand that the name of the disease was, indeed, eczema. Over time, though, I got tired of having to explain it to every single person I met. I picked up a random fashion magazine to avoid precisely that situation.
“There we go. All done.”
The hairdresser removed the rubber cushion around the girl’s neck and she got up from her chair. She looked smaller than she appeared when she was sitting down. It was my turn. After draping a cape around me and fixing the rubber neck cushion on top, the hairdresser picked up her scissors.
“How do you want it cut?” she asked.
“A bob cut?”
“No, a pixie cut.”
She still looked confused, so I pointed at my bandaged hand. “Washing my hair became a bit of a pain, you see.”
She frowned. She wet my hair with a spray and separated it into parts as a butcher would with freshly-killed game. Then she began cutting off a handful of hair at a time. Snip. Snip. Cue the world of the light and thin.
“It seemed like the girl just now never brushed her hair. The ends became all knotted up and gave me such a hard time. It seemed like she came here to untangle her hair rather than style it.”
A clump of hair met the floor again.
“What happened to your hand?” the hairdresser asked. She must’ve missed the conversation I’d had with the woman in the back. “Is it a cut? I once cut my hand badly while peeling an apple. It took a while to heal.”
“No, not a cut. It’s just eczema.”
“I was walking right behind you in the hallway and still had no idea it was you. I thought you were someone else,” the department head said. He seemed quite hung up on having failed to recognize me. “Lots of women wear pixie cuts these days, but you could pass for someone else entirely. With the bandaged hand, too—I thought an injured high schooler might have gotten lost in the wrong building. To think that was you! By the way, it’s hard to guess your age now that you’ve cut your hair off. Kids grow so fast these days that some elementary school kids are as tall as adults.”
I could barely pay attention to what he was saying because I had noticed something off about the files I submitted. It so happens, once in a while, that I find mistakes while filming or even while unwinding the film afterwards in the office. Some floors might be missing or some areas overrepresented, for example. But the error in yesterday’s files could not be attributed to simple negligence. The building had six stories but the files indicated that I had remained on the second floor. To be precise, I had physically been to the floors above—I even remember going up to the roof—but the camera said otherwise. Second floor. Blackout. Another round of the second floor. Another blackout. Then the second floor again.
I looked at the department head from the corner of my eye. He was trying new fruit jellies that had supposedly just launched in the supermarkets. He frequently enjoyed snack time in the office. These were his moments of peace. I watched him dig in with his spoon. He had a subtle smile on his face that gave me a feeling of relief.
I kept pressing “play” only to see the same second floor. There was nothing wrong with the camera, though. Scenes of the second floor subtly varied in flow and angle in each run. This meant I was filming the same floor over and over again.
Staring at the second floor’s sooted ceiling for the third time, I broke out in a cold sweat. The sooted ceiling, the sooted walls, a table on its side, a flower vase that had been knocked over, miscellaneous household items, and the cracked floor tiles. I kept seeing the same things in different perspectives.
“This jelly just came out. It’s not bad at all—would you like to try some?” the department head asked, not looking at me.
His offer pulled me out of my panic, but the cold sweat persisted. I felt a stinging pain on my back. I remembered the sensation from before. The pain I had felt in my hands had been referred to my back. I knew it wasn’t actually the same sensation, but the knowledge didn’t stop me from feeling that throbbing pain.
I wiped away some yellow discharge on my palm with an antiseptic liquid and applied the ointment. A wide crack traversed my palm, like parched land after a long attack of drought. It looked like a hideous creature with its mouth opened wide. Looks like something awful might come out, I murmured, joking, to myself.
My camera in my bag, I put down 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. on the hourly log. The department head asked if I was already heading out. I said yes, and he seemed out of words, resorting to questions about the eczema. “Has it gotten better? Or is it still not healing at all?”
“What if it’s not eczema and some other disease?” he asked.
I couldn’t guess what disease he had in mind.
“I’m just wondering if it’d be good to see a specialist. It’s October, for heaven’s sake. Everyone’s wearing moisturizing lotion these days. Eczema is out of the question in this dry weather, don’t you think, Ms. Yul?”
“The eczema is getting better,” I told him. “But I bandage it so I remember not to dip it in water. It’s a reminder to myself that the hand is still suffering, you see.”
The department head pouted as if to say my thought process was beyond him.
Because tomorrow was the hard deadline to submit the files, I headed to yesterday’s problematic building. A series of mistakes delayed my trip, including getting on the wrong bus twice—once by misreading the bus number and another time by taking the right-numbered bus but in the wrong direction. Even after slurping down the cup noodles, I couldn’t muster the courage to enter the building; the artificial flavors were no use. I simply couldn’t bring myself to go past the front entrance. I felt weak like someone had punched me in the stomach. I thought I’d try again after a bit, but waiting for an hour in the front garden didn’t improve the situation.
I chanced on a small clothing store while aimlessly roaming the town. It had a cultish air about it. Word on the street was that it belonged to a commune. The members lived in the periphery of the city but ran stores downtown, where they sold handcrafted goods. All proceeds went to the commune. The clothes had simple, modest designs and were made from organic cotton. Half of their products were unisex. The colors were quite drab, either black and white or running shades of beige and gray. On any other day, I wouldn’t even have entertained the idea of uninteresting colors or patterns, but I found myself drawn to the subtlety. I put some basic essentials in the shopping cart. With the sudden onset of autumn, I needed long sleeves—one cardigan to keep at the office, one pair of cotton jeans, and two shirts. At the checkout counter, the cashier asked me if I had a membership card. If you sign up for one, she said, you can earn points toward a discount on this purchase. I agreed and began filling out the membership form, but, unable to shrug off the suspicion about this place, deliberately gave them the wrong last digit of my phone number.
“What happened to your hand?” she asked with a sympathetic face.
Recalling my conversation with the hairdresser, I replied that I’d hurt myself while peeling an apple.
“Ah, that happens to me too, occasionally. Never my palm, but my fingers—I’m quite used to going around with a band-aid wrapped around a finger,” she said.
I stared at my palm. She was right to point out that the bandage spanned more area than was warranted by a simple cut.
“Is your husband a bit on the slim side? Our clothes generally fit small. I see that you picked all medium sizes, but many of our customers who wear medium in other brands tend to bring home a large. Would you like to reconsider?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Taking advantage of your lunchtime to shop? Lots of employees do that these days.”
I could’ve just nodded along. After all, how was she to know about my situation? But I felt an urge to show her in the wrong.
“I took the morning off. Our company encourages employees to take time off in shorter chunks like that, since extended paid vacation days can affect the workflow.”
She put the clothes in a paper bag and handed them over with a receipt.
“Actually…” I began.
She smiled kindly at my hesitation. “Would you like to switch to a large?”
“No, it’s not that. About the apple earlier, I’d misremembered. I cut my fingers while carving a pumpkin, not peeling an apple. The pumpkin was so tough that the knife flew off in the wrong direction.”
A friend theorized that I couldn’t proceed past the building’s entrance because I hadn’t “seized the space.” When I asked what she meant by that, she faltered. She probably only had a vague idea. But she tried her best to guide my understanding.
“Did I tell you about the mind training I’ve been doing lately? When we close our eyes and channel our attention to our innermost selves, we start seeing space itself. Only once we recognize the space can we recognize our position within the space.”
She paused to gauge if I was following.
“It could be that you are lacking that ability. As far as I can tell, you… Look, I mean no offense.”
I had never done mind training, so the idea of recognizing space by looking into the self was beyond me. When I inquired about the source of my confusion, she said, “Well, our eyes are not the only tools with which we view the world.” She then got excited and raised her voice as if she’d had a sudden insight.
“One of my fellow trainees can identify the location of any object with his eyes shut. Assuming he doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head, he must have succeeded in seizing the space. I’m sure of it.”
The concept of “seizing the space” is not one I acquired through experience, but it was a novel and interesting explanation for my situation. I daresay I was even attracted to it. Implicit in my friend’s theory was a sense of optimism, that is, that some form of technical training could help me overcome my situation.
In any case, this did not change the fact that I had to take myself back to the building and fill in the records for the missing floors. The files were due to the department head the next morning. I headed for the building again after saying goodbye to my friend. The daytime was daunting enough; I could not bear the thought of entering the building alone in the middle of the night. But what had to be done, had to be done. I arrived at the building’s entrance like an unwilling horse led to water. I forced my way past the entrance and up the stairs, floor by floor, taking down the floor numbers on my unbandaged palm with a pen.
When I came into office the next day, the department head was standing by my cubicle, staring at my empty desk. He seemed deep in thought and noticed me only when I shouted my morning greetings.
“Oh, you’re here,” he said, turning toward me.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I slept in by accident. I’m really sorry.”
“No, no, I understand. It’s your first time in the whole year working here anyway. I’m glad you’re here; I was afraid you weren’t coming back. Some people have just left like that, you know, without saying anything. I’m so, so glad.”
He said I was holding out well, given the work environment. Unused to compliments from him, I could feel myself blushing. Seeing that I’d lost my composure, his eyes lit up and, like a hawk closing in on its prey, he approached me slowly.
“By the way, about that hand… did you really get it checked?”
I could hear the birds singing from not too far away. A breeze entered through the cracked window and greeted the strands of my hair. It was the definition of a crisp morning, of which the department head seemed to approve. Looking at him place a plastic bag full of snacks on his desk, I wondered if he felt the same dread coming into the office as I had each time I entered that one building.
Peeling the lid off a fruit jelly, he said, “Back when I interviewed you, I got the impression that you were a straightforward character.”
He raised his head and stared into the distance as if in fond reminiscence. Then he put a spoonful of jelly in his mouth and began chewing happily.
“Oh, and about the files you submitted last night…”
I found it impossible not to interrupt him.
“The recordings got deleted, so I had to film the site again at night. Having already used working hours for the job, I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask for more time. So I had no option but to go back to the building after work,” I explained.
“We would have accommodated you if you had requested extra time. As you said, the time of day and the lighting are inconsistent, but there’s something else that’s funny about the files.”
He looked at my hand.
“The hand is still bad? Why is it taking so long to heal?” he asked.
I feigned a meek smile and said, “It’s fine. I didn’t want to make you worry.”
He continued, asking, “Did something happen on site?”
“Excuse me?” I didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m asking if something bad happened in that building.”
I didn’t know how to answer.
“The third floor area is immaculate. Was it really in that state when you arrived? It was all cleaned up, just the third floor?” He pursed his lips and tilted his head to each side.
I realized what he was referring to.
“Yes, the third floor, right? It’s a bit strange, yes? I thought so, too. In fact, I thought it was very strange. But I wasn’t the one who cleaned it up, if that’s what you’re asking. I just record things, you know; that’s my job. I’m a photographer, not a movie director. I had no option but to capture the area on film, in the state I found it…”
The more I talked, the more nervous I became. The department head, who had been staring at me the whole time, almost an offensively long amount, turned away from me and now wasn’t looking at me at all. I felt he was avoiding me on purpose, which made me feel even more like a bumbling fool. I was at my wit’s end. I could feel my voice getting progressively louder while it repeated the same dumb message.
He stopped midway while turning to look at me and fixed his glance on the screen. I realized that, as desperately as he was trying to avoid looking me in the eyes, I was trying to avoid looking at the screen he was watching.
Just when I ran out of gibberish excuses, he placed his unfinished fruit jelly on the desk.
I didn’t see the screen but knew what was wrong. The building, as filmed, was too orderly. For a building that had been ravaged and collapsed in a fire, every object inside was placed where it belonged. The seared wallpaper stood in direct contrast to the deliberately placed table and chairs. Broken floor tiles formed a perfect grid amidst the ashes. A cracked vase held a bunch of flowers with severed stems. One of the legs that had come off the table lay on the couch. Anyone could see that the area had been purposely cleaned up.
I will make my due confession about that night. I am not ashamed of what I did. Sometimes people go above and beyond their assigned share of work. Unless the extra work is terribly inappropriate, it should be construed as happenstance—a byproduct of normal situations people face that inspire them to come up with special solutions.
I tidied up the third floor.
I hadn’t meant to at first. I spotted a piece of clothing stuck between the seats of a couch on its side. When I crawled in and tugged on it, I found that it was a skirt. I didn’t think the skirt deserved to be photographed; after all, a recordkeeper must make a choice of what to keep and what to omit from the records. Nor did I think the owner of the skirt would particularly favor the idea. An innocent omission like this would have zero impact on the quality of my work. So I shoved the skirt in my camera bag.
The next thing that caught my attention was a hat on the table that seemed to belong to the same person. I couldn’t justify photographing the hat any more than I could the skirt, so I put the hat in my bag as well. Then I felt the torn curtains were making the scene unnecessarily grotesque, so drew them at even widths and tied them up using electrical cords that were strewn across the floor. Judging that an upright couch would improve the look, I took appropriate measures. The couch looked battered enough as it was; it was going to convey the situation just fine either upright or sideways. I then swept the glass shards on the table into a trash can and cleaned those on the floor, too. It all happened one by one. I didn’t act out of any sort of intention. Before long, all that was out of place on the third floor had been neatly organized.
I understand, of course, that my job was not to clean up but to capture the site exactly in the state I found it. If anything seemed off about the site, that, too, was to be a part of the record. But I felt compelled to clean up the place before filming it. To do otherwise was simply impossible.
All that I could think of on site was that everything should go in its place. I cleaned and tidied until I was ready to collapse from exhaustion. In the end, what lay before me was exactly what I had desired—the results of my best efforts to reclaim the building’s glory days. Only then did I breathe a sigh of relief and pick up my camera, even as I felt faint.
After I filmed the entire area, I was once again overcome by the feeling that something was off. My heart beat fast and signaled that there was one more thing that was out of place, that I should look around further.
I raised myself from my seat and did a clockwise tour of the floor from the door in search of the-thing-that-needed-moving, whatever it was that was responsible for my heart pumping. As far as I could see, though, the third floor was perfect. Everything was in its place. My touch wasn’t going to improve anything. I felt desperate to get out of there. I was reaching my physical limit and felt like passing out.
When I opened my backpack to put away my camera, I saw the skirt I had put in it earlier. For the camera to fit, the skirt and hat had to go. But my heart began pumping again when I threw them in the trash and picked up my camera again. Something was wrong. Something was out of place.
That was when my eyes fell on the hand, the bandaged right hand that was holding the camera.
I put the camera down and began removing the bandage. It seemed that, although my right hand was a part of me, it no longer belonged to me. The brown spots, the ones that resembled animal piss stains, had disappeared. The eczema was gone. More precisely, it was not my own hand with its characteristic scars and bruises. It was an unmarked hand with fair, smooth skin. The fingernails had been clipped short and the fingers were more than an inch longer than mine. The thick knuckles were another clue that the hand belonged to someone else.
Someone else’s hand had been placed where my hand belonged. It was some man’s hand. I knew nothing about the man, but his hand clung to my wrist, very much alive.
Originally published in Hyunnam Oppa-ege [Dear Hyunnam]. November 2017
〈모든 것을 제자리에〉–《현남 오빠에게》 中
Choi Jung Wha [최정화] was born in Incheon in 1979. She made her literary debut in 2012 when she won Changbi New Writer’s Prize with her short story “Palm Beach.” She has published the short story collections Indeed Introverted and Everything in Its Place and a novel A Person Who Doesn’t Exist. She won the 6th Munhakdongne Young Writers Award in 2016.