Park Min-gyu

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

I had ramyeon for lunch that day.

Kwak and Hwangbo voted memil guksu, but I felt like ramyeon. So off we went on our separate ways: the two for memil guksu, I for ramyeon, and Designer Rai for the subway station. Where’re you going? Uh-huh, well anyway. Rai replied, Uh-huh, well anyway, so I ate ramyeon by myself anyway.

Lunchtime. A simple meal. A Starbucks Espresso. That was all.

It was a usual day: I did a concept sketch at a window-side table as usual, was joined by Kwak and Hwangbo as usual, had a rambling conversation with them as usual. Only one thing was different. Caramel Macchiato? I think I’ll have that today. Kwak came to the table holding a Caramel Macchiato. What does it taste like? Tastes like its name, I guess. So I muttered Caramel Macchiato to myself a couple of times. That was all.

Rai texted me as we were leaving Starbucks: Running 30 mins late. He says he’s going to be thirty minutes late. Isn’t the meeting at two? That guy always does as he pleases. That was probably how our conversation went as we walked back to the office. Meetings, meetings, meetings, and more meetings. An afternoon full of meetings awaited us as usual, Rai did as he pleased as usual, and the similar looking backs of people, the similar shades of poplar trees, the shimmering, the setting, the swaying.

What’s that?

That was when I saw it. Whoa . . . what is that? either Kwak or Hwangbo muttered. I felt a deafening Boom run down the entire length of my body. The square was teeming with people returning from lunch and for an instant they’d all let out a groan. Up there, in the perfectly blue Windows-wallpaper-type May sky, it was floating.

That thing.

I don’t know what to call it even now. Shaped like a flat cylinder and clearly outlined in the sky, it was spotless and pure white but felt patently different from a cloud. How do I put it? It was harder and firmer. And it was huge. But nobody thought it was a UFO. It looked softer than metal but that wasn’t the only reason. It’s hard to explain, but that Thing evoked an emotion different from a UFO.

If what we can see in the sky from here is so big, how wide is it really? Hwangbo muttered as he stroked his moustache. I know, right? I replied. Anyway, isn’t this some kind of a historical event? I snapped a picture with my phone and sent out a flurry of texts. We’ll be the first, won’t we? Kwak and Hwangbo also texted furiously like reporters who’d bagged a scoop. We had no idea what it was, but we took photos with it in the background anyway. My photo came out better than I’d expected.

Naturally, all hell broke loose. We went straight back to the office, but I could feel the boom of the world firsthand. On the phone, on messenger, on the news . . . Not just the streets, even the windows of buildings were crowded with people craning for a look. Even the department head, normally a water-and-fireproof cement wall, was at his desk riveted to the news. When I came back after brushing my teeth, as many as sixteen texts were waiting on my phone. I sent out twenty-one texts.

The meeting started soon. Shouldn’t we evacuate? Kwak whispered, but the meeting proceeded without a hitch with the department head presiding. It was so strange. That thing was floating outside the window in plain view but not one person brought it up. As usual, people presented ideas, discussed them, debated them. Hwangbo’s turn came. So the concept I zeroed in on is premium, he was saying. Incontinence underwear for the 2 percent that leads Korea—

With a clatter, several helicopters appeared outside the window. Everybody turned to look. Hovering in the air was a giant object that easily looked a few kilometers wide, and circling it was a fleet of helicopters. Hwangbo stopped speaking in the middle of his presentation. Okay, let’s not get worked up . . . they’ll announce something soon. The department head concluded the meeting.

Our office was on the seventy-first floor. I worked for an American advertising firm. It occupied the seventieth and seventy-first floors, and our department was on the upper floor. The view from the seventy-first floor wasn’t the least bit ordinary. Which was why, even though I had another meeting at four, I couldn’t get my thoughts in order. What was it, that thing? The more I looked at it, the more it bothered me. It’d already taken over half the sky I could see from the office. It was dazzling and quite white.

At around three, the minister held an emergency press conference. The gist of the long-winded briefing was that the thing hadn’t been identified yet, it showed no biological or metallic reaction, and no radioactivity had been detected. Anyhow the government would examine and deal with it carefully. The exact moment of its appearance was caught in a video sent in by a member of the public. It’d appeared suddenly in the clear sky. Without any movement, it’d revealed itself unexpectedly in the same position it was in now. It showed its outline for four to five seconds before immediately solidifying. Right, that’s exactly how it happened, Hwangbo said as he stretched. Even the department head, who’d normally have pressed us to work, was staring at his monitor with his arms folded. What if it shoots down a beam? You know, like they show in the movies, Boom! Kwak prattled. Beam? Was he serious? 

What a disgrace for an intellectual.

It’s like when we landed on the Moon, the department head muttered. You saw the landing yourself? No, on YouTube. An agent dangling from a helicopter carefully stepped onto the thing’s surface. Everybody watched with bated breath as he took a giant step and planted both feet on the thing. I wanted to know what would happen next, but the newsflash ended with the man briskly signaling with his hands. I was disappointed for some reason, but it couldn’t be helped. In the meantime, the meeting started, and it was back to work, work, work, work. And meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings.    

There was always lots of work. As I worked, I completely forgot about the thing outside the window. I finished at ten in the night. I usually drank beer on days I got off from work late. It was an old habit. How about it? Without even needing to ask one another, we’d all find ourselves at a table in the bar by the corner of the fountain. Like always, we left the office, but everybody wavered the moment we stepped out of the building. All because of that Thing. Feeling different from daytime, the thing still occupied the night sky. It was quite . . .


Nobody said anything, but nobody headed to the beer bar, either. Everybody waved and split without a word. I walked back into the building. The underground parking lot on B7, the boom barrier on B2, the two miles of eight-lane road, two tunnels, the overpass, and floating overhead all along . . . that Thing. I didn’t feel like turning on the lights when I got back to my studio apartment. I showered in the dark, flopped down on the bed, and drank beer. I was four miles away from my office, but the thing didn’t seem to have shrunk at all. It looked huge, like the Moon had crash-landed on Earth, and I felt it would swoop down on the fragile ground any second. I mean, what the hell is this situation? I ruffled through the drawer for vitamin tablets and swallowed a few. Only the Moon that hadn’t crashed maintained its course. Groping in the dark, I switched on my laptop. Kwak was waiting on messenger.

Should we’ve gone for beer? he said.
Well, I’m drinking right now.
Can you see it from there too?
Of course.
Did you see the news?
They say it’s six miles wide.
No kidding.
Man, what’s all this? It’s not like it’s the end of the world.
What did the news say?
They haven’t announced anything specific yet.
Well, no surprise there.
As night fell, there was talk about it being a natural phenomenon of some kind.
Well, no surprise there.
The foreign press is buzzing too. Korea’s become the talk of the world overnight.
Well, no surprise there.
By the way, the office, don’t you think we should do something?
Well, no surprise there.

The next morning the government announced it had designated part of the city center as a disaster zone. Well, no surprise there, I muttered as I watched the news. The office naturally came under that zone. Milk, salad, toast with bacon. My morning menu was no different from yesterday but it certainly was a different morning. I looked at the thing vacantly while sipping milk. In the morning scenery, it was still floating and, how do I put it, compared to yesterday it looked a bit more . . .

. . . natural. Can’t be helped, I thought while chewing bacon in front of the new Reality that’d settled in. Strangely, I didn’t feel the fear of the previous night. Is this the power of intellectuals? I mused. Or am I the sort to easily open his mind to dazzling, white things? Anyway, I was glad I’d adjusted quickly. I felt all the more so when I thought of the pitch we were set to give. I finished breakfast in ten minutes.

It was a usual morning except for the military and police deployed all over the city. Rush hour, radio news, traffic lights flashing red, green, red, green. Well, no surprise there. They can’t help it. If they denied access to the city center the economy would be paralyzed and, besides, no disaster had occurred yet. The economy was important, and it was only a strange object floating in the air. Red, green, red, green, the government must be in a tight spot. Well, no surprise there. But still . . .

Not one person had taken a day off from work. Was everybody the type that opened their hearts easily to dazzling, white things? A board meeting was held all morning, so the rest of us got to enjoy some downtime after a long while. People worked, browsed the news, or chatted in groups around the office. Several helicopters were lowering equipment on top of the Thing. What’re they planning to do? someone asked. How’d we know? muttered Kwak as he closed the pre-marketing material for the incontinence underwear launch. Let’s have coffee. We went down to Starbucks.

Starbucks was still crawling with people.
You can’t tell this is a disaster area.
I know, right?
Could it be that something about the nature of disaster has changed? I mean in the modern age?
We grabbed a table and talked about disaster.
War or floods . . . nobody thinks we’ll face such things anymore.
Yeah. War or floods . . . come to think of it, they’re pretty old words.
So does disaster for us now mean . . . something like this happens and we sit around having coffee, you think?  
A strange feeling came over me.
I feel uneasy, Rai muttered.
Because Rai muttered, I feel uneasy, like a habit, we all grew uneasy.
Phew . . . to think we’re sitting here drinking coffee when something like this has happened. Hwangbo frowned and looked outside the window.
Let’s order, said Kwak.

Like a spell, once we’d spelled out our orders, I felt strangely better. I’ll have Caramel Macchiato again. Kwak was grinning as he came with the coffee. Caramel Macchiato, Caramel Macchiato, he kept saying, so we ended up talking about coffee. About the origin of coffee beans, about pasta and ice cream, about sushi. And somehow . . .

. . . we found ourselves arguing about the Best Recipe for Kimchi Fried Rice. The argument flared up for no reason. Kwak insisted on seasoning with curry powder and infusing with Chinese peppers, Hwangbo on generously sprinkling crushed peanut powder while roasting the rice, Rai on using chili oil from China’s Henan Province, and I on frying rinsed twenty-seven-days-past-packaging Jongga brand kimchi. No, this is better! In the end, Rai and I fell out and went red in the face. Let’s go, Kwak interrupted our argument. As ever, yet unexpectedly . . .

The thing was floating.

We looked up at the blue early summer sky and didn’t say anything. We couldn’t. Our technique of frying rice might’ve been different but how we felt at that moment was similar. What we were feeling, so to speak, was—What the hell, am, I, doing, right now? In the crowd of similar white shirts crisscrossing the square, in the shade of poplar trees, in the shimmering, the setting, the swaying, I was thinking: What the hell, am, I, doing, right now?

I apologized to Rai at lunch, as befits an intellectual.

Ah well, said Rai as he accepted my apology, blushing. I’m sorry too. Actually, I was stressed out because of Halls.

What do you mean?

You remember I told you I’d be thirty minutes late after lunch yesterday? Actually, I went to buy some Halls. You know I’m a Halls nut, don’t you? he said.

Well . . . I didn’t. But I knew the refreshing candy he offered me from time to time was Halls.

Anyway, Rai continued, flavors like Mentho-Lyptus, Ice Blue, and Honey Lemon are common. But the day before yesterday I discovered there were Vita-C Assorted and Vita-C Orange flavors too. Vita-C Assorted and Vita-C Orange! So I found out right away where they were being sold and went there. I got my hands on some Vita-C Orange, but Assorted was out of stock. That damn Assorted. The name doesn’t have much appeal. I hit up a few more shops nearby but came up empty. Of course, finding Vita-C Orange was still better than what I’d hoped for . . . Wonder what Assorted tastes like, wonder if it tastes like . . .? I was thinking when I saw that thing. I was so shocked I stood still for about five minutes . . . no, actually I froze. There I was feeling completely disheartened when . . . it hit me.

What? I said.

Halls . . .

. . . for God’s sake! I mean, said Rai. Halls? I said after him. Yeah, Halls! Suddenly, I was caught up in that feeling. That thing’s floating up there, and here I am thinking of . . . Halls, for God’s sake! Actually, I was in a bad mood all day. I understand, I said. Really? It’s like . . . kimchi fried rice, for God’s sake! Isn’t it? I’m glad you think so too, Rai said and took out a packet of Halls from his pocket and offered one to me. It had a strong vapor action.

It’s obnoxious.

I said to the department head when I ran into him in the break room. What is? He was sipping green tea and staring at the Thing. That’s what is obnoxious. I shared with him everything that’d happened. And that’s why I feel depressed. It’s hard to explain, but it’s because that thing’s floating up there. Here I am just living my life without a second thought . . . work, work, work, work all the time . . . and that thing’s floating up there. Money, money, money, money all the time and that thing shows up . . . Suddenly I get the feeling I can’t live like earlier anymore. Sure, we talked a little about frying rice, but what’s wrong with that? What’s the big deal with people . . .


. . . about Halls? Why did that thing have to show up and complicate my thoughts, and why here of all places? It’s obnoxious. So it’s something like existential angst? the department head asked. I’m not sure, but it’s a similar feeling. I’ll adjust anyway but . . . Why’re you being like this if you’re going to adjust anyway? he said with a look like he had a cigarette in his mouth. Up there on the seventy-first floor, the department head had stopped smoking seven years ago. But the space between him and me was thick with something like cigarette smoke. Isn’t it good? he said.

We don’t even have an ideology . . .

At least we have that thing, he said. I felt awfully sleepy. That’s . . . true, I mumbled as I rolled the Halls around in my mouth. Okay, let’s get back to work, the water-and-fireproof-cement-wall face whispered and patted me on shoulder. I was the type to open my heart easily to things like pats on the shoulder. I felt neither good nor bad.

I went back to work. In the afternoon, maybe as a result of the board meeting, the company president made a brief announcement. The gist of it was that we should calmly concentrate on our work until the government made an announcement. What can we do but be calm? That was what everybody must’ve thought while gazing at the Thing that’d taken over the skies. The disaster of modern times is that . . . despite something like this happening . . . we have to sit and work, I thought as I opened the premarketing material for the incontinence underwear launch.

Isn’t it too much? Kwak whispered from his seat beside me with the premarketing material spread out in front of him as well. What? I said. The company, he replied. They should make us work from home, or something, no? Concentrate on our work, bah, he grumbled with a sour look. I kept my mouth shut. It was best to refrain from talking about things directly related to work attitude. Who knows, it might go boom and shoot a beam down at us, like in the movies. Kwak’s words irked me. Ah . . . stop with that talk about beams already, I said as I slammed the marketing file shut. 

It won’t shoot.

It won’t shoot, okay? I said. Kwak also closed his file and went red in the face. Instead of rebutting me, he breathed raggedly for a few seconds. No, I mean . . . I didn’t mean anything by it, I said to him. It’s just that we should think of this like intellectuals. Kwak soon calmed down. He must’ve felt everybody looking too. Jeez, I was only kidding . . . He rummaged through his drawers saying he was feeling a headache. I concentrated . . .

. . . on work. Above my head, a thing ten kilometers wide was floating, and I worked—So what? It was not like it was an invasion. It didn’t affect me directly anyway. As always, work helped me forget everything. It was boring, but it made me feel comfortable. At around three, Kwak and I visited the marketing research center. We received a briefing and talked with the team leader there. You said it’s an important pitch? The team leader said in a relaxed tone, so I said yes relaxedly. I didn’t mention a few important case studies during the briefing, so you can refer to C, D, and E, the team leader said. He talked about the US telephone market in the ’70s and the sales competition among department stores in Japan in the ’90s and suggested a few solutions that could be applied to the current incontinence underwear market in South Korea. So you mean points C, D, and E? Yes, C, D, and E. We shared that sort of a conversation. We drank up the rest of our tea. You have a good view of it from here too, said Kwak, looking out the window. Can’t be helped, the team leader replied with a grin. Anyway . . .

it’s something iconic . . .

. . . isn’t it? I said. Now that you mention it, I think you’re right, he replied. Don’t you feel uneasy? I asked him. Well, all I could think about last week was incontinence underwear. That’s great. It’s nothing. Kwak and I caught the news bulletin as we were crossing the square after leaving the center. It must’ve been around five in the afternoon. We were in the middle of a bustling crowd, and the news was playing on a large billboard installed on top of a press building. Breaking news: The strange object that appeared above Seoul has been identified. We take you now live to the government’s press conference. The familiar face of the minister appeared onscreen. He gave a long spiel outlining the progress of the examination, the commissioning of an investigation committee, the research methodology, experiments and verification carried out with the participation of scientists from all over the world . . . and finally he said, It’s been established that the substance is 100 percent pure Aspirin. Aspirin? I doubted my ears for a second, but soon a scientist from the investigation committee took to the podium and announced that they’d carried out numerous tests. We don’t know how this phenomenon occurred naturally. It’s doubtful whether it’s an anomaly created by the climatic conditions in South Korea. Nor do we know how such a huge solid can maintain its buoyancy. All this needs to be investigated. The announcement and interview stretched on for over an hour, but we watched to the end. Aspirin! The entire crowd in the square was swept up in a huge Boom.

We didn’t say anything. Instead, we sat on a bench nearby and looked up at the sky where the aspirin was floating. For some reason, my head hurt. Victoria Ice-Cream. The taste the British royal family enjoys. Vanilla, strawberry, chocolate. I stared at the advertisement on a yogurt mobile nearby and asked Kwak, Wanna have an ice-cream? Kwak nodded. Vanilla? No, chocolate. We wolfed down an ice-cream each and returned to the office.

Did you see the news? I got texts from thirty-two friends, but I didn’t send a single reply. I felt oddly tired. The afternoon had drained me. My head began to hurt but I didn’t take medicine. Instead, I took an aspirin tablet from my drawer and rolled it around my fingertips. It literally was an aspirin. Literally, an aspirin! I went to the reference room and flipped through books to learn about aspirin. Aspirin is a medicine made from the extract of the willow tree, the leaf and bark of which were used as painkillers since before Christ. It’s old and soft, I see. I put the books back and jotted down some notes.

1897: Felix Hoffmann of Germany’s Bayer succeeds in synthesizing aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid)
1899: The aspirin trademark is registered at the Berlin Patent Office
1899: The first aspirin tablet is launched in the market
1925: A flu epidemic spreads throughout Europe, aspirin saves many lives
1971: John Robert Vane demonstrates that aspirin suppresses the production of prostaglandins 
1978: Aspirin is proven to prevent stroke
1995: Bayer sells more than eleven billion tablets in more than ninety countries
1999: Aspirin’s centennial

And at the end of the note I wrote—June 2009: Invasion. What’re you doing? It was the department head. Ah, I turned around. I was doing some research on aspirin. The department head looked at me with an expression that read, Well, no surprise there. He said, Is this your memo? Yes, it is. Let’s have a look. I handed it to him obediently. The note was brief but the department head studied it for a long time. So this is what it looks like when you write it down. What do you mean? I said. Aspirin . . . industrial revolution . . . whatever it may be. I guess, I replied. Are you finding it difficult to adjust?

That’s . . .

. . . not it. I gazed out the window and continued talking. Anyway . . . isn’t it something iconic? Yeah, I guess. You know we have a meeting right after dinner, don’t you? the department head said as he handed the note back to me. I do, I replied and crumpled the note. It turned into a small, firm crystalized ball with an old, soft texture. I flung it in the bin. I felt as if I had discarded something like an Old Earth. Aspirin invasion. No matter what anyone said . . .

The world had changed.

If I were to summarize what happened later, it would be as follows: From evening until night, we had a heated discussion about incontinence underwear. The meeting finished only after eleven. I worked on two draft proposals until one. We had beer at the bar. I came home. I sat on my bed and stared blankly at the aspirin outside my window. Then I fell asleep. It was a deep sleep.

Kwak didn’t show up at work the next day. He had a bad case of cold and flu apparently, but I wasn’t entirely sure if that was true. Do you think he’s okay? Hwangbo said. He’ll be fine, I replied. There’s no standing room! A new recruit exclaimed on his return from the field. Forget the square, the whole city is paralyzed. It’s crowded with groups of Japanese, especially, and Chinese and Europeans too. It won’t be long before it’s designated as a special tourism zone. Well, no surprise there, I thought.

All that remained was for everyone to adjust.

The news headlines were all about aspirin. World-renowned scholars arrive in Korea, Bayer AG announces it has no connection with the floating aspirin, news and gossip carried in the foreign press, the northeast Asian countries agree on joint research, the Chinese government announces that aspirin originated in China, the US declares it won’t spare any resource to support the Korean government in its time of crisis, and, again, official statements, status reports, differing views, and remarks of governments, related departments, civic groups, religious leaders. Well, no surprise there, I thought.

Kwak came to work the next day. Are you alright? the department head said. Yes, Kwak answered in a weak voice. Are you feeling okay? At my question, Kwak said, Well, more than that . . . I was listening to music all day long. Music? I repeated. I was feeling depressed. What do you mean you were feeling depressed? I asked. I just found it depressing. I was anxious when I didn’t know its identity . . . well, it can’t be helped now, he said. And to think it’s aspirin. If it’s just aspirin . . . we can’t say it’s bad, can we? So for some reason I feel depressed. Because I can’t even . . . say it’s bad.

Impact, you know! This doesn’t have it, declared the director. We were putting the final touches to the presentation. Regardless of Kwak’s depression, the mood that night was of a night vigil. Something like that! The director pointed at the aspirin outside the window and led the charge himself. Give me an idea that’ll catch everybody’s attention. Yes, sir, the cracked water-and-fire-proof cement wall nodded. It’s too much, isn’t it? grumbled Rai as he unwrapped a pack of Halls. Ah, I wish I could have some Swiss fondue right about now, shouted Hwangbo as he stretched. If I had fondue, an idea would hit me with a Zing. Rather than fondue, I felt like pasta.

The next day we went for Swiss fondue as a group. Doesn’t it have a Zing? Hwangbo said as he patted his belly, but all I could think of was incontinence underwear. We were at a newly opened European-style restaurant with an open terrace. But why aspirin? Hwangbo muttered as he patted his belly. Such a big aspirin of all things. Could it be a warning that there’s going to be a lot of stuff we’ll have to wrack our brains over? Rai said as he took the earphones out of his ears. Anyway, we can’t say it’s bad, Kwak said with a gloomy face, half of his fondue still untouched. At his words, I became depressed too. When I thought about it, nothing had changed. Work, work, work, work, meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings, and fondue. The fondue interrupted things for a while, but that combination of ingredients was depressing. Would it have been different . . .

 If I’d eaten pasta instead?

The stretch of dry weather continued. It truly is iconic, isn’t it? Sure enough, the square we looked down at from the terrace was teeming with tourists. Helicopters were lowering heavy equipment on top of the aspirin. Everybody watching would feel differently, but it was an undoubtedly spectacular scene. What do you suppose they’re doing? said Hwangbo. How’d we know? muttered Kwak. Well, no surprise there, I muttered after him.

Our pitch landed us the deal.

Honor was the concept that clinched it for us. You’re in the 30 percent, but you also belong in the 2 percent. Kwak wrote the copy and Rai came up with the visual of a countess from medieval Europe. We respect the customer by treating him not as someone suffering from incontinence but as a personage with honor who belongs to the 2 percent. The department head did the presentation in a clear and convincing voice, and, Oh, yeah! Hwangbo cheered the loudest. Well, no surprise there, I muttered to myself.

That night Kwak and I went out for drinks. The floating aspirin shone bright. We didn’t talk much, so to speak, but we still drank. I only had two bottles of Guinness, and Kwak drained twelve bottles of Corona. Boom! You know, it’d be better if it shot down a beam . . . We can’t even say this is wrong, Kwak hummed, looking fuddled. Aspirin, you know, I said, perfectly lucid, doesn’t shoot beams.

It was dawn when we walked out of the bar. I saw rain, falling rain, for a change. I thought of buying an umbrella from a nearby convenience store, then changed my mind. One spot at a time, light stains appeared on Kwak’s navy blue shirt. The aspirin was quite white and dissolved in rainwater. Kwak was walking in silence when he shook his head and said, What can be done? We . . . what can we do? Getting wet in the rain silently, I didn’t reply. I hurried to catch a taxi.

I feel like I’m being controlled, I blurted out while having lunch with the department head.
Aspirin . . . can’t be said to control anybody, he said.
That’s true but . . . anyway it’s floating like that so . . .
So you feel bad?
More than that . . . here I am doing fine, when that thought strikes me out of the blue.
Still, isn’t it a bit much to blame aspirin?
Exactly. Now I even get the feeling that it’d be better if it shot down a beam. I’m ashamed as an intellectual, but that’s how it is.
You’re worried because of the aspirin, I see.
Actually, that’s the biggest issue.
What do you mean?
All my worries have disappeared.

It rained five times in summer. Not short showers, but enough rain to be remembered. Each time the aspirin melted but it didn’t shrink even a little. In comparison, Hwangbo’s waist shrunk by three inches. Despite everything, he’d succeeded in his diet, so to speak. After returning from a vacation, he had a bout of depression, but after his belly fat reduced, his face brightened. I watched five television music programs religiously and started feeling better. Hwangbo began to learn jazz dance with his bright face.

It was probably July when a rally was taken out. It was a small protest but I found it an impressive gathering because it struck me that there were people who wanted to protest against the aspirin. It was briefly covered in the news too: It’s frustrating. Why is the aspirin floating? The government should deal with it quickly. It’s a conspiracy. We can’t just ignore it. What if a Tylenol shows up next? I just followed my friend here. The news said the rally had lasted for an hour.

In the middle of August, Rai found Assorted. I decided to stick to Halls, he said. And he slipped Assorted only to me. Good for you, I told him. And then . . .

Fall came

. . . without incident. In September, the WTO General Assembly was held on the aspirin, turning it into an historic venue, but the assembly was more symbolic than useful. The highlight of the assembly was the sight of the cabinet ministers seated in the conference hall set up on the aspirin wearing oxygen masks. The picture was carried by the foreign press and became the talk of the world and immediately became an objet d’art for ads for Coca-Cola, Bayer, and Chrysler Korea. Rai designed the visual for the Chrysler ad. The US HQ also showed interest, so Rai couldn’t be anything but zealous about it. The aspirin was our lifeline. Hwangbo helped with the job and stroked his beard as he worked and worked.

What kind of person do you want to be? the department head asked me at the company’s party for the Chrysler deal. Well, I don’t have any particular worries . . . I guess I want to be a copywriter of Ricardo Perez’s ilk, I managed to answer only after I’d drained the glass of bourbon I’d picked up. It’s good to have no worries, the department head nodded and sipped his martini. I gazed at the aspirin, with no worries in the world.

When it can’t respond, humanity adjusts. That was the headline of a tire ad by Ricardo Perez I found in the archives. That’s brilliant copy, I thought. It was an ad series featuring a huge tire over a desert, ice sheet, swamp, and cobbled street.

Then one day, aspirins started popping up everywhere. In Southeast Asia, in Central and South America, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, aspirins of the same size appeared all over. What’s this? Were we just a dry run? Rai sighed while watching the news bulletin. Well . . . now we can’t even say it’s iconic, seconded Hwangbo, looking wistful. Well, no surprise there. So the aspirin has become global, I thought. Listening to music by himself, Kwak didn’t say a word. A new world has begun, I thought.

What can we do?

I posed Kwak’s question to myself. I couldn’t think of a suitable answer. I opened my wallet, looked at my ID card, took out my employee card and credit cards one by one. I can work, I can buy things. Certainly, my life’s not bad. I spread out a sheet of paper and started to take notes again. A list of things to buy now and things to buy sometime in the future.

The latest iPhone, notebook case, watch, winter coat, wireless receiver port, 15 watt speaker, detergent, monitor, quiet vacuum cleaner, single-type knit necktie, skiwear, air freshener, dehumidifier full set, the collected works of Francis Bacon, twentieth-century music CD set, three magazines, rice, bread, pumpkin jam, strawberry jam, vitamin, mineral supplements, camera, smart iron, antique radio, massage chair, bottom stand, aquarium, air purifier, magic iron, compact air conditioner, coffee maker, humidifier, skincare, haircare, external hard disk, sneakers, snowboard, cutter-type razor, frame, ESS board, seat cover, robo mini, no, before anything, a Mercedes-Benz . . . When I read what I’d jotted down, the copy The Greatest Happiness on Earth came to mind. By Ricardo Perez . . . what was that ad again? The department head stood . . .

gazing at the aspirin

. . . blankly. The lounge was calm. The world outside the window was calm too. What’re you doing? I asked him. Ah . . . I was thinking of the countries where the aspirin is floating. Any special reason? Somebody must be watching the aspirin right now just like me. Somebody . . . must, I said. The department looked at the aspirin again and muttered, You know, I have a phobia of heights. It’s serious. But I have to work on the seventy-first floor every day. I beat a competition of two-hundred-to-one to get my apartment. It’s on the twenty-third floor. Every day I rest, sleep, and live there. Isn’t that weird? he said. Well, but anyway . . .

. . . you can’t say it’s bad, I said. We stood in the empty break room without saying anything. For a moment, I felt like I had come up somewhere as high as possible in a world that couldn’t be said to be bad. I felt dizzy. After gazing at the floating aspirin, the department head tapped me on the shoulder and said, Time to get back to work.

Yes, I replied.

translated from the Korean by Agnel Joseph