Jae Kim

The Sloping Lawn

Kay was on the campus lawn trying to wrap his thoughts around the fire hydrant when he witnessed a roadkill. A sliver of the wild rabbit was sucked under the tires, and then he saw the aftermath. The animal was disfigured to the point where you couldn’t tell what it had been to begin with. It could have been a pigeon or a fat rodent. The dusty campus bus stopped at the stop sign and moved on. Students were released with the twelve o’clock chime, and many crossed the road where the roadkill had happened only moments ago. The lawn was on a slope, the road below. Kay could see the rabbit at the center of the swerving foot traffic. It was like an abstracted painting, the parts barely recognizable, streaks on a patch so dark it was almost as black as the pavement. The road was the only road that cut across the university campus. The bus wasn’t going fast. Perhaps the rabbit had been sick and limping, or old and senile, like the long-legged mosquitoes trapped inside windows, inching up for all their lives. Kay looked at the fire hydrant. It was more a part of the lawn and the brick buildings than the clump on the road. On the other side of the road another lawn sloped up. On either side of the road were ditches and drains so the road wouldn’t turn into a river when it rained. If it rained, with the first few drops, the blood would thin and flow. If the road turned into a river, the rabbit would come unstuck and float, and the students, unable to cross, would line up along the banks. A woman’s hair fanned down from behind her ear and blocked Kay’s view of the dead animal. She leaned over it, her checkered skirt tucked under her knees. There was hardly anyone around anymore. She lingered over the rabbit, hugging her legs. She buried her face between her knees. A sedan came to a stop next to the woman. The driver, a young man, poked his head out, and was about to say something mean, Kay thought, but stopped himself. There was just enough room to go around the woman. Her hair took on a reddish hue. She was no longer watching, but soaking in it. She wasn’t sobbing. She was almost sleeping, taking an afternoon nap. The fire hydrant was the same as others on campus, those along the streets of the residential neighborhood surrounding the university. Worn, rusting at the edges. The woman stood up. A part of her shoe touched the rabbit, then she looked up in Kay’s direction as if to come up the slopes. There were two ways to come up the slopes. Some took the long-winded trail, others treaded the shorter path through the grass. The two paths met at the top, and there the fire hydrant sat marking the crossroads. Squirrels climbed it, jumped past it. The woman looked behind Kay. Kay looked and found a man whose face was hard to see under a blue visor. In his gloved hands were a shovel and a clump of plastic bags. He was coming down the slope the long way, which traced a circle around Kay. At first, Kay could only see his scruffy chin. As the man came down, though he wasn’t any closer to Kay, because of the sun’s angle, Kay could make out his shadowed eyes and the pale skin below his eyes. The chime rang, and students filed out like the parade of an automaton clock. In the midst of their stream, the man shoveled the remains of the rabbit. He planted the sharp end of the shovel firmly at the edge and scooped it up. The sheet of steel scraped the concrete in one grating stroke. Now the rabbit lay on the blade of the shovel, curled up in its embracing curve. Where it had once lain—there was only a smudge. The woman had been watching from the sidewalk, was still watching as the plastic bag was tied, tied again, and hung on the man’s fingers. A pickup truck blared its horn, and the woman stood back, but before the truck could pass by, a pair of students crossed the road. One of them nearly stepped on the smear, but the other caught him by his elbow. They climbed up the shorter path. The truck tires missed the spot, threw gray dust on it. The woman watched the plastic bag get carried up the slope the long way, and followed it from a distance. More cars passed and threw gray dust on the smudge. The smudge became a mere discoloration. Kay told his students to write about the fire hydrant while he watched, from the window of his classroom on top of the hill, the road. The chime rang, students poured out, and shoes and tires took turns rubbing the spot. On the blackboard Kay had written: мртва животиња. Kay had asked the students to write about мртва животиња to see if anyone else had seen the rabbit die. The students were there to learn to speak their minds in a new language. They were there to listen, read, and communicate with others. A student had written: Јуче сам видео мртво животињу—Yesterday I saw a dead animal. The name Sonya didn’t bring to his mind a face. On his way home Kay made himself step on the spot. He ran up the opposite slope and looked back. The smudge was nearly invisible, and because of it, the spot was prominent. He loved a woman much like the woman who had sat on the road and buried her face between her knees. Then he loved another, much like the woman who had followed from a distance the rabbit’s remains being carried away by the pale-faced man. They were two different women. Then it was raining, and Kay wrote on the blackboard: киша, meaning rain. While the students scribbled on their notebook papers, the sun came out and dried the road. The worn road. It would have to be repaved. Otherwise, there would soon be potholes to patch. On his way home, Kay hit a pedestrian. Clear sky, the trees along the street barren, though not pitiful. Behind them the townhouses crowded one another. The scenery could well have been that of a warm spring day. Kay imagined the naked branches sprouting shoots. But the whistle of wind that came through the gaps in the car’s doors and windows was a cold winter’s whistle. Kay lamented the fact that he was driving, not walking on the sidewalk with his coat and scarf in the wind. There was no cloud in the sky, which became whiter toward the horizon. It was like an ocean he could plunge himself into. Turning the corner at the stop sign, Kay was basking in the sun. The angles were such that the rays hit the dusty parts of the windshield, conjuring an explosion of brilliance. Kay couldn’t see anything. He wasn’t thinking the right way about how he couldn’t see anything. Kay hit a man named Pincos, who said his daughter was nearly twelve. His wife and daughter were away; that was how he put it. Pincos’s weight transferred fully through the chassis of Kay’s car. The sun had been blinding, and the shadow of Pincos had loomed over the windshield, allowing Kay to see him just before making contact. Pincos dusted off his pant legs and examined his coat for tears. The right things to say didn’t feel like the right things to say. “I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?”  Pincos held up his hand at the windshield without looking and began to walk away, limping slightly. He drew together the collars of his coat below his chin. Kay got out and said, “Wait!”  They exchanged their names and phone numbers. The cold resonated with the deep register of Pincos’s voice. Kay called him that evening to say the things that couldn’t be said before, and learned that Pincos had checked himself into the hospital. Drawing his down coat tight around his neck, Kay went out into the night to go to the university hospital, which was not far. He heard a chime. It reverberated through the air vividly. A nine o’clock chime. The snippet of melody followed by nine low-pitched gongs was different than the school’s chime; it came from a church nearby. For a moment, the clarity of the gongs made him pause in his tracks, riveted his two feet to the sidewalk. Pincos showed Kay a photograph of his daughter when she was only a baby. His wife seemed happy in a world of autumn leaves. A walk through the trail behind their house where they’d met a photographer. The picture had been taken with a large camera on a tripod. A nurse carried in Pincos’s meal: two slices of a meat loaf, peas, carrots, and a lump of mashed potatoes. Pincos asked Kay, “Would you mind stopping by my house to bring me some change of clothes?  I live down the road.”  He scratched his cast. Kay put on his coat and went out again into the night. Kay drew the coat’s zipper all the way to his nose, threw the hood over his head, and walked headlong into the wind. When his feet found stray rocks, he kicked them. There was no moon. Tap, tap, tap. The rocks spun away, skipping under street lights. Kay listened to his own breathing and felt the moist, slippery fabric of the coat on his lips. He sent another rock ahead. Tap, tap, tap. Was it the same rock?  Pincos had left his heater on. Kay shed his coat in the dark and fumbled for the light switch. The light, from a ceiling lamp, was as bright as the hospital’s lights. “Hello?” Kay said, knowing no one would answer. “Hello?”  Above the dresser in the living room, there was a family portrait in a frame. It was the same photograph Pincos had shown Kay at the hospital. Kay opened the shelves of the dresser. The top shelf contained towels and sheets, neatly folded. The other three shelves below were completely empty. Kay went into the master bedroom and found another, smaller drawer, where there were underwear in one shelf, shirts in the other. He put down Pincos’s clothes on the coffee table in the living room and surveyed the tidy, uncluttered house. In the kitchen cabinets: two sets of utensils, two white plates, two ceramic bowls. Salt and pepper, a bottle each of basil, thyme, and yellow curry. Tea. Sugar and honey. Cooking oil and vinegar. A lightweight, matching set of pots and pans. In the freezer there were blocks of frozen beef, in the refrigerator a carton of eggs and fresh tomatoes. A stick of butter down to the last slice. Half a clove of garlic inside the flower of its skin, the dry, broken bits decorating the prize. The refrigerator whirred and came alive. In the walk-in closet, Kay found a set of gray suit, a number of shirts, and a burgundy-striped necktie. A pair of socks stuffed into one of the brown dress shoes. An iron and a checkered ironing board. He pictured Pincos bent over the board, meticulously creasing the sleeves of his shirts. The stack of Pincos’s clothes were on the coffee table where Kay had put them. Kay lay down on the unruffled couch next to it, his head and ankles propped on the armrests. He folded his hands over his stomach. I could fall asleep, Kay thought. I won’t show up to class tomorrow. My students would chat for ten, fifteen minutes, then go home. The thought made Kay want to be there to see it, to hear their words and frustration. One student might remain throughout the class period, scribbling. Probably someone who isn’t always there, isn’t always on time. Someone who isn’t interested in learning to speak his or her mind in a new language.

Jae Kim lives in St. Louis and teaches fiction writing as a Third-Year Fellow at Washington University, where he recently finished his MFA. Jae’s stories have appeared or will appear in Puerto del SolThe CollagistNOON, and Platypus Press, among other places. His translations of Korean poetry are forthcoming in Poetry Review and Asymptote.