Feeling schmaltzy tonight, so look out. Gonna post a little personal fiction, some free-writing I did after waking up from a deep self-conference. I do so love good conversation! I will post two (count ’em, TWO) schmaltzy stories tonight, and YOU, you hapless reader you, must decide which one you like better. Or maybe you’ll hate ’em both. It’s all you. So here we go with Story Number 1:
Two gentlemen sat in a pub in South Korea. Their names are not important, so let’s call them Slappy and Pickledick. It was a Saturday afternoon, and they were already starting their third round of cocktails – a double vodka-tonic for Slappy and a double whiskey sour for Pickledick. Pickledick had something on his mind, so he said to Slappy, “This is it, man. I’m done. I’m out after this semester.”
Slappy looked at him. “What do you mean? You’re leaving Korea?”
Pickledick stared ahead, sipped his whiskey sour. “Yep,” he said.
Slappy scoffed. “No, you’re not.”
“Oh, but I am. I’ve finally decided. I can’t do this anymore.”
“What, teach?” Slappy said. “Dude, you’ve got a great gig. The most coveted job for a foreigner – you’re a professor at a university! Why would you leave?”
“Because I’m tired of it,” Pickledick replied. Then he added, “I’m tired of all of it.”
Slappy stirred his drink, feigning contemplation. “How much are you making now?” he asked.
“Almost three mil,” Pickledick replied. Now, when foreigners working in Korea say, “three mil,” they don’t mean three million dollars. No one would leave that gig. This is the Korean won they were talking about, so that’s about $2500 a month, which still ain’t bad.
“Three mil plus four months of paid vacation a year?” Slappy scoffed again. “Dude, you’re an idiot. I’d love that gig.” Pickledick knew he was right. The vacation was the best part of the job. Two months off for the winter break, two months for the summer, all fully paid. “And the hours aren’t bad, either,” Slappy added. This was also true. If you taught seventeen hours a week at a university, that was considered a full course load.
“Oh, I’m not complaining about the job,” Pickledick replied.
“Then what are you complaining about?” Slappy asked.
Pickledick sighed. “Life,” he said flatly. “Just this fuckin’ life. I can’t do it anymore.”
“Dude, it’s a great life!”
Pickledick shook his head slowly. “Not for me. I mean, consider my life, specifically.”
Slappy took a pull from his double V&T and asked, “What about it?”
“I’m fifty-one years old,” Pickledick replied. “That’s too old to be in Korea. This is a young man’s game.”
“No, it’s not!” Slappy retorted. “It’s a game for all ages. Who’s that dude in Haebangcheon, works at the Pony? He’s gotta be at least sixty, sixty-five.”
“Yeah, as long as he’s happy. But I’m not,” Pickledick replied. “Not anymore.”
“So what, you’re fifty-one?” Slappy came back. “We all get old. It’s part of the wonder of life.”
Now Pickledick scoffed. “Some wonder! I’m fifty-one, I’ve still got insurmountable student loan debt I’ll never be able to pay off, I’m single, bald, and miserably lonely. And none of that’s about to change.”
“Dude, shut up,” Slappy shook his head. “Girls like bald guys.”
“Not the ones I’ve met.”
“Well, then maybe it’s just you.”
Pickledick nodded. “That’s a very strong possibility. I mean, I like me. I like spending time by myself. But yeah, maybe the reason I’m by myself so much is that I’m an asshole.”
“Or it’s just because you live out in the middle of nowhere,” Slappy countered.
Pickledick shrugged again, nodding. “Yeah, that doesn’t help, either.” It was true. He had a terrific job for an expat, but his university was smack-dab in the center of South Korea, and there wasn’t much there. There wasn’t much outside of Seoul, or Busan to the south. Where he lived was just a small town surrounded by farm country. The fastest train in Korea, the KTX, could get him into Seoul in an hour and a half, but then there was the hassle of finding a place to stay. He hated putting friends out and crashing with them, and he preferred his privacy, so he opted for hotels. Hotels are cheap in Korea if you’re not too picky, and he usually got a decent room for around thirty dollars a night. But still, the distance put a severe crimp in his social life. And there were no foreign girls in Punggi, and he was only interested in foreign girls. He had tried dating a Korean girl for a while, but the cultural differences proved insurmountable. She was a great girl, and things had gone well for over a year, but they both had noticed they had very little to talk about outside of their small group of friends or whichever movie they had just seen. He had taken her back to the USA to meet his family, and that had gone very well. But on the flight back to Korea, he had asked when he would meet her parents, and she had replied, “They would never accept you.” Some conservative Korean families are like that. The relationship lasted a few more months, but the life had gone out of it. Then it was over. After that, he had sworn off Korean women unless they were “westernized” and shared similar cultural interests.
Dating in Korea is hard enough, and damn near impossible if you’re a fifty-year-old bald guy living in the middle of nowhere with tremendous debt. There were some beautiful foreigners in Korea, but the majority were in committed relationships or just out of his acceptable age range. In short, there was no one, and he had become, as he had said, miserably lonely. He admitted this to Slappy.
Slappy’s solution: “Well, go down to Busan, get yourself a nice Russian hooker.”
Pickledick chuckled darkly. “Tempting,” he said. “But ultimately unfulfilling and it will just make me feel worse.” He took another long pull from his drink, and the ice rattled in the glass. They summoned the bartender for another round. She came over and took their glasses. She was a cute girl from Belarus.
“What about her?” Slappy prompted quietly after the bartender had walked away.
“Already tried,” Pickledick replied. “She’s too young, she’s not interested, and she’s engaged.”
“How do you know?”
“Like I said, I tried. I hit on her last time I was in town.”
Slappy shrugged. “Well, at least you’re still out here, takin’ swings.”
“Meh.” Pickledick looked around the room. “These days, it seems like the wrong thing to be doing. I think these days, the ball is automatically in the woman’s court. Guys shouldn’t be hitting on women anymore. This is the post-Me-Too age. If a girl likes a guy, it’s her option to go and speak to him.”
Slappy started to counter, but then just said, “Yeah, I guess that’s true. But someone will talk to you. You just gotta be patient.”
“No one’s talked to me in years,” Pickledick lamented. “Literally years.”
The bartender brought their drinks.
“Shit, dude,” Slappy said after she had moved on. “That sucks. But hang in there.”
Pickledick laughed. “Right. ‘Hang in there.’”
“It’s just hard here in Korea,” Slappy finally conceded. Slappy was doing okay. He had married his Korean girlfriend and they had an adorable daughter. His in-laws were progressives. He brewed his own makgeolli. He was happy.
They sat in silence for a moment, Slappy trying to think of something else to say, Pickledick trying not to think of something he knew he was going to say. The silence became too heavy, and so he said it.
“I’m going home next year and I’m gonna kill myself.”
There it was. He had said it, but he had said it in a light-hearted way, like one might say, “I’m going home next year and open a Hyundai dealership.”
Slappy didn’t let it slide. “Bullshit, dude. Don’t say that.”
“No, it’s fine, really,” Pickledick said. “I’ve given this a lot of thought.”
“Dude, fuck you.”
“Right, I know, it sounds stupid and selfish and narcissistic and all of those other fun armchair-therapist words. But look,” Pickledick turned to look at Slappy for the first time since they had sat down at the bar. “I’ve got terminal age. I’m fifty-one, going on ninety. I’ve got a bad heart, crushing, insurmountable debt, no hair, and a shitty attitude.”
“Fuck you,” Slappy said again. “Fifty-one is not ‘terminal age’…”
“Any age can be terminal, and fifty is really cutting down the odds of survival…” Pickledick muttered, but Slappy continued.
“…just pay your student loan, drop the shitty attitude, and accept that bald is beautiful,” he commanded.
Pickledick waited. “You finished?”
“Don’t kill yourself” Slappy finished. “It’s stupid.”
Pickledick sighed again. “Try to see this from my perspective. My student debt now sits at around one-hundred-and-forty-seven thousand dollars.”
Slappy almost spit out his drink. “Holy shit, dude! Where did you go to school? Harvard medical?”
“Nope, just your run-of-the-mill state school, but the economy was shitty and I didn’t want to face the real world, so I dragged it out. I just kept borrowing money and taking classes.”
“How long did you do that?”
“For about eight years or so.”
“Shit!” Slappy said. Then, “Well, you do have your master’s. And didn’t you almost get a Ph.D.?”
“Yep,” Pickledick said with clear regret. “I was ABD.”
“All but dissertation?”
“So why not go back to school and write your dissertation? Get your doctorate?”
“The statute of limitations is up,” Pickledick said. “I’d have to retake all of my doctoral courses again, and I can’t afford it. And you know damn well the student loan people won’t lend me another cent until I pay them.” They both took a long drink, and Pickledick continued. “Besides, even if I could, what good would it do? I’d still be beyond-middle-aged, and my degree would be in English Literature. It’d be as useless as my master’s, and I’d only come out of it with even more debt.”
“So stay abroad, travel, keep teaching,” Slappy offered. “Live the life of the expat. You love that.”
“Yeah, I did love it,” Pickledick agreed. “But for the past year or so, it’s just been… depressing. I’m just sad.”
This simple admission seemed to strike a chord with Slappy. He paused for what appeared a thoughtful moment. When Pickledick offered nothing else, he just said, “Dude, I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to tell you.”
Pickledick smiled at his friend. “You don’t have to tell me anything. I need to try to explain myself to you because I don’t want you to think I’m giving up.” He picked up his glass, was about to take a drink, but then needed to clarify: “I mean, I am giving up, it’s just… I have good reason. You know when you’re playing a video game, and you’ve fucked the situation so bad, there’s no way you can win and there’s nothing else you can do? Do you sit there and keep playing or do you respawn?”
“Yeah, but this is life, you’re talking about, not some video game.”
“Oh come on,” Pickledick smiled. “You know quantum physicists are starting to prove that this reality is just a simulation. It really is a video game.”
Slappy shook his head. “Nope, new studies are showing that may not be the case, and there’s no way we can know for sure. Come on, man, physicists are changing their mind every damn week. Next week they’ll say reality’s a fuckin’ sponge or something.”
Pickledick laughed because he knew this was true. “Well, you know I think we’re all just the early formation of a giant universal consciousness,” he said. “That this universe or multiverse or whatever is just neurons forming in an inconceivably large brain and we’re just a ‘god’ talking to itself.” He took a sip from his drink and continued. “And we can’t leave the system. Energy can’t be destroyed, it can only change shape. So reincarnation is a very real possibility. What’s so bad about that? New game, clean slate.” He waited for Slappy to respond, but he didn’t. So he added, “And a young body. I could get girls again.”
This made Slappy laugh, but he had put his glass down so there was no spray. Pickledick was mildly disappointed. It was funny when Slappy laughed and vodka shot out of his nose.
“Yeah, but come on, man,” Slappy said. “You owe it to yourself to stay alive. You owe it to your family.”
“I don’t have a family.”
“Your sister,” Slappy reminded him.
“Oh, right. But she’s got a family of her own now. Both of our parents are dead. I only see her once every two or three years because of my OCD and the costs of travel.” The OCD thing was real, but it was too long and complicated to get into here. The cost of travel was also a strong factor, as was the fact that the world seemed to be in an endless pandemic, which made travel even more inconvenient. Still, he felt awful about not seeing his sister as often as he would have liked. Still, she didn’t seem to mind very much, and they spoke often online.
“Then you owe it to me,” Slappy said.
Pickledick scoffed again, blowing some droplets from his whiskey sour onto the bar. “I don’t owe you shit.” He sipped his drink. “I do, however, owe Navient $147k. That’s not going away.”
“So start paying it!” Slappy said.
“Yeah, no,” Pickledick replied. “It’s an endless debt. I’ve crunched the numbers.”
“You’ve crunched the numbers,” Slappy smirked. “Dude, all you crunch is pretzels.”
“Seriously,” Pickledick said. “At the current amount, even if I paid them two thousand dollars a month, which I can’t afford, I’d barely be denting the interest and I’d be long dead before I paid it off completely. As it is, I can’t even afford to make a dent in it. It’ll only grow, like some out-of-control financial blob. I may as well throw my money into the sea, or better yet, give it to charity. At least then someone besides the fuckin’ U.S. government would benefit. I mean, what’ll they spend it on? Education? Health care? Or bombing the shit out of some poor people in some random country someplace?”
“Okay, fair point” Slappy conceded. “So fuck them, don’t pay them, and just live the life of a free expatriate.”
“And we’re here again,” Pickledick smiled. He turned back to his friend. “I’m not happy here anymore, and I won’t be happy anywhere else.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, first point, I can’t afford to live anywhere else. But my point stands. I’m too old to get into a good relationship. Anyone I meet at my age is gonna have to be at least thirty-eight and loaded with baggage…”
“Why at least thirty-eight?” Slappy interrupted.
“Half your age plus seven, that’s the rule.”
“Otherwise, you’re a scumbag creep.”
“Or a multi-millionaire.”
“Right, and I think we both know that I ain’t that.”
“Right.” Slappy nodded and took a sip from his drink.
“And man, I’m tired of being alone. And with my heart thing…”
“What heart thing?”
“Remember when I ended up in the hospital a few years ago?”
“Oh yeah,” Slappy remembered. “Was that a heart attack?”
“All indications were that it was. I mean, they rushed me into the cardio ICU and kept me in there for three days.”
“Shit, dude,” Slappy said, and Pickledick smiled to himself. Slappy said ‘dude’ a lot, he thought. Californians. Rather than point this out — he found it endearing, anyway — he kept up his volley in the conversation without missing a beat.
“Yes, shit, indeed. And that may not have even been my first. Did you know you can have a heart attack and not even realize it?”
“How’s that possible?”
“Well, I told my doctor that back in 2010 I had a sharp pain in my sternum. I mean, it was bad, like, I got up out of bed and walked around the apartment, trying-to-make-myself-throw-up bad. But I thought it was just gas and it went away after about fifteen minutes or so, so I forgot about it. But she said it may very well have been my heart.”
“Oh, fuck, dude,” Slappy said. “Should you even be drinking?”
“Probably not,” Pickledick said, and took a long pull from his drink before Slappy could get it away from him. He set his glass down and said, “I mean, I take medication for my blood pressure, but I’ve been doing that since I was a sophomore in college.”
“And your dad died of a heart attack, too, right?”
“Yeah,” Pickledick said, impressed that Slappy knew that. “When he was forty-six. So I’ve outlived the bastard by five years.” He took another drink as he slowly shook his head in bewilderment. “I mean, what are my odds? What if, God forbid, I have a stroke and I don’t die? I just become debilitated and can’t even take care of myself? What then?” He looked over at Slappy, and he could see Slappy understood the weight of the situation. “I swear, every time I feel even a slight twinge of pain or a twitch in my chest, I go cold. I think, oh, shit, is this it? And one of these times, it just may be.”
“Fuuuuck,” Slappy said, staring at his drink, wondering now if even he should be drinking. He didn’t debate the issue with himself for long because he then picked up his glass and drank. When he set it down again, he was quiet. And then he asked, “So how would you do it?”
“Do what?” Pickledick replied. He knew damn well what, he was just being a dick. A Pickledick.
“How would you kill yourself?”
“I’m glad you asked, because I’ve got two good plans,” Pickledick began. “I mean, they might not be as brilliant as I seem to think they are, but they’re pretty good.”
“Okay,” Slappy sat up. He was feeling a good buzz now and could get a little dark. “So what are they?”
“Well, my first plan is to go home, cash in my pension from Korea, which is probably around eleven thousand USD by now, and then blow that money visiting friends and family in the U.S. and just having fun. Then, after I’ve seen everybody, I’d head out to the Pacific Northwest, a place called the Dark Divide. Do you know it?”
“Nope,” Slappy said.
“Huh,” Pickledick paused, considering his friend for a moment. “I figured, being from Northern California, you’d know it. It’s the last large swatch of wild forest in the U.S. I think there’s even a rainforest up in there somewhere. Anyway, you can hike into that vast wild and not see another human for weeks, or so I’m told. I’d go up in there, hike into it a good ways, find a nice, peaceful spot, and ditch my clothes. Fold them up in a nice, neat little pile, and trek off to the peaceful place totally starkies.”
“Wait,” Slappy said. “Why do you have to be naked?”
Pickledick shrugged. “I guess I don’t. But haven’t you heard about the mystery in American national parks? People finding the clothes of a missing person, folded neatly, but no sign of the person?”
“No,” Slappy said. “Where’s that happened?”
“All over the U.S. national park system,” Pickledick replied. “Google it. Anyway, being nude adds a little mystery and helps with the biodegradation process.”
“You don’t want to be identified?”
“No, I think I’d rather just disappear, you know? Anyway, I’d hike up to the peaceful spot, totally nude, and cover myself with chocolate syrup and honey.” He waited for Slappy’s response, but Slappy just stared at him like he was nuts. Good enough, Pickledick thought, and explained. “For the bears, you see. Bears up there can smell food from miles away. Then I’ll cut open some key arteries with a box cutter and bleed out before the bears come.” He made a slashing gesture at his jugular with his thumb. “Bears are scavengers. They’ll eat as much as they care to, and then bury the remains. Bears do that for some reason, or so I’ve been told. Anyway, way out there in the Dark Divide, naked, half-devoured by bears and buried? And whatever remains finished off by the wee critters of nature? Yeah, good luck identifying that.” He grinned and took a drink.
“Wow,” Slappy said. “You’ve really thought this out.” He nodded, trying to find a weak spot in the plot. He thought about mentioning the DNA, but if Pickledick was right about the remoteness of this Dark Divide place, and considering how fast nature actually does clean up a crime scene, he decided to move on. “What’s plan B?”
“Plan B is more of a political statement,” Pickledick replied. “In this ending, I go to Navient’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. Now, it’s probably a federal building, so there’s no way I’m getting in there with so much as a pea shooter. But I’ll go and check it out first. If I can get something in there, say, a hunting knife, I’ll demand to talk to their top dog and then stab myself in the heart right there in front of them. Odds are I’ll have to do it outside on their front doorstep, though. So I’ll gut myself there. Either way, I’ll have a note that explains I did it because student loan debt ruined my life. Their debt collectors drove me into a life of exile and solitude. I know I signed an agreement when I took out those loans, but I was just a stupid kid and everyone told me it’s what I needed to do. ‘For a better life’ they said. Ha! Fuck them.” He took a big drink, and added, “I mean for fuck’s sake, a year or two, fine. But if some dipshit kid keeps borrowing money like the god damned failing auto industry for a degree in the fuckin’ humanities, just say no, for fuck’s sake! They knew damn well I’d never be able to pay that shit back. It’s all about creating debt-slaves.” He stopped himself, realizing he was heading into a rant. So he just said psh! And then he said, “Anyway, that’s plan B. Draw some attention to the student loan crisis. If the corporate-owned media would even cover it.”
Slappy was silent for a moment, and then said, “Damn, dude” and Pickledick was happy to hear a little reverence in his voice. “You’ve really thought about this.”
Pickledick looked at him and nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.” After all, what else was there to do in the Korean countryside? “Look, long story short, I’ve had a good life, I’ve had a great run. I’ve never been married. Shit, I’ve never even been engaged. But I’ve had some love. I’ve been in relationships that lasted as long as two years and then broke my heart. And it was usually my fault, I admit it. I’ve seen the world, traveled to twenty-eight countries, lived in Korea and Oman, and of course the U.S. I saw eleven Grateful Dead concerts when Jerry was still alive. I’ve ridden the trains across Europe, seen Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand. I flew a plane around Mt. Everest, I’ve published a book, been to some great parties, made love to some beautiful women,” he raised a glass to Slappy. “And I’ve made some great friends.”
Slappy raised his glass and they drank. Pickledick continued:
“I’ve done more than most. I’ve done things a lot of people will only ever dream about. But now,” he took a breath, “Now, I think I’m done. Now I’m just sad, old, and alone.”
“Fat, bald, bitter and angry!” Slappy said, raising his glass again. Pickledick laughed. He had once shown Slappy a pointillist cartoon of a mock-up of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash album with that title. It had always made him laugh.
“Exactly,” he agreed. Then he quoted a line from the Theme from M*A*S*H. He figured it was poignant as they were in Korea: “’The sword of time will pierce our skin, it doesn’t hurt when it begins, but as it works its way on in, the pain grows stronger, watch it grin. But suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please.’ And I think I will take it if you please.”
Slappy was nodding. It seemed the topic of conversation had reached its conclusion. They finished their drinks, and then sat a moment in silence.
“So,” Slappy finally said. “Get another here or head over to the Pony?”
“Let’s head,” Pickledick said, spinning out of his barstool and grabbing his coat. “Now we can have fun. You know, once we suicides have made the decision to just get on with it, we’re a whole lot of fun.”
“I’ve heard that,” Slappy grinned and followed. He grew quiet again as Pickledick paid the tab. He asked, “So you’re really gonna do it? Nothing I can do to stop you?”
“Nope!” Pickledick said, tossing a 10,000 won note into the tip jar. “I mean, yes, I’m really gonna do it, and nope, there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Just be happy. I’m ready to move on to the next adventure.”
“So if you’ve made up your mind and that’s it, then why not just do it here in Korea?” Slappy asked. Pickledick looked at him to see if he was serious. His expression said that he was, but that he was daring Pickledick now to prove it. He was saying, “Bullshit. If you were really going to do it, you’d have done it by now.” Pickledick pulled his friend toward the door.
“Buddy,” he said. “I’m a guest here. I don’t want to leave that mess for the Koreans. Besides, I should go home and see my sister first.”
They walked to the door.
“I feel sorry for you, really,” Pickledick said as they stepped out onto the street, the late afternoon sun drawing long shadows across the cobblestones, “I mean, I get to set my house in order, delete my browser history, erase all of my personal files. Just think of all the embarrassing shit your wife is gonna have to explain when they go through your laptop when you finally keel over.”
Slappy laughed. “You make a very good case for euthanasia,” he said as they turned the corner. “A very good case indeed.”