I had been assessing my own fears because I was living in South Korea, far away from home, and the unfamiliarity of the country petrified me. It was an activity alluring in its mystery, offering up rare, exotic dreads that I had never considered until I discovered them in encyclopedias and psychology hardbacks in the America Town high school library and jotted them down on pieces of notebook paper with a question mark: Afraid or not afraid? Somehow, nonetheless, I managed to reach the summer vacation under the honest conjecture—the genuine and rare belief—that a degree of asserted composure could overcome all of the fears except the anxiety from feeling like an outsider; the fear of exclusion was primal, undefeatable. Such thoughts usually came to me in the waxy and muggy morning hours of the summer, when my parents had departed for the day’s missionary assignment and the America Town high school seemed as far away as the memory of my own birth.
These self-assessments also helped distract me from the more sickening thoughts of poor Ms. Artini, and the pain she must have felt at learning that her teenage son, Trey, had fallen while rock climbing on Bukhansan that spring. As a result of the accident, the chemistry class that Ms. Artini taught at the America Town high school had been wrapped in a continual numbness until the spring semester came to a plodding close; Ms. Artini simply sat at her desk every day in the stupor of mourning. Are we just going to sit here for the whole hour? I would wonder, and then we actually would just sit there, facing forward in the classroom, staring at the glass beakers and petri dishes and graduate cylinders like wide-eyed perch. And when the school year ended, I felt relieved when Ms. Artini said she would be moving back to the United States in July to attend grief counseling. She was not married, and since her son had died, any form of motion sounded positive for her. And when she asked if I would help her box up some things at her home in Incheon for an auction house, I agreed, because I was sick of being lonely and reclusive in an unfamiliar country.
As I took the train to Ms. Artini’s home the following week, I was stuck wondering what Trey Artini’s distant figure must have looked like falling from the vertical face of Bukhansan granite; I had never seen someone fall from such a great height, but I envisioned his whirling body webbed momentarily in the sun’s glare, lost in the brightness like a cedar bough, and then reappearing terrifyingly in such an unnatural position, among the sky but swiftly to the earth. I was still lost in the tide of these thoughts when I arrived and Ms. Artini greeted me from her kitchen. She was holding a mug of tea against her chest like a warm church offering, and it occurred to me that she might have changed her mind and that I was no longer welcome at her home. But she nodded in the entryway and rubbed the side of her neck as if commending my arrival, then led me down a serration of wooden stairs to the basement, a space flooded with the primordial and clayish scent of rainwater.
Ms. Artini placed her hand flatly over the top of her mug to block any particles from drifting into her tea as she rolled her gaze around the room in a slow ellipse. “This all has to go,” she lamented. “Packing supplies and cardboard boxes are near the washer.” She pointed to an electric guitar in the corner, as white and slick as a bone, and said that I was welcome to take it, but I didn’t play guitar, so I began with the boxing, and soon felt stripes of sweat teetering on my eyebrows.
The stereo speakers and a subwoofer and the guitar amplifier and a TV were connected to each other, and all of the electronics were attached to an old computer by a neurology of cables; by the time I finished uncoiling the mess, my T-shirt was heavy with sweat. “This was where he practiced,” Ms. Artini uttered at one point, her words creating the awareness that these were Trey’s things and that Ms. Artini could not bear to box his items herself.
I felt a sharp twinge of shame for not handling the boxes and the wires with more care. And when I finished, Ms. Artini led me by the shoulder up the stairs, past the skyline of cardboard boxes that I had left on the steps, slow enough so that I could smell liquor and rose hips in the air around her. And I could feel the bones of her fingers through my shirt, the heft of her body being steadied in her grip.
The second floor of the house was like a new, humid dimension, deepened by a faultless tetragonal pattern of wallpaper that made the walk down the hallway feel as if existence was composed, panel by panel, on an unending grid. All the familiarities of Ms. Artini were gone up there—the scent of her perfume, the teacherly peppermint trace in her breath. In fact, there was a peculiar absence of human aura completely—in the bathroom devoid of toiletries, in the carpetless cubbyhole of musty books. Even glimpses out the windows offered only a despondent depiction: a back lot of half-constructed homes and apartment buildings, the plane of the land pock-marked with dirt pits, and carcass-like bulldozers idle on the beige oblivion that made me think that everything viewed from the upstairs seemed woefully unfinished.
The only stirring particularity of the entire floor was a tiny hole poked in the wall, no bigger than a rose petal, encircled with crayon scribble in beautiful and mysterious orbit. I knelt down to it because it seemed as if its intention was to bring about one’s curious gaze, placed so low on the wall and embellished with such color as it was. I realized then that Ms. Artini had not chosen to join me upstairs. She called my name from below, her voice rising powerfully into the floorboards like an electricity of sound, but clearly there was reluctance on her part that struck me as assured and somewhat sad.
“Are you doing OK?” she asked.
I just looked at the cardboard boxes wrapped in rib cages of masking tape and yelled back that I was making progress. Ms. Artini was quiet then, and I moved to the next room down the hallway, entering slowly and reluctantly because I knew it was Trey’s bedroom. I felt a cold trickle in my spine, some long and lagging sensation, as I gazed at the space suspended in time: a book, Fifty Classic Climbs of Asia, still open on a wooden workstation, a neon highlighter wedged in the ravine of its spine as if Trey Artini were not dead but returning any moment with a refill of coffee and a shard of beef jerky hanging from his mouth. I lifted a kaleidoscope of rock-climbing equipment from the wall—yellow and green and red webbing tangled hopelessly—and dropped it into one of the cardboard boxes, followed by Trey’s rock-climbing guidebooks of distant and mystical-sounding destinations—Devil’s Tower, Red River Gorge, the planet-like boulders of Bishop—and metallic climbing accouterments, all in the box, even the highlighter fell into the pool of packing peanuts and vanished like the blink of a satellite in a smattering of stars. It felt forbidden to stand in Trey’s room and compile his possessions—forbidden like Trey’s death itself—and collect all of the CDs and cassette tapes that happened to be cast about the carpet in such a personal and private and intimate teenage mess.
Ms. Artini poured me an iceless glass of cider as I waited on the porch for the auction van to arrive and take all the packages. She sat on a box and stared at the dirt pits, not uttering a sound for several minutes but seeming to accept the emptiness that hung between us.
Finally she turned and handed me a crisp 10,000 won bill, which I felt guilty accepting after encroaching so much on Trey’s death; it was an inexplicable remorse that I couldn’t verbalize, so I slid the bill into the back pocket of my jeans but vowed to never spend it. I sipped my drink, now merely a warm and flat syrup from the summer heat; I thought of my fears.
Eventually the auction van arrived and severed the silence, rumbled down the paved street past the partial buildings and pulled up over an island of weeds in Ms. Artini’s driveway. A barrel-chested Korean kid sporting a chambray shirt and a gold square on his earlobe hopped out and said he had arrived to collect all the boxes. His breast pocket was embroidered with the distinct lightning-themed logo of the auction house. The empty cab of his van smelled pungent and volatile—the unmistakable spoor of gasoline. Ms. Artini stayed quiet, speaking only when the kid made eye contact with her, and she signed a plastic clipboard of papers that the kid had retrieved from the van’s glove compartment.
Her hand shook slightly as she gripped the pen. The kid glanced at the clipboard and said in English, “So there are 25 boxes total?”
Ms. Artini nodded to this, and the kid helped me carry all the boxes out to the van. Ms. Artini watched serenely from the side of her driveway, embodying the same despondency that had enshrouded her during the prolonged final weeks of chemistry class, when she hadn’t even bothered to give the class any exams or grade homework.
We stacked the heavier boxes on top of the smaller boxes in the kid’s van, which warped the cardboard into ovular configurations—not a particularly good job of loading boxes into the cab, the kid noted, but good enough for the short drive to the auction warehouse. At one point, in the upstairs hallway, the kid pulled me aside and asked, “Is the lady stoned or something?” to which I replied, “Naw, her son is dead,” and the kid just wrinkled his brow into a strange calligraphy and then sighed, “Oh. Shit.”
The kid placed three wool blankets in the cab of his van to pad the boxes and prevent them from getting jostled on the highway. He closed the doors with a formidable thrust—even winced at the loud thwack of the door hinges connecting—and it was the bulk of the noise that appeared to sever something in Ms. Artini’s heart, caused her to break down into tears right where she stood in the driveway.
She came to the doors of the van and tried to open them, tugged at the handles and revealed sinewy striations in her forearms from the strain. But the van’s doors wouldn’t open.
The kid, who had climbed back into the driver’s seat and started the van’s engine by now gave a bewildered glance back at Ms. Artini through the side mirror—she was now wholly lost in her efforts, her fingers wrapped around the locked latches in infinite struggle.
“What are you doing?” the kid asked, but Ms. Artini ignored him and continued fiddling with the door’s lock in frantic hemiolas. The kid then glanced at me, his eyes incandescent with confusion, begging for some clarity.
“Open up the van,” Ms. Artini cried, her voice wobbly with shame and regret. The kid was clearly scared now by her hysteria, though; Ms. Artini’s cheeks shined with tears and her eyes were as pink and puffy as furniture cushions—even a renegade strand of her blond hair was straggling in front of her face like a misfired flare. She balled one of her hands into a fist and pounded on the glass window of the van—thud, thud, thud—deep and muted percussions that made the kid scowl.
“Shit, lady, this is my dad’s van,” the boy yelled to her, and then he peeled out of the driveway with a buoyant bounce over the weed patch, all of Trey’s boxed-up belongings padded woollily in the back of the van as it retreated down the street.
Ms. Artini stood alone at the base of her driveway and tried to catch her breath, tried to slow her breathing; she glanced up me and looked suddenly how I would imagine a drowning victim would look—less of a human and more like a foam likeness rendered from a vague memory of Ms. Artini. She exhaled audible breaths from deep within her chest, and looked around at the unfinished neighborhood, the reality of the backdrop, disgusted by the piles of dirt that blocked the view of the street and served no purpose, served no use except burying that which should be unseen, the dirt that filled holes in the ground and perhaps made the unchanging and unending land at least somewhat more livable.
John Burgman is a former magazine editor and a former Fulbright grant recipient. His work has appeared on Esquire.com, The Rumpus, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. He lives in South Korea.