Summer of Soju

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I’m waiting outside the main bus station in Daegu when my brother turns up in the passenger seat of a taxi. He calls my name and I gaze up from my phone to see him standing only a few metres away. He looks almost identical to when I last saw him - bald, tanned, and a smile as wide as his head.

We embrace each other, then jump in the back of the cab.

The driver starts cruising through the busy sun-kissed streets.

‘Made it then?’ Joey nods at me, looking impressed in a silly kind of way.

‘Yeah…’ I nod back. ‘Guess I did.’

‘Well, it’s about time, brother…’ he says jokingly. ‘How long has it been? Three years now?’

‘Something like that.’ I carry on smiling.

‘And how was the journey?’

‘Oh, fine, you know. Long, but fine.’

‘You can rest a bit before we go out, if you’re feeling tired. I’ve got classes for a few hours, so, fancy dinner around eight?’

‘Sounds good to me. How is the job going?’

‘Not too shabby, yeah. Can’t complain. Got a nice little place, too.’

The taxi swerves onto a narrow road that takes us out of the city and into a more natural setting; lampposts turn to trees, apartment blocks become worn out shacks, lots of old people – farmers maybe.

‘By yourself?’ I ask.

’A couple others as well. They’re teachers, too. An American and an Irishman. Justin and Frank. We’re all at the same preschool, or kindergarten, as they call it here. Justin should be home soon, but… Frank’s away at the moment. They’ll both be around for the big day, though,’ he says with emphasis, raising both his eyebrows.

‘Oh, yes,’ I note his signal. ‘The big twenty-five. Quarter of a century. Anything special planned?’

‘Of course, brother,’ he calmly assures. ‘Don’t you worry about that.’

The taxi spins onto an even narrower road, now approaching a tall white building, encircled by verdant fields. It’s like a castle, with turrets on each corner and a courtyard out the front, the words Ivy Kingdom School inscribed on the side.

The taxi slithers further up the road until we reach the castle entrance.

Joey pays the fare and we climb out of the cab.

He guides me inside the walls of the Kingdom, where tiny Korean kids flock about aimlessly, their heads reaching up to my hip at best. He hands me a pair of jelly sandals and gestures towards the shoe-rack. ‘Change into these every time you come in,’ he says. ’They do it everywhere.’

‘Why?’ I ask him.

‘I dunno.’ He shrugs. ‘Hygiene, maybe… or some old tradition, I guess.’

He continues up several flights of stairs and I try to keep up, working my way past gazing kids and an obstacle course of deserted toys.

‘What are we doing here?’ I call to him, running out of breath. ‘I thought we were going to your place.’

’This is my place,’ he calls back. ’I live and teach here.’

On the top floor of the Kingdom, Joey unlocks a dark wooden door and strolls inside to an apartment living room.

‘Penthouse?’ I mutter, rolling my suitcase into the room.

‘Yep.’ Joey spins around, stretching both his arms out. ‘Welcome to the humble abode.’

He insists on giving me a guided tour of the flat.

The living room has a couple of cream leather sofas, a flat-screen plasma TV, a dusty coffee table with a few crumpled beer cans left on top, and a glass slider door that leads out to an open balcony. The kitchen is as basic as can be - no fancy gadgets like an oven or a microwave - besides a water filter that Joey says you need to drink from.

And in Joey’s room, a poster of Nas’ Illmatic spreads unevenly across the wall, alongside a plastic set of venetian blinds. The sun peaks through the gaps in the blinds, causing a shuttered shadow over the unmade bed, ‘where we’ll both be sleeping now’, Joey informs.

The smell of stale fag butts shoots up my nostrils as I step further inside. I glance down to see an overflowing ashtray sitting on the bedside table.

‘The toilet can be a bit funny,’ Joey warns, pointing to the en-suite bathroom. ‘I tend to use the school one downstairs… you know, for the bigger items. I recommend you do the same.’

‘Right-o.’

Overlooking the earthy terrain surrounding the school, we light a cigarette on the balcony. The searing sun blazes down on our backs.

‘So, what do you reckon?’ Joey asks with a smile, extending his arms out again.

I take a drag. ‘Yeah, it’s a nice place. Besides the kids.’

’Of course, the kids,’ he frowns, tilting his head sideways. ’But you’ll get used to them - the noise that is. You wanna try ‘em with a hangover.’

‘I’m sure I will. Can’t imagine you’ve changed much since you left?’

’Well, I don’t think I feel any different,’ he smirks, loosening his shoulders. ‘But, I guess we’ll find out tonight.’

‘Is your other flatmate gonna be around later, as well? Justin?’

‘Yeah, he’s gonna come to dinner with us, if that’s cool with you? It’ll be good for you to meet him sooner rather than later, seeing as you’ll be living with us for a while.’

‘Sure.’

‘Probably a good idea for you to meet Justin first too, without Frank.’

‘Right.’ I nod slowly. ‘Why’s that?’

‘Oh, Frank’s just a louder guy, that’s all.’ He gazes down at his watch contemplatively. ‘Oh, shit,’ he sighs, stubbing his cigarette out on the wall. ‘I’ve got class in five. You gonna be okay?’

‘Should be.’

‘Cool.’ He steps back into the flat and picks a rucksack up from the sofa. ‘Justin’s probably gonna be back before me, but he’s friendly. You’ll like him. See you around half-seven, alright?’

‘Alright.’ I wave him off from the balcony. ‘Enjoy.’

In Joey’s absence, I try my best to rejuvenate myself.

I nap in his bed for an hour or so, take a cold shower, then slouch on the sofa flicking through Korean TV channels.

I stop my flicking when I come across a live K-pop show.

I’ve heard a bit about K-pop before, but never realised the actual absurdity of the genre – some groups have as many as twelve members, all donning matching outfits, the boys in smart suits and the girls in something juvenile like school uniforms. A new singer picks up the microphone and the members of the audience all scream their lungs out in response, the delicate features and outlandish hairdos on stage causing them to nearly burst out of their skin.

I change the channel and stumble across something called Show Me the Money – a rap competition show where contestants freestyle in front of a panel of judges. The beats sound dated and the production value is very lousy - it feels like a show that should have aired on MTV ten years ago, but for some reason, I can’t stop watching, and the more I watch, the more engrossed I become. I find myself rooting for different rappers, hoping they progress to the next stage, like MC-K for example, a humble young man hailing from the southern city of Jinju. He steps up to the panel and introduces himself with a bow and a wave, then takes a step back and lets his talent do the rest of the talking. His scores are near perfect, but he never allows them to inflate his ego - he simply bows again and leaves the stage.

On the other side of the spectrum are the more villainous contestants, like Dynomoney. He leans against the wall with multiple chains wrapped around his neck, a pair of dark shades covering his eyes and a tilted flat cap hiding the rest of his face. His performances are lazy, like he’s not even trying, but for some reason the judges never score him low enough to kick him off the show.

I sit and wonder whether there could be some kind of conspiracy afoot. Could Show Me the Money be scripted? Has Dynomoney been planted by the producers just to rile up the audience, the villain we love to hate?

Several episodes speed past before I hear a key being inserted into the front door. I turn my head to watch the slow reveal of a tall, skinny man, whose face is beige and freckly, and hair sits neatly tucked behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He walks towards me and offers his hand. ‘Hey,’ he says. ‘I’m Justin. You must be Leon?’

‘Yeah.’ I shake his hand firmly. ‘That’s me.’

‘Cool.’ He opens the fridge and pulls out a beer. ‘Want one?’

‘Sure,’ I say, without a thought.

He grabs another can and joins me on the sofa.

‘Here you go,’ he hands it to me, smiling. ‘So, what you watching?’

‘Um…’ I pretend to think. ’I think it’s called Show Me the Money.’

‘Oh, yeah, of course. Good show, good show. You got a favourite rapper yet?’

I think of saying MC-K, but Justin could be a Dynomoney kind of guy. Maybe he doesn’t like MC-K. ‘Nah, not yet. How about you?’

‘Yeah, man, there’s a couple, like… G-2, you seen him? He’s this big guy with blonde dreads.’

‘Oh.’ I shake my head. ‘No, don’t think so. Probably would’ve remembered a guy like that.’

‘Yeah, he’s hard to miss.’ Justin leans forward to inspect the TV screen, then throws himself back at the sofa again. ‘Doesn’t look like he’s on this episode, unfortunately for us. He’s a real spectacle.’

Another stand-out performance by MC-K passes us by as we sip on our cold brews. He even slipped a couple of English words into his bars that time – what a maverick.

‘So,’ I break the silence. ‘How long have you lived in Korea for?’

‘As long as Joey, man. Three years. We met in our first training session, back in Seoul.’

‘Did you live with him then as well?’

‘Yeah, for a year or so. But then we had to relocate.’

‘How come?’

Justin takes a long swig of beer. ‘Too many teachers in Seoul, man. The capital is oversubscribed. You know almost half the population of South Korea lives in that city?’

‘Shit.’ I did know that.

‘Shit, exactly.’ He nods, grinning. ’So, yeah, we both got to choose where we wanted to go, and Daegu seemed like a decent option. Frank was already living in the apartment when we moved in and everything worked out well from there. God knows how long he’s been here for.’

Justin glances curiously at his watch. ‘Any idea when Joey’s back?’

‘Half seven, he said.’

‘Cool. Not long, then. He told you where we’re going?’

‘Nah.’ I shrug. ‘Something Korean, I expect.’

’Ha… you can count on that. He probably wanted to keep it a surprise. He loves surprises.’ Justin lights a cigarette. ‘But I think we’re going to a Korean barbecue place, not too far from here. You like meat?’

‘Sure.’

‘You’ll like it, then.’ He takes another drag. ’And you should like Korea, too. They’re all carnivores, really. Vegetarianism is a pretty alien concept here. I mean, one place I went to the other week had chicken down as a vegetarian option.’ He sniggers and points his cigarette down expressively at the table. ’Like, they literally had a V next to the dishes that had chicken in. Can you believe that? Poor fuckers aren’t even considered animals in this country.’

‘Messed up world,’ I mutter.

‘Yeah.’ He puffs and puffs. ‘But this place is good, anyway. A good introduction to Korean cuisine. I’m sure that’s what Joey’s intending, at least.’

The front door creaks and we both look back to spot Joey peaking in. ‘Speak of the devil,’ Justin calls over, acknowledging Joey’s protruding head behind the door.

Joey bellows deeply as he swings it wide open, revealing himself standing hunched in the doorway, a schoolboy smirk slung across his face.

‘Who, me?’ he says innocently, ruffling mine and Justin’s hair. ‘Time to go, boys. Come on.’

*

The table in the restaurant is essentially a steel barbecue with a bit of room on either side for drinks and plates. Joey takes it upon himself to order everything for the table, communicating with a combination of English, Korean and bespoke hand signals.

’I’m determined you try everything by the end of this trip,’ he declares, grinning from across the table. ‘Everything.’

The waiter returns with the drinks – soju, beer, and a plastic bowl filled with a strange-looking yellow liquid. Joey’s told me about soju before, that he practically lives off the stuff. He picks up the bottle and pours out three shots. ‘Soju’s a national treasure,’ he reminds me again. ’Everyone in Korea drinks it. Young, old, poor, rich, Korean, foreigner… this is the one thing they all have in common.’

‘Right.’ I nod. ‘So, it must be good stuff then?’

’I don’t know about good.’ Justin shrugs. ‘But it’s cheap.’

‘The benefits outweigh the costs,’ Joey asserts, raising his shot glass.

We clink them all together and neck the shot.

Eugh. I can’t help but wince as the foul liquid slips to the back of my throat, scalding the flesh on its way down like a bad vodka.

‘Let me teach you a bit about Korean etiquette,’ Joey says as he fills up another three shot glasses. ‘When you’re drinking with someone, and they have an empty glass, it’s rude not to fill theirs back up.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah,’ he says with conviction. ‘And if the other person’s older than you, or like, your boss or something, then you’ve gotta bow when you do it, too… Look, look - over there. Those fellas are up to it.’ He points to a couple of old guys on the other side of the restaurant, two businessmen, one filling the other’s empty glass up with beer, bowing like he said.

‘And if your drinking partner doesn’t fill your glass back up for you,’ he continues, ’you might say, ‘Hey, are you busy?’ or something like that.’

Are you busy?’ I giggle. ‘Seriously?’

‘Yeah!’ Joey raises his shot glass again.

We accordingly neck the shot, and then, like a true Korean, I refill the empty glasses.

‘Now he’s getting it,’ Joey beams proudly.

‘Why, of course.’

I guzzle down some beer to fight off the ghastly taste of soju, but it’s not much better - flat and too sweet.

Joey sees me wincing again. ‘The beers aren’t great, are they?’

’Not great, no.’

‘Yeah,’ he concedes, ’there are two main brands here – Cass and Hite. Both Korean, and both taste like piss, basically. But the imported beers are way more expensive, so you’ll have to get used to it, brother. Quantity… not quality.’

‘And which is better, then? Cass or Hite?’

‘I prefer Cass, I think,’ Justin says. ‘But Joey can’t tell the difference.’

’Oh, so what?’ Joey grimaces. ‘Being able to differentiate between two different flavours of piss isn’t much to brag about, Justin.’

Justin smirks. ‘So you keep telling me, Joey.’

‘And what’s this stuff?’ I ask, pointing to the strange liquid - thick, gloopy and yellow like a bowl of spoiled semen.

‘That’s makgeolli,’ Joey divulges. ‘It’s a rice wine type of thing.’

‘OK…’

I raise the bowl to my nose, and the peculiar stench fills my nostrils so unpleasantly that I frown and recoil in disgust.

‘Give it a try,’ Joey suggests. ‘I don’t think you’ll like it, but you should try everything, at least once.’

‘Sure,’ I mumble, raising the bowl towards me again.

I gaze down in despair as the gap between the liquid and my unconsenting mouth becomes smaller and smaller. The smell intensifies, and Joey’s eyes start twinkling like two dancing stars as he anticipates my reaction. I tip the bowl at an angle so the liquid dribbles closer to my mouth, all yellow and rancid and dribbling like a slug, and just as I’ve accepted what I thought was my inevitable fate, the makgeolli tasting gets postponed by the timely arrival of our food.

Covertly, as the waiter distracts the others by unloading his trolley, I manage to place the bowl to one side. The waiter ignites the barbecue and throws a few slabs of meat down onto it when it becomes hot enough. He monitors the meat with a pair of metal tongs but Joey snatches them away and proceeds to fry the meat himself. Obsolete now, the waiter returns to his post.

‘Let me run you through what we’ve got here,’ Joey says, poking at the sizzling flesh. ‘We have… pork belly barbecue… kimchi stew… rice… fried courgettes… bean sprouts… cabbage…’ – his words fade into the background as I’m entranced by the aroma of frying fat, my hunger and tipsiness now combining into a gastronomic reverie… eventually, I drift back into reality – ’… some radish, which they give you with everything, and to accompany the pork belly: kimchi, garlic, lettuce, and this thick spicy paste, ssamjang.’ He pauses, grinning, looking pleased with himself. ‘Well, then,’ he says, raising his shot glass once again. ‘Shall we, boys?’

Glasses clink, and another three doses of heart-burning soju get slung down our necks before we turn our focuses to the main event.

My strategy for tackling the barbecue involves filling a thick leaf of lettuce with garlic, kimchi, and pork belly, then folding the lettuce to form a juicy green parcel, sending it down to the pits of my stomach before it has time to fall apart. I slightly tweak the ratios with each parcel, scientifically trying to determine the perfect balance of ingredients. I wash each one down with a swig of beer and shot of soju, pondering over how I would rate that particular parcel, and then I go again.

At some point, we temporarily leave the restaurant to buy some cigarettes. Joey leans against the restaurant window and starts ranting about them increasing in price a couple of months ago. We smoke two each before heading back inside.

‘So, Joey,’ Justin starts with a mouth full of parcel. ‘How’s things with Mimi?’

‘Pretty good,’ Joey says. ‘Can’t complain.’

‘Who’s Mimi?’ I ask.

‘Joey’s new girlfriend. Perhaps a new sister-in-law, eh Joey?’

‘Not exactly new.’ Joey frowns. ‘It’s been like, six months.’

‘She’s nice…’ Justin winks at me. ’Real nice.’

‘Oh, really?’ I lean forward, intrigued.

‘Well, what?’ Joey throws his hands up helplessly. ‘Yeah, she’s nice.’

‘Real nice…’ Justin whispers again.

‘And how about you then, brother? Any action down at that university of yours?’

‘Somewhat, I suppose. Got myself a girl now.’

’Oh, really?’ Joey leans forward, mimicking me. ‘Do tell.’

Well, what?’ I mimic him back. ‘What’s to tell?’

‘What’s she like? Tall, short… fat, thin… old, young… what, brother?’

’She’s real nice.’ I wink at Justin. ‘And her name is Mia. You might get to meet her one day, brother, if you ever come back.’

‘Maybe, brother, maybe…’ He raises his hands. ‘Only time will tell.’

At the end of the meal, Joey makes one last order, resulting in the waiter delivering a single egg to the table, pre-cracked, only the white and yolk in a bowl.

A single raw egg?

I stare at Joey inquisitively, trying to read his face, but he keeps his head down and avoids any kind of eye contact with me.

Four bottles of soju deep and an unknown quantity of beer, we’re all prone to make strange decisions, but to me this stands out as beyond unusual behaviour. Why, after such a large meal, would he order a single raw egg?

‘This egg has purpose,’ he whispers to me, stirring the white and yolk together with a chopstick.

He gently pours the mixture onto the barbecue and a puff of smoke erupts from the hot steel. He then mixes the egg with the leftover rice, kimchi, and pork, merging them together into a completely new compound.

And there it is - the purpose of the egg! As clear as day! Oh, that brave egg! A uniter of forgotten foods, the glue that welds them and grants new life!

Joey notes my approval of the egg and proceeds to wave his arms in celebration. ‘Yeaaaaaaah!’ he yells. ‘He gets it now! He gets it now!’

*

Smoking and stumbling, my brother leads the way.

‘Time for a Korean lesson, Leon,’ he announces. ‘What’s the word for cigarette, Justin?’

‘Uh, dambae?’

‘Correct, friend. Dambae. Got that, Leon?’

‘Dam-bae,’ I repeat, spaced out. ‘Yep.’

‘Very good, brother. Very good. Now, to remember that word, I have a joke for you.’

‘Okay.’ I smirk. ‘Go on, then.’

‘Okay.’ Joey clears his throat. ’So, what did the man cigarette say to the sexy lady cigarette?’

‘I don’t know. What did he say?’

He stops walking and stands himself up as straight as he can, takes a deep breath in, then propels himself forward, emptying his lungs to deliver the punchline: ’Damn…bae!’

‘Oh, for god’s sake.’ Justin sighs, burying his face in his hand. ’I’m not nearly drunk enough for your jokes.’

Joey maintains his wide grin, unperturbed. ’Not yet, Justin. Not yet.’

‘Wasn’t as bad as I expected,’ I say, still giggling at his absurd delivery. ‘Give me another, would you?’

‘Another joke?’ he beams, leaping towards me like a cartoon frog.

‘No,’ I plead, gesturing to his cigarette. ’A dambae.’

We stumble across an alleyway of food stands, all of which seem identical, including the old ladies running each one. They sit and smoke beside steaming grills, sporting black curly hair and plastic visor hats. And despite the similarity between each of the stands, Joey carefully inspects them as he strolls by, eventually settling for the third in the line. He slurs something in Korean to the old lady and tilts his chair precariously. ‘I’ve ordered something unusual,’ he informs us. ‘Something more for you to try, brother.’

I light another cigarette and ponder over the possibilities – what strange meats could this old lady be storing here? A slice of dog, perhaps? Or a hunk of cat?

She places several bottles of soju and beer on the table, then returns again with the mystery order. In contemplation, I sip on a beer and attempt to figure out what this so-called unusual thing might be.

It’s a curious pile of meat. Each chunk has long, slender parts that shoot out like tree branches, and a handful of sesame seeds sprinkled all over.

Joey sits across me with a permanent grin struck across his face, watching over me as I inspect the strange dish. ‘What are you waiting for?’ he asks with calculated nonchalance, still tilting on his chair with a lit cigarette.

I flap my lips in response to his question, then pick up a chunk and raise it to my nostrils - it doesn’t smell good, but it doesn’t smell particularly bad either, so I toss it into my mouth and hope for the best.

The texture is as tough as a leather handbag and there isn’t much flavour to it besides from a helping of salt, but for some reason, after swallowing down whatever the unusual thing is, I find myself instinctively reaching for another, and then another, and then another, caught in a stupor of my own self-indulgence.

‘Not hungry?’ I ask Justin, offering one of the mystery delights.

‘Nah, man,’ he shakes his head, backing away slightly. ‘I don’t like that stuff.’

‘You don’t…?’

I stop to examine the meat again, but Joey’s uncontained laughter distracts me. I glance up and see him sitting there like he’s watching a couple of dwarves in the circus; sniggering, bright-eyed, a disbelieving hand wrapped over his mouth.

‘Come on, then,’ I say to him. ‘What is it?’

And almost vibrating off the edge of his seat now, he pulls his hand away and leans slowly towards me. ‘Chicken feet!’ he explodes, catapulting himself back into his chair.

‘Oh…’ I mutter, gazing down at the plate - the plate… of… feet. Oh, now it’s clear - the toes, the claws, the feet.

I drop the piece I was holding and wipe my hands with a paper napkin.

‘That’s weird,’ I say.

’You were loving ‘em though, weren’t you?’ Justin smirks. ’What’s wrong with ‘em now?’

’Well, I dunno… I mean, now they just look like… chicken feet.’

‘Because they are!’ Joey bellows again.

‘Yeah,’ I scowl. ’But before they just looked like… I dunno. Not chicken feet.’

‘Ignorance is bliss.’ Justin smiles, pouring another three glasses of soju.

Rough, again.

I rinse my mouth out with beer and return to inspecting the feet.

‘God, it’s just so weird,’ I murmur.

‘What?’ asks Justin.

’Well, there’s like twenty, maybe thirty feet on that plate…’ I take a closer look, shaking my head. ’Potentially fifteen chickens had their feet cut off, just so they could be served on a plate, for us to not even eat.’ I pause, take a drag, then point to the plate with my cigarette. ‘But for us to laugh at how weird it is for their feet to be sitting on a plate in front of us!’

Justin nods. ‘Messed up world, right? I think this country has a vendetta against chickens or something.’

‘What the hell are you guys talking about?’ Joey frowns, shoving three feet into his mouth at once. ‘It’s no different from going to KFC… or… having a Sunday roast!’

‘What was so funny about me eating them, then?’ I ask him.

‘Oh, I dunno,’ Joey garbles. ‘I just knew how you’d react.’

’Well, it is weird,’ I say. ’But I don’t know why.’

‘Different cultures can be weird, brother. But that’s just because they’re different.’

‘Koreans especially, though,’ Justin says.

‘May-be, Justin, may-be. But you’ve got to keep an open mind.’

’Oh, I try, Joey. I do. But there is a lot of weird shit here.’

‘Like what?’ I ask.

‘I dunno, man,’ Justin refills our shot glasses again. ’Like, jimjilbangs - a bunch of old dudes who don’t know each other, walking around naked in a sauna… and then, when they’re all done, they sleep together. On the floor.’

’Sleep together?’ I snigger.

’Sleep together in the same room is what he means,’ Joey reassures. ’With pyjamas on. It’s not that weird.’

’You would say that though,’ Justin chuckles. ‘You’re down the jimjilbang nearly three times a week.’

‘So what?’ Joey blushes. ’It’s relaxing. Nothing wrong with indulging in a bit of culture - which, I see you are not doing right now, Leon.’

‘Huh?’ I stare at him blankly.

’Are you busy?’ He points to his empty beer glass. ‘Etiquette, brother. Etiquette.’

’Well, I’m busy listening to you!’ I scream at him. ‘Isn’t that enough etiquette for you?’

He shakes his head and offers me his glass. ‘Refill, please.’

Certainly,’ I oblige him.

And he bows his head as I fill him up with Cass.

’Why is it called bang, then?’ I ask flippantly. ‘If they don’t sleep with each other?’

‘It means room!’ Joey cries out, spraying some of his beer onto the leftover chicken feet. ‘Bang means room in Korean.’

‘Right, right.’ I wink at him. ‘Sure…’

‘It’s true! There’s a whole thing called bang culture here.’

bang culture?’ I giggle. ’And I suppose that means room culture, right?’

‘Yes, brother,’ Joey says matter-of-factly. ’That’s exactly what it means. You’ve got your norebang for karaoke, DVD bang for films, PC bang for gaming… and they’re all open 24/7.’

‘So… you can bang all night and day?’

‘Yes, brother, exactly! It’s the city that never stops banging!’

*

The next stop is a bar further into town. Joey sorts the drinks while I stagger into the toilet and empty several beers-worth of chemical piss into the urinal. Above the urinal is a sign that reads: We aim to please. You aim too, please.

I find Joey and Justin smoking outside, slouched against the wall with three beers at their feet. I sag down beside them, and together we gaze at drunk Korean teens marching through the night with aimless determination, an oddly comforting sight to observe from the side-lines.

Joey climbs out of his slump and turns to face me. ‘What kind of music you listening to these days, then?’ he asks randomly.

‘Uh…’ I stumble, trying to think of an answer. ‘Been playing a lot of Beastie Boys recently.’

‘Beastie Boys, eh? Any good?’

‘Had the first five albums on repeat for most of the year.’

‘Got some longevity, then?’

‘Yep… and they were only, like, twenty when they released that first album.’

‘Same age as you, isn’t it?’ He raises a cigarette in my direction. ‘What’s your excuse, eh?’

‘Well, that’s rich coming from someone about to hit the quarter-life crisis.’

’Oh, whatever,’ he glowers. ‘Still plenty of time for big things to happen, brother. Never too late. I mean, just look at that McConaughey fella.’

‘Who?’

‘You know, Matthew McConaughey. He spent most of his life doing throwaway rom-coms without any real direction, and then he started the serious shit when he turned like forty or something.’

‘And?’

’So, I’m saying, brother… I’m in the rom-com stage of life right now. The early McConaughey days. We all are. We don’t really know what we’re doing, but who cares. Someday… we’ll get our Dallas Buyers Club.’

Justin tries to get some words out but he starts choking on his own laughter. ‘Joey, Joey…’ he coughs. ‘Joey…you are… ridiculous, Joey.’

‘Oh, fuck off, yeah?’ Joey smiles sarcastically with a cigarette between his teeth. ‘You’ll be quoting me one day.’

’Sure, Joey. ‘I say stupid stuff’ is what we’ll quote.’

’That’s not how a quote works, idiot. I have to actually say the quote for it to be a quote.’

‘Alright, Joey. Alright.’ Justin takes a long inhale of his cigarette and begins to settle down. ‘Any idea when Frank’s back?’

Joey closes his eyes and rubs his head as if to think. ‘I’m not sure…’ he mumbles. ‘Tomorrow, or the day after… definitely for my birthday.’

‘When’s that again?’

‘Saturday,’ Joey groans, eyes still closed. ‘You should remember these things, Justin.’

‘Sorry, Joey. I’m no good with dates.’

’Oh, I know you’re not.’ Joey chuckles, pulling up his sleeve to inspect his watch.

‘Hmm…’ he stares intently at the three mechanical hands, trying to decipher the meaning behind their position. ‘Nearly two!’ He raises his eyebrows. ‘We should be heading back soon. I’m working at ten.’ He springs himself up and wanders into the street. ‘Let’s pay a quick visit to the GS25 first, though.’

‘What’s the GS25?’ I call to him.

‘Walk with me, brother,’ he calls back. ‘And I shall enlighten you.’

I chase him down the street and he begins to explain in his silly giving-a-speech kind of way. ’The GS25 is one of many. It’s like… an institution. And they’re everywhere. The other big players are the CU. And they’re everywhere, too.’

‘Okay…’ I smirk. ’But what are they?’

He stumbles around a corner and frowns at me with one eye closed. ‘What are they? Didn’t I just say?’

‘They’re just convenience stores,’ Justin says bluntly. ‘Plain old regular convenience store chains.’

‘No, no,’ Joey insists. ‘There’s more to it than that, Justin. There’s a whole culture surrounding it.’

We spin around another corner to be almost blinded by a glowing red sign that reads GS25.

‘This must be the place?’ I say, shielding my eyes from the oppressive rays.

‘Correct, brother.’ Joey strides towards the shop. ‘And what’s the 25 for, I hear you ask? Well, the magical thing about these little places is that they’re open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The 25 is supposed to mean they’re open twenty-five hours a day or something.’ He sniggers and enters the store. ‘Their idea of a joke, I guess.’

The shopkeeper glares disapprovingly as the three of us saunter in through the door. Joey rushes straight to the fridge and takes out a six-pack of Cass.

‘Bit of grub, too?’ he suggests, approaching the food aisle.

He flicks his fingers through the various packets of crisps until one at the back seems to grab his attention. ’What are these?’ he roars, pulling out an obsidian-black packet with a strange red creature on the front, something like a mix between a dog and the devil, the words EXTREMELY SPICY printed underneath. ‘Extremely spicy,’ he chortles. ’We’ve got to get these.’

He dumps our groceries on the counter and the shopkeeper robotically scans through the booze, his face showing little to no emotion until he catches a glimpse of the black packet – and then, he cowers away from it! That devil-dog mascot on the front of the packet, like he’s seen the devil himself!

‘No, no,’ the shopkeeper protests, manically tapping on the satanic dog. ‘Verry hot. Verrry dangerous.’

Joey leans over the counter and addresses the shopkeeper directly. ‘Listen,’ he says, ’we’re not just a bunch of dumb tourists, you know? I do live here. So, let’s have the crisps.’

‘OK, OK,’ the shopkeeper obliges, his gaze switching rapidly between the three of our faces. ‘But I warn you, yes?’

‘Yeah, yeah…’ Joey sniggers, waving a disregarding hand. ‘Don’t you worry. They’re not gonna kill me.’

*

Joey’s room is soon occupied by several billowing clouds of smoke, an opaque fogginess only occasionally brightened by the momentary lighting of another cigarette. Justin lies spread across the bed while Joey and I sit by his desk, ready to delve into the diverse back catalogue of the Beastie Boys.

Time becomes obsolete and falls into the backdrop…

Every word that I speak has tremendous value, and must be heard for the benefit of my listeners…

Every song that I play must be—

‘Nah!’ Joey yells over the thunderous chorus of Sabotage. ‘Sorry! Not into it!’

‘Oh.’ I sigh, but maintain my composure. ‘Well… maybe it’s too punk! That’s understandable. Something a bit more hip-hop, perhaps?’

And Intergalactic plays next. I observe Joey very closely, studying him for any signs of enjoyment whatsoever, but his face remains motionless and his shoulders as stiff as a board, only loosening to perform a disillusioned shrug at the end of the song.

What, then? What else, brother? What else? How about Sure Shot? Yeah? Uh-huh? Yeah? Yeah? Hmm? What? Wait, what? What? What do you mean you don’t like that flute loop? OK, OK, well… what about something more old-school, then, brother? Yeah? Hey Ladies, perhaps? Yeah? Yeah? Huh? What? Huh? No? Really? Okay – well, let’s take it way back then, shall we? Yeah? No Sleep Till Brooklyn? Yeah? Yeah? Yeah… that’s right – you like it, don’t you? Don’t you? Yeah? Don’t you? Huh? What? Huh? No? What?! Okay, brother! Okay! I see, I see - want the newer stuff, eh? Yeah, I see! Okay – well, then, what about Ch-Check it out? Yeah? Pretty good, yeah? Yeah? Yeah? What? Huh? What? No? No?! Oh, really?! Oh, really, brother?! OK, then what about Car Thief? So What Cha Want? Brass Monkey? Shake Your Rump? Remote Control? Get It Together? Shadrach? The Maestro? Huh?! Huh?! No?! No, brother?! No?! Well, then what, brother?! What! Tell me what! What! What!

Could this really be? My own flesh and blood, displaying such indifference to the three wise men?

Defeated, I pull away from the laptop and light another cigarette. ‘No bother.’ I smile wanly. ‘Why don’t you play something?’

Joey ponders for a short moment before selecting a Mobb Deep track, predictably Shook Ones, Part II. He bops up and down with his fag in one hand and beer in the other, grinning as wide as he was before I started playing my beloved Beasties. His bopping further intensifies and somehow culminates into a one-man mosh pit, his arms and legs flailing in all kinds of directions and showing no signs of slowing.

‘Let’s try those funny crisps!’ I cry out abruptly.

And Joey’s movements finally decelerate.

He smiles and nods and spins towards the bed. ‘Justin!’ he yells. ‘Justin! Pass me those crisps!’

Justin groans and tosses the packet to Joey.

Extremely spicy,’ he chuckles, opening the packet. He stands up from his chair and pulls out a single crisp, holding it beneath the light in a ritualistic kind of way.

‘I’ll go first, brother,’ he whispers dramatically. ‘For your safety.’

He gapes his mouth open and drops the red crisp onto his tongue, but just as the flavouring makes contact, his eyes widen, his face drops, and he suddenly darts into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. ‘Oh my god!’ I hear him shout.

I can’t help but laugh. ‘Are you alright?’

‘No!’ he screams. ‘It’s fucking hot! Aaaaaaaaaaagggggghhhhhhhhhhh!’

‘What’s going on?’ Justin rustles on the bed.

’Oh, it can’t be that bad,’ I say, knocking on the bathroom door. ‘Are you okay?’

Justin and I both raise a confused eyebrow at one another before a strange sound emits from the bathroom, like a pathetic whimper, high pitched and really dragged out. It sounds like he’s… crying, but surely he can’t actually be crying, could he?

I shove the door open and see Joey standing in front of the sink, staring into the mirror. He keeps his back turned, but as soon as our eye-lines meet in the mirror, his body erupts like a volcano with laughter. ‘Barely any chilli on the things!’ he cries, spitting a mouthful of crumbs into the sink. ‘What a fucking joker that guy was!’

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