OUR HOSPITAL I spent the first nineteen years of my life in Dong-Wha Hospital, but I can’t remember ever getting sick. Grandfather had saved nearly fourteen years to buy the building, and moved us in on a Tuesday: his wife, his eldest son, the rest of the girls. I lived on the fourth floor, with my mother and father and my two younger sisters.
One afternoon the bus dropped me off by the hospital, but my mother wasn’t there. Umma would wait for me in the vestibule when it was too cold and wave hello to the driver, and we’d walk through a hallway to greet halmony. On this day, I walked through the entrance alone, counting the wheelchairs stationed next to exam-room doors; backpack aching. I felt like riding off on one of those chairs, the way umma had been wheeled off this morning, to a better hospital in Pusan. We didn’t have what was right for her here.
I walked into the waiting-room lobby and saw the chairs. When the hospital had first opened, my uncle kicked the metal beams, pronouncing the equipment and furniture “state-of-the-art.” But as the years passed, I would notice the frayed leather in the lobby, and more exposure upstairs, where women lay down on rickety brown traps on the third floor, legs propped up at the widest angles. I swore never to have children. My mother was fifty-eight miles away, and the worn lobby seats reminded me of yellow sponge, of all the peeled-off leather upstairs. What was right for her, we didn’t have.
Halmony and her head nurse sat in a glass booth eight feet beyond the waiting-room chairs. That’s where she handled the money, pushing health cards under a window-teller pane, fingers on metal basin, tapping. I opened the side door to her tiny reception room and bowed. Halmony’s hands ignored me, “very busy” with cards and coins slid quietly to the sick; grandmother stoic, folding a bad poker hand.
Then: static and crackle on the make-shift microphone.
Halmony held a CB radio close to her lips and started calling out names: “Jang… Lee…Kwan...Shim…Koh…Kim.”
My third-floor uncle had wired a ham radio into the main wing’s audio PA, making our hospital’s paging system “state-of-the-art.” Grandfather and appah had their radios mounted on filing cabinets, but it was really my grandmother and the nurses who had mastered the new technology: voices that would shoot static into the air and clip—louder than necessary; voices with a Taegu twang, a lazy drawl that lead patients one step closer to healing. I wondered why so many people were in such pain. I wanted to help.
To call out names, just like halmony. Not to embarrass, but to get them here sooner. Front of a booth and form a straight line. I would set the knob to 7. Remind patients: Please take out your health cards and papers! Announce: My umma is coming home soon, so you’d better line up quick!
I asked halmony if I could speak into the black plastic.
She placed the CB receiver in my hand.
The cord wiggled and my knees went numb. I circled my thumb an inch away from the right-side button, while halmony, close to my side, lifted her palm up, and with a nudge, scooped the air higher, palm rising, until my back was completely straight. She wanted my voice to sound clearer.
I leaned forward, straight as the cord.
—Push-button-radio-static-click and MAGIC: “Mr. Kwan . . . Mr. Yong Ho Kwan, please come to the front desk!”
My words carried through the first floor of our hospital.
I looked at halmony; my jello-eyes frozen in wonder.
She turned the knob to 10.
"Please remember to have your medical history ready at the window!"
All the heads turned.
I called more names.
“Mrs. Shin, Mrs. Youn Ja Shin!
Mr. Pak, Mr. Moon Chan Pak?”
Ms. Hong, Ms. Aellee Hong!”
Paper slips drifted from patients’ hands. Adult bodies limped softly to the front of our line on the day I felt older.
Tile floors, from the hallways to our bedrooms. Long after halmony handed me the radio, I would sneak back to the first floor, running down hallways because a hospital had no elevators. I hid behind corners and listened for footsteps. When the patients were all gone, and the nurses slept, I tiptoed to the quiet of a glass booth; sat in a chair and held on. Leaning forward, I listened for umma. She would be returning from Pusan any day now, and I would be at the front desk waiting. A receiver pressed close to my side.
After swallowing his coffee, Marco slid off the cup’s sleeve and peeled the cardboard collar from its glued ends.
“Yo, these sleeve thingies, check out the insides,” he said.
I stripped my coffee sleeve and spread it flat on the table, inside-out, next to his.
“They got expiration dates grilled on the insides,” he said. “But it’s not like the shit’s gonna spoil.”
Different expiration dates. They both looked the same to me.
We kept two thumbs pressed on the cardboard. “I got 800 more of these sitting at home.”
Marco told me he was an artist, that he bombed walls, pieced graffiti, scribbled, sketched; he drew things. He pointed to a napkin on the table.
“Directing movies and stuff, you just be drawing what the fuck you see.”
Then he took out a pencil and started darkening the grooves of the cardboard collar, avoiding the bumpy ridges.
“Joel, you got a pen I can borrow?”
I didn’t. Marco couldn’t show me his roll-down security doors, miniature models he’d colored and sculpted from these sleeves.
He showed me two ladders twisted into spiral instead. Flattened I's.
“Cardboard kind of looks like DNA,” he said.
About the Author: Jamez Chang’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Underground Voices, FRiGG, Prime Number, Lines + Stars, Melusine, Poydras Review, and the anthology Yellow Light. After graduating from Bard College, Jamez went on to become the first Korean-American to release a hip-hop album, Z-Bonics (1998), in the United States. Jamez is a regular contributor to Blog Dot Squalorly, and he currently works in the video game industry in NYC. Visit: www.jamezchang.com