The Pyongyang Boombox

(Ed.’s note:  This story is vaguely inspired by a dream.)

A motley group of Americans found themselves wandering around a rail yard in the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea.  They were captured and taken in for questioning.  They didn’t know how they got there, so the story goes, and they were anxious to get home.  It was an odd grouping:  an elderly couple, a black man and his sister, an aspiring dancer, and a kid just out of college looking for work.

It didn’t matter who they were.  In the eyes of the Democratic People’s Republic, they were all dupes sent to disrupt the flow of life in the Workers Paradise.  Yet none of them knew how they came to be in the rail yard in Pyongyang.

At first they were taken to a big white building with no windows.  All the halls and rooms were flooded with bright fluorescent lights which reflected blindingly against the white walls and floors.  All the guards wore sunglasses.  The prisoners wore none.

“When are you sending us back to America?” complained the old man.  “My wife needs her medicines.  Can you give us some medicines until you send us back?”

The guards never answered.

In the big white prison, they heard not a soul except for themselves as they occupied separate cells.  Nervous chatter.  Does the US even know where we are?  Will they send the Marines?  When the guards came, they stopped the nervous chatter.  Most guards did not talk to them, but they would grunt and point their finger at them when they wanted one of them to step back from the bars or to follow them.

Each one was taken one at a time for questioning.  It was the only time that they heard one of the North Koreans speak to them in English.  The Inquisitor, they came to call him,  asked them all the same questions:  name, place of birth, reason for being in the rail yard.

The black man got frustrated during his questioning and started to cry.  He said he heard that in North Korea, they shoot people that they didn’t like.  The Inquisitor did not respond.

The others also found that their questions to the Inquisitor went unanswered, except for the old man.   He asked about medicines for his wife again.  The Inquisitor said, in a perfunctory voice, that he would see what could be done.  Of course, he didn’t do anything, but his response gave the prisoners some hope when the old man related the story to them.  “He said he would try to get her some medicine,” he said over and over.

After a couple of days in the White Building, they moved the prisoners from place to place.  First, a barn, then a giant building that looked like a pyramid, then finally a low, two story building  with lots of windows which overlooked a rail yard.  They didn’t know if it was the same rail yard they had been found wandering in or not.  Rail yards tend to look the same to the uninitiated.

This place did not look like a prison or feel like a prison, most of the time.  At night, though, they could hear ghastly screams from downstairs which lasted most of the night.  None could sleep well under those conditions.

“They’re going to shoot us!  I just know it!” cried the black man.  His sister tried to console him.

In the new “prison,” they had the run of the second floor.  Each had their own room and they had a common room where they ate their meals.  A guard brought them food every day, though the offerings were often meager:  rice, some fish, or a broth.  At first the food bringing chore rotated among different guards, but eventually it was always the one.  He spoke a some English.  “Would you like some more rice?” he often asked.  He seemed very different from all the other guards they encountered.  He made an effort to speak to them, in his limited English, and he seemed to actually try to grant what requests he could.

“What about the medicines the man in the White Building promised my wife?” the old man asked him.  The guard said he would see.

The kid out of college seemed to be the closest to the new guard.  He even got his name out of him:  Kim Lu.  The college kid called him Luke by mistake, but Kim Lu didn’t seem to mind, so he kept calling him Luke.  Eventually they all did.

The kid’s fellow prisoners started to ask him to try and get favors out of Luke.  “He likes you!” the old man said.  “Try to get him to bring the medicines for my wife!”  “Tell him not to shoot us!” said the black man.

“I will not shoot anyone,” Luke said.  This greatly assured the black man, who stopped worrying about being shot in Pyongyang.

The dancer looked at the two of them, Luke and the college kid, askance.  “So that explains it,” she muttered.

“Who care!” said the black woman.  “Maybe he can help get us out of here.  I needed to get back to Brooklyn yesterday!”

In a week’s time, Luke became their only guard.  The other guards just concerned themselves with keeping everyone contained on the second floor.  The screaming continued from downstairs at night.  With the college kid’s encouragements, Luke was able to procure things for them out of the ordinary.  He started to bring them fruit.  Then he brought them little rice cakes to eat.  He tried to bring alcoholic drinks, but he said he could not find any.

Then one day, Luke brought in a boombox.  That lifted everyone’s spirits.  Even the dancer got out of her funk and showed them the latest moves from off-off-Broadway.  The elderly couple showed them the Charleston.  Luke loved the Charleston.  “Come on!  It’s not hard!” the old woman encouraged.  Luke tried it, and laughed at the results along with everyone else.  He was a natural at it.

After a while a slow number played.  The elderly couple slow danced and everyone else sort of chatted amiably.  Luke and the college kid sat off to themselves.  Luke asked a lot of questions about New York City, America, Hollywood, and cheeseburgers.  “Would you buy me cheeseburgers?” Luke asked.  “And the fries, too,” the kid answered.  Luke wasn’t sure what fries were, but figured it was a good thing.  Unnoticed or not, for it didn’t really matter which, their hands touched each other as they leaned against the table and watched the elderly couple dance to the slow music.

Late that night, Luke returned to the 2nd floor.  As he checked things in the common room, while everyone slept in their separate quarters, the college kid showed up.  He said he thought he smelled Luke’s presence.  Luke was amazed.  He said he was thinking about  the kid.

“If I can get you out of here and back to the US, would you take me with you and buy me cheeseburgers?”

“I’d buy you whatever you want.”

They kissed as the moon shined a spotlight on them through the window.

“But how can you get us back?”

“It’s a secret.  State secret.  But I know the secret now.  That is why I got the ‘boombox’,” Luke said, still stuttering over the unfamiliar word.  “Just get everyone in here at 8 tomorrow morning during breakfast.”

He made the kid promise to take him home with him and buy him cheeseburgers.  The kid promised then kissed him again before going back to bed.

The following morning, Luke returned to the common room at 8 a.m. sharp.  He dressed extra special in his best uniform.  There was also a duffle back with Korean script on it in the corner filled with other clothes.  The others sat waiting in the room, the elderly couple, the kid out of college, the brother and sister, and the dancer.  Luke told them to close their eyes and imagine themselves on an airplane.  A fast airplane.  A jet.  A big jet.  The biggest and loudest they could imagine.

Then they heard a loud roaring noise and the room vibrated.  Everyone thought that Luke put something on the boombox and just played along.  No one opened their eyes.  The roaring settled as did the vibrations.  By this point everyone had fallen asleep.  Luke rested his head on the kid’s shoulder.

After several hours of motionlessness, the elderly woman opened her eyes.  “I smell fresh bagels!” she cried.  They looked out the window.  It looked like Chelsea.

They went out into the corridor, which looked the same, and found no guards at the elevator or the top of the stairs.  They raced downstairs, except for the elderly couple who took the unguarded elevator.  They all went outside and it was a nice, spring day with the trees blooming and folks on the street.  They were in New York.  Luke looked in amazement.

“For years, I imagined this place.  I did not know if it really existed.  They never tell us anything in Pyongyang.  Dear Leader tells us that we live in paradise, but he never gives us cheeseburgers or good music or anything.  Just work and work and very little food.  I had no life there.  Now I have a chance of life.”

The elderly couple bought everyone bagels and orange juice.  The group reminisced about their bizarre trip to Pyongyang.  They did not reflect too heavily on how they got there or how they got back.  And then, one by one, they walked away.  First the elderly couple sauntered off, with the Charleston just a step away from their shuffling feet.  Then the black man and woman sprinted to the subway to catch a train for Brooklyn.  The aspiring dancer walked swiftly and disappeared in the flow of people.  Luke looked at the college kid.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“Upper West Side, near Columbia.”

“We go there now?”

“We?  Well, maybe for a little while, but you can’t live there.”

“But you said. . .”

“Look, it was great, really, just great.  You got us out of that hellhole.  But you know, I have my own life here.  Now that you’re in the US, you can get a life of your own, too.  Isn’t that great?  Here’s some money to get you started with.  Best of luck to you, now.  And thanks!”

Alone Luke stood on a street he had never seen with faces he did not know.  No music played on loudspeakers, like in Pyongyang.  But there was music.  No one stared at his bizarre outfit and he still had his duffle bag of clothing.  He called after the kid, but he was gone, just like that, in the crowd of folks walking in Chelsea with their bags and dogs and problems great and small.

Luke began to walk, wondering where he was and how he came to be there.  He wondered if he would be arrested or questioned or shot.  He wondered if he would wake up one day and find himself in Pyongyang again, guarding more prisoners.  Or if they would put him in prison, for fraternizing with the dupes.  Would they make him scream?

He passed by a place that sold cheeseburgers.  He wondered if the kid gave him enough money to buy one.  He went inside to see.  And he hoped they had fries, whatever they were.

© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.


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