Off Assignment (May 2017)

To Old Johnny

Letter to a Stranger

Lavinia Spalding

Your shop was smaller than our kitchen but better stocked, the shelves on both sides of its entrance packed to the ceiling with shrimp chips and kimchi, dried cuttlefish, ramen noodles, and vacuum-sealed chicken drumsticks.

It had no name, the shop—it was just that faded orange awning in front—so we called it “Orange Awning,” until one day when we’d run out of maekju or soju or oo-yu, or butter or cigarettes or change for the bus, and someone in our apartment suggested to someone else that they run across the alley to Orange Awning.

“Who’s Old Johnny?” a friend asked, misunderstanding.

So that became your name. You: the ancient man, stony and bony, who squatted day and night on a flimsy plastic orange stool inches from the cement, paying us no special attention when we charged through the door five, six times a week, our heads bobbing in greeting, all smiles and a sing-song anyonghashimnika.

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Your road is everything that a road ought to be... and yet you will not stay on it half a mile, for the reason that little, seductive mysterious roads are always branching out from it on either hand, and as these curve sharply also and hide what is beyond, you cannot resist the temptation to desert your own chosen road and explore them.” –Mark Twain