mr. kim’s song

But perhaps Mr. Kim is right that no one really knows anything about anyone in the end; we get and give hints and intimations, and perhaps that is the best we can do….”


by brian doyle


Weirdly enough the one time I was ever lured into a karaoke bar, by an office event I could not afford to miss, there in Room Two was Mr. Kim, singing his heart out with the door shut tight. The way karaoke bars work is that you can either sing with other people, and laugh your ass off at how terrible or impassioned your companions are, or you can sing alone, for whatever reasons you want to sing alone, and there in Room Two, to my absolute amazement, was Mr. Kim, singing alone.

The very concept of Mr. Kim being in a karaoke bar was so wild and implausible that I went back to the door several times to be absolutely sure, and by God it was indeed Mr. Kim, although he was not wearing his usual baker’s smock, nor the black suit and black cap he occasionally wore if he was attending a wedding or a wake after work. He was actually wearing a tee shirt, which was unthinkable for Mr. Kim; I was relieved to see he was not wearing jeans, which would have sprained my eyeballs permanently, I think. The shirt was outré enough; the very idea of Mr. Kim in jeans, rather than his meticulous old man pants, as my kids called his pressed trousers, would fry the synapses of anyone who had seen the man week after week for many years in the bakery, as I had.

In a karaoke bar you can sing any of thousands of songs, for which a machine provides the music, and a large television screen scrolls the lyrics. I was most curious to see what song Mr. Kim was singing with all his might – something from the old country, perhaps, which might give me a hint of just what old country Mr. Kim was from, a question he never answered. A love song, giving a hint at who or what he loved? A drinking song, a country song, a glam rocker? But I could not see the screen from where I stood by the door of Room Two, and the booths were all sound-proof. I could ask the bartender, perhaps – there must be a central console from which the owners or attendants could monitor the booths – but this seemed intrusive, even for a professional journalist, and perhaps there is a code of privacy at karaoke bars, for all I know.

But just as I stepped away from the door, surrendering all hope of ever discovering the song Mr. Kim was singing, the door opened suddenly, and there was Mr. Kim, glaring at me.

For those of you who know Mr. Kim, you will know the weight of this moment; Mr. Kim could be rude and terse and blunt and challenging at the best of times, and it was no stretch to imagine him vituperative and furious at having been seen in a private moment. But once again he did the unexpected – you never could predict or assume his behavior – and he gently took me by the elbow and drew me into Room Two.

You wish to know what song I was singing, I would guess, he said, and to my surprise and relief his voice was friendly and even gentle. I will tell you. Or better I will sing it again. It is the most beautiful song in the history of the world. I sing no other song. I sing this song when I am low and weary. It brings me back up to balance. It restores something in me. I would guess you know what I mean. I would guess there are songs like this for you. I think perhaps everyone has songs like this when they are low. You can sing the song anywhere anyhow of course but I find this way the best way, at least for me. Something about the amplification perhaps. Or the privacy. When you sing at home or in the shop people hear you singing and they think they know something about you from the song you sing, or something about you because you are singing, but this is not so. No one knows anything about anyone. We think we do but this is an illusion. It’s just that sometimes all you can do is sing your song. So I come here to sing the song. You will not tell anyone about this. I am sure I can trust you to forget that we had this conversation. I do not need to bribe you with bread and pies. I will trust in your good judgment in this matter even though you are a journalist.

He spoke with a kind of honest passion I had not seen in him before, a sort of revelation that was highly uncharacteristic of him; he was one of the most private and tightly wound men I had ever met, despite his occasional silent kindness and generosity, which he would vehemently deny, for murky reasons, if you tried to thank him for it. I had seen this happen many times, and puzzled over it, but perhaps Mr. Kim is right that no one really knows anything about anyone in the end; we get and give hints and intimations, and perhaps that is the best we can do.

I didn’t say anything, there being nothing to say; and also I have learned, in my years as a journalist, that sometimes silence is productive, and not every lull in the conversation needs filling. Mr. Kim stared at me for a moment, clearly mulling something over in his head, and then he said, Here, listen, I will sing the song, and then you will forget this conversation, and the song I sang, and the fact that I sang it. Now I know you are a journalist, and you will want to write this down someday, but I am sure I can trust you to not do so until I am gone, one way or another, either from life or from the shop. Put it this way: when you have no idea where I am in life or death, then you can write it down.

And with that he punched a button, and the music began – lean clean piano notes, but I could not place the melody – and then Mr. Kim closed his eyes and began to sing. All the rest of my life I will remember that moment. Beyond all expectation, so far beyond imagining that the word shock doesn’t even come close, Mr. Kim had the most beautiful high liquid wavering shivering tenor voice I had ever heard, and he sang from the bottom of his soul, with every iota of his being. He sang the whole song through, as I stood there so moved I could not speak, and then he punched the button again, and the music stopped, and that was the end of that.

Sometimes even now, when he is long gone, his shop shuttered for a while and then leased anew as a jazzercise studio, I sometimes hear that song on the radio, or shimmering from someone’s car, or even reaching out for me from a doorway; this last happened a few days ago, as I walked past a shop, and I turned and walked back and stood by the doorway, listening until the whole song was done. To my absolute amazement I found myself weeping.

I loves you, Porgy
Don’t let him take me
Don’t let him handle me
And drive me mad
If you can keep me
I want to stay with you forever
And I’ll be glad….

Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Eight
April 2014


(illustration: dee sunshine)

Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall.  He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved.  Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017. 

More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.


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