Every other Sunday night, Dad manned the rudder while we rowed the one-eighth replica Viking ship east across the bay. We took it up a stream, beached on a littered bank, and plundered expired cans of soup and battered bags of Gold Rush brown rice from the dumpsters behind the Value Dream. Raids after holidays manifested freezer-burned Thanksgiving turkeys and Independence Day charcoal to feed Dad’s salvaged Franklin stove. In the old world Dad had been something of a carpenter or an engineer — something to do with his hands and a PhD degree — so when he found the boat half built under a mossy tarp not far from our mobile home, dragon head at the prow and all, he said he saw its destiny.
On nights when Dad wasn’t working a double swabbing hospital floors, he was in the EZ assemble shed water sealing the boat. When the uncles and Mom chanted “대한민국!” and Hojun, I and Sohee muttered “Korea” at the TV during World Cups, dad sewed scrap jeans together for a sail. For birthdays we got newly carved, larger oars with sneaker sole handgrips. Our raids went further upstream but all we found was much of the same: battered bags and expired cans. On the dark waters of the bay, the hull groaned and dad quietly chanted in Korean: Destiny is in the bins. Or maybe it was, His arms are bins.
Dad made us raid the night of Hojun’s graduation. The next morning Hojun joined the air force. I graduated on a Thursday. Then I moved to college on the Saturday and struggled to translate why I was too far away to make it back in time for the raids. Sohee eloped with her white high-school boyfriend, and when they told Dad he asked if his new son-in-law could row.
We became office workers. We could never translate exactly what we did for a living, and we moved far enough away so our only Sunday night pillagings were TPS reports we brought home to tunnel-dark rooms. Mom went back to Korea to take care of her parents. Dad tried recruiting from the Korean church, but those who weren’t too old wouldn’t be caught dead on a rowboat. One summer Dad sailed around the bay in the daylight for Seafair with guys from the Norwegian association — even dressing up as a bullet-headed Viking with horns and all. But after that the boat ran aground on the front yard with a big sign, “Oarsmen Wanted.”
The sign faded. The hull collected spray painted dicks from roaming high school kids. Mom died in Korea. Dad hung her favorite teakettle from the dragon’s mouth — one he had pulled from the dumpster when the Value Dream closed its doors — and her photo on a shield on the gunwale. A few months later he painted the boat bright yellow and blasted from a salvaged boom box the Beatles “Yellow Submarine,” and some classical Korean opera. More particleboard shields sprang up. Some plastered with losing scratch tickets. Some painted with congregations of eagles and smiling stick figures with indiscernible titles of mixed Korean, English and — I guess — runes. Then he hung from the cross beam — knotted in monkey fists — a golden piggy bank on one end and on the other an olive branch.
He died at work while swabbing a bathroom. They found him stiff against the wall, supported by his mop and the airblade hand dryer. The county wouldn’t let us burn the boat out on the bay with Dad’s coffin, like he had wished — we were relieved — and instead it got sold with the property and we scattered his ashes in the strip mall parking lot where the stream used to be.
Joe Milan Jr. is a BMI PhD Fellow of Creative Writing at UNLV, a fiction editor at Witness and a MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He’s a Korean American hapa and lived in Korea for nine years. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in wonderful places like Broadstreet, The LA Review of Books, BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016 anthology, The Kyoto Journal, LitroNY, Numero Cinq, and others.
Read more of his work at www.joemilanjr.com