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from the April 2014 issue

Say Ah, Pelican

Boat People

Yawn. Yawning always makes me sleepy. There are still two boats out on the water, but I lie down anyway. There’d be trouble if the boss saw me. It would be so great if the polar ice caps melted right now. No one would care about a ticket-taker asleep at an amusement park if there were a flood, would they? Slowly melting, melting . . . so tired. I lie down and close my eyes like a dying rat. I’m a rat. Dying.

Four o’clock in the afternoon. I can tell, even with my eyes closed. What an exciting afternoon, and so on and so on, the radio prattles on, marking the time. I usually leave it on all day. It’d be too hard if I didn’t. Without it, it would be boring, boring, and even more boring. When I first got here it was like I’d landed on an alien planet. The radio was my only friend—at least it’s a signal, or something. Drowsy again. How are you melting, all you icebergs out there in radioland? I’ll just take a little nap.

I opened my eyes.

Hey! The words rushed into my ears like the runoff from an iceberg. Anybody there? I’m here! I’m here, I cried. I wiped the drool off my face with the back of my hand and stood up. Yes, yes, sir! I run outside, grab the boat coming toward the wobbly dock and pull it in. Pull the rope tight, tie it up. A man in his forties steps off the boat, followed by a woman. By the time I check the knot and turn around, the pair are nowhere to be seen. Two discarded life jackets dropped on the pier look like a couple of cracked duck eggs. I pull out a cigarette. Little puffs like duck down float into the air. But what about the other one? I can’t see it. Unless . . . no, it’s gone. I thought it might have disappeared but, damn, it’s way over there, glinting and bobbing like a plucked feather. Flash, it went. It’s a nearly impossible path. Just fall off the edge of the earth, please. I puff and curse. That’s why he prepaid.

You don’t really get it, no matter how much you think about it. It’s called a boat, but to be more precise, it’s a “duck boat.” I couldn’t possibly understand the mindset of a person who rents a duck boat and tries to take it too far out. But there’s always someone like that. It’s not the USS Enterprise, it’s a duck boat. A duck boat. If I could, I’d dunk their heads in the water a few times, but I hold myself back. I pull out my whistle instead and blow. Tweeeeet! I blow and blow, but there’s no reaction. Is it really, like, a nuclear reaction?

This place says it's an amusement park, but it’s really just a reservoir. That’s what I’d call it. As you pass the edge of the reservoir, you can see thirteen duck-shaped boats, a claw crane game, and a broken Whac-A-Mole. That’s it. There are cockroaches crawling around in the claw game, and only one mole pops its head up out of the holes. Boing! ka-chunk, boing! ka-chunk. It’s the most disturbing five minutes of your life.

My boss, the one who put up the Yeoncheon Amusement Park sign, is a little disturbed, too. He’d shut down some business he was running and took over this amusement park with the leftover money. He basically went bankrupt. The problem is his wife and daughter. They’re in LA, he says. What can I do? Well, it’s just for the time being, he says, but I know it is a big deal. Before I showed up, he’d been living alone in the room behind the boat rental office. It’s a big empty room that runs on night-rate budget electricity. A Christmas card from his daughter was taped on the edge of a mirror. I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U-D-A-D-D-Y, it said in English, with a picture of her squinty face stuck in the middle. Is that your daughter, sir? Huh? Yeah. The boss’s daughter has a face like a mole, and that’s being generous. That was the first time my heart went boing! ka-chunk, boing! ka-chunk at the sight of a girl.

I’ve been here for three months now. I came in response to a help-wanted ad. I’d applied for seventy-three jobs after I graduated, but didn’t get any responses. Seventy-three jobs. Seventy. Three. Jobs. I didn’t understand it. I guess you could say I felt like a mole whose head won’t pop up because the machine is out of order. This country is out of order. I keep thinking that. It’s serious. I know it’s hard for anyone to get by, but there’s still that one little head that pops up. And that one beast monopolizes the hammer seventy-three times. Boing! ka-chunk, boing! ka-chunk, hearing that sound in the dark, it’s enough to make anyone feel like they’re going crazy. You call this an amusement park?

Even though I only graduated from a two-year college, I wouldn’t say I don’t have the skills to get a real job. I majored in tourism management, and my spoken English is above average. I even got above a 900 on the TOEIC after a few tries. I was president of the school’s dance club. Hey, I can do anything. That’s the attitude I have. I’m healthy, and I served in the engineering corps during my military service, so I’m no stranger to manual labor either. This isn’t just depression talking—all I’m saying is that I’m not the type to get rejected seventy-three times. That’s what I think anyway, no matter what anyone else says. Is it really that bad? That’s what I’m telling you. The truth is, that’s why I’m kind of disturbed myself. And that’s why I need a place to work and a place to rest.

My mouth fell open in shock when I first got here. When I saw that an amusement park was looking for employees, I was thinking of a big place like Everland or Disneyland or something. It was toward the end of spring, so the ugly place looked even more run-down. On top of that, the boss told me later that he wasn’t the type of person to do this sort of work anyway. But since everything he said sounded almost uncannily like something I would say myself, I didn’t have much more to add. I suddenly felt sorry for the place and its heavy namesake, Yeoncheon, the “stream of fate.”

I said I’d do it. I took the job thinking it would be a break after all that rejection, and I’d be able to study for the civil service exam while I rested. The boss nodded enthusiastically, and I came back straight away, all my stuff in tow. As the boss had nearly emptied out the space, the cavernous back room was practically all mine. I'd make rice, eat it with some simple banchan, have some ramen, listen to the radio, do some laundry, sleep, stare endlessly at the surface of the reservoir and the mountains off in the distance; and so began the day-to-day of studying for the exam. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Every now and then there would be a lonely night when my youth seemed like a light bulb burning on night-rate electricity. If I had any complaints, that was about the extent of it.

So who the hell rides these boats?

That was my biggest question at first. The thing is what it is: a “duck boat.” It feels strange the second you sit down. Plus, I wouldn’t really call it a duck. And then you have to constantly pedal the thing. Plip-plop plip-plop plip-plop, it's not really as weird as it sounds. Anyway, you get on and plip-plop plip-plop, float around on the water. Maybe that’s all you want, and that’s all you get. I felt like I’d become an idiot after one turn around the reservoir. It’s the twenty-first century; do people really ride these things? And yet, a lot of people do. I’m telling you, I was surprised too. The boss’s incredulous face made me believe him. And to my surprise, he was telling the truth.

On the next holiday, as many people as could possibly come came to ride the duck boats. There was a small town nearby, and a little further away there was a development zone for one of those “new cities.” Most of the customers were residents of the new city. Every time I saw the sign that said twenty miles to Seoul, it reminded me of the sign for the college I went to. The words “trade school” probably always make you think of a place twenty miles from somewhere. Plip-plop plip-plop plip-plop. Sometimes, when I look out at the families or couples sitting in one of those duck boats, I feel strangely, vaguely sympathetic. It’s—how should I put this—it’s like looking at off-peak electricity flowing between bargain beings.

The boss shows up at the office without fail on Saturdays after crisscrossing the country all week. Straightaway, he takes care of the weekend receipts. After work on Sunday we go and grill meat at a nearby barbecue place. This is where I first learned that pigs have necks in addition to bellies. Go get some coffee from the machine. Yes, sir. When I get back with the coffee, my weekly pay is always lying on the table. Just use the weekday sales as walking-around money, the boss would say. I laughed and he laughed. We could laugh all we liked because the weekdays were slow. Weekday boat people are . . .

. . . they’re always special people. I can’t say that I haven’t felt a little scared. But there are people who come to a place like this on a weekday to plip-plop plip-plop on a duck boat . . . lots of couples who come here after spending the night at a nearby love-motel. A bald, roly-poly, chubby, cross middle-aged man will pound on the boat rental window. Give us an hour! Then the couple steers the boat as far out as they can, and picks a spot where they can kiss or grope each other. Since the hull of the duck boat is practically open, I can see everything they do even from this distance. As I watch them, feet still plip- plop plip-plop paddling as they passionately embrace, I feel that miserly night-rate electricity buzzing in my heart.

Once someone even stole a boat, then plip-plop plip-plopped on a little joyride around the reservoir. As soon as I put a hand on my hip and blew the whistle, though, they ditched the boat on the opposite shore and ran off. There was no way to find out who they were or where they lived. I wanted to know if it was someone who really lived somewhere, I mean, if they really existed.

And then there was the housewife who brought her twins. The two little peas in a pod looked about five, and the mom had a look about her like she was really well-educated. She thoroughly grilled me about the hourly rate, the rules, and asked if we did proper safety inspections. Taken aback (since I didn’t even know such things existed), I answered that of course we did. These children are five years old. She looked me straight in the eye as she spoke, making it impossible for me to look her in the eye back. Yes, yes, Ma’am. I fished around in a box and found two children’s life jackets. They fit just right, luckily—and the stitching is especially strong, I told her as I caught my breath, and then she was off, asking more weird questions. They say you always have to warm up before you get in the water. Only bad little children don’t do their warm-ups, right? OK, now the teacher is going to show you how to do it. And she stared straight at me. There was nothing I could do; I had to start stretching, as commanded. The only warm-up exercises I knew were PT drills from the army, but it wasn’t the place to quibble over such a thing. They got on, and a second later the kids’ faces had turned as yellow as forsythia.

There was also a time when, I don’t know if they were a couple, but there was a pair of migrant workers. Where are you from? Ah . . . we are from Bangladesh. They rented the boat and I thought they were plip-plop plip-plopping around the reservoir just fine, but then I heard a plip plip plip-plop plip before the sound suddenly stopped. After a long while, the boat came back but the woman was crying. She had incredibly large eyes, making her teary face look even sadder. Can I help you? I asked. It felt like the power had gone out, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. The poisonous yellow dust from over the Gobi was really bad that day, making my eyes sting.

Some people ride boats on the edge of the world. Even if you try to help, you’ll never know who they are or where they’re from. They flow like budget electricity, going plip-plop plip-plop, plip.

Those are the boat people.

As the Bird Flies

The man came just as the monsoon season was ending. It was a Wednesday morning, and he handed over his money without a word. He was extremely well-groomed, probably about the same age as the boss: middle-aged, but dressed in a suit that was too nice for a duck boat ride. That’s thirty minutes, thunk thunk, I stamped a ticket and handed it to him as he glanced down at the “new” English Reading Volume 2, Revised Edition in front of me.

Are you a student, by chance?

Not really, sir . . . I’m planning to take the civil service exam.

Level Nine?

Yes, sir, the entry level.

He nodded, smiling genially. It was as genial as the word smile itself. Without another word he got on the boat and pliiip, plop pliiip, pliop plip, slowly headed out toward the center of the reservoir. And then, he stopped. I couldn’t really see clearly because I was sitting at the desk and he was backlit—he was unfolding something, probably a newspaper. And then the man started reading. Squeaaak squeaaak. The ducks, their heads tucked down, were scraping against each other in the early summer breeze. What an incredibly drowsy scene.

And time passed. It was just a regular amount of time, but it felt like a very, very long time. I closed my book and yawned. Stretching, I suddenly got the most ominous feeling. The world, it was too quiet. In the bright glare at the far end of my field of vision, I could see the one lonely duck boat.

He was dead.

We can assume that he probably took the pills he brought with him after he finished reading the newspaper, the police told us later. Life is really nothing but the twists of fate. If I hadn’t been trained by those seventy-three rejection letters, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it and would’ve passed out right then and there. That thought did cross my mind. The man had a strange smile on his face that wasn’t quite peaceful, and wasn’t quite sad. It actually looked a lot like the expression on the duck boat’s beak, with its peeling paint. Plip-plop plip-plop, plip, I hurried back to the office and called the boss. What?! The boss asked a few questions about what happened, then told me what to do. Is he wearing a life jacket? No, sir, he wasn’t wearing one. Then put one on him and call the police. I’ll come up right away. I went back to the plip-plopping boat, and strained to put the life jacket on the dead man. I couldn’t look straight at him as I finished my job, hazily recalling the moves and commands from my PT exercises one at a time. One two three, one one two three two, and so the work of doing running squats and turns and standing again was almost done. I was so drenched in sweat by the end that I looked like I’d taken an entire rainy season and dumped it over my head.

The police investigation was almost over. A suicide note was found in the man’s pocket. He had run a small to mid-sized business, gone bankrupt, and was on the run from his creditors. His family was falling apart. He’d done his best, everything he could really, but there was nothing that could be done, and he was sorry, he’d said. The police didn’t press us very hard, but they persisted in asking whether the situation was by the book and in compliance with the law; if there had been any negligence or the like. In the end they left with a little hush money. The boss, he seemed like he’d changed after that. He would stare off into space, and started smoking a lot more, even though he’d been saying before that he was thinking about quitting. Wholesale, or real estate deals, whatever it was he was chasing his friends all over the country for, he didn’t do that anymore either. Haven’t you been spending a lot of time here these days, sir? I asked as I boiled up some ramen. That could’ve been me. That’s all he said.

And then a lot changed. First, it was hard for me to get my rest because the boss was always there, and then I started getting nervous every time a customer came. This is a perfect place to commit suicide. One of the detectives had left us with that, and really, the more you thought about it, the more true it seemed. And then, not a single interesting person showed up for ages. It’s a boat ride twenty miles away from anywhere. You don’t do it because it’s fun, you do it because it isn’t fun—that’s what I started thinking. Whatever it was that the boss was supposed to do with his life kept getting screwed up, and maybe he was becoming the kind of person who does this kind of work. And I just wanted to go out to the reservoir and skip rocks. Plip-plop, plip-plop. The ratio of passing scores to total applications for the civil service exam broke the records that year. Ripples, ripples, across the stream, plip-plop, plip-plop, I hummed the children’s ditty to myself.

I guess my boss decided to stay permanently. He asked around and brought in a coffee vending machine one day. There are two choices for tea, too: yuzu or Job’s tears, that’s what the rental company people said. And I said, yuzu please, the boss crowed. He put up a bunch of floodlights and speakers on the roof of the office, making the area glaringly bright. We were eaten alive by mosquitos under the new lights, but it did feel fresher and brighter, like it was better somehow. We took turns putting calamine lotion on each other’s mosquito bites that night as we talked about the future of the park.

I’m going to try to fix the Whac-A-Mole tomorrow.

That mole thing?

Yes, sir.

Leave it. Let’s just throw it away.

The next morning, the boss and I started repairing and cleaning the thirteen duck boats. We replaced seven pedals and piped silicone into all the little cracks and crevices on the hulls. After we’d scrubbed off all the dirt and polished them, the ducks started looking much more . . . ducklike. I took special care wiping down 47-R and applied yellow paint to its awkward, naked beak. It’s the one the man was in. The feel of putting a life jacket on a dead person still stuck to my hands like oily paint. That’s why.

Is there anything you can’t do? my boss said as he took a drag on his cigarette. Well, I was in the engineering corps in the army, remember? So you were. What happened to the new business, sir? I looked into it . . . but there was no way to make it work. I see. Squinty mole. The boss’s daughter popped into my head and I shook it clear. Boing, ka-chunk boing, ka-chunk. Water striders were diligently teleporting themselves across the murky surface of the water.

This is a good song.

The boss suddenly closed his eyes. I really loved this song when I was young. A sad melody gushed from the speakers on the roof as the boss’s sharp voice hummed along. What song is it, sir? It’s the famed Simon and Garfunkel, of course. “El condor pasa” . . . The condor flies by . . .? The condor. Flies past.

I’m not sure if it was real, but right then, a bird burst out of the bushes near our room and flew off toward the forest. Come to think of it, I’d never once seen a condor fly. I’d never even seen a common wild goose fly. Why do condors migrate, I wonder. I never had any reason to know what they eat to survive, either. What would I do if something like that turns up on the civil service exam? I thought to myself, suddenly. Well, that’s not the only reason, but random questions like that were always popping into my head. Why does a condor fly away? The boss stopped humming long enough to ask as he lit another cigarette. Do they have a choice? They just go somewhere warm when it’s cold.

The song was over.


Global Coalition of Duck Boat Citizens

Ella, Mary, and Alice: we got three typhoons in a row, a rare occurrence. Ella and Mary turned toward Japan, but Alice hit Korea hard. The rain pounded down like stilettos doing the cha-cha. One, two, cha-cha-cha, one, two, cha-cha-cha, until late into the night. The boss and I had to go out and secure the boats. Are you pulling? Yes, sir! I know it always rains the day you wash your car, but what the hell is this? You’re completely right, sir. Pull! Yes, sir, I’m pulling. Bob, bob, the yellow beaks nodded in front of us as 47-R stared at me. Rain pelted the duck bodies. The night was a dream sequence of wind, water, and the cha-cha-cha, with a little human effort mixed in.

I woke at dawn. Must urinate. My bladder, taut and swollen with water like the reservoir, was filled to bursting. It was the beer from last night. The boss’s snoring followed me to the bathroom like an annoying puppy. Cha-cha-cha. Outside, the rain kept falling. The stream of my piss, steamy and seemingly endless like the rainy season, passed through my system and into the earth.

Thirsty. I opened the fridge to find three lonely bottles of beer. My head throbbed at the sight of those brown bottles. I grabbed some coins, thinking let’s have some coffee instead then. I could stand under the eaves next to the coffee vending machine and watch the rain, too. I stood there and drank the coffee. My life was standing there too, hum drum, drum. Maybe that’s why it suddenly felt even clearer. Could I really make it in a government job? I crumpled the question up with the paper cup and tossed it, but the cup hit the edge of the trash can and fell to the ground. Brick. I could hear something on the shore, or whatever the shore of a reservoir is called, a low murmur cutting through the rain. It was weak, but it sounded a lot like human conversation. So I stared searchingly into the darkness. I couldn’t see anything, but I definitely at least felt the murmuring. I perked up my ears and leaned in closer. The murmuring continued in some foreign language. There were several people.

I ran inside and shut the door and the windows with a screech. I woke the boss. Bolting upright, he babbled some nonsense about how he hadn’t been able to transfer the money this month yet, and what’s to be done. His forehead was drenched in a cold sweat. I’m so sorry, I apologized, but . . . and I laid out the whole story for my now fully awake boss. He lit a cigarette, his forehead all furrowed like Donald Duck’s. There was a furniture factory nearby, and there were rumors buzzing all over town that the foreign workers hadn’t received their pay for months. We managed to come up with that much between us. Let’s go see, the boss said as he stubbed out his cigarette. Slickers on and each gripping a two-by-four, we went around the bushes, carefully approaching the other side of the reservoir. We could hear the murmuring in the darkness again. Treading gingerly on the wet sand, we went up to the top of the hill, thinking we’d strike from behind. The dim dawn heaved itself over the muddy sand of the hill, the ground sucking at our feet as we walked.


Our mouths fell open. There before us was a scene like you could never imagine. Our hoods puffed out with the wind, then flattened down under another sheet of rain. Whatever it was, the scene before us crashed around inside our slickers, like, in our souls. The reservoir was packed with duck boats as far as the eye could see. Even with the basin swollen to overflowing, you couldn’t see the water for all the floating ducks. Bob, bob, each one nodding its lowered beak up and down—like a swarm of birds, hunkering down against the gusts of rain. Holding tight to our two-by-fours, we walked slowly toward our now unfamiliar reservoir.

How do you do?

We didn’t initiate the conversation—they did. There were two to three people seated in each four-person duck, and they were all foreigners. The man who spoke first looked South American, but he spoke fluent English. A flock of workers looked on. Uh, is that so . . . Well, when you put it that way . . . We’re well, but it’s just that . . . And well . . . it’s also not that . . . you know? The boss had those meaningful words to offer in response to the man’s simple “How do you do.” The man smiled brightly. Not wanting to seem awkward, we smiled back.

But what’s going on here? And where did you come from? The boss, businessman that he was, spoke English pretty well. The man didn’t answer, but had a lengthy exchange with a comrade in a different boat. He seemed to be asking for some kind of agreement. The other man nodded. We have come from Argentina. We are the Global Coalition for Duck Boat Citizens. Coalition? Of duck boats? The boss’s brow furrowed again. He looks like a Donald Duck transformer toy, I thought. The Argentines looked alarmed as well.

We led a few of the Argentines to our room. They seemed very grateful when we got them some coffee from the machine. Another man offered that they’d been battered by the heavy rains for two days. He was the younger brother of the man who’d spoken to us; his name was Juan. The older brother was José, and he introduced himself as the leader of the group. They’d lost their way because of the typhoon, and requested our assistance. Is that so? But I still cannot understand this. You must be very surprised, indeed . . . Juan ventured cautiously. We are going to China. We are looking for work, of course. There is work there . . . so the people say. And what about the duck boats? And this coalition? Ah yes, that . . . José opened up again. There are people who cannot fly on planes, yes? To start with, although there are economy seats, the fare is still very expensive, and then there are the visa issues . . . it is perhaps good for you to think of our situation in this way. Well, that’s that . . . and it’s just that . . . but it’s not just that, said the boss’s face even as he nodded sympathetically. In a word, he thought José was a crook.

We worked for the Green Giant. Yes, that horrible company that makes canned produce. My father and my uncle worked there, too. But one day the factory closed. When we asked about it, we found that the US headquarters had started to build a factory in China many years ago. Then one morning we were all unemployed. In the beginning we protested the change, but chaos erupted in our country, and we fell into difficult times. And now it has been some time with no resolution for us. Since that time, we have done every job that can be imagined, but the work is disappearing. That is why we take the duck boats. Those duck boats.

We learned about them from a friend from Peru, Juan continued. In Argentina, there were fewer and fewer jobs, but many told us there were new jobs in new industries in the developed countries and other developing countries. We just needed to go there. But we do not have the money for airplanes or boat fare. Our friend at the Green Giant, Fernando from Peru, by chance one day he showed us how to use the duck boats. He took one to New Mexico to work at a farm and returned to Argentina. So he became the first of the Duck Boat Citizens.

How do you mean, he took one?

He flew, of course.

José looked on, not batting an eye. And that is the thing, the secret function of the duck boats. After Fernando told us his story, we were in a similar situation and learned the secret of the boats. As for Fernando, he had been in a very difficult situation, and by chance had been sitting in a duck boat reading a newspaper when he read an article about a farm in New Mexico that was in trouble at the time because they had no workers. At that time Argentina was also in trouble for there were no jobs. How wonderful if I could leave, maybe I could go there and survive . . . he began to pedal and all at once the duck was floating in midair. Everything was very simple after that.

The boss didn’t have much to say. There isn’t much you can say about a story like that. José and Juan and the boss smoked their cigarettes. José, who said he’d worked in Vietnam two months before, offered me some Vietnamese cigarettes. I am fine, thank you. They’d passed through Japan on the way here too, he said, offering me a pack of Japanese cigarettes. I couldn’t refuse and accepted the pack. S-E-V-E-N-S-T-R-I-K-E, it read in English. SEVEN STRIKE. At some point the rain had stopped. There are still many jobs in Korea, yes? Juan asked. The boss exhaled a long stream of smoke before speaking. There are, it seems.

Thank you very much for your help. And with that, José took Juan and the rest of their family back to the boats. The boss looked like he was thinking something over, and he suddenly looked to José, who was already sitting in the boat and asked, How do you like living like this? José smiled and said—Ah, yes . . . well, since you ask that way . . . I would also ask how it is, but that is, then, something . . . and so I would also . . . I do not know if it is not right or how it is . . . it is something like this, you know—looking like he might say any one of those things, he didn’t say a word. There is but one world. Juan jumped in abruptly, winking with his index finger in the air. José gave the signal and they started pedaling in unison. In an instant, the reservoir became an opera house, trapping, diffusing, and echoing the sound around us in a beautiful chorus.

Plip-plop plip-plop plip-plop plip-plop . . .

And the duck boats flew up into the air. José and Juan waved to us. We waved back automatically, but we were stunned. Eventually the boats were no more than little dots in the sky like a flock of wild geese getting into formation. The quivering V moved steadily onward and shrank in the direction of China. I pulled out the Seven Strikes and lit one.


Open Wide and Say “Aah”

And so three years passed. After that night we became a public Duck Boat Coalition stopover. There was a network of people who rode duck boats and, true to its name, the Coalition of Global Citizens overflowed with a variety of people from a variety of countries. We met six families from Vietnam headed to the US, two Iraqis headed to Japan, seventy Peruvians going to Beijing, and we even met nine East Timorese who came here to Korea. The nine East Timorese docked their duck and worked here for a year before moving on to the Philippines. Business wasn’t bad either. We made a little money on the docking fee, and we sold coffee and snacks, basic stuff like ramen and hamburgers. English was standard for the Global Citizens so it was pretty easy. The plip-plop plip-plop opera that sounded so strange at first was all too familiar now. But . . .

There must be a lot of people in the world who can’t speak English, right? There must be. The boss and I discussed this as we watched the plip-plop plip-plop drama unfold again, and I would think to myself that life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Plip-plop plip-plop plip-plop plip, I completely bombed the exam that year. The odds of passing were a hundred and forty to one. 140:1! Maybe I should just take one of those ducks and disappear. But it was the boss who ended up with the duck boat. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything left for me to do here, he said as he climbed into R-47, and I couldn’t do anything to stop him. He left the park to me, and he plip-plop plip-plopped over to America. That was two years ago. And, of course, things changed after that.

I bit the dust on the exam the next year too. What’s wrong with this stupid machine? I opened up the Whac-A-Mole machine in a corner of the warehouse, and peered at its insides with single-minded determination. In short, it was a crappy machine. This is the kind of junk they sell these days. I patted each mole on the head and lit a cigarette. S-E-V-E-N-S-T-R-I-K-E. I decided that day to give up on the civil service exam and repainted the park sign with new determination. It looked like seven moles had dragged it through seven different tunnels, it was so dirty. So I started to feel sorry for old Yeoncheon Amusement Park again.

José came back. He only had a few cousins with him this time, but I didn’t see Juan anywhere. He was detained; caught by the Public Security Office. What can you do? That is how it is, you know. José smiled as usual. One of his cousins was heavily pregnant. They were on their way to America for the sake of the baby. The boss is in America right now, too. Is that so? Yes, it is so.

Every now and then the boss would call or email to let me know how things were going. In no time he and his family in L.A. were aboard R-47 together, and he told me recently that it wasn’t such a bad life. What do you think? I look different, don’t I? The attachment was a picture of a family eating hamburgers at Burger King. They were happy. And the boss, he’d sprouted a little paunch like he was the king of the moles. Looks good, I’d respond, then tell him about the park.

Little by little, the park was finding its way. I used the money the boss left to get a bunch of different fish to stock the reservoir, and started working on my idea to turn the park into a combined space with a fishing area and amusement park. The more I put in, the more people came. As for me, I started paying into a pension fund. Really, you have to contribute to one. The national pension fund representative sputtered at me, practically foaming at the mouth as he told me all about my comfortable retirement. It really covers everything, I thought to myself as I nodded at him. At least for me, there were the twelve duck boats that I could ride at any time.

The boss told me they moved to Canada, then Brazil, then back to the US, and that he’d found a place in Shanghai not too long ago. He added that they were going to stop by on the way there, and asked if I could get a few things for him: some food, eyeglasses, and a few other things. And of course, I know a global citizen has to be sensitive to prices and exchange rates. Don’t worry about it, I wrote back. Just for the boss, plip-plop plip plopping ten thousand miles to get here, I traveled the twenty miles to Seoul to buy his things. Driving the boss’s van up the highway, I encountered the forsythia and azaleas on their way up north. Spring again.

I woke up in the middle of the night to an awful racket. I could hear it clearly, and it was clearly a sound I knew. I went outside. I could see the silhouette of a lonely duck boat standing apart from the others in the dark night. I approached with my five big shopping bags. My heart started pounding strangely the moment I saw the “R-47” stamped on the back of the hull. But the boat looked a little different. First, you couldn’t see the interior at all, and the duck’s face looked a little strange. It was same bright yellow paint as before, but the bottom of the beak looked a lot bigger. It looked more like a pelican or something. I took in the little changes here and there, when an opening like a manhole opened on the pelican’s back and a head poked out. It was the boss. How have you been, sir? Ha ha, well enough. The family is asleep. With just his head sticking out he smiled and lit up a cigarette. I got one out too. Smoke plumed up like the down on the back of a pelican’s head. It was a nice spring night.

The boat looks really different.

Doesn’t it? We were cold and thought we needed a lot more cargo space.

Did you say cargo space?

Not a word. Don’t you know how much stuff we need?

Of course.

That’s how it goes. Hang on a minute.

And the boss went back inside the boat. I didn’t know if his mole of a daughter had woken up, if his wife was sick, or what was going on in there. You never know with this life, that’s why. It felt like it was just me and the pelican alone under the bright spring moon, waiting until he popped up to smoke another cigarette. Standing there with bags stuffed with ham and cheese and seaweed and other goodies, I looked at R-47 and felt the urge to say these words:

OK, open wide and say, “Aah.”

“Ah Haseyo, Pelikan” © Park Min-gyu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Jenny Wang Medina. All rights reserved.

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