Dirty Work

By Gene Kwak

The quaver in your dad’s voice unkinks something in you. Something deep and coiled. It comes from the very bottom, from where your ankles feel like they’re made of water. You are not a crier; your father is less of one. Even through the crystal-clear sound of the latest phone technology—like your ears are pressed up against each other’s heads—he sounds distant, like he is talking to you from one corner of the room with the phone in the opposite corner. He says the Korean word for grandfather, instead of Dad or Father or Pop. He says, Grandfather is dead. He says, come home, come home now. 

You book a flight through Memphis because when flying to Omaha from Boston your only choices are connecting in Memphis or Milwaukee and you would rather have the smell of bad airport BBQ on your clothes than deal with the herd of coeds, UW-Madison or Marquette logos emblazoned across their asses, tromping around in mud-slushed Ugg boots. Or the indecisive old timers trying to figure out if they want to go kosher on this flight’s meal plan when the less than two-hour trip, at most, offers up those palm-sized, cellophane packets of peanuts and pretzels. 

It is while sitting in the boarding area adjacent to your actual boarding area that you get a call from your sister, Janey. Janey is two years your junior, just turned twenty-four, but has it all together: two-year marriage, kid on the way, adult bills. She tells you over the phone that there was a conflict. She uses the word conflict. She says Little Uncle, using the Korean words for Little Uncle on your father’s side (by marriage), has gotten into a fight with Dad. Has called Dad a motherfucker. In front of everyone. 

She says not to get upset. Janey says she wanted to tell you before you got there because she knew how you’d react. She knows that since you were a child you had a streak of anger that sometimes baffled people, mostly your mother and father. You were prone to minor flights of violence (a baseball bat to the shins of an umpire over a blown Little League call or a balled fist to the temple of a fellow child over a borrowed plaything) She is maybe also referring to the crescent shaped scar above your lip where you were once hit in the mouth by the very same Little Uncle when he and his family first visited the States from Busan, fifteen or sixteen years ago. You were a know-nothing ten year old packed ten-deep with the rest of your family in an Econo van on a twenty-plus hour drive from Omaha to Niagara Falls. Little Uncle snatched a fry out of your hand, and you unleashed a torrent of expletives that resulted in him backhanding you. You’ve been looking for a reason ever since. 

Janey says the adults were convened in Big Auntie’s living room, figuring out the logistics of Grandpa’s funeral, when mid-conversation, Little Uncle turned to Dad and said, Fuck you, waving a middle finger on each hand. Dad was taken aback, she says. A thing you never do is cuss out an elder, even if it is only by three years. A thing you especially never do is cuss out an elder Kwak in front of the other Kwaks, twenty-three in total, assembled in Big Auntie’s living room. Cousins, aunts, uncles, half-cousins, nieces and nephews of the sort that you meet maybe once every five years, and all look the same to you, even though you, yourself, are Korean. 

Janey says, you could’ve heard a dime drop on carpet. The manic antics of the under ten: the little ones running and shrieking, the older kids giving chase, the elders mostly sitting back in plush recliners, watching it all unfold, ground to a sudden halt. Big Uncle was busy feeding his fish, the tropical fish he pays hundreds for, and kept shaking the fish food, those fat white floating flakes, over the water while everyone else sat silent.  

I’ll call you back, you say, your voice choked in your throat. The neon of cheap Elvis memorabilia blinking off of your face. The dead-eyed, mile long stare of overworked mothers looking past you as they wheel around strollers the size of Mini Coopers. A middle-aged man is slumped beside you, a magazine tented over his face.

You go to wash your hands. You notice dirt packed under the half crescents of your nails, though who knows from how long ago; you’ve never minded getting your hands dirty. You get impatient about the whole wait (the drive, the flights, the gates), but know that this stasis is good for you. You want to call Little Uncle directly. You thumb the numbers. Dial all six, but wait until hitting the last digit once, twice. Three times. Finally you gather up the courage and just tap at it. It rings and rings and rings. You hang up. 

The thing you know, that you all know, is that Little Uncle is pissed for one reason: he had asked your father to help pay his way through college and your father had declined. 

He had declined because Little Uncle, Uncle Fuck You, had already been through the university system overseas, had held, for over seventeen years, a suit-and-tie job at a medium-sized corporation in Korea. A junior corporate position. 

But he and Auntie Junior came to the States about a decade and a half after your initial familial thrust. The first foray being you, as a newborn, your father and mother (both in their early twenties) and Big Auntie and Uncle who had just come over by way of Germany (by way of Korea), where she had worked as a nurse and he’d repaired plates on tanks. Dad was a champion studier, the type the whole family rallies around and wishes best of lucks to and stashes money in mattresses for. But they didn’t. Not only was there no money, there were barely any mattresses: sheets on the floor played the same. His dad, your grandpa, was a deadbeat you heard through hearsay, and offered nothing: his only hand-me-down a recessive gene for alcoholism and hairless knuckles.

So your father worked at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, paying for a wife and child on the flimsy TA salary, going without lunch to purchase cheap toys for his baby boy. This went on for two years then another three for his Ph.D. During the interim, your mother had your sister, Janey. These were lean years when Christmas meant donations from the Salvation Army and a weekly grocery budget was little more than twenty-five dollars. 

This reminds you, you need to eat. With the early flight time and the security line, you’ve gone hours without sustenance. You feel light-headed. You finger the crumpled money in your wallet, more than your family squirreled away for an entire month’s worth of food.    

After eating, you make your way back to your gate. A blonde woman in her late forties, a red and white ascot tied around her neck, calls your flight number. As you watch the old folks in their perpetual shorts shuffle through the gate, followed by the young parents with kids, followed by the businessmen with their hard-backed briefcases, there is a minor commotion. A large gentleman with tight, dark curls of hair and a bad Hawaiian print shirt is still stuck in stand-by and screaming obscenities at the ascotted attendant. He leaves her with a fuck you. Everyone else boards apologetically, without fanfare.  

An old family story: little Janey, no more than two at the time, had pawed at Big Auntie’s TV screen saying, po-do, po-do, the Korean word for grape, because your family couldn’t afford them. That you once knew that level of poverty feels distant, like a numb arm.  

Big Auntie was the only one who helped, with lodging in her basement, a job working register in her store, a convenience store she founded with a partner of African descent, who decided to fold and got bought out by Big Auntie and Uncle. Owning their own business being their goal. The nursing and tank repair was only the hard work to bide time. While Dad worked the register and hauled fifty-pound bags of rice, your childhood was spent poking bean sprouts out of the bottom holes of plastic garbage bins you washed them in. Peddling kimchi alongside mucuna pruriens. For this, Dad was always indebted to Big Auntie, but toward the others he was apprehensive. 

Although he was later able to make it: a tenured professor, the epitome of the American Dream, down to the three-car garage, picket fence, and two-point-five children (your baby brother, Chubbs, coming a decade after you), once he started to get comfortable, there came family asking for handouts, the first two fingers and thumb sizzle. 

Little Uncle, granted, worked long hours at an area Walmart. But the point, your Dad said to you, was they all did it when they got here. Everyone worked to the bone, to the marrow, to the center of themselves. Even people who are pretty well off in different countries come here, shuffling everything in their old homelands aside, wanting and wishing for the big dream. Not just to make it, but to make it big. They go to Harvard Square and rub the statue’s foot or dream of piney Stanford. Buy lotto tickets in bulk. And then they are upset or disillusioned when faced with more hours pushing carts in an empty warehouse chain. And so they ask for money from the one person they know who might have it. Because, that’s family. Family you can rely on. Only, that person has enough burdens to bear, foremost among them, his father’s funeral. 

Grandpa was always a saint to you, but you figured this to be more about patriarchal old way-isms and you being the oldest male to carry on the Kwak name in the forty-eight contiguous over any genuine you-and-him kinship. Grandpa, to his credit, took you to parks, bought you dollar candy, showed you how to angle pond rocks to get the maximum skip. Only years later did you learn that not only was he not helping out Dad financially, but also, apparently, Grandpa had another family on the side. This came to light when one of your younger cousins, Mihyun, tried to show him the how-to of the Internet and he got irate for reasons you young ones couldn’t understand. You later learned it was because he was trying to wish one of his other grandkids back in the homeland a happy birthday. 

Grandpa had this other family that your whole family, immediate and extended, knew about, still they brought him in when he got a dark spot in his lungs after being a forty-five year devotee of Esse cigarettes. He’d been quite content in a little apartment in Yongsan-gu, an older suburb of Seoul. Something about the knowing bustle of it. The familiarity. He’d come to the States once before, when you were seven, and he’d planned on staying, but after the infamous driving lesson that ended in him flipping a station wagon, ass-over-end, he was Thank you, Goodbye. 

A family consensus that the American healthcare system is superior to the one in Seoul set Grandpa up in a little trailer in the middle of downtown Omaha, where he raised chickens out behind in their own little coop. The trailer was adjacent to Big Auntie’s grocery store and Dad outfitted Grandpa’s digs, hand-built by Big Uncle, with orthopedic this, leather that, a big screen TV. Grandpa watched Korean dramas through a satellite dish that fuzzed out in hard rain and went for treatments at Creighton. Three years later he collapsed in the hospital, the catch-up to too many years of pack-a-day cigarette habits.

During the awkward wait at the baggage claim, you can’t imagine the eat-him-up feelings your dad must have about his own father’s death. The father that never gave him shit. That fathered another family. That he, Dad, still respected. Paid for. Right to the end. You wish you could magically take the onus off him. Take the burden on yourself. Tell him it is going to be okay. Rub his shoulders, chuck him under his chin.  

In the midst of strangers and their luggage, you well up. You blink the tears away, cough hard into your fist so no one notices you bent over, wiping at the edges of your eyes. But even you realize your tears are less about your grief or the loss of Grandpa, they are about your father. 

You know what you have to do: drive, first-thing, to Little Auntie’s house, knock on the door, and give Little Uncle three seconds before you start pounding the door with both fists only to find no one home. You’ll drive to Walmart next, screech into the handicapped parking space nearest the door, jump out of the car, wait a beat for the automatic sliding doors, and find Little Uncle stacking cans of spray cheese. You’ll violently grab him, screaming, No, Fuck you! your fists white, gripping his blue vest. I will unburden the world of you, you’ll scream in your bad Korean, meaning to say something like, I wish you didn’t exist or I’ll kill you. You’ll fling him to the floor, leaving him spit-flecked in the wake of your rage. A karmic backhand for old times. For your sake and your father’s sake. 

Because a thing you never do is disrespect the father of a man who loves his father. 

Family isn’t an open-hand. Family isn’t an ask, but a do. A doing. Like standing up for a man who would stand up on his own, but shouldn’t have to. Who has his own ideals about family and what it means to fork over when he’s tired of forking over, when the goddamned tines have been nubbed down from forking. Family is wanting to save him from this. Family is the dirty work if anything.

Published 5/7/15 with Awst Press. To see more of Gene's work, go here


Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City


Awst Collection - Gene Kwak

This collection in print is 32 pages, hand sewn, and will be available to ship after 5/7/15.

It contains two previously published stories and one new one.