On The Balcony: A Short Story

Park Soo-Ae in A Family

photo credit: Tube Entertainment

St. Patrick’s Day, 2003

John Chong is 22 years old

*

“Let me see that!” says Marsha.

“What?” says John.

“That! Your cell phone! Let me see it!”

Marsha shouts when she is excited, as if she’s drunk, even if she isn’t.

On the balcony, seated far above the busy din of everyday life with a sliding glass door separating them from the rest of the St. Patrick’s Day party goers, John Chong and Marsha Choi talk in the way that old friends who have never had sex with each other but always wanted to are apt to talk, finding mutual amusement at the expense of each other, like how siblings will sometimes banter the kind of banter that is loose and easy and that carries generations of unfinished business.

John gives her his cell phone. It is pink with colored sparkly lights on the antenna. When Marsha flips it open, it chimes out “Cascade of Fate” by Joost Benton. It’s a very heavy song, not at all pink and sparkly.

“You are so weird, John,” she says, holding the phone to her ear and checking her nails. “Joost Benton.”

“You know Joost Benton?”

“Nope,” she says, handing the phone back to him.

He looks at it. The display reads: Now Playing ‘Cascade of Fate’ by Joost Benton. He closes the flip top and puts it on the balcony ledge. The cigarette he was smoking is about two puffs past its prime. John puts it out and lights another. He offers one to Marsha. She accepts.

“Do you remember, with the Tribe, how you and I used to smoke on the roof of Swem?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says.

“And all the people looked like bugs, roaches, skittering from one crack to another.”

“We’d make up stories about them, where they were going, who they were going to see.”

“Who they were fucking.”

“They all looked the same from up there. You couldn’t tell if they were tall or short, fat or skinny, white, black, Chinese.”

“Well, you could tell the Chinese guys,” she says.

“How?” John asks, a little sharply.

“Come on, remember? We used to joke about it. The Chinese guys had a gait, sorta hurried and in control,” she explains, thrusting her hands forward as if she were a robot holding an invisible box of tissue paper.

“And they were always going to Jones,” she says.

“I had a class in Jones Hall once,” he says.

“Yeah, so did everybody. That’s the only place they ever have any math classes.”

“Actually, I took an engineering class there.”

“What?”

“Yeah, it was like ‘Engineering for Poets’ or something.”

“How was it?”

“I don’t know. It was cool. It made my dad happy.”

“Your dad?”

“Roy, my step-dad, the mechanic for American Airlines.” he says.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she says. “Mr. Foxy McFoxy Pants.”

“You know, that’s kinda racist.”

“What?”

“McFoxy Pants. Roy’s fucking Irish you know.”

“Dude’s about as Irish as Michael Jordan is African.”

“You’re not making it any better.”

“Why’s everything gotta be racial for you, Johnny? We’re just hanging out, bro.”

She chides him, emphasizing the word “bro” as a sort of cultural code for college educated dipshit.

“Okay,” he says, waving his hand across his chest as if to signify that it’s time to move on.

“No, but seriously. Dude is a fox.”

“Well, dude also thought I’d make a good engineer. So he got pretty excited that I was taking that class.”

“Little did he know your ass can’t barely recite your times tables.”

“Haha, but okay, that’s true,” he says. “So, it was actually kinda cool. I’d talk to him about what I learned, pour point depressant, endothermic reaction, suction head.”

“Suction head huh?”

“Oh sure, in engineering we got all kinds of suction and all kinds of head. We got a suction line; we got suction pressure; suction service; and we got self-lubricating heads; cylinder heads; dynamic discharge heads. It’s sexy stuff.” John says, straight-faced.

“Of course, you only remember the prurient terms!” Marsha says, yelling. “You have no idea what any of those words mean!”

“Of course I do!” insists John. “For example: dynamic discharge head is an equation. It’s pressure from fluid plus pressure from resistance plus pressure required to accelerate. ‘Head’ actually refers to pressure. So dynamic discharge head is referring to…”

“God! Okay, okay, enough! You’re killing me, John.”

John appears pleased.

“Well, he was happy, my dad I mean. I think he thought I might change my mind and finally go into engineering instead.”

“Instead of what, Bible college?”

“I wasn’t planning on Bible college yet at that point.”

They pause to quietly smoke their cigarettes, careful not to make eye contact for the duration of the intermission.

“So,” Marsha says, after a reasonable amount of time to honor the idea that John will very soon embark on what she sees as an ill-advised career choice. “You just set him up for more disappointment then.”

“Yeah, sure, well, I got an A.”

“Obviously, you get an A in every class.”

“So did you.”

“But I cheated,” she confesses. “You’re just a nerd.”

“Well, we both ended up in the same place,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says, “the same place. A thousand miles from home, back in school, dating white people, being geniuses.”

John laughs. He’s one to laugh. He can’t resist. She makes him laugh.

“Why are you dating a white guy?” John asks, apparently by chance.

“Why am I? Why are you dating a white girl?” she says.

“Why am I? Mar, come on, you have to know it’s not the same thing for me to date a white girl as it is for you to date a white guy. I mean, it’s not the same thing to be an Asian guy in America as it is to be an Asian girl. Dating for you is a party, a fucking smorgasbord. You have your pick of any guy in the room. For me? There are probably 1-out-of-10 non-Asian girls that would even consider dating a Chinese guy. Politically, our dating habits have totally different significances. Me dating a white girl furthers the cause. You dating Vann? Sets us back.”

“Really? So you’re dating Berta for political reasons? Well fuck! That is sad. I’m sorry, but here’s a novel idea, me and Vann just like each other.”

“Yeah, of course, that’s fine for you and Vann. But there is always a political part to every relationship, even, no especially, romantic ones. There is always an issue of power, whether it’s a gender issue or a race issue or a nationality issue or a geography issue or a financial issue. Every relationship contains a power struggle. It’s inherent.”

“I don’t know how to respond to that.”

John starts to feel a familiar feeling in his head and his hands, tight and panicky. His thoughts race and race.

“Well, how about: ‘Vann is my ticket to whiteness. If I marry Vann, my last name will be Rotterdam and people will think I’m white when I talk to them on the phone. And we can have kids with light hair, nose bridges and double-eyelids. And Vann isn’t tied down to all those misogynistic Confucian values, and isn’t kept down by all the American stereotypes for Chinese men. So, he won’t expect me to cater to his mom or to cook for him. And he knows how to have fun and how to hold his liquor. And he isn’t cheap.’ Or how about: ‘Vann has a big fat circumcised cock!’”

“Fuck you, John,” she says, quietly. “What? Am I supposed to become enlightened by that? Am I some kind piece of property that all you men are waging some sexual war over?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, that’s exactly what you’re saying”

“It’s not about me wanting to own you. It’s about us trying to move society forward.”

“That’s not what it sounds like. It sounds like some backwards ass medieval bullshit. And you’re talking all this shit, you don’t even know Vann.”

“I don’t have to know him. He doesn’t matter to me.”

“No, you do have to know him. He’s not your goddamn enemy. He’s a great guy. He’s funny and nice to everybody. He doesn’t have an agenda. He just likes me.”

“Of course he likes you. That’s not the point. It’s not about him liking you. It’s not about him being a nice guy. Fuck! I like him! Vann is cool! But that’s not the point. You-dating-him is more important than that. It’s more significant than that.”

“No,” she says, getting up to leave. “It’s not. It’s not more significant than that. It’s not more important than that. John, let this go. This kind of thing, it’s not helping you.”

“Helping me? Mar, you know what? What I’m saying is true. You just don’t want to admit it.”

“Admit what? That I’m a piece of meat in your socio-racial game of Monopoly? Or that I’m some conniving race-traitor?”

“Exactly,” says John, pseudo-sarcastically. “Right, that’s what I’m saying. Shit, Mar, open your fucking mind. It is political. It is about power. Even love is about power.”

“So what, are you and me about power?”

“That’s…” John begins, but he doesn’t answer.

He is stuck.

He wants to say, no, of course not. We’re really friends. We really love each other.

But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to say that. He wants his point to be heard. He wants Marsha to acknowledge that she had it easy and he had it hard. He wants her to apologize for how things were when they were kids, how terrible he felt when he realized that people, especially girls, just didn’t like him and there was nothing he could do about it. There was no way he could make himself white enough to make him not Chinese. He wants her to be sorry that she never stood up for him, that she never shared the secret to her success.

John shakes his head, ruminating on how pist he is, and snarls comically. It’s comical because he looks a little like a bulldog on account of his chubby cheeks and pronounced under-bite. He stops snarling to adjust his glasses. They don’t really fit his face. Then he lights another cigarette.

He tastes something indistinct on the roof of his mouth and wonders if his breath stinks. Rubbing his canines with his tongue, he looks around for Berta. She is talking to two of her girlfriends. She’s about half a foot taller than the other girls. They’re Japanese. A Mexican guy is trying to enter their conversation. Berta ignores him completely. The Japanese girls try to be courteous by nodding and laughing at his jokes.

Usually, John would be smiling, watching Berta being Berta. He is very proud of her; she makes him feel proud, as if her love for him is proof enough of his value as a man, as a human being. Looking at her now, he’s not a believer, and there isn’t enough proof in the world to make him one.

Marsha looks at John looking at Berta. She scans the room for Vann. She grins as she does this. There’s no urgency, just curiosity. Whatever he’s up to, Marsha is sure he’s not arguing with someone about socio-racial issues.

Much more likely, she imagines, that he might be hitting a bong in the small bedroom with Regal and Richard. They might be watching I Love Lucy and laughing a lot. At least Vann and Regal might be laughing a lot. Richard might be pacing back and forth, as if he’s a robot holding an invisible box of tissue paper, but happy. Very, very happy.

 

The Robbery: A Short Story

punch_in_the_face

1. The Robber

It’s not like I woke up in the morning and planned this shit. Sometimes, shit just happens.

It started out like this, I was just looking for somewhere to spend a couple hours waiting for my fucking mom to finish with her bridge club or some shit. I seriously don’t know what the fuck she was doing. Just that I wasn’t gonna be doing it with her, but I needed to wait for her ass to get it done.

I know, I’m a fucking asshole talking about my mom like that. Sorry. But, Jesus. At least I waited for her, right?

Anyways, I’m getting off track. So, where the fuck was I? Waking up and planning bad shit? Yeah, that’s not me. I’m not a bad guy. At least not on purpose, you know? I’m a, what do they say, a opportunist.

So, I’m waiting for my mom. Just sitting in front of the Gerry’s Liquor, smoking my menthols, drinking my big ass Monster tea. And this fucking dude walks out with a lotto scratch card and he’s got this look on his face like he’s just won a million fucking dollars.

Now, I’m not a dumb ass, I don’t think people walk around holding a scratch card with a look on their faces like they won a million bucks unless there’s some good fucking reason to walk around holding a scratch card with a look on their face like they’ve won a million fucking bucks.

So I ask the dude, “Hey, you got a look on your face like you’ve just won a million bucks.”

And dude says, “Yeah, I think I just did.”

At this point, I’m cozying up to him, nice and easy. Trying not to spook him. I don’t even know what the fuck I was doing, but I did. You know, like instinctual. So I creep up to the fucker, take a nice slow gander at his lotto, make a nice friendly comment like, “well, well, well, congratulations, old chap.”

And I pop him, right the fuck in the mouth, and grab the ticket and bail the fuck out. Good night.

2. The Robbed

You know some people are just lucky. You think, for most of your life, that isn’t you. You wake up every day, and your life is kinda lame. You got this lame job, lame friends, lame lovers, when you even have any lovers at all.

And a resignation sorta falls over you. You kinda give up on things getting better, on the possibility that maybe, some day, your lucky day will come.

But still, some weird little part of you won’t let go. Some stubborn and optimistic little piece of your soul just keeps insisting that your lucky day actually is going to come. You just need to hang on, one more day.

Just one more day.

Do not give up.

But that little voice, most days, just sorta goes about its quiet business. Not really making a fuss. Not really getting loud and preachy. It’s not like you wake up with Tony Robbins taking you by the shoulders and demanding you give it the old college try.

So, this little voice, this little character, the thing it does: it makes you go buy lottery tickets.

And so you do.

And lo and behold, one day, one perfectly ordinary day, it comes through and you win.

At least for a minute, you feel like everything is different. That you’re one of the winners. That you’re lucky.

And then somebody punches you in the face and steals your prize.

3. The Witness

Gerry makes a point of making conversation with everyone that comes into Gerry’s Liquor. She calls it “her” liquor store because they share the same name, but she doesn’t own it. She just works there. The late shift, most of the time. But the way she takes care of the place and the way she treats the customers, it’s not unusual for people to assume that she is actually the owner.

There’s one man that Gerry has known for years. A sad person, usually in to buy beer and cigarettes and, randomly, lottery tickets. She notices that he has come in with a slightly elevated attitude tonight. It’s not that he’s happy. It’s more that he’s not so burdened.

He comes to the counter with his case of Natural Lights and asks for one of the new tickets, the Wheel of Fortune. She smiles as she pulls the ticket for him. She’s got a a feeling about this ticket, it’s gonna change his life.

Asian Men – Black Women

My friend Elliott Chen interviews Asian Americans that don’t fit into the usual stereotypes (whatever those are!):

  • Arthur Chu, the Ultra-cocky Jeopardy Villain
  • Shaoi, Asian Lady Tractor Trailer Mama
  • Elliott himself, who lived through the murder-suicide of his mother and step-father.

Elliott’s most recent subject is Ranier, an Asian American dude that loves Black American women.

RanierwGF2-1

If we’re having an honest conversation, there are some interracial couplings that America is more comfortable with: Asian Women with White Men, White Women with Latino Men, Latina Women with Black Men.

And there are some that draw curious double-takes: Asian Men with White Women, for example.

And even today, there are some that elicit the moronic outrage of America’s deepest racist fears. One sad example is a Cherrios commercial that sparked angry racist comments in 2013 from idiots who could not tolerate seeing a happy interracial family on TV.

Here’s Elliot’s interview with Ranier, the Asian dude that loves Black girls.

 

Writing Group Dynamics: Reading Submissions

man_looking_at_stack_of_papers

Reading submissions for a writing group can be as time consuming as the group meetings themselves. But it’s the hinge from where good feedback and critique comes from.

Here are some pointers from Tammie Bob of the College of DuPage on how to read writing group submissions:

  • Read the submission at least twice.
  • The first time through, read it as a reader. Pay attention to: Did this make sense? Did I enjoy it? What kinds of readers would like this?
  • The second time through, read it as a writer. Focus on what needs to be changed and how to make it better. Make comments and suggestions around: what’s missing, what doesn’t flow, what is confusing.
  • Always try to think in terms of what the writer is trying to accomplish, not what you would try to accomplish if you were in the writer’s shoes. Try to understand the writer’s goals, interests, quirks, voice.
  • Pay attention to Characterization, Continuity, Technique, Format, Dialogue, Plot, Pacing and Conflict.
  • Characterization: Do the characters seem real? Why or why not? Is there too much time spent inside a character’s head instead in action?
  • Continuity: What’s unresolved? What’s inconsistent? Is the writer’s personality/opinions too intrusive? Is there too much/too little detail?
  • Technique: Is the English readable? Typos, grammar errors, run-ons?
  • Format: Paragraphs/sentences too long? Transitions between paragraphs/scenes? POV clearly established and maintained? Clutter?
  • Dialogue: Do the characters’ words seem natural and to fit their personalities? Is there enough dialogue? Are their voice distinct? Is the dialogue used just for backstory or for actual character development? [Rule of Thumb: no more than four lines of dialogue should be written without a break, some action, even if just a gesture.]
  • Pacing: Does the plot and subplots move fast enough? Do the plots skip around too much? Are action and dialogue balanced?
  • Conflict: Does the conflict that is brought up earlier resolve to a reasonable conclusion? Is the conclusion appropriate for the character development?

 

 

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

I am a ridiculous sucker for “rules of writing.” I don’t ever follow these rules. But goddamnit(!) do I love to collect them.

Plus, these were given to me by my writing teacher, who is also a published novelist, so there’s a tiny bit more weight to it…

neil-gaiman-lantern_0

Neil’s Rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending youve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesnt work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But its definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/28/neil-gaiman-8-rules-of-writing/

The Contest: A Short Story

John Chong is a lost soul. Having ultimately failed at the only thing he was ever good at, he sets off to unearth the long buried truth of his past. What he finds is strange and complicated. This story is his first stop on that long journey.

NOTICE: this story includes explicit language and description

Pissing at the Moon by Pieter the Younger Brueghel

Pissing at the Moon by Pieter the Younger Brueghel

Early Spring, Rainy Season, 2010

John Chong is 29 years old

*

There’s this painting in the lobby of Dolly’s Dilemma called “The Contest.” As a kid I thought it was a picture of this bunch of old dudes looking at the ocean. But one day, I was about 12, I realized that they aren’t just looking. They’re standing in a row jerking off to see who can produce the strongest ejaculate.

Dolly’s is a little like that painting. It’s got a bit of an identity problem. Sitting right here on the edge of Dhagston, Dolly’s is a drag-bar-slash-steakhouse, meaning it’s a family diner by day and full on drag-queen heaven by night.

The place is not even really named Dolly’s Dilemma. God knows why we call it that. [1]

I’m here to meet this old waiter named Paul. It turns out he knows my family. Supposedly he knew my father. I don’t know why, but whenever I hear someone’s got something to tell me about my dad, I can’t help but go see them. This guy says he used to be in Dolly’s stage show with my dad. And that my dad was this super fucking gorgeous drag queen.

I don’t remember that part.

But I do remember this place.

Crazy hippies.

And in those days they were crazy, but I mean friendly as fuck too. God, I actually liked them. My Aunt Maureen and Roy, back when they were still together, were so down with these fuckers. Even now she still talks about Dolly’s as if she still hangs out here. But she probably hasn’t stepped foot in the place in like 10 years. [2]

I’m just looking at the old painting when this old dude comes out from behind the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room. It’s gotta be Paul, the dude that knew my father.

He rushes over as soon as he sees me. Grabs me and starts yelling in my ear.

“John? Little John? Oh my God, Johnny Mark Chong! My sweet boy!”

“Hey, hey, hey,” I say, struggling against his surprisingly stern bear hug.

Then I give in.

What the fuck?

Who cares, right?

So, for a second, I let myself lean into him. My over-tight shoulders let go and I hug him back. Then my face kinda goes flush and I tear up. Why the fuck for, who knows.

“Paul,” I say. “Right? Paul?”

He lets go long enough for me to take a step back.

“Yes! Jesus, John,” he says. “Paul! Uncle Paul. Well, just Paul. You’re a grown man now. Jesus! You’ve grown! Like a tree! Like a big strong tree!”

“Well, not so strong.”

“Well, strong enough, right?”

He hugs me again. It’s like he can’t stop. I’m not really into it. I don’t mind affection. But neediness or sentimentality of whatever the fuck this is. It’s not my thing.

“So, what’re doing now?” he says. “You’re a preacher, right?”

“No, not any more. That didn’t work out.”

“Oh,” he says.

I definitely don’t want to get into that subject, how I went to Bible school to make peace with losing my dad and then left when I found out that the Bible says my dad’s burning in hell. So, I change the subject before he can dig into it.

“So, Paul, how are things at old Dolly’s?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Things are hard. Dolly’s not the same. These days, we’re just a bunch of old queens trying not to fall down on top of each other.”

“Sorry, man.”

“Please! Don’t be sorry. I’m happy. I do what I love. I have friends. And today, I get to see you. This is so great. God, I loved your dad.”

Paul hunches over, one hand against the wall the other on my shoulder. Struggling to keep his balance. But he keeps smiling. He keeps making eye contact. His eyes are like icy blue, like a fucking Alaskan Malamute. Staring at me like I’ve taken the shape and form of God himself.

“Matt was so good to me,” he says. “Better than Roy even, you know?”

Matt was my dad.

I don’t know if I mentioned that.

Roy is my Aunt Maureen’s ex-husband.

Pretty sure I did mention that.

Roy’s also my step-dad, which I know for sure I haven’t mentioned yet.

I know. It’s ridiculously confusing. There’s so much more. But I’ll spare you.

Paul’s still talking about my dad.

“Matt used to take me out with him, when I was just this little gay kid. He never treated me like a kid though. He always said, ‘you’re a man, Paul, the world just ain’t accepted that yet.’”

“Yeah, he said a lot of shit like that. A regular walking fortune cookie.”

“Well, it meant a lot to us. Me and all the other weirdos. He had so many weird friends, you know?”

“I sorta remember that,” I say.

“Your dad, people loved him. You know why? Because he was always comfortable in his own skin. And ‘cause of that, he never judged nobody else. Never. Not us queers or addicts or gangsters, whatever. He was a regular freaking Jesus.”

“Yeah, ‘the mark of a gentleman,’ right?”

“Huh?”

“This thing he used to say: the mark of a gentleman is to live and let live. The trick is, you gotta do both.”

“That was a good one,” he says. “So sweet.”

Paul straightens himself up against the counter. I think I can hear his back crack a couple times. Dude is obviously in bad shape.

There aren’t really any customers in the place. Just one table with three middle-aged women drinking old fashioneds. Paul nods at them. They wave him over. He waves back but shakes his head no, pointing at me.

“Your dad was a lady killer too. Man, always had girls hanging all over him. I don’t know how your mom put up with it, God bless her soul. But he stayed loyal though, I’ll tell you that. Seriously. Your dad was loyal to a fault, as you know. I mean, in the end, you know, that’s sort of what killed him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Shoot, you know? I mean, no one wants to blame anyone anymore, but back then, your dad was working this job with Roy. Someone messed up the specs on the window alarms. Armed patrol showed up, those folks got hurt, I mean, no one died. But your dad and Roy, they put some people in the hospital that night. Your dad took the fall for that. But, it was Roy that messed up those codes.”

This was all news to me. All I ever heard about my dad was what a criminal mastermind he was. Never that he royally fucked up some job. And who the fuck even knows what kinda job Paul’s talking about. Stealing shit, fucking smuggling shit, or God forbid, something worse.

“After Matt got out, he was trying to walk the straight and narrow but he had a real hard time getting work. He had to leave Dhagston, which was brutal for you and your mom. Your mom couldn’t stand it. But Matt had to make money. He wasn’t gonna make a living dancing here! So he went off to California. People out there are more apt to forgive, or maybe they just didn’t ask. But he got work at Boeing, which was good work. He was on the 747 project. He was so proud of that plane. He said ‘this is it, Paul. This plane is gonna be THE plane for the next hundred years.’ Shoot, and he was right. You and your mom were ready to join him out there, but then, you know, the accident happened, and well shoot. Sorry for bringing that up, John, not like you asked to hear about all this. I’ll stop.”

“It’s okay Paul, really. What happened?”

“We don’t really know, you know. I mean, it’s all pieced together. But Roy was in Chicago, O’Hare Airport. Working maintenance for American. Well, you know that part, right?”

“Not really,” I say. “Roy never talked about it.”

“You know he lives back out on the Landing now, though, right? He got a place over by the Old Starlight Book and Culture Club. He’s like a regular beatnick poet now. Spends his days drinking and then writes about it, like Charles Bugokowski.”

I start to correct him, but leave it alone. Nobody likes a know-it-all.

“Yeah,” is all I say.

“Well, Roy,” he says. “Really though, you sure you want to hear this? It’s about your folks?”

“Are you looking for permission, man?”

“Well, I guess so. But, I mean, sometimes we say things and it changes people’s lives.”

“You don’t need my permission, Paul. If it’s something you want to say, then you should say it. For your own sake. Let me worry about me.”

“Okay, well, Roy was always in love with your mom. He couldn’t help it. He’d tried to keep his distance, but it always stuck.”

This all isn’t news to me.

“So after your dad passed, you know, he left Maureen to be with your mom. Which doesn’t matter in the end though! Because you’re Matt’s son. You got Matt’s heart and goodness, you know, his generosity and you’re not lazy. So, you’re Matt’s kid, no matter what.”

“I don’t know about that,” I say. How this guy thinks he knows what kinda heart I have is beyond me.

“But Roy,” Paul says. “He always felt like he was the one that raised you. That he was your real father.”

I guess I looked pretty annoyed at this point. Paul grabs me and holds me again. I’m starting to be okay with it. The hugging I mean, not this bullshit story.

“So,” he says. “That’s Roy’s story. That’s why, he says, he gave you guys all that money when you were growing up. And why he put you through seminary. And why he writes. You know he started writing, right?”

“No,” I say. “I never knew that.”

“Yeah. His poems are almost all about you. He’s got this book he wrote for you, he called it A WORD TO LIVE BY. [3] It’s terrible, because Roy’s a terrible writer, but it doesn’t matter. He wrote that for you.”

I don’t even notice that Paul’s holding my hands, both of them in both of his.

“You okay, kid?” he says.

“Yeah, I’m good,” I say.

I’m smiling but tearing up again. And my skin feels cold, even my hands in old Paul’s warm pudgy mitts. It’s like sour wires crawling lengthwise across my arms. Stupid. I’m not gonna fucking cry over this.

“Hey, man, I gotta run,” I say, handing him my business card from Hesperian. [4] “But let’s keep in touch okay. I mean, this is too rare, you and me.”

“Yeah,” he says. “But you just got here.”

“No, seriously, let’s pick this up later,” I say, stopping to put my hand on his chest, patting his sternum in genuine respect.

“You get it, right?” I say.

He sighs.

I assume he gets it.

I’ve had enough for now.

But before I go, I don’t know why, I have to ask him about the picture.

“Hey, what’s the deal with that picture?”

“What, ‘The Contest’?”

We both turn to face the painting.

The men in the picture are very old. The have their backs to us. They seem to shoot their loads one after the other or maybe it’s all at once, masturbating and ejaculating into the foamy sea. They cum a lot. There’s an ocean of the stuff.

It’s impressive.

There’s something in there about growing old. About getting it up for one last hurrah.

“Yeah,” I say. “The fucking contest. Is that for real? They really trying to see who can shoot their loads the farthest?”

Paul laughs, happy.

“No, kid. No. The contest isn’t about that. They aren’t contesting against each other. They’re contesting against fate.”

I’m already leaving at this point. I look back at old Paul. He nods at me like he’s just shared with me the smartest fucking shit any old dude ever said to a younger guy.

But I don’t know if I understand it.

In the parking lot, I’m out of smokes. I know there’s some Golden King menthols in my glove box. They aren’t mine. I hate menthols. [5] I go to get them and it turns out the pack is empty anyway.

And I start crying again, then I start laughing.

I get in the car and head out to the Landing, to the Old Starlight Book and Culture Club.

—————————

NOTES

[1] The establishment known as Dolly’s Dilemma is legally ran under the moniker of “Delmonico’s Steak House.” Delmonico’s owns a non-transferable liquor license. When Jerry Delonte bought the restaurant, he attempted to legally change its name to Dolly’s Dilemma but quickly found that if he were to do so, he would need to apply for a new liquor license. The process of which he would not be guaranteed approval. Incidentally, this situation created Dolly’s dual personality, which serendipitously reflects the many layers of Dolly’s “Dilemma.”

[2] “Dinner Hour” at Dolly’s Dilemma is 4:30 to 8:00. This is widely understood as family time, and the restaurant functions strictly as a steakhouse. No dancing. No stage show. Just slightly overcooked sirloins and Coca Colas and lots of hugs and lots of kisses. John was never comfortable with the constant physical affection of Dolly’s staff and patrons, begrudgingly offering a handshake in response to offers to embrace. More often than not, the wait staff would hug him anyway, which only further annoyed the poor boy.

[3] Roy’s book was self-published a few years ago, in 2003. No one, not even his friends and family have read it all the way through. It was an epic mish-mash of Isaac Asimov, Amy Tan and the Chronicles of Narnia. But his ex-wife, Maureen Chong, once said something kind and accurate about Roy’s book. Her words were, “Roy, this was hella ambitious.”

[4] HTS is the Hesperian Theological Seminary, the Bible college where John received his Masters in Divinity. Though he has left the pastorate, he maintains a day job at the seminary as an Old Testament research assistant. It is an exceedingly laborious and low paying job.

[5] John was once a regular menthol smoker, preferring their minty aftertaste to regular cigarettes. However, in 1999, the “fiberglass” rumor was widely circulated, convincing many menthol smokers that their cigarettes had an elevated lung cancer risk. This rumor was untrue. In actuality, scientific studies have shown a significantly lower rate of lung cancer among menthol smokers. Of course, the lowest rate of lung cancer remains among non-smokers.

OTHER NOTES:

[1] This story takes place in the same community where “eleven-17”, “Sweet Like Caramel” and “One Good Memory” take place. John Mark Chong is the same John in “Sweet Like Caramel”. Maureen Chong (John’s paternal aunt) is the protagonist is “eleven-17” and a minor character in “One Good Memory.”

 

Sweet Like Caramel: A Love Story

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Sweet Like Caramel

A Short Story

*

Winter, 2009

John Chong is 28 years old

*

For about two months John and Winnie have stopped talking about the thing that they need to talk about. This lack of communication isn’t due to a lack of opportunity. They still see each other regularly, at least once a week, sometimes twice.

That hasn’t changed.

But the fighting is gone.

Neither has given this new found peace any thought. It was unplanned. And is, as yet, still outside of the consciousness of either person. If, somehow, the topic were to be brought to either’s attention, he or she would most likely pause, turn both eyes up and to the right, and say something like, “Oh right, that is odd. Hmm. But we’ve been so happy lately.”

So, for now, the terrible reason why their relationship will soon end remains half explored and presently ignored. Instead, they hold back their busy hands and talk about nothing.

“What’s the difference between proactive and superstitious?” asks John.

Winnie looks at him. Almost undetectably, she shakes her head back and forth twice.

“I’m too tired for this,” she says.

“I’m tired too,” he says.

She closes her eyes.

Half of her face smiles.

Very softly and with very little affect she says, “I wish we could make love quickly and then fall asleep in each other’s arms.”

“Yes, quite so.”

Quite so?” She laughs, opening the eye on the smiling half of her face, “Who says that?”

“People say that,” he says.

“It’s very pretty.”

“Thank you.”

A muzak version Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” emanates from John’s pants. He reaches into the left front pocket of his dark blue 30W-36L Levi’s 501s and retrieves his Motorola V600. He looks at it for a few moments, just seconds really, barely enough time for the colored girls to begin their “Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do”s. He pushes one button and then another and then another.

Returning the phone to his pocket he asks, “Do you think it makes a difference what we say?”

“What?” she asks in return.

“Today I feel like I am my words. Like they have heart and soul and body, like they effect the outcome of the universe.”

“No, no, no, no,” she says. “You’re totally delusional!”

“No, I’m not!” he says. “I’m just plugged in, plugged into life, plugged into this.”

John stretches his long arms straight out to his sides, facing the palms of his hands up. He tilts his head back and shakes loose his longish reddish hair. Imaginary drops of rain fall from the ceiling on to his face.

“You’re cute,” Winnie says, confessing.

“Really?” says John. “It means a lot to me to be cute in your eyes.”

“I know. That’s why I say it, for you.”

Winnie is squinting and tilting her head to the right. Her left hand tugs at her left ear lobe. She looks like she’s trying not to laugh.

“Well, don’t do me too many favors,” says John, opening wide his big bad eyes, the better to see her with. “I’m still trouble!”

“Of course, without the risk, there’s nothing.”

“What do you got to lose?”

“Everything.”

“So,” says John, getting up off the couch. “What do you have drink in this place?”

“For you?” Winnie responds. “There’s a diet Coke in the fridge and there might be one ice cube left in the freezer, if you’re lucky.”

John is already in the kitchen.

“Winnie,” he says, “If there’s one thing you should know by now, I ain’t lucky.”

Winnie rests her right cheek on the knuckles of her left hand. She starts to wonder what he could mean by that statement. He’s the luckiest person she knows. He has everything, everything and her as well.

As Winnie continues to ponder John’s lack of luck, her mind wanders, drawn to the timbre of his voice. John’s is an animated baritone, breaking and pitching and steadying at his will. Though he was born and raised in the southern California town of Ranchilito, he’s adopted an intentional accent that echoes more of Dallas or Athens. She pictures him at his pew in front of his congregation, sharing a personal story, most likely one about his dog or his childhood or his daughters.

“Can I ask you about getting caught?” John asks, returning to his spot, holding a can of beer.

“Why don’t you tell me about getting caught?”

“I have so many secrets. I think I’m about to be found out.”

“Yeah, but you’re such a good guy, upstanding, clean-cut, godly. No one would suspect a thing.”

“That makes it worse. I have too much to live up to.”

“Fuck ‘em!”

“Ah, but the guilt! The shame! I can’t.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“You’re thinking like me now.”

“Ha!” she says, “Isn’t that what always happens?”

“Right,” he says. “Can I tell you something?”

“No.”

“You’re beautiful.”

“Yes! Tell me more!”

“You’re smart.”

“Yes?”

“You’re sexy… sexy like a beast, like a hot-blooded South Asian Jungle Cat!”

“Mmmmm, yes!” she purrs. “Yes, I fucking am.”

“Yeah, and you’re sweet too.”

“Hmm?”

“Sweet like caramel.”

“Hmm.”

“Sticky and brown and heated up, like magic, turning things into you. No! Not into you, into sweetness.”

“You lie!”

“What?”

“You fucking lie. I’m not sweet like that.”

“No,” he says. “You’re actually a little hard to take, a little nasty, like bourbon. But I see the sweet in you. I love your sweet side.”

“That’s something.”

“It’s sweet.”

“Like a pretty love song.”

“Yes.”

“You always see the beautiful in the gross.”

“Even if you had no legs and were once a man, I’d still love you.”

“Fuck off.”

“Yes, I would.”

“I’m not gonna cry.”

“I’m not asking you to.”

“Well,” she says. “I’m not going to.”

“But?”

“But I want to.”

“See,” he says. “You are sweet.”

“Sweeter than ice cream?”

“No, Ice cream is sweeter. Sweeter than apple juice though, and that’s pretty sweet.”

“Hah! Yes it is!”

“And maybe, if I close my eyes, you could be sweet as ice cream.”

Winnie closes her eyes and takes two deep breaths. The first she draws into her chest, pushing out her bust. It’s ineffective, deep only in appearance. The second is less self-conscious, drawn straight down into her stomach. Her upper back opens up and her shoulders pull forward. She curls her hands up into fists. Holding this breath for a moment is long enough for her to see patterns form on the backs of her eyelids. Checker boards and webs of lightning, miniature stars exploding in her own private galaxy.

Smiling, she thinks, what I’m seeing isn’t really real or really fake.

She exhales opening her eyes. She sees what she expected to see, John watching every detail of her meditation. She knows before he does that he’ll soon bring his right hand to her face, feeling her jaw-line, tracing the long scar that starts at the corner of her left eye and stretches clear down to her throat. He’s never shied away from her pain. In the days to come, she’ll still give him credit for that much.

Patiently, she’ll wait for him to run his fingers through her straight black hair in his smooth, piston-like motion. He’ll go from down to up and back down again, lightly pulling a lock over her ear. Her eyes will be closed, but his will still be looking into them.

Pressing her tongue against the back of her upper right canine, her lips form ancient words in a modern turn. She says, “Kiss me.”

Father Hombre: A Very Short Story

This very short story introduces the Soh twins, Cupcake and Nash. Cupcake is an outlaw biker in the form of a 7-year-old Korean American kid. Father Hombre is her hero.

Long Nguyen in Seven Psychopaths

Long Nguyen in Seven Psychopaths

Father Hombre

A Short Story

 

On a side note, the last shiv that Cupcake made was much more dangerous than the one she was caught with. That little dagger was a carefully crafted replica of a weapon in an old gangster movie she watched with her brother Nash earlier this year.

Cupcake and Nash are twins. They were still six years old at the time. They’re seven now.

The movie is called Father Hombre. [1] In it, the title character carried a large wooden cross with him at all times. As he went about leading his double life as minister to the Lord and drug-dealing pimp, he’d often rely on this holy instrument to deflect bullets and put the beat down on wayward hoes.

Cupcake remembers asking Nash, “Why is that cross so strong? Do you think it’s because of Jesus?”

Nash did not answer.

But of course, at the end of the movie we find out why that cross is so strong.

Father Hombre’s archrival is the Shaolin trained Mother Sabrina of the Shling Shot Shisterhood. A series of complicated double-crosses leads these two sworn enemies into a protracted fight scene where the Ungood Father proceeds to getting his butt handed to him by the Holy Mother Sabrina. Ultimately Sabrina corners Hombre through as series of attacks featuring the 18 Arms of Wushu.

Before executing him, she offers him a moment to say his own last rites because this is of course the Christian thing to do and despite their differences, they are both devout followers of Yeshua. She bows her head as Father Hombre prays. With one eye open, he slowly pulls his wooden cross apart, exposing a long, sharp, steel blade.

Cupcake will never forget how he mournfully recites, “On behalf of a man whose soul is departing,” as he lunges at Sabrina, stabbing her through the heart.

—————————

NOTES

[1] Father Hombre is a 1971 film directed by famed sexploitationist Stanley F. Millgram (not to be confused with the famed torture psychologist of the same name). Millgram’s films typically took advantage of counter-cultural liberalism mixed with bigotry and misogynism. Cupcake and Nash found a poorly censored version of this film airing on a local broadcast. Nash did not take much interest, but Cupcake was drawn to the cool bravado of the title character. She shortly after began signing her work with the initials “FH”. When asked to please write her full legal name, she simply wrote out her moniker as “Father Cupcake H.M. Soh, Hombre”.