I went upstairs and had a cold shower. Afterwards, downstairs in the kitchen, I swallowed some painkillers for a headache I haven’t been able to shake for a few days. Dad’s voice came in from the courtyard and I went out to where he was sitting on a red plastic stool hunched over something.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
Dad turned around. At his feet sat a small cage housing two white ducks with bright yellow beaks. The kind of ducks you saw in kids’ picture books.
‘Where did you get the ducks from?’
‘Chu Nam,’ he said. His younger brother.
‘Where did he get them from?’
‘Who’s to know?’
‘What are you going to do with them?’ I asked, although I already knew.
‘Chu Nam is coming over for chau tonight.’
The ducks were oblivious to their plight. He turned back to them and they looked up at him adoringly.
‘Giỏi quá,’ he chuckled, praising them, wriggling a finger into the cage.
My dad wasn’t usually this friendly with animals. He’d never understood the point of having a pet. The year before I started high school, in the mid-90s when we were living off Geelong Road, we got our first pet—a puppy—some kind of terrier that yapped and whimpered all the time, which Dad said he hated because it kept him up. In truth he hated it because it always wanted attention. I was having breakfast one morning and the puppy was yapping at the back door after Mum had left for work. Dad stomped in and it ran up to him but he kicked it back against the door. Yelped once and didn’t get up. He marched back out, and we never spoke about it, but there weren’t any more pets after that.
One of the ducks quacked and the other joined in until Dad smacked the top of the cage to shut them up. When they didn’t, he went inside and came back with a long, skinny knife and a metal mixing bowl. He pointed the knife at them in turn and swore and went back inside.
He was sitting at the table where we ate, looking flustered.
‘What’s the matter?’ I said.
‘You do it.’
‘Choose one and bring it in. Pick it up by its feet. I can’t do it with the other one watching.’ He put the knife and mixing bowl on our dining table and sat down with his arms crossed. ‘Hurry up,’ he growled.
The fastest way to do it was to just open the hatch and reach in for the nearest one. Don’t look at them, don’t say anything. So that’s what I did, lifted one out and it made a fucking racket and beat its wings frantically, probably knew that being picked up by its legs wasn’t a good thing.
I held it out as far from me as possible, passed it over to Dad through the doorway and he grabbed it by the neck with one hand and picked up the knife with the other.
‘Okay, you want to know how to do this?’ Dad said, already plucking feathers from its neck so it could be slit neatly, its head held down to bleed into the mixing bowl, where the blood would later be mixed with fish sauce to make tiết canh.
I waved my hand. I’d lost my stomach for those old-world things. I used to eat ducklings out of their eggs when I was a kid, soft as pudding and almost as sweet.
There was a knock on the door thirty minutes later. Chu Nam, my father’s obese younger brother, in a T-shirt that was much too small for him.
‘Where is he?’ he said.
‘In the kitchen.’
‘Come help me.’
I followed him back to his little red Golf. Several large bowls of sliced beef, seafood and chopped up vegetables in clingwrap, and six hotpots in their battered boxes, were crammed into the back. In the front sat a couple of boxes of fruit on the passenger seat and a big plastic container of pork in the footwell. Waiting in the boot were four slabs of beer and a dozen bottles of spirits.
‘What’s all this for?’
‘In this heat?’
‘Heat is best. Get sweaty.’
‘Where? Not here?’
‘Yes, for anniversary.’
‘Me and him come to Australia. Forty years.’
‘Tonight?’ It was almost 4pm.
‘He not tell you? Troi oi.’
‘He said you were coming over for chau.’
‘Yes, me, and a lot of people.’
‘How many people?’
‘Maybe ten or forty. I don’t know.’ He shrugged. ‘Depend who show up.’
My father does not throw parties. He never has. They mess with him. He has a social anxiety, at the very least. At my birthday parties when I was a kid, he’d disappear, even when the cake came out. Up until I was twelve it was usually me and Mum in the cake photo, me on Mum’s lap, Dad nowhere to be seen. Except when I turned nine and for some reason it’s a great picture of the three of us with Dad, his hands on my shoulders, looking as relaxed as I’d ever seen him. After Mum died there weren’t any more parties. There used to be cash, if Dad remembered, passed to me in the kitchen, but as I got older there was more often nothing.
‘That’s a lot of people. He won’t like that.’
‘He have no choice.’
‘Does he want to do it?’
Chu Nam made a clicking noise with his tongue. ‘He can do it.’
I sighed. ‘Okay, we better get all this inside.’
Dad watched us bring it in, arms by his sides, hands twitching like electric pumps, as we kept coming back with more stuff. We dumped everything on the kitchen floor.
‘Don’t worry,’ Chu Nam said. ‘I take care of everything.’
My father shuffled past us towards the stairs without a word.
Chu Nam made another clicking noise.
Everyone came at 7 o’clock. I’d spent the last two hours cleaning up the house and reorganising furniture, while a couple of blokes who worked for Chu Nam set up trestle tables and chairs in the dining area and out in the courtyard.
Chu Nam came with his wife, their four adult kids and their partners—the ones that had them—and their kids. Then there were a dozen other people, friends they had made at the refugee centre, people they got jobs with, in factories and later, in bakeries. People whose faces were in our photo albums up until we stopped taking photos on film, making those albums even more like relics of another time.
One minute the house was like a mausoleum, the next it was bedlam, charged by one shrill voice. There is a certain type of Vietnamese woman who only has conversations by shouting, who says very inappropriate things, intensified by laughter best described as derisive cackling. This was Chu Nam’s wife, or as she liked to be called, Candy.
Candy made a beeline for me as soon as she walked through the door. She hadn’t stopped using hairspray since her heyday in the 80s and had her hair up tonight. Unlike my uncle, she still had the figure to pull off her magenta ao dai.
‘Son! Troi oi! Are you sick? Why are you so skinny now?’
She grabbed a fistful of my cheek and then another fistful of my guts through my T-shirt to feel how skinny I was and then slapped my other cheek.
‘Hey!’ I said, fending her off.
‘Are you on drugs? Did you get AIDS?’
She cackled and then pushed me aside to go ridicule someone else she hadn’t seen for a while.
My cousin Les—his real name was Phillip but we all called him Les because he looked like Leslie Cheung—was kneeling beside the television, hooking up the karaoke machine. I swiped a beer from an esky on the way to his side.
‘Doing the dirty work, Les.’
A cigarette dangled from his mouth and he looked like a fucking matinee idol. Of all my relatives, I like him the most. What I mean is, he gives me the least shit for my life choices.
‘Always. You good?’
I shrugged. ‘Good enough.’
‘Got a girlfriend?’
‘I’m not available to girls.’
‘What, you’re gay now?’ he smirked, squinting through the smoke.
‘No, idiot. I’m not pretty like you, girls take effort for people like me, and I don’t have the effort.’
‘You literally can’t be fucked.’
‘That’s sad. Where’s your old man?’
Dad was still upstairs and the noise would not have tempted him down.
‘In his room.’
‘He gonna stay up there all night again?’
I looked up at the ceiling, to where his room is, and pictured him through the floor, sitting on the side of his bed, his hands on his knees.
‘Dunno. Do you need help with this stuff?’
‘I guess I’ll go up.’
‘Wait a second.’ He glanced around and fished something out of his shirt pocket. A little capsule.
‘What is this?’
‘MDMA. Just take a half if you’re going to have it tonight.’
I looked at it and thought about having to deal with my extended family. ‘There’s no way I’m having this tonight. Are you?’
He shrugged and turned back to what he was doing. ‘Maybe after dinner.’
I slipped it into the fob pocket of my shorts.
In the old days we would spread out newspaper on the floor with the food arranged in the middle and everyone sitting down cross-legged, like they used to do back in Vietnam, the men and women at opposite ends. These days we pulled out trestle tables and everyone perched on plastic stools or vinyl folding chairs, the men and women still mostly segregated.
People had taken their seats. Chu Nam had commandeered the kitchen with his daughters, my cousins Tammy and Mandy, and the procession of dishes that would continue for the next hour had started with the tiết canh vit—raw duck’s blood pudding. There was only enough for the diehards, their teeth bloodied from it, looking like something out of National Geographic.
I crab-walked to the front of the house as quickly as I could, ignoring everyone who called out after me, and leaped up the stairs. My father’s door was open and he lay on his side in bed, his back to the door. The thin cotton of his short-sleeved shirt fell over his narrow hips. He could have been mistaken for a boy if it weren’t for his almost-white hair.
He turned his head.
‘You scared me,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry. You weren’t asleep?’
I listened. Even with all the people in the courtyard, you could hear the duck, sounding distressed.
‘We should have killed them both,’ he said.
‘Are you ready to come down?’
He snorted. I realised I was on edge, not knowing what was going to happen—if he was going to tell me to shut the door or tell me to ask everyone to leave. I didn’t know if he was upset with me for going along with it. He sat up and swung his legs over, putting his feet into his slides one at a time.
‘What do they want me for?’ he asked, disingenuously.
‘It’s your party. It’s for you.’
‘For me?’ His eyes widened in mock surprise, pretending he wasn’t worthy of the attention. Then something shifted in his expression, a flutter behind his eyes like he was suddenly possessed, and he said, ‘Before you came up, I was thinking, perhaps, with a better father, you could have been a better son.’
‘But you are wounded like me.’
His words rang in my ears. I wasn’t wounded like him. I was wounded because of him. His cruel persona had slipped again but instead of ignoring it like usual, this time I wanted to cast it out.
‘Will a Panadol help?’
He nodded, ‘Yes, yes, that’s a good idea.’
I went into his ensuite and filled a glass with water from the tap. I let it run. I wanted him to be different, to be someone who hadn’t shaped his pain into this feigned helplessness. I took the cap that Les had given me out of my pocket. Dad likes his Panadol in the mini caps. I pulled one apart and emptied it into the sink, carefully replacing its contents with the MDMA.
‘Here, drink it quickly,’ I said, handing him the cap and glass. He did it without looking and I helped him up.
At the top of the stairs he paused to take a breath and patted my back.
‘Let’s go down together,’ he said. ‘Father and son.’
Jovial drinking, eating and exchanging of life updates progressed quickly to drinking and telling rowdy stories underscored by maniacal laughter. Everyone drinking had red faces and picked at the plates of cold food still in front of them. Each time I had the conversation about looking for work I glanced over to Dad, enjoying himself, his arms around the other old men at one end of a table, retelling their stories.
I went to look for my cousins, who were all in the backyard, smoking Les’s cigarettes.
He grinned, squinting at me through one eye. I raised an eyebrow and he flipped up a thumb.
‘Who’s your little friend?’ Tammy said. She and Mandy were crouched in front of the duck cage.
‘It doesn’t have a name.’
Tammy turned to the duck and said, ‘You’re just meat.’
Candy slid the door open wide enough to stick her head out and hissed, ‘Son, come inside, your father is making a speech. Hurry up, all of you, get away from that dirty duck.’
Squeezed into the loungeroom, everyone was talking loudly. Dad was getting up onto the coffee table unsteadily. When he turned around to face everyone he was wasted, eyes almost closed, barely able to keep his head up.
‘Come up here,’ Dad said, pawing at his brother.
‘Don’t do it, fat man!’ someone shouted and Chu Nam grabbed at his belly and laughed loudest of all. Someone else gave them shot glasses and the foolhardy idea was forgotten.
‘Give us some of that cognac,’ Chu Nam said and Les obliged.
‘Thank you all for coming,’ Dad slurred, gesturing with his glass about the room. ‘My heart…is full of happiness…to see the faces…of my family…and friends…together.’
He was swaying, a hand on his brother’s shoulder. It reminded me of the picture of them at the refugee camp in Indonesia. Both skinny boys, both with cigarettes in their fingers, their faces puffy and sullen, like they’d been crying.
‘Life is long when you are young—and short when you are old,’ Chu Nam said.
‘That’s exactly right! And we cannot forget the dead,’ Dad said, and the old people nodded.
‘Some of us did alright.’
‘These kids, we were younger than them!’ Dad said. ‘The people in this room. We were the first to leave and the first to lose.’
‘We were lucky.’
‘Thank you, Jesus,’ a voice behind me said. Candy.
Chu Nam held up his shot glass and Dad nodded. I drank—we all drank to their drunkenness. As Dad downed his shot of cognac, the front of his trousers darkened. Dad dropped the glass and grabbed at his crotch, trying to stem the flow. Chu Nam chuckled, wondering what joke Dad was up to and then seeing, pulled him off the coffee table. Everyone was quiet until someone laughed, it might have been me, and a few others joined in out of relief, but then everyone began to leave the room because after all this time, they still didn’t know what to do about these old men.
Mandy and Tammy were tidying up. Dad had been stripped and put into the shower by Chu Nam and put to bed. He hadn’t wanted any help and shooed me away angrily when I went to Dad’s room, to see if it would make me feel any remorse for what I’d done, but it didn’t.
I found Candy in the loungeroom by herself, perched on an arm of the couch facing the TV, her feet crossed below the hem of her ao dai. She held the microphone in her lap as a song started, her free hand moving with the music in the air as she sang. Always the night’s last singer. As the song finished, she turned to me, her face drunk and sad. She held up the long nails of one hand and motioned for me to join her.
‘Don’t be someone who drinks too much, huh, Sonny?’
The next song started; I hadn’t heard it for so long.
‘The best!’ said Candy.
The song was about a dead airman. When Khanh Ly sang it, she was his lover. I listened to my aunt and imagined her as a young woman, a teenager, a school friend of my mother’s in the late 60s in Saigon, listening to this song on the radio.
‘I’m going to call it Lucky,’ I said, when the song was finished.
‘What?’ my aunt said, her face glowing.
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