An excerpt from Andrew Lam’s collection of short fiction, Birds of Paradise Lost. Click here for an interview with the author.
Mr. K. brought in the new kid near the end of the semester during what he called oral presentations and everybody else called eighth grade Show and Tell. This is Cao Long Nguyen, he said, and he’s from Vietnam and immediately mean old Billy said cool!
What’s so cool about that? Kevin who sat behind him asked and Billy said, Idiot, don’t you know anything, that’s where my dad came back from with this big old scar on his chest and a bunch of grossed out stories and that’s where they have helicopters and guns and VCs and all this crazy shit. Billy would have gone on but Mr K. said, be quiet, Billy.
Mr K. stood behind the new kid and drummed his fingers on the kid’s skinny shoulders like they were little flapping wings. He tried to be nice to the new kid, I could tell, but the kid looked nervous anyway, the way he hugged his green backpack as if it were a life saver.
Cao Long Nguyen is a Vietnamese refugee, Mr K. said and he turned around and wrote, “Cao Long Nguyen—Refugee” in blue on the blackboard. Cao doesn’t speak any English, yet, but he’ll learn soon enough so let’s welcome him shall we and we did. We all applauded but mean old Billy decided to boo him just for the hell of it and Kevin and a few others started to laugh and the new kid blushed like a little girl. When we were done applauding (and booing), Mr. K. gave him a seat in front of me and he sat down without saying hello to anybody, not even to me even, his neighbor, and I had gone out of my way to flash him my cutest smile. But right away I started to smell this nice smell from him. It reminded me of eucalyptus or something. I was going to ask him what it was but the new kid took out his Hello Kitty notebook and began to draw in it like he’d been doing it forever, drawing and scrawling and paying no mind to anyone even when Show and Tell already started and it was, I’m sorry to say, my turn.
Tell you the truth I didn’t want it to be my turn. I can be funny and all but I hated being in front of the class as much as I hated anything. But what can you do. You go up when it’s your turn, that’s what. So when Mr K. called my name I brought my family tree chart and taped it on the blackboard under where Mr K. wrote “Cao Long Nguyen—Refugee” but before I even started Billy said “Bobby’s so poor he only got half a tree” and everybody laughed.
I wanted to say something back real bad right then and there. But as usual I held my tongue on account that I was a little afraid of Billy. OK, I lie, more than a little afraid. But if I weren’t so fearful of that big dump ox I could have said a bunch of things like “Well at least I have half a tree. Some people they only have sorry ass war mongers with big old scars for a daddy” or I could say “what’s wrong with half a tree. It’s much better than having shit for brain” or something like that.
Anyway, not everybody laughed at Billy’s butt swipe of a comment. Mr. K., for instance, he didn’t laugh. He looked sad, in fact, shaking his head like he was giving up on Billy and saying, Shh Billy, how many times do I have to tell you to be quiet in my class? And the new kid he didn’t laugh neither. He just stared at my tree like he trying to figure out what it was but when he saw me looking at him and he blushed and pretended like he was busy drawing. I knew he wasn’t. He was curious about my drawing, my sorry excuse of a family tree.
If you want to know the awful truth it’s only half a tree ’cause my mama wouldn’t tell me about the other half. Your daddy was a jackass, she said, and so is his entire family. That’s all she said about him. But mama, I said, it’s for my Oral Presentation Project and it’s important but she said so what.
So nothing, that’s what. So my daddy hangs alone on this little branch on the left side. He left when I was four so I don’t remember him very well. All I remember is he was real big and handsome. I remember him hugging and kissing and reading me a bedtime story once or twice and then he was gone. Only my sister, Charlene, remembers him well on account that she’s three years older than me. Charlene remembers us having a nice house when my daddy was still around and mama didn’t have to work. Then she remembers a lot of fighting and yelling and flying dishes and broken vases and stuff like that. One night when the battle between mama and daddy got so bad that Charlene said she found me hiding in the closet under a bunch of Mama’s clothes with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears saying Stop, please, Stop, please, Stop like I was singing or chanting or something. Charlene remembers us moving to California not long after that after daddy left us. I don’t remember any of that stuff. It just feels like my entire life is spent living in this crummy apartment at the edge of the city and that mama had been working at Max’s diner forever.
So what did I do? I started out with a big lie. I had rehearsed the whole night for it. I said my daddy’s dead. Dead from a car accident a long, long time ago. I said he was an orphan so that’s why there’s only half a tree—(so fuck you Billy). Then I started on the other half. I know the other half real well ’cause all of mama’s relatives are crazy or suicidal. There was, for example, my great-great granddaddy Charles Boyle the third who was this rich man in New Orleans and who had ten children and a big old plantation during the civil war. Too bad he supported the losing side cause he’d lost everything, killed himself after the war ended. Then there was my granddaddy Jonathan Quentin who became a millionaire from owning a gold mine in Mexico and then he lost it all on alcohol and gambling and then he killed himself. And there was my grandma Mary who was a sweetheart and who had three children and who killed herself before the bone cancer got to her and there were a bunch of cousins who went north and east and west and who knows where else and they became pilots and doctors and lawyers and maybe some of them killed themselves too and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they did ’cause my mama said it’s kinda like a family curse or something. I went on like that for sometime, going through a dozen lives before I got to the best part: See here, that’s my great aunt Jenny Ann Quentin, I said, all alone on this little branch ’cause she’s an old maid. She’s still alive too, I said, 97 years old and with only half a mind and she lives in this broken down mansion outside of New Orleans and she wears old tattered clothes and talks to ghosts and curses them Yankees for winning the war. I saw her once when I was young, I told my captive audience. Great Aunt Jenny scared the heck out of me ’cause she had an old shotgun and everything and she didn’t pay her electric bills so her big old house was always dark and scary and haunted. If you stay overnight there they’ll pull your legs or rearrange your furniture, or worse, steal your underwear. So in summary, had we won the war a hundred years ago, we might have all stayed around in the South. But as it is, my family tree has its leaves fallen all over the states. So that’s it, now I’m done, thank you.
Tommy went after me. He told about stamp collecting and he brought three albums full of pretty stamps, stamps a hundred years old and stamps as far as the Vatican and Sri Lanka. He told how hard it was for him to have a complete collection of Pope John Paul the Second. Then it was Cindy’s turn. She talked about embroidery and she brought with her two favorite pillowcases with pictures of playing pandas and dolphins that she embroidered herself. She even showed us how she stitches, what each stitch is called and how rewarding it was to get the whole thing together. And Kevin talked about building a tree house with his dad and how fun it was. He even showed us the blue print which he and his daddy designed together and photos of himself hanging out on the tree house, waving and swinging from a rope like a monkey with his friends and it looked like a great place to hide, too, if you’re pissed off at your mama or something and then the bell rang.
Robert, Mr. K. said, I wonder if you’d be so kind as to take care of our new student and show him the cafeteria. Why me, I said and made a face like when I had to take the garbage out at home when it wasn’t even my turn but Mr. K. said why not you, Robert, you’re a nice one.
Oh no, I’m not, I said.
Oh yes, you are, he said and wiggled his bushy eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx.
Oh no, I’m not.
Oh yes, you are.
OK, I said, but just today, OK, though I kinda wanted to talk to the new kid anyway, and Mr. K. said, thank you, Robert Quentin Mitchell. He called the new kid over and put one arm around his shoulders and the other around mine. Then he said Robert, this is Cao, Cao, this is Robert. Robert will take care of you. You both can bring your lunch back here and eat if you want. We’re having a speed tournament today and there’s a new X-Men comic book for the winner.
Alright! I said. You’re privileged if you get to eat lunch in Mr. K.’s room. Mr. K. has all these games he keeps in the cabinet and at lunchtime it’s sort of a club and everything. You can eat there if a) you’re a straight A’s student, b) if Mr. K. likes and invites you which is not often, or c) if you know for sure you’re gonna get jumped that day if you play outside and you beg Mr. K. really, really hard to let you stay. I’m somewhere in between the b) and c) category. If you’re a bad egg like Billy, who is single-handedly responsible for my c) situation, you ain’t never ever gonna get to eat there and play games, that’s for sure. So, Kal Nguyen Refugee, I said, let’s go grab lunch then we’ll come back here for the speed tournament, what’d you say? But the new kid said nothing. He just stared at me and blinked like I’m some kinda strange animal that he ain’t never seen before or something. Com’n, I said and waved him toward me, com’n, follow me, the line’s getting longer by the sec, and so finally he did.
We stood in line with nothing to do so I asked him, hey, Kal, where’d you get them funny shoes?
No undostand, he said and smiled, no sspeak engliss.
Shoes, I said, Bata, Bata and I pointed and he looked down.
Oh, Ssues, he said, his eyes shiny and black and wide open like he just found out for the first time that he was wearing shoes. Ssssues, ssues … Saigon.
Yeah? I said, I guess I can’t buy me some here in the good old US of A then? Mine’s Adidas. They’re as old as Mrs. Hamilton, prehistoric if you ask me but they’re still Adidas. A-di-das, go head, Kal, say it.
Adeedoos Suues, Kal said, Adeedoos.
That’s right, I said, very good, Kal. Adidas shoes. And yours, they’re Bata shoes and Kal said theirs Bata ssuees and we both looked at each other and grinned like idiots and that’s when Billy showed up. Why you want them gook shoes anyway, he said and cut in between us but nobody behind in line said nothing ’cause it’s Billy.
Why not, I said, trying to sound tough. Bata sounds kind of nice, Billy. They’re from Saigon.
Bata ssues, the new kid said it again, trying to impress Billy.
But Billy wasn’t impressed. My daddy said them VCs don’t wear shoes, he said. They wear sandals made from jeep tires and they live in fuck’n tunnels like moles and they eat bugs and snakes for lunch. Then afterwards they go up and take sniper shots at you with their AK-47s.
He don’t look like he lived in no tunnel, I said.
Maybe not him, said Billy, but his daddy I’m sure. Isn’t that right, refugee boy? Your daddy a VC? Your daddy the one who gave my daddy that goddamn scar?
The new kid didn’t say nothing. You could tell he pretty much figured it out that Billy’s an asshole ’cause you don’t need no English for that. But all he could say was no undohsten and ssues adeedoos and those ain’t no come back lines and he knew it. So he just bit his lip and blushed and kept looking at me with them eyes.
So, I don’t know why, maybe ’cause I didn’t want him to know that I belonged to the c) category, or maybe ’cause he kept looking at me with those eyes, but I said leave him alone, Billy. I was kinda surprised that I said it. And Billy turned and looked at me like he was shocked too, like he just saw me for the first time or something. Then in this loud singsong voice, he said Bobby’s protecting his new boyfriend. Everybody look, Bobby’s got a boyfriend and he’s gonna suck his VC’s dick after lunch.
Everybody started to look.
The new kid kept looking at me like he was waiting to see what I was gonna do next. What I’d usually do next is shut my trap and pretend that I was invisible or try not to cry like last time when Billy got me in a headlock in the locker room and called me sissy over and over again ’cause I missed the softball at PE even when it was an easy catch. But not now. Now I couldn’t pretend to be invisible ’cause too many people were looking. It was like I didn’t have a choice. It was like now or never. So I said, you know what, Billy, don’t mind if I do. I’m sure anything is bigger than yours and everybody in line said Ooohh.
Fuck you, you little faggot, Billy said.
No thanks, Billy, I said, I already got me a new boyfriend, remember?
Everybody said Ooohh again and Billy looked real mad. Then I got more scared than mad, my blood pumping. I thought oh my God, what have I done? I’m gonna get my lights punched out for sure. But then, God delivered stupid Becky. She suddenly stuck her beak in. And he’s cute, too, she said, almost as cute as you, Bobby. A blond and a brunette. You two’ll make a nice faggot couple, I’m sure. So, like, promise me you’ll name your first born after me, OK?
So, like, I tore at her. That girl could never jump me, not in a zillion years. And I’m sure you’re a slut, I said, I’m sure you’d couple with anything that moves. I’m sure there are litters of strayed mutts already named after you. You know, Bitch Becky One, Bitch Becky Two, and, let’s not forget, Bow Wow Becky junior and Becky called me asshole and looked away and everyone cracked up, even mean old Billy.
Man, he said, shaking his head, you got some mean mouth on you today. It was like suddenly I was too funny or famous for him to beat up.
But after he bought his burger and chocolate milk, he said it real loud so everybody can hear, he said, I’ll see you two bitches later. Outside.
Sure, Billy, I said and waved to him, see yah later, and then after we grabbed our lunch the new kid and me, we made a beeline for Mr. K.’s.
Boy, it was good to be in Mr. K.’s, I tell you. You don’t have to watch over your shoulder every other second. You can play whatever game you want. Or you can read or just talk. So we ate and afterward I showed the new kid how to play speed. He was a quick learner too, if you asked me, but he lost pretty early on in the tournament. Then I lost too pretty damn quickly after him. So we sat around and I flipped through the X-Men comic book and tried to explain to the new kid why Wolverine is so cool ’cause he can heal himself with his mutant factor and he has claws that cut through metal, and Phoenix, she’s my favorite, Phoenix’s so very cool ’cause she can talk to you psychically and she knows how everybody feels without even having to ask them, and best of all, she can lift an eight-wheeler truck with her psycho-kinetic energy. That’s way cool, don’t you think, Kal?
The new kid, he listened and nodded to everything I said like he understood. Anyway, after a while, there were more losers than winners and the losers surrounded us and interrogated the new kid like he was a POW or something.
You ever shoot anybody, Cao Long?
Did you see anybody get killed?
Say Long, how long you been here, Long? (ha ha)
I hear they eat dogs over there, is that true, Long? Have you ever eaten a dog?
Have you ever seen a helicopter blown up like in the movies?
No undohsten, the new kid answered each question and smiled or shook his head or waved his hands like shooing flies but the loser flies wouldn’t shoo. I mean where else could they go? Mr. K.’s was it. So the new kid looked at me again with them eyes and I said, OK, OK, Kal, I’ll teach you something else. Why don’t you say: Hey, fuck heads, leave me alone! Go head, Kal, say it.
Hey—fuck heads, I said, looking at him.
Hee, Foock headss, he said, looking at me.
Leave. Me. Alone! I said.
Leevenme olone! he said. Hee, Foock headss. Leevenme olone!
And everybody laughed. I guess that was the first time they got called fuck heads and actually felt good about it, but Mr. K. said Robert Quentin Mitchell, you watch your mouth or you’ll never come in here again but you could tell he was trying not to laugh himself. So, I said OK, Mr. K. but I leaned over and whispered hey fuck heads, leave me alone again in the new kid’s ear so he’d remember and he looked at me like I’m the coolest guy in the world.
Sthankew Rowbuurt, he said.
Then after school when I was waiting for my bus, the new kid found me. He gave me a folded piece of paper and before I could say anything he blushed and ran away. You’d never guess what it was. It was a drawing of me and it was really, really good. I was smiling in it. I looked real happy, and older, like a sophomore or something, not like in the 7th grade year book picture where I looked so goofy with my eyes closed and everything and I had to sign my name over it so people wouldn’t look. When I got home I taped it on my family tree chart and pinned the chart on my bedroom door and I swear, the whole room had this vague eucalyptus smell.
Next day at Show and Tell Billy made the new kid cry. He went after Jimmy. Jimmy was this total nerd with thick glasses who told us how “very challenging” it was doing the New York Times crossword puzzles ’cause you got to know words like “ubiquitous” and “undulate” and “capricious,” totally lame and bogus stuff like that. When he took so long just to do five across and seven horizontal we shot spit balls at him and Mr. K. said stop that. But we got rid of that capricious, undulating bozo ubiquitously fast and that was when Billy came up and made the new kid cry.
He brought in his daddy’s army uniform and a stack of old magazines. He unfolded the uniform with the name Baxter sewed under U.S. ARMY and put it on a chair. Then he opened one magazine and showed a picture of this naked and bleeding little girl running and crying on this road while these houses behind her were on fire. That’s napalm, he said, and it eats into your skin and burns for a long, long time. This girl, Billy said, she got burned real bad, see there, yeah. Then he showed another picture of this monk sitting cross-legged and he was on fire and everything and there were people standing behind him crying but nobody tried to put the poor man out. That’s what you call self-immolation, Billy said. They do that all the time in Nam. This man, he poured gasoline on himself and lit a match ’cause he didn’t like the government. Then Billy showed another picture of dead people in black pajamas along this road and he said these are VCs and my dad got at least a dozen of them before he was wounded himself. My dad told me if it weren’t for them beatniks and hippies we could have won, Billy said and that’s when the new kid buried his face in his arms and cried and I could see his skinny shoulders go up and down like waves.
That’s enough, Billy Baxter, Mr. K. said, you can sit down now, thank you.
Oh, man! Billy said, I didn’t even get to the part about how my dad got his scar, that’s the best part.
Never mind, Mr. K. said, sit down, please. I’m not sure whether you understood the assignment, but you were suppose to do an oral presentation on what you’ve done, or something that has to do with you, a hobby or a personal project, not the atrocities your father committed in Indochina. Save those stories when you cruise the bars when you’re old enough.
Then Mr. K. looked at the new kid like he didn’t know what to do next. That war, he said, I swear. After that it got real quiet in the room and all you could hear was the new kid sobbing. Cao, Mr. K. said finally, real quiet like, like he didn’t really want to bother him, Cao, are you alright? Cao Long Nguyen?
The new kid didn’t answer Mr. K. so I put my hand on his shoulder and shook it a little. Hey, Kal, I said, you OK?
Then, it was like I pressed an ON button or something, ’cause all of a sudden Kal raised his head and stood up. He looked at me and then he looked at the blackboard. He looked at me again, then the blackboard. Then he marched right up there even though it was Roger’s turn next and Roger, he already brought his two pet snakes and everything. But Kal didn’t care. Maybe he thought it was his turn ’cause Mr. K. called his name and so he just grabbed a bunch of colored chalks on Mr. K.’s desk and started to draw like a wild man and Mr. K. he let him.
We all stared.
He was really, really good, but I guess I already knew that.
First he drew a picture of a boy sitting on this water buffalo and then he drew this rice field in green. Then he drew another boy on another water buffalo and they seemed to be racing. He drew other kids running along the bank with their kites in the sky and you could tell they were laughing and yelling, having a good time. Then he started to draw little houses on both side of this river and the river ran toward the ocean and the ocean had big old waves. Kal drew a couple standing outside this very nice house holding hands and underneath them Kal wrote Ba and Ma. Then he turned and looked straight at me, his eyes still wet with tears.
Rowbuurt, he said, tapping the pictures with his chalk, his voice sad but expecting, Rowbuurt.
Me? I said. I felt kinda dizzy. Everybody was looking back and forth between him and me now like we were tossing a soft ball between us or something.
Rowbuurt, Kal said my name again and kept looking at me until I said what, what’d you want, Kal?
Kal tapped the blackboard with his chalk again and I saw in my head the picture of myself taped on my family tree and then, I don’t know how but I just kinda knew. So I just took a deep breath and then I said, Ok, Ok, Kal, uhmm, said he used to live in this village with his Mama and Papa near where the river runs into the sea, and Kal nodded and smiled and waved his chalk in a circle like he was saying Go on, Robert Quentin Mitchell, you’re doing fine, go on.
So I went on.
And he went on.
I talked. He drew.
We fell into a rhythm.
He had a good time racing them water buffaloes with his friends and flying kites, I said. His village is, hmm, very nice, and … and … and … at night he goes to sleep swinging on this hammock and hearing the sound of ocean behind the dunes and everything.
Then one day, I said, the soldiers came with guns and they took his daddy away. They put him behind barbed wires with other men, all very skinny, skinny and hungry and they got chains on their ankles and they looked really, really sad. Kal and his mother went to visit his daddy and they stood on the other side of the fence and cried a lot.
Then he died. And Kal and his mother buried him in this cemetery with lots of graves and they lit candles and cried and cried. After that, there was this boat, this really crowded boat, I guess, and Kal and his Mama climbed on it and they went down the river out to sea. Then they got on this island and then they got on an airplane after that and they came here to live in America.
Kal was running out of space. He drew the map of America way too big but he didn’t want to erase it. So he climbed on a chair and drew these high-rises right above the rice fields and I recognized the Trans-American building right away, a skinny pyramid underneath a rising moon. Then he drew a big old heart around it. Then he went back to the scene where the man named Ba who stood in the doorway with his wife and he drew a heart around him. Then he went back to the first scene of the two boys racing on the water buffaloes in the rice field and paused a little before he drew tiny tennis shoes on the boys’ feet and I heard Billy said that’s Bobby and his refugee boyfriend, but I ignored him.
Kal loves America very much, especially San Francisco, I said, he’d never seen so many tall buildings before in his whole life and they’re so pretty. Maybe he’ll live with his mother someday up in the penthouse when they have lots of money. But he misses home, too, and he misses his friends, and he especially misses his daddy who died. A lot. And that’s all, I said. I think he’s done, thank you.
And he was done. Kal turned around and climbed down from the chair. Then he looked at everybody and checked out their faces to see if they understood. Then in this real loud voice he said, Hee, Foock headss, leevenme olone! and bowed to them, and everybody cracked up and applauded.
Kal started walking back. He was smiling and looking straight at me like he was saying, Robert Quentin Mitchell, ain’t we a team, or what? And I wanted to say yes, yes, Kal Long Nguyen—Refugee, yeah we are, but I just didn’t say anything.