by Andrew Lam
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 the 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 him being real big and handsome. I remember him hugging and kissing and reading me a bed time story once or twice and then he was gone. Only my sister, Charlene, remembers him well on account that she's threeyears 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 changting 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 relaives 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 on the losing side cause he'd lost everything killed himself after the war ended. Then there was my grand daddy 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 sweet heart 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 hec out of me 'cause she had an old shot gun 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 and steal your underwears. 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.
This is an excerpt from "Birds of Pardise Lost," now available on amazon.