Beauty Plus Pity: excerpt of a new novel by Kevin Chong

The following is an excerpt from Beauty Plus Pity (Arsenal Pulp Press), a new novel by Vancouver author Kevin Chong.

 Who’d pick a funeral to meet your long-lost sister? A funeral or the sudden arrival of a family member—either would be shitty enough, but that morning, my head felt encased in bubble wrap, my stomach was a wading pool of bile, and I was sweating booze through my shoulder-stuffed suit like a cigarette lighter before it ignites. All of this was self-administered misery, and yet I still arrived late to deliver my father’s eulogy.

 

My father’s sisters, Paula and Mirabelle, scrambled up to me tandem-style, like unhappily conjoined twins, in the foyer outside the chapel doors.

“What took you so long?” Aunt Mirabelle, who lived in Toronto, asked with a nervous burp. Her eyes widened as they worried over my face. She stripped a piece of tissue paper from her purse and tried dabbing away my hangover.

“We thought you were—we thought you could be … Oh. Well.” She straightened my tie.

“We’re glad you’re here.”

“Your mother could not be acting any worse,” Aunt Paula announced in her flat, drag-queen croak.

“She came close to leaving, but I took away her car keys. We didn’t expect her—that girl—to be here.”

I asked my First Aunt who she was talking about.

“We don’t have time for this,” shrieked Paula, who’d come from Hong Kong. She took my arm and led me into the chapel. “You’re speaking next.”

The chapel was forested with floral arrangements, which would have made my father double-blink in simmering displeasure. My possessive, wingnutty mother had, in fact, completely disregarded my father’s wishes about having a funeral at all. There were several dozen people here, many of whom I didn’t know, work contacts, most of them Chinese. Hunched over a set of cue cards, Uncle Charlie, who wasn’t really my uncle, but a hulking caucasoid who befriended my father at the Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong, stood apart from them like a mythical forest creature. It was Uncle Charlie who’d gotten me sad-belly drunk last night, but even in his grief, he was crisp and sparkly like a missionary. He stood there crouched over a microphone in front of a borrowed photo of Oliver Kwan—a blown-up and underexposed photo of him next to his bike—and the florists’ wares, bloviating in my place.

“Bear with me, I have other thoughts to unload,” Uncle Charlie was saying. “Oliver had, uh, exceptional personal hygiene. Yes. I never once saw dirt under his fingernails and, like many Asians, his sweat actually smelled nice, like—like tea with honey in it.” He saw me and waved me toward the stage. “Well, that concludes my remarks. Where was I sitting?”

At the podium, my breaths felt like pinpricks. I stunk at public speaking; I preferred to let the bones in my face do the talking.

In the front row, alongside my aunts and my cousin Gavin, who’d scored weed at a Starbucks earlier and experienced the day like a volunteer for a local hypnotist, my mother emoted for the deaf and blind. I felt the back of my neck grow warm knowing that I could offer no relief, no diversion to the soggy, disconsolate faces before me.

Patting myself for the speech I’d keyboarded and printed two nights before, I kept my head up. I had no inkling that I’d find Hadley—why should I? I was searching for my fiancée, Claire. We were not getting along, partly because she was stressed from law school,  partly because I was trying to become a professional model, but the possibility that she would let me down was too awful to consider.

My father, Oliver Kwan, had died six days earlier, on the afternoon of September 3rd, 2008, with my mother, Eliza Mak Kwan, in the armchair next to his bed. “He was breathing with such effort, then he was breathing less and less, lighter and lighter. I could see his spirit leaving,” my mother told me afterwards over the phone. “I threw my arms around him, to hold him here longer—it worked for a couple of minutes. Then I let go.” Since that year began, the cancer, which had first roosted in his throat, imposed itself on his lungs. Six weeks before he died, my mother and I took turns—first at home, then at the hospice—watching over him, as he foamed with optimism and cheer for our sake. In reality, it was like pretending there was Santa Claus for a twelve-year-old who refused to believe otherwise.

I’d long accepted my father’s imminent exit; I’d braced for it so much that the sting didn’t pass through me for months afterwards.

Still, from the start, I was bothered that my father would choose to go leaving so much unsaid—and not just the obvious. I was at work when he died because, the night before when I visited, my father insisted that my responsibilities to my part-time employer should be my uppermost preoccupation. I went to work, he passed on. Am I paranoid to think he was trying to duck a goodbye? We had chances to speak in the past couple of months, but he remained taciturn until the end, and I was too timid to force him to speak up.

One visit, a week before my father died, bothered me especially. When I stepped through his door, he was on his cell phone, arranging a visit. He was speaking in English, and I assumed it was to one of his few non-Chinese friends.

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