Beauty Plus Pity: excerpt of a new novel by Kevin Chong
In the afternoon, I fetched my suit from the cleaners and the water filter Claire had asked me to buy in mid-August, before returning like a mad scientist to a parcel of resumés and photos—pages from the book of clippings I was assembling for various modelling agencies. Some of the bigwigs at these agencies I’d queried before—the image middlemen who’d handed me their cards at the agency panel in the spring, before I graduated from modelling school.
They’d previously rejected me for valid, if non-specific, reasons, but I wanted them to realize I could not only accept, but blossom in the face of criticism. In their unpunctuated, one-line e-mails, I saw them implicitly challenging me to shrug off adversity, negativity, and indifference—it wasn’t worth their time to deal with someone they didn’t first reject three, four times, because that wasn’t how this world functioned. The new photos they needed to see conveyed a more natural, less preened-over look. It was what they wanted.
After stopping at the post office at two, I returned home—a one-bedroom with a den—and typed out my eulogy for my father, which I had written out longhand, all soulful-like, on a legal pad the night before. It was the worst-possible speech and could only have been more wretched if I’d used a laser pointer. My father didn’t want a funeral, I suspected, precisely because he’d correctly surmised what kind of ear-stuffing presentation I’d deliver. Still, I printed the speech and put it in an envelope. Because I’m absent-minded in the morning, I made sure the envelope was tucked in the left-hand jacket pocket of my suit, which hung from the doorknob of our bedroom door.
At four, I retrieved my cousin from Starbucks, where he’d still managed to get high, deposited him at my parents’ house, and returned home again to wait for Claire. Last week, she’d reacted to my father’s death with loud sobbing. Her reaction was unexpected; my father had been polite, but never made much effort around her—and she’d taken note of that. She wiped her eyes and poured herself a glass of water before going into our bedroom, closing the door, then sobbing again.
When the phone rang, I was ready to hear Claire’s voice, calling me from the library. Instead it surprised me that it was Uncle Charlie. Given the choice between eating alone or meeting my father’s best friend, I gobbled down a banana and left a note for Claire.
Uncle Charlie was a Cadillac-sized man with a head of inky- black corkscrew hair and a nose that had been broken so many times—from errant footballs, he told me—that it resembled a piece of ruptured sausage. He sported a gold Rolex and a ruby-encrusted pinkie ring that sat on his hairy finger like a daisy among weeds.
When I arrived, he was already drinking at the bar, extending his patented leer—top lip curled over his bared teeth, obscene in combination with his unnatural tan, bottom lip dangling, left eye twitching—at a waitress.
Decades earlier, Charlie Branca left Brooklyn for Montreal as a draft dodger. Then, taking a job as head of security for a large financial house, he lived in Hong Kong for a decade, where he met my father. After taking early retirement, he and his then-wife, Ling, moved to Vancouver to open a bed and breakfast. Uncle Charlie, however, found the hospitality business involved too much ingratiation. Meanwhile, Ling, a slight woman from Hong Kong with a downtrodden aura and wire-framed glasses, joined a start-up religion on Vancouver Island whose leader commanded her to divorce Uncle Charlie and become his sixteenth common-law bride.
Charlie, who returned to security work for an Internet gambling company, pronounced himself a freelancer for life.
Over the years, between girlfriends who drank vodka from paper coffee cups and tattooed their knuckles, Uncle Charlie routinely appeared at my parents’ house, boiling shrimp balls and shredded jelly-fish in the hot-pot or watching Westerns. When I was a teenager, his apartment was flooded and he slept in the guest room for a month, during which time I would occasionally find him in the kitchen in his underwear fixing ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches.
Uncle Charlie’s local was a sports bar where waitresses wore jerseys emblazoned with their first names and lucky numbers: on our side of the room was “Chelsea,” number sixty-nine. As I took the stool beside him, he dragged a finger at our neckbearded bartender.
“Two,” he said to him.
The bartender poured two shots of Crown Royal. In Uncle Charlie’s hand, a shooter glass looked like a thimble.
“Mac, what can I say?” he said. He put a hand on my shoulder and patted my head. “I did my best to be outlived by him.”
“He couldn’t ask for more.”
He raised his glass, tilted back his head twice, and downed it, then waited for me to follow suit. “Your father loved Crown.”
I lifted the rye to my mouth. “You’re full of shit.”
Uncle Charlie ordered another three shots, which I swallowed without further cajoling. Then I asked the bartender for a glass of water. By the time I finished another two shots and stepped outside, the street was wobbling.