Beauty Plus Pity: excerpt of a new novel by Kevin Chong
Time spooled out of grasp like a roll of runaway toilet paper. After limbo-waltzing down a back lane to Uncle Charlie’s townhouse where he poured me another drink—a bottle of mescal sat on his coffee table—he put a tape in the VCR. The video was entitled Donut Hut Corporation: Defining Sexual Harassment. Of the thirty-five training films he’d appeared in, Uncle Charlie said this one, produced for a nationwide chain of donut shops, was the very first.
In this video, he played a lecherous shop manager who verbally and physically harasses a female employee in the kitchen by the grease traps.
“The grease traps aren’t dirty,” Uncle Charlie deadpanned. “But I am.”
There were seventeen instances of sexual harassment in that scene, a narrator announced in voiceover. Can you name them all? In his taped-up armchair, my father’s friend howled at each one of his harassments, every outburst of mirth a cue that I ignored. My reaction to the video was unexpected. I’d heard about my father’s corporate training movies, but unlike his ubiquitous commercials, had hardly seen them, and this glimpse of his work made me want to be alone.
Of course I was drunk, but I could see my father there. I could sense him in the movements of the camera, the long static shots he used as frequently as he could. My father was in awe of Kenzo Mizoguchi’s long takes, and ridiculous though it might be, even in this video I could detect the influence. And I could feel my father’s direction in Uncle Charlie’s ridiculous deadpan, the very palpable lechery on his face undercut by his silly come-ons—wasn’t my father alluding to Bertolt Brecht?
“You need to cry,” Charlie said, encouraging me. “It’ll be good for you. You need to cry.” He put on a VHS copy of La Strada, one of those movies Federico Fellini made before he got all weird. As Charlie crouched over his VCR to fast-forward past the copyright warning onscreen, I remembered something my father mentioned to me a couple years before, when I was still in Montreal. He’d called me up because he’d been reading the memoirs of Luis Buñuel, which Buñuel had written in the 1980s just before he died. My father told me that Buñuel wanted to climb out of his coffin every ten years or so and wander around, after he died. He’d get a cup of coffee and read the newspapers. Once he was content to know the world hadn’t changed much, Buñuel would climb back into his coffin. My father was already sick at this time, and it was hard to understand his amusement, or even why he was so eager to relay such a whimsical vision of the afterlife, because the story was so depressing.
I now thought about Oliver Kwan crawling out of his coffin, even though he’d been cremated, and couldn’t help wishing for it.
Then I fell asleep on Charlie’s couch.
In the traffic before rush hour, Uncle Charlie lived ten minutes from our empty apartment. Returning in the dewy morning, I worried that Claire was upset with me. I fell into our bed, perpetually unmade, and was startled out of it by the chill of its unslept-in sheets.
Changing and primping, I patted my jacket pocket for the eulogy and told myself it would be inconceivable for her to go absent.
Eventually, I arrived at a flat-roofed brick building, solemnly unremarkable, on the east side of the city, by the cemetery where they used to bury the Asians and Jews. In our search for a locale, my mother and I had faltered. We’d thought about the racetrack for the memorial, but my father had lost interest in racing in recent years. We settled for the chapel at the funeral home where he was cremated.
Once my aunts escorted me inside, I stepped up to the podium. Uncle Charlie had left the microphone a little too high for me. I adjusted it with my left hand and with my right hand removed the envelope from my jacket pocket and flattened out my eulogy on the podium. Starting to read, maybe a word came out of my mouth like sleep talk. I froze.
September 14, 2008
Please, please forgive me for writing this to you at such a terrible time in your life. I decided I couldn’t attend the service.
I can’t be with you and your mother, knowing in my heart, as I have in the past few days, that we don’t belong together. I love you so much, I don’t know if you can believe that. I do.
If you like, we can to talk about this later, because I’m not sure I can supply the right explanation for my decision. All I can say is that, in the past few months, you’ve been pushing yourself away from me. Only recently, I’ve decided I can’t keep pushing myself back to you.
Good luck with whatever you might choose to do. You’re very smart and kind and generous—I still feel that way. My only hope is that you find something that suits your talents.
P.S. In the next couple of days I’ll get the rest of my things.
Please have a cheque for my half of the damage deposit waiting. You might have already guessed, but I’ll be staying with Seamus …