Beauty Plus Pity: excerpt of a new novel by Kevin Chong
I read this note twice before finally turning to the eulogy I had ready in my other pocket. My voice trembled as I read over the biographical summary. Born in Hong Kong in 1951, the oldest of three, his own father died when he was only six. A poor student who dropped out of school when he was fourteen, he washed dishes and drove a cab, devoting his spare cash to the cinema.
I settled down for a moment and ad-libbed. “I think my dad, if he could, would have lived inside his favourite movies,” I told the audience, which murmured appreciatively. “Touch of Evil, Tokyo
Story, or anything with William Holden. Most of all, he loved Mary Poppins. He would drive his Saab like a maniac while humming songs from the soundtrack.” I earned a light chuckle there and allowed myself to smile.
According to my mother, he had also been a fan of Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut’s second film.
When they’d met, my father was wearing a trench coat, his shoulders folded together, puffing his Gitanes and stifling his smirk in an effort to shrink himself into Aznavour’s melancholic piano player. Aznavour performs Charlie Kohler, a saloon pianist who plays amidst petty thieves and chippy dames in Paris. Charlie has a past.
He was a famous concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan before his wife’s tragic death. Trust my father, in the course of his adolescent self-invention, to idolize someone pretending to be somebody else.
“My dad wanted to be a great filmmaker himself,” I continued.
“In order to learn about cameras, he went to every photography studio he knew before finding work as an assistant to a portrait photographer. After work, he’d go to the movie house near his parents’ apartment building and would watch whatever was playing. In the early 1970s, he started working in films in Hong Kong, doing camera and lighting work for Golden Harvest studios.”
I stopped here again before finishing the story. “His movie-making dreams were realized, in a way. After emigrating to Canada, he worked at a box factory for three years before he enrolled in
a course for industrial filmmaking. For the last twenty years, he made all those commercials and training films that you know about already.”
Staring at Claire’s letter, trembling as I read it over again, I looked up at the crowd, vainly searching for her, as if out of reflex.
“Everything I have,” I said, “I owe to my father. I wish I could say this better, but it’s all I can say. Thank you.”
I stepped down. No more than ten minutes had passed. My mother bounded past the people already streaming out for refreshments, out of the chapel.
“We told that girl not to come,” Aunt Paula said. With locked teeth, she looked to the exit.
“Who?” I asked. They had taken for granted that I knew the person of interest.
My father and his sisters had chosen their own English names as adults, so their personalities, to a debatable extent, were telegraphed in their choices. Prissy and deliberate, Aunt Mirabelle wet another piece of tissue paper with her tongue and resumed dabbing my face.
“Don’t be so hard on that girl,” she said to her sister. “We all must be allowed to grieve.”
I stepped into the reception area, where my father’s friends, all in late middle age, spoke and ate with both comfort and an uneasiness that they felt familiar in these situations. My mother sheltered herself in the washroom, weeping. In her absence, it was my job to thank everyone for coming, and I dutifully received their hugs, accepted their kisses with the furthest side of my cheek, and listened to their kind words as if they were playing elevator music. I pointed them to cake and tea. One by one, I disentangled myself from them.
It took a moment to find the person my aunts had been talking about. She had hidden herself in a far corner of the room and sat on the bench of an electric piano that had been pushed aside, a piece of gauzy tarp thrown over it. On a plate balanced between her knees was a piece of coffee cake. She didn’t look much older than sixteen or seventeen, a tall, robust-looking girl with big walnut eyes, a bell-shaped forehead, and a buttery complexion. One corner of her face was curled into a deeply preoccupied expression.
She wore a dark crushed-velvet dress with large buttons running down the middle, green tights, and boxy platform shoes. When she caught me looking at her, the corners of her mouth turned down.
Who was that staring back at me?
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