for Suk Kuen Chow
The summer I realized girls didn’t have cooties, my father died of liver failure. I was not present at my father’s death, but figured it even, as he was not present for most of my life.
The man I refuse to call Dad worked for people who never looked at him. Walking by, they’d say things like “tea” or “coffee,” or just snap their fingers while my father smiled so wide his eyes closed and bowed until they’d passed. He smiled so much at work he developed a facial tick at home, and believed the only way to relieve it was to never stop frowning.
At home, he rarely spoke when he talked, and never looked at Mom and me for more than a second. He’d drink bottles of Dynasty X.O., then snap his fingers for his shoes. He’d slam chairs and glasses and doors as he left the house, and come back late smelling not like Mom’s perfume. Mom would cry and yell while he sat in his chair, swigging brandy, his cheeks twitching.
“It’s not our fault you’re just a corporate world eunuch!” she’d scream, and I would close my eyes and sometimes hear a sound like slippers slapped together and my mom crying even harder. Most times, I just heard snoring.
His proudest memory was that he’d smelled Bruce Lee in person. He had the chance to shake his hand, but when the star walked by my father smiled and bowed, his eyes closed in instinct. “His cologne was so strong,” he’d tell me, his words slurring, his watery eyes upturned to the ceiling. “It was the smell of an important man.”
One night, my father left to get right and never returned. The last time I saw him alive was the afternoon Mom and I went to yum tsa in Victoria Harbor. He was leaning over the railing, staring at a junk crossing the sea, the dark water like dragon scales in the breeze.
“Father!” I said, waving my hands over my head like scissors. “It’s Cheuk Fan!”
He gripped the rail until his knuckles went white, lowered his head, and walked away.
Liver failure was listed as his cause of death because, Mom said, “You can’t just put ‘failure’ on a death certificate.”
At his funeral, a woman we had never seen before cried. Mom did not.
It is Chinese tradition that if a son is not present at his father’s death, the son must crawl toward the casket, wailing for penance. On my hands and knees, pushing his memory out behind me with each touch of palm and knee to the floor, moving toward the man who had always moved away from me, I could not help but marvel at what I didn’t know was karmaâ€”that finally, someone was bowing to my father, except that now, he was flat on his back.
Kevin Brown is in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas. He is the recipient of the Permafrost Literary Journal’s Midnight Sun Fiction Contest, as well as the Baucom-Fulkerson Memorial Award and the Lily Peter Fellowship for fiction. His fiction has appeared in The Ozark Review.