An Excerpt from A Son’s Loyalties – The Park (Chapter Four)

This is an excerpt from a novel I’m working on. I would appreciate any feedback. Thanks and have a great weekend.

Heads turn when they see Kao’s dark blue car. He parks near two makeshift volleyball courts, where a mixture of Southeast Asians are playing. Most of them are Mien and Hmong and a few are Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese, but unless you’re familiar, they look pretty similar. Near the nets, where players jump and land the most, the grass is gone and replaced by patches of hard dirt. After the sun sets, all that remains will be the dirt and grass.

At the other end of the park is a concrete basketball court with single-rimmed hoops and an ever-changing rotation of nets. Once a year the city puts up chain link nets, but those are usually frayed and busted within a few weeks and it’s up to the regulars to supply their own nylon nets. Each spring, a new crop of basketball hopefuls appear and guard the eroded sidelines like tourists waiting for New York street traffic to pass before clicking their cameras. Some come for exercise and stress relief and others for bragging rights and to test their skills against some of the city’s best players. Some dress in their mesh school practice jerseys and shorts, others in workpants and greasy shirts. Some are junior high kids and others were decades ago. The majority are blacks and Hispanics from the rough neighborhood, but a few white kids looking for a good run show up from time to time. Eventually, everyone gets a turn.

From the passenger side, Christian gets out with Cheng in his arms. Kao pops the trunk and retrieves a worn synthetic leather basketball, soft enough that layers didn’t have to worry about jamming their fingers. He looks west to the sun and knows only a few more hours remain before the court lights turn on for those who don’t mind playing a little in the dark. He exchanges the basketball with Christian for his son.

Kao’s cell phone rings and he checks the Caller ID. It’s Cheng’s mother Susie, and she wants to see the child.

“Sure, that’s fine,” Kao says. “We’re at the park right now if you want to come out and see him.”

Susie doesn’t answer immediately. “What park?”

“The one I play ball at. You know, the one you don’t like coming to.”

“Why’d you take him there?”

“It’s a nice day,” Kao says bluntly. “I figured we’d have a good time in the sun.”

His unintentional harshness silences Susie.

“So you wanna come out and see him?” Kao asks.

“Sure,” she answers. “How do I get there again?”

Kao gives the directions and folds the silver phone to end the call.

“Who was that?” Christian asks.

“Susie.”

“She gonna come over here?”

“Yeah.”

Christian laughs and walks off to the basketball court while flipping the ball from one large hand to the other.

With Cheng in his arms, Kao stands near a volleyball court where his older brother Lo is playing. The serve flies from the opposite side and Lo sticks his arms out, bumping the white ball to the setter. He takes three long steps toward the net and jumps. The setter passes the ball straight to Lo’s recoiling right arm. Whap! The ball lands on the grass inside the lines of the far right corner. Lo’s a good athlete in his own right, but he’s not in the same class as his brothers and isn’t as active at the age of 30. He’s also much shorter.

The two older brothers haven’t spoken a comfortable word to each other for nearly a decade. Part of it has to do with age—Lo is almost ten years older—but most of it stems from a perceived inequity of parental treatment. Lo saw all the things his younger brother received that he didn’t, and Kao saw the freedom given to Lo. In truth, both envy the other because they don’t know each other very well and can’t see their own similarities.

They’ve both been making small steps in reconciling their relationship, harnessing their tongues instead of letting out small quips and not dreading the possibility of seeing each other during family gatherings. However, each still waits for the other to make the one big gesture, even though one moment won’t replace what was lost over the years.

Of course, they still possess the love and loyalty that having the same blood entails, but they grew up differently. Lo is marked by being on the outskirts of acceptance, an Asian kid who didn’t speak English attending an American high school not more than a few years after the Vietnam War. By the time Kao was in high school, he spoke English without an accent and was a star athlete. Though both are dutiful sons, Lo’s actions and beliefs fall in line with his parents’ ideals. Kao is more defiant. He readily disregards anything he feels inaccurate or illogical, but he does so with careful consideration.

When the game is over, Lo congratulates the winning team and steps to the side where Kao is standing and tugs at Cheng’s left foot. The baby grins and reaches out with a hand. Lo gives him a high-five.

Lo tells his younger brother that he needs to quit smoking. Kao agrees. The brothers know it’s just a message being relayed from their parents. The request has been made and agreed to many times.

“How’s work?” Kao asks.

“Good, besides the commute two. They gave me a little raise for going ‘above and beyond.’ My kids are getting big though.”

“You still planning on buying Mom and Dad a house?”

Lo laughs. “The house is damn near done.”

“Hmm, they haven’t said anything.”

“I didn’t tell them. I got sick of trying to convince them to move out of that apartment.”

“Oh.”

“I guess James can keep a secret after all. I was sure he was going to tell you even though I asked him not to.”

“Haven’t heard anything about it from him. Where is it?”

“It’s out by the lake.”

“That’s nice.” Kao looks away to the basketball players. “I can help out a little bit on the payments.”

“Yeah? On that massive salary from Uncle Saan?”

Kao shifts Cheng in his arms. “May take some time, but I get good work out East.”

“Doing what?”

“Nothing really specific. I just run errands for rich people, and they give big tips for what I do.” Kao pauses. “You know. Feed their cats, do their shopping, sleep with their daughters, simple things like that.”

“Isn’t that how you got this one?” Lo nods at Cheng.

Kao chuckles and smiles but says and does nothing to betray his feelings.

“You still dating those white girls?” Lo asks. “Mom and Dad used to hate that shit. They can tolerate it a bit now, which I still can’t believe. Who was the one after Susie, what’s her name?”

“Emily.”

“Yeah. That’s right. Em-ly. Dad said he liked her.”

“Really?”

“He said she sounded nice over the phone.”

“Well, things didn’t work out with her, but we talk now and then. She went abroad to Oxford this year. I thought about visiting, but then I met Catherine.”

“New one, huh?”

“Yeah.”

If history holds true, Catherine will be gone soon. Kao’s relationships never last too long beyond the early infatuation two people possess. His avoidance of arguments prompts some women to say he’s emotionally vacant or uncaring or even passionless. But when they look in retrospect, they only find the good times spent together. He remains friendly with all the girls.

“Pretty?” Lo asks, sounding like his father.

“Yeah, but Dad might hate her phone etiquette.”

Lo lets a quick breath out of his nose in amusement. “Hey, I want to ask you a favor.”

“Sure.”

“I have to go to a city council meeting to speak in a few weeks, and I need your help.”

“What’s it about?” Kao takes out a cigarette and is about to light it but realizes Cheng is in his arms. He puts the cigarette behind his ear.

“Sorry, I forget you’re not in town much. The city wants to pass an ordinance about some of the religious ceremonies… Well, really about animal sacrifice.”

“I don’t know that much about the law.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll have the speech prepared. You just have to deliver it.”

Lo is still uncomfortable speaking English in a public forum. Although he gives the most beautiful speeches in his own language, he always stumbles over English words when he stands behind a podium with all the eyes on him. The language’s rigid starts and stops make him hesitate or talk too fast, making him ignore proper inflections and emphasis.

“I can’t do that, but I’ll help you write the speech and help you practice it,” Kao says.

 

Susie Dickinson slips on a black dress with white polka dots and looks in the mirror. She immediately regrets agreeing to meet up with Kao to see Cheng and wonders why she agreed so quickly. In her closet, she grabs a pair of black open-toe pumps with four-inch heels. She spins to make the dress flare out and laughs at the thought of the shoes making her taller than most guys. Maybe she’ll go out after seeing her son, but she knows she won’t. She doesn’t like bars much, especially when she’s by herself and especially bars in her hometown.

She looks at her watch and realizes it has been more than half an hour since she got off the phone with Kao. Oh well. He can wait. She walks to the kitchen and slices an apple in half and pours herself a glass of water from the filtered tap.

It was just two summers before when she started hanging out with Kao and his group of friends. She was home after her freshmen year at Stanford and had no responsibilities besides the usual household chores. Instead of getting an internship or summer job, she planned on studying the text books borrowed from students a year ahead of her. While getting take-out from the Dragon’s Wok, Susie was invited to a party by Kao, and she surprised even herself by showing up.

They had known each other all through high school, sharing the same Honors and AP classes, but ran with different crowds. Well, he ran with different crowds. Susie was more of a homebody when she wasn’t with the cross country and soccer teams. Regardless, she had little to no attraction to Kao until she saw him at that party surrounded by a group of girls who were once her teammates. When she joined the group, he offered her a beer and excused himself shortly thereafter.

Susie stood there and listened to her friends gush about him. He gave one girl a ride home from a school dance when he found her crying over something trivial. Another had him as a tutor. He changed flat tires and jump started cars for a couple of them.

“How do I not know this about him?” Susie asked.

“You probably weren’t paying attention,” one said.

“I want to have little half-Asian babies with him,” another said.

“You all think he kind of looks like Brandon Lee?”

“He kind of does. But, let’s not talk about that. It’s too sad.”

“I’m definitely going to see The Crow when it comes out.”

 

Susie sweats with discomfort as she drives across the second set of railroad tracks marking the south side of Great Falls, and when the park comes into sight, she feels even more out of her element. It’s certainly not the membership-only gym where men play racquetball and tennis on their way home from work. As she circles the park, Susie looks for Kao’s blue two-door amongst all the Hondas and Toyotas. She looks to the volleyball courts, but no one seems to be Kao’s height. She hasn’t seen Cheng since the day they were released from the hospital more than a year ago, and aside from pictures, the only time she caught sight of him, she didn’t even notice. He was just another baby being held by a girl in a grocery store one day. Susie didn’t think twice and never glanced back after she looked down the aisle lined with diapers. Had she walked by fifteen seconds later, she would have seen Kao tickling the child’s feet.

At the park, Cheng could be any of the babies with their mothers and fathers.

Near the volleyball courts, she finds his car and slows to a stop. The brown eyes looking at her belong to unfamiliar faces. Susie continues down the block, makes two rights and finds herself next to the basketball court.

She pulls into the first open space and looks the park over, but she’s too anxious to focus on anyone and doesn’t see Kao waving from the sideline in front of her. Susie sees the jungle gym of wood and plastic and remembers jumping up and down on the flexible bridge a couple summers back until a patrol car asked Kao and her to keep the noise down if they were going to stay in the park.  When she finally sets her eyes on Kao, she smiles in relief before turning off her engine and rolling up her windows. She steps out of her hand-me-down BMW and smiles in embarrassment as some of the guys whistle. Her vision becomes clearer and she sees Cheng on the sideline slapping a miniature basketball.

Susie waves and shoots a smile at Kao, but her eyes are on Cheng. Her steps get smaller until she stops as she studies the baby. He’s taller than she expected and traits belong to her specifically. Susie searches for something that says he’s hers, but in her eyes, Cheng looks just like Kao. Then her body chills as she recalls that Mother’s Day passed recently and she still hasn’t opened any of the cards.

The basketball garners all of Cheng’s focus and fascination, and every few bounces he turns to his father for approval. Kao smiles at his son before looking back to Susie. Cheng turns as well, following his father’s gaze.

Susie recognizes the blue eyes as hers and gasps. She has been told and seen pictures of them, but unfiltered, they are brighter than she can imagine.

Cheng studies the tall woman for a moment, slaps the ball one last time and charges back to Kao with his arms out. Kao scoops him up and spins.

“Can I hold him?” Susie asks.

Cheng’s arms tighten around his father’s neck as Kao walks to Susie.

“Hey, hey,” Susie says in a soft voice while holding out her hands.

“It’s okay,” Kao whispers into the kid’s ear. “C’mon, be nice. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s Susie. Remember her?”

The baby digs his face into his father’s neck. After more coaxing from his father, Cheng finally relents and turns his head to the unfamiliar woman.

It’s rare for Cheng to reject. He’s playful kid and gravitates to everybody. On the rare occasions he’s let loose in an unfamiliar setting, he can be found running to the closest stranger and hugging their legs or playing with their feet.

“Don’t worry,” Kao says, “it’s only because he doesn’t recognize you.”

“Really?” Susie says. “My parents say he’s always friendly with everyone.”

“Almost everyone.”

“Okay.”

A fight breaks out on the basketball court. It’s not physical, but the two people—a young high school kid and an older man—are shouting obscenities at each other. They’re arguing over a foul, but it quickly escalates to an issue of respect, or lack thereof. They get into each other’s faces, and though the skinny kid knows he stands no chance in a fight, he’s not backing down, especially with everyone around.

Susie tightens her hold on Cheng, and the child squirms, pushing away and wiggling his feet.

“Malcolm! Kenny!” Kao screams above the fracas. “Calm down. You’re freakin’ my boy.”

Malcolm, the older black man, apologizes to Kao.

“Kenny, shoot for the ball. Three-point line,” Kao says.

Malcolm tosses the ball to the young kid.

“Nah, it’s alright,” Kenny responds, “We’ll get the next one.”

“Thanks guys,” Kao says.

Kao turns back to Susie, who’s pleading with Cheng to stay still. But seeing his father’s face, Cheng turns his body and reaches out with his arms, and Susie relinquishes the child.

“Why do you bring him out here?” Susie asks.

Kao laughs in disbelief.

“You know it’s not safe for him.”

“I think he’ll be fine,” Kao says.

“Look at what just happened.” Susie glances at the two players already down on the other end of the court. “They were at each other’s throats.”

“No, they weren’t. It’s just a part of the game. Look, they’re already laughing with each other.” Kao smiles. “Forget and forgive, remember?”

“That’s a low blow.”

“I’m sorry, but, hey, I grew up here. I turned out alright, didn’t I?”

Susie slumps her shoulders but changes her tone and continues with a friendlier voice.

“So, my mother says you’re not accepting any of their money.”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Hey, I’m sorry, okay. That didn’t come out right. I’m just glad to hear you’re doing well.”

“Thank you,” Kao says and kisses Cheng’s forehead.

“Um, I need to run, but can I see him again?”

“I’m not stopping you, am I?” Kao snipes.

“Look, I said I’m sorry. I just want to make sure you were okay with it.”

“When are you down, again?”

“I don’t know. Could be next week, could be next month.”

“Well, just let me know a few days or a week beforehand.” Kao pauses. “It’s no trouble. I just want to make sure we’re home.”

“Okay, it’s good seeing you.” Susie reaches for Cheng’s face. “Buh-bye, kiddo.”

Cheng leans away from the hand and whines.

Upon Kao’s urging, Cheng frantically waves as Susie back-peddles to her car.

 

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