Wednesday, August 23, 2006

short story

Last Supper

By Argus Lou

The first sign of trouble came when father dropped a platter of starters. Mother had asked him to help her bring the dishes out of the van to the picnic rug. He had been reluctant but she insisted that men should at least help with the serving if they didn’t do the cooking, packing, unpacking and cleaning.

My jaw dropped a split second after the pewter platter fell, spring rolls and roast pork ‘coins’ going hither and century eggs and water-chestnut ‘pouches’ going thither. All my favourite appetizers – gone! I wished I were a dog; I’d be on my hands and knees on the grass lapping up the spilled goodies and wolfing it down in no time. Which Ding-ding, Uncle Jeh’s Shih Tzu began doing, before my Bruno, a huge black canine of indeterminate ancestry, loped up, nudged Ding-ding aside, and finished the job. The little fellow yelped and nipped Bruno in protest but was no match for the bulldozer of a dog.

“Lucky fella!” squeaked Grandfather, rubbing his rotund tummy exposed by his rolled-up red T-shirt. “Year of the Dog indeed! Ha ha ha.”

“Sorry, everyone. See?” Father turned to Mother. “No good can come from enlisting manly labour for such feminine tasks.”

“Pah! If you helped out often enough at home, like Jeh, you’d be less awkward doing it – less chance of dropping the whole production, no?”

Father was quick to change the subject. “Sit down, sit down, everyone! Ah, Jeh, stop fussing about already. Everything looks perfect; we’re only going to mess up your presentation when we dig in.”

Every other year, we have the unique tradition of eating our Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner in a different place. This year’s picnic in the Lake Gardens on the edge of town was Uncle Jeh’s suggestion, of which father hardly approved. Heh, heh, a dim view of dim sum in the park, I reckoned. My middle sibling, Sher-Win, and I loved the idea though. So did Grandpa, who was prancing about with the dogs – probably tempting fate to give him a heart attack.

Two years ago, my mother suggested camping in the jungle, which we foolishly agreed to. It turned out to be a disaster because it rained and then the leeches came out to eat us. We ate our new year’s eve dinner hurriedly and came out of the rainforest looking like the war wounded, what with patches of blood on our jeans.

“Grandpa, grandma, Pa, Ma, Uncle Jeh, eat rice!” Sher-Win and I chimed the pleasantries expected of ‘well brought up’ Chinese teenagers. As for Sher-Dai, our tomboy of an eldest sister, she mumbled the meal salutations self-consciously, not looking at any elder in the eye. Is that what it’s going to be like when I turn 21? Hope not!

“Good children!” Grandma briefly flashed her over-white fake front teeth. “Everyone, eat, eat!” You could see she wasn’t comfortable sitting on the ground but she didn’t complain.

“This fish is perfectly steamed, Dil. Succulent and firm. Bravo!” Grandpa congratulated my mum on her impeccable culinary skills. Dil is short for daughter-in-law, his prized private joke. Ma opened another outsized vacuum flask and we had Peking duck with crispy skin to complement the cabbage with abalone and dried oysters.

The sun was setting quickly as it is wont to do in the tropics. Harmless little flying bugs buzzed about in the golden air while nasty mosquitoes, like enemy helicopters, waited to swoop down for their crimson evening meal. We habitually brushed our elbows, feet and ears every few seconds – just in case a mozzie had alighted silently.

“Jeh, when you going to bring home a girl, so we get another daughter-in-law?” Grandpa unexpectedly asked. Only Pa, Ma, and we children knew Jeh’s predilection for pretty men. Pa, Ma and Sher-Dai studied the stripes of the picnic rug while my brother and I looked expectantly at our dear uncle.

Even more unexpectedly my father spoke up: “Pa, your neck is going to lengthen if you’re still waiting for Jeh to bring home a bride.”


“Once and for all, accept the fact that your younger son does not like girls.” I thought Pa’s deliberate enunciation of the last few words was unnecessary and jarring.

Grandpa’s spluttering and coughing got us all alarmed. “Look what you did!” Ma scolded Pa, tapping his wrist with the back of her chopsticks. Sher-Win got up to whack Grandpa on the back, expelling a grain of rice from the old man’s bulbous ‘prosperity’ nose.

“He gotta know sometime. What’s the point of us pretending Jeh’s normal?”

“I’m not abnormal!” uncle protested. “Gayness is part of nature. Why can’t you just accept that?”

Mother tried to soothe Jeh. “Yes, yes, we know. It’s all good.” She rubbed her temple; I knew she was getting one of her frequent headaches again.

Grandma finally piped up: “You mean, you mean to say Jeh is really a homosexual? Tay,” she addressed Grandpa, “I knew it all along. But you refused to believe me.”

“Aaargghh!” Grandpa finally found his voice. “Why did you all not let me go to my grave with just a bit of doubt as to whether my younger son is gay? Why did y’all have to confirm it? Hai-yah!”

Sher-Dai, probably desperate to change the subject, blurted: “I’m joining the Army. And don’t any of you try to stop me!”

“What!” Pa exclaimed. “The Malays will eat you up alive. Don’t you know there are only three percent Chinese in the Army?”

“She’s strong; she can take care of herself,” Ma said quietly. I knew she didn’t approve of Sher-Dai’s decision but she always let us be who we were.

That was the last time we had a reunion in an unusual locale. Ma died of brain cancer before the two years were up and Pa did not have the heart to continue our little tradition. After the first year of mourning and non-celebration, it was just sedate reunion dinners at home from thereon. Sher-Dai carved an illustrious career in the Army; she reached the rank of colonel and she never got married. Uncle Jeh, on the other hand, ‘married’ his French boyfriend the year after Grandpa passed on.

(1,034 words)


Xeus said...

You did it, girlie! Posted a new entry! And to think you married a computer literate.

Save all these stories up....they might make a book someday. (But then, you can't keep publishing them online because of the copyright....)

Lydia Teh said...

I like the story. Keep it up.

Argus Lou said...

Thanks, Lydia, for the encouragement. We've met (in the real world) a couple of times. I'll let you figure out who I am. Heh heh. ^_^

bibliobibuli said...

love it! the humour of the family having a reunion dinner in the jungle and family revalations - just wonderful comedy. how come it took me so long to find your blog? (and do i know you too??)

(and how come lydia and xeus are here before me?)

xeus - whatcha mean about copyright? i know that some places won't accept a story is it has been "published" in some sense before and blogging counts as publication

but many established writers put their work online. hari kunzru has given away almost all his short stories for free on his website but penguin still published them in 'noise'.

and what about the woman who won one of the main prizes in the lulu blooker for 'four and twenty blackbirds'? she put her whole novel online and it became a best seller in book form. (do i feel a blog post coming on?)

Argus Lou said...

Thanks much, Bibliobibuli (love that name! It reminds me I have a tongue and two lips. Tulips?). I know of you but you don't know me, probably. Your reputation preceeds you -- in a nice way, lah. If you know Kee Thuan Chye, then we have two degrees of separation (know that Kevin Bacon game?).

Xeus is a publishing associate turned longtime friend. And Lydia met me once or twice but she might not remember.

Ya, Xeus, whatcha mean by copyright? I've the right to drink kopi and post stories on my faulty blog, what.

Must look out for Hari Kunru's stories. And the Bulu Looker whatchamacallit. Thanks, Bib (oh dear, sorry for the short form).

Xeus said...

Dear Argus Lou and Sharon,

Ah, maybe you guys will know more about this than I do! Sharon has been keeping blogs for much longer than any of us.

In my contract when I signed with my publisher, it states that I cannot print or publish Dark City's stories anywhere, either in print form or online, without explicit written permission from the publisher. So when Star wanted to serialize 2 of DC's stories, they had to obtain written permission from the publisher (which they did 2 weeks ago.)

I guess I have that clause inside. But maybe Hari and the others didn't have that clause. So read your contracts carefully, dearies!

Yes, Sharon, pl do a blog on this. It's an interesting topic.

Xeus said...

Oh yes, Argus Lou, forgot to say, this publisher/contract thing will only apply if you intend to publish your stories one day in book form. You might run into a publisher who will have asked you whether or not your stories have been published before? Like Sharon says, some publishers are particular about it, some are not.

I do know of a lot of short story publishers who don't mind it if 1 or 2 of your stories are published somewhere, esp magazines, to get exposure, but not if the whole book has been serialized somewhere.

I have written an entire book on Fan Fiction network that many readers there feel should be made into actual book form. But of course, they advised me I have to alter it drastically because it's already been published online...

But of course, if these stories are for our reading pleasure and your writing pleasure, then you can post as many as you like for us to enjoy!

Keep them coming, girlie

Argus Lou said...

Good questions for discussion and to put to potential publishers, Xeus. Hope Sharon will blog about it. ;-)

bibliobibuli said...

yeah call me bib, i like it

xeus - i think if you have a contract w. your publisher it's up to him/her to grant permission

but if you have no such agreement it does not hurt just to get your work out there

i must say that i love it when writers blog because it makes it more likely that i will find their work

i will blog about this anyway - good topic and i had it in mind some time back

the new look for your blog is very nice (are you a dog person by any chance?) and i will come back and read the other story when i'm more awake

Argus Lou said...

Thanks, Puan 'Bib', for your kind words. And, yes, I've been a dog person since I was a child.

Was 'test-driving' the lanky black dog (a lab mix) again today - at a farm animal shelter.

Lydia Teh said...

Xeus, a whole bunch of articles have been serialized in OTE and the writer is having Marshall Cavendish publish the series as a novel too! Smart eh? Income from newspaper and royalties from book. Kam's a friend of Sharon aka Bib (moniker suits you, M'am.)

Lydia Teh said...

Argus, figuring out who you are may be easier than you think :) I just need one tip and your cover's blown *diabolical laugh*.

Argus Lou said...

Lydia, who/what is OTE and who is Kam? So who's giving you the tip as to who I am? Heh heh.

My old living-room

My old living-room
In Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

A cherished dream

A cherished dream
To live on a pale beach by a crystal clear sea. (This was taken on the east coast of Johor state, Malaysia.)