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Sing

/ Ryan Phung (Writer), Caroline Tjoe & Elysia Mac (Illustrators)

Fiction — 9 min reading time

No. 3


An arm clutches a microphone. In the illustration's blurred background, a person cowering in fear against someone else.

We were walking home, it was quiet. And when it was done, it was quiet.

Tell it again.

She had just gotten off work. We, I should say. While she chiseled nails and massaged the feet of soccer moms who loved to talk about the best authentic phở place in town, I had to deal with the mental exhaustion of knowing my friends were at the mall getting boba as I spent a sunny Saturday cooped up in the back of a salon. She never gave me any money for treats anyways, but still.

Tell it again.

The sun had just set. Only the streetlights, casting an eerie orange glow across the street of red-brick apartments, were there to bear witness. A car would zoom past from time to time as we made our way down the street, blowing a gust that would leave goosebumps on my arms. I could smell the leftover pizza rotting in the trashbins we passed. (“What a waste of food!” she said to me, like I was the one who threw it out.) She held my hand. I was annoyed at the time—imagine a twelve-year old getting caught holding hands with his mom! I didn’t need protection, I thought to myself, for myself, of myself.

“Sing for me, Kevin,” she said.

I didn’t always hate the sound of my voice, the way it runs nasally and high, a bit like an alpaca’s. I don’t hear it myself in my head, but I can see it in the faces of strangers when I introduce myself. The first day of school was always the worst, heads turning towards the voice whimpering “present,” iron bars shooting out of their eyes to surround me. She always told me that my voice was a gift, though. I believed her.

Get to the good part.

As I was deciding between humming the melody of some random song from Paris by Night or seeing if she would enjoy the latest T-Pain, a red pickup truck pulled up, the window rolled down, and two freckled men stared out of the car, nasty sneers plastered on their faces.

“What are you doing out so late, bitch?” they yelled out with a snicker. Her grip on my hand tightened, and her pace quickened as she began to pull me along like a pug on a leash. I felt the wrinkles and calluses on her palm, battle scars from years of trying to exist in this world. She looked straight ahead, not saying a word.

More.

The rickety pickup truck, adorned with what looked like decades of scratches and rust, stayed at our side like a police hound, as the men continued to jeer at her, words slurring into each other, intent the same. Their tone quickly changed as they realized they were being ignored, a crime of the highest order for men of their status.

“Why the fuck aren’t you saying anything, fuckin’ dirt-eater?”

Even more.

The car stopped, and the man sitting shotgun fell out, a Bud Light can tumbling to follow. His beard unkempt, his flannel dark with the stains of ketchup and dreams deferred, he shoved her towards the brick wall of an apartment building as the man in the driver’s seat simply watched and laughed like this was Saturday morning cartoons. I tried to say something, I think, but only a half-hearted gurgle sputtered from my lips.

Give us your pain, and we will heal you.

The bearded man loomed above her as she lay crumpled on the pavement, head bowed down before her judge and executioner. In the orange glow of the streetlights, he reminded me of a villain from Teen Titans, beautiful in a haunting way. He sputtered out an alien sentence, spit dripping like acid onto her graying hair, then looked back to the man in the car, questioning, as if he had never gotten this far before.

Sing for us.

If any passerby out for an evening stroll had seen us at that moment, we probably looked like a scene from a Renaissance painting. I stood a few feet from the man towering above my mother splayed out on the sidewalk, my limbs locked in place—whether by fear, doubt, or a force beyond human, I didn’t know. The ragged, irregular breathing of the bearded man was the only sign that time was moving forward, ticking, ticking, ticking. He looked over to me, giving a long stare that almost seemed disappointed, like he expected more resistance. I wanted to scream, I wanted to grab my mother and carry her out of danger, I wanted to beat this man’s head to bloody bits on the concrete, but I did none of those. I simply stood there face-to-face with Medusa, my mouth opening and closing but no words coming out, until a car passed by. It slowed down for a brief second, as if curious about the whole affair, but not enough to stop. It was the fourth one since the pickup truck had arrived.

“Come on, let’s go before shit gets out of hand,” the accomplice called from the curb. The bearded man turned and stumbled back into the pickup truck, and they drove off, leaving behind a cloud of exhaust fumes and silence. After they left, my mother just laid there on the sidewalk. Bathed in orange light, she gave me a quizzical look, but I couldn’t meet her gaze. The rest of the walk home was deafening.


Tell it again.

I’m awfully tired.

Tell it again.

Please, I’d rather not.

Tell it again. Let the world hear your story.


Okay. Our story.


When I was four years old (or maybe five, I can’t remember), I woke up during the middle of night in a panic, my bedsheets wet with piss. I called out into the darkness for her, and she rushed from her bedroom to my side. After replacing my sheets, she sat on the bed stroking my hair, my head in her lap, quietly singing an old Vietnamese lullaby.

No.

“Oh, my beloved! Stay with me! Do not go home!
You are leaving and it makes me weep inside,
And the flap of my dress is wet with tears on both sides as if it has rained.”

Her raspy, crackling voice would get her booted off an American Idol audition, but that night, it enveloped me in a warm blanket of music.

What is this garbage?

It’s hard to remember the happy moments sometimes, when the screaming matches and shattered plates surge to the forefront like starlings to a bedroom window. That doesn’t mean they’re not there, though.

Stop. This is not your story.

When Taylor Swift was starting to pop off on the charts with hit after hit, she and I would belt out the chorus of “You Belong with Me” in our beat-up Toyota every time it came up on the radio. She barely knew the lyrics to the verses, but that didn’t stop her from singing the melody at the top of her lungs, a warm glow beaming from her worn face. We would close our eyes and jam out in the McDonalds drive-through, and I would forget for a few minutes that my voice could leave crickets quiet, only returning to Earth when the cars behind us would begin to honk.

Stop this at once. We want the moments that matter.

We would go to the park sometimes, when she got off from work early after a slow day, and she would push me on the swings, up and down, up and down, up and down. I would try to push her too, but she was way too big. Larger than a cloudless sky.

You are OUR minstrel.

She always made me work in the backyard in the fall—she said that with the days darkening soon, we needed to sow the land for some winter melon. But there was one exhausting day when I didn’t give a damn about my clothes, I just plopped myself in the middle of the empty plot and lay there in the pillows of brown. The sun looked beautiful, so I stared into it until the world flamed violet. I remembered the way she would take my hand during harvest season and have me caress the smooth soil, the cool, bumpy skin of eggplant. It was so easy to love back then. That day, I took a handful of the dirt into my hands, and raised it to my lips. I closed my eyes and slowly pushed it all into my mouth, yearning for the tastes she talked about with beaming eyes as she made dinner, how she felt when she saw the plump, red tomatoes in the summer, the memories of a home long forgotten by the invaders who left nothing but ghosts. It just tasted like dirt—I don’t know why I expected anything different—and I laughed by myself, at myself, with myself, until my voice was hoarse.

Give us what WE want.

One evening, after a long day of work, she plopped down on the couch like a ragdoll, her forehead creased with frustration and fatigue, and said to me,

“Kevin, please sing for me.”

She knew I hated the sound of my voice, but her baggy eyes pleaded. So in my warbly alpaca voice, I sang for her the old lullaby she used to sing for me,

“Oh, my beloved! Stay with me! Do not go home!
I still watch you leaving until I lose sight of you,
As I am watching water flowing,
As I am watching water ferns drifting.”

Her brown irises renewed with life, she took my smooth hands in hers, and we danced like our windows were shielded with velvet drapes, like our floors were covered in wool blankets—like the whole world was watching, but the only sound they could hear from outside was the faintest whisper of a story sheltered.

Musical notes break out of a brick wall. Light can be seen through the opening.

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