by Stephen Pham
Roller shutters crash around me as I powerwalk through Cabramatta. I take out my phone. It’s seven. Mum said the refugee commemoration starts at six. Shit. I’m late. It’s all the way in Birrong, too. What a shithole. Every time the train halts before the station, all the heads in Birrong Leisure Centre turn to watch.
In Viet time, the function’s starting now. In Viet time, I’m still late. Clench my ass. That makes you walk faster. My lower back prickles. Make way, dickheads! Sweat Rash Steve is on his way to remember some dead refos!
The thick oil and sweet five spice mingling in the air hooks my nostrils. Yanks my head back. It’s coming from Hot Star. No. I don’t have time. Fingernails dig into palms. I care about refugees more than I care about fried chicken! A Hot Star plastic bag skips across the pavement. The logo looks like a chode with the foreskin pulled back. Reminds me of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. In it, a pimp writes a love letter. At the end of it, he puts his dick on the paper and traces it. This plastic bag is my love letter. My fists and ass are tightened for justice, but my mouth is wide open and drooling, ready to receive Hot Star. I want to be a good person, but, really, I’m a slut for fried chicky dicks. I’m sure the boat people at the bottom of the ocean won’t mind.
No line to order, but there are two guys chatting to the side. I order an extra-large fried chicken and stand across from the them. One’s a thickset white boy in a durag like Eminem at the 2003 Grammys, the fingers on his right hand hooked upwards as he says, ‘Bitches love when you grab them by the pussy.’ His scrawny Viet mate is laughing, skin raw pink like a snow monkey. I’m glad these two freaks have found each other. You’re not supposed to make fun of poor white people anymore. They got nothing to lose. So when they get mad they do shit like vote Trump into the White House.
Eminem is staring at me. Dammit. Got caught looking. And I got these Dragonball eyebrows, too, that make me look permapissed. Does he think I’m glaring at him? His left hand holds his cock and he thrusts it at me. Now he’s grabbing himself by the pussy. Head snapping like a marionette, he says, ‘Yo, we got a problem, Vegeta?’
I eye him up and down. Under his year 10 formal outfit—black polo and khakis—he’s stocky, just like all the white kids who were too poor to move out after we took over the area. I can’t tell if it’s muscle or blubber. There was a kid in year 4, Joel, who had these piercing blue eyes and soft blonde hair split down the middle. He was arm wrestling champion of the grade. Mostly cos no-one wanted to touch the warts on his fingers. I can take this white guy if I trip him up and get him in a triangle, but his snow monkey friend is gonna be a problem if he jumps on my back. Just as I’m about to say, ‘No problem unless you want one, wigger,’ the skinny Chinese girl behind the counter calls out, ‘Sees-tee? Sees-tee?’
Eminem turns to her and says, ‘Sixty? Or sixteen?’
What a dickhead. 16 and 60 aren’t ever gonna be in the same line. I swear, dumbarses are the biggest smartarses. Just leave the girl alone, man. She already smells like chicken grease.
He steps to the counter, torso swinging solid, and holds up his slip. His thumbnail is so chewed down it looks like it belongs on a toe. The girl goes to take it. He holds firm and stares at her.
‘Your English ain’t so good,’ he says, smiling. He lets go, takes his order, and then turns to his mate. Bruh. Most of the signs in Cabra are in Thai, Chinese, Khmer, or Viet. Everyone’s English ain’t so good here.
‘Fuar, calm down,’ says his mate, placing a hand on Eminem’s shoulder.
Like that’s enough. Cortisone eats at my shoulders. I want to slap the shit out of that white dickhead. Fatcunt Eminem grow up around chinks and gooks and still ended up racist. Still, when I walked my dogs down the footpath that glittered alongside Elizabeth Drive years ago, I remember someone screaming, ‘ASIAN!’ at me as they drove past, voice too nasally to be a dumbshit Lebo. Pauline Hanson said we formed ghettos, but the real secret is that these colonies were made up of white trash from the start.
Eminem and Snow Monkey head up John Street the way I came down. Then they’re gone. I should have said something. Break the silence that lets these shits strut around carefree. The deep fryer behind the counter hisses.
After I pick up my chicken, I turn to the station. Step in a sticky patch of spilt Gong Cha. Peel my shoe off the pavement.
Shirt’s plastered to my chest as I enter Birrong Bowls. Galaxies swirl beneath the slouching wog at the door. He’s texting. I didn’t walk all this way to get held up by some door monkey. Get me in, you jaundiced bitch. I step closer. His eyes flick to my shoes. Gaze drags up to my Batman sweat patch, darts to my canvas tote bag, and meets mine as he puts away his phone. Dark eyes are too soft for a stare-down. Oh no. I know this one. I glance away and back. Ask him where the function full of Vietnamese people is. He says it’s in the bistro. The signs hanging overhead say ‘The Italian Bistro’. Are they the same thing? Wog nods. Trimmed beard shifts and he says, ‘Ahhh, ykno, youse are the Italians of Asia.’
I can’t tell if this Winston Churchill shit is meant to be a compliment or insult. It doesn’t even make sense. We can’t handle the dairy.
‘One of yours, ahhhh, Vinh Thanh Nguyen. Pulitzer Prize for, ahhhh, The Sympathizer.’
‘Right.’ His name is actually Viet. But I’m not about to argue about my people with a European. No matter how much you know, they always know more. I gotta get going. Take two steps and Bookwog says, ‘Have you read it? Such an artful exploration of, ahhh, ambivalence after the Vietnam War. Or, ahhh, as youse call it, the American War.’
I couldn’t get through the first twenty pages. Dull shit. Won’t tell this knob at the door, though. I say, ‘Sure it’s not the Italian War, bro?’ Walk away from the sad fuck trying to start Birrong Bowls Book Club. I have to laugh.
Finally where I’m supposed to be. Ceiling lights are off. Spotlight on a lectern. A man with hair coloured like a burnt filament is shouting behind it. That same old story about the communists. Big whoop. We lived in palaces, now we’re in a bowlo. There’s worse places to be. I’m gonna ignore this clown.
There’s circular tables all around. Most of em are filled with old Viets. Right in the back corner is the kid’s table. Six year olds on iPads and awkward teens with arms slung across the front of their bodies. I’m full gonna look like a pedo sitting with these children. Too much of a power move to sit with the adults though. Guess I gotta R Kelly this shit.
A thud resounds through the PA as the speaker slaps the lectern. I jump in my seat. The Coke and Fanta are wobbling in the glasses on the table like there’s an earthquake. The speaker is yelling, ‘The Communists worked us like oxen, beat us like dogs, and slaughtered us like pigs. Now, just like we fought for Vietnam, we must fight for this country. This time, we will not lose! For the 300,000 lost at sea!’
Shit, man. Fighting for Australia has nothing to do remembering dead refugees. I thought this was supposed to be a commemoration, not a rally. This guy’s cooked.
It must make sense to everyone else. Chairs scrape. Plates clatter. The audience members stand, whistle, clap. Speaker throws his arms up in a V and screams over and over, ‘Vietnam muôn năm! Vietnam muôn năm!’
I spot Mum standing in the back corner. She’s looking right at him. She‘s in a mesh blouse over a teal shirt and throws her arms up, triceps wobbling as she cries, ‘Vietnam forever! Vietnam forever!’ There’s a man next to her in military fatigues that I don’t know. He throws up a V as well, his left arm extended all the way, pinned sleeve hanging from the stump on his right. It looks like the exact moment at Rio 2016 when Andranik Karapetyan’s elbow snapped as he held 195kg overhead. Tears glisten in the corners of the military man’s eyes, which are fixed on the speaker. Something about it reminds me of the photo of that woman at the Trump rally, mouth mid-scream and eyes wide open as the now-president pats her baby’s cheeks. The chant swells. Even the kids at my table are standing and mumbling.
Lights flick on. People rush to the lectern like a wave’s dumped them there. The speaker shakes hands and gives out shiny pamphlets: his portrait smack bang in the centre with the rosy cheeked smile of Postman Pat. Van Nguyen, an independent mayoral candidate. Of course he is. I wonder if the V stood for ‘Vietnam’, or ‘Van’, or ‘Vote for me’. Whatever it was, he did good. Tapped into that intensity bubbling under every Viet’s happy refugee smile.
I head over to Mum, bracing myself for a lecture on being late. Instead, she gestures at the man next to her with a leathery hand. Her wedding band glints and she says, ‘Do you remember Bác Đáng? He was one of your father’s friends. He used to buy prepaid internet cards from us.’
He looks vaguely familiar. I can’t place him though. He could be from the past, or I might walk past him at Café Nhớ, smoking with all the other old men who stare at everyone walking past.
Embroidered on his pinned sleeve is the South Vietnamese flag. He’s dark-skinned like all old men and has a long, stringy Ho Chi Minh goatee. I can’t say that out loud. If I do, he’ll punch my throat with his left hand, then use his right to choke-slam me in the afterlife. I hold out my right hand for him to shake. Mum shouts, ‘Con!’ Oh yeah, it’s rude to shake hands. Wait, no, he doesn’t have a hand. I slap my left elbow as I fold my arms and bow. He laughs. Old people love when you embrace the culture.
‘That last man was very good, wasn’t he?’ Bác Đáng asks me. His face is glowing.
‘Are you in university?’ he says.
‘Writing,’ I say, and mimic writing with a pen.
‘IT?’ he nods, ‘Very good, lots of work around for you.’
Mum jigs up and down and taps hard on his shoulder. It’s the youngest I’ve ever seen her. ‘He’s free! He’s free!’ Mum says. ‘Hurry, hurry, he might leave soon.’
They’re gone. I breathe out. I’m glad Mum’s excited. I don’t really get it, though. All that speaker did was complain about commies the same way any Viet or Greek could. It’s not like it was anything new or exciting.
Dull slam, glass clatters, and someone shouts, ‘Chet me, take it back!’ in the opposite corner. I jog over. Gotta catch this fight before someone breaks it up.
One man is holding another against the wall, both red-faced. His left hand smooshes the other’s cheeks, right hand with a magazine rolled up to a point and held up at the other guy’s neck like he’s the Joker telling Maggie Gyllenhaal how he got his scars. I guess the magazine’s supposed to be a knife. ‘I’m no dirty Cambo. I’m Vietnamese. Vietnamese!’
There’s yelling. Women fretting. People pull them apart.
It’s never that serious, man. Whenever people ask if I’m Chinese, or Filo, or Mexican, I put on a Groundskeeper Willie voice and tell them I’m Scottish. But maybe the stakes are higher for these oldies. Maps don’t show the old country anymore, so these stories, repeated over and over, mark the borders.
Next to the scuffle, I notice a table of drinks. Bingo. $125 a ticket and here I was thinking there’s no bar. I haven’t had a drink in ages. Just as I pick up a VB, Mum calls out my name. Dammit. I turn and she’s behind me. ‘I’m going home now,’ Mum says.
I say, ‘Child live here for one bit. Mum go home if mum want.’
Her eyes lower to the drink in my hand. ‘You stink like alcohol.’
I haven’t even started drinking yet. She pushes a magazine in my hands. Vietnamese gibberish all over the cover. Flag flying in the centre. She goes home.
A couple drinks later I’m headed home in a taxi. Driver’s talking in Indian on a Bluetooth headset when I get in. He sets the meter. Keeps chatting. I can’t interrupt someone on purpose. Guess I’m getting robbed in this reverse Cash Cab. I open up the App Store, start downloading Uber. He must sense it, cos he turns back to me and says, ‘Yes?’ I put down the phone. The whites of his eyes are yellow. I tell him to take me to Cabramatta. He mutters something into the headset then pulls out of the bowls club.
We lag down the Hume. I flick through the magazine Mum gave me. Old-timey black and white photos I can’t make out in the dark. I just need to keep my fingers moving. Cars passing us. Feels like an eternity before we reach the Velodrome, which still has a Sydney 2000 logo on the sign. This cabbie’s fucking with me. I know it. I close the magazine, twisting and untwisting it in my hands. Open it. Rest my head on the window.
Finally we head down John Street. Sole in black tights, thongs slapping against her heels heading to the ANZ ATM. Hobo pissing on the Commonwealth machine that only dispenses fifties and hundreds. We pass the shuttered Hot Star, its lightbox still shining blue. Fatshit Eminem. I sit up. I shoulda smashed him back then. He’s gotten too comfortable. Now I’m the one who’s uncomfortable. I tighten the magazine to a point in my hand. It creaks.
The cab’s going slow, even after we pass the lights. What a rort. I tell him to stop at the Russian church, golden onions on top of smooth white walls. He dials in the fare. Says it’s $60. From Birrong to Cabra.
‘Sixty?’ I say. ‘Or sixteen?’
‘Very funny, mate,’ he says, and taps at the meter with his finger.
Oh, so now he wants to talk. I tell him he’s been driving slow all night. I ain’t paying shit.
Locks click. Driver’s looking at me through the rearview. I stare back.
First Eminem acts up, then Kumar here treats me like a tourist in my own suburb. Just twenty years ago gooklets ran around with shotties blasting coppers. We gotta make Cabra dangerous again. Unsettle these outsiders. Cortisone runs through my shoulders. What can I do, though? Pretend this magazine is an icepick, stick the cabbie up like that old Cambo at the function? That’s stupid. Dog probably has a screwdriver under his seat. I could call the cab company. Nah. He’s probably been grifting like this for a while.
I can’t think of anything. I pay by card. Machine beeps. He presses, ‘No’ when it asks him about a customer copy. He didn’t even ask. ‘Tip?’ he says. I say no. He unlocks the doors. I get out. He winds up his window. I take a step towards the brown brick apartments looming in the dark. The taxi’s humming, GPS beeping as the driver dials in the destination for his next scam. What a bastard. My neck stiffens. I can’t do nothing.
I turn back. Lift my right leg. Head snaps towards the cab. Eyes lock on to the corner of the passenger side window. I thrust my heel through. Glass shatters. I stumble towards the cab and catch my balance. Oh, shit. That actually worked. He’s sitting and I’m standing and his hands are frozen in mid-air. He’s got the same look that Nicholas Cage has in Face/Off when John Travola walks into the prison and Cage realises that they’ve swapped faces. Hatred and helplessness. At me. Like I’m in the wrong. The nerve. Something between my eyes hardens, my breath cools, and I need to make him look away. My right arm twitches. I’m still holding the magazine. I throw it at him and yell, ‘Fuckin spastic head-wobbling Seven-Eleven call centre cunt!’ It hits him in the face. The smack rushes between the apartments, which loom overhead like elephant tusks over Simba. I turn and run.
Down the driveway, past the crowded bins that stink like fish, right to the Colourbond fence up back. Jump it, turn, jump another fence, and sit, panting, behind some bushes. Trimmed lawns, two-storey blocks scattered all over, paved paths joining them. I take out my phone, check how far I am from home. It’s a sixteen minute walk from where Google Maps says I’m at: St Sergius’s Dementia Hostel. ◯
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Western Sydney Literacy Movement. His work has been published by Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin, Overland, and Griffith Review. In 2018 he received the NSW Writer's Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut script Vietnamatta, to be published by Brow Books. Read our interview with Stephen here.