The first time I remember using a telephone, I was six at my grandma’s house waiting for her to walk me to school. The handset looked like a handle pulled off a sliding door with half a ball attached on either end. The plastic felt solid when you wrapped your hand around it. This was back when phones carried real weight—when they kept showing up in Scorsese movies. Joe Pesci’s character in Casino, Nicky Santoro, found out over the telephone that this late Elvis-looking hick told his mob associate to go fuck himself. Nicky waved Fat Elvis over and asked, “Is that what you did? You told my friend to go fuck himself?” Then he bludgeoned him with the handset before he could answer. The bell inside the ringer dinged each time the phone bounced off his head. “I’ll smash your fuckin’ head so hard, you won’t be able to get that cowboy hat on again!” And in Goodfellas, Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway overheard Morrie of Morrie’s Wigs saying he wasn’t going to pay off his debt. “Fuck him, fuck him in the ear, then fuck him in the other ear!” Jimmy marched up behind Morrie and wrapped the spiral cord connected to the telephone in Morrie’s hand around his neck, strangling him until his wig fell off. Anyways, at my grandma’s house, the telephone belled and my fresh-off-the-boat uncle (fresh fresh, unlike the fobs who have been here for twenty years and still sound like your distant relatives in Vietnam), picked up and said, “Hullo”—the only English he knew at the time. He nodded his head for a couple seconds, then handed it to me and asked in Viet, “What are they telling me?” I remember the phone saying it was the bank and my uncle owed them money. I told my uncle and he twisted the handset out of my hand and bashed it repeatedly into its socket. The strings of muscle running along his forearm bulged like a wet towel being twisted dry. “I don’t owe anyone anything!” he yelled at me in Viet, the neck behind his ear glowing red, then spreading to his cheeks and forehead as if he became the Guan Yu statue on Grandpa’s alter. The silver moustache sitting on top of his thin stretched-back lips caught some of the spit as it misted. Grandma came into the bedroom and fanned her skinny brown hands across the air between us, making her pot belly wobble, before telling my uncle to go wash his face. His eyebrows scrunched to the point of almost joining. I looked at his nose hairs as his bulb nostrils flared. He turned his head towards the door and the rest of his body swung around. The sound of his thongs slapping against his heels echoed off the hallway’s concrete floor. Grandma took me to the kitchen and sat me down at the dining table where she squeezed some fresh orange juice, her tongue clicking against her toothless gums each time she pressed down. She always made it for me whenever I cried because that’s what she used to do for my dad, using oranges from the tree in their yard and a spoonful of sugar, telling him it was Xá Xị, a popular soft drink in Vietnam. I never really liked orange juice because of the pulp, unlike my dad who drank it religiously with every cigarette. Through the kitchen window I could see my uncle yelling at the red chilli plants growing in the backyard. “Damn dead dogs!” he puffed, “How can I owe money when I don’t have any!”
Dad was the second youngest of seven but the first to come to Australia, bringing his little brother, Sơn, and nephew with him. The communists wanted Sơn to start military training, even though they promised not to conscript him if they got to take my dad in. That’s why Dad joined the army in the first place and got sent to Pol Pot Cambodia where a landmine exploded behind him. The only reason he survived was because most of the shrapnel was caught by the mortar shells he was carrying in his backpack. A bus was to come past the following week to pick up my young uncle for training camp. The family scrounged up whatever gold they had, five rings, a necklace and two bracelets, then paid a smuggler with the same name as Dad, Vân, and sent the boys on their way. Once Dad made it here, he brought over Grandma and Grandpa, then his sister—his nephew’s mum—and finally, Uncle 5. I learnt all this when I saw the massive scar that ran down the inside of Dad’s right thigh, as if a comet landed on his leg. I poked my finger in. Dad jerked his leg away and yelled at me. The scar tissue felt like the seams of my shorts.
When Dad picked me up from Grandma’s, I told him how Uncle 5 bashed the telephone and screamed at me for no reason. I asked him, ‘How come Uncle 5 is so mean?’ Dad said he was in the South Vietnamese Army. After the war, he was put in a re-education camp by the communists: he was forced to pull dead roots out of land-mined soil with his bare hands, confess to crimes they said he did, and share a single bowl of rice with fellow prisoners every night.
Next morning, Dad dropped me off at Grandma’s on his way to work. The cartoons didn’t come on till 7:00am, so I decided to draw Wolverine for ten minutes. Grandma’s house felt a lot smaller since Uncle 5 started living there, his bedroom opposite the living room, left of the front door. I dug through his desk drawer while he sat outside on the front porch. A pencil slid out of its case and fell onto the ground, rolling underneath his bed. I got down on my knees and put my head against the floor, looking upside-down. There I spotted a half-metre long strip of black metal with a sharpened silver edge resembling a sword, wedged between the bottom of the mattress and the corrugated metal slats of the bed frame. The pencil lay beneath it. My stomach suddenly felt heavy like I needed to shit. I took the pencil and ran back to the living room. The drawing of Wolverine looked like he was floating off the ground with no legs.
While I watched TV, I could see Uncle 5 through the living room window, which was just above the screen. Uncle 5 was wearing his blue cotton track pants and grey bomber vest, his forehead shining with tiger balm. He folded his arms behind him as he walked along the red concrete footpath that cut through the front lawn, hocking phlegm the way a velcro wallet sounds when it’s being opened, spitting on the bushes and saying, “Hullo,” to the old Italian next door. “Morning,” Angelo said in his high voice, “I come.” He pointed towards the lemon tree in our backyard, his hand making a twisting motion as if he was unscrewing a light bulb. “Mm mm ohgay ohgay,” Uncle 5 nodded his head.
I moved to sit on the carpet in front of the wooden box where the TV screen curved out like a fishbowl. The intro to Pokémon started as my uncle came in and sat behind me on the old Viet style couch—varnished timber frame with tree lines etched into it holding up a hard sandbag-like cushion. “Mày ăn chưa?” He asked if I’d had breakfast yet, addressing me as ‘mày’ rather than ‘con’.
“Yes,” I replied politely with dạ even though a small part of me wanted to say ờ.
“You’re too thin,” Uncle 5 said. Then he pulled out a stack of toilet paper in single sheets, the see-through papier-mâché ones that you get from public toilets, and fanned it out onto the coffee table like he was a baccarat dealer. The outline of the words from the makeshift newspaper tablecloth below appeared on the thin sheet of toilet paper, allowing him to trace all the letters.
Highgate Primary sat on the corner of an old housing block with two Viet delis on opposite corners, one selling Coke bottle lollies and X-Men cards, the other selling laser discs of Paris by Night. Uncle 5 walked me to school because Grandma was at the doctor’s that morning and was going to spend the rest of the day at Temple. A maroon-red Tarago swung in front of the school entrance and unloaded a clown car of Gooklets, the four Phan kids or ‘Phantastic 4’ as everyone called them. One was in my year, Jenny. She was always wearing hand-me-downs because she was the youngest. My uncle stood with the other adults near the cars parked along the kerb and stared at me and my Chinese friend, Elvis, as we leaned against the wire fence and recapped that morning’s episode of Pokémon. Elvis had a bowl haircut—someone took a noodle bowl and dunked it upside-down on his head and then trimmed all the hair below it. “Who’s that? Is he your dad?” Elvis pointed directly at my uncle. I shook my head.
I finished school at 1:30pm and waited kerbside at the tree with love hearts, initials and a ‘cunt’ etched into the trunk. A stream of yellow shirt and green short uniformed kids appeared along the fence then disappeared into their cars. The Year 2s and above were still stuck inside their classrooms and watched us through the window. Elvis arrived shortly, bouncing along his Pokéball, a tennis ball that had the bottom half caked in whiteout and the top half coloured in with red marker. He looked like a Gremlin because of his small face and sharp teeth. His head was always sweaty and you could see his wet bowl-cut hair sticking out the back of his hat. He asked me who my favourite Pokémon was. “Squirtle, even though Pokémon aren’t real.” The cars started to disappear as the shade from the tree in front of us moved slightly to the right, the sun now on us. We moved over, following the shade. “I think my uncle forgot again,” I said, “let’s just walk home on our own.” Elvis shrugged his shoulders.
Walking down Cavendish Road, the concrete footpath disappeared at times and we’d stroll on the dead grass and sand until it reappeared. The hollow plonk of the Pokéball bouncing against the footpath echoed up and down the street. Brown brick houses lined up against the slanted road. “If you saw those Pokémon at Hyde Park, you’d believe they were real,” said Elvis. Some of the whiteout was starting to fall off the Pokéball, and there were spots of green from the tennis ball underneath coming through. “Those Pokémon were just animals in the park,” I told him.
“What’s the difference?”
At the apex of Cavendish, we could make out the Perth CBD skyline, all four buildings. A few of the houses had their sprinklers on, forcing us to walk on the road, but one of the houses had that big Gatling gun sprinkler that we couldn’t avoid because it sprayed from one side of the street to the other. We waited for the nozzle to swing past us before we ran through, timing it like jump rope, the rock-hard soles of our K-mart Dunlops slapping the wet asphalt as we dashed across. The house with the spikey plants was coming up—I thought about breaking off a spike and poking Elvis with it for fun, but I decided not to because his mum already spanked him crazy, like that time she whooped his arse in front of everyone at the school carnival for dropping a hotdog.
A sharp tapping against the road in quick spurts came from behind, sounding like the button mash of a Sega Megadrive controller. I turned and saw a dog with a lumpy body trotting up to us. Its golden hair was fully drenched and smelt like an old towel. We stood still, the dog a couple metres away from us, blinking its squinty eyes and hanging its thin sliced tongue out. It stood head to head with me and had a long body that curved in at the stomach and puffed out at its ribcage. No one in my entire family had ever owned a dog. The only experience I’d had with one was when they brought a guide dog to school and told us never to interrupt it when we saw it out on the streets. My eyes darted between Elvis and the dog as it sniffed and licked the ground, head swinging side to side, snout twice the size of Elvis’ rockmelon head. If it stood on its hind legs, it would tower over me like a Year 5, like that lanky Serb, Milos, who always stabbed his finger into the meat above my armpits. “I think we should run,” I said. Elvis stared the dog down as he pulled his hat backwards then swiped across the rim with his index finger. “What are you doing?” He winded his arm back slowly then lifted his front leg up like a baseball pitcher. Oh my god. His arm whipped out from the side of his body as he rolled his shoulder forward, Pokéball flying out of his hand and straight towards the dog, slipping under its chest and hitting its back leg, pock! Oh man, this dog is gonna eat the shit out of us! I launched into a full sprint down Harley Road, loose gravel flying off the back of my heels. Looking back, Elvis was running behind me, arms swinging only vertically and his head tilted backwards as if he couldn’t handle the wind pressure. The dog’s bark had a high-pitched ring on the end that caused a sharp pain in my ears. Its body wobbled to one side as it chased after us on three legs, its right hind leg curled up.
The glossy red number 118 letterbox of my grandma’s house stuck out of the grass at the edge of the red footpath—glossy because Grandma wiped it clean every morning. Uncle 5 was on the porch picking his teeth with a toothpick. He sat upright, back straight and chest puffed. “Con chó! Con chó!” I pointed behind me as I ran into the house, Elvis trailing in a second after. We closed the fly screen metal door, leaving Uncle 5 out there. The dog stopped at the letterbox panting, head turned sideways, blinking, then letting off a bark, its jaw tensing up then going slack. “Get lost!” Uncle 5 yelled at it in Viet, toothpick flying out of his mouth. His hands came out from behind his back and held on to the lapels of his bomber vest. The dog started running towards the road but then turned back to face him, tongue hanging so far out it almost licked the tarmac. Uncle 5 spun around to us, “Ra!” Elvis and I jumped back as he pushed the fly screen door and walked through, turning an immediate left into his bedroom. Kneeling at the side of his bed, he lifted his mattress with one hand and pulled out the machete I discovered earlier that morning with the other, his middle knuckle sticking out of his fist like a mountain as he gripped it. The machete’s handle was wrapped with electrical tape, its sharp metallic edge chipped near the top with a scratch mark coming off it and onto its rough charcoal body. The blade moved slowly in my uncle’s hand as if it had the weight of an anchor. Uncle 5 pulled open the fly screen door, meeting the dog on the steps of the porch, “Mày đi đi! Đồ khốn nạn!”—“Go! You bastard!” The back of his neck was glowing red as he swung the machete upwards, his right shoulder blade sinking into his back. Elvis and I ran to get a better view from the living room window, peering over the television. Suddenly the dog leapt at Uncle 5, jaw clenched and the machete blade landed on its neck with a dull thud. Barking turned into whimpering as the dog lay there, chest expanding and contracting. Uncle 5 squatted down next to it, perched on the balls of his feet, back of his thongs in the air, the flat tip of the machete against the concrete. My shoulders sank with relief and I stepped back from the window. I had an urge to hit Elvis across the ear and yell at him, but my arms and legs felt like jelly. Elvis kept watching the dog, tiny bowl-head resting against the top of the TV. His mouth hung open. “Holy crap,” he whispered. “Is your uncle going to eat that Pokémon?”
This was originally published in the Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Tien Tran is originally from Perth and now resides in Western Sydney. He is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.