Lost Men by Brian Leung

The following is an excerpt from the novel Lost Men (Shaye Areheart Books, 2007) by Brian Leung.

The Age of Regret, years ago, far away from the now. Westen Chan has not seen his father for months, will not see him for decades. He is still not used to being around his great-uncle Cane. The two of them sit in the cab of the idling pickup. His uncle pats him hard on the head. “Your aunt Catherine thinks this is a good idea." She has sent them off to meet the only other Chinese in the county so Westen will know he isn’t alone.

The pair step out of the truck. Westen is small, even for eight. He is dark-haired and olive-skinned; people guess that he’s a mix, perhaps even Spanish or Black Irish, but never Chinese. His uncle Cane is tall with heaped shoulders, a lumbering walk, and a bristly head of white hair. His face and arms are pink and splotchy from too many years of sun.

Westen and his uncle walk between long, tin-sided buildings, the clucking hum of chickens sifting over them. It is the egg ranch of Parker Cheung. The late morning is damp, misty, and the pair head toward the covered loading dock where Parker and other men are stacking egg flats on racks. Parker’s face is obscured by the bill of his sweat-stained cap, but when he turns to say hello, he reveals his Chinese face, the broad roundness of it anchored by a wide but compressed nose. Westen is both cautious and pleased to see a Chinese, someone who shares the features of his father.

"Cheung," Westen’s uncle says.

"Cane," Parker returns, lifting his cap to wipe a plaid sleeve across his brow.

"This little fella is my great-nephew Westen. What do you think about that?"

Parker reaches out his hand, and Westen steps forward, returning a hopeful smile while taking the man’s palm. He is surprised at how rough it is, and then, in an instant, is taken back by the sourness of Parker’s odor. He lets go of the man’s hand and stands again next to his uncle.

"What can I do you for?"

"Catherine thought we ought to come by and see if you might give Westen a tour of your operation."

"If you like eggs and chicken shit, I’ve got plenty to show you."

The two men shake with laughter, but Westen remains still. This man is not like his father at all. Not like any Chinese he’s ever met. This man, in fact, is exactly like his uncle Cane. Suddenly there is a woman’s voice, and the three turn toward a house not too far off, a gray vacancy of smoke rising from its chimney. "Pak. Pak," the woman calls. She is leaning out of the window, and Westen notices she is Chinese too. "Bring me dead chicken," she yells.

Parker looks at Westen and his uncle. "You two want to stay for lunch?" While the men laugh again, Westen thinks he definitely does not want to eat here. Holding up a cracked index finger bent slightly above the last knuckle as if broken years ago, Parker continues. “Give me a minute,” he says, stepping away and into one of the chicken houses. The ranch is busy with other men walking between the buildings; it gurgles with the sound of hundreds of hens, then a roused clucking that Westen recognizes as the sound of fear. A dull thwack stills the clamor and Parker returns holding a white, beheaded chicken by its feet. It hangs at his side oozing a beaded drool of blood, which drips to the dark ground like glowing red candle wax.

"Say,” Parker begins, extending the chicken toward Westen, “how about running this up to the wife, little man?" The bird smells and doesn’t look nearly as white close up. Westen checks his uncle for direction because he does not want to touch this dead thing.

"Go about it," his uncle says. “Cheung and me got a meeting with Mr. Daniels for a few minutes."

Parker offers a conspiratorial chuckle. “It’s Mr. Beam that’s waiting on us." He looks at Westen. "Just carry it on up to the wife and tell her I promised you a cookie.” Westen takes the chicken by its leathery feet, holding it as far away from his body as possible.

"Go on now,” his uncle prods. “And best not to tell Mrs. Cheung about the meeting." He winks at Parker and the pair head inside the egg building.

Alone, Westen is aware of the sound of water falling. He looks up the hill where he is to deliver the chicken. The white house stares back at him from two red-curtained windows. To one side, half a football field away and through a stand of pine, he spots the wide lip of a waterfall, the dimension revealing itself as an unbroken expanse. The constancy of sound is nearly overwhelming. In front of this wall of falling water a thick, dark bridge extends itself, dead-ending at a cliff. The scene gives him the odd sensation of being distant and present all at once. A person in blue, a woman he guesses, sits on the railing, dangling her feet over the side. Her body gestures forward and back, clearly at ease with the precarious height. Westen has the impulse to call out to tell her to be careful, but she is much too far away to hear him.

Once at the house, Westen stands in front of the door thinking he might just drop the chicken and run. Before he can make a decision the door swings open. Inside, a plump woman with dyed hair and narrow black eyes brings her hand to her face in mock surprise. She is the one who called down to Parker for the chicken. "Your auntie say you come today," she offers without introduction, looking Westen up and down, nodding while she takes the bird. "Okay. I guess you Quang Dong Wa?"

Westen grins. He knows the meaning. "My father is."

"No. Say you Cantonese."

Sensing this is not a rhetorical command, he complies and accepts Mrs. Cheung’s invitation to enter the house. She is the kind of Chinese he remembers, her assertive manner and broken English acting as a temporary balm, though he wonders how it’s possible she and Parker are married. The house is surprisingly bright, filled with books and chicken-shaped knickknacks of all sorts. Westen and Mrs. Cheung pass a sliding glass door offering a view through the trees of the bridge and waterfall.

"You sit here,” Mrs. Cheung says as they reach the kitchen. She taps a chrome chair with yellow vinyl upholstery that matches the Formica tabletop. The chicken is flopped into the sink. “I clean outside in a minute.” She sits opposite Westen, hands folded in front of her, embroidered orange maple leaves on her sweater vest, each surrounded by small beveled rhinestones that could be rain or sunlight breaking through a fall canopy. “Your auntie ask me talk to you. Why you not a happy boy?"

"I’m happy," Westen says, but he knows there is no conviction in it.

Mrs. Cheung places her hands flat on the table and stands. “Wait,” she says, exiting the kitchen. When she returns she is holding a pad of paper and a large red book with gold Chinese lettering. She asks Westen a series of questions: his birth date, the time he was born, how to spell his first name. With each query she consults the book and writes on the pad of paper. Her work is certain and officious, as if she is interviewing a job applicant, her lips thinned in tight concentration. Westen watches her blunt fingers press the pencil, embedding dense Chinese characters into the paper. Mrs. Cheung makes a single nod with each notation. In a quiet moment when she is double-checking her work Westen watches a drop of water collect at the lip of the kitchen faucet until it relents to gravity. "Maybe I should go find Uncle Cane," he says when the drop falls.

Mrs. Cheung looks up from her pad. "They drinking. Don’t worry. I take you home."

Westen knows he will not see his uncle for the rest of the day.

"You will visit China,” Mrs. Cheung says, pointing to her math. “But I think you will be an unhappy boy and an unhappy man until then."

Westen cannot comprehend the forecast, but he makes an attempt. “China will make me happy?"

"No,” she says emphatically. "Nothing make anyone happy. But I going to help." She reaches into her pocket and retrieves four items: a thin red ribbon, matches, a candle, and a palm-sized box covered in worn blue velvet. She ties the ribbon around the box, leaving a bow the size and shape of a small butterfly. "My mother give me before I come to U.S. I give you now."

There is something about this gesture that comforts Westen as he watches Mrs. Cheung light the candle and drip dense wax onto the knot of the bow. "My mother do this too. She tell me I’m unhappy girl after my father die." The pair sit quietly looking at this new red-winged creation sitting atop the blue box. “Now you open in China only at right moment,” Mrs. Cheung continues. "Maybe you be happy. Before that, no good. You tell someone, no good. This only your box."

"When will this happen?"

"Wait for your father like I wait for Mr. Cheung,” she says. “He come back. You put away until then. Be a good boy and remember to listen to your auntie. She love you."

Westen feels a flush of heat and hope at the prospect of his father’s return, but he wonders just how long he is going to have to wait. Picking up Mrs. Cheung’s box, he carefully feels its weight. "Is it magic?" he asks.

"No," Mrs. Cheung says firmly. "It hope."

From Lost Men by Brian Leung. Copyright © 2007 by Brian Leung. Published by Shaye Areheart Books.