THE GIFT

 
 

Dad put The Enforcer in park and turned back to us. We were still little, both of us in the backseat. I was eight. You were only five and had your hair long and in your eyes. You were wearing a black LA Kings t-shirt that had the number 99 on the back, a shirt that used to be mine, but then I started getting chubby and all my clothes wouldn’t fit anymore.

“You boys see that sissy in the Jeep?” Dad laughed. “Chirps at me as he runs away. That how men do things?”

We both replied with an enthusiastic “No!”

“Good boys.”

He laughed again and so did we. He tussled your long hair. It flipped and flung back and forth. You looked up at him and giggled. You were a nice kid. Dad babied you in a way that he didn’t with me. You wanted a kitten; he let you. Your favorite color was pink; no problem. You wanted tumbling instead of hockey; well, that’s where Dad drew the line. You could wear a pink jersey with Hello Kitty on the chest, as long as you laced ‘em up and skated with the rest of us.

Dad finished ruffling your hair and grabbed your shoulder, shaking you gently. He then looked at me and winked and said, “All right, suckers. Let’s roll. We’re late. You guys got the gift?”

I grabbed the gift, a box about the size of a backpack, and shoved it into your arms.

“Hold this,” I said.

You wrapped your hands around it tight and nodded.

*

“You play hockey, son?” Grant Ng-Oswald, dad’s old college roommate, asked you.

He patted you on the head. Back in those days, people loved patting you on the head. You smiled and looked at him. Before you could answer for yourself, dad said, “Yup, the little one’s got great tools. Can skate. Can handle. Can shoot. Just needs a little, you know.”

Dad flexed his biceps and made a fake angry face. Grant nodded and said, “That’s what big brothers are for.”

I froze and just said, “Um, I dunno.”

Dad jumped in, “You got that right. This fat bastard’s a klutz, but he’s my little enforcer, a real grinder, tough as nails, a regular Marty McSorely.”

I didn’t like him answering questions for me, and I didn’t like being compared to Marty McSorely, who was his hero. Marty McSorely sucked. He was a goon, and the only reason he was famous was that he was Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard.

Dad looked at me. It seemed like he wanted me to say something about hockey. I said, “Marty McSorely sucks.”

Dad laughed and turned back to Grant.

Grant said, “It’s true. McSorely’s nothing but a goon.”

“Now, now,” said Dad, dropping into a playful boxer’s stance. “There’s a difference between a goon and an enforcer. Guys like Bobby Probert, now that guy’s a goon, just looking for fights. But Marty McSorely is a lot more than just another George-Foreman-on-skates. McSorely can play. The thing is, he’ll sacrifice his stat-line to be Gretzky’s bodyguard, to make sure nobody bullies the Great One.”

“True,” said Grant. “Gretzky’s the greatest, but he couldn’t protect himself from a 12-year-old girl.”

They both laughed at Grant’s joke. Dad patted Grant on the back and directed him through the gate and towards the front door. We all started to walk into the party, but you had wandered off back into the street. I saw you, peeking in from the gate and gave you a stern look. You hurried back.

Almost as soon as we walked through the door, Genna Martinez, the birthday girl, walked up to us. The three of us kids stood there for a minute, and then Genna looked at her mom. Her mom nodded and waved her hand. Genna sighed and then ran off to join the other girls. Genna’s mom was Mrs. Martinez, a teacher at our school. She looked at us sideways like how teachers look at kids that they don’t like.

“You can put your gifts on the table,” she said. She motioned to a folding table that was covered in birthday presents and gift bags. I turned to you and was about to repeat the instructions when I saw that you weren’t holding the gift.

I whispered, “Where’s the gift?”

You didn’t say anything back. I looked around, and I didn’t see it anywhere around us.

“Where is it?” I whispered again, a little bit louder this time. “We need it.”

You said, “Someone told me to leave it outside.”

“Well, go get it,” I said. But you wouldn’t go. You shook your head and folded your arms.

*

Dad and I came back from outside the house. We’d searched all over the yard and street, but didn’t find the gift. Dad asked you again about what happened, and you told dad the same thing that you told me, that someone said to leave the gift outside. Dad looked at us with his eyebrows scrunched up.

“What in the heck. Why would anyone tell you that?”

You didn’t answer him.

He looked at you, and it seemed like you were about to get upset. He didn’t like when we got upset, so he shot you the time-to-be-a-man look and then started asking me questions. But I had no idea what happened. I told him that I didn’t have the gift, that you were in charge of it, that you were holding it. You started crying.

Dad said to me, “Don’t be a snitch.”

I looked down and felt guilty. He then squatted and focused his attention just on you. He started going through the same questions. He asked you who told you to leave the gift outside. He asked you if it was a kid or a grown-up. He asked if you saw the person here, anywhere, at the party, if it was someone you knew or a stranger. He asked if it was a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, if they were friendly or mean, if they were Latino or white or Black or Chinese or Japanese or Filipino or Korean or Indian or Vietnamese or happa, because there were a lot of happa kids at this party, or if they were tall or short, glasses or no-glasses, fat or skinny. At this last question you finally answered.

“Fat,” you said.

“Fat,” he said and stood up.

He looked at me. I said it wasn’t me. He frowned, and I didn’t know if he believed me. He pointed at me and looked at you. You shook your head, no. So he looked around the room. I looked around too, looking for another fat person. But there weren’t any other fat people. Nobody else at the party was fat. They were either skinny or regular. There was somebody who looked like she might be a professional muscle builder. But nobody would ever say she was fat.

“Fat,” said dad again. “Okay, that’s something.”

He looked at you again, like he was hoping you’d say something more. You looked like you were gonna cry again. He waved both hands in your face and said, “No, no, no. It’s okay. We’ll find them. A fat person. Okay.”

The Martinez’s house was really big. I knew it would take us a while to search through it. But dad said to get started. So we went from room to room, starting with the kitchen. Dad said that was the most logical because fat people like kitchens. We went and looked through the kitchen. It was as big as our apartment, and there were a bunch of people, all adults. There was Mrs. Martinez, at the stovetop, making something that smelled like carnival popcorn. There were three men at the bar drinking beer. A lot of people passed through while we watched; they grabbed things and walked back out. We checked them all out. None of them were fat.

Dad opened a beer and took a huge gulp. He held the bottle to his mouth as he looked around, and then took another gulp. He said, “Let’s go,” and we walked out the backdoor and into the backyard. Even though the backyard was totally different from the kitchen, the thing that was the same was that there were no fat people back there either. By this time, people started to notice that we were up to something.

Somebody asked him what was wrong. He said, “Nothing.” But we could tell that dad was starting to get frustrated.

He muttered stuff to us like, “What kinda creep would trick you guys like that? It’s not even expensive stuff.”

Dad was getting obsessed. He started calling the person “fatso” which I didn’t like, because every time he said it, he looked at me.

Next we went back into the house and searched through the living room again. No luck. And then we checked each of the downstairs bathrooms. No luck. We went into the game room. There were a lot of kids there, but again, no luck. Then dad took us upstairs.

You tried to tell Dad that Mrs. Martinez wouldn’t like it if we went upstairs.

I told you to shut up.

Dad said, “It’s okay. This is important business.”

So the three of us went up there and searched each room. There were four bedrooms. They were all empty. We checked the closets and behind the shower curtains. Dad even started looking under the beds and in the drawers. Nothing.

We came back down and stood in the living room. Dad said, “Dang it, by now the fatso could’ve gone back into the kitchen or the backyard, and we wouldn’t even know it.”

We went through the kitchen again, looking around as we walked and then back into the backyard, again looking around, and then we went through the side gate and out to the front yard, which had a fence around it and was also being used for the party. We looked around and saw that there were also no fat people in the front yard.

Dad said, “What the hell. Are you sure that’s all you remember?”

He was talking to you. You looked at me like you didn’t know what was going on or what to do. I looked away. Dad almost never cussed in front of us, and when he did, it meant he was really mad. At this point you couldn’t hold back your tears anymore and had started crying.

Dad, losing his patience with you, said, “Stop it. Crying’s for babies. Are you a baby? No? Then stop crying right now.”

This only made you cry more.

“Stop,” I said, under my breath. “Stop crying.”

Dad punched me lightly in the stomach and gave me a stern look. I’m not sure why he did that. It hurt a little bit. I went back to looking for fat people while Dad was talking to you, and I saw a portable picture booth in the corner with the curtain closed. I pointed at it, and Dad patted me on the back. We walked over and stood in front of the curtain. We waited as whoever was inside got their picture taken 4 times. We could tell how many pictures by the number of times the flash went off. After the fourth flash, the curtain was pulled and we saw who was inside. It was four kids. I knew them from school; they were two grades older than me. It was Rob Ridley, Bernie Vo, Luke Beauchamp and Claude Hsieh. Rob, Bernie and Luke were all regular size. Claude was fat.

Dad saw Claude and said, “Hey, hold it right there.”

Claude saw Dad’s face and immediately tried to run away, but Dad grabbed Claude by the collar of his shirt and held him. It looked like Claude was choking a little bit. The other three boys ran off.

“Hey, not so fast,” Dad said. “What’s your name?”

“Claude,” I answered before Claude could say anything.

“Claude?” Dad looked at me, nodded, and then looked at Claude. “Okay, Claude. Where is it?”

“What?” said Claude. He looked scared.

“The gift. Where’s my kid’s gift? What’s going on here? Some kind of prank.”

“What?” said Claude again.

“Are you messing with me?”

“What? No?”

Claude looked at me. His eyes were wide. Claude was not a nice kid. I knew this from being in school with him. He was a bully, especially with girls. He’d make fun of them if they were pretty or nice.

“Listen, Claude,” said Dad. “I know what you did, you little goon. I need the gift back. Right now. Give it back.”

Claude looked at dad and then at me and then back at dad. “What?”

“Kid, stop messing with me! Give it back.”

Dad still had Claude’s collar in his hand. He wasn’t pulling on it, but he held it tight. A few other adults started to notice what was happening. Somebody ran off and, in a second or so, Claude’s father came out to the front yard.

“Hey,” shouted Claude’s father. “Let go of my kid!”

Dad looked up and, still holding Claude’s collar, said, “Now hold on. Your kid stole our gift. I’m just trying to get it back.”

“What?” shouted Claude’s father. “What in the hell are you talking about? Claude?”

Claude looked at his father and said, in a whiny voice, “I didn’t do anything.”

The two men started arguing. Claude’s father said that Claude had nothing to do with this gift business, and that he was ready to call the cops if Dad didn’t let Claude go immediately. Dad said that Claude was a dirty thief, and he demanded that Claude give the gift back and apologize. I’m pretty sure that Claude’s father was about to punch Dad, and that Dad wanted him to so that he could start punching back.

While this was going on, nobody, besides me, noticed that you had slipped away again. You walked off past the gate and out of sight. Then you came back, holding your hands behind your back. I could see what you were holding and tried to motion for you to get rid of it. But you held on and slowly walked up to Dad. You were crying and the gift was in your hands. It was torn open and stuffed back into its box. It was a pink dress and faux mink stole which was also dyed pink. You held the gift out, still walking towards him. You were trying to talk through your sobs, “I’m sorry.”

Dad, still holding Claude by the collar, looked at you with one eyebrow cocked. Claude’s father took Dad’s hand and removed it from Claude’s shirt. He did this slowly. Dad didn’t seem to notice this happening. Once his hand was pulled off, Dad turned to Claude’s father as if he was surprised to see him. You were still standing there holding the dress tight in your hands.

“What’s going on?” Dad asked you. “Did you find it?”

“I’m sorry,” you said again. “I kept it.”

Then Claude smiled. He looked happy. He clapped his hands and started laughing. He pointed at you and shouted so loud the whole party could hear, “Look at the sissy! He wants to wear a dress! Sissy!”

Another kid started laughing, and then more. Boys and girls both laughed at you. Parents seemed to be trying to tell their kids to stop laughing, but that only made them laugh harder. Rob Ridley, Bernie Vo, and Luke Beauchamp were all laughing. Genna Martinez was there. She was saying something like, Oh, how cute, but she was still laughing. And some of the parents even started laughing. They were less loud, and who knows if they meant to be mean or if they were just uncomfortable, but I saw them. They were laughing. Claude’s father, Mrs. Martinez, they were all laughing. Grant Ng-Oswald was there too. He put a hand on dad’s shoulder and said something. He wasn’t laughing. Dad looked at him and then around at everybody else. He saw them. He didn’t laugh. He grabbed you, picked you up and held you in one arm. You had your arms wrapped around his neck. You were crying and apologizing. You dropped the dress on the ground, and Dad stepped on it. It looked like it was by accident. Dad carried you past the other people and towards the street. Grant walked after him, but stopped once dad passed the front gate.

I started to follow, but Claude came up beside me and said, “Your brother’s a sissy.”

I turned to him and looked him in the face. He looked like a real goon, a big stupid grin and eyes squinted shut. I looked at him and, I swear this is true, I wanted to punch him right in the mouth. I wanted to punch all those people right in the mouth. But I didn’t. I turned to Claude and laughed and said, “What a sissy.” 


Peter H.Z. Hsu was born in Taipei, Taiwan and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. His fiction debuted on March 2016 in The Margins. He is a recipient of the 2017 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellowship. His current work in progress is a short story collection, titled The Donkey.