At the St. Maarten airport terminal, my youngest brother hurried toward our car with a look of consternation, as if he had suffered greatly on the plane. Francis still looked thin and brittle. He was skittish and kept checking the zippers to his duffel bag. He wore a baseball cap, a grey windbreaker, and the same outmoded plastic rectangular glasses that he used to handle delicately, fog with his mouth, and rub nervously with a sleeve. He looked as if he were bearing intense scrutiny by those around him, though no one paid him any attention at all.
In the car, the faces of my wife and children were glazed with the colors of the sun. They looked so ethereal that they filled me with a sense of gratitude. A few sedans parked immediately behind us and obstructed our view of Francis. The sun warmed me with such benevolence that I excitedly shouted Francis’ name as he approached the curb where we were parked. He grimaced in embarrassment and flapped his hand in chastisement, as if my greeting had been unnecessarily loud. I had my daughter Daisy, who was still small at six, move to my wife’s lap in the front seat. Charles, who was twelve, remained in the back seat. In protest of being forced to sit aside a stranger, he stared fixedly out the near window. My wife, Laura, whose cheer complemented my own seriousness, said hello to Francis affectionately.
“You look a bit tired,” I said, chastened by the coldness of Francis’ greeting. “You can rest when we get back to the house.”
“Richard, I haven’t been well. But I’ve only got a week here and I should make the most of it.”
He spoke hesitantly, pausing often to sigh, as if talking were a demanding expense of his limited energy. I pulled away from the curb and started off toward the house. Planes were pitched into the sky from the runways. In the early afternoon, the air rippled in the heat.
“Aren’t you warm in that jacket?” I asked.
“I can’t risk being sick on vacation.”
Francis always had a high voice, which betrayed the least bit of excitement or irritability. In the rearview mirror, I glimpsed him staring at Charles and trying to capture his attention. My son turned and looked him over with a quizzical expression.
“Do you remember me? I’m Francis. We spoke on the phone before,” he said to Charles. “Shou shu shu. Skinny Uncle.”
“He knows a bit of Mandarin,” I said.
“Won’t you talk to your uncle?” he asked Charles in Mandarin. “I have a gift for you later.”
“Charles, be polite. Speak when you’re spoken to.”
“Hello, shou shu shu,” Charles said.
“Do you want to play a game?” Francis asked.
Charles shyly nodded his head.
“Let’s wait until we get back to the house,” I said.
Francis faintly nodded and became absorbed by the scenes of St. Maarten’s Dutch capital. It was a city of small, glittering jewelry shops and long, rambling casino halls. He started talking about his last job selling digital X-ray machines to doctors and hospitals. “I travelled all over Taiwan,” he said. “The doctors were all the same. They were stubborn and outdated. My coworkers were being paid more even though I sold more and worked just as hard. I quit in May.” He continued with criticism of his superiors, who were also overlooking his ideas for outmaneuvering the competition.
Francis changed jobs every one to two years. Without exception, he had found each of their conditions unjust and belittling. He had never acquired the strength of spirit to withstand much hostility, and when he quit his jobs, he started pursuing the rest of the family for money. I didn’t want to act rashly, so I restrained myself from any strong opinions. Without dissension or any sort of challenge, Francis’ energy for complaint quickly flagged. I reached the highway and the sea appeared like a blue crescent above the horizon. Daisy snored, and Charles slumped against the window. For the rest of the drive, the conversation remained light, intermittent, and related to the week ahead.
St. Maarten was a small island whose entire perimeter could be travelled in half a day’s drive. It was partitioned into French and Dutch sides by a rippling border that extended through land and water. The Dutch side was known for its color and vivaciousness, but my wife and I had always preferred the French for its quiet and languor. Our house was secluded in densely forested mountains a walking distance from the French capital of Marigot. In the celebratory style of the Caribbean, our two-story stuccoed house was painted in pastel yellow with a red roof and white borders. A veranda and an elliptical mosaic-tiled pool occupied most of the backyard. A white trellised fence, high enough so that a passerby could not look in, encircled the property. But it was low enough so that when I stepped on the lower border of the fence and one of the children was perched on my shoulders, both of us could see the white swells of the ocean like a seabird’s wings emerging from the water. In the months we were away, roses and bougainvillea bloomed with ardor. Every year, in the first days we return, my wife and I trim them fastidiously. In a way, I feel as if I was excising from myself any residual acrimony and unpleasantness, and it had become our ceremony to welcome the summer months while I was on vacation from the university.
I hadn’t seen Francis since I was just out of college, when I emigrated with my wife from Taiwan to New York for my doctorate degree in developmental biology. I had been postponing a reunion for some time. It was the reason I had invited Francis and my parents to spend a week with my wife and children at my summer home. My parents had arrived the day before and I had settled them in a room upstairs.
I unloaded Francis’ bags in the guest room upstairs and met him speaking to our mother on the veranda at the rear of the house. They were seated closely in the corner in front of the French windows. Between them, there were red bean cakes and tea spread out on a square glass table. From the kitchen, my wife brewed water for tea and prepared for supper. The sun had fallen in the sky. Spears of light pierced through the flowers above the backyard fence. Occasionally, doves alighted and chittered in the grass adjacent to the brick path leading towards the pool.
“Oh, Richard,” my mother called to me, with concern. “Francis looks starved.”
When we were boys Francis was often sick, and when he was well he believed that he was at the onset of another sickness. I remembered when he became terribly angry and seized by inarticulateness when my middle brother Johnny and I doubted his claims of sickness before exams.
“He looks normal,” I said, as I approached them.
“Richard, for how many years haven’t you seen him?” said my mother. She was small and paunchy with a round, genial face. Her hair had been permed and set into thick curls framing her head. She was a demonstrative woman, who insisted that everyone acknowledge her deep affection for the family.
“You see him often?” I asked, glancing at Francis.
“He comes over every now and then. The thing is he doesn’t want us to worry.”
“Should we walk about town before dark?” I asked. “It isn’t far.”
“I think Francis should rest,” my mother declared. “Don’t you want to rest, Francis?”
“The car ride was a bit long,” Francis said.
“We can see the sunset if we go down the road over there,” I said, indicating the local road to the west of the property.
“Why are you forcing him to leave the house so soon?” my mother said. “Dad hasn’t even seen him.”
“I’m not. He told me in the car he wanted to make the most of the trip.”
“You know how your brother is, he doesn’t know his own limits.”
“Never mind,” I said, turning to Francis.
“How come you’re not this excited when we ask you to visit with Charles and Daisy?” my mother asked.
“You only call me when there’s an emergency,” I said.
“I don’t get enough time with them. I haven’t even seen Johnny’s children since the accident.”
The mention of my middle brother introduced a faint air of solemnity between us. After Johnny died in a motorcycle accident two years ago, I had returned to Taiwan less and less frequently. My mother stared abstractly into the distance. Beyond the fence, in Marigot, houselights started to glow like fireflies.
“Mom,” Francis interrupted, “I’ve got a job working with doctors.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she said. “Francis, you were always so bright. No one knew that better than I did. Is it part time or full time?”
“Part time, but I’m thinking about switching to full time.”
“Oh, part time is just as good. You shouldn’t work too hard,” said my mother.
The chafing sound of a chopping board being withdrawn from a drying rack carried through the corner window. “Does Laura need help? She’s been in the kitchen a long time,” my mother said.
“She’s fine,” I said. “She can manage alone—“
“Laura! Mother’s coming,” she shouted as she heavily shuffled toward the house.
“Let me help you,” I said.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said as she opened the screen door. “It’s just a room away.”
My mother’s health had started to fail, and it had become apparent the entire family wouldn’t have many more opportunities to be together. Her lungs and legs had become engorged with fluid due to her heart disease. As a result, her movement had become laborious, marked by frequent pauses for air. She had repeatedly refused a heart surgery that might have slowed her deterioration. “I can’t bear dying on the operating table,” she had said, when I suggested she follow her doctor’s recommendation.
Francis rose gingerly, in the guilty, self-conscious manner of a child caught breaking something valuable.
“So, I take it you’re not going to tell her the truth about the job?” I asked.
“They don’t like to hear that I’m between jobs.”
“Since when did you become so considerate?”
“Can’t you ever let anything go, Richard?”
He entered the house. I sat pensively as I listened to his steps on the stairs. I walked over to the far end of the fence, and I watched the sea for a while. In the sky, the sun started to become watery at its lower limit. I heard voices and the sounds of a baseball being tossed back and forth. I found Daisy sleeping in her room. When I opened the bay windows, I watched my father and Charles playing catch in the front yard. My father was crouched in a catcher’s position, while Charles lifted his leg against his chest, lunged forward, and unwinded through a pitcher’s preparatory motions. Charles was on the verge of overextending himself, and he was concentrating on velocity rather than precision in an attempt to impress his grandfather. After Charles threw a few overly short, erratic balls that skipped in the grass, my father shouted, “Good ball, good ball” and ran over to high-five his grandson.
Through the window, I saw my wife step out into the front yard and call my father and Charles to dinner. The night had started to seep into the sky. Their faces were becoming dark and featureless. I gently rubbed Daisy’s cheek and said her name until she started to stir. I was reminded that the moments when Daisy wakes were when she most resembled her mother. I often had to rouse them because both were late-risers. They both yawned in a deliberately noisy and petulant manner, writhed about as if pretending to rise, and then wrathfully remained under their sheets for another ten minutes, while I called their names from the kitchen. I had always found the way they woke charming and humorous, and as I led Daisy down to the dining room, I felt more lighthearted.
At the dinner table, Laura wore a preoccupied expression. She had prepared a long spread with sea bass in ginger and sesame oil as the centerpiece. There were chicken and pea shoots in garlic sauce and mushroom broth. In deference to my mother’s vegetarianism, she had cooked an unusually large portion of vegetables—there were plates of sautéed bean sprouts, water spinach, and mixed vegetables. And for the children who had American tastes, she had made egg fried rice and dumpling noodle soup. Her eyes flickered between the dishes in reappraisal, and her hair fell limply onto her brow where she had forced it back during her last few hours of exertion. My mother and Francis were the last to join. When my mother sat, she looked gleefully at the food, bowed her head, clasped her hands, shook them contritely in an expression of gratitude, and started exclaiming, “Oh thank you, thank you, Laura. You really didn’t need to do something so elaborate. Francis, doesn’t it all look so delicious?”
“It does. You’re so lucky to be able to eat like this,” said Francis. “I usually eat very simply.”
“Daddy and I aren’t used to this. We normally just eat some rice covered with boiled vegetables or we pick something up from the McDonald’s downstairs.”
“I should have made something simple then,” Laura said tiredly.
“You don’t have to eat like that,” I said. “Don’t I send you enough money to eat decently?”
“We don’t like to overspend,” my father said, “And your mother can’t move well.”
My father had lost most of his savings to the repayment of debts, so my parents relied on an allowance I sent every couple of months. When his business was thriving, my father gave little to his children and preferred to spend his money freely on watches, cameras, and trips to Japan and China. He still wore a silver Rolex that he had bought at the time of his greatest wealth. He had paid for my first year of graduate school in America, and he always reminded me of that favor. With age, he had become sparing to the point of self-denial, as if he were recompensing for his years of extravagance.
“No one’s asking you to overspend,” I said. “What are you saving for? I don’t remember you telling me you needed anything.”
“Maybe one day I’ll buy a dress for Daisy,” my mother said, looking intently at the girl, who sat two seats away from her. “Daisy, you’ll take care of your grandmother when you’re older, won’t you? You never know, Grandma could go at any moment.”
“She’s just a child,” I said.
“I just want her to know how much Grandma likes her. She’s such a beautiful girl. I hope I can be there when you get married.” She paused, looking admiringly at Daisy. “And Charles,” she continued, her eyes shifting to him. “You’re so handsome. You’re my favorite, too. Will you come and visit Grandma in Taiwan?”
“Yes, Grandma,” said Charles.
“Oh, such a good boy,” said my mother. “You make Grandma so happy. Laura, you’ve raised them so well.”
“We try not to spoil them,” said Laura.
“Richard was a good boy too. Always so caring,” my mother said. “When his father was struggling, he always offered to help, even when he had exams coming up.”
“Did pang shu shu help too?” Charles asked. He was referring to Johnny, who the children had affectionately nicknamed “chubby uncle” in Mandarin.
“Johnny was a bit wild when he was young,” my mother said. “Francis was weak. He needed his rest.”
“Dad said he could tell I wasn’t passionate about the business, so he had me stop,” I said.
“That’s not true,” my father said. “I wanted to give you more time to study. You were testing for admission into colleges at the time.”
A silence occurred, during which the noises of forks laid on plates and the soft rolling of the teapot on the tablecloth could be heard.
“Mom,” I asked, “have you spoken to Ella?”
“When she found out we couldn’t afford much of a dowry, she wouldn’t even see us,” my mother said.
“When they visited, she used me to discipline their children,” I said. “Johnny and she used to threaten their daughters that their Uncle Richard would get angry if they didn’t eat their portions. It was like I was a monster or something.”
“She’s a terrible woman,” my father said, “It’s mostly her fault Johnny’s where he is now. He was always reckless. And she just let him do whatever he wanted.”
“She buried him so far away,” my mother said. “I can’t even visit if I wanted to.”
“I cut her off,” I said. “I haven’t spoken to her in months.”
“But what about those poor children?” my mother asked.
“They’re not my responsibility now,” I said.
“It’s the only way,” my father said, “She’s a bad omen. Everything she touches goes to ruin.”
Daisy had started to tug irritably at the hem of her dress. “The children are getting tired,” Laura said. She led Charles and Daisy upstairs, and I heard the sound of water filling the bathtub.
“Oh, what did I do to deserve this? I can’t talk about him anymore. I just can’t,” my mother said. She frowned deeply until her cheeks became prominent and her eyes became small and mournful in their expression of helplessness.
“Mom, are you still using the house nurse?” I asked.
“No, your father and I let her go. She was so proud of herself because her son had become a doctor. She refused to clean the toilet and kept looking down at us for our apartment.”
“Francis, you don’t live that far. Couldn’t you check on them once in a while?”
“Sometimes we eat together,” my father said.
“And you pay for him, don’t you?” I asked.
“I’m his father,” my father said, defensively. “I’m allowed to buy my son a meal, aren’t I?”
“How much of my money have you spent on him? You and mother are eating trash so you can continue raising Francis like a child?”
“Francis has had such bad luck,” my mother said. “Can’t you show him a bit of sympathy?”
“All I do is give him money. Francis, you’re really going to stay quiet?”
“Yes, Mom,” said Francis, in an appeasing tone. “Richard’s been giving me money every few months.”
“Oh, but Richard,” my mother said, “Francis says he can’t even afford three meals everyday.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“Can’t we discuss it?” my father asked. “We’re not trying to argue. We just want to talk.”
“With a stable job, the amount I give him, and the money that was meant for you and Mom, he would have more than enough for living. I can’t be any more generous,” I said. “Let’s just go to bed and try to enjoy the island tomorrow.” We said our good nights in a strained manner and dispersed from the table.
I woke early in the morning. I wanted to cast off the ill feeling from the previous night, so I planned to walk around Marigot with Francis and whoever wanted to join. I hoped that by the end of the week, all of us could visit the sea together, and my parents could teach the children to swim. I headed out and walked along the roadway leading into town. It was about a twenty-minute descent from the house. Outside, the light was radiant but angular so the outlines of the red and yellow roofs below appeared rounded and provisional, as if they were a mirage. On both sides of the road, orange and purple flowers bowed in the light wind. As I remembered, the road was a gentle decline, and I didn’t think it would be overly strenuous for my parents. The sea gradually became visible. From afar, the crests of the waves resembled the glistening arms of swimmers.
When I returned from the walk, in the kitchen, my mother was singing softly in Mandarin and preparing steamed egg for breakfast, as if it were her form of distraction from what had occurred the previous night.
“Mom, you shouldn’t be cooking, you’re our guest,” I said. “I’m thinking about going to town with Dad and Francis. Would you like to join us?”
“Oh, no, I’ll just slow all of you down.”
“I can drive.”
“No, your father needs the exercise. Richard dear, you’re not still angry with your mother, are you?”
“Your father and I are so glad you invited us. And I’m sure Francis really appreciates it as well.”
“He said he bought Charles a gift, but I wonder if he actually bought anything. I’ve been waiting for him to say something, to show me any sign of gratitude.”
“He’s frightened to do it. You always think people aren’t genuine and you call them out on it.”
“If they were genuine, they wouldn’t be afraid,” I said.
“Of course he’s grateful. He lives such a sad life. This is the first time he’s been out of Taiwan in how many years.”
“He told Willy that he had bought an apartment in New York and that he had finished his master’s at UCLA. The uncle phoned me and asked whether any of it were true. It was after I tried to get him a job with Willy’s company. There’s no use bringing it up to him, but that’s the sort of thanks I get.”
“Richard, he lies because he’s ashamed. He only has you to be proud to be of.”
It was nearing nine in the morning. I didn’t want to pursue the matter any further and risk agitating either my mother or myself. “Doesn’t Dad usually wake up around this time?”
“Your father can hardly sleep more than a few hours. He’s been dreaming about the time he screamed at Johnny for bringing the stray dog back home.”
“Johnny didn’t come home for a week,” I said. “He always said he wanted to buy his own house so he could raise as many dogs as he wanted.”
“He was always so kind,” my mother said as she turned away and lowered the fire on the stove. “Your father’s probably lying awake in bed.”
“He never tells me anything,” I said.
“When was the last time you called just to ask how he was doing?”
“He only complains about your health and Francis.”
“He has no one to talk to. His friends are either dead or want something from him.”
“So I’m the only one left, his last choice,” I said.
“You were never his last choice. We just never needed to worry about you.”
I returned to my bedroom and waited for the others to rise. At ten, I heard splashing and from the window, I saw that Francis was swimming in the pool. Laura was woken by the clamor and started piling blankets over her head to muffle the sound. His stroke was noisy and violent and sounded as if it he were slapping the water with his hands rather than parting the surface. His aggressiveness reminded me of certain types of gulls, when disturbed, expressed hostility with pecking, splashing and other rapid, self-protective movements. Within fifteen minutes or so, Francis started to fatigue and appeared like he was barely keeping himself from becoming submerged. In a half hour, he had already left the pool.
I was reminded of when we were young and our father had bought him a motorized scooter. The traffic in Taiwan was dense, and scooters had to cautiously negotiate between cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians. He had never acquired the dexterity to ride on the city streets, but he convinced our father otherwise. A month or so after he started riding to school, he crashed into a child, broke his arm, and fractured his ribcage. After the collision, Francis never stopped to check on the child and rode back home. When the child’s father came to our house and demanded retribution, our own father paid the man off and I apologized for Francis, while my brother cowered in his room. Johnny was reckless and always prone to self-harm, but Francis lived in ignorance regarding the error of his method until he had expended his short-lived passion and inflicted on others some form of destruction. I had often suffered in his place because no one else, least of all himself, would take responsibility for his foolishness and lack of principle.
Laura wanted to visit the sea before breakfast, so she and I checked on the children and started walking along the road toward the shore. Most of the shopowners were just starting to roll up their blinds, adjust their displays of blown glass and gold linen dresses, and prop open their doors with emerald stones that were scattered along the St. Maarten beaches. Strands of Laura’s hair floated in the wind. We saw the seabirds diving, and the water sweeping shells and rocks ashore. A few yards before the ocean’s edge, Laura shed her slippers and walked forward until her ankles were bathed in the water. In the past summers, she and I often washed our hands and feet at the shore. By the water, we always talked more freely about the past. Usually, I didn’t like to reminisce because I only recalled the most unpleasant scenes of betrayal between Francis and myself. But in St. Maarten, perhaps the presence of the sea reminded me of the ocean in Kaohsiung, where in the late afternoons, the schoolchildren used to sprint and throw rocks back into the water. In our college years, Laura and I used to sit on the docks and imagine how we wanted our own children to think of us. Laura had wanted them to be conscious of how much their parents loved each other, while I had wanted them to think that we had taken the time to understand all their dreams and desires. Aside from the house, the shore was one of my favorite places in St. Maarten because I felt as if I were on the shore in Taiwan, that Johnny was alive again, and that the intervening years had never occurred.
“Your mother can be such a hypocrite. Pretending to care for Charles and Daisy when all she really thinks about is Francis,” said Laura, as she spread her toes among the wet hollows in the sand. “Seeing her at dinner reminded me of the time she and your father stayed with us in New York.”
My parents had always found Laura uncompromising, opinionated, and her family of schoolteachers inadequate in both wealth and social standing. Four years ago, on a night during their visit to New York, I was having tea with my father in my study, while Laura cooked dinner, and my mother looked after Charles and Daisy. Francis was supposedly completing his master’s at UCLA. My father started to insist, without any evidence, that Laura was misguiding our children toward ruin and that I ought to separate from her for the sake of the children. We started arguing bitterly until he threatened to strike me, and I left the room to recover my composure. When I went to check on Daisy, my mother kneeled in front of me and started sobbing that Daisy had just taken her heart medicine from her bedroom table. Laura had heard the crying from the kitchen and come upstairs. She held Daisy still, while I retrieved the pill from her throat with my fingers. I couldn’t bear my parents in the house anymore, and I demanded they leave the same night.
“I won’t leave my mother alone again with the children,” I said. “I was careless.”
“I’m afraid something like last time will happen again. You reminded her about the medicine?”
“I’ve been watching carefully,” I said. “If I remind her directly, she’s just going to start crying and apologizing until I have to forgive her all over again.”
“Maybe we should check on the children.”
I murmured assent, as I watched a few of the seabirds leap from the water’s surface into the sky. Laura and I had stayed longer at the beach than we anticipated. It was almost noon. The children would be awake. When we arrived at the house, we became aware of the stamping of feet from the backyard. As we walked through the side yard along the fence, we heard Francis’ voice, harsh and belligerent, as if he were in the midst of an argument. “You need to give your sister a turn. You shouldn’t only think of yourself,” lectured Francis. Charles was silently crying and rubbing his forearm. Daisy was holding the baseball glove and looking at her brother with an expression of bewilderment. My father hurried over from the opposite end of the yard.
“Francis, what do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“I gave the glove to Daisy and your son ripped it out of her hands. And then he almost hit her in the face.”
“Why were you giving her a glove? Her hands are too small.”
“Charles, what happened?” Laura asked.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” said Charles. He was still crying and started shaking his head and frowning in a tight-lipped manner.
“Did you really hit my son for this?” I asked.
“I was just trying to be fair,” Francis said.
“What do you know about being fair?” I asked, “Who are you to tell me how to raise my children? You’re not even capable of looking after yourself.”
I took Daisy and Charles by their shoulders and led them back to their rooms upstairs. I asked Charles about the incident, but he only continued crying and apologizing. Daisy had tired from the morning, so I prepared her for a nap. Laura stayed in the backyard, talked briefly to my father and Francis, and met me in our bedroom. She explained that when the children were playing, Charles was throwing the ball much too hard and wouldn’t let up even for Daisy. It was plausible because I knew Charles was a competitive child that couldn’t reconcile himself very well to losing. He became especially resentful when he felt he had won only because he had been gifted an unfair advantage. I supposed he hadn’t wanted to go easy on his sister. I decided to postpone the family trip to town until the following day, so that everyone could recover from the unhappy incidents of the morning. For a few hours, I occupied myself by browsing distractedly through a few journal articles. I had been obliged to lead an additional two undergraduate classes the coming semester. I was postponing the daunting amount of preparation until after our vacation. In the late afternoon, I went downstairs to the kitchen for some tea. When my father appeared in the doorway, my mind immediately turned toward Francis, and I couldn’t restrain myself from clarifying the events of the morning.
“Dad, why did you let Francis do that?” I asked. “He beats your grandson for no reason and you do absolutely nothing?”
“Daisy could have been hurt. Francis was doing you a favor.”
“From now on, you and Francis don’t have to do me any more favors.”
“I don’t know how you and Laura raised your children, but Charles takes everything much too seriously.”
“He doesn’t like letting others win.”
“He’s too aggressive.”
“I taught him to always be fair.”
“Well, you should teach him to look out for his sister. Look what happened. He almost—”
“The only thing that happened was that Francis hit my son.”
I sensed my father wouldn’t relent at all and admit any fault of his own. I left him in the kitchen and returned to my articles. My father had never surrendered his beliefs regarding Francis’ innocence. He saw my youngest brother as acting out of infinite kindness when he was selfish, deceitful, and unappreciative of the consequences. My father attributed my brother’s lack of success to an unjust world and his sickliness rather than any defect in his character. I always felt as if there were an impregnable ring about Francis that my parents had established early on, so that any criticism I or anyone else offered was simply deflected without any possibility of being absorbed.
In the evening, Francis and my father said they weren’t hungry and preferred not to join us for dinner. I was displeased about their impropriety, especially since we only had the week and wouldn’t have many more opportunities to eat together. When my mother heard about the morning incident, she also claimed she didn’t have much of an appetite. Laura prepared leftovers for the rest of us. The children were sullen and unresponsive to my saying they had done nothing wrong in the morning and to my asking whether they wanted to visit the sea the next day. Laura and I were affected by the same lassitude and slept early.
On the third day and with the time spent apart, the tension seemed to have abated. By eleven, I had finally gathered my father and Francis, and we set out for town. The sun was high, so our shadows were short and compressed. On my skin, I felt cool drops of seawater carried by the wind. I walked a few steps ahead on the sidewalk and turned every few minutes to make certain that Francis and my father hadn’t lagged too far behind. Francis walked briskly, with his windbreaker flapping gently behind him. He kept narrowing the distance between us, while my father seemed to grow further. Francis seemed anxious to reach town and kept obstructing my vision of the rear. Intermittently, I saw my father descending cautiously while gripping the guardrail. He had suffered a number of falls in the past few years from vertigo and elevated blood pressure. I slowed so he could rejoin us.
“Francis, why don’t you go help Dad?” I asked, as I glanced backward.
“He’s fine,” he said, “He doesn’t like it when we baby him.”
“You don’t have to wait for me,” my father shouted from behind.
“See?” my brother said.
“You’ll regret it when there’s an accident,” I said.
“Should I force him to hold my hand?”
“Can’t you see that he’s stubborn and doesn’t know what’s best for him? I’d do it myself if you weren’t walking off so quickly.”
“He doesn’t want the help.”
“Your judgment is as poor as his.”
“You know, there’s such a thing as worrying too much.”
“Ok, I won’t worry anymore,” I said, “I especially won’t worry about you. You don’t even have to call.”
He paused to register the import of what I had said. “Can’t I say one thing without you reminding me of my money situation?”
“Do you think I like talking about it?”
“You talk about it so often that I think you do. I’ll go help him, it’s not a big deal.”
“Forget it. I don’t need you to do things just to please me.”
My father had almost reached us. I started imagining my father’s fall—the quivering of the ground, his shoulder rolling beneath him, and his stern features betraying an expression of pain and shock.
“Dad, let us help you,” I said, as I motioned to support him.
“I said not to wait for me,” he said.
“Do you want to fall again?” I asked.
“I’m in better shape now,” he said.
“You look tired already,” I said.
“Apparently, I don’t have the ability to make a single decision for myself,” he said, as he held up his arm.
When we arrived in town, the streets were sparsely populated. Most of the shopowners were outdoors either conversing with each other or watching the birds fly between the roofs. We stopped at a café with sliding glass doors, white, thin-legged tables adjacent to the street, and slowly revolving wooden fans.
“Richard, have you heard that Francis is seeing someone?” my father asked.
“Are you?” I asked, turning to Francis.
“Why are you so skeptical?” Francis asked.
“What does she do?” I asked.
“She’s a lawyer.”
“Let’s see a picture,” I said.
“She doesn’t like being photographed.”
“When do we get to meet her?” I asked.
“She wants to get married. But I think I have to end it soon.”
“You should seriously consider it,” I said. “I don’t think you have the privilege to be picky.”
“Francis, it’s alright,” my father said. “There’s no rush.”
“I’m starting to feel ill,” Francis said feebly, while he held his hand delicately over his stomach, as if he were afraid to provoke any more discomfort.
“Could it be something from last night?” my father asked.
“I don’t feel anything,” I said. “You feel ill, Dad?”
“Francis has always had a sensitive stomach,” my father said.
“It’s because he doesn’t take care of his body.”
“No, I really feel uncomfortable,” Francis said.
“It’s alright, Francis,” my father said, “You can go back first and rest.”
My father and I watched Francis walk back in the direction of the house. When he walked, he always lunged forward slightly, as if he were trying to reach somewhere before everyone else. It was half past noon, and the sun was reaching its pinnacle in the sky. The air was starting to feel overly warm and dense. I suggested to my father that we cool ourselves by walking along the sea before we headed back. When we reached the shore, the waves were turning heavily. The only other visitors were obscured by formations of rock that protruded into the sea. Near the border of rock, there were gulls flailing over the water and wrestling each other for redfish.
“Richard,” my father said, as he walked closer to me, “I’ve been thinking about giving my Rolex to you and my cameras to the children.”
“No one uses those types of cameras anymore,” I said.
“You haven’t even taken a look at them.”
“I remember them from when I was a kid. You hit Johnny for breaking one of the switches and you only let us use disposables after that.”
“What about the watch?” he said, as he turned his wrist so the watch’s face pointed in my direction. “You can try it on when we get back to the house.”
“Dad, thank you, but we don’t need anything.”
“Maybe you can leave it for Charles. It’s just something that will remind him of his grandfather.”
“I’ll buy one for him myself when he’s ready.”
My father glanced downward and sighed wearily. We were walking closer to the water’s edge. “Richard, I’m looking at a new job for Francis as a computer technician in a Taipei hospital. I have a good friend who’s an administrator.”
“I don’t think he has the qualifications.”
“He told me he had experience in the labs at UCLA.”
“He never graduated. We’re still getting calls from debtors in Los Angeles. They’re looking for him and demanding payment for his unpaid loans. Isn’t the hospital asking for some form of proof?”
“And you really think Francis has one?”
“He says he has a certificate.”
“Dad, you’re setting yourself up for embarrassment.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?
“You’re going to disgrace yourself in front of your friend.”
“You always look down on him.”
“It’s because he’s a loser.”
“He’s too trusting of people,” my father said. “He always gets taken advantage of.”
“He takes advantage of everyone. He has no principles.”
“He’s never been given the same opportunities that you’ve had.”
“He’s had an even greater number of opportunities. I’ve supported him more in the past ten years than you’ve ever had. And more than you’ve ever done for me.”
“I paid for you to go to America. I paid for all those years of school.”
His words lingered in my mind and grew in their outrageousness. “I’ve paid that debt back tenfold. Who bought the apartment you’ve living in? Who’s paying for the food you eat everyday? Who paid for the shirt that you’re wearing? Is it Francis paying for you?”
“You shouldn’t say these things. You can’t even imagine how much I’ve sacrificed for you. I had to sell the business for your education.”
“I say these things because you seem to forget them,” I said, as I started to feel dizzy from my anger. “You see only what you want to see. No wonder you raised a failure of a son.”
He stepped forward aggressively and swiftly struck my face with his hand. I fell backwards into the shallow water. My sandaled feet were caught in a small crater, and my hands grappled for support among the sand, branches, and weathered rocks. As I struggled to regain my balance, both my palms and wrists were cut. My father advanced toward me cautiously, as if he were fearful I would retaliate with a blow of my own. He appeared stunned by my fall. I was enfolded between the waves. The cold seawater washed over my hands and left them smarting from the salt. My father stooped down to help me out of the water.
I waved away his hand and started to rise. “You’re still as violent as you always were. I should call the police. If these hands were to break, where would you all be? All of you would starve.”
“Richard, you’re heartless,” he said.
“I don’t want to see you anymore. I’m cutting ties. You and Mom should go back. And take Francis with you.”
My father’s eyes appeared forlorn, and his face had concentrated its wrinkles between the eyes. He looked injured, as if I had actually struck him back. “Your mother and I want a few more days with you and the children.”
“What’s the point? You only care for Francis, anyways. All I am to you is a bank account.”
“How could you say that? I was always the proudest of you. You’re the only success in this family.”
“You and Francis are no different. Both of you are liars and crooks.”
“I can’t speak to you. I say one word and you fly off into a rage.”
My father turned and started back for the house. I wrapped my hands in the bottom of my shirt. Having fallen, I felt frail and walked carefully along the water. The sun was still strong but lower in the western sky. The gulls near the rock formation cast long shadows over the sea. I thought of my father, and I was filled with a sense of futility. I could not help him out of his unawareness regarding my brother because his perception of Francis was as false and stubborn as Francis himself. I thought of what lied before me at the house. I would have to explain to my mother and Francis what had happened. And for the three of them, I would have to arrange all the details of their departure just as I did for their arrival.
When I returned to the house, I could tell Francis was swimming in the pool by the violence of the strokes. The splashing reminded me of the gulls flailing by the rocks. My mother met me at the staircase and started asking anxiously about the afternoon.
“Dad hit me and I fell into the water,” I said.
“Are you alright? Are you hurt anywhere?” my mother asked.
“I can’t have someone violent like that in the house. It’s better that all three of you leave.”
“Richard, I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose,” she cried.
I supposed Francis had heard our mother’s wailing because the splashing subsided. In a few minutes, he appeared at the doorway to the dining room. He kept removing his glasses and rubbing at them, as if they couldn’t focus the images before him.
“I thought you were sick,” I said.
“I felt better after the swim,” he said.
“You brother got into a fight with Dad and now he wants us to leave,” my mother said.
“It’s just like you to promise us a vacation and then kick us out before we could enjoy anything. When will Mom and Dad ever get a chance to leave Taiwan again?”
He continued accusing me of mistreating our parents and of conspiring against his happiness. I couldn’t bear either him or my mother any longer. I walked out onto the veranda. The air felt damp, as if the sea had advanced further inland. I thought about walking over to the fence and watching the shore, but I was suddenly sickened by the thought. I could only think of Francis wildly beating the water. I knew then that he had ruined the sea for me. The three of them would depart the next day and would think of me as cruel, unforgiving, and monstrous. In their judgment, I had always done wrong when I had only singled out sins for what they were. The three of them were all pitiful and impotent. And whenever they glimpsed those qualities in each other, it must have felt for them like an affirmation of their love. I had been wrong about the ring that encircled Francis. It was a ring that included all three of them. It sealed them in their ignorance like a thick embryonic shell. I realized that they could only love each other in the dark, and I had been foolish to force them into the light.
Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His work has been published in Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Colorado Review, Bookforum, and other publications. He is also an editor at Full Stop Magazine.