The room went dark and Natalie slowly intoned, “Happy birthday.” Others joined the singing with a collective reluctance. Their words were barely audible. Five flickering candles floated to a standstill on the dining table. The song finished and Natalie interrupted the silence with a whisper, “Happy birthday, Brandon. Make a wish before you blow.” Brandon followed his mother’s instructions. The lights turned on and a small billow of smoke rose from the cake.
“You little devil!” The shouting was abrupt but expected. Natalie’s father was seated at the far end of the table and pounded the tabletop. “You goddamn little devil!” The cake slid a few inches and a gift fell to the floor. The old man spat as he pointed towards Brandon.
“Papa, please.” Natalie didn’t even look at her father. She kissed Brandon on the cheek then picked up the gift returning it to the pile of presents on the table.
“This little devil will kill you! He will kill you!”
This was exactly why Natalie didn’t invite any children to the party. She knew it was unfair for Brandon. It was cruel to force this monster on him instead of letting her son be surrounded by all his school buddies. Brandon covered his ears and whimpered.
Natalie looked around the room: Leslie, her best friend from the bank, stood at Brandon’s side while Natalie’s sister, Natasha, stood an arm’s length away from their father. Natasha had her arms crossed and did nothing to restrain her father’s outburst. She was more concerned with wasting her Saturday by driving from San Francisco to San Jose just to stand around people she could barely tolerate. The elderly neighbor couple, Jack and Miranda, sat at the table opposite Natalie’s father. They sat quiet and waited for the tension to pass. Everyone had their eyes on Brandon.
This was Natalie’s routine, ignore her father and pretend his progressive dementia wasn’t a distraction. It was getting bad. It was difficult for Natalie to swallow her frustration. It had been years since he even recognized her or any other family member. The only person he acknowledged and responded to was Natalie’s ex-husband, Ton, who isolated himself on the backyard deck for the last thirty minutes. Ton was on his cell phone with a new girlfriend, chain smoking and smiling.
Natalie walked to the sliding glass door and stared at Ton with contempt. He had new clothes, a fitted pullover and slacks, probably from J.-Crew. He had a more mature hairstyle. He carried himself taller than his five-seven height. Ever since their divorce a year ago, Ton seemed content, maybe even happy. Natalie wondered if she made the wrong decision. She held her gaze too long at the door. Ton saw it. Natalie hated herself for revealing her vulnerability.
Natalie walked to her screaming father and pushed him towards the backyard. She opened the door and pushed the wheelchair onto the deck. Ton lowered his voice and turned his back to Natalie. Natalie situated her father in the middle of the deck then closed the glass door. Her father quietly stared at Ton.
“What is it now?” Ton asked Natalie. He had his cell phone to his chest and crushed the cigarette beneath his shoe.
Natalie responded, “You missed the candles.”
“It’s your son’s birthday.”
“I saw it through the window.”
“You need to deal with my dad.”
Ton turned away again and mumbled into his phone before clicking it off. He faced Natalie with a look of annoyance. Ton’s expression changed to warmth when he looked at Natalie’s father. Ton spoke in Vietnamese, and in turn, Natalie’s father answered in Vietnamese. The conversation was pleasant and calming. Natalie stood there, silent, wondering what it would take for her father to speak Russian, the only language of his youth. The doctors said these conversations were constructive. The therapists were confident that it was stalling or delaying the progressing dementia. Despite all the praise, Natalie hated seeing her father and ex-husband together like this. Ton never divulged what they spoke of. Don’t worry, was all Ton ever said. It never stopped Natalie from asking.
She interrupted, “What is he saying, Ton?”
“Nothing, I mean, nothing really important.”
“Just tell me.”
“He’s my father, that’s why.”
“It really isn’t that important. Don’t worry.”
Natalie’s father addressed Ton in Vietnamese. Ton nodded and picked up the conversation again. Their shared intimacy was foreign to Natalie. As she backed up to the house, she caught one word that triggered her anger. “Boris,” said her father. He mentioned it again, the name buried within the Vietnamese words. Natalie stepped to Ton standing inches from his face. She was furious.
“Are you talking about Boris? Is that what you talk to my dad about?”
Ton was silent. He was intimidated by the rage he saw behind his ex-wife’s eyes.
“You got to be kidding me. All this time, you and my dad are bonding over my dead brother?” Her voice was becoming increasingly loud. “You got some nerve!”
Ton cleared his throat with a cough and said, “Look, it’s been casual.”
“What? Casual?” Natalie was irate.
“It’s, you know, just casual. He’s just talking about old stuff. Talking about Boris.”
“You hated Boris. You forced him out of this house, remember?”
“That’s not true.”
“Not true? You got to be kidding me. I can’t believe you.” Natalie asked her father why he was talking about Boris. He scowled and swatted his hand at her. Natalie disappeared into the house then returned holding a thirty-eight caliber revolver. Ton immediately put his hands up and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Shut up.” Natalie replied. She showed the gun to her father. “Do you remember this? This is your gun, Papa.” Her father just stared at the revolver.
“What are you doing, Nat?” Ton tried to take the gun but Natalie pushed him away.
“You idiot, it’s not loaded.”
“I don’t care. Put that away!”
“Shut up.” Ton retreated to the deck railing. Natalie turned her attention to her father and began speaking Russian.
“Papa, do you remember?” She put the gun in his lap. Her father kept staring at it. His hands remained still and rested on the wheels of his chair. Natalie continued, “This was the gun Boris used. The police came to my house last week and gave it to me.”
Tears came to the eyes of Natalie’s father. She touched his shoulder and said, “The police had the gun for three years and only finished the paperwork. They said sorry it took so long.”
An eternity passed. Everyone inside the party was at the sliding glass door, looking at the three people on the deck. Natalie’s father picked up the gun and brought it closer to his face.
“I remember,” he said to Natalie in Russian. Natalie’s tears quickly became uncontrollable. He repeated, “I remember. This is mine. I gave it to Boris.”
“I remember too, Papa”
“I gave it to Boris. I wanted him to be a scientist like me. He always wanted to draw, always drawing; too much drawing.”
“He would draw and draw and draw. That’s all he ever wanted to do.” They were both crying now. Natalie hunched over and hugged her father.
“I hated all the drawing. I made him go crazy with himself.”
Abruptly, Natalie’s father moved his wheelchair to the edge of the deck. He put the gun to his head and the hammer clicked against an empty chamber. It clicked again and again. Ton approached Natalie’s father but she quickly grabbed him by the collar and threw him aside. “This is insane, Nat!” Ton tried to step towards her father, and again, Natalie pushed him away.
“What the hell, Nat?” Ton stomped into the house.
Natalie’s father pulled the revolver’s trigger again and again. The barrel of the gun was stuck to his temple. He had his eyes closed, tears rolling down his face as he repeated the Russian word, sorry. Natalie touched her father’s disheveled hair but he was gone.
Natalie went back into the house and left her father alone with the gun. She thought about Boris who shared Brandon’s birthday. Natalie heard the front door slam and wondered if Ton had left for good. She looked down at Brandon who looked lost and disoriented. Why did she always make things so hard on her son? No one said a word to Natalie. She turned and stared at her father who was still pulling the trigger.