Pen in Parentheses

Prabda Yoon

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

The sheet of paper fell (It's from a notebook I had when I was in seventh grade. Its blue lines are starting to fade. There's only a single sentence on the entire page, three lines down from the top. I had written it in neat handwriting, with a black ballpoint pen, and the letters are surprisingly still sharp. The sentence says: "I will never change."

Change from what, I can't remember anymore. I'm at a loss trying to figure out whether I've kept my own word or not. I'm trying to recall what I might have been thinking when I was about twelve or thirteen, but whatever it was, it seemed to have been a matter of life and death. At least I felt the need to promise myself that I wouldn't deviate from it. I must have been really impressed with my own idea.

I used to be fascinated by philosophical witticisms, and I fancied that I was pretty darn witty myself. I might have happened to have read something that really spoke to me and decided to make it my mantra. I remember one: "If you want to be a good person, that means you are not a good person." I slapped my knee after I read that. Clever! Aha! That hits it right on the head. It's so true: someone who wants to be a good person is not yet a good person. Therefore, I must not want to be a good person. Instead, I have to behave so that other people see me as a good person. I can't help cracking up when I think about it.

My mother said, When you grow up, there might be a time when you ask yourself why you were put on this planet. When you can't find a reason, you'll blame your father and me for giving birth to you. 'I never begged you to bring me into this world. You just suddenly brought me here without permission.' I want to tell you right now that your father and I are sorry. What you're thinking is true. We had no right to give birth to you without asking. Not only did we bring you into this world, we boss you around, make you go to school, make you eat vegetables, make you read, make you get up, make you go to bed. We try to dictate your life. 'You should do this for a living. You should marry that kind of person. You have to wai these people nicely when you see them. You have to respect this person, call so-and-so uncle and so-and-so aunt.' Your father and I sincerely take the blame for all of this. If possible, when you feel like having a child of your own, ask it first if it wants to be born. If it doesn't answer, that means no. And if it doesn't want to be born, don't bring it here. Let it be born to a cat or a dog as fate will have it. Your father and I are sorry. If you're angry or if you hate us, that's up to you.

My mother was smart. She said those things to atone for her sins before she departed. After my parents died in a rollover accident, all I could do was miss them. How could I be angry at them or hate them? Just as I didn't ask them to bring me into this world, they didn't ask anyone to take them away from it. At least they wouldn't have wanted to go away at the same time, in the same car. One of them must have wanted to go later to stay with me a bit longer.

My friends all worried that I would turn into a troubled kid after that accident. But not at all. I may have been sad that I didn't have my mother and father by my side anymore, but I was the type that had my own universe, and it was plenty large. The world with parents and friends was just the external world. One or two people missing there didn't cause my universe to crumble. When I had to emerge from my world, I was sad and lonely sometimes, naturally. But it wasn't enough of a big deal that I turned to drugs or had suicidal thoughts. Why would I? My world had unlimited freedom. I could do anything I wanted, be anything I wanted, eat anything I wanted, have all the fun in the world without worrying about anything. If I turned to drugs, I would distance myself from that magical world. If I committed suicide, I would never get to revel in it again.

I thought about killing myself once when I was a kid. I was feeling sorry for myself after my father wouldn't buy me a plastic robot, even though it was way cheaper than his new bottle of wine. I went into his closet and took a necktie out and looped it around my neck. In tears, I announced that I was going to hang myself. It was such a well-acted, award-worthy performance that I can still see it in my mind's eye to this day. Unperturbed, my father looked at me and walked away. He said, After you die, please call. I didn't have any income of my own in those days. I didn't even have any change in my pockets. Nor did I have a cell phone. I probably wouldn't have had a way to call home even if there were pay phones in the other world.

Pay phones don't exist in the world of the dead, I'm sure of it now, because if they did, my parents probably would have called me when they first crossed over there. It probably wasn't because the call would have been too expensive.

I moved in with my maternal grandparents. My father's parents moved to the other world before I was born. My father said his father was a lawyer. That was all I knew. I didn't know anything about his mother, other than what I could deduce for myself: she was a lawyer's wife. Once you have "wife" in your title, it doesn't make much of a difference whether you're a doctor's wife, a teacher's wife, or a janitor's wife. Even a snake's wife is there to serve her husband at the end of the day. When the snake comes home, whether the wife is tired or not, she's got to have dinner ready on the table. If the snake's muscles are stiff, the wife has to give him a massage. If the snake is thirsty, he doesn't have to fetch water for himself.

My mother's father ran a congee shop in the market. Her mother was an unusual woman because she wasn't just a congee vendor's wife; she was also a teacher. She taught music at an elementary school. Her taste in music was unusual: when I woke up in the morning, I used to hear Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. My grandmother liked to listen to loud music, much to the neighbors' chagrin. The young guy across the street was not to be shown up—he pumped up the volume on his rock and roll music and gave my grandmother a run for her money every morning. My grandmother would complain under her breath, What the heck is this crazy music? I only hear nonsensical screaming and yelling. There is no art, no harmony sustained to please the senses. But for other people in that vicinity, my grandmother was the one that was strange, living in a wooden house surrounded by mango trees and hanging orchids, yet acting like a black sheep by listening to classical music of those light-haired farangs. It just didn't make any sense around here.

Outside of selling congee, my grandfather liked to watch movies with his heart and soul. He shelled out money to buy a 16mm projector from God knows where. Every Friday night, my grandfather showed a movie to his wife and grandson. It was an important ritual for him. On a Friday when he was in a rowdy mood, he'd round up his friends to come spend the evening in front of the screen with us. Some of them focused on the movie; others focused on getting drunk, each to his own liking.

My grandfather's makeshift screen was a white bedsheet, stretched tightly around the edges of a door. His movie projector didn't have any sound, so my grandmother voluntarily served as the music director. Mozart was her eternal favorite. No matter what the movie was, the soundtrack had to be Mozart. I have watched so many silent films set to the sound of Mozart that to this day, whenever I watch a movie in a theater, I can still hear Mozart echo in my ears.

My grandfather's favorite movie to screen was the classic horror film Dracula, the black and white version with Bela Lugosi in the leading role. If it was pouring outside on a Friday night, you didn't have to guess which movie he was going to put on to accommodate the weather. Come to think of it, he even resembled Count Dracula in the movie. His cheeks were sallow; his jaw bones formed a triangle with a point at the tip of his chin; his eye sockets were deep as holes; his sharp, jet-black eyebrows tipped up toward his temples; his hair was combed flat to his head. The only difference was, he didn't have fangs, and the base of my grandmother's neck never showed any two-holed marks stereotypical of vampire bites. My grandfather was just an ordinary congee seller. However he was in the daytime, he stayed that way at night. He didn't turn into a wing-flapping bat that ventured out into the night to terrorize people and bite them in the neck. He could eat garlic just fine. He didn't get agitated and start covering his face when he saw a clove or two of garlic. He practiced Buddhism. He prayed to Buddha before his head hit the pillow every night. If someone took two long pieces of wood and arranged them into the shape of a cross, he wouldn't be unnerved. And he loved the sun. In his spare time, he liked to squat down in the front yard to trim grass, no hat on his head, just letting the sun bake his skin dark. If he were a vampire, his body would have burned to ashes the moment he stepped out the door.

My grandfather was human. He didn't have eternal life. And one day, he died.

He used to say, Dracula is not actually a ghost movie. Dracula is not a bodiless spirit with a vengeance that haunts people like those ghosts with guts ripped open, eyes rolled back, and tongues hanging out. He doesn't stick out any supernaturally long arms like a certain Thai ghost that dropped a lime into the basement and was too lazy to run down and get it. But Count Dracula is unlucky: he cannot die. He is cursed with eternal life, condemned to live like a beast. He is an unfortunate soul. In fact, the Count might have no desire to harm anyone. He probably would be happy just living in his beautiful castle on top of a hill in Transylvania. That he has to transform into a bat and go after people's necks is probably not something that brings him joy. He can't even go to the mall in broad daylight like other people. We are truly lucky to be able to die when our time comes. Mortality is our most valuable asset.

Nonetheless, after my grandfather proved that he, too, possessed this most valuable asset, I rather felt that immortality existed in us humans as well. No matter who dies, that person moves into another person's body and so on endlessly, until the last human on earth disappears.

When my grandfather died, he moved into my grandmother's body. Every Friday she pulled out the white bedsheet and strung it on the door, took the movie projector out of the closet and showed my grandfather's old movies to me. My grandmother became a person with two souls. In one body, she was in charge of projecting the movie and arranging the soundtrack.

Her favorite film to screen was Dracula, with Mozart as the soundtrack. She usually alternated between Violin Concerto Number 5 (the "Turkish") and Symphony Number 41 (the "Jupiter"). Sometimes they didn't go very well with the progression of the movie. The controlling factor was her liking.

Everything proceeded as normal, short of one person's breath.

I lived with my grandmother until I went to university. She never interfered with my school life. Study whatever you want to study. Grandma doesn't know a thing about it. My grandmother stopped teaching music a few years after my grandfather's passing. The congee shop stayed in business. The flavor changed a little bit, but customers were still packed in. My grandfather's employees kept on working diligently, and they helped look after my grandmother so she was getting along comfortably without becoming a burden to me. For my part, I carried on with my young and reckless life as normal.

I decided to study art because most of my friends were artists. Since I was no good at studying anything else, I played as if I were an artist, too. I couldn't really draw anything but nonsense. Luckily, these days people were no longer into drawings with much sense in them. I used to believe that I was Picasso reincarnated. Later, I realized that even if I really were the second coming of Picasso, that would be no use. If Picasso studied art now, he probably wouldn't make it either. The professors would probably say his head was stuck in the past, that his stuff was old-fashioned. Why waste time drawing strange and hideous pictures? Nowadays, you had to think deep and not just sit there and sketch nudes. You had to have a "concept."

So my friends were all into concepts. All they did every day was wander beyond the school walls to scavenge for concepts. If they didn't find any, no one complained. Not finding a concept could be a concept, too. Those who found some just wasted their energy.

In the four years that I spent doing art, I could count the number of concepts that I found on not even half a finger. I still couldn't even define the word "concept." I didn't know what the heck it was. It's a miracle that I even found any. I was in awe of people who found a lot of them. Some people repeatedly borrowed other people's concepts. The professors didn't object—they counted borrowing as a concept, too. I concluded that concept meant "my business." If "your business" was interesting in other people's eyes, you went places in life. If you didn't know how to come up with "your business," that's, well, your business.

Outside of the school fence, you couldn't survive in the world just on "your business." If you wanted to make a fistful of cash, you had to put other people's business first. My friends who were so darn good at making up their business scattered and then dealt with other people's business—helped them sell shampoo, alcohol, chips, air-conditioners, clothes, tape, this and that too many to enumerate. Some suffered through it; as for others, the more they did it, the more pride they took in being good at selling stuff, which became a concept in and of itself. My grandfather was good at selling congee even though he never had a concept.

I fell into it, too. As they say, when in Rome . . . Or as the Thai expression goes, when among the half-blind, keep one eye closed. So I went along with the others and squinted one eye shut. These days, I can hardly see anymore. But I still put up with it. When everyone is busy turning a blind eye, who would notice even if I manage to make my inner Picasso come out?

My friends and I graduated from an institution that happened to have alumni who were expert squinters and movers and shakers in many fields. So getting a job wasn't difficult. Even before graduation, people recruited us to go do this and that, so we had some early training in looking with one eye. The day after I got my diploma, I was already hanging out at the office that became my new address. I must say, my office was gorgeous and glamorous. I felt my own importance grow bit by bit just from sitting there. People around the office looked sharp. They wore clothes that were ostensibly expensive. Everyone's hair was fashionable. Some people had perfectly good eyes—they weren't nearsighted or farsighted or astigmatic—but they wore super thick black-rimmed glasses to look hip. Geek chic in its own way. Maybe among the one-eyed, you had to wear glasses. It was well possible.

That turned out to be right. I sat there for no more than a few months before the bridge of my nose acquired the job of holding black-rimmed glasses. They gave me loads of confidence. Whenever anybody asked, I said my eyes suddenly started playing tricks on me. They went bad out of nowhere. I didn't know if I was nearsighted or farsighted, but I knew for sure that I couldn't see very clearly. My eyes were suspiciously blurry in particular when I had to stare at the products that I had to promote. I didn't consult any doctors. I just decided to buy my own glasses. It was more of a psychological matter. When I wore them, my view of the world was clearer. It was easier to work with them on. I was better at selling. People showed respect and called me pi as if I was their big brother. For the first time, I experienced the taste of people addressing me as pi despite a lack of actual relation. It put me on a high horse. My chest was mysteriously pumped up. But sometimes I had to hold those feelings in and not flaunt them in people's faces. I had to pretend to say, There's no need to call me pi. We're not far off in age. But in my head I'd be saying, If you don't fucking call me pi next time we run into each other, I'm done with you. I would always remind those in my inner circle not to rely too much on the words that came out of my mouth. My words weren't straight, no matter which brand of rulers you used to draw the lines. It was within the nature of people used to turning a blind eye: their visual impairment caused their brain to twist their words, too. Don't hold it against our kind.

The first commercial that I created myself from behind my new glasses brought me moderate fame. As a welcome consequence, my social circle added several new nongs who presented themselves as my little siblings. Another good thing that came out of it was the work that was pouring in. My work traded on humor. The more I made people laugh, the faster I advanced. I didn't care whether the product I had to sell had anything to do with what I created. Luckily, the product owners didn't really care either. The less they had to do with each other, the better. As long as the brand stuck in people's ears, I was on target. If you elaborated on the product's qualities, you might have to lie unnecessarily. Why risk going to hell for that? Just a little white lie to create a buzz would do. Bees are tiny; no matter how much buzz they generate, the result remains inconsequential on the grand scale of humanity. When I worked, I thought of myself as a bee. But when I came up with a good sting, I was a lion.

My grandmother aged with time. I was hardly ever free to go visit her. Whenever I called, she sounded sprightly. She woke up early every morning to go exercise in the park nearby with friends her age. When she had downtime at home, she didn't let it go to waste. She volunteered to babysit friends' kids and grandkids during the day, and she played her beloved classical music as lullabies for the children and herself. I wasn't worried about my grandmother because I knew she was strong physically and emotionally. But to tell you the truth, sometimes I was so preoccupied with myself that I utterly forgot about her, just eliminated her from my brain, like a dried-out leaf you picked off a plant. What an odd and ugly image. As if my grandmother were a shriveled-up leaf that no amount of bright sunlight could do any good for, a leaf that could no longer be fed, a crusty leaf that should be trimmed off to make room for a budding new one. I had to remind myself constantly not to treat people like old leaves, especially my grandmother. If I tore her off, I'd be the only leaf left on the entire tree.

Some weeks ago, I got assigned a new project. This time the product was breath mints. I was tossing ideas around in my head to see what I could dream up this time. And then the light bulb went off above my head, as it does each time I crack a problem at work. I should point out that when I'm not thinking about work, no light bulb ever appears above my head. This must mean that my brain is normally dark and cloudy—it just blindly feels its way around and lets random thoughts wander. To find light each time, there's got to be a condition. If it's not for work or money, it just stays in the dark. The fear is, if it's too bright, you might see the shocking hollowness. The repository of my brain might appear large from the outside, as if there were an endless supply of intelligence, but if a bright light bulb were shining in there all the time, you'd see a warehouse so empty and quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Better just to leave it in the dark.

Bela Lugosi's face in the Dracula movie popped into my head. I would find a guy with a pointy chin and get him dressed and made up to look like the Count. A mature actor past his prime who was having trouble landing any film or TV roles would be even better. I'd be doing charity for an old actor. Maybe he'd even make a comeback. Then I would become known as a savior who can bring the dead back to life, a person of great abilities. In the land of the one-eyed, anyone somewhat older was considered a person of abilities, even if he was useless when he was young and fit.

After I found the Count, I would have to find a hot model to play the unfortunate victim. She should be a fresh face that hasn't been in front of so many cameras that her pores have become clogged and her skin pimpled from the makeup. That type has all turned into pop singers by now. It was just too much fuss and too much money to get them for a commercial. We could avoid the problem by using a new girl. If she was lucky, she might explode and become the next It Girl. If she was into older guys, in my position as the guy who introduced her to the industry, I could be in luck and acquire barely-legal arm candy for a few months. Once I found a female model to my liking, I would follow with a handsome male model to play the vampire slayer. It would be good if he was already somewhat famous so the client would be happy. For me it didn't matter who it was. I didn't want to have a handsome male model on my arm. Let the gays on the team decide.

My movie had to be black and white like the original. The title would be in a Gothic-looking font that people favored for opening credits of horror flicks. I would put a huge title that read, "Dracula Meets . . . " The dot, dot, dot was the brand name of the breath mint. The first shot had to be the Count's stone castle, perched on top of a hill. It's a torrential downpour. Lighting strikes with hair-raising flashes. From there we cut to the interior of the castle. The action is heating up between Dracula and the female victim on his bed. Then a close-up of the sharp tip of the fang moving in on the pale, smooth skin of the female neck.

Suddenly, the Count hears the sound of the castle door being knocked down. Caught off guard, he comes to a halt before he can sink his teeth into the young woman's neck to satisfy his craving. Cut to the bottom of the staircase on the ground floor of the castle, the strapping young vampire slayer is treading up one step at a time, a torch in his left hand and a cross in his right. The Count appears out of nowhere at the top of the staircase. His face is boiling with rage. The young man doesn't hesitate. He throws the torch at Dracula in hopes of burning the vampire into submission. But the Count is a former kick volleyball player. Just one bounce off his head and the torch is deflected back to the young slayer, who struggles to put out the fire burning his clothes. But the young man doesn't back down. Even though his hair is burnt to a crisp, he is determined to defeat the demon. He holds the cross up and inches closer and closer to the Count, but the Count stands his ground—he is completely unfazed by the holy sign. He even smirks, making a mockery of the young warrior. The handsome young man is beyond puzzled. Dracula suddenly takes pity on him and decides to reveal his secret. With his hands, he signals to the young man to turn around and look at the castle wall.

The camera pans after the Count's hand signal. Not far from the scene of their showdown, a shrine of Buddha images, complete with candles, incense and lotus flowers, comes into view. Dracula has changed religions. Even a truck full of crosses would be of no use. Mortified, the young man breaks into a sweat and throws the cross aside. He puts his palms in prayer to wai the Count before bolting down the stairs and out of the castle gate. The scene cuts back to the Count's bedroom. The female victim is still lying motionless on the soft mattress. Dracula enters the room with a smile, ready to launch a strike on the fair-skinned young lady. Cut to a close-up of the Count's fang once again. This time when the sharp tip almost touches her fine skin, the sleeping beauty opens her eyes wide and hands a breath mint to the vampire. "If you don't suck on . . . I won't let you suck." The dot, dot, dot is the brand name of said breath mint. And then the beautiful young woman smiles sweetly. Dracula submissively pops the breath mint in his mouth.

The last shot is back outside the castle. This time the rain has stopped. It's starting to get light out. Two bats happily fly out side by side from the second-floor window of the castle. The accompanying voice-over says, "The modern Dracula takes . . . " The dot, dot, dot is the brand name of said breath mint. After that, the two love bats fly offscreen. The words "Stay tuned for part two" appear—just in case this spot of mine sold, then I could do the next part. Or even if it didn't sell well, we could still leave it in for a cool effect.

The soundtrack of my commercial would have Mozart for sure, but just faintly in the background. The main music would follow the formula of the typical horror-movie soundtracks, because in truth Violin Concerto Number 5 and Symphony Number 41 didn't really go with the substance of the picture. But since I was selling my childhood memory, I might as well recreate it as closely as possible.

As I had guessed, my creation was well-received at the meeting. I cooked it up for people to like, so it's normal that people would like it. That's what I do. It got the green light after just two meetings. We could start shooting right away.

They say we humans use only a tiny fraction of our brains. Those genius types might be able to use a little bit more than ordinary folks. But I'm not a genius. The more I think, the smaller the fraction of my brain I use. The bosses at the meetings use even a smaller fraction of their brains than I do. Otherwise they probably wouldn't accept my shallow ideas so readily the way they do. They roll on the floor laughing at whatever I come up with. The lamer the idea, the more they roll.

The exploitation of my childhood memory was a success. Even though the model didn't become my arm-candy, I got a round-eyed intern to go sightseeing around town with at night for a long while. We went sightseeing everywhere we had to see, and then we weren't seeing each other anymore. I have to start saving again to prepare for new sightseeing adventures with a new girl. At this minute, I don't know who it's going to be yet, but I'm not going to get wound up about it.

I took no small amount of pride in the Dracula Meets the Breath Mint commercial. I even recorded it for my grandmother to watch when she got lonely.

I drove my new car that I earned with my own blood, sweat, and tears to visit my grandmother and bring her the Dracula videotape. I had to have something to show off to drag myself over there. My grandmother was just so happy. She spent the whole morning getting ready to indulge me with my favorite foods. I didn't waste a second when I got there. I told her, Grandma, look at this first. I don't know if you've already seen it on TV. I made this commercial especially for you and Grandpa. I pushed the tape into the video player. Excited, my grandmother waited eagerly for the picture to appear on the screen. But her screen was not on the TV. Her eyes were fixed on me, on my face, as if I were an old movie she hadn't seen in a long time. I pretended not to notice. I was mouthing off to her the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the commercial, not paying attention to whether she understood the advertising jargon or not. My grandmother didn't seem to care either. She just obediently opened her ears to listen. She smiled at whatever I said. When I laughed, she laughed. If all of my clients were like her, life would be great. Work would be so much easier.

My grandmother watched my Dracula Meets the Breath Mint commercial with a smile. But I felt strange watching this piece of work with her in her house, the house that was the setting of my memory of the blood-sucker Count, the memory that earned me money to spend, the memory that bought the vote of confidence from colleagues and clients. I stared absentmindedly at my grandmother's ancient TV screen.

It's good, son, was her comment after the movie ended.

It's no good.

I asked if she heard the Mozart in the movie. She looked surprised. Was Mozart in there? I nodded. Yes, the "Turkish" and the "Jupiter" that you always played as the soundtrack for Dracula. The one with Bela Lugosi that Grandpa used to screen on Friday nights? She said, Oh yeah? Really? Was it there? I didn't hear it. I'm old, sweetheart. My eyes and ears are going. I wanted to rewind the tape and show the movie to her again. Grandma, listen a bit closely. She said, There's no need. I believe that Mozart is in there like you said. We don't have to watch it again.

Today I'm at my grandmother's house, but she is no longer here. I don't know where she's gone, just as I don't know where my parents have gone, or where my grandfather's gone. I came to my grandmother's house to pack up. Since my grandmother is no longer here, the house is no longer necessary. I came to go through the stuff and pick out what I want to keep as souvenirs. I'm just realizing that my grandmother was quite a hoarder: school books, cartoons, magazines, toys, stuff from my childhood. She kept all of them neatly arranged in the cupboards. I probably can't take them all today.

There are dozens of boxes of my grandmother's classical music records, every one of them still in good condition. My grandfather's movie projector, too, is still shiny like new. All of his movies are still in their metal cases. I held one of them in my hand for longer than the rest. On the case, in my grandfather's handwriting, was the word "Dracula" in English. I thought of that white bedsheet and the beam of light from the projector, how it used to cut a line through the darkness and end up on the white fabric.

I flipped through several high school notebooks and textbooks with outdated-looking covers. They were full of doodles that I surreptitiously drew during class. Many pages of the notebooks were smeared with Star Wars. I haven't played Star Wars in ages. It's a game that kids play. You draw an army of stars and then you shoot a line with the tip of a ballpoint pen to try to hit the other player's army of stars. If you get one, the star is extinguished.

I remember how I tried to write a diary several times, but each time I kept it for no more than a week before I got tired of it and gave up.

What's there to record from a day in the life of a child anyway? Today I woke up and went to school. I got spanked by the teacher once. I came home, watched TV, read some comics, went to bed.

The sheet of paper with the faded blue lines is a page from one of the diaries I didn't finish.

"I will never change."

Change from what, I couldn't remember anymore.

But I want to keep it. It's possible that I might remember one day.) so I bent down and picked it up.

translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul