Gentle, Gentle by Vina Nguyen

Aug 26, 2019

When Ba built the garage floor, no walls, no roof existed. White, large men drove in with a truck that housed a sideways rolling barrel; it churned liquid cement into a square, thin pool. The men and Ba settled the grey gruel, swept and spread it out with their metal-bladed, long brooms. After they left, we waited. I ran laps around the liquid cement, peered at it on my hands and knees, and wished with eyes squeezed shut for the garage floor to be as smooth as jade. Finally, the liquid hardened, but it was pockmarked a bubbly, frozen lake. 

The August sun shot down I thought the heat would obliterate the bubbles and smoothen the pitted concrete. Instead, puddles of rain collected on the floor, then water striders danced on the puddles, and I got angry for Ba. Stomping my sandals against the dirt, I wrung the edges of my baggy shirt with shaking hands. 

Ba toked on his stubby cigarette and smoothed a hand over my face, saying, “You’re gonna turn into an old man before I do with all that frowning.” Then he laughed and pointed at the skidding insects “They’re so kewt.” His ‘u’ sounded so sharp and narrow you could hook fish with it. 


Sundays, we fished. We sat around on boulders for hours, listening to the lake’s purling, casting our eyes across the grey that hid jumping fish and skating bugs and baited worms. Ba’s patience poured out and out, a bottomless ocean. But mine was the thick congee soup slopped into a bowl, the wet cement caked in clumps on that imperfect garage floor, those deep, irrepressible furrows between the brows. One Sunday, a fish bit my hook and yanked with a stubbornness that I matched. 

“Gentle, gentle,” Ba coaxed. “You’ll snap the string.” 

I let up, but then the animal sensed my weakness and reeled my line farther away. I fought back, yanked and tugged, breaking that calm glass with splashes and grunts and yelps. It submitted. As I eagerly unhooked the thrashing fish, Ba chuckled, “It’s so kewt” and right then, that sharp ‘u’ broke through my skin, stabbing me. Ba clicked his tongue, hung the cigarette between his lips, and removed the ‘u’ from under my skin as the red oozed. I sucked on my thumb and glared out at the carefree water striders. The rippling grey surrounded us.


Under the pale, wrinkled sheets, Ba’s life flickers. The oxygen pours into him through nasal prongs. A wave shudders through his body. Machine whispers and chest rattles bring me back to the purling of the lake. I show him the picture of us when I was ten, taken the day when I’d caught that big fish. He reaches forward as his eyes roll back, and it’s too late to hear him say his last sharp ‘u’ to me. Smoothing the furrows between his brows, I say, “Gentle, gentle,” as Ba releases his last breath.

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