Fiction by Leland Cheuk
My father took out a second mortgage on the liquor store and enrolled me in a private prep school in the Hollywood Hills because he thought I had a better chance of competing academically against white kids. Marsden High in Guernica Beach was one of the top-ranked (richest, whitest) schools in Southern California. It was also where MTV filmed the reality show The Family Razzmatazz, the one about the drug-fried comedian Johnny Razzmatazz, who came up in the eighties with Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison.
The summer before freshman year, I rented the first season of The Family Razzmatazz to see what high school was going to be like. Johnny Razzmatazz’s daughter Veronica was a sophomore and all her friends were white. Like Aryan white. Like Veronica-was-the-only-brunette white. There were no minorities on screen, not even in the background. They didn’t even have black kids on the basketball team. Kids were being dropped off in four-wheeled bejeweled boulders of German engineering. I knew I’d look poor when my dad rolled up in our ’79 Dodge Adventurer with its flatbed packed with boxes of liquor. I was the only kid in school who slept on a couch in a living room, didn’t own a cell phone, and wore T-shirts, sweatpants, and sneakers my mom bought from the super cheap street markets of Kowloon on her annual trips back to the homeland.
One of the first people at Marsden who didn’t bully me was Veronica. It was the year 2000, and she was living her sloppy, awkward adolescence in front of America. Her hair was wild and frizzy, and she had braces, a round face with her dad’s wide jaw. A lot of students were anxious to grab seats near her on the off chance she was being filmed. I happened to be early to the first day of German class when Veronica took the open seat in front of me. She was wearing a bright yellow jacket with huge lapels and a black Daniel Johnston “Hi, How Are You?” tee with ripped jeans. She just looked so . . . cool. Way too cool for me.
While my mind searched for something witty to say to Veronica, our teacher wrote conjugations on the blackboard. Ich bin. Du bist. Sie sind. She was in her fifties, white-blond, and fresh off the U-boat. Her hair was aerosol-sprayed so brittle and obscenely high, you could see through it. Her married name was Jackson.
“I hear Frau Jackson likes black guys,” I blurted under my breath.
Veronica looked at me like I’d farted.
“Ten bucks says Herr Jackson is five-four and wears track suits.”
Veronica turned just enough for me to see her smile. I happened to be five-four. Thanks to my mother’s latest bargain shopping extravaganza in Hong Kong, I was also wearing a track suit.
By the end of the semester, Veronica and I were friends. We would talk over the phone, usually after the show aired. In one episode, Sherry, Veronica’s mother, berated her for never being home for the dinner their Mexican cook (who never said anything on camera) had so thoughtfully prepared. To make an example of Veronica, her mom prepared a plate, set it in front of her, then promptly fed it to the family’s yapping, shitting Pomeranians. Johnny sat there expressionless. With his sunglasses on, you couldn’t tell whether he was asleep or not.
“The show’s her idea,” Veronica told me. “She’s been planning my future. She doesn’t think I can think for myself.”
I said I knew how she felt.
Even though Veronica and I were friendly in class, we didn’t speak outside of German 1. Whenever she and her pack of Brads, Darrens, and Stephanies strutted into the drugstore, I would wait outside to see if she’d acknowledge me in front of her white friends.
She never did.
During class, I finally raised the courage to invite myself over to Veronica’s place to do German homework. She looked at me like I was Joe Rogan on Fear Factor asking her to eat a hundred-year-old egg. (They happen to be delicious! Don’t know why white folks freak out about it.)
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You don’t have people like me up at the ranch?”
“Don’t make this a race thing.”
“Do you have any friends who aren’t white?”
She smacked me on the arm.
After I successfully race-shamed Veronica into hanging out with me, she drove me up to her house in a Mercedes convertible. She was a year older and had just gotten her learner’s permit and was driving everywhere without a parent in tow anyway. The mansion had iron gates with a nameplate reading “RAZZMATAZZ!!!” in gold cursive. When they opened, the left gate took the “RAZZMAT,” leaving the right one with the “AZZ!!!” The house was a salmon-colored Spanish-style place with a large driveway that swooped down the side of a hill overlooking the L.A. basin. Parked were several large black busses and white vans crowned with satellite dishes — the crew from MTV.
We entered the house through giant double doors. The inside was cold and silent and smelled of wet dog. The walls were crammed with rich-person clutter. Big mirrors with curlicued frames. Oversized clocks. Pastel-colored paintings of kids on beaches.
Veronica hung her backpack on a coat rack that was made of marble and shaped like a giant burning bush. “We all love days off from the show,” she said. “My mom gets her nails done and takes the dogs to their spa treatments.”
The dogs got spa treatments.
On the living room floor, Johnny Razzmatazz sat cross-legged in sweatpants and a T‑shirt. He had his sunglasses on, so I couldn’t tell if he was sleeping sitting up or staring at the empty handle of whiskey on the coffee table. I followed Veronica through the house, on tiptoes.
“Why ’ello, ’ello,” he said, startling me.
“Hey, Dad,” Veronica said.
“Who are you?”
“I fucking know that,” Johnny said. “Who’s he?”
“This is Hor.”
“Your name is Hor,” he stated to confirm.
“Yes, sir,” I chirped. “I’m a huge fan of the show.”
“What are you a fan of?” he asked. “Of me sitting on me arse playing a doped-up vegetable? You a fan of me sitting on me arse, eh?” He wobbled skyward like a sail. He smelled of soil and towered over me. “You a fan of me now?”
I thought he might even take a swing.
Veronica rolled her eyes. “Mom’s going to be home soon.” Her voice was calm, like she was the parent.
“Fuck her,” Johnny muttered. “Fuck a whore!” Laughing hoarsely, he staggered into his den and pulled the double doors shut. Then we watched Johnny go out onto a patio that overlooked their prairie of a backyard.
“He’s safest outside, believe it or not,” Veronica said. “The fences are too high to climb.”
The garage door roared, and soon, two galloping dogs entered the house, followed by a short-haired, wide-faced woman. Sherry Razzmatazz. She was wearing so much eye makeup that she looked like a lemur. The Pomeranians began jumping at my crotch, and Sherry did nothing to stop them. Instead, she eyed me, blinking and silent, like she was trying to remember whether she had ordered takeout. Her gaze swooped wildly left and right around the house, then past her daughter, and out the window at Johnny.
“What’s he doing?” she asked with a British accent.
Veronica shrugged and said nothing, suddenly sullen and shrunken.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to do about these furry beasts barking and nipping at my nethers.
“Mick! Bianca! Down!” Veronica said to no effect.
Finally, I kneed one of the dogs hard enough that it flew in the air like a soccer ball that Sherry caught. She glared at me.
“Come here, Mick,” Sherry said. The dog stopped attacking me and heeled quietly beside Sherry’s very expensive-looking, gold-buckled high-heeled boots.
“Guess the spa didn’t relax them,” I said.
Sherry continued to glare at me.
“Hor, this is my mom,” Veronica said.
“I told you to call me ‘Sherry,’” she replied.
Veronica closed her eyes and sighed.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Razzmatazz,” I said, holding out my palm.
“I said ‘Sherry,’” she repeated, her handshake limp to the point of impalpability. She glanced outside again at Johnny, who was punching the air like he was training for kung fu. Sherry shook her head and huffed. “I’ll be upstairs,” she said. “I have a call-in with Ricki Lake at four.”
Veronica made a throaty noise in acknowledgment.
Sherry put Bianca down, and the trio scurried past us and up the staircase into a golden supernova of sunlight coming from giant windows.
While Veronica and I did homework at the dining table, I was distracted by the sound and sight of Johnny shooting clay pigeons. I couldn’t see who was pulling the shells. He cussed loudly and colorfully when he missed (“fucky cunt burgers twat shit on a cock!”). Johnny caught me eyeing him and beckoned.
“Aye, you!” he shouted.
“Better get out there,” Veronica said, without looking up from her workbook.
“He’s not going to shoot me, is he?”
“Bruce Lee!” Johnny yelled. “Come on out! I need gunpowder! Now!”
I went outside and joined him in the sun. “I was busy ‘tossing universes in my underpants,’” I said, quoting Bill Hicks.
Johnny looked down at me. “You’re way too young to have seen that.”
“You can watch a lot of stuff on the internet now,” I explained, as if he didn’t know.
Mufflers hung around Johnny’s neck, and his long shadow shielded me. He rested the barrel of his shotgun on the ground. “Ever fire a gun?”
I shook my head.
“Mr. Razzmatazz!” a woman called out from a distance. “It is very hot!”
“Hold on, Janet!” Johnny shouted. To me, he muttered, “Janet, my ass. Esmeralda’s her fucking name.”
“You like Bill Hicks?”
“He gave me my start.”
“I know. I watch the show.”
“Have you seen my stuff?”
His shoulders sagged and he faced the ground. “My memory’s shot,” he said, sighing. “Can’t even do ten minutes anymore.”
“Maybe it’s the drugs.”
He frowned at me. “You think you’re a funny little prick, don’t you?”
“I didn’t mean — ”
He released an open-mouthed, chest-rocking laugh and smacked my shoulder hard enough to stagger me. “It’s good to be a prick!” he bellowed. “Especially in comedy!”
“Mr. Razzmatazz!” Janet/Esmeralda shouted again.
“Okay, okay, por favor!”
Johnny handed me earplugs. After I put them in, he gave me the gun, which was heavy in my hands. I raised the barrel and peeked one-eyed through the sight like people do in the movies. Johnny fished two shells out of his pocket.
“What’s your name again?” he asked, sounding far away.
I told him.
He helped me load the gun before putting on his mufflers. Then he fixed his hands softly on my shoulders.
I flinched. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched me with affection.
“Easy, Hor,” Johnny said. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He raised my arms toward the sky. “This is what you do.”