We hover around the curved glass of the monitor, its blue light washes over my brother and sister’s faces–innocent and focused. I squeeze between my siblings and shove from my face the static strands of my hair. With a few soft clicks and precise movement, my brother maneuvers the mouse to bring up the surveillance footage named “02-04-1999-23_00.mov”
My fingers mechanically twist the worn metal clasp of my red Tết purse —a nervous twitch that returned around the months of January to February when Lunar New Year’s invited family gatherings, gambling, and lucky money gifts. This year’s bounty was a proud 8 dollars and 32 cents.
I squint at the black and white thumbnail image. My round unsure eyes discern what appears to be the laundromat–a quiet thief in the night it snatched my parents away every Sunday before mass, early mornings before we prepared for school, and late nights after we went to bed. For the past three months I had begged them to let me come along to help. But unlike the garment factory, the restaurant, the daycare, I was not allowed to follow my parents on their second-third-fourth-job at the laundromat because they said the neighborhood was too dangerous.
Instead, I imagined with a childlike wonder that place my parents referred to in broken English as ‘con-lon-di’. The sounds of the ringed master keys formed a familiar jingle, entering my half dream half awake state each night that signaled my father returning home. On lucky weekends I sat on a wooden stool and observed my father tinker with a broken coin operated mechanical horse. One day, the worn out horse came back to life! Giggling I climbed up and down its repainted blue back, greedily shoving my coins into the slot knowing that my father would open up the coin bank with his keys to retrieve my coins. It was the ultimate game of no risk, only reward. Over and over and over.
My father brought home for me the fragmented personal affects of laundromat life: an abandoned earring missing its pair, a tangled necklace possibly 14 karat, a foreign coin maybe from France. I cherished each of these trinkets pried from the machine’s lint catch—each imbued with my father’s quiet affection but also with a mystique of stolen stories from strange faraway places.
My brother clicks the triangle play button. That mysterious magical place stretches across the thirteen inch monitor rendered in blurry black and white silent stills. A pixelated tranquil landscape: the mechanical horse sits in a corner, aisles of laundry machines, an empty metal basket on its side. A figure appears in a stilted stop motion of five frames per second. It’s my father.
My father’s voice pulls us back into the reality of our task at hand. On the computer desk sits a chewed #2 pencil and a free notepad that reads “David Pham Real Estate. We find your home and make it home.”
“Xem kỹ đi con. Có gì thì viết xuống cho ba bằng tiếng anh để cho cảnh sát biết. Watch closely children. See if there is anything important to write down in English so dad can give information to the police.”
I inch closer to the screen, intrigued by the image of my father rendered in choppy black and white movements. He bends over to clean the machines I think, or maybe he found something in the lint catch for me?
I blink and the scene transforms. My father stands stiff and upright, hands in the air still clutching a cloth. No longer alone, he is surrounded by a darkness I do not comprehend.
23:03 Ba / Take 1
My brother pauses the scene and replays it again and again. My well-trained brain quiets my pounding heart with a categorical logic of explanation: three masked figures, armed robbery, Thursday night.
23:03 Ba / Take 2
My mind floats faraway, falling into a fantastical rendition of sounds, colors, abstractions of the surveillance scene. From an aerial distance I hear my father humming sweetly while cleaning the machines. A sudden crescendo and abrupt silence. Hurried steps, a gasp, muffled commands to hand over the money.
23:03 Ba / Take 3
I imagine his first sounds to be that familiar “Nooo! Đừng! Nooo! Không!”—an exasperated croak that escaped whenever my father was flustered and slipped between Vietnamese and English.
23:03 Ba / Take 4
Cut scene to the black shiny gun. Cut to his eyes tearing up, his hands shaking. Cut to a cloth sack that appears out of nowhere marked with a green $. Action background music and the expectation of a heroic climax of justice delivered in technicolor.
I blink and the dark figures are gone, but the darkness remains. In the silent black and white shadows my father stands alone again, shoulders slumped and hands empty. He bends over, picks up the fallen cloth, and resumes his cleaning.
My brother right clicks the video file and renames it “Ba.”