Mom Is in Love with Randy Travis
From "How to Pronounce Knife" by Souvankham Thammavongsa, recommended by Vinh Nguyen
INTRODUCTION BY VINH NGUYEN
Souvankham Thammavongsa’s “Randy Travis” is a lesson in devotion. At the center of the story is a refugee’s faith in unimaginable possibility. “We must have sent out hundreds of these cards,” the narrator explains, “spending money on stamps and envelopes, my mother always hoping to get something back. It wasn’t any different than what she had done to come to this country, she said.”
When I lived in a Thai refugee camp, I couldn’t speak English but memorized all the Air Supply songs that played on a cassette tape we passed around. I would recall the lyrics, “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you…” without knowing what they meant. The drama and melancholy of the songs resonated across language. Wanting to listen to them meant that there was life beyond our immediate reality in the camp.
The mother’s love for Randy Travis’s songs is unwavering, even when that devotion does not pay off. Life’s not fair and we often don’t get what we desire or deserve, but it doesn’t stop us from wanting. Written in what has now become Thammavongsa’s distinctive and singular style—heartbreak, humor, and defiance all condensed in the most crystalline language and imagery—this story arrives at an ending that gives us an astonishing note to hold on to. What we hear will depend on our capacity to listen, our capacity to imagine the possibilities.
– Vinh Nguyen
Mom Is in Love with Randy Travis
by Souvankham Thammavongsa
The only thing my mother liked about the new country we were living in was its music. We had been given a small radio as part of the welcome package from the refugee settlement program. There were other items in the box, such as snow pants, mittens, and new underwear, but it was the radio she cherished most. A metal box with a dial that picked up a few channels. The volume button had only three ticks, and then it couldn’t go any farther to the right. She held this little radio up to her ear like a seashell and listened. The host always spoke briefly between songs and there was the occasional laugh. A laugh, in any language, was a laugh. His laugh was gentle and private and welcoming. You got the sense that he, too, was alone somewhere. Grateful for the sound of a human voice and for the music that kept her company, she listened to the radio constantly while I was at school and my father was at work.
My mother especially loved American country music, because it reminded her of the way the women in her family talked among themselves. It felt familiar. The pleas, the gossip, the dreams of the big city, what it was like to come from a place no one had ever heard of. The songs always told a story you could follow—ones about heartbreak, or about love, how someone can promise to love you forever and ever and ever, Amen. My mother did not know what Amen meant, but she guessed it was something you said at the end of a sentence to let people know the sentence was finished. “Three apples, Amen,” she would say at the corner grocery store. Because of this, our neighbors thought my mother was religious, and even though our family was Buddhist, she caught a ride to church with them every Sunday. She made friends easily, was quick to smile, and was never shy about practicing her English.
At church, she told us they ate one cracker and took one swallow of red wine and the rest of the time there was a man talking. She did not know exactly what he said, but he said it for a long time. Sometimes, just to give her hands something to do, she would pick up the heavy book in front of her seat and open it. Even though she didn’t understand everything they were singing, she moved her lips anyway. It was just like at the citizenship ceremony. Whether or not you understood the oath you made, you had to move your lips.
After a while, for some reason she seemed to lose interest in going. She didn’t say why.
When my father got his first paycheck, he wanted to buy something that wasn’t a necessity. We were living in a new country now. We could have grand ideas of owning something luxurious. My mother suggested a car so he wouldn’t have to take a bus to work, but that was out of our price range. They thought of going to a fancy restaurant like the ones their friends took them to, but they did not like the way the steaks were cooked, thick slabs fried in butter. There was no fish sauce with hot spices and herbs at the table. They talked about getting a wooden bed frame to put their mattress on, but beds were for sleeping on, not for show. There were many things my father could have bought with his first paycheck, but in the end he decided on a record player. In Laos, it was something only rich people owned.
My mother loved the control the record player gave her. With the radio, she had to wait for what she wanted to hear. It could be days before she heard her favorite song again. Now she could drop the needle onto the black disc and watch it turn and turn, and listen to her favorite songs whenever she wanted. She never went back to the radio after that.
Later, once we could afford a TV and a VCR, she taped the country music award shows. After the nominations were read, she’d yell out her pick for the winner. If she got any wrong, she would memorize the winners in each category and replay the show and yell out the correct names. Whenever Dolly Parton was nominated, she chose her, and she was right every time. She’d yell, “I won!” I didn’t understand why she did that. What she’d won was nothing but being right.
The songs my mother loved most were by Randy Travis. Whenever we saw a new Randy Travis music video on television, she would quickly hit the Record button, and everything else slipped from her mind. She would kneel with her face close to the screen, then reach over and hit Rewind and Play, watch him sing again and again. After a while, the labels on the buttons began to fade and disappear.
By then, she didn’t care much for the things she usually did around the house. The laundry would be done but the clothes remained unfolded, dishes washed but not dried or put away. Then, she discovered frozen dinners. You could warm them up in minutes. And these dinners were my favorite for a time. It was what all my friends ate at home. I loved having mashed potatoes and corn and steak and roast chicken. My father did not. He wanted papaya salad, padaek, pickled cabbage, blood sausage, and sticky rice. But those dishes took days to prepare and getting the ingredients meant long bus rides to the market in Chinatown. It took time to ferment fish sauce, to pickle, to chop up a whole chicken into its parts, and to soak the rice to soften it. Time that my mother wanted to spend listening to Randy Travis sing.
My father was nothing like Randy Travis. No one noticed who he was or what he did for his living. He never used the word love or showed much sentiment. For my mother’s birthday, he gave her a few twenty-dollar bills. Not even a birthday card or plans for a night out. He thought that because he was there, that was all that was needed to show his love. He thought his silence was love, his restraint was love. To say it out loud, to display it so openly, was to be shameless. He thought it was ridiculous to be moaning about love so much. What kind of man was Randy Travis, with his health, his looks, his fame, and his money, that he should ever have anything to cry about?
One morning, my mother gave me some money to buy one of those teen Bop magazines so we could find a mailing address for Randy Travis at the back of it. She brought out a card printed with a pink heart on the front, but because she couldn’t read or write English, she told me to write a note to him for her. I did not know what to write. I must have been about seven. What could I know then about the language of adult love? While she curled a few strands of her hair around a finger and broke out in small fits of giggles, I stood there, unable to decide how to even begin a sentence to him. I didn’t like how she was acting, and I was afraid of what would happen to my father if Randy Travis ever wrote back.
So I wrote, I do not like you.
My mother would never know what I had written.
I told her I’d written I love you forever and ever, just like his song.
She smiled, and then signed her name underneath.
We sent these cards to Randy Travis again and again, and though no one ever wrote back, my mother insisted we keep on sending them. I tried to think of what to write and thought of the things people wrote in the bathroom at school or spray-painted on the brick outside our building. You’re ugly. Go back home. Loser. Sometimes I didn’t even get the chance to write anything before she signed her name on the card, sealed it inside an envelope, and pushed it down into the dark slot of the mailbox at the corner of our street. We must have sent out hundreds of these cards, spending money on stamps and envelopes, my mother always hoping to get something back. It wasn’t any different than what she had done to come to this country, she said.
Of course I told my father about what we were doing, thinking he could put a stop to her obsession. It was getting out of hand. By then I’d refused to help her anymore, saying I had homework, thinking this would stop the letters, but she kept mailing them on her own with just her name inside. I showed one of the cards to my father. He pointed to her signature. It looked like pretzels, loopy and knotted, and he laughed and said to my mother, “Randy Travis reads English. He’s gonna look at your name and see a doodle. That address you got, who knows what they really do there. For all we know, the cards probably go straight to the dump.”
But my mother continued to send those cards with her name written out in Lao. Randy Travis was all she could think of and talk about. When the pipe in the kitchen sink clogged and my father didn’t know how to fix it, my mother said, “Oh, I bet Randy Travis knows how to do that.” And then there was the time she said out loud over dinner, “I bet Randy Travis would like to have dinner with me.” She’d stare outside the window at the sky, the moon, the sun, or a cloud and say, “Randy Travis could be looking at the very same thing I’m looking at right now. Wherever he is.”
It was inevitable that my father got tired of hearing about Randy Travis, and he finally said to her, sadly, that the man was famous and that our lives would never cross his. “He doesn’t even know we exist. We’re not even a single glitter of light to him,” he said. Then he brought his hand to his face, formed a circle around his eye with his fingers, and closed the space inside until there was nothing left except a tight fist. But you could not talk her out of her Randy Travis love. It was a shadow that covered her up, and all you could do was wait for some light to come through. She even started dressing up like Dolly Parton, thinking this was the kind of woman he’d want. She dyed her hair blond, teased its strands, and tied it in an upsweep. She played his music and sat by the window, waiting and gazing out onto the street below, as if he was going to drive up and take her away.
Hoping for some of this Randy Travis love to brush off on him, my father started wearing these cowboy boots my mother got for him at a garage sale. Pretty soon, he was wearing jeans and flannel tops, and standing like Randy Travis. He’d hook a thumb into the belt loop of his jeans and stand there with one leg straight and the other loose at the knee so it jutted forward. It made my mother happy to see him change in this way. But then when my mother asked him to sing, he failed spectacularly.
He did not know how to pronounce the words.
Her broad and hopeful smile vanished from her face, but my father only tried harder, belting out the chorus louder, holding on to the vowels, trying to produce a southern twang. He was no star. He was no leading man. He packed store furniture into cardboard boxes for a living. No one would pay to see him sing, but he didn’t care. He was only trying to be what my mother wanted.
One day, my father told me we were going to a Randy Travis concert. He said, “It’s what your mother wants. We have to do this for her.” He rented a car and we drove down south. In those days, there was no such thing as buying things online. You had to walk up to a concert venue and buy a ticket right there at the box office.
My mother was so thrilled, she made the kinds of food my father liked to eat. She spent the three days before we set out soaking sticky rice, and when it was done cooking, she put it in a thip khao and bundled that in a blanket so it would keep its warmth. She made papaya salad and crushed tiny dry shrimps into it, and fried up two quails and wrapped them up in aluminum foil. I hadn’t noticed how beautiful Lao food was before. After the bland yellows and browns of those TV dinners, it felt like a homecoming. Arranged together, the colors were so bold and bright, the flavors popped and sharpened. Every meal tasted like a special occasion. It was a reminder of where she came from and her love. I could now see why my father insisted on eating nothing but this.
I do not remember much about the drive there except seeing a blue-and-red sign with the number 75 on it. We followed it for many days. I couldn’t see much out the window. I only saw black wires like underlines in the blue of the sky and then the dark and my own little face staring back at me.
At the concert, we were so high up on the outer ring of the audience I could not tell if it really was Randy Travis onstage. His face was the size of a pin. I closed my left eye and measured him with my thumb and index finger from where we were. He wasn’t more than an inch between my two fingers. And I don’t know why, but I closed that space he took up until I couldn’t see him anymore. It was when he started to sing that I opened my other eye and realized it had to be Randy Travis on that stage. His voice matched exactly the one from our records.
He did not move around much onstage. He mostly just stood there, strumming his guitar. He actually seemed shy, casting his eyes to the ground whenever the crowd rose to their feet with applause. He’d nod to acknowledge their praise, then begin another song. He did not look at anyone in particular. Didn’t single out anyone to sing to. He stared out into the crowd and the spotlight lit him with a glow I hadn’t seen before. He seemed to sparkle. Once in a while, he would wave in our direction and my mother would wave back. But we were just a black dot in the dark to him. I thought of what it must have cost my father to bring us to this concert. The hours he put in lifting and packing all that furniture into homes we could never own ourselves. Homes owned by the kind of people who could afford to sit closer to Randy Travis. From where we were sitting, the stage lights lit up their heads so they gleamed.
After the concert, we waited with all the young teenage girls by the tour bus, but I was too small to see anything besides people’s backsides. I saw my father reach for my mother’s hand, but he missed. So he put both his hands in his pockets and looked to the ground, at his cowboy boots.
When I think of it now, I’m not surprised that, a few years later, my mother would find something else to devote herself to. This time it was slot machines. She sat up close as those machines lit up her face and swallowed her hope coin by coin. I knew my mother was no stranger to hoping; it’s how we all ended up here in this country in the first place. She got in the habit of not coming home, sleeping in the car most nights in the parking lot of some casino, my father waiting up to see if she’d come home. It wasn’t long after that we were told she was found collapsed in the parking lot. People die sometimes, and there doesn’t have to be a reason why. That’s just the way life is.
It seems wrong to say, but I felt relief for her then.
Last month, it was my forty-second birthday. I went to visit my father in that old apartment. Everything was the same, except the view. There was a building now where there had once been a park. It had become a place where the light did not get in. My father took out his wallet, which was made of brown leather and frayed at the edges. It was packed with receipts, coins, and mints. He grabbed a bunch of twenty-dollar bills and held them out for me, but I waved the money away and said I didn’t need it. He asked me if I had eaten and when I said I hadn’t, he fried fish with grated ginger and brought out a plate of papaya salad and sticky rice. We didn’t say much to each other. We were eating. I got choked up at the first taste of the papaya salad. Fermented fish sauce is like a fingerprint—you could trace who it belonged to by how it was made. My father added crabs to his sauce, which was thick and dark, fermenting for years. That wasn’t how my mother made her sauce.
After dinner, my father and I went into the living room to watch television. He came upon the country music channel and there was a Randy Travis special on. We watched a few of his music videos and then my father got up and turned on his karaoke machine. I was nervous for him, cringing at the memory of how he had sung all those years ago, when he didn’t know the lyrics or how to pronounce the words. Now, with the help of that machine, he knew what to do. I was the only one there, and I was sitting up close. The instruments started and a white dot hovered over the words. Then, he opened his mouth, and I was astonished.