My father buys himself a cat plushie for his sixty-fifth birthday. No, it ain’t a cute kitten version, but rather a giant stout cat in a sitting position. Whose eyes gape open, irises filled with cheap crimson plush. Who raises its front paw to beckon (mis)fortune.
My father carefully lays the overgrown cat on the side of the bed which my mother used to take when she was alive, before telling me, dismissing my astonishment, “Huus-Huus is here to stay.”
It takes me a few seconds to realize Huus-Huus is the white cat toy, two meters tall. Belly up. Smirking. As though it already owned the whole place. “Are you okay, dad?” I ask, genuinely concerned.
“Yes, I’m absolutely fine,” he says. “Why are you asking?”
“Where did you get it?”
“From a ramen restaurant in Ito-Yokado. He was used as a mascot, but at first glance, I already knew he didn’t belong there. He was our family! The restaurant didn’t buy my story, of course, so I had to use force.” My father quickly swings his fist which narrowly misses my nose.
“So, you robbed the restaurant?” I ask, agape.
“No, I left 3,000 yuan in cash. Robbery ain’t my style. Nor is mobile or card payment.”
“3,000 just for that thing? What were you thinking?” I ask, glancing at the ominous cat.
“Huus-Huus ain’t a thing. He is family!” my father protests.
Family, huh? Not a chance. All I see is a haunted toy. It has de facto bewitched my father! As though to prove my hypothesis, my father drops to his knees and begins to knead Huus-Huus’s shoulders, all while murmuring, “Welcome home, my buddy.”
I frown, miraculously suppressing an impulse to laugh. Is my father going crazy? How come I haven’t noticed a sign although we are living, separately, under the same roof? In my impression, since his retirement, he has been playing Dota day and night. That’s basically all he does every day. He’s been happy. So have I. Until today.
“As you like,” I finally manage to say. Quickly, hysterically, I scan through my memory for my father’s potential symptoms of Alzheimer’s: Has he been forgetful? No, not really. Does he have trouble expressing himself, finding the right word? Not at all. He has just invented the name Huus-Huus. He speaks it with a nasal twang while prolonging the vowels (to maximize its cuteness?) If only it were a real cat! A kitten!
Yet for the moment, I shall leave those two alone, because it’s time to make my daily vlog for Douyin. I can’t wait to talk about global warming, wearing a polar bear costume. Although I live in Chengdu, where the more common bear species is called the giant panda.
After making the video? I shall order some takeaways for my father’s birthday dinner. We don’t have anyone to invite. He has no friends. Neither do I. He’s sixty-five and I am forty-five. We are now both single. We tolerate each other by limiting our communication or even eye contact; we live in our clearly divided spaces in this big apartment—he uses his toilet and I use mine; he has his Dota room and I have my live streaming studio. I guess we’re fine. At least, neither of us has concerns for money. We’ve each won a national lottery. For real.
What are the chances of winning two lotteries within a family? It’s rare, I know, if not absurd. Neither my father nor I are smart people, and we’re both lazy. So we each chose an uncomplicated string of seven numbers and betted on them every week for years. His lucky numbers were: 01 02 03 04 05 06 07, with which he won a grand prize of 5 yuan, for once. I stuck with the reversed sequence: 07 06 05 04 03 02 01, and two years ago, by intelligently changing the number 04 (which sounds like death) into 18 (which sounds like fortune), I hit the jackpot of 2 million yuan. I waited until 3 a.m. the next day and phoned my penny-pinching boss at his home. I deliberately woke him up, hopefully terrifying him, just to say, “I quit.”
The next morning after the lottery win, when I finally met my father between his intense Dota sessions, I announced the good news. That I was rich now. That we no longer needed to buy another lottery. That with the prize and his pension, and so long as I didn’t move out, never bought a car, never remarried and had children, I would get by without ever working for money. I could just focus on ecology. My father collapsed onto the sofa.
“You all right, dad?” I asked innocently.
“Not really,” he said, gazing into my eyes, sad, lost, frightened. “You’ve just asked me to do the most difficult thing in the world.”
“What do you mean, dad?”
“To live with you forever.”
We didn’t speak for a week afterward.
Two years after that day, on my father’s sixty-fifth birthday, he brings home a robust cat plushie whose red eyes had supernatural flair.
“Junjun,” he calls my nickname and says, “I think I’ve finally found a purpose after my retirement. I shall take care of Huus-Huus. I shall give him a nice home.”
“Dad, Huus-Huus really is nothing but a stuffed cat.”
My father begins to weep. The first time since cancer claimed my mother’s life. Years of stoicism suddenly crumble in front of my eyes, and it’s ugly. I look away. I tell myself, it’s my father’s birthday. He can do whatever he wants. If he thinks of Huus-Huus as family, let him be. So long as he doesn’t make me call Huus-Huus my Daddy Number Two. I can be a thoughtful son. I can try to understand my aging father’s cult. You know what, why shouldn’t I join my father? And rub Huus-Huus’s shoulders together!
Since Huus-Huus moved in, my father has come out of his gaming room more often, for better or for worse. He has bought a cart online, strapped Huus-Huus on it (with its belly skyward), and has been wheeling it not only around our apartment but also in our neighborhood. Soon people call my father Kitty Zhang, and whenever they refer to Huus-Huus as a toy, my father immediately corrects them—“He is Huus-Huus. He’s my family.”
I have to say I’m embarrassed. I feel I’ve failed as a son abysmally. For not giving my father the attention and love that he’s now projecting on a lifeless plushie.
When the whole neighborhood calls the toy Huus-Huus, thanks to my father’s tireless effort, I start to have an illusion that Huus-Huus really is a living being: Catman. A fallen hero, who is being paraded around our neighborhood. Children love to jab at his puffy stomach or pull his tufty ears; retirees, often bored, are simply glad to have a new spectacle to watch—I’ve heard through the grapevine that they are demanding their children too order oversized stuffed animals online for them. Thus, I’m not too surprised when one day I see a giant puppy toy being wheeled in the yard of our compound.
More species gradually join the parade: a piglet, a squirrel, a penguin, the list goes on. Until one day I see a giraffe on a cart (its neck is around two meters long, I suppose?) I accept that anything may come into my life, and no conventions shall endure forever. Still, at the sight of the giraffe, and as I glance up, of its cute little face (with exaggeratedly big cartoonish eyes), I almost faint. I wish I did because the alternative—what really happens next—is far worse. I take a step back, trip myself, and fall into the soft belly of a whale toy (also in a cart). I hence become the laughingstock of my neighborhood for a week. The photo of me squeezed into the tiny habitat of the whale—someone has captured the scene with their phone—is chosen as the Photo of the Week by our community’s WeChat group, which has recently been renamed Kiddy Oldies.
As for my dad, he and Huus-Huus have been inseparable. He dines, sleeps, promenades, and plays Dota alongside Huus-Huus. One day, I suggest, “Dad, now that we’re not the only ones with this kind of big toy, perhaps it’s time we let Huus-Huus make some animal friends. You can also meet real people in the meantime.”
What am I thinking? My thoughtless suggestion will trigger a chain of events. An avalanche.
Like many things that make a sudden appearance, the gradual loss of sanity, mine and everyone else’s, must have been going on for a while. Unnoticed. Until today, when my father invites three retirees to play mahjong in our home, and I volunteer to make green tea for them. I’m already standing by the mahjong table holding a tray before I realize I have prepared eight cups of tea: four for the human players, and the others for their stuffed animals: Huus-Huus, a rhino, a puppy, and a hippo.
Three things have gone wrong:
- My father isn’t playing Dota;
- My father has friends;
- I’ve bothered to prepare tea. For my father and his entourage. For everyone except myself.
The fourth abnormality that will soon occur is that in the evening, I will make dinner for them, following an online recipe of Sichuan Boiled Fish, to cherish their mahjong skills. Me, cooking? I must have really gone nuts.
That night, as my stomach churns, protesting the extra spices I’ve added to the fish, a whim hits me. That I suddenly want to have a polar bear plushie. That I also need a companion, a savior, in my life. How come I haven’t thought of it earlier? I immediately place an order on Taobao and only go to bed after I put on my polar bear costume. I’ve even come up with a name for my bear buddy: Mii-Huu. It means nothing. The whole drama has no meaning. No hidden message. Null.
Another week has passed. Another milestone on the road toward total insanity: for the first time, I wheel my Mii-Huu in a cart along with my father and his Huus-Huus. Like a family of four.
On our way, we meet our neighbors Oldie Cai with his puppy toy Chien-Chien-Chien-Huu, Madame Lin with her chubby hippo plushie Hii-Po-Po, Granny Gu and her cutie-pie bodyguard Pan-Daa-Daa, Butcher Liu and his giant headless duckling (yet to be named). All of us are widowed. All of us are loners. All of us don’t have anything better to do. We walk around and around the yard before venturing outside, two by two, side by side, along the Funan River. Onlookers are filming us. Perhaps as I’m putting down these tiresome words, we have already become Douyin celebrities. How will people comment on us and our unorthodox companions? Are we cool? Funny? Pathetic? I don’t know. I don’t care.
That night, as I lie on my bed, alone, in my polar bear costume, and curling up in the arms of Mii-Huu, it hits me that lately, I haven’t thought much about my wife and her plane that vanished in March 2014. She’s probably in a parallel universe, together with the whole crew. While I’m here with my polar bear. On a piece of shrinking ice.