The Last Ballad of Lah (by the Popiah Man in the Coffeeshop)
by Meiko Ko
And if I were to say, Ooi, my Lah is one more sound in the world. One more definition in the world, like how a king claims a crown on his head, or a field of words perched at the end of my throat, it has everything I wanted to say baptized with the surface of English, so were I to say, wa lau, that woman har, there she go again liao, that chio bu facing me now, I’d be saying something that sounds in English like wallowing woman hair, there she goes loud, and Chelsea is breaking down. With my hands I hold the weight of lor, listen to it take its place in an empire of Singapore sentences, how it sometimes has the undertones of giving up, its indifferent music traveling downhill a current of descending sighs, and were I to say, I just want to talk to that chio bu lor, buy her this coffee I earn with my hands, I’d also be saying that there’s a man in shores blue yearning to buy a coffee for a lady, and cheese is only waiting to bloom. I mean, we’d be talking about a woman walking home every evening at 8 pm, passing by a coffeeshop lighted in bright florescence, under Block 221, Bukit Merah, her steps slower than the people around her. We’d be talking about a man waiting for a woman to walk in the direction of the flats, his heart pounding every time she passed, there’d be nights when he pretended to collect the plates so as to walk towards her, there were nights when he stood in his stall watching her receding back, his words lost and scattered like sauce upon the sheaves of popiah skin, his thoughts shredded into long lines of carrots, dunno why my heart so sad when she walk by huh, no lah, she neer going to turn around to meet my small doom, to see my churns keen. It’s true by now that calluses have built their hard skin on the Popiah Man’s knuckles. Or that the dye in his mind is now so thick it’s set him on a path forever lined with coffeeshop truths, his eyes forever fixed on a singular beverage. That his days are smoked with the fumes of coffeeshop food and his nights are twisted lovesick around the water and belacan as they collide and become that one more plate he must sell, one more tray, or she’ll neer look at me, she beautiful like my sugar bowl. And the woman will never look at him. She’ll walk pass, not noticing him, for she’ll never hear his voice in the coffeeshop bustle. And he’ll notice what she never notices, he’ll go to a KTV lounge where he’ll text a woman with language and laughter in her mouth. Where he’ll find all his lost words in this city of her mouth with its interrupted vowels and tattooed consonants, a bent language spraining to keep up a conversation with the world, forever arguing over the loss of stars, citizens, worlds of masters and slaves, and he’ll feel at home with her laughter. Together, they’d create a new language, and a new language would create them. And when the songs in the Popiah Man’s leh ache, they would lay out a sea. They would build a country.
Meiko Ko is a Singaporean living in New York. She is working to become a writer and a prose poet, and she attends the Second Saturdays Reading Series every month. She still misses the rain in Singapore. This is her second publication.
cover image by Marc Nair