A Short Story
SONS AND FATHERS
It’s not that cold, you know, the Filipina caregiver reminded the harrumphing octogenarian.
He was in the process of making a 180-degree turn, trying to fix the pictures atop his credenza while he struggled with his sweater.
Did anybody move these pictures around, Luisa? Er, Maria, is it?
Dolly, Mr. T, she introduced herself as she does every morning now, her conches-like eyes widening in a bit of apprehension; he did not particularly like these pictures rearranged. That would ruin his day. He would have to be re-oriented to the east-west-north-south co-ordinates of his room. He was a “topgun” fighter pilot in WWII in the Pacific war, in Corregeedoor. You know, in your country. He never tires of reminding her or any of her Filipina compatriots who work at Erin Mills Lodge for Seniors.
I particularly like the picture of my late wife on this spot, Luisa, uh, Maria, or whatever you called yourself --- sorry --- It points me to where I get my underwear. You know -- undies? He tried to smile the scowl from his face away.
She’s just taken over. The nurse from Trinidad just upped and went complaining loudly that she’s sick and tired of being groped by demented perverts who should stop hoping they could still do it.
Dolly, Mr. T. And by the way, your walking partner, Mr. Alex, called while you were in the washroom. Said he will wait for you at the lobby. He said the sooner you get out today, the more sunshine you both would get. You’d have to get back quickly for a late breakfast.
Thanks for letting me know, Luisa. He must have something going for that name Luisa, she figured. But always a gentleman, he would say thanks for anything helpful coming his way. After a fashion, though. This is a community of civilized old farts, he would say.
Alex is always late anyway. His cane trips him up when I tell him to walk a bit faster. Between us we’ve got six feet, you know. Four crumbling ones and two wooden ones. Get it?
She laughed, relieved that he had been distracted away from the misplaced picture. She’s pretty, she remarked, by way of thanking him for not exploding. My son says, I use it to scare the mice away, he giggled.
At the lobby, that morning, his buddy and next door neighbour, and fellow three-legger, waited with a pained look on his face.
Got boils on your derriere while waiting, Alex? What’s with the face?
Don’t even go there, Teague, the bent, scowling man sprawled on the lobby steps snapped.
It can’t be that bad, old chap.
My son did not pop up again. He’s got this wife problem, my daughter says. It’s been two months now. He’s still in the Philippines, you know. Teaching at that protestant university in the southern Philippines. Dumaguete.
He could pronounce Philippine words better than his buddy --– he’s been there, too, in Corregidor, in Bataan, the last stand of General MacArthur. They were GI soldiers from Michigan. Both immigrated to Canada after WWII (so that their sons would not have to go to war -- Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and all that s....)
Yeah? I have a son there, too. Teaching fine arts, painting, you know.
Of course, he got my son in there, too. Reverse brain drain. Canadians teaching the little brown people. Remember? Oh, no, you don’t. It figures.
Let’s walk. Oh, wait. Here’s the slow mailman. Doesn’t he look like Robert De Niro?
The ambling postie greeted the gentlemen with canes, and said he’s got only one letter for youse, gents. For you, Mr. Teague, sir. Urgent. Express Post. From the Philippines. The last syllable pronounced like “pines”. Paayns.
Teague knew it must have come from his son, the painter in the Silliman University school of fine arts. He cracked it open. He fell silent.
I’m going upstairs, he said.
What about our walk?
I’m going to my room.
Wait up, Teague. What’s wrong?
Dolly was still there when he got back. Please leave me alone, Luisa.
What’s wrong, Mr. T?
He sobbed into his pillow as his panting partner ambled into his room.
Did we have to take separate elevators, Teague?
He showed the half-crumpled letter.
God, no! Alex grimaced and fell silent. I’m going back to my room, Teague. You don’t need me here now.
The following day, at the breakfast table, they exchanged envelopes.
Read it before your nap, they almost simultaneously prescribed.
When Alex opened his envelope, he read:
Mr. Teague of Siquijor
Teague’s sandbox at Lo-oc beach spills
over to the slopes of Siquijor –
a kind of walking out on infancy
or bright courage, the carcass marching
nude to humour a carrion God
astride Siquijor’s dark mountain loins.
“O, when will the lad get out of his sandbox
to walk towards the mountain slopes?”
By the way, Dad. This is goodbye. I wanted to end the poem this way, but what the hell. I did not want to end things this way, either. But what the hell. Again.
“By the way, Teague’s body was fished out
of Lo-oc the other day, near Siquijor.”
But just read the news from the PI. I am a bit of an art celebrity here. Am friends with the likes of Imelda, art patron, and Sionil Jose, National Artist. Yes, my obituary will be full of their praising shit.
It is a poem and a note from my son. Teague signed his single-sentence note.
In his room, Teague used a magnifying glass to read Alex’s note. A former CanLit professor, his partner wrote:
The Habit of Mountains: A Dirge
It was his grief pursued the habit of mountains:
It moved the world with quietness. Quietness moved them.
No dearer madness there is than which he died for:
A will to perish in time and manner he chose.
It could not have been any kinder than this falling,
A manner of bargaining one’s way
Into a choice between a kind of dying and feeling dead---
No option for us who learn, too early perhaps,
That death prorogues a dream of fancy
Or a prayer of willing our pain stay
The ramrod poised to rend out days descending
Foglike upon us decreeing silence for our bed.
* * *
Why? Asked his buddy that evening. There was just the two of them like crumpled shadows beneath the dining room light.
He could not abide his being different. He went away, as far away as he could from me. He was gay, Alex. He promised he was going to see me here before accepting that teaching job in Mexico. He said he will exhibit his paintings here at the Lodge.
He fell in love with one of his male students. There was a case filed against him. Corruption of a minor. Not one of his big friends wanted to be around him since then.
They don’t have same sex marriages in the Philippines, do they?
Teague was a wreck today. Could not even complete our walk. Little Teague killed himself over another guy? Was he gay, too? The guy? Hey, there’s talk here that Teague himself is like that. Now, I get a lot of ribbing because he is my best buddy. I wrote you about our routine here. You did not write me back. Mary visits me every time she could escape from his over-sexed husband. He is still trying to get her pregnant. No grand kid here. Which reminds me. How’s Chloe? How tall has she become? Is she in high school yet?
I will be off my rocker if I lose Teague over this. Nobody visits him. He is 83, you know. I know that he is doesn’t have all his marbles in his nut. But I can talk to him. About poetry even. The last time I lost a friend was when Cao Tran left the lodge to live with a daughter on Robin Drive. Nguyen Bao died; you know his little wife; just snored aloud one night and died in her sleep. 75. I wrote a poem for Cao Tran, you know. Got it published in Walrus last year. Did you read that? Here it is anyway, just in case it will be worth big money some day. Dad is going to be famous yet, eh wot? Nuts, Chloe thought I had so many big words, and your wife thought they were million-dollar words worth a pittance. How is she anyway? What’s this I hear that you are splitting up. About a man? About a woman? What? Been there, done that. Not good for Chloe, son. I never ever want to see tears in those lindisima eyes. Oh yeah, the poem.
CUP ON THE BENCH
“Favorite spot,” Nguyen Cao Tran pointed
To the bench on Lincoln Green before
He waved me bonjour the Montreal way.
“Favorite spot for wife and me…drink
Tim Horton Coffee from across,” he winked,
Now unafraid his accent might betray
A Viet Minh rasp from Saigon days,
A shrapnel buried on his nape: “Still smoke
Camel sticks from GI Joe friend in Frisco.”
He looked away when I remembered to ask
About Nguyen Bao. “Isn’t she walking
With you this morning? It’s spring, mon vieux!
He mumbled: “She gone…far away now,”
And shuffled away, his knapsack slung
Like a rifle crooked on his flaccid hand.
A single cup of Roll-up-the-Rim teetered
On the bench the next day while I waited.
No cups on the ground, the bench was naked.
I miss Chloe. When are you folks going to visit me here at the Lodge? You know, I am part of the socials committee here. I have Friday readings. Poetry and fiction. I don’t know if these zombies here understand what the heck I am intoning ala Dylan Thomas or even Richard Burton (remember Nono in "The Night of the Iguana"?) There was that poem I wrote last week which got Teague and some of our old fart residents here crying. Want it? Could be another winner, you know. Here it is. (By the way, and I refuse to write BTW), do you still read anything literary? What do you teach there? Oh, yeah, the poem:
Sitting on her Florentine chair
Atop the red-tiled stairs, the sirocco
Breeze playing with her ivory hair,
She awaits her turn to say hello:
A caudillo-like half-raised wave
And a schoolmarm’s smile on her
Waxen face, a smirk at times to save
Her some chagrin falling off a chair
While she wags childlike to say:
Blow a kiss to your window-waving
Girl, say au revoir for now, and pray
That as they grow, won’t stop loving,
And they do grow and go away,
And you’d be left sitting on a chair
Wondering why they have flown
Like swallows, and hope would care
To come back and perch at sundown.
Dang! I am suddenly sleepy. Must be the wine. Teague brought out his 300-dollar bottle finally. He got really drunk tonight. It’s Father’s Day this Sunday, and it makes me furious how it has been commercialized. It’s all what Dads want today from Walmart and Marks and Spencers. Nothing is sacred anymore. I remember Father. He would write those Spanish poems. I love to recite them to entertain guests. He wrote a poem for his Mother whom he had not seen for the longest time, because she did not want to migrate to Barcelona. He missed her. You know, just like your Mom did not want to live in the PI when you asked her to go back there while you taught at that Southern Philippines university. It is just as well. Your wife might not have liked her around. Oh yeah, the poem. You translate it yourself. Don’t write me for one. You remember the language still, eh?
EL NIDO DESOLADO
(Para mi Madre)
Los pajaritos están dejando su nido;
el invierno de su vida ha venido
tan muy temprano!
Mira! Mira! Madre mía.
Tan fuerte ahora, sus pájaros
están volando a puertas desconocidas;
están volando tan lejos para que
nunca jamás devolver y quedar en la casa
de corazón triste, ahora casa abandonada,
nida desolada, madre mía.
O mi madre querida!
Write me, Junior. Off to sleep. Missing your Mother. Omni Soli Semper. (Enrol Chloe in some Latin classes, will you?)
Con amor duradero,
DAD, Papa, Pops, Dada, Old Man, Mon Vieux, or whatever you want to call me these days. Kiss Chloe for me. Lots.
Teague roused Alex, the next day.
I owe you a stroll, old chap.
How are you feeling, Teague?
Okey-dokey, I think.
Who’s sending Little Teague’s body here? No relatives in the Philippines to take care of that, are there?
What body? What relatives? What’s the story, this time, yarn spinner?
Alex sat on the foyer bench, fumbled through his pocket, and fished out a poem for the Saturday Review.
Here. Read it later.
Who’s Lucy, Alex? Why does it say: “Lucy Does Not Live Here Anymore?”
Nobody you know, Teague. Let’s walk.
Alex kicked an empty Tim Horton coffee cup on their way out of the Lodge.
ALBERT B. CASUGA
Sons and Fathers was published by Asia Writes as its featured story in June. The first part was a separate standing story on senior citizens written in 2009. The story was rewritten to include some of the poems in "Poems to Grow Old By" (see Poetry Harvest)
A 4-in-1 story on fathers and sons, it is a harvest, as it were, of four short stories condensed into an offering for Father's Day. Authors have always used poems to move stories through multi-layered plots, among them the late Philippine National Artist Nick Joaquin (whose old picture is used here as one of the illustrations). It is an old tool, this fiction-cum-poetry, but it still works.
August 30, 2010