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A Feather on the Breath of Godby Sigrid Nunez
FEATHER ON THE BREATH OF GOD, A
The first time I ever heard my father speak Chinese was at Coney Island. I don't remember how old I was then, but I must have been very young. This was in the early days, when we still went on family outings. We were walking along the boardwalk when we ran into the four Chinese men. My mother told the story often, as if she thought we'd forgotten. "You kids didn't know them and neither did I. They were friends of your father's, from Chinatown. You'd never heard Chinese before. You didn't know what was up. You stood there with your mouths hanging open--I had to laugh. 'Why are they singing? Why is Daddy singing?'"
One of the men gave each of my sisters and me a dollar bill. I cashed mine into dimes and set out to win a goldfish. A dime bought you three chances to toss a Ping-Pong ball into one of many small fishbowls, each holding a quivering tangerine-colored fish. Overexcited, I threw recklessly, again and again. When all the dimes were gone I ran back to the grown-ups in tears. The man who had given me the dollar tried to give me another, but my parents wouldn't allow it.He pressed the bag of peanuts he had been eating into my hands and said I could have them all.
I never saw any of those men again or heard anything about them. They were the only friends of my father's that I would ever meet. I would hear him speak Chinese again, but very seldom. In Chinese restaurants, occasionally on the telephone, once or twice in his sleep, and in the hospital when he was dying.
So it was true, then. He really was Chinese. Up until that day I had not quite believed it.
My mother always said that he had sailed to America on a boat. He took a slow boat from China, was what she used to say, laughing. I wasn't sure whether she was serious, and if she was, why coming from China was such a funny thing.
A slow boat from China. In time I learned that he was born not in China but in Panama. No wonder I only half-believed he was Chinese. He was only half-Chinese.
The facts I know about his life are unbearably few. Although we shared the same house for eighteen years, we had little else in common. We had no culture in common. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we had no language in common. By the time I was born my father had lived almost thirty years in America, but to hear him speak you would not have believed this. About his failure to master English there always seemed to me something willful. Except for her accent--as thick as but so different from his--my mother had no such trouble.
"He never would talk about himself much, you know.That was his way. He never really had much to say, in general. Silence was golden. It was a cultural thing, I think." (My mother.)
By the time I was old enough to understand this, my father had pretty much stopped talking.
Taciturnity: They say that is an Oriental trait. But I don't believe my father was always the silent, withdrawn man I knew. Think of that day at Coney Island, when he was talking a Chinese blue streak.
Almost everything I know about him came from my mother, and there was much she herself never knew, much she had forgotten or was unsure of, and much she would never tell.
I am six, seven, eight years old, a schoolgirl with deplorable posture and constantly cracked lips, chafing in the dollish Old World clothes handmade by my mother; a bossy, fretful, sly, cowardly child given to fits of temper and weeping. In school, or in the playground, or perhaps watching television, I hear something about the Chinese--something odd, improbable. I will ask my father. He will know whether it is true, say, that the Chinese eat with sticks.
He shrugs. He pretends not to understand. Or he scowls and says, "Chinese just like everybody else."
("He thought you were making fun of him. He always thought everyone was making fun of him. He had a chip on his shoulder. The way he acted, you'd've thought he was colored!")
Actually, he said "evvybody."
Is it true the Chinese write backwards?
Chinese just like evvybody else.
Is it true they eat dog?
Chinese just like evvybody else.
Are they really all Communists?
Chinese just like evvybody else.
What is Chinese water torture? What is foot-binding? What is a mandarin?
Chinese just like evvybody else.
He was not like everybody else.
The unbearably few facts are these. He was born in Colon, Panama, in 1911. His father came from Shanghai. From what I have been able to gather, Grandfather Chang was a merchant engaged in the trade of tobacco and tea. This business, which he ran with one of his brothers, kept him traveling often between Shanghai and Coln. He had two wives, one in each city, and, as if out of a passion for symmetry, two sons by each wife. Soon after my father, Carlos, was born, his father took him to Shanghai, to be raised by the Chinese wife. Ten years later my father was sent back to Coln. I never understood the reason for this. The way the story was told to me, I got the impression that my father was being sent away from some danger. This was, of course, a time of upheaval in China, the decade following the birth of the Republic, the era of the warlords. If the date is correct, my father would have left Shanghai the year the Chinese Communist party was founded there. It remains uncertain, though, whether political events had anything at all to do with his leaving China.
One year after my father returned to Colon his motherwas dead. I remember hearing as a child that she had died of a stroke. Years later this would seem to me odd, when I figured out that she would have been only twenty-six. Odder still, to think of that reunion between the longparted mother and son; there's a good chance they did not speak the same language. The other half-Panamanian son, Alfonso, was either sent back with my father or had never left Coln. After their mother's death the two boys came into the care of their father's brother and business partner, Uncle Mee, who apparently lived in Coln and had a large family of his own.
Grandfather Chang, his Chinese wife, and their two sons remained in Shanghai. All were said to have been killed by the Japanese. That must have been during the Sino-Japanese War. My father would have been between his late twenties and early thirties by then, but whether he ever saw any of those Shanghai relations again before they died, I don't know.
At twelve or thirteen my father sailed to America with Uncle Mee. I believe it was just the two of them who came, leaving the rest of the family in Coln. Sometime in the next year or so my father was enrolled in a public school in Brooklyn. I remember coming across a notebook that had belonged to him in those days and being jolted by the name written on the cover: Charles Cipriano Chang. That was neither my father's first nor his last name, as far as I knew, and I'd never heard of the middle name. (Hard to believe that my father spent his boyhood in Shanghai being called Carlos, a name he could not even pronounce with the proper Spanish accent. So he must have had a Chinese name as well. And although our family never knewthis name, perhaps among Chinese people he used it.)
Twenty years passed. All I know about this part of my father's life is that it was lived illegally in New York, mostly in Chinatown, where he worked in various restaurants. Then came the Second World War and he was drafted. It was while he was in the army that he finally became an American citizen. He was no longer calling himself Charles but Carlos again, and now, upon becoming a citizen, he dropped his father's family name and took his mother's. Why a man who thought of himself as Chinese, who had always lived among Chinese, who spoke little Spanish, and who had barely known his mother would have made such a decision in the middle of his life is one of many mysteries surrounding my father.
My mother had an explanation. "You see, Alfonso was a Panamanian citizen, and he had taken his mother's name" (which would, of course, be in keeping with Spanish cultural tradition). "He was the only member of his family your father had left--the others were all dead. Your father wanted to have the same last name as his brother. Also, he thought he'd get along better in this country with a Spanish name." This makes no sense to me. He'd been a Chinatown Chang for twenty years. Now all of a sudden he wished to pass for Hispanic?
In another version of this story, the idea of getting rid of the Chinese name was attributed to the citizenship official handling my father's papers. This is plausible, given that immigration restrictions for Chinese were still in effect at that time. But I have not ruled out the possibility that the change of names was the result of a misunderstanding between my father and this official. My fatherwas an easily fuddled man, especially when dealing with authority, and he always had trouble understanding and making himself understood in English. And I can imagine him not only befuddled enough to make such a mistake but also too timid afterward to try to fix it.
Whatever really happened I'm sure I'll never know. I do know that having a Spanish name brought much confusion into my father's life and have always wondered in what way my own life might have been different had he kept the name Chang.
From this point on the story becomes somewhat clearer.
With the Hundredth Infantry Division my father goes to war, fights in France and Germany, and, after V-E Day, is stationed in the small southern German town where he will meet my mother. He is thirty-four and she has just turned eighteen. She is soon pregnant.
Here is rich food for speculation: How did they communicate? She had had a little English in school. He learned a bit of German. They must have misunderstood far more than they understood of each other. Perhaps this helps to explain why my eldest sister was already two and my other sister on the way before my parents got married. (My sisters and I did not learn about this until we were in our twenties.)
By the time I was three they would already have had two long separations.
"I should have married Rudolf!" (My mother.)
Nineteen forty-eight. My father returns to the States with his wife and first daughter. Now everything is drastically changed. A different America this: the America of thecitizen, the legal worker, the family man. No more drinking and gambling till all hours in Chinatown. No more drifting from job to job, living hand to mouth, sleeping on the floor of a friend's room or on a shelf in the restaurant kitchen. There are new, undreamed-of expenses: household money, layettes, taxes, insurance, a special bank account for the children's education. He does the best he can. He rents an apartment in the Fort Greene housing project, a short walk from the Cantonese restaurant on Fulton Street where he works as a waiter. Some nights after closing, after all the tables have been cleared and the dishes done, he stays for the gambling. He weaves home to a wide-awake wife who sniffs the whiskey on his breath and doesn't care whether he has lost or won. So little money--to gamble with any of it is a sin. Her English is getting better ("no thanks to him!"), but for what she has to say she needs little vocabulary. She is miserable. She hates America. She dreams incessantly about going home. There is something peculiar about the three-year-old: She rarely smiles; she claws at the pages of magazines, like a cat. The one-year-old is prone to colic. To her horror my mother learns that she is pregnant again. She attempts an abortion, which fails. I am born. About that attempt, was my father consulted? Most likely not. Had he been I think I know what he would have said. He would have said: No, this time it will be a boy. Like most men he would have wanted a son. (All girls--a house full of females--a Chinese man's nightmare!) Perhaps with a son he would have been more open. Perhaps a son he would have taught Chinese.
He gets another job, as a dishwasher in the kitchen of a large public health service hospital. He will work thereuntil he retires, eventually being promoted to kitchen supervisor.
He moves his family to another housing project, outside the city, newly built, cleaner, safer.
He works all the time. On weekends, when he is off from the hospital, he waits on tables in one or another Chinese restaurant. He works most holidays and takes no vacation. On his rare day off he outrages my mother by going to the racetrack. But he is not self-indulgent. A little gambling, a quart of Budweiser with his supper--eaten alone, an hour or so after the rest of us (he always worked late)--now and then a glass of Scotch, cigarettes--these were his only pleasures. While the children are still small there are occasional outings. To Coney Island, Chinatown, the zoo. On Sundays sometimes he takes us to the children's matinee, and once a year to Radio City, for the Christmas or Easter show. But he and my mother never go out alone together, just the two of them--never.
Her English keeps getting better, making his seem worse and worse.
He is hardly home, yet my memory is of constant fighting.
Not much vocabulary needed to wound.
"Stupid woman. Crazy lady. Talk, talk, talk, talk--never say nothing!"
"I should have married Rudolf!"
Once, she spat in his face. Another time, she picked up a bread knife and he had to struggle to get it away from her.
They slept in separate beds.
Every few months she announced to the children that itwas over: We were going "home." (And she did go back with us to Germany once, when I was two. We stayed six months. About this episode she was always vague. In years to come, whenever we asked her why we did not stay in Germany, she would say, "You children wanted your father." But I think that is untrue. More likely she realized that there was no life for her back there. She had never gotten on well with her family. By this time I believe Rudolf had married another.)
Even working the two jobs, my father did not make much money. He would never make enough to buy a house. Yet it seemed the burden of being poor weighed heavier on my mother. Being poor meant you could never relax, meant eternal attention to appearances. Just because you had no money didn't mean you were squalid. Come into the house: See how clean and tidy everything is. Look at the children: spotless. And people did comment to my mother--on the shininess of her floors and how she kept her children--and she was gratified by this. Still, being poor was exhausting.
One day a woman waist-deep in children knocked at the door. When my mother answered, the woman apologized. "I thought--from the name on the mailbox I thought you were Spanish too. My kids needed to use the toilet." My mother could not hide her displeasure. She was proud of being German, and in those postwar years she was also bitterly defensive. When people called us names--spicks and chinks--she said, "You see how it is in this country. For all they say how bad we Germans are, no one ever calls you names for being German."
She had no patience with my father's quirks. The involuntarytwitching of a muscle meant that someone had given him the evil eye. Drinking a glass of boiled water while it was still hot cured the flu. He saved back issues of Reader's Digest and silver dollars from certain years, believing that one day they'd be worth a lot of money. What sort of backward creature had she married? His English drove her mad. Whenever he didn't catch something that was said to him (and this happened all the time), instead of saying "What?" he said "Who?" "Who? Who?" she screeched back at him. "What are you, an owl?"
Constant bickering and fighting.
We children dreamed of growing up, going to college, getting married, getting away.
And what about Alfonso and Uncle Mee? What happened to them?
"I never met either of them, but we heard from Mee all the time those first years--it was awful. By then he was back in Panama. He was a terrible gambler, and so were his sons. They had debts up to here--and who should they turn to but your father. Uncle What-About-Mee, I called him. 'Think of all I've done for you. You owe me.'" (And though she had never heard it she mimicked his voice.) "Well, your father had managed to save a couple of thousand dollars and he sent it all to Mee. I could have died. I never forgave him. I was pregnant then, and I had one maternity dress--one. Mee no sooner got that money than he wrote back for more. I told your father if he sent him another dime I was leaving."
Somehow the quarrel extended to include Alfonso, who seems to have sided with Mee. My father broke with themboth. Several years after we left Brooklyn, an ad appeared in the Chinatown newspaper. Alfonso and Mee were trying to track my father down. He never answered the ad, my father said. He never spoke to either man again. (Perhaps he lied. Perhaps he was always in touch with them, secretly. I believe much of his life was a secret from us.)
I have never seen a photograph of my father that was taken before he was in the army. I have no idea what he looked like as a child or as a young man. I have never seen any photographs of his parents or his brothers, or of Uncle Mee, or of any other relations, or of the houses he lived in in Colón or Shanghai. If my father had any possessions that had belonged to his parents, any family keepsakes or mementos of his youth, I never saw them. About his youth he had nothing to tell. A single anecdote he shared with me. In Shanghai he had a dog. When my father sailed to Panama, the dog was brought along to the dock to see him off. My father boarded the boat and the dog began howling. He never forgot that: the boat pulling away from the dock and the dog howling. "Dog no fool. He know I never be back."
In our house there were no Chinese things. No objects made of bamboo or jade. No lacquer boxes. No painted scrolls or fans. No calligraphy. No embroidered silks. No Buddhas. No chopsticks among the silverware, no rice bowls or tea sets. No Chinese tea, no ginseng or soy sauce in the cupboards. My father was the only Chinese thing, sitting like a Buddha himself among the Hummels and cuckoo clocks and pictures of Alpine landscapes. Mymother thought of the house as hers, spoke of her curtains, her floors (often in warning: "Don't scuff up my floors!") The daughters were hers too. To each of them she gave a Nordic name, impossible for him to pronounce. ("What does your father call you?" That question--an agony to me--rang through my childhood.) It was part of her abiding nostalgia that she wanted to raise her children as Germans. She sewed dirndls for them and even for their dolls. She braided their hair, then wound the braids tightly around their ears, like hair earmuffs, in the German style. They would open their presents on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas morning. They would not celebrate Thanksgiving. Of course they would not celebrate any Chinese holiday. No dragon and firecrackers on Chinese New Year's. For Christmas there was red cabbage and sauerbraten. Imagine my father saying sauerbraten.
Now and then he brought home food from Chinatown: fiery red sausage with specks of fat like embedded teeth, dried fish, buns filled with bean paste that he cracked us up by calling Chinese pee-nus butter. My mother would not touch any of it. ("God knows what it really is.") We kids clamored for a taste and when we didn't like it my father got angry. ("You know how he was with that chip on his shoulder. He took it personally. He was insulted.") Whenever we ate at one of the restaurants where he worked, he was always careful to order for us the same Americanized dishes served to most of the white customers.
An early memory: I am four, five, six years old, in a silly mood, mugging in my mother's bureau mirror. My father is in the room with me but I forget he is there. I place myforefingers at the corners of my eyes and pull the lids taut. Then I catch him watching me. His is a look of pure hate.
"He thought you were making fun."
A later memory: "Panama is an isthmus." Grade-school geography. My father looks up from his paper, alert, suspicious. "Merry Isthmus!" "Isthmus be the place!" My sisters and I shriek with laughter. My father shakes his head. "Not nice, making fun of place where people born!"
"Ach, he had no sense of humor--he never did. He never got the point of a joke."
It is true I hardly ever heard him laugh. (Unlike my mother, who, despite her chronic unhappiness, seemed always to be laughing--at him, at us, at the neighbors. A great tease she was, sly, malicious, often witty.)
Chinese inscrutability. Chinese sufferance. Chinese reserve. Yes, I recognize my father in the clichés. But what about his Panamanian side? What are Latins said to be? Hot-blooded, mercurial, soulful, macho, convivial, romantic, rash. No, he was none of these.
"He always wanted to go back. He always missed China."
But he was only ten years old when he left.
"Yes, but that's what counts--where you spent those first years, and your first language. That's who you are."
I had a children's book about Sun Yat Sen, the Man Who Changed China. There were drawings of Sun as a boy. I tried to picture my father like that, a Chinese boy who wore pajamas outdoors and a coolie hat and a pigtaildown his back. (Though of course in those days after Sun's revolution he isn't likely to have worn a pigtail.) I pictured my father against those landscapes of peaks and pagodas, with a dog like Old Yeller at his heels. What was it like, this boyhood in Shanghai? How did the Chinese wife treat the second wife's son? (My father and Alfonso would not have had the same status as the official wife's sons, I don't think.) How did the Chinese brothers treat him? When he went to school--did he go to school?--was he accepted by the other children as one of them? Is there a Chinese word for half-breed, and was he called that name as we would be? Surely many times in his life he must have wished that he were all Chinese. My mother wished that her children were all German. I wanted to be an all-American girl with a name like Sue Brown.
He always wanted to go back.
He never forgot that dog howling on the dock.
In our house there were not many books. My mother's romances and historical novels, books about Germany (mostly about the Nazi era), a volume of Shakespeare, tales from Andersen and Grimm, the Nibelungenlied, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, works of Goethe and Heine, Struwwelpeter, the drawings of Wilhelm Busch. It was my mother who gave me that book about Sun Yat Sen and, when I was a little older, one of her own favorites, The Good Earth, a children's story for adults. Pearl Buck was a missionary who lived in China for many years. (Missionaries supposedly converted the Changs to Christianity. From what? Buddhism? Taoism? My father's mother was almost certainly Roman Catholic. He himself belonged to nochurch.) Pearl Buck wrote eighty-four books, founded a shelter for Asian-American children, and won the Nobel Prize.
The Good Earth. China a land of famine and plagues--endless childbirth among them. The births of daughters seen as evil omens. "It is only a slave this time--not worth mentioning." Little girls sold as a matter of course. Growing up to be concubines with names like Lotus and Cuckoo and Pear Blossom. Women with feet like little deer hooves. Abject wives, shuffling six paces behind their men. All this filled me with anxiety. In our house the husband was the meek and browbeaten one.
I never saw my father read, except for the newspaper. He did not read the Reader's Digests that he saved. He would not have been able to read The Good Earth. I am sure he could not write with fluency in any tongue. The older I grew the more I thought of him as illiterate. Hard for me to accept the fact that he did not read books. Say I grew up to be a writer. He would not read what I wrote.
He had his own separate closet, in the front hall. Every night when he came home from work he undressed as soon as he walked in, out there in the hall. He took off his suit and put on his bathrobe. He always wore a suit to work, but at the hospital he changed into whites and at the restaurant into dark pants, white jacket, and black bow tie. In the few photographs of him that exist he is often wearing a uniform--his soldier's or hospital-worker's or waiter's.
Though not at all vain, he was particular about his appearance. He bought his suits in a men's fine clothingstore on Fifth Avenue, and he took meticulous care of them. He had a horror of cheap cloth and imitation leather, and an equal horror of slovenliness. His closet was the picture of order. On the top shelf, where he kept his hats, was a large assortment--a lifetime's supply, it seemed to me--of chewing gum, cough drops, and mints. On that shelf he kept also his cigarettes and cigars. The closet smelled much as he did--of tobacco and spearmint and the rosewater-glycerin cream he used on his dry skin. A not unpleasant smell.
He was small. At fourteen I was already as tall as he, and eventually I would outweigh him. A trim sprig of a man, dainty but not puny, fastidious but not effeminate. I used to marvel at the cleanliness of his nails, and at his good teeth, which never needed any fillings. By the time I was born he had lost most of his top hair, which made his domed forehead look even larger, his moon face rounder. It may have been the copper-red cast of his skin that led some people to take him for an American Indian--people who'd never seen one, probably.
He could be cruel. I once saw him blow pepper in the cat's face. He loathed that cat, a surly, untrainable tom found in the street. But he was very fond of another creature we took in, an orphaned nestling sparrow. Against expectations, the bird survived and learned to fly. But, afraid that it would not know how to fend for itself outdoors, we decided to keep it. My father sometimes sat by its cage, watching the bird and cooing to it in Chinese. My mother was amused. "You see: He has more to say to that bird than to us!" The emperor and his nightingale, shecalled them. "The Chinese have always loved their birds." (What none of us knew: At that very moment in China keeping pet birds had been prohibited as a bourgeois affectation, and sparrows were being exterminated as pests.)
It was true that my father had less and less to say to us. He was drifting further and further out of our lives. These were my teenage years. I did not see clearly what was happening then, and for long afterward, whenever I tried to look back, a panic would come over me, so that I couldn't see at all.
At sixteen, I had stopped thinking about becoming a writer. I wanted to dance. Every day after school I went into the city for class. I would be home by eight-thirty, about the same time as my father, and so for this period he and I would eat dinner together. And much later, looking back, I realized that was when I had--and lost--my chance. Alone with my father every night, I could have gotten to know him. I could have asked him all those questions that I now have to live without answers to. Of course he would have resisted talking about himself. But with patience I might have drawn him out.
Or maybe not. As I recall, the person sitting across the kitchen table from me was like a figure in a glass case. That was not the face of someone thinking, feeling, or even daydreaming. It was the clay face, still waiting to receive the breath of life.
If it ever occurred to me that my father was getting old, that he was exhausted, that his health was failing, I don't remember it.
He was still working seven days a week. Sometimes hemissed having dinner with me because the dishwasher broke and he had to stay late at the hospital. For a time, on Saturdays, he worked double shifts and did not come home till we were all asleep.
After dinner, he stayed at the kitchen table, smoking and finishing his beer. He never joined the rest of us in the living room in front of the television. He sat alone at the table, staring at the wall. He hardly noticed if someone came into the kitchen for something. His inobservance was the family's biggest joke. My mother would give herself or one of us a new hairdo and say, "Now watch: Your father won't even notice," and she was right.
My sisters and I bemoaned his stubborn avoidance of the living room. Once a year he yielded and joined us around the Christmas tree, but only very reluctantly; we had to beg him.
I knew vaguely that he continued to have some sort of social life outside the house, a life centered in Chinatown.
He still played the horses.
By this time family outings had ceased. We never did anything together as a family.
But every Sunday my father came home with ice cream for everyone.
He and my mother fought less and less--seldom now in the old vicious way--but this did not mean there was peace. Never any word or gesture of affection between them, not even, "for the sake of the children," pretense of affection.
(Television: the prime-time family shows. During the inevitable scenes when family love and loyalty were affirmed, the discomfort in the living room was palpable. Ithink we were all ashamed of how far below the ideal our family fell.)
Working and saving to send his children to college, he took no interest in their school life. He did, however, reward good report cards with cash. He did not attend school events to which parents were invited; he always had to work.
He never saw me dance.
He intrigued my friends, who angered me by regarding him as if he were a figure in a glass case. Doesn't he ever come out of the kitchen? Doesn't he ever talk? I was angry at him too, for what he seemed to be doing: willing himself into stereotype--inscrutable, self-effacing, funny little Chinaman.
And why couldn't he learn to speak English?
He developed the tight wheezing cough that would never leave him. The doctor blamed cigarettes, so my father tried sticking to cigars. The cough was particularly bad at night. It kept my mother up, and she started sleeping on the living-room couch.
I was the only one who went to college, and I got a scholarship. My father gave the money he had saved to my mother, who bought a brand-new Mercedes, the family's first car.
He was not like everybody else. In fact, he was not like anyone I had ever met. But I thought of my father when I first encountered the "little man" of Russian literature. I thought of him a lot when I read the stories of Chekhov and Gogol. Reading "Grief," I remembered my father and the sparrow, and a new possibility presented itself: my father not as one who would not speak but as one to whom no one would listen.
And he was like a character in a story also in the sense that he needed to be invented.
The silver dollars saved in a cigar box. The Reader's Digests going back to before I was born. The uniforms. The tobacco-mint-rosewater smell. I cannot invent a father out of these.
I waited too long. By the time I started gathering material for his story, whatever there had been in the way of private documents or papers (and there must have been some) had disappeared. (It was never clear whether my father himself destroyed them or whether my mother later lost or got rid of them, between moves, or in one of her zealous spring cleaning.)
The Sunday-night ice cream. The Budweiser bottle sweating on the kitchen table. The five-, ten-, or twenty-dollar bill he pulled from his wallet after squinting at your report card. "Who? Who?"
We must have seemed as alien to him as he seemed to us. To him we must always have been "others." Females. Demons. No different from other demons, who could not tell one Asian from another, who thought Chinese food meant chop suey and Chinese customs were matter for joking. I would have to live a lot longer and he would have to die before the full horror of this would sink in. And then it would sink in deeply, agonizingly, like an arrow that has found its mark.
Dusk in the city. Dozens of Chinese men bicycle through the streets, bearing cartons of fried dumplings, Ten Ingredients Lo Mein, and sweet-and-sour pork. I amon my way to the drugstore when one of them hails me. "Miss! Wait, miss!" Not a man, I see, but a boy, eighteen at most, with a lovely, oval, fresh-skinned face. "You--you Chinese!" It is not the first time in my life this has happened. In as few words as possible, I explain. The boy turns out to have arrived just weeks ago, from Hong Kong. His English is incomprehensible. He is flustered when he finds I cannot speak Chinese. He says, "Can I. Your father. Now." It takes me a moment to figure this out. Alas, he is asking to meet my father. Unable to bring myself to tell him my father is dead, I say that he does not live in the city. The boy persists. "But sometime come see. And then I now?" His imploring manner puzzles me. Is it that he wants to meet Chinese people? Doesn't he work in a Chinese restaurant? Doesn't he know about Chinatown? I feel a surge of anxiety. He is so earnest and intent. I am missing something. In another minute I have promised that when my father comes to town he will go to the restaurant where the boy works and seek him out. The boy rides off looking pleased, and I continue on to the store. I am picking out toothpaste when he appears at my side. He hands me a folded piece of paper. Two telephone numbers and a message in Chinese characters. "For father."
He was sixty when he retired from the hospital, but his working days were not done. He took a part-time job as a messenger for a bank. That Christmas when I came home from school I found him in bad shape. His smoker's cough was much worse, and he had pains in his legs and in his back, recently diagnosed as arthritis.
But it was not smoker's cough, and it was not arthritis.
A month later, he left work early one day because he was in such pain. He made it to the station, but when he tried to board the train he could not get up the steps. Two conductors had to carry him on. At home he went straight to bed and in the middle of the night he woke up coughing as usual, and this time there was blood.
His decline was so swift that by the time I arrived at the hospital he barely knew me. Over the next week we were able to chart the backward journey on which he was embarked by his occasional murmurings. ("I got to get back to the base--they'll think I'm AWOL!") Though I was not there to hear it, I am told that he cursed my mother and accused her of never having cared. By the end of the week, when he spoke it was only in Chinese.
One morning a priest arrived. No one had sent for him. He had doubtless assumed from the name that this patient was Hispanic and Catholic, and had taken it upon himself to administer Extreme Unction. None of us had the will to stop him, and so we were witness to a final mystery: my father, who as far as we knew had no religion, feebly crossing himself
The fragments of Chinese stopped. There was only panting then, broken by sharp gasps such as a person makes when reminded of some important thing he has forgotten. To the end his hands were restless. He kept repeating the same gesture: cupping his hands together and drawing them to his chest, as though gathering something to him.
Now let others speak.
"After the war was a terrible time. We were all scared todeath, we didn't know what was going to happen to us. Some of those soldiers were really enjoying it, they wanted nothing better than to see us grovel. The victors! Oh, they were scum, a lot of them. But your father felt sorry for us. He tried to help. And not just our family but the neighbors too. He gave us money. His wallet was always out. And he was always bringing stuff from the base, like coffee and chocolate--things you could never get. And even after he went back to the States he sent packages. Not just to us but to all the people he got to know here. Frau Meyer. The Schweitzers. They still talk about that." (My grandmother.)
"We know the cancer started in the right lung but by the time we saw him it had spread. It was in both lungs, it was in his liver and in his bones. He was a very sick man, and he'd been sick for a long time. I'd say that tumor in the right lung had been growing for at least five years." (The doctor.)
"He drank a lot in those days, and your mother didn't like that. But he was funny. He loved that singer--the cowboy--what was his name? I forget. Anyway, he put on the music and he sang along. Your mother would cover her ears." (My grandmother.)
"I didn't like the way he looked. He wouldn't say anything but I knew he was hurting. I said to myself, this isn't arthritis--no way. I wanted him to see my own doctor but he wouldn't. I was just about to order him to." (My father's boss at the bank.)
"He hated cats, and the cat knew it and she was always jumping in his lap. Every time he sat down the cat jumped in his lap and we laughed. But you could tell it really botheredhim. He said cats were bad luck. When the cat jumped in your lap it was a bad omen." (My mother's younger brother Karl.)
"He couldn't dance at all--or he wouldn't--but he clapped and sang along to the records. He liked to drink and he liked gambling. Your mother worried about that." (Frau Meyer.)
"Before the occupation no one in this town had ever seen an Oriental or a Negro." (My grandmother.)
"He never ate much, he didn't want you to cook for him, but he liked German beer. He brought cigarettes for everyone. We gave him schnapps. He played us the cowboy songs." (Frau Schweitzer.)
"Ain't you people dying to know what he's saying?" (The patient in the bed next to my father's.)
"When he wasn't drinking he was very shy. He just sat there next to your mother without speaking. He sat there staring and staring at her." (Frau Meyer.)
"He liked blonds. He loved that blond hair." (Karl.)
"There was absolutely nothing we could do for him. The amazing thing is that he was working right up till the day he came into the hospital. I don't know how he did that." (The doctor.)
"The singing was a way of talking to us, because he didn't know German at all." (My grandmother.)
"Yes, of course I remember. It was Hank Williams. He played those records over and over. Hillbilly music. I thought I'd go mad." (My mother.)
Here are the names of some Hank Williams songs:
Honky Tonkin'. Ramblin' Man. Hey, Good Lookin'.Lovesick Blues. Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do. Your Cheatin' Heart. (I heard that) Lonesome Whistle. Why Don't You Mind Your Own Business. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. The Blues Come Around. Cold, Cold Heart. I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You.
A FEATHER ON THE BREATH OF GOD. Copyright © 1995 by Sigrid Nunez. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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