My Uncle Leon was sixteen in 1944, the year MacArthur returned. He was a guerilla-spy in Manila, and when the Americans made their final push, Leon and my family got caught in the middle.
They ran–young bearing old, hurdling putrefied corpses–ran, ran, ran toward the American lines, as the Japanese stabbed, shot and raped everybody in sight. And Manila around them was on fire, its churches and trees shedding smoldering debris, raining fire on the advancing Americans, on the last-standing Japs and on Leon and my kin.
As he crossed a wide, shattered avenue, Leon was hit by four bullets. From a Japanese woodpecker–what they called the machine gun. Rat-tat-tat-tat, tapped the woodpecker. One bullet to the chin, one in each forearm. The fourth bullet skidded along the furrow between two ribs, and Leon, half-conscious, pushed the still-sizzling bullet out the way it had come in. He wanted someone to wrap this bullet in a handkerchief. A souvenir. But when he opened his mouth to speak, he could only gurgle blood. As Leon sprawled there on the street corner, his cousins and brothers cowered around him, their voices streaked with panic.
Get up, Kuya Leon! my father, Pedro, Leon’s brother, urged. Get up!
The family dragged Uncle Leon to a garage where a Filipino doctor had set up a clinic. There were bodies everywhere, and the place stank of infection and blood. The young doctor poked at his wounds, saw how much blood he had lost, and told the family that Leon was beyond medicine and prayer.
The next morning, Leon jackknifed into a sitting position, peeled off the sheet thrown over his head, and said he was famished.
Well, hunger is a promising sign, the doctor said.
* * *
In the sky-lighted dining room of Uncle Leon’s Fricksburg, Virginia, home, I crane my neck forward to hear these and other war stories. My uncle manages only a wheezing whisper these days, and Debbie, his black live-in nurse, is chopping vegetables with gusto in the adjoining kitchen. In the two years I was away, Uncle Leon battled through a stroke and an operation to remove a lung. But Uncle Leon looks squat and strong still.
He stands 5-foot-3, has a silverback’s belly, bulbous arms and a robust chest topped by a square-jawed anvil of a crew-cut head. In photographs, Uncle Leon is always sucking in the gut and showcasing the rest.
In physique I’m like Uncle Leon, and at 34 I’m graying on the sides. But as my mother put it, I come American-size, meaning I got her genes for height. And more: My Spanish-blooded mother, who at 5-foot-11 was a Filipina Amazon, also gave me her uneven brow. My left eyebrow is noticeably higher than my right. On Mom this uneven brow is endearing–a signature with flourish, like the artist Frida Kahlo’s woolly brow. On me the effect is menacing because of my size. Mom always said I’d make a good villain in an Indiana Jones film.
Uncle Leon clears his throat and continues his rambling war stories: At night, I swam across the Pasig River, and I sketched for my commanders the insignias of the Japanese troops in Manila. Then I swam back to our side of the Pasig. I was relating to the Americans the strength and positioning of the Japs. I kept a knife in my belt. If I was found by a Japanese patrol I was going to kill them all. At sixteen, I was so brave and stupid!
Uncle Leon slaps a knee and cackles. All his war stories–involving privation, suffering and fear–are punctuated by a wet gravelly laugh, as if there were some punch line I’m missing. His laughing is in turn followed by a convulsion of hacking and spitting. During these bouts, his neck veins bulge, his cheeks blossom red from the strain and he deposits yokey blobs of phlegm at the bucket by his feet.
Don’t worry, Debbie calls out from the kitchen as Leon coughs. The spitting is normal. No sign of any trouble.
Still, I reach over and pat my uncle on the back.
Don’t bother hitting him on the back, either, Debbie advises. You’ll be hitting him on the back until your arm falls off. Comes up by itself.
Debbie sets plates of pork chops, steamed broccoli, and rice in front of us. She slices Uncle Leon’s food, because his stroke-addled left hand is useless.
I’m like a baby now, he says, before digging in. Then through a mouthful of pork and phlegm he tells a story about my father: When your dad was five, we were about one year into the Occupation. Things were bad. No food. And your father got skinnier and skinnier. So malnourished. But I teased him. I said, You look like a skinny, old bald man. Well, your dad started crying, and he wouldn’t stop crying until I promised to go out and find him some bird eggs to eat. And this was after curfew. If I was found, I would have been killed. But there I went, to get some bird eggs for your father.
Again, Uncle Leon laughs, hacks and spits. As I clap him on the back, I think of my late father, Pedro, a glum and distant man who was a small-town dentist and crossword puzzle addict before a double-whammy of brain and colon cancers shrunk him, dried him out and took him away.
I was sixteen then, and in the ensuing years my mother and I moved to a succession of ever-shrinking apartments, because Mom was a better drunk than secretary and couldn’t keep a job. It was Uncle Leon who came to the rescue, sending us checks every month.
Halfway through lunch, Uncle Leon asks about my two years abroad, during which I worked as a travel writer, and I tell him about hopping from one UNESCO World Heritage Site to another, about close calls with exotic forms of death and disease and about being mistaken for an abnormally tall local across Southeast Asia.
There are certain things I keep to myself. I don’t tell him that he was the inspiration for my trip, because I grew up on a diet of his war stories and wanted stories of my own. I don’t tell him that three weeks ago, in a Bangkok bar crawling with white foreigners, I realized that it was time to go home–that I was spending more money than I was making as a travel writer. And lastly I don’t tell him that I’ve returned disappointed, because I was hoping my travels would coat me in some worldly and dashing veneer. But as the saying goes, you can take the Filipino-American hick out of Fricksburg, VA, but you can’t… In the end, I am the same Peter Santos who grew up watching truck-and-tractor pulls. The same Peter Santos who wrote for the local paper covering our humble county’s fishing tournaments, graveyard vandalisms and spectacular Saturday night car wrecks. And finally: the same Peter Santos who stumbled into a short but profitable copywriting stint for Clicktime Internet Solutions. It was with my Clicktime e-commerce booty that I saw the world and pretended I was a travel writer.
What are you plans? my uncle says. A fair enough question. I have been in his house three days and haven’t once looked at the classifieds.
I put down my fork and say, Uncle, I’m going to write a book. A BIG BOOK. About you and your life. I’m not a shabby writer.
I flick a hand at my articles scattered at the end of the table: pithy, playful pieces on eating my way across France, nearly drowning in the roaring Zambezi River and getting lost on a solo walkabout in Australia’s Outback.
A book about me? Uncle Leon says. He knits his prominent but level brow. He pats me on the arm. I believe he is flattered.
Yup, I say, my voice cracking. In truth I’ve never written anything longer than three thousand words, and the idea for the book came out of nowhere: In Bangkok International Airport, on the eve of my flight home, as I sat on a hard bench and puzzled what the fuck I was going to do with my life, a booming baritone exploded in my head: A BIG BOOK. About World War II and four bullets, one bullet cauterizing the very wound it tore into your uncle’s ribs.
I pondered Uncle Leon’s long, circuitous life, during which he had been a World War II guerilla then traveled on scholarship to the Merchant Marine Academy in Long Island, New York, and then returned to the Philippines to become an admiral in its secondhand Navy as well as a shipping magnate. And I thought of Leon today: retired in the U.S.; widowed by his beloved Dolores; his own children scattered around the globe for marriage and career; cared for by Debbie, and visited now and again by his network of expatriate relatives, friends and associates that spanned the Atlantic Seaboard.
His life, it dawned on me, was tailor-made for literature.
* * *
For the rest of the day, Uncle Leon and I watch TV. With his good hand Uncle Leon channel surfs like a champion and ThighMasters-Emeril-Beetlejuice-HappyDays-TradingPlaces-and-JackNicholson’smanglednoseinChinatown fly by on the TV. He stops at an X-Rated Pay-per-View listing for Brenda’s Bawdy B&B, about a B&B haunted by a loose-bodiced ghost who inspires unbridled carnality in her guests. With the press of a button he agrees to pay $7.95 for this movie that, we soon discover, was shot on hazy video and eschews direct shots of penetration. Uncle Leon and I grumble that $7.95 is a tad steep for Brenda’s Bawdy B&B. But at least the succubus is petite, saucer-eyed, verging on chubby. Just my type.
When the movie ends I help Uncle Leon to bed, and then I go to the guestroom off the foyer. I have the cordless and I dial Estelle, my sister. During Dad’s prolonged illness, Estelle was already away at college and en route to getting pregnant, getting married, finding God, getting pregnant some more and moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
After seven rings Estelle picks up and sends her pissed-off voice across the fiber optics.
Hello! She says.
Hi, I say.
Should have known it would be you. I thought you’d call sooner. It’s almost one AM here, Peter. You could have woken everybody up. The kids.
Sorry, I say. Jetlag. How’s Ma?
Sober, Estelle says through a yawn. She’s got a job. Wal-Mart. Checkout. She’s waiting for you to call. Will you call tomorrow? We’re all home around six-thirty.
Sure, I say.
We’ll see, Estelle says.
Ma really sober? I say.
Most of the time. She lapses now and again. But that’s what alcoholics do. They lapse.
You were big to take Ma in, I say.
Spare me your guilt, Estelle says. You went on your trip. And now you’re back.
How’s Paul? I say. Paul is her very blond, very devout husband.
Good. He got laid off last year but they took him back. How are you?
Peachy, I say. Then I ask after the half-breeds, my seven nieces.
Stop calling them half-breeds, Estelle says. Reesa kept calling herself a half-breed for a month after your last visit. I’d tell her, Stop calling yourself that, and she’d say, But Tito Peter calls me his adorable half-breed, and I’d say, Just stop it!
But that’s what they are, I say. Adorable half-breeds. Adorable as hell.
You’re going to give them complexes! Identity crisis! Estelle says.
The Half-breeds, I say. They could start a band.
I hear her exhale. Then she says, If they’re half-breeds then you’re still Quasimodo. Get up there and ring those bells, Quasimodo.
That’s below the belt, I say.
By Quasimodo, Estelle is referring to my slight humpback, the bony growth above my left shoulder blade that she and Mom put to good use during my childhood, when they dressed me as the Hunchback of Notre Dame every Halloween, claiming it was less work for everybody.
I’ll stop if you stop, my sister says.
We sit there breathing into the receivers. After a while I inform her that I’m writing a book.
Really? About your travels? she asks.
No. About Uncle Leon and the Philippines. Remember his stories? The ones that depressed the hell out of us every Christmas and Thanksgiving. I think they’d make a great book.
They would make a great book, she says. But tell me this: What do you know about anything? I mean, you write good. Those articles you sent me are funny. But you’re not exactly a deep thinker.
My crooked brow quivers.
Estelle continues: You don’t know anything about the Philippines. Neither of us was born there. We visited twice. You hated it. Kept complaining about the heat and small portions of food and how everybody was mean to us because they were jealous of us being American. I mean, you didn’t even go there on this trip, did you?
I admit to Estelle that I did not visit the Philippines. But I do know more about the country than she thinks, so I deliver unto her a short history of the Philippine Islands: Ahem! In their mighty galleons, the Spaniards came to the Philippines around the end of the 1500s, or early 1600s, and they kicked our butts all over the islands until we converted to Catholicism and granted the Conquistadors and friars first pick of our virgins. And that went on until about 1898, at which time the Americans liberated us from the Spaniards during the Spanish-American War. But instead of giving us independence, the Americans stayed and demanded mining and lumber rights and first pick of our lovely virgins…
Enough! Enough, my sister says. See what I mean. You make a joke out of everything. And you’re funny. Sure. Ha! Ha! The friars had our virgins. Ha! Ha! Sure, you’re the writer, not me, but even I know the kind of book you’re talking about is gonna take more than a funny line or two.
We both go quiet again save for our breathing. Inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale.
Then my sister says, I pray for you every day, Peter.
I mean it, Estelle says. Every night I gather up the girls and make them pray for you, because I’m worried–I don’t want you to die old, fat and alone. That’s where you’re headed, you know…
Estelle proceeds to talk at me for an hour, and by the time we hang up my cheeks are hot and I feel like I’ve been staring at a funhouse mirror that amplifies one’s faults.
When I do sleep, I dream about the Big Book. About Uncle Leon and four bullets. I dream that I’m writing this book, dream that I’m poring over fat tomes about the Philippines and World War II. I even dream that I’m interviewing Uncle Leon with a tape recorder. Can a tape recorder capture his wheezing whisper?
* * *
I wake up at noon and find cold eggs and crispy bacon on the dining room table. Uncle Leon is in the bathroom hacking away. He’s in there with Debbie, and the shower is running. As I stuff bacon into my mouth, I wonder whether Debbie soaps up Uncle Leon’s back and privates or just lets him manage as best he can, the steam protecting his modesty.
When Debbie’s dried and dressed him, Uncle Leon rolls up and joins me at the dining table.
What do you say you and me hit the town tonight? I say to Uncle Leon. Get out for a while.
I’ve been in the house four days and I’m craving a pub, jukebox music, stale beer and young, healthy bodies to look at.
Uncle Leon grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me down. He whispers straight into my ear: Let’s go to a girlie bar, okay?
* * *
Later that evening I climb behind the wheel of Leon’s massive Chevy Bruiser. I reach over and fasten the passenger-side seatbelt over Uncle Leon, who’s swaddled in coat and scarf. On his lap is the bucket for spitting, and in the back, I’ve placed his lightweight collapsible wheelchair. Uncle Leon can walk, but only very slowly.
I start the truck and hear a rear door open. Debbie climbs in.
Hi, Debbie, I say. We’re just going out for a little while. Why don’t you take the night off?
Uh-hum, Debbie says. And who’s gonna operate this?
She holds up a green briefcase of hard molded plastic.
What’s that? I say.
His oxygen, in case he needs it. And do you know what to do if there’s an emergency? You got any nurse training, Peter?
No I don’t, I say. But to be honest with you, Debbie, we were going to have a boys’-night-out kind of evening. Know what I mean?
You can’t take this old man to a nightclub. You gonna kill him!
Not a nightclub, I say.
A bar, then? Well, I wouldn’t mind tagging along to a bar. I’ll leave you to your man talk.
Not a bar.
Debbie and I stare at each other for fifteen long seconds.
Strip club then? she says, and when I nod, she wrinkles up her mouth.
Peter, I go where he goes, Debbie says, thrusting her chin at Uncle Leon. It’s my job.
She can come, Uncle Leon wheezes. He throws both hands up as if to say, So what?
Outvoted, I step on the gas and steer us out of the garage and through the subdivision and onto the two-laner. Once on the highway, I speed the hour and a half to Washington, D.C., to M Street. A club called Camelot.
I push Uncle Leon down the grimy sidewalk, with its tumbleweed of newspaper and plastic bags. Debbie follows. Under the club’s neon sign, I say to my Uncle, We’re in Camelot, where chivalry lives.
He gets a laugh out of that.
The bearded bouncer does a double take as Debbie and I steer Uncle Leon past him. Inside, I cringe at the dingy lighting and the blare of stripper music. I park my uncle at the last empty table. I see Debbie take a seat and fidget as she decides what’s clean enough to touch and what isn’t. I order three Coronas from a woman in a silver bra.
Seated around us are white men wearing business suits and wedding rings. Black men throwing money at the white women on their laps. Preppy Chinese students whom I suspect of being diplomat’s kids. Uncle Leon, meanwhile, is fixated on the stage, where a tall blond struts around on stilettos. She swings herself like a gymnast on the metal pole that stretches from ceiling to stage.
The blond woman onstage is naked save for a snug, green G-string, and she dances to Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.” And then to Madonna’s “Cherish.” And then a Latin song I do not know; but the girl cannot dance, and she looks like she’s having a seizure.
When her set ends, the blond girl stalks the aisles offering lap dances. Uncle Leon grabs my shoulder with his good hand and squeezes like Hercules; then he pulls me down and hisses into my ear. I strain to hear his anemic voice over the music, but finally, I get it.
Get me the blond, Leon is hissing, as he bounces in his wheelchair like an over-stimulated child. Get me the blond.
I flag the blond down. Her name is Julie.
How ya doin’ there? she says to Leon, swinging his wheelchair away from the table so she can administer a proper and intimate lap dance.
Julie is tall, artificially busty and kind. When Leon gags and spits into his bucket, she waits patiently, her face sympathetic as Leon coughs up thick, elastic phlegm. And Julie does not slap Leon’s clawed left hand away when he grabs hold of her hips. I wonder whether Julie has her own sick uncle at home.
Julie dances for Leon over four songs, and when she’s done, Uncle Leon cackles into my ear: I brought two thousand dollars with me.
He hands me the roll of money. I pay Julie eighty dollars including tip. As Julie beams her pearly whites at me in appreciation, I remember Uncle Leon’s stories about the white women of Long Island. After the War, while Uncle Leon was at the Merchant Marine academy learning to be a seaman, he lusted for the blonds and brunettes who lived near the school. But the girls, he claimed, had been warned about the “lusty, animal” Filipinos. And he was snubbed by them, or cautioned with shaking fists by their brothers and boyfriends.
How’d those whites know we Filipinos were such beasts in bed? Leon asked me. How’d they know?
A Big Book about four bullets, one cauterizing the very wound it tore into my uncle’s ribs.
I down my Corona in short, sharp pulls and wonder whether big historical family sagas about World War II and the Philippines can have chapters entitled, “Uncle Leon’s Unfulfilled Lust for the White Women of Long Island.”
Debbie leans over to me, her fingers drumming her beer bottle to the music. She says, You men-folk aren’t very complicated, are you?
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Uncle Leon paw a stripper’s glittered buttock.
I turn to Debbie and say, We men are pretty simple creatures.
Debbie snorts, sips from her Corona and then says, What about you? You haven’t met a woman you could settle down with yet?
I’m not the marrying type, I say.
Everybody’s the marrying type, Debbie says.
How do you figure that?
When it gets late enough in the game.
My sister’s words crash into the sea cave of my brain: Old, fat and alone. Could Estelle be right? I think of the last woman I’d been intimate with. A prostitute in Thailand. Underfed, eager to please. She stayed with me at a beach resort saying I only had to feed her and the rest was free. She was 16, I found out during our little vacation, and to alleviate my guilt I gave her two hundred dollars and the biggest bottle of multivitamins sold in Bangkok. Was I headed for obesity? Loneliness? Both?
Because there’s nothing sadder than introspection at a strip club, I pound back another Corona and focus my attention on the stage. A small Asian girl is now dancing. In her skyscraper heels she might be five feet tall, her body a short, punchy sentence packed with meaning. Small high breasts, a generous butt, sausage-y arms, muscular thighs. She is three donuts away from fat, and bedazzling in this exact sliver of time in this magical place called Camelot. In fact, the girl is so small, so diminutive, that watching her is like kiddy porn. And when I get the only full-fledged erection of the night, I wonder what this means. I push the thought out of my mind. Instead, I concentrate on matching the slope of the girl’s cheekbones, her narrowing chin and the slant of her eyes to a country on the fairly accurate map of Southeast Asia in my mind. She might be Filipina but something in her face tells me she is not. She is something else. I have seen that kind of face before. Not Chinese. But maybe Burmese or Thai or Cambodian. Asians can sniff out the geography of other Asians. We know. I rack my brain; I almost have it, but not quite.
After the Asian girl’s set ends I wave her over.
She comes eyeballing Uncle Leon who is gagging into his bucket.
He gonna be okay? she asks.
I’m Kung, she says, shaking my hand. Like the other girls, Kung has donned her stretchy, vinyl dress after disembarking the stage. Strip-club decorum. The purple dress bulges at her hips, heaves at her breasts. I introduce her to Debbie, who mangles her name at first–King? Kang? Kong?–but finally gets it.
You want a dance? Kung asks me.
I nod yes and Kung pierces my shoulder with her long, painted nails–designs of palm trees and stars on those talons. She leans on me as she steps out of her dress one leg at a time. She smells fruity. An artificial peach scent that covers up her real smell underneath.
You Filipino? Kung asks.
Thought so, she says. I can tell these things.
Kung dances four dances for me and I pay her. Eighty dollars including tip. As I’m stuffing the bills into her garter, I see her scan the room for the big spenders. I don’t want her to go, so I offer to buy her a drink. She sits next to me, gives her hair a toss.
Where are you from? I ask.
Connecticut. But I’m studying at GW. Accounting.
That’s very practical, Debbie says.
Yes, I say. Very practical. But I meant, where’s your family from, as in where from Asia?
Oh. From Laos, Kung says.
Ask most Americans where Laos was, and they wouldn’t know. It wasn’t Vietnam, of the War. It wasn’t the Philippines, of the mail-order bride. It wasn’t Thailand, of the spicy food and Pat Pong Road. It wasn’t Cambodia, of the Killing Fields. It was just Laos. Sandwiched in there somewhere.
But I had been to Laos, and I ask Kung what she knows of the Old Country.
Not much, is her answer.
I tell Kung everything I had read about Laos. I tell her about the illicit airstrips the CIA built in Laos during the Vietnam War. I explain that American pilots dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War than on all of Europe during World War II. I explain that ordinance and mines still litter the countryside. And I say that the CIA recruited and trained units of Hmong tribesmen to fight alongside U.S. soldiers against the Viet Cong.
Really? Kung says.
My family is Hmong, Kung says.
Maybe you came over as refugees, because nobody liked the Hmong much after the U.S. pulled out. Maybe your father fought for the CIA.
We were refugees, Kung says. But I don’t know if my father was ever a soldier. I was, like, a month old when we were brought here, and my father never told me anything about Laos. Anyway, what do you do?
A little of this, a little of that, I say. Some traveling thrown in there.
Sounds exciting, Kung says. Are you an importer?
Something like that, I say.
And then to change the subject, I introduce Kung to Uncle Leon.
* * *
In the wee hours, I ask Kung back to Uncle Leon’s house. She declines politely, saying she has a nine AM Calculus class, but when I offer her $1000, she says she can miss it. Then at the Chevy Bruiser, she balks. Kung stares hard at me, at Uncle Leon who is dozing in his wheelchair, and at Debbie who is scowling.
How do I know you’re not a bunch of psychos? Kung asks, tucking her hands into the pockets of her faux-fur coat. How do I know you’re not a trio of serial killers?
How many Asian serial killers you ever heard of? I say.
What about the guy that killed Versace? Kung offers.
That guy was only half Filipino, I say.
And so it is settled. We pile into the truck. I take the wheel, Kung sits beside me and a snoring Uncle Leon and a ticked-off Debbie take the rear. We are in the car some ten minutes when Uncle Leon wakes up and realizes for the first time that I am taking Kung home. He explodes in one of his broken-glass laughs and hits me on the shoulder.
I think he’s proud of you, Debbie says, her voice carrying an edge to it.
Kung, reading the vibe, stays silent. And that’s how the ride goes–silent–until Uncle Leon wakes up again about halfway home. He starts to cry, to bawl, saying, Don’t get old. You hear me, Peter? Don’t get old! Old age is terrible. Everything hurts! And they say you look back and smile at the life you’ve lived. I’m not one to look back. I want to live. I want to fuck girls. I want to see the world like you did. And you, Miss. . . Miss . . . Miss . . .
Kung, Kung says.
Miss Kung, you don’t get old either. And take care of my nephew. He’s an extremely successful travel writer but he needs someone to take care of him. He needs a woman. He’s a good boy, really. He’s a good boy.
In the narrow band of the rearview mirror, I watch Uncle Leon pass out as Debbie combs a hand across his sweaty buzz cut.
So that’s what you do, Kung says. You’re a travel writer.
Former travel writer, I say. I’m going to stick around for a while.
And for the remaining forty minutes of the ride, I talk Kung’s ear off about the BIG BOOK, blah blah blah blah . . .
* * *
At the house, I carry Uncle Leon, wheelchair and all, up the steps and into the foyer. He wakes up, drunk and teary-eyed, and thanks me again and again for such a good time. Debbie and I put him to bed. He stinks of cigarettes, booze, women–befitting an old sailor. I help Debbie undress him. He has loose, old-man skin on his shoulders, neck and thighs. It seems that whatever hair he had on his underused legs fell off some time ago. His tightie whities are stained dark with urine.
Sorry about tonight, I say to Debbie. It’s late…
Don’t worry about it, Peter, she says. I think your uncle had a good time, despite his little tantrum and accident at the end there. Hopefully he won’t remember any of that. He’s been really looking forward to having you here. It gets lonely, just him and me.
I guess it must, I say.
Then Debbie hugs me. With a squeeze, she says, Now, make sure that little girl don’t steal nothing!
I stumble from Debbie’s chaste, crushing embrace into my room where Kung is standing by the desk looking at my travel articles. She is naked, standing one foot on the other, eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, her ample belly bearing a crease.
She puts down my articles and says, Want me to shower?
Nah, I say. I take off all my clothes and she presses her body against mine. We stand on the prickly carpet kissing. I knead her doughy backside. When we pause our kissing to mop up our chins, Kung says, My father has one leg.
What? I say. I mean, from what?
He says it was a motorcycle accident, Kung explains. But now I don’t know. Maybe he stepped on a mine. Or maybe he was one of those Hmong-CIA guys you told me about. You got me thinking with that Laos history lesson. Anyway, when I was young, he used to tell this motorcycle accident story all the time . . .
Then Kung clears her throat, shakes her head and says, Sorry. You’re not paying me for my life story, are you?
She dons her seductive stripper mask–pursing her lips and making her eyes empty and dreamy. She sashays backwards toward the bed and I follow. Her pretty, compact trunk is pillowy and warm, and I last a long time, because through it all–my nervous grunting and thrusting, her expert and practiced groans–I keep picturing Kung’s father way the fuck up there in Connecticut, trimming the hedges and leaf-blowing the driveway, all on one goddamn leg.
After, as I pant and reach for a cigarette, Kung says, You know, every time my father told that motorbike accident story, the make of the motorcycle would change. Or the color of the motorcycle. Or how it happened would change. One time, he said he was run off the road by a truck carrying chickens and pigs. Another time, he said he was hit by a government car.
You never asked him to clear it up?
We don’t talk, Kung says. I emancipated myself when I was 16.
Then she turns away from me and says I can spoon against her if I want.
No extra cost, she jokes.
And I do, bowing my big body around hers, pushing my chest against her fleshy back, tucking my thighs in the crooks of her knees. I’m tired but don’t fall asleep. You never know what will come out of a prostitute’s mouth. Listen and ye shall receive. I puzzle out the truth behind my loquacious Uncle Leon, Kung’s lying, one-legged father, and my own dad who was about as forthcoming as an Incan mummy in the years I knew him. As my eyes flutter closed, I wonder: What makes one man spill over with the stuff of his life and others keep it in or lie?
* * *
I wake up at noon feeling rested and optimistic. Things are coming together. Kung lies snoring beside me. A Big Book. And a woman like Kung. These things will round out my life. I place a hand on her warm behind.
When Kung wakes up, she asks me for a fresh towel and then strides across the hall into the still-steamy bathroom Uncle Leon and Debbie have just vacated. I get up and sit next to a baggy-eyed Uncle Leon, who’s sipping coffee at the dining table. I snake an arm around him, give his shoulder a squeeze. He sputters out a cough.
Thinking about his ranting from last night, I wonder whether Asian-American family sagas can have chapters entitled, “Uncle Leon Freaks Out, Expresses a Fear of Death and Distaste for Growing Old. Sheds tears. Pees self.”
After Kung emerges from the shower, we all eat the bacon and eggs Debbie’s made, and when I offer to drive her back to D.C., Kung glances at her watch.
You can take me to Camelot, she says. We should just make my afternoon shift.
* * *
In the Chevy Bruiser, as I steer us along the two-laner that snakes through the disappearing farm country and half-cleared housing tracks, I imagine myself married to Kung. I pretend we are starting our morning commute. I picture myself in a tie, Kung in a business suit beside me, files and folders on her lap, glasses slipping on her modest Laotian nose. I imagine her saying, We should visit my one-legged father in Connecticut . . .
Then, on the Capitol Beltway, I have to hit the brakes. Hard. There’s been an accident: A sedan charred black, still smoldering. And a big boxy van crumpled against the cement divider. Through the yellow curtain of firemen, we see blood pouring down the van door. The ambulances dally–no survivors here. Fire trucks and police cars are parked askew, flashing their red-white-red-white everywhere.
I smoke and Kung snaps gum as the traffic crawls. An impromptu procession. And in that sliver of time between death and the cleaning up of death, Kung and I see the charred head. Gender indistinguishable, hair singed off, nose and ears ashy nubs. A black, bulbous roasted onion of a head. An anonymous piece of coal peeking out the driver side window of the sedan like it’s checking the blind spot before changing lanes.
I smell the acrid smoke of the accident. My nostrils remember corpses burning on the Ganges. Remember zebra carcasses on the African plains. Recall wartime Manila as Uncle Leon’s described it: a maze of machine gun nests, snipers and tanks–things that so easily tear up flesh.
I step on the gas as we pass the accident, and Kung shudders with the heebie-jeebies beside me. She places her cold, trembling hand over mine on the stick, and together, we shift from second to third. Her fingers give mine a squeeze as she glances back one last time at the scene of the accident. When we round a bend she looks forward and says, Growing up, I was ashamed of my father because he had one leg and he spoke English funny. And he hated me. I mean, HATED me, because I grew up all American and wild. We fought a lot. Not yelling. But fistfights. Can you believe it?
I keep quiet, searching for something to say to this undergrad of George Washington University, this pint-size stripper and future CPA whose estranged, one-legged father may or may not have been a CIA-trained soldier.
Finally, I settle on the following words: You should go back to your father and ask him about Laos. Ask him why his motorbike story changes all the time. Ask him how he really lost his leg. It may not make you guys closer, but at least you’ll understand him some more. That’s something, isn’t it?
And Kung laughs at me. She laughs at me so hard and for so long she has to cup a hand over her mouth to stop.
When she catches her breath, she says, Jesus, you should think about writing a self-help book. You could specialize in reuniting fathers and daughters. You’d make millions.
And then she laughs some more.
Why are you laughing? I say.
Kung shakes her head and says, You really don’t get it, do you? My father and I aren’t going to reconcile any time soon. Not now! I don’t have the goddamn energy for it. It’s taken me a long time to get my life together. To find direction. To set my goals. And I can’t be heading off to Connecticut to make peace with my father. I can’t be wondering what the hell happened in Laos. I gotta keep moving forward.
But it’s important to know where you come from, I say. It’s important to know the stories that make you up.
Sure, Kung says. It would be nice to know those things. And maybe I’ll seek out those answers one day. But I still need 24 credits to graduate! I can’t work at the club forever! And unlike you, I don’t have family to fall back on while I search for my goddamn roots! So for now, I just have to live with things as they are. I have live with my not-so-pretty childhood memories. I have to live with the memory of pushing my father down the stairs.
When the Bruiser swerves, Kung says, That’s right! I pushed my father down the stairs one night. We were fighting and I pushed him away from me and there he went. He managed to hop down a couple of steps on that leg of his, but he couldn’t hang on to the railing, and his head and back made these sick thudding sounds all the way down. I thought I killed him. I ran out of the house and didn’t come back for a week. But do you see? If I go up to Connecticut now and say, Dad, I’m sorry I pushed you down the stairs that night, it’s gonna complicate my life like crazy! It’s gonna be messy. I just gotta focus on my 24 credits. That’s eight classes. I can do that in three semesters. So do you get it? Do you understand? I can’t go backwards right now.
I get it, I say. I just didn’t know that’s how things were.
For a writer, Kung says. You sure can’t read between the lines.
I can be a little thick, I say.
You’re not kidding!
I steer us across a bridge spanning the wide lazy Potomac. And when I bring us curbside of Camelot, Kung looks at her watch. I’m late, she says. But she doesn’t move. She sits there with one small fist clenched atop her denim-covered knee.
When Kung finally hops out, she says, Goddamn it, Peter, you got me thinking about my father. You got me wondering how he is.
I’m sorry, I say.
You should be.
Then at the club’s double doors, she turns to me. She yawns once, twice, three times before giving me a curt wave and disappearing into the darkness.
Sitting in the Bruiser under Camelot’s flickering sign, I look at myself in the rearview mirror. I run a moistened fingertip over my uneven brow and pat at my head of gray. I light a smoke and put the truck in gear. I’m thirty-four now, and time, it seems, is speeding up.
It’s the evening rush, and I steer the Bruiser into the metal herd bound for the suburbs and beyond. As cars rumble, belch and backfire around me, I think of Uncle Leon, my burly muse, as he was on that burning Manila street corner–bullet-riddled but determined to live. And I think of my father as a child, choirboy voiced, screaming, Get up! Get up! Get up, Kuya Leon! GET UP! Maybe my father used up his quota of urgent, heartfelt words then. And because her story is important, too, I think of Kung as a teenager, fighting with her father on a second-floor landing. And with all this brewing inside me, I step on the gas, muscle my way into the fast lane and hope that I can render something worthwhile and true from my Uncle Leon’s rib.