A Cambodian-American 'Thema and Louise.' --The New York Times Book Review
- Steerforth Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.78(w) x 8.79(h) x 0.92(d)
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"All I want is to fly the Gossamer Condor," the girl said.
She was leaning over the table and her hair fell over strings of numbers she had scratched in black marker in a composition book. She gave over to imagining the picture of the paper plane she'd seen in the National Geographic. She remembered licking her finger to turn pages and seeing the picture with the light through its wings and the man peddling it in the sky. That was when she loved planes purely. She had been probably six and she and her mother would run out in the yard when they heard the planes from the base come over the cottage.
Billy waited for his daughter's response to a calculus solution. His brow was deeply furrowed. If he could have, he'd have taken the calculus test for her, held the pencil with her and in this way held her malaise like he had held her dripping ice cream cone when she was little. He would grip his fingers over hers and she would be okay. She could be romantic over Gossamer Condors like her mother. He wished he knew what to do with women. In terms of women he didn't know what to do. All he could think of to do was work out this particular calculus solution. Maybe with this solution his daughter would find her way - maybe she'd stay in college or she would not, but she would know - and the tension he felt in his belly over her would ease a little. They were both glad when the phone rang. It rang three times. It was always for the girl, but she didn't pick it up if someone else was there. Finally, Billy picked it up. He said, "Colonel Sullivan," out of habit, and Laurel mimicked, "Colonel Sullivan. Or for short, just say God,plain God, this is God speaking."
She squirted juice from a sliver of a lime into a glass of Coke and made a lot of clatter with ice cubes. But she listened closely to her father's part of the conversation. She stole glances now and then at his face, which was ruddy and Irish and intense. He was wearing his flight suit. Lately, she only saw him this way as he was always just coming off or going on alert.
Billy listened for a long time. When he talked he was terse, like God would be, she knew. He said, "Uh huh." He said, "No problem." He said, "I'll send a crew up."
"So where you going now?" she accused him when he hung up, assuming he had been sent again to some distant place.
"I'm not. You are," he said.
"I'm not anybody's crew."
"Cottage roof needs mending," Billy said.
"I'm not your crew," she said. But she thought of the diner in the New Hampshire town where Annie, her mother, made chalices out of candy wrapper tinfoil, and the pink-eyed rabbits they kept in a cage by the cottage door, and the fragrance of the pine trees outside the bedroom window.
Billy said, "Told him I'd send a crew."
It was the new tenant in the cottage who called. He said he was having to put the maple sugar buckets in the bedroom to catch the rain. He said it wouldn't have mattered so much if his wife were there, but they had split-up and that was enough to kill a man without lying all alone listening to the rain hit the buckets. That's when Billy had said, "Uh huh." And later that he'd send a crew, someone who could use a day's labor.
They knew the man, Saul Blanchette, was a photographer who had turned their cottage into a studio and worked on staff for the Boston Globe.
When Laurel drove up to the cottage in New Milford she went looking more like a waif than a workcrew. She looked like a tumbleweed, especially the hair which was various shades from reddish to corn yellow, and with her general look of abandonment, which she cultivated.
She wore a bomber jacket with medals - her father's - over a long, green, hippie sundress - her mother's. The dress was loose around the hips and meant for long-legged, feline, girl-women like Laurel, and Annie, when she had first met Billy in the base-side laundromat. Laurel wore the dress every day with different shirts, depending on the weather. Today she wore it over white shorts and wore snake earrings and would hammer in a few nails on the cottage roof to get her father off her case. Everything in the world seemed arbitrary to Laurel, except flying. She had always wanted to fly. Annie said she used to chase airplanes. She used to run across the clover grass at the cottage in her birthday suit when she was little, yelling for Billy. She knew most aircraft by name and now at twenty she still wore their unit patches on her bomber jacket. Her grandfather had flown Jolly Greens in Korea. Now Billy was Deputy for Operations of the 1st Fighter Wing out of Langley, Virginia. Laurel was Air Force. She had never considered any other life, especially after Annie defected.
"Somaley likes my tattoo." The man named Saul smiled, which made his face bunch up in small ridges around his jaw-bone and his eyes. It was a weathered face with sad, shining eyes. He wore a black tank shirt and a small gold loop in his right ear. He was referring to the tattoo of a devil across his biceps and the small child hanging on his leg. "Cambodian men have a lot of tattoo - so I hear," he explained to Laurel.
He reached over the child and took laurel's hand in his. It was a big hand and warm, and he and the child both had pink tongues from strawberry Kool-aid and smelled like strawberry, and while Laurel thought about them he still held her hand.
"Long drive," he said.
She said, "You can do it in ten hours."
He stopped looking at her when she began to unbutton her dress, taking a minute to realize she was in layers, but vthe little girl Somaley was fascinated to watch her step out of the top layer and reveal her white shorts. "So she thinks it's fine," Saul said, hands on his hips, looking at the roof.
"What's fine?" Laurel said.
"My tattoo." He turned around when Somaley tugged his hand. He picked her up and Somaley rubbed his black whiskers, first the rough, then the smooth way. Laurel saw the child wore gold rings on three of her tiny fingers and wondered what kind of mother would put jewelry on such a little kid. "And she likes my beard," Saul said. "We talk marriage a lot."
Laurel smiled politely at the child. She knew there were children in the world but she didn't like pretending she was having a normal conversation with one. She didn't mind this one too much. Somaley was quiet and watched Laurel with large, black eyes. "I'm not going to hurt him," Laurel said about Saul. "I'm just going to hammer on the roof Okay?"
"Okay," Somaley said.
Laurel hitched a ladder to the roof over the kitchen window and she and Saul hauled up a supply of green shingles the color of the new leaves that were unfurling in the early May woods, and they used these to mend the bare spots. Laurel climbed back down and got the mat from the car to kneel on, cursing her father under her breath for not mentioning that this was going to be far too hard and would scar her knees forever.
Laurel was wary of this tenant. His type did not frequent Air Force bases, so she had never seen a guy that looked quite like Saul. But working in the warm sun so many hours, just the two of them, on his house that was her girlhood house that her great-grandfather from Lowell had built, and whose back bedroom they both referred to as the bat room because once, when Laurel was a girl, she had chased one small screaming bat out from that bedroom, down the narrow hall, and out the kitchen door - this gave them almost instant history.
It wasn't long before she had charmed him. She had been sent to fix the roof, which she was no good at and fixed in a shoddy way, though Saul was charmed by her anyway. When he did notice she left a gap between shingles, he covered the bare spots himself. Laurel knew he did that. She liked people she could get to do things like that. Then she was languid and funny and people fell in love with her a lot.
Saul said Laurel looked like the rosy-faced woman in the photograph in one of the bat room bureau drawers where the Sullivan family still kept things. The woman would have been Annie, Laurel knew. Laurel told things to Saul she didn't talk about to her Air Force friends. On base they talked aircraft. They talked assignments and career. Saul and Laurel began to laugh on the roof and laughed until their guts ached. Later, the neighbor, who Saul introduced as Kadek Sech, brought them a turtle to eat. Kadek was Cambodian and this was not an unusual thing for her to do, Saul said.
"Good," the woman said. "Eat."
Laurel said, "How?" So the woman took up a hammer and smashed the turtle's shell and exposed the meat. Saul brought it up on the roof where there was a very slight spring breeze. Laurel watched Saul's thick fingers and the way he used them to pull apart the turtle with care. He pulled small bits of meat off and offered her pieces while he chewed stead-fastly. He pulled a wallet from his hip pocket and showed Laurel a photograph of his daughter. She looked about five because she didn't have any teeth in front. "Lena," he said. "My Mom," he said, flipping to a picture of a woman on the porch of a triple-decker.
Saul said his mother took him and his daughter back now and then to see her shining country. "What is that?" Laurel asked.
"Puerto Rico," he said.
He told her Somaley was Kadek's daughter. "She comes to ask if I can come out to play."
They had also brought beer onto the roof and they were already pretty drunk and their talk came easily. They ate the turtle. Somaley watched them from the corner of the veranda where Annie had started the asparagus bed when Laurel was the age of Saul's little girl.
"Her mother, Kadek, is always telling me, `You a writer, Soul.' She calls me Soul. She says, `You write down my story.' Christ." He shook his head. "I listen to those women across the street." He turned his back and Laurel looked at his thick hair that would be, she knew, warm from the sun.
"Are you a writer?" she asked.
"No, Laurel Sullivan." He turned. "I am not a writer. I shoot. But Kadek, she can't get it straight. She knows I work for the newspaper."
Laurel took a long drink of beer and leaned back and stretched, looking up at the sun. He was watching her but it was a certain kind of watching, not just the sexual kind she was used to. She became aware of his eyes. They were absorbing. At work, he would lay a shingle where she faulted, but not without absorbing her manner, her childlikeness. The effect of his gaze was subtle, but she became more careful with each hour as her fatigue grew.
"Oh, fuck it," she told him. "I'm quitting college."
He had four nails in his mouth. He looked at her, then hammered all four in. "So what's the problem?" he said, finally. "What do you want to do that for?"
Laurel said, "I hate it. I hate everything. Why do I hate everything?"
Saul's brow furrowed and he studied her. But then he backed off and said, "Don't ask me. I'm pissing my own life away. People don't come up here to hunt and shoot and commune with trees. People come up here because they're on the run from some city, or from job rot, or your basic sexual entanglement. I'm here to get away from all three. I've decided to sleep alone the rest of my life. I'm pissing my life away," he said again. "I'll tell you, Laurel Sullivan, I was ready to go deeper into the hills. Maybe live up the back of Pat's Peak. I'd live on road kill like those old guys I shoot sometimes on the back roads. They're sleeping in dugouts covered with tar paper and they're doing alright, aren't they? But then I promised Somaley I'd marry her."
"Is it all women over there?" Laurel asked about the white house across the road where Kadek and Somaley had come from. Vines and bridal wreath made a woody braid over the doors and windows and come summer it would be densely green and have white blossoms.
"Not a man to be seen."
"How many women?'
They took long drinks of beer.
"What are they doing here?
"You mean Cambodians?"
"Some church in town sponsored them."
Saul watched Laurel rub sweat off her neck. He shook his head and went down the ladder and soon she could hear Linda Ronstadt singing "More Than You Know." Saul clambered up again. She asked him for his bandanna to tie back her hair. He took it out of his pocket for her and turned back to tacking down green tar shingles. Laurel tied her hair in a pony tail with the bandanna, watching him hammer. After a while he started talking again and Laurel listened without trying to the sound of his voice.
He said, "Susan came up with my girl, my, Lena. Ah, shit, you know, she came up to see what was left."
"Oh, your wife."
"Not any more. "
"No. She came up here and I wanted to unbutton the little white buttons on my wife's blouse and I couldn't remember she wasn't my wife. There were six buttons like pearls. I wanted to unbutton them and then maybe I could sleep, you know, just unbutton them once more." He shook his head. Laurel guessed right off that Susan wouldn't let him touch her buttons. "So I took them to this funky restaurant where everybody was wearing sandals over their socks. We were eating gazpacho and hunks of multigrain bread to flute music. My kid was eating unrefined crackers and we're talking about the cat."
"The cat?" Laurel said.
He was on his knees. He got up and wiped the sweat from his face and eyelids. He looked at her. "I liked the cat," he said.
"You liked the cat?" She had never listened so well.
He watched her while he talked. "Yeah. So I say, you want me to take the cat? And my wife says, if you could. And I say, what kind of cat food do you get? And she says, fish.
"I say that I like the kind with the ring, that you can pull the top off. My wife says she doesn't care how I open it. And there was nothing I could do with my words or all the strength of my body to make her love me, for her to want me and take my hand and put it over the buttons.
"And there's my little girl watching us discuss her cat while she demolishes the crackers and the circles of melba toast. She chokes, they're so dry, but she keeps eating them, and then she crushes the cracker wrappers into the ashtray so they spring back up like paper-fold skeletons.
"All right, fish, I say to my wife. And then I couldn't leave it. I say, I forget what kind of toilet paper to buy. `You know,' my kid says as if I've lost my mind. `Cottonelle.' That's when tears start coming out of me like I was the kid. I blubber over buying toilet paper together and I think, how can I go on? That's when people start looking at foreign service or, if you live up here, hunting accidents. So here's my daughter and my wife embarrassed because the dining room is the size of a gazebo and I am bawling and it's hard for people to hear the flute. I remember when we got out of there, I could see the beginning of starry forsythia and there's no fuckin' reprieve."
Laurel didn't say anything. She wondered what it would be like to tell that story if it were your own story and maybe be telling it to anybody who happened to be on your roof. Laurel was more likely to hold her stones inside. She'd say she didn't have any stories. Those there were would fit in a locket. But she would, she thought, like to tell him about how she and Annie used to work in that dirt down below. How her mother used to sing her Springsteen songs and how they were silly and Annie carried her to bed and they both smelled like the grass they had cut with the push mower. Now Annie lived in Franconia, or one of those places north of the notch. That wasn't much of a story. They both hammered and covered a lot of roof.
After a while Laurel told him about Billy's mahogany plaques that were hanging in the cottage. "He flew bombers in Southeast Asia," she said. "Then he transitioned to fighters so he could go back."
Saul watched her as if he were trying to allow in himself more of the world. In the background Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton were singing a harmony that could hold a person for a second of grace. They were fairly trashed on beer.
Kadek returned through the muddy ruts in the driveway, her little girl Somaley clinging to her skirt. This time Laurel stared at her. Kadek was dark-skinned and had wide lips. She did not smile. The child wore tiny sandals with gold-flecked straps. The woman shielded her eyes from the sun and yelled, "Soul."
He told her what good turtle that was. He wasn't very well balanced and Laurel hoped he wouldn't try the ladder.
"Soul," she said. Her eyes were fierce. "Soul, I so mad."
She wore a red sarong and a sweatshirt. "Soul, I have big problem."
A young man appeared in the driveway, also a Cambodian. Saul said, "Well, Jesus Christ." And Laurel said, "Well, Jesus achin' Christ. There's a male."
Kadek broke off talking to Saul and spoke a stream of words in a language Laurel didn't know. She laid into the man who was dressed for the city in baggy trousers and a white billowy shirt tucked in at his narrow waist. In a while he put his hands on his hips and kind of swaggered past her. He had barely spoken, Kadek's abuse had been so unyielding. Laurel thought he had a princely manner. He swaggered around Kadek and did not get in the black Taurus parked in the street, but walked past it toward town. Somaley let go of her mother and danced toward the street to watch the young man go. Saul managed to climb down the ladder and yelled at Somaley, to not set her foot in the street. The girl only danced around him, grinning up into his burly face. Laurel wanted to finish the job and continued the work, which she did with some care, while Kadek said, "Soul, I hide my sister girl, Chanty, you know, quick I hide her inside." She meant in the cottage. "Chanty a good girl."
Soon a flashing-eyed girl in a hip length skirt, black spiked hair and eyes outlined in azure blue, earrings with purple stones, six on each side, hanging down so low they nearly touched her bare shoulders, and a baby on her hip, appeared. Kadek whisked them off to the closet under the stairs with the Geographics which luckily, in terms of space, ran to only 1986 when the Sullivans left for a fighter base in England, but included the issue with the article on human-powered aviation which all the women seemed bent on.
"Nobody ever left me," she said. "It must suck. I was just trying to imagine how, it must suck."
She took the bandanna out of her hair and gave it back. Saul was less drunk now and had gotten taciturn and wouldn't look at her or the white streaks across her cheeks. So she talked about the Air Force.
"I'm still Air Force all the way," she said, as if he had been doubting. "I want to fly, like my Dad. That's what I want. I hate the smell of this, don't you?" she said, smearing in the rest of the Noxzema. "I just use it because it reminds me of my mother."
He sat on the stone wall, watching her.
Were these social graces, the things she said? He was out of touch. All he could do was drink and fuck and talk too much. He considered offering her the bat room. Langley was a very long way from here. He didn't. But he was already worried about the hollowness he would feel around him after she left.
When Laurel did leave, reeking of Noxzema, she saw the Cambodian man. She had wanted to drive through the town so had taken the road that crossed the river. The man stood there under a streetlight. He was tall and almost elegant, watching every movement across the river by Kadek's house. She stopped when she saw him. It was almost dark. The town had closed down. It was only them. He was looking through a jagged curtain of birches and scrub brush. They could both see the dark river. Laurel looked with him to see if she could find the back of Kadek's house. She could make out part of its white shape and the white shapes of the other mill town houses staggered up the hill. The man turned and looked at her, and she looked briefly at him.
The lights were on at the diner which backed onto the river. She stopped and got coffee there. When she drove away she saw that the man was still at his guard, but the white shape of the house couldn't be seen any more.
THE HAUNTING MEMORIES OF A NEUROSURGEON
By MARC FLITTER, M.D.
Copyright © 1997 Marc Flitter, M.D.. All rights reserved.
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