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Pacific Theater

ISSUE:  Spring 1988

I’m on the phone in my father’s bedroom trying to keep my voice down. My sister has decided at the last minute not to fly up.

“You’ll be all right,” she says. “Just talk to him for a change.”

I pick up the brass oriental calendar from my father’s dresser. It’s made from an artillery shell. “The man’s been in three wars.” I say. “Guess how many war stories he ever told me?”

“What about that one where he parachuted into a dump?” my sister says.

“That was only jump school. And I practically had to hound him to death just to get it.” It’s a two thousand year calendar and I set the disk on my mother’s birthday. “Anyway, I was 12 then. What chance am I supposed to have at 30?”

“Didn’t he land on an old hospital bed or something?” my sister says.

“He got lockjaw from the rusty springs. He only told me it because he thought it was funny.”

My sister laughs. “Dad would, wouldn’t he?”

“And he hasn’t changed one iota.”

“Well, hound him then.”

I unwrap the phone cord from my finger. “Besides, it’s depressing around here. She’s turned the place into Pier One, for Christ’s sake.”

Sing, the woman my father’s been living with, is Vietnamese.

“Wait’11 you taste her tempura,” my sister says. “She cooks with chopsticks. It’s amazing.”

It’s dark in the room, and I suddenly notice something curious about my father’s bed. Like a backed up wave the blanket bulges above the headboard.

“He hurt his back playing racquetball,” my sister explains. “Some chiropractor recommended it.”

I ease down gingerly on the mattress. “Dad on a waterbed,” I say. “What next?”

What next, as it turns out, is a six-course meal of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Sing has spent the afternoon in the kitchen hunched over a steaming wok. Each vegetable comes wrapped in a thin sheet of dark green seaweed. Piled atop a hot plate on the table, strips of beef simmer in soy sauce while all around me metal dishes brim with exotic concoctions.

My father, meanwhile, acts as if the feast were only the most common daily fare for him. Nor does Sing give any indication of having slaved for hours for her guest’s benefit. She only smiles shyly when I deem to compliment the moist lotus roots of her parboiled poon dip.

Still, there’s no mistaking my father’s pride in the shipshapeness of his redecorated quarters.

“I’d like to propose a toast,” he says after lighting the candles.

Even in his sixties, my fathers still a handsome man. The racquetball no doubt helps, but more than this, he seems happier than I ever remember him being with us.

“To my bride.”

It’s not the pickled egg that drops my jaw, and it’s a moment before I hear any more of the toast. My heart’s pounding in my ears.

“We decided not to live in sin any longer,” my father is saying, still holding his glass out to Sing. “It’s been long enough.”

Now we’re both staring at the ridiculously bashful woman seated between us.

“How long?” I manage to blurt out at last. “I mean, how long ago did you get married?”

When my father confesses that it’s been nearly two years, I have trouble concentrating. Even though I should have seen it coming. They weren’t exactly living as brother and sister. But it’s hard not to feel a little provoked. Wasn’t “I” the one who drove 1500 miles in a VW with a broken floor heater? Where’s my toast? Only it isn’t sympathy I see in my father’s face. Or even gratitude for his dutiful son. It’s bliss. Second-time-around bliss that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with me.

“Well,” I offer weakly, and Sing bows her head at her new son-in-law. “All the best.”

I know that he doesn’t intend to be callous. It’s just his way. And that my own thin skin could use a little thickening. Besides, it’s typical. My father doesn’t know the meaning of brood. I’m my mother’s son.

For dessert, there’s a small glutinous rice cake that’s filled with sweet bean paste. A tradition at Oriental weddings, the happy groom remarks.

Afterward, when Sing refuses to let me help with the dishes, I drift dumbly down the hall to the phone.

“There you have it,” I break the news to my sister. “So how’s it feel to be Number One step-daughter?”

“I’ve known for a while.”

I want to take a hat pin to the waterbed or at least kick over one of the Chinese goddess lamps. “Well, look who else is turning inscrutable on me.”

“I didn’t have the guts to tell you.”

Her stereo’s on, and I can hear a Jackson Browne album.

“You just sucker me up here, then cancel your reservation”

“That’s not true. I honestly planned to come.”

“Right. But there you are and here I am.”

My sister is quiet for a moment. “She’s not that young, you know. She’s at least 50.”

“They all look alike to me.”

“You should try to talk to her. Really. Her English isn’t that bad.”

“I don’t have anything to say to the woman. And I’ve got even less to say to her husband.”

“Look, it it’s any consolation, I was upset too. It just took—”

“Time. But now you’re over it, right?”

My sister’s breath whistles in the phone. “Well,” she says wearily. “Maybe we should just call it a night.”

We both listen to the chorus of “Doctor, My Eyes” for a minute and then politely agree to say goodbye.

In the hall, Sing has hung several framed scrolls commemorating my father’s long military career. He retired with two stars, and I study the picture of him in starched khakis and pith helmet presenting a silver bowl to some generalissimo. There’s a pained expression on his face. It was about the same time my mother threatened to bring the kids home if he didn’t swing a stateside assignment. She was tired of mosquito nets and water buffalos and military compounds surrounded by nine-foot walls.

As soon as Sing sees me, she pads into the kitchen for some hung yun char (almond tea) and farr shung tong (peanut brittle). She’s been playing cards with my father. Along with ballroom dancing they take courses in bridge at the community college.

“A little colder than you’re used to,” my father says. He pretends to study his hand.

“Much colder.”

It’s the first time we’ve been alone together, and we’re both eager for Sing to get back.

“What’re you fixing now?” my father calls out to her.

But she only answers in Vietnamese.

“You put a pound a year on and it adds up,” he says, tapping the deck on the folding table.

“Like everything,” I say.

He gives me a fishy look and yawns. “So what do you hear from your sister? I’m sorry we missed her.”

“Oh, we keep in touch. She brings me up to date.”

I sit down on the rattan chair and watch him go through the cable stations with the remote control.

“The numbers come on at eight,” he says. “The jackpot’s up to 12 million.”

Sing carries a tea tray in, and I can smell the almond.

“Your father,” she says. “He always play the same numbers.”

“You pick any six between zero and 40,” he says. “We box them for a buck.”

“Once your father get four,” Sing says. She sets the peanut brittle out on my mother’s china. “Closest he come.”

“And what’d you get for that?” I ask her.

“Eighty bucks,” my father says. “About a month’s worth of tickets.”

Sing wags her head. “Your father like to gamble all his money away. I tell him to buy present instead.”

My father checks his watch. “It gets the adrenalin going.”

I think of something I might have said to my sister. But then there’s a lot I might have said if she’d been around. In any event, I’ve got my own little surprise for the newly weds. I’m heading back tomorrow.

“Peter very lucky,” Sing says. Her brother works in the city. “Only one missing two times already.”

My father stoops in front of the set to adjust the picture. Someone in a tuxedo is explaining how “tonight’s numbers” will be drawn.

“In morning,” Sing says to me, “Peter come to see you. He very eager to meet your father’s son.”

“Well. . . .”

But we all stop to watch a ping pong ball get sucked up through a clear plastic cylinder.

“Good start,” my father says as the number is turned towards the camera.

“Not us,” Sing says.

We wait out the other numbers.

“Peter and Esther have a six-year-old,” my father says, turning the sound off. “You won’t believe the kid’s English. She’s always correcting her parents.”

Sing is smiling proudly. “Once she stay with your father and me. She not want to come home again.”

“Where’d her parents go?” I ask.

“Nowhere,” my father says. “They just wanted some time to themselves. Peter’s an interesting character. He taught himself computers. Three years ago he’s driving a taxi in the city. Now he’s pulling down twice my retirement.”

Like his sister, he was born in Saigon, where their father had been a successful manufacturer.

“The Vietnamese businessman’s worse than your Japanese,” my father says. “They’re nonstop. They don’t know when to quit.”

I ask Sing what kind of business her father had been in, but we’ve been talking too fast for her.

“He was back and forth to Taiwan,” my father says. “Until Uncle Ho took a bead on him.”

Sing doesn’t stop smiling, and so it’s a minute before I realize what my father has just said.

“He was shot down?” I say.

My father cups his hand like a plane nose diving. “On his way to his shoe factory.”

Sing cracks a piece of peanut brittle between her teeth and blushes. It’s the first time I’ve seen her eat anything. She can’t weigh a hundred pounds.

My father gets up to peer out the window at the gray sky. “Supposed to get some snow tonight.”

“You like more tea?” Sing asks me. “Very good for hair.” She smiles crookedly at my father. “See what happen. He not listen.”

It’s the mother’s side determines, of course, but I don’t say anything.

Sing stacks our plates. She’ll handwash them in the kitchen sink despite the automatic dishwasher.

“What’s on the tube tonight?” my father asks as soon as Sing comes back with the kettle. Whenever she’s out of the room we struggle to make conversation.

“Your father like his TV,” Sing says. “All the time he watching the news.”

“I switch around,” my father says. He holds up the remote control. “You can see how they twist the same story. It’s whatever they want it to come out.”

I think of how I would have caught my sister’s eye.

“At least with Cronkite,” he says, “you felt the guy had a little more to him.”

Sing has fixed a darker tea for herself. She studies the guide for something that might interest my father.

“Didn’t Peter Jennings adopt a Vietnamese kid?” I say. “I thought I read that somewhere.”

My father only stares stonily at the. commercial.

“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” he says.

I follow Sing back into the kitchen, and she smiles at me quizzically.

“I thought I’d have some Coke,” I say.

She rinses a clean glass from the shelf and dries it with a paper towel.

“Your father fall asleep now,” she says, twisting the cap from the liter bottle. “Sometime he feel a little sore.”

“He ought to quit that ridiculous racquetball,” I say, but it’s more for my benefit than hers.

She sets the bottle back on the counter. Nothing in the house is allowed long out of its place. “He take his medicine,” she sats, rubbing her hands together as if to point out where it hurts. “Only his fingers not change.”

“His fingers?” I say. “I don’t understand.”

“Your father not going to say,” and she giggles as if at a promise not to tell. “He just go to sleep and wake up better.”

Her broken English requires a fierce concentration and I focus cross-eyed on her lips.

In the living room, my father sleeps with his chin on his chest. His hands, crossed peacefully on his stomach, rise and fall with his faint breathing. And for the first time I see that his thumbs are gnarled and swollen.

I tiptoe back down the hall looking for Sing. I want to ask her about tomorrow. But she’s not in the kitchen or the dining room. I don’t think to knock on my father’s bedroom door but as soon as I push it open, Sing, bent over at the waist, looks upside down at me, her shiny black hair nearly touching the straw mat.

“Christ, I’m sorry.”

She’s holding my mother’s sterling silver hair brush.

“You use phone,” she says, apologizing for me. “Other one wake up your father.”

She tries to move past me but I block the door with my arm.

“It’s your house now,” I say. “I should knock.”

With the brush behind her back, she covers her mouth with her other hand. “Your father wake up in maybe half hour.”

I nod. “I’ll make a quick call then.” And I lower my arm. “I’m charging them to my own number.”

But she only smiles, easing the door shut after her.

My sister, pulled from her shower, nevertheless listens patiently.

“I think it’s all the serenity getting to me,” I tell her. “Dad sits around like Gautama or something. I mean, it’s the Inn of the Sixth Happiness up here.”

“They get along,” my sister reflects.

“And Mom and Dad didn’t,” I say. “That the subtext?”

“You were there.”

“That’s right. And now I’m here. But the real question’s where you are.”

“Dad’s not going to change, you know. He’s an old soldier, and he’s never going to put you at ease. That’s not a heart behind the medals; that’s a sandbag. Now, that what you want to hear?”

“You’re saying he’s just going to fade away.”

“Honey, you might as well dig a great big fox hole and jump in. Dad’s Dad. He was that way with Mom. He was that way with me. Why should he be any different with you?”

“What about Sing?”

“I don’t know,” my sister says, exhausted. “Maybe it helps not to speak the same language.”

In the morning, a bright white glare illuminates my bedroom like a floodlight. It’s been years since I’ve seen snow, and raising the bamboo shades, I wipe my sleeve across the glass. Everything is either white or black. My father’s lot slopes down steeply to a small frozen creek which separates his property from his closest neighbor’s. My mother hated the claustrophobia of wherry housing and insisted in retirement on a big backyard.

On my bedstand, there’s a covered cup of tea and two almond cookies. I dip my finger in and it’s still warm.

Sing’s in the kitchen making pancakes which incredibly she flips with chopsticks.

“Your father outside,” she says.

She turns her back to me to adjust the gas on the stove. Her straight black hair is streaked with gray and I think that my sister must be right. Although younger than my father, she’s hardly a young woman. And then I wonder how long they must have known each other. There’s always been a large Asian community in the area, and I’d just assumed that they met here. But then I’ve never really gotten the chronology straight. The few times my father’s ever written or called, Sing was only his “housekeeper.”

“How many for you?” Sing asks. The warming plate is stacked high with pancakes.

“A couple’s fine.”

She pours a tall glass of orange juice. “Your father think you too skinny. I tell him because you don’t have wife.”

She’s surprisingly more familiar with me this morning. And I wonder just how genuine the wallflower routine is. For one thing, I can’t imagine my father thinking twice about my weight. Never mind a wife.

“What’s he doing out there?”

Sing wipes the kitchen window with a dish towel and taps on the glass.

“He like to shovel it,” she says.

My father signals that he’s almost done.

“It runs in the family,” I say.

At the garage door, I watch him hike the shovel briskly over his shoulder, his breath steaming in the frigid air.

“Breakfast,” I shout.

But there’s only a small patch to go and he raises his gloved hand without looking up.

On the other side of the car, stacked against one wall of the stucco garage are several boxes with “Trophies” printed in Magic Marker across them. I pry open the lid on the top one and pull out a brass plaque with my father’s name on it. It’s for some tournament three years ago in Las Vegas.

“Your father not let me bring them in house,” Sing says when I ask her about the boxes.

“He was really in Nevada just to play racquetball?”

“Last time to Canada. Your father senior champion.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Have to be 60 years old,” she says proudly. “”Golden Masters.” Your father win all time.”

In the dining room, I sit at the table until I hear my father stamping his boots on the porch. I feel like telling him that I’d almost forgotten to mention the Publisher’s Clearing House contest I won last month. Half a million dollars a year for the rest of my life. By the time he sits down at the table, his ears red-tipped and his face beaming robustly, I’m frustrated enough to empty my pancakes in his lap.

“I thought I’d head back tomorrow,” I say finally, setting my knife on the edge of my plate. “Maybe stop by and see my runaway sister.”

My father stirs his coffee. Sing has given him a large soup spoon which he grips awkwardly.

“Sorry to hear it,” he says. “We had some things planned.”

“Tomorrow?” Sing asks my father. “He go home?”

“Sounds like it,” he says.

“Oh, no,” Sing says to me sadly.

My father folds the corners of his paper napkin into an origami stork. “You’re not exactly driving a snow plow.”

“I’ll take it easy,” I say.

But we all turn at the sound of a car in the driveway. Sing stands up and quietly lifts her chair back under the table.

“Sound like Peter,” she says.

“Sounds like a damn tank,” my father says.

We don’t bother with our coats. Although Peter appears at least as old as his sister, his wife, Esther, looks younger than me. Their daughter, Roberta, hugs Sing about the waist.

“You’ll put that thing out of alignment,” my father scolds his brother-in-law.

The car, a bright red Mercedes, is laden down with chains on all four tires.

“This deep,” Peter says, patting his ankle to show how much snow has fallen on the freeway.

My father looks over at me. “There you go.”

Esther and Sing collect grocery bags from the trunk of the car and carry them into the kitchen. Roberta trails after them with a Cabbage Patch doll balanced on her shoulder. Only Sing, the first to get her green card, has yet to adopt an American name.

At the door, Peter peels off his galoshes. He’s dressed up: a pin-striped suit and black wingtips. And I wonder how much of this is for me.

In the living room, my father turns a football game on but keeps the volume low. He’s obviously heard his brother-in-law’s stories before. And Peter is a talker even though his English isn’t much better than Sing’s.

Although the women stay in the kitchen, Sing is her usual attentive self. Every five minutes she emerges to check our glasses or to carry out another snack tray. I never hear a peep from the child.

By halftime, my father is out cold on the couch. And I discover that Peter (who, innocent of any intrigue, answers all my questions candidly) has known him even longer than Sing.

“So you two go back aways together?” I say but rephrase it when he only smiles blankly. “You’ve been friends for what? Since before Roberta was born?”

“Yes, yes,” he says happily. “Your father my commanding officer. All through war.”

But I’m thinking of Europe and that he can’t have been old enough. Then I understand that he means Vietnam.

“You were with his battalion then?” My heart is racing. Because it all makes its crazy sense now. My father had volunteered a second combat tour. Despite my mother’s long-distance tirades and suspicions.

“Yes, yes,” Peter says solemnly. “Your father very great man.”

There’s no point in calling my sister. I know what she’d say. She’s known for quite a while. And, besides, Mom’s been dead and buried a long time now.

My father hasn’t budged at the end of the couch. He looks like a crafty barn owl with his chin tucked against his chest. And I’m reminded of how he always used to fall asleep while we watched “The Big Picture” together on Saturday afternoons. It wouldn’t surprise me if he asked Peter out here on purpose. But as I stare at his painfully swollen hands I can’t help wishing that they were mine and not his to suffer.

Peter, meanwhile, watches with a foreigner’s fascination the parade of high school bands that march with military precision across the football field. Sing, clearly happy with the miraculous assembly of her new family in one place, comes in to set a bowl of pretzels down like an offering on the table before me.

Even though I try, it’s impossible to hate her. To believe she’s anything more than what she is: a Vietnamese immigrant by way of Saigon by way of some idiot war by way of New Jersey. Safe here in America with her arthritic, racquet-ball-playing ex-general and his sullen son.

I borrow my father’s boots from the hall closet and sneak out of the house through the garage. The snow’s already crusty on top, and in the backyard, I can see where my father must have put his tomato plants in this year. The row of sticks barely pokes through the drift of snow along the basement wall. No matter where we were stationed or how little soil my father had to work with, he always seemed to have tomatoes picked and ripening on the kitchen windowsill.

Down closer to the creek I find the apple tree Sing had told me about. It’s a strange looking hybrid: its branches gnarled from various graftings. I can’t quite picture the thing in bloom, but in the summer, my stepmother assures me, it will produce half a dozen different kinds of apples. She’d shown my father how to band the limbs together, and next season he wants to put in a whole orchard of them.

I’ll hang around maybe a day or two longer. Who knows? Maybe Roberta’s my half sister. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Yet I noticed that the six numbers on my father’s lottery ticket were our birthdays, my mother’s included. I’d have thought he forgot all that. The way only great men can. But when I turn back towards the house, I look up to see everyone smiling down at me from the big picture window of the living room. Peter is waving, his diminutive wife next to him, while at their feet their daughter presses her small, flat face to the glass. And on either side of them, like happy temple dogs, stand Sing and her bridge partner. An ail-American family, I think, and struggling back up the embankment, try to keep from slipping in my father’s unlaced combat boots.


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