Nobody in a Land of Dripping Green (Published in Curlew Quarterly Issue No. 5 - Autumn 2018)
We stop at a roadside fruit vendor on the long drive from the small airport in Butuan. The rain taps on the wood of the stand. Dana and I wait in the mud while her dad gets three red plastic bags full of produce, including durian. When we first enter through the gate at her grandma’s I notice a rusty sign hanging off from the wall that surrounds the property. I ask Dana about it but she doesn’t know. After a dinner of fresh fish, backyard-slaughtered lechón, the fruits, and rice, Dana and I remain at the table with her grandma. Everyone else leaves.
Dana mentions the sign and she explains, “I was in the logging industry, and liked business. My husband did not. He was a lawyer. But we never quarreled. We respected and supported each other, and it was not easy. There was a miniature ‘Vietnam’ here for a time. You saw the bullet holes on the column in front of the house. But we got through it together, and we sent the children away because it became too dangerous. I remember, calling them in America. To hear that they were waking up when it was still dark and driving themselves in the cold to work in hospitals, made me upset. But better that way there than dead here.” She gets up slowly, and Vilma steps forward from the shadows to walk with her upstairs to bed. Under which, Dana tells me, is a loaded AK-47.
Before I came to this giant house in the province of Mindanao, I knew her grandma as a church goer and gambler who lived in a two-bedroom apartment off Parsons Blvd with her daughter and son-in-law, at the same complex as Dana and her family. During parties she sat in a straight-back chair, wearing lots of gold jewelry and watching everyone while petting the shih tzus. I gave her a kiss on the cheek for the first couple years, until Dana showed me how to properly greet and bless a Filipino Lola. Take her hand, bow slightly, and touch her knuckles to your forehead. No-one knows her age. And here, with her half-wild dogs, red palm trees, fighting cocks, help, and authority she looks like the younger woman who exists in the pictures on the wall behind her desk in the massive living room. Standing fabulously stoic next to her husband in his dark green three-piece Gucci suit. Laughing over a martini with a local diplomat. She is too wise for the slowness, misery, and loneliness of physical decay, but nonetheless succumbs.
Dana and her family go to sleep but I don’t because I feel like drinking. I grab a bottle of San Miguel and two glasses and sit down at the plastic table on the patio with the men who stand guard through the night. They share one glass among the four of them, pouring, drinking, and passing. I try to speak English with the oldest guy, Al. He teaches me a few Bisaya phrases, but I forget them just as soon as I hear them. He has a warm cowboy’s face with hard-earned wrinkles. We listen to Christian Rock on a transistor radio and smoke my Korean Marlboro cigarettes.
In the morning, Dana slides open the glass door that separates the room we slept in from the one with her sleeping mom, dad, and brother, which is filled with the noise of the air-conditioner. I tip-toe right behind her in a t-shirt, black jeans, and flip flops with socks, for the bugs. She opens a heavy wooden door. Master is snoozing on the pink rug like a smelly old baby. The pungent odor of his white fur reaches my nose as I step over him and gently close the door. Dana pets his head and whispers “good morning.” He barely moves, looks at us warily, and returns to his dreams. Leading a pack of ten dogs must be tiring. He seems to know something we don’t. We wave goodbye to him as if to a withered onion and descend a suspended staircase that spills into a dim hallway the length of a bowling alley.
All along the hallway are big rooms no-one has slept in for years. One of them even has a sixties style circular bed, perfect for a soft-core porno. Many years ago, people stayed here because it was the closest hotel-of-sorts near the port at the bay. Businessmen, travelers, prospectors, murderers, and thieves. Dana’s parents told me the house is haunted by the ghosts of these former lodgers.
At the end of the hallway we cross through another door and go down two more flights. Everything is still and cool and a little dusty. Like a museum. We traverse the length of the house in the opposite direction to the kitchen. I am irrelevant and obedient in this atmosphere, my flip flops sound cute on the glossy, smooth stone floor.
Nobody is in the kitchen. Dana fills a heavily-used pot with water and places it on the stove. I find two mugs, instant coffee, and a spoon. We wait for the water to boil and Sai Sai enters, clutching the doll Dana’s mom brought her from America. She’s the child of the house. Marcia, the eldest female worker, is a few seconds behind. Sai Sai tries to tell me something, almost confidentially, about the doll. Dana translates, “You look like my doll’s friend, Bill-Bill.” He’s the ghost only Sai Sai can see. They say she talks to him.
I use a rag to pick up the pot and pour the scalding water into the cups, and Dana stirs the coffees until all the particles disappear. Kittens gather at Marcia’s feet. She shuffles in her slippers across the floor, pries open the busted door to the backyard and kicks and claps at them, giggling. One of them tries to stay, meowing, but Sai Sai darts over and shoves it outside. “It is so early, why are you awake?” Marcia asks us in English. It sounds rhetorical. “I need to smoke,” I say to Dana. So we walk back to the other side of the house, this time slowly to avoid spillage, reach the patio, and sit on the plastic chairs which are glazed with dew.
The cigarettes are made in Lithuania, burn too fast, and taste much lighter than the Camel non-filters I normally smoke. But they were cheap at the duty free in Incheon. As dawn peels away the grayness of the sky, we soak up the racket made by the hidden birds of the jungle, who scream like a chorus of forgotten souls being stretched on a medieval rack ––– strained waves from different places, possessing a hypnotic and deliberate rhythm. I watch a lizard crawl up the column with the bullet holes and wonder when I’ll die. I envision a weed at the edge of the tarmac at JFK, and the eyeball of a subway rat, and then I let them wilt and scurry. The spookiness is beautiful and so is Dana, drinking coffee in her nightgown.
A month from now I will eat lunch with my dad at Georgia Diner on Queens Blvd to talk about the Philippines. He’ll get meatloaf, and me, tuna salad on rye with french fries. We will walk around the block, each smoking a Korean cigarette, and he will say “These burn quick don’t they.” After we shake hands, I’ll watch him get in his car and head to Long Island before the snow gets worse. Two weeks later he will be dead from a heart attack.
He believed that having kids counteracted the inevitable. That replacing your disappearing elders with brand new humans is simply part of the life cycle of brief joy and then loss. But I don’t know. Dreams are not meant to last longer than you are willing to fight for them, and fuck all the rest.
We finish our coffee and hand the cups to Marcia in the kitchen. Dana’s grandma calls her over to her desk. She tells her to tell me not to give the guys alcohol, as it could impair their ability to keep us all alive if a threat violates the perimeter of the compound. Her grandma says this without lifting her eyes from the stack of browned papers containing all information related to her land and its ownership once she dies, which she continuously edits and revises.
I’m riding the N6 bus on Hillside Ave at the fringes of Jamaica, staring at Caribbean restaurants I want to eat in, and trekking out to Elmont for my dad’s birthday. His actual date of birth was three days ago on Thursday, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to go see him because Jewish cemeteries are closed on Saturday, if they have gates. I wonder if he cares. Certainly, the cold and speechless November ground doesn’t, under which he rests. His headstone reads, Best Father Brother Uncle Friend. Centered, in a list format. My aunt, who stole all his money, chose this coffee mug language. The empty plot next to him says much more. My mom bought that, even though they were divorced for almost twenty years and he owed her over $130,000. “So he won’t have to sleep next to a stranger,” she said.
I jump off the bus and skate half a mile down the road on the pebble-ridden sidewalk and enter the labyrinth of dead Jews. I know exactly where to go, and when I get there it’s the same as always. I don’t know what to do or say. I tell the dirt, stones, and dusk that I’ve got a new job at a law firm in Midtown and am making just enough to get by. I say, “I didn’t get you anything because you can’t accept gifts. They don’t mean anything to you. My appearance is the gift, and I know that isn’t much but here I am.” I kick the dirt to make it neater, remove a few weeds from the bush on top of him, and place a rock on the headstone. Then stare down at the ground. A Super 8 film reel plays behind my eyes, showing me the current state of his body, which has been laying here for almost two years.
Not long ago, he was an incarnate mix of Roy Orbison, Charlie Sheen, Richard Benjamin from the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, Willy Loman, Robert De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, and a tinge of Ralphie from A Christmas Story. The working man, with a Brooklyn accent as thick as his ignorance. He made his name in the garment district by buying and selling odd-lots of discount women’s clothing to TJ Maxx, Conway, and Marshalls. After 9/11, he said “They don’t need guys like me no more,” and eventually found middle income success by selling service contracts for the placement of clothing donation bins on private property throughout the tri-state area. He called himself “the bin guy” and scoffed at anything even remotely “hoity-toity.”
My dad grew up near Avenue J and E 15th street around the corner from DiFara’s and was a wise-guy teenager eating pizza at that place when it opened in 1964. Whenever we went there he’d tell me about how Harvey Keitel was a regular fixture on the corner, and describe the characters who hung around Artie’s Pool Hall, beneath what is now a Flushing Bank. His dad moved the family to a house on Long Island in ’72 and he never lived in Brooklyn again, but eternally praised his childhood there as the happiest days of his life.
I look straight ahead at the countless rows and remember last November, when Dana and I went to a cemetery on Staten Island to visit Alfred Chester. A crazy bald gay Jewish writer from Midwood who died in obscurity the same year my dad left the neighborhood.
BQE, Verrazano, Exit 7. I still have my car. We locate the site using a map the cemetery office sent me as an email attachment. The marker is lopsided and disjointed by a tree root. I brush away the various pieces of garbage and plastic bags that litter the ground in front of the tall stone, and then wash it with soap and water. I introduce myself and Dana to this Beloved Brother and Uncle, whose weird stories make me less afraid, and thank Alfred for being a writer. We turn away and get back in the car. The gray sky presses on the windshield. I roll the window down a crack, light a Camel, and faintly hear a little girl’s voice traveling on the wind.