Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fiction by Guest Blogger BRIAN ASCALON ROLEY, "Old Man"

Dear Readers,
For your weekend reading, we have a Guest Blogger, BrianAscalon Roley, who writes in several genres. His novel AMERICAN SON (W.W. Norton) received the 2003 Association for Asian American Studies Prose Book Award and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book, New York Times Notable Book, and Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize finalist among other honors. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge and is currently Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Miami University of Ohio. More information can be found at his website
Enjoy his story, "Old Man."

Cecilia asked me to choose a story to post as guest blogger. I decided on a piece she published a couple years ago called “Old Man” in the anthology, Growing Up Filipino II.

A note on this story’s origins. This story is a sequel of sorts to my novel, American Son (W.W. Norton), so let me begin there.

Back in the early 1990s, I returned to Los Angeles after living for years in Connecticut and London. I found a city transformed. This was the era of the Rodney King Riots. This was a time of racial tension; gangs of one race or ethnicity would target bystanders of other races on the streets in Venice. This was a time of gang wars in which they became a sort of fashion among teens, even spreading to suburban high schools. It was an odd return after living in the London neighborhood of Camden Town.

I noticed that some of my younger Filipino and half Filipino relatives were adopting some of these fashions, but what particularly interested me was one boy who joined a Chicano gang, even passing as Mexican and hiding his Filipino heritage from his friends.

These young relatives showed up to family parties dressed up as Latino gang bangers, much to the bewilderment of our older relatives.

I knew this was a novel. It reminded me of the long tradition of American immigrant literature, such as Irish and Jewish and Latino, with their classic themes of identity and assimilation. But with a twist. In those novels the children, as they grew older, tried to fit into the dominant white Anglo-Saxon culture; but in this case, instead of trying to be white, my relatives and others reflected a changing society and demographic. Their attempts to assimilate into a minority culture other than Filipino puzzled our older relatives greatly. In an odd way, the sense of shame at being Filipino seemed greater in such an act than if they’d tried to fit in with a privileged class.

So I wrote the novel. I invented fictional characters, but used the situation, and drew on my own emotional autobiography to breathe authenticity into the characters’ emotional landscapes.

The New York Times editors, in the Notable Books list, described American Son in this way:

“Two Half-Filipino brothers can pass for white, their mother cannot; painful conflicts are in store for everybody in this complex exploration of racism in California, starting in 1993, a year after the Rodney King Riots.”

But Tomas’s passing as a Mexican gangster, to me, was an essential aspect.

That novel got lucky. Perhaps partly because it received the Association of Asian American Studies Prose Book Award, it’s been taught in many college and high school classrooms, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to speak to many students about it. What really surprised me was the interest in the narrator’s older brother, Tomas. He is a rather brutal person, both in terms of his verbal abuse of the younger brother, Gabe, and in the violence he commits in the novel. Like Gabe, Tomas is half Filipino, half white. He has a strong streak of self-hating racism. And he belongs to a gang. He beats people, steals, cheats. He belittles his mother’s culture. Even his close friends think he is Mexican.

To be honest, I was afraid of publishing a book with such a character (especially because of his final violent acts, which I can’t give away without spoiling the book’s surprise ending). So I was shocked that so many readers found him the most interesting character. Many students even seemed to like and defend him. I asked myself: Why? On reflection, I think it's partly because he is so protective of his shy mother. His anger, his drive, his yearning, his outrage on her behalf, drive the climax of the book and stoke some sort of primal urge to protect family at all costs.

But there could be more to it, and I wanted to figure that out. I decided to write from this character’s point of view, and “Old Man” is one result. (There is also a novel in the works.) The truth is, I found him compelling myself; after all, I had drawn on my own emotional autobiography to breathe emotional complexity and veracity and life into this character, as I do with all characters, good and bad (most honest writers do).

"Old Man" grew out of my attempt to flesh out Tomas’s relationship with the absent father. I felt that the father had a lot to do with understanding his lost and brutal adolescence, his pain and drive and yearning. I'm very fond of this story and thankful to Cecilia for asking me to send her a story for Growing Up Filipino II. If she hadn’t, I might never have finished it in this form.



by Brian Ascalon Roley

copyright by Brian Ascalon Roley, all rights reserved

            Late last year my father, a man whom I had not seen in many years, slit his wrists in an unfurnished apartment on the dry dusty foothills of Mariposa County. A nurse from the hospital called to inform me that my father was recovering and under suicide watch, and suggested I come over.
            He looked so gaunt there, in his hospital bed, his knobby knees visible beneath the thin sheets. He looked so different than the young handsome man I remembered, who’d left us for a mistress and filed for divorce right after running up a credit card debt and filing for bankruptcy. He’d just bought matching BMWs for himself and his girlfriend, an Argentinean dentist whose snooty exiled family lived in Beverly Hills. His wavy Italian hair, his dimples that charmed so many women, the soldier’s hardened arms—none of it here now on the man before me. His skin had become ashen gray, his hairline receded to show a freckled sallow scalp, his arms scrawny and biceps gone to flab. His eyes seemed larger now, vulnerable in their sockets, as they looked needily up at me.
            Hey Tomas, thanks for showing up, he said. How’d you know I was here?
            The nurse called.
            I didn’t tell her how to reach you, didn’t want to subject you to this, he said.
            I know, I said, not calling him on his lie.
            He glanced away, then back again.
            You look good, he said. His smile caused his face to wrinkle, like piecrust that took effort to move.
            Why’d you do it?
            I’m sorry.
            He looked away to stop himself from crying. I worried that I would irritate him that way and changed the subject. What you been up to? I asked. You living in Southern California again?
            Yeah. For the last two years.
            You didn’t like New York?
            It didn’t work out.
            The nurse said you’ll be fine. You’ll be able to leave here in no time.
            Yeah, they wanted to release me into your care. I refused to let them do that. They just don’t want the responsibility.
            What about Mercedes?
            She left me. A year ago.
            I nodded. What have you been up to work wise?
            I’m an optometrist.
            No shit.
            Yeah, it’s true. Can you believe it? He reached over to his bedside table and took up a pair of reading glasses from their case. He placed them on his face. They looked expensive with wire rims and a contemporary design but their youthfulness made his skin look haggard.
            I got these at a discount, he said.
            Do you need anything?
            He hesitated.
            Is Gabe around? he asked.
            Where does he live?
            He still lives with Mom. With his girlfriend and daughter in the main house. I live in a bungalow cottage—a shed really—I built out back. We’re all together.
            My father’s face changed. Gabe didn’t want to come here, I said.
            But you did.
            I came.
            That’s what I meant, he said. Thanks.
            I gave no reply.
            Gabe is the one I’d thought would have come, he said.
            I know it.
            He nodded. He pushed his wire rimmed glasses, which seemed too large for his gaunt formerly handsome face, up on his nose. This made him squint and I noticed a permanent vertical furrow dividing his forehead. He said, You’ll come back tomorrow?

On my drive back to Venice, on Los Angeles freeways that bottlenecked near the glistening skyscrapers of downtown, beneath an azure sky wind-scoured from last night’s Pacific Ocean storm, I was thinking about this man I called my father. And I happened to hear an old Neil Young song on the radio, “Old Man.” I had loved the melancholy banjo and slide guitar and feeble voice, but never paid attention to the lyrics before. But I caught them now, and the hair stood on the back of my neck.

            Old Man take a look at my life
            I’m a lot like you
            I need someone to love me the whole day through
            Old man take a look at my eyes and you can tell that’s true

Hands on the wheel, I froze. Gripped tight. Images arrested me of my son hugging my leg, tightly pushing his face against my side, saying, Please don’t go, stay and play with me.
            I’ve got to go, Em. I have to work.
            He clung. Please.
            The desperateness of his voice, the wide eyes. He could read me. He’d see my hesitation, my weakness, and his charming smile came in for the kill, with the lower lip threatening to push out into a cry. And I’d reach down and hug him. I had to go to work, but I’d stay and play his game of Candyland, help finish assembling the Lego castle, push Percy around the Thomas The Train set.
            You would not think I was like him by looking at my life, my lonely bungalow, its empty bed, all my nights alone.
            But my father. You could look at his life, when I was a kid, and see the old man in the song with that thirsty need. I recalled an image of Dad in bed, wearing his robe, face looking haggard from a bad hangover, yet still young and handsome, as I stood in the door with my backpack.
            Don’t go, he said.
            I have school.
            You don’t need what those idiot teachers tell you in those stupid books. You think they have something to share with you, some knowledge to pass on that I don’t? How many of them have PhDs? Not that my doctorate is good for shit, but you got to wonder about a person like that why they didn’t go for one—a teacher.
            Really, I have to go.
            Don’t leave me here. Come on. We’ll hit the boardwalk, have some ice cream, walk down to the ocean.
            I nervously clutched my bag straps. I’ll get in trouble if I cut class.
            I’ll write them a note.
            We’ve done this too many times already this year. I’ve hit my limit.
            All right, then. Don’t come if you don’t want to.
            He turned away from me, lips pursed angrily. He faced the wall. He touched his jaw as if someone had punched it with a sledgehammer.
            We can go to the boardwalk after I get out of school, I said. I’ll skip basketball practice.
            Don’t bother. I know you don’t want to.
            I do want to.
            Maybe Gabe will want to come with me. We’ll go fishing.
            We ended up going on a deep sea fishing trip off Marina Del Rey. I was suspended for truancy, but I’d caught ten fish with my father. He taught me how to bait the hooks, reel them in, put the flopping creatures out of their misery by holding them still against the deck in their rucksacks and hammering their heads. He seemed alive now, no sign of his morning funk, his face boyishly smiling, his blue eyes large as Easter eggs, full of contagious spark.
            And then, after the divorce, he often came by to take me fishing. He would leave my brother behind. Gabe would sit on the couch with his hands on his lap, muscles tensed, shoulders hunched forward, staring at the carpet, as I got the gear ready and stacked by the front door. Waiting for Dad to arrive. I looked eagerly out the window, at the grainy predawn light, the ghostly outlines of the street. When he pulled up in his black convertible Saab, I gathered up the gear and hurried out the front door so he wouldn’t have to come in and rub it in Gabe’s face.
            You could go for years like this, as a kid, and be thankful for a few days a month or summer. To drink in your time with your father. But I got older and began to see things different, began to unforgive him for what he had done to our mother, how he made her cry, how she couldn’t face her extended family for months and avoided the fiestas and barbeques. How we could not even rent movies at the Odyssey because we could not get a credit card because the man had filed for bankruptcy right before the divorce. How our house took on a mildewy odor because his old fish tanks broke one night, splaying algae-ridden water and baby octopus and sea urchin and tiny shark over the blue carpet, along with bright flopping tropical fish, carpet we could not afford to replace. Mom stayed up all night trying to shampoo and scrub the smell away, but gave up near dawn, crying over the orange bucket, and entered a funk she would not get out of again; I latched the door to his old hobby room and plastered the gap along the floor, but the stink still seeped out to the rest of the house. I’d wake up from dreams thinking I could feel the residue of seawater on my skin, which was sticky to the touch.
            I stopped returning his calls, and right away he began taking Gabe on our old outings. He took him fishing and camping up into the Sierra Mountains. They surfed together. He’d come back smelling of boardwax and salt, of kelp that had washed up on shore and warmed in sunlight, sand that he tramped off on our carpet. They went on road trips to Mexico, Santa Fe, a visit to family out in New York. Me, I would not even talk to family on his side. They were all NY Italians; I spent all my family time with the West Coast Filipinas eating sizzling adobo spooned onto steaming rice, crisp lumpia, and empanadas baked with crunchy sugar on their brown crusts.
            On my brother’s eighth birthday, my mother threw Gabe a party. She invited all the kids at his school, made the invitation cards herself using parchment paper, colored inks, shapes of cakes and candles cut delicately out of colored tissue paper. She dressed up our house with confetti, bright streamers, hung a piƱata in the yard which she had splurged to buy on Alvarado Street. She bought little gifts for the kids, candies and toys wrapped in small plastic pumpkins. She made the cake herself, yellow with purple ube frosting—my brother’s favorite, a sweet Filipino root.
            The kids were to arrive at noon. Mom hurried about the house making last minute preparations, fretting because she wanted everything to be perfect for the kids, and because she worried about what the white American mothers would think of our little house, the ube frosting, the gift packs, the lunch she’d made. Nobody likes Filipino food, she fretted.
            You don’t know that, I said.
            All our restaurants go out of business, she insisted. You can find Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean everywhere—everything but Filipino! She wrung her hands and shook her head. Maybe I shouldn’t have made lumpia and adobo. Maybe I should have made BLT sandwiches instead.
            I reassured her it would be okay.
            At ten the doorbell rang. Someone’s early! my mother panicked.
            I set my hand on her shoulder, squeezed it reassuringly, and went to answer it. I opened the door and was shocked to see my father standing there. He wore a tailored black blazer, ink blue designer jeans, maroon silk shirt, and wing tip shoes, which I noticed looked expensive. Yet his hair had grown out, and he had a scruffy beard that pressed uncomfortably against his expensive collar as if it felt confined.
            What are you doing here? I said.
            Nice to see you too, son, he said. Can you get Gabe?
            My mother came up behind me. Russ?
            I’m here to bring my son to his birthday lunch. I made reservations at The Ivy.
            He can’t come, I said.
            It’s his birthday. I’m his father. You had him for breakfast and will have him for dinner. It’s a Saturday.
            We talked about this, Russ, Mami said. He’s having a party.
            You didn’t invite me.
            It’s a kids’ party.
            Well, I can see I’m not welcome.
            Don’t be like this. Please.
            He pursed his lips and turned aside, fingering his shirt button as if to keep up his dignity. Just get Gabe so I can talk to him, wish him a happy birthday.
            My mother hesitated, sensing ulterior intentions. She looked at me warily for help.
            He’s getting ready, I said. Why don’t you come back later?
            I live an hour away.
            Dad, you didn’t come by last week. You were supposed to take him fishing.
            No, not last week I wasn’t.
            Yes you were, I insisted. He was waiting for you all morning. He sat there on the couch, with his rod assembled and his tackle box at his feet. He refused to eat Mom’s eggs, because he said you and him always stopped by MacDonald’s for breakfast. He didn’t eat or put his rod away until two.
            Well, then he got his facts wrong, my father said: Why didn’t he call me? Why didn’t you call me?
            Russ, my mother said.
            He should have called rather than sitting around worrying everybody. Get him here so I can have a talk with him.
            Russ, please. Mami was chewing on her knuckles; she glanced at the front lawn through the window, then at her watch. The other children and their mothers will soon be here, she said.
            He stared at her harshly. You don’t want them to meet me?
            I don’t want Gabe to get upset before the party. You know how long it takes him to recover.
            My father nodded as if in agreement. Then he fumbled with his shirt button again, deep in thought, and shook his head. You’re embarrassed of me.
            No, Russ.
            Listen here. You aren’t married to me anymore. And I am the boy’s father. You have no right to be embarrassed of me. That’s not your role anymore. Not your right.
            He was pacing now, scratching his overgrown beard. It had really gone shaggy, with white ends.
            Dad, why don’t you get out of here, please.
            He turned on me with a gaze that burned. My cheeks caught fire. He kept his eyes on me for an excruciating moment, then, with the manner of the insulted, he turned down the hall to find Gabe. And I did not go after him. He’d always done demonstrative little gestures when he got drunk and felt Mami was afraid he’d embarrass her; on a trip out to Manila for my cousin’s debut, at the Makati Polo Club, he had had too much to drink and tried dancing up her teenage friend, only to stumble over a banquet table and spill punch and liquor over a dozen dresses and white barongs.
            I turned to my mother, worried that she’d be crying. But she seemed too busy worrying, glancing back and forth between the front window and then around the room at the party’s preparations. The table laid out with festive shimmering purple table cloth and sparkling gold center pieces, the colorful streamers hanging from the walls, the yellow HAPPY BIRTHDAY GABE! banner, the balloon clusters pressing up against the ceiling, their strings dangling ready to be taken as a party favor by the little guests.
            Against the opposite wall, we’d placed a portable banquet table, covered it in the festive tablecloth, and set dish upon dish of Filipino foods, covered in foil and condensation-beaded cellophane wrap. All cooked for the parents.
            To be honest, I felt a little embarrassed that the other mothers would see how much effort Mami put into this, given how few mothers would probably be here. Usually at these parties, several fathers would drop off their kids and disappear to run errands until the ending time. Mami had fretted over this party for weeks, because she knew Gabe was quiet and had few friends. He had seen a speech therapist and there’d been talk of keeping him back a year, and some professional debate among his therapists and teachers over whether he was developmentally delayed or simply exposed to too much Tagalog (Mom’s sister, brother and mother often ate with us and always talked in Taglish). It was decided that the family should try speaking only English. Now, Gabe and I could no longer speak the language, though we could understand it, but less well each year, like memories of old friends and places that fade no matter how hard you try to cling to them by going over them in your mind.
            Look, Tomas, it’s Nela and her mother!
            Mami was at the window, but I nudged her to back away so that the approaching pair would not see her looking out.
            We waited by the front door for them to knock. She was clenching her elbows tight.
            Relax, Mom. Everything looks great.
            I hope everyone shows up.
            They RSVP’d.
            I know. But there’s been so many birthday parties already this fall. Maybe people will change their mind.
            Why don’t you open the door? I suggested.
            Let’s let them knock first, she said.
            So we waited. Maybe we should get Gabe, she said. But she made no move to go back there.
            If we go back there now, Dad might come out here and make a scene, I said. Maybe we should let him say what he wants to say, and then I’ll go back and try to get him to go out the back door.
            You think he will?
            Sure, I said uncertainly.
            She looked at me doubtfully, then jumped at the sound of the door knocking. But she put on her best social face and greeted Nela and her mother, a South Asian woman in completely western clothes and manner. My mother, unlike most Filipinas I know, was not a gregarious person and you could see the effort in her anxious smiles, as she led the girl to the play area she’d set up. She chatted with Nela’s mother for a moment, but seemed to struggle with small talk, and glanced at me with pleading eyes, asking me to go back and check on Gabe.
            As I went into the hallway, I heard the doorbell ring and the voices of more kids and parents entering.
            Our house is rather narrow and long, because the rear was originally a screened porch and you have to access it through a separate hallway closed by two doors. The party voices became muted behind me and I could hear my brother and father talking, as I stood outside Gabe’s door. My father sounded unhappy with him, but also a bit eager to please. I knew that tone. It meant that he did not want to be alone.
            Stiffening, I forced myself to knock. Father’s voice hushed, a needling silence, followed by an irritated, Yes?
            I nudged the door open. They looked at me: Gabe was standing and my father sat on the edge of my brother’s bed.
            We’re having a talk, Tomas, father said.
            Your friends are beginning to arrive, I told my brother.
            We’ll be out in a few minutes, our father said.
            Gabe was avoiding our eyes, staring at the avocado carpet.
            Actually, if you don’t mind using the back exit, I think that would be best.
            You think that would be best.
            You’re a twelve–year-old boy. Twelve-year-old boy’s don’t talk like that, he said. He made no move.
            Mom put a lot of effort into this party. You’re not going to ruin it, I said. My voice was trembling. My hands at my sides shook too.
            Fine. He suddenly stood. Come on, Gabe. We’ll go out the backdoor. We’ll skip this clam bake. After the Ivy, we’ll head down to San Clemente and do some shore fishing. Get your rod and tackle box.
            He started for the backdoor, and looked back for my brother to follow him. Gabe hesitated. But my brother noticed our father’s face begin to crumble and he went over to his closet and got out his rod and tackle box.
            Gabe, I said. What are you doing?
            He avoided my eyes, both of our eyes, as he began to fit the pieces of his rod together. He was kneeling to screw them tight, keeping his face away from us, and I thought he was crying. He finished assembling the rod, but stopped there. I thought he was deciding to stay. We were all quiet. We could all hear the muffled party noise coming in, the laughing kids and gossiping mothers, even the lower sound of somebody’s father telling some boisterous joke. I had told my mother to buy a case of fine beer for the parents, and maybe that was working.
            My brother needed a nudge. I approached him to put the rod back in the closet, got my hand on the pole’s thin spry surface. It was an expensive rod our father had bought me several years ago, with money that he was not supposed to have, but I no longer used it. I began to lift it.
            Don’t let him take it, my father snapped.
            His voice had changed now, to that angry tone, and Gabe held the rod from me. I stopped, then proceeded to peel his fingers off one by one. He did not resist. I took the pole back to the closet, my back turned to our father’s face, because I did not want to see his reaction—whether it be anger or hurt.
            Then I returned to my brother, who himself was keeping his eyes rigidly focused on his shirt sleeve button as he fingered it; I took his hand and led him towards the inner door, the muted sounds of the waiting party. He tried to look back at our father, but I touched his cheek to redirect his eyes.
            My own eyes did, however, catch a glimpse of Father’s feet. His polished shoes were awkwardly pigeon-toed, touching at the fronts, nervously tapping, and his hands drooped beneath his knees almost down to his calves as he sat.
            I expected him to call out to us, or even to set his hand on my back. But he did not. However, as we left the room I could hear his heavy breathing.
            We did not look back, as we made our way to Gabe’s party: I held my brother’s elbow, and pulled him against me tight.

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    All for now,

    tags: Philippines, Philippine American, literature, fiction, novel, historical fiction, short story, author, writer, Brian Roley, Brian Ascalon Roley, Filipino American

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