Help! My Father Is Coming! and The Visit to Vijay's
I didn't invite him.
The idea was all my father's, my 74-year-old father who had never been outside America and who suddenly thought that Sri Lanka, where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, would be a jolly place to visit. He didn't know where it was, though he'd heard of its former name, Ceylon. He didn't know about the hepatitis and typhoid shots he'd have to get. And he certainly didn't know [about] its two civil wars.
"You're coming?" I asked him over the phone. "Are you kidding?"
"Kidding? Sounds like a real adventure to me. Monkeys, parrots, all those monk fellows wandering around. Malone, he's been there. He tells me there's elephants strolling the boulevards like shoppers. Say Jimmy, should I bring a tie?"
"Dad, maybe you ought to?"
"And cobras! No cobras here in Cleveland, Jimmy. Now Malone, he tells me to bring over my Irish flute, conjure those little buggers right out of their holes. How about my Hush Puppies? Think I'll be needing them, or should I just go with the wingtips? I'm figuring a tie doesn't take up much space and well, whadya think, Jimmy?"
My wife, Cindy, sitting next to me in the Peace Corps office in the capital city of Colombo, jumped up and clapped. "He's coming? He's really coming?"
I held my hand over the receiver and told her again that I thought the idea was trouble, big trouble. "He's old and he hates heat, and, God, what could I even say to the guy for?"
"Jimmy? Jimmy, are you still there? Listen, I know the Hush Puppies may not be the most practical choice. But they sure are comfortable as slippers, and my bunions, jeez, they're acting up these days, and so ?"
And on he went. But I was barely listening. My head was filled with the preposterous image of my father on Sri Lankan soil. I reminded him about how genuinely bleak and violent this place really was: Sure, Dad, come on over and see two civil wars up close. Go get those typhoid shots and then come face-to-face with the malaria and the rabid dogs, the buses without brakes, the suffocating tropical heat. There are wooden beds waiting for your bony hips, Dad, and no English, and no toilet paper, and no forks?but enough snakes to fill up your nightmares. So come. Come where the cockroach is king. Come spend 700 uninterrupted hours with the last of your seven kids, the one you vaguely know and who vaguely knows you. For the first time in your life, leave America. Come, Dad. Come to the other side of the planet.
"Dad, I'm just a bit worried?"
"Jimmy, we've all got our problems. Jeesh, I'm driving your mother nuts sitting around here all day, and with all this retirement money I thought about Florida. Florida, Sri Lanka?it doesn't matter to your mother. She's just tickled pink to be getting me out of her hair for a bit."
"Save me, Jimmy. Save me now." It was my mom.
"Hi, Mom. How's life in Cleveland?"
"Jimmy, your father's driving me nuts. Get this: He's starting to vacuum. Can you imagine your father with a vacuum? And last night, get this: He decides to cook us dinner. First time in his life. So what does the nut make? Tomato soup. Straight from a can."
"With crackers," my dad said. "Cheese flavored."
"Thinks he's a chef now, the royal nut. Time to get him out of my hair before we both get shipped to the loony bin."
My dad said, "Now listen, don't you let me upset your life over there. You just keep on working and ? Hey, what is it you kids do over there, anyhow?"
I rolled my eyes. For the hundredth time over the course of the past two years I repeated, "Teachers, Dad. We'reteachers!"
"Jimmy, that'll be some kind of a treat to see you kids up in a classroom. Say, you folks got computers over there? I understand they're all the rage these days."
"Computers? Dad, we don't even have books or enough desks, and the goats keep eating the chalk. And most of the time the schools are shut down, anyway?you know, that little inconvenience of a civil war. You'll be lucky to catch us in action at all."
It was true. We had an official job title as Peace Corps Volunteers?"English teachers" to Sri Lankan adults preparing to become teachers.
"Hey, Dad," I said, "we're really overjoyed you're coming here"?Cindy snorted at my lie?"but, you know, are you sure you're up for all these bugs and heat and all that war stuff I've told you about?"
"Aw, heck, Malone tells me?you know Malone, Gus Malone, fella who works at the court? He's been to that Sir Lanker place?"
"'Sri,' Dad. It's 'Sri Lanka.' At least get that much straight."
It was too late for me to deter him from coming to a place where he really didn't belong, a place too primitive and too hazardous for anyone's father. His was a world of the microwaved potato and the sanitized toilet bowl, of leather recliners and automatic garage-door openers, of air conditioning and cruise control. But maybe, just maybe, he was tired of it all. Maybe he sensed that a lifetime of storm windows and neon-blue bug zappers had kept him disconnected from nature too long. Maybe in coming to Sri Lanka he was questioning whether all those protections had been necessary after all.
In a few minutes my dad would step through that customs door and be the responsibility of this teacher and rather dull boy for the next 700 hours. I turned that figure over in my head: seven hundred consecutive uninterrupted hours. That is a lot of time. I worried that if the snakes and heat and intestinal worms didn't get to him, then simple boredom with me might do him in.
The Visit to Vijay's
(Excerpted from Chapter Six in Serendib)
The path to Vijay's house was overrun with lemon grass as tall as our eyes. My father and I thrashed through it, unable to see two feet ahead of us until we reached a clearing. There we saw a Tamil family frozen at the impossible sight of us, two tall, white, hairy, blue-eyed men. All of them were crammed into two railroad boxcars called line houses. The British had installed them a century ago to shelter the thousands of southern Indians imported to pick tea. Today, the Sinhalese government did little to improve their situation. Jobs, roads, schools, houses, medicine?the Tamil tea picker living on the sides of these steep hills was sure to get nothing, especially during this heightened stage of civil war. They were the shadow people of Sri Lanka, the poorest and the least educated, the most isolated and the most ridiculed. Even the civil war wasn't interested in these ragged hills. In this and many ways, these Tamils regarded themselves as invisible to the outside world, so that whenever Cindy and I would greet them with wanacome (the Tamil version of ayubowan), they'd be astonished that we had noticed them at all. I ached at their neglect, and I knew how much a greeting from my dad would mean to them, bearing the multiple status of old and white and male and American?plus he was a guest.
"Just try it, Dad. It's easy: 'Wanacome.'"
"No, no. Don't start in with the language lessons now."
"Just pretend you're a barber back in Cleveland asking for a comb. 'Hey, you want a comb?' Get it? Want a comb,wanacome. Give it a try."
"Listen, Jimmy. All I want to try now is a bed. I'm exhausted."
The entire family stood mesmerized as we walked by. Out of respect for us they stayed inside their boxcars, their blue-black faces filling the windows and the open door. The only one left outside was a deformed girl sitting on the ground, rocking herself in the shadow of a tree. Suddenly a little boy sprinted out from the house toward us, offering a mango, until his father snatched him up in midair and spanked him all the way back inside.
From across the valley came the noon broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer. My dad, walking backward to keep an eye on the Tamil family, paid no attention to the music of the prayer. Instead he stepped square into a mound of cow dung and, until I redirected him, was nearly skewered on the horn of a water buffalo. A mongrel dog bared its fangs at him. A woman who was scraping up the dung to use as fuel threw a coconut shell at the dog, then bowed to my father and slid away into the tall lemon grass. My dad tipped his Indians cap at her, but the grass had already swallowed her up.
We saw Vijay's five sisters before they saw us. They were sitting toboggan-style on their front porch, each searching for ticks in the other's hair. My dad knew what they were up to.
"Say, Jim," he said, tightening his baseball cap, "aren't those hair bugs able to jump?"
"Yeah, but just short distances."
"That's the only distance I care about right now. From Delaware to Louisiana, I don't care, but head to head, that's suddenly my business."
When we entered their yard all five girls darted inside. Vijay's mother then shuffled out to greet us, wiping her hands on the skirt of her sari. Her five daughters followed closely behind, their eyes on the ground. A couple of hens squawked out of the way and ran into the house. I thought I heard a goat screeching inside one of the two outhouses.
Vijay emerged from indoors, smiling and enthusiastic, his arms spread wide. "Jim and Mr. Jim's father! Oh, this is the greatest of honors to have you visit my house."
We embraced. I could see up close that his 22-year-old face, black and hairless, was already wrinkled from the burden of being the eldest son in a family without a father. His family managed to live on his meager salary as a teacher, earned from three months teaching Sinhala to Peace Corps Volunteers, then nine months teaching every subject to tea plantation children. Though talented and bright, Vijay could reach no higher position in this country that based promotions more on race than on merit.
He introduced us to his family. They were all on their knees, bent at the waist, hands together in prayer. To them we were gods?not just demigods, but manifestations of real gods. As Vijay went down the line introducing his sisters to us, I instructed my dad to touch their heads lightly with his fingertips. He whispered to me that he would do no such thing.
"Dad, please. It's their custom, and if you don't they'll see it as an insult." "Yeah, well, I'm in no hurry to make friends with those hair critters. Besides, whatever happened to the handshake?"
His uneasiness was a revelation to me. The slippery art of the introduction, which he had mastered as a Cleveland judge, now confounded him here in Sri Lanka. For years he had been the smooth one, and when I accompanied him to political rallies or funerals (especially funerals; the Irish can't get enough of those funerals), he would meet new people with grace and ease. He remembered names. He knew how to touch elbows, how to tilt at the waist, how to lilt his voice. "Clair! Clair Kennedy!" he'd say, his two hands gloving her one. "My oh my, Clair, your brother and me went back to the days at Cathedral Latin when ?" Eventually he'd get around to introducing me, panicked and blinking, overwhelmed as if Clair were delivering a baby on the spot. To Clair, whose name I had forgotten the moment I heard it, I would extend my limp, clammy hand, and look away.
Here on this hillside of tea, then, I rather liked my dad's distress. I wanted him to feel like slithering into the lemon grass.
Eventually, after more nudging from me, my dad touched the daughters' heads as if each were a hot stove. When he stood before the mother, she looked up into his eyes and, pressing her hands together beneath her chin, said, "Wanacome." My dad's hands came halfway together. His lips moved into some vague shape of "wanacome," though it could have likely been "want a hairbrush."
Vijay led us indoors, kicking a chicken out of his way. My father and I ducked our heads beneath the entrance and then stood in the four-room house, its walls and floor made of mud, its roof of asbestos sheeting.
He peeked his head into the dark rooms to scout the horrors awaiting him here, like whether his bed for the night would be made from a hollowed-out cow. All seemed fine for the moment. Then he saw a table of food covered with newspapers dotted with hundreds of flies. While backing away in disgust, he bumped his head into a bizarre decoration hanging from the ceiling. It was Vijay's art, an IV tube that he had twisted and knotted into the image of a fish. It too was black with flies, all rising when my father knocked the fish with his head. For a few seconds the flies buzzed madly around my dad's head like electrons, then settled back down on the fish.
"Holy God," he growled, swatting the air. "How did I end up in this stockyard at my age?"
Vijay led us into the kitchen to meet his grandmother. We peered in from the doorway, adjusting our eyes to the dimness and the smoke. In the far corner, lit by a small fire, squatted the grainy shape of an old woman. She was cutting vegetables in the Sri Lankan way: anchoring the knife on the ground between her splayed toes, blade side up, and swiftly moving the onion across the blade with her hands.
"Now that's a new one," my dad whispered to me. "Never thought you could use a knife like that, turned upside-down. Here I go a whole lifetime thinking there's only one way to cut an onion. Jimmy, remind me to tell your mother about this one."
The grandmother's toes made fresh imprints in the layer of cow dung spread thinly across the mud floor. She glanced up at us, the gold hoop in her nostril glinting in the firelight. My dad tipped his Indians cap to her. She stared at him, stared a little longer and a little more deeply, then turned her shoulder into the corner of the room and spat red betel juice into a tin can. She hid her mouth behind a flap of sari and resumed cutting.
I looked at her and my father. What was happening here in the doorway, between light and dark, between civilizations, between centuries? Though of the same age, what could this woman be to my dad: more mushroom than woman? More dung and darkness than a lady with wit and fire? In that moment when their eyes met, what secret language did they exchange?
"I have to sit," my dad said. A hen ran out from beneath the grandmother's sari, squawking. "I have to sit now. Better yet, can you find me a bed?"
Vijay, worried about his hospitality, asked if he could get my dad some water or tea. "Or food. Perhaps the sir needs some rice or wadees or?"
"Sleep. All I need is a little catnap, Vijoo."
"Dad, it's 'Vijay."'
"Vijay, Vijoo?whatever. All I know is that I've been put through the wringer all day, so just point me to the nearest bed and clear the way."
En route to the bedroom my dad once again hit his head against the plastic fish, releasing the flies. Swatting and cursing he bumped into the table of food, jarring all those flies resting on the newspaper into orbit around his head. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" he cursed, beating the air. "May God in heaven give me strength."
I closed the bedroom door behind him. Vijay motioned me over to the front window, where we stood watching his little sisters outside mimicking my dad, wildly swatting imaginary flies. They laughed so hard that they all fell down. "I'm sorry, Jim," Vijay said, "if we disrespect your ? your ?" But he too started to giggle, then to laugh hysterically, and so did I, though I think my laughter came more from the pleasure of seeing these people full of joy in a time when joy was scarce.
Vijay and I sat and talked. While catching up on our lives we let our fingers entwine around each other's in the custom of good Sri Lankan friends?strictly male to male, that is, or female to female. Eventually our discussion led to Ranji. "I have seen her, Jim," Vijay whispered. "For the last couple of weeks, every day we meet while her father is cutting rice."
"Does he know? The father?"
"I'm sure he does but she doesn't care." For a year Vijay had been in love with a woman whose father had already chosen her mate. Vijay, too, had an arranged partner, though as the eldest son he first had to wait until all five sisters were married. If Vijay broke all the rules and did marry Ranji, both families would banish them, a consequence too grave in this small, religious society. He tightened his fingers around mine. "I must be with her, Jim. I must be with her or I die. I know it is not right for her, for my sisters, for our ?"
One of Vijay's sisters entered the room, kneeling at his feet for permission to leave the house. After he lightly touched her head, she backed out of the room without raising her eyes, her front always facing us.
"For that sister, for the others, I must wait," Vijay said. "But how many more years must I wait for my freedom? Ten? Fifteen? And then my wife is chosen for me. Do you see how I am trapped, Jim? Do you see how in my world Ranji is an impossibility but Ranji is all that I want?"
Another sister, barefoot and eyes down, drifted in with a tray of tea and wadees. Flies dotted her arms like freckles, and as she turned to leave, the scent of kitchen smoke and wadeegrease rose off her sari.
"You in America have it right," Vijay said between sips of tea. "You are free to do what you want, not what your mother or your culture tells you to do. It is primitive, this system. Imagine: You meet Cindy and you love Cindy and then youcan't marry her because your parents have a strange woman chosen for you, a woman you've never seen before. This is barbaric. Why does God put love inside of us if not to be used? Is it only for suffering that God makes me love Ranji and she love me?"
"But, Vijay, look how love fails in America." I explained what I had often told Sri Lankans, that America is not the love paradise Vijay may think it is, that it is a land of disillusionment and divorce and families spread thousands of miles apart. "Over here these arranged marriages seem to work. The partners stay together and love usually grows between them."
"It is a business arrangement, Jim. It gives me a business partner, not Ranji, the woman I love. It places business above love, and I cannot live that way. This is torture for me. This is not life for me."
The highest suicide rate in Asia belongs to Sri Lanka, almost all because of this situation Vijay was in. These young, trapped lovers most often swallowed DDT, the pesticide banned in America but sold by American companies to Sri Lankan farmers. "So, Jim, I must ask you again to help me get to America. You see that I have no future here. Find me a university, a job, any job. I will work in your McDonald's. I'll do anything."
"You know I'll never do that, Vijay." He knew my stance on the immigration topic: I wouldn't contribute to the "brain drain" of Sri Lanka's brightest, even though I was badgered daily by desperate Sri Lankans and offered plenty of bribes. Personally, I wanted Vijay alongside me in America, hiking in Yosemite and shelling peanuts at a baseball game. But to do so would dishonor the Peace Corps and wound his sisters, his students, and his Tamil community at a time when they most needed him. I was there to celebrate and reinforce his culture, not to chip it away. "I'm doing you a favor by doing nothing, Vijay."
"I know, I know. And I respect you and I know I belong here, with my people. But look at it this way: Who's going to introduce wadees to America if I don't come over? And who's going to teach your father how to make fish out of IV tubes?" My father! I suddenly remembered that I had a father in the next room. I rose to check on him, concerned that the flies might have nibbled through to his intestines while he slept. When I peered into his room, however, I saw that my dad had solved the fly problem for the Third World napper. He had covered himself from head to toe with newspapers like the food on the table.
"Vijay," I whispered, "come here and see an American judge in all his glory. Call your sisters, too."
Together the seven of us watched from the door, pinching our noses to keep from laughing at this body shrouded in newspaper. The paper crackled with the rising and falling of his breath. Gradually, his hand slid down from his stomach and dangled limp near the floor, his rosary still encircling his wrist. A couple of flies landed on his thumb.
"Holy God," he moaned, flicking his fingers. He returned his hand to his chest and murmured some prayers in time with the clicking of his rosary. We all snickered. But at this moment, seeing my dad on a hard wooden bed, his body wrapped in paper like meat from a butcher's, I couldn't help but love the old guy. In such weak, exposed moments I loved him the most. My pinched snicker nearly made the short leap to tears, and all I wanted to do was toss aside the newspaper and fan my father like a pharaoh, all day and all night.
* * *
We returned to our chairs and soon heard my dad stirring. The newspaper rustled, the wood slats creaked, my dad pleaded to God, and soon he was standing before Vijay and me with his pants twisted to one side and his hair tousled high and wild. He wagged a finger at both of us.
"Think I didn't hear you in there, laughing at your old man like that?" His serious expression gave way to a laugh. "I wish I could've seen it myself, me, and a bedsheet made of the day's news. If you ask me it's a pretty clever fly repellent. Now, Jimmy, don't you be babbling about this back home or Malone, he'll get wind of it and it's yammer yammer yammer up and down the courthouse halls. I can hear that jackass now."
I was glad he was in a good mood because we were about to eat, a cultural experience that was sure to set him back. My dad and I sat down at the table, the cane on the seat of our chairs creaking beneath our weight. I didn't trust the frayed cane, so I sat on the wooden edge and left fate to deal with my dad.
No one ate with us. Vijay's mother and sisters would eat later in the kitchen squatting on inch-high benches; Vijay would follow us at the table. But for now the entire family had the single-minded duty of serving us. They brought in plates of curried vegetables in coconut milk, saffron rice with cashews and raisins, fish, fruit, avocados, and tea, all laid on a new tablecloth which I'm sure Vijay's mother had sewn just for our arrival. Once our plates were full, the entire family stood against the walls waiting for our next need.
My dad elbowed me. "Where are the forks?"
"Attached to your wrists."
"Wrists? What's that supposed to mean?"
"You use your fingers, Dad. Just pretend you're eating a hamburger or pizza. You wouldn't want a fork for a burger, would you?"
He looked at his plate. "This here is no juicy burger, believe you me. Malone, I remember him telling me all about this. Told me to bring my own fork wherever I went. 'Bring a dozen, John,' he said, 'or else you'll come home with food stuck under your nails for months.'" He lowered his eyes to the plate. "I just hope there's nothing moving in there. Malone told me all kinds of stories about microbes that turn into big eels once they get inside the human belly."
I wanted to slap him?nothing hard, just a light, friendly smack or two. I just couldn't understand how he could be so afraid of food. Here was the judge who stared down all those criminals in his Cleveland courtroom, those hatchet murderers eager to rip off his head. Then he'd go to lunch (every day a tuna sandwich from Wally the blind vendor) before returning to an afternoon docket of rapists and wife bashers. All these thugs cowered before him, and yet now he trembled in front of a plate of rice.
"Take the plunge, Dad. It's time for all good men to be courageous. Just gather the food at the tips of your fingers, like this, and?"
"Hold it, hold it, hold it," he said, raising his hand. "I believe you're forgetting something here, Jimmy."
"What?" "Does the word 'grace' ring a bell around here, as in 'grace before meals'?" He cleared his throat, straightened his back, and adjusted his butt on the creaking cane. He shut his eyes tight. "Let us begin. Dear Jesus, we are gathered here before you ?"
This worried me. I was hungry, I was salivating, and this guy's long-winded grace was going to keep all this exquisite food out of my mouth. He had done this before. I remembered all those Thanksgivings when the steam rising off the sliced turkey would disappear while my father prayed on and on and on.
"The good Lord has brought us safely from another continent to sit at this Sri Lankan table with my Jimmy. Our Lord has gathered us to give him thanks, and to thank Voojoo and his family for this wonderful food"?his eyes opened, as if hoping to find corn on the cob and steak and a pitcher of Ohio spring water, then he shut them tight?"food which the good Lord in all His mystery has seen fit to provide for us. In addition, let us pray ?"
He was just warming up. It would be a while before he would dismount from this horse?so familiar, so satisfying, so free of eels. But it was torturing me, and I thought of screaming a samurai scream and burying my mouth in the mountain of food on my plate. I glanced everywhere else to get my mind off the food, first up to see the house cat leaning down from the space between the roof and wall, then over to see Vijay and his sisters biting their lips not to laugh.
"Let us pray with all our fervent hearts for the poor people up here in the mountains of Sri Lanka who have little money and little houses full of chickens and flies and hard wood beds and yet who provide us with food which the Lord in all His goodness ?"
The cat on the wall pawed downward. My stomach growled. The cane beneath my dad's butt creaked. My stomach growled.
"Let us never forget what the Lord taught us about the least of thy brethren being the first in the Kingdom"?he sagged lower into the chair, and the cat leaned farther?"to stand alongside God who in all His majesty has made all things possible. Let us never forget"?lower, a gentle oozing, a popping of threads?"that Christ Jesus saw fit to?"
Twang! The cane gave way and my dad fell through and the cat jumped into a bowl of fish. Everybody froze. In that frozen moment I marveled that the stuff of bad slapstick could happen in real life. And in that moment I thought: My kingdom for a camera. Then the scene unfroze and the cat leaped into a corner, leaving curried paw prints on the new tablecloth. My father could see those prints quite well because his head had dropped to the level of the table. He wasn't laughing. No one in that room was, least of all Vijay's mother, who was so mortified that she shrunk into the corner with the cat. But from another room there was a high-pitched whoop, and there inside the doorway to the smoky kitchen squatted the grandmother on her haunches, rocking, laughing herself to tears, pointing at my father with her crooked brown finger.
My dad squirmed. "Get me out of here, Jimmy."
I tried to pry him out of the chair but all that lifted was the entire apparatus, twanged chair and white rump now united like a mythological creature. Vijay's mother shrunk farther into the corner, wringing her hands on the skirt of her sari.
"Oh God, Dad," I said, "you look ridiculous. Wait'll I tell Mom about this one. And Malone."
"Don't you dare. Don't you dare whisper one word to Malone or I'm done for sure. Now get me out."
"Sorry, can't. You're stuck in this chair for life, so may as well get used to it. Hey, look at the bright side: You'll never have to stand on a Sri Lankan bus again."
Word was already spreading throughout the tea estate of what had just happened. A few neighbors leaned through the open window, and I could see behind them a dozen more running up from the road. This was an event, maybe the event of their lifetimes, and no one was going to miss the chance to be an eyewitness. By now Vijay's mother was in hiding; the grandmother was out in the open, howling in laughter; and I was suggesting to Vijay that he ought to charge admission.
"Like the baboon lady at a carnival side-show," I said, then turned to my dad as he was inching his way out of the chair. "Not so fast, Dad. We've decided to wrap a cobra around your neck and have you juggle swords, just to make a few bucks. So settle back on down and be a sport, okay?"
"It's not funny, Jimmy. And it's starting to hurt."
* * *
We did free him, eventually, and all the eyewitnesses went home to spread the gospel of the Cane Chair Plunge. It wouldn't take long for this story to reach the farthest edge of Sri Lanka.
We still had to eat. Vijay brought in a new chair for my dad, this one reinforced with enough two-by-fours to support an elephant. Then I taught him how to eat: mash together some of the curries and rice into a ball, twirl it tight, move it up to the tip of the fingers, keep your elbow high, then pop it like a marble with your thumb into your mouth. "See, Dad," I demonstrated. "It's neat and clean."
But nothing he did was neat or clean. Rice kernels fell on his lap and on the floor, bouncing into corners for the chickens to fight over. Very little ended up in his mouth.
"Keep your elbow up higher, Dad, and pack the food tighter."
He tried again. This time he flicked the food with his index finger, not his thumb, sending a missile of rice across the room. The chickens were upon it in seconds. The grandmother was watching all of this from the kitchen entrance, shaking her head.
"Use your thumb, Dad, your thumb. Not your pinky, yourthumb!"
Finally, after more misfires that shot rice up to the ceiling, he got it: The ball of rice landed in his mouth, and from down on her haunches the grandmother applauded.
"Oh yes!" my dad gloated. "Looks like this old dog can still learn a few tricks." But on his own without my guiding hand he never really got it. He sprayed rice on the floor and in his lap and in my hair, and when the curry juices started dribbling down his chin, I thought, "My father, a baby in a high chair." Yet I was worried about this baby who hadn't eaten much since he arrived. I mashed a solid ball of food from my plate and held it up to his mouth.
"C'mon, Dad. You have to eat."
He pushed my hand away. "I'll be fine, Jimmy. I'm sure I'll be fine."
* * *
After dinner my dad and I petted the cow and talked baseball, and when it was time for him to prepare for bed, I showed him to the outhouse.
There were two of them, and it was very important to keep them straight. The smaller one was for the women of the house, but it also doubled as a cage for the goat, though no one ever explained why the goat had to be "outhoused" at night. Next to it stood the men's room. Unlike the open-pit toilet in the women's, ours had a porcelain, water-sealed basin cemented into the ground straddled by a pair of large footprints. "This toilet comes from India," Vijay boasted. "The first on the plantation." In the corner stood a 55-gallon drum containing all the water for all the ablutions. I told my dad to scoop out a handful to brush his teeth.
"That water?" he said. "In my mouth? You've got to be kidding."
"Just swish it around a little and don't drink it. Trust me. You'll be fine."
He had that look of someone who's not sure if he's the butt of a practical joke. I had seen it before in five-year-old Jackie Carlin, the neighborhood sucker, when he inspected an Oreo cookie from us older boys. Jackie would sniff and squish the Oreo, half-certain that we had laced the white inner cream with dish soap and cat food. He was right, but he usually shrugged and ate it anyway.
"If I do any swishing," my dad said, "I'll be on the pot all night. Malone warned me about this. 'John, better to put a loaded gun to your head than drink a spot of that gutter water.'" In the neighboring outhouse the goat was getting restless, thumping his legs against the wall. "I'll bet that damn goat is trying to tell me a thing or two."
"Dad, I promise that you won't get sick. I've been swishing this stuff for two years now and," I lied, "I've never been sick."
"Malone wouldn't lie. That goat wouldn't lie. You, I'm not so sure about."
Eventually he dampened his toothbrush with a few sprinkles of water, brushed, then spat it all out a dozen times. "Oh good God in heaven," he sighed wearily, "bless my poor belly tonight."
With his teeth cleaned we turned to the toilet. At the mention of it he looked very old and very sad?sad that the human body couldn't hold its own waste for a month, sad that there wasn't a commode on which to sit for an hour and read the sports page. He moaned and said, "Just show me what to do and leave me a little privacy."
"Okay. The trick is to put both feet on the prints, like this, and then squat all the way down like a grasshopper, or a catcher."
"Yogi Berra I'm not, or that cricket fella?Timony? Bimony? Look, Jim, I'm 74 years old and if I get down like that you'll need a crane to hoist me back up."
"You'll get the hang of it in no time."
He stared down at the toilet. "Where does it all go? Are there pipes down there? Filtration plants?"
"Filtration plants! Are you putting me on?" Whenever I told Sri Lankans about the "modern advancements" in America?ATM machines, cable TV, funeral homes, poodles groomed to look like shrubbery?they thought I must be inventing it all. "I don't know, Dad. I guess it just goes right into the ground beneath us."
"Raw sewage straight into the soil? Is that what you're telling me?"
"Well, yeah, but it's not as gross as you make it sound. I guess it turns to manure down there, and, you know, nourishes the earth."
"Nourishes! Hey, I don't care if it turns to Lemon Pledge down there, it still is raw sewage going right into the ground and into rivers and eventually"?he looked at the 55-gallon drum?"into the water I just used to brush my teeth."
While he spat out every atom of moisture from his mouth, I told him that some things were best left unexamined. "Now do your business and give a holler if you need me."
* * *
Later that night my father and I slept in the same room on twin beds, our only cushion a thin grass mat over the wooden planks. On the table between us Vijay had dimmed the oil lamp down to a point. He reminded us to avoid the left outhouse during the night?"The goat is sure to kick you"?and then tugged on my toes and wished us good night. I asked him where he was sleeping.
"In the next room, on the floor. I'm used to it."
"Oh, don't be a martyr. Come sleep here and I'll sleep with my dad."
"No, no, no. I like to be close to the earth. I'm not as soft as you Americans."
My dad turned on his side. "Soft? Is this your idea of soft? Holy God, I feel like I'm sleeping on nails."
Vijay closed the door on the way out. For a long time I stared at the point of light in the oil lamp, thinking too much. My dad never really fell asleep, moaning "Holy God!" every few minutes above the creak of his bed's wood planks. Each "Holy God" pricked me in the organ that holds Catholic guilt in a child, especially when he sat up on the side of the bed, digging his knuckles into his eye sockets. "Holy Mother of God, pray for me."
* * *
He woke up with the slightest of smiles and the slightest skip in his step.
Maybe the smile was from [a dream]. But more likely that smile reflected the start of a shift within my dad during the night. The flies, the harsh bed, the journey to the outhouse?to him these were horrors, and yet by being forced to face them all alone, maybe he was coming to realize that the horrors he'd been guarding against all this time were really thin as masks. Hey, he could do this Sri Lankan thing after all?and live! Perhaps a little unsanitary, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but nothing lethal and nothing more frightening than one's own shame. I'd like to think that the skip in his step that morning came from his having started to shed the weight of all the artillery he'd been lugging around to fight these phantom fears. Now he could skip, and now he could float. He could let go of that rope tying him back to his Cleveland condominium and just float in this new land with hard beds (you get used to them) and outhouses (fresh air) and new toilet customs.
Over the next few days, bit by bit, I saw my father meet Sri Lanka. He mastered the art of finger eating and even asked for seconds. He studied the grandmother cleaning rice in the kitchen, at first standing over her blocking the doorway, later on his own haunches next to her by the fire, helping her pick out stones. He named the goat "Malone" and took it for long walks on a rope through the tea bushes. He asked the tea plantation manager how tea is dried, asked Vijay what it was like to grow up surrounded by tea, and, to my surprise, asked me if I missed America.
One day at my father's request we walked three miles down a steep embankment to visit Vijay's school. Since the school relied on the Sinhalese government for funding, it had nothing. No desks, no chalk, no books. The 68 children, all wearing perfectly pressed white uniforms, were clustered in the shadow of a tin overhang, sitting on handkerchiefs that they had spread with great care. Only Vijay taught. There was one other teacher, but he hadn't shown up for 10 weeks because the government had stopped paying him. Vijay had also not been paid, though he went home each night with both arms full of potatoes and beans and chickens, an occasional rupee, an occasional statue of a Hindu god.
We watched him teach. In this bleak, overcrowded setting with every imaginable obstacle to teaching, Vijay found a way to teach. He drew world maps in the dirt. He taught math by subtracting and adding students standing in front of the class. He acted the part of an elephant in a student drama of theRamayana. Finally, using a goat's bladder stuffed with tea leaves as a soccer ball, he let students play soccer only after they correctly translated some English verbs.
My dad observed all of this very intently. "God bless that boy," he said, and said it in a way that indicated things inside of him were getting shook up. How minor must his own trials have now seemed when compared with the trials of these children, and to Vijay. "He's a magician, that's what he is. Out of nothing he creates so much. And look at those little girls over there, how much fun they're having and learning at the same time."
"He was trained by the Peace Corps," I said. "A lot of what he's doing is what I'm teaching my students up at Bandarawela. We improve their English, but mainly we teach them how to teach in primitive schools like this one. Vijay's a natural teacher, but without the ideas Peace Corps gave him, I think he'd be overwhelmed."
My dad nodded but had no reply. I tried to find in the slant of his head or the narrowing of his eyes some measure of validation for my work, but I found none. I told myself that it really didn't matter. And I repeated that it didn't matter, repeated it so often on our walk home up the mountain path?carrying Vijay's booty of mangoes and bread, passing the tea-pickers spitting betel juice into the tea fields?that I nearly came to believe my own lie.
* * *
On our last night at Vijay's house, the three of us walked at dusk to the Hindu temple, the center of the tea estate community. Vijay knew everybody on the walk: the family of five riding on a bike, the old lady toting a small tree on her head, every tea-picker, every child. Out of respect for the white men they all stood to the side as we passed, looking down at the ground.
We smelled the temple long before we reached it. A thick cloud of incense had spread out from the gates and across the tea fields. When we arrived at the temple, the incense partly obscured our view of the statues on the roof, an astonishing array of colorful Hindu gods that were dancing or sitting or balancing on one foot. My dad marveled at them.
"Look at the monkey face," he said, "and the elephant. And that one with all those arms. Amazing, all this art in the middle of nowhere. Who paints these things, Vooji, and how often?"
Vijay answered these questions and more, patiently teaching my father about this new world of Hinduism. His curiosity surprised me. I had expected him to be repulsed by it all, to regard it as the kind of barbaric and pagan religion that Christianity ought to convert.
We placed our shoes outside the gate and entered the temple. The 50 or so Tamils didn't know where to look, either down at the ground as they had been taught, or up at this mesmerizing sight of two white men with blue eyes and hair on their arms. To them this must have been a miracle, two Americans come to worship in their temple here on their forgotten plantation.
The Hindu priest approached. He stood before my father in just a loincloth, his face and body streaked with ash. For a moment these two opposites stood eye to eye?a nearly naked holy man facing a white man in wool pants holding a Gatorade bottle?and I wondered what sense either could possibly make of the other.
The priest bowed low to my father and chanted some prayers. When he arose, he laced around my dad's neck a garland of brilliant red flowers. He then pressed his thumb into a bowl of golden dust and, reciting a prayer, dabbed a spot of yellow saffron on the center of my dad's forehead.
Vijay said to my father, "The priest is telling you that you are a god in his temple, that the god inside you has met the god inside of him."
My dad appeared moved by this. He pressed his hands together in front of the garland and, bowing to the priest, said, "Wanacome."
The priest didn't appear surprised, but the rest of the crowd froze. This one holy Tamil word, wanacome, this mere puff of air out of my dad's mouth, had now become as sacred as incense. It settled softly on the heads of these maligned people, settling over their black faces and splendid saris, over their hands callused from picking tea. For a moment their hard lives were full of majesty, full of peace. For a moment that contained eternity, the vast distance from black to white, from Hindu to Catholic, from tea-picker to judge, from Sri Lanka to America?all was ultimately no further than the utterance of a word.
* * *
Later that night my father and I went to sleep in our twin beds. Though he had washed his face with water from the drum, my dad went to bed with the saffron dot still centering his forehead. The garland of red flowers leaned against his Gatorade bottle.
The next morning we left Vijay's home. In an act that was not silly, my dad opened the left outhouse door and put his garland of flowers around the goat's neck. He said good-bye to the chickens and the cow, flicked the flies off the plastic fish just for fun, and pulled a strand of cane from the notorious chair and put it in his mouth, Huck Finn-style.
Outside, Vijay's sisters lined up on their knees. My father stood before each one, firmly touching each head with all his fingers. He accepted a packet of wadees from Vijay's mother and an embrace from Vijay before starting to leave.
We turned around. There, standing in the doorway with her hands pressed together, was the grandmother. She raised her eyes from the ground and said through Vijay's translation, "Sir, you have honored my family by coming here. You are old, and I know it is not easy for the old to learn the new. You are a good and holy man. May Krishna bless your many lives."
My dad approached her. The wind uplifted some strands of gray hair not covered by his Indians cap; it uplifted some strands of her gray hair not bound in a bun. These were the elders, standing in their own sacred circle. He bowed to her with his palms together, saying in a very familiar way,"Wanacome." She shook his hands and then hugged him, crying, her head somewhere at the level of his navel. And then, in a gesture of either comedy or sanctity, my dad placed his Indians cap on her head. Vijay and I laughed, but from her reaction you'd think she'd just been crowned with a tiara of diamonds.
As we walked away she waved the cap up high, an old exuberant Tamil woman with rings in her nose, standing on the tips of her toes, waving an American baseball cap higher and higher until we turned a bend and were out of her sight forever.