Loud clanging and the beating of a drum woke me from a dead sleep. For
several moments, blanketed in tomb-like blackness, I assumed that the ruckus I
was hearing was a continuation of the storm that had raged throughout the night.
The longer I lay there, the more I was convinced that something else was taking
place outside the hotel. Whatever it was, I wished it would stop; it was forcing me
awake. The persistent noise refused to go away… Instead it grew louder and
sounded more like a parade.
I edged myself around Suna, careful not to wake her, and groped my way
through the darkness holding onto the table, the wall, and the sink. I fumbled
several moments with the wooden shutters before finding the latch, unhooking it,
and thrusting both sides open. Sunshine poured in, drenching me with far too
much light. I blocked out what I could with my hand and squinted until my half-opened
eyes could adjust to the intense brightness.
On the narrow street below, a Chinese procession in full swing passed in front
of the hotel. Leading the way, a truck carried several people beating gongs and
drums, accompanied by pre-recorded hypnotic chanting. Squeezed in with the
musicians was an odd assortment of food, including a whole roasted pig. A crowd
of people dressed in black walked behind the truck. Some wore gunny sacks over
their heads like makeshift hats, others held dark umbrellas. Despite the gaiety of
the music, no one in the procession was smiling. Several, in fact, were crying. It
took several moments for it to sink in what was going on; then I saw something I
never wanted to see first thing in the morning….Suspended from a long pole like
freshly captured quarry and shouldered by several men was a casket.
Trailing behind the mourners, several Indians pushed purple sedan effigies on
wheeled carts. The men struggled to keep the uncooperative wheels going straight.
The wheels clearly had a mind of their own. The effigies, like circus clowns, were
constantly and rather comically on the verge of crashing into each other. Yet no
one was laughing.
As I watched the funeral procession pass by, I felt a distinct uneasiness, an
urging not that unsimilar to what I had felt upon boarding the ferry to Penang. An
urging that refused to go away…. I tried to remove the gloom from my mind. I
wanted to think about life, not death. I wanted to dwell on the present, particularly
last night with Suna, and the future.
Today was a new beginning for me. Today, I realized, was also a Monday, a
day for getting things done. A day for tackling long overdue tasks. From my years
of running Copycat Boston, tackling long overdue tasks first thing Monday morning
was an ingrained habit. Clearing unwanted tasks would give me a sense of
accomplishment and would propel me through the week. The one task I had been
avoiding since arriving in Penang was calling Patricia. Finally, I felt ready to make
that call…confident to clear the air and put everything behind us so I could move
forward with my life here in Penang. I owed that to Suna. Patricia was my past.
Suna, if she’d have me, my future.
If only there was a phone in the room, I’d call Patricia right now, get it done
and over with. Last night I glimpsed one at the front desk. Even if the clerk
allowed me to use it, which I seriously doubted, it’d afford me no privacy, plus the
inevitable interruptions from guests coming or going or checking out. For a
moment I felt stumped. If only I were back at the E & O….The thought crossed my
mind that if I hurried back to the E & O, I could make the call, get cleaned up and
be back before Suna even woke up. By making that call, I could have the best of
both worlds: an unpleasant task completed and the prospect of spending the rest
of the morning in bed with Suna.
I didn’t like the idea of leaving Suna, but I knew that if I waited for her to
wake up, the mood would be different, the call would not be made, and the
opportunity would be lost. Knowing my tendency to procrastinate, it could be days
before I got around to it, assuming Patricia could wait that long. The one thing I
feared more than anything was having Patricia show up in Penang. I knew
Patricia, and she knew Penang far better than me.
I kissed Suna on the shoulder; however, she didn’t budge, sound asleep. I got
dressed and left a note on the dresser informing her I would be back within the
hour. At the bottom of the note, I added those eight magical letters I hadn’t had
the courage to say to anyone in a very long time: I LOVE YOU.
While waiting outside for a passing trishaw or taxi, I noticed an elderly woman
bent over as she tied flattened cardboard boxes to a wooden cart, oblivious to the
traffic swerving around her. The woman straightened up yet remained doubled
over, permanently crippled. She continued to push the heavy cart along the road
to forage for more boxes. When she came to where I was standing, she turned her
head sideways to look at me. Her eyes were cold and gray and the expression on
her sun-baked face was lifeless, akin to death itself. As she continued to stare, I
felt a sudden chill and had a premonition that something bad was going to happen.
This lingering feeling, coupled with seeing the funeral procession, caused me to
reflect upon the wisdom of leaving the sanctuary of Suna’s bare side in a bed still
warm from the heat of my own body.
(c) Robert Raymer
My father approached the runway in his Piper Cherokee Cruiser. Moments
after the wheels touched down, he took off again…. He banked to the left and
circled around until he was in landing position. Again, he swooped down and took
off…. He shot landings five, six, seven times before I stopped counting. Each time
he came down to land, I thought he was going to crash. Each time, I thought, I
didn’t come home all the way from Malaysia just to watch my father die.
Since it was Thanksgiving, it’d be a double tragedy if my father did die.
Instead of spending time together, I would be mourning his death. His death would
forever be associated with Thanksgiving, thus putting a damper on whole
holiday…. Thanks to the holiday, we had the local airport to ourselves. In other
words, if my father did crash, there would be no one around to help.
Each time my father landed, he looked over at me and I would take his
picture. Each time he took off my heart took off with him. If he did crash, one
thing was certain, I would crash along with him…. In case my father did crash, I
worked out in my mind what I would need to do. Instead of running to the crash
site, I would jump in my car and race there to save time. If my father was still
alive, I would help him out of the wreckage and drag him away, lest the plane
erupted into flames. Then I would rush him to the hospital—the same hospital
where I was born thirty-one years ago. I thought of my stepmother Marie and how
she would react when I broke the news. In no time she would be in her car racing
helter-skelter to the hospital, ignoring all traffic lights and stop signs. I would insist
that a neighbor or Roy, her son from a previous marriage, drive the car. I
didn’t want another death on my hands. Maybe I wouldn’t call Marie after all
because I knew she wouldn’t wait for someone to drive her. Instead I would call
Roy and ask him to pick her up.
There was a hitch in my plans. I didn’t have Roy’s phone number. Perhaps I
could ask the operator for assistance or have the police notify her…. I was hoping
as I planned all this, I didn’t have to call anyone. I was praying really hard in the
back of my mind that my father wouldn’t crash. Not today. Not when we still had
so much to discuss…about my future in Malaysia, about my mother’s past, about
their divorce, and about Grandfather Thomas.
My father came in for another landing, but this time he didn’t take off…. I
breathed a sigh of relief. Today he was not going to die…. At the end of the
runway, he turned the plane around and headed back in my direction. I was about
to get into the car to meet him at the hangar, when my father stopped the plane in
front of me and waved me over.
My heart sank.
I didn’t want to do this.
I didn’t want to climb into that plane.
As a boy I would avoid flying with him…afraid if we would crash it would be
my fault. If he hadn’t taken me up for a ride, he would still be alive. Even in
death, I didn’t want that hanging over me…. In a labored dead man’s walk, I
approached the plane with distinct sense of dread, its wing aimed at me like a
drawn dagger. Not paying attention, I circled around to the right side of the wing. I
could just as easily circle around to the left side; the distance was exactly the
same. In the Cessna, my father’s previous plane, there was no question as to how
to board the plane. The door and step-up were clearly evident below the wing. To
get into the Cherokee Cruiser you had to climb onto the wing, and if the plane was
at rest you could actually climb onto the wing from either side, as I did earlier that
morning when my father introduced me to his new airplane.
Busy writing something down on his clipboard, my father looked up. He
jerked to attention and called out, “Whoa!” His tone was firm, without a hint of
panic, yet I immediately knew something was wrong, so I halted in my tracks. He
waved me back around to the other side of the wing and said, “Never go to the front
of a plane when it’s running.”
Had I kept going, I would’ve walked into the propeller. It was slicing through
the air so fast I couldn’t see the blades.
My father just saved my life. All it took was a firm, “Whoa!” and a wave of his
Had it been my mother, she would’ve screamed in hysterics. In not comprehending,
I would’ve run toward her to see what was the matter, and the propeller
would’ve sliced the life out of me.
That was the difference between my father and my mother.
But was it really her fault?
(c) Robert Raymer