THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2
HONG KHAC KIM MAI
FACE TO FACE
I was gazing at the bookshelf in the garage.
My wife bought a bookshelf fifteen years ago while wandering the neighborhood garage sales. It was very old and made with inexpensive material. The bookshelf was extremely long and tall with many shelves. While waiting for her change, my wife murmured in my ear, “This is for you so you can display your books as you please”. I was so happy. “That’s my present for your coming birthday. Someone is fifty at last!” she said. I smiled with ease in return.
The bookshelf was too cumbersome. I had to ask for help from my friends to haul it home in a big truck. My children eagerly suggested painting it white. My wife said it would be nice to resurface it with lacquer. “Oh well, what you want is what you get, my dear,” I said. I took the job without complaining even though I had never done anything like that before. Since the day we left our beloved country, we had each become a Jack-of-all-trades person to survive.
The bookshelf was so high and unstable, my wife thought that I should nail its four corners to the wall nearby to make it more secure. The wife’s will is God’s will, I guessed. Now the bookshelf looked so beautiful, so elegant. It became stable, like a muscular statue standing proudly right in the main room of the house. It was hard to believe that just a few days ago it was a refuse object.
We had very few books to display. As refugees freshly settled in this new country, the humble income we received from the welfare system did not allow us to spend lavishly. A group of friends, living out-of-state, sent me their unwanted books and magazines. I gratefully received them, even though most of them were outdated and there were many authors who I did not recognize.
Watching me dusting the books and arranging them neatly, my wife put her arms around my neck and whispered, “You can display other people’s books now. Some day, I wish you would do it for your own written books. I am afraid that these shelves will not have enough room for you by then.”
What she said was so moving. I held my breath awhile to calm myself down, and then I slowly said, “You really want me to go back to writing?” She sat there, looking down. Sincerely I told her that life in a new country has so many hurdles to overcome. “I have to work two or three jobs in order for you and the children to have a good life. Being involved with the word game is the sort of luxury that I dare not dream about.”
My wife responded, her eyes growing moist, “I married you because I always admire your poems so much. Are you no longer that person?”
Her question was like a sharp knife cutting my soul. I stood up pretending to sip some water, hiding my tears about to fall on my face. A flock of innocent children and a weak woman were under my wings. Did I have the right to bury myself in one place with the passion of writing, and let my family struggle to make a living?
I was gazing at the bookshelf.
Five years have gone and the bookshelf was pretty full. The works of so many authors who were my friends from all four corners of the world had been sent to me. I respectfully arranged them in good order. My wife was sometimes in a bad mood for no reason. Once, not being able to contain herself, she said, “Why don’t we republish your books?”
I held her face in my hands and laughed. “You should forget that idea, Honey. You are my Muse. I am not so stupid as to look for another one somewhere else”. She was upset thinking that I made a joke of her. That night she skipped her meal.
Three months later, four strange new books appeared on the first shelf. I took them down and, immediately, I felt confused. My hands were trembling and my heart was pounding. No doubt that they were the books of thirty years ago with my name on them as the author. Still the same pictures on the covers, but the presentations were more colorful and indeed more attractive. The letters inside were sharper, nicer. My mouth suddenly became dry, and within me there was a mixture of joy, excitement, and worry. I asked myself if they were real. I asked myself if I was hallucinating. Was my soul on cloud nine or were my eyes deceiving me? I looked at my books in amazement, feeling so proud. In a state of ecstasy, I held them tight to my chest, afraid that they would disappear …
In the evening after everyone was asleep, I walked on my toes to the bookshelf. Taking my books down, I contemplated them for a moment. Then with the eyes semi-closed, I went back to the days when I was a young and ambitious writer in my native country. Memories of the past were still vivid within me. Oh yes, I certainly enjoyed the day my very first book was published….
Somebody made a noise somewhere in the house.
I hurried to put the books back in their place and sat down in an armchair nearby. I pretended to read the newspaper and heard my beloved wife coming. She scooted next to me and cuddled. “Somebody has been reading the front page of the newspaper for hours!” she said.
I smiled but I felt guilty inside. I replied, “Today I was so tired after work, I held the paper and fell asleep. I did not read anything.”
My wife laughed loudly, “Is it true, darling?”
I felt embarrassed, then admitted I had noticed the strange and suspicious presence of the new books.
My wife pretended to look serious for a while; she then whispered as usual in my ear, “I had them published for you as my present for your fifty-fifth birthday”.
I could not hold back my tears. My voice trembling, I asked, “Where did you find the money to do so?” She did not answer my question. Later, I discovered that she had saved money little by little to make my dream come true.
The fact that my wife was reprinting my poetry books made me realize that returning to the writing life was at hand. I should seize the opportunity. Like a wilted plant upon receiving fresh water, I rose.
My wife collected all my poems and my writings like a fan. She did not spend money for herself. Every week she worked long hours and saved any penny she could. Her goal was to print a few books every year for her husband…
The shelves became more and more full. With the growing number of my own works, the bookshelf no longer had room for other authors. My wife decided to buy a new one to store my friends’ books. The giant one remained mine.
I was gazing at the bookshelf.
The moments I was sitting at my desk, while my soul merged with the pen and my heart was in harmony with the characters of the story to be written, my wife quietly laid some wet and clean towels on the table nearby. She brought in a pitcher of clear water, a plate of cookies or a handful of my favorite sesame candies… Sometimes she moved the electric fan around to keep me cool, or adjusted the bulb to provide me adequate light. Everything she did, she did it quietly, trying not to disturb my inspirational flow.
There were moments when I was laying on the Lazy-Boy armchair to review my scripts, my wife often sat next to me and lovingly massaged my shoulders. Or she would sit down on the carpet and touch my feet, doing reflexology. Sometimes she expressed some vague jealousy about a certain character in my story. I would smile and say, “You should not be jealous! Any wonderful person in my pages is just a copy of you”. The lady cried because she knew that her man was truthful. Yes, my wife changed faces and shapes in my books. It did not matter that the story began with an evil, ugly or morally disagreeable character; by the end I always managed to transform that heroin into someone with a generous heart full of love and dedication. There was no doubt that the later reflected my wife’s image.
There were moments, late at night, when we sat down discussing the cover of a new book, that my wife always had some treat. The slow-cooked lotus seeds with rock-sugar had a very delicate taste. She would leave the treat in the refrigerator a few hours ahead of time. Once ready to eat, the juice gave my tongue a sensation of lightly tender sweetness, and the lotus seeds melted without my mouth noticing.
In a conversation with my sister, I faithfully compared my wife’s love for me with the lotus seeds treat. That silky sweetness has slowly infiltrated into me. As a result, poetry flowed out as a soft stream. My sister burst into laughter, “I thought that you were inundated with the passion of creating literature, but actually you were using literature to express the Saintliness of your lady.” I took her comment with surprise and happily discovered that she was totally right.
There were moments when a new book was freshly printed and brought home that my wife and I shared joy and bitterness. A newborn masterpiece definitely gave me the pride of achievement, but it also gave us additional worry for its uncertain future.
Day after day the bookshelf became more crowded. Stacks of books lay in every corner of the house. The garage was also filled with boxes and boxes of my papers. My works were not available for sale to the general public due to the fact that they were written in my native language. It was too costly to have them translated, and with my very limited vocabulary, I was not able to do the translation myself. They could not be sold to my own people, because they were not in very hot demand. The life of exile has created more writers than readers in the immigrant population. Books were exchanged between us more often than they were sold. It was true that sometimes I felt tired just by looking at my own works. But my wife, she kept her spirits high. She always said, “Honey, never give up. I love you so much and I love your writings as well.”
I was gazing at the bookshelf.
Springs, summers, autumns and winters have gone by like a flash. On various occasions, I listened to my children talking in the kitchen. The subjects discussed were always about the eye-irritating-ugly-old bookshelf sitting in the living room, and the mother of the house. My eldest daughter complained that the lady was too difficult to please as she was aging. Anytime someone made comments about the bookshelf, she easily became agitated, angry, and in bad mood. She had also skipped meals for the day.
Better to let her stay in a nursing home for everybody’s sake,” my first daughter said.
The second daughter jumped in, “Well, how much do each of us have to contribute for that type of expense?”
With a grin, my daughter in-law contributed, “Why should we pay? Just take her social security income to pay for her care”.
My wife sat in a corner of the house, eyes shut, mouth shut. She appeared as if she heard nothing, saw nothing. I stood next to her and caressed the few gray hair falling on her forehead. I told her some loving words to ease her pain, but I was pretty sure that she did not hear my voice. She sat still, like a statue.
When my son started talking about relocating the bookshelf into the garage, my wife stood up vigorously, pointing her finger at him. “No, no, I will not allow you to do so. Do you hear me? As long as I am still alive, nobody can touch that bookshelf. It should stay where it belongs!”
My son replied, “Mom, those books have no value at all. You folks kept printing and printing, and nobody wants to buy them. They have occupied the house for so long. It’s time to get rid of them”. He insisted on his last words. Yes, he really meant it.
My eldest daughter interrupted him, “David, you should not say something like that. They are the fruit of our father’s endless efforts. They are our father’s achievement.”
David, the young man who carried my last name, who had my blood and heart in him, walked back and forth, hands moving in the air. He exclaimed, “My gosh! You must be kidding me by saying that. Those efforts can be credited only if they bring us fortune. Otherwise they are nothing more than garbage.”
My two-year-old grandchild cried when he saw his father’s anger. His mother kept coaxing the baby to be quiet. She then pressed him to her chest, mocking, “A hah! You are on grandma’s side”. And she took her turn to make the scene more tragic. “Sisters, remember when Dad used to spend all night writing those stupid books? And Mom did not dare to spend money on good food, dared to do nothing; all the money they spent was to publish the crazy books, for what? Remember the days when they had book presentations? Some people gave out money to buy their books, more out of pity than appreciation.”
By this time, my wife could not take any more. She moaned, “Poor me! Poor me! Please give me a break, young lady”.
I sat there, shaking my head in disgust. I honestly thought that even though my children’s points of view were rude, they did reach some rough truth. My masterpieces were only valuable to myself and to my wife because they were part of our lives. They have made our existence more joyful, more meaningful in times of nostalgia; in a time of mourning the loss of a country. In time, we found ourselves isolated in a foreign land where it took time to mix harmoniously with different cultures. The people who showed up at the book presentation were brave guys who came to applaud me, as I would come to clap my hands for them when their turns came. When the stars have faded away one after another, who is left to chant the glory of books written by first generation immigrants?
The young man and women left the room. My aging and faint wife silently laid herself down in the same armchair where I used to read my manuscripts. It was my turn to sit down on the carpet, holding her feet and gently doing reflexology. I wondered if she felt it. I murmured in her ear, “Honey, I have told you from day one that you should not press me to write”.
I was sure that she did not hear my voice, but I saw her tears running down …
I was still there, gazing at the bookshelf in the garage.
That morning, it rained sadly. My son helped his mother step into a van. Her face was rigid like ice. She kept her eyes down. The corners of her mouth were shaking tremendously, showing her anger in silence. My daughter in-law secured her son in the child car seat and told her husband, “Let’s go to the nursing home, honey. Sisters will bring all mom’s belongings there this afternoon.”
Wow! These people were so ungrateful. They have everything well planned: the old woman was to be kicked out of the house … I felt sorry for my wife. From now on, she would endure her existence in a new place with bitterness, losing everything.
That afternoon, it rained harder and harder. The daughter in-law rearranged the garage for the shelf-relocation project. My two daughters returned to the house after the visit at the nursing home. My son David also returned from somewhere with a friend. They all moved the bookshelf step by step from the living room to the garage. I watched them painfully until the job was done.
As a few books were stacked back on the first few shelves, my eldest daughter picked one up and looked at it for a while. “Poor Dad! Poor Mom!” She mumbled. Very fast, she put that book in her purse. She took another one and again put it in her purse. Her sister reacted, “Why did you do that? If you try to read them, you will not understand them. When our children grow up, they will not need to read them. When our parents’ generation is over, everything will be over.”
The elder woman suddenly lowered her voice, “Well, I take the books to keep as a souvenir because they are part of our parents. Without them, who are you?” Suddenly, she cried out loud. The two others were lost for a second, and then their eyes grew moist.
The trio kept crying silently while stacking the books on the shelves. I wondered why they dared do those horrible things and were now crying. Ah! A farewell cry, I guessed. Nevertheless, when watching my own children crying, their tears touched my heart.
Joe, a thirty-something guy who is my son’s friend, finished his beer. Joe raised his voice and said, “Hey, hey, hey! No more lamentations, please!” Pointing at the bookshelf he asked, “Is that all?”
One of my daughters replied, “No, there are more than one hundred boxes stored in the shed in the back yard.”
Joe gave a hearty laugh, and then jokingly commented, “Your old folks may be sad to see all they have done has resulted in nothing. I tell you, if you think you are able to write something universal, then publish it. If you write just to release the tension of sadness, which is very personal and does not bring in any income, then write to satisfy your need. Let them get printed in some local magazine, and then forget it. If you feel that you can move mountains, do it. Otherwise, just consider it as a pastime entertainment while waiting for eternity”. He lifted up his face and enjoyed the last sentence for a moment. He then continued, “Do not bother to publish these kind of books and leave them for us, the next generation, to clean up.”
My Goodness! What a weird and broad idea. This truly terrified me. Yes, the immigrants who had left home to come here were losers in no matter what form. The old country completely wiped out their names. In the new land their roots are not yet well settled. Most subjects, in the exile literature, were about nostalgia, love, memoirs of the old times when people were trying to make themselves a hero, or creating a sound excuse for their loss. There were regrets for the past, and sorrows for tomorrow’s roads to nowhere. There were some books written about science and research studies, but the number of readers was very limited. The first generation immigrants sacrificed their lives for their posterity, and the latter plunged themselves into the new fields of study, crying for success. They bravely brought home honorable diplomas to shine on family walls. But in the mean time, they also imported new attitudes that made the parents somber.
I sighed. I forgive you, children.
I turned my back and walked away in the windy rain…
Once in a while, I still went back to the garage gazing at the bookshelf to remind me of my old passion. I stood there, pausing silently. There was some kind of attachment that made me feel uneasy to forget.
It was still very early in the morning. Soft white fumes covered the ground of the enormous landfill site. From time to time, large trucks or pick-ups loaded with garbage came and parked at a designated place. The driver and his helpers jumped out, and hurried to shovel the unwanted items from their vehicle down to the disposal areas. Strong odors were exhumed, and the smokey clouds surfacing from the ground were the result of rotten materials being decomposed.
I have been standing here since dusk last night. My son and his friend have loaded the extra large U-haul truck with all the books, papers and documents that I have gathered since my first days in exile. I have written a number of books on a variety of interests. They were in the form of Poetry, Prose, or Fiction. There were also more than a dozen unpublished manuscripts.
My wife’s destiny was settled at the nursing home, and the process of discarding this truckload of books, considered no less than garbage, was inevitable. The bookshelf was the first thing to go. Large chunks of dark wood were thrown out one after another. The breaking of this shelf, once my treasure, cracked my heart.
Next were thousands of loose papers. Every time the hands of the two young men lifted up and released their fingers, sheets of paper full of words fell like leaflets scattered from an airplane. Oh please look, words from those papers were flying out in the space like zillion tiny butterflies. Darling butterflies flopping their crippled wings... Amazing me! Amazing zest of divine separatio! Sure, romance was still in me in this time of pain. The image of thousands of uniform papers flying down the immense deserted field, dancing in the weak orange golden sunset light, was heavenly fantastic. All of a sudden I found myself so excited, so overwhelmed. I felt exhilarated. There was definitely life in death, however fragile.
David stood on the floor of the truck, using his strength to kick out one box after another. Each time a cardboard container broke apart, dozens of hard copies flew like a current. Books poured down continuously and magically in strands of purple and pale orange light, while dusk went dimmer and dimmer. It was a stream of books! Stream of murmuring fantasies, stream of palpitating reveries. … My heart cried out to the very end of the horizon. I soared to the highness of the nowhere. I plunged deep into holy awesomeness. The miraculous-lonely-me melted splendidly in great mercy and with a zap, my soul merged into that extraordinary stream, staggering....
The dumping job was done in a short period of time. The engine of the truck came to life again. In a blast and without a backward glance, my son ran away as into hiding.
I walked to where the U-Haul truck just left. On the ground still laid some copies of my writings. I bent down to pick one up. An unexpected freezing wind blew me backward. Scattered materials were swirling, swirling, swirling around me. The book was shaking fiercely within my grasp, but I managed to keep it tight. The spirit of my being was defensive at its best: I am poetry. I am passion. I am beauty. I am the nocturnal melancholy. The universe is in me. I am the universe.
The wind yielded. Harmony resumed its toll.
The soft breeze of midnight slowly turned one page after another for me. Under the mystic blue light of the crescent moon, I went over my poems. In the background, the silhouettes of the bulldozers were listening to me chant my verses.
During the daytime, it was really noisy at the landfill site. There were so many activities. A convoy of trucks, one after another, kept coming to dispose garbage. Disgusting odors were dominated the whole area. Dusty clouds floated high. Dozens of busy tractors and tanks, all painted solid yellow, and armed with huge spades, scrapers, buckets, and forks, moved slowly back and forth to work on the newly dumped waste. Iron, steel, wood, tree limbs, old furniture, sheet rock, clothing, kitchen trash, all were ground instantly. My eyes blurred to watch Destruction. Each day, along with waste, all the refuse or outdated items would rest here. In the same space, at the same time, I witnessed the presence of Past, Present and Future. I saw Life and Death. They went along with each other, mixed in with each other, twisted around each other, and disappeared into one another.
Again, the sunset was back, shedding its strange pale orange light on Earth. Hundreds of birds with metallic-white flopping wings flew over the immense garbage field. I directed my gaze to the wild iron-made animal, which was crawling to the place where my books and materials were dumped last night. The bulldozer lifted its long arms. Its hands, armed with claws, violently grabbed a great number of books. The ferocious animal captured a big chunk, and threw it aside. Going down again, it threw another load aside. Again and again, until it reached the rotten layers underneath, it dug. Another tractor with a huge circular blade came to do the mixing. Once the task was done, it moved on. Immediately, flocks of birds headed down to pick worms creeping over my beautiful verses, on my splendid prose, through my flesh and heart, into my whole life that I had sweated over too hard to accomplish.
Suddenly strong waves of energy were moving towards me and besieging me. They became more and more frightening. Flames of audacity, heat of merciless urgency, momentum of fiery crush?! A tremendous burning force was devouring me. The non-stop bizarre refrain: “Recycle. Recycle. Recycle.” was repeated over, over, and over. This refrain pressed me almost into a stage of insanity.
I listened and tried not to collapse. I heard within me a yearning to amplify divinity.
Someone patted my shoulder. A voice from nowhere whispered into my ear, “Your physical body has been decomposed for so long. It’s time to go on”.
I said, “No, I do not want to go. I still feel a heart beating in me. All my accomplishments are still here. With all the dedicated work I have invested in this life, how can I go on?”
A voice as soft as a breeze poured into me, “The ME that you talk about no longer exists. So many times you have gone back to that garage, trying to cling to things you thought were your fulfillments. The play is over, the curtain is already down and cleansing time is on its way… Old stuff needs to be recycled. New ones will take a turn to become old. That cycle will never end and there is no immortality. Whatever is left behind belongs to no one…”
HONG KHAC KIM MAI
Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Hong Khac Kim Mai & The Writers Post 1999-2004. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.