Long Distance Calling

Twenty five years can feel like a long time or it can pass by in a flash. And a young man looking back 25 years to his childhood is not the same as a late middle-aged man looking back 25 years to the onset of his adulthood.  It’s open to question which span is the greater distance or greater time – the one looking back to innocent days, or the other looking back after a long journey to the first adult steps of that journey. But they are qualitatively and quantitatively different experiences.  But now I am in a third stage and a new paradigm.

Laura liked to think of herself as a dancer.  She was taking lessons two nights per week after work at The Cha-Cha Club, a dance school chain, and often practiced at home, shape-shifting her way across the polished floors through a variety of styles, from the cha-cha to the tango.  One night, Laura’s voice startled me from a black hole sleep.  It had been brought on by three bottles of zinfandel and one too many Dylan tunes, including, “Everything Is Broken,” which seemed to sum up the human condition.  It was an unconsciousness whose gravitational pull felt absolute and fatal. When I stretched open my eyes to the candlelit room, Laura was arched over my prostrated figure on the sofa.  Her pupils were constellated with crazed sparks I’d not seen before, and she was jubilantly hopping up and down, like some comic tribal dancer from the sing-sing South Pacific. She extended the phone, her broad smile and body urging me. “It’s your father,” she said, “calling long distance.”

I took the phone, my hands shaking, as though with early DTs.  Though I had pleaded with my older brother, Steve, who worked for the Social Security Administration, to look up our father’s whereabouts, he’d only reluctantly agreed, on the condition that I left him out of it; he wanted nothing to do with our deserting father.  Once I’d been emailed his address I wrote a tentative letter to my father, leaving him with my contact details.  And now, though I had waited a quarter century to hear my father’s voice again, I did not immediately speak.  Indeed, I did not know what to say. Instead, I listened intensely, and, in the silence, sensed my father waiting in anticipation, 3000 miles away, to hear my voice. I tried to picture him, and what emerged in my mind was an old photograph my mother had shown me years before, with my young father decked out in his Navy uniform, smiling brightly.   In the conditional silence, I thought of an old submarine movie I’d recently watched with Laura (we were Clark Gable fans) and had sudden anxiety: Would my father, like the captain of a destroyer, drop emotional depth charges that would sink me forever, or would I, in my U-boat, fire off torpedoes of rage in retribution for the destruction he dropped on my childhood?  I listened, through an alcoholic fog, wondering if I hadn’t made a grave mistake contacting him.  There was no greater distance in my life than what I had with my father, apart from the gulf opening up between myself and Laura. And it was she now, and not my father, who held my attention, her troubling glee effervescing out of a dark brooding that had cast its shadow over our relationship for months.  But now, relieved of the phone, she stood poised in the dim light, like some smiling ballerina in one of those dark Degas paintings. After a few moments I said into the phone, “Hello?”

A woman answered, with a chain-smoker’s voice. “Is that Mark? Hi, I’m Linda, your daddy’s wife. I’ll get him for you. Hold on.”  She sounded rough-and-ready, like she was from Montana or some other horsey state where women don’t have time to fuck around with negotiated reality. I wondered  briefly why she was buffering his call.  Then my father came on.

“Mark? How are you?” He sounded scared.

“I’m okay, I guess.  How about you?”

“Oh, I’m all messed up, son. In a wheelchair. Can’t move round very much. Got osteoporosis pretty bad.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

There was a pause, during which I wondered about the osteoporosis. I’d always thought of it as a women’s ailment, but my mother told me that extreme alcoholics sometimes developed it.

“So tell me, son, I got your letter you sent. Can I ask, what made you want to contact me?”

“I don’t know, really.  I guess I feel I missed you in our life. And I have been wondering what became of you – and why you left.”

What followed was a long, rambling account of his early days with my mother (bliss), how they met (he was a rodeo clown), and where things went sour (my juvenile delinquent uncles moved in with us and turned our country life into a holocaust). I should have been intrigued by my father’s time with my mother, should have asked for more details about my trouble-making uncles and their role in the dissolution of that bliss and my family, but I was piqued instead by how they met.

“Wow,” I said, after he’d come to a stall in his narrative, “were you really a rodeo clown?”

He seemed taken aback, even a little irritated. “Yes,” he said. “I used to ride in the rodeo, but I fell off once and broke my hip in a coupla places and it never healed properly.  Couldn’t ride any more. But I always loved the rodeo. And clowning can be a lot of fun.”

“But how did you meet my mother from that?”

“Well,” he paused, “they used to hold the rodeos in the Boston Garden. There was a bar there – Rafters, I think – where the rodeo people would go after the show. Your mother was with a friend and her pretty laugh caught my ear, and I introduced myself. She had been at the rodeo with her friend (Eileen, I think her name was) checking out the fellas, and when I explained my role she said she remembered my routine and antics. And we pretty much hit it off after that. After we ditched Eileen with a clown friend of mine.”

My father was in the Navy at the time and had just come back from the Korean War; he was stationed at the nearby Charlestown Naval Yard. He said that because he came from Missouri, and grew up around horses, including riding wild ones, he signed on to the rodeo, which was always looking for riders when it was in town.

Without being rude or confrontational, for that was not my intent, I wanted to ask him the key and obvious question:  How could he have deserted a young wife and four little boys – even with all the aggravation of dealing with two delinquents?

There was a long pause, during which I thought I could hear my father sobbing. I heard Linda say to him, “Do you want me to have him call back some other time?” Then he came back on.

“The thing you need to know, son,” he began, and I bristled a bit by his insistence on calling me ‘son’, “I really loved your mother. We had a good thing.”

He continued with what may very well have been the most important information of my life.  I tried to be attentive to my lost-now-found father’s words, the plaintive tone, the agony of self-discovery, words I had longed to hear from him for 25 years. However, I was befogged and hopelessly distracted by Laura’s waltzing, but more, by subtleties of her general presentation – her dishevelment (stretched nylons, hair askew), her scent (Claire de Lune ?), her choice of dress (flowing and flowery, accessible), and just her unexpected joyfulness. Or maybe it was kust the contrast to the Dylan tunes I’d been listening to before I conked out.  I was prepared to accept a reasonable explanation for all of this (out drinking with colleagues after work), except I knew that she had been assigned to cover the school board meeting that evening (it was usually my beat, but I’d had to interview the mayor about the budget crisis at the last minute), and a more sober affair than that could not be had.  She’d been out drinking – clearly – but with whom?

My father was sobbing again. “We had a good thing,” he repeated. “We had a nice home. I had plenty of work as a carpenter. But it all began to fall apart after your grandmother sent out those two hoodlums to keep them out of juvenile detention back in Boston.  Those two got into mischief almost immediately, and then, on top of four toddlers to feed – well, I….”

I held the receiver to my ear, but I had stopped concentrating. Laura was no longer dancing, but she was still beaming.  She stood in front of me and frantically gestured for me to continue conversing with my father.  I had never seen her lit up so brightly. And it occurred to me, all at once, that she had found it – what we had talked about for several months – her freedom.  She was 25 years old and not even born the last time I had spoken with my father.  And she had been raised conflicted.  Her traditional Cape Verdean background meant that her role as a woman was to be limited to raising children and cooking three meals a day (her mother was a marvelous cook; I’ll bet fish vied to be on her plate), But Laura was, in fact, the daughter to a woman who had herself defied convention in the end, striking out on her own, and telling her unfaithful husband to take a hike, in their delightfully musical creole  Laura had two brothers who had received solid educations and had become successful engineers, and her mother pushed her to achieve as well, which led to her becoming the first woman in her extended family to go to university.  She had studied journalism and, after graduation, wound up with a job as a reporter at The Daily Standard of New Bedford, once the home of whaling, though now a fishing hub.

“I drink too much now,” my father was saying, and in the background I could hear Johnny Cash strumming, which reminded me of all the times I had listened to country-western music, while sitting around with my mother and stepfather, drinking for hours, and talking politics and popular sociology.  Then I heard my father repeating a question and I knew he had caught me not listening.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I asked.  Laura waved and slid off to the bedroom with a slight stagger. I almost shouted after her to tell me who she’d been out with, but I knew it wouldn’t make a difference any more.

“I was saying,” my father apparently repeated, “is there any chance you could fly out to see me?” There was pleading in his voice.  Everything was broken, Dylan was always croaking, and it seemed I’d woken to the songwriter’s representation of the real world.

I was a political reporter for The Daily Standard, a supposedly prestigious position that involved carefully covering all the blow-hard pols and their shifting policy-making, and which would one day lead, I was promised, to a statehouse post and almost certainly to a chance to work for a big city newspaper, perhaps even The Boston Globe. However, it was Laura who held the exciting role.  Though she was highly qualified, she had been hired under a minority quota program at the paper. Almost immediately, the editors tasked her with what one balding colleague sneeringly referred to as ‘the downtrodden beat’. It was meant to be a dead end post nobody should aspire to, but it suited Laura just fine, as her natural beauty (she looked like a dark-skinned, dark-haired version of the singer Madonna; at least, that’s how she appeared to me) made her popular. In addition, she spoke Portuguese and the Cape Verdean creole, and thus generated stories others on the nearly all-white staff could not obtain, making her invaluable to the Standard.  Almost daily her teased-out personal interest stories appeared on page one, and often with a photo she herself took  – interviews with gas station attendants, minority politicians, cops, scrimshanders, local celebrities, prisoners (there had been a recent riot), and other assorted citizens of the small city.  I had grown to covet her beat, and as I watched her pass into the bedroom with that smile, I envied her free spirit.

“I’m in bad shape, son. I don’t know how much time I have left.” Johnny Cash had given way to Merle Haggard. “It would be great to see you again.”

I was happy enough to fly out to California to see him – I never liked the disembodied voices of long distance calls much anyway – but I didn’t know how to tell him that my credit card was currently maxed out, and I had no means for paying for a flight.  I said, “Let me think about it,” which seemed to break his heart a little more.  So I added, “It’s been great talking with you,” and, on sudden impulse, added, “Dad.”

A week later, while I was trying to scrounge up the money for a flight (Laura helped out, but Steve told me to get lost), Linda called to say my father had died suddenly of a heart attack.  His body had been cremated and his ashes spread at sea off the coast of  Mexico, where he liked to go fishing.  As I was processing this information, she rasped that my father had kept a box of wedding photos from his marriage to my mother and that she would post them to me. But I never heard from her again, and the phone rang out whenever I tried to reach her.

Two weeks after the long distance call, Laura packed her bags and moved out. I waved as she beeped and drove off in her blue Hyundai Excel. She had taken a plum job at a paper hundreds of miles away in Richmond, Virginia. Thus began our separation.  The divorce, a year later, was non-contested and she wasn’t present at the final proceeding.

It’s been 25 years now since my father’s call, 25 years stretched out like a wake behind me. I live in a small furnished apartment in Seoul.  I teach conversational English at an unlicensed language school, known as a hagwan. I am paid in cash, handsomely, every Friday evening, and I receive a bonus if students re-sign for more coursework.  The students assume English first names, and a small group of regulars in my advanced class, calling themselves the Gang of Six,  includes “Erica” Park, “Beth” Ko, “Eddie” Nahm, “Sue” Yi, “Gus” Hahn, and “Johnny” Kim.  Whether beginner, intermediate, or advanced classes, I generally follow the same procedure: I bring in song lyrics (they love Enya, and we listen along as we read), magazine ads, and local news pieces from the English language Korean Times.  There are lots of stimulus questions and we often break up into pairs and small groups, so that students can practice their listening and speaking skills. I brought with me a collection of Laura’s Daily Standard human interest pieces, and I often hand out photocopies of these articles to my students. Perhaps my favorite of these narratives is the one Laura wrote about a scrimshander, “A Local’s Ivory Tower,” which is largely about the artist’s work, but also has an historical overview.  We use it to discuss the modern ivory trade (African tusks versus Pacific whale bone), and how sailors used to kill time on whaling voyages by etching images of people, places and ships into whale bone.  Eddie uses the opportunity to complain about Japanese whaling tactics.  Beth talks about the time Korea was razed to the ground by Japanese soldiers, and the women turned into “comfort” workers.  Johnny tells how he has had read Moby Dick in Korean and loves Ahab’s ferocity, says Kim Il-Sung was like Ahab with the Japs. And so it goes.  As a change of pace, I offer up a poem I wrote after my telephone conversation with my lost father:

In holding you so near me, Oh!
I couldn’t help yahooing. Bizarre?
Well that may be, but did you know
My father was a rodeo star?

Nobody said much; perplexity ruled. But, finally, Beth responded to my what do you think? with, He was a molon.”

“Moron,” I said, correcting her. We all laughed. The playful wonder that is English.

While the classes are principally conversational, occasionally grammar points arise.  I try to avoid them, since a number of my students know English grammar rules better than I do.  Sue Yi once called me out on my inappropriate use of the subjunctive, and to my half-assed response she merely smiled and muttered, “Cowboy,” a pejorative term for foreign teachers who don’t have the appropriate EFL teaching background and who mostly come to South Korea to make a lot of money. However, there is no stress, we all have fun, and the classes generally end with happy laughter.

On Friday evenings, after the last class, the Gang of Six takes me out to a local bulgolgi joint,  where, in low light, we sit around on cushions in a circle, snacking on kimchi and downing prodigious quantities of soju. The Gang is comprised of Seoul National University students, except for Gus Hahn, who is a middle-aged taxi driver, taking lessons to improve his communications with tourists. Our tipsy talks are more free-ranging than in class, where we follow a loose structure mostly centered on talking points. Any topic goes, but reunification always comes up, along with the detested presence of American military bases, global politics, pop culture, and general observations about life.  I try to exploit my journalism background to sound out the students.  Johnny grows teary as he describes the time he got “wasted” and tried to cross the DMZ to sneak into the North to visit an ancient relative.  Just about every student knows someone who knows someone who’s “stuck” in the evil North. In a sad pause, Eddie raises a glass and gives a Korean salute to ‘all the lost relatives and friends’ up there.

After a somber moment, Erica, a Chinese-Korean, whose father works as an attaché at the Chinese embassy, offered up an anecdote that changed the mood. “Sometimes teachers don’t last very long here,” she said, and the others laughed, as if they knew what was coming. “We had a teacher once who got very drunk on soju and whiskey.  We kept saying to him, ‘You mustn’t mix them. You mustn’t mix them.’”  They laughed a little louder. “And he suddenly got a strange look on his face, got up and went outside. He began to undress and ran down the middle of Sejongro Boulevard shouting, ‘Get me out of here.’”  The Gang roared with laughter. “Korea is not for everyone,” Erica said.

“What became of him?” I asked, slurring, vaguely connecting their tale to that Dylan song about Texas medicine and railroad gin strangling up the mind until people got uglier and there was a lost sense of time.

“We don’t know,” said Erica, “I guess he went dicky Tao.” She twirled her index finger next to her temple. “We never saw him again.”

The Gang looked sober then, even downright morose.  We called it a night.   I got up from my cushion and the soju hit me. I felt sick, so sick that when we got outside the restaurant I immediately vomited in a nearby alley, right next to a rat bait box.  Gus immediately offered to drive me home in his taxi, while Sue insisted on accompanying me to my doorstep. The taxi was dark and from the back looking into the front seat I could see he had built up a Buddhist shrine of sorts, with tassels and ornaments hanging from the rear view mirror and backward swastikas covering the carpeted dashboard, a lit candle and incense, and the entire cab filled with an eerie blue light. He played a CD of what sounded like a Korean version of Hank Williams in full-throated, yodeling despair, but darker and eerier, the accompanying music featuring a hoarse pipe organ that reminded me of a soundtrack out of something from, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead.  Sue held my hand the entire trip.

I was too ill to understand the import of Sue holding my hand in the taxi that night, although I should have been able to read it in Gus’ eyes in the rear view mirror as he watched us.  The fact is, Sue and I shared a mutual attraction; she was my brightest student and she often chatted me up after class.  She was a mechanical engineering student; she liked the color blue; she knew of a special “foreign” restaurant; she had a quiet wit and shy smile; she hoped to travel to America someday. Gus kindled the attraction, often referencing the cab ride. The Gang gently ribbed Sue (Beth, however, seemed to whisper admonitions into Sue’s ear), and soon she was sitting close by me in our soju sessions, much to my delight. There was more hand-holding, more taxi rides with Gus, who seemed intent on acting as our chaperone, and it wasn’t very long before we were practically living together in my apartment.

We were married at the American Embassy. I stood in line with Sue, feeling like a soldier of fortune, behind two Marines, also marrying local women.  Sue was garbed in a local traditional wedding dress, while I wore blue jeans and a pullover. Finally, the clerk called us up to the thick bullet-proof glass, papers were passed and sorted, and he ever-so-efficiently brought us through the vows, finishing off his pronouncement with a courtesy smile. It was over in 15 minutes. Sue and I kissed, then she nudged me and muttered, “Cowboy.”  Gus took us home, “Wedding March” replacing the blue country-eastern yodels.

I’ve been married to Sue for two years now. Perhaps this is most unfair, as Sue is kind and utterly devoted. But there are days – many of them – when I can hear the clock on the wall ticking and the heat coming up through the ondol system.  My most communicative conversational English student is, at home, quiet, even meek. It often feels like an ashram. There is nothing she wants more than me.

It does get loud at times, briefly, such as when my mother-in-law visits and gets into animated to-dos with Sue, their mother tongue syllables sounding out like twanging ancient stringed instruments.   Sue recently took a job in an engineering firm, and, although I have cut back my hours at the hagwan, she works long hours and I hardly ever see her. When she is home, after carefully and quietly preparing a meal for me, she spends her time on small chores, reading local newspapers, browsing the internet, and avoiding me (but always pleasantly so). Like Dylan, I hear the ticking of the clock. Literally.

I stare into space a lot. And sometimes I feel like some astronaut watching Earth recede, until it is little more than a dot within the cloud of stars it sleeps in. And then not so much a dot even, but a memory of a dot, an after image that sits in the silence.  I think of my father, some 50 years away now, and hold a photo of Laura (dancing, of course), and the silence is redoubled. I wonder: What do I want with this abysmal silence?  Why not let it go? Why must it speak?  And I wonder if there is any way back, not only through space and time, but through the emotional distance bound up in all the things and people and places we leave behind. All the after images we call our own before they fade.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.