My Stilled Life: Chapter 1
It was a typical winter morning in Pasadena; clear blue skies and already in the upper 70's. The Red Winds were blowing down the mountain passes with sinister glee, dry and hot, their abundant static charge incited the local flocks of emancipated parrots into fluorescent streaks of green filled with ruckus chatter.
I was having a cup of hot chocolate at one of the outdoor cafes on Colorado Boulevard, waiting to meet with my father. We were somewhat estranged and he’d asked for this meeting on neutral ground. I’d just ordered a refill when there was a ground shuddering collision up the block, followed by the screech of a car tearing away. A cluster of people soon gathered around someone crumpled on the blacktop. I surmised that it must have been a violent hit-and-run because one of the victim's shoes had come tumbling down the sidewalk, landing near my table. When I saw that it was a handmade Italian two-tone Spector wingtip, a shiver ran through me. I got up and moved down to where the victim lay. There was so much blood I didn’t recognize him at first. In shock I pushed my way through the bystanders and knelt by his side, his eyes locked on mine for just the merest moment, and then he was gone. I slumped down next to him not knowing what else to do, as the world whirled around me.
When I finally got home I was covered in blood and loss. My father had been the only remaining member of my family and I knew almost nothing about him. I remember him as a taciturn stranger. The only real vivid childhood memory I had of him was being disciplined with his leather belt. I don’t think he really cared for the task, but my mother was always insistent that he do his fatherly duty. She would pick at him until he would lose his temper, then instead of rebuking her, he’d leave welts on my back and legs. A demanding woman with a manicured public persona and a bitter, selfish inner core, my mother had always lamented that she was burdened a with a child until her death last year when she was clinging to my hand wanting me to absolve her of her unmotherly past and like the dutiful son I was, I did.
As a child, I’d seen my father’s shadow animating across my bedroom walls as he came and went. In later years, I’d think of it as scenes from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There was something baleful about the briefness of these encounters.
Since my father was a man of little means and somewhat of a spendthrift, I was left with the odious task of trying to reconcile and settle his accounts. Debt had been woven into his DNA and no matter what anyone said, he had no fear of wallowing in insolvency and tut-tutted anyone who tried to help.
I got his keys from the family lawyer, an old classmate of my father and when I asked him why he wasn’t handling the estate, he just looked at me with sad eyes and said he was much too old to handle something like this and ushered me out of his office.
As I put the key into the lock of dad’s study, I was filled with both apprehension and dread with just a little tinge of excitement. Dad never let anyone into his space. He hated the idea of anyone cleaning or moving his stuff around. His intellect was purely visual and as he always said: “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” I guess that’s one reason I grew up without religious training.
As I stepped inside, the odor smacked me in the face, giving me an instant headache. Dad had been a chain smoker of cheap cigars and the room was alive with ash that seemed to symbolize his whole existence. Overflowing ashtrays were everywhere, It felt like I’d stepped into an episode of “Hoarders”. There was an unbelievable amount of paperwork; in some places there were stacks that reached from floor to ceiling; in others, there were just piles, like the stacks had collapsed under their own weight. Feeling a little vertigo I moved to the room’s only window and tried to open it but it would only move up a crack. Frustrated, I decided the only feasible way to continue was to take a break; go out and get a couple of fans, an air purifier, coveralls, a respirator and several accordion files to put important documents into.
I cleared off his desk, as best I could, making another stack on the floor. It was mind numbing trying to discern what was what in 50 years of documents and debris that represented some kind of roadmap of his life. I was just guessing about what was important and what wasn’t. Staring at document after document, I worked my way through the stacks. I kept what I thought might be valuable, placing them in one of the files on the right side of the desk and filled garbage bags with all the rest. After working my way through two of the smaller stacks I noticed that there was a great deal of correspondence addressed to an H. Wittkamp, always in-care-of American Express offices, in a lot of different cities around the world. I began to suspect that my father was even more of a stranger than I had suspected. Confirmation came a couple of hours later when I found a leather portfolio with a South African passport and several current American Express credit cards. Dad’s picture glared up from the title page of the passport and it identified him as Hieronymus Wittkamp.
Now I was wondering what the fuck was going on and I didn’t have anyone I could ask.
Another couple of days passed and I was no closer to figuring out what was going on when I stumbled into one of the stacks and it came tumbling down. As I righted myself, I kicked a box, spilling the contents. Stooping down I scooped up a bundle of letters secured with a faded scarlet ribbon.
I spread them out on the desk and found that all but a few had Saigon postmarks, dating from early 1967 to just a couple of months ago, half addressed to Hieronymus Wittkamp and the other half to my dad. A faint scent of jasmine wafted up as I shuffled through them. The contents were written in a script that I couldn’t make out, I guessed it was Vietnamese.
I went online and found the address of the closest Vietnamese restaurant and headed out to have lunch and to see if anyone there could translate what I’d found.
Pho Saigon was a tiny place, on the second floor of a commercial building on Green Street. Specializing in Vietnamese soup, it was filled to overflowing with locals on their lunch break and students from Pasadena City College. I found a seat in the corner and waited for the crowd to thin out and someone to wait on me. Twenty minutes later the crowd was thinner but no one came, so I figured I needed to go up the counter and order. I got my Pho soup and Coke and sat down to enjoy it. I kept an eye on the wait staff trying to find someone over the age of 25. When no one of that description arrived, I just did the ole ”eeny, meeny, miny, moe" and approached a counter person with blonde streaks in her hair and a mass of tattoos running up and down her arms.
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but I was wondering if you are Vietnamese?”
“Sorry, I’m not, what do you need?”
“I’m trying to hire somebody to translate some letters I found in my father’s belongings. I think they're written in Vietnamese because they are mostly postmarked from Saigon, and I need to find someone who can tell me, who they’re from and what they’re about.”
“Sorry I can’t but I know someone who might be able to help you. If you’ve got a minute I’ll give him a call and see what he says.”
She arranged for me to visit her acupuncturist in Monterey Park, a 30-minute slog through mid-day traffic. I found his office in a fairly new strip mall with plenty of free parking. His space had a brightly painted storefront window, advertising all manner of Oriental medical cures. Dr. Su was a middle-aged man of indeterminate race, who spoke a fairly understandable version of English. He’d been a surgeon in Southeast Asia, but not here. Now he was brimming with oriental medical knowledge and provided services at a very reasonable price.
It took him quite a while to read the letters. Several he had to read a few times; then he just he looked perplexed, shrugged and began to speak.
“Most of letters from man’s wife, a few from daughter. Also birth certificate for girl. They seem like loving family very long time correspondence; first wife, then after wife no more, daughter has continued.”
I had him point out the birth certificate. Then he pointed out the three letters that weren’t postmarked from Saigon indicating that these were from the daughter, which I took special notice of because they had a return address in Cairo.
I paid him our agreed upon fee of fifty bucks. We shook hands, I picked up one of his business cards and left.
What the fuck, now it seemed that I might have another family member that I’d known nothing about. All of a sudden I wasn’t alone in this world so I decided to track her down and let her know our father was dead and my existence.
From what I could glean from the internet, which wasn’t much, she was an archeologist working and living in Egypt and Sudan. The return address on her letter was 37 Ahmed Hashmat Street in Zamalek, an island in the middle of the Nile river as it passed through Cairo. She had been very well educated if the bills I found were any indication. Prestigious schools in Switzerland, Germany, and America and they weren’t cheap. This was a little infuriating because he had made me work my way through college. I’d been a janitor for a couple of years until I learned to silk screen. Then I spent the next few years producing fine art editions for a variety of artists. It was a good gig but I'm sure the high power solvents we used will have long-term health effects. One of them was so powerful that you could put your finger in it, then take it out and in a couple of minutes you’d be tasting it in your mouth. Yak!
I wrote her a letter and explained about dad’s passing and that I was handling the estate. I gave her my contact info and asked her to get in touch me at her earliest convenience.
I drove to the Postal Annex at the corner of Orange Grove and Lincoln Avenues and posted the letter, then drove back to dad’s house and went back to working my way through the remainder of his crap.
All material © Ronald Gary Dunlap 2015, 2016.