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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Tears for the River God
 
by Marko Fong
 

 


                                                                                                                                                                                      [The Mekong River, Kulvinder Singh Matharu]


At the hundred and twenty-fifth Festival for the River God, vendors sell Buddha-shaped bars of translucent soap next to pvc guns that shoot marshmallows.  On the far end of the tented booths, fruit-flavored incense creases the air as children slide out the open mouth of an orange inflatable tiger. Down the block, people clap at the finish line of a 10k race now grafted onto the Festival. A mixture of American and Chinese Nationalist flags hang from a wrought-iron balcony as teenagers in flamingo-colored gis shadow-box, in preparation for the afternoon parade. I point to the building with the blue-tile roof and tell my wife, “My grandmother won five hundred dollars on a single pai gow hand there thirty-seven years ago.”

 

“Your grandmother played poker?”

 

“She gambled sometimes, but she didn’t play poker.  Where did you get that idea?”

 

We’re on a break from our thirteen-year-old daughter Tally’s volleyball tournament, which is being held in a converted hangar at what used to be an Air Force base across the river from the Festival.

 

“It’s on the Indian casino billboards on Highway 80:  Pai Gow Poker.  Wasn’t gambling illegal?”

 

I start to explain how the sheriff, in exchange for a five hundred dollar donation to his retirement fund, winked at Chinese Gambling for this one weekend a year.   Then, I tell her instead, “Real pai gow is a Chinese game. It’s played like high low poker, but instead of cards, dominoes are used. Some people celebrate by drinking and dancing to loud music.  The Cantonese gamble, roast pigs, and set off fireworks.”

 

Marie laughs, “I was having trouble imagining your grandmother sitting there wearing a green eye-shade with her sleeves rolled up.” I laugh, and stop my story.  I meant to tell my wife about how my grandmother kept talking about that one winning hand for the whole two hours on Highway 99. I was fourteen-years-old and she repeated herself three different times in English, "Didn’t play for the push this time."

 

I knew she was talking about more than Chinese gambling, but never got the chance to ask.  She died four months later.


I haven’t been to this town in twenty-seven years, and I have many stories to tell about the river, but my wife has never heard enough of the first chapters to follow the plot at this point.  I would have started by telling her that we never called this the ‘River God Festival.'  It was always ‘Bomb Day’ to my cousins and me. We preferred the name because it reminded us of one of the few apparent advantages of growing up Chinese in California—firecrackers, which were also legal this one weekend.   We lobbed them off the levee towards the river, while our parents gambled or burned incense.

 

One Bomb Day, my cousins and I went through half an eighty pack brick of ‘Happy Duck’ firecrackers and three boxes of matches as we tried to get one to explode just above the surface.  If you got it just right, the explosion would splash water back up to the levee.  After the others gave up, I kept trying.  I was convinced that if my firecracker broke the surface exactly right, I might see clear through to the bottom.  “Maybe Bok Kai is down there, I told them. They laughed, then turned back to the town side of the levee.

 

To make it clear that they were now too American to believe in Taoist gods, my parents’ generation, actually, first named the weekend, ‘Bomb Day.'  The name’s origin was simple.  After the dragon dance, the organizers would interrupt the Festival to set up a line of Budweiser-can shaped bombs covered in red paper.  A man would come with a four-foot long punk and light them one at a time.  First, there’d be an explosion, then smoke.  If you looked up, you’d see a half-dollar sized metal ring bearing a purple ribbon, arcing hundreds of feet above the plaza, next to the River God’s temple.  Old timers would pay up to a hundred dollars for the luck that came with the ring from the Number Three Bomb.  Maybe it was meant as a reminder that we Chinese had invented gunpowder.

 

One year, my father timed his leap perfectly and caught Number Three.  Unlike most of his generation, he chose not to sell the ring to the gamblers.  Instead, my parents brought it home to their room on the second floor of my grandparents’ house. They framed the ring on a background of red silk, and mounted it on the wall above their bed.  It worked.  After five years of trying to conceive a first child, my mother gave birth to me. 

           

“Tell me about the Bomb Day ring!” I would demand. “How did Dad catch it?”

           

Before I started school and moved to our own house in the Strawberry Creek subdivision of Sacramento in 1961, the framed ring came off the wall and my parents folded it inside my baby blanket. They then stored it in a trunk in my grandparents’ basement with other items too Chinese for the suburbs.  It stayed there until after my grandfather’s death. I retrieved it and left it in a cardboard box in Mom’s garage. 

           

After a little coaxing, my dad would share his version of the story.  "The younger guys were pushing each other.  They all jumped too early, but I knew how to wait."

           

My mother was different. If I asked, “Did you see him do it, Mom?” her only answer was, “Yes, of course.” 

           

The story of the ring had me convinced that I was the product of my parents' fondest hopes colluding with the heavens.

           

Thirteen years after my father died, it occurred to me to count the months.  I was thirty-five when I realized that my mother was already either two months pregnant or Dad caught the Number Three more than eighteen months before I was born. 

           

I can’t say why I haven’t told my wife the story of my own beginnings.  It may well have something to do with the fact that my father’s older sister lives in the River God’s town and that I haven’t spoken to her in twenty-seven years.  Earlier in the week, after we got the call about the volleyball tournament being set here, I told Marie, “If we have time, I’d like to see my Aunt Ellen.”

           

“I didn’t even know that you had an Aunt Ellen.”

           

In Marie’s mind, we came into the town to look for food to bring back for our daughter’s lunch break at her tournament. To that end, she keeps checking her watch, while I pretend to hunt for take-out.  All the while, I silently pray to the River God to slow time, this one morning. 

           

The River God’s town is struggling. The abandoned movie theater’s marquee that says God Bless America went up just after Congress closed the Air Force base. Now that NAFTA took the peach orchards, the remaining businesses all promise Prices under a Dollar in Spanish, English, and occasionally Hindi. Check cashing stores outnumber banks. 

           

Etiquette says I should have called Aunt Ellen five days ago.

  

“I really ought to call her,” I whisper for the second time that morning.

           

“If it was so important, why the last moment?” Marie shakes her head at me. 

           

I call information on my cell phone. I’ve forgotten the phone number of my father’s favorite sister, a number that I’ve dialed scores of times.  I then put off the call by coaxing my wife into visiting the River God’s temple with me. 

           

Outside the temple, a plastic-encased newspaper article covers its history.  Just six feet of red stone courtyard separates the entrance of the temple from the twenty-five-foot high mass of rammed dirt.  According to the article, in 1952 a flood threatened to wipe out the town.  Just before the town’s seventeen Chinese families abandoned their homes and fled for high ground, they placed offerings of roast pigs and steamed capons on the steps of the River God’s temple.  The overflow from the flood that had breached the levee somehow came to these steps, but no further.  The new levee was built on that spot to commemorate “the power of Bok Kai: the River God.”

           

Not long after the flood, my Aunt Ellen moved to the River God’s town, so my Uncle Milton could start his dental practice there. To help him out, my grandfather went into partnership with his son-in-law for a dental building.  For Uncle Milton’s half ownership share of the building, he was to manage it while my grandfather paid for the building with a grocery bag filled with hundred dollar bills.

           

“I came to this Festival fifteen years in a row,” I tell my wife, as she turns away at the sight of a chopped roast pig; complete with head and feet, placed on the altar of the temple as an offering.  

           

“Going to be late for Tally’s tournament,” she reminds me.

           

“But I haven’t been here in twenty-seven years, not since my grandmother died…”

           

“We can come back some other weekend,” she says. “If it’s that big a deal to you.” 

           

The smell of cooked pig fat mixes with the incense.  Slips of pink paper fill the temple as the last of the older generation make their requests to the six-foot-high statue of a seated Bok Kai. The River God has hands big enough to grab a black bass without a net and eyes that are the same brown-green as his river.  It feels like Marie is standing on the other side of a football field.

           

After my grandmother died, my father became trustee for her half of the estate.  A week after the funeral, Uncle Milton came to my dad with a quit claim deed; a legal instrument that would make the dental building his sole property.

           

“Tally, help me,” he asked my father, as I watched television across the hall.  “I need you to sign off the family’s interest in the dental building,” Uncle Milton continued, his voice tight.  When he saw me, he immediately closed the door.

             

My father put my uncle off for eight years.  He never told his brother-in-law that he didn’t feel right about signing away the twenty years of income that belonged to the family. The last time Uncle Milton asked my father for his signature on the document was two days after Dad’s fiftieth birthday.  Aunt Ellen had organized a surprise party for Dad.

 

My father had his heart attack weeks later. Grandfather died two months after that.  Uncle Leon, now in charge of my grandparents’ estate, decided to legally pursue the back income on the building that Uncle Milton should have been paying to the family as part of the partnership.

           

As we leave the temple, my wife walks us to one of the food booths and orders two vegetarian tostadas.  Down the row a middle-aged Thai woman sells chicken satay on wooden sticks, and a black man with red hair promises real Oklahoma barbeque.  Or is it the Thai woman selling the barbeque? Even one of the Chinese food booths sells teriyaki strips and sushi.

  

“Can you get me a couple teriyaki pork tacos, dear?”


Marie gives me her look, then rushes to the car.

           

In China, it is said, that misfortune comes in threes.  The year after my father and grandfather died, my cousin Chucky, Aunt Ellen’s twenty-one-year-old son, drowned while fishing near the River God’s temple. My mother drove up from Sacramento twenty-seven times during the six weeks Chucky was in a coma. 

 

I last saw Chucky a few months earlier when Uncle Leon asked me to meet with Uncle Milton and Aunt Ellen to address the back income on the building. 


“They trust you,” he told me. “Maybe you can work something out with them.”


“Don’t do this,” my Aunt Ellen pleaded.

           

I was twenty-four at the time and in my second year of law school and thought I could solve anything.

           

In the car, Marie tells me, “If you want to call your aunt, you should do it now. I don’t know that we can see her today, but you’re not going to stop thinking about it. You’re not going to enjoy the tournament if you keep putting it off.”

           

In that meeting, Uncle Milton kept insisting that there’d never been a partnership in the dental building, just a long-retired loan. Aunt Ellen, eyes lowered, sat silently at the other end of their dining-room table.  Chucky watched television in the next room at low volume. I didn't get to talk to my cousin that night.  

           

Finally, I asked my father’s favorite sister my best lawyer question, “Do you have anything in writing?”

           

Uncle Milton handed me a quit claim deed. 

           

Dad treated his own handwriting as his creative outlet.  He made up his own scripts, what we now call fonts.  His own signature swooped elegantly. The copy of my father’s signature was line perfect except that it lacked the flow my father got by somehow joining the “T” in his first name, “Tally,” and the tail of the final “G” in our last name of “Tang” that linked first and last names together in a way that made it impossible to spot the break.  This version was an expertly-filled cavity. 

           

Uncle Milton’s own signature was on the same document.  His came straight out of some penmanship book used in elementary schools.  Dr. Milton Yuen Chang read as three distinct names with “Doctor” written bigger than any of the names.

           

After I got home that night, Mom phoned. “Uncle Milton called to complain. He said you were arrogant, that you bossed him around.”

           

I was an adult at the time, but maybe too young to fathom a middle-aged man's pride.  Uncle Milton always boasted that he was the only member of the family who had never depended on my grandparents for financial support. I never spoke again to Uncle Milton.

           

Seven weeks later, Aunt Ellen called my mother and insisted she drive up alone to the River God’s town. “Don’t tell Lucky that we asked you to come.”


They told her, "We want you to testify that you saw Tally sign that quit claim deed.  You owe us. We stood up for you."

           

The last part was true enough. Aunt Ellen and Uncle Milton were the only family members who spoke up on Mom's behalf when Grandfather wanted us out of his house.   Despite that, my mother refused. "What kind of love is conditioned on making someone lie?" she asked repeatedly.

           

My mother and I had an out.  My grandfather often loaned money or set up partnerships with distant cousins and even complete strangers without ever expecting to see anything back. My father acknowledged that, but pointed out that my grandfather always insisted on collecting the loans he made to his own children.  "He never asked for an accounting, because he would never shame us by having to ask.  Your grandfather had higher standards for family than he did for outsiders."

My mother and I could have pretended that the dental building partnership with Uncle Milton had been just another outside-the-family loan. When Mom refused, Uncle Milton’s last words to her were, “Shit on you, then.”

           

Years later, to honor my dad’s love for his sister, I sent Aunt Ellen and Uncle Milton an invitation to my wedding. The card came back.  The box ‘not attending’ was checked in a faint pencil.

           

On the walk to the gym I tell Marie, “I’ll catch up.”  She touches my forearm, gives me a kiss, then slips back to the suburban reality of girls’ volleyball.  I dial Aunt Ellen’s number on my cell phone as I try to picture the passage of time on her face.  She once had the same gentle smile as my dad.  She’s now eighty-one.  I recognize her voice as soon as she answers.  I identify myself. 

           

“Who?” she says. 

           

“It’s Lucky, your nephew.  Tally’s son.”

           

“Oh…I’m sorry.  You surprised me.”

           

I knew instantly the call was a mistake. I asked anyway. “I’d like to come see you. My daughter’s here. Her name is Tally too.”

           

“Too much time, too much hurt,” she tells me.

           

Before I walk to the gym, I call my seventy-three-year-old mother to tell her about the phone call.  “I know you did it for your father. It's what he would have tried,” she tells me.   Has it really been two years since Mom last mentioned Dad?


The inside of the gym is filled with girls in their teens and the sound of whistles.  I watch balls bounce off walls and floors, but I hear and see nothing else.  In the middle of the deciding game, I try to shout out encouragement, but my throat fails me.  What would have happened had I told my mother to go ahead and lie for them twenty-seven years ago? At the time, it seemed like a simple matter of right or wrong, truth or lies.  A generation later I see this instead.  After Aunt Ellen and Uncle Milton shunned Mom, her heart closed up.  Other than me, Aunt Ellen had been my mother’s last connection to the twenty-seven years she invested in making herself part of my father’s family. Even after we had to move back to Sacramento from Grandfather’s house, my dad would make me go with him to family gatherings there, even though my mother refused. Each time, I would ask why we kept going.  Dad would tell me, “If you lose your family, you lose your connections, your own identity…. It’s part of being Chinese.”

           

In the years after turning down Aunt Ellen and Uncle Milton’s request to lie for them in court, I watched my mother struggle to embrace my stepfather’s grown children, then suddenly ostracize them for provocations as small as forgotten thank you notes and slights that no one else noticed. They used to call this ‘shell shock;’ not all bombs are made from gunpowder.

 

The last match of the tournament ends and I pack up the folding chairs, the ice chests, and my daughter’s two changes of clothes. 

 

“Dad, where did you go during that last game?” she asks.

           

“Phone call,” the words roll like a flat tire.

           

I had planned to take Tally to the top of the levee and show her the spot where Chucky was the only witness to my firecracker hitting the water—at just the right moment. I would then have shared the story of how I tried to brag to my older cousins.


“No way,” they told me. “You’re only saying it because we weren’t there.”

 

That’s when Chucky spoke up.  “He did it. I saw it.  The water sprayed like a big gusher and I saw clear to the bottom.  I saw the River God standing at the bottom of the river.  He saw me too.  He was laughing and calling for me to join him."

           

They laughed so hard that I never got the nerve to ask Chucky what he’d really seen or why he said what he’d said. I’d only seen murky brown water beneath the spray.

           

I brought a camera, hoping to get a picture of my daughter standing with an arm around my aunt Ellen; white-haired, shrunken, but still recognizable as my father’s favorite sister. I would have told Tally the story of the third ring; the bomb, and why her father has a name as curious as ‘Lucky.’

           

I turn on the radio, but the CD player comes on instead.

           

“Dad, no Jimmy Chopstix.  I’m too tired.”

           

Since she was four, Tally and I have sung our own Chinese lyrics to “Voodoo Child” on Electric Ladyland. “Chop it down” became “Chopstick Town,” then, Hendrix became Chopstix: Chinese God of Rock.  I turn off the stereo.  Tally is too tired for stories. Sudden fever has left her ghostly pale. We drive straight home instead.  Like Orpheus, I’m afraid to look back—at the River God’s town.

           

After the lawsuit, Aunt Ellen and Uncle Milton wound up owing me twenty-five thousand dollars; my share of the recovered income on the building. Perhaps I should have offered to give them back my share.

           

Marie turns to the back seat and strokes Tally’s head.  “She’s exhausted.  Maybe we shouldn’t have taken her this weekend.”


“She never gives up, never give up.” I whisper. 

           

A year before he died, my father told me the truth about the flood. “You know, the River God’s temple actually wound up under six feet of water.”

           

“Then, where’d the story about the temple being saved from the flood come from?”  

            

“The story just made better copy for the papers.  It also persuaded the Chamber of Commerce to restore the temple, reinforce the levee, and rebuild downtown.  Good stories outlast facts.”


“But, there must be a lot of people who know the truth.”


“Eventually rivers overtake any levee that men build. One day, some bigger flood may wash away the temple. Maybe then, people will stop pretending that they were saved by the River God.”

           

We pass the green-county-limit sign. It occurs to me that even those who can't manage integrity still deserve to be loved. Had I known what that decision would do to my mother, I might have played for the push.

           

What's twenty-five thousand dollars, after all, compared to my mother’s heart? I ask myself. Tally has no idea that I’d  wanted her to pose for some photo that I  fantasized would magically cover over all that happened after my father died.

           

“You know, I can’t even remember the scores,” I tell Marie.

           

“Lucky, just let it go,” she whispers. “Some things can’t be fixed.”

“But, we can’t be broken?”

   

Marie squeezes my hand.

 

For twenty-seven years, there’s been a levee between my heart and my tears. I want to cry, but the River God won't let me. I want to go back to hear the bombs, to smell the metallic sweetness of firecrackers. I imagine my father as a young man, jumping towards a ring, launched into orbit in honor of Bok Kai. My mother watches from across the street, just outside the gambling hall. She is already pregnant with me, but perhaps doesn't yet know it. I look back and see my daughter asleep in the back seat. There is so much I want to say to Marie and Tally, but the River God won't let me. When the flood finally overwhelms the levee, what stories will I have left to tell about the river and all that it washed away?

 

[Pushcart Nomination]