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Commonplace Books
(a Story)

by Linda Ty-Casper


I expect someone to call out, Pop! as I step into the shop; but it is empty. Nothing to steal anyway, unless someone took a liking to the large canvas covering one wall on which Joe Cody has been painting the Alamo. Or bothered with the coffee mugs gathering dust in a pyramid on a counter. Tom Pool cut dancing-shrimp designs on the clay. One time, football crowds bought out the mugs, mistaking the dancing-shrimp design for Indian bonfire with which to celebrate Texas A&M's victory.

When I first arrived, there was a Mexican restaurant three doors down; but it moved closer to the steakhouses where bowie knives are all anyone needs to carve the steaks and slabs of cheese served on sheets of wax paper large enough to catch the bullseye sauce. During the nine months I have been coming to the shop that restaurant became Indian, then Thai. Now it's empty. Tom and I talk sometimes of opening a Filipino restaurant whenever my wife joins me. But her visa has been denied again in Cebu. No explanation except since the American bases closed, the interviewers have become strict.

After a while I sit down to wait outside the shop, on the easy chair upholstered long ago in red. It has faded in spots like my old face. I might even be older than the chair. 72.

Joe Cody and Tom Pool disappear for days, but up to now, always by turns. The door is continually open, which is why I approached the shop the day I first followed the rail-road tracks from my son Daniel's house into town. That's the way I go, back and forth to the house which is empty most of the day. I walk back in time for the grandchildren to arrive from school. Gramp, they call me. Gramp. Even my son calls me that. His wife has avoided giving me a name. My son teaches at Texas A&M. His office is near the swine farm, future site of President Bush's library. My son's wife works in the town library. Beulah Mae. I have met her parents. My son and his wife always seem surprised to come in and find me in their house, though they were the ones who invited me to visit about a year ago. If my wife came, if she got a visa, we might apply for elderly housing and live by ourselves, Beulah says.

In the shop I'm Pop. It sounds strange coming from Tom Pool -- Tomas Pulotan -- who is Filipino like me. He was outside the shop the morning I wandered into town; just standing by the door watching me come. "Paisano?" I asked him.

"Hi, Pop," he answered.

It was weeks, by slow disclosure, that I found out Tom was originally from New Orleans, from one of the parishes. Seventh generation American because the first Pulotan came to Louisiana almost two hundred years ago, during the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco when many Filipino sailors jumped ship to escape the Spaniards. It's not in history books, Tom says. Nothing about that migration of men, some of whom fought in the Battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson, during the 1812 war. It persists only in family histories. The towns they built at the edge of the bayous went by names which no one else remembers: Cholas, Leon Rojas, Bassa Bassa... fugitive names. Manila Village is being researched now. St. Malo by Lake Borgne. Tom says, there used to be acres of shrimp platforms beside the Gulf and the men of long ago danced over the sun-dried shrimps, shuffling over and on them to pop their shells so they could be shoveled into barrels for export to Asia, Canada, Central America. A few still talk about those days they do not recall seeing, spinning out nostalgia at Filipino picnics to which anyone is welcome.

Tom Pool says he wants to lose himself in America, away from those smothering picnics, the Filipino Cajun drawl. He's fed up with people looking at him and seeing only what's ethnic. He has a degree in architecture. While he sits staring at the railroad tracks and the mesquite, the vein keeps wriggling on the side of his neck.

Across the tracks is the other part of town. Federally-funded buildings deflect the sun back at the half where the shop is located, where it would not be surprising to see a horse tied to the hitching post or parking meters whose heads have been removed.

Nine months. I haven't had a day when I do not think of Bacolod in Negros Occidental. We have a store near the provincial buildings in the capital, close to the elementary school. My wife serves merienda, just soft drinks and cookies, cheese curls and fruits: nothing that requires her to wash dishes. Our only child still at home, she's almost 28, wants to join the Carmelites again. Once before she entered, as postulant, but got sick during the clothing ceremony. Fever of 105deg.. People thought she was faking her deliriums in order to get out, but Rosa has wanted to be a Carmelite since the third grade. A second time she entered, but again got sick from staying out in the fields teaching the Gospel to those without religion. They slept in the open without mosquito nets or bedding, in order to develop detachment. Visits were not allowed at this stage. If Rosa is successful this third time, and if my wife gets a visa, she and I might stay in Bryan/College Station. But I don't know. I still can't tell myself I'm going to die in this country.

It's an interesting country, even the alkaline soil full of thorns where it is not clay. Actually, I have seen what would have been useful while I was still teaching American and English literature as late as seven years ago in Bacolod. If we stay here, we would be free of the New People's Army demanding contributions or else; not the real reformers but those pretending to NPAs. Mere bandits. But I'm not going to stay just to be able to live past my lifetime. I'm as old now as my father was when he died. To stay for that reason is no better than ordering oneself to love.

I look down the road in front of the shop to check if either Joe or Tom is coming. Time heavy on your hands, Pop? Joe greets me if he finds me waiting outside. Time heavy. I make an effort to remember such phrases, short cuts to communication though my son Daniel's neighbors keep to themselves; plant fenced-in gardens.

Nothing to do, I might have answered. Nothing to wait for with urgency.

Maybe life would be better for us in the States, maybe the three of us could make a home here, if Rosa does not stay in the convent. But I'm not sure. Even if Rosa were admitted to the convent and we could not visit her, we would still miss being near enough. It's not like it's a half day trip. More like halfway round a spinning world.

I decide to sweep the steps and sidewalk in front of the shop; return the broom behind the front door propped open by the edge of the dustpan instead of a wedge of wood. Then I go inside, dust around. I push the coffee mugs into place. Tom's part of the shop is just two tables, a kiln, and a potter's wheel that some former partner of Joe Cody's left behind. I enjoy watching Tom shape the clay. Sometimes he stretches the mass into a neck to make a vase or a decanter. Taught himself. I want to stop him when he squeezes it all back into a lump to make mugs. The design he cuts into them looks very much like nails tossed into the air to fall back as they might. Wherever.

There is an anger I can feel in Tom; part fear, part loneliness which I understand. I wish I could say something to him which made sense of his life. Even if I could, he might refuse to listen. He might think I was sentimental, like an old woman. The way my wife is with the children.

Thirteen mugs. Lucky number, Tom Pool claims. The arrangement reminds me of the careful way my wife sets up the jars of candies and cookies against the wooden grilles through which she thrusts out the bottles of soft drinks and bags of chips, receives payment and counts out change. A permanent but not secure barrier.

I can't say it's all angry days with Tom Pool. Sometimes he asks about Bacolod, about the Philippines. "Maybe I'll reverse the migration, Pop. Maybe I should head for Manila." Laughing, he asks me to teach him Pilipino before he books his flight. "Let's go home, Pop." It's possible to know one's displaced without first discovering where one should be.

I suspect the words we said to one another when we spoke were not all the words we keep inside our heads, our secret conversations. It's all dreams.

My father was the same way when he lived alone, refusing to leave the house after my mother died. I would visit him every day to bring his meals and we would sit across from each other, talking to ourselves. Secrets. He might have already said then everything he wanted to say. When he spoke it was with words that led back to himself where I could not follow. I'm as old now as my father was when I visited, waiting to be told something important, which I could not know by myself, something to connect our lives before he died.

I have yet to meet a man who talked enough to tire himself out. I'm not including the employees who came to our store in Bacolod talking aloud of promotions and raises not yet received; or politicians campaigning with recycled promises that put their campaign managers to sleep.

But silence is another thing; a bad habit which can ruin lives. For some reason Joe Cody and Tom Pool and I have the habit which allows us to drift, to be lost waiting to reach a decision, waiting to have it imposed upon us like a curse.

Joe Cody sometimes talked to his painting.

I turn to it on the sunrise side of the shop, with light rushing towards it from the doorway. The sky screams in Cody's painting of a battle fought a hundred some years before: 156 by Cody's count. February. Winter in Texas with the ground frozen hard and the norther blowing mean and fierce like human anger.

A face stares back at me with the gaze of the glacier man, 5000 years old, lately discovered in Austria after an avalanche brought it down from the high Alps, whose picture Joe Cody ripped off a magazine to tack onto the wall beside his painting. The face says there's no sense to life which must begin and end in accident. My father was a municipal clerk who was so skilled, he never had to retype a page and waste the paper, never smudged carbon onto the clean copy even when typing documents that set down the boundaries of farms or city lots, surveyor's markers. Another 5000 years and which of us would be covered by what avalanche? Our universe itself might no longer exist except as stones rattling loose in black space; without memory, just like the ashes from Mount Pinatubo which color sunrises and sunsets across the world after drowning ricefields and towns in Luzon with six feet high dust and gravel, choking rivers.

Joe Cody's canvas keeps me standing before it like someone groping for meaning. Alone in the shop, freed from the embarrassment of admitting curiosity, I can study what Joe calls his commonplace book, a painted record of his thoughts. I pick out rifles, "muskets" Joe calls them, which make me think of sticks that pagans in Bacolod used to beat together to call their souls back into their bodies, if these had become separated while hunting in the forests. The men on top of Alamo's outer walls seem to be part of speech guarded with stiff tongues. I remember Joe Cody crying as he was painting, blotting out portions with the flat of his knife, touching a brush gently to a shape, looking, looking before moving the sun across the canvas, turning it with dark impasto into a blinded moon or a bell ringing, piercing the sky with the fire of cannons opening breaches in the walls; returning the sun to its proper dignity. The ruts on the ground about the Alamo, the ditches that carried water into the fort, repeat the debris of bodies and fallen roof that fill the chapel apse.

"Break away, Joe," Tom Pool sometimes calls out in a whisper while we watch Joe working in silence, painting that silence into the canvas, rushing at it as if he might tear it to shreds.

Why Joe Cody paints over the canvas, layering scenes, putting back what he covered up, I can't tell.

I look away to the wide open door, wondering if Joe went fishing that morning, went with Tom Pool. He took me once, tried to teach me to fly cast, to makes flies with feathers and thread. He told Tom I was a fast learner, though I never understood the point of not using fresh bait or the principles behind the snap of the wrist he insisted upon, the ride of the thumb.

Used to Joe Cody's accent now, I can hear him talking to his painting. From a distance it appears like a trench into which bodies adorned with wounds have been laid for common burial. The glacier man might be in there, too, buried in the burning mud with his memory. Plato said death is forgetting.

Here is where they died, I repeat the words I have heard Joe Cody saying to his canvas. Died the way my brothers died in Bataan during World War II. Same gunfire, same death fastening their bodies to the wall of earth in Capas, to the walls of barracks and armory of the Alamo, like flags hanging from a turbulent sky, bodies dissolving into each other, standing with the lead they had received standing up to bombardment, standing upright inside hills that were cut down for subdivisions along the road of the Death March, cut down to make way for a memorial to Japanese soldiers who allowed no quarter. The dark perfection of memory startles me into seeing nooses of sharp grass.

I cannot look away from the men molding bullets from lead ornaments of the Alamo Chapel, cooking over an open fire of hacked peach trees. Here the canvas is as gray and poor as gunpowder the quality of coal dust; there it throbs with the fire of Mount Pinatubo's eruptions. A scene of hand-to-hand fighting pushes up the sky, that mudhole of ruts from the siege of thousands of infantry and cavalry, regimental bands uniformed in old Spanish Moorish pantaloons. Cottonwood trees, los alamos, are red with frozen blood. Fields of thorns are boxed in by the compass: day-break and dusk and night simultaneous in the air-starved sky with cannonballs whipping above the sentry's watch, above the blast of bugles, the ringing of bells. Cold icy winds press ladders to the walls; push crowbars and axes and muskets racing towards the breach. In an inner court formed by low stockades, a tight circle of yellow floats, perhaps the sun itself facing assault. Orange fire from cannons echo the war whoops, the crash of battle, the cries. A boy is pulling at a dead man's gun. Soldiers aim, exposed on the ramparts; reloading, firing while leaping to retreat towards the powder magazine; blackened by smoke, mutilated by swords and knives coming out of men's torn mouths. Shattered sandbags. Cowhide barricades tearing, the rents as tall as men. In a corner formed by other bodies, a soldier with jaws broken, is trying to sound alarm. Bodies are being dragged to a bonfire which grows like a terrible unlikely sun; being tossed on bayonets like straw.

Tom Pool is looking for a place to begin his life over. Joe Cody is looking for where his might have begun. One can drown in parched earth. I am as trapped as either of them. To be outwitted means not death but life. There is no place where life can begin again, only where it should end. In his commonplace book Joe Cody painted Hell for me; uprooted mountains and blood frozen on the sun. I think of my wife growing orchids inside fistfuls of bark and charcoal and crushed eggshells. There are no safe hours, I'm afraid. I wonder if she ever resented my touch, felt maimed by my body. I think of my father dying; of the moon as dark as goat's hair.

Wishing for words to bring an archangel down to Tom, and Joe, and myself, without another look inside the shop, I walk out. I leave the door open, step onto the railroad tracks heading for a grove of mesquite past my son Daniel's house. I walk quickly in steps which will not return.

My body feels heavy. Reaching the house, I begin separating the pictures I had brought from Bacolod, waiting these nine months to show my son's family the pictures my wife put together in an album; waiting for a long weekend, an occasion to have my son's children recognize themselves in faces they have never seen; will never. The pictures of Daniel Junior growing up I decide to leave behind, with one or two family pictures of all of us when we were still a family in Bacolod. I place the pictures I have pulled out in a small pile on the kitchen table while the dance of fire in Joe Cody's commonplace book beats over me like a broken handdrum, and Tomas Pulotan's shrimps thrash into red-hot carrion. 

Originally published in the January-February 1993 issue of Boston Review



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