I'm standing in an alley looking up at golden windows. The light flickers and dances, so I know there are candles. That clinches it for me. This has gotta be my dad's new place.
Easy for him to say, you will find me, you are a cop in that lilting voice of his; not so easy for me to find him. Come to Chinatown, ask for Caine, takes on a whole new meaning when no one knows that Caine is back. Instead of nods and smiles and pointing fingers, you get quizzical looks that say, hey, kid, your old man left six months ago, don't you remember that?
Well, yeah -- I remember. Vividly. I remember that I was angry and in so much pain that --
To hell with it. It's over. He's back. I need to forget the past. I'm Peter Caine, He Who Forgets Past.
Right. It'll never happen.
I take a deep breath. There's probably a front door somewhere, but I'm going to climb the fire escape and surprise him. While my dad was gone, I decided to overcome my fear of heights. Okay, I haven't accomplished much so far, but this will be a good test. I just won't look down.
I don't, but there are a hell of a lot of steps and it's a hell of a lot higher than I'd like it to be. So I keep my eyes focused on the windows and concentrate on the light at the top. I take one step, then another, and another, and the goddamn rails are getting slick from my sweating palms, and I'm almost at the landing, almost, one more step and...I'm there! -- then, damn, I trip over something. Something that clinks and falls and puts an inglorious end to my surprise for my dad. I take a deep breath and look down.
Plants. He's lived here less than a week and he's got plants already.
I squat and clean up the mess as best I can. I'm trying to scoop dirt with my fingers when a hand appears with a small trowel. I smile involuntarily when I see the silk sleeve. "Hi, Pop! I am here."
He recognizes my teasing and gives me an amused look. "So I...hear." He cuffs my chin, and I laugh with relief because it's so damn familiar and welcoming. I remember times when I was little and he'd tap my face very gently. It always made me smile. Still does.
"I like to announce myself."
He smiles slightly, and we both stand. He takes the small green plant, safely nested back in its cracked clay pot, and places it to the side of the landing. "I did not think," he says with an expansive gesture of his left hand, "anyone would choose to visit me from this...angle?"
"Sure you did, Dad. I'm on to you - these plants are part of your early warning system. Catch all those clumsy stray assassins."
"Ah. But I did not anticipate catching a stray son."
No, the stray son of the straying Kwai Chang Caine shouldn't be clumsy. He should be agile, clever, quick, perfect-- I frown, and my dad tilts his head and studies my expression. I realize that maybe I'm being a little paranoid, so I smile back. "Lucky you."
He says nothing, just studies me for another minute, then heads inside. "I was about to prepare food. Will you join me?"
His idea of food is rice. "I was hoping to take you out," I say quickly. "I mean -- we could go to dinner and, uh...a movie or somethin'? Do a father-son bonding thing."
"Bonding," he repeats. He stares at me again, and I begin to wonder if there's dirt on my nose, or a green and stringy piece of that poor plant stuck between my front teeth. I smile inanely, then try to fix a noncommittal expression on my face, because I'm afraid he's going to refuse.
He goes into the kitchen, removes the teakettle from the stove and turns off the gas. I fold my arms and lean against the wall, watching him. He looks great. Like he's been on vacation. Tanned and healthy, wrapped in black silk that reminds me of the shirt he burned. I frown and rub my nose.
He doesn't empty out the water -- nope, probably going to conserve it for another day. I wonder how many times that pot of water has been reheated. He wipes the countertop with a small white towel. Then, with his usual elegant and economical gestures, he neatly folds it and lays it aside. He begins to clean the sink, so I focus my attention on the kitchen.
It's small but bright and airy. I decide to snoop around the place, but then my father says: "I am ready."
I'm tempted to say, ready for what? but I don't want to spoil the moment by being, as Skalany might say, sassy. I follow him. He grabs his jacket from a chair and then we're in a hallway and out a door before I have time to look at the apartment. As usual, he's left all the candles burning. I know that makes other people nervous, but it reminds me of the temple. I find it comforting.
"How about Mexican for a change?" I tease as we head down a gloomy interior staircase. There's a single small overhead light at each landing; the bulbs are all dust-covered, but that doesn't stop millers and moths from batting against them. They remind me of myself, hovering around my dad, longing to be part of the radiance that surrounds him. But just like the stupid bugs, I flap my wings and get nowhere fast, until I knock myself out by flying headfirst into that wall of stubbornness.
I linger for a moment at the top of the last level, watching him. The dark gray hair, grown six months' longer, peeking out from below the old hat...the battered suede coat that could use a good cleaning...the pouch that has been in our family for generations.... Suddenly I'm so overwhelmed by love that my eyes mist. Embarrassed, I swipe my sleeve across them.
The familiar scents of incense and herbs fill my nose. I open my eyes and he's right there, a single step below me. He says nothing, just watches. He watches me, I watch him. We seem to do this all the time, but what is it we see? Do we look for ourselves in each other? Are we looking for answers to the great mystery we can't name? I don't know. I lay my hand on his shoulder. He accepts the touch for a moment, then he nods and turns and continues down the stairs. With a sigh, I follow.
A blast of light and sound hits us when we reach the street. Chinatown. It's so alive and active. For all its mysterious ambiance, it's exciting and vital, it's the part of the city that I've always loved best. I used to sneak down here when I was a teenager. In the daytime, I'd grab the bus, but at night I'd hitch. It was part of the thrill. First hitchhike, then explore Chinatown during the danger hours. I used to imagine there were opium and gambling dens behind every third door, and Shaolin priests in underground temples, performing ancient rituals. When I got older, I laughed at those stupid ideas, but now-- Go figure. Some of it turned out to be true.
While I've been reminiscing, my pop has been walking, so I have to hurry to catch up with him. He hasn't walked far, and when I reach him, there is a tolerant smile on his face. I grin at him. "Not Mexican? Okay. Um...German? Italian?"
"Szechwan?" he suggests innocently. "Although..." he looks around, "...I do not know where we would find such Chinese food in this neighborhood."
"Very funny." My elbow nudges his elbow. "Better keep your day job, Pop." I skip a step and turn so I'm walking backwards in front of him. I'm grinning like an idiot, but I don't care. I'm just so damn glad he's back. "So...what'd you do for six months? Miss me?"
He's about to say something when an elderly woman appears and tugs at his sleeve. She begins to chatter in a dialect I don't understand, but he obviously does. He links her arm over his and pats her hand. I try very hard not to frown and quickly change my walking mode so I'm on his other side. "What's goin' on?"
"Mrs. Yee," he says in English, "this is Mysonpeter."
I grin again, because I know he doesn't know that I think of that as one word. Mysonpeter. I like it. He must like it, too, because he says it so often. "Nice to meet you."
"Peter. The po-leez," she proclaims. "A nice boy. You go dinner with priest?"
"Yes, the priest and the police are going to dinner," I say cheerfully.
"I will come also," she decides, and I blink.
She nods emphatically. "The priest missed."
"Yeah." I run my fingers through my hair. "He was missed by me, too -- his son," I stress, in case she misses my status. "So now this son is taking his father to dinner."
My dad gives me a Look. I give him a Look right back, hoping he interprets it correctly. Our first chance to spend some time together, and a stranger invites herself along!
"Good son," Mrs. Yee says, smiling sweetly at me. "My son also good. Dead now."
Oh. That takes the wind right out of my high-flying pirate sails.
"Husband dead, too," she adds. "All alone."
Well, damn. "Not tonight," I say bravely. "Tonight you're having dinner with the priest and the cop."
My father nods approvingly, but doesn't look at me. So off the three of us go, the Wizard, Dorothy and me, whoever I am -- the Scarecrow, the Tin Man? Probably the one without a brain.
In the next block, our little party expands. A shopkeeper throws aside his apron and greets my father like his long-lost...father. A young couple comes running after my dad, the woman pressing a kiss against his cheek. By the third block, our small party has become a mini-mob consisting of people who are thrilled to death to see my old man.
Pretty soon I'm nudged from my place beside my father. Short of knocking a four-foot-ten elderly woman out of the way, there's not much I can do about it. I slow my steps and fall in behind the group. I watch my father's hat as it tilts first to one side, then the other. He appears to hear everyone, and I wonder how he does it. How he can care so much, and if it ever costs more than he can pay.
But he's a priest. Love is his job. He loves everyone. Every good person, every bad person - though he sees the bad ones only as lost souls in need of help or counseling or love.
What about me, Dad?
I feel selfish, as though my question demeans both me and him. People need him, they always have. I remember feeling this way in the temple -- jealous. Everyone looked up to him and depended on him. His days were filled with others, guiding and helping them, encouraging and consoling. It was only in the evenings, late, just before I went to bed, that we would have quiet moments together. Then he would listen to me and talk to me, not idly, but to teach me. It wasn't until I moved in with the Blaisdells that I realized parents and kids could talk about nothing and everything. It was a shock at first, then I thought it was terrific. But after awhile I realized...they weren't saying much of importance. It made me miss my father even more. For the first time, I regretted I hadn't memorized all those homilies and stories.
Which had something to do with the reason I hung out in Chinatown as a teenager. I guess I was looking for his words. I went to a few Buddhist services, but they were too informal for me. I longed for the rituals of the temple, the prostrating, the offerings of rice and fruit and flowers, the heavy incense, the chants...my father's quiet wisdom and warmth.
Someone bumps into me, bringing me back to the present. Once again, I've gotten so engrossed in memories that I've been left behind. Mrs. Yee and the crowd following my father has disappeared, swallowed by all the other pedestrians in Chinatown. I take a few steps, then hesitate, feeling sorry for myself. He doesn't need my love. Maybe he never did. Tonight he's got a worshipful crowd to entertain. He doesn't need his sulking cop son.
Well, to hell with it, I'll just head back to my car and a lonely dinner. I turn around.
My father is standing directly behind me.
We do the staring thing again. I can't think of a single smart remark to cut the tension. He never feels tension, so he doesn't know it needs cutting. I gnaw on my lower lip.
"You wish to have dinner here," my dad states.
I look around. There's a little restaurant that looks like one of those cheap takeout places. "Uh...yeah," I lie, pretending I wasn't about to scoop up all my marbles and run home.
I wonder if he reads my mind, because he smiles a little and opens the door. Delicious odors waft toward us, and I guess I picked okay. Even if I didn't pick the place.
I grin at him and hold the door by lifting my arm over his head, waiting until he ducks under it and goes inside. I shoot glances in every direction. No one is following us.
I join my dad at a little table
in the back of the room and do what millions of people do every night:
I have dinner with my pop.
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