Nancy Vergara returned home to Terra Bella, to the pale yellow tract house where she had lived almost all her life. She returned on a rainy day, with the distant foothills lost in the mist and the palm trees along the boulevard heaving and bending in the wind. For a moment, everything looked the same—the barren rose bushes lining the chain-link fence, the cement driveway with deep cracks, the yellow diamonds on the garage door. And then Nancy saw her father waiting for her in the window.
Melchor Vergara met her on the porch. Between his hands he worked his knit cap into a ball. Even before she hugged him, Nancy could smell the mustiness of his damp wool sweater, and she wondered how: many times that day her father had come out into the driveway and stood in the rain, looking for her.
“Dad, you shouldn’t be outside,” Nancy said. “You’ll catch cold.”
She wiped the cold raindrops from her father’s temple.
“How could it be?” Melchor said.
The question had haunted her the whole journey from upstate New York to the Central Valley of California. Her mother Feliza was nineteen years younger than her father. It was Melchor her mother had always worried about.
Nancy tried to remember what her mother’s last words were. She remembered Feliza telling her about strange dreams and how they had kept her up.
“I dreamed that Melchor was walking with lilies in his arms,” she said.” Melchor sald we would go back to the Philippines, to San Esteban. He kept coming closer and closer, until the whiteness of the flowers blinded and and stung my eyes.”
Nancy remembered how concerned her mother was and how Fellza was going to see a mammoyon, the fortune teller who lived at the edge of the Filipino community. Nancy didn’t know if her mother ever went, or if she did, what the mammoyon had predicted.
She recalled too clearly Melchor’s phone call. The connection was bad. He said, “Fellza’s heart just stopped. She was ironing my trousers, and her heart just stopped.”
The rain came down harder. Nancy put her father’s knit cap on his head. She imagined that the cold had already set in her father’s bones, and it made her fearful.
“How could it be?” Melchor repeated.
“It’s okay, Dad. I’m home now. I’m going to take care of you.” She prodded her father along, steering him to the open door and helping him to his chair in the living room. It was quiet and dark inside, but Nancy couldn’t bear to turn on the light. Everything would look wrong, somehow out of place.
In the morning, Nancy asked her father which dress he wanted Feliza to be buried in, but his entire face was slack as she held up dress after dress.
“Dad, would you say something? You’re not helping one bit,” Nancy said, and threw one of the dresses on Feliza’s side of the bed.
Melchor looked at her, startled, as if she had never talked that way to him before. She didn’t know whether he was responding to her angry tone of voice or to the flowered dress that flared out at the waist and gave the illusion of having gathered a bunch of roses in its skirt. Melchor rubbed the cotton sateen easily between his fingers as if the creamy material were soothing his dry, cracked skin. Or perhaps he was remembering a spring day of many years ago when Fellza used to fetch him for dinner, luring him away from his garden by wearing a pretty outfit. Nancy took this gesture as his answer, and Fellza Vergara was buried on a rainy day in a spring dress.
After the funeral, Nancy began cleaning the house. She dragged around a cardboard box to dump the Avon decanters and thrift-store vases and figurines that cluttered the living room and family room. The doilies on the tables and easy chairs were yellowed, and Nancy imagined her mother reminding herself that it was time to bleach them white again. She could remember those crisp spring Saturday mornings. Her father was in his backyard garden, Nancy was either helping her father or playing with her cat, and her mother hauled the wet laundry outside. When her mother hung the newly bleached doilies, Nancy invented elusive snow-white spiders that spun webs on the clothes line and left them to dry off from the dew. But the pungent smell of bleach in the air always spoiled her game of make-believe. There were too many doilies in the house, Nancy decided. Think how much cleaning time her mother would have saved if she had gotten rid of even half the doilies. Yet it seemed a betrayal to both her parents to remove the familiar things that touched off memories of Feliza, and so the only thing Nancy threw out was the empty box.
She had been home only a week, but it seemed as if the month she had planned to stay with her father had already gone by. In the evenings, Nancy signed papers, checked bank statements and documents, and punched the calculator. She figured out a payment schedule for bills and a comfortable monthly allowance for her father’s needs. By late night, she was exhausted, but she could not sleep.
One night, she found her father sitting in his easy chair, opposite Feliza’s matching chair, without stirring. The strangeness of seeing him there alone kept her from approaching him. She couldn’t assume her mother’s place in her mother’s chair and prod Melchor into smiling. She used to have that power as a child, but Nancy had given up that role little by little to her mother as she grew older. It was Feliza who joked with Melchor and broke up the tension whenever her husband and teenage daughter argued. Nancy wondered if her father gave in to Feliza because she made him laugh or because their fights reduced Feliza to tears.
She didn’t want to startle her father by flooding the room with light. “Dad,” Nancy called out softly.
Melchor reached for the table lamp nearby. They both blinked their eyes in the harsh light.
“What are you doing here?”
For a few moments, Melchor remained silent.
“I was thinking of your grandfather.”
“My grandfather?” If anyone, Nancy assumed the memory of her mother would have kept her father awake—not the grandfather she had never met.
“Why are you thinking of him?”
“Did I ever tell you your grandfather made me quit school when I was in the sixth grade? He needed help with his rice fields, but he didn’t want to pay for more workers. Your grandfather was very strict. Maybe I have become like him, but I don’t think so. When I ran away, he never forgave my mother. She gave me the money to follow my cousins on the steamer Jackson. Your grandmother said my luck would change. But I never saw my father again. He died of a stroke. He fell in the mud of his rice fields during planting season and died the next day.
“When your grandmother wrote me, I was filled with sadness. I had always intended to go back and make peace with him. I dreamed of taking him to Manila and buying anything he looked at. Anything. I wanted his forgiveness. My mother said his heart had softened the last year. She said he told the priest he had forgiven me. I believe she made this up. How can you forgive someone you have not seen in twenty years?”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I really am, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Melchor heaved a sigh—not out of impatience, Nancy thought, but out of sadness.
“Sometimes you make plans. You try your luck,” he said. “And then something happens. Okay, you tell yourself. You make changes—because you have to. But those plans you once made are gone. No more.”
Nancy knelt before her father and took his hands in hers.
“There are other plans, Dad.”
He shook his head and pulled his hands away and locked them together in a tight grip with with his fingers.
Her father’s listlessness angered her, but mostly it worried her. All the years Nancy was away at school, she had wanted to set up a plan for her mother in the event of her father’s death. Feliza refused to discuss such things. It was bad luck Iuck to speak of Melchor in the past tense. Feliza was fine. Her husband’s relatives and town mates would look after her.
“But Mom,” Nancy remembered arguing for the umpteenth time. “I couldn’t leave you here in this house alone. We should have some sort of plan. I don’t know where I’ll be after graduate school, but you should live with me.”
Fellza was adamant. “No, you keep your life. It’s not the Filipino way here. If your father had stayed in San Esteban like his father wanted him to, Melchor would never have come to America. His mother was good to him. She said, ‘Melchor, live your own life,’ This is what your father and I want you to do. Besides, you can’t have me around when you are looking for a husband.”
Nancy laughed at first, thinking how both she and her mother would feel awkward around her college-age friends. Then, feeling guilty, she realized that the thought of her mother living with her seemed burdensome. If she went away on vacations, would she feel obliged to take Feliza? If she threw a party, would her mother insist on being there?
But it didn’t matter anymore. Nancy had to think of her father now. She figured he would want to stay in Terra Bella the rest of his life. Although Melchor wandered about the house and neighborhood as if rudderless, she felt the calming sense of protectiveness her father’ cousins and friends gave him. As long as he’s healthy, she kept saying to herself, but she never finished her thought.
Nancy offered to cook the meals. She would have gone to the store to pick up ricotta cheese for lasagna or bread crumbs for her baked-chicken recipe, but Melchor wouldn’t have it. He took over cooking from Feliza when he gave up his garden, and the kitchen became his territory.
“Never mind that hamburger and pizza. You should eat Filipino food.”
“But I get tired of it all the time.”
“I eat it all the time—pansit, lumpla, fish, rice. It’s good for you. How do you think I’ve lived this long?”
Melchor wouldn’t even let her clean the kitchen after dinner.
“Don’t waste that,” he said when Nancy tried to dump the cold, sudless dishwater. “You can still wash more dishes. You just waste soap and water. Don’t you know we have a drought in California?”
When Nancy removed the recycled plastic butter tubs in the refrigerator, Melchor hovered over her. Nancy peeled back the lids and sniffed at the unidentified leftovers.
“That’s chocolate meat,” Melchor said.
“It smells. The pig’s blood is spoiled.” Nancy stacked the container with the other suspect food on the counter, but Melchor grabbed them in his arms.
“You’ll get food poisoning.”
“Have I been sick yet?”
She watched without intervening as Melchor triumphantly put back every container in the refrigerator.
Nancy didn’t even try to break her father’s habit of reusing plastic storage bags with the zippered closing. After he washed them, he hung them to dry upside-down on kitchen utensils in the drainboard. The floor was sticky, and the tines of the forks were crusted with bits of food that Melchor’s failing eyes had missed as he washed them under a dim light.
Nancy spent most of her time in her room, surrounded by her childhood picture books and stuffed animals, She thumbed through her high school yearbooks, but her mind wandered and fantasized about her return to Cornell. She imagined packing her bags, kissing her father good-bye, and promising to call him every week and visit during holidays and vacations. Nancy would turn around one more time to see him waving at the gate, just as he had always done when she went back to school, his face anxious because he worried about her safe return.
The first week in May, exactly one month after her arrival, Nancy took her suitcases out of the closet and began packing. Either the noise she made must have broken the silence or her father’s ears had become attuned to unfamiliar sounds because Melchor stood at her bedroom doorway before she even pulled out her clothes from the dresser drawers. He said nothing, but he stared into the hollow of the open suitcase.
“The semester’s finished,” Nancy said.
Melchor pulled his handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped at his nose.
“I need to get back to my thesis.”
“Maybe I have quarters saved up for your laundry. You should have told me. If I had known you were leaving now, you should have taken me to the bank. Never mind.”
Before Nancy could speak, he retreated to his bedroom. She could hear him open a drawer and sift through sheaves of papers. She could hear the clinking and sliding of coins he kept in an old cookie tin. But he didn’t return shortly with worn quarters jingling in his outstretched palm. Instead, the house became very still.
Nancy hesitated, wondering if she should go to him. Maybe all he had in that tin were nickels and old pennies.
“That’s okay, Dad. I really don’t need them,” Nancy called out through the open door of her room.
Melchor soon appeared in the doorway, empty-handed. “I don’t have any quarters here. If you had told me you were leaving.”
“But I told you last week. You just weren’t listening.”
“We can still go to the bank and get some rolls of quarters.”
“Dad,” Nancy said, her patience wearing thin. “I said I don’t need any quarters. It’s not that important.”
Melchor stared at his hands, “Well, if you don’t need, then what is the use?”
Nancy came home at Thanksgiving for the first time since she had graduated from college. The house wasn’t as cluttered as she would have imagined—no stacks of yellowed newspapers in the living-room corner to invite winter mice to burrow or freezer-burned vegetables from past summers thawing in plastic bags in the sink.
“The house looks good, Dad.”
“Sure, I keep it clean, You think just because Feliza isn’t here the house would be dirty?” he said. “Your Manang Elsie invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, but I told her we would stay here.”
“Is that all right with you? I mean, if you want to go to Manang Elsie’s, we can.” She had meant to spend her four days of vacation exclusively with her father, but the more she thought about it, the more Nancy preferred being in the company of other families for the holiday. Although the house was clean, it lacked the festive orange and red decorations her mother brought out every Thanksgiving.
But Melchor’s face mirrored the hurt look Nancy used to have as a child whenever her father had scolded her. “You didn’t come home for Thanksgiving for several years, and Feliza and I still celebrated Thanksgiving with a big dinner here.”
“We could do that,” Nancy said, doubtfully.
“Everything is here,” he said, and opened the refrigerator door.
Nancy stared at the huge Butterball turkey, a cornucopia-shaped mold with raisins and grated carrots suspended in green gelatin, a pumpkin pie, and a can of nondairy whipped topping. Her father motioned to a box of stuffing on the table and a colander full of newly scrubbed potatoes destined to be cooked and mashed.
“Looks like It’s all here,” Nancy said. “We’ll have a really nice Thanksgiving this year, Dad.”
Melchor nodded, but the words sounded hollow to Nancy’s ears.
During Thanksgiving dinner, Nancy turned on the television in the living room. Although neither she nor her father were football fans, the background cheering and frenzied talk of the commentators swallowed up the silence between their conversations. Nancy ate her food quickly and watched her father. His appetite was good; she was relieved to see that.
“The food was good, Dad,” Nancy said, and stood up.
“That’s all you’re going to eat?”
They surveyed the turkey, which was still intact except for one uneven side where thin slices were cut away. Melchor began surrounding her plate with bowls of mashed potatoes and gelatin and extra stuffing.
“You don’t eat enough. That’s why you’re too skinny. Just like Feliza was too skinny.”
“I’ll eat more later,” Nancy said, and that seemed to appease her father. “Let’s see what’s on television, Dad. Just leave the dishes there. I’ll get them later.”
Melchor followed her into the living room.
“Here.” Melchor put a small box in Nancy’s hands.
Nancy removed the lid and saw her mother’s diamond ring and wedding band resting in the middle of a clean handkerchief. Feliza’s mother had given them the rings as a wedding present because Melchor couldn’t afford such luxuries. At the time he married Feliza, he could only offer her a second-class passage to America, his salary as a parking-lot attendant, and an apartment in Los Angeles that he shared with his cousin and his cousin’s wife.
The rings were antique. Nancy imagined they were once worn by Feliza’s grandmother. But the small diamond wasn’t cut well, and Feliza once told Nancy that when she had thought of replacing the plain setting with a fancy scroll design, a local jeweler warned her that the diamond would crumble. The wedding band was made of soft metal, and it was marred by dents and scratches. But the rings had belonged to her mother. Fellza had worn them proudly on her finger for nearly twenty-seven years.
“You should have them. Fellza was going to give them to you, anyway.”
“Shouldn’t you keep the rings?”
“There’s no need.”
Nancy turned the rings over, but couldn’t bring herself to slip the cool, thin bands onto her fingers. She replaced the rings in the box and set it on the coffee table.
“I was going to wait until tomorrow,” he began.
“What is it, Dad?”
Melchor hesitated. For a moment, he looked caught.
“I have made a decision. I have been writing to your Auntie Erin. The best time to go back home is in December. The weather is warmer. The rainy season won’t begin until summer.”
Nancy searched her father’s face. “Dad, traveling all the way to the Philippines and back just for a visit would be difficult for you.”
“I’m going back to the Philippines to stay,” Melchor said. “I want to take Feliza with me.”
Nothing in his long-distance conversations prepared Nancy for the force of his words.
“Dad, don’t talk like that. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I’m taking Feliza. I’m going to have her buried back home. In San Esteban.”
Melchor’s hands were curled, as if he were already holding his suitcase, ready to leave.
Nancy laughed. How unnatural and wobbly it sounded in the darkening room. “You’re talking like Manong Jaime,” she said.
Manong Jaime, a bachelor who had lived next door, went back to the Philippines when he turned sixty-five. As far as Nancy could remember, she and everybody else in the Filipino community called the male elders manong and the elder women manang to show respect. Nancy knew of the manongs, how they returned when they got old because there was no one in the Stutes to take care of them, then how they settled back into the wooden houses of their birth. The old manongs bought refrigerators and television sets in Manila with their Social Security pensions and brought them to their rural homes, where they were fed and dressed by hovering nieces and nephews.
Nancy had gone to the Philippines once with her mother and saw the house where her father was born and raised. The house was a big, square box, with heavy wooden furniture. There were many windows, but her Auntie Erin kept them shut to avoid the sun and the hot breezes. If her father returned, Nancy was sure he would spend his days sitting in the shadows. She couldn’t recall the names of her father’s relatives or what her cousins looked like. Nancy could only imagine these faceless strangers wearing false smiles, calling her father Manong Melchor in wheedling voices, and checking the calendar daily.
Nancy’s father was among the manongs, the first wave of Filipino men who immigrated to the States in the early ’20s, who cut lumber in Washington State for a dollar a day and could only live in groups in Filipino hotels because their skins were brown. Melchor lived in Seattle in the beginning, working in the lumber mills, and later learned English while he waited on tables in New York City. He told Nancy once how the manongs wandered from job to job, dropping ten cents for a waltz or a rumba with the blonde American women at the taxi dance halls but never marrying any of the white women because it was against the law.
The manongs always thought they would some day go home once they had made their riches in the States, but many never married or went back to the Philippines. Unlike most manongs, Nancy’s father was lucky. His cousin introduced him to a seamstress from Manila. Melchor brought her to California after they had courted for the length of his vacation and got married. And unlike the manongs, Melchor Vergara had a family.
“Your Manong Jaime’s got a nice house in Pagsanjan. His sister and nieces take care of him.”
“What’s this?” Nancy swept her arm across the family room. Television console, stereo, matching furniture. “You’ve got a nice house here, in the States. And what about me? Don’t I count?”
Melchor scowled “You can’t take care of me. You’re still in school. I’m too old. Almost eighty-one. I should die by now. I should have died before Feliza.”
“Stop talking like that.”
“Did you know that your Manong Pete died last month?” Melchor said. “He was only seventy-two.”
“I think you told me on the phone a couple of weeks ago,” Nancy said, although she couldn’t remember. “You didn’t really say much about it. But Dad, Manong Pete was always sickly.”
Manong Pete and Manang Elsie lived on the other side of the block, but their backyard was across from Melchor’s. Manong Pete had some pigs and cows, and Melchor often came to the fence that separated their yards to talk with him. The last year Melchor kept his garden, Manong Pete had his first heart attack. Manang Elsie and her children were away visiting her sister in Vallejo. But Melchor saw him by the fence and climbed over. He called the ambulance and waited, shooing the bewildered cows away, kneeling by Manong Pete, and telling him he would be all right. That’s how the ambulance attendants and Feliza found him.
“The first time your Manong Pete had a heart attack,” Melchor said, “I went with Elsie to visit him in the hospital. Then when Pete came home, I visited him every day. I brought vegetables from the garden.” Melchor formed an imaginary ball with his hands. “The biggest eggplants. I shined them until they were black and I could see my face. I picked the ripe tomatoes.
“I used to sit by his bedside and remind him when we used to play sick so we wouldn’t have to go work in the rice fields outside of San Esteban, or the time Pete got fresh at the taxi dance hall in Seattle. I told the woman Pete was harmless, but we got kicked out, anyway.
“Then there was the time your Manong Pete taught me how to drive when we lived in Oakland.” Melchor was laughing now, and Nancy joined him anxiously.
“I said, ‘Pete, remember when you gave me a driving lesson?’ And your Manong Pete was laughing so hard because he remembered. I kept thinking the brake pedal was the gas pedal and ran Pete’s car right into a flagpole. I wanted him to laugh, but I told your Manong Pete not to laugh too much. His heart was still weak.
“I said, ‘There’s only a few of us left, Pete. Don’t you go and leave us.’ Your Manong Pete only laughed harder. I told him not to work so much. He had another heart attack in his backyard again. But I wasn’t in my garden. I didn’t have my garden, anymore.
“When I went to Pete’s funeral, I kept thinking how he never went back home. Maybe if he had known he was going to die soon, he would have gone back right away,” Melchor said.
“I’m really sorry about Manong Pete, Dad.”
“I have to go home, that’s all I know.”
“But you haven’t been back in fifteen years.”
“San Esteban is always the same. Your Auntie Erin is still there.”
What about me? The single question echoed in her head, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud. What could her father possibly say to justify leaving her? He stood before her with a steely determination she hadn’t seen in him in a long time.
“What did Auntie Erin say?” Nancy said slowly.
“She said it’s time to come home.”
“It’s been many years. Many years before you were even born,” Melchor said. “This is not an easy decision, Nancy. For many months, I have tried to decide what is best.”
“Well, you know best then,” Nancy said, cutting him off.
She punched a button on the remote control and the television went dead. Nancy offered her father the remote control, but Melchor shook his head and stepped back.
“I don’t watch television anymore,” he said, bewildered.
“That’s one more thing you won’t miss.”
“This is not what I expected.”
“What did you expect, then?”
Nancy stared him right in the face. Melchor faltered. How many times had she challenged her father when she was in high school and college? Although she knew everything was different now—they were not arguing about curfews or her choice of boyfriends—Nancy didn’t know how else to fight back.
“I thought you would understand.”
“I don’t understand.” She left the room, afraid her father would see her tears.
The lock on her door still worked. Nancy hadn’t used it in years, but it kept Melchor away, though he knocked and called out her name. She waited in the dark until her father stopped knocking. He hovered quietly by her door. Then he walked away, as easily, Nancy thought, as when he had told her he was leaving.
Nancy hardly slept that night. She didn’t think she had slept at all, but in the morning she woke up remembering a dream in which her father was planting in his garden. She was walking toward him, and he looked up and smiled. He held up ripe carnote for her to see.
Melchor started talking to her in his native Ilocano.
“I don’t understand you, Dad.”
He cocked his head as if he didn’t understand her words. He continued talking in Ilocano, but his voice faded rapidly until he vanished from her sight and nothing was left but silence.
The dream made Nancy remember when she was ten and her mother took her to the Philippines for summer vacation. When they returned home and Melchor asked Nancy what she remembered most from her visit, she told him she was scared of the many beggars and cripples she saw on the streets. Their limbs, like hardened, dry bark, groped at her arms, looking for change.
“Daddy, do you know what Grandma had for a washing machine? A helper came in every week and washed our clothes by hand. That was our washing machine,” Nancy said, and laughed at her own joke.
She would have gone on about how black the inside of her ears got from the soot and exhaust fumes of the refurbished army jeepneys and rickety buses. She could only take a bath every other day because it was too much trouble for her grandmother and aunts to boil water and carry the iron kettle downstairs to the outhouse. But Nancy stopped talking because Melchor got upset. He tried to explain how life was much harder back there, how she was lucky to be living so well in the States. It hurt Nancy to have hurt her father, especially since she had not seen him in two months. She hid behind Feliza, who told him how his relatives had started talking to Nancy in Ilocano. They shook their heads when they discovered she could not understand them and said it was a shame she didn’t know their language. Nancy told her uncles she spoke English and it wasn’t a shame. But Melchor was embarrassed. He said he should’ve taught Nancy llocano before she learned English. It did Feliza no good to tell him that they were in America now and none of the other children In the neighborhood spoke Ilocano either. But Melchor wouldn’t listen.
For the rest of that summer, Melchor taught Nancy words and phrases in Ilocano. In the mornings when he worked in his backyard, Nancy trailed behind, repeating what he told her.
“Napintas means beautiful,” Melchor said.
“Napintas,” Nancy said. She giggled. “I am napintas.”
Nancy pulled on the water hose that snaked through the rows of summer squash, tomatoes, and eggplant. The water stopped spraying and dribbled down his arm. “You go untangle the knot,” he said.
Nancy trotted across the uneven earth and straightened out the hose for her father. When she returned to his side, Melchor had anchored the nozzle in a trough surrounding the eggplant.
“Napudot means hot,” Melchor said, breathing heavily. He wiped his brow, and when he lifted his arms, patches of sweat seemed to bloom and darken his white workshirt.
“It’s napudot today, huh, Dad?” Nancy said.
He smiled. “Yeah, it’s napudot.” Melchor surveyed his garden, the tomatoes almost ripened, the string beans shapely, the bittermelon and its tiny starlike flowers hanging down the wooden, tunnel-shaped trellis, the camote yellow and firm. In the corner of the garden, Melchor grew patches of honeydew and watermelon, Nancy’s favorite. “Tomorrow, we’ll pick the string beans. Then I’ll teach you whole sentences in Ilocano.”
Nancy watched her father walk across the crumbled soil, his footing sure, his arms striding back and forth. He stopped and placed his hands on his hips, gazing beyond the edge of his garden. A slight breeze worked through the leaves, and, for a brief moment, Melchor Vergara’s white shirttails fluttered like a sail. Nancy wanted to remain there, even after she shut off the water. She mouthed the words napintas and napudot over and over, as if she would forget the sounds, the pronunciations, the meanings. Nancy walked back to the house, but she kept turning around. She couldn’t imagine a time in the distant future when she would look out of her bedroom window and see the backyard leveled.
The dream that her father’s garden was green and growing made Nancy sit straight up in bed. She wasn’t superstitious, but whenever she had bad dreams, she went to her mother. No matter how horrible the dream or how strange, Fellza always said it was sign of luck or fortune. Nancy wondered what her mother would have said now. It was just a dream, but when she got out of bed, Nancy pulled the curtains aside, expecting to see the garden in full bloom, the flash of her father’s white work shirt as he disappeared beneath the trellis thick with bittermelon. But the backyard was as barren as when the man in the tractor had plowed under the soil. The only remains were two wooden poles from the trellis, sticking up from the dry ground at a slant.
Nancy heard her father in the kitchen. She hurried to join him as if she were afraid he was already preparing to leave.
“I bought Quaker Oats last week. I thought you would like that. You used to eat a box every other week. Remember how much Ovaltine you used to drink?” Melchor said. He was stirring a lumpy mixture in a saucepan.
“We need to talk,” Nancy said.
“It was not my intention to hurt you, Nancy, but I have already decided. What is the use?”
“Dad, don’t punish me. Is it because I’m not home enough? Is that why? Don’t make me feel guilty,” Nancy said. “It’s not me. You’re the one who’s leaving.”
Melchor spooned the cooked oats into a bowl and added milk and sprinkled brown sugar on top.
“I never asked you to stay.”
“Were you waiting for me to?”
Melchor pushed the bowl across the table. He sat down next to her. He folded and unfolded his fingers. “You left a long time ago, Nancy. I have accepted that.” He gestured to the cooling oatmeal. “You better eat.”
“Don’t do this to me,” Nancy whispered.
“I am going home, but not to punish you. I’m old already, Nancy. I made a selfish choice many years ago. I have spent my whole life trying to make up. Which has brought me the most happiness? I don’t know. Let me try one more time.
“I am going to take money out of the bank. Your Manang Elsie will help me with my plane ticket. I told her to make the reservation for after Christmas, after you come home. So I can see you again. We will make plans for you to come out to see me as much as you can. Manang Elsie already helped me get the papers so I can take your mother from the cemetery and bring her home.”
Nancy closed her eyes, but she couldn’t shake free the sight of her mother’s casket being loaded into the plane and her father ascending the steps until he disappeared inside. If she ran after him, would he see her, or would the passenger and cargo doors slam shut, locking her out? If she screamed out his name, would he hear, or would the booming jet engines drown her out? Nancy imagined running to the cemetery in the wet fog with a wreath of flowers and finding a rectangular hole, the earth black and damp, before her mother’s tombstone.
“Your mother should be buried back home. Feliza shouldn’t be left here. It’s not good.” Melchor shook his head. “No, it’s not good. I should be going home soon, too.”
Nancy got up from the table. In a daze, she went back to her bedroom and sat on the edge of her bed. Melchor followed her and stood at the door. He shifted his feet, as if trying to find his balance.
Melchor sat down beside his daughter. Nancy looked at the reflection of the two of them side by side in her dresser mirror. She remembered when her mother had put a permanent in her straight hair. Nancy had shaken her head before the bathroom mirror, and the curls swayed: against her bare shoulders. Feliza ran her finger down the jawline of Nancy’s face, telling her daughter she had inherited the shape of her own face, round, and that Nancy had her full lips and her dark eyes, the color of the brown earth from her father’s garden.
“Dad, do you think I look like Mom?”
“Maybe. A little.”
“Do I look like you?”
“When you were younger. In the summertime, when you helped me in the garden. You got so dark under the sun. Like me.”
“I miss those times. Remember when Manong Pete’s fence broke and the cows trampled and ate your plants?
Melchor smiled. “I remember Manang Elsie hitting them with a broom.”
“I can stay another week. Just say so, Dad.” Nancy paused, and then the words tumbled out, “If you want, you can come live with me.”
“I know you are busy with your schooling,” he said. “I will ride with you to the airport on Sunday and see you off.”
Their shoulders touched as Nancy turned to her father. She could smell his tart breath, see the coarse, white stubble on his chin. She had never noticed that her father’s right eye was a shade browner than the left or that when he raised his brows all the tiny lines in his forehead connected like tributaries of a river.
Melchor glanced at the faded high school and college banners tacked to the bedroom walls. “You and Feliza used to talk all the time here,” he said. “I remember. I left my flashlight in your room once, but I couldn’t come in and get it because you were talking. I didn’t want to disturb. I didn’t know what you were talking about.”
“Just stuff,” Nancy said with a laugh. “Sometimes we talked about you.”
Melchor looked her in the eye. “Did your mother ever tell you I was going to stay in the Philippines when I decided to many her? I was tired of the States. Tired of the work. Over fifty years old. Already too old. You know, it was hard here, too, but different than back home. Nobody liked us here. They called us names. ‘Monkey,’ they called me.” Melchor nodded as if he had to convince Nancy such things had occurred. He turned his head to the side so she could see his profile, how the lower half of his face jutted out.
“Never mind. That was long time ago. I wanted to go back for good. My mother was sick, but she didn’t want to bother me. I was going to stay, but Feliza wanted to come to America. She wanted to live in the States. Did she tell you this?” Melchor said, but he wasn’t looking at Nancy. He was turning over his hands.
“No,” he answered himself. “When you went away to New York, I saw the mammoyon. I told her, ‘I want to go back to the Philippines. I want to die in San Esteban.’ She told me the cards said Feliza and I will be buried there. I had hope, but this is not what I had hoped for. I thought Feliza would grow old and would want to go back, too.”
Nancy recalled a time when she did think her mother had wanted to go back to the Philippines, but just for a visit, a last visit with Melchor before he would no longer be able to travel. It was the Christmas of Nancy’s second year of graduate school. Fellza and Melchor were celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary early, so Nancy could be there. Fellza told Nancy that Melchor had finally gotten used to her being three-thousand miles away from them and had gotten used to having just the two of them during most of the holidays. “Your father,” she said, smiling secretively, “is courting me again.” Nancy couldn’t imagine such a thing. But that Christmas, her father sang love songs in llocano to Feliza. He took her hand and they danced around the cluttered family room, bumping into their easy chairs, almost knocking a glass ornament off the tree. They laughed. “Your father says he is going to take me to the Philippines for a long honeymoon,” Fellza said. Both her mother and she knew he couldn’t afford the trip, but they didn’t know what could have been going through Melchor’s head.
“We will go to the cemetery to show respect to your mother,” Melchor said. “I better change my clothes. It’s very cold outside.”
Nancy followed her father to his bedroom, not wanting to let him out of her sight. “Let me help you pick out your clothes. Okay, Dad?”
Melchor threw open the closet door.
“How about this striped shirt?” Nancy said. “It’s the one I gave you on Father’s Day a long time ago, isn’t it?”
Melchor shrugged his shoulders, but he put it on. He faced the mirror, and slowly, carefully, Melchor buttoned first the cuffs and then down the front.
As Nancy was about to close the closet door, she caught sight of her father’s old work shirt. But it wasn’t white anymore. It was tinted yellow, and the cloth was worn and pilled. Its sleeves had been mended in two places, one skillfully hidden by Feliza’s hand and the other puckered at the tip like a poorly sewn wound.
“You still have your old work shirt, Dad,” Nancy said, amazed. She held it up and twirled it so that its limp shirttails danced.
Melchor was working his tie into a knot. “Your mother tried to throw it away. She said, ‘Melchor, you don’t have your garden anymore. There’s no need for this shirt. It’s old.’ But I told her she better not throw it away. I told her she better not use it for a rag,” he said in an agitated voice, as if it still upset him. Melchor looked at himself in the mirror and shook his head, smiling. “I don’t know why.”
“Can I have it?”
“You want that?” Melchor faced her and smoothed his thin white hair. His tie was on straight, his shirt neatly tucked in. He was ready to leave. “You want that old shirt?”
“Yes,” she said. “Can I have it, Dad?”
“Sure, Nancy. You can have it.”
Nancy held the shirt to her face. When she closed her eyes, she saw her father standing in the backyard, his work shirt as brilliant and white as the fast-moving clouds above him. Melchor’s garden was full and green; water brimmed and sparkled in every trough. She imagined tasting a watermelon her father had cracked open once right there in the garden. He had taken a bite, letting the red juices flow down the front of his dusty shirt, and then offered the wedge to Nancy. She drew in her breath and smelled the sweet bittermelon blossoms, then the mix of wet soil and her father’s tangy sweat.
Originally published in a slightly different form in Equinox, Vol. II, Fall 1993)