Carving a Life

(Author’s note: My father, James Robles on the left, my brother Asian Robles on the right–with my sister Jade and step mother Tai)

I recently spent an afternoon with my father and brother. My father had just arrived from Hawaii. He called me and told me he’d be picking me up in a small red rental car with shiny rims. I walked out of the steel gate of my house (or more appropriately, my landlord’s house) and looked around. No red car. I looked some more and saw him. He had missed my house, overshot it by half a block. Hey dad, I called out. He waved. I started towards the car but he motioned for me to wait. He got into the car and drove in reverse for a half block, stopping a few feet from me. He leaned over, sprung the lock.
“What’s happening man?”
“Hey dad, what’s going on?”
He looked good. He wore black pants, a black coat and a pair of bright jogging shoes. We drove for a while. I looked out the window. The fog and salty air from Ocean Beach lit the sky.
“I got you something”
My father pointed to the rear with his thumb.
“What? I asked.
I reached over and took it. I opened it. It was a fruit tart, with custard.
“Thanks”

Dad put it in drive. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. He looked good, a little older but he WAS older. I had read somewhere that a thousand people a day this year were going to turn 60 years of age. I thought about the fact that he was 62 years old. Had it been that long or had I failed to pay attention? I took the wrapper from the fruit tart and lifted it to my mouth. My concentration shifted to the strawberries and kiwi fruit. Suddenly my father slammed the brakes. I became kiwi and strawberry. My father laughed.
“Hey, sorry man…let me help you”
He took a napkin and began wiping. Each wipe tended to smear more custard. The horn from the car behind us began to sound. I took the napkin and wiped myself.
“I left my glasses at your auntie’s house” said dad
“You wear glasses?”
“Yeah…mostly for reading”

I never associated my father with glasses. He only wore shades when I was growing up. I remember him as a young man. He’d switched jobs and women and one day he came home with something new. It was a board with black and white plastic pieces. We’re gonna play chess, he said. He showed me how to move the pawns, rooks, bishops, etc. He explained the objective as capturing the king. We played for hours. I lost every game but I started to get the hang of it. After each game, he’d explain what I’d done wrong. I was impatient and somewhat of a little prick. I wouldn’t listen. I almost beat him but he saw every move, always looking 2 or 3 moves ahead. I was in tears after, having victory in the bag, he, with sleight of hand, pulled that very victory out of my ass.

We continued driving. We stopped in front of a Victorian flat. At the bottom was a fish and chip restaurant. Dad got on the cell phone.
“We’re outside”
He put the phone back in his pocket.
“Your brother is still sleeping”
We sat. A woman walked by with a group of children. Each child was attached to the other by a plastic cord.
“I used to run up and down this street when I was a kid” dad said. “We used to get into trouble. We’d…”
The door opened. A young man came out wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the hood covering most of his face. He opened the rear car door.
“Hey what’s up?”
Dad looked at my brother through the rear view.
“I’m ok”
My brother touched my shoulder. We drove. I looked back at his face. It had my father’s shape, much more than mine. He was taller. We drove for a while, taking in the city, the city that all 3 of us were born in. Dad rolled the window down. The wind ran freely, kicking up a few wisps of his hair. I hadn’t noticed a small pony tail at his neck. Not enough for a fully pony tail but a good beginning. Dad began razzing my brother.
“So tell me…”
“What?”
“Who is she?”
“Who’s who?”
“Come on man…there’s got to be a girl involved somewhere. Look at you, your clothes are wrinkled…you look like you just came out of a clothes dryer”
I laughed under my breath. My brother looked out the window as if nothing was said. We drove for a time. We didn’t say much. I look out at the old buildings and the trees bobbing in the wind. I began to wonder what color the wind was.
“Hey dad, can you pull over?” my brother asked. “I want to stop at the liquor store”
Dad pulled over, my brother opened the door.
“You want anything?”
“Yeah, get me some licorice” dad said.
“Nothing for me” I said
I remembered the first time I met my brother. I didn’t know he existed. He had a mother, I didn’t know her. He was in a restaurant in his mother’s arms. My dad said, “This is your brother”
So it was…

He came back with a small paper bag. He took out a canned beverage and handed the bag to dad. Dad pulled out a black licorice vine, handed one to me. He bit into it and broke a piece off with a tug of the mouth. He chewed with much vigor.
“I’m gonna take you guys somewhere” he said. He turned the radio on and searched for a station. He landed on the Beach Boy’s—not his music, but his era. We drove up a few hills and around several blocks with apartments and liquor stores with flickering neon beer signs. Dad began pointing in different directions. We were in the Western Addition of San Francisco.
“See this liquor store…that wasn’t here when I was a kid. This whole block had nothing but jazz clubs. I used to sneak in when I was a kid”
“How did you get in?” my brother asked.
“I’d climb in through the window in the back. All the heavies played in this area, Miles, Coltrane…
I looked at the rows of old apartments and flats. I tried to hear the music, the jazz that my father spoke of. We drove past a parked bulldozer near a police blockade. It appeared to be on its haunches, ready to leap and pounce.
“Here it is”
It was a park, mostly grass with a few benches and very tall, very old trees.
“This used to be a hill. It was covered with dirt. We used to run down this h ill. We’d make carts and race them. Used to be a cemetery before I was born.
“Where’d they take all the bodies?” my brother asked.
“Hell if I know”
We sat down on a bench. A dog was running off its leash. An Akita. It ran over to us.
“Hey partner” dad said
The dog licked my dad’s hand, placing its front paws on his lap. The owner called out its name and it ran off.
“Later fella”

We sat for a while and dad began to speak.
“You know, you guys turned out good. You were smart kids when you were growing up. You know, I would have done things different had I…”
Dad stopped talking. My brother looked at the trees. My brother and I knew what he was trying to say.
“How’s things in Hawaii?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Dad straightened up. His eyes widened.
“Everything’s cool. You know, I gave up the janitorial business. Too much stress. I’m working at a condo now doing routine repairs…changing light bulbs…then knocking out a few sit ups and push-ups”.
“You like it?” my brother asked.
“It’s alright. I meet a lot of people. I met that guy who used to be on that TV show, the guy with the baseball cap”
“Oh yeah” I said. “I know who you mean”
“But my main thing now is carving. I go out to the tropical rainforest and get wood, different types of wood. I carve masks, walking sticks, all kinds of stuff”.

I thought about the van he had when he first started the janitorial service 20 or so years ago. It was before he’d moved us to Hawaii. He took some wooden panels and covered them with shellac. He screwed them into the interior of the can, giving it a very comfortable look. I’d almost forgotten about it. It was the first and only time I’d seen him work with wood. But I thought more about it and remembered his collection of African and Malaysian masks, and some from the Philippines too. It all came back to me. I wanted to share it with my brother; he was too young to remember some of it. I stayed quiet.
“You know a lot of guys I grew up with have died” dad began.
He looked at my brother and I then stopped.
“Let me show you something”
Dad walked, my brother and I followed. We came to a big tree in the middle of the park. It had a huge trunk and limbs that appeared to wave.
“I think this is the one” dad said. “Help me up”
I was about to cup my hands together so my dad could place his foot into it but my brother stepped forward.
“Let me do it”
Dad stepped into my brother’s hands.
“What are you looking for?” I asked
“My name” dad replied. “I carved it in this tree when I was a kid”
And we watched as our dad hoisted himself onto a thick limb. He looked at the sky and then down at his sons.
“Come on up” he said, offering his hand.
My brother and I looked up at our father. He climbs higher and higher. The tree is him.

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