Prose: Death's Details by Joel B. Tan
A futon mattress on the bedroom floor sagging from inferior quality and the pressures of weight and time. Alarm clock to his right, next to the phone. Ghosts have been known to plague this room, restless spirits moving about. Once, an invisible hand moved an iron across a cold board. Whispers and the presence of something unidentifiable loomed in the corners, watching. He sleeps, protected only by a small reading lamp. The phone rings and the dream moves into the surface world. 10 AM. His mother's phone call cuts through his dream. She asks for a ride back home, she does not feel well enough to work. He stumbles out of bed, brushes his teeth and manages his way into his clothes and the carport. Driving over Laurel Canyon he remembers his dream. At his grandmother's house, his tias, tios, cousins, and other family members are assembled. Everyone is somber and he goes from tia to tio asking where his mother might be. They do not answer. Beverly Boulevard, Right turn.
He pan-fries a bass fillet over a hot slick of olive oil. Lemons and pepper disguise yesterday's stink. He is grateful that he inherited the cooking gene from his grandmother: an eye for color, a masterful sense of chemistry, and the need to please. Too sick to cook, his mother waits for her lunch in bed. Years ago, when they first arrived in America, she laid down the law, " I will go to work and make the money," she said to him, "and you will do the rest-laundry, cleaning, and cooking. This is not the Philippines, we cannot afford maids." Gently, he lifts the fillet from the pan, the edges slightly charred and caramelized from the sugar in the soy sauce, and lays it on a bed of rice. The garnish-paper thin rounds of lemon, a small bundle of aspagarus, and a sprinkling of paprika dust.
The primary function of the police report was to 1) report the death, 2) provide general details such as name, gender, age, residence and 3) affirm that there was no foul play. A paramedic made the official declaration and the police officer checked the appropriate boxes. In the gentlest manner-an indication of experience and good training-the officer gently offered her condolences to the family. The whole brood got there before he did. Earlier that morning, he and a friend attended a funeral of a would-be business associate. He never imagined that lightning could strike twice. The first sign of trouble-the police cars parked outside the complex. From the courtyard of his complex, he heard wailing reminiscent of Biblical times. He turned the key, a rush of frigid air, Los Angeles' toxic July heat still pressed against his black shirt. Tia Josie grabs hold of his hand, looks at him dead in the eye and tells him that his mother is dead. He signs at the X acknowledging that all details are accurate.
Singular files of black ants, oblivious to his grief, crisscrossed her valleys and mountains like Lilliputian settlers. A mysterious hole in the back wall, behind her bed board hinted at their point of origin. The ants have come to stake their claim. This organic thing, that once grew to womanhood, loved, shit, fucked, gave birth to a son, mastered the law of numbers, and read the poetry of Sufis was ready to be integrated back into the soil. He thought that maybe the ants offered a supernatural explanation. That somehow the patterns were hieroglyphs from the netherworld. An infantry of ants moved upwards from the tip of her middle finger over her hand and arm to across her chin into the cavern of her left ear. Another troop moved across her forehead like Christ's crown while another traveled from her lips to her right breast. Soon other lines formed until her body was a maze of ants. He searched frantically for patterns, some indication of what he should do next.
It was her hand. Her body sandwiched between two flaps of cardboard. A small bit of rope held the two pieces together but her hand slipped between the bulky fold. While the attendant spoke to his aunt, he marveled at the detail of her manicure, the reddish brown glaze of her nail tips, incandescent silver where the half moons hid. He imagined that if she were actually here, she would stroke his cheek, in that way mothers do, to ease their children's suffering. She would do that, he thought. He was tempted to lay his head against that hand. To jump over the counter and graze his cheek along her fingers. His aunt signed the necessary forms and led him outside. He heard the start of the conveyor belt. A strange halo formed around the building from the intense heat generating from the cement stacks. He imagined her floating into the summer sky.
© Joel B. Tan
| poets' bios |
JOEL B. TAN
JEAN V. GIER
Okir and Bone
EILEEN R. TABIOS