by Elaine Chiew
Like dying stars, a parent’s mental derailment could be spectacular. Dad guilted me into touring the British Isles in a camper van for the summer, him playing the ukulele at the open mic events in pubs, village halls and arts centers, all the way from Edinburgh to the Isle of Wight. Pathetic little gigs where he played either to an audience of one or a bunch of rowdy drinkers who asked for Oasis when Dad only knew Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and some Frank Ifield.
He’d had a tough run, being laid off at Westinghouse and then discovering Mom having her roots retouched by a muscled ‘masseuse’ from White Plains. “Right fishy business sure enough,” was all he said. He didn’t accuse her of anything, but he was always too quick to give up, ’cos he didn’t have enough faith in himself. I might’ve been 12, but I could see the truth in things, and I didn’t always tell him. It’d just make him sadder, because the truth hurt more when you were powerless to change things.
He was puffing on a treadmill when he said wasn’t I always banging on about the quintessential American road-trip, like Kerouac. He said that seeking out our roots in the “Motherland” was going to build that buildings-roman (that’s how Dad pronounced it) of his ultra-precocious daughter. “Grow us some character.” I’d only ever orbited around Poughkeepsie. “All the more reason to find our roots!” Dad stopped jogging, but his belly carried on.
Mom said, “You call me if he does anything stupid.” A bigger risk than she knew.
It started off badly at the first couple of pubs in Edinburgh. In one, we were upstaged by a burlesque drag act calling himself Ma Persimmons. In another, we were mistaken for poets and told emphatically, “No Poets!”
Making our way down to Lancashire, Dad tried to vary his repertoire with some Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. He wasn’t booed off, the British people were nothing if not polite, but the audience gazed at him cow-eyed and didn’t clap. “Stick to Route 66,” I advised.
“I was trying for the sexy broken-glass-over-sore-throat-effect.” But the joke fell flat. Dad had never looked so sad.
At several Yorkshire towns, Dad decided he had nothing to lose. He learned some new songs. He bought a kazoo. He started belting out Blue Suede Shoes and That’ll Be The Day, and because his hands were otherwise occupied, the kazoo was held in place for his lips by a wire-thingy he fashioned out of a clothes-hanger. His ability to command the attention of the room skyrocketed. They sat up straighter, their hair stood on ends.
Moseying down through Shropshire and then zigzagging into Wales, Dad seemed to hit his stride. He saved the kazoo only for instrumental breaks in the songs, which was a vast improvement. People didn’t laugh quite so much. At pubs that looked like hangouts for pensioners who wished they were anywhere else, they even asked for his autograph. A young posse of wanna-be The Killers, guitars slung over their shoulders, was so inspired they started jamming along with Dad, and played an encore and brought the house down.
In Llandudno, Dad fell apart. His lips cracked all over, his skin was peeling. Nobody came. The bartender’s wife aimed almonds at Dad’s mouth that she’d personally roasted and slathered with tamari. Dad called Mom long-distance and I heard him say, “Tell that douchebag to stay out of my shed, please.”
Later, we sat out by the seafront like two deadbeats and a gull crapped all over our windbreakers. “What’re we doing here, Janey?” Dad held his head in two hands.
“We used to feed each other peanuts,” Dad said. I didn’t need to ask who. “Don’t you give up on me, too,” I said.
Dad gazed at me with sad eyes, and held his broken soul in his hands. He lifted up his kazoo to his lips and played me Suspicious Minds.
In the last few weeks of our tour, Dad started to adopt a fake British intonation, but I didn’t have the heart to mock him. If anything, Dad’s courage at braving night after night of open mic in a strange land was bowling me over. We didn’t shower and our body odor was ripe, which seemed all apiece with the soul-searching and the Kerouac gig. We visited monuments, rock formations, hiked up stony paths, left our initials on National Trust landmarks, benches and tree-bark. We gazed at sunsets and wrote down our separate thoughts.
In the East Midlands, we ran into a Christian revival camp. A young buxom wench preached to Dad about being saved and how Jesus Christ is our bridegroom.
Dad sat me down a couple of nights later. “Poughkeepsie needs you, Janey.”
I knew what was coming, and it tore a gash in my heart. “But why?” I pleaded.
“Keep White Plains on a tight leash for me.”
I’m not a ping-pong ball, but I didn’t say that. “I thought you were having fun.”
Dad just lowered his head. “What, here in the hills?”
“What are you going to do?” I already knew the buxom wench was to blame, not Jesus.
“We all need a purpose in life, Janey.” Dad saw my stricken face. “I learned about the British Isles from the perspective of a performer. Worth something, don’cha think?” He talked about point of origin, how knowing what stock you were made of toughened you, but the most important thing of all was how family ties could never be broken. “You will always have this, Janey, to remember me by.” Dad’s cracked lips started bleeding, and he switched to a lecture about bracken, how wild it grew in these hills, how bounteous, how it upholstered everything until all the clefts and fissures in the rocks were gone.
published 12 March 2014