Her death wasn’t unexpected, just not anticipated occurring when it did, since death must come to all living creatures when their bodies, aged, wrinkled, leathery, filled with living cells constantly dying, regenerating, dying again, then failing to regenerate once more, slowly, with imperceptivity, succumbs to that sliding, slipping, final gentle release from life. She, my father’s aunt, thus my great-aunt, lived, at least from my perspective and knowledge, a good, if not lonely, life as a maiden lady professing all things knowledgeable, good and bad, in the erudite world of collegiate education known as the “field of economics” surrounded daily by a plethora of noisy, irreverent, immature, university sophomore students and a more stolid, stuffy, ivy-towered bevy of colleagues ensconced in their positions until their very conversion into the dust from which they came.
What I hadn’t expected, not remotely anticipating, was the impact of my inheritance from her on my personal self, my heart, my very being, and how I was to remember her for as long as I should draw a breath. It was there, in that house, in her old bedroom, in that closet which held her clothes so many years before, in that trunk, hidden from view in the manner of a sarcophagus of an ancient queen, when opened, the contents of which and its revelations, hammered me with such force, colliding with such impact, tearing, searing, opening my heart as never before, and leaving me shocked, confused, yet helping me find my way.
I’m certain this means nothing to you, perhaps it never will, but I was much the same person as you, spending my life enjoying those pleasures which an adequate income could buy for me, seemingly not concerned about another’s welfare as I satisfied my desires, thrusting, spewing at the end of a brief tryst, or their lives, the impact that others have on them, and my often lack of concern for others when my appetite was temporarily sated, not realizing how someone can love so much, with such intensity, to forsake all others for eternity, until I came to this house.
Winding my way through the side streets and back roads of this little river community, protected from the west by an enfilade of stately, sweeping bluffs created by the actions of the river eons before, and following the directions of the estate attorney to seek the last house on the left and my own, vague recollections of having been here once many years before, located the structure I sought. Stepping from my parked automobile, with the rented trailer full of all my possessions attached, I viewed what was now my property, free and clear of all taxes and other encumbrances, mine to do with as I wished.
There, before me, an unemployed twenty-six year old accountant, on a dead-end road, was a seemingly empty, weather beaten, old, clapboard, two- story house in need of some repair and paint, once home to a vibrant, loving family, now all deceased, and surrounded by a yard overgrown, weedy, but redeemed by a view from the small hillock on which it was located, of the river and the quaint village it nourished. I know, a wiser person would’ve left it as it was, returned immediately to the little town, secured a real estate agent, sold it, taken the money and returned home. But, you see, I had no home to return to, no job, nothing ahead of me, or parents still alive to return to, except this house, this property, a bit of cash left in the estate, my savings, and my unemployment check. This wasn’t as it was supposed to be, was it, alone with nothing on the horizon, with my future in doubt?
Death claimed my great-aunt some months before, during the coldest part of the winter, when ice, snow, and chilling blasts of northern gales buffeted the hinterland, delaying, disrupting, and preventing air travel, giving me barely enough latitude to quickly change clothes upon reaching my motel and frantically race to the crematorium where the memorial service was to be held. When I arrived, shame flooded me; sadness overwhelmed me, my heart grew heavy, to see a minister from some non-denominational church, the funeral director and staff, and me the only ones in attendance. How sad and lonely her life must’ve have been, dying alone, attended only by the sterile, oft-times odiferous atmosphere of a nursing home, the quiet solicitude of the nurses and attendants, no others, no family, not me!
Assuring the funeral director I’d return in the spring to retrieve her cremains, secure a final resting place and properly inter the urn containing her ashes, I returned home and my job. Three weeks later, I received a letter from the attorney for the estate informing me I was heir to an estate containing some cash and capital assets, the bulk of those assets in the form of the old family home and the small acreage surrounding it. According to the estate attorney, she resided there during summers and holidays, when university classes weren’t held or she not otherwise detained by professorial duties or off tripping somewhere in the world, exploring, visiting, tasting the flavor of some exotic spot in some remote location of the globe. I remember her tantalizing me with postcards containing vague postmarks and letters filled with pictures of waterfalls, strange beasts, beautiful cities, and sometimes revealing pictures of natives clad only in their skins.
She wasn’t a frequent visitor to our home since there appeared to be some conflict of personalities, beliefs, or ideals between her and my father, her much younger brother’s only son. I was to her home but once, when traveling with my parents for the funeral of a remaining uncle in a city nearby. One would think there would’ve been some sharing of common grief, but not so, the visit was quite short and somewhat stilted with formality. I certainly had no idea I was to be her sole heir, thinking there must be other cousins somewhere who surely deserved it more or with whom she was better acquainted, but no, I was it, plain and simple. Frankly, at the time, I had no idea what I’d do with the place, sell it, I should think. That changed!
The old saying, “the best laid plans of mice and men” generally denotes some royal screw-up somewhere along the line. Well, you’re right, it was my turn in the barrel and I didn’t have a clue it was coming. The lawyer and I agreed, in my conversation with him after receiving the good news, I’d meet with him right after the busy income tax preparation season was over, since the company I worked for kept me quite busy preparing personal income tax forms for their customers, when I’d be free to take some vacation time. About one week after the rush was over and three days before I was to leave to take care of family business, my boss walked into my cubbyhole of an office and laid me off – business was down, profits diminishing, too many employees, so “adios.” That put the noodles in the soup, forcing my decision to load up everything I owned in my car and a rented trailer, inform my apartment manager I was moving and would no longer be a renter, and leave town, lock, stock, and cookie jar.
Confucius once said, “The longest journey must start with but a single step,” so reluctantly, somewhat dejectedly, disappointingly fearful of what lay before me physically and mentally, I stepped from my car and entered the property through the half-opened, rusty, wrought-iron gate linked to the fence marking the front of the property, and meandered my way cautiously up the heavily weeded, flagstone walk to the front steps and porch. With not some little trepidation, using the key provided by the attorney, I opened the front door of the house and stepped into my newly acquired, but quite unfamiliar, home.
I entered the dining room, instead of the living room as I thought I would. No, that was to my right through another door from the same porch through a side door, which, had I been more observant and not so intimidated by my new found property, I’d have noticed. This room, as I’d soon discover, and all rooms, was in need of a good dusting, painting, and general fixing up. The electricity was off, thus no water since the home was serviced by its own well, no furniture, but plenty of despair on my part for doing what needed to be done.
Not having the immediate desire or emotional strength to explore further, I turned, exiting the same way I came in, sat down on the front step with a thump, elbows on my knees, and rested my head in my hands, while I contemplated what to do or where to start. My heart was heavy, not so much from the loss of an aunt I barely knew, but for the formidable task which lie ahead of me and my own abilities and finances to complete that task. My unemployment compensation could be used to do some of the basic repairs, but at some point I’d have to secure employment in order to survive.
The morning sun cast its warming glow on the porch and me, it’s lone occupant, cheering me a bit, uplifting my spirits, giving some inner peace, and allowed me to escape, for just a fleeting moment by viewing the vista before me, from the realities of life.
Sighing with resignation, about to return to my car and find accommodations for the night, when brushing the dust from the seat of my pants, I touched the letter the attorney handed me when leaving his office. Retrieving it, noticing it was addressed specifically to me, and opening it, I began reading a letter dated some five years before.
You, of all people, are the only one with whom I entrust my legacy, my property, my source of inner peace, my final resting place, since you’ve shown the compassion, the generosity, the intelligence, the sense of history, and financial acumen to preserve it and protect it. God knows your father never did! You were and are a special person, deserving all good things that may come your way.
Repair it, live in it, keep your love here as I did and you too will find it a refuge from the storms of life. Join my ashes with those of the one I loved so we may finally be united for eternity.
That certainly answered the question concerning the disposition of her ashes but, who in the hell was “the one she loved” and where do I find this mysterious lover? Great! Not only do I have this property to contend with and a job to find, now I have a mystery lover to track down, convince him to be cremated once he dies or dig him up if he’s already succumbed, have his ashes mixed with Aunt Vera’s, and then scattered here on the grounds like fertilizer. Where in the hell do I start?
Cradling my head in my arms, I leaned over, distressed by the tasks which await me, failing to notice a darkening of the sun as a shadow fell across me, when the shadow spoke, not an angelic epiphany but a soothing, gentle, reassuring, comforting masculine voice.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, isn’t it?”
“Does a fat frog fart?” I responded hastily, expressing my angst and lashing out at a stranger, who after all, really seemed to be offering sympathy rather than criticism.
“I know, I went through this same experience a couple of years ago when my folks died.”
Blushing with shame and looking up, I found myself staring into the face of a handsome man, about my age, maybe a year or two older, taller than me by three or four inches, lean, you know, svelte, wiry, but with the physique, the hands of someone accustomed to physical labor, not a skinny desk jockey, pencil pusher, and bean counter such as I, and an outlined package snaking down inside his right pant leg not unlike something one would see uncoiling in the reptile building at the zoo, enticing, mesmerizing me. I suddenly stood, realizing I’d made a fool of myself, extended my hand, offering my apologies.
“I’m sorry for the rudeness. I’m Jacob Reynolds McCalister and unfortunately or fortunately for that matter, I’m now the owner of this property,” and waving my arms in the general direction of the house, “and I really don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”
Then, instead of stopping, I sucked in more air and continued babbling my story to a complete stranger. By the time I was done, he knew about my employment situation, my lack of a home, my ineptness in construction and repair, my aunt’s estrangement from the rest of the family, and her desire to be united with some mysterious lover. Winding down, just as I was telling him of the lack of electricity, water, and the fact I’d have to find a place to stay until I could get it habitable enough to live in, he stopped my chatter with a hand on my shoulder and an index finger on my lips,
“Calm down, Jake. I thought it must be you when you drove up. I’ve wanted to meet you for years after listening to Ms. McCalister carry on about you. Don’t worry; it’s all going to work out. By the way, I’m Nashua John Montgomery, since you’re being so formal, but I respond better to just ‘Nash’ and your neighbor, next place down. My folks used to take care of your aunt’s property for her until they were unable to do so. I apologize for the way it looks, but I just haven’t taken the time to start over here since I came back. Why don’t you drive on over to my place, freshen up a bit while I fix us some supper, and spend the night in the spare bedroom? Everything will look brighter in the morning.”
My God, I hardly knew this man and he was inviting me to his house, for a meal, for the night. For all I knew, and expected if the truth be known, he could be an axe murderer, waiting to cleave me asunder as he acted out some fantasy replicating the infamous “Lizzie Borden” or “Jack the Ripper,” seeking to stick a sharp stiletto into my gut, ripping me from stem to stern, hack off a necessary appendage (but wait, “Jack the Ripper” only did women so my plumbing released me from that terror), a relative of the doctor fellow who was accused of carving up his wife with a chain saw some years ago, or a sex-fiend desiring to pillage my very self, hopefully drilling me like a Texas oil well.
Did I say no? Absolutely, positively, emphatically, I should’ve, but instead I said, “Thank you, it’d be nice.” So help me, if Nash even so much as touched a knife, looked at an axe, started up a chain saw, or touched me anywhere near my midriff or my posterior cleft, I knew I hadn’t packed enough underwear! Either way, murderer or not, I would be a mess, front or back.
We drove the short distance to his house, where Nash carried my bag to the spare bedroom, pointed out the bathroom and shower, gathered together fresh towels and a wash cloth, and announced he’d be downstairs fixing supper and I should join him when finished. I must admit a frantic few strokes, a hot shower, clean clothes, a grilled steak (medium, thank you), baked potato, and salad, followed by relaxing, carefree conversation, aided by an brandy old-fashioned or two, made me feel alive, more confident of my host, and ready to tackle the bigger job on the morrow of getting my new home in order.
Sitting on his front porch, enjoying the cool spring breeze and the gathering fragrances of emerging spring flowers, our tongues, loosened by our cocktails, turned our conversation from casual to a more personal exploration of each other. Nash was well acquainted with me from my aunt’s tales of daring do, or in my case, not daring to do, but I knew absolutely nothing concerning him, other than he was my aunt’s neighbor and wanted to meet me for years.
When I mentioned that to him, he grinned shyly at me in an apologetic manner, scuffed his boots on the porch deck a couple of times, acknowledging my correctness. My aunt’s urging and her tutelage motivated him to attend the university where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. While working during the summer, to pay for his tuition, for a local building contractor, he discovered he really didn’t want to be cooped up inside at a desk and changed his future for one of construction. My aunt didn’t debase, criticize, or reproach him, but encouraged him to enter a field of work which would be most satisfying since his education wouldn’t be wasted, no matter what occupation he found. For him, it was a blessing, an approval, a “green light,” to do, be, or achieve anything he so desired. Aunt Vera’s philosophy of, “just be yourself and let people accept you for what you are, no more, no less and you do the same of them,” was something he sincerely believed in and practiced. Well, he must if he accepted me enough to let me eat his food, drink his booze, and stay in his house, after all, I could be the axe murderer, the “Son of Sam” killer or something, but not an oil driller since I didn’t have an oversized drill bit. I wondered if he was concerned about having enough clean underwear also.
Admitting times did get a bit rough for a while, especially when his parents passed away and the home building and construction business ground to a halt with the economic downturn, he, like me, found he was unemployed with no prospects. Instead of commiserating on his misfortune, Nash came back home, moved into the empty house, and started a handy-man business about a year ago. According to him, there’s enough work to keep him busy and pay the bills with some to spare.
How fortunate, I thought, he could take a situation steeped in misfortune and turn it into something so good, so healthy, and so meaningful. As evening progress, we became better acquainted and his eternal, indefatigable optimism became infectious. Mixing us another cocktail, I think the third, but it could’ve been the fourth and handing it to me, he looked me in the eye and said something which would change me forever, bringing about a sea change for me, beginning a new life which I hadn’t imagined, setting my course for the future, boosting my spirits, and giving confidence to my doubting mind.
“You’re an accountant, a CPA, right, Jake?”
I nodded, not knowing where this was going, but willing, eager for him to gently lead me in any direction he chose, by any part of me he desired to grip, preferably by that part now straining for a better position and release from confinement.
“Did you do income taxes, books for business, that sort of stuff?”
“Yes, to all of the above,” I answered, “but mostly I did personal income taxes and taxes and books for small businesses. The major partners took care of the really large clients and just salaried me. Why?”
“Well,” he said as he put his drink down, scratching his head in a thoughtful manner, “there’s really no one around here who does that sort of thing. I think there’s a market to be tapped, probably not large enough clientele to spend winters in Aruba, but enough to pay the bills and enjoy a good life. We could remodel that back bedroom off of the living room at your aunt’s – your house – into an office and you could run your business from there and wouldn’t have to move away to find work.”
The scowl and puzzled look I cast in his direction caught him off guard. He swallowed hard, cleared his throat, and tilted his head down, embarrassed by his words and presumption.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, blushing intently, “I didn’t think you might not want to stay here. I assumed too much, too quickly.” He hesitated, and then resumed, “It’s just that I was over there so much. She lived here full-time, you know, after she retired, except when she was off tripping about the globe to some exotic place. Ms. McCalister retired before I entered this world, so I knew her no other way than as a neighbor and a friend, always available to spend some time with me, as bubbly and as lively as a young woman, in spite of her age, eyes twinkling, mischievous smile, warm, inviting, and a voice which was comforting, trusting, and garnered respect. When she was home, I’d trot over to her house, spending an hour or two each day, exploring, visiting, living vicariously in all of the strange, new and wonderful places she’d been, and unknown to me, constantly being challenged to learn.”
“Before she retired, she had the house modernized, new plumbing, heat, upgraded the electric, that sort of thing, so she’d be comfortable and unconcerned about the property when she traveled. We kept watch over it when she was gone. As she grew older and became more concerned about her increasing infirmities and growing inability to care for herself as she wished, she emptied the house, prepared it for an extended vacancy, and entered an assisted care facility about two years ago, where she passed away.”
Suddenly, inexplicably, resentfully, I was jealous, upset knowing Nash was better acquainted with my Aunt’s life than me, a living relative who should’ve cared, but didn’t know, care, or love enough to take the time to find out, seek her, comfort her, thank her for sharing her pictures, her stories, her life, or to be there when she died. Confused and angry, not with Nash I realized, but myself for my loss, her loneliness, my loneliness, and the lack of family there to support her when she needed it most. How selfish, inconsiderate, egocentric, and juvenile I was and now I have to live with my conscience.
Nash, seeing the anguish, the grief, the tears forming in my eyes, reached forward, gently clasping both of my arms, then moving to lift my chin, gazed into my eyes, softly, enticingly, saying, “It’s not your fault, you know! She knew her family, what to expect and not to expect, and she accepted that, even knowing how you’d react when you came to the realization yourself. She said to me one time, she was comforted in the knowledge of you as you were and are, proud of what you had done and were doing, satisfied you had freed yourself from those bonds which held you so tightly all of those years. Ms. McCalister didn’t die alone, as you might think. She was surrounded by the spirits of friends, former students whom she held dear and they her, just a few colleagues, and many, many memories.”
Nash stopped, I wiped my eyes, cleared my throat, and responded, “That pleases me to hear you say it, but doesn’t expiate my guilt, thinking of her dying in the midst of strangers, since at her age, most of her colleagues and friends would certainly be dust by now. Dad once said, ‘Vera is so old when God said let there be light, she was the one who flipped the switch.’”
The tension broken by my weak attempt at a joke, chuckles turned into laughter as we settled back into the last of our conversations before calling it a night.
The next morning, we unloaded and returned the rental trailer, stopped at the utility company and arranged for the resumption of electric and gas service to the house, returned to the homestead, to begin our exploration and assessment of my old, new home. Working slowly, methodically from room to room, noting what repairs, painting, accoutrements, or appliances were needed for each, and deciding where I’d put my small collection of furniture, we finished surveying the downstairs by lunchtime. After lunch, we tackled the upstairs. There were two bedrooms on the second level, accessed by an open, bannister-lined staircase from the dining room. The short hall and open stairwell separated a bedroom on the west side of the house from one on the east.
The east room was the larger and most pleasant of the two, with windows overlooking the valley, the community, and the river beyond. This room had the added benefit of windows on two walls, allowing air circulation to ease the heat of a warm summer night. A large closet tucked into the north wall, provided a more than adequate storage place for my clothing and other storage. It was there, in the darkness of the closet, as our flashlight beam probed its depths we spotted the dust covered, wooden trunk.
Stepping in for a closer look, then wiping the dust and debris from the top, I spotted a small, brass plate fixed to the top of the chest, cleaned it, then reading for Nash’s benefit, which I really didn’t need to since his chin was resting on my shoulder as he peered over me, “Property of Dr. Vera McCalister.” That was it! Nothing more than that simple label on a chest, sturdily built of wood with corners reinforced and decorated by copper or brass, the sides and top with cinctures of metal of the same material.
We were able to wrestle the trunk to the main part of the bedroom where the light from the afternoon sun brightened the room sufficiently to allow a more careful examination. It intrigued me, puzzled me, invited me, yet forbid me to open it, explore its contents, or learn its story as I slowly circled it, as a child would contemplate opening a special present or savoring a particularly delicious morsel, rolling it around on his tongue, extending its presence longer and longer before allowing it to dissolve into sweetened saliva flowing slowly down his throat, until Nash, in exasperation hissed, “For God’s sake, Jake, open the damned thing.”
Well, that certainly disturbed my reverie, so what else could I do with my master calling, but obey? With great care, almost tenderness, not knowing if the main clasp securing the trunk lid was locked, I pushed the little knob on it and, miracle of miracles, it popped open, completely unassisted, not needing to be pried, jiggled, or otherwise messed with by my trembling and bumbling fingers. The other two latches, sans locks, popped open with a flick of my hand and wrist, leaving the chest vulnerable to our exploration.
Inhaling deeply, drawing in as much air into my lungs as possible, whether to give me the strength to delve further or postpone the inevitable I don’t know, using both hands, I slowly, carefully, so as not to disturb the remaining dust and allow it to filter in, raised the top, pushed it back on its hinges, and revealed the contents stored therein many years before. In the very top tray of the chest, was a parcel, wrapped in heavy brown paper, tied securely with cord, and no inscription on it revealing its contents.
Rather than open it with the haste of a three-year old on Christmas Day, I set it aside, much to the dismay of my partner in crime, murmuring patiently to Nash, “I know my eager friend, but let’s wait to see what other little surprises await us in the rest of the trunk.”
Removing the tray opened the rest of the trunk to our view (and I do mean “our view” since Nash, leaning over my back, his head on my shoulder, breathing almost seductively into my ear, distracting me from the task at hand, decreasing my mobility through the stiffening of that completely ignorant and currently twitching part of my body enclosed in my jeans) and allowed me to see, then lift out a wooden jewelry box, a small bundle of letters tied neatly with a lavender ribbon, an assortment of newspapers, several journals, and a sandalwood box.
Quietly, softly, Nash whispered in my ear, his breath tickling those tiny, sensitive hairs on the inside, causing me to wilt, except for one important appendage, and snuggle back against him.
“Jake, I think we’ve found the mysterious lover.”
He was correct, of course and, as time would pass by, I’d find he was right more often than wrong, allowing me to excel in those areas which I was adept, supporting me in those where I was less than stellar, always forgiving, totally supportive, preserving my dignity. I looked where he looked, saw what he saw, then gently, carefully picked up the box and read the inscription on the brass plate on its top.
“Peter Cheng Tanjuatco, born January 5, 1911, died, December 7, 1941.”
Have you ever been so taken aback, so suddenly saddened by a discovery, yet astonished by its reality, that you could do nothing, say nothing, but just sit down and quietly let your grief, your sorrow for someone you didn’t know, but who was special to someone you did know, overwhelm you, fixing your thoughts on that point in time? As I slid to the floor, I was joined by Nash as he placed his arms around me, securing me to this place, this time, to him, comforting me with his warmth.
“I’ll be damned, I never knew,” Nash quietly exclaimed.
“Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger,” I muttered, quickly realizing how foolish that sounded since I knew very little about Aunt Vera in the first place. Hell, I didn’t even know if she preferred raw or cooked onions on her hamburgers, for God’s sake, much less having some clandestine lover somewhere, well, not somewhere, since I now held the box containing his ashes. I handed the box over to Nash, not that I’m squeamish, you understand, it’s just that – I’m squeamish!
Carefully, oh so carefully, I gathered up the letters, journals, parcel, and jewelry box, then peeked into the chest one more time, fearful there may be something else lurking in there which could spring out and grab me by the ass when I turned to leave. Seeing nothing posing an immediate danger, I stood, turned to leave, and screamed! Something did touch my butt! Fortunately, I was under control of every sphincter, abdominal, and bladder muscle on my body or I would’ve messed myself.
“Damned jumpy, aren’t you?” snickered Nash, dropping his hand. “Just wiping the dust from your perky little butt. I guess I should’ve said something first.”
At that moment, if I would’ve had a blowtorch, there would’ve been a companion to Peter Cheng Tanjuatco in the sandalwood box. The only thing preventing Nash’s demise and cremation by torch was his impish smile and the plea for forgiveness in his eyes.
“You,” I said, with both hands on my hips, “hold the box with both hands and walk ahead of me; you’re trouble with a capital ‘T’ which rhymes with ‘P’ and that doesn’t stand for pool, smart ass. Nash giggled, doing what he was told, as I scooped up the other articles.
Returning to Nash’s home, we placed everything on the kitchen table, contemplating our next move, while he prepared a cup of tea for both of us. Sighing deeply, as we sipped our tea, I murmured,
“We’ve a pretty good idea what the sandalwood box contains, definitely not a ham-on-rye, so let’s look at the contents of the brown paper parcel,” and untied the cord that bound it, loosing, revealing the inner secrets so long held from view, only to be met with a wrapping of delicate, white, albeit somewhat yellowed by time, tissue paper enveloping a white, elegantly simple wedding dress, carrying with it an aromatic tinge of cedar from the blocks placed within the package.
“Will wonders never cease!” exclaimed Nash from across the table as the dress came into view.
Nodding my head in agreement, puzzled, perplexed, then wondering if the dress had been worn or was to be worn, since Aunt Vera’s marriage or intention to marry remained a mystery to me also. Perhaps, I thought, the answer to my question would be revealed somewhere in the packet of letters, the next object of our inquisition.
With cautious, painstaking care, because of the fragility of the paper, and a sense of foreboding, I removed the ribbon binding the documents together so carefully, fastidiously tied by those ancestral hands of my great-aunt, preserving them for some time in the future, to be read, analyzed, appreciated by another. Selecting the top most envelope from the small stack, opening it, then lifting out the letter contained therein, I began to read:
15 January 1939
Greetings from Manila, the Philippines! I hope this letter finds you in good health and enjoying life. I also, most sincerely, hope you don’t find my correspondence with you presumptuous or intrusive, for I intend it not to be so, but one of re-introduction, fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to reach out and make contact with you after so many years of separation. If you are otherwise engaged or married, I apologize for my brashness, my forthrightness, but wish you the very best in life, as one old friend to another.
A recent communication from Dr. Carlson (American Government 101 which we shared as part of our Bachelor’s requirements) answering my query concerning you (along with some other questions I had), informed me of your teaching position at the University as an Associate Professor of Economics. I was pleased to learn of your doctoral completion and wish you the best in your career. I’m confident your students will learn from you and admire you as much as I.
I’m currently employed with the Department of Education office in Manila and I have been shortly after our graduation from the University. My language skills, developed in a household headed by Chinese-Filipino parents, proved invaluable in my procurement of employment with the Department. How fortunate I was that my parents, naturalized citizens now living in San Francisco, spoke more than one language, along with several dialects. I still have many cousins, aunts, and uncles in the Philippines, so I do have family close and have enjoyed my re-acquaintance with them. The fact I was born in the continental United States seems to present no obstacle to family ties.
My work is interesting, fulfilling, and extremely time consuming. I’d suppose the current tensions throughout the world add to our work load, but most of the problems seem to be in Europe at this time although there’s a certain undercurrent of mistrust concerning a very active neighbor to our north.
Mail can be sporadic and slow, at best, but should I be so bold to hope, if you are so inclined, I should dearly love to hear from you and re-kindle the friendship I abandoned so many years before.
Happy Valentine’s Day! (If this should reach you in time.)
Peter Cheng Tanjuatco
Looking up at Nash, rewarded to see reflected in his eyes and face the same curiosity, expectations, and apprehensiveness as mine, I couldn’t help but continue our intrusion into two lives bared in these letters, one person known to both of us, the other a stranger we both felt would become a stranger no more, but one with whom we’d soon become acquainted. I set the first letter aside and opened the second.
30 April, 1939
I’m so pleased you responded to my letter of 15 January 1939. I must admit I was a bit embarrassed and somewhat ashamed that I should be so bold to ask what I asked of you, but now knowing we are both unfettered of any relationships, I feel comfortable in re-developing the friendship and closeness we had at the University. I apologize for my tardiness in responding, but as I mentioned previously, mail is quite slow and I was up country and then island hopping for a bit so I was away from the office and my home.
Do you remember our first date, other than coffee or tea after classes, when we attended the dance at the Student Union? I was so nervous, afraid to ask you to accompany me, even though we knew each other, uncertain if you would respond positively to an invitation from a Chinese-Filipino, or if you’d be able to contend with my two left feet. When you said ‘yes,’ my world changed, my life began anew, and the evening became a paradise for me. The walk across the Quad, that Fall night, with a bright harvest moon high in the sky casting it’s silvery glow on buildings and grounds alike and you holding my hand, is memory I’ve carried with me, especially now, in this, my parent’s homeland. Why I was so foolish to disregard my heart and succumb to career promises, I shall never know, only that I know I’m so sorry for offending you and do not deserve your forgiveness (although I now accept it with joyous heart).
I’m being sent to San Francisco for a conference and training, scheduled to arrive 1 June and staying through 10 June for the meeting, but also have arranged a ten day vacation so I might visit with my parents. Would it be possible, if you wouldn’t object, for me to visit you during that time? I understand I can obtain train transportation to within a few blocks of the University and I’d so much look forward to spending some time with you.
“Sounds as if there is a bit of a tryst in the offing,” quipped Nash.
“Hush, you lecherous cretin,” I snorted, opening the third letter in the stack. “It appears there’s some break in the letter stream,” I continued anxiously as I sorted through the small stack, “the next letter is dated 5 August 1939 and mailed from Manila. I’ve looked and can’t find a date before that on any of the letters.”
Nash drummed his fingers on the table impatiently, squirmed in his chair, and finally, with some exasperation said, “Are you going to read it aloud or do I have to rip it from your fingers and read it myself?”
Not wishing to be dismembered, I continued reading,
5 August, 1939 (1)
Manila the Philippines
My darling Vera,
Time seemed to slip by as quickly as skaters gliding smoothly on glassy ice while we were together, yet that time seemed as a thousand years, so intense are my feelings for you, so deep are my affections, that the depths of earth are not sufficient for the fullness of them. Our time together was as if we’d never parted, separated but briefly by time and distance, destined across those spaces to fulfill each other as only lovers can do. When I looked into your eyes, I see reflected our future; with my head upon your breast, the rhythmic beating of your heart setting the cadence of our lives together; touching the softness of your cheeks, pink with wonder and vibrancy, brings sweetness to my soul; hearing your voice gives me strength and willingness to love you even more.
I shall not have leave again for some time, so these things I shall store to fend off those times of trouble and loneliness, using them to bolster my spirits, and bring me back to you.
I’ve started numbering the letters (as you’ve noticed in the beginning of this one) since the ongoing conflicts in the world, especially the aggressiveness of one very large neighbor to the north, tend to make our mail even more sporadic. I have some concerns regarding whether all of my letters reach you because I understand they undergo some scrutiny. I’d suggest you begin doing the same.
I must close for now, knowing sometime, some place we will be together again.
What a difficult time for two people to fall in love or continue their love, separated by distance, in a world tossed in conflict, with Japan aggressively attacking China and soon to attack the United States and the Philippines, with Germany seeking to re-unify all “real Germans” through armed intervention. Shaking our heads, acknowledging our mutual thoughts concerning the incredulous situation facing Aunt Vera and Peter, we resumed our voyeur journey into their lives.
12 February 1940 (4)
Manila the Philippines
My precious darling,
I grow increasingly fearful that all of my letters aren’t making it through to you, perhaps because of the increased activity in the area and the concerns our government has for possible sabotage or spy activity. I’ve been up country for some time now and should be close to the office for some time to come. My cousins and extended family grow increasingly concerned for our welfare and the welfare of their families. They feel, and so do I, that the situation is growing ever more precarious.
Now for the good news! I requested, and was granted, my vacation time during August. By catching either a Clipper (flying boat) or military aircraft cargo plan, I’ll have more time to spend with you, if that’s acceptable. We have much to discuss, preferring face-to-face.
Each day, each hour, each minute I’m without you is as if there is no past, no future, only that time we spent together. Being in love with you is far better than any other of life’s experiences, far better than life itself, a cover over the black hole of loneliness I felt over the years without you. For you I would ransom the wealth of nations, eat the sins of the world, sell my soul to Beelzebub, for you have captured my heart, my very self, holding it deeply in your heart, protecting me and you from all the harm which wisps around this world of distrust and hate. Were I a bird with gossamer wings, I would send myself to you, fanning you with the gentle breeze of my love, but alas, I am but mortal nor Icarus, thus earthbound.
I must close, my darling Vera, for the day has been long and I must rest.
“I bet he’s going to pop the question,” offered Nash as he reread the letter after handing it to him, “can’t be any other reason for him to be ‘face-to-face’ with Ms. McCalister, err – Vera, that is.”
Nash sat silently for a moment, looking off through his kitchen window at the valley below, the small community he called home, and the river beyond. Almost sadly, shaking his head as if in doubt, he murmured, “I want to love someone like that. I want someone to love me in return just like that – you know – forever and a day, accepting me, caring for me and letting me care in return, but here, in our small town, opportunity for that doesn’t exist.”
How overwhelming, unconditional, so moving, intense was this love Peter T. and Aunt Vera possessed and shared with each other through these written declarations, transcending the ages, coming alive, in Nash’s kitchen, as the two of them in spirit, danced, entwined, in a ballet of life and love for our benefit, moved me, willed me to respond softly,
“Not to worry, I think you will,” because I knew at that moment, I was as deeply in love with Nash as Peter T. was with my Aunt Vera.
Gathering up the letters, we retired to the living room where Nash reclined on the floor with his back up against the sofa, while I pondered a moment, then sat between his out-stretched legs, leaned back against his body, my head resting on his chest, letters in my lap, read the next on the diminishing small stack of documents.
17 September 1940 (13)
Manila the Philippines
My precious darling,
I arrived safely, although I did have to detour to Australia for some reason or another, but all is well here. I am just giddy with excitement and yet humbled that you’d accept my proposal of marriage. The very thought of us being together for all time has me floating, riding on the swells of an ocean filled with the buoyancy of your affection, your love, your caring for me. I am even more jubilant to know it will not be long in coming. How surprised I was when you already had the date picked out. Christmas break is the perfect time and December 28, 1941 gives us plenty of time to plan. It will be a joyous time for us both. My only sadness is knowing your family looks with disfavor on the union. We can do little to overcome bigotry, but we must try.
I have requested a transfer to the States, announcing my pending nuptials as the reason, and my desire to not have a long-distance relationship with my wife. I should know by the first of the year, but I’ve still applied for vacation time for mid-December of 1941 to the end of the first week of January, 1942.
Have you thought of a honeymoon destination yet? If not, were it not displeasing to you or disappointing, it’d be nice to spend our time together at your home on the hill overlooking the river. We seemed to enjoy ourselves so much while we were there. Besides, it’s the place I chose to propose to you and where you accepted, so how wrong can that be? I look forward to the time when my every waking moment will be for pleasing you, caring for you, worshipping your loveliness and my sleep shall be filled with dreams mimicking those of my wakefulness.
All my enduring love to you,
Nash placed his arms around me, laid his head on mine, comforting me, completing me, and urging me to read on as he murmured in my ear, “Such love, such tenderness, must be fulfilled,” not to Aunt Vera and Peter T., but to me.
I squirmed a little, uncomfortable with the increasing pressure of Nash’s pocketed flashlight skewering me in the back, until it twitched, and I remembered we left the flashlights in the kitchen, suddenly wishing I was a thoroughbred racer, my jockey riding me hard, then putting me away wet.
The next letter was quite a bit later, although by its reading, apparently not the only communication between Peter and Aunt Vera. Several cables evidently were sent prior to this particular one from Hawaii.
17 February, 1941 (17)
Thank God for cablegrams or we would’ve lost tract of each other, temporarily of course. My transfer has been approved to the Chicago Center, vacation approved, so we’re all set. Letters are all going akimbo and we’ve been cautioned to be very careful what we write and to whom. The lot of us have been moved to Hawaii, awaiting transfer to the States. When my time comes, I travel via passenger liner from Honolulu to San Francisco. Although a bit more expensive and less expressive, cablegrams are an excellent method for us to touch each other.
Know you have my everlasting love,
That was the last letter in the small stack. The only remaining item was an envelope from Western Union. I hesitated on opening it, fearful of what I’d find, hoping what I knew to be true wouldn’t be, but forestalled for some miraculous reason. Nash, reaching around me, seeing and feeling my discomfort, the faltering of my hands to do as I wished, and the despairing look on my face, relieved me of the responsibility, extracted the envelope from my fingers, opened it and began reading the contents softly in my ear.
5 December 1941
Good news (stop). Have arranged for Clipper flight from Pearl Harbor 8 December (stop). Will arrive San Francisco 9 December (stop). Will arrive to you 0900 15 December (stop).
All my love (stop).
With sinking heart, I reached over to the jewelry box Nash placed earlier on the couch, I opened it, and there, in the very top tray, in a place of almost reverent prominence, were two gold wedding bands, bound together with a silky, white ribbon, a sign of love, purity in some societies and a sign of mourning in others. The significance was shattering, breathtaking, emphasizing the depths of the love they felt for each other, a feeling only two others who have fallen in love by sharing of their lives and spirits can know.
Waking, in the dark of a spring night, feeling fulfilled, moved, no, not correct; feeling filled, moving ever so slightly, gently, by an easy, but insistent thrusting, impaling me ever deeper, securely, as Nash discovered the treasure he often sought, even as now, in his half-sleep, brought me to the intensity of my love for him. As his arms encircled me, free hand securing a velvety, smooth, stiff object desiring his attention, I wriggled just a bit, settling him in deep to the thickness of his root, knowing it’d bring him to fruition as well as I. Feeling him pulse, whimpering, burying his face in that special spot on my neck behind my ear, and with a final push, spewed his love forth, compelling those little soldiers contained in his hot liquid to march forward, seek their rest, and warm me inside as a maypole worthy of worship tickled that erotic spot engendered only to the male of the species located in our inner place brought me to join him, yet knowing before we rose for the day, he would take me, willingly, again.
On a May morning, sunny, warm, cloudless, after we finished our breakfast, Nash and I mingled the ashes of Vera McCalister and Peter Tanjuatco, joined not by church or civil authority, but by love, by passion, in spirit, and allowed the gentle breeze rising from the river valley below to scatter them, together, in the place where they found their hearts joined with one another and I, discovered the depth, the strength, passion, and completeness of loving another person, and willing, ready, eager to spend my days and eternity with, never to rent asunder from him, staying physically and lovingly attached to my lover, finding in him my completeness.
It has been said that love knows no bounds, but it does since it’s confined to the heart and soul of lovers, in their physical joining during the ultimate act or proof, through desire for each other, for the softness of touch, the quiet understanding, the lingering solitude of being together, and the vacancy left by the loss, but the embracing of the spirits in that ethereal world which we know not, tying that love to one another for eternity.
Thank you for reading Last House on the Left. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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