I flew to San Diego two weeks before Halloween. A perfect time, I thought, to pursue the ghost of my father. I had neither seen nor heard from the old man since 1965, but I knew that he had died here on another holiday, New Year's Eve, 1989.
When I left Boston the sky was the color of wet cement. The weatherman predicted a week of cold drizzle, bad news for leaf peepers. In San Diego a Santa Ana had brought temperatures in the 90s. Jack-o'-lanterns set out for trick-or-treaters shriveled in the unseasonable heat. I bought a pair of sunglasses to dim the sun's glare. This seemed the wrong weather for ghost hunting....
Before leaving Boston my head was full of Raymond Chandler. Who could come to Southern California on a quest such as mine and not imagine himself as Philip Marlowe? I had prepared myself to sleuth through the recent past for traces of a man about whose last 24 years of life I knew little. Twenty-four years. That was two more than we had spent together. His years in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in Asia and his marriage to a young Vietnamese woman must have changed my father. I would be looking for a man I only half knew.
The story begins on an early October day in 1965 when my father, Dr. William T. Corbett, pinned a note to his office door: “I have gone to further my education.” I knew he planned to leave but not so suddenly and not with this as his epitaph.
After 19 years of general practice in Trumbull, Connecticut, he had not warned his patients. They were shocked, and when they learned that my father had kept no records for the previous three years, their shock turned to outrage and anxiety. Still, there were those who hoped that the only doctor they had ever seen would return. His family— my mother, brother Peter, and I — knew that he had no plans to resume his practice. Indeed, he did not plan to return at all.
For us, the blow of his leaving was quickly followed by news of “the other woman” with whom he had left. A day or two after the note appeared, they were on a plane to Rome. There they began a leisurely three-month vacation mapped out to land them in their ultimate destination, Baghdad, Iraq. My mother learned this from my father’s older brother, with whom he had spent his last night in America.
From the airport my father called Boston to speak with me. I was on my way to Connecticut and so he spoke to my wife Beverly. She urged him to call home. He said he could not. To her repeated entreaties he replied, “Things are not what they seem,” and then hung up the phone. I will never know what these words meant to him. To us their meaning was brutally clear. He had not left alone as he said he would, and we quickly learned, as he must have foreseen we would, that his elaborate explanations of how he had provided for my mother were lies. Nor had he seen to his patients’ needs. He had not done one single thing he had so painstakingly laid out for us.
But this too was not as it seemed. We knew that my father’s real estate dealing had long since turned sour. For two years sheriffs bearing summonses had appeared at my parents’ door. Their appearances had followed angry phone calls from contractors, lumber companies, plumbers, appliance wholesalers, sheetrockers, lawyers, and banks. Now we learned that this most secretive of men had kept his debtors at bay by stripping all his bank accounts, cashing in life insurance polices, and squeezing every last dime out of his house and office mortgages. These steps had not sufficed. He had borrowed from friends and patients, talked his mother into mortgaging several properties that she owned, and finally, desperate, had gone to loan sharks. Within days we knew that my mother did not own the house she lived in. Within weeks we learned that my father had not paid a cent of federal income tax in over four years.
As this news surfaced, some who knew him became convinced that the shrewd doctor had squirreled away money in a Swiss bank account. Or, at the very least, had left with as much money as he could carry. Perhaps, but I doubted then, and do now, that he had used Peter to pay Paul for so many years, all the while siphoning off cash for his planned getaway. My mother, who helped him pack and talked with him on his last morning in their house, did not think so either. She could not forget the $20 gold piece. It had been a present to me from my grandfather. For some reason my father had taken this from his pocket and shown it to her. In doing so he dropped it, and the coin rolled under the kitchen stove. My father fell to his hands and knees. He could see it, but he could not reach it with a serving fork. They had to move the stove, and this the two of them did budging it away from the wall until my father could pick up the coin.
Later my mother cursed herself for helping him, but at the moment she saw only a defeated man, shrunken inside his clothes, bone weary, a man she believed to be as bewildered by the course their life had taken as she was. Her heart had gone out to him then, but as she spoke of it, she was bitter at the thought of having expended a compassionate thought on the man.
News of the other woman knocked my mother silly. Gloria, we were to learn, had been
after my father for some years. She managed a convalescent home, which is how they met and where, we also learned, because the cuckolded family always hears more than enough, they were surprised in a tryst. My mother's financial situation posed no end of problems, but these did not humiliate her. Gloria did She was an artfully administrated kick in the teeth. We now knew that my father had carefully plotted the last days before he, in my mother’s words, flew the coop. He had lied outright and convincingly, not that we had seriously doubted him. We had questioned why he was doing this to us and to himself, but at the time we took him at his word.
His life in ruins, his marriage over at least in his mind, and his future uncertain, what loved one would not be sympathetic to such a broken man. I certainly was. I wanted to help him leave as he was so determined to do. 1 will never know if he felt even a prickle of guilt as he lied to me, but betray me he did, and over the years it was this betrayal that cut so deep. Had he just left his car in a shopping mall parking lot and disappeared... but he did not. He made my mother and me accomplices, and for this we could never forgive him.
Peter saw things differently. While I had been in college and then gotten married, he had lived at home. He saw his father as a victim, nagged and belittled by a shrewish wife who could not tolerate the abrupt changes his business failures had visited on her life. She had seen her Cadillac convertible and her full-length mink coat go, and she resented my father his every business deal, about which she learned more from the sheriffs who came to her door than she did from him. Peter accepted his father as a man whose efforts on behalf of the family had been repaid with total ingratitude.
What follows is a sketch of my father’s whereabouts, as I heard of them until 1992.
He and Gloria did reach Baghdad, but to what purpose we did not know. From there he wrote my brother and me. His letter to me repeated the same lies he had told me three months earlier. Furious, I wrote him an angry reply to which he did not respond. Then no news for several years until word came simultaneously from a former patient of my father’s and my father’s brother Frank that Gloria had died of cancer. Then more silence until the mid-1970s when we heard that he was working in Saudi Arabia and had married a young Vietnamese woman with children. Silence followed until later in the decade when he was sighted in Eureka, California. This came about because of a bizarre coincidence.
My father’s brother Frank had a daughter named Joyce by his first marriage. In 1977 or 78 she, whom I had seen but once years before, must have been in her late 30s. She lived somewhere in the Midwest. At the time in question she was on vacation in Northern California. There she picked up a Eureka newspaper and was amazed to find in its pages a large photograph of the uncle she had not seen in over 25 years. She clipped the photo from the paper and sent it to her father, who sent it on to my mother. I do not know how long my mother had it before, without forewarning, she enclosed it in a letter to me. I no longer have the clipping, but my memory of it is clear.
My father stands in a white lab coat, stiff as a cardboard cutout, on the lawn of a clinic whose keys he is being handed by a local official. There was no accompanying article.
I had no desire to track down my father in Eureka. Over a dozen years had passed during which his silence made dear that he no longer wanted anything to do with me or his family. So be it
After Eureka came another, longer period of silence. By this time I had twice written my father’s story. First as a memoir called A Boy and His Dad and then, several years later, as a novel with the same title. These books were indictments, and for this and numerous other reasons were failures. As inspiration moved me, I wrote poems about my father, reimagining his betrayal of me and our family.
My mother had returned to the nursing career she had abandoned to marry my father and gradually built a life for herself. After a tour of duty in Vietnam, my brother wandered the country until a childhood friend introduced him to the Hare Krishna faith. He and his family lived for many years at the temple in Los Angeles before moving to Provo, Utah, where they opened a vegetarian restaurant. There, my retired mother joined him. In 1990, she tripped over her dog and fell down her apartment stairs, suffering a broken wrist and cracked ribs. In the hospital her lungs, weakened by a lifelong cigarette habit, labored to breathe. She developed pneumonia and died soon after.
When I went to Provo to distribute her ashes in the winds around Mount Timpanogos, Peter asked if I wanted to hire a detective to find our father. I did not, but in explaining my reasons I heard my voice’s patronizing tone. Ashamed of my loftiness, I agreed to support whatever his decision might be.
Four years later, on an August night in Vermont, the phone rang. It was Peter. He had not needed my help. Excited, he spilled forth the news that our father was dead, had died in bed on New Year’s Eve in 1989 in San Diego. He had seen our father’s house, the very bed itself, peered into the urn that held his ashes, and met the Vietnamese wife and her two children whom our father had adopted. He had not had to use a detective; his route had been more spontaneous and direct. At a meeting of Hare Krishna devotees on Maui, Hawaii, a fellow devotee mentioned that he ran a business that found missing persons. Peter blurted out, “Can you find my father?”
“Maybe. What information do you have?”
“Dr. William T. Corbett. He was a general practitioner in Connecticut and he’s been somewhere in Asia for the last 25 years.”
A half hour later the devotee returned with an address, 2979 Frankel Way, San Diego. “Either this is your father or there is another Dr. William T. I traced the name through the AMA membership and there’s only one listing.”
The next morning Peter flew to San Diego, rented a car, and, with an accuracy that seemed fated, found the address in Linda Vista. There was no one home. Peter went next door and discovered that a Dr. Corbett did live there but that he might have died. The young black man who told him this was just visiting his mother. She would be home shortly. Peter didn’t wait for her but drove to what he called the ‘Bureau of Vital Statistics.’’ There he learned of several pieces of San Diiego property in our father’s name.
When Peter returned to Frankel Way, his knock was answered by a Vietnamese woman in her 20s over whose shoulder Peter spied a drawing of our father, fully bearded but instantly recognizable. His widow Hoa, a woman Peter thought to be in her 40s or possibly younger, made Peter welcome. From her he learned of our father s sudden death that New Year’s Eve, six months before our mother died. He had come home tired but been unable to sleep. Suddenly, feeling chilled, he wrapped himself in a blanket and returned to bed. In the night his death croaks wakened I loa, who called 911. They arrived to find a dead man.
Peter discovered that our father had been a world traveler who had spent much time in Afghanistan and other Asian countries. The house was crowded with souvenirs from these trips. Statues, wall hangings and other artifacts that thrilled Peter. He and his father had both been drawn to Asia. Indeed, they were soul mates. He further learned that our father had been a cook in a restaurant and did indeed own several apartment buildings. Somehow my brother figured these to be worth several million. He wondered aloud about what rights we, his natural children, might have to whatever estate our father had left. In time he learned that the property had been held in joint tenancy and went to Hoa upon our father’s death. We had no rights.
Hoa? Her English was so poor that Peter did not know what of his questions she had understood. She reminded him of women he had seen in Saigon. She explained that she liked a good time but that “Daddy” worked very hard and preferred to stay at home. Of our father’s other life she knew only that he had two sons who never responded to his letters, so he had stopped writing them. Her own children were polite, and both said how much they had loved the man they also called “Daddy.”
I hung up the phone. Through the years of silence and the tantalizing bits of news I believed that we would get word of my father’s death. Now it had come, as the significant tends to, out of the blue. I called my wife Beverly with the news. We were both struck by the seeming symmetry of my father’s life. The Connecticut failure had been a success as husband, father, and provider in his second life.
Ten months later, after finishing my semester’s teaching, I returned to Beverly’s Vermont family home and there in six weeks wrote Furthering My Education, a memoir detailing the days and the years after my father left. His death had opened the gates. That fall I typed a second draft, and this became the book that was published in April last year.
Furthering My Education ends with what my brother learned on his two visits to Frankel Way and with what I surmised about our father’s marriage to Hoa. I had not contacted her. I saw no point in bringing my concerns to a woman who had no reason to be interested in them and might well wish that my father’s former life had remained a secret. I imagined that she had tied South Vietnam with her children around the time Saigon fell. To make her way to Saudi Arabia she must have had American sponsorship. There she brought her children to the clinic where our father worked and, as she told. Peter, they fell in love. I assumed they had gone together to Eureka, but their other adventures.. .well, I had no desire to know the details. Besides, she knew so little of his first family that she could not possibly know what he had been thinking in 1965 nor how he felt about the betrayal he had so suavely managed.
When Zoland Press had galleys of my book, they sent a copy to the San Diego Reader in hopes that my father's winding up in San Diego might provoke some interest. Before long I had a call requesting an interview. Pleased to be getting the notice, I answered the questions and awaited the appearance of the article. It would run in July.
A week or so after the article appeared, Quince Mabry of La Mesa left a message on our Boston answering machine. He had read my book, had known and worked with my father, and wanted to hear from me. I called at once. He told me that he had worked closely with my father in Sharp Rees-Stealy’s urgent-care clinics for two years, 1987 to 1989, in fact, to the very day of my father’s death. Mabry admired my father’s medical expertise, his no-nonsense approach at work, facility with foreign languages, and globetrotting past. My father was a character unlike anyone he had ever met. I asked Mabry for all the details he could remember.
My father had run a clinic in Naples, Italy, written a book on cardiology, set up clinics in Afghanistan, and traveled the world, of whose cities he loved Lisbon most of all. How many languages? Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Hungarian for sure. Some of this made me chortle to myself. Managed a Neapolitan clinic? A book on cardiology? The old grifter. He did speak fluent Hungarian, the language of his parents, but the others? My father obviously found the admiring younger man an irresistible slate on which to write an imagined history.
As a doctor my father had been an excellent diagnostician of exceptional powers. Mabry went on to describe my father’s dislike of prescribing medicine. He did not take any himself and had to have good cause to treat his patients with drugs. Nor did he like to order tests. Mabry described my father’s gruff bedside manner. I remembered this from my youth and could imagine that what was sometimes seen as arrogance then must have fit an old graybeard. A most beautifully groomed and trimmed beard, at that, for the man Mabry knew was a natty dresser fond of elegant shoes. This was my father. He had a closet full of shoes when I was a boy, perhaps 50 pairs. I could see blue, brown, and forest green suede shoes, a row of Italian loafers, and another of stout English walking shoes. He had dainty size-eight feet and liked to keep them well and variously shod.
Most significant to Mabry had been my father’s question, “What are you going to do, doctor?” followed by the admonition, “You have to do something!” Mabry understood this to mean that he had to take charge. He must not dither. He was the doctor, and the patient expected him to act. My father’s forceful expression, backed up by his commanding way, impressed upon Mabry a valuable lesson. To the younger doctor, my father had been a mentor.
Mabry and I talked on, glad for different reasons that he had taken the trouble to call. Before hanging up he remembered my father’s last day at the clinic, his last day alive. Throughout his shift, nurses saw my father take his pulse. He did not hide the fact nor did he complain of any distress. When his shift ended, he hugged these nurses, several of whom wondered aloud if Dr. Corbett had just taken another job and had bid them good-bye. When they received word of my father's death his colleagues were stunned. Mabry thought it certain that my father had seen death coming and, true to his stoic nature, had accepted it. Off the phone, I regaled Beverly and our daughters Marni and Arden with Quince Mabry’s tales. I marveled that my father had continued to make himself up as he went along. Had I expected him to be that much changed? No, his second act may have been different from his first, but the man I knew was there in Mabry's account, at least in outline. I expected I might, with luck, get another call or two, but the book, so long open, so laboriously written in, seemed to be closing.
Three days later the Reader called asking if I could come to San Diego, follow my father’s trail, and write this piece. I said yes at once, then immediately qualified my answer. I gave high-minded reasons for not seeking out Hoa or her children. They did not need me to bring my father’s past to their door. Let them remember him as they knew him. I presumed that they might actually fear meeting me and, at the worst, think me a fortune hunter, the embittered son out to get what he could.
I determined that I could make the trip the week of Columbus Day. I bought airline tickets, and this triggered the second thoughts and brooding that began to grip me. Why did I have to go in search of my father? I had written a book, done my part. Did my responsibilities have no end? I felt myself losing control to my father. Would his story forever be my story? To once again write words that I had nearly worn out? And for what? To tear at old wounds, to feel vulnerable again as only months before, after the book appeared, I had thought I never would.
Into this stew I poured my fears that Quince, whom I had immediately contacted upon accepting the Reader's offer, might come to feel that my investigation would make him or his clinic look bad. How had my father found work as a doctor in America in the first place but through deception? Wouldn’t knowing his history compel those who had hired and worked alongside him to be, at the very least, uneasy? And for those like Quince who admired the man, wouldn’t they fed ashamed of their credulity after they heard what I had to say? What did I know about being an investigative reporter? 1 was a poet and a memoirist who had never been a gumshoe.
I had written my memoir to win my release from my father’s story, to once and for all put on paper what had haunted me for 30 years and in so doing let the chains of the past fall away. I could not really be certain that I had accomplished any of this and here I was signed, sealed, and all but delivered to return as the son whose father had betrayed him. My thinking became a snarl of fear and anxiety that began to take on a life of its own. I had been heedless and now could neither back out nor look forward to going.
Quince Mabry called to confirm a potluck dinner at his house with my father’s colleagues, all of them eager to meet me. I would read to them from my book. Now I knew I had to go.
The day before my flight I turned 55, two crooked numbers, as baseball play-by-play men now say.
I fear flying. A dose of Xanax prevents my brain from registering this dread and turns me into a package for the airline to deliver. I either sleep through flights or stare at the open book before me, mouth agape, with the concentration of a moron. On this flight I slept. When I arrived I was too drug addled to think of how I might go about my business. I drove instead to a club, Terrific Pacific, where Quince was sitting in with a tenor player’s group. They did a few numbers before a young black woman with the perfect name for a jazz singer, Piper Knight, sang Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”
Papa may have.
Mama may have
But God bless the child
who's got his own,
who's got his own.
These words I knew by heart now sounded like an omen.
Waking the next morning and walking out to find breakfast and the papers, I realized that my mental mare’s nest had unraveled. Not a shadow of dread fell across me. I drove down to the Reader office, copied several possible addresses for Hoa Corbett off a computer screen, bought a second-hand copy of Access San Diego and a 1994 Thomas Guide, and then set about preparing my reading for that night at Quince and Rondy Mabry’s La Mesa home.
People were to gather at 6:00, but Quince wanted me there early and I arrived, jangled by the speed of freeway driving, at 5:30. Beside the Mabrys’ swimming pool, Dr. Gene Leonard rose to greet me. He had known my father through his two years at Sharp Rees-Stealy, and he wanted me to know how much he thought of him as a doctor and a man. He had not read my book and was not putting me on notice. Leonard clearly revered my father as did every one of his colleagues, and so they told me upon their arrival.
After dinner I read in the Mabrys’ living room. When I finished, one of the women asked, “Did you hear our jaws drop?” Yes, I had certainly felt the intensity of their attention. We began to talk. None of them had known a thing about my father’s Connecticut life. He once said that his wife had died and someone remembered him joking that he had been married before Hoa, but he had "worn her out.” They knew little of my father’s life outside the clinic. Only Quince had visited his home and then but once. Their memories were confined to work, but they were vivid, especially in light of the seven and a half years since my father’s death.
Gene recalled my father prodding him to get married, refusing to let Gene keep his personal life to himself and, in the end, convincing him that he ought to marry Roberta, who now sat by his side. Others remembered the question my father habitually asked patients who came in with an injury, “Where did the horse bite you?” Someone recalled my father Bill’s diagnosis of an incipient heart attack. He had done no more than walk into the examining room and take one look at the man. As they talked I pictured an older version of the doctor I had known in my youth, a man who had ordered his patients about as if they were troops under his command, a man down to earth enough, or merely vulgar, depending on your point of view, to once bark at a young woman, “Lift your dress and pull down your pants.” He meant to give her a shot and he did.
As a boy I watched as my father’s manner charmed his patients, at least those I saw when we made house calls together. But as I grew older I understood that others thought him arrogant, a know-it-all who had to dominate a situation before he offered sympathy. This coincided with my own attempts to get out from under what could be his very heavy thumb. Through the words of his colleagues I saw that the years had given my father license and he had grown into, filled out rather than developed from, the man I knew. He must have been aware of the effect he had on younger colleagues — the majority of those in the room that night were 25 years his junior — and laid it on a little thick at times for their benefit.
But this was not theater, or it was the theater of medicine an urgent-care unit with its daily, unforeseen dramas, and, at least in those years when Sharp Rees-Stealy was building its urgent-cane business, a time, as someone said, of “lulls.” Enough free time so that someone of my father’s obvious distinction could bring his personality to bear. Experience had enriched his medical knowledge and skills and pared his approach to the bone. All agreed that he knew how to do things quickly and without fuss, ideal for urgent-care practice. The man who had constantly intoned to our family that he only worked hard so as to one day, the sooner the better, not work at all had embraced his profession.
He liked to work two seven-hour shifts back-to-back. For this, as for everything else, he had a reason. “What can you do,” he said, “if you get home at three in the afternoon? The day’s already shot.” During these stints he ate little or nothing. Hungry? No, he had eaten his morning oatmeal. Why did he push himself so? He had a young wife who wanted a fancy car and jewelry.
At one point someone remembered Dr. Leon Kutner. Why had he not come? Quince had simply forgotten to ask him. He went to call him and moments later Dr. Kutner called back to say that Bill Corbett was “the salt of the earth.” Quince wondered if I really wanted to hear such things. I did not mind. Who would deny these colleagues their affectionate and high regard for my father? In any case, work is another world. “House devil, street angel,” I had heard my German grandmother say. If my father had become the man these intelligent and thoughtful people knew him to be, then his past had been prelude, and he had risen out of failure and betrayal to a measure of nobility.
Driving back to Coronado where I was staying, I began to write this article in my mind. The emphases would be on the success of my father's second act, lucky and happy in love and productive and valued at work. He had balanced the bad of his Connecticut life with the good of his San Diego one. What did it matter how I saw him? I had my own truths but these were only part of the story that had taken place in another country an age ago. Let the devil have his due the second time around.
The next morning I began my search for Hoa Corbett and her children. The computer database provided the addresses of property she owned, property that had become hers on December 30, 1989, the day before my father’s death. I noted this, intrigued, and drove off to the Frankel Way house. It is a modest two-story, buff-colored stucco identical to the one next to it and several others on that short street. I walked up and knocked on the door. No answer. Then I saw the bell and, on the step beneath it, a pile of shoes. I rang and heard the dead sound a doorbell makes in an empty house. As my brother had done before me I walked next door. There I found a black woman who remembered my brother’s visit.
No, my father’s wife no longer lived there. She came by to collect the rent, and there was a phone number to be called if the tenants were rowdy, but the woman had lost it and was now-reminded that she meant to ask Linda for it again. Linda? Yes, that is her name. Hoa? Linda? This was more like the mystery I had anticipated. I drove to East San Diego to find two of the other addresses, on Euclid Avenue and 45th Street. Both were two-story apartment houses with side entrances that led to another set of apartments behind those in front. I knocked on a few doors and met either with no answer or, three times, with Vietnamese to whom I could not make myself understood. Driving slowly away from 45th Street I noticed a small sign, no bigger than a license plate, nailed to the roofs overhang, “Hoa’s Apts.” She had to be living here or nearby.
I tried the phone numbers 1 had accumulated but reached various buzzes, burbles, and high pitched whines. I went hack through my notebook. Any fears I had of contacting her were now lost in the hunt. Beside one address that had proven not to be hers, there was a phone number I had yet to try. I had been working through the computer. Why not see what was in the phone book? Its number for H Corbett was identical to the one I had just found in my notes. For the first time I felt like Philip Marlowe. In Farewell, My Lovely he discovers Jessie Florian’s address in the city directory. “I wondered what,” he muses, “I had been doing for brains all my life.”
The phone rang once. An Asian voice answered. I asked for Hoa Corbett and the man yelled “American." My father’s widow, the closest I had been to him in over 30 years, came onto the line. The words tumbled from my mouth: who I was, why I was calling, that I had written a book, that I wasn’t looking for money, that... In my nervousness i talked too fast and had to force myself to slowdown. Was that a note of fear in her voice? But she stayed on the line. She asked me why I could not forget. I told her I had been unable to. Her spoken English was so rudimentary - I could not be sure what she understood. I asked for her son Matt’s number, which she gave me. Before hanging up I made a date for dinner the following night. She did not believe I really wanted to eat Vietnamese food, but she agreed to be home when I came at six I called Matt but the line was busy. I called again and the phone rang for a long time before he, breathing hard, picked it up. He had run in from packing his car in preparation for leaving the next morning to take a new job at Boeing in Seattle. His mother had already called. Please, I implored him, call her after we talk and tell her not to be afraid of me. Reassure her that I have not come for money.
“Yes,” Matt said, “she’s worried about that, but I told her, ‘Mom, just give him part of the debt.’"
Matt explained to me that his father, our father, had made one bad investment after another. In Saudi Arabia he had invested their savings with a man who convinced him that in Cayman Islands securities he could reap a tax-free killing. The man soon disappeared, and when our father went looking for him he found a trail of gulled investors and, eventually, the con man dead, a suicide. This was the father I knew! The con man who had always been his own best mark. I told Matt about Furthering My Education and took down his Seattle address so as to send him a copy the very next morning. He could read for himself about our father’s plunges into raising guinea pigs for laboratory use, selling estate jewelry, and owning part of a trotting horse. Terrible investments all. The pigs died mysteriously, my father’s jeweler-partner looted the business and ran off, and the trotter broke stride in all three of its races.
These fiascoes had not ruined my father. Real estate, the building of houses on speculation, had done that. And it was real estate that Matt referred to. My father bought the buildings I had visited that morning during the boom in the mid-1980s. He paid top dollar and carried heavy mortgages. On paper, where my brother’s initial information came from, my father’s holdings looked like a very modest fortune. In reality, the bottom had dropped out of the market leaving my father, and now Hoa, stuck. Matt told me that rent met the mortgage payments with no room to spare. From my brief visit to East San Diego I could not see the neighborhood rebounding any time soon. Unable to leave real estate alone, and perhaps reasoning that 20-some years had inoculated him against failure, my father had been undone again.
The next day, Wednesday the 15th, Dr. Gene Leonard gave me a tour of the Sharp Rees-Stealy clinics where my father had worked. He presented the complex subject of managed care and Sharp Rees-Stealy's role in clear, succinct terms that I could understand. My father needed no special help or patron to get his job in urgent care. Sharp Rees-Stealy had just begun to build that aspect of its business when my father applied for a position. They needed doctors; my father filled that need. Leonard himself had come out of the desert east of San Diego where, in his words, he had been playing Marcus Welby. In his interview Leonard learned that he was hired and if he could not cut it he would be gone in a matter of days. He is now a Sharp Rees-Stealy partner. As for my father, his experience in large overseas clinics left him perfectly trained for the work he did so well.
I left Dr. Leonard at the Grossmont clinic and drove to meet Hoa Corbett for our dinner date. One of her tenants told me to take the side entrance and go up the second set of stairs. There were shoes piled outside the door, and I began to untie mine as I called out my name. A tall Vietnamese boy opened the door, the dog at his feet barked,
a television blared, and behind them, rising to greet me and hush the dog, stood Hoa. She stopped me from removing my shoes, got the dog into a back room, and after introducing me to her grandson, she sat across from me. We talked rapidly, trying to make ourselves known to each other all at once. She wanted to know if I was still angry and to tell me that she loved Bill, that he had been good to her and to her children, that she was nothing without him, that she would not marry again even though she needed a man to help her and Bill had said she ought to find one if he died first. I said I was no longer angry, but I knew that her grasp of English was so limited I could not hope to get the complexity of my feelings across. She began to cry. She had seen my father in the brown eyes we shared, I wept with her.
I saw in front of me a pretty and youthful woman—she told me she was 57 — who, when sad, looked ten years older. Her ace to come showed through for an instant and then her animated prettiness returned. She had abundant black hair, and when she rose to change for dinner, I saw a lovely figure that surely had appealed to my father. Sexy, warm, guileless, seductive, vulnerable, and sad, Hoa did not remind me of my mother at first, but when I used those words to describe her to my daughter Marni the next morning she saw the resemblance at once and so did I. And like my mother, Hoa has a brazenness. She knows how to enjoy herself and how to draw men to her, not that she needed to make much of an effort with me.
As we were leaving, a young Spanish-speaking woman came up the stairs followed bya small child and a man. ‘‘Linda,’’ she called. "Linda.” Hoa met heron the stairs. The young woman said they were looking for an apartment. Hoa had rented to them before. No, they were too messy for her apartment. She did not have one ready, but they were messy. Three children? No more? She loved the family, she assured the young woman, and took their phone number.
When I asked why “Linda," Hoa answered that Americans called her “Hoe.” She said the word loudly, an ugly sound, “Hoe.” Few could pronounce “Hoa” correctly, “Wah.” Her name meant flower in Vietnamese. I had said “Hoe” only because I had been told that pronunciation. “Wah,” I said. And then “Linda,” and she smiled.
At dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard bright as a supermarket, she ordered a feast, far too much food for two of us, and as we ate and talked she reached to refill my glass with beer after my every sip. My father must have loved this sort of attention. He never got it from my mother and was never the lord and master in his own house that he wanted to be. My mother knew his desire and took it seriously enough to mock it and to enlist me, whose quick tongue was much like hers, as her sidekick. As before, my lack of Vietnamese and Hoa’s limited English made it difficult for us to get beyond the surface. When I asked her to describe the social life she had with my father, she drew a blank. Friends? She had friends, but they had only one friend together, in Sacramento where they were married. And my father’s ashes? What had become of those? She did not understand “ashes” nor “cremated.” Finally I put together some combination of words that she understood, “We burn him, burn him and ashes throw off beach.”
She returned to her love for my father, how good he had been to her and her children, how hard they had worked and how sorry she was for what had happened to me. The night before Matt had apologized to me for what his father had done in leaving me and my family. Hoa told me about meeting my father in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. She was there with her second husband a bad marriage. She pointed to a small scar at the base of her throat. My father’s work. “Thyroid.” They had fallen in love during her visits to his clinic.
As we ate we crisscrossed our pasts, following up any topic we seemed to mutually understand. Back in Coronado I wrote down what I could piece together of her history as she had told it to me. “Hard life," she had said, “hard life.” Her mother had died when Hoa was three. She grew up in Saigon with older brothers and sisters, at least some of whom died in the war. As did her father. She married a pilot who became a captain. A real catch, but for a pilot there were “women everywhere.” He could not resist them, and after four children, three boys and a girl, he and Hoa separated. As Saigon fell a Baptist organization brought her and her two youngest. Matt and his sister Vanh. to Georgia. Her two older sons stayed behind. Matt said my father had worked with “all his heart," written countless letters, made calls, and seen officials, to get them out of Vietnam. He had succeeded, and they were now in San Diego. The tall grandson who answered the door belonged to the older of the two.
In Georgia, Hoa married the Vietnamese man who took her to Saudi Arabia. Had they gone there for a job? Yes, but I could not understand her explanation of what his work had been. Then she went to the hospital and met my father. She was afraid. She did not know English. But she loved my father and let him take care of her. They traveled to England, France, Thailand, and Greece. She became less afraid. Grown up? Yes, she had grown up. She did not like Saudi Arabia. My father had not liked Asian people, but he had loved her. On a trip to California, perhaps in 1979, they married. They returned to Saudi Arabia for some years before coming back to California, this time to San Diego, where there were Vietnamese people.
There had been a restaurant, actually a sandwich shop, the Roost, near San Diego State University. They owned it, but Bill had not cooked there. Peter had been wrong about that. Bill cooked at home and made a big mess. He never cleaned up, which got her mad. She laughed to remember the dirty dishes and plates and how angry these had made her. Angrier when Bill had said, “I’ll clean them up tomorrow.” Always tomorrow, and he never cleaned up a thing. Bill came by the Roost, and when the college kids asked, he introduced himself as Joe. When he wasn’t there and they asked where Joe was. this amused Hoa. She did not remember when they moved to Frankel Way nor when they bought the property she now owned.
“Your father buy property but he not tell me. Why he do that?”
“He did the same thing to my mother,” I answered. “He never said a word about his business. Very secretive.” I pointed to my chest. “He kept things inside."
“Why he do that?” But she wasn’t asking. This was a lament.
We looked at each other. Had we the words we probably would have analyzed my father’s character for hours, as I had so often done in the past. Our inability to do this provided a shortcut to where, in essence, I always wound up. That was his nature. Easy to describe, open to a hundred different explanations, and impossible to change.
The waitress, with whom Hoa had joked throughout the meal, brought a small tray holding two fortune cookies. We broke them open. Hers held nothing. From my slip of paper I read, “You are a leader and not a follower." “Good?” she asked. Yes, I nodded. God bless this child, I thought to myself, I have never been less a leader. I was so deep in my father's life and in Hoa’s that I could only follow my nose in hopes of finding my way out.
As we walked from the restaurant, she asked if I had time to meet her oldest son. He worked nearby, a “lummer who made pie.” What? We were passing a store window. She grabbed my arm and gestured at the pipe on display. “Oh, a plumber who laid pipe.” I begged off. Three hours with her had drained me. She appeared livelier than when we first met, but my brain hummed. She had given me too much to think about.
It was now dark so that the disposable camera I had with me in hopes of taking her photograph was useless. Did she have a photo of herself I could take home to Boston with me? To show Beverly and our children? We went back upstairs to her apartment. The television still roared. She sat me down at the kitchen table wedged into an alcove behind the couch where we had been seated before dinner. She wanted me to see the snapshots pinned to the wall: Vanh and her American dentist husband, Matt in military school, both children as adolescents, Hoa with Raymond, a man she saw, but no pictures of my father. She had worked with Raymond or he had worked for her at the Roost. He had a luxuriant red mustache. Now she worked 45 minutes away. A Vietnamese man owned the company. Filipino woman who called her “Miss L” worked there. She was paid $5.15 an hour, a sweatshop wage it seemed, for doing something I could not understand. It was work that she wanted. She had always worked and now she worked to forget Bill.
She went to her bedroom and returned with framed photos of Vanh on her wedding day and of Hoa posed next to Vanh, her three sons arrayed on either side of them. She urged me to take the biggest of these. I asked if she had a smaller print. When she went in search of it, I looked up. On a high shelf, I saw my father as I had not seen him since boyhood.
I stood up to get a closer look at the photograph. He was 35 or so, I guessed, just at the edge of my memory. I thought I had once come across the picture up in our attic, but I could not be sure. It was a head-and-shoulders shot, lit in the dramatic, high-contrast way popular in the ’40s. Every man must have wanted to look like a movie star or been told he could look like one. My father wore a checked sport coat that I could almost remember, a tie gaudy even in the photograph’s sepia tones. The picture did not flatter my father but emphasized his nose, making it appear slightly bulbous. His high, prematurely bald forehead shone. The mustache he had worn since his 19th year was then trimmed thin as a gangster’s. I had no memory of it in that form.
A decade later he shaved his skull and let his mustache grow, waxing its ends upwards into points in a less spectacular version of that worn by Salvador Dali. I remembered my father as a man who stood out. In the 1950s few men shaved their skulls and fewer still wore facial hair of any sort, especially not suburban doctors. I had heard him called “Chef Boyardee" after the caricature of the chef on that brand of canned spaghetti. A crone stopped us on New York’s Fifth Avenue to proclaim that my father was one fine-looking man! In the picture before me he had yet to become the man I see when thinking of him.
Hoa returned and when she saw me standing before my father’s photograph she stood on tiptoe to reach up and bring it down. When I held it in my hands I saw that its padded-leather frame must be original and had a passing thought about why my father who had left home with few photos had taken this one. I could take the photograph. No, no. I set it back on the stand behind a cut-glass bowl from which grew red grass blackened at its tips. “Incense,” Hoa said. This was her Buddhist shrine to my father. She pointed out the pink bromeliad she had put in water that morning. To my father’s right stood two brass candlesticks. They represented her parents of whom Hoa had no pictures. Tomorrow, she looked at the wall calendar, she would light incense for my father.
Looking again at the photograph, I said to myself, “This is the end. Here is what you have come for. This is the ghost, the face you have never seen but recognize. Describe it and let stand for the man you did not know.”
Hoa passed me a smaller print of the photo of herself and Vanh. As we walked downstairs, she asked, as if she had known me for years and valued my counsel, “Should I marry again? I have no one to take care of me.” Flattered, I urged her to marry when the right man came along. She could use the help. Since Bill’s death she had worked alone on maintaining the apartments. She once hired people, but they could not be trusted. She should marry.
We stood by my car. In her apartment we had hugged goodbye; now I reached to shake her hand. Would I visit her again? I could not say. I saw only work ahead of me. I promised to try, but I would call, and back in Boston I would send my book and photographs of my wife and daughters and our three dogs. Did I really feel as close to this woman, as warm toward her, as I thought I did or... she cut into my thoughts, “One never know what tomorrow bring.”
Back in Coronado I watched playoff baseball. Television ministers to the sick and those nearly erased by exhaustion. I let the images and the announcer’s words pour over me like a shower. Tomorrow I could start to write.
And so I did with that photograph before me as my goal. I had been no Marlowe, but the ghost I sought had appeared in the homeliest of surroundings. My father had carried that face all those years and all this way for me to see. I had only to get us both to that place. I worked without pause and knew how hard I concentrated only when splashing water reminded me of the court -yard fountain outside my window. I went back to work scratching words on paper when the phone interrupted me.
It was Gene Leonard. He had dug up my father’s resume in Sharp Rees-Stealy’s files. He was about to fax it to me, but I was so eager I asked him to read me at least a few lines. Gene read down my father’s education. University of Alabama, where my father had often said the sons of Ellis Island were always welcome; Hahnemann, in Philadelphia, where he got his M.D. and met my mother; and then his years in the Navy. “I never heard
this,” Gene said. And he read, “Columbia University Medical College, Cardiology 1948-1949, Endocrinology, Yale Medical College 1952.” Nor had I, and I had been a son browbeaten into applying to Ivy League schools. Gene, his friend’s champion, explained that we could not be certain. Perhaps he had taken courses I knew nothing about. A moment after he hung up, the machine clicked on, and I pulled from it two smeared pages just legible enough to read.
My father identified himself as married but listed only one son. Why? This was 1987, and he had adopted a daughter. An error? I flipped to the second page, the beginning of the section headed “Experience." There was a single line, “Practiced Internal Medicine in Connecticut, U.S.A. 1946-1963.” Bingo! Why I said this to myself I am not sure, but my father had practiced in Trumbull until 1965. In 1962 his construction business had begun its downhill slide, but he had ignored whatever writing there was to be seen on the wall and taken us to Europe for six weeks of travel. Perhaps he confused that trip with the one he was to make three years later. In any case, my father had given himself a three-year head start on his education, and thus everything that followed, at least the dates, had to be skewed.
After Connecticut, Baghdad, as we knew, and then, surprise, Redding, California, in 1968. I found it on the map up near Eureka but inland. Whenever he had actually been there working at Shasta General Hospital, it began the pattern carried through to San Diego. From Redding to Kabul, Afghanistan, and then to Eureka, followed by Saudi Arabia. This not only pointed to his being in America within years of his first leaving but suggested a restless, nomadic life. He had himself in Eureka from 1973 to 1975. The dates were earlier than when I had received the photograph, but who could say how long that had taken to reach me. Going over both pages again I counted 11 stops on 3 continents in a little over 21 years.
Now I read more closely and realized that I could probably reach the clinic in Al-Kho-bar, Saudi Arabia, by telephone or e-mail. Over 30 years of ignorance and speculation had shrunk to two pages with enough leads to further my education for some time. But that trail could only be paper unless I put more of my life into the search, and I had come far enough to know that I need go no further. Professor of this, establisher of that, clinician, director, pasha, Sultan of Baghdad, emir of all that he had surveyed, whatever his bona fides revealed, I had seen in them his handiwork. In Afghanistan he had served as “Physician to the Royal Family.” Let that be his epitaph.
— William Corbett
William Corbett is writer in residence at MIT. His newest book is New York Literary Lights, published by Graywolf Press.