Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks, starting with the chapters written by SD Free Press writers. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “…San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.” To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.
By Anna Daniels
The sudden attentiveness of the cats alerted me to the faint sounds coming from the front porch. Moments before they were curled like fur commas around the suitcase that was splayed open on the bed. I straightened up from the suitcase that I had just finished packing and turned toward the window and the darkness beyond.
The sounds were faint and intermittent. It was probably just one of the opossums that routinely visited the porch at night cleaning up the last bits of cat kibble in the bowls. After zipping up the suitcase and setting it on the floor, I patted my pocket yet again to make sure that the little pill case with the valium was still there.
I was as ready as I possibly could be for the dreaded red-eye flight to Pittsburgh. My brother and sister had convinced me that our mother was dying and that I had to go back—now. George W. Bush had recently begun playing Cheerleader in Chief for Dick Cheney’s plan to invade Iraq. Both the imminent war and my mother’s imminent death were equally incomprehensible and alarming.
After blowing kisses to the cats and intently gazing at the art work on the walls as if for the last time, I stood at the front door.
“Rich! Come here!” I hissed to my husband. “There’s someone on the porch.” I quickly threw open the door, trying to adjust my eyes to the dark edges of the porch where I could barely make out a figure crouching there.
“What do you want? Who are you?” The forcefulness of my voice belied my racing heart.
“I am Samsay. The bamboo. I come here to pray.” The disembodied voice was quiet and unhurried.
I could now make out a slender figure kneeling on the porch, facing the black bamboo forest that overran half of the front yard.
“Go pray somewhere else. Get out of here right now!” I could hear the click of the gate behind the departing figure as it dissolved into the night.
“Drive around the block, Rich. He may come back to break into the house.” And so began the succession of weeks and months in which death and danger and loss never seemed far away.
The suburbs and rural areas around Pittsburgh that March were a gloomy reminder of the long winter. Dirt stained piles of snow had been bulldozed from the streets into enormous mounds on shopping center parking lots. They would not disappear completely until that April. The hillsides wept snow melt in long glistening streams down their craggy faces.
My mother, the color of ashes, spent her days alone since my father’s death curled up in her orange television-watching chair, subsisting on Hershey Kisses and little else. She left a trail of little foil balls and strips of paper in the ashtrays scattered throughout the house.
I watched the made-for-TV version of the invasion of Iraq far from the sunlit and comforting ordinariness of life in San Diego. My mother would have preferred to watch her game shows and soap operas and didn’t seem to understand what I found so riveting.
The daily phone calls between Rich and me always included my anxious question, “Has that guy come back to the house again?” My relief to hear that he hadn’t would only last momentarily and I’d ask again the following day.
On May first of that year, President Bush declared mission accomplished in Iraq, a monstrous lie that began to unravel immediately. A few weeks earlier, I was a pallbearer for the woman who had once carried me for nine months within her own body.
The routine of work and my husband’s quiet constancy enabled me to get out of bed every morning and blindly push through another day, oblivious to almost everything except a searing emptiness.
I returned home from work one afternoon and saw someone rocking rhythmically on his knees on the front porch. The figure was turned toward the bamboo and chanting something.
I was more bemused than afraid as I walked up to the porch. “Hey! Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I am Samsay. The bamboo. I come to pray.” He had turned toward me but remained kneeling.
With that reprise of the interchange that had occurred two months before, a peculiar relationship was struck up between the two of us. It unfolded over that whole summer on the front porch, its exclusive setting.
While that relationship was an odd one, it was hardly the first time that a stranger had shown up in the yard or on the porch. The neighborhood where I live in the old inner city community of City Heights is largely poor, overwhelmingly immigrant and filled with unlovely apartment houses surrounded by concrete and cars.
The shaggy bamboo forest and the tree that shades the gate of our house form a diminutive oasis, a reprieve from the scorching summer heat and ubiquitous cement. Strangers routinely stop there to rest or talk to me if I’m around and, from time to time, walk inside if I’m not.
At first it was crack heads and tweakers banging on the door at night, asking for money to get Similac for their baby or gas money to get to work or simply stealing what wasn’t nailed or chained down. Over time, the bamboo grew taller and took over more of the yard while the neighborhood began to change. The visitors changed too.
Neighborhood men and boys would come by, desperate for work, any work. They assured me that they could limpiar el jardín for a good price. One day I arrived home and found a woman waiting at the gate. Her face was swollen, her eyes red. She pointed to a station wagon parked on the corner where she said her family was waiting.
Would I please buy a flan, hecho en casa? Her son had died suddenly and there was no money to bury him properly. We ate flan for days and so did our neighbors.
A little girl scared me half to death when I unexpectedly came upon her wandering around in the bamboo next to the door. Her face turned upward, she kept repeating, “This is a jungle. This is a jungle,” in an odd combination of childish amazement and disbelief.
I have come to realize that City Heights is a shape-shifting Scheherazade. The bamboo grove and front porch have been an unexpected setting for listening to her stories.
Now it was Samsay, kneeling on the porch.
“My name is Anna.” “Ah-nah,” he repeated back to me. Samsay had stood up and I offered him my outstretched hand.
“Ah-nah, do you pray to mother ancestor and father ancestor?” I wasn’t expecting this follow up to our quick introductions. When he said “mother ancestor” I felt my eyes start to well up.
“No Samsay, I don’t pray at all.”
“I will teach you. You must pray to mother ancestor and father ancestor.”
Over the next months, Samsay would materialize on the porch seemingly out of thin air, kneel down facing the bamboo and begin to pray. Over the next months, I would learn to say the words that he had phonetically spelled out for me on a piece of tattered paper and kneel beside him and cry until the front of my blouse was soaked with tears.
We were an improbable pair. Samsay, a Cambodian-Thai-Hmong Buddhist and I, an atheist pastiche of eastern European and Anglo-Saxon genes.
After we prayed I would ask Samsay about his life. He was completely incurious about mine, although there was a deep flash of understanding in his sustained gaze when I told him at some point that both my mother and father were dead.
Samsay’s stories were disconnected from each other by both time and space. One afternoon he told me about his grandfather, a revered shaman in the village who was regularly given elephants as gifts. Samsay gestured how he would come across snakes in the paddies in the village, quickly pull one up by its tail and whip it around his head, snapping its neck.
While this accounting of his conversation is true, it is not the way Samsay told it. “The people come and come and give my grandfather good man too many elephants.” Samsay’s English was halting and stripped down to its most essential elements—nouns, verbs in the present tense and the occasional adverb or adjective. His linguistic limitations made the stories he told all the more vivid and immediate, with a touch of the surreal.
Another afternoon he gave a disjointed account of how he was picked up along with some other kids by the Washington state police. Although he said he hadn’t done anything really serious, his gun fell out of his pants and that was enough to send him to jail.
I learned that his father was an army officer who assured the loyalty of his subordinates by paying them with opium; that a huge fire that consumed almost his whole village one night gave him cover to escape the cruelty and indifference of his father’s second wife whom he had married shortly after the death of Samsay’s mother.
Samsay said, “I run and pray and cry and pray and cry.” One day a Baptist missionary couple took him home with them to Washington. He found the strict household rules confusing and impossible to follow.
It was never clear what brought Samsay to San Diego, how long he had lived here or where he found the money to survive. He expressed disapproval of his roommate’s slovenly habits and unappealing food choices and said he wanted to go somewhere else to live.
There were times when I suspected that Samsay was living in the streets, although he always appeared in clean clothes. I asked him if he considered living with the Buddhist monks in the area. City Heights has a number of temples and living compounds for the monks. Samsay had stayed with monks a few times but it didn’t work out for him either.
The prayers and stories continued. We would both sit cross-legged on the porch and talk. I wanted to ask Samsay about the faint tracings of spidery tattoos I could see above the neck of his tee shirt and on his upper arms, but was either distracted or thought the better of it.
One day while we were sitting there I noticed a tent rising in the crotch of his shorts. “Samsay, what the hell are you thinking? Stop it.” By the end of summer, Samsay seemed more and more untethered from whatever his life was beyond the gate of the house. I too was feeling some shift in my own life.
The deep wound created by mother’s death was being cauterized by the insistent demands of life, which is different than forgetting. One day I asked Samsay where he would like to be, where he would like to live.
He told me that he had two sisters in two different states and said that he would like to go stay with one of them. I tried to make sure that he had their current addresses and phone numbers. “Okay Samsay, Rich and I are going to buy you a Greyhound bus ticket so that you can go to your sister’s. Spend the night here and we’ll drive you to the station.”
Samsay didn’t appear to spend any time contemplating the offer or what it might mean. He simply accepted it. The next evening, he slept on the couch and turned down the breakfast of eggs and toast the following morning. He did change his mind about which sister he wanted to visit, which sent us scrambling to determine the schedule for this revised destination.
Rich and I made sure that Samsay got on the bus. We waved goodbye to him with a mixture of relief and concern when we saw him seat himself next to a window, his expressionless face peering out at us.
Over ten years have now passed. Although I have absolutely no memory of Samsay’s face, from time to time I catch a fleeting image of his familiar kneeling figure in my peripheral vision. In those moments I remember Samsay on the porch, send a prayer of sorts for his safekeeping into the heart of the bamboo.
“Samsay on the Porch” is based upon the essay “Ten Years On: A Dying Mother, the Invasion of Iraq and Samsay on the Porch” which appeared in the San Diego Free Press, March 20, 2013.