“My Father’s Tattoo” by Veronica Montes

Greetings to you on a beautiful day, Story366! It’s a Tuesday in Springfield, Missouri, and I’m so glad to be writing this today. I posted on Doug Ramspeck’s collection on Friday on my way out of town, as the family and I headed off to Mark Twain State Park for a few days and a couple of nights of camping. We’d been wanting to go to Hannibal and see the Mark Twain sites—we’re writers living in Missouri, after all—and we’ve also wanted to give family camping a try. I’ve been to the woods with the oldest a dozen times now, all for Scouts, and we’ve had the little one tag along a couple of times, too. This past weekend was the first time we’ve done non-Scout camping, as well as the first time we’ve included the Karen on the fun. We were pretty sure it would work out fine, and lo and behold, it did. Karen’s need for coffee in the morning was a bit of a problem, and my insistence on keeping the camp organized and clean in a Scoutlike way made me kind of annoying, I’m sure. But all was well overall, as we saw some nature—I had a conversation with a raccoon in our camp when everyone else was asleep—and we also saw all the Mark Twain stuff, like his boyhood home in Hannibal, his museum, and the cabin where he was born—that’s inside the welcome center/gift shop at the state park. Here’s me at his front door, trying to get some of that Twain mojo to rub off on my arm:

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Now I’m home, I’m trying my best to read and write like a fiend, summer slipping away. I guess I’m getting that sort of done—I really need to be writing fiction—as I read from Veronica Montes‘ new story collection, Benedicta Takes Wing (Philippine American Literary House, 2018), and just had to get this post in. I read the first hunk of stories from this book while sitting by the fire at our camp, right before my aforementioned conversation with that raccoon (after which, I promptly went to bed, as the critter requested I go into the tent so he and his buddies could tear through our garbage). All warm and smokey, enjoyed those stories and read another today, the story I’m posting on, “My Father’s Tattoo.”

“My Father’s Tattoo” is told from the point of  view of a woman who is recollecting a story from her past, or more pointedly, her parents’ past. She tells the tale of her father, Ricky, who at nineteen falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Rosario, and in drunken longing, has her name tattooed on his biceps, embellished with squigglies (at no extra charge) by the Chinatown artist. To Ricky’s dismay, he sees Rosario riding around town the next day with another man. Heartbroken, Ricky spends the next couple of years telling anyone who asks that his mother’s name was Rosario, both sad and embarrassed over his boner.

Two years after the tattoo, Ricky meets Isabel, the narrator’s mother, and the two hit if off, going on a few dates before heading to the beach. There Isabel spies the Rosario tattoo for the first time. Isabel is not only jealous, but is furious, and almost ends their courtship. Ricky saves their relationship by agreeing to never appear before her without a shirt and to always make love with the lights out. That’s a tall order, to never show your wife your arm, which means Ricky must have really loved Isabel. Before long, the couple marries and the narrator is born. For a while, the little family seems pretty happy. Ricky and his brother Alex, “Tito Alex,” have a tailor shop together and do well enough, and for years, the tattoo doesn’t come up, both parents keeping up their sides of the bargain: Ricky doesn’t expose it and Isabel doesn’t bring it up.

One day, when our narrator is nine, Ricky is walking from the bedroom to the bathroom, his shirt off, and he runs into Isabel, exposing her to his Rosario tattoo. This incites all kinds of bad juju. Isabel, pregnant with the narrator’s sibling, cries and screams until her eyes are red and puffy, cursing the day she met Ricky, the day Ricky met Rosario, and the fact that Ricky ever had to be nineteen to begin with. She is so heartbroken and angry, she leaves Ricky and the narrator, forcing our hero to care for herself and her regretful but loving father.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “My Father’s Tattoo,” just to leave you something to discover. I like this story a lot, how it’s told from the daughter’s point of view, this peripheral character who tells the story through the eyes of a sad and hopeful child (though it’s not clear how old the narrator is whilst narrating). I like that perspective, the earnestness and affinity that style of narration offers the story. I also like this piece as an extension of Montes’ worlds. Up to this point in the book, the stories had all been told from the vantage point of young Filipino women, women who seemed to be living in the shadows of more beautiful, glamorous women, usually a sister or a cousin. The first three stories of the collection feature narrators like this, including the title piece, “Benedicta Takes Wing.” I liked all those stories and the perspective they assumed, protagonists thinking they didn’t belong, that they weren’t wanted because there was someone prettier standing next to them. In some cases, this proved true, while in others, it (tragically) did not. Perhaps this is a theme that Montes carries throughout her book, but I’m hoping, as I read onward, that these young women gain confidence, play different, more frontwards roles.

I’ve corresponded with Veronica Montes a bit online, as she has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, both as a talented writer and as a reliable interviewer. I was happy to see this debut collection surface, following up her contributions to Angelica’s Daughters, a dugtungan. (What’s a dugtungan? According to Montes’ website, a dugtungan is “… a genre of Tagalog novel popular early in the 20th century, in which each writer creates a chapter and hands it off to the next, who writes another chapter without direction.”) So, neat. It’s a good thing that this book exists, that Montes’ stories about young Filipino women are out there for us to enjoy. And I did.

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