As for Lee, he paid more attention to his sketches than to politics. He was a dry-cleaner during the day and that suited him well. But it was during the wee hours of the morning when he sketched. He drew his ideas from many things. Sometimes he would sit quietly, close his eyes and let the sounds surrounding him seep into his mind. There they would swirl around mixing together to create a new song, one that would eventually become a shape. The shape would grow into a line on his sketchbook and soon there was music, Lee’s brand, coursing across the page, thick or thin. Lines crossing and linking, making new music for the eye.
Lee always wanted to be an artist. When he was a child, he would sit on a wobbly stool behind the counter of Peng’s Dry Cleaners and listen to his father’s stories of the war. With whatever paper Lee could scrounge from the waste baskets, he would draw cartoons of his father’s stories. He chose cartoons because he didn’t know the people. If he actually had ever met the people, he would draw wondrously accurate portraits. For all the others, including his father, it was a cartoon. When he was small, Lee had a great imagination and always saw his father’s characters charging through his head as comic book heroes. But his father wasn’t quite sure what to think. Usually Lee was admonished by his father for making fun of the stories. Chin Peng himself, had fought alongside the British against the Japanese occupying forces. Lee’s father experienced a war and demanded respect from Lee. Lee believed his drawings honored his father with superhero status. Soon Lee decided to forgo the sketches so as not to have to argue with his father in an attempt to defend himself. He preferred his mother’s crooning over his beautiful flowers inspired by the cherry trees on the walkway or the petunias his mother planted in the flower boxes in front of the store. But mostly she loved the lotus blossoms he drew when they visited the Botanic Gardens for their yearly tea ceremony. A tear rolled down her cheek when she saw his new creation each summer. This was the most emotion she allowed the world to see. She would simply say it reminded her of home. Lee’s mother never told stories. He wished she did, but respect for his elders, especially his parents kept him from probing. He had to be satisfied with that. But when she died, Lee found a scrap book with every flower he had drawn, even ones he’d thrown into the trash. Flowers weren’t his best work, but they were the most honored.
Lee wished he could remember more of his father’s stories now. He knew that his parents were held in what was almost a concentration camp. Lee’s father had called it a plantation, to soothe the pain. They worked the fields and were adequately fed. No one was allowed to have children. As a child hearing this story, Lee never gave it a second thought. As an adult, an only-child, he shuddered. There were stories of the workers who were held in higher positions, his father and mother the lower. But it was the story of the escape Lee wished he could remember. It held so little interest for him when he was young and angry at his father for not caring about his drawings. Throughout his life Lee drew many brief sketches of the images that he could remember. But it was the story of the escape and the workers he wanted to remember. It almost haunted him. He always depicted Lee’s parents with the workers, baskets tucked under their arms and bags slung over their shoulders. This was all he could remember. “The workers from the plantation could be relied upon to turn a blind eye to their movements and also to supply food and medicines as the campaign wore on,” he could remember his father saying time and time again.
Tonight at Wednesday Afternoon Writers we each took a page from a book that was falling apart. We chose one random sentence and circled it. We passed our page to the left. We circled another sentence and passed it again. After circling the third sentence, we place them all in a bag. Each writer then reached in an pulled out one of the pages. The three sentences would be our beginning, middle and end of our story.
In my piece, “Lee,” I put the sentences from the novel in bold. When I first began to read the sentences, I couldn’t imagine how I could write about any of that. Then I read the third sentence, and it became my opening sentence. It just so happens that I have a character named Lee who works in a dry cleaners in something else I am working on. Tonight’s write gave me some backstory for him.