Monday, April 20, 2009

Dodo, Chapter Seventeen, All the Flickering Stars

The calf looked like a black and white chair caught in a spider web, hanging from its mother’s hindquarters, dangling over the damp early evening grass along the road following the Cuyahoga River as it left the old industrial backyard of Cuyahoga Falls for the flat farm lands to the west. F and I stood transfixed, holding our bikes before the crooked wire fence, watching in complete silence. A small car had pulled up a few minutes after we first stopped. The driver, a young woman with dreadlocks, was standing not ten feet from us, her eyes glued to the scene. She hardly seemed to have noticed us.
     The cow shifted, snorting misty vapor from raw-looking nostrils, digging at the ground with her hooves, her front legs splayed, her neck straining, her big eyes filled with the effort of the standing birth.
     The strands of silky wet embryonic fluid still holding her baby in their temporary hammock were beginning to snap free from her extended vulva, which sagged hideously beside her swollen teats. Even as the glistening folds of pink flesh provided new life entrance to the world, the bearer of that portal seemed on the verge of losing her own. After an agonizingly slow stretch of minutes, the new mother finally gave out a mournful bellow, her fetal discharge collapsing in a streaming heap upon the grass, making a sound that reminded me of football players hitting the practice pads outside our school back in Binghamton.

“Cut the shit, girls – or we’re going an extra hour! You
hear me?”
     I was sitting on my hands, feeling the cool metal of the bleachers, waiting for the high to kick in, wondering what was taking so long. My eyes followed Helmut as he laced the line of car tires set across the cleat-scarred turf. I kept expecting him to suddenly stretch out like a snake, to slither the practice course on a serpentine belly of orange and white, our school colors. He was desperate to win the coach’s favor, as he was with just about everything he’d encountered since we’d moved to America. That year he was partaking in every single feature of our high school’s sporting program, muddling his way through basketball, baseball, track and field, and skeet shooting, the shooting his only clear talent. No one could ever accuse my brother of not being ambitious.
     “Is this stuff any
good?” I asked, turning to see my best friend, Larry Winston, holding his pimply face in his hands, hunched over the bleachers like some dozing gargoyle.
     “Best shit you can get in this part of the state!” he declared, his heavy-lidded eyes at half-mast. “It’s
Canadian. Dude, your brother has one fucked up delivery on those pads. Why’s he open up his legs like that?”
     I watched, seeing Helmut repeat the procedure, the coach blowing hard into his whistle, directing the cool September air with his arms. I couldn’t help laughing. “I think he thinks it’s Sandra Welsh.”
     Larry snickered, stretching the side of his mouth with his tongue, the universal symbol for a blowjob. Sandra Welsh was co-captain of the cheerleading squad and the only reason Helmut tried out for half the sports he did. He swore to us that he’d managed to feel her up after a dance at the fire hall, but word around the school was they’d kissed, nothing more. We knew she was just slumming anyway, waiting until football season began for real and the starting line up was selected.
     I knew all too well Helmut wouldn’t make the cut. He was enthusiastic, and tough, in his own way, but his football skills were about as sure as you’d expect from a guy raised on soccer and field hockey. Nevertheless, he owned the skeet squad, something he managed with an almost frightening efficiency, blowing the clay discs from the sky so consistently the gun teacher had to ask him to sit out every other practice in order to help some of the less-proficient shooters.
     They shot behind the school, into a wooded area known as “Pussy Palace”, the extra-curricular refuge of the red-faced jock elites who topped the school social strata and whose fingers actually did infiltrate the elastic of cheerleader’s underwear, especially after victorious home games, the plastic six pack loops decorating the higher tree limbs testament to that hormonal revelry.
     Binghamton was the sort of blue-collar town where people had enough sense to let the young have their moments of unbridled freedom – within reason, of course. The day Andy Bennix was found in the weight room with a half-naked Patricia Holmes wrapped around him like a scarf was the day the school hired a retired cop to walk the grounds each night with a flashlight.
     “Dude. Your brother’s going to
rupture himself! German balls! Gotta be as tough as steel!”
     I laughed. It was easy with Larry. He had none of the knee-jerk attitude of so many of our American peers, all the whispered “Hitler this” and “Hitler thats”, the din of immigrant prejudice that we eventually learned to block out, returning the favor with our own teasing of the numerous Italian-American and Irish-American kids whose grandparents had journeyed the ocean.
     Larry was a bit more world-wise than most of the dirt bike orphans who circled the playgrounds on lazy late afternoons, when the tackle dummies were taking their punishment. His father was Hungarian on his grandmother’s side and had taken Larry and his younger brother to Europe to meet relatives, giving them an early taste of life beyond the dirty brick walls of the old shoe company that then still employed most of the families in the area.
     “Why’s Helmut so angry all the time? Aren’t you guys glad you came to America? Isn’t that why your folks brought you here? Cause it’s better here?”
     I shrugged, suddenly realizing my fingertips were numb. “I guess so. Father got a good job offer and my uncle set things up for him. It wasn’t really that hard, I guess.”
     Larry gave my arm a friendly punch, the way he often did. “When are you going to start calling your dad “dad”? Huh? You’re in The United States of America now, Tot, not the “Hinterland”.”
     “I dunno,” I replied, feeling a familiar ache rising from my gut, almost overwhelming me. I hugged myself, listing forward, my sneakers caught under the lower bleacher. I could smell the wet fields of Worm, the dark, earthy flow of The Rhine, the stones about father’s old vegetable patch, Grandmother Hannah’s elderberry jam. “I feel kind of sick,” I said, dropping my head between my knees, a swirl of tiny stars filling the black screens of my closed eyelids.
     Larry just laughed. “Told you it was good stuff! Breathe – you’ll feel better in a second.”
     I vomited. I knew it was coming. Still, I covered my shoes and the bottoms of my jeans, decorating them with the greasy pizza we’d devoured just an hour before.
Jesus, Vogel! Look at all that good Canadian bacon! What’ve you got against Canadian imports – eh?”

F squeezed my hand in hers. I turned to her for the first time since we’d spotted the unusually-shaped cow standing in the field off Potter’s Road, having been making our way home from a disappointing little music festival near Botzum.
     “Wasn’t that about the most amazing, magical thing you’ve
ever seen?” she said, her dark eyes moist with the experience.
     I shrugged. “It was kind of gross – don’t you think?”
     She let go of my hand, her face stiffening.
     “How can you call the miracle of life “gross”? It was
beautiful! Did you see the mother’s eyes when she finally let go? My God, T, sometimes I wonder if you’ve even got a heart! You’re so – so, so damn European!”
     I just slowly shook my head, not knowing what else to say, watching the farmer and two young boys standing at the ready with a brush and a bucket, letting the mother have her time licking at the sticky newborn sprawled in the dewy grass.
     “How can you just ignore what you just witnessed?
Seriously, T – how?”
     I stiffened, keeping my eyes on the field, pushing my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans. I heard the dread-locked girl getting into her car and wondered where she was going, if she was sleeping alone that night, wondering what she had made of the “miracle” we’d just been witness to. I wasn’t being heartless, no matter what F said, I just couldn’t have imagined a cow birth being any less wondrous a thing to behold. It was quick and ugly and so automatic. I didn’t even get the feeling that the mother was particularly connected to it all, other than being relived that the sixty-pound goiter hanging from her groin was now lying in the grass. There wasn’t any violin music, no sunshine breaking through the trees, none of the trappings of a “glorious birth” we’re so accustomed to seeing on television and in the movies. This was the real thing and it was dirty, smelly and awkward. The bored look on the farmer’s face said it all. In fact, that’s what I wisely chose to say in my defense, those very words, words that earned me a punch in the chest and a lonely ride home, F demanding I keep my distance.
     It wasn’t until later that night that we spoke.
     I was sitting on the tiny front porch of the house we lived in, half stoned, half asleep, watching the twinkling canopy over the trees for the next shooting star, the clouds of the afternoon having all but disappeared.
     I heard the familiar groan of the screen door of the first floor apartment, my bloodshot eyes glued to the velvety expanse. F footsteps crossed the wooden porch, a series of muted creaks, followed by a soft cough. “Totty?” she said, her voice small and vulnerable, like a paper cup adrift on some dark sea. She only called me Totty when she was truly sad or hurt – or both. “I don’t want us to hate each other like this. It’s not good. We need to talk about it. Something’s wrong. Something’s gone wrong.” It was then I saw it, a bright waver, not far from the handle of the big dipper. It seemed to be tracing an invisible line, moving so slowly I swear it stopped and turned completely around before continuing. I blinked, trying to focus, determined to follow it, wherever it was going. “Totty?” F said again. She was so close now I could smell her, that sweet woodsy scent her body gave off, mixed with something from the kitchen – nutmeg, I think. She must have been baking. She often baked when she was upset. It was a trait she’d inherited from her mother. “Totty?” she continued, her voice still sounding wounded. “I want us to be happy or not at all. I don’t want to live with a man I need to fight to understand.” The shooting star was drifting now, in wider and wider right angles, like a bird with a broken wing. It didn’t seem to be able to help itself, it just kept moving in a south westerly direction, lower and lower, towards the rustling tops of the group of tall poplars behind the property. I was lost in my own thoughts, remembering something that Larry Winston had once told me, on a night very similar, when we were lying out under the stars, our bare backs on the smooth cool football turf. We were stoned, of course, stoned and young – anxious for our lives to really start.

“Dude! You didn’t know most of them were satellites?
     I’d just been informed that the shooting stars I’d wished upon as a little boy, clinging to father’s collar as he held me aloft in the field across from our house outside of Worms, were in fact the telecommunications hardware of a select group of nations. I didn’t believe him. No one had ever told me this before. I was angry. It was like calling a big part of my childhood a lie. Why hadn’t father told me this?
     “You’re full of
shit!” I replied, an edge to my voice. “Satellites? Shooting stars are Sputniks?”
     Larry snorted, amused. “Not even. Sputnik was at least exciting – a pioneer effort, you know? Those suckers moving about up there are just the multi-million dollar investments of a variety of communication companies and military institutions. NASA too. And weather satellites.” Larry regularly had information like this to impart, stuff that made me feel stupid, made me think he was trying to make a fool of me. It always made me defensive.
     “I can’t believe it. Not
all of them!” I insisted, desperate to cling to some of my childhood fancies.
     “Well, no, not
every single one – but most of them, the ones that move slowly, that seem to wiggle about? Those are satellites,” he explained, now sounding quite sincere.
     I kept my face to the heavens, squinting extra hard, determined to somehow prove him wrong. “Which ones are shooting stars then?” I asked, not really wanting to know, wishing he’d never opened his big mouth.
     “The ones you almost can’t see, the ones that disappear when you’re trying to keep with them,” he said, his voice slow and deliberate. He was good at explaining such things. He might have made a good teacher, if he hadn’t crashed his motorcycle two days before our Senior Prom. They found him, wrapped about his Honda 250 like a red ribbon around a Christmas present. “The ones that go so quickly,” he added. “The ones that are gone before you even realize you’ve seen them.”

damn it, T! Stop ignoring me!”
     F’s fist connected with my chest, making me cry out. I pulled my knees to my stomach, pushing deep into the musty old loveseat we’d inherited from the older couple who lived on the second floor of the house. My eyes now stinging, I turned, seeing F’s tear-streamed face, like some terrible moon, hanging before the field of lights, banishing my reverie to some soft corner of my pot-addled mind. She just stood there, looming over me, her lower lip quivering, putting a queer little dimple on her chin.
     She looked so much younger than her twenty-three years when she cried. My instinct was to take her in my arms and tell her everything was going to be all right, but this time I couldn’t make myself do it. Things weren’t going to be all right. I knew it and she knew it. The stars seemed to know it too. “We need to talk,” I said quietly, still wincing, holding my chest. “Let’s go inside, OK?”

“And that one there is the Dove.
See him? Just south of Lepus?”
     I peered into the inky expanse, feeling the cool night air on my neck, feeling it slip past the upturned collar of my coat, down into the thin cotton of my pajamas. Father had my bare ankles tight in his rough hands, squeezing me harder than he needed to. I clung to the top of his head, my fingers woven into his thick dark hair, which smelled of pomade and tobacco. All I could see where stars. The shapes of various animals and characters he was pointing me towards were beyond me, but I kept saying yes, yes I could see the rabbit and I could see the bear and I could see the fish – I could see them all, even the tiny little dove.
     “That’s the brave dove that flew from Noah’s Ark and found the sprig of olive,” he explained, adjusting his grip, my slippers dangling precariously from my feet. Mother had gone to special late service at church, something to do with a death in the parish, leaving “the men” to get dinner and put ourselves to bed.
     After we’d picked at the toast and sausages father had managed to burn, we’d gone out into the field to star gaze, a hobby father had acquired while sitting outside the local in the early hours of the morning with his cronies, trying to talk away the edge of his each drinking spell. Helmut was with us, but had gotten bored after a few minutes and had taken off to the stone well that sat beside a chestnut tree in which we’d nailed a wooden platform the summer before. He was lying on the makeshift ledge, tossing chestnuts into the well. We could hear them hitting the bucket that hung in the dark stone cavity.
     “Why is the brave dove in outer space?” I asked, a reasonable question for a boy barely four years into his life.
     “He’s there to catch the falling stars,” replied father, with a grin I couldn’t see.
     “Oh,” I said, seeing a quick streak of white race across the misty heavens. “Did he catch
that one, father? Did he?”
     “Of course he did – you don’t see it anymore, do you?”
     I looked and I looked but it was gone, just like father had said, stolen away in the beak of the dove. “I think his belly must be
full of stars,” I proclaimed, a sudden greasy belch breaking from my mouth.
     “Almost as full of sausage as yours!” laughed father, suddenly spinning about on his heel, twirling me so fast the stars looked like a swirl of cream in a cup of coffee.
     “Doves don’t eat
     “Oh, they do, Totty, they do – when they have no choice they do,” father replied, coming to a quick stop, my stomach lurching, the taste of burnt food rising in my throat.
     “When they’re starving?” I asked.
     “Yes, when they’re starving, when they have no other choice, when – when things tell them they
have to,” said father, his voice gone low and flat. “When they have to be the hawk, Totty – when they have to be the hawk.” I heard one of Helmut’s nuts hitting the bucket, a short, sharp clang that rang in my ears, like a warning. I tilted my head back up to the night sky and there seemed to be twice as many stars as before, a thousand doves in flight, hunting their prey.

I listened to F undress and then felt her crawl into bed beside me.
     I lay on my side, watching shadows flitter across the moonlight on the wall, waiting to see what she might do, if she’d speak or move towards me. She did neither. She just lay there, a silent, unseen presence, only inches from me – but a million miles away.
     In the morning we made love. It was automatic. We hardly exchanged a word, both of us playing our part, concentrating on some unseen prize, a last ditch effort to save what we had. It was the very last time.

“They should have buried Winston with his bike,” suggested Helmut, handing me the smoldering roach clip he’d deigned to share on account of the somber occasion, telling me I was dead if I dropped it between the bleachers.
     “His father brought it back from Vietnam,” I said, nervously putting the metal clip to my lips, sucking at the damp twist of rolling paper.
     “Figures,” laughed Helmut, taking the roach from me. “It survived the war, getting shipped half way around the world, and then genius goes and trashes it half a mile from his house.”
     I wanted to defend Larry, but I didn’t say anything, I just looked up to the graying sky, waiting to see the first star, hoping it was real.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dodo, Chapter Sixteen, Space is Very Cold

The glass didn’t shatter, not the way we’d imagined it would. Having expected a great big burst of shards, we crooked our forearms across our eyes, a makeshift shield, poised there at the edge of the uneven sidewalk, stressed by tree roots that had risen after heavy Spring rain.
Shit!” cried Helmut, in our native tongue, lowering his arm to open his eyes, seeing the red brick he’d thrown hit the window of the savings bank, creating a spiral of cloudy fissures as it fell to the ground. Though it hadn’t shattered the window, it had made a hole in it, about the size of a quarter, like the telltale kiss of a bullet, enough to set off a deafening alarm. “Move your butt, Dodo!” he screamed. “Move it!” The deafening electronic squeal reminded me of the time Grandfather Amwolf had taken us under a small bridge along The Rhine, the pontoon he was commanding suddenly assaulted by what seemed like a million pigeons, the fury of their screeching remaining in our ears as we sat in the sun some thirty minutes later, eating lunch, grandfather’s face growing rose pink behind a tankard of ale.
     There was only one response to such an unnerving alarm.
     We ran.
     Rather, Helmut ran. I stumbled after him, my knees not wanting to bend, my stomach heavy, my ears burning at the shrill clarion, terror wrapping its long arms about me, holding me back, causing me to trip on the opposite curb, even as Helmut disappeared down the wet alley beyond Mrs. Bone’s candy shop, the last building on the small street that pressed lazily to the north end of Worms.
     I shot forward, striking the wooden frame at the bottom of the dusty window of the candy shop. Dazed, on my knees, holding a hand to the cold and sticky numbness that spread beneath my lower lip, I looked up to see old Mrs. Bone standing in the open doorway, her apron decorated with red handprints. I knew she had been making the boiled sweets she sold in the big mason jars that lined the shelves of her arcane establishment, the unwrapped delicacies that mother warned us never to eat, it being “well known” that Mrs. Bones was a gypsy, something very next to a gargoyle in its unwelcome nature. Or so it was, back then in the early 1960s, in our neighborhood, the few blocks of patchwork streets that bled off into the countryside not far from where our modest house sat.
     “Boy?” Fraulein Bones asked, as if she wasn’t sure of what I was. I pressed my hands to the damp stone wall beneath the window, catching my reflection, seeing that my chin as red as her apron. My eyes were glassy, open wide, terror still holding me in its binding arms, the bank alarm crying away in the background. It was before six, a Sunday morning, the hour when all truly pious people were in church, or so mother had been informed by the chalk-faced magistrate when they booked my drunken father into prison just the Sunday before, a stay that would only last a week, one which I imagined was to be a lifetime.

Helmut’s brick toss was in retribution for this incarceration, for the tears it had put on mother’s face. We had all stood outside the big courthouse, watching father driven off in the constable’s black van, helpless to do a thing. That night, Helmut had pulled me into the hall closet, informing me I was to be his accomplice in the greatest robbery Worms has ever witnessed. “If you squeal to mother, I’ll tear your tongue out!
Got it?” I nodded through advancing tears, father’s old wool overcoat at my back, enveloping me like a shroud, smelling of sweat and tobacco.
     We’d quietly crept out through the back door, our pajamas bottoms tucked into our rubber wellingtons, our unbuttoned winter coats rising like capes in the early morning mist. Off we hurried, across the garden, around the stone wall and off into the steep brace of black oaks that separated our property from the road leading into the city. Mother was still asleep, wrapped in her bedcovers, her face moist from crying throughout the night. She would be looking for us half an hour later, calling from the garden, her voice pained and hoarse with anger and worry, telling us that we would suffer the devil’s fury if we didn’t show ourselves for Sunday Service.

“You’re hurt. Come inside. Let’s wash your face with some warm water.”
     I looked up, half expecting to see some stone-faced monster reaching for me.
     Mrs. Bones was the oldest woman I had ever seen. Her eyes were yellow, like the glucose drops father used to suck in the morning to clear his breath before he went to work. Her skin was putty-colored and looked as damp as the bricks that made the shop. Grabbing me firmly by the collar, she drew me into the rickety corridor that led to a dark door with a hand-written sign that read
Hannah Bone’s Fresh Sweets and Sundry. Closed Sunday. Please knock.
     “Sit yourself in that chair and don’t fidget,” she ordered.
     I didn’t dare say a word. I knew I was safer inside, even with a near-gargoyle. I was sure that an army of policemen had already descended on the bank. It was easy to imagine them, spreading across the slick, dark street, truncheons drawn, their eyes strained to the temple, hounds pulling on leashes, desperate to sink their great teeth into the bank-robbing criminal sons of the imprisoned and disgraced Georg Vogel.

Helmut was always high-strung, even as a boy. I can often remember him at the mercy of some nervous habit, like the incessant cursing under his breath that caused him to be sent home from school when he was about eleven, a paper cone pinned to his ears, the mark of the fool, a punishment prescribed by Mr. Dinter, our theatrical headmaster. I can see him that evening, slumped at the supper table, his ears red from the clothespins Mr. Dinter had attached to his delicate lobes, a purple welt showing on his neck, the shape of father’s hairbrush.
     The involuntary swearing wasn’t his only trick.
     He worked his way through a whole litany of them, on into his teenage years, when the war puberty was waging on his body seemed to momentarily preoccupy him.
     One summer, it was the hand licking that nearly drove us all crazy. He had to lick his hands every few minutes, touching them to his face, constantly complaining that his cheeks were burning. Another year he developed a desperate need to touch the ground with his right hand every dozen steps or so, even when he was running, which made him look like some sort of boy-sized baboon. Once, when we were fleeing from our neighbor, mouths crimson with stolen fruit, Helmut lowered himself to brush the grass and slipped, falling head over heel, right into a thicket of nettles. He came home an hour later, scratches and hives lining his bare arms and legs, having been caught and made to weed the strawberry patch we’d so handsomely raided.
     It was as if he’d been born with too much energy for one body.
     He’d fidget any time he was asked to remain still, which often resulted in a cup around the ears by father, sometimes grandfather, if he was present. Knowing Helmut couldn’t help it, I felt sorry for him, almost as much as I relished seeing him punished. Father would never acknowledge that Helmut wasn’t to blame. He told us he was simply acting up, testing everyone’s patience. Helmut would usually end the day locked in our little upstairs bedroom, pacing heavily across the wooden floor, until father rose from the flickering television, taking the stairs like a younger man, releasing his belt from about his trousers.
     Helmut also talked to himself, a habit that lasted almost a year, before being replaced by another. I can remember the two of us walking the rookery beyond the bogs that marked the old Jewish cemetery, looking for the bones of young ravens pushed from their nests. Helmut was carrying on a strange monologue, as if he were speaking in tongues.
     “What are you saying?” I asked, fearful of his unpredictable rage, but too curious to let it stop me. “I can hear you doing it.”
What?” he snapped, his hands tight fists. “None of your business – Dodo!” He lurched at me, making me stumble backwards, crunching a dry bone under my heel.
     We continued, silent but for his ceaseless muttering, the tall grass steaming about the trunks of the spindly poplars that housed the large nests, the distant cawing of some unseen raven making me think of dead things.
     “Space is very cold,” he suddenly declared, loud enough for me to hear. But he wasn’t really talking to me. It was as if he was speaking to the tiny bones caught in the thick grass. “It’s cold around Venus,” he continued, stopping beneath a small tree bent with age. “Really cold.” I hovered near by, listening intently, pretending that I wasn’t. “They carried canisters of fire on their backs,” Helmut explained, his voice flat and hollow, like a recording, reminding me of the hated tapes Grandfather forced us to make. “They used them to melt the ice on their beards,” he furthered, his boney legs splayed in the calf-high grass, his arms hanging at his sides as he stared at the ground, like he was reading the words in the soil between the grey-green blades.
     He’d never spoken this loud before, not during one of his “babbling exercises”, as mother had taken to calling them. “Listen who’s practicing for the Babble Olympics again,” she’d tease, never understanding how helpless he was.
     I was transfixed, and terrified. I stood where I was, hardly breathing, wondering
if my brother hadn’t somehow been taken over by aliens and was about to reveal some terrible plan to invade the planet and destroy all civilization.
     “Cheese made them fall apart, good old Stilton it was. Fancy that! We shook the old bottles until they were full of cheese – then we threw them straight at the horrible spiders and their legs came off – just like
that!” continued Helmet, now leaning his forehead against the scarred trunk of the crooked little tree. He stayed there for a long minute, not saying anything. Then, without warning, he screamed, a scream so loud and furious that half a dozen ravens shot up from the grass to my right, their ebony wings tearing at the wet air. My eyes followed them into the distance, where the dark trunks multiplied into what was known as the Black Forest, named after the much larger forest to the south. Helmut was now punching himself, butting his head at the tree. He fell to his knees, dropping to the dewy grass on all fours, howling like a dog.
     I ran to where the ravens had taken flight, wanting to get away, afraid of what Helmut might do next. There, spread upon the flattened grass was a young raven, its stomach torn open, fresh blood shining on its dark feathers. It was still moving, its head jerking about, blind, its eyes pecked from their sockets. I can remember crying, so loud it startled Helmut. I was five or six. I’d been taught that only a baby would cry out at such a thing.
     Helmut had now ended his tantrum. He was looking over at me, still holding himself to the grass, his haunches high. I just stood there, unable to move, the dying bird at my feet. Helmut didn’t say another word. He just got up and walked towards me. Upon seeing the half-eaten raven, he set his boot down upon it, twisting hard, his face glistening like a sugar bun. He then looked straight at me, a pitiful longing in his eyes, one I’d only really understand years later, when the same dark curtains fell upon my stage. “Space is very cold,” he repeated, his voice gone flat again, as if it were uninterested even with itself. “Really cold,” he said, sounding like father.

“Here, have one to take with you. You’ve been a brave boy.”
     Mrs. Bones had taken one of the big glass jars from the shelf behind the shop counter and was holding it towards me, working the lid free, her wrinkled face a twist of concentration. I hesitated, my fingers lingering over the pale green sweets clotted into a lump at the bottom.
     “Hurry up now – I haven’t got all day. Choose and be off with you!” instructed Mrs. Bones, her eyes going to the pot steaming on her little stove. I slipped my arm into the deep jar, almost to my elbow, and broke free one of the sticky marbles. My chin was now dressed with a wide plaster she’d applied, along with a smelly white cream. “You’ll be happy to know you’ll survive,” she continued, choosing her words carefully, a sly twinkle in her weathered eyes, which I failed to notice. “I can’t say the same for that brother of yours, not when they catch him,” she added, almost smiling. I gasped, my eyes wide with surprise. Quickly extracting my hand from the jar, I dashed out of the little shop, down the corridor and out through the brick doorway to the damp morning street. On and on I ran, never daring to look back. I didn’t stop until I was back home, panting for breath, tucked underneath my bed, my socked feet against the wall. Turning my hand over, opening my fingers, I saw it, clinging to my palm, like a new bud on the end of a branch – the sticky little green ball of candy. I knew I wasn’t supposed to eat it, but that no longer seemed so important, not when I was sure they’d soon be coming to lock me up. I put it to my lips, touching it with my tongue, my eyes still wet with tears. It was sour, sour and sweet. Taking it into my mouth, I imagined a great, wicked gargoyle, carrying Helmut over the old cemetery, off into the thick mist, never to return. It was then that I felt something crinkle under my hip. Reaching with my sticky hand I discovered a comic book, one of the English ones Uncle Alder had picked up while on business in London. It was called
Space Fun and featured “the thrilling adventures of Roddy and his Rocketship, about a boy who inherits a special spaceship, one handed down through the generations, first built by his great-great grandfather in his potting shed. “Cheese made them fall apart, good old Stilton it was. Fancy that!” I read, in a whisper, turning the pages of the comic slowly, knowing it was one of Helmut’s, fearing he’d arrive any moment to catch me reading it, even as I feared I’d never see him again. “We shook the old bottles until they were full of cheese – then we threw them straight at the horrible spiders and their legs came off – just like that!”
     I read on, the candy now mostly sour in my mouth, hearing mother in the back garden, calling out our names, her voice the ragged clarion of a woman slowly being pulled apart by her own family.

“It was given to me by my father,” declared Roddy, standing before a tall silver Venusian in flowing white robes. “His father gave it to him, and his father gave it to him, and his father gave…”
     “Stop!” commanded the towering man of silver. “I have heard enough of this thing called “handing down”, boy of earth – I tire of its binding ways. Cursed are they that suffer the fate of the generations. We on Venus know not the father or the mother, we make ourselves – from the very fabric of space!”

I stayed under the bed for what seemed hours, until I heard Helmut squealing, father dragging him across the lawn, mother crying at the back door.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Dodo, Chapter Fifteen, The Shit-Faced Family Blues

I made my way back through the lounge car, steadying myself against the seats, the way everybody did, even the seasoned employees who worked the busy Capitol Limited, on its daily progress between Pittsburgh and Chicago, a journey I was now making in reverse, having endured eight days along the brutal and lonely beaches of the gulf coast.
     I had met a girl named Meredith on the lazy train and was excitedly transporting a cardboard tray filled with two orders of fries and two sodas back to our seats. I waited for the doors between cars to open with their automatic clutter, the rush of air from the tiny space like the false roar of a seashell. Stepping over the slippery joint where the floors met, I looked through the next door to see Helmut, leaning into the seat where I’d left Meredith not some ten minutes before, having done my best to look gallant as I refused the crumpled bills she’d tried to force into my hand. “My treat,” I’d said, happy to explain it was my way of showing appreciation for her having helped me photograph a stretch of torn and shattered auto wreckage yards, the cars piled at least fifty high into the mint blue sky, creating a bizarre late-morning landscape of faded painted metal peaks, behind which an obstructed sun was still trying to greet the new day.
     Helmut was a bastard when it came to girls, especially those he knew I was toppling over the precipice for, something I was, of course, all too prone to do – all too quickly. The only girl I’d ever been surprised by was F. The night I first saw her, I was sure she was about the furthest thing I’d ever want to crawl into bed with, let alone fall in love with. Proving my intuition an immature thing, she soon transformed into a raven-haired promise of sexual adventure, a girl whose funny back teeth, flanged like the tips of a hawk’s wing, became a source of thrilling sensation, the times she’d take me past the archway of her mouth and move her jaws side to side, in a circular motion, setting me as rigid as stone as I penetrated the warm well of her throat.
     Meredith was a sandy blonde with a face that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the center of a cartoon drawing of a sunflower. Her pink cheeks were accented by impressive dimples that appeared when she smiled, offering a greeting so reassuring it all but dislocated my natural predisposition to shyness, something so many people took as a classic case of Teutonic aloofness.
     I was, in truth, anything but aloof. But still, I had to overcome the stereotype, even years after my Southern German accent had all but faded into the recesses of my adopted rush of American phrasing and intonation.
     “Hey! Look who’s finally made it! The concessions kid!
Ice cold soder – git yer ice cold soder!” Helmut called out, laughing the big way he always did, all teeth and tongue, not caring how loud he was in the crowded car. He made no show of moving as I approached. I was keeping my eye on the tilt of the tray, afraid of tipping Meredith’s orange soda into her fries. “Mere’s been telling me all about her dad’s cow machines!” boasted Helmut, grabbing the flimsy tray, passing it over to the grinning Meredith, who he had all-too-conveniently trapped in her seat against the window, where, only moments earlier, I had been sitting, trying to set the lens of my Leica flush with the dusty window in order to capture the jagged peaks of rusting wrecks. His use of the instantly-familiar “Mere” didn’t slip by me. It was an extra little slap in my face, of the sort he’d used before. That was about the only weakness in his armory – he was reliably repetitious. Every victory bought imitation, which forged a circular evolution, something I have to thank God for. If he had been learning along the way, I would have been dead long ago – from trying to kill him, if not from an irreversibly-broken heart. “Fifty gallons a minute he can collect from just two head of Jerseys! That’s almost enough to keep Bunter Beams quiet!” roared Helmut, his eyes half-closed, chewing at the inside of his mouth, his idea of a good James Dean impersonation.
     Bunter Beams was the fattest child in our primary school back in Worms, a boy as big and round as a buoy, a situation only made worse by the red and white stripes of our compulsory school cap. He wasn’t actually named Bunter, we just called him that, in reference to the popular British character, Billy Bunter, the roly poly, bespectacled schoolboy of supremely nerdish inclination.
     Bunter Beams loved his milk. This was the real kind, the sort we were served with our school lunch, with an inch of cream at the top of each bottle, a treasure we all relished in licking at with our tongues, after we’d peeled back the little foil caps. We had the same delivered at home. Mother would set a six-pint holder just outside the front door once a week. It had a plastic needle and a gauge showing the half moon measure of one bottle to the full compliment of six, to let the dairyman know just how much we needed. No matter how early she rose, the delivery had always been made, every silver foil cap already punctured by sparrows, who relished the cream almost as much as Bunter Beams. Some mornings, I can remember hearing father yelling at the happy little birds from the upstairs bathroom window, spitting toothpaste as he screamed that he was going to shoot them all and make a king’s pie. “That’s
blackbirds, Georg, not sparrows,” I could hear mother correcting, in her country lilt, almost effecting a cockney meter, banging their metal bedpan into the toilet, flushing what father had left in the night. Though they’d acquired indoor plumbing two years after Helmut was born, father still refused to completely give up his old manners, swearing off navigating the dark landing for late-night visits to the new bathroom. Being such a heavy sleeper, in those days before the bottle ruined his natural constitution, he was probably sparing us the likelihood of his tumbling down the stairs, cursing with each bump, like the tight bellows of a bagpipe.
     “Here, Dodo – this is
yours,” Helmut snickered, handing me my soda, ignoring the ice that was spilling onto the carpeted floor of the train. “Have some fries too, why don’t ya?” he said, dropping a greasy handful into my open palm.
     I just stood there, my feet wide apart, balanced like some Parisian archway, straddling the aisle. Helmut now had one knee set into the seat beside Meredith, its cushion still warm from my recent occupation. I watched her, her beautiful olive eyes flecked with seaweed, her bright teeth, her thin red lips, the lean grace of her pale, freckled neck, and my heart ached, for I knew I had already lost her.
     “Sit down, Dodo, you’re blocking the way!” barked Helmut, sitting down in what had been my assigned seat. I winced, taking my eyes from Meredith.
Dodo. It was the nickname that stayed strictly between us, part of our brotherly code, the secret language that had been so important when we first came to the new country. Now it was simply a term of ridicule, one he only used when he meant to emasculate me, such circumstances often involving a pretty girl who had dared speak to me first. In a club, at a party, on a bus, a train, a hovercraft – it didn’t matter – he didn’t discriminate.
     Defeated, I sat down across the aisle, next to the grey-haired lady who had fallen asleep on Helmut’s shoulder half an hour earlier, causing him to make faces at her as we rattled through the broken backyards of eastern Michigan. I knew even then that he was only trying to get the attention of the mesmerizing blonde sitting next to me, the girl who was quietly looking out the window, pointedly not saying a word. I’d tried numerous times to work up the courage, to locate the right thing to say to her, to find an easy opening, but I’d failed, and now there she was, edging into the sleazy embrace of Don Juan Vogel. She might as well have been on a train heading in the other direction.
     “Thank you again so much, Tot!” she called out, in a brittle, but warm voice, across the way, her fingers doing a dance as she waved around Helmut’s grinning profile, a fry dangling from his chiseled lips. “You’re so sweet to have done this! Really. I need to pay you before we reach Pittsburgh – I
really do.”
     I smiled back weakly, hating myself, hating the train, hating the plan to meet Helmut in Chicago and ride home with him, a thorn at my side, one I’d end up pressing to my own flesh, the way I always did. My trip north, on the City of New Orleans, had been bad enough as it was.

I’d been half asleep, reading a dry old crime paperback I’d picked up in an antique store in the French Quarter.
The Case of the Wheelchair Corpse.
     It had a bright cover, picturing an elderly lady clutching an afghan, tumbling from the chair in which she’s just plunged over the edge of a rooftop. I’d bought it, half-intending to send it anonymously to F, sort of a final word in the long and miserable argument that had colored the last few weeks of our two-year relationship. “It’s like you’ve got me in a
wheelchair!” I’d declared, in one of our more-heated final sessions. “You’d be happier if I couldn’t do half the things I could – wouldn’t you? You’d like me like some – some invalid – just so you could be in charge. I thought this was supposed to be a team effort? I mean – wasn’t it?” She’d hurled a biscuit tin at me, necessitating six stitches in the musty-smelling room of the Pakistani doctor at the clinic across the street from Tarmonti’s.
     The book was amazingly boring. It made an episode of
Murder She Wrote seem nearly as exciting as peeling Fay Wray out of her underwear (an image that had accompanied my earliest nights of self-pleasure, one acquired after seeing the original 1933 King Kong at a year-end school assembly). I’d drifted to sleep, hunched in my seat, my nose poking between the open pages, trapping the book against the back of the seat in front of me, my arms slung lifelessly across my lap. I was startled awake by a fierce burst of coughing, coming from across the aisle. I’d only recalled seeing a younger man sitting there, but it was now occupied a large woman wearing a bright red kerchief about her head. She leaned at the window, her cheek flat to the glass, fanning her face with a travel brochure. She coughed more, sounding like a stream of tiny firecrackers going off inside a wooden trunk. I tried to look away but she caught my eye and grinned, the silver in her teeth reflecting the dim reading light above her head. “Tarzan’s gonna teach those savages a lesson!” she said, as if I knew what she was talking about. “It’s not up to the white man to lord the castle. Worse is if the dark man gets to aidin’ an’ abettin’ the white lord, then you’ve got a sin – a big one!” I smiled quickly, pressing my book to the seat, bringing my nose to meet its splayed aged pages once again, pretending I had dropped right back to dozing, but the big lady just rattled on. “See yourself, son? You’re as white as me, I can see that, but you’re not of me, not at all. Where you from anyway?”
     “I’m German,” I replied.
     I don’t know why I told her, why I just didn’t keep my nose to that old book.
     Actually, that’s a lie – I
do know why.
     I told her because it was the first time anyone had spoken to me, all the way from New Orleans – other than the red-faced man who had peered from the mouse-sized toilet between cars when I’d opened the door. The fact that he’d left it unlocked, the green bar showing, did little to quell his fury. He’d actually called me “gimcrack”, a word I’d never even heard before. I later learned it meant something useless. It’s a wonder Helmut never got a hold of that one.
     “I’m German.” That was all I’d intended to say. I thought it would suffice. I thought I could drift back to my semi-sleep, feeling better at actually having heard my own voice, but she wouldn’t let it go at that, she had issues to filter the air with.
     “You ain’t blonde. How come you ain’t
blonde? What color are your eyes? Can’t see in this light. You know who your father was? Hmm? Maybe you’re one of those gypsies. Your people would frown on you, son, riding in an electric train.” I almost laughed. I think she actually thought train tracks were electric, like toy trains. “I’m Dutch myself, at least there’s some on my mother’s side,” she went on. “My mother, bless her, was shot in the buttocks by her father. Bullet went right through her thigh and into the shoulder of her suitor – my father – as he was scramblin’ buck naked up the plum tree.” She said it all in the same matter-of-fact tone, as if she were reading me the bylaws of train commuting. I started to make a snoring sound.
     It was a pathetic ruse. I was asking for it.
     She raved on, her voice rising as she did, the beads of perspiration lining the pink flank of her brow growing in size, glowing in soft accompaniment to the sharp sparkles of her fierce dental work. “Harry Truman was a curser – blue as a gas flame in the company of ladies and gentlemen alike,” she said. “He was an American, son, and what I mean by that is he was a man who could talk down a tornado – standin’ in his underpants. Don’t suppose you German’s understand that, now do you?”
     I actually nodded. Some sleeper. I couldn’t have fooled an infant at a card game.
     “Dresden. What’s that mean to a boy like you, huh? If you was of the yellow persuasion I might say Nag-saki or Hiro-sheema to lift the skin from the skillet. We should have put your people back to the stone age. The Asians didn’t deserve any better. Nor did the Italians – but at least they knew when to turn tail and run.” It was like listening to an old man, like some of father’s old work friends in Binghamton. There was nothing about her that seemed remotely like a woman. No mercy. No room for empathy. She was a real bulldog. “But your people cooked the Jews in those ovens, didn’t they? What does that make a boy like you? Huh? I gotta think you outta be bent like a nail – so crooked with shame you can kiss your ass while givin’ yourself a suck-off!”
     I should have hurled my book at her, but I didn’t. I should have told her to mind her own fucking business, but I didn’t. I should have moved, but I didn’t. I was about the most civil twenty-two year-old alive.
     “God only knows what they’re doing letting you in this country. If I wasn’t medicated, I’d turn you in to the train engineer, I would!”
     I opened my eyes, seeing her sitting there, talking more to the hummingbird of paper fluttering before her big face than to me. “Did you say
medicated?” I asked, all but ignoring the offense of her barrage. She suddenly stopped her incessant fanning (the car was actually quite cool) and slowly turned her thick head my way. Her tiny eyes settled on me and stayed there for a long, excruciating moment, before she began to recite anew the mad transcription of her mind.
     “New drugs, son, designed to balance an imbalanced brain. They’re made to treat my depression. I got the blues – the shit-faced family blues.”
     I didn’t speak another word. I just sat there, my face stuck to the book, trapped in my failed pantomime of sleep, listening to her detail a life, offering moments that sounded so familiar they practically made me nauseous.
The shit-faced family blues, I thought, my ears filling with the rickety-rack-rack of the train running the tracks, each division of lumber like a measure in a song sung in the voice of my grandfather Amwolf, his temples jagged with veins, his throat a lusty bugle, one red fist bunched at the sleeve of his Sunday suit, advancing on Helmut, holding in the other the wooden end of his hunting rifle, intent on breaking it over his grandson’s skull.
     The shit-faced family blues.
     I carried the phrase with me, all the way to Chicago.

The Capitol Limited was scheduled to arrive in the Pittsburgh station at approximately 11:15 PM, but it was almost midnight and we were still in Ohio. We’d just crawled by the dark outskirts of Cleveland, the dead-looking warehouses and brick buildings as silent as a waiting room in hell. I was humming the song about being a passenger, the one by Iggy Pop, recorded in Berlin with David Bowie. I remember the first time I heard it. I was at a birthday party on the North Side, the affair of some friend of Laser’s, who worked at a popular comic book store just over the 6th Street bridge from downtown. The shop was equally revered for its eclectic record selection, certainly to young men like me who had yet to uncover the riches of obscure music, the psychedelic treasures and rock explosions being hatched in countless drab studios across the world. Pop’s masterpiece on rail travel had crept into my mind as a peach-haired girl who answered to “Penelope P.” danced topless for all assembled, writhing like some drugged snake on the glass coffee table still cloudy with the powder that was fuelling the night. She’d been prepared for her impromptu performance, not wearing a bra under her poodle-emblazoned yellow cardigan.
     It was one of the first things I noticed about her, the moment I stepped into the kitchen of the house and saw the extraordinarily dark face commanding so much attention, the big eyes, like beacons, taking in all with an acute sensitivity I later knew to ascribe to the speed pills Laser was dispensing up in the birthday boy’s bedroom. Like some spiky, red-haired, pierced chemist, he was squatting in his combat boots before the little desk beside the bed, groups of the pale pills assembled on tiny sections of torn composition paper. Dazzled into my stupor by Penelope’s electric presence – the rich color of her ebony skin, the elastic grace of her smile, her perfect teeth, the way her top lids hugged her eyes like half-open garages – I knew it was hopeless unless I joined her in Heaven. Bumping into Meat on the stairs, I was carried through the bedroom doorway, cursing him with all my might, kicking at his shins with the heels of my sneakers. He tossed me onto the bed, right on top of two girls, both dressed like new wave gravediggers. They pounded at my back, clawing me, calling me out for what Meat’s stupidity. Escaping with a healthy scratch across my cheek, I tumbled to the far side of the bed, just in time for Laser to slap a little pouch of paper in my hand.
     Ten minutes later, I was wading through the soup of light that had suddenly filled the kitchen, a fluorescent fog growing from the floor, my eyes sliding like a robot’s, searching for Penelope. I found her in the backyard, which was nothing more than a tiny, walled-in patch of brown grass and dried dog shit. There was a keg sitting on a small picnic table, pushed against the far wall. Penelope was sitting on the table, watching her feet slap together, one high-heeled clog meeting the other. She was moving constantly, like a fly trapped inside two windows. I walked right up to her and placed my hands on the wooden table, on either side of her, bringing my grinning hot face to within an inch of hers. It was thoroughly unlike me. I was more alarmed than she was. She just grinned and reached out and grabbed the collar of my paisley shirt, pushing her big pink tongue through her Olympian teeth, using it to lick the bridge of my nose as her free hand cupped my crotch and squeezed. At first, she did it with some restraint, but that quickly went, her heavy grip soon making me gasp, dancing on my toes in a bizarre fit of agony that I kept confusing with pleasure. As I dropped to the dry grass, howling blue murder at the night sky, she walked right over me, giving me a clear view of the space between her legs, revealing the surprising fact that she wasn’t a girl at all, at least not wholly. I never learned just what direction she was headed in, which train it was she’d boarded.
     It was my first experience with such a thing. I was terrified, ashamed of having been so attracted to her, to him. My amphetamine-powered brain made all sorts of wild rationalizations and assumptions for the interest, leaving me a quaking puddle of neurotic impulses, just perfect for Helmut, when he showed up half an hour later, whistling like the Dusseldorf Express as he stumbled into the dimly-lit living room, catching Mr. Penelope doing her thing atop the coffee table. Seeing him so thoroughly taken with the ambiguous sexuality on display made me begin to laugh, so much that I vomited right onto Penelope’s stage, making her slip and fall into Helmut’s arms, my cocksure brother collapsing under her, as ineffective as the Scarecrow of Oz.
     These memories raced along the back of my mind, as I watched my brother paint Meredith’s mouth with his own, their faces two wrestling shapes in the dark of the night train, the haunted lights of Cleveland industry spread behind them in the misty window. It was easy to imagine that it was Penelope he was kissing, still ignorant of her little secret, as he had been at the party, giving her his classic slow-eyed once over, as he squeezed at her upper arms, pushing himself against her backside, his wasted brain cells whispering inside his skull, like a wind spiraling about an empty bullfighting ring, ancient cheers and cries ringing in his ears, envisioning a mad tableaux of debauchery between he and the incredibly-composed black girl. Penelope’s shove had been completely unexpected. Helmut went backwards, right into the wall, knocking a framed sketch of Frank Zappa from a nail. He cursed, rising, rubbing his shoulder where it had contacted the plaster. He was moving towards the defiant dancer when Iceman appeared, grabbing his arm and whispering to his ear. The look on Helmut’s face when he realized what he was being told was the greatest gift I’d ever received, an image I was conjuring that midnight on the tracks, my body sore from its cramped position on the merciless coach seats, my heart silent, no breath in me, seeing perhaps the most naturally beautiful girl I’ll ever meet, pressing herself into the cavity of my brother’s body, slipping her hands under his shirt, her head buried below his chin, tiny moans breaking from her throat, the dull rumble of the tracks reverberated about the torn stretch of a dying city’s extremities, the sunflower melting into the black cloud, oblivious to the secrets he was hiding under his bravado, the anguish of the first heir to the final playing of yet another recording of the shit-faced family blues.
Rickety-rack-rack went the train, moving through one graveyard, on the way to the next. Just two weeks later, they’d fine Helmut dead, sprawled across a pool table in the basement of a Carnegie Mellon fraternity, a victim of his own emotional fury.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dodo, Chapter Fourteen, The Flowered Stage

Day-Glo’s was a little more upscale than most of the clubs we were used to, but it was otherwise no less parochial in its taste for performers. It was the typical mid-80s rust belt review of parking garage rock, new wave, and college radio favorites. They often seemed to book bands from novel-sounding places like Wales and Australia, prompting the tactless owner on one occasion to decorate the front of the stage with stuffed kangaroos and koala bears, a decision that led to a storm of loose stuffing filling the dance floor, moments after the confused band had begun its kinetic barrage.
     Glo’s, as we eventually came to know it, was thoroughly Pittsburgh, in spite of its awkward attempt at being cosmopolitan. We were drawn there, the Manchester Pals – Iceman, me, Meat, Bettina, Carl, even Willy Blanefield III, before he was ejected and tried unsuccessfully to return in various ridiculous disguises. Their liberally-run open stage night was the main attraction, a mad free-for-all of totally uncensored comedy, theater, and music, held every Tuesday, nine to midnight. It was the golden moment of the week, back there in those shabby, hair-brained days in the only American city I’ve ever grown to think of as home, despite my many more years stuck in Cuyahoga.
     The association began one typical, restless summer evening.
     I was living in a house in the Shadyside district, another of my countless temporary residences, existing day to day on the grace of the household, knowing my presence was tolerated by only half the tenants. This was before I’d met F. I was still working at ridding myself of my Bettina crush, something that had been made all but intolerable upon discovering she and Helmut were sleeping together. I’d followed a tiny blonde girl named Dot, who was hardly more than that. If not for her prominent cheekbones, dark-lined eyes, and spiky bottle-blonde hair, she might as well have been a child, at least fully clothed. Her narrow hips and flat chest enabled her to comfortably dress like everyone else, especially the boys, all of us in our finest rags, the accruements of our certified punk bohemia.
     I remember Dot’s favorite top, a black AC/DC T-shirt that she’d raggedly cut the sleeves from with a pair of paper scissors. She wear it without need for a bra, proud of her androgynous aura, as ready as anyone to smash a vacant window or tip over a USA Today box, those strange street totems that had shown up earlier that year, designed to look like futuristic televisions.
     Dot was from Australia. She was the first to grab one of the kangaroos at Glo’s that night and tear off its head with a gleeful relish, sending a burst of sneeze-inducing stuffing my way.
     She told me how she and her father had sailed to the U.S. in a small wooden boat he’d made himself, the night we’d first kissed, soon after we’d made our way into her bedroom, shedding our clothes and squirming about her bed like two gerbils in a cup, each unsure how to take it any further.
     Not much more than four foot ten, with her compact, tanned body, artificially white hair and big eyes, she was more like a kewpie doll than a human being. She’d quit college in Ohio, having come to Pittsburgh to start her own band. Two months into it, she’d found only a keyboard player to accompany her awkward, tribal drumming. They called themselves Botched Abortion and practiced in the one-car garage behind the split-level house she shared with the keyboardist, Tyla, Robin (Tyla’s younger sister), and Bettina. Dating Bettina’s housemate was all part of my approach to getting over her, what I saw as her betrayal of my feelings, the hurt I was attempting to toss right back in her face by spending so much time with little Dot.
     I was sitting out on the tarpaper roof of the house’s big front porch, my arms folded behind my head, resting against Dot’s open window. She hadn’t returned home from her job at a fast food joint on Liberty Avenue, over in Oakland, not far from the Kings Court theater, where I’d see
Pink Floyd’s The Wall just a few weeks later, already deep in crush with F.
     It was one of those summer evenings when the whole world feels warm – the air, the ground, the entire city – it was all one big, inviting lap. We usually prowled aimlessly on such nights, those of us without jobs that required an early start. We’d race down the streets lined with affluent older homes, their spire-shaped attics and black iron fences, the gothic mini castles inhabited by professors and faculty of the near-by Carnegie Mellon University.
     I was listening to the reliable static throbbing of crickets, the low murmur of traffic along Walnut street, when I heard the sudden voice.
     “Hey! T-Tone! Rise and shine, motherfucker!”
     Startled, I opened my eyes, leaning forward, remembering I was some fifteen feet above the street, my bare feet only inches from the edge of the roof.
     “Come on down, man! We’re gonna
     It was Iceman, all six foot three of him. He was the only person who called me T-Tone, a nickname he coined the day I first showed up wearing the checkerboard sneakers that Bettina had found tied to a fence along a playground on the South Side. It was Two-Tone for a day, until the T fell into place.
     Iceman was as tall as Meat, but seemed much smaller, carrying himself like some heartbroken teddy bear, all slouched over, with a cumbersome gait, always in danger of tripping over his own large feet when he had to do anything other than walk casually. He had a voice as sharp as gunfire. Of Russian descent, his real name was Mikel. His father was a big noise in one of the city’s breweries. His sisters were best friends with Tyla and Robin. They were the ones who had talked Dot and the others into taking me on as a fifth boarder, just for the summer, to help them all balance the rent after a prior housemate had run out on them without paying her final share of the bills.
     “Jam?” I replied, slouched against the window, my arms hanging inside, feeling where the dark wall beneath the sill was still almost cool to the touch. “
new club - over near Reds!”
     Reds was a favorite haunt. An old man’s bar run by an ex-fireman, it was almost entirely red inside, from the ceiling, to the padded booths, to the shattered eyes of its patrons.
     “That place?” I questioned, sounding doubtful. “Isn’t it really fancy?”
     Iceman shook his head, chewing at a piece of gum, a fixture he was rarely without.
“Nah, they’ve got a cool open stage. Lisa and Flakes checked it out last week. It’s punk as shit!”
     “Punk as shit” was something we all strove to be in those halcyon days between childhood and adult resignation. Provincial Pittsburgh was the perfect platform to display our adopted angst, not too high, not too low. We spent many a night roaming en masse, beating on garbage can lids, gas cans, anything we could find. We’d roam the streets, from the cozy grid of Shadyside, to the grassy sprawl of Squirrel Hill, all the way to Oakland, banging out our signature cacophony, one of the few times Willy’s atonal bleating was tolerated. Some nights would end in a fight, some irate driver discharging his drunken passenger to pummel us senseless. Meat would usually cut the campaign short, sticking his chest into the face of the belligerent frat boy.
     “We gotta sign up early – they fill up really quick. C’mon, dickhead –
hurry! See if Tyla wants to come!”
     I pulled myself backwards into Dot’s room, landing with a thump on her small bed. I could smell her on the pillow. I lingered there for a moment, my mind drifting to Bettina, the way it always did. “Damn it!” I cursed, punching the pillow, leaping up, feeling about in the semi-dark for my sneakers. Too impatient to tie them, I wrapped the laces about my ankles and made a quick knot at the front. This was something Helmut and I had learned back in Worms, an old playground trick we’d teach the younger kids, telling them it was the proper way to tie one’s shoes, getting them in trouble when the physical education teacher noticed.
     Rushing down the hallway, grabbing a soda from the kitchen, I pounded on Tyla’s door, seeing the band of light at my feet. “Hey! Tyla! We’re going to hit that new place by Red’s! They’ve got an open stage! Ice says it’s
cool!” I put my ear to the magazine clipping of Henry Rollins she’d taped to the center of the door, flipping his fans the bird. There was a moan and the sound of bedsprings and a thumping across the wooden floor. The door opened slightly.
     “What?” drawled Tyla, her head cocooned in a pair of large silver headphones, the cord dangling at her waist. Her modest afro was crumpled by the audio gear, making it stick out, like a fortune cookie over her forehead. I could just see her pale brown legs, smooth and alluring beneath her long T-shirt.
     “Iceman and me are going to jam at the open stage at Day Glo’s – that new place on Craig – by Red’s. Interested? We could use drums.”
     She rolled her sleepy-looking eyes, pushing the door to within an inch of closing. “I ain’t making a jackass of myself in that place,” she said. “Break a leg!” The door shut with a click. I shrugged, turning on my heel, heading out the apartment, bounding down the stairs to the building lobby, opening my can of grape soda.
     “Where’s Tyla?” asked Iceman, seeing me alone.
     “She’s not into it.”
     “That’s fucked up! She’s
always into jamming!”
     I shrugged, taking a swig of my drink. “Yeah, well, she’s not so into me. You should have asked her yourself. Who else is coming with us?”
     Iceman grimaced, tilting his round head to the moonlit sky. His thick glasses were offset by a dirty smear of a moustache, which only looked silly on his boyish face. “I tried to get Lisa to come, but she’s dancing tonight. Meat’s got work too, so does Carl. You know if Laser’s around”
     “Nope. How about Bettina?” I ventured, knowing all to well she was more than likely with Helmut, at his place on the North Side.
     Iceman shook his head, cracking a quick bubble. “Willy’s meeting us there.”
     “If we don’t make an ass of ourselves –
he will,” I sighed, hustling down the porch steps, feeling the warm night air at my ankles.
     “Yeah, well, at least he’s got some real instruments.”
     “If you consider a one-string guitar and a tiny keyboard instruments.”
     “He said he found us some cool old wigs to wear.”
     I followed him along the sidewalk, sneaking sips of my soda.
Wigs? What for?”
     Iceman laughed, sharp and loud, making a dog bark behind a closed door. “We’re signing up as The Grandmas. Old-school punk – like your Brit buddies!” He always said that. I never knew if it was a digging reference to old history or just his sense of everything outside America being one place. He wasn’t the only American I’d encountered who thought that way.
Grandmas? That’s kind of a stupid name.”
Iceman laughed again, spitting his gum onto a neatly-trimmed lawn. “Punk as shit, T-Tone, punk as

Willy Blanefield III was already there, involved in a heated discussion with a cute girl at the registration desk. They were at the top of a wide carpeted stairway that took us to the club bar and the small stage used for open mike night. Willy was wearing his customary outfit of charity bin lootings; a pair of huge army issue parachute pants, turned inside-out to reveal the white pocket linings, a stained red satin dress shirt with tuxedo ruffles, over which he’d somehow pulled on a dark blue sweater that had been divorced of its sleeves. On his bare feet were dirty white deck shoes, a good two sizes too large. Atop of his oily black mop top sat a bus driver’s cap, one of two he alternated almost every other day, like clockwork.
what? That place sucked anyway! College is for losers,” he was explaining, his wiry frame bent over the little desk. I could see the frustrated look on the girl’s face as I made my way up the stairs, Iceman breathing heavily behind me.
     “You’re making it hard for new students to get their own loans, you know,” the girl replied curtly, a crease across her brow, the only mark on a face as clear as a model’s in some skin cream commercial. Her eyes were silvery blue. I had an immediate crush.
     Willy slapped his hand on the stack of entry forms, almost upsetting the girl’s glass of water. “Tough! It’ll save them from getting suckered like I did. I’m helping them. I’m a deferment hero, you know. Can you guess where my accent’s from? I’m not from Pittsburgh originally, you know.”
     The girl now scowled. “I don’t care.”
     “C’mon! Just try to guess! You’ll
never get it!”
     Willy was born in Toledo. He was the son of a small-time radio disc jockey who went by the name of “The Foghorn”. We all referred to him as Leghorn, in reference to the big rooster in the old Merry Melody cartoons.
     “Are these your friends?” the girl asked, craning her neck to catch my eye as I approached. I immediately wished I didn’t know Willy.
     “Hey! Ice! T!” Willy exclaimed, turning to give the girl a cocky smile. “Get that one? Ice
Tea” he laughed, loud and tuneless.
     “You guys are
The Grandma’s – right?” the girl inquired, ignoring Willy, pushing an entry form my way, as Iceman forced Willy to one side, pulling his cap down about his prominent ears. I blushed slightly, shrugging. “You both need to sign in here and I need to see your IDs.” Everyone between eighteen and twenty-one had a fake one. It was an old tradition in the steel city, almost expected. Iceman and I quickly showed ours and scrawled our unintelligible signatures. “You guys are punk rock?”
     “Punk as
shit!” declared Iceman, giving her a scary wink that looked more like he was having a stroke. I held my breath as he pressed against me, hogging the desk. The two mile trek had given rise to his notorious funk, a body odor unlike any other.
     The girl frowned, looking serious. “Ron doesn’t like punk very much. Better not be too loud. We don’t want anyone getting scared away from the bar.”
them!” hooted Willy, pulling out the old keyboard case he’d hidden underneath the closest table, slamming it down. The girl destroyed him with a look.
     “Sorry,” I managed. “He was born a jerk like that. He can’t help it. Just be glad he hasn’t tried to play you any of his recordings.”
     She rolled her eyes, offering a slight smile. “He
has,” she moaned, nodding towards the grey boom box Willy was stacking atop the keyboard case.
     I winced. “Sorry.”
     “Is he
retarded?” she asked, with a sincerity that almost fooled me.
     I laughed. “Nah, he’s just from Toledo!”
     Iceman snorted.
     “We only hang out with him ‘cause he’s got instruments,” he offered, brushing by me, his perfume trailing him, like the papier-mache tail of some preschool dragon. The girl wrinkled her little nose and made a face. I hung there for a moment longer than necessary, hoping she’d realize the smell was dissipating, that it wasn’t me.
     “You look a bit like this guy a friend of mine used to go out with. Vogel? I think his name was Vogel too,” she remarked, handing me my ID card, which she’d been holding onto as we talked.
     “Lots of Vogels, I guess,” I lied, not wanting to know any more. The long list of girls that Helmut had hooked up with since moving to Pittsburgh was embarrassing. I certainly didn’t want to be known as the brother of such a lothario. The girls I liked were usually smarter than that.
     “You totally look like him. Wish I could remember his name,” she grinned, putting the eraser end of a pencil to her dark lips. “You guys are on third.”
     “Thanks,” I said, making my way to the table that Willy had claimed as The Grandma’s staging area. He and Iceman were already sipping on drinks, Iceman’s hand covering the play switch of the boom box. Willy was bobbing back and forth in his chair. If not retarded, he was certainly borderline hyperactive. I saw his beat-up acoustic guitar sitting under his feet, the worthless antique he called One-String Newman.
     “I’ve got the keyboard,” announced Iceman, belching gin. “You get drums, T-Tone.”
     I squinted, seeing a small, plastic garbage can poised at the edge of the stage.
     “Stole it from work!” Willy declared, sounding very proud of the fact.
     “The ass says he dumped it right outside,” sighed Iceman, yanking the boom box away from Willy’s reaching hand.
     “All that carbon paper and
cigarette ash in the street?” I exclaimed, giving Willy an evil eye. He cackled, like a witch. Iceman rolled his eyes, sucking at his drink through the tiny mixing straw, his red eyes settling on the can. “Nice going, jackass! You’ll get us kicked out of here before we even get to perform.”
     “Take a pill, German!” laughed Willy dismissively. “No one’s going to know.”
     Iceman swatted the cap from his head, making him squeal.
     “We’re on third,” I informed them, grabbing a chair and sitting down.
     “No “Kaiser’s Finest” tonight, Mr. Vogel?” grinned Iceman. He was referring to easily the cheapest beer in town, named Old German, much to my chagrin.
     “I promised Dot I’d stop drinking on weekdays.”
     Iceman narrowed his eyes. “You really
like her?”
     I shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s OK, I guess.”
     “Good in the sacker?” he grinned, working on what was left at the bottom of the ice in his glass. Two people had just entered the bar. We were early.
     “OK, I guess,” I replied, trying to keep the conversation low, not easy to do with the present company.
     “She swallow?” Willy asked, almost yelling, making me flinch, fearful to glance back over at the registration desk, sure the cute girl had heard.
     “Shut up,
dickhead!” I hissed. We were all free to call Willy anything we pleased. He hardly seemed to notice. The only thing he ever really heeded were Meat’s physical threats. Anyone with any intelligence did the same. Not that Willy had much in that department.
     “She swallows yer dickhead?” cackled Willy, pleased with his own joke, reaching again for the dreaded cassette player, causing Iceman to pull it from the table. Following Meat‘s usual protocol, he yanked the tape from inside and hid it in his back pocket, making Willy steam.
Virgin!” Iceman sneered, before giving me one of his disquieting winks.
     “Am not!” barked Willy.
     “Yeah? What’s a pudenda then, Mr. Hefner?”
pussy! Duh!”
     “Yeah, what
part of the pussy, fuckface?”
     Willy looked stumped. “What do you mean – what
part? It’s just a pussy!”
     Iceman laughed happily, kicking me under the table. “Only a wanker would say it’s just a pussy! Right, T-Tone, my lad?” I grinned, avoiding his eyes. I’d only ever once seen him with a girl who looked anywhere near being interested in him. His bravado was brave, but showing. I got up, deciding to get a soda. I hated catching that vulnerable look in his eye. It made me feel sorry for him.

I was staring into space. The faces at the bar were just a blur, like streetlights in a fog, impossible to distinguish from one another. I knew I was on the stage. I could feel the edge of the garbage can against my thighs. It was turned upside down. I had been banging at it with the heel of my palm, which was bright red.
     “You OK?”
     I suddenly noticed that Grandfather Amwolf was standing before the stage, in a flowerbed that appeared to be growing from the carpet. His suspenders hung about his trousers. A red bowtie pressed at his wrinkled neck. Gold cufflinks shone from his sleeves. He was in his Sunday best, drunk as a crow in a field of overripe grapes.
     “Father? Come on now, time to come home. We’re playing cards by the fire.”
     “Who’s that with you? Who’s the tiny man?”
     “That’s just Totty, father.”
     “A gremlin? You bring a
gremlin to grin at an old man in his cups, do you?”
     “No, father, it’s your grandson. Mother sent us to find you. You wandered from the house while you were outside smoking. Remember?”
     I pressed my fist to my forehead. It felt as if it was sinking right through my skull.
     “Hey! Jag-off! You OK?”
     Iceman had me under my arms, holding me like a ragdoll. The front of my shirt was spattered red. I moved my mouth, feeling the pull of the blood that had dried across my lips. A man with a thatch of curly blonde hair behind each ear was leaning at the side of the stage, a towel on his arm, looking concerned.
     “Is he alright? We’ll call an ambulance, no problem.”
     I shifted my eyes. It hurt. The lights at the tables burned. I saw the pretty girl from the registration desk, lingering just behind the man with the towel.
     Grandfather Amwolf laughed, kicking at the begonias, spitting into the dirt.
     “Where’s the television woman then, eh?” he coughed, his voice broken, like a faucet full of trapped air. “
Sing with me! The gremlin too! MAR – LARE – IN – O! MAR – LARE – IN – O!”
     “She’s not home, father, I promise you, she’s not. Come with us. Mother is making a toddy. We’ll play rummy with Alder and Helmut.”
     I clutched at my father’s trousers, grasping them behind his knees, terrified, yet mesmerized at the sight of grandfather, listing in the front flowerbed of our semi-famous neighbor, Eva Dinter, a middle-aged actress who had once appeared in a dingy afternoon soap opera, some years before.
     “Tell her to show herself at the window!
Tell her! Peter Amwolf Vogel serenades a woman, he expects company! Come to us in your nightgown, Lady Dinter! You want that I piss in your garden? You want that I take myself a shit?”
     “Here’s some water.”
     The pretty girl helped Iceman sit me down in a chair. They’d dimmed the lamp. My head was cradled in my hands, which were still shaking. I tried to remember what had happened. I couldn’t.
     “Here, take this thing off him,” said the man with the towel, pulling at the grey lump of acrylic that Willy had pinned to my hair. It was one of the “Grandma” wigs he’d picked up for fifty cents at a thrift store in Wilkinsburg and had stupidly tossed into a dryer after washing them. They’d melted into fez-shaped clumps.
     “How are you feeling now?” asked the girl, giving me a smile from across the table. I could sense others standing near, watching. There was a murmur in the air, like I often heard at night when I tried to sleep, the voices F would later refer to as “T’s little radio show”.
     “Where’s Willy?” I asked. It was the first thing I’d said since everything had gone funny in my head.
him,” replied Iceman. “He got kicked out after the first song.”
     “That kid’s eighty-sixed from here, you know,” explained the man, putting the towel to my face, telling me to tip my head back. The towel was warm and damp. “I think you’re bleeding again. There. Hold that right there.”
     Father struggled with grandfather, trampling flowers, filling the night air with a fragrance that reminded me of the little bottles on mother’s bedroom dresser, the ones with the rubber pumps attached, each full of a pungent perfume, the smells she doused herself with on church days, me sitting at her feet, watching a tiny run in her stockings racing up her calf, as she leaned towards the dresser mirror.
     “Go and get your brother, Totty –
now!” ordered father, caught under grandfather, as if he was trying to hoist him from the ground. “Tell him to fetch a pair of trousers from my room. Hurry, boy – hurry!”
     I hesitated, standing there at the footpath that led from our house on down the short lane that crossed the black river where Helmut and I caught tadpoles and beat them to greasy pancakes on the street.
Go! I’ll thrash you, Totty Vogel! Go now, Goddamn it – now!”
     “What did grandfather do?”
     Grandfather seemed lifeless. He hung over father like he was just clothes, not a man. I smelt a new scent amongst all the night blooms, one I recognized all too well from the box toilet in the yard at home. Father sighed deeply, giving me a funny look, almost as if he were grinning. Perhaps he was.
     “Your grandfather’s a very bad boy, Totty. Go and tell Helmut to come – and bring fresh trousers. Go on.”
     “What’d he
do?” I asked, Iceman leading me to the doors at the bottom of the carpeted stairs, carrying the plastic bucket and the keyboard case.
     “The fucker
pissed himself.”
     “Up on
stage?” I asked, feeling the tepid night air hitting my face, a napkin of dried blood at my nose.
     Iceman hurled the makeshift drum into the street. It bounced over the remains of the ashes and carbon slips that Willy had left there some two hours earlier. “That’s the last time I chug grain with that stupid motherfucker! He pissed on the
carpet! I’m fucking embarrassed! I’m never ever going in that place again! Fuck you, jag-off!” He then lifted the old leather keyboard case over his head and pitched it after the can. It came crashing down upon the yellow line in the road, the rusty latch bursting open, the derelict instrument shooting out, sliding under a parked car, bits of plastic keys scattering in the glow of the streetlights. I felt my head spinning again and fell backwards against the side of the building.
     “We were drinking grain in Day-Glo’s?” I asked, confused, closing my eyes, shutting out the lights.
     Iceman was walking back from the middle of the street. He had a handful of black and white plastic shards. He looked at me, like he didn’t even know me. “No, dumbass – in the alley – behind the dumpster, before we went on. How much did
you drink anyway? You little alcoholic.”
     I began to heave, lurching forward, making my nose burst again, warm blood running into my mouth. Iceman just stood there, watching me. I was now on my hands and knees, my whole body shaking, my legs as cold as ice.
     “They think you had some kind of a seizure or some shit, you know,” he said, shaking his head. “Good job too. Or we’d both be six’d from there too. Not that it matters now.”
     “Seizure?” I replied, my left hand in my pocket, feeling something I didn’t recall putting there, a fold of paper. “I did? When? Just now?”
     Iceman grunted, dropping the broken keys onto the pavement about me. “You’re drunk, totally fucking
drunk. Come on, shithead, let’s head for home – the fun’s over.”
     I stumbled to my feet, pressing the napkin hard at my nose, taking a deep breath through my mouth. One of my laces had come undone from my ankle. Iceman wasn’t waiting for me. “My grandfather once shit himself in the neighbor’s flowerbed!” I called out, starting to laugh.
     “Who? You mean the
Munchhausen guy?” he called back, kicking at a fire hydrant, almost falling over himself.
     “Yeah – that’s him,” I said, unfolding the paper, reading what was written across it, wondering who Isabelle was, and why on earth she’d wanted to give someone like me her number.