Monday, December 29, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Thirteen, The Gulf Between

The photograph was of a tiny girl, looking no more than two, standing beside what appeared to be a birdbath shaped like an eggcup. The top of her head, covered with a spirited mass of raven locks, hardly reached the lip of the stone drinking pool. She was wearing a white dress, beneath which were two grey socks pulled up to her chubby knees. She didn’t have on any shoes. It appeared to be summer, the short grass of the yard upon which she was standing was blanched with a bright light that placed dark shadows upon her legs and created a black doppelganger that stretched out far behind her. She was in mid-laugh, her well-fed cheeks stretching to reveal a missing tooth and playful tongue. Her eyes, half-squinting to meet the sun, were set wide about her button nose, giving her a faintly piggish, but nevertheless charming appearance. Behind her, to the right, was the side of a wooden house, a non-descript early twentieth century structure, if I’m any judge of architectural design. It appeared neither lived-in nor abandoned. Apart from the birdbath, the only other sign of inhabitance was the edge of a section of striped fabric, blowing in the wind, appearing at the upper left of the picture. The more I looked at it the less certain I was of its origin. It may well have been an American flag, or it might have simply been a bed sheet hanging on a line, there was no good way to tell, and the over-exposed photograph did little to help. Turning over the small, weathered slip of paper, I saw a single name, hand-written in pencil.
Imogene,” I whispered to myself, repeating it, trying to decide just who it might have been. My best guess was F’s grandmother, on her father’s side, though I realized I didn’t know her name. She’d died during the great depression, not long after giving birth to F’s father, Jack. “They had to burn her all her clothes,” I remember F telling me one sleepless night. I never knew just why, even though I’m sure she explained. It was my fault, I was becoming increasingly more inattentive, to her, and everything around me.
     I was perched on a roadside picnic table, my ten-speed bicycle placed upside down before me, balanced on its saddle and handlebars, its detached front wheel resting beside it, the tire flat against the rim. Being bored, with no sense of urgency about fixing the flat, the brilliant sun having made the wooden table as warm as toast, I’d been embracing my idle nature, flipping through the little red book I’d stuffed in the side pocket of my pannier almost a week before. The photo had suddenly appeared, falling from the back pages.
     Not ten feet in front of me stood a palm tree, its drooping fronds an unhealthy brown. Behind it lay a field, an acre of tough-looking bramble, growing up through twisted knobs of golden grass, like barbed wire. I’d learned just the day before that the bundles were not natural, as I’d first assumed, rather they were created by local hunters, as a way of making the small deer that grazed the grassy flat fields easier to spot, a measure taken prior to the annual setting of fires to herd them out. Beyond this patch of uninviting bumps was another field of gold, glistening in the rich afternoon sun, the face of the frying pan that had given me a handsome, if spotty, tan, one acquired during the week I’d spent cycling from the city of New Orleans, to Houma, then along a thin peninsula that had eventually brought me to Grand Isle, the southern most tip of the state of Louisiana, a sleepy assemblage of small houses, all built on stilts, in order to meet the regular flood waters, many so high from the ground there was a basketball net just beneath the front door. There was little more situated about the tarnished landscape. I’d encountered one or two small grocers and a couple of bait shops, plus a peeling plaster statue of Jean Lafitte, the infamous bayou pirate of yesteryear, sitting at the foot of a driveway leading to a shrimp shed, a hangar-sized building of corrugated metal that rested on wooden legs, out over the swampy waters of one of the many tributaries that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, the body of water I had pedaled some sixty miles to see, my tiny blue tent right that moment staked to a beach situated less than a mile away, a lonely stretch of gray sand operated by the state parks department.
     I had come south, all by myself, taking a train named The Empire Builder from Cleveland to Chicago, from there riding the famous City of New Orleans to its namesake, my Peugeot PX-10, my tent, a few tools, and a change of clothes all inside a box lying under the baggage car. It was a trip meant to assuage me of the guilt I had been experiencing, ever since the day, just some two weeks earlier, when I’d decided to break up with F, the girl whose book I now held in my hands, the only girl who ever really understood me.

“It’s not that, T, I
love your stories – I do – it’s just – I want to know what you’re thinking – what you’re feeling.”
     We were both half-dressed, lying on the bed we shared in our small apartment in Cuyahoga Falls. What had been a night of drinking with friends had become a delirious stumble home in the dark, upsetting the neighbor’s garbage can, bringing old Mr. Drummond outside in his smiley face pajamas, making us both laugh until we had tears in our eyes. Literally falling through the side door that led to our ground-floor of a house owned by a taxidermist and his infirm sister, we’d collapsed in each other’s arms, tugging at each other’s pants, intending to make the most of our soaring spirits, but we were soon snoring away, oblivious to the fact that we’d left the door open. F had woken about four, wondering why she was so cold. My hand settled on her thigh, feeling the goose pimples on what was otherwise a reliably warm place. Making my way through a swirling head rush, I’d shut the door and returned to the bed, setting myself upon her, pushing my face between her legs, rubbing my chin against her underwear, murmuring my desire, but she wriggled, shaking me off, finding the edge of the downturned cover, drawing it up over us, shutting out the bright moon that eavesdropped through the bedroom window. Now awake, too wired to sleep further, she began to talk, peppering me with the regular litany of questions she seemed to reserve for such unguarded occasions.
     “You never tell me things.”
     “Like what?” I mumbled, the cover a shroud across my face.
     “I don’t know – like when you were a kid. What did you want to be when you were little?”
     I laughed, reaching for the promise between her legs. She slapped my hand into retreat.
     “See what I mean? You won’t tell me
     “I have,” I protested. “I told you about the accident on the road, about Alder’s hands, about father –”
     “Yes! Exactly! But not about
you, you idiot!”
     I wore a hidden frown.
     “You tell me all these interesting stories, but you leave yourself out. I don’t hear what
you felt. It’s like I hardly know you, T. Nobody does.”
     “That’s not true,” I groaned, shifting to my edge of the bed, offering her the silence of my back. She didn’t say anything for a long time. I was beginning to drift off into a troubled sleep, when she spoke again.
     “Did you want to be, I don’t know, maybe an astronaut? A fireman? A doctor?”
     I rolled my eyes. If her voice hadn’t sounded so dry and cracked, so child-like and earnest, I don’t think I’d have given her answer.
     “Grandfather Amwolf gave Helmut and me this old race car set for Christmas. It was metal, just a little circle, painted green. The pieces didn’t go together very well, the wind-up sedans were always getting caught on the separations. There were two of them, one for the gangsters, the other for the police. It had a blue police badge painted on one door. They were wind-up. You know? With a big key at the back? Helmut always picked the police at first, leaving me to be the bad guys. Which made me desperately want to be the policemen. Father had a friend who worked in security at the big paper mill in Mainz. I remember seeing his holster once, knowing that inside the black leather was a gun, a
real gun.”
     “So you wanted to be a
     “Only because Helmut did. When he switched to the gangster car I wanted to be a gangster.”
     F groaned, rolling onto her side. “Is this a Vogel condition?” she sighed. “Or is this just a German thing?”
Fuck, T! You really don’t see it, do you? You’re a sponge your brother and your dad use as a punching bag! Everything you think and do is because of something they’ve said or done to you. Your grandfather did too, from what you tell me.” I began to mumble my objection to her theory. “No, listen, really, it is! I pay attention to this stuff, you know – I’m a girl.” In my stupor I took this as some sort of subtle clue, and again reached for her, making her punch me hard in the ribs. “You’re fucked up and you won’t get any better if you can’t talk about yourself!” she whined.
     “I guess I wanted to be an soldier when I was really little,” I offered up, my side smarting.
     “Why?” she asked, her designs on one day becoming a therapist coming to the fore. “Did you feel powerless?”
     I laughed. “C’mon, F! I was a
boy! I wanted to fight in a war, shoot bullets into the air, hold a grenade in my teeth – it was the cool thing to imagine being – we were all the same. I’ve told you about the comics we read, especially the British ones Uncle Alder brought back from his business trips, how they were all about the war. We read and read those things, until we could practically recite the cheesy dialog. It didn’t matter to us that the “Jerrys” were the bad guys, we just wanted to imagine ourselves part of that kind of action.”
     “But you stopped feeling that way?”
     “Yeah, I guess.”
     “It’s late – we need to get some sleep. I’m not going to waste the first Saturday I’ve had off in over three months.”
     “But why did you stop wanting to be a soldier?
Tell me – please?”
     I was never able to resist that hurt tone she employed. It made me want to cradle her like she was a child who’d woken from a bad dream. It was only years later, when I had my own daughter, that I realized how strangely paternal my attraction for her was. I took a deep breath, hugging my pillow, my eyes closed tightly, seeing the trail of my lived life. “One day – it must have been during the last year before we moved to America – father came home from one of his social nights. He was drunker than usual, barging about the little front room, knocking one of mother’s porcelain figures from the mantle trying to hang his hat on it. He picked me up by my suspenders, dropping me on the sofa, hurting my nose. Then, after a failed attempt at kissing mother in the kitchen he stumbled upstairs. He came down a moment later with a ledger in his hand. Helmut and I were huddled on the sofa, barricading ourselves between the cushions, the way we often did when he came home. We both just stared at the book, never having seen it before. Charging for the sofa, father partied us like the Red Sea, each of us clinging to a cushion. He dropped down hard, exhaling the vapors of his bitter drink, and opened the leather-bound ledger, setting it across his knees as he began to read, his voice automatic, wooden, as if he were auditioning for a job. It contained Grandfather Amwolf’s diary, what little existed of it, an abandoned attempt at chronicling his life – for who, I don’t know, because father only discovered it after grandfather had died, hidden away in the locked chest he kept under his bed.
     “What did it say?” F asked, her voice sounding nearer. I could smell her, making me want to take her to me, but I knew better.
     “It was all about the war and how grandfather’s four brothers all died within two months of each other.”
     “In World War II?”
     “No, silly, this was back in the teens. It was the
first world war.”
     “I don’t even know who was fighting in that one. It confuses me.”
     “Well, suffice to say, we were on different sides – our countries, I mean.”
     “Oh – right,” She sounded embarrassed. My arms ached to hold her.
     “That was the war where soldiers, on both sides, died like flies, thousands and thousands. Grandfather’s brothers, all older than him, were drafted the same day and were sent to the trenches. Amell, Peter, and Jon, they all were shot or blown up in the first month. Winfred took a bullet through the hand and was sent back home to convalesce. Things were so hard he was only allowed a couple of weeks in the infirmary, before they sent him to the steel works in Frankfurt, which had been turned into a munitions-making machine. His job was to scale the huge chimneys that belched out the black smoke from the kilns. He was a chimney sweep. He slipped and fell over fifty feet to his death.”
     “God, T, that’s
horrible. It’s amazing you’re even here, if you think about it. If your grandfather had been old enough to be drafted, I mean.”
     “Yeah, I guess. Still, I probably wouldn’t exist if grandfather hadn’t raped Peter’s girl and she’d been forced to marry him.”
     “What? Are you
     “Nope. That’s how father came into the world. It was all in grandfather’s ledger, written up like some cheap paperback. Father, having already known the truth without ever telling anyone, translated it for us that night, making it sound much more vulgar than grandfather’s German. Vogel family history – nice, huh?”
     She took me in her arms, pulling me into her warm body, her breath on my neck, saying my name. I reached around her, sliding my hand deep into the back of her underwear, searching for her moisture. “T! Cut it
out, for Christ’s sake! Can’t we just hold each other for once without that? God! You’re impossible!”

I slipped the old photo back into the book, closing it, running my fingers across its gilded surface, the faded gold lettering that read
Naked Photographs. I’d taken it from F’s side of the bed, the day I’d made my escape. I’m not sure why, other than that it held a strong attraction for me, its unorthodox conceit, photographs appearing only as text description, leaving me with such clear images, almost as if they were my own memories.
     I’ve always found a sad kind of comfort in my memory, letting an old moment intercede when the present seems an unbearable proposition. It’s a condition I’ve learned only increases with age.
     I know it’s unhealthy to dwell in the past, at least I’ve always been told it is, but it’s inevitable, isn’t it? What do we have as we get older if not more and more memories? How do we avoid lingering on them? What would an old man do without memory, if he is alone, left to see the end of his days in the wounded house his family has left him?
     I suppose Grandfather was right when he told us “regret is the life sentence of those who haven’t lived.” Helmut and I were hardly teenagers when he handed us this cryptic epitaph, having caught us sharing a cigarette behind the garage, back in Binghamton, an act he dismissed with a wink, leaving us to finish our poison. He enjoyed giving us such perplexing lectures, knowing we knew little of what he spoke. But now, after all the time that has gone by, it makes sense. His rare gesture of leniency seems to reach right out through the intervening years, making me almost smile at the vision of his hard and bitter face, the torn eyes that were the font from which we all tumbled, hopelessly, into our own inevitable fate.
     It was with such an inkling of my own future derailment that I held that little book, that hot, breezy day, temporarily mired in the cradle of the Gulf, my thoughts settling wistfully on the bed I had shared with Effie Jones, its addictive warmth, the hiding place I’d found in her soft limbs, the sanctuary I’d created in the broken back corners of my psyche, the paradise I all-too-quickly met with a scowl when reality demanded I take it for what it was, the fragile steering of another’s heart, something I knew I had no good right doing, not a young man whose own had already been traced and cut like a butcher’s diagram. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her, that was the last thing I wanted to do, but how could I explain that staying with her was only going to hurt her so much more in the end? I had to bolt, I had to have her angry at me. I wanted her to learn to hate me, hate me so much her love would be transposed, forever and ever. It was a certainty that gave me some solace, alone there on that isolated finger of grassy brown terrain, thousands of miles from what I knew as home, the result of a flight on the rails I’d taken without even consulting “the very best damn rail rider in these Goddamn entire United States of America”. I know Helmut would have understood, even if he would have given me endless grief for it. He wouldn’t have let me go, he’d have bullied me into staying, regardless of the fact that he was then planning the first of his own great retreats, following father’s desperate tracks into personal oblivion.
     I shook the little red book, the edge of the photograph sliding back into view. I let it fall into my hand and, looking at it one last time, now seeing F’s dark, needing eyes in the face of the child, I crushed it, hurling it as far as I could, off into the burnished field, offering it an escape of its own. I then took a small pencil from my pannier and, in the blank back page of the book, I began to write.

There is a tiny girl, no more than two, standing beside what appears to be a birdbath shaped like an eggcup. The top of her head is covered with a spirited mass of raven locks…

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Twelve, The Twisting Road

“You’ve never really told me,” F whispered, shifting her weight in my lap, the warmth of her soft breasts against my chest. My hands had traveled under the silk of her skirt, my fingers finding themselves beneath the elastic of her garters.
     It was just after eleven. We were parked at a rest area on the Ohio Turnpike, not far from Cuyahoga Falls. It was a favorite spot for such a rendezvous. I’d treated her to a late dinner at Tarmonti’s, an Italian restaurant known for the dusty suit of armor that greeted customers in its lobby. It was our tenth anniversary. Ten months in each other’s company, a milestone that would have passed unrecognized if I had been at the wheel.
     It was almost four weeks since we’d moved back to Ohio, from Pittsburgh. We’d found our little second-floor apartment in Canton two days before, only a mile from the street where F had grown up. I’d been scrubbing cars at her father’s used car dealership and had just cashed my first paycheck. We’d spent the first part of the day searching for a much-needed couch and were feeling positive about things. We were two adults in love, a real couple. It was a new situation for both of us but F seemed to be absorbing it in stride. I felt as if I were walking on the moon.
     Coming out of the restaurant, she’d surprised me. She’d taken my hand and had run it against her thigh, letting me feel the ridge of what she had to explain was a garter. “Wow,” I’d whispered into her ear, my cheek lingering against hers in a sleepy, pleasant way. We made our way towards the pumpkin-colored ‘79 Pacer she’d secured from her father the week before. It was a hideous-looking car she’d nevertheless fallen in love with, naming it Cinderella, “Cindy” for short. “The panties and bra are leopard print,” she’d whispered in reply, her full lips almost touching mine. “Just like in the magazine, you bad German boy.” I blushed, recalling the old pin-up I’d gushed over a few days earlier, in an antique shop, how she’d teased me about my interest in bondage wear. We shared a wet kiss, before she made her way around to the driver’s side. “Let’s go and park somewhere,” she’d smiled, struggling with her keys at the finicky ignition. I’d suggested the tree-lined parking lot behind the city park. It was a dark and forlorn spot, about as private as one could want, but she had other plans. Pulling onto the turnpike entrance with a sly grin, one hand having settled on my thigh, she spoke in a firm, seductive voice, telling me things I’d never heard a girl say before. My ears went hot as she ferried us across the leaf-lined rest area blacktop. Before I knew it, the engine rattled to a stop and she was sliding herself upon me, crowding my face with her breasts. “You never really told me,” she repeated, my attention lost between the buttons of her blouse.
     “Never really told you what?” I replied, letting my fingers inch upwards along her thighs, my wrists now passing under the garter elastic. She shifted again, making me wince in the moonlight, the weight of her wide and firm bottom threatening to snap the erection that had sprung to life even before the engine was quiet. Our lips met for the umpteenth time, our tongues gliding.
     “Why you don’t have a license. It’s not because of epilepsy, is it? I mean, the test said you don’t have it.”
     I pulled away from her mouth, my throat going dry. I lowered my forehead to her chest, breathing softly into the opening of the cotton blouse, which I’d begun to ungracefully part, struggling with the buttons. My heart began to pound. All at once I was laboring for air.
     “T?” she whispered, taking my hair in her hand, stroking my forehead. “Are you OK?” I nodded weakly, not taking my face from her bosom. “No you’re not. I know you’re not. What’s wrong?”
     “Nothing. I promise.”
     “Uh-uh – something’s bothering you. Your heart is going like a jack hammer.”
     “That’s because your
butt’s in my lap!” I declared, laughing quickly, desperate to change the subject.
     She worked at the part in my bangs, arranging it like a child might a doll’s, tenderly and methodically. “Tell me what’s wrong, T –
     I sighed. My erection had already disappeared. “Can we talk later?” I asked, sounding hurt.
     “When?” she replied softly, putting her lips to my forehead, cooing.
     “When we’re not in the car.”

Helmut had broken up with Bettina and had moved back to Cuyahoga Falls to help mother, taking the tiny room we used to share. This was during father’s first extended absence.
     Cuyahoga Falls was a fairly non-descript place, not unlike so many small cities in Eastern Ohio. For every nail salon there was an auto body shop, and for every auto body shop there was a bar. It ambled along, neither noisy nor peaceful, a town with its fixtures, its regulars, a tight history of small to medium happenings. Its most appealing feature was the Cuyahoga River, which ran through the middle of town, along a series of descending twists and turns. This was the same river that famously caught fire in 1969, due to its intense pollution, but that was a good thirty miles north, near the Cleveland city limits.
     Seeking work, father had brought us to this sleepy burgh in the late 70s. He’d been told the river created a lot of industry and there was always an open spot at one of the factories, be it the rubber plant, the glass works, or any number of the varied industrial fabricators that had established the modest city during the first half of the century. Unfortunately, like much of the information father managed to attach to his addled mind, this piece was a good decade out of date. The community we arrived to was now mostly residential, just beginning to acquire its commercial identity. The factories left standing along the crooked brown river were mostly empty shells, rusted catacombs of cobwebs and broken windows. The only full-time job father could scrounge up was a custodial position at the Cathedral of Tomorrow, a strange, round building sitting on the outskirts of the business district, one that Helmut and I, upon first viewing, decided was actually a secret UFO. We imagined all sorts of outrageous things were secretly going on in the late 50s concrete structure, the least of which was the villainous gathering of fuel in order to leave the Earth, accomplished by sucking out the fluid of the congregation’s brains. The church’s figurehead, a popular television evangelist with hair like Elvis Presley, was clearly the leader of this evil alien space ministry. These stories were hardly tolerated by father, who’d toss his slipper at us whenever he caught wind of the regularly growing narrative, one in which his part as nighttime superintendent was soon a key chapter. “Polishing the UFO” is how we referred to his occupation, the task that kept him away from the house from just after suppertime to the early hours of the morning, when we were dragging cobwebs about the tiny kitchen, trying to delay the rapidly-advancing school day.
     “Your daddy cleans up brains?” queried Matthew, the precocious five year-old son of our immediate neighbor, on one of these slow, cold mornings, as Helmut and I occupied the front porch, me dreading the sound of the approaching school bus. Matthew asked this every time we began to spin our tales of alien subterfuge. His porch abutted ours, the walls of the two houses all but touching, leaving an alleyway no wider than a skateboard, a vertical gutter that had filled with stray bits of garbage over the years, leaving a knotted, fetid mass of paper and plastic that no one had ever ventured to clear out.
     “Our daddy is a special agent, Matty, he works for the aliens. He cleans up all the brain juice that gets splattered on the floor,” explained Helmut, rolling a cigarette on the curled tip of his leather shoe. Little Matthew’s eyes widened.
     “Why, Hel-mat?”
     “Why? It’s a trade off, dummy. He gets to go with them, of course, back to their planet – when they leave the Earth.”
     I snickered, one eye on the thin black road that followed the Cuyahoga down to the brickyard, watching for the pick-up truck that brought father home each morning, from another long night scrubbing the halls of the television ministry. It usually arrived a few minutes before the bus. The street was a pothole-filled stretch that passed before the row of nearly identical, depressing houses, in the middle of which sat ours, nestled like a sickly scavenger among a wire of crows. The homes had been built a good sixty years before, to serve the workers of the now-abandoned brick factory. They remained at the mercy of a hillside choked with overgrown bramble and ancient apple trees with branches bent like witch’s fingers, which often came crashing down upon us in violent fall and winter storms.
     “Do the aliens eat
kid’s brains too, Hel-mat?”
     “You bet they do. They like the brains of five year-old boys the best.”
     Matthew squealed, clamping his hands over the top of his head. He jumped up from where he was sitting and hurried off down the porch steps, sprinting up his own, like he always did. He burst through his front door, slamming the screen behind him, screaming to his mother that “Mister Vojel” was going to eat his brains.
     I gave Helmut a critical eye. “Maybe you shouldn’t have said that,” I offered, grinning. Helmut scowled, slipping his homemade cigarette between his lips.
     “I don’t give a shit if father finds out, if that’s what you mean,” he replied, taking a small lighter from his shirt pocket. I turned away from his hard stare. He was eighteen and almost six foot two. He no longer ran from father. Just the day before he’d brushed right by him, straight out the door, ignoring father’s demands that he get back inside. They’d been arguing about was he was going to do with himself now that he had graduated high school. Helmut had no good plans and less ambition. “Why should I care what the neighbors think anyway? They talk about
him all the time. They think he’s nuts,” he scoffed, wetting the end of his wobbly cigarette with his mouth.
     I wanted to say he was only make things worse, but I couldn’t do it. “Can I have a puff?” I asked.
     He snorted and laughed, getting up from the top of the steps, where he’d been sitting. “Piss
off, Dodo! Get your own!” he declared, bounding from the rickety steps, heading off up the road, in the opposite direction from the old brickyard. I could only imagine what he was doing with his mornings, now that he was no longer required to board the old bus. I’m sure he would have happily slept in, but that would mean being home when father arrived.
     A moment later, I heard the familiar knocking sound of father’s ride. I sat where I was and watched the rusty green truck weave towards me, like a fly with one wing, putting stitches along the faded yellow line in the middle of the road. It pulled up along the thin gravel strip between the road and the porch, groaning to a stop. I’d never seen it driven so poorly. Father slid from the passenger seat, holding his lunch box, his body as crooked as the apple trees behind the house. No words were exchanged between he and his workmate. The truck rolled off noisily, waking a dog three houses down. An angry voice hollered for it to shut up. The sun was just beginning to show itself behind the stand of maples beyond the stream across the way, appearing as a fluorescent white ball, cut by the spidery black veins of the leafless tree limbs in the steam rising from the damp morning ground. I instinctively sniffed at the air, catching the expected stale odor of whiskey, along with the remnants of Helmut’s lit cigarette.
     Father hobbled up to the porch, not raising his head. He staggered at the first step, almost dropping the metal lunch box. He seemingly hadn’t noticed me until then. He looked up, giving me a scowl, just like Helmut’s. “Is your mother still sleeping?” he asked. I nodded yes. He grinned sloppily and pitched the empty box up onto the wooden porch. “Get your coat,” he coughed, fumbling in his pockets, muttering something under his breath. I hesitated, not understanding why. “Hurry!” he barked, shaking a bent cigarette, attempting to straighten it against the palm of his hand. I made my way into the house, wondering what was going on, dreading that he might have spotted Helmut heading off and wanted me to go and fetch him back.

The dollar cinema was empty but for F and I. I slumped deep into my seat, smelling the musty carpet, a toxic perfume of mildew and old popcorn.
     “When we reached the turn after the tunnel by the old brickyard gate I could see the car sitting against the telephone pole. The front was peeled open like a banana. You could smell burnt rubber and gasoline from yards away. I then noticed the two shapes lying in the road, one set across the center line, the other stretched onto the shoulder.”
     F murmured thoughtfully. A story flickered on the screen, ignored by all.
     “What where they? Bits of the car?”
     I didn’t answer.
     I felt her warm hand taking mine, bringing it to her lap. She stroked the top, pressing softly at my knuckles.
     “They were people,” I replied, my voice a hoarse whisper.
     “Yeah. The driver and his passenger.”
     “From the smashed car?”
     I took a deep breath, feeling my arms and legs tingling, my heart ricocheting between its own beats. I knew my face was palsying, my mouth turned down at the sides, my eyes moistening. It was just like that morning, just the same. “I don’t – don’t want to do this anymore, F – sorry – I just can’t.” She took my hand in both of hers and squeezed it reassuringly.
     “I think you should. I think you need to. Have you told anyone this before?”
     I shook my head. Tears were now running down my cheeks. I began to sob. It was noisy, I couldn’t stop it. My eyes fluttered about the darkness surrounding us. I was relieved to see we were alone again. The only other person in the theater had left ten minutes ago.
     “It’s OK. I’m here, we’re both safe together here. Please tell me – I
want you to.”
     I was breathing through my nose, biting my lip, forcing myself to go on. “Father was waving his arms about, the whole way down the road, telling me how the bodies flew out of the car. Like dolls, he said, they looked like two giant dolls, followed by bits of broken glass and a seat belt that reached outwards and then pulled back, like a slingshot. He said it all happened so fast but seemed so slow. It was early morning still and no one hardly ever drove along that way. Most people were still asleep. They hadn’t seen what caused the car to leave the road. It just swerved as it came towards them, out of the tunnel. Father’s co-worker managed to hit the brakes and pull over, even though I know he was as drunk as father. He wanted to get out and help the men but father told him no, that they had to drive on to the house and get help because they’d be arrested for driving intoxicated. This scared his friend, who abandoned father at the house. He must have seen Helmut up the road because he dragged me back with him, never even asking for Helmut. I remember feeling really dizzy the closer we got to the first man, the one lying over the line. He was wearing a brown jacket, corduroy, I think. That’s all I can remember. Father suddenly stuck out his arm and stopped me. Stay here, Totty, he said, stay right here. His voice was half-gone, all shredded and dry. I just stood there looking but not seeing anything. I heard father cough. It sounded like he was going to be sick. Follow me, Totty, he then said, but don’t look. I stumbled after him and I looked. I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t – couldn’t…”
     F lowered her head to my hand, pressing her cheek against it. “Go on, T, go on – you can tell me.”
     “I know the man was dead, F, I
know he was, even though it never said so in the paper. At least I can’t seem to remember ever reading it. I know he was dead because a big bit of his head wasn’t there – it was a few feet away, with hair on it.” I was breathing fast, my eyes closing about tears. It was all coming to me, flooding my emotions, taking me there, back to that twisting stretch of road.

“What the fuck did you look for? I told you not to look! Not to look! Not to fucking
look!” screamed father. He was crying, his words coming out on great sobs. I moved towards him, away from the dead man. He was standing near the car, his red hands loose at his sides, as if he hadn’t any idea what to do. “I’m going to turn the motor off. Don’t move.”
     “We should call the police,” I muttered, my thoughts racing, my eyes glued to the broken car, imagining it blowing up any moment, like they always seemed to do on television. “We should have called from home first.”
     “You want your mother to wake up to this?” father yelled from the driver’s side. “We go down to the coffee shop and call – after I turn the motor off!”
     The passenger door hung limply open, the seatbelt dangling to the ground like the tongue of a dead serpent. The window was shattered. There was dark red clotted along the frame. I buried my cold hands deep into the pockets of my jacket. I felt a coin nestled among the lint. I began to press it between my thumb and forefinger, over and over and over. I couldn’t stop it, it was purely reflexive.
     “Stay right here!” father suddenly commanded, pointing to the ground at my feet, where I stood, just off the side of the road. “I’m going to call the police.”
     “But – but I want to go with you – I don’t want to stay here. Please!”
     “You stay here, damn it! You think I’m going to talk to the policemen like
this?” he cried, pointing weakly to his mouth, the cracked lips that had been nursing a bottle less than half an hour before. “I call from the coffee shop! You show the police what has happened.” I began to blubber out in protest, my eyes red and stinging. He suddenly rushed at me, forcing me back against the now idle car. I hit with a painful crunch, broken glass under my feet. He held me by the collar of my jacket, pulling it up about my neck, making it hard to breathe. “You do NOT tell them I was ever here, you understand me? Never here! I am drinking coffee this morning! You walked along and found them – not me!” I began to cry, everything in me was coming undone. I begged him to take me with him, clawed at his arms, pulling on his dirty coat sleeves. He shoved me backwards, his eyes splintered red and wild. “You are nearly sixteen years, Totty Vogel – not five! Act like a man and do what I tell you! Do what I fucking TELL you!” Hearing him swear in English always seemed so much harsher. I could do nothing but relent. Crouching down against the car I watched him stagger off down the road, steam billowing around him as the waking sun made the glass strewn about my feet glisten. I wiped my sleeve at my eyes, swallowing hard, tasting salt. I was beyond terrified. I could feel my toes and my fingers, but they no longer seemed connected to me, it was as if I’d been filled with Novocain from my palms to the tops of my feet. I blinked, noting the warmth of the growing sun on my face. Then the strange sound hit my ears. It was low and soft, almost like someone talking to a young child or baby, a sort of cooing sound. I opened my eyes and saw him, the man, the one who had been thrown to the berm on the other side of the road. He was trying to sit upright, his back to me, his hands slapping at the ground as if he were blind. The cooing sound was coming from him.
     I’m not sure how I managed to get to my own feet and cross over to where he was, but I did. I was compelled. I don’t think it was me, not my conscious self, that did it. Which is perhaps why I’ve never quite been able to recall everything. But I know I was there, putting my hands out to steady him as he toppled backwards. He couldn’t do any more than sit up. I can still see his thick, dark hair, an afro, huge about his shoulders. I just stared at it and watched as bright red bubbles began to appear amongst the tight curls. They poured out and soon were streaming from his hair, soaking the collar of his denim shirt, staining his back. I don’t know what I did next because I suddenly realized there was someone behind me, whispering gently into my ear, pulling me away from the injured man. I turned mutely, seeing the friendly face of my school bus driver. She said something, using my name, and smiled as she took my hand and offered it to a grinning older man. I remember seeing an empty school bus parked alongside the road and another car and then a man was hurrying across the road with a blanket, which was wrapped about the bleeding man. I looked to the middle of the road and saw someone else, kneeling, covering the other man with a plastic tarp.

“And that’s all I can remember – I promise.”
     F pulled me to her lap, across the seat divider. She held me there awkwardly, for what felt like forever, just talking to me, repeating herself, telling me it was going to be alright, telling me how brave I was and how much she loved me. In the background I could hear the voices on the screen, a woman shouting at a man, a car speeding off, sad music playing, violins braying like lost sheep.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Eleven, The Knife

I’ll never forget the look of terror in the man’s eyes. He reached for his companion, pulling her from my path, wrapping his arms about her neck and waist like a parent would a child.
     His frozen stare followed me as I passed.
     Confused, nervous, I didn’t dare look back.
     Feeling the night wind opening my jacket, I strode across the downtown street, trying to fathom the unusual attention I’d aroused stepping from the bus. It was only when the wind died and I felt the handle of the large kitchen knife against my ribs, that I realized what had happened.
Idiot!” I thought, instantly feeling like some wretched pariah.
     There was the long blade, sticking from the shallow inside pocket, reflecting the glow of the street lamp above me.
     To the frightened couple I might well have been a murderer, a rapist, or a serial killer. I scolded myself again, hurrying from the small crowd gathered about the transit station.
     Why had I ever let Helmut force the stupid knife on me in the first place?
     Pittsburgh wasn’t Mayberry, but it wasn’t some vicious den of villainy either. I had no right walking about armed like some third world bandit.
     Stopping over a drain, I decided I had to lose the knife, and the nausea that was suddenly swirling about me. All I had to do was drop it through the grate, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Fear was crouching in the cavern of my ear, whispering, warning me. It had Helmut’s voice.
     “It’s after ten, idiot – you know the kind of shit that goes down after ten on a Friday night? They’ll fuck with a skinny kid like you – rob you, beat the shit out of you and then fuck you in your ass, stupid – just like that.”
     I must have rolled my eyes, for he grabbed me by my collar and yanked me towards him, thrusting his imposing chin at my throat.
     “I ain’t
kidding, dick-face! You know what happened to Iceman and Lisa.”
     Bettina was standing in front of the refrigerator, holding a slice of pizza to a paper plate. She nodded her agreement. “You can’t be too careful, Tot,” she said, sounding unsettlingly like mother.
     Iceman and Lisa had been mugged just the week before, near Wilkinsburg. The mugger had a screwdriver, which he stuck into Iceman’s gut, holding him at bay against a window as he ordered Lisa to empty her purse onto the sidewalk. When Iceman had tried to grab the end of the screwdriver the mugger had raked it across his face, breaking his glasses and leaving a healthy gash above his left eye. He was then kicked repeatedly, until he collapsed to the ground, covering himself, terrified of what might happen to Lisa.
     Lisa was Iceman’s “platonic girlfriend”, as he liked to put it. Barely half his size, she had a button nose and perpetually pink cheeks. She reminded me of the silent film actress Mary Pickford. Like Bettina, I’d had a crush on her since the day I’d first set eyes on her, a horrible, relentless crush, the sort that made just seeing her almost unbearable. That she ended up married to an abusive jerk, dancing at a topless bar to pay their rent, simply made it worse. I think the only thing that saved me from doing something desperate and stupid was meeting F and falling in love.
     “Here, take this – and don’t come home without it,” Helmut ordered, taking the ten-inch blade from the kitchen drawer and dropping it into the inner pocket of my black sport coat, a well-worn thrift store treasure. I bit my lip, relenting to his bullying barrage, the way I always did.

It was mid-January.
     Pittsburgh was a mausoleum in the heart of winter, a jackstraw blueprint of colorless, bitterly cold, mostly empty streets, depressing stretches of old commerce and unforgiving industry, staid structures that seemed to press against the slate-colored sky, slipping into dusk’s lowering shroud.
     I made my way down Liberty Avenue, a tawdry procession of peep shows, florists, and watch repair shops that cut through the triangular thatch of downtown streets, a bleak arm reaching from the east, ending before it could disappear into the Monongahela River.
     I was on my way to a rendezvous with my father.
     It was a clandestine meeting, an act that defied reason, one which, only a week before, would have been all but unthinkable. That I was coming, unwittingly armed like an apprentice butcher, made it only more surreal.
     Father had left mother for the first time, some two weeks earlier. It was not a surprise. It had been in the making for a long while, ever since I’d graduated from high school. His moods had become increasingly more erratic, his temper more severe, his willingness to forgive forever diminishing. Mother could do little right in his eyes. Her every attempt to confront his drinking was met with outrage and indignation. “I do with my time what I
choose, Mrs. Vogel,” he’d sneer, his head in the ice box, looking for the beer Helmut and I had been told to throw into the river beyond the railroad tracks. It was a routine we performed every Saturday morning, while father slept off the previous night’s tavern occupancy. He’d return from these drunks, a brown bag of bottles under his arm, stumbling through the front room of the small house in Ohio he’d brought us to when his job at the snack food factory in Binghamton was suddenly terminated. I never told mother that Helmut kept the beer for himself, drinking two or three under the highway overpass as I stood watch, having been instructed to whistle twice if I saw a police car, once if I saw father. The rest was stashed behind the wooden hutch at the rear of the brickyard down the road, the same place I’d once tried to keep a baby raccoon I’d found orphaned beside the highway. Helmut brought girls there, forced them to drink, and felt inside their underwear. I knew because he told me.
     I recognized that agreeing to meet with father was a towering betrayal to mother, and to Helmut. I realized it was a mistake, but I couldn’t stand him up.
     I now know it was fear that ruled my mind. I made myself feel better by convincing myself it was a sacrifice I had to make, a grand, unselfish gesture, a way to reach out and help father, somehow, someway. That he had chosen to contact me gave me a false sense of belonging, a notion of purpose in the adult world. It fed my weaknesses and he knew this all too well. He was an intelligent man, a ruthlessly orthodox commander of the seemingly crazed forces that drove him onward. Even drunk and lost to his overwhelming moods, he was a man to reckon with, which is why this particular meeting was so memorable, so illuminating, so ultimately terrifying.
     Father always had strange friends. Almost exclusively male, it was a club groomed to appear like the heavies in old Hollywood movies, with deep-set eyes, collapsing brows, and chins poised like waiting fists. Many had nicknames, as colorful as their appearances, tags like Tiddly Winks, Ratchet, and, my favorite, Pokerface, who I had little trouble imagining was a long lost member of Dick Tracy’s rogue’s gallery. An emotionless slab of a man, he had unblinking dots for eyes, and a countenance that could scrape paint from metal.
     I’d encountered a slightly different variation of this motley passel of middle-aged toss-offs in each place we’d lived. From the old country, to Binghamton, to Ohio, it was the same cluster of grey, dour faces, their beers cradled to the bar, drawing on discount cigarettes, backs bent, resignation and regret painted on every last downward turn of mouth. I expected more of the same when I reached the oppressively shuttered, brown facade of The Shanty Inn, the designated location of our familial tryst.
     The Shanty Inn was a windowless fortress of plywood and false bricking, decorated with faded shamrocks, the wood beneath peppered with cuts and tears, exposing past frontage from bygone businesses, glimpses of old tinplate advertising.
Flavored with the Juice of the Pressed Mint Leaves”, I read to myself, attempting to decipher one of these, an old ad for Wrigley’s Spearmint gum that featured a character with a head like the moon sitting on a triangle.
     “Hey! Get
in here! What’re you doing – loitering out there?” a gruff and familiar voice suddenly called out. “Trying to make me look bad, are you?”
     Just like that.
     There was no hello, no greeting, nothing, just an order.
     It had been more than five months since we’d last seen each other.
     It was, in essence, an exchange that well described our entire relationship.
     Walking awkwardly to where he father peeking from behind a brown door that was decorated with one of those cardboard Christmas tree air fresheners, I offered him a shy grin, catching the dark, steely eyes that looked threateningly from the shade of his rumpled, plaid hunting cap.
     “Get your
keister inside! You know what kind hangs about streets like this?” he said, reaching up to swipe me across the back of the head as he closed the door behind us. “Lowlifes – and derelicts – and queers – that’s what!” The stink of stale wine and beer was all about him.

The Shanty Inn was as miserably drab inside as it was out.
     Squinting at the mist that clung to the exposed bulb hanging above the drafty doorway, searching the dim room beyond, I made out a narrow bar to the right, its half dozen stools occupied by a collection of heavy coats, all sprouting red hands that nursed glasses and bottles, dying cigarettes propped between their fleshy fingers, listing like markers on a country road. To the left the room stretched out to include three or four compact booths and a pool table, upon which sat a box of toilet paper and an unmarked glass jug of something bright blue. “Window cleaner,” I thought, noting the irony.
     “Second booth. Go sit down,” Father instructed, never once looking directly at me.
     I did as I was told, sliding into the tight arrangement, the red cushioned back of the high seat rising inches above my head. I fell into a slouch, preparing myself for the bitter pugilist, the man whose fury had ushered me into this world. How well I knew his unmade face, its bruised-looking eyes, its pink and paunchy flanks of unshaven skin, its weak, dimpled chin. My father was not a pretty picture, then or ever. What mother had ever found attractive in him was long gone before I arrived.
     “What are you – an
idiot? Take off that damned coat!” he declared, staggering my way, two bottles of Old German shaking in an unreliable grip. It was his regular drink, not so much for its name, more for the fact that it was the very cheapest beer in the Tri-State area, cheaper even than his first love, Budweiser. “You’re insulting your host! You think Henry don’t know who you are?” he barked, bumping into the table, making me flinch.
     I looked across the way, seeing an unnervingly thin man leaning behind the bar, looking in our direction with a benign alertness. His bald head, shining under the dim yellow light that dangled above a parade of evil-looking whiskey bottles, was surrounded by a crest of dirty grey hair that crawled down his temples in wiry clusters, meeting his cheeks, two paper moons that disappeared into the hollows of his skull.
     “Hurry up with it! I ain’t got all day!” father growled, falling with the beers onto the table, his breath assaulting me.
     I struggled to free myself from my jacket, feeling the knife pressing into my side. I’d completely forgotten it was still there. I was looking for a place to stash it when the old chewing gum ad had caught my attention.
     Father, seemingly not having noticed my concern, pushed a bottle my way, and, without a word, dropped heavily into the booth, coughing as he settled himself under the rickety table, like an impatient hermit crab pulling on its shell.
     I carefully removed myself from my jacket, keeping the blade hidden, all the while watching father. His shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows, his thick, hairy arms resting on the table, he was steadying his beer, his head tilting slightly, the bent peak of his cap covering all but his thin, cracked lips that formed an upside down horseshoe, an indicator of his mood. It meant I could expect just about anything.
     Why he’d come to Pittsburgh, why he wanted to see me, I just couldn’t figure out. That he’d called Helmut’s number and asked for me wasn’t like him. He normally would have simply tracked us down. He’d have confronted us, on the stoop outside Helmut’s building, berating Helmut, shaking his head my way in disgust, before forcing a dollar bill into Helmut’s pocket. He’d then have left, without a word. But this was totally unlike him.
     When I picked up the phone in Helmut and Bettina’s apartment, he seemed to be still making up his mind what he wanted. I think getting me alone was what put the idea of the clandestine rendezvous in his head. He made me swear, cross my heart and hope to die, that I wouldn’t let Helmut know a thing about it. I’d kept my word, telling Helmut I was going to a party with Willy Blanefield III, something I knew would keep him from investigating, his hating Willy with a passion.
     My jacket now hanging on the curled hook at the front of the sequestered booth, I wrapped my fingers about the cold bottle sitting before me and took a long, deep breath, expecting father’s eyes to shoot towards the jacket any second, the knife suddenly exposed, his mad fury unhinged.
     Though my throat was quickly going dry, I was afraid to lift the bottle to my lips, afraid he’d see the nervous way I was working my hands.
     “How’s your brother?”
     I blinked, finding my voice, my eyes on the label of the bottle. “He’s OK.”
     There was a snorting sound. Father lifted his bottle to his mouth. “Tell him his mother wants him to come home. She needs a driver to help with her shopping.” What was he talking about? She’d never ask Helmut to do that, not after she knew he’d found a steady job, and a girlfriend. “You doing good at your painting school?” he then asked, bringing down his bottle with a thud, almost toppling it. I blanched, scanning the table furtively, noticing the blackened burn hole in the middle, about which some creative customer had scrawled a thicket of pubic hair, along with a pair of skinny legs in high heels, spread wide in carnal invitation.
     Father was referring to the commercial art school I’d supposedly enlisted in a few weeks earlier. Mother had been excited to hear I was thinking of my “higher education” when I first told her. What I hadn’t mentioned was that I never even made it to the register’s office before bailing on the idea. I was a student of nothing but my own random attention to life, but I wouldn’t let mother know this. I’d kept up the art school ruse, which father had obviously heard about. It meant he was at least talking to mother. I didn’t know if I should feel good about that or not, his attentions so often leading to dangerous circumstances.
     “It’s going OK,” I lied, risking a sip of my beer, coughing hard.
     Father suddenly grinned, presenting his uneven teeth. “You get to paint those nudes with the big cans?” he asked, using one of the adopted phrases he thought made him sound American.
     “Um –
sometimes,” I breathed, glancing at the crude bit of table graffiti. “It depends on the class.”
     He laughed. It was a strangely light and womanly laugh. A sound I wasn’t used to. “The class of the dame! Ain’t that right, Totty? You better not be painting no sluts or prostitutes at your academy. You keep away from that kind, you hear me? They’ll give you no joy.” It came out almost tender. I half expected him to reach out and pat the back of my hand. “You see your brother’s girl?” he then asked, taking another swig of his beer.
     I nodded, keeping my eyes from his.
     “She good looking?”
     I nodded again, quickly.
     He laughed, slamming his bottle down. “That’s a Vogel! Vogel men always get the pretty dames. Ain’t that right, Totty? Keep away from those dirty ones, you hear me?”
     “I will – I promise,” I croaked, my voice breaking.
     Father laughed more. “Keep out of that dirty pussy, Totty. I want my boys with clean American girls.”
     I blushed. It was impossible not to.
     “What’s your brother do with his girl?”
     I shrugged. “I don’t know, normal stuff I guess. They hang out and stuff.” I was downplaying the whole affair, wisely keeping our new life from him.
     He regarded me for a long moment, fingering the neck of his bottle, picking at the label with his thumb. “You got a girl?” he finally asked.
     Terrified at what he might think if I told him the truth, I nodded that I did.
     “Lisa,” I lied. “Her name’s Lisa. I met her at school.”
     He didn’t say anything. He just smiled softly, watching me. It made me think of the time I came home from a birthday party with swollen lips and red marks all over my neck. He’d carried me to the kitchen sink by the back of my trousers, pushing me under the faucet, rubbing at my skin with the lye soap mother used for cleaning the floors. I couldn’t have been more than five. The boys and girls at the party had retreated to the back garden of the house where it was being held. Lacking a chaperon, we’d taken it upon ourselves to start a spirited game of Postman Knocks, my then-round face quickly becoming a favorite target for the cake-sweetened lips of the giggling girls in their pastel dresses.
     “You treat this Lisa well, boy – you understand?”
     I nodded, feeling my cheeks warm, hating the lie I’d put myself in.
     “It wouldn’t be any kind of a world without the women in it, Totty. You remember that. A man has to know he’s gotta worship his woman, but that don’t mean he’s going to stoop to her – you understand me?”
     I nodded, wondering if he knew what he was saying.
     “Blessed are we, to have them with us on our journey,” he muttered, his gaze going faraway, taking another pull on his beer. “Blessed are we.”
     I closed my eyes, seeing him cutting a great hole in mother’s favorite skirt with his penknife, to spite her when she’d received a compliment one Saturday afternoon from a strange man on the high street in Wurms.
     “There’s an angel waiting for every man, Totty. A blessed woman to look after him and give him sons. You find yourself one with strong hips – and a healthy face. You’ll do the Vogels proud, you will.”
     I breathed into my bottle, beginning to relax a little, realizing that he only wanted someone to talk to, a son to help him pretend he was a real father.
     Rationalizing it that way, I knew I could act my way through the meeting. I just had to avoid his eyes. They cut too deeply, no matter how thick my camouflage.
     “A man without a woman is just hamburger,” he sighed, turning his gaze towards the bar, shaking his head slowly. “See Henry the Fly there? He’s a dead man, Totty, a dead man in an empty bed. He carries himself about like a chore. No joy there, no warm pussy in the night.”
     I glanced at the gaunt, sickly-looking bartender, seeing him busy wiping at an empty mug, his hangdog eyes searching an unseen space, his face lost in the rising snakes of smoke coming from the row of hunched backs at the bar. I couldn’t have seen what father saw. I was barely nineteen, far too young to feel the dread of the barren eventuality such a picture painted, not the way father had intended.
     “You treat her like an angel,” he reiterated, referring to my fabricated girlfriend, with a sincerity I’d rarely witnessed. Thinking of mother, the constant anguish he caused her, made me want to leap across the table and squeeze the breath from him. My hate towards him was equal to my love for mother. It was a balance that worked to perpetuate the situation, though I didn’t realize it then. Home was a raging storm of confrontations, absurd accusations, insane demands, silent appeasements, and uneasy truces. In the thick of it, none of us could see the sad, resounding truth, that we were all essential parts of a madness we were unwittingly nurturing, even as it was destroying us, day by day.
     Just then, the front door of the bar opened, emitting a noisy conversation, already well under way. Two women in high heels and long winter coats stomped towards the bar, shiny leather handbags swinging on their crooked arms. They brought with them the smell of diesel exhaust and sickly perfume.
     “…damn police again! The motherfuckers think takin’ the seats away is goin’ to stop me workin’ they got anuther thing to be thinkin’ about!” declared the tallest of the two, her hair like the blown mane of some ebony lion. “A girl can take a break and have a cup of coffee, ain’t no crime! They think I’m takin’ johns in a donut shop? Crazy, I tell ya! Crazy. They don’t know nuthin’.”
     The other just nodded her head. Both ignored the roosting drinkers. The taller snapped her fingers in the air, catching Henry the Fly’s attention. He lifted his dour face, his eyes offering a mute “What’ll it be?”
     “Scotch, no ice. A White Russian for my bitch here,” the taller woman curtly requested, digging in her handbag. As she did, the smaller turned to survey the booths and caught sight of father, his face buried in his bottle. I saw her eyes widen as she tugged on the other’s sleeve. They both turned to look, the taller instantly shooting icy daggers into the top of father’s cap. “Hey! You! I
know you!” she called out, in a voice like a fire alarm. “You owes me twenty bucks!”
     I shut my eyes, preying they weren’t about to cause any trouble, hoping against hope it was a case of mistaken identity. I heard the hard shoes clicking our way, caught the pungent wafts of perfume advancing upon my nostrils.
     “You! Mutha! You cut out on me at the Edison!” the voice wailed. “Give me my twenty bucks!”
     I squeezed at my bottle, keeping my eyes closed tight, hardly breathing.
     “Get away from here,” I heard father reply, his voice suddenly heavy with the slur of inebriation.
     “Twenty bucks, mutha! I sucked your nasty old prick for twenty bucks. Give it me –
     I heard father sliding his bottle on the tabletop. Murmurs came from the bar.
     “Put that thing away and get
out of here,” father repeated, his voice going dark. Right then I knew then she had the right man.
     I opened my eyes to see the brassy woman holding a small knife to father’s neck. He was gripping his bottle, tensing his fingers, not looking at her. He gave his warning one more time. She flared her nostrils, her ashen, painted face twisting with rage, her heavily-lined eyes burning right through him. She was about his age. Her circus makeup only made this more obvious.
away,” father growled, lifting his bottle ever so slightly. I was concentrating so hard on the blade of her knife, willing it to move from his throat, that I began to feel dizzy. I started seeing stars, flashes of white that moved about me like tiny insects. I could only watch as the woman pressed the point of the knife into the flesh above his collar. He tried to bring the bottle up, but she was quicker, knocking it from his hand with surprising ease. It shattered on the concrete floor and father seemed to disappear before me, wilting like some neglected flower to the surface of the table. He didn’t move as she rifled through the pockets of his overcoat, which lay on the seat beside him. She quickly found his wallet and withdrew two greasy-looking bills. Searching the rest of the wallet she threw it at the wall, spitting in the air angrily.
     “That’s all you got?
Six bucks?” she screamed, the knife now brandished over the table, crinkling the dirty bills in her other hand. He didn’t answer. She gritted her teeth, hissing. I could see her friend, standing halfway between the bar and our booth, holding two drinks, her face as still as stone. Henry the Fly was busy cleaning another glass. The pigeons at the bar sat watching silently, their heads crooked about, cigarettes burning in their hands.
     “Yes. That’s all,” father finally said, his voice small, sad, like it was when he came down from one of his surges.
     The woman turned to me for the first time, looking at me as if I were a stain on a rug. “He got any money?” she said, sliding her knife through the air, now pointing it my way. I saw the thick vein on father’s neck move, his empty hands gripped the air.
     “Leave him, he’s just a boy, he’s got nothing for you.”
     I stared at the knife, thinking of my own, the much larger weapon hanging just above me, wishing I had the guts to go for it, to beat her down and chase her from the bar, to see the look on father’s face when I did. But it wasn’t going to happen. I knew that. It made me realize that Helmut had only given me the knife to make fun of me. He knew I’d never actually use it.
     I began to feel sick, nausea rising, tickling my throat.
     “Now you owes me
fourteen bucks!” the hooker reminded father, stuffing his money into her coat pocket, still holding the little knife before her as she began to back away. Doing so, she almost bumped into her friend. They exchanged funny looks and the shorter began to giggle. The knife was put way and the drinks were strolled to the far booth, where shadows laid shadows upon one another.
     No one said a word for a long moment. An uneasy silence had all but sucked the air from the musty room. I’d placed my open hands on the seat cushion on either side of me. My stomach and head felt connected, like two ends of a Q-tip, each pulling at the other, one needing to explode. I blinked hard, wishing away the stars that continued to gather before my eyes. I knew what was happening, but not why. I’d felt the same way many times before, as if I were about to vomit my insides. It’d been that way, even when I was a child. It was a sensation that came with stress, a warning sign that left me as the danger removed itself. I sat there, concentrating, determined not to let father see me that way, to hide myself from him, as I had so successfully done with he and mother, all my life.
     Henry the Fly suddenly coughed.
     Someone at the bar waved his hand before his nose.
     A joke was made about Henry’s stale farts. I heard giggles coming from the far booth. The stars were gone. My head and stomach no longer felt tethered. I breathed easier. Looking over at father I could only feel pity for him, the way I did whenever he collapsed in mother’s arms, when the uncontrollable tears flowed down his leathery cheeks, when he begged for forgiveness, a forgiveness that always came. His head was still hung low, his hands on his lap, a pool of spilled beer before him. I wanted desperately to say something, to offer some kind of encouragement, but nothing was there. It all seemed so completely hopeless, so useless.
     Why had I come from this man, I wondered. Why had he made me, if only to use me to hate himself all the more? Was his pain so great, so much a part of him that he needed to share it through the generations?
     Right then, for the very first time, trapped there in that womb-like little booth, I realized how much Grandfather Amwolf and father were alike, and how much Helmut was like the both of them. I suddenly saw my own future, laid out before me, a tunnel of darkness and despair. 
     In that defeated moment, I lost my grip on the golden deception of childhood, on the unconditional, trusting hope of a promised happy ending.
     A few minutes later, the two hookers made their way noisily from the bar, not even looking our way. I watched them disappear back into the rumbling of the night, the door groaning shut behind them. Father still hadn’t spoken, hadn't moved. I reached up to my jacket and took out the kitchen knife Helmut had given me and carefully slid it across the table. Father lifted his head at its approach, his eyes going round, his mouth moving silently. He gave me the briefest of glances, before taking hold of the knife. Touching the sharp blade with his finger, he made a low sound in his throat and proceeded to conceal it in the folds of his overcoat. Then, without a word, he staggered to his feet and exited the bar, leaving me sitting where I was, wondering what I had just done.
     I must have sat there for a good ten minutes, lost in thought, before I noticed Henry the Fly, hovering above me, wiping at the spilled beer with a damp rag. He looked at the half-drunken bottle before me. “Get you another?” he asked, grinning.
     “No, I’ve had enough, thanks,” I awkwardly replied, getting up, pulling on my jacket. I made my way to the door, wondering what I might find waiting for me on the other side, no longer terrified of the inevitable.
     A moment later, I stood on the broken sidewalk, watching the frozen blackness of Liberty Avenue through the mist of my own breath, wondering where father had gone. Then I saw him. He was coming out of a dimly-lit pawn shop across the way. I could see him counting money in his hands, slipping it into his wallet and staggering away, his own breath like a specter fleeing his soul.
     It would be almost another two years before I’d see him again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Ten, The Swallowing Depths

“No, idiot, I whip the rock right at his coffin – it makes the biggest thump in the world – everyone is totally quiet and I just stand there – I can see myself grinning in the shiny blade of the shovel,” explained Helmut, seated on the icy cold pavement of Sixth Street, busy unlacing his sneakers.
     “I thought you were going to say he woke up and beat the shit out of you.”
     “Here – hold these.”
     “What are you
doing? It’s freezing.”
     We were standing in the middle of a bridge, where Sixth Street crossed the unforgiving murk of the slow-moving Allegheny River, one of three tributaries that formed the triangular cut of land upon which Pittsburgh had been built. It was early November. We’d just scored a bottle of Night Train at the most reliable of all the late-night package stores that would still serve Helmut. I never quite knew just what he had done to have himself blacklisted from so many of the sad bottle temples, the dimly-lit businesses that attracted men who either stared at their shoes or the backs of their own eyes, but I knew it was something bad, probably something violent. I was yet to understand the true shape of Helmut’s increasingly regular transgressions.
     The wind cutting across the bridge was fiercely cold. My winter coat, a full-length canopy of bulletproof tweed, a hand me down from Uncle Alder, was all that kept me from catching pneumonia. Even so, the freezing air found its way inside my upturned collar, running its icy fingers under my thin T-shirt.
     “What are you
doing?” I repeated, holding his shoes obediently, his socks bunched inside them. I watched him sit up on the yellow metal siding of the bridge. It was about four feet high, tall enough to stop you from just walking off, but hardly high enough to stop you from climbing over, something you’d only do if you planned on jumping. The Spartan span’s architecture offered nothing but empty space beyond the ill-considered wall, all the way down to the depressing slough of dirty water. “Tell me what you’re doing, Helmut!” I insisted angrily, seeing him swing his leg over the other side of the wall, his body quickly following. Soon only his hands were visible, clinging to the rounded edge. They seemed to linger there for an eternity. I stood there, not breathing, terror squeezing at my heart, trying to understand why my brother’s unfolding suicide seemed so strangely inevitable.

It took me back to our first house in America. It was a drab, split-level, brick row house in Binghamton, New York, one of twenty-odd such homes that ran alongside a creek, a dirty ribbon of polluted water that was as unpredictable as father’s moods. At a moment’s notice, under heavy rain, the soft, slow current would become a raging torrent, the creek rising up over its banks and onto the road before the houses, flooding each and every basement, sparing no one.
     The second winter we’d been there, the creek began to swell from melting snow, pumping its frigid, churning contents under the ill-fitting door of our basement, which faced the street, at the foot of a short set of descending concrete steps, a good two feet below the road. The muddy water quickly covered the basement floor, rising about the washer and dryer, the plastic baskets of musty clothes waiting to be laundered, the toilet and cavity drain where we showered. Within minutes it had reached more than half the way up the wooden stairs that lead to the kitchen, swallowing father’s boxes of
National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and Consumer Reports, three American publications he’d so unexplainably taken to.
     We never could quite figure out what he found so compelling about them. For years I’d believed it their intricate maps and diagrams, his math-oriented mind having found in them a language that was universal. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that mother casually explained one afternoon that he’d had been using the magazines to learn to read English, something he swore he’d never bring himself to do, no matter how necessary it was, in order to make a go of it in the new world.
     His insistence on it was always a secret joke between Helmut and I, adding to our clandestine code, the language we’d fashioned together over the years, the only manner in which we felt safe discussing father, even when he wasn’t around. “Grandmother,” we’d whisper to each other, if someone in the early days inquired how his English was coming along, meaning “dad’s mum”.
     So it was hard to understand, at the time, why he almost drowned trying to save those out-of-date magazines.
     I clearly remember being upstairs, in the small corner room Helmut and I shared, with its slanted ceiling formed by the roof of the attic-free house. My mattress lay wedged in the sharp angle, buttressed to where the ceiling met the floorboards. Directly over my pillow I’d taped a large poster of The Incredible Hulk, bright green on yellow. I was studying the intricate, brick-like lettering of the cartoon logo when I heard mother screaming. She was at the front door, making sure the water hadn’t reached the porch. Father was hollering from the basement stairs, informing her that the “river was in the house again!”
     Battling each other for position on the steep staircase leading downstairs to the front room, Helmut and I catapulted from our mattresses, dragging sheets and blankets with us. When we reached the kitchen, mother was rushing back and forth from the basement door to far end of the kitchen, heaving stacks of dripping magazines into the sink. We reached the stairs just in time to see father, in his undershirt and drawers, slipping headfirst from where he’d been awkwardly perched. To this very day I can still see his hands, white at the knuckles, glistening, holding onto the top metal shelf, the rest of him lost beneath the angry, swirling brown water.

     The hands were still there.
     I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t moved, why I hadn’t heard him smack into the river below. A conversation ran through my head, one I’d once overheard, between two policeman, about how a suicide jumper who hits water often forces his stomach right through his rectum.
     “Check this out, douchebag!”
     The hands suddenly disappeared, the top of Helmut’s knit cap appearing behind the wall. Completely confused, I stepped forward, enough to see him, standing on one of the spindly light fixtures that marked the bridge for the benefit of passing barges. Speechless, I just watched him out there, hanging above oblivion, one bare foot on either side of the twin metal brackets that ended about seven feet beyond the wall, secured to the bridge by two metal cables. His back now to me, he proceeded to make his way further along, stepping ever so slowly, as if he were on ice. As he approached the end of the fixture, the blinking light caught him in its blood-red glow, illuminating his jeans and ski jacket. Watching the light moving, rising up and down, made me swoon, the veins at my temples draining. I was certain I was having another of my attacks, the episodes that the doctor at the clinic hadn’t been able to diagnose, even though F was all but convinced I was epileptic. Mother hadn’t been any help when I phoned her to talk about it. She evaded my questions, instead going on about her painful corns, and the weather, her neighbor’s dogs, anything to change the subject. She was always a terrible one to pin down on the telephone.
     Still hardly breathing, I dropped Helmut’s shoes, my hands numb, almost as if they weren’t there. The wind howled at my ears.
     “Check me OUT, Totty!” Helmut suddenly laughed, turning about at the very end of the fixture. “I’m Like Travolta in
Saturday Night Fever!”
     He began to bend at his knees, making the whole fixture drop inches. Bouncing up and down in the eerie scarlet light, he waved his arms, the ties of his jacket hood dancing about his flushed and drunken face like seaweed in a broiling sea.
     Somehow I found my breath again. “It wasn’t Travolta – it was the
other guy!” I hollered, squeezing my hands together, beginning to back away from the wall, not wanting to see his white toes curled about the edge of the metal holdings, knowing they were all that separated him from falling a good fifty feet, into the merciless current.
     “Phuck YOU, Pizzburgh, you fancy town! You’re for pussies!” he yelled, slurring his words, his eyes rolling back in his head. “I am Ubaman! Ubaman! Gain my supapowah wif Nigh’ Twain! Woo-
HOO! Woo-HOO!”
     I couldn’t take any more. I turned and began to make my way towards downtown, leaving his socks and shoes and the half-empty bottle of bitter wine on the sidewalk, swearing at him, crying that he was going to die and I didn’t care, I was leaving.
     “Uba! Ubaman!” he cackled, clearly oblivious to where I was. “Phuck You, Pizzburgh! Phuck YOU, Unided Stades ov ‘merica! Phuck YOU, eveyone – I am Ubaman! Ubaman distroy!”
     I kept going, half-hoping he would fall, realizing that I’d never have to put up with his shit again. At the same time I was terrified, terrified he might leave me all alone in the strange, compact metropolis, rife with its exotic enclaves, its crowded hillside neighborhoods, the old houses, those moribund upright caskets of working class refuge, brick edifices of a whole world of represented peoples; Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Greek, Irish, Czechs, a generational tidal wave of immigrants who’d shifted themselves to this graven marker of a bygone industrial era. Moving on quickly, I closed my eyes, my hands deep in the pockets of my uncle’s coat, imagining that Helmut’s dream was true, that father really was dead, that Helmut had been chosen to shovel the first earth upon the coffin, that he’d spotted the large stone in the soil and that he’d laughed hysterically, hurling it at the brass memorial plate over where father’s shrunken head lay.
“Everyone is totally quiet and I just stand there, seeing myself grinning in the shiny blade of the shovel.”
     I also saw him plummeting from the bridge, down into his own watery grave, where father’s hands appeared, darting the surface like furtive fish. I imagined the two men embracing, father’s grayish arms wrapping about Helmut’s neck, clawing at his insulated jacket, which billows out about him like the body of a sea ray.

“One more box! You get me one – more – box!” father gasps, pushing Helmut’s head under. “You’re not coming up until you do!”
     There was Helmut, barely a teenager, stripped to his underwear, shivering at the top of the basement steps, begging not to have to go down into the cold, dirty water, father pointing the way.
     I turn, seeing mother, her eyes closed tight, clutching at the front of her dressing gown, softly praying to herself, pressed against the kitchen counter, leaning into the sink.
     “But I helped get
you out! I don’t wanna go in anymore! It’s cold!” Helmut cried, before father put his foot into the door, slamming it shut, Helmut’s whimpers disappearing.
     I was staring right at him, as he turned, squatting, his hands going to his knees as he approached me, his hair plastered to his face, his vest soaked and soiled, translucent against his arms and chest, the veins on the backs of his hands blue and angry under the matted black hairs. “You best be watching this, Totty Vogel, you best be paying attention. We family are a team – understand? The one who swims best does the swimming in this house!”
“I whip the rock right onto his coffin –”
     I feel mother’s hands taking me, pulling me towards her, drawing me into the dry and warm dressing gown.
“It makes the biggest thump in the world –”
     Father exhales deeply, straightening his back, lifting his hands to his face, running them through his hair, cloudy water splashing at his feet.
“Everyone is totally quiet and I just stand there –”
     Neither mother nor I speak. We dare not even move.
     It is the wait we both know well, the wait we have endured so many times before, in countries old and new.
     It is that moment of absolute unknowing, that delicate, breathless balance on the edge of limbo, the breath that draws in from nowhere, as the man who has used us in order to make us peels off his drenched shirt, revealing the flattened tendrils of black hair across his chest, the obscene bulge of his belly, the fearful white scars disappearing into the waistband of his underwear, the body that can destroy, that knows no mercy, that suddenly doubles over in a burst of tears, that drops on its wet knees to the linoleum, that begins to sob like an old woman, that begs, that whimpers for forgiveness as mother takes it into her arms, leaving me pressed to the sink, the very fabric of my existence stretched so tightly before me that I can see the future, the blinking towers of light the beckon, even as I hear Helmut’s hurried footsteps behind me, the sloshing of the cheap wine, the cursing on his lips, the fury born of father’s drenched limbs.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Nine, Father's Saharan Exit

I was transfixed, standing in the corner of the tiny motel room, watching the beetle amble its way across the bed, its body the color of blood and bruises. It moved with uncharacteristic sloth, over the indentations made upon the mustard bedcover, marks left by my father, who had lain there only moments before, his arms and legs all akimbo, like some dropped ventriloquist’s dummy.
     Outside the room’s sole window, glowing a diffused orange behind the thin, matching mustard curtains, was the rotating light of a police cruiser, making a regular, lazy rhythm, one that seemed to acknowledge the beetle’s languid, sated pace. It was like a metronome, whispering “
it’s over now, he’s gone, it’s over now, he’s gone, it’s over now, he’s gone”.
     I noticed there was a paper bag sitting on the bed stand. I recognized the coffee shop logo. Inside, I found one uneaten, powdered donut. Wondering if it had been father’s or if one of the many attending policemen and paramedics had left it, I took it and hurried to the far side of the bed, trapping the beetle inside the sugary hole. “There’s your dessert,” I announced, turning to see a pair of father’s pants hanging over a straight-backed chair occupying the tiny causeway between the bed and the dark, paneled interior wall of the musty room. The pockets had been turned inside out. Again, I didn’t know if father had done this, perhaps looking for a match, or if the young detective with the crew cut had been searching them, for what I couldn’t guess. “He’s been dead since about five Monday evening,” the detective had explained, seconds after I’d first arrived, gesturing about the room, as if to say “And there you have it – not much
is it?”
     No, it
wasn’t much, but it was everything father had and that still meant something. After so many years of worry, and fear, and resentment, father had finally left mother for good, having retreated from our lives, becoming just a painful memory. I’d not really ever expected to come across him again, dead or alive.
     I’ve always heard that having a parent die is the first real introduction to your own mortality, but it didn’t feel that way, not the way it did, just fifteen days later, when I stood at mother’s bedside, feeling her hand tighten one last time about mine and then go soft, the life disappearing from it with a shudder, a wash of energy that I took to be her final goodbye. I was suddenly besieged with a series of random memories. It was like being ushered into an unwelcome surprise party.

Mind yourself on that road, Totty, it’s not safe.”
Don’t let your brother see I gave you that dollar, Totty, it’s yours – you earned it.”
This is the old key, Totty. You be a good boy and make sure your father watches you hang it on the hook. We don’t want him knowing where I’ve put the new key.”
I’m going to pray for you, whether you want me to or not, Totty Vogel – pray that you don’t end up like the other men in my life.”

     Father’s passing was very different. It was more about recognizing the life I still had ahead of me. It was as if the old man had finally stepped aside so that I could see my future, even if that future might be nothing more than an echo of his own sordid existence.
     They never did give me a clear cause of death, other than the county coroner’s somewhat awkward, hopelessly vague “Died in response to a variety of failings in major organs,” an epitaph more suited to an accountant or mailman, some colorless drone who had performed with the regularity of a clock, not the wild wind of emotion and unpredictability that was my father, that was Georg Stefan Vogel.

“The inside of your foot touches the ball, Totty, the
     Uncle Alder looked ridiculous, his pale, boney legs protruding from his ill-fitting cotton shorts, his thick socks bunched about his large, dirt-brown gardening boots. Having removed his trousers, on a mocking dare from father, he was still wearing his Sunday shirt and vest, a pipe stuffed in one pocket, a handkerchief sticking from the other. He was sucking a mint, the way he often did, holding it to one side as he spoke. Father was slumped against the front gate, ostensibly guarding Alder’s trousers, busy wetting the tip of a cigar in his mouth. It could have been Grandfather standing there, I thought, as Uncle Alder raised his right foot, pointing to his instep, like I didn’t know exactly where such a thing was.
     “You’re wasting good time with that one,” grumbled father, sighing as he lit his cigar. “His brother’s the footer in the family.”
     Alder grinned my way. “Teach them young, Georg, and the teaching will stick,” he replied, winking at me, as he lobbed the scuffed football across the lawn. It hit the grass inches in front of my foot. I reached out, intent on connecting as instructed, but my toe struck first, sending the tightly-inflated ball shooting sideways, right into father’s rose bush, creating a flurry of showering pink petals. Alder laughed nervously, hurrying over to fetch the wayward ball, one eye on the gate, and father, who hadn’t missed a thing.
     “There’s a reason you do these things on a Sunday, boy,” father intoned, pushing away from the gate, his cigar held between his teeth. “Nothing more wicked than a devil on a Sunday, is there?”
     I hadn’t moved from where I’d met the ball, my hands deep in the pockets of my wool shorts, studying the ground at my feet. I knew father was striding my way for the horrible smell of his cigar preceded him. I barely had time to steady myself before I felt his hand strike the back of my neck, sending me forward into the grass, my jaw cracking as I hit the turf with my chin. I lay there, my arms over my head, my knees curled up defensively, a position I had learned well in my five years.
     “Watch the little worm, Alder, make sure he doesn’t wriggle himself down into the dirt and out under the front gate,” declared father, his voice moving off towards the house. “I’ll be back.”
     I dared open an eye, peering between my fingers, seeing Uncle Alder still standing by the be-headed roses, holding the ball with both hands, wearing an awkward expression. He didn’t say a word to me.
     A moment later father returned, exiting the house with something cradled under his arm. I closed my eye as he neared, pushing my face deeper into the grass, feeling the back of my neck starting to sting from where I’d been hit. “Get up on your feet, little worm,” he said. “You’ve got work to do.”
     I did as I was told, following the dark-toned man to where a carpet of pink and blush petals lay scattered about the roots of the rose bush. Uncle Alder stood aside as we approached, still wearing that uncomfortable look on his face, a mix of embarrassment and fear, leaving him with a queer half-smile, and wide-open eyes. 
     I now could see that father had mother’s sewing basket. “You’re going to sew my roses back together,” he explained, setting the basket on the ground, opening the lid, pointing to mother’s needle case. “I expect them to look just like they did before – do you understand, boy?” I nodded, holding back the tears that strained to flow. “Your Uncle and I are going for a drink – your mother won’t be back from her church duties until one. That gives you almost two hours – plenty of time.” I swallowed, kneeling before the basket, afraid to look up, not knowing how on Earth I’d do what he’d told me to, but knowing I must, somehow, do it, all the same. I heard Uncle Alder begin to protest, but his mutters were quickly drowned out by father’s commanding voice. “The right-minded know all too well what happens to idle hands,” he growled. “Get your trousers on, Alder, I’m not drinking with a half-naked dolt!”

The young detective looked at his notes, then at the bed, then back to his notes. He turned to me, a quizzical frown on his face. “Did you put the donut there?” he asked, trying to sound stern.
     I nodded slowly. I was still standing in the corner of the room, my arms now folded behind me, resting against the stucco wall, inches from the door.
     “This is still an official investigation scene, sir,” he stated, scratching at his notes, making adjustments. “I need to ask you not to touch anything else, or move anything, until the initial investigation is complete.”
     “You think he was murdered?” I replied, offering a quick grin.
     “We’ll telephone you with our findings, sir, along with the coroner’s report.”
     “Of course you will,” I breathed, wondering if he was going to move the donut.
     He walked towards me, stuffing his little notebook into his shirt pocket, the one decorated with the badge. He stopped inches from me, looking up, momentarily meeting my eyes. “I’m sorry about your father, sir – I can’t imagine what I’d feel if it was my dad, I mean, it’s got to be hard, I know.”
     “They’re all different,” I said evenly, as he made a quick movement, heading on through the open door, out into the parking lot, where the ambulance holding father’s body still stood. There were two paramedics drinking coffee, leaning against it. I saw one of them cover his mouth to laugh. The other had just stood on one foot, imitating, I was quite sure, the peculiar positioning of father’s arms and legs, the way he’d been discovered on the bed. It didn’t take a genius to know what they thought was so funny, the infamous symbol father’s body strangely mimicked was the first thing I’d noted when I’d stepped into the room. It was perfect fodder, a story that would be spread from county agency to agency by the end of the day.
Once a German, always a German, I thought, turning back to the bed, my jaw set, trying to recall how many times I’d walked through a room of silent stares, wishing to God I’d been born an Italian, or even a Englishman.
     I turned to see a pleasant-looking, middle-aged, female paramedic, a clipboard held in her arms. She smiled warmly. It seemed genuine.
     “Can I ask you a few quick questions about your father?”
     I sighed, rubbing at my brow. It was still before ten. The call to come out to the Sahara Motel had awoken me from a troubled sleep.
     “It won’t take very long, I promise,” she smiled, her large eyes full of sympathy.
     I nodded. “OK.”
     She looked to the bed, grinning. “I’d usually say have a chair or sit on the edge of the bed.”
     “Official investigation scene,” I replied, smiling.
     “Right,” she agreed, making a funny face, glancing at the donut. “Was that there with the body?”
     It was my turn to grin. “No. I put it there just a moment ago. I had a reason. Go ahead and have a peep,” I suggested, motioning towards the bed.
     She gave me another odd face and walked over to look. Her eyebrows shot up when she leaned across the bed. “Is that what I think it is?” she said, her voice rising with her surprise.
     “Carrion beetle,” I stated. “Body’s been here almost four days, right?”
     She looked doubtfully from the bed to me, and back again. She shook her head slowly. “Still, that’s pretty f’d-up – shouldn’t have been able to get in here, you’d think. What a dump – it needs reporting.”
     “Never imagined my father would die in the Sahara,” I grinned, appreciating her candor and friendly tone.
     She smiled quickly and then her face went serious. “Your father, George Stefan Vogel, he was a German immigrant?” she asked, putting her pen to the clipboard pad.
     “We all are – well – we all
were,” I replied, sliding my hands into my front pockets.
     “Georg is survived by?” she asked, writing as she went.
     “Just mother and I now,” I offered, wishing Helmut could have been there to witness the morning’s events.
     “Your father was seventy four. Did he have any ailments or chronic conditions that you might have been aware of?”
     “No,” I replied, wanting to avoid the complicated truth. “But he was a regular smoker, a pretty decent drinker too.”
     She nodded knowingly, writing quickly. “Any major accidents – head trauma?” I must have given her a suspicious look for she smiled. “These are really just basic, routine questions, Mr.Vogel, I promise you.”
     “No, not that I know of,” I offered, quickly realizing the error. “Oh, well, he did knock himself out once, a long time ago, tossed from his car – an accident,” I explained, wondering, for the first time in my life, just what role that icy road had played in father's troubles. An image of mother, bent at the kitchen table, polishing that tiny mint spoon, flashed before my eyes. The paramedic wrote feverishly, biting her lip.
     “This was in Germany I take?”
     “West Germany,” I corrected.
     “A long time ago,” she grinned.
     “Yes,” I said, sighing. “A very long time ago.”