Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Three, The Trouble with Father

The first time I ever witnessed father truly break down was on a Saturday, only a few days after I'd moved back to Cuyahoga Falls.
     It was late afternoon. I was making my way along the muddy alley way between the houses. Walking just behind me was F, my girlfriend. Her real name was Effie, but I never called her that, to me she was just F. Most other people knew her as 4F, a nickname Helmut had come up with, making fun of her flat feet. F preferred F too. She called me T in turn, like we were characters in some Kafka novel.
     F and I had been out in the woods, wandering and talking, the way we often did when there was nothing else to do. I'd found a raccoon skull, separated from its scavenged body. I'd Insisted on keeping it, stuffing it into my coat pocket. All the way home we'd been arguing about it, the grey sky hanging heavy over us.
     “It's not funny!” F exclaimed, pointedly remaining a few steps back. “You could get sick from it – rabies – or anthrax – or – or something even
     I'd already explained, at length, how I'd read an article about germs and how our bodies are equipped to defend themselves against disease. It quoted a scientific survey where children raised on farms, in close contact with all sorts of animals, actually had fewer germ-born illnesses than children raised in sterile, suburban homes. “T,” I sighed, tired of the conversation. “I promise – I'll soak it in bleach – OK?”
     She replied, making a sharp, little, laughing sound, a sound I knew well. It meant she had completely dismissed my side of the argument; I was a fool and only she could possibly hope to teach me the error of my ways, something she would take it upon herself to do, for she loved me and I had best be smart enough to realize it.
     I was about to make things worse for myself, referring once again to the article, when I heard a loud noise, coming from behind the concrete garage that separated my parent's back garden from the neighbor's. I looked up and saw father's old, red wheelbarrow, suddenly sitting out in the middle of the tire-lined path ahead of us.
     Just then, another noise erupted, from somewhere in the garden. It was like someone trying to flush a bucket of stones down a toilet, a horrible, grinding, scratching sound. F covered her ears as she came even with me, making a face. “God, T – make it
stop!” I gestured helplessly, breaking into a stride, moving towards the wheelbarrow, fearing what was coming next, even as a shrieking cry filled the air.
     A second later, father appeared, dressed in his black suit, the one he wore to church. He was bent at the waist, like a cloth doll on a shelf, as if he had no bones in his body. Stumbling this way, he headed straight for the barrow, throwing himself into it, sending it over into the mud, trapping himself partly underneath. Helmut would have said he looked like a turtle who'd grown too big for his shell. His shrieking now became a deep, guttural moaning.
     I stopped, hearing F treading tentatively behind me. I was afraid to go any farther. Why did this have to happen now, I thought, feeling both frustrated and scared. I'd promised F it would be okay for us to stay at my parent's house, until we could find our own place. We'd only come because Helmut had split for parts unknown, leaving mother at father's mercy, something I knew I couldn't allow, even if it meant risking what I'd managed to build with F since we'd been living together in Canton.
     Though Canton was only twenty-odd miles from Cuyahoga, F might as well have moved to another state. The only person she knew here was an aunt, Florence, who was essentially disowned by her family after shacking up with her brother-in-law. It wasn't F's father, fortunately, for F loved and admired her father. He was actually a pretty great guy. He'd found me a job, on my nineteenth birthday, the day after we'd moved into our apartment. I cleaned the used cars at his auto dealership, working the sponge, while Dutch, an older man who had a glass eye and swore like a teenager, held the hose.
     That first night F and I lay in our bed, swimming in the strangeness of the new apartment, I quietly had a panic attack, something I hadn't experienced since I was in elementary school.
     F was the first girl I'd ever shared a home with. Seeing her sleeping, so close to me, her dark bangs covering her eyes, her chest rising under the bed cover, I suddenly felt as if I'd made a terrible mistake, one that would shape the rest of my life. I felt trapped. Just thinking about it made my breath go shallow. I squeezed at the sheet beneath us, bunching it into my hands. My eyes now wide open, I stared up at the white ceiling, noticing the dull shadow of the tree outside our window, how its limbs seemed to reach across the room, spread like some giant, open jaw.
     It was F, whispering, placing a shaking hand on my shoulder, bringing me out of my reverie, back to the present.
     “T? Is your father – is he –
     She said it as if she was referring to a car that had just died on the side of the highway. She didn't understand. How could she? I never spoke about father's trouble, not to anyone, not mother, not Helmut. We all knew he wasn't right, we weren't oblivious, we just simply refused to consider what really might be wrong. No one wanted to pinpoint the thing, the dark shape, the tumor that sat heavy amongst us, gnawing away at the family. When father was drinking that at least was something you could understand, a sickness other people had, a problem characters in stories showed us was treatable. The problem was father's trouble only presented itself when he'd stopped drinking. It was the ugly face behind the bottle, the nasty truth he drank to hide in the first place.
Sure, he's just stressed – that's all,” I replied, instinctively putting my hand over F's, giving it a little squeeze. “It's not easy kicking booze.”
     “People don't crawl under wheelbarrows because they can't drink!” she insisted, angrily.
     “The hell they don't!” I said, trying to laugh, watching father's boot move along the edge of the wheelbarrow, his heel leaving a furrow in the mud. “Helmut once tossed his
bicycle right through the front window, after mother found his whiskey and poured it all over the lawn.” Even as I said it, I felt a shudder trace my spine, realizing just how similar father and Helmut's behavior often seemed, something I hadn't ever truly considered until right that very moment.
     Father's moaning now seemed to surround me, pressing at my ears, blanketing everything with a muted silence, a vibration locked somewhere inside me. It was a feeling I'd known since I was just a little boy, a terrible murmur that lived within me.
     A memory suddenly entered my head, as if revealed by the white-gloved hands of some great magician. I was no more than three, sitting in father's lap as he shelled walnuts into a bowl he'd cradled between my legs. Helmut and Mother were outside, hanging the day's washing.
     “Damn it!” father swore, cursing himself. I turned ever so slightly, fearful of what had happened, of what I'd see.
     There he was, sucking his thumb, a dark trail of blood running across the palm of his hand. He'd cut himself with the little pen knife he'd been using to remove the walnuts from their hard shells.
     A horrible look came to his face when he saw me staring. Transfixed with fear, I locked onto the blood, watching it move down about his wrist, terrified of meeting his eyes. I'd been placed on his lap with strict orders to keep still and not to ask questions, he was only tolerating my presence to appease mother. “You ever taste a grown man's blood, Totty Vogel?” he asked gruffly, taking his thumb from his mouth, his voice wet with spit. I quickly shook no, turning from him, fighting back warm tears. “About time a boy learned what a man's blood tastes like,” he said, gripping me behind the ear. Twisting my head to face him, he smiled, showing his uneven teeth, bringing the red thumb towards me.
     F had gripped me about the waist and was pulling me back, away from the hulking shape now rising from the wheelbarrow, staggering towards us.
     Clearing my head of the memories, I turned about, removing F's arms, mouthing the word “run”

Black Weather, Scroll One

The following illustrated novella, Black Weather, was created, as a gift for a friend, in the fall of 2007. Inspired to revisit my earliest approach to graphic storytelling, that of wholly improvised, panel-to-panel, page-to-page creation, I set out, over the course of two weeks, to fill a small, 4“ x 6”, 82-page sketchbook (a cheaper variant of the perennial Moleskine, amusingly named “a la Modeskin”). My goal was to utilize the entire book, allowing for no mistake that would have required removing a page, leaving the edition intact, transformed into a tiny, original, one-of-a-kind “automatic picture book”. Accomplishing this, to some surprise, I must admit, I wrote and illustrated a story that shaped itself as I turned the pages, leading to a conclusion that seemed to craft itself. I can claim no sole ownership of the tale that follows, rather I see myself as a conduit for its telling, a fable channeled through the vibrancy and mystery of the moment, strung together with the enduring bond of friendship, presented now, with the blessing of its owner, for all to experience.
     Understanding the fashion in which it was born, please allow for any spelling and/or grammatical burps, to say nothing of narrative coherence. Technical particulars: All text and line art came from a Pilot brand P-500, extra-fine pen. The greytones were created with brush, using ink washes.
     I will be presenting Black Weather in 10-page “scroll” installments, over the next few weeks, of which this is the first. I hope you might enjoy it, automatically, as it were.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Two, Helmut Needs Motion

It was late August, 1982, I was sitting on a dry, earthen bank, facing a row of concrete buildings that constituted the entirety of the Centralia railway station. Located approximately half way down the coast of Washington State, Centralia was a small, nondescript city, chiefly made up of taverns and feed stores, a place about as dull and obvious as its name.
     Keeping one eye on the station, I was minding the tracks to the south, where my older brother Helmut was attempting to force himself into the narrow opening of an idle transport car. “Rusted tight on the inside...” he gasped, cursing under his breath, his broad frame not making it an easy task, muscling his shoulder against the stubborn sliding door, one foot inside the carriage, the other dangling over the tracks below.
     I suddenly heard a banging sound, coming from the building at the northernmost end of the line of cars. Rising quickly to my feet, I squinted into the bright afternoon sun. Lying on the loading platform was a sack, the sort they transported mail in. It hadn't been there a moment earlier. “Helmit –
Hel-mit!” I called out, as loudly as I dared. “Someone's in the station! Hurry!”
     Helmut grunted fiercely. With one mighty effort the car door lurched to the left a precious few inches, just enough for him to bully through into the darkness. A moment later, I saw his hand sticking out, urging me across the tracks. I didn't hesitate, the thought of being caught by a railroad employee putting fear in my heart.
     “She's empty – I bet this one hasn't been used in years – get a look at those spider webs – enough to knit a sweater!” he joked, when I was safely inside. His eyes seemed to glow in the black. “Nobody spotted you, I hope.” I shook my head, sure I'd avoided detection. Saying a silent prayer, I felt the leather case strapped about me, my thoughts on the two dozen rolls of film I'd shot over the past two weeks, already anticipating getting it into the darkroom I'd rigged in the upstairs bathroom back home in Pittsburgh. Following Helmut's lead, I crept back into the shadowy interior of the metal car, feeling cobwebs against the nape of my neck. As we settled down, only inches from one another, Helmut chuckled softly, pulling a small packet of rolling papers from his shirt pocket. He began to build himself a cigarette, proceeding with uncanny ease, instinct, not vision, being his guide. I'd experienced the same routine countless times since we'd made our way into that first rail car, back in Seattle, some fifteen days earlier, an afternoon which now seemed a lifetime ago.
     Helmut Vogel was a restless man, just as he'd been a restless boy. Not once in his forty-two years do I remember him staying still for more than a few moments at a time. Growing up, I'd often feel his large hands about my collar, yanking me away from a favorite comic book or daydream, forcing me to accompany him on some new misadventure, my heart heavy and conflicted, for I knew we'd soon to be up to no good, but I also knew it was bound to be the most exciting half hour of my week. I'd never dare such things alone, but Helmut was fearless. I'd more than once seen him stand up to a man a good ten years his senior. I really had no choice but to play his silent and abiding sidekick.

Nothing had really changed, I reflected, smiling, catching Helmut’s intense stare in the light of his homemade cigarette, knowing he was about to explain how he was “...close to, if not
the very best damn rail rider in these Goddamn entire United States of America, Totty – and don't you forget it.”
     We were on the last ride home. Free ride, anyway. When we got back to Seattle we'd be striding up to the ticket office, like everyone else, showing our return vouchers for Pittsburgh. As far as mother and father knew, we'd been visiting Helmut's old school chum, Harley, and his wife and kids, down in Portland. But that only lasted a day before Helmut's restless spirit brought us to the rails again, taking us down the coast, to Sacramento and points south. He’d finally agreed to turn around when we'd reached the town of Martinez, birthplace of the great Joe Dimaggio, a man more enshrined in my mind for having slept with Marilyn Monroe than for his batting average.
     “Totty,” Helmut had remarked that afternoon, rolling a smoke, his eyes half shut, sitting in the cemetery overlooking the Southern Pacific depot. “Life ain't much if you don't make something of it, it sure ain't. You can go when they say go and stop when they say stop and all you'll end up with is a little house in Cuyahoga. A man's gotta keep his heels warm if he's looking to get anywhere in this damn crazy universe.” He said this, as he often did when he got preachy, with an air of affected certainty, as if he were in a school play, dispensing the single most important bit of advice in the world.
     I grinned, nodding quietly, as I always did, thinking how much other thirty two year-old men were accomplishing, forging real careers and starting families. I knew Helmut was wrong. He never seemed to notice how hard it had been for mother to raise the two of us and keep her own life together, all through the worst of father's dark days. Mother's heels were anything but cold, but Helmut would never understand this.
     Still, as strange as it sounds, I understood him too, I even felt as he did, though I knew it was shortsighted. To both of us, father was a pole lodged deep in the dirt, a sign to nowhere, going nowhere. I knew Helmut feared this his own fate, feared it more than anything, and that's why he was determined to keep moving, thinking he could somehow avoid his sorry inheritance.   “The lord gave us feet for a reason, Totty, not just for stretching our socks. You remember that, remember it good,” he added, blowing smoke my way.
     I smiled sheepishly, nodding my less-than-heartfelt agreement, idly tracing my finger along the name etched into the headstone beneath me. “I will, I will,” I assured, thinking, that after forty two years of running his life in circles, my brother must have known his own feet pretty well, to say nothing of his tail.

©2008 Jeremy W. Eaton