Wednesday, June 25, 2008
My father's trouble started before he was born.
His father, Amwolf, was of a generation that failed to recognize the brain's dependency on specific chemical arrangements in order to function properly. In those days, sufferers of acute depression were diagnosed as “melancholics”, treated as moody or sickly, prescribed mostly useless remedies like iron pills or fresh air. Being a man of intense pride and self-conviction, my grandfather's every outburst, and subsequent retreat from the company of others, was viewed as a simple characteristic of his difficult personality, as were the beatings he inflicted upon his first wife, Katharina, my father's mother.
Amwolf Peter Vogel was a short man.
Carrying himself about on bowed legs, like some angry, horseless cowboy, he met everyone with a forceful handshake. His face, as I recall it from my youth in Germany, was a knotted mass of lines and furrows, all converging on a nose that looked much like a beet. His eyes, wounded, hard portals, vicious gaps revealing a shipwrecked soul, were yellowed with age, as were his nails and fingertips. He smoked furiously, one cigar after breakfast, another after lunch, a pipe in the evenings, a regular diet of tobacco religiously observed.
When inclined, he was a busy, boastful talker, his conversation wholly self-absorbed.
Catching Helmut and I at some boyish task, crushing worms on the pavement or pursuing a rat under father's shed, he'd instruct us to “deposit our behinds and listen”, wetting his cigar in his mouth, searching his pockets for a match, cursing under his breath. He'd then proceed to inform us of all he'd accomplished in his life, working through the details with the impatient tone of an overworked pedagogue. “You take pride in your grandfather,” he'd insist, scanning us with those waxy eyes. “Your grandfather was a semi-professional tennis player in his day – a good one.” He always spoke in the second person, as if he were his own biographer. “Your grandfather played men half his age and twice his size and he beat them – and don't you boys forget it.” His larger-than-life stories usually involved some such competitor or villain, down on his knees, pleading with the almighty to spare him from the superior Amwolf Vogel. One day it would be as a semi-professional tennis player, another he was a semi-professional golfer, yet another he would be an opera singer, courted by the great tenor Caruso, leaving beautiful women to faint in their seats, even though a local newspaper reviewer had once written that he possessed “the voice of an angel, but the face of a clown”.
He was, in fact, a little bit and nothing of these things.
As a young man, he'd enjoyed some renown for his tennis and golfing skills, but nothing more than a weekend of glory on the clay courts at the village health club, a minor celebrity to which he'd long ago ascribed the “semi-professional” title. According to father, he had a punch “as quick and final as a cobra snake” and was well known for taking arguments outside, where he'd “thrash grown men, leave them wet with their own piss, lying on the cobbles”. But father's stories were just as suspect as grandfather's, both men acquiring the nickname “Munchausen”, after the famous book by Rudolf Raspe about the infamous yarn-spinning baron. “One day your grandfather's going to tell a tale so tall he won't be able to climb down from it,” I can recall mother once remarking, rolling her eyes, as we heard grandfather's walking stick striking the front gate, trying to undo the latch. “Better make way for old Munchausen,” she'd sigh, retreating into the kitchen, leaving Helmut and I to rush out and spare the gate from its thrashing.
Of all the things grandfather boasted, one was perhaps almost true.
He did indeed have a powerful voice, a rich baritone that filled the eaves of churches and local concert halls alike, a tenor so rich it sent him all the way to Blackpool, England, to sing with an American military troupe during the second world war, a performance that led to an invitation to study at Enrico Caruso's school in Italy.
Having no money for such a venture, he took it upon himself to educate Helmut and I in “the mysteries and majesty of the operatic voice”, hoping to secure himself a prodigy.
Helmut proved an all but impossible student, grandfather's attempts often resulting in fierce fits of screaming and toppled furniture. I, being that much younger, proved more pliable. He often used to catch me by the collar and hold me, his body shaking as he instructed me to follow him in his daily vocal exercises. “MAR – LARE – IN – O,” he'd bellow, his mouth open wide, brown spittle hanging from his false teeth. “MAR –LARE – IN – O, MAR-LARE-IN-O, MAR-LARE-IN-O, MARLAREINO, MARLAREINO!” he'd continue, steadily increasing the pitch until it sounded like an alarm.
One of the last times I ever saw Grandfather Vogel was from high in one of the towering pines that lined our back garden.
I was holding a baby starling in a tea cup, grandfather and father at the base of the tree, imploring me to “climb higher, boy, climb higher!”
Mother had discovered the newborn lying in her rhubarb, not far from the tree line. “Pushed from its nest by another bird, I suppose, the dear thing,” she'd explained, as Helmut and I jostled for a closer look at its heart, a throbbing, purple, pea-sized smudge, just visible under translucent skin. “We should save him,” she added, setting the undeniably ugly little creature atop an old dish rag she'd spread on the kitchen table. “He's too young to feed himself.”
Helmut and I had been all too eager to search the front path for worms, something we were busy doing when father and Grandfather Vogel arrived, pulling up in father's sputtering Heinkel. “We're getting worms!” declared Helmut excitedly, stuffing his pockets with mud, as he ran to unlatch the gate. “Mother found a baby starling and you can see its heart! We're going to feed it!”
Father looked to grandfather, a grave and silent exchange. “Take the worms from your pockets, Helmut Vogel,” he said. “And see your brother does the same. No one in this family is feeding a bird.”
Helmut knew better than to argue. Turning his muddy pockets inside out, he reluctantly let half a dozen large, pink earthworms wriggle free. I did the same, fearful to even look father's way.
A few moments later, “we four men” were gathered at the foot of the pine, where mother had found the fallen nestling. Father had tied one of his shoelaces about the handle of a tea cup, into which he'd put the starling. He did all of this, not saying a word, silently following grandfather's orders. When he'd encircled my head with the loop of the lace, he stepped back, letting grandfather come towards me.
I stood breathless, terrified by the grave ceremony of the affair, wondering why Helmut was left to simply watch.
Taking me by the arms, squeezing hard enough to make me wince, grandfather looked me in the eye. “We're counting on you, Totty Vogel, we're counting on you to be a man,” he intoned, his breath reeking of cigar. “Can you be a man for us? Can you be a man and climb to the nest?” I nodded quickly, avoiding his jaundiced stare, focusing instead on the heaving chest of the baby bird slumped at the bottom of the cup. “Let me hear your voice, boy.”
“YES, GRAN'FATHER AMWOLF!” I proclaimed, in my best approximation of a baritone tenor, my eyes shut tight.
“Make us proud, Totty.”
I turned to the trunk of the old pine.
I knew the tree well. Helmut and I had, over the years, broken the lower branches, fashioning a relatively easy climb to about nine or ten feet. Reaching the nest, which we'd spotted a good ten feet higher, was going to require navigating branches grandfather determined only I, the smallest and lightest, could safely manage. “We're all counting on you, Totty, don't let us down,” I heard him say, his deep voice seeming to race up the tree, challenging me to follow.
More fearful of failing than falling, I hurried up through the lower branches.
Soon I was standing on the limb directly beneath the nest. The only problem was it was too far out for me to reach. I had to inch my way along the branch under my feet, which tapered dramatically and began to sag. Going as far as I dared, I held onto the higher branch, reaching into the cup with my free hand. “Put it in the nest, boy – we're watching!” came grandfather's booming voice. Feeling the limb beneath me drop a few inches more, I stretched my arm, the baby cradled in my fist. Opening my fingers, I gave a little push forward. The bird rolled onto the lip of the nest, but quickly tumbled backwards. Hitting the branch, it then plummeted all the way to the ground.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” father called out.
“He DROPPED the bird!” proclaimed Helmut, gleeful at my error.
“Get back, Helmut, you'll step on it!” I heard father cry.
“Come back down, Totty, it's still alive, you can try again,” grandfather's voice commanded.
I wanted to protest, wanted to tell him I couldn't, that I was afraid of dropping it again, but I was just a boy, barely eight years old, I had to do what I was told.
So, again I scaled the tree, the battered, dirty bird slumped at the bottom of the tea cup. Again I dared my way out across the withering limb, feeling my feet sinking, the branch swaying dangerously, creaking under my weight. Again I reached out, catching the edge of the nest.
Unfurling my hand, I forced the newborn forward, only to have it roll backwards for a second time, striking the branch, quickly falling, hitting the ground with a soft thwump.
“NO, Totty, you're not doing it RIGHT,” grandfather called out impatiently. “Come down and we'll try it over!”
As I made way down, I could hear Helmut snickering.
I held out the cup, my hand shaking terribly, as grandfather dropped the seemingly lifeless starling back in. “A Vogel never gives up, Totty,” he breathed, giving my shoulder a sharp squeeze. “Your grandfather didn't make it to Blackpool by surrendering. You get up there and you try again.” I started to sob, but knew to turn my head and hide the tears.
Again I scaled the tree, the air becoming tight about my chest, my cheeks hot, my legs feeling rubbery and weak. For the third time I made it out as far as I could dare, taking the now quite cold bird from the cup, not even looking to see if its chest was still rising.
“THIS TIME YOU'LL MAKE US PROUD, TOTTY, WE KNOW YOU WILL!” grandfather sang out.
I bit my lip, all but throwing my tiny charge at the twig and straw target. Closing my eyes, afraid to watch, I opened them a moment later to see an empty nest.
“Come on back down, Totty,” I heard father sigh. “I suppose we'll have to tell your mother what you've done.”
Thursday, June 12, 2008
The last time I ever saw Willy Blanefield III, he was sprinting down the middle of Negley Avenue, trying to overtake a runaway bowling ball.
Willy was the sort of kid you either wanted to hug, or slug in the face, it all depended what side of his personality you were greeted with. To his credit, he hadn't been the one to liberate the bowling ball, that was Iceman's doing. Iceman was a roly-poly giant of a boy, with coke-bottle glasses and a laugh like a donkey. He'd hidden the ball under his full-length winter coat, walking right by the manager of the bowling alley and out onto the double yellow lines of the busy street. Iceman and Willy were part of the little gang I ran with in the early 1980s, during the years I spent dodging responsibility in Pittsburgh. This was before I met F and we eventually moved back to Ohio.
There were five of us, inseparable to the end: Willy, me, Iceman, Caligula Carl and Meat. We called ourselves The Manchester Pals, the quaint-sounding “pals” to us having a more sinister definition, one rooted in the world of cheesy gangster movies.
Manchester was a neighborhood of historic red brick buildings and oak-filled parks, just to the northwest of the industrial city's triangular downtown. If you continued walking through the stately old homes and businesses you'd end up on the east bank of the Ohio River, amongst rail cars and barrels of chemicals and barbed wire fences. It was not far from here that the Pals first came together. Though I was a good two years older than the others, I looked nearly as young as Willy, the baby of the gang. A lanky young man, only three years out of high school, I had about as much sense of direction as that bowling ball racing down Negley.
I'd followed Helmut to the steel city, encouraged by his tales of easy girls and fun to be had any direction you chose. He'd moved there the year before, ignoring mother's pleas that he “find a steady job in Cuyahoga, save some money, and then think about living in a big city”. He'd borrowed a hundred dollars from father, who was living away from home at the time, on one of his many prolonged “episodes”.
Jumping a train east, Helmut had met a shady older rider who secured him work cleaning an adult theater, a night job that offered him plenty of opportunities to familiarize himself with Pittsburgh's seedy underbelly.
He was still working there (a personal record for Mr. Impatience) when I showed up on the steps of the building he was living in. This was on the Northside, only a short jog from Manchester, in another Victorian-era district known as the Mexican War Streets, named for the neighborhood's planner and essential founder, General William Robinson, Jr., who, upon returning from the Mexican-American War in 1848, set about to designating the area with its distinctive character, labeling streets after the war's major battles.
Helmut's residence was a decrepit brick tower of gothic solemnity that sat at the very end of Palo Alto Street, some eight floors of flint-cheap apartments and boarding rooms. The hallways were usually filled with occupied sleeping bags, looking like worms on the sidewalk after a heavy rain. Navigating these were punk brats and their pregnant girlfriends, alongside old ladies with sharp, defensive eyes, clutching plastic shopping bags to themselves like soldiers rising from a bunker, and dark, European-looking men in oily jackets who paced before suspect doorways.
I'd gotten friendly with a girl on the Trailways bus from Ohio. Her name was Bettina. She had short, shorn-off auburn hair and big, grey-blue eyes. As we said goodbye at the downtown station she handed me a small piece of card. I didn't look at it until after I'd watched her disappear into the midday crowd, mesmerized by the pendulous sway of her wide hips, wishing I had Helmut's nerve when it came to girls. Scrawled across the back, of what turned out to be an expired temporary library card from the Toledo Public Library, was an address, followed by her name. I'll never forget her handwriting, how the two t's in Bettina locked together, as if they were waves on the sea (ironically, I later learned she was AWOL from the Navy). Bettina was every bit as much the rambler as my brother. I was no match for a girl like her, I'd fitted my own leash the first time I locked onto those liquid eyes. It didn't take long to lead me into the crazy world of Willy Blanefield III and The Manchester Pals.
Helmut insisted I spend my first night in Pittsburgh with him, helping slop a smelly, disinfectant-soaked mop across linoleum floors stained with a day's worth of spit, urine, come, and other substances I was terrified to even ponder. Right from the start we'd argued over the perils of my traipsing about an unfamiliar place, a debate that continued as we made our way towards the large doorway of the once-grand old vaudevillian theater, now emblazoned with a red and gold neon marquee that promised HOT ADULT ACTION!
“Pittsburgh's not half as bad as Cleveland,” I moaned, turning to the city that glowed behind us, a warm summer night giving it an allure I found impossible to resist.
“You go runnin' around out there and you'll end up sorry, Totty,” he replied, pushing me inside the great copper and glass doors. “Did you catch those brothers on the corner back there? You'll get yourself mugged or knifed.”
I snickered. “Yeah – right. What could really happen?”
“Your balls could end up hangin' from some motherfucka's necklace – that's what!”
This comment elicited a hoarse laugh from somewhere behind the thick-glassed ticket window at the far side of the wide lobby. I looked to see a ruddy face appear in the narrow light coming from an illuminated sign that read ADULTS ONLY! This was the sort of business where everything was deemed worthy of an exclamation point.
“Got my kid brother with me tonight, Louis, hope you don't mind,” Helmut explained, giving a dismissive nod in my direction.
“Watch he doesn't jack off on the carpets, just had 'em vacc'd!” snorted the older man, holding a thick, hairy arm out from under the glass window.
Helmut grabbed a big set of keys from Louis's hand. “No worries about that,” he snickered. “The little pussy's been whackin' it all the way here from Cuyahoga Falls! Ain't ya, Totty?”
I scowled, wishing I'd never even mentioned Bettina.
Turning my attention to a showcase featuring a garishly-colored poster for a film titled Flesh Sacrifice!, I fingered the small card in my pocket, deciding then and there that I wasn't going to spend the whole night in that musty old theater.
“You don't sound like you were born in Ohio,” declared the skinny kid sitting on the railing of the big steps outside the apartment building that matched the address Bettina had given me. He was wearing a cap on his head, the sort a pilot or bus driver would wear. It all but covered his eyes, but couldn't hide the big smirk plastered across his face. His clothes were a jumbled assortment of mismatched layers, an outfit he wore most every time I ever saw him.
“I wasn't,” I replied, searching for his eyes in the shade of the brim. “I was born in Worms, it's a...”
“WURMS?” he shrieked, almost pitching backwards over the railing. “What was your mom doing in a bucket of worms?”
“Worms is a city in Western Germany, dumbass – don't you know anything?” came a familiar voice, floating down from the open window above us.
I looked up to see Bettina, smiling my way, as she leaned through the window frame. I found it hard not to stare at the way her hip spilled over the sill. “Glad you found us, Tot! We were about to head out to check out a really cool band - you wanna come?”
I grinned. Of course I did.
I was smitten, there was no denying it. I'd follow her practically anywhere, even if it meant splitting on Helmut while he was cleaning out the projection booth, stealing off into the night streets of a city I hardly knew. I was going to fetch hell for that later, but right then I didn't care, not one bit, not as long as Bettina was nearby.
“So – your dad's a drunk, huh?”
I tensed at the remark, feeling my face harden. I gave Willy a harsh squint, watching him fiddle with the buttons of the boom box he held perched on his shoulder. I silently cursed myself, knowing I'd spilled too much to Bettina during our bus ride. I've always had the habit of rambling on when I'm with an attractive woman, I think that might be a German trait, or maybe it's just from mother's side, the “jawful” as father always used to say, one of his odd conversions of the English language.
“SHUT UP, DICKHEAD,” the tall, muscular, dark-haired guy trailing Willy suddenly warned, reaching out to give Willy a quick push, making him stumble. This was Meat. Apparently he was Bettina's boyfriend, I never quite knew for sure. They all seemed more like a family of circumstance than friends, a clan that came with its own pecking order. Bettina was clearly in charge, with Meat as a reliable echo, backing her up with a stern look or shove, most of it going Willy's way.
“I don't care, not a big deal,” I replied, catching Bettina's eye, hoping to see a look of apology, or even sympathy, but she quickly turned away.
“Feel free to belt the little snot next time he bothers you,” offered Meat, in a friendly manner.
Willy, having recovered his footing, cut in front of me. “Check this out!” he exclaimed, his boom box now blaring out a horrible, tuneless noise, followed by an angry voice singing something that sounded like “I'm a snow man, baby”. He grinned my way, now light in his step. “IT'S – MY – LATEST – RECORDING!” he shouted over the din, far more than was necessary. “WHAT – DO – YA – THINK? HUH?”
Meat reached out and grabbed the box, this time causing Willy to spin about, almost falling over. “The little jerk's always playing that shit to everyone he meets – I guess he wants his face punched in on a regular basis,” Meat offered, jabbing the STOP button and opening the cassette deck. He pulled out the tape and stuffed it into the pocket of his jean jacket.
“GIVE IT BACK!” squealed Willy, lunging for the tape. “IT'S MY ONLY COPY!”
“Too bad, dickhead,” Meat grinned, catching my eye. “You'll get it later – don't sweat it, retard.”
Bettina just laughed. “You'll like the music we're going to check out, Tot, don't worry,” she said, meeting my eye again. “The Vacuum Bags are practically Jesus Christ.”
Meat nodded his agreement. “Wait until you catch Iceman,” he enthused. “The dude's totally APESHIT on the drums!”
Turns out he was totally apeshit on everything.
Even before we reached our destination, an all-ages club located in a weathered, white concrete building that used to house a hardware store, we heard a great roar and then a car horn sounding and then a round of cheering and laughter. “Sounds like Iceman's wrestling! I bet Carl's challenged him again! COME ON!” declared Bettina, rushing on ahead, her boots slapping hard on the pavement as she zipped past rows of listing brick townhouses, making her way towards the river.
“Yoo-HOO!” Willy yelled, quickly following, one hand holding his big boom box (which Meat had happily relented), the other his cap.
I turned to Meat. “Wrestling?” I inquired, a bit confused.
The big kid grinned, his slightly-misshapen mouth curling upwards, revealing a missing front tooth. “You'll see when we get there,” he replied, showing no signs of hurrying after the others. “Looks like it's going to be a pretty good night.”
I had such a good time I didn't mind the riot act Helmut read me the next morning, when he caught me trying to sneak into his tiny apartment. I just grinned, looking away, elated at having found new friends so quickly.
Not even the broken finger I endured when he threw my dictionary at me could dissuade me from joining them again the next night. Though that wasn't the only broken thing I suffered.
A few weeks later, I awoke from my couch bed to see Bettina standing in the kitchen area, fixing breakfast, wearing Helmut's old football jersey and a pair of socks.
I moved my stuff to the basement of Iceman's building that same afternoon.
I couldn't tell Helmut exactly why.
I chose to suffer alone, never telling anyone of my feelings for Bettina.
It's just the way I am. No one would have understood anyway. The only person who might was suffering herself, back in Cuyahoga, waiting to hear a key in the back door.
Monday, June 2, 2008
Mother's father, Grandfather Meyer, Mr. Meyer, as he was known to all the children, was a professional photographer. He was well respected in his profession and many a prominent citizen would go out of their way to visit him in his large house in Zweibrucken, sitting for their picture on a tall, austere chair he referred to as “the throne”. His studio, a stone building nestled under the wide canopy of an old tree at the back of his garden, was filled with all manner of then-modern equipment; great bottles of smelly chemicals and metal boxes perched on tall, spidery legs, things that readily captured the imagination of a young boy in the late 1950's. If allowed, I would have happily spent the entirety of my visits with Grandfather Meyer in that dark, cool studio, but that was before the piano arrived.
A silent totem of mystery, the mammoth, old black upright all but covered one wall of his front room. It mainly served as a mantle for a row of yellowed photographs placed in stern-looking frames, each an official portrait of a baron or baroness or some other wealthy German, all prized clients. Going to grandfather's was a special event, each visit offering me an opportunity to stand before the monolithic machine (never once having heard it played, I hardly thought of it as a musical instrument). Even on my toes, my chin barely reached the lid, itself a massive, seemingly impenetrable form, under which lay keys I had only ever seen on one occasion.
It was during a party for my Uncle Alder, who had just received a medal of commendation from the local government, something to do with getting safe drinking water to rural areas (to this day I've never quite understood what his job was). I recall this because everyone made a special toast with a tall glass of water, Helmut and I spilling ours as we raced to finish up first.
Uncle Alder didn't look anything like father. He was very thin, with oversized hands he always kept hidden in a pair of stylish leather driving gloves, which I always thought was odd, being that he didn't drive. His eyes were wide and heavy-lidded, outlined by long, bristly sideburns, giving him the appearance of an insect. He was three years older than father, but their relationship would have one believing it was the other way around.
Grandfather's house was full of guests, all talking, drinking and smoking, the things I'd learned to associate with adult gatherings. Wanting to avoid the teasing of Helmut and my older cousins, I'd positioned myself before the piano, offering my back to the festivities, standing so close I could feel my knees touching the quilted bench kept underneath. I stared, transfixed by the brilliant array of keys, and the lid, pushed open to reveal a wonderfully ornate music stand. I was pondering why it was open, having been told more than once how it “upset” Uncle Alder, never understanding why. I was about to brush one of the white ivories when I suddenly felt two firm hands slip under my arms, hoisting me into the air. It was Uncle Alder.
“You know that's quite forbidden, Totty!” he declared, in a deep and rich voice, one that belied his slight build. “Have you not been told the tale of the Fehlend Betasten?”
Wriggling in his clutches, his long, hard thumbs hurting as they pressed up under my suspenders, I crooked my neck, glancing back down upon the keys, which now looked like a field of black and white stripes. “No, Uncle Alder, I haven't,” I replied, in an awed whisper. I was lying. Uncle Alder had told me the gruesome tale more times than I could remember, but I never grew tired of hearing it, especially the way he presented it, pausing at the moments before the truly terrifying parts, his big eyes looking ready to pop from his head.
“You haven't?” he answered, in mock surprise. “You mean to say you do not know that all pianos, even your grandfather's, once had only white keys?”
“No black ones on Mr. Meyer's?” I asked, with an innocence every bit as staged.
He shook his head slowly, a grave look etched upon his lean face. “No,” he breathed, bringing me so close I could smell the brandy on his lips. “Not a single, little one – every key was a brilliant white, Totty, as white as the pillows in Heaven.”
“Then why does Mr. Meyer's have black ones?” I asked, continuing my charade, dangling my arm, tracing over the keys with my finger, pretending to count them.
Uncle Alder smiled, his big grey eyes all but disappearing behind thick folds of skin. “Ah, but you see, my boy, this was the doing of the wicked children, two brothers and two sisters, who had disobeyed their mother and had lifted the lid of the family piano and were running their tender little fingers all over the shiny white keys. They were being so naughty and were so lost in the sweet cacophony of their disobedience they didn't hear their father just outside the front door, stomping his muddy boots on the paving stones – stomp –”
“Stomp - stomp - STOMP!” I squealed, forgetting my supposed ignorance.
“He stomped so hard he shook the entire house,” continued Uncle Alder, ignoring my outburst. “And – SLAM – down came the heavy lid – right upon those bad little children!”
“What happened to their fingers, Uncle Alder?” I gasped, hiding my own in my mouth.
“Why, they came right off – severed at the final joint – trapped shut beneath the lid, along with four of their nasty little thumbs. And no matter how hard their mother and father tried, they just couldn't lift it. They called a neighboring farmer from his field to help, but he had no more luck than they. The farmer then fetched two builders who tried but failed as well. It seemed that nothing would open the lid. The poor children cried and cried, their bleeding hands all wrapped up in their mother's apron.”
“I don't want them to cry anymore, Uncle Alder!” I suddenly pleaded, my eyes beginning to tear themselves, but Uncle Alder seemed not to notice.
“The doctor might stitch their fingers back on, but they are lost in the piano, declared the farmer. Perhaps we could chop it apart with an axe, suggested one of the builders. Never, said the father angrily, this is an heirloom, from my father's father's father it has been handed down to me, I will not see it destroyed!”
Uncle Alder was now only a watery shape before me. Warm tears raced down my cheeks.
“But, what of my dear children, cried the mother, her apron now all but red,” continued Uncle Alder, lost in his story. “What futures will they have without fingers? They will be beggars - or worse!”
“What - what's worse than a beggar, Uncle Alder?” I choked.
But he no longer seemed to be addressing me. His eyes were cast to the ceiling. “So be their fate, hissed the heartless father, stomping off, followed by the farmer and the builders, leaving the poor mother and her children.”
“Never to see their precious fingers again?” I finished.
“Not until the day a traveling player came passing by, on his way to a grand recital in Stuttgart,” announced Uncle Alder, giving me a little shake. “This master pianist, seeing the fingerless children sitting by the roadside, took them to the house, where their mother showed him the terrible piano, long sealed shut with the children's blood. The pianist sat down and removed his satin gloves. Running his beautifully-formed hands across the lid, it all at once sprung open, revealing thirty six little fingers – lodged between the white keys – each as black as coal!” I began to sob. “And the master pianist began to play,” Uncle Alder exclaimed. “He played as never had been done before! A rhapsodic miracle it was, a sound that traveled up to the angels on high!”
“Alder! Hush!” declared a familiar voice. “Look at what you've done!”
It was mother. I felt her warm hands taking me. Rubbing at my burning eyes, I tried hard to stifle my flowing tears, but the tale of The Missing Fingers always got the better of me. It was why I loved it so.
“There, there, Totty, it's going to be alright now. Your uncle should know better.”
Looking rather sheepish, Uncle Alder made a dismissive motion with his hand and excused himself. As mother dabbed my eyes with her blouse I watched him amble over to where father and Grandfather Meyer stood, both with drinks in hand, cigars blazing. He seemed to hesitate before them. I saw father turn, taking in Uncle Alder with one of his dark scowls. He then glanced across the room, seeing me, my face still flushed with tears. He frowned, avoiding mother's eye, quickly turning back to the others. Grandfather Meyer reached out and gave Uncle Alder a little push and father began to laugh. Father then dipped a hand into his glass and withdrew it, flicking his drink into Uncle Alder's face, moving his fingers across the air as if he was playing a piano. He and Grandfather Meyer both now laughed, sharp and loud, great puffs of smoke rising between them.
“Momma?” I asked, as I watched Uncle Alder shuffle off, looking defeated. “When does Mr. Meyer play his piano?”
She smiled, pressing my face to her. “Your grandfather is not a player, Totty. You know the piano was your uncle's.”
“Uncle Alder's?” I murmured, things I thought I understood suddenly not seeming to make any sense. “Why is it in Mr. Meyer's house?”
Mother stroked my head, speaking extra softly into my ear. “Your uncle doesn't play anymore, Totty, not since the accident.”
I glimpsed back towards the piano. It looked blacker than it ever had, filling one side of the room, like an entrance to some secret tunnel. Though just a boy, I was beginning to recognize the terrible truth that lived within adult whispers. Too young to absorb it, but old enough to carry their careless comments with me, I was left with bits and pieces, a monstrous patchwork reality, stitched together with the overactive mind of a child. It wasn't until some fifteen years later, when the telegram arrived in America, informing us that Uncle Alder had died, that I learned the truth. Or, at least, the only truth I would ever discern.
Uncle Alder's indeterminable profession had merely been a resource to avoid poverty. His real career had been as a pianist, a classically-trained auteur of some renown, one who was destined for a life of the appreciated performer, before his brother, my father, bullied him into a task too dangerous.
Our little house in Germany had a well, located beneath the garden. Heavy rain often caused it to back up, flooding the bathroom and kitchen. Mother wanted us to join the city lines, but it would have required almost a quarter mile of digging and pipe laying, and a cost father was determinedly against. Thus, each great storm resulted in father calling Uncle Alder over to help him clear the clogged line. This involved lifting a heavy iron cover that sat a few feet under the ground. Father, dismissing his brother's strength, always insisted on holding the cover, as Alder lay across the opening, reaching into the open piping to pull free the backed-up waste. Uncle Alder had resignedly performed this unwelcome chore on a good half dozen occasions, getting filthy, but otherwise unscathed, until the day tragedy struck. It appeared in the form of a rat, one that suddenly scampered across Alder's arms as he was clearing the way, causing him to cry out. Father panicked, letting go of the cover, just as Uncle Alder was drawing himself up. The heavy iron plate came down upon Alder's hands, crushing them. As mother told it, at the wake, sitting before an uneaten sandwich, Uncle Alder never again touched a piano, for years experiencing anxiety even when he'd come close to one. “I know he blamed father for what happened, he didn't want to ever let it be over. He stewed in it, Totty, and your father did too. They both suffered for it.” She said this, picking at her sandwich, tears lining her face. I tried to make this fit with what I'd witnessed all my life, the terrible animosity between the two men, Uncle Alder's fearful regard of father and father's callous lack of respect for his older brother. In doing this I saw, for the first time, that, as much as I loathed father's actions, there was some truth in what mother said. Both had suffered, both had carried the weight of that fateful day, one losing his dream, the other his grip, the fragile hold he'd had on himself.