Thursday, July 31, 2008
Dodo, Chapter Eight, The Wild West
I opened my eyes and saw the purple shape floating on the surface of the filled tub, just between my knees. It reminded me of a rose petal, drifting across some quiet pond.
Mother had opened the door moments before, without knocking, the way she always did. Quickly averting her eyes from the sight of me, submerged up to my chest in the grayish water, she’d backed her way towards the bath, holding out a small carton. “Epsom salts, Totty,” she’d whispered, as if lowering her voice was somehow making her entrance more discreet. “Sprinkle some in the water, it’s good for aching muscles.” She’d then hurried out, closing the door ever so gently.
I lay there, my arms circling the back of the tub, watching the bruised nail that had separated itself from my big toe, seeing how it cast a c-shaped shadow upon my stomach. I was alarmed, but not surprised. I had, after all, run almost ten miles, along a grueling course of hilly, unforgiving country road. My legs no longer felt like my own. It was as if I were Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, awoken to find myself attached to another’s limbs.
“How many miles can you run?” I’d asked Helmut, earlier that morning, my foot perched on a kitchen chair, working the laces of my high-top sneakers.
“Twenty, twenty five – a marathon I guess,” he’d replied, sounding as confident as ever.
“You’ve really run that far?”
“Almost, maybe – doesn’t matter, I can do it,” he shrugged, avoiding my stare. He was standing before me, adjusting the red, white, and blue wristbands he’d bought the day before at Barker’s, the discount store located less than a mile from our house, a cavernous emporium of discarded merchandise where we’d recently begun buying sealed boxes of original-label 45s, ten for two dollars, sweetening our ears with the likes of James Brown and Wilson Pickett. It was early summer, 1972, the family had only been living in America for a few months.
Helmut, desperate to blend into his new home, was clearly willing to meet any challenge. He seemed to believe that by besting the Americans he would gain their acceptance, like some nomadic warrior, stumbling into a strange camp, wrestling their strongest brave into surrender. This, in fact, is how he essentially saw the world, and himself.
“I hope I can do the whole thing,” I breathed, satisfied that my sneakers were adequately tight. I was referring to the twenty-kilometer running race we’d entered the evening before, riding our bikes to the local fire hall to register our names and pay our six-dollar entry fees. Sponsored by The Pioneer Steakhouse, a popular local gathering place, the fee had entitled us to bright red T-shirts emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo; a prime rib, crossed by two muskets and topped with a coonskin cap. We’d both proudly worn them to breakfast, earning quietly critical looks from father.
Following my older brother into his latest reckless venture, as desirous of fitting in as he, I soon found myself on the starting line, having made my way through the tight throng of two hundred or so runners who had gathered on the narrow road before the drab concrete building that housed the Hudson County Volunteer Fire Department.
“Don’t let any of these guys muscle you off the pavement, Totty – you hear me?” instructed Helmut, giving me one of his serious looks, before cracking a toothy grin. “Watch the heels in front of you too – trip in this bunch of turkeys and the red shirts are going down like freakin’ dominoes!” He loved his new mastery of current American slang. I watched as a bald man pointed a gun to the white sky and fired a single, muffled shot and we were off, a parade of moving advertisements for The Pioneer Steakhouse, all ages and disciplines, from the seasoned county champion to an eleven year-old West German immigrant named Tot Vogel. “Take it easy until we start thinning out!” I heard Helmut call out, as I was quickly swallowed by the mass of early morning runners. “You hear me, retardo?” I was quite happy when, coming to the first of many winding turns, I was cut off, forced almost to a complete stop, losing sight of Helmut in the crowd ahead of me.
Hudson County, Ohio, consisted of a few hundred thousand acres of rolling, tree-choked hills and smelly farmland. The nearest town was a good four miles from where our small house sat, at the foot of a steep ridge, only yards from a busy railway line, rocking cars full of coal and ore passing so regularly the pictures mother had hanging in the front room made half-circle marks on the wall as they swung on their nails. The Fifth Annual Pioneer 20K Steakhouse Run wound through this rough-hewn territory, making a mockery of any pre-planning on the part of novices like Helmut and I. Less than two miles into the race I was stooped over a low stone wall, coughing my lungs out. I didn’t know it then but it was allergies, the swaying grasses, ripe with seed, giving rise to a throat of mucous. Sitting on the uneven stretch of moss-lined boulders, which reminded me of home, I watched at dozens of runners pass me by, before my lungs allowed me to continue. Biting my lip, I rejoined the mostly-older procession, trying to ignore the burning nausea building in the pit of my stomach.
The morning sun was soon bleeding across the sky, replacing the thin clouds with dramatic patches of blue that appeared sporadically, directly overhead, as the gulag of amateur athletes padded through arches of blowing, green leaves, the road at their feet tattooed with the shadows of listing trees. I had given up looking for any sign of Helmut long ago. He was obviously far ahead. The hot sun was soon making me wish I’d bought wristbands too, salty sweat running the bridge of my nose, pooling about my upper lip. My knees were beginning to ache, my shins all but numb, my feet throbbing inside my flat, pinching sneakers. I didn’t know it then, but my white socks were already pink with blood.
“What do you want with running in a race?” father had questioned us, sitting at the breakfast table, shielding his head with the paper. We rarely saw his pained-looking face before lunchtime.
“It’ll be a kick,” replied Helmut, scooping boiled egg from its shell, spreading it across his toast, like butter. “I’m going to win.”
I could almost see father’s sneer through the newspaper.
“Twenty kilometers is a long way, Totty,” cautioned mother, reaching out to touch my arm. “You shouldn’t go. Why don’t you just watch your brother?”
“Let them kill themselves,” father snorted, turning noisily through his paper.
“I don’t want you leading your brother into such foolishness,” exhorted mother, now squeezing at my arm. Though talking to Helmut, I knew she was really appealing to me, digging for the weakness she knew was there.
“Mother,” I moaned, twitching at her touch, afraid to catch Helmut’s eye, more afraid of the rustling newspaper across the table.
“They go together – or no one goes,” father stated, his tombstone face suddenly appearing over the morning headline. I could feel mother’s hand soften its hold, slowly pulling away. “A joint funeral is cheaper,” he laughed, enjoying his own joke, his eyes all shiny inside their reddened lids. He’d managed to remain sober for the first three months at his new job in the new country. I think he considered it some sort of a gift to the rest of us, one he was now eagerly taking back, night after night, bottle after bottle, filling the garbage can by the shed with green glass, as mother lay in bed, pressing the cover to her ear, preying into a tear-stained pillow, already knowing that the alternative was worse.
Looking about me, I realized how much younger I was than the vast majority of the runners. This shouldn’t have been a revelation, for Helmut had lied to the lady at the registration table, telling her I was thirteen, the cut-off age for the race clearly posted as twelve. Being tall for my age had helped.
It was becoming increasingly more difficult to keep my arms bent, pumping them at my sides in accordance with my stride, as Helmut had shown me. I now dropped them every few steps, letting my fingers hang loose, giving momentary comfort to my aching shoulders. My hearing was going all funny, like it did when I was upset or confused, making everything sound flat and muffled. It could have been the allergies, or the humidity, but it was more likely my nerves, the condition that was then only a larva, buried deep underground, just beginning to sense its own existence. I caught the dim cacophony of running shoes hitting the road and the constant flapping of the paper number Helmut had roughly pinned to my right shoulder, catching my skin, leaving a thin trial of blood along my forearm. “This is so they can shoot you with their camera at the finish line,” he’d explained, making me stand still. “Means they’ll have your face on record, retardo, so don’t go robbing any banks or assassinating any elected officials – they share their files with the FBI, you know.” I winced, recalling a film we watched in school back in Worms, J. Edgar Hoover gesturing at the press with his cigar, pointing towards a shape lying under a blood-stained tarp, dumped squarely in the middle of a squalid-looking Chicago street, like some dog’s accident.
America was an endless source of fascination. Any worries mother had of us not being able to adjust were unfounded. We’d both taken to the cultural displacement with a determined gusto, an enthusiasm that belied our nervous trepidation. It had always seemed somehow mystical, less than real, a country one read about in books, perhaps saw in movies, but not a place young German boys ever imagined they’d visit, let alone live in. Being barely eleven when we stepped onto the dark tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport, I was full of miscomprehensions about my new home, myths that Helmut’s teasing and father’s silence had done little to remedy. Mother was the only one I could ask questions of, but her knowledge was hardly more accurate than mine. “Rock Hudson has a home on both coasts,” I remember her explaining during the flight, dabbing at my cheek with her napkin as a pretty blonde stewardess retrieved our dinner trays. “And the Empire State Building is so tall, airplanes have to fly around it!”
The idea of this had instantly caught my imagination.
“Will we fly around it, mother?” I’d asked, glimpsing past the stoic profiles of my brother and father, seeing the endless blue sky that peeked through the little window.
“I’m sure we will, dear, I’m sure we will,” she’d replied, returning to her glossy magazine.
“Huh – we’ll probably fly right into it,” breathed Helmut, his eyes closed.
“No we won’t!” I cried, causing father to stir, making Helmut flinch nervously.
“Hush, boys, you’ll wake your father,” whispered mother, busy absorbing all she could about Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, those glamorous, iconic metropolises, the sparkling jewels in every immigrant’s eyes, places we’d hardly ever see, at least not as a family.
I was now walking more than running, the pain in my feet making it hard to do even that. I’d not noticed the change at first, my every stagger, every limp shuffle, a welcome distraction, bringing me a moment’s respite from the stinging coils that seemed to be tightening about my toes.
“Like some water?”
I looked up, seeing a teenage girl standing beside the road, just ahead of me. Her long, straight hair was almost white in the brilliant sun. She smiled, holding out a small paper cup as I hobbled towards her. I managed a grin and took it, drinking so fast I splashed half the cool water down my neck. I meant to say “thank you” but instead a weak “danken” came from my throat. I saw the girls’ eyes widen with surprise. Digging my chin to my chest, I gritted my teeth and forced myself on, into a trot, my pride the only thing keeping my going.
It’s impossible to explain the immigrant experience to those who have never immigrated, other than to suggest one imagine being transported to a world that looks much like Earth, but which is otherwise entirely different, its every movement, every sound, wholly unpredictable. Of course, it was much easier for Helmut and I than it was for mother and father, we had mastered English in school and regularly digested as much of the American mythos as we could. Like most Western European children, my head was dizzy with imagery of the romanticized “Wild West”; cowboys twirling ropes, shooting each other in lonely standoffs, red-faced Indians looming behind every rocky crag, squinty-eyed sheriffs passing through swinging saloon doors, tumbleweeds rolling lazily by; it was all waiting for us, just beyond the horizon, seemingly as tangible as Heaven’s promised harp and wings. The day I learned that the Americans had acquired the automobile, along with other modern conveniences like the telephone and television, was a day of much confusion and consternation. I asked mother how this could be, how the Wild West could have airports and electric toasters and Beatle boots. She pulled me to her and kissed the top of my head. “Your cowboys and Indians lived a long time ago, Totty, they aren’t there anymore – just like the knights and the Vikings of Europe.” That evening I’d retreated to my side of the tiny bedroom I shared with Helmut, spreading my collection of plastic and metal “army men” across my bed, an assortment that included rifle-shooting cowboys, arrow-aiming Indians, shield-toting knights, Cossacks, barbarians, and German infantrymen, along with the prerequisite British paratrooper, gouged with a penknife to indicate the wounds of combat. Though confused, suffering a curious sadness, I was soon giggling to myself, imagining my fierce Indian brave sitting on a toilet, the gunfighter in the sombrero loading his dishwasher. It was a joy that suddenly vanished, the instant I heard a violent pounding on the back door and mother telling Helmut to hurry off to his bedroom.
Mother and father continued using the old language in the home, right up until father’s death. Only then did mother begin talking to us in English. Helmut and I had used it around her from the very start, the day we’d first raced up those narrow stairs to the dusty, empty room that would be our haven for so many years to come. Around father we reverted to the old way, not daring to offend or upset him, for we never knew which way the wind was blowing.
It was a strange thing, being so openly referred to as a “German”, for I’d never thought of myself as such before. In America, my identity preceded me, from the classroom to the street corner. I was called nastier things, of course, like “Hitler-Boy” and “Nazi-Fuck”, but these came mostly from the bitter-faced grandson of one proud WWII vet or the other, men forever stuck in the past, still clutching invisible rifles, much like the little men in my cigar box.
At first, it seemed I could do little to please anyone. Those who wanted me to be American were disappointed with my accent, my awkward politeness, my somewhat aloof, cool nature, those who were looking for an exotic foreigner were frustrated with my limited knowledge of my own country, with the fact that I looked very much like they did. I was, after all, just a boy. I might as well have come from France or England. I had not packed the cultural history of my people in my suitcase, I had, in fact, determinedly left all that I could behind, keeping what I chose in my memories of Grandfather Amwolf, Grandfather Meyer, Uncle Alder, and the grey, damp stones and nettles that lined our garden wall.
I don’t know exactly how long I had been out on the road when I heard the car engine approaching. Amazingly, I was very nearly still managing a run when the horn sounded. Almost stumbling over myself, I turned to see a familiar station wagon, leading a trail of dust. Apart from a farmer on his tractor, it was the first vehicle I’d encountered all morning. It suddenly dawned on me that the race was all over, that I was the very last person still out on the course. I tilted my head to the sky. The sun had already passed its highest point. I gasped, searing pain racing from my toes to my hips.
“Hey, retardo!” came Helmut’s voice, sharp and critical, as the station wagon pulled beside me. “What are doing?”
I saw father’s shape at the wheel. He was smoking. It was strange thing to see, for he never smoked around the house, more a response to his own upbringing than any sort of consolation for mother.
Helmut was leering out of the passenger side, an unlit cigarette between his red lips. I saw a pack of “cowboy cigarettes” on the dashboard. This is what father and Helmut called Marlboros. It was their favorite brand. Father often enlisted Helmut to hide the contraband from mother, often in the ceiling of the garden shed, the secret stash usually consisting of a carton of Marlboros and a twelve-pack of Budweiser, always cans, never bottles. The shed was commonly referred to as The King and Cowboy, as if it were a public house, even in front of mother. “Marlboro and Budweiser, two things America does like no one else,” I can recall Helmut once claiming, parroting father, as we chugged sweet, cold soda, waiting for mother outside the local supermarket.
“Dad’s really pissed,” Helmut whispered, now leaning out of the car, cupping his hand over his mouth in confidence. The engine suddenly cut off. “Seriously,” he added, with uncharacteristic solemnity.
I came to a stop, standing very still, staring at the ground, my lower body insensitive, my head spinning, feeling the heat of the car’s engine rising over me. I was sure, after all I had endured, that I was going to pass out, right there, in front of Helmut and father.
“You’re goin’ to get it,” whispered Helmut, the tease back in his voice, just like that.
I heard father’s door open and his hard shoes on the road. The car was parked half on it, half on the broken shoulder. I counted the footsteps, hearing them soften as they reached the dirt. My eyes were now closed, a heavy feeling coming over me, as if I were about to swoon. I wondered what I would do when father hit me. A great terror blossoming, I bunched my hands at my sides, preparing myself for the worst.
“You beat your brother by almost two miles.”
I held my breath, going dizzy.
“Never knew you had it in you, Totty. Doubt you did either,” father added, putting a hand on my shoulder. I winced, pulling away from him, before I even realized it, almost tripping. He steadied me and drew me back towards him. I heard a low chuckle coming from within the car. “What should we do to celebrate? Hmm?”
My eyes stinging with sweat, I turned, blinking, catching the big grin on father’s face. I couldn’t believe it. Still terrified, I grinned back, wiping at my eyes, realizing I couldn’t feel my feet at all. “Celebrate?” I heard Helmut whine, his voice all but disappearing into the car.
“You made yourself a real man today, Totty Vogel –yes, you sure did,” father announced, giving me a solid slap on my back, making the sour feeling in my stomach take a dangerous climb. “Give me that pack, Helmut!”
I glanced over at the car, seeing Helmut, wearing a queer look on his face, one as much wounded as fearful. He handed the Marlboros to father.
“Here you go, boy, you’ve earned this,” said father, holding a cigarette before my lips, waiting for me to mouth it. I hesitated, not knowing if I could even manage. “Go on, boy, take your prize,” he added, touching the filtered tip to my lips. I took it, terrified of dropping it. “Raise your head, cowboy, you get the champion’s smoke today,” he insisted, with an odd chuckle, something I couldn’t ever remember him doing, not in my honor. He lit the cigarette. I just held it there in my mouth, my arms at my sides, inhaling and inhaling, until it seemed my ears were about to emit great plumes of smoke. Then, all at once, I was pitching forward, my trophy lost on a gushing cascade of all that Helmut had forced me to eat for breakfast.
“Gross!” came my trainer’s voice, from within the car.
I was instantly on my hands and knees, losing my guts with dramatic fashion.
“Look at your mess!” declared father, his mirth a fleeting thing. “I should make you walk home. Clean yourself, boy, and get in the back seat, your mother is worried sick about you. Why would you run on like that, after your brother had stopped? Do you enjoy making your poor mother worry herself over you? Hmm?” I was sure my vomiting was the only thing that had stopped him from striking me. I could hear the violence rising in his voice, a tone I knew all too well.
Staggering to my wrecked feet, wiping at my new shirt, I climbed into the car, unable to restrain the tears, my eyes flooding with the realization that America wasn’t going to be any different, after all. It wasn’t going to change father, not like I’d been secretly hoping, ever since I’d raced through those sliding doors at JFK, breathing in the first taste of my new home, listening for the gunslinger’s discharge, the war cry of the Indian, never considering that I’d brought the wild west with me.