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.”