Sunday, September 28, 2008
“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.