Monday, December 29, 2008
The photograph was of a tiny girl, looking no more than two, standing beside what appeared to be a birdbath shaped like an eggcup. The top of her head, covered with a spirited mass of raven locks, hardly reached the lip of the stone drinking pool. She was wearing a white dress, beneath which were two grey socks pulled up to her chubby knees. She didn’t have on any shoes. It appeared to be summer, the short grass of the yard upon which she was standing was blanched with a bright light that placed dark shadows upon her legs and created a black doppelganger that stretched out far behind her. She was in mid-laugh, her well-fed cheeks stretching to reveal a missing tooth and playful tongue. Her eyes, half-squinting to meet the sun, were set wide about her button nose, giving her a faintly piggish, but nevertheless charming appearance. Behind her, to the right, was the side of a wooden house, a non-descript early twentieth century structure, if I’m any judge of architectural design. It appeared neither lived-in nor abandoned. Apart from the birdbath, the only other sign of inhabitance was the edge of a section of striped fabric, blowing in the wind, appearing at the upper left of the picture. The more I looked at it the less certain I was of its origin. It may well have been an American flag, or it might have simply been a bed sheet hanging on a line, there was no good way to tell, and the over-exposed photograph did little to help. Turning over the small, weathered slip of paper, I saw a single name, hand-written in pencil.
“Imogene,” I whispered to myself, repeating it, trying to decide just who it might have been. My best guess was F’s grandmother, on her father’s side, though I realized I didn’t know her name. She’d died during the great depression, not long after giving birth to F’s father, Jack. “They had to burn her all her clothes,” I remember F telling me one sleepless night. I never knew just why, even though I’m sure she explained. It was my fault, I was becoming increasingly more inattentive, to her, and everything around me.
I was perched on a roadside picnic table, my ten-speed bicycle placed upside down before me, balanced on its saddle and handlebars, its detached front wheel resting beside it, the tire flat against the rim. Being bored, with no sense of urgency about fixing the flat, the brilliant sun having made the wooden table as warm as toast, I’d been embracing my idle nature, flipping through the little red book I’d stuffed in the side pocket of my pannier almost a week before. The photo had suddenly appeared, falling from the back pages.
Not ten feet in front of me stood a palm tree, its drooping fronds an unhealthy brown. Behind it lay a field, an acre of tough-looking bramble, growing up through twisted knobs of golden grass, like barbed wire. I’d learned just the day before that the bundles were not natural, as I’d first assumed, rather they were created by local hunters, as a way of making the small deer that grazed the grassy flat fields easier to spot, a measure taken prior to the annual setting of fires to herd them out. Beyond this patch of uninviting bumps was another field of gold, glistening in the rich afternoon sun, the face of the frying pan that had given me a handsome, if spotty, tan, one acquired during the week I’d spent cycling from the city of New Orleans, to Houma, then along a thin peninsula that had eventually brought me to Grand Isle, the southern most tip of the state of Louisiana, a sleepy assemblage of small houses, all built on stilts, in order to meet the regular flood waters, many so high from the ground there was a basketball net just beneath the front door. There was little more situated about the tarnished landscape. I’d encountered one or two small grocers and a couple of bait shops, plus a peeling plaster statue of Jean Lafitte, the infamous bayou pirate of yesteryear, sitting at the foot of a driveway leading to a shrimp shed, a hangar-sized building of corrugated metal that rested on wooden legs, out over the swampy waters of one of the many tributaries that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, the body of water I had pedaled some sixty miles to see, my tiny blue tent right that moment staked to a beach situated less than a mile away, a lonely stretch of gray sand operated by the state parks department.
I had come south, all by myself, taking a train named The Empire Builder from Cleveland to Chicago, from there riding the famous City of New Orleans to its namesake, my Peugeot PX-10, my tent, a few tools, and a change of clothes all inside a box lying under the baggage car. It was a trip meant to assuage me of the guilt I had been experiencing, ever since the day, just some two weeks earlier, when I’d decided to break up with F, the girl whose book I now held in my hands, the only girl who ever really understood me.
“It’s not that, T, I love your stories – I do – it’s just – I want to know what you’re thinking – what you’re feeling.”
We were both half-dressed, lying on the bed we shared in our small apartment in Cuyahoga Falls. What had been a night of drinking with friends had become a delirious stumble home in the dark, upsetting the neighbor’s garbage can, bringing old Mr. Drummond outside in his smiley face pajamas, making us both laugh until we had tears in our eyes. Literally falling through the side door that led to our ground-floor of a house owned by a taxidermist and his infirm sister, we’d collapsed in each other’s arms, tugging at each other’s pants, intending to make the most of our soaring spirits, but we were soon snoring away, oblivious to the fact that we’d left the door open. F had woken about four, wondering why she was so cold. My hand settled on her thigh, feeling the goose pimples on what was otherwise a reliably warm place. Making my way through a swirling head rush, I’d shut the door and returned to the bed, setting myself upon her, pushing my face between her legs, rubbing my chin against her underwear, murmuring my desire, but she wriggled, shaking me off, finding the edge of the downturned cover, drawing it up over us, shutting out the bright moon that eavesdropped through the bedroom window. Now awake, too wired to sleep further, she began to talk, peppering me with the regular litany of questions she seemed to reserve for such unguarded occasions.
“You never tell me things.”
“Like what?” I mumbled, the cover a shroud across my face.
“I don’t know – like when you were a kid. What did you want to be when you were little?”
I laughed, reaching for the promise between her legs. She slapped my hand into retreat.
“See what I mean? You won’t tell me anything.”
“I have,” I protested. “I told you about the accident on the road, about Alder’s hands, about father –”
“Yes! Exactly! But not about you, you idiot!”
I wore a hidden frown.
“You tell me all these interesting stories, but you leave yourself out. I don’t hear what you felt. It’s like I hardly know you, T. Nobody does.”
“That’s not true,” I groaned, shifting to my edge of the bed, offering her the silence of my back. She didn’t say anything for a long time. I was beginning to drift off into a troubled sleep, when she spoke again.
“Did you want to be, I don’t know, maybe an astronaut? A fireman? A doctor?”
I rolled my eyes. If her voice hadn’t sounded so dry and cracked, so child-like and earnest, I don’t think I’d have given her answer.
“Grandfather Amwolf gave Helmut and me this old race car set for Christmas. It was metal, just a little circle, painted green. The pieces didn’t go together very well, the wind-up sedans were always getting caught on the separations. There were two of them, one for the gangsters, the other for the police. It had a blue police badge painted on one door. They were wind-up. You know? With a big key at the back? Helmut always picked the police at first, leaving me to be the bad guys. Which made me desperately want to be the policemen. Father had a friend who worked in security at the big paper mill in Mainz. I remember seeing his holster once, knowing that inside the black leather was a gun, a real gun.”
“So you wanted to be a policeman?”
“Only because Helmut did. When he switched to the gangster car I wanted to be a gangster.”
F groaned, rolling onto her side. “Is this a Vogel condition?” she sighed. “Or is this just a German thing?”
“Fuck, T! You really don’t see it, do you? You’re a sponge your brother and your dad use as a punching bag! Everything you think and do is because of something they’ve said or done to you. Your grandfather did too, from what you tell me.” I began to mumble my objection to her theory. “No, listen, really, it is! I pay attention to this stuff, you know – I’m a girl.” In my stupor I took this as some sort of subtle clue, and again reached for her, making her punch me hard in the ribs. “You’re fucked up and you won’t get any better if you can’t talk about yourself!” she whined.
“I guess I wanted to be an soldier when I was really little,” I offered up, my side smarting.
“Why?” she asked, her designs on one day becoming a therapist coming to the fore. “Did you feel powerless?”
I laughed. “C’mon, F! I was a boy! I wanted to fight in a war, shoot bullets into the air, hold a grenade in my teeth – it was the cool thing to imagine being – we were all the same. I’ve told you about the comics we read, especially the British ones Uncle Alder brought back from his business trips, how they were all about the war. We read and read those things, until we could practically recite the cheesy dialog. It didn’t matter to us that the “Jerrys” were the bad guys, we just wanted to imagine ourselves part of that kind of action.”
“But you stopped feeling that way?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“It’s late – we need to get some sleep. I’m not going to waste the first Saturday I’ve had off in over three months.”
“But why did you stop wanting to be a soldier? Tell me – please?”
I was never able to resist that hurt tone she employed. It made me want to cradle her like she was a child who’d woken from a bad dream. It was only years later, when I had my own daughter, that I realized how strangely paternal my attraction for her was. I took a deep breath, hugging my pillow, my eyes closed tightly, seeing the trail of my lived life. “One day – it must have been during the last year before we moved to America – father came home from one of his social nights. He was drunker than usual, barging about the little front room, knocking one of mother’s porcelain figures from the mantle trying to hang his hat on it. He picked me up by my suspenders, dropping me on the sofa, hurting my nose. Then, after a failed attempt at kissing mother in the kitchen he stumbled upstairs. He came down a moment later with a ledger in his hand. Helmut and I were huddled on the sofa, barricading ourselves between the cushions, the way we often did when he came home. We both just stared at the book, never having seen it before. Charging for the sofa, father partied us like the Red Sea, each of us clinging to a cushion. He dropped down hard, exhaling the vapors of his bitter drink, and opened the leather-bound ledger, setting it across his knees as he began to read, his voice automatic, wooden, as if he were auditioning for a job. It contained Grandfather Amwolf’s diary, what little existed of it, an abandoned attempt at chronicling his life – for who, I don’t know, because father only discovered it after grandfather had died, hidden away in the locked chest he kept under his bed.
“What did it say?” F asked, her voice sounding nearer. I could smell her, making me want to take her to me, but I knew better.
“It was all about the war and how grandfather’s four brothers all died within two months of each other.”
“In World War II?”
“No, silly, this was back in the teens. It was the first world war.”
“I don’t even know who was fighting in that one. It confuses me.”
“Well, suffice to say, we were on different sides – our countries, I mean.”
“Oh – right,” She sounded embarrassed. My arms ached to hold her.
“That was the war where soldiers, on both sides, died like flies, thousands and thousands. Grandfather’s brothers, all older than him, were drafted the same day and were sent to the trenches. Amell, Peter, and Jon, they all were shot or blown up in the first month. Winfred took a bullet through the hand and was sent back home to convalesce. Things were so hard he was only allowed a couple of weeks in the infirmary, before they sent him to the steel works in Frankfurt, which had been turned into a munitions-making machine. His job was to scale the huge chimneys that belched out the black smoke from the kilns. He was a chimney sweep. He slipped and fell over fifty feet to his death.”
“God, T, that’s horrible. It’s amazing you’re even here, if you think about it. If your grandfather had been old enough to be drafted, I mean.”
“Yeah, I guess. Still, I probably wouldn’t exist if grandfather hadn’t raped Peter’s girl and she’d been forced to marry him.”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“Nope. That’s how father came into the world. It was all in grandfather’s ledger, written up like some cheap paperback. Father, having already known the truth without ever telling anyone, translated it for us that night, making it sound much more vulgar than grandfather’s German. Vogel family history – nice, huh?”
She took me in her arms, pulling me into her warm body, her breath on my neck, saying my name. I reached around her, sliding my hand deep into the back of her underwear, searching for her moisture. “T! Cut it out, for Christ’s sake! Can’t we just hold each other for once without that? God! You’re impossible!”
I slipped the old photo back into the book, closing it, running my fingers across its gilded surface, the faded gold lettering that read Naked Photographs. I’d taken it from F’s side of the bed, the day I’d made my escape. I’m not sure why, other than that it held a strong attraction for me, its unorthodox conceit, photographs appearing only as text description, leaving me with such clear images, almost as if they were my own memories.
I’ve always found a sad kind of comfort in my memory, letting an old moment intercede when the present seems an unbearable proposition. It’s a condition I’ve learned only increases with age.
I know it’s unhealthy to dwell in the past, at least I’ve always been told it is, but it’s inevitable, isn’t it? What do we have as we get older if not more and more memories? How do we avoid lingering on them? What would an old man do without memory, if he is alone, left to see the end of his days in the wounded house his family has left him?
I suppose Grandfather was right when he told us “regret is the life sentence of those who haven’t lived.” Helmut and I were hardly teenagers when he handed us this cryptic epitaph, having caught us sharing a cigarette behind the garage, back in Binghamton, an act he dismissed with a wink, leaving us to finish our poison. He enjoyed giving us such perplexing lectures, knowing we knew little of what he spoke. But now, after all the time that has gone by, it makes sense. His rare gesture of leniency seems to reach right out through the intervening years, making me almost smile at the vision of his hard and bitter face, the torn eyes that were the font from which we all tumbled, hopelessly, into our own inevitable fate.
It was with such an inkling of my own future derailment that I held that little book, that hot, breezy day, temporarily mired in the cradle of the Gulf, my thoughts settling wistfully on the bed I had shared with Effie Jones, its addictive warmth, the hiding place I’d found in her soft limbs, the sanctuary I’d created in the broken back corners of my psyche, the paradise I all-too-quickly met with a scowl when reality demanded I take it for what it was, the fragile steering of another’s heart, something I knew I had no good right doing, not a young man whose own had already been traced and cut like a butcher’s diagram. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her, that was the last thing I wanted to do, but how could I explain that staying with her was only going to hurt her so much more in the end? I had to bolt, I had to have her angry at me. I wanted her to learn to hate me, hate me so much her love would be transposed, forever and ever. It was a certainty that gave me some solace, alone there on that isolated finger of grassy brown terrain, thousands of miles from what I knew as home, the result of a flight on the rails I’d taken without even consulting “the very best damn rail rider in these Goddamn entire United States of America”. I know Helmut would have understood, even if he would have given me endless grief for it. He wouldn’t have let me go, he’d have bullied me into staying, regardless of the fact that he was then planning the first of his own great retreats, following father’s desperate tracks into personal oblivion.
I shook the little red book, the edge of the photograph sliding back into view. I let it fall into my hand and, looking at it one last time, now seeing F’s dark, needing eyes in the face of the child, I crushed it, hurling it as far as I could, off into the burnished field, offering it an escape of its own. I then took a small pencil from my pannier and, in the blank back page of the book, I began to write.
There is a tiny girl, no more than two, standing beside what appears to be a birdbath shaped like an eggcup. The top of her head is covered with a spirited mass of raven locks…