Monday, March 9, 2009
I made my way back through the lounge car, steadying myself against the seats, the way everybody did, even the seasoned employees who worked the busy Capitol Limited, on its daily progress between Pittsburgh and Chicago, a journey I was now making in reverse, having endured eight days along the brutal and lonely beaches of the gulf coast.
I had met a girl named Meredith on the lazy train and was excitedly transporting a cardboard tray filled with two orders of fries and two sodas back to our seats. I waited for the doors between cars to open with their automatic clutter, the rush of air from the tiny space like the false roar of a seashell. Stepping over the slippery joint where the floors met, I looked through the next door to see Helmut, leaning into the seat where I’d left Meredith not some ten minutes before, having done my best to look gallant as I refused the crumpled bills she’d tried to force into my hand. “My treat,” I’d said, happy to explain it was my way of showing appreciation for her having helped me photograph a stretch of torn and shattered auto wreckage yards, the cars piled at least fifty high into the mint blue sky, creating a bizarre late-morning landscape of faded painted metal peaks, behind which an obstructed sun was still trying to greet the new day.
Helmut was a bastard when it came to girls, especially those he knew I was toppling over the precipice for, something I was, of course, all too prone to do – all too quickly. The only girl I’d ever been surprised by was F. The night I first saw her, I was sure she was about the furthest thing I’d ever want to crawl into bed with, let alone fall in love with. Proving my intuition an immature thing, she soon transformed into a raven-haired promise of sexual adventure, a girl whose funny back teeth, flanged like the tips of a hawk’s wing, became a source of thrilling sensation, the times she’d take me past the archway of her mouth and move her jaws side to side, in a circular motion, setting me as rigid as stone as I penetrated the warm well of her throat.
Meredith was a sandy blonde with a face that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the center of a cartoon drawing of a sunflower. Her pink cheeks were accented by impressive dimples that appeared when she smiled, offering a greeting so reassuring it all but dislocated my natural predisposition to shyness, something so many people took as a classic case of Teutonic aloofness.
I was, in truth, anything but aloof. But still, I had to overcome the stereotype, even years after my Southern German accent had all but faded into the recesses of my adopted rush of American phrasing and intonation.
“Hey! Look who’s finally made it! The concessions kid! Ice cold soder – git yer ice cold soder!” Helmut called out, laughing the big way he always did, all teeth and tongue, not caring how loud he was in the crowded car. He made no show of moving as I approached. I was keeping my eye on the tilt of the tray, afraid of tipping Meredith’s orange soda into her fries. “Mere’s been telling me all about her dad’s cow machines!” boasted Helmut, grabbing the flimsy tray, passing it over to the grinning Meredith, who he had all-too-conveniently trapped in her seat against the window, where, only moments earlier, I had been sitting, trying to set the lens of my Leica flush with the dusty window in order to capture the jagged peaks of rusting wrecks. His use of the instantly-familiar “Mere” didn’t slip by me. It was an extra little slap in my face, of the sort he’d used before. That was about the only weakness in his armory – he was reliably repetitious. Every victory bought imitation, which forged a circular evolution, something I have to thank God for. If he had been learning along the way, I would have been dead long ago – from trying to kill him, if not from an irreversibly-broken heart. “Fifty gallons a minute he can collect from just two head of Jerseys! That’s almost enough to keep Bunter Beams quiet!” roared Helmut, his eyes half-closed, chewing at the inside of his mouth, his idea of a good James Dean impersonation.
Bunter Beams was the fattest child in our primary school back in Worms, a boy as big and round as a buoy, a situation only made worse by the red and white stripes of our compulsory school cap. He wasn’t actually named Bunter, we just called him that, in reference to the popular British character, Billy Bunter, the roly poly, bespectacled schoolboy of supremely nerdish inclination.
Bunter Beams loved his milk. This was the real kind, the sort we were served with our school lunch, with an inch of cream at the top of each bottle, a treasure we all relished in licking at with our tongues, after we’d peeled back the little foil caps. We had the same delivered at home. Mother would set a six-pint holder just outside the front door once a week. It had a plastic needle and a gauge showing the half moon measure of one bottle to the full compliment of six, to let the dairyman know just how much we needed. No matter how early she rose, the delivery had always been made, every silver foil cap already punctured by sparrows, who relished the cream almost as much as Bunter Beams. Some mornings, I can remember hearing father yelling at the happy little birds from the upstairs bathroom window, spitting toothpaste as he screamed that he was going to shoot them all and make a king’s pie. “That’s blackbirds, Georg, not sparrows,” I could hear mother correcting, in her country lilt, almost effecting a cockney meter, banging their metal bedpan into the toilet, flushing what father had left in the night. Though they’d acquired indoor plumbing two years after Helmut was born, father still refused to completely give up his old manners, swearing off navigating the dark landing for late-night visits to the new bathroom. Being such a heavy sleeper, in those days before the bottle ruined his natural constitution, he was probably sparing us the likelihood of his tumbling down the stairs, cursing with each bump, like the tight bellows of a bagpipe.
“Here, Dodo – this is yours,” Helmut snickered, handing me my soda, ignoring the ice that was spilling onto the carpeted floor of the train. “Have some fries too, why don’t ya?” he said, dropping a greasy handful into my open palm.
I just stood there, my feet wide apart, balanced like some Parisian archway, straddling the aisle. Helmut now had one knee set into the seat beside Meredith, its cushion still warm from my recent occupation. I watched her, her beautiful olive eyes flecked with seaweed, her bright teeth, her thin red lips, the lean grace of her pale, freckled neck, and my heart ached, for I knew I had already lost her.
“Sit down, Dodo, you’re blocking the way!” barked Helmut, sitting down in what had been my assigned seat. I winced, taking my eyes from Meredith. Dodo. It was the nickname that stayed strictly between us, part of our brotherly code, the secret language that had been so important when we first came to the new country. Now it was simply a term of ridicule, one he only used when he meant to emasculate me, such circumstances often involving a pretty girl who had dared speak to me first. In a club, at a party, on a bus, a train, a hovercraft – it didn’t matter – he didn’t discriminate.
Defeated, I sat down across the aisle, next to the grey-haired lady who had fallen asleep on Helmut’s shoulder half an hour earlier, causing him to make faces at her as we rattled through the broken backyards of eastern Michigan. I knew even then that he was only trying to get the attention of the mesmerizing blonde sitting next to me, the girl who was quietly looking out the window, pointedly not saying a word. I’d tried numerous times to work up the courage, to locate the right thing to say to her, to find an easy opening, but I’d failed, and now there she was, edging into the sleazy embrace of Don Juan Vogel. She might as well have been on a train heading in the other direction.
“Thank you again so much, Tot!” she called out, in a brittle, but warm voice, across the way, her fingers doing a dance as she waved around Helmut’s grinning profile, a fry dangling from his chiseled lips. “You’re so sweet to have done this! Really. I need to pay you before we reach Pittsburgh – I really do.”
I smiled back weakly, hating myself, hating the train, hating the plan to meet Helmut in Chicago and ride home with him, a thorn at my side, one I’d end up pressing to my own flesh, the way I always did. My trip north, on the City of New Orleans, had been bad enough as it was.
I’d been half asleep, reading a dry old crime paperback I’d picked up in an antique store in the French Quarter.
The Case of the Wheelchair Corpse.
It had a bright cover, picturing an elderly lady clutching an afghan, tumbling from the chair in which she’s just plunged over the edge of a rooftop. I’d bought it, half-intending to send it anonymously to F, sort of a final word in the long and miserable argument that had colored the last few weeks of our two-year relationship. “It’s like you’ve got me in a wheelchair!” I’d declared, in one of our more-heated final sessions. “You’d be happier if I couldn’t do half the things I could – wouldn’t you? You’d like me like some – some invalid – just so you could be in charge. I thought this was supposed to be a team effort? I mean – wasn’t it?” She’d hurled a biscuit tin at me, necessitating six stitches in the musty-smelling room of the Pakistani doctor at the clinic across the street from Tarmonti’s.
The book was amazingly boring. It made an episode of Murder She Wrote seem nearly as exciting as peeling Fay Wray out of her underwear (an image that had accompanied my earliest nights of self-pleasure, one acquired after seeing the original 1933 King Kong at a year-end school assembly). I’d drifted to sleep, hunched in my seat, my nose poking between the open pages, trapping the book against the back of the seat in front of me, my arms slung lifelessly across my lap. I was startled awake by a fierce burst of coughing, coming from across the aisle. I’d only recalled seeing a younger man sitting there, but it was now occupied a large woman wearing a bright red kerchief about her head. She leaned at the window, her cheek flat to the glass, fanning her face with a travel brochure. She coughed more, sounding like a stream of tiny firecrackers going off inside a wooden trunk. I tried to look away but she caught my eye and grinned, the silver in her teeth reflecting the dim reading light above her head. “Tarzan’s gonna teach those savages a lesson!” she said, as if I knew what she was talking about. “It’s not up to the white man to lord the castle. Worse is if the dark man gets to aidin’ an’ abettin’ the white lord, then you’ve got a sin – a big one!” I smiled quickly, pressing my book to the seat, bringing my nose to meet its splayed aged pages once again, pretending I had dropped right back to dozing, but the big lady just rattled on. “See yourself, son? You’re as white as me, I can see that, but you’re not of me, not at all. Where you from anyway?”
“I’m German,” I replied.
I don’t know why I told her, why I just didn’t keep my nose to that old book.
Actually, that’s a lie – I do know why.
I told her because it was the first time anyone had spoken to me, all the way from New Orleans – other than the red-faced man who had peered from the mouse-sized toilet between cars when I’d opened the door. The fact that he’d left it unlocked, the green bar showing, did little to quell his fury. He’d actually called me “gimcrack”, a word I’d never even heard before. I later learned it meant something useless. It’s a wonder Helmut never got a hold of that one.
“I’m German.” That was all I’d intended to say. I thought it would suffice. I thought I could drift back to my semi-sleep, feeling better at actually having heard my own voice, but she wouldn’t let it go at that, she had issues to filter the air with.
“You ain’t blonde. How come you ain’t blonde? What color are your eyes? Can’t see in this light. You know who your father was? Hmm? Maybe you’re one of those gypsies. Your people would frown on you, son, riding in an electric train.” I almost laughed. I think she actually thought train tracks were electric, like toy trains. “I’m Dutch myself, at least there’s some on my mother’s side,” she went on. “My mother, bless her, was shot in the buttocks by her father. Bullet went right through her thigh and into the shoulder of her suitor – my father – as he was scramblin’ buck naked up the plum tree.” She said it all in the same matter-of-fact tone, as if she were reading me the bylaws of train commuting. I started to make a snoring sound.
It was a pathetic ruse. I was asking for it.
She raved on, her voice rising as she did, the beads of perspiration lining the pink flank of her brow growing in size, glowing in soft accompaniment to the sharp sparkles of her fierce dental work. “Harry Truman was a curser – blue as a gas flame in the company of ladies and gentlemen alike,” she said. “He was an American, son, and what I mean by that is he was a man who could talk down a tornado – standin’ in his underpants. Don’t suppose you German’s understand that, now do you?”
I actually nodded. Some sleeper. I couldn’t have fooled an infant at a card game.
“Dresden. What’s that mean to a boy like you, huh? If you was of the yellow persuasion I might say Nag-saki or Hiro-sheema to lift the skin from the skillet. We should have put your people back to the stone age. The Asians didn’t deserve any better. Nor did the Italians – but at least they knew when to turn tail and run.” It was like listening to an old man, like some of father’s old work friends in Binghamton. There was nothing about her that seemed remotely like a woman. No mercy. No room for empathy. She was a real bulldog. “But your people cooked the Jews in those ovens, didn’t they? What does that make a boy like you? Huh? I gotta think you outta be bent like a nail – so crooked with shame you can kiss your ass while givin’ yourself a suck-off!”
I should have hurled my book at her, but I didn’t. I should have told her to mind her own fucking business, but I didn’t. I should have moved, but I didn’t. I was about the most civil twenty-two year-old alive.
“God only knows what they’re doing letting you in this country. If I wasn’t medicated, I’d turn you in to the train engineer, I would!”
I opened my eyes, seeing her sitting there, talking more to the hummingbird of paper fluttering before her big face than to me. “Did you say medicated?” I asked, all but ignoring the offense of her barrage. She suddenly stopped her incessant fanning (the car was actually quite cool) and slowly turned her thick head my way. Her tiny eyes settled on me and stayed there for a long, excruciating moment, before she began to recite anew the mad transcription of her mind.
“New drugs, son, designed to balance an imbalanced brain. They’re made to treat my depression. I got the blues – the shit-faced family blues.”
I didn’t speak another word. I just sat there, my face stuck to the book, trapped in my failed pantomime of sleep, listening to her detail a life, offering moments that sounded so familiar they practically made me nauseous. The shit-faced family blues, I thought, my ears filling with the rickety-rack-rack of the train running the tracks, each division of lumber like a measure in a song sung in the voice of my grandfather Amwolf, his temples jagged with veins, his throat a lusty bugle, one red fist bunched at the sleeve of his Sunday suit, advancing on Helmut, holding in the other the wooden end of his hunting rifle, intent on breaking it over his grandson’s skull.
The shit-faced family blues.
I carried the phrase with me, all the way to Chicago.
The Capitol Limited was scheduled to arrive in the Pittsburgh station at approximately 11:15 PM, but it was almost midnight and we were still in Ohio. We’d just crawled by the dark outskirts of Cleveland, the dead-looking warehouses and brick buildings as silent as a waiting room in hell. I was humming the song about being a passenger, the one by Iggy Pop, recorded in Berlin with David Bowie. I remember the first time I heard it. I was at a birthday party on the North Side, the affair of some friend of Laser’s, who worked at a popular comic book store just over the 6th Street bridge from downtown. The shop was equally revered for its eclectic record selection, certainly to young men like me who had yet to uncover the riches of obscure music, the psychedelic treasures and rock explosions being hatched in countless drab studios across the world. Pop’s masterpiece on rail travel had crept into my mind as a peach-haired girl who answered to “Penelope P.” danced topless for all assembled, writhing like some drugged snake on the glass coffee table still cloudy with the powder that was fuelling the night. She’d been prepared for her impromptu performance, not wearing a bra under her poodle-emblazoned yellow cardigan.
It was one of the first things I noticed about her, the moment I stepped into the kitchen of the house and saw the extraordinarily dark face commanding so much attention, the big eyes, like beacons, taking in all with an acute sensitivity I later knew to ascribe to the speed pills Laser was dispensing up in the birthday boy’s bedroom. Like some spiky, red-haired, pierced chemist, he was squatting in his combat boots before the little desk beside the bed, groups of the pale pills assembled on tiny sections of torn composition paper. Dazzled into my stupor by Penelope’s electric presence – the rich color of her ebony skin, the elastic grace of her smile, her perfect teeth, the way her top lids hugged her eyes like half-open garages – I knew it was hopeless unless I joined her in Heaven. Bumping into Meat on the stairs, I was carried through the bedroom doorway, cursing him with all my might, kicking at his shins with the heels of my sneakers. He tossed me onto the bed, right on top of two girls, both dressed like new wave gravediggers. They pounded at my back, clawing me, calling me out for what Meat’s stupidity. Escaping with a healthy scratch across my cheek, I tumbled to the far side of the bed, just in time for Laser to slap a little pouch of paper in my hand.
Ten minutes later, I was wading through the soup of light that had suddenly filled the kitchen, a fluorescent fog growing from the floor, my eyes sliding like a robot’s, searching for Penelope. I found her in the backyard, which was nothing more than a tiny, walled-in patch of brown grass and dried dog shit. There was a keg sitting on a small picnic table, pushed against the far wall. Penelope was sitting on the table, watching her feet slap together, one high-heeled clog meeting the other. She was moving constantly, like a fly trapped inside two windows. I walked right up to her and placed my hands on the wooden table, on either side of her, bringing my grinning hot face to within an inch of hers. It was thoroughly unlike me. I was more alarmed than she was. She just grinned and reached out and grabbed the collar of my paisley shirt, pushing her big pink tongue through her Olympian teeth, using it to lick the bridge of my nose as her free hand cupped my crotch and squeezed. At first, she did it with some restraint, but that quickly went, her heavy grip soon making me gasp, dancing on my toes in a bizarre fit of agony that I kept confusing with pleasure. As I dropped to the dry grass, howling blue murder at the night sky, she walked right over me, giving me a clear view of the space between her legs, revealing the surprising fact that she wasn’t a girl at all, at least not wholly. I never learned just what direction she was headed in, which train it was she’d boarded.
It was my first experience with such a thing. I was terrified, ashamed of having been so attracted to her, to him. My amphetamine-powered brain made all sorts of wild rationalizations and assumptions for the interest, leaving me a quaking puddle of neurotic impulses, just perfect for Helmut, when he showed up half an hour later, whistling like the Dusseldorf Express as he stumbled into the dimly-lit living room, catching Mr. Penelope doing her thing atop the coffee table. Seeing him so thoroughly taken with the ambiguous sexuality on display made me begin to laugh, so much that I vomited right onto Penelope’s stage, making her slip and fall into Helmut’s arms, my cocksure brother collapsing under her, as ineffective as the Scarecrow of Oz.
These memories raced along the back of my mind, as I watched my brother paint Meredith’s mouth with his own, their faces two wrestling shapes in the dark of the night train, the haunted lights of Cleveland industry spread behind them in the misty window. It was easy to imagine that it was Penelope he was kissing, still ignorant of her little secret, as he had been at the party, giving her his classic slow-eyed once over, as he squeezed at her upper arms, pushing himself against her backside, his wasted brain cells whispering inside his skull, like a wind spiraling about an empty bullfighting ring, ancient cheers and cries ringing in his ears, envisioning a mad tableaux of debauchery between he and the incredibly-composed black girl. Penelope’s shove had been completely unexpected. Helmut went backwards, right into the wall, knocking a framed sketch of Frank Zappa from a nail. He cursed, rising, rubbing his shoulder where it had contacted the plaster. He was moving towards the defiant dancer when Iceman appeared, grabbing his arm and whispering to his ear. The look on Helmut’s face when he realized what he was being told was the greatest gift I’d ever received, an image I was conjuring that midnight on the tracks, my body sore from its cramped position on the merciless coach seats, my heart silent, no breath in me, seeing perhaps the most naturally beautiful girl I’ll ever meet, pressing herself into the cavity of my brother’s body, slipping her hands under his shirt, her head buried below his chin, tiny moans breaking from her throat, the dull rumble of the tracks reverberated about the torn stretch of a dying city’s extremities, the sunflower melting into the black cloud, oblivious to the secrets he was hiding under his bravado, the anguish of the first heir to the final playing of yet another recording of the shit-faced family blues.
Rickety-rack-rack went the train, moving through one graveyard, on the way to the next. Just two weeks later, they’d fine Helmut dead, sprawled across a pool table in the basement of a Carnegie Mellon fraternity, a victim of his own emotional fury.