Monday, April 20, 2009
Dodo, Chapter Seventeen, All the Flickering Stars
The calf looked like a black and white chair caught in a spider web, hanging from its mother’s hindquarters, dangling over the damp early evening grass along the road following the Cuyahoga River as it left the old industrial backyard of Cuyahoga Falls for the flat farm lands to the west. F and I stood transfixed, holding our bikes before the crooked wire fence, watching in complete silence. A small car had pulled up a few minutes after we first stopped. The driver, a young woman with dreadlocks, was standing not ten feet from us, her eyes glued to the scene. She hardly seemed to have noticed us.
The cow shifted, snorting misty vapor from raw-looking nostrils, digging at the ground with her hooves, her front legs splayed, her neck straining, her big eyes filled with the effort of the standing birth.
The strands of silky wet embryonic fluid still holding her baby in their temporary hammock were beginning to snap free from her extended vulva, which sagged hideously beside her swollen teats. Even as the glistening folds of pink flesh provided new life entrance to the world, the bearer of that portal seemed on the verge of losing her own. After an agonizingly slow stretch of minutes, the new mother finally gave out a mournful bellow, her fetal discharge collapsing in a streaming heap upon the grass, making a sound that reminded me of football players hitting the practice pads outside our school back in Binghamton.
“Cut the shit, girls – or we’re going an extra hour! You hear me?”
I was sitting on my hands, feeling the cool metal of the bleachers, waiting for the high to kick in, wondering what was taking so long. My eyes followed Helmut as he laced the line of car tires set across the cleat-scarred turf. I kept expecting him to suddenly stretch out like a snake, to slither the practice course on a serpentine belly of orange and white, our school colors. He was desperate to win the coach’s favor, as he was with just about everything he’d encountered since we’d moved to America. That year he was partaking in every single feature of our high school’s sporting program, muddling his way through basketball, baseball, track and field, and skeet shooting, the shooting his only clear talent. No one could ever accuse my brother of not being ambitious.
“Is this stuff any good?” I asked, turning to see my best friend, Larry Winston, holding his pimply face in his hands, hunched over the bleachers like some dozing gargoyle.
“Best shit you can get in this part of the state!” he declared, his heavy-lidded eyes at half-mast. “It’s Canadian. Dude, your brother has one fucked up delivery on those pads. Why’s he open up his legs like that?”
I watched, seeing Helmut repeat the procedure, the coach blowing hard into his whistle, directing the cool September air with his arms. I couldn’t help laughing. “I think he thinks it’s Sandra Welsh.”
Larry snickered, stretching the side of his mouth with his tongue, the universal symbol for a blowjob. Sandra Welsh was co-captain of the cheerleading squad and the only reason Helmut tried out for half the sports he did. He swore to us that he’d managed to feel her up after a dance at the fire hall, but word around the school was they’d kissed, nothing more. We knew she was just slumming anyway, waiting until football season began for real and the starting line up was selected.
I knew all too well Helmut wouldn’t make the cut. He was enthusiastic, and tough, in his own way, but his football skills were about as sure as you’d expect from a guy raised on soccer and field hockey. Nevertheless, he owned the skeet squad, something he managed with an almost frightening efficiency, blowing the clay discs from the sky so consistently the gun teacher had to ask him to sit out every other practice in order to help some of the less-proficient shooters.
They shot behind the school, into a wooded area known as “Pussy Palace”, the extra-curricular refuge of the red-faced jock elites who topped the school social strata and whose fingers actually did infiltrate the elastic of cheerleader’s underwear, especially after victorious home games, the plastic six pack loops decorating the higher tree limbs testament to that hormonal revelry.
Binghamton was the sort of blue-collar town where people had enough sense to let the young have their moments of unbridled freedom – within reason, of course. The day Andy Bennix was found in the weight room with a half-naked Patricia Holmes wrapped around him like a scarf was the day the school hired a retired cop to walk the grounds each night with a flashlight.
“Dude. Your brother’s going to rupture himself! German balls! Gotta be as tough as steel!”
I laughed. It was easy with Larry. He had none of the knee-jerk attitude of so many of our American peers, all the whispered “Hitler this” and “Hitler thats”, the din of immigrant prejudice that we eventually learned to block out, returning the favor with our own teasing of the numerous Italian-American and Irish-American kids whose grandparents had journeyed the ocean.
Larry was a bit more world-wise than most of the dirt bike orphans who circled the playgrounds on lazy late afternoons, when the tackle dummies were taking their punishment. His father was Hungarian on his grandmother’s side and had taken Larry and his younger brother to Europe to meet relatives, giving them an early taste of life beyond the dirty brick walls of the old shoe company that then still employed most of the families in the area.
“Why’s Helmut so angry all the time? Aren’t you guys glad you came to America? Isn’t that why your folks brought you here? Cause it’s better here?”
I shrugged, suddenly realizing my fingertips were numb. “I guess so. Father got a good job offer and my uncle set things up for him. It wasn’t really that hard, I guess.”
Larry gave my arm a friendly punch, the way he often did. “When are you going to start calling your dad “dad”? Huh? You’re in The United States of America now, Tot, not the “Hinterland”.”
“I dunno,” I replied, feeling a familiar ache rising from my gut, almost overwhelming me. I hugged myself, listing forward, my sneakers caught under the lower bleacher. I could smell the wet fields of Worm, the dark, earthy flow of The Rhine, the stones about father’s old vegetable patch, Grandmother Hannah’s elderberry jam. “I feel kind of sick,” I said, dropping my head between my knees, a swirl of tiny stars filling the black screens of my closed eyelids.
Larry just laughed. “Told you it was good stuff! Breathe – you’ll feel better in a second.”
I vomited. I knew it was coming. Still, I covered my shoes and the bottoms of my jeans, decorating them with the greasy pizza we’d devoured just an hour before.
“Jesus, Vogel! Look at all that good Canadian bacon! What’ve you got against Canadian imports – eh?”
F squeezed my hand in hers. I turned to her for the first time since we’d spotted the unusually-shaped cow standing in the field off Potter’s Road, having been making our way home from a disappointing little music festival near Botzum.
“Wasn’t that about the most amazing, magical thing you’ve ever seen?” she said, her dark eyes moist with the experience.
I shrugged. “It was kind of gross – don’t you think?”
She let go of my hand, her face stiffening.
“How can you call the miracle of life “gross”? It was beautiful! Did you see the mother’s eyes when she finally let go? My God, T, sometimes I wonder if you’ve even got a heart! You’re so – so, so damn European!”
I just slowly shook my head, not knowing what else to say, watching the farmer and two young boys standing at the ready with a brush and a bucket, letting the mother have her time licking at the sticky newborn sprawled in the dewy grass.
“How can you just ignore what you just witnessed? Seriously, T – how?”
I stiffened, keeping my eyes on the field, pushing my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans. I heard the dread-locked girl getting into her car and wondered where she was going, if she was sleeping alone that night, wondering what she had made of the “miracle” we’d just been witness to. I wasn’t being heartless, no matter what F said, I just couldn’t have imagined a cow birth being any less wondrous a thing to behold. It was quick and ugly and so automatic. I didn’t even get the feeling that the mother was particularly connected to it all, other than being relived that the sixty-pound goiter hanging from her groin was now lying in the grass. There wasn’t any violin music, no sunshine breaking through the trees, none of the trappings of a “glorious birth” we’re so accustomed to seeing on television and in the movies. This was the real thing and it was dirty, smelly and awkward. The bored look on the farmer’s face said it all. In fact, that’s what I wisely chose to say in my defense, those very words, words that earned me a punch in the chest and a lonely ride home, F demanding I keep my distance.
It wasn’t until later that night that we spoke.
I was sitting on the tiny front porch of the house we lived in, half stoned, half asleep, watching the twinkling canopy over the trees for the next shooting star, the clouds of the afternoon having all but disappeared.
I heard the familiar groan of the screen door of the first floor apartment, my bloodshot eyes glued to the velvety expanse. F footsteps crossed the wooden porch, a series of muted creaks, followed by a soft cough. “Totty?” she said, her voice small and vulnerable, like a paper cup adrift on some dark sea. She only called me Totty when she was truly sad or hurt – or both. “I don’t want us to hate each other like this. It’s not good. We need to talk about it. Something’s wrong. Something’s gone wrong.” It was then I saw it, a bright waver, not far from the handle of the big dipper. It seemed to be tracing an invisible line, moving so slowly I swear it stopped and turned completely around before continuing. I blinked, trying to focus, determined to follow it, wherever it was going. “Totty?” F said again. She was so close now I could smell her, that sweet woodsy scent her body gave off, mixed with something from the kitchen – nutmeg, I think. She must have been baking. She often baked when she was upset. It was a trait she’d inherited from her mother. “Totty?” she continued, her voice still sounding wounded. “I want us to be happy or not at all. I don’t want to live with a man I need to fight to understand.” The shooting star was drifting now, in wider and wider right angles, like a bird with a broken wing. It didn’t seem to be able to help itself, it just kept moving in a south westerly direction, lower and lower, towards the rustling tops of the group of tall poplars behind the property. I was lost in my own thoughts, remembering something that Larry Winston had once told me, on a night very similar, when we were lying out under the stars, our bare backs on the smooth cool football turf. We were stoned, of course, stoned and young – anxious for our lives to really start.
“Dude! You didn’t know most of them were satellites? Seriously?”
I’d just been informed that the shooting stars I’d wished upon as a little boy, clinging to father’s collar as he held me aloft in the field across from our house outside of Worms, were in fact the telecommunications hardware of a select group of nations. I didn’t believe him. No one had ever told me this before. I was angry. It was like calling a big part of my childhood a lie. Why hadn’t father told me this?
“You’re full of shit!” I replied, an edge to my voice. “Satellites? Shooting stars are Sputniks?”
Larry snorted, amused. “Not even. Sputnik was at least exciting – a pioneer effort, you know? Those suckers moving about up there are just the multi-million dollar investments of a variety of communication companies and military institutions. NASA too. And weather satellites.” Larry regularly had information like this to impart, stuff that made me feel stupid, made me think he was trying to make a fool of me. It always made me defensive.
“I can’t believe it. Not all of them!” I insisted, desperate to cling to some of my childhood fancies.
“Well, no, not every single one – but most of them, the ones that move slowly, that seem to wiggle about? Those are satellites,” he explained, now sounding quite sincere.
I kept my face to the heavens, squinting extra hard, determined to somehow prove him wrong. “Which ones are shooting stars then?” I asked, not really wanting to know, wishing he’d never opened his big mouth.
“The ones you almost can’t see, the ones that disappear when you’re trying to keep with them,” he said, his voice slow and deliberate. He was good at explaining such things. He might have made a good teacher, if he hadn’t crashed his motorcycle two days before our Senior Prom. They found him, wrapped about his Honda 250 like a red ribbon around a Christmas present. “The ones that go so quickly,” he added. “The ones that are gone before you even realize you’ve seen them.”
“God damn it, T! Stop ignoring me!”
F’s fist connected with my chest, making me cry out. I pulled my knees to my stomach, pushing deep into the musty old loveseat we’d inherited from the older couple who lived on the second floor of the house. My eyes now stinging, I turned, seeing F’s tear-streamed face, like some terrible moon, hanging before the field of lights, banishing my reverie to some soft corner of my pot-addled mind. She just stood there, looming over me, her lower lip quivering, putting a queer little dimple on her chin.
She looked so much younger than her twenty-three years when she cried. My instinct was to take her in my arms and tell her everything was going to be all right, but this time I couldn’t make myself do it. Things weren’t going to be all right. I knew it and she knew it. The stars seemed to know it too. “We need to talk,” I said quietly, still wincing, holding my chest. “Let’s go inside, OK?”
“And that one there is the Dove. See him? Just south of Lepus?”
I peered into the inky expanse, feeling the cool night air on my neck, feeling it slip past the upturned collar of my coat, down into the thin cotton of my pajamas. Father had my bare ankles tight in his rough hands, squeezing me harder than he needed to. I clung to the top of his head, my fingers woven into his thick dark hair, which smelled of pomade and tobacco. All I could see where stars. The shapes of various animals and characters he was pointing me towards were beyond me, but I kept saying yes, yes I could see the rabbit and I could see the bear and I could see the fish – I could see them all, even the tiny little dove.
“That’s the brave dove that flew from Noah’s Ark and found the sprig of olive,” he explained, adjusting his grip, my slippers dangling precariously from my feet. Mother had gone to special late service at church, something to do with a death in the parish, leaving “the men” to get dinner and put ourselves to bed.
After we’d picked at the toast and sausages father had managed to burn, we’d gone out into the field to star gaze, a hobby father had acquired while sitting outside the local in the early hours of the morning with his cronies, trying to talk away the edge of his each drinking spell. Helmut was with us, but had gotten bored after a few minutes and had taken off to the stone well that sat beside a chestnut tree in which we’d nailed a wooden platform the summer before. He was lying on the makeshift ledge, tossing chestnuts into the well. We could hear them hitting the bucket that hung in the dark stone cavity.
“Why is the brave dove in outer space?” I asked, a reasonable question for a boy barely four years into his life.
“He’s there to catch the falling stars,” replied father, with a grin I couldn’t see.
“Oh,” I said, seeing a quick streak of white race across the misty heavens. “Did he catch that one, father? Did he?”
“Of course he did – you don’t see it anymore, do you?”
I looked and I looked but it was gone, just like father had said, stolen away in the beak of the dove. “I think his belly must be full of stars,” I proclaimed, a sudden greasy belch breaking from my mouth.
“Almost as full of sausage as yours!” laughed father, suddenly spinning about on his heel, twirling me so fast the stars looked like a swirl of cream in a cup of coffee.
“Doves don’t eat sausage!”
“Oh, they do, Totty, they do – when they have no choice they do,” father replied, coming to a quick stop, my stomach lurching, the taste of burnt food rising in my throat.
“When they’re starving?” I asked.
“Yes, when they’re starving, when they have no other choice, when – when things tell them they have to,” said father, his voice gone low and flat. “When they have to be the hawk, Totty – when they have to be the hawk.” I heard one of Helmut’s nuts hitting the bucket, a short, sharp clang that rang in my ears, like a warning. I tilted my head back up to the night sky and there seemed to be twice as many stars as before, a thousand doves in flight, hunting their prey.
I listened to F undress and then felt her crawl into bed beside me.
I lay on my side, watching shadows flitter across the moonlight on the wall, waiting to see what she might do, if she’d speak or move towards me. She did neither. She just lay there, a silent, unseen presence, only inches from me – but a million miles away.
In the morning we made love. It was automatic. We hardly exchanged a word, both of us playing our part, concentrating on some unseen prize, a last ditch effort to save what we had. It was the very last time.
“They should have buried Winston with his bike,” suggested Helmut, handing me the smoldering roach clip he’d deigned to share on account of the somber occasion, telling me I was dead if I dropped it between the bleachers.
“His father brought it back from Vietnam,” I said, nervously putting the metal clip to my lips, sucking at the damp twist of rolling paper.
“Figures,” laughed Helmut, taking the roach from me. “It survived the war, getting shipped half way around the world, and then genius goes and trashes it half a mile from his house.”
I wanted to defend Larry, but I didn’t say anything, I just looked up to the graying sky, waiting to see the first star, hoping it was real.