Michael's Writings


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BENEATH THE BLUFF

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

 

THREE ON A MATCH.................................................................................................. 3

MIRACLES AND ROSE PETALS............................................................................... 14

WHITE LIES.................................................................................................................. 28

LAUNDRY LINES AND LIGHTNING...................................................................... 33

DREAMS WELL DREAMT.......................................................................................... 44

HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER....................................................................................... 67

WIND AND WHISPERS............................................................................................... 77

PRECIOUS DO-DO....................................................................................................... 94

SIN AND CELLULOID................................................................................................ 110

NIGHT OWLS AND BURNING LADIES.................................................................. 127

SUMMER BROTHERS................................................................................................. 142

SUMMERS LATER....................................................................................................... 157


Not just to be on that mass of metal grinding

     along steel tracks, but even

     the thunder rumble of distant trains brings me heart

     a melancholy ache instilled in it from years past..

Though everywhere I lived has had tracks that trains           

    eEven in these modern times

still stumbled along enabling me

     to hear them throughout my day and dreams

     even away from home.

perhaps the need to taste that sweet melancholy is so great   

     mind resurrects sounds of a train once again

     traveling from the past into the present

     arriving so quickly, so quickly

                                    dissolving into the future.

Was this always so?  The past rushes by me

     through me.

 

THREE ON A MATCH

 

 

            Connecticut Transit sends trains filled with commuters, gabbing urgently into cell phones, clicking frantically on computers, rustling and folding newspapers, sipping hot coffee from steel cups, towards New York City on weekday mornings.  Though a few wrap an uneasy sleep around slumped shoulders, I let my gaze rest where it may, my body sink into the motion of the train.  The sway of the train car in which I sit, so astonishing when so much hard metal is moving so fast, can be so soothing the fear and delight of rail travel are distilled down into melancholy. 

The past slips out of night, dragged behind the rush and noise and morning light, into the present.  Then, leaving a tingling in my body, a rumbling in my ears, an after image upon my sight, goes on into the future.  I listen carefully for the past whispering as it rushes by me, through me.  I hear the train beginning to set the blue dawn outside to trembling, as memories crawl up from beneath my thoughts.

 

            The rattle of a window pain smudged with dirt from places I had never seen.  The smell of sheets freshly starched, the feel of those sheets against my skin, but in all that is unfamiliar, the familiar touch of my mother's hands as she does the last button on my Mickey Mouse pj's, the button at the throat I can never seem to get by myself though I am now seven years old and have been dressing myself for years.  But my little sister, Kathy, is only five, and can't seem to do the buttons on her nightgown by herself.  Or is it that she just wants Mom to do it for her? 

"Are your fingers too fat to button them yourself," I say.

            "Now quiet down," was my Mom's phrase to try and make us act like civilized creatures. 

Mom seemed to always be afraid that her children would somehow bother others with their howling, their jostling to one another, with the screams and crying from the not so unoccasional fight that my sister and I had.  This was not the today when children seem to run over their parents like toy bulldozers with batteries that never ran out, but the fifties when children, though not always complying, were at least expected to act civilized around adults. 

But we never fought on a train, only teased each other, and them not with the cruelest comment that we could have used.  We had to stay a family on a train.  Surrounded by other people getting ready to bed down for the night in other berths, we could sense that we were an incomplete unit on a train, and so, very vulnerable.  My father was not with us on these train trips.  Frightened, we always keep each other in sight.

            My father was not a man but my God, for while God was far off floating on clouds, dealing out more threats of the flames of hell than love, my Dad still loved us after he spanked us when we were bad.  And I could never imagine him being as cruel to me as God had been to his son Jesus (whom he let me nailed to a cross), nor could I imagine my Dad damning me to hell's suffering for eternity which was a time longer than between each Christmas.  When my butt smarted from Dad's hand, I could see that his eyes were as red as by ass, and he had some reason I could not quite understand but could accept for punishing me.

            He would not be punishing us this summer, as he had not during other summers past.  My father worked for the Air Force, something distant that protected us from evil.  Today there is the tendency to hear the train of the past and not to look at it but to fantasize what could be making such a noise.  Today they long for the nineteen fifties as though life then were a continual black and white sit-com where all problems were silly ones and then solved in less than thirty minutes.  But it was a frightening time when parents spoke in whispers that make the children all the more curious to listen to what was said.  There was a war off in a place called Korea that was only the beginning of the Reds taking over the world.  And they were already here among us trying to ruin our way of life. 

It was this evil my father was protecting us against, but also this evil that I feared would harm him.  But then, could my God be harmed?

            I would look up the front of his uniform, a shiny material colored a dull green that for some reason reminded me of dried blood, to the underside of his chin where the smooth white worm of a scar crawled through the dark brown stubble which scrapped against my lips when I kissed him good night.  Then he would lift me up past the brass buttons with the eagles on them, the little pins that looked like flags and emblems of conflicts I could not imagine, until I could put my arms around him and smell Old Spice cologne on his neck. 

We said good-bye, until the end of summer, when my Mom, my sister, and I would return from my grandparents in Iowa, and he would return from trips to places filled with guns and shiny airplanes around the world with some souvenir for us, not from one of the foreign countries he had visited, for he was not supposed to let even his family know where he had been, but form the gift shop in National Airport.

            "You get to sleep in the top berth now," Mom said smiling. 

Each year I had to sleep in the top, but each year she had said I had to sleep in the bottom berth with Kathy.

            "But that's not fair.  I want to sleep on the top!" Kathy began to squirm the words out until they were about to form into a cry. 

I stuck out my tongue at her knowing once Mom had said it she would not go back on her word.

            "You get to sleep with me pumpkin, right beside me, and I'll tell you a story." 

By stroking her thin brown hair cut off bluntly at her shoulders, Mom was able to soothe the frown from Kathy's face.  But now I was jealous.

            "I want to hear the story too!" I insisted pounding on the hard mattress.

            Mom consented, as I knew she would.  First though we followed Mom to the restroom so she could change into her white cotton nightgown and her pale green chenille robe.  I stood outside while Kathy and Mom went in, hugging the door as best you could hug metal.  Strangers passed in the isle, men and women whose faces were too high up for me to see until they looked down at me, smiles painted on like toy clowns, moving down the isle with their smell of rotten flowers or clouds of smoke.  You never knew what adults were thinking, what they were planning in their heads.  Were they nice or were they the Red spies that I had heard the man on the TV say were everywhere, even running our government?

            The starched sheets were so stiff they formed a tent over Kathy.  Mom, who lay beside her, smoothed out the crags and valleys until they fit around Kathy like fresh snow.  I lay on the other side of Mom, the curtains of the berth smelling old, blowing in to caress my check when someone squeezed their fat body through the isle on the way to their own berth.  The agreement was that Kathy could stay until the story was over, then, like a big kid, I would climb up into my private, secret world, the berth above.

            "Tell us about your trains," Kathy said then pulled the sheet up to her nose so (she hoped) we couldn't see that she had put her thumb in her mouth.

            "Why I haven't told you that story since last year, what a memory you have!  I'll have to watch what I say around you two", Mom said putting her arm around me to include me too.  Her face was the color of the milk we squeezed from the cows on my uncle's dairy farm last summer, white, but not glaring, and now a mist of tiny hairs glowed above her skin as the lights from outside the window swept over us and then were gone.

            "Tell us about Marge first!" I whispered so close to her face the tiny hairs there moved in my breath.

            "Marge, you know Marge, she is my best friend.  We were both teaching back in Iowa before the war.  Then came the war, the World War, not this Korean thing they call a conflict but people still get killed in.

            “Maybe it was teaching, it was just getting to us.  They never let us do all that we wanted to with the kids.  I was teaching all the grades in one room in one town, and Marge doing the same thing in the next.  Just to try to make things easier I decided to do a puppet show.  The older kids would write the script, it was about American history, the Revolutionary War actually, and the others would work together to make the puppets and the props and put on the show.  We all thought it was great fun and it went off so well I even invited Marge and her kids over to see it.  But the superintendent of schools thought it was all silliness, and told me never to do anything like that again but stick to the books.  All those kids in one classroom, not like in your school with all those different rooms," Mom said giving me a quick kiss on the cheek for no reason.

            "In one of the papers there was a notice that the F.B.I., this government organization that catches criminals, was looking for people to work for them.  There was a shortage because we had just entered the war and they were taking all the men away from home and sending them overseas to fight."

            "Does Daddy have to go away and fight?" I asked thinking about the dark outside the window, how deep it was.

            "Not now honey but he did have to once.  Where was I?"

            "About the hefty bee eye," Kathy said and put her thumb back in her mouth, this time so close to sleep she forgot to pull the sheets back up over her hand.

            "Yes.  Well Marge and I went down to Des Moines for the interview and got the job and the next thing you know we were on a train, this same route we are taking, to go to Washington.  We found ourselves a room at a boarding house, though that was in the summer and it was so hot and sticky in Washington that no one slept in their rooms but used to carry a blanket to lay on over to Meridian Park where we slept outside under the stars, though they don't have as many in Washington as they do in Iowa.

            "Marge and I worked in fingerprints, long hours, sometimes not even knowing if it was day or night because they had these big thick blackout drapes they kept pulled over the windows in case German planes made it over the Atlantic Ocean to bomb the capital.  When we were tired we would go down to the old file rooms in the basement and pull out one of these giant file drawers and sleep in it, it was big enough!

"Marge and I were lonely though.  To meet a boy friend, Marge and I decided to take the train to Philadelphia on weekends.  We never stayed over, we couldn't afford that.  Sometimes we would wander around the city though, looking at the Liberty Bell and laughing about how they should fix the crack, then eating lunch at a counter someplace, getting these steak sandwiches they only have there, then take the train home.  You see we took the train to meet men.  In those days there were always lots of soldiers moving between the two cities.  You could talk to them on the ride and decide if they were nice and then hoped that they asked you out.  Sometimes I even asked them out."

            "Is that how you met Daddy?" I asked knowing it was not, but wanting her to get to the part of the story about him.

            "No, we met some nice boys that way, but not the ones we married.  One Christmas I was going home to see Grandma and Grandpa, and I took the train of course.  I was sitting in my seat and a big man came and sat down beside me.  He had a smelly cigar he was smoking.  After a while he put it out and then fell asleep.  As he slept his head fell over on my shoulder, really.  Now what was I to do? 

“After a while I moved around a little and he woke up.  He didn't apologize or anything, just said he had to go get a drink and got up.  I was sitting there wondering what to do if he came back when this nice man, a soldier, came over and asked if he could take the man's seat.  I didn't know if I should give it away, but I did anyway. 

“`I saw that fella and thought you might want someone sitting next to you who would stay awake,' he said.  When the man come back he was angry to loose his seat, bit in those days men who had not gone to war always let those in uniform have their way.  I guess they felt guilty for staying home where it was safe. 

“I got to talking to the soldier and found out that he was going home to Wyoming to visit his family for the holidays.  We had a real nice chat, but then I had to get off in McGregor.  But he was stationed in Washington for now and promised to get in touch with me there when we got back.  And he did.  Our first date we doubled with his best friend Dick, and Marge.  We went someplace silly, out bowling, and had a great time.

            "`I'm throwing away my phone book with all my beau's numbers I like Dick so much," Marge told me that night when we got home.  I think she expected me to laugh at her being so quick to like Dick, but I didn't laugh.

            "`I threw mine away already," was all I said.

            "The next thing I knew Dick and Marge were getting married.  I don't know who asked who with them, but I popped the question to your father.  He was just so nice, and tall too!  The four of us had a double wedding."

            Mom paused as she became overwhelmed by memory.  There is an excitement to telling of the past for to put memory in words is to create something new.  Yet it is also a lie inflicted upon the past, only the truth of the present.  So there comes a melancholy to memory for the past is lost in what is now told as words.

            I lay there thinking of the picture that sat at home up on the top of the mahogany bureau in my parent’s room.  When no one was around I would pull the chair over and stand on it to look at the picture.  In a yellowed plastic frame stood my Mom and Dad with another couple, the men dressed in their uniforms, the women in skirts with matching jackets, ones with big shoulders.  Marge smiled a wide open smile lined in dark black lip stick, my mother with a shy smile compressed into one corner of her mouth.  Dick was trying to look serious, but my father smiled easily.  They looked ready, for marriage, for the future, for a new world, because it was very shortly after that the war was over and they all ended up staying in Washington, and only going home from time to time on a train.

            The varnish was worn off the steps of the ladder by my feet as by others as I climbed into my berth.  The dark stiff around me, the lights wet and soaking through the sheets, the night filled with life moving swiftly by.  Night was so immense.  I felt I was expected to fill it with my life, yet could I?  And out there in that immense life, of strange threatening things, hints, rumors, distortions of which filtered through the cloth over radio speakers, images of which were smashed like insects against the glass screen of our TV set, was my father in his uniform of brass buttons that was safely hidden in the closet while he was safe in our house with us.

            Some mornings before school had started, or perhaps when I was home sick, I would sit before the TV set at ten o'clock with my mother and watch old movies about the war.  I believed the movies.  To watch them was to believe them.  Why else would Mom laugh at Bob Hope, or cry over Bette Davis?  And as I looked out into the night trying to see my father out there, perhaps the glint of one of those buttons on his uniform, an image from a movie was projected onto the screen of my imagination.  A soldier standing in the dark on a battlefield that was still except for a few ghostly clouds of smoke drifting past dark forms that might have been burnt tree trunks, or military wreckage, or mutilated bodies.  It is so calm the soldier thinks all is safe and lowers his rifle to the ground and pulls a cigarette out of his pocket.  He places it in his mouth, then takes out a match and lights it.  As he does you see his face covered in dirt and sweat.  Then there is the sound of gunfire and the quick grimace of pain and surprise before the flame goes out.

            My father smokes too, and he may be out there in the dark listening to a train passing and thinking all is peaceful and safe and want to stand below the rising moon and smoke a cigarette too, and light a match.  I jump from where I lay to yell out to him in the dark not to light that match.  I strike my head against the metal window frame.

            Light spilling out from the center of the darkness.  My father is standing in the light now, and the light is coming towards me like a train that seems to come so slowly from the past, but once here will pass so quickly into the future.  The present is so brief I realize, so that it never is, but always part past, part future.  And in that future my father may be gone, he may die.

            Sheets of sleep fall back and I am once again rocked by the sway of the train, sung the lullaby of the wheels against the tracks.  I crawled down out of my berth and slid in beside my mother.  She did not wake, not really, only enough to put her arm around me and smile with her eyes closed.  But me, I lay awake all night as if to warn somebody I loved not to endanger themselves in the dark, and to this day though I love to travel on trains I cannot sleep on them.


 

The train is the needle

sown into the fabric of the land

beside the slick flat expanse of

     slow moving

     green water

weaving around sand banked islands. 

The Mighty Mississippi.

 

MIRACLES AND ROSE PETALS

 

 

              We left the steel bridge with it's rusted girders rattling behind us at Marquette and swung around beneath a bluff looking like a giant stack of pancakes and pulled into the town that never quite happened, McGregor Iowa.  I was greeted by a polite reception of buildings, all a bit too decked out in fancy arrangements of bricks, toothed moldings, and not so false fronts for such a small town in the Iowa countryside.

            Before we could clear the platform, my Aunt Jesse had swept the both of us kids up in her arms, and we laughed and laughed at her, always astounded that an adult (which to us was anyone tall enough to reach the kitchen cabinets where the cookies were kept) could be so much fun. 

Another arm wrapped around us, my Grandpa's, his white shirt stiffly starched though not his best shirt for it was stained with yellow and brown.  I suppose it was just that for him dressing up was a starched shirt and it made no matter what condition it was in.  Grandpa had one of those faces that had to do with the force of nature, as though it were not flesh but some formation of rock that years of struggling to support a family of thirteen had worn into shape.  But it was surprisingly happy, with eyes in this huge face as dainty and glittering as an elf's and a smile that was so strong it sank right into your heart.

            "Your cuff is unbuttoned!" Kathy cried as Jesse put us down on the wooden platform and the train, swaying and grunting like an old woman, followed the tracks around the bluff and out of sight.

            "Let me button it!" I cried. 

My Grandpa had been a victim of polio, a disease that the women in the family still sat around in the evenings and mentioned with tears in their eyes and a long slow sigh.  It had been only recently that a vaccine had been developed and dropped onto little sugar cubes and then into the mouths of children waiting in line.  So I had never experienced the dread of the disease except for the way it had twisted and shriveled Grandpa's left arm.  He was not the type of man to let anything stop him, certainly not nature, and could do everything for himself.  He could even type 88 words a minute with one hand and had spent some time traveling to schools for the handicapped teaching a typing technique he had devised.  But the only thing he could not do was to button his right cuff and so this the grandchildren fought over each summer.

            "Go ahead, you can button it since you noticed it first," Grandpa said to Kathy who took two hands to accomplish the task.  Then, as I stood there staring out over the river to the Wisconsin side dissolved into a dream by the morning mists, Grandpa held out the cuff on his bad arm to me.  "And I just couldn't seem to get this one this morning either, so could you do it for me son?"

            His arm was turned in what seemed a painful angle though he never complained as if the twist were just a vague memory of what the pain had been.  The hand was slightly smaller than normal, the fingers hanging useless.  I had never taken so careful a look at his deformed limb, and to be so close, to be trusted not to make fun of it as some children I knew in school would have (as they made fun of the girl Becky with the scar of what had once been a hair lip), I felt a secret bond with my Grandpa, one of trust, and one of pain.  I slipped the pearl button through the hole in the hard fabric and before Grandpa could say thank you I found myself looking up and thanking him.  He smiled down at me, the bulge of tobacco in his cheek balancing on the corner of that smile.

            As all of us squeezed into Jesse's Ford that bulged with deep blue metal and rounded chrome, Grandpa once again told us the story of McGregor, how the founding fathers had expected their pride and joy to become Minneapolis or Chicago, situated as it was on trading lines for furs they had no clairvoyant notion would dwindle in importance and be forgotten finally.  Then Grandpa spat a wad of tobacco out the window and pointed down the three blocks that made up the main street of the sad little town as we pulled on to the road that ran along the river. 

"How could they have built a great city here anyway, they forgot to make sure they had the room," he laughed. 

Where could McGregor have grown anyway?  The Mississippi bound the town on one side like the dirty hem of a skirt, and on the other was the insistent presence of those bluffs, steeper than even San Francisco could have built on.  So with the permanently tight belt of geography, economics, and the roulette of any city's success, McGregor was the city that everyone hoped for but never happened.

            In the window of the car rushed the smell of Iowa, one pungent with memories of other summers.  It is it's own distinct smell, a bit like damp leather shoes, or the earth where a stoned has been sitting for years and has now been moved away.  It's not really that the smell is dank, but that the air molecules are swelled with moisture, the breast of mother before feeding time.  As I sat with my head against my mother's bosom a dim memory began to take hold of me.  I could remember not the fact, for in childhood facts have less significance than impressions, but the knowledge that from my mother's breasts I had received nourishment.

            Even when it was dry in this part of Iowa everything was green, hardily retaining it's sense of life though a green sun which seemed to have suckled at the earth all day.  The paved road was never quite level and I could feel the earth beneath us.  The land was alive here.  I knew that the lump in the back of Grandpa's yard one day would be in another place the next.  We passed roadside signs made in hopes a tourist might be passing and want to see the cavern some farmer had found on his land.  But the signs were unnecessary for you could sense them under the earth, hollow spaces like a womb having lost its children and waiting for more. 

"You know the Indians in these parts used to live in the caverns.  Fifty-five degrees all year round.  Cool in the summer and not so cold in the winter," Jesse said as she pointed to a sign nailed to a tree that read 'Visit Spook Cave'.

            Through Wakoun Junction and across the creek on whose banks Mom said there once were moonshiners who used the water in making their hooch, passing beneath the bluffs, their faces cragged as old women, the trees on top ornaments decorating their hats, swaying in the wind as they gossiped among themselves about days now past, we finally entered the low plain along the river on which Bandel's Crossing is built, or probably more appropriately, just happened.

            Jesse sped up before we went across the train tracks so that, though the adults would complain, Kathy and I would squeal delighted at the bounce.  We drove down the unpaved road in a magic cloud of dust, past Grandpa's Skelly gas station/candy store/motel, past the clapboard school house that was freshly painted, and past St. Theresa's Catholic Church, where from the high pointed steeple rang out the single bell.

            "There's old widow Giumme," Grandpa said waving out the window as she was lifted from the seat of a rusted old truck by a hard faced man.  "Looks like Ed Bandel took her to church today."

            "But it's Saturday!  She doesn't have to go today," I said as Grandpa spit out the window and Kathy strained to see where it hit in the dirt behind us.

            "Doesn't matter to her.  Your Grandma says she may be a saint some day.  She goes to church everyday no matter what.  When her husband was alive he used to drop her off then pick her up, but it's been years since the river swallowed him up and she still goes everyday.  She's a cripple, can't hardly walk on her own, but if someone doesn't stop by to pick her up, you'll see her pulling herself along by the side of the road to make it there.  Maybe she feels some special thing about this church since her first name is Theresa and that's the saint whose bones lie in the altar."

            "Wow Grandpa, real bones?" I asked.

            "Not a lot of them, but every Catholic church has to have some of the bones of a saint in the altar, maybe just a finger or something in a small church like this," Grandpa said knowing that thinking about it was enough to keep me silent until we got to the house.

            Is there a rule inscribed in heavenly tablets someplace about the make up of those wonderful women, grandmothers?  My friends who were as lucky as me to have two grandmothers had one of each: the first was thin and lived in or near a city, while the second was fat and lived in the country, and of course both loved to hug and kiss and bake for their grandsons.  This was the grandmother who lived in the country for though Bandel's Crossing was a town, it was just barely one. 

It had a gas station (Grandpa's), one church, one store (Ed Bandel's), a tavern (owned by Ed's brother Pete), and a town hall that was used to show old movies and for bingo games.  The rest of the town was clapboard houses sitting in front of old barns that had once held the family horse, and beside these lots or fields that had always been empty.  And all over were old appliances, stoves whose enamel was chipped away to reveal the raw metal undersides, ringer washing machines leaning against a building because one leg was missing, and the dark orange of rust covering lines of metal that had once been some kind of farm machinery.  Trash was burnt in old barrels out back, but there seemed to be no place to dispose of these once so modern pieces of equipment, and no one would think of just dumping them to defile the woods or the river, so they were sacrificed up to the insistent god of metal's decay, rust.

            Grandma was out the door before the car had even turned the corner to go down their road, which ran along the ridge of a hill overlooking the river.  Grandmothers seem to know when grandchildren are approaching, some psychic sense so that grandchildren are never unexpected.  She always seemed to be wiping her hands on a faded flowered apron then pulling it over her head, and this is what she was doing as we got out of the car and Kathy and I raced towards her.  She hugged us like the soft clouds in the sky above, like the sound of crickets still chirping in the wet morning sun, like the thick fragrance of rot that hung in the air beneath the giant elm tree under which we stood.  Though my toys were not here, my bed with the padded vinyl headboard, the plastic soldier that held my toothbrush from his hat, I felt that I was home, that this was where I had come from and the place to which I must always return.

            "Don't mess up your clothes," Mom kept running after us and saying the next morning. 

Kathy and I had gotten up early anxious to explore Grandma's house and yard to see what had changed since last year, but were not dressed as explorers.  Instead, since it was Sunday, Mom had dressed us in our Sunday clothes, clothes that had to be kept clean for church or for going to the doctor.  Nothing had changed.  The moss still grew thicker than a carpet under the elms on the side of the house.  The pump behind the house still felt cool and wet to the touch.  And the outhouse smelled as bad as ever.

            "I'm afraid to go in there and sit on that hole!" said Kathy as we walked way out near the back of the yard with Jesse who had come out to round us up for breakfast.

            "Why?" she asked pinching her nose as though she could smell it from where we stood about twenty feet away.

            "Because something like a monster might be down there waiting to grab my bottom!"

            "Every monster I have ever seen," she paused and nodded as though she had seen many in her day, "always had these big ugly noses which means they could probably smell real well, better than you and me.  Imagine how bad the outhouse must smell to them!  And in the hole it must be even worse so why would they hide in there?  No, I think they would pick a better place to hide."

            "Like the barn over there?" I asked for I had never been able to figure out why Mom insisted we not go near it.

            "That does seem like a better place now doesn't it.  More spiders to eat.  Come on, time for breakfast then off to church."

            I couldn't explain at the time to Grandma why I didn't want to eat the bowl of rhubarb she had for me but it had something to do with the fact that it was planted near the outhouse.  After I had pushed it around in the bowl for awhile, carefully separating it to make it look like I had eaten some, Grandpa came in from outside dressed in his Sunday clothes.  Kathy ran over to button his cuff as I told her not to forget that tomorrow was my turn.

            Grandpa never went to church with us on Sundays, but always got up early and went by himself.  Grandma said he should go with the family but he said God was personal and he liked to go by himself.  Mom always suspected that he went alone so that he could sneak out just after communion and sit on Ed Bandel's porch for a while and talk about the people as they walked home or got in their cars and trucks to drive back to their farms.

            My father never went to church with us either.  I didn't understand that there were different religions because I could only conceive of one God.  More than one was hard to imagine.  Did they each sit on their own cloud then?  So if there was one God why so many churches?  Dad was an Episcopalian so didn't go to the Catholic Church with my mother or for that matter to any church.  He was the person who drove Mom and Kathy and me to the church and then was there waiting for us when we left.  So it didn't bother me that Grandpa didn't go with us.  I figured when I stopped going to church it must mean that I was a man.

            Grandpa sat down with us and put his bad arm up to the table to hold the plate Grandma had put in front of him to keep it from moving while he spread jam on the toast with his good hand.  The hand was something lifeless that was yet attached to his body.  When he saw me looking at it he leaned down so I could whisper in his ear, "Will it ever get better Grandpa?"

            "No son, I'm afraid it would take a miracle to make it better," he whispered back even though everyone at the table was silent and could easily hear us.

            It wasn't the hard wooden pews, or the air filled with all kinds of perfumes and after shaves, or the sounds of a hacking cough or sniffles that made me nervous and restless in church.  It was that all these adults, great wondrous beings who could do amazing things like drive cars, buy TV sets, and use lawn mowers, were all sitting submissively watching the priest perform mass.  God must be powerful, I thought, for them to submit to Him like I did when my father told me I could not cross the highway alone.

            The air seemed filled with colors and I felt I was breathing in the stained glass from the windows.  I felt myself panting, feeling closed in as though God was a pressure pushing down from the rafters above.  Jesse leaned over and ran a white-gloved hand over my sweating brow, them lifted me into her lap.  From this position I could see the altar sitting there like a table ready for a great feast.

            "Corpus Christi," Father Jack said.

            "What does that mean?" I asked Jesse.

            "It means body of Christ, that is what Jesus said at the last supper.  Next when the priest holds up the chalice he will say this is my blood then drink it."

            A buzzing in my ears.  My lips began to feel too dry for the licking of my tongue to wet.  Then I remembered Grandpa had said that the bones of a saint were in the altar.  As the priest raised the chalice into a beam of white light that came through the face of Saint Theresa on the stained glass window, the light broke into a swarm of sparkling insects and I felt myself falling into a space of dreams, frightening dreams of people eating dead people, drinking blood, and then putting the bones that were left over in a tiny glass case and placing them somewhere inside the altar of the church.

            I didn't know my eyes were closed, but when I opened them I saw Jesse and my mother above me, the sun through the leaves on the old oak in the churchyard glowing around their heads.  Like saints.

            "I guess it got a bit too hot in there for you," Mom said fanning me with her black leather missal.  "Mass should be over soon and Kathy and Grandma will be out."

            "What is a saint?" I asked still lying there and staring up into their concerned faces.

            "It's someone who is very good, very, very good," Mom said as a puff of powder from her face rose above her smile.

            "I think it has to be more than that.  You have to work miracles too or something."  When Jesse said this I grabbed her wrist and held it tight.

            "Do miracles sill happen?"

            "Why I can't see why they shouldn't," Jesse answered laughing, but my mother was not pleased.

            "Jess, now don't go putting crazy notions in his head."

            When we arrived home Grandpa had gotten someone to watch the motel for him and was sitting on the front porch with come feathers stuck between the fingers on his bad hand and with the other was trying to lace them into come kind of fishing lure.

            "Was Tesse Giumme at your mass?" Grandma asked pulling a long steel hatpin out of her black straw hat with the netting.

            "Nope.  There's only two masses on Sunday.  You mean she wasn't..." 

Before Grandpa could finish his sentence Grandma was walking down the road.  We all ran along behind her.

            On the far edge of town, near the crook in the river, stood Mrs. Giumme's house, a plain white one without a porch or any other fancy device.  The paint was not peeled, the grass was not too long, for everyone in town stopped by from time to time to help her out with upkeep on the place in which she now lived alone.  A group of three or four people that I had seen at church were there, people that I was related to in some distant sense as I was probably related to Mrs. Giumme, but whose names I could never remember.  My Grandpa ran up to Pete Bandel who was banging on the door as his wife stood on tiptoes trying to peer in the small window at the top.

            "It's too heavy to break in," Pete said to my Grandpa, "If it wasn't for all these weird disappearances around the area I never would have put this new lock on her door and told her to keep it locked.  Damn!"

            "Let's try a window," Grandpa suggested.

The crowd surrounded the house and tried the windows.  A few were locked, but most were sealed tight with layer on layer of paint.  But the small one over the kitchen sink was wide open.  We all ran around to the side of the house and Grandpa pulled off the screen.

            "Now who could fit through there Pa.  All of us, well our bottoms are too big," Grandma said and some of the people laughed to relieve their tension.

            "I'll run home and get a crow bar and we can pry open a bigger window," Pete said.  I was standing right beside him.  I reached up and grabbed at his blue jacket and held it.

            "I can climb in sir."  He looked down at me then at my mother.

            "Okay," she said, "but I want you just to walk over to the kitchen door and open it.  Don't go anywhere else or look anywhere else."  Mom motioned for Pete to lift me up to the window.

            The kitchen felt cool and calm as though the whole room had let out a sigh and settled back just before I climbed in the window.  I jumped down from the huge old sink onto the wooden floor with a thud.  I stood still, as though the noise might have disturbed not someone sleeping, but the peace, the calm in the room.  Grandpa was yelling something to me, but I couldn't listen to him.  The silence in the house was too grand, too wonderful, as if full of music from some invisible orchestra. 

Then I smelled roses, not like perfume with that sweet, almost sickly smell that had made me feel queasy in church, but light and fresh, like the roses in front of our house just after it had rained.

            I don't know why but I followed the smell through the living room where the over stuffed furniture waited patiently to relieve the tired feet of some guest, to the bedroom on the other side of the house.  A thick rose light filtered through the rose printed fabric of the drawn drapes and filled the room like a sweet berry juice.  On the bed in the corner, beneath a blanket of pale rose petals, lay Mrs. Giumme.  I took in my breath and held it knowing something wonderful had happened.  When I finally had to release it, I ran from the house to get Grandpa.

            "It's a miracle Grandpa, miracles do happen," I cried running into his arms.  He whispered something I couldn't hear, then moved me over towards my Mom as he followed the other adults into the house.

            "Calm down," Mom told me stroking my hair, "You're getting yourself all hot and excited.

            "They do happen, miracles do happen."

            "Stop talking silly and try to get a hold of yourself," Mom began but did not finish what she had to say. 

Grandpa had come from the house looking like he had just caught the biggest fish he had ever seen.  He held out his hand for us to see.  Jesse and Kathy came over and we looked at the rose petal in his hand.  Imprinted in the center of it was the image of a woman holding a bouquet of roses.

            "St. Theresa of the Little Flower.  Roses," Jesse whispered.

            "I want you to go in," Grandpa said to us closing his hand delicately around the rose petal, "It seems there has been a miracle."

            And the evidence of the miracle on the death of Mrs. Giumme is still pressed between the pages of family Bibles of those who lived in or near Bandel's Crossing.


 

Most days from a summer in the 1950’s

leap

     bound

in my memory, though

there is a short period in which the memories

     seem diluted in confusion

     a queer kind of anxiety

and those days slip from my grasp

if I recall them clearly I might drown.

 

WHITE LIES

 

           

The sound of his breathing out of the dark caverns of his nostrils, his near whistle like a tea kettle about ready to let off steam.  Though there are only two others in the car this strange new uncle who has married my Aunt Valerie insists I sit so close beside him in his huge car with the sticky black vinyl seats I can feel his sweat soaked shirt damp on my arm.  And the heat, the oozing liquid of his hand on my bare knees.  Yes, my aunt and sister sit a great distance behind us in the back seat and I am alone in the front with, what was his name, I think it was Uncle Sy.

 

            How many days later is it now?  What was time then except a measure of impatience.  Am I waiting for him to leave?  The light is like creamy melted butter, the porcelain white and wet as the full moon I had watched cautiously pass by my widow the night before.  As I try to float my body in the water in the bathtub until my mother comes back Uncle Sy comes in to shave and insists on asking me questions about silly things I don't understand.  I stop listening and try to slide as low in the water as I can without putting my head under.  I am afraid to put my head under, that the water will rush in my nose and ears and fill up my head.  With the shaving cream still drifted like snow against his ears his face he is above me as he kneels beside the tub and picks up the pale green washcloth.  His hand, crawling with thick black hairs, holds the cloth in front of me and I watch it dripping into my bath water.  I cannot turn and look at him because I know he is smiling as he says, "I love you so much I could eat you."  I don't remember anything else except I must have been frightened because I slid myself down in the tub until the water was over my head.

 

            It is night and a dog is barking, no. just growling, maybe about to bark but that can't be because I know that no one who lives near my grandparents in this little town has a dog.  I must have been awake when I heard the creaking of tight leather shoes across the floor of the parlor on the other side of the door where I slept in the guest room downstairs.  This was the first summer I was allowed to sleep alone in this room downstairs while everyone else slept upstairs except my grandparents who had the added-on room on the other side of the kitchen.  I was a big boy now. 

Light slid like a puddle of urine under the door and across the floor until it stopped at the side of my bed.  I am too frightened to move and pull the covers over my head when the door swings soundlessly open and I peek out at the dark figure of a man against the light.  At first I think it is my Dad because when he comes home late he always comes in my room to kiss me goodnight, but I am not at home. 

I hear that breathing, that whistling, and I know it is Uncle Sy.  He must know I am awake because he says something I cannot hear as he closes the door.  The moon is just moving to my window and I can see him, his chest all dark like there is a hole in it.  I can't remember, can't remember what happened next.  Was he there long, or was it just after he entered the room that I heard more footsteps in the parlor and knew it was my Aunt Val, no one else in the family was silly enough to wear high heeled shoes while staying in a rural town like Bandel's Crossing.

            Uncle Sy stands in the doorway again when it opens and I hear him say, "I just had to say good-bye to the little tike, he really will miss me you know." 

The door closes as I hear my mother's voice.  She is arguing with Aunt Val who keeps saying they have to leave. 

"Keep your voice down," I hear Mom say, "You'll wake mother." 

There are some more whispers like static on the radio, then I hear the big front door open and close.  I remember hearing the engine of that big old car starting up and then I must have hidden in sleep.

            I woke just as the blue of morning had begun to bleed red.  I lay there and felt good in this house, the way it smelled, like the lilac bush outside the window, Aunt Jesse's sweet perfume, Grandpa's tobacco, even the smell of Grandma's chocolate chip cookies clung to the wall paper.  But when I rolled over there was this sour smell and I knew it reminded my of Uncle Sy.  I grabbed my arm where a bruise had formed then jumped out of bed.  I had to make sure his car was gone and he hadn't come back while I was sleeping.  I couldn't see the front yard out of my window so went out into the parlor.  There, in my grandpa's chair, sat my mother in her nightgown.

            "Did they leave?" I asked my mother as I climbed into her lap.

            "Yes," she told me sounding very sad, "But I don't want Grandma to know they had to leave in the middle of the night because it will upset her.  I'm going to tell a little white lie and I want you to help me.  I'm going to say they got a call early this morning and were sorry but they had to be in Des Moines by noon so had to leave.  Will you help me?"

            I nodded I would but I didn't really understand because my mother had always told me never to lie, just like George Washington.

            It must have been late in the afternoon because I can remember how the light came in the window and settled on the piano keys and made them shine in the afternoons.  I can remember what happened next now very clearly, like I said the light, and the way the house was so still because my grandparents had gone off to the store and my mother was sitting in the parlor rocking my sister to sleep.  I was supposed to be taking a nap but instead was trying to figure out why the wallpaper looked more like faces then roses. 

I heard a car drive up to the house, then two car doors opening.  I had to know if it was him coming back.  I jumped out of the big bed and skidded across the floor into the parlor as by mother was going out the front door.  I caught the screen door before it closed and went out in the yard where there were two men looking real hot in their gray suits.  It seemed real strange to see men in suits way out here so I went up right behind my mother and held on to her dress to watch as they showed her a photo.

            They were asking about Aunt Val and Uncle Sy like they were looking for them.  My mother said they had left the day before and would they mind not coming back again because she didn't want my grandmother to know that these men were looking for them.

            "Do you know where they were going?" one of the men said taking a notebook out of his pocket.

            "Nope, they didn't say, Val never says where we can get in touch with her, didn't even tell us when she married this new husband," Mom said sounding all sad again.

            Then my memory suddenly broke loose from something that had been holding onto it and I heard Uncle Sy whispering into my ear the night before, :I'm sure going to miss you, you sweet thing.  Guess I'll have to buy you something nice tomorrow when we get to Minneapolis and send it to you."

            "Minneapolis, that's where Uncle Sy said they were going," I screamed out. 

I thought the men were going to laugh at me but one of them just mumbled that they should have thought of that and then patted me on the head.


Sounds a slippage of time

     past running like musrky water into

     the present and filling it.

Evening song of a whil o’ whisp

     a certain summer afternoon

     the cry of an infant

     the cry of a young woman.

 

LAUNDRY LINES AND LIGHTNING

 

 

            There is one sound rarely heard these days that opens floodgates of the past until I am deep in a summer morning in 1957.  It is the flapping of wet sheets in the wind, carrying to me the thick tang of starch.  My Aunt Jesse, the clothes pins in her mouth smeared with the lip stick she always wore, was trying to clip up the corner of a sheet to the line with one hand while with the other she tried to stick a renegade strand of her shinning auburn hair back behind a black bobby pin.

            Kathy and I argued over a pack of Necco wafers Jesse had produced from her purse, a place she kept many wonderful things hidden.

            "Mickey!  You already had two pink ones," said Kathy grabbing at the cellophane pack about to spill out the colored sugar wafers.  "It's my turn you pig."

            "But you ate all the green ones, you're the one too big to wear underpants!" I said lifting the pack higher than she could reach. 

As I took out the last pink one and put it in my mouth (there were only three pink, but five green per pack), Jesse mumbled through the clothes pins and pushed the old wicker wash basket over our way.  We moved down beside the post near the house that held up the clothesline, supported on the other end by the huge chestnut tree.

            "I'll tell Mommy that you ate more that me and didn't share," my sister whined in a squealing little voice.

            "No you won't," I said though I knew she always did and I got in BIG TROUBLE. 

I had no choice but to resort to the reliable pushing her down but she bounced up like one of those blow up clowns with sand in the bottom.

            There had always been a perverse joy in the fact that, at least until our cousin Billy showed up for the summer, I was the strongest one around.  But this was the summer Kathy learned to fight back.  She started kicking me then escalated the war with scratching as I tried to push her away.  I could see the glee on her face as the lines of red appeared on my arms.  I wailed and danced around to protect my shines.

            Finally containing my surprise at her new tactics, it took just one big push against her chubby little body to send it flying against the clothes pole.  But it was not just the force of my counter attack, but the addition of her own in dramatic gesture that increased the force as she hit the pole and sent it toppling to the ground beside where she landed.

            Aunt Jesse, her arms out stretched under the hanging sheets to save them from the dirt below, let out a high-pitched cry, while Kathy screamed out for Mommy as though she was fatally injured.  I stood perfectly still as though if I didn't move no one would notice me. 

But they did.  Mom came racing from the kitchen door.  I didn't know what to expect.  Her usual punishment was to say, "Wait till your father gets home!" which seemed calculated to make me spend the rest of the day wondering where a seven year old could find an apartment and a job.  The line wouldn't work that summer though for my father was away.  Instead Mom said nothing but ran to help Jesse under the sheets while my grandmother, who had also run from the house, took over.  She picked up Kathy and held her to that soft bosom the way she had held me when I was a bit younger.  She didn't yell at me but first comforted Kathy as she cried for all it was worth.

Then Grandma turned to me.  A spanking and a stinging bottom would have been better than what happened next.

            "You bad boy!" she said then carried Kathy into the house. 

Before the door closed Kathy caught my eye and stuck out her tongue.  I stood there as my mother held up the clothesline and Jesse examined the pole. 

"It's broken, we can't use it again.  God I want to get these sheets dry.  There's some wire in the shed.  I'll string it up and run it to the side of the house so we can hang these things again." As Jesse ran to the shed my mother turned her attention to me and started to scold me while the sheets flapped loudly in the wind.  But I wasn't paying attention to my mother.  I was busy praying to God.  I hated my sister so much I yelled to the house, "I wish you were dead!"

            As I sat with Kathy, Aunt Jesse, and Mom at the kitchen table I watched Grandma fixing dinner.  I was hoping to catch her eye, to have a smile or kind look so that I would know she still loved me.

            "Sorry I'm late, no I'm not sorry.  I had to stop at Bandel's store to get some butter," Grandpa said walking with the cripple polio had left over to the table and slamming down the bag.

            "You know Pa that we use margarine and not butter.  It's bad for your heart so you can just take that back to Ed and get your money back."  With this my grandparents began one of their many arguments, each pushing the other on.  My mother laughingly called it "chewing the rag" but that day it upset me and I went across the kitchen to the added-on room that my grandparents slept in to get away.

            The room was always a bit dark even though the heavy flowered curtains were open wide.  The air was always a bit stale and laden with strange odors, mothballs in drawers, face powder on the dresser, camphor from an open container on the table between the two beds.  Here stood an old oak clock, whose ticking somehow shut out any other noise.  It was something which my grandparents "chewed the rag" about.  Grandma said it was too noisy, but like Grandpa I found the sound comforting.

            I don't know why but I went over to the drawer below the ticking clock and opened it.  The drawer was cluttered with things like an emery board and sticky Smith Brothers cough drops, but what drew my attention was a picture frame placed face down.  I picked it up to the shimmering white and gray photo of a beautiful woman with blonde hair.  In the corner of the picture was a signature, but I could only see the letter L for another smaller snap shot had but stuck in the corner of the frame.  It was of a girl about five standing on the grass wearing a lacy dress.  Her hair was also very blonde.  Below the picture my grandmother had written the name Anita.  On top of the piano in the front room were pictures of all my aunts and uncles at various stages of their lives, and in newer frames pictures of the grandchildren, mine included.  Would Grandma now take my picture off the piano and hide it in a drawer?

 

            As I stood before the tarpaper house, no more than a shack, that my Great Uncle Otto had built for himself and my Great Aunt Holda, I remembered a story my mother had read me about a witch whose house could grow chicken legs, which would lift it into the air.  I expected the strange house before me to roam off someplace.  There was not a witch inside but Holda and Otto whom I loved to visit.

            "One hundred and fourteen, that's the latest count," Holda said as she walked towards me from their barn. 

She was too kind hearted a woman to let anyone drown a kitten they didn't want, so kept them out in her barn.  Of course, letting nature take it's amorous course, they had increased in numbers.  But she didn't care, she kept them all well fed and even had a name she remembered for each one.

            "It seems you are going to have to come up with some new names," said Otto following her.  Otto had the hairiest ears I have ever seen, except once that is, in the illustrations to Uncle Wigglie, the story of a gentleman rabbit.  "I do believe that the calico one with the..."

            "Pembrook," Holda said leaning down to give me a kiss,  her frail thin body seeming to creak.

            "Yes if you say so.  I do believe Lady Pembrook is pregnant.  So you be thinking boy because we'll need some new names before long."

            We went inside the house to have some lemonade.  Holda and I sat in the living room talking while Otto kept jumping up to do a little work on this or that thing that he was building. 

Otto was an inventor of sorts.  His greatest pride was a fold-up screened-in gazebo for which he had sold the patent to Sears.  While Sears had made lots from it, Otto made only enough to start on something new.  He had made most of the furniture in the room, a confusing mixture of styles, all at crooked angles like the nursery story about the crooked man who lived in a crooked house.  It was like a story-book world here, or like gypsies maybe with the bright patterned fabric shellacked to the floor, the little rooms going off the main room like a gathering of gypsy wagons, and the beaded curtains made from objects Otto had found, plastic straws, buttons and shells, separating the rooms.

            "Enough talking about the cats, why there are so many we could spend all day on them when I know something is bothering you, now what is it?" asked Holda.

            "Do Grandma and Grandpa love each other?  They always argue," I said pulling my knees up in the chair with me.

            "Did I hear Mary's boy that I always thought was so smart say that?  Of course they do.  They just argue for fun.  Now you watch them next time and see if you don't catch a gleam in their eyes."  As Holda laughed and sipped her lemonade Otto came through a clattering beaded curtain with a hammer in his hand.

            "I bet your Grandma got mad at you.  Well don't let my sister worry you.  A couple of summers back she was complaining about how she didn't have enough space to store all the vegetables she puts up in jars, so I told her I would build her a shelf for them in the basement.  Well I thought I built a nice one but as soon as it was loaded up with all those glass jars it came crashing down.  Oh was she mad!  I didn't even know she knew the names she called me.  But you know what, that night she had me and Holda over for supper.  Now she teased me some but I knew she still loved me."

            "But what about Anita?"

            "I'll let Holda tell you about Anita," Otto said softly as he left the room.

            "Anita was your aunt, only you never had a chance to meet her.  She died long before you were born, back during this time they called the Depression because most people were poor and it made them depressed.  Not your grandparents though.  Oh they had to work real hard, Grandpa on his clam barge and your Grandma raising that family, but it never got them down.

            "Anita was just four or five then.  You mother was off at school but when she came home she noticed that Anita was falling down sometimes for no reason.  Then her eyes began to go crossed-like.  Inez, your Grandma, took her to the Iowa City University Hospital and stayed with her there for weeks while they examined her.  To make ends meet she found a job working in the kitchen.  That's why to this day she will only fix instant mashed potatoes.  She just peeled too many back then.

            "Well it was sad but they said Anita had a lump called a tumor growing in her head and there was nothing they could do for it.  Inez brought Anita home and put her to bed.  Even though she had to stay in bed all the time your grandma made her the prettiest dress for Christmas I have ever seen."

            "Who was the lady with the blonde hair?  The one in the picture Grandma has?"  I asked.

            "Jean Harlow," Otto called from some other part of the house.

            "Anita had the most beautiful platinum blonde hair, just like Jean Harlow.  Your Grandmother had taken her to a picture show with Miss Harlow in it when she and Anita were in Iowa City.  Anita just loved the picture and the beautiful actress with hair just like hers.  When they did the last test on Anita they shaved her hair off and she was real ashamed.  Your Grandma wrote Miss Harlow about it and she wrote Anita a nice letter telling her she had her hair fall out once when she was a little girl and she got a fever, but it all grew back.  And she would pray for her to get better.  She sent her a photo of herself that she signed.

            "When the end drew near for that poor little one, she went blind.  It scared her just so much.  Your Grandma would sit with her hour after hour and tell her stories or play the harmonica for her just so she would know she wasn't alone.  The child knew she was going to die though because one day when Otto and I were there visiting she said to your mother, ‘I won't go to heaven will I because I swore?’  But of course we told her she would.  And I'm sure that's where she is now.

            "On the day she died your Grandma, who was always so strict that her children attend school and not skip any days like most kids did then, had all your aunts and uncles stay home with Anita.  So you see your Grandma still loves Anita, it only makes her a bit sad to think of her now because she misses her.  Now run on back to your grandma's house and we'll see you there tonight at dinner."

            After supper, Aunt Jesse, Great Aunt Holda, Great Uncle Otto, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma sat around the kitchen table playing cards.  Kathy was upstairs in bed asleep.  While I was sitting at the table with everyone, I was not paying attention but was wondering how you could tell if you were growing a brain lump and remembering what Holda had told me.  Maybe Grandma did still love me, but how could I be certain?  It was all Kathy's fault.  She had ruined my summer.

            Thunder, which had been growling off on the other side of the Mississippi River, now lunged like some dark, ferocious animal towards us.  With a large roar it pounced on the house shaking it.  Huge drops of rain began to pound on the tin roof of the house as a flash of lightning turned the window glass stark white.

            "You must be scared," Grandma said, her voice trembling as she put down her cards and turned to where I sat beside her.  Storms had never scared me, but excited me.

            "It's you that are scared," Otto teased as a huge clap of thunder and lightning burst around the house.

            "You be quiet while I tell Mickey a story to clam him down.  This is one I used to tell Anita.  She liked Indian tales, even when I made them up.

            "Long time ago, even before Otto was born if you can imagine that, there was no thunder, only lightning.  God thought it looked like fireworks and wanted to give the Indians living below a show every now and then.  But there was one little girl who was afraid of the lightning.  God thought that was very funny and he laughed.  Now when God laughs it's louder than your Grandpa when he gets going, and it is thunder.  Every time there is lightning someplace God laughs because he sees some silly person who is afraid."

            A flash of light blinded us all momentarily.

            "Lightning is no scarier than lightning bugs.  You see sometimes God laughs so loud that it shatters the lightning and it falls to earth and turns into lightning bugs.  They come out of the grass at night in the summer and remember vaguely that they once came from the sky.  They look up and see the stars flashing and so they begin to fly in circles higher and higher.  Sometimes some strong ones make it all the way up into the heavens and stay there as stars."

            While Grandma had been telling her story the others had been mumbling things like "big one" or "sounds too close" as the storm went on.  But after Grandma had finished there seemed to be a lull in the storm, not one in which you felt safe, but where you held your breath waiting.

            I turned to see it before I knew it was there, a strange globe of light, almost fleshy, moving slowly like it was alive through the screen above the cast iron sink.  From the gasp of those around me I knew they were also watching it, flowing on invisible waters through the air and into the open pantry door. 

Grandpa and Otto, screeching their chairs across the linoleum, rose to follow it but were blinded by an intense flash of light and fell back into their seats as though the deafening thunderclap had pushed them.  We sat listening to a sound behind the pounding rain, a sharp, slow cracking.  Then there was a thud on the roof as the pots and pans hanging on the wall shook and the dishes in the cupboard rattled.  Grandpa and Otto ran out the back door. 

Aunt Jesse grabbed my hand and we all followed.  Standing in the rain was Grandpa pointing to the oil tank on the back of the house.  Beside it, on the roof of the added on room, the old chestnut tree had fallen.  The air smelled like medicine and I felt sick.

            "Lightning struck the tree then ran along the metal clothes wire you women attached to the house and grounded in the tank," Otto was saying but my mother was screaming out, "The bedroom where Kathy is sleeping is right above there.  She's in that metal crib!"

            "The baby!" Grandma cried as my mother and Jesse ran into the house.

            I didn't know how lightning worked then, but I knew that they were afraid my little sister was dead.  It was my fault, I had pushed her then I had prayed for her to die.  Would Grandma have to hide her picture away in a drawer so she wouldn't be sad when she saw it atop the piano?  I didn't really want Kathy dead, I just wanted her to stop being mean, there was a difference, I understood that now, but did God?

            We stood waiting in the rain as the thunder and lightning went down the river, stalking a new prey.

            "She is fine.  Can you believe it; she slept through the whole thing.  I put her in your room mother," Mom called to us from the back door. 

Suddenly everyone was laughing and moving.  Grandma picked me up in her arms and stood there in the rain hugging me.


 

Sleep and I have never been on easy terms.

In fact I could say that I and the mysterious state to which others go

            willingly

are ememies.

We have reached a long negotiated truce

But as a child the hostility was more overt.

            dusk has always been my favorite time of day

suspense of thought and life

While the world rests on it’s haunches and

            with heavy lids watch the light turn

            utterly blue.

The between time

            day and nigh,t between worlds life and death, between realities

            daily existence and the imaginations

followed by night.

It was not night I feared, but savored! Wishing I would be awake

            each moment.

Sometime came the words I dreaded

            “Time for bed”

But my soul said

            “Time to submit to sleep”

                                                my enemy.

 

DREAMS WELL DREAMT

 

 

            What was it I feared about sleep?  It was the loss of my soul.  As my body sank into sleep and my senses drowned in that oblivion, my soul took flight in dreams.  I would race through the ceiling and up into the night sky, through the clouds and stars to parts of the world where the sun still shone.  I would soar and dip and rise as I explored places I could never have imagined otherwise.  This was often great fun, full of thrills and excitement.  At times it was hazardous and terrified me with nightmares when the dreams were beyond my control.  It was always an adventure. 

So what was it that scared me about sleep?  Not the dreams, but the return from dreams, the sinking down from the clouds of sleep into my body.

            As I lay next to my cousin Billy in the big bed that we slept in together when he came to visit our grandparents and I was there, I wondered how he could fall asleep so easily and sleep so soundly while I lay awake listening to a distant train worrying that if I fell asleep also my soul might return and find that his was already there occupying my body.  Then I would be forced to occupy his body, and this was something that I did not want to do though most who knew us suspected I would rather be him.

            Billy was two years older than me, but that was just the beginning of the differences between us.  I was a thin and in many ways a frail child, destined to be an artist perhaps because that profession already fit with my personality.  I had already been labeled by my relatives as artistic, "Just like your Great Uncle Shang," Grandma would say comparing me to her brother that she loved dearly but others simply tolerated as crazy. 

Billy however was a rough kid always wearing a variety of scars and scabs like medals from his adventures, or misadventures as my mother viewed them comparing his actions to her own rather quiet and well behaved son.  With his tough body, already muscled in ways mine would never be, and his aggressive manner as though he deserved to have fun, I did envy Billy.  I liked him, not just a little but a whole lot, maybe because, even though he was the kind of kid who never liked me much at home, Billy liked me.

            Each summer while his father was away selling whatever it was he sold, his mother would drop him off at Grandma's so that we could be together. Mom knew that I looked forward to seeing him and getting in all the trouble he could get me in, so that was why she thought I would have liked to be him all year round.  But I wouldn't have because of his mother, my Aunt Joan.  Although I liked my Uncle Gene well enough, though he played too rough for me, something I could never place about my Aunt Joan frightened me.  When she drove up in the car with Billy the day before, I had been glad to see him, but stood back until she had gone inside to see Grandma before I ran up to Billy.  And Billy never referred to his mom as “Joan” as though he was a miniature adult who didn't need a mother anymore.  That gave me the creeps.

            The creaking of rusted metal grinding against rusted metal echoed through the wet night air.  I pulled the sheet up over my head.  I was glad I wasn't sleeping alone now.  The moonlight pressed though the screens on the windows and hovered in the dark like a swarm of tiny insects.  I had the creeps real bad as the sound that had frightened me before began again, this time followed by a hollow thud. 

I wanted to wake Billy up to see if he heard it too so reached over to shake him and saw him rising from the bed, the white sheet glowing like a neon light bulb as it slid away.  While I slept in pj's, Billy slept in his underwear.  His white t-shirt was soaked with sweat and moonlight as he walked across the room.  If he had to pee he could have used the chamber pot kept under the bed, but he walked out the bedroom door as though headed to the outhouse.  I hated that place and wouldn't think of going there in the dark, but I wasn't about to be left alone when all those scary noises were going on so I jumped from the creaking bed and followed him out the back door.

            "Where are you going!" I whispered as though I might wake something that was hiding out in the night. 

I stood still and looked around at the moonlight splashed all over the damp world giving it a soft sheen that was so much easier to look on than the harsh summer sunlight of the afternoons.  There was a stillness to the night that suddenly endeared me to it, as though I was seeing the peace of the world for the first time, not cluttered now by people and cars. 

Billy was standing still in the middle of the back yard and I ran up to him.  I went to ask him again what he was doing when I saw that his eyes, half closed, were staring out into the night yet not seeming to see it.  I spoke his name but he did not respond.  I might have shaken him to get his attention, but something told me that he was not awake and that I shouldn't wake him.  He looked so sad.  As the moon slowly inched around the corner of the house, I saw that a tear was sliding down his left cheek.  Then I heard a hollow thud again.

            At the end of the yard stood the old barn, actually now little more than a dilapidated shed.  Grandpa kept it locked and it was forbidden territory to the grandkids.  The thud had come from there, where through the dirty glass on one of the side windows I could see a light, flickering, moving around inside.  Suddenly the night seemed tense and evil.  I took Billy by the arm and pulled him behind me back to the house.

            When we got to the bedroom I put him in bed and then climbed in and pulled up the sheets and dove into sleep as if I might be safe there.

            The next morning Billy woke me up.  The sky outside our window was a greenish yellow, a hint of sun above the dark sentinels of trees.  I could hear Grandma playing the piano in the parlor.  Each morning before anyone woke she would sit in front of the piano and play and play until the others started filtering down the narrow staircase at the back of the kitchen.  Before Billy had come I would lie in bed and doze and listen to her playing.  But now that Billy was here I knew he would have some scheme cooked up and I wouldn't be able to stay in bed.  Sure enough we got dressed then climbed out the window so Grandma wouldn't see us.

            "We're going fishin'," he said as we took off down the hill to the river, "Get Grandma some to fix for breakfast.  She always likes them with her eggs."

            "But what about poles?" I asked trying to keep up.

            "We're too smart for that."

            And we were.  We went down to the warehouse on the river where the fishermen brought in their catch and young women stood for hours with shiny knives cleaning them before they were packed in ice and shipped down river to the cannery.  The building was an old one of rough wooden planks built right out over the water on a pier.  We pulled up our pant legs and waded out in the water and under the pier until we found a loose floorboard.  How Billy knew where this was on his first day here this summer I didn't know and didn't ask, for this was part of my fascination with Billy.  If I knew how he had found out it would take some the mystery away from him. 

He pulled me up after him into the storage room.  The place was quiet for no one had come to work yet.  In a wooden barrel packed with ice we found cleaned rainbow trout, took just two, then headed home.  I felt that I had done something evil, yet wonderful.  I was so elated that I thought the two of us could conquer whatever it was I had seen moving around in the barn the night before so told Billy about it.

            "You mean you went outside alone, in the dark?" Billy asked astounded. 

I could tell that he didn't remember anything about going out there or me leading him back in.  That he didn't remember anything made me feel like I had intruded on something very private and secret about him, something I shouldn't mention, but that created a special bond between us.

            "Yes, but I wasn't brave enough to see what it was.  Maybe you and I could go out tonight and find out."

            "Yeah," was all he said though I could tell he was proud of me and already calculating more daring things we could do this summer now that we were each a year older.

            When my mom and Kathy came down for breakfast, Grandma was frying the fish in lots of grease.  My mother asked who got up so early and caught the fish.  "Some little elves gave then to me," she said with a twinkle in her eye that meant that was all my mom or anyone else was going to find out.  My mother looked over to where Grandpa sat drinking his coffee and smiled at him assuming he had caught them.  Billy and I had to run outside so that we could laugh.  You couldn't fool Grandma, she knew where we got them, but she wasn't going to let on she knew.

            All morning Billy ran me ragged like he was a drill sergeant. He made me follow him down to the river before dinner and then afterwards for a hike along the edge of the bluff looking for caves where treasure might be buried.  When we got back the house was quiet.  Aunt Jesse had driven back to Spring Grove to be with her boy friend that had gotten a job there working for the Post Office while she was working part-time at the nursing home.  Grandpa was at the motel, Grandma sitting on the front porch snoozing, while Kathy was upstairs taking her nap.  Mom grabbed me as Billy and I ran in the kitchen and towards the cookie jar and told Billy to go outside and pull up some weeds in the garden.  She wanted me to lie down and take a nap. 

I was afraid of naps for I could never tell if I was asleep or not.  I might think I was awake then I would look over at the wall and notice a window I had never seen before.  Outside the window might be all kinds of fantastic things, horses with four wings, caravans passing before the pyramids, or bright colored birds surrounded by a thick jungle.  It was then that I would realize I was not awake but dreaming and would become frightened.  After a long struggle I would wake with the wet sheets wrapped tight around me.

            "Do some people walk around while they are sleeping?" I asked Mom as she led me by the hand into the bedroom.

            "Yes, some do.  Why do you ask?" she said annoyed because she thought I was trying to stall having to take a nap.

            "I just heard Grandma saying something about it," was all I would offer for I did not want to give Billy's secret away.

            "They say you should never wake a sleep walker.  It is so frightening to wake up in a strange place."  I thought about my fear that I would wake up in some strange place in a strange body as she left the room.

            I had decided that Billy had not been pretending but was really walking in his sleep.  What was that though?  Was he acting out a dream or had some other spirit occupied his body while his was off wandering in dreams?  If I woke him, which soul would be present in him?

            The following nights we waited until the household had gone to bed, then we would sneak out on the cement platform that was the back porch and lay there waiting for a light in the shed.  When we were too tired to keep our eyes open, or dawn began to breathe blue and wet from over the bluffs, we would crawl back into bed and sleep until my mom or Kathy came in to wake us.

            The days we spent in our usual pursuits of exploration as though the land around Bandel's was a vast uncharted territory we were claiming as ours, or sitting down by the river and throwing stones just above the water to see if fish would think they were insects and jump for them. 

Finally one night as the rough cement was imprinted into our knees and elbows, we heard a grinding other than the legs of the crickets.  It was a metal sound that frightened me.  It also sounded like a voice whose whisper I could not understand.  Then through the dust and cobwebs that covered the thick wavy window glass of the barn, we saw a light, thin, white, flashing like the sheet lightning that we could see over the bluffs. 

"Let's go!" Billy said. 

To my dismay he meant to the barn, not away from it.  I wanted to run in the house but I didn't want Billy to think I was chicken and not want to play with me anymore. So I ran after him, through the thick grass that looked like knife blades in the moonlight, to the side of the barn.

            "I'm not tall enough to see in," Billy said motioning for me to get up on his shoulders as he braced himself against the side of the shed. 

I made my way up his back to the window not knowing if I would have the courage to look in it when I heard a slow lonesome sounding whistle coming from inside.  I looked in the window and saw a face staring out at me.  I tried to scream but before I could I had slid down Billy's back and onto the ground with such a thud the wind was knocked out of me.

            "What did you see?" Billy was in my face asking me but I was out of breath and couldn't reply.  "I heard someone whistling in there.  Come on let's go around to the door and see."  I got up, still choking on spit as Billy disappeared around the edge of the barn.

            Coming up behind him, I looked in the barn, which was lit only by a kerosene lamp that hung from a nail in one of the rafters.  A man was next to a construction of what looked like giant Tinker Toys so big it filled the barn.  We both stood staring at the man and he at us. 

He was the strangest looking man I had ever seen.  He was very tall, tall enough to bump his head on the lantern and set it splashing it's light back and forth across the interior of the barn and the strange contraption as he walked towards us.  Coins jangled in the pockets of his baggy pants while the fringe of his buckskin coat slapped back and forth.  His skin was shiny and dark, the color of the old walnut piano of Grandma's.  At first I thought he might be an Indian and was frightened he would scalp us, but then got up enough courage to look in his eyes and saw that they were dark and slanted as though he was Oriental.  He stopped a few feet from us.  No one spoke so he turned and went back to what he had been doing, tying a leather strap around one of the bamboo poles that made up his contraption.

            "I think he's Great Uncle Irwin," Billy whispered to me, "I saw him once before, reading the paper on Grandma's front porch after you left last summer.  Grandma said not to bother him `cause he was learning.’"

            "No one calls me Irwin except your Grandma.  You must be Mary and Joan's boys.  Shouldn't you be asleep?" he said not looking up at us.

            "Shouldn't you be asleep?" Billy asked him back.  He was braver than I would ever be.

            "I don't sleep.  Seems everyone else does though.  Don't you?"

            "Not much," I whispered.  "I can't."  I wanted to be as brave with this man as Billy.  Beside if he were related to us he couldn't hurt us, could he?

            "It's your soul.  Mine wanders at night if I sleep.  I don't know if it can find its way home.  I gave up sleep," Irwin said looking at me with interest.

            "`Cause it might end up in the wrong body!" I said excited that someone else knew how I felt about sleep.

            "Or end up in some animal's!" Irwin said smiling as I looked into his dark eyes horrified.  I had never thought of that.

            "Aw you must sleep sometime," Billy said walking forward.

            "Would I be out here working in this poor light if I could?  I work on other things during the day.  No sleep, lots of extra time, so I'm here working." 

Irwin looked down at his work and fell silent, a silence so deep and absorbed in what he was doing with the leather bonds that he didn't seem to hear Billy when he asked what he was doing.  Realizing that Irwin had tired of us, we went in the house and went to bed.

            At breakfast the next morning Billy tried to ask about Irwin without letting anyone know we had waited up all night to see him.  He told Grandma that he had to get up during the night to go to the outhouse and had seen a light on in the barn.  When he went in he saw Great Uncle Irwin.

            "You mean Shang," said Grandpa coming in the back door and wiping some tobacco juice from his lip before Grandma saw it.  "The kids always called him Shang `cause they thought he looked like a Chinaman.  What's he out in that shed working on now?  You kids better keep away from it, no telling what it is.  He used to work in a shed he built over on Dell's place.  He was building some crazy rocket and it blew up and burnt the thing down.  Maybe I better give him a talking to!" Grandpa could talk while making a growling noise to himself which Kathy thought was funny and set her to laughing.  He was trying to sound mad in front of Grandma, though couldn't help but smile at Kathy.

            "Don't listen to your Grandpa.  He's never liked Irwin, but he's my family so I stick by him no matter what darn thing he's doing now.  So he must be back in town.  I'll invite him over to dinner but I doubt he'll come.  He's got crazy notions in his head, eats just wild vegetables.  At least that is what he says."

            "Where does he live?" Billy asked and I knew he was cooking up some scheme.

            "Everywhere, all along the river," Grandpa said trying to growl again, "Can't seem to settle down.  He built himself this houseboat with lumber he talked people into giving him some years back and now he just floats wherever he pleases."

            "Well he's a confirmed bachelor, doesn't have a family to support.  And if you ask me it sounds kinda nice, just floating along like that catching fish and pulling up clam shells." 

Grandma and Grandpa went along fussing with each other while Mom tried to get Kathy to eat her eggs instead of playing with them.  I sat there looking at Billy knowing we would be spending the afternoon searching along the river for Shang's boat.

            Further up the Mississippi than I think I have ever been, we found Shang's "house boat", a sad assortment of wood from various barns roped and nailed and held together by a layer of black tar paper on which had been painted arrows and swirling symbols that resembled birds.  This sat atop a platform of logs.  The logs on the outside of the platform had their ends carved into shapes, which could have been either animals or fish.  Billy and I stepped quietly across the gangplank and went around the side to look in the window.

            "I want to see if he's asleep," Billy whispered as we crouched down below the window. 

We couldn't hear any noise inside so raised ourselves up and peered through the glass, which was painted with a pyramid and a huge eye above it.

            There was only one room.  It was crowded with all kinds of strange things.  There were flowerpots made from cement with faces molded in the sides, wooden stools and bowls on which pictures of children had been pasted.  I was later to learn that Shang was fascinated by multiple births and had commemorated the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets in these objects he made. 

Also in the room were wooden plaques in which he had carved figures and then painted them.  Through the foresight of some relative, three were saved and ended up in my hands.  One is of a dull gray battleship on a dark green sea.  That seems normal enough, but on the left hand side rises a huge mushroom-shaped cloud with the face of a human.  There is a small plaque of a young girl in a hat, Leona Noelle.  She sits staring off into the source of her sadness. The last one is of a group of men which my Grandma told me she believed to be those world leaders involved in the Yalta Conference.  But instead of negotiating peace, they seem to be playing cards.  There is something frightening about this plaque, as though these figures were not human but demons of some sort.

            Stuffed birds hung from the ceiling, but not any kind I had seen before for some had the heads of beavers or the tails of possums as though they had been sown together to create new life forms, but all with wings.  There were other things in the room too, things of bent wire and glass tubes, or wood and stone, that we could not make out. 

Finally in the corner we saw Shang sitting at a table with a thick book in which he was marking things.  I have also inherited this book, sort of a combination dictionary and desk encyclopedia.  It is filled with references and cross-references in pencils of different colors.  In the back is a section of quotes in different languages and these are especially marked as though he was trying to learn French, Latin, Spanish, Greek, and Russian, all at once.  Though Shang was not facing us I could sense that he knew we were watching him.  He laid down his pencil and pulled at a length of rope that hung from the ceiling.

            "We're caught!" Billy cried as a net, which had been somehow catapulted off the roof landed on us.  Before we could manage to untangle ourselves Shang was standing in front of us holding a large curved sword.

            "Checking to see if I was sleeping?" Shang said lifting the net off us.  Billy was too surprised to say anything.  Like me he was probably wondering if Shang could read our thoughts.  "Come inside and look around."

            Billy and I fingered each object without Shang's objections.  He had gone back to his book and did not seem to care what we did.  This was great for us for at our age mothers were always telling us to keep our hands off something.  From time to time we would ask what was the purpose of some contraption.  Shang would answer without looking around.  "To trap magnetic waves and set a wheel to spinning." "Roll cigarettes." "Button Grandpa's cuff for him." "Send signals to fish that they understand." We didn't know how they worked, or even if they did.  Just the fact that he could think of such things astounded us and we kept fidgeting with them.  Finally our stomachs were beginning to growl.  Shang must have heard them because he pointed to some clay pots on a shelf and said there was something there to eat.  But it was too strange a place to eat in for us and we ran home. 

We got back late and Grandma wanted to know where we had been, but we had silently decided on the way home that this was our secret, and we weren't going to tell anyone, even Grandma.

            That night there was no agreement between Billy and I that was verbal, it was simply understood that we would stay awake to go out to the barn and help Shang.  While today I hear my friends talk of relatives that were their favorites when they were children with a smile on their face or a sad longing in their voice, it is not that way when I remember Shang.  He was not the jolly relative like my Uncle Frank or my Aunt Jesse who were full of fun and jokes and crazy gifts.  He was always quiet, but not with a silence that made me or Billy uneasy but one we felt comfortable with, one in which we could wander freely like a well lit house we had stumbled upon.  The rooms were each decorated in a different style ranging from rustic to exotic.  There were many passages rambling off in all directions and even more that we could sense were behind the walls entered only after mysterious words were recited and a secret door opened. 

Shang was easy to be with because he accepted us not as children who might get in his way, but as people who respected his silence.  When he did speak with us he never tried to talk simply as though children were really fools who would one day see the fallacy of their foolish ways.  In an intense whisper he spoke with all the knowledge and drama he might have used had he been speaking before a symposium of great men from the past and present.  All this might have made Shang frightening to us, but he wasn't.  He was just mysterious, his dark eyes darting back and forth following his thoughts and perhaps ours.

            When we finally heard the creaking of the barn door, we went out to find him there tying more leather straps around the bamboo poles.  He did not seem surprised nor say much to us, only handed each of us a leather strap and showed us how he wanted the poles joined.  That night and the ones that followed, Billy would grow sleepy after a couple of hours of work and stagger back into the house while Shang and I, the two night owls, went on with the work.  When the crickets became silent and the birds began to announce the morning, I would run off into the house.

            The structure Shang was building was about the size of a car.  We did not ask what it was for. As Billy said, "He'll tell us if he wants to.  Maybe he won't.  Maybe it's something that we just can't understand."

During the afternoons we would say that we were going fishing or just exploring.  My mom would try to detain us so that we would play with my little sister, but she realized that Kathy was just not old enough to keep up with us, and would finally let us go down to the river.  We would go to Shang's, that houseboat that seemed to be floating on dreams instead of the Mississippi.  Then we might either be given some task, clean out old bottles he had found, sort dead bugs into piles of ones with broken parts and ones intact, or something else whose end we never asked him to explain but waited to see.  At that time Shang had discovered physics and mathematics from some books he had been given by Father Jack of St. Theresa's who had once gone to a real college back East.  Shang would mumble and grunt over the books as he scribbled on piece after piece of used wrapping paper Ed Bandel had given him from his store.

            One afternoon we followed Shang up the bluff above where his houseboat was anchored and sat there on either side of him as he watched the crows sweeping back and forth through the air riding the invisible roller coasters of air currents.

            "More than anything I would love to fly," Shang said as a chicken hawk slid down the blue sky and into the trees below us.

            "I can fly," I whispered wondering if he was talking to me or to himself.

            "Explain yourself comprehensibly!" he asked not in disbelief but wanting to know how.

            "When I dream, I'm real good at it.  Don't you dream?"

            "Not in sleep, yet perhaps dreaming is my common mode of thought.  Dreams just seem to build up around me.  Then I move on.  If I could only sleep then maybe I could fly.  But since I'm not about to sleep and chance loosing my soul, I'm building a grand glider so I can fly."

            "Is that what that thing in the barn is?" Billy asked tossing a breadcrumb out over the ledge.  A large black crow, shiny as wet asphalt, grabbed it in its beak in mid flight.

            "Yes, that's the frame, of bamboo to be light.  Tonight the task of sewing on material I acquired from the burnt out rubble of a warehouse down river last year.  I've got to perform some more calculations with my books though to discover the best time and wind velocity for the test.  I want to sail off right here above my house and then float down into the valley, maybe over the river and back, and then land in that field over there," Shang said moving his hands in front of him through the air so that we could imagine we were there watching him skipping from current to current.

            Work seemed more intensive on his glider now that Billy and I knew what it was.  "That's why he came back," Billy said, "So he could build this thing here in the barn."  In a week the metal eyes were attached to the material, a shiny black, and it was laced onto the frame.  Shang had already made a leather harness and now attached this to the structure.  We were done, yet Shang did not seem anxious to put the glider in the wheel barrow he had borrowed from Dell and take it up the road to the bluff where he could send it and himself sailing out over the river valley.

            When the river valley, heated by the noonday sun, became steamy and pungent with the smell of rotting fish and vegetation, Shang would grab up his books and we would follow him to the bluff where the air was not as thick and mucky as soup and the breeze was cool and easy.  We had been given an assignment by Shang, to find something, he didn't say exactly what only that we would know it when we found it.  The Indians buried it there, Shang told us, he remembered his father pointing up this way and telling him that some day would be the time for him to find it.  "You've got Indian blood in your veins too, boys.  Not as thick as me though, but you aught to be able to find the thing.  Use your blood, the way it feels.  Let instinct guide you."  So we crawled around on the ground digging it up like dogs, or turning up rocks to find bugs squirming away on our intrusion.

            Billy and I could not sleep at night, at least Billy could.  I was kept awake wondering if he would once again walk in his sleep.  Then one night just as I was dozing off I felt the sheet beside me rise and heard him walking barefoot across the wooden floor.  I dressed quickly and followed him out of the house.  I felt I should lead him back to our room, yet I wanted to know where he was going. The crunching of our feet seemed so loud in the hollow of the night, the depth of the shadows infinite, the stars twinkling frantically.  Everything seemed to be wet and whispering to me.  I should have gone back, but I felt somehow that I owed it to Billy to let him go where he wanted and to follow him so that I made sure he returned safely.  I comforted myself against the dark threats of the night by telling myself that each rustling in the grass or rattling in the bushes was probably Shang who never slept but wandered through the night.

            Wondering if perhaps I was still lying asleep in my bed and following Billy in my dream as he led me in his, we came to the top of the bluff that we had been going to each afternoon with Shang.  The moon, a glass of glowing milk half empty, spilled over the tops of the trees below us and flowed out into the river bed.  Though during the day the many Indian mounds that filled the valley were only hinted at by a sudden rise in the height of the trees, the elevated leaves now seemed to catch the moonlight in puddles of glowing animal forms that moved like giant ghosts through the night.  Billy stood near a huge boulder.  Yes, this must have been a dream.  But could he fly in this dream?  Though he wasn't standing so he faced out over the bluff, I was afraid he would suddenly turn and hurl himself out over the edge.  I ran up to him, took his hand and began pulling him after me on the long journey back to town.

            The next afternoon as Shang sat with his books and Billy and I sat on a rock near him eating some peanut butter sandwiches that Grandma had packed for us; Shang began to laugh (or was it to cry?).  Billy and I looked at each other not knowing what to do.

            "When I meet our Maker, perhaps I will be allowed to fly.  Wings of an angel or those of a bat?  I've finished figuring out my calculations and I would have to weigh only 50 pounds for that glider to support me.  But then I'm just an old fool, and such a good one at that I fooled myself into thinking I was more.  It probably wouldn't work." 

The tears that ran down his cheeks were large and thick like molten glass.  I don't think either of us had seen a grown man like this cry before and it upset us so much we couldn't say anything.

 

            As the cries of the birds of morning began, Billy reached over and shook me, but I was not asleep, only drifting in and out of dreams of flying with Shang.

            "Come on, this is going to take us awhile," Billy said as he threw me my clothes.

            We went out to the shed and swung the double doors wide open.  With a struggle to keep the glider from falling on us, we got it up into the wheelbarrow.  The two of us pushing with one hand, balancing the structure with the other, headed up towards the bluff above Shang's. 

"He said that the best breezes for this were in the morning," Billy whispered as the world was soaked in dawn. 

But Billy didn't have to say anything.  I already knew what he had planned.

            Reaching the edge of the bluff we unloaded the glider and I stood back wondering if I should go and tell someone that Billy was going to try and use it.  He turned to me and said, "Now let's get you in the harness."

            "What?" was all I could say.

            "Don't be dumb, I'm too heavy but you're just right.  Are you a chicken or something?"

            "No," I said somehow thrilled. 

Billy was letting me do the daring thing for once instead of me watching him, wishing I had enough courage to walk what was left of the old railroad trestle above the river or climb the rocks into the cave on the face of the bluff.

            "You remember how Shang told us one night all about how to use this thing?  Sounds easy.  Besides we got to prove to him that his glider here will work so he won't be so sad."

            There was a silent space in my mind into which some words were whispered, ones in a language I did not know but seemed to understand nonetheless.  I told Billy to wait a minute.  I went over the rock where he had stood a couple of nights before and tried to push it back.  It was too big for me so Billy came over and helped me seeming to know what I was doing.  Finally the rock rolled to the side.  Beneath it, in a hollowed out place filled with squirming bugs was a piece of leather folded around something.  Billy took it out and opened it up.  Inside, about the size of my Captain Video badge was an amulet of a bird.  It was carved from a shiny black stone, perhaps volcanic glass.  It had once hung on a rope but that had long since decayed.

            "Wow, this is what Shang had us looking for!  Here put this in your pocket, I bet it's good luck," Billy said sliding the smooth cold object in my shirt pocket so it hung there pulling at the buttons.

            I felt as though I was holding my breath the whole time that Billy strapped me into the glider.  We had seen a light below in Shang's houseboat, so we knew he was there.  The plan was that Billy would help me off the bluff and then climb down it and run to Shang's and get him to come outside and see me in the sky above.

            The sun had split open the sky in the east so that a large tear of magenta shone through the watery blue.  Just as Billy pushed me over the edge I saw the sun turning into a gold fire that ignited the treetops beneath me.  Then I realized I was flying, no gliding on pathways in the air only the birds had known about.  Now I felt like I was releasing my breath, now I was free.  Was I dreaming?  I had expected to be frightened but my dreams had taught me well.  A flock of crows soared around me as if encouraging me to catch each breeze, float through each lull. 

Below I could see Billy running towards Shang's.  Though Billy's cries could not have reached Shang's yet, I saw light fall from his door and down his gangplank, then cut off by his form in the doorway.  There he was standing with his arms outstretched as though to catch me, watching amazed.  I don't know how long I was in the air, only that I felt I could have stayed there forever.  The crows circled around me as if to show me where the invisible roads were that I must take to reach the field.

            Shang and Billy were already in the field calling out to me to do this or that, but I was watching the crows, letting them guide me.  Up above it all I had seemed to be moving so slow and gracefully but as I came closer to the ground I seemed to be moving so fast I could hardly think.  The next thing I knew I had landed right on top of Shang.  I lay there with the glider splintered around me, and Shang under me.  Was he breathing?  I felt Billy pulling at the glider and me with it.  I rolled away from Shang.  Finally his eyes opened and he started hooting like a mad man.

            "You shall call me Daedalus and I will call you Icarus, foolish enough to live your dream and mine", Shang said unstrapping me from the glider.

            "Show him the bird!" Billy said excited.

            I pulled the black bird from my pocket and gave it to Shang who kept rubbing it between his fingers.

            "Ojibwa made this.  They believe that each man has an animal that guides him.  My great Uncle's was a crow.  He said he could go into a trance and enter the body of a crow and fly.  I always wanted a crow to be my spirit animal but none of the Indians around here remember the old ways of how it was done.  I've traveled up and down the river asking, but the knowledge is lost."  

Shang pulled a leather strap from his pocket and threaded it through the amulet then put it over his head.

            "What if you go to sleep and dream?" I said knowing my dreams of flying had given me the courage to try the glider.

            "Would it not be nice to have those wings before I die? Perhaps the soul is meant to roam in dreams," Shang said softly as the sun came roaring up over the treetops.

            When Billy and I arrived home later that morning we were in big trouble.  It seemed when Grandma had gotten up and gone to the parlor to play the piano, she had seen that our room, off the parlor, was empty.  My mother grounded us for a week when we wouldn't tell her what we had been doing.  How could we explain and expect her to believe us?  So we were allowed to do what Mom wanted us to do all along, stay at Grandma's and play with Kathy.  Kathy who had cried for us to stay and play with her now changed her mind.  We teased her and teased her.

            Towards the end of that week of confinement something unusual happened.  Billy went to find some potato bugs to chase Kathy with when he saw a large, blue/black crow sitting on the clothesline. He ran inside, got me, and we stood looking at the crow wondering, while the beautiful bird sat there looking at us.  Each morning when we went out there he was, either back on the clothesline, or in a tree or even sitting on the pump handle.

            When our punishment was done, a relief to us and to Kathy, Billy and I took off down the river to see Shang, but his houseboat was gone.  One night during the week there had been a wild rain storm with strong winds and we wondered if the boat had pulled loose and drifted down river, or had Shang merely pulled up anchor and left?

            "Maybe he went off to find some Indians who knew how to become a bird," Billy said as we walked sadly up to the bluff.

            "Or maybe he figured it out on his own, " I said pointing to that same crow that flew in circle after circle above us.

 


 

A family fishing trip was always a frantic affair,

     Seldom pleasant

                                    Most often traumatic.

My parents pictured my sister and I sitting near by

On the bank of some river, all of us

With our lines cutting through the glass of some

Quiet stream as we enjoyed nature like a connoisseur of fine wine

            This was never the case.  Instead

Fishing poles darting near eyes, lines tangled and Dad cutting them

            Worms too squirmy to pick up, cries to stand back,  cast off

Hopefully not into flesh.

Lines in the water.  But no peace.  Bugs and bees. 

The floating twig that was a snake.  Anxiety

Waiting for a nibble.

 

HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER

 

 

            For my Grandma, who lived along the banks of the Mississippi River who sways her hips through America, fishing was a vital part of life as it became for me.  I would grab up my pole from where it stood with others attentive in the corner of her kitchen by the door waiting, knowing that in Iowa the lure of the river might reach out at any hour and you might need to go fishing, for a few minutes, a few hours, or even a lifetime.

            Mornings those summers in Bandel's Crossing did not begin with alarm clocks, a surge in commuter traffic, or the cold anxiety of the day about to begin.  A rooster, somewhere on the edge of town, the edge of my dreams, would crow.  As if he was the orchestra conductor, the birds that seem to have been tuning up 'till now would begin to sign in earnest.  The tempo or their song, the rising and falling melodies, seemed to predict what weather to expect for the day, and as I pushed sleep back from my eyes, I knew the day would be near a simmer in the heat. 

Then I heard Grandma's even walk (she never dragged her feet) to the piano in the parlor outside of the room where Billy and I slept, the creak and thud as she lifted the piano bench away from the big old upright so she could sit at it, then her cracking knuckles before she began to play.  In this secret time of hers she played old piano rags, the syncopation somehow fitting in with the bird song, with the barking of distant dogs, the creaking of beds in the rooms above.

            I could feel Billy squirming in our bed and peered over into the morning light to see him anxiously looking around.  Soon he reached over and tried to wake me, eager to be off on some adventure he had planned, but my heart had begun to beat between the rhythms of the rag that Grandma played, and I did not want to move.  Whether he believed I was awake or not, he gave up on me, got up and got dressed, and then sliding the window open as quietly as possible, climbed out and was off.

            As I sank back into the soft mattress and the light subtly shifted around me from a syrupy yellow to a clear white, I imagined that I was sitting beside Grandma on the piano bench as she played, watching her short fingers running over the keys, the flab on her arms, the piano, the room shaking.  But I could not disturb her special solitude.  When the music stopped, though it still vibrated the crystal lamp on the dresser, I closed my eyes because I knew Grandma would be coming in to wake us.  When she came in the room I heard her laugh to herself for she must have seen that Billy was gone but the window was open.  She wasn't upset, she had raised six boys herself and knew he would get hungry and be back in time for breakfast, the smell of bacon cooking carrying even down to the riverbank.  Then she grabbed my toe through the sheets and shook it.  "Time to get up, the day's a wasting Mickey."

            The smell of fresh baked biscuits still filled the kitchen, the fresh bacon grease clung to the wall above the old Tappan range, but breakfast was over and everyone had disappeared through clattering screen doors or up uncarpeted stairs.  Sitting at the piano in the front room, letting my fingers wander over the keys and hoping they might accidentally create a tune, I listened between the notes to my mother and sister laughing in the room above, Billy rummaging around in the attic, to the crunch of my Grandpa's feet on the gravel road as he headed off to his gas station/motel, and to the distant river clearing her throat of a motor boat that had gotten stuck there. 

Then I heard the humming of my Grandma grow silent in the kitchen, as did the creaking of the pump handle, the rattling of dishes in the sink.  The screen door squealed open and then closed again.  I tore into the kitchen and with that keen sense for details that children have when the possibility for fun is at stake, saw that Grandma's fishing pole no longer stood with the others.  Grabbing the one that was mine while visiting for the summer, I ran out the door after her.

            The day which had began so moist and utterly green, now was limp in the intense heat.  Though the sky above was blue a painter would have colored it yellow for it was so full of sunlight it seemed all that I could see.  The leaves on the trees seemed coated with mercury and the gravel on the road that led down to the river sparkled like broken glass. The only sound I could hear was the buzzing of locusts hidden in the long steel blades of grass.  Or was it that you could hear the frequency of light this intense?

            Down the hill I followed Grandma, silent, yet acknowledging my presence with an occasional pat on the head or wiping of the sweat off my forehead with a handkerchief that she could produce at anytime though I could never figure out where it came from or where it went.  As the road leveled off onto land that was at times of flooding covered by water, the air itself turned white.  But when we came to the shade, color was returned to the world, deep colors, umbers and cobalts, and thalo greens.  I felt the river breathing my way, setting the leaves above to trembling, the sweat to cool and dry to salt on my brow.  The river was blowing to cool me the way Mom did when I have gotten too excited, too over worked, too hot. 

I was excited.  From time to time during the day someone would look up from their task, my mother sewing a patch on my pants leg, or Grandpa as he spit a wad of tobacco into the coffee can he kept hidden under his chair, and ask, now where has she gotten off to?  But no one went to hunt for Grandma, nor when she returned expected a direct answer.  She was off on her private time, and now I was off on it with her.  For once there was no one else to take her attention away from me.  I had her all to myself.

            This was not quite true, for there was another with us, but one so benign, whose company was so pleasant that I could hardly complain.  It was the river.

            "Why do you always call the river 'she'", I asked Grandma after we had settled down on the trunk of a fallen tree.  I took off my shoes and felt the cool mud ooze up between my toes knowing Grandma wouldn't complain about me doing it the way my mother would.

            "I suppose because she is.  Now would I call you a he if you weren't?" Grandma answered and this made perfect sense to me.

            The depth of the waters of the Mississippi River is always a mystery, for while at one place it may be shallow, at another it may be so deep it has never been measured.  She has a mind of her own, slowly working her way this way or that, over the years, over the thousands of years, never revealing her intentions, but following a hidden agenda that she saw no reason to reveal.  She was a mystery and perhaps that was why she was female in nature, not that females are a mystery to me, but that they naturally touch a great mystery that men can only work at gaining a hint.

            Our fishing poles were not Plexiglas with aluminum, but simple bamboo ones strung not with nylon line but some strong black thread from Grandma's sewing box.  While others in the family had fancy get ups, this was what she chose.  No expensive flies or lures, a piece of chicken skin was what she used for bait.  The only concession she made to the sport of fishing was she liked to use a red and white bobbin.  "Not that I think it helps catch a fish, I just know by instinct if they are on the line, but I like to watch the thing drifting in the water."

            With a plop we dropped our lines into the water, the smooth reflection of the sky rippling out in circles that created ever so tiny waves on the sand near my feet.

            "Now I have to warn you that I don't like talking much while I'm fishing, not that it scares away the fish but that it scares away the thoughts that come to you when your line is cast in the water," Grandma said and I, afraid she would send me back up to the house, was instantly quiet.

            But within no time I heard her mumbling.  At first I thought she might have been speaking to me, though her words drifted together with the song of birds in the trees above us and out over the water.  It was like listening to someone talking to themselves in their sleep, when you might catch hold of a word, but the meaning of a sentence was beyond you.

            "Grandma?"

            "Yes Mickey?" she said and then began to laugh to herself.

            "You are talking I heard you," I said in a whisper thinking that maybe mumbling and whispering didn't qualify as a breach of the no talking rule.

            "I should have told you about that.  When you fish your mind just takes off on it's own and you sit back and listen where it goes.  Sometimes though it makes you wonder about things and you might have to ask the River about them."

            "What kinda things?"

            "I don't really know, just things.  It's not in the worry about answers and listening for them, it's in the whole rhythm of things, your thoughts, the breeze, the buzzing insects, the slow moving River.

            "Let me tell you a story.  You know Mrs. Groom who lives out past the stone church in Wexford?  Well she has a son and a daughter but she used to have another boy named Francis Xavier.  Her two boys used to come down to the river and dive for clamshells, then sell them to your grandpa so he could sell them to be made into pearl buttons and buckles. Francis was always a quiet boy, very polite to older folk, while his brother was always getting in trouble. 

“His brother, they called him Fox, always took real good care of Francis not only because Francis was younger than him but also because Francis was a bit shy and the other kids teased him.  Seems one day Fox got into a fight defending Francis and was hurt pretty bad by some boys from Waukon Junction.  Fox didn't know it but while he was laid up, Francis went alone diving for clams.  He never came back."

            "Where did he go?" I asked suddenly frightened.

            "The River took him like she does sometimes, for her own reasons.  Maybe it was best, that boy just wouldn't have been happy once his brother grew up and left town. 

“Anyway the family was very upset.  Mr. Groom was still alive then and he blamed Fox for not keeping an eye on Francis.  Fox took it real hard but he got it in his head that Francis was still alive and had just wandered off someplace.  He and his sister searched everywhere for Francis, then she gave up, but not Fox.  Sometimes late at night I would wake up and hear him down by the River calling out Francis's name.

            "This went on just too long and the whole family started to worry about Fox.  He didn't even get in any trouble anymore because he was always off looking for Francis.  Mrs. Groom was frantic.  I told her to go talk to Father Jack and maybe he could help her.  Father Jack prayed with her and then he gave her a medal with St. Francis on it and told her to try praying to St. Francis for Fox.  She prayed real hard.

“One day she remembered that St. Francis was the saint who talked to the animals.  She got it in her head that she could talk to the River.  The Mississippi may not be an animal but she is alive, we all know that.  After talking to the River, Mrs. Groom and Fox took out a boat.  Mrs. Groom threw the medal of St. Francis in the water and as it floated down stream they rowed along and followed. 

“Finally it stopped even though there by the train trestle the current was strong.  It just was steady in the water while Fox dove in. When he came up he had found poor Francis down their, his body caught in some old machinery they had dumped when they built the railroad trestle.  They got some of the men from town to help and brought up the body and buried him out at the old stone church."

            When I remember this story as told by my Grandmother, in her quiet, earnest manner, I can't reason how it answered my question as to why she talked to the river, but at the time, with the river there before us, a presence so real and alive that I found myself listening for her to speak to me, it all made more than ordinary sense.  Time drifted on as slow and eternal and persistent as the river, and while my hands held the bamboo pole which held the thread that disappeared into the water, I was part of the river.  How can I say how much time passed?

            A change in bird song, a shift in the flight patterns of the dragon flies, then the waves on the water and we saw two men in a row boat coming around the island and into the slough where we sat fishing.  I heard Grandma make a little noise of disagreement and mumble something as they came closer to us.

            "Day," said the man who was rowing.  "Mind if I ask you something?"

            We did not say anything but nodded.

            "My partner and me are down for the day to fish and thought that it looked good on this side of the island, but we saw all those snakes in the water."

            "Are they dangerous?" asked the partner.

            "Those are water moccasins!" I said remembering Mom had told me to stay clear of them because they were very poisonous.

            The men looked at each other worried, said goodbye, then rowed down the channel and out of sight.  Grandma began to laugh.

            "You're not a river rat yet.  Those are just harmless water snakes, but you can bet I wasn't going to set them straight.  Men just don't know how to fish so I didn't want them to ruin it for us.  They want to catch fish when you aught to let the fish find the line.

            "I used to be impatient to find a husband before I met your grandpa, but my brother Irwin said, 'all things come to those who wait,' and that sounded right to me.  Sometimes it's as if you can be so full of wanting something that there isn't room for God to put it in your life.  But when you empty yourself of the `I have not, I want' it comes in God's own good time.

            "It just seems to me that men are full of impatience by nature and have to learn to wait.  With women it's having a baby that makes the difference.  You can't make the baby be born right away, you just have to prepare yourself, get things ready, and then the baby will be born in God's good time.

            "I think the Messiah would have come already if it weren't for men wanting Him so bad.  All that desperate wanting is like a presence they create, like an Anti-Christ, the Christ that they don't have.  If people would just set their hearts straight, and their lives, get rid of all that wanting, then when the time is right, the Messiah will come."

            Grandma looked over at me and smiled as if to say, "Well just listen to me go on about things like I was a philosopher," and we went back to our fishing. 

Isn't it funny how I can remember the way my face sat in shadows but my hands held the pole in the sun that day, isn't it funny all the details of our conversations I recall, but I can't remember if we caught a fish or not?

 

            It was many years later that in the middle of the night, back at our home in Fairfax, Va., my mother would make up because Grandma was standing at the foot of the bed shaking my mother's toe.  She wasn't frightened, but smiled, turned over and looked at the clock and went back to sleep.  The next morning she woke when the telephone rang.  At the time Grandma had made her visitation, she had died back in Iowa.

            My mother told my sister and I that our Grandmother was dead, but I didn't believe her.  She was just gone.  I suspected that she had just slipped off by herself and sat somewhere on the banks of the Plexiglas fishing and mumbling to the river.

 

 

Sometimes the wind

 is all about you

 invisible like ghosts

 frightening the leaves on the trees

 sending the clouds rushing by.

 Other times

the wind

 is soft and like breath

whispering against your cheek

     with words you cannot quite hear,

     are unable to understand.

 

WIND AND WHISPERS

 

 

            Sometimes the wind is all about you, invisible like ghosts frightening the leaves on the trees, sending the clouds rushing by.  Other times the wind is soft and like breath whispering against your cheek with words you cannot quite hear, are unable to understand.  But the wind that came to the tiny town of Bandel's Crossing, Iowa arrived like a train heard first in the distance rustling leaves on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, then silent as it slid over the surface of the slow moving water.  Arriving in Iowa, at the edge of the town, it had suddenly gained strength, become more frantic as thick green leaves pulled on their stems and old tree branches creaked.  Dogs began to bark as a loose shutter slammed against a clapboard house, a woman's cry as the wash pulled loose from the clothes line.

            "Hear it, it's getting closer!" Billy said pulling me closer to him as we stood by the gas pumps in front of Grandpa's gas station/motel.

            "Yeah!" I said to the sky where birds had suddenly taken flight. 

I loved the wind, the exhilaration of this invisible force, like God the Father without an image but whose effects humbled me.  But I could tell my cousin was afraid of something, but what?  Billy could walk out in the dark without fear, go down in the cellar alone, run through fenced fields where an old bull stood, talk back to Pete Bandel when he got drunk.  What could be bothering him?

            On the other side of the screen door I could hear my mother and sister talking with Grandpa but I couldn't make out what they were saying.  Mom had brought Kathy and I down to the station for a reason but she would not say what it was, only that she wanted us to stay close by until she said we could go back to Grandma's house.  Billy had followed along because after our mysterious mission was over here he wanted to take me to one of the bluffs on the other side of town to look for caves. 

As I tried to block from my mind the sound of the approaching wind and listen only to what my mother was saying inside, little wind devils rose from the dirt around us and began to spin at our feet.  The wind was coming quickly.  Spirits who rattled the chains suddenly rode the swings in the schoolyard across the street.  As the roar of wind arrived bits of gravel were lifted from the road and hurled towards us.  A shingle clattered down the road.

            "Let's amscray!" Billy said as though the wind had knocked the breath from his lungs and we ran through the screen door that the wind held open for us into the office.

            "It's about time you came back in Mickey", my mother said pushing my hair back in order with her fingers. 

As Kathy climbed up on a chair to try and open the top of the Coke cooler and get herself another soda, we heard a train approaching.  It's rumble merged with that of the wind and as it sped by the building trembled.

            "Is that the phone ringing?" my Mom yelled to Grandpa who stood beside where it sat like a frightened black cat.

            "What?" he yelled, the wad of tobacco bobbing up and down inside his cheek. 

A glass thermometer fell from the enameled Pepsi sign beside the door and broke on the floor.  Kathy ran after the mercury that slid away as Mom tried to stop her.  It was Billy who went over and answered the phone as the train and the wind receded into the distance.

            "Mickey?  No it's Billy, he's right here though.  It's your adDay," Billy said as he handed me the phone. 

I knew by the way Mom motioned me from where she knelt cleaning up the broken glass that this was the reason she had brought us here.  There was no phone at Grandma's house.  Dad must have dropped Mom a card from wherever it was the military had sent him and told her he would try to call today.

            "Daddy, is that you," I said hoping it was because I missed him so bad.  I had been lying in bed that morning trying to remember what his voice sounded like and could not.  Though it was distorted over the phone lines, I suddenly remembered everything clearly about him, those funny red indents his glasses made on each side of his nose, the smell of Old Spice after-shave, his cough when he smoked a cigarette in the morning while he shaved.  I even longed for the not really so hard smack of his hand on my bottom when I was bad.

            "Are you being a good boy?" he asked me. 

I felt that he somehow knew all my actions, that all fathers could see their children much like God and Santa Claus did so I said, "Well pretty good for me," and he laughed.

            "How about your sister and your mother, are you taking good care of them?"  This made me feel a link of protection between us.  He was not here now so I was taking care of them in his place.

            "Yes, I hold Kathy's hand when she crosses the street, but she bites it sometimes.  Where are you?"

I knew from previous experience that he could not say where he was.  This was the beginning of the cold war with the Russians and wherever he had been sent to build up our military strength overseas was a secret.  But I liked to pretend I knew where he was, that I too held the same secret as him, and together we were making the world safe.

            After I had given over the phone to the anxious hands of Kathy who then became too shy to say much, Mom took over.  Grandpa went to the screen door, opened it and spat out a wad of tobacco.  As he quickly shut the door the wind sent the spit splattering against the screen and Kathy began to gag.  Then Grandpa rounded us up and took us over to the soda cooler and opened it to get us bottles of Orange Crush, Coke, and Yohoo.  While he tried to distract us, mother held the phone close to her mouth and whispered into it, words I wished I could hear.  Grandpa tried to send us outside but Billy refused to go out again so we waited for mother to finish. 

            When she hung up the phone she stood for a minute with her back to us.  I saw her reach in the pocket of her yellow and pink striped sun dress and pull out a Kleenex, put it to her face, then put it back before she turned around.  As she turned the phone rang and she jumped.  We laughed at her as Grandpa went over and picked it up.

            "Who?" he said loudly, but then he too began to whisper.

            When Grandpa had hung up the phone he turned to Billy and me and gave us a "Mission" as he called it.  We were to go get Mrs. Desisto and bring her back to call her mother.  Grandpa drew us a map of where their house was.  This was a summer of secret codes and Pig Latin between Billy and I. 

"A ealray issionmay!" Billy cried as we left Kathy, who was too young to come with us.

 

            In a sad and sagging shingled house where plastic flowers melted in the afternoon sun, Billy and I stood in a room with torn shades pulled down and listened to the whispers between Mr. and Mrs. Desisto in the next room.  While we stood uneasily shifting our weight from foot to foot as Mrs. Desisto's voice rose above the whispers saying "I have to go, my mother hasn't spoken to me in years and now she's...", her daughter Leona sat as quiet and calm as a shadow on the sofa where flowers faded into the smudges of dirt.  Finally Mrs. Desisto appeared buttoning a Swiss dotted shift over her slip and came up to Billy and me and asked us would we please stay with Leona until she got back from using Grandpa's phone.  Though Leona was probably as old as Billy (and we thought she didn't need a babysitter) Mrs. Desisto insisted we stay.

            "Tell the boys to run along home," Mr. Desisto called out from the kitchen, but Mrs. Desisto whispered to us to tell him we wanted to stay if he asked us to leave. 

I didn't want Mrs. Desisto to leave.  Each summer my father was off on his trips for the Pentagon and we became a fatherless family, each summer I loved staying at my grandparents but longed for my father to be there.  I wanted Mrs. Desisto to stay so that I could feel a whole family around me, even if it wasn't mine.  But there was something wrong with this family, something I could sense, but I couldn't yet put into words.  And this confused me.

            We passed the hour down by the creek behind the house, Billy and I poking about in the water with sticks trying to discover some new creature left over from the age of dinosaurs while Leona looked on at the frogs and craw daddies that swam away at our intrusion, opening wide her immense dark eyes and pulling her dull thin hair that gathered about her fragile smile like cobwebs.  That afternoon we would glance up at Leona amazed at how strange and different she was from the girls that we knew who were constantly giggling, complaining, or screaming about something boys did.  We did not know at the time that for the next week while her mother was in Davenport, Leona would not be staying with her father but at Grandma's and that during her stay there she would become even more of a mystery to us.

            A sewing machine was as much a part of my grandma as her little finger, though much more useful to her. 

"Why don't we get Jesse to drive us to Waukon and I'll buy you a nice electric Singer machine.  It's time Jesse stopped hiding out here in." I heard my mother saying to Grandma from my grandparents bedroom which was just off the kitchen where Billy, Leona, Kathy, and I sat fighting over the plastic top that had come in the box of Sugar Smacks.  We ate them from a large green bowl between us where we had made my mother empty the entire box to find the prize which was, as always, at the bottom.

            "Oh boy, maybe we'll get to ogay ootay," Billy cried out as we ran after him into the bedroom.

            "Don't you nosey little kids get your hopes up," Grandma said never ceasing from maneuvering the yellow checked sheet through the needle, "I like this old machine just fine thank-you, so you go about your business and I'll get back to work.  All I have to do is put the backing on this quilt and then I can pack it up and mail it off tomorrow morning."

            As we jostled through the doorway Kathy turned and grabbed at my mother, one of my sister's more annoying habits, and asked why Grandma couldn't play with us, just worked on her quilts. 

"She's saving money dear, now don't hang on me like that.  Go play with Leona or maybe your Aunt Jesse, I want to talk to Grandma."

            Digging was a passion of Billy's, not so much for the sake of digging but for the finding.  There was always something we both expected was hidden from us, not just some treasure left behind by the French fur traders who had first settled this area of Iowa, or one perhaps of the Ojibwa Indians whose land this had been before them, but perhaps traces of the lives of the mound builders who had left the river valley littered with mounds of dirt in the shape of animals, the ancient and mysterious slant-eyed people who filled the stories we told each other at night.  We searched each day in the caves up in the bluffs, down on the banks of the river, for we were archaeologists trying to uncover the skull of a sacrificial victim or the blood caked knife that took his life in a corner of Grandpa's garden near the potatoes.  So far all we had found were a few potatoes. 

Grandma was sitting on the back porch snapping beans while Aunt Jesse was picking berries out near the edge of the lot.  Grandma had told her she would make her a pie only if she picked the berries and didn't expect someone else to do it for her.  Suddenly Jesse ran past us up onto the porch where she talked in low urgent words to Grandma.  Grandma called Billy and I over.

            "Now hurry up boys.  Go and find Leona, I think she's upstairs with Kathy playing paper dolls, and see that she stays inside the house no matter what, now don't ask questions, just go," Grandma said.

Billy and I, excited over another secret mission, ran in the house and found Kathy and Leona playing on the floor of the room they shared.  Billy closed the door behind him as if to keep them prisoner while I stood in the hallway.

            "Open the door, if the house catches fire we can't get out!" my sister cried out suddenly afraid. 

Billy of course would not yield nor explain his action.

            "Come play with me," Leona said unconcerned.

            Going to a back window I looked out and saw Mr. Desisto walking down the road on the side of the house towards my Grandma who had gone out to meet him.  At first their words could not be heard, then, though I still could not understand what was said, I heard their voices rumbling towards me.  Soon Grandma was waving her arms down the road in the direction Mr. Desisto had come from.  He finally turned and reluctantly went away.  But why? 

            An ugly thought slithered into my mind: had Grandma scared away my father like she had scared away Leona's?  Then like a silverfish the thought squirmed into the back of my mind.

            Was it that summer was more filled with storms and threats of storms than others, or was it that during that time I began to notice a union between the external weather and the emotions that were stirred up inside me?  That afternoon Billy and I had found a bone in the field across the road.  Long as my hand, brittle as uncooked spaghetti, it might have been from some animal though Billy and I would not acknowledge this possibility.  We were certain it was from the corpse of some ancient warrior, so certain in fact that we were frightened that digging a bit deeper we might find the eye sockets of his skull staring up at us and had run home. 

We kept the bone wrapped in an old red bandanna and had shown it to no one.  We just passed it from hand to hand.  Our secret, a secret I wanted to share with my Dad so he would share with me the secret of where the government sent him.  Maybe it was even the bone of a dead Commie.  But when I asked Mom where Daddy was she shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, and hugged me.  Still I was excited with our discovery, but also frightened, and the wind which grew in strength outside, scratching the branches of a tree against the house, sending the curtains on the open kitchen windows flying like captured ghosts towards us was the externalization of my terror.

            "illyBay you take it," I whispered, "what if this dead guy's ghost comes looking for his bone?"

            "I'm not afraid of him," Billy said taking the bone and putting it in his pocket. 

But Billy was afraid of something, I could tell by the way his eyes were open wide yet staring out at nothing.  We sat around the kitchen table eating pieces of the gooseberry pie Grandma had made when the wind sent something crashing in the pantry.  Grandpa got up to see what had happened while Grandma did something I could not understand, she picked up Leona from the chair beside her and held her saying don't be afraid.  Leona did not seem afraid at all.  Why was Grandma comforting her?

            "Is the little baby afraid?" Billy teased as Grandpa came back in the kitchen grumbling about Grandma never hanging things up on the hooks he had put up but just setting them on the shelves on top of everything else. 

Grandma was about ready to return the attack with some complaint of her own that she had saved up for just such an opportunity when Mrs. Desisto came in the door.  Before a word could be said, Leona was in her arms.  When the hugs and kisses were exhausted for the moment, Grandma told us kids to go on upstairs and play in Kathy's room and give the adults a chance to talk. 

My mother followed us up the stairs with a tray on which she had put our unfinished deserts then shut the door when she left us.  This seemed to be to keep us from hearing what they planned to talk about but through a vent in the floor meant to let heat from the kitchen rise to the bedroom in the winter I could hear them below us.  I moved with my piece of pie over near the vent and when no one was looking slid it open a bit wider.  From the kitchen below us came the fluctuations of light and the muted meanings of speech.

            "Now that she is gone there is no hope of leaving..."   "Stay with us..."   "You owe it to Leona..."   "...won't work..."   "I won't let her father..."   My grandpa sounded angry, my Aunt Jesse silent, my mother talking in a hurried whisper, my grandma determined.

            "That bang it the pantry scared the underpants off you," Billy was saying to Leona as the wind rattled the window in it's frame.

            "No it didn't.  It scared you."  Leona went over the window and closed it as Kathy circled the room trying to catch the paper dolls that flew like a swarm of butterflies around her.

            "Sure nothing scares you, well how about this?  It's the bone of a dead man."  Billy pulled our treasure from his pocket and unwrapped it.

            "You killed somebody!" Kathy began to cry when she saw it but Leona told her to stop, it was nothing to be afraid of.

            "What scares you?" Leona asked taking the bare bone from the bandanna and looking at it intently.

            "Nuclear bombs," I said as heat lightning flashed outside the window.  "In school they have these drills and we have to lie under our desks.  If we look out the windows, that is the direction of Washington, they say we will see the explosion and our eyes will burn up."

Kathy had stopped crying and was listening to me.  She had recently started Kindergarten and I knew that she too went through these drills.  But Billy and Leona looked at us in disbelief.  It had not occurred to me that we were the only ones who went through these frightening drills because we lived and went to school in Fairfax Virginia, just outside of a prime target in the event of what seemed the inevitable, a nuclear war. 

"If they blow up Washington they say that your skin falls off unless you hide in a bomb shelter."

            "I'm afraid of bugs, the ones that live under big rocks and crawl in your ears," Kathy said clutching at her paper doll.

            "What are you afraid of?  Everything?" Billy asked Leona as he grabbed back the bone and stuffed it in his pocket as though it was a talisman that could protect him.

            "Just my father."

            Did this strike Billy and Kathy the way it struck me?  I loved my father so much I could not imagine being frightened of him.  There were things between people I did not understand, and I was not certain I ever wanted to understand them.  In the silence I noticed that the talking below us had stopped.  Then there was the sound of the front door and the grinding of the ignition of Jesse's car.

            Another burst of lightning filled the room as Billy said quietly beneath the sound of the wind against the side of the house, "I'm afraid of the wind."

            Later that night, after the wind and lightning, leaving behind the land sore and dry had died, I went to the window again as Jesse drove up.  She got out of the car with Mrs. Desisto carrying two suitcases.

            Kathy was now sleeping with my mother while Mrs. Desisto slept in Kathy's room with her daughter.  Though the house was now crowded with people, this seemed to make little difference to my grandmother who was always ready to take in someone who needed a place to stay.  Mother of a large family, her children now grown and moved off, Grandma still fixed huge meals knowing that anyone in town or merely passing through was welcome to stop in and eat with us. 

One evening a week or so after Mrs. Desisto had moved in we were all sitting in the kitchen eating pot roast when there was a knock at the front door.  My Grandpa went to answer the door while Grandma got up from the table and went to the cupboard and took out another plate.

            "I want them home now," I heard a man's voice yelling in the parlor. 

Leona ran up the kitchen stairs while Mrs. Desisto followed her.  My mother and Aunt Jesse looked at each other anxiously and then motioned for us kids to follow.  But before we could get up, Mr. Desisto came into the kitchen followed by Grandpa who was angrily telling him he had to leave.

            "I don't want you in this house!" Grandma said holding up the plate as though she might strike Mr. Desisto.

            "I have a right, I'm her husband.  You know where I found her, in that place.  I have a right."  As Mr. Desisto turned red and the black of his five o'clock shadow became as dark as a burning coal, Grandpa went into his bedroom.

"Why aren't you acting like a father?  Why do you scare me and your family?" I wanted to scream at Mr. Desisto but was too frightened of him to speak.

            "You have no right to her if she wants to stay with us," Grandma said moving closer.

            "Mother!" my mom said as Jesse picked up a butter knife from the table.

            "Well she can make up her own mind but I want Leona back with me."

            "Get out now,” Grandpa said coming back in the room with an old gun in his hand and under his arm crippled by polio, a baseball bat.

            "Leona!"  Mr. Desisto called to the upper floors of the house, but when there was no answer, only the sound of crying, he left.

            That night as we sat finishing our supper the whispers began.  Sometimes I would see my mother lean over and whisper in Aunt Jesse's ear or Grandpa lean over to Grandma, but other times the whispers seemed to exist on their own, to be coming from the corners of the rooms, behind closed doors to empty rooms, from under the furniture, in the cellar. 

For days the wind whistled around the house yet the weather did not change, yield in cooler weather or a rain shower.  Was it bringing the whispers into the house, under the doors, through the screens, down the chimney?

            I would wake at night and find Billy lying in our bed with his eyes wide open as if he could see the wind approaching.  Then I would listen to whispers I could not understand, and these confusing whispers would follow me into my sleep.  The adults were often seen close to each other talking in hushed tones and now and then I would hear Mr. Desisto mentioned, but us kids never spoke of him.  We were frightened that he might return.  Leona seemed terrified.

            One morning Leona came into the room where Billy and I slept and told us to hurry and get up. 

"The wind is just right, we have to go out in it," she said. 

For days Billy had stayed in the house, looking up from time to time as we pinned our collection of dead bugs to cardboard.  I knew he was wishing the wind would cease it's constant hammering at the clapboard house.  How could Leona ask him to go out now?

            Billy was proud, or perhaps more frightened of being called a chicken, so we followed Leona to the empty field down the road.  The long dry grass was tugged at its roots by the wind as Leona pulled the old sheet off the bundle she had dragged after us.  It was a kite.

            "My mommy helped me make it, but it was my idea.  It's fun," Leona said holding the frantic kite against the wind.  Handing the ball of chord to Billy, she held the kite into the air.  "Run," she cried, "Run against the wind!" 

Whether it was to please her or because he was frightened on this windy day and wanted to run away, Billy took off with the ball in his hand, Leona with the kite following.  Then I saw Billy suddenly stop on the command of the chord as the kite was lifted by the wind into the air.  He stood with his mouth open staring at the brown paper kite painted with black birds rising against the clear blue sky.

            "Pull the string, you can control the kite," Leona said as we ran up to where Billy stood.  In no time he was making the kite soar and dip and circle.  After a while Aunt Jesse came to find us for breakfast, but she too was mesmerized by the kite, which grew smaller as it rose high above us.  It wasn't until my mother finally showed up to retrieve us that Billy relented and pulled the kite slowly in.

            Then, as suddenly as they had begun, the whispers ceased to trail along behind us as we walked through the big old house.  No longer did they collect in corners near the ceiling but seemed to have been blown away by the wind which had left, perhaps taking those soft sounds with it.  The windows were once again opened wide to let in a stray breeze, and I heard my mother call out "Boys come down and say good-bye!" 

Billy and I had been rummaging about in the attic as though it were the burial chamber of some ancient Pharaoh, but wondering who it was that was leaving broke our concentration and we hurried down the stairs and out the front door.  Aunt Jesse and my mother were loading the two suitcases Mrs. Desisto had brought into the trunk of Jesse's midnight blue Ford.  Kathy stood close to Leona knowing that her playmate was now leaving and she would once again be left to the loneliness of trying to keep up with her big brother, or playing paper dolls alone while Mom cut out another picture of a dress.  Grandma and Mrs. Desisto, dressed in a pale blue suit my grandmother had made for her and wearing a wide brimmed hat against the sun, stood by the side of the road as a dust devil sped by their nylons.

            "I want you to take this, it's not much.  I've been saving it to buy a statue of an angel to put on Anita's grave, but the more I think about it, the sillier that notion seems to be," Grandma said as Grandpa came walking down the road towards the house to say good-bye, his bad leg dragging through the gravel.

            "I can't.  You'll make me cry," Mrs. Desisto said so that I could barely hear her.

            Billy who was not paying attention to the two women, walked over to Leona.  I wanted to hear what Grandpa was going to say as he came up to Mrs. Desisto, but wondered what Billy was up to so went over to where he stood with Kathy and Leona under the tree.

            When I reached them I saw that Leona was holding the red bandanna with our secret bone in it.  She opened it and looked at it a minute as Kathy fled to mother.  Then Leona wrapped it back up again and put it in the pocket of her sundress.

            Before long the good-byes were gone and the car, Aunt Jesse waving out the driver's window, disappeared into a cloud of dust that hovered in the sunlight.  They were gone but I felt questions that whispers did not answer bothering me.  Leona had gone off without her father, and I, who missed my father so bad wondered, how could you leave him behind? Sometimes during his summer absence I would wish I had another father, any father who stayed with his family but didn't travel like mine or like Billy's did.  But now I was glad I had a father I didn't have to be frightened of.  Even if he was gone sometimes, I was never glad he was gone.

            "You gave away our bone!" I said trying to sound angry but actually relieved that now the ghost of the dead man would not come looking for us.

            "Yeah ickeyMay, but we can igday up another, maybe the skull this time, maybe even the eyeballs will still be in it."


 

 

 

 

 

PRECIOUS DO-DO

 

 

            "Do you want me to show you how to blow your nose without a handkerchief?" Billy asked Kathy as she squeezed the stuffings out of the torn leg of her Raggedy Ann doll.

            "NO!"

            "Come on, you don't even know what it is!  Don't you just want to see, just in case some day you have to blow that snotty nose and don't have a hanky?" Billy looked over at me and winked so hard one of the freckles near his nose disappeared in the wrinkles of ruddy skin.  It was his evil wink, the wink I had been practicing in the big beveled mirror on Grandma's dresser that morning while Billy was in the outhouse. 

It was wonderful to have a cousin who knew how to do so many fun things to my little sister.

            "We know the kind of boy he is, don't we," Kathy said in a high pitch to her doll's remaining eye, "Billy is gross."

            As Billy put his hand to his nose to begin the unwanted demonstration Kathy screamed, held up her doll to bear the brunt of whatever gross thing was about to happen, and ran into Grandma's house.  Aunt Jesse yelled out not to slam the screen door.  Billy and I smiled real hard as Kathy's explanation was swallowed up by the clapboard house.

            "Should I do it anyway, I'm ready?" Billy asked.  I was proud that my cousin assumed I knew what he was about to do.

            "Nawh," I said drawling it out in my accent picked up down home in Virginia and which I instinctively used when I was nervous, "It's no fun without Kathy to tease."  I didn't know what he was about to do, but I knew Kathy was right, Billy was gross.

            "Gee, it must be fun having a little sister," Billy said with the sadness of an only child and we walked off down towards the railroad tracks in search of adventure.

            But that day somehow adventure was not about to be found.  We had already explored the caves in the nearby bluffs, investigated the riverbanks, and searched every empty barn in the small town.  So we sought out Grandpa.

            Sitting in a metal chair which peeling paint revealed had been painted succeeding shades of red, yellow, and green, Grandpa looked a bit like a tired out scarecrow taking an afternoon break with a big green bottle of Spring Grove soda.  His head was almost as round as a pumpkin except for the bulge in his cheek where he chewed a wad of tobacco while he sipped his ginger ale.  His yellowed white shirt had a few stains of tobacco.  As we walked up to where he sat beside the door to his gas station/motel he stuffed the bottle of soda under his polio crippled arm and gave us each a soft slap on the back with the other.

            "Well if you boys don't look bored," he said as we nodded and kicked at the gravel, "I guess I better tell you a story to keep you out of trouble." 

This was what we had hoped for, had counted on in fact.  We settled down, Billy in the little wooden chair beside Grandpa (Billy being older than me somehow deserved this) while I sat on the ground.

            "Let's see now.  Now days I just sit here in the afternoons and open a few clamshells and hope for a pearl.  I arrange for the shells to be sold to the Japanese where they make them into pearl buttons and buckles.  But some time back, before you two boys even occurred to your parents, I would go out on the river collecting the shells from the men, like your Uncle Shang, who pulled them up from the bottom of the river.  I was kinda like a captain with my own little crew of men, some Indian boys actually.  I had a powerboat and a barge to put all the shells on. 

“It was my own business out there on the river and she and I got along just fine.  It wasn't the river that my problems came from; it was those fellows in their big boats.  This one was a steamboat, fine looking thing, but about as rude as you could get.  I was just going about my business, with my crew, pulling the barge stacked full of clam shells back home when this steamboat just heads for me, cutting across the channel to make the turn in the bend in the river quicker, not even caring what it might do to my boat. 

“Well I knew what it would do to my boat.  I yelled out to the fella sitting on the pile of shells to jump into my boat.  When he turned around and saw that big boat coming down on us you bet he jumped.  Then we quick and unhooked the barge from my motor boat and barely made it out of the way before the steamboat went smack dab into my barge and sank it.  Took a nice chunk outa their pretty painted boat too."

            "No one was ground up in the propeller blades?" Billy asked.

            "No thanks to the captain of that..."

            "No blood?  No hands cut off?"

            "No."

            "That's the way you told the story before.  Got anything more gross?"

            Grandpa chuckled at Billy, chewed and spit in a long arc.  We watched where it landed like we were sitting in an fighter plane and were watching him bomb that steamboat below.

            "How about a story with Indians going wild?  A long time back your Great Great Uncle lived down near the settlement of Marquette with his wife and daughter, a pretty girl with long blonde hair.  One day, as peaceful as the next, they were out working in the garden when a band of crazy Sioux attacked the settlement.  Your great grandfather said never trust a Sioux.  Many people hereabouts intermarried with the Ojibwa. Different as day and night, the Sioux and Ojibwa.  Guess which was night.”

            "Did they hack up everyone?" Billy was anxious to know.

            "Probably was gruesome.  But your relatives, they got away alive, well almost.  The girl got grabbed and before her father could scare off the Sioux, he had scalped her, run off with her blonde hair.  She was alive but had a big hole in her skull.  Her parents quick and got a silver dollar and flattened it out.  Then they placed it over the wound.  It healed and she lived to be 80.  True story."

            "Did hair grow back over the hole?" I asked and Grandpa nodded.

            "We heard all these stories.  Tell us an older one," Billy demanded, restless.

            "How old, old as an Indian story, older?  How about the Ice Age?  Older?  Okay, here goes.  Long time ago this land here was a tropical forest and you know I'm telling you the truth because remember last summer you found fern fossils up on the bluffs." We nodded recalling the frail pattern formed in stone.  "So back then there were these beasts that roamed around here called dinosaurs, meaning terrible lizards."

            "Like dragons!"  Billy said.

            "Yes, maybe they even breathed fire, who knows?  All that is left of them now is bones."

            "Then came the Ice Age, right?"  I remembered the pictures of the dinosaurs in books.

            "Yes then came the big glaciers of ice right down the Mississippi River valley here."

            "Did any of the dinosaurs get frozen?"  Billy asked and Grandpa could see what he was leading up to.

            "Smart people say it happened over many years, but me, I see changes like that as happening fast, one day it's hot the next it's cold.  That's how the Indians say the changes in the earth happened, and I think they’re right.  So maybe a dinosaur or two were frozen."

            "And maybe they thawed out when the ice melted," I said understanding what Billy and Grandpa were thinking.

            "I once found a fish frozen solid in the ice when I went ice fishing one winter.  I cut it out and took it home and when it thawed out boy did your grandma scream to see it start to flap around."

 

            "I found a dinosaur," Billy said opening the door of the outhouse where I sat trying not to breath through my nose.  Instead I got a terrible taste in my mouth.

            "Get out!  Wait, a dinosaur?"

            "Yes, hurry up, I'm going after it now.  And bring a shoe box."

            The door closed and I began to panic.  What if a dinosaur would attack the outhouse while I was in it?  It seemed like the kind of think one would do.  I got myself together and ran out.  What did Billy want a shoebox for?  Maybe it was just a little dinosaur.  I decided I would run after him.  From the bedroom window I could see Billy down the road towards the river waiting for me.  Sometimes he would be off on his own, like this morning he had gotten up before me and disappeared leaving me to the terrible fate of having to play with Kathy.  But then sometimes, like now, he wanted me along with him.  I found a shoebox in the closet, dumped the old letters out of it and ran after Billy.

            "Is it big?" I asked as we pushed aside branches covered with wet green leaves and swarming neon blue dragonflies.

            "I would say small enough for a dinosaur.  Maybe it's a… baby one."

            "Will it fit in my shoe box?"  The one I held was a bit smaller than Billy's.

            "No dinosaur ever is that small."

            "I thought you saw it, how big was it?"

            "I didn't actually see it...  There look there," Billy said pointing as I grabbed at his t-shirt.

            In the mud were footprints, not human, not any animal I had ever seen, but then I had never seen a dinosaur.  I would have been frightened but they led into the water of the slough, which I knew was so shallow that if a big creature was lurking in there I would have been able to see it.

            "Look at this, a pile of poop!"  Billy said pointing to a rather large pile of what was indeed poop.  It did not look quite like any I had seen before though, some of it all squashed, some formed.

            "Yuk!!"

            "What do you mean, yuk!  That stuff is valuable to dinosaur scientists.  They study the stuff, examine it and learn things.  That's what the boxes are for, to put it in and save it.  In case we can't find the dinosaur, we can take them the do-do and prove there is a dinosaur walking around here."

            I was impressed.  Scientists did like strange things like poop.  Once my Dad and I had to take some of my dog's poop in a little bottle to the vet for him to look at.

            "Mickey, you can have this one though, just 'cause we're best friends."

            This was the first time Billy had called us best friends and I was honored, in fact I beamed with pride as I scooped up the mess of an ancient beast into my shoebox.

            "I want to find some too.  But what I really want is to catch the creature myself.  I'm going back to the house and get a rope then coming back and hunting around.  Why don't you stay down here and see if you can find any more poop.  It's valuable stuff; scientists might even pay money for it.  Don't tell anybody what you got in the box!"

            Billy was off.  I began my search by finding another pile but then did not find any for the next hour or so.  My mind began to wander, and I started thinking that if there was a baby dinosaur maybe there was a big mother and a bigger father around.  When every rustling in the leaves began to terrify me I decided it must be time for dinner and I better get home quick. I showed Billy my findings and he told me he hadn't seen the monster.  When we sat down to dinner I kept the box on the empty chair beside me. It was too valuable to risk someone breaking into the house and stealing it.

            "What's in the box?" Grandma asked.

            "Something," I answered knowing if I lied I would go to Hell.

            "Boys always have boxes with things in them," Grandpa said.  Mom smiled.

            But Kathy complained, "I don't want it on the chair beside me, make him put it beside Billy or someone else."

            Aunt Jesse got up to move the box as I put my hands on top of it.  I didn't want it spilling out on the table.

            "Oh leave it there," said Mom, "It's just like that old box of letters you used to carry around with you, the ones from your beaus."

            Jesse blushed and sat down as Kathy asked, "Can I have one of your old bows, a red one?"

            When Mom picked up my plate after dinner she leaned over me and said, "Mickey you must have gotten in something down by the river!  You smell like you need a bath before bedtime."

            That night Billy wouldn't let me keep the box safely under our bed.  He made me get out of bed and hide it under the front porch.  I was mad that someone might steal it but did like he said anyway.  I figured he was just jealous because he hadn't found any poop that day.

            The next day I was once again lucky and found three more piles of the precious stuff.  I shoveled them carefully into the box with a soupspoon I had taken from the kitchen that morning.  At dinner I was going to sit the box once again beside me but realized that I would have to hide it someplace.  While the smell was something I could stand knowing the value of the contents, a swarm of flies hung around the box, and no matter how much I waved them away, they came back.  Billy helped me lift the top of the piano and hide the box inside.

            When we sat down to lunch Grandma put a bowl of soup in front of me.

            "You forgot the silverware Ma," Grandpa said who had come home for lunch, "Where is your mind going to.  Thank God I'm not as forgetful as you or I might walk out in the morning without my pants."

            "Better you walk out of here without that tobacco in your mouth."

Grandma came over to the table with a handful of spoons and began laying them beside the bowls.  But when she came to me she saw the soupspoon I had taken that morning to scoop poop sticking out of my pocket.

            "Oh you have one already," she mumbled confused and sat down without giving me a clean spoon.

            "See, there goes your mind.  Yesterday I found a pair of your hose in the flour bin," Grandpa laughed.

            "Well, eat your soup.  You’re not getting anything else until dinner," Mom said.

Billy stared at me in horror as I took the spoon from my pocket and held it in front of the bowl of chicken noodle soup.  I looked at the spoon.  I could see something crusted into the design on the lower part of the spoon.  It might be dinosaur do-do, valuable stuff, but do-do was do-do and not what I wanted for dinner. What could I do?  I leaned over then dropped the spoon to the floor with a clatter that disguised my sigh of relief.

            "Oh don't bother to wipe that one off, just throw it in the sink.  I have a clean one here," and Grandma handed me a spoon.  I was saved from eating poop and certain death.

            After lunch Billy tried to talk Kathy into coming down to the river with us.  He had found some rope in the barn and decided to tie Kathy up with it.  To trap a live dinosaur he needed live bait.  I'll admit that I was glad when Kathy, suspicious because we never invited her along with us to play refused.  The thought of my little sister getting nibbled on by a dinosaur didn't bother me as much as the certainty that I would get blamed for it and the excitement of capturing the beast would be destroyed.

            But the rest of the day proved that no matter how hard we searched we found neither beast nor its droppings.  While I was reluctant to accompany Billy on his search, fearing the monster might pounce on us from behind some tree or rock, Billy was fearless and I admired him for it.

            That night I again hid the box in the piano after everyone was in bed.

            "Where will I find a scientist to give the poop to?" I asked Billy as he lay beside me falling asleep.

            "I don't know.  In the movies they just call a number and they come.  But I don't know what the number is.  I'll think of something," he said and certain that he would I dozed off.

            The next morning I woke and sat straight up in bed.  Grandma was in the parlor playing the piano.  Frantically I woke up Billy.  "Maybe the box isn't sitting on keys she uses," he tried to reassure me.

            "But what if she does?  I don't remember where we put it inside!"

            "I know they'll blame me," Billy said pulling on his clothes, "We've got to get her away from the piano long enough to get it out.  Get dressed!"

            I didn't know what the plan was but followed Billy who ran up to Grandma, grabbed the flab on her arm so she stopped playing and said urgently, "Grandma, come look outside.  From our window I saw smoke coming out of the Badin house."

            In an instant the two were out the front door.  Grandma was yelling fire at the top of her lungs and I could hear my family upstairs getting out of their beds.  I only had minutes.  I pushed all the pictures on the top of the piano to the back behind the hinge and then attempted to lift the heavy lid.  I could hear people coming downstairs.  The lid was very heavy but I got it partially open and the smell of the poop rose.  It was getting bad, real bad. 

The steps came down to the kitchen and I heard everyone running across the linoleum and out the front kitchen door.  They must have realized that Grandma was yelling from across the street.  My arms were not as long as Billy's and I had to lower myself into the piano to grab the box whose top started to open and release the precious do-do.  I clamped the box shut but found I was stuck with the lid of the piano closed on my back.  I wiggled my feet into the air but couldn't seem to get free.  By now I could hear people yelling outside, not about a fire anymore, but at Billy.  They were coming back in the house having realized there was no fire.

            Moving my feet to the keyboard there was a chaotic chord as I braced myself and pulled myself out of the piano.  I ran to my room, shoved the box under the bed, and back to the piano to put the pictures in place.  I jumped down from the piano just as Grandma came in with Billy.  Grandpa followed grumbling and went into the kitchen to make coffee.  Aunt Jesse was giggling to herself, as was Kathy whom she held.  But Mom and Grandma looked mad.

            "That was very bad of you, saying there was a fire when there wasn't!" Grandma said shaking her finger at Billy who stood there silent.  But it never took Billy long to come up with an answer.

            "But I thought I saw smoke not fire.  Maybe it was the fog up from the river.  I just thought it was better to tell someone then say nothing and have their house burn down."

            "Well I guess that's right of you," Grandma said lowering her large body onto the piano bench.

            "Billy," Mom said moving him in front of her, "You better be telling the truth and not lying because you know what happens to boys who make up stories."

            "What?" I asked suddenly concerned.  I had been a part of the deception too.

            "They go to the devil," Billy said softly and in both our minds we could picture ourselves burning in hell.  Saturdays were confessions but that was a long time away and I wondered if we could make it that long without dying unforgiven by the voice behind the cloth in the confessional.

            "What are we going to do?" I asked Billy later that day as we walked along the riverbank.

            "I've been thinking.  We don't know any scientist to take the poop to, but I bet Father Jack does.  He comes to dinner on Thursday nights and this is Thursday.  Maybe you should give it to him.  The church will get the money and that will make up for all the bad things we have done this summer.  He went to college so he must know some scientists, that's where they all live.  Then after they certify it's real poop from a vanished animal, we can tell them where it came from.  Maybe by then we will have found a dinosaur."

            The plan sounded good.  When I went home after an unsuccessful search for the monster, I found some flowered wrapping paper in Grandma's closet and wrapped the box of Poop.  That night at dinner Father Jack ate quickly as was his habit. I was glad because I was anxious to give him the great gift which now lay waiting (with it's flies) under my bed.  Father Jack was always a welcome guest.  He was Irish, with a bouncing, jolly manner that made God seem more like Santa Claus then a God of Wrath.  He lived in Wexford, a town even smaller than Bandel's Crossing but with a much finer church, an old stone one that my Great Great Grandfather had built.  While all the graves in the graveyard there had Irish names, his and my Great Great Uncle, who had helped him, were the only French ones.  Father Jack said mass at Wexford and at St. Theresa's in town on Sundays.  Thursdays he spent visiting those who could not get out in Bandel's Crossing.

            While everyone sat around the table after dinner as Grandma took a fresh blueberry pie out of the oven, Billy and I went to the bedroom for the box.

            "Now you give it to him.  You can have the credit," Billy said but I thought he was being too kind.

            "No, that's not fair.  Beside you have done more bad things than me and need all the forgiveness you can get from God once we give this Precious Poop up for charity.  I'm saying it's from both of us," and I started to walk from the room. 

Billy grabbed me and spun me around.

            "Wait a minute.  I just thought of something.  I don't think charity works if you say it's from you, it has to be nonimouse or something like that."

            I thought a minute and agreed.  That night after Father Jack had left we decided to take it down to the church in the morning and leave it.  And that is what we did.  The door to the church was always open.  We felt that it was safe to leave the poop there on the altar beneath the watchful stare of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. 

As we placed the box, which was now a bit soggy, on the altar cloth, I felt a weight of guilt I had not known was there lifted from my shoulders.  I seemed to drift above the floor as we left as if held up by angels.  I even thought I heard them singing.  Surely my place in heaven and the science journals was now guaranteed.

            Later that afternoon we were sitting with Grandpa in front of the motel when we heard of scream from down the block in the direction of St. Theresa's.

            When we had rambled on home we found Mrs. Badin in the kitchen out of breath as she related the terrible thing that had happened that afternoon.

            "I went into the church to pray for... Well something personal for me and my boys.  There was this terrible smell when I walked in the church, like an outhouse.  I thought well maybe someone had an accident or something unpleasant and was too old or sick to clean it up and being a good woman looked through the pews for the smelly mess.  But then I realized it was coming from the front of the church.  I looked up and there was this box, like a gift. 

“I knew right away the smell was coming from there because there was a swarm of flies and bees around it.  Now I couldn't do anything about it because I'm allergic to bee stings.  Why I never thought about it but I could have been killed going into that church." Mrs. Badin sat back in her chair and waved her hand in front of her face as if shewing away a bee. 

Grandma went outside and returned from the pump with the metal dipper full of cold water.  Mom held out a glass and we watched Grandma filling it.  What had happened to the poop, the dinosaur do-do!

            "Well I ran out and Ed Bandel was just going by.  I grabbed him and pulled him in the church.  He snatched the box and took it off the altar.  Can you imagine!  Someone had put a box of filth on the holy altar.  It must have been devil worshipers or something!"

            "You mean...  Just what was in the box?" Jesse asked who had been listening attentively.

            "How shall I say this?  Ah, ca-ca I think is what my French Mama used to say."

            "Oh my God!" exclaimed Mom and Grandma as though they could smell it.

            "Human?" Jesse asked fascinated.

            "Thank Jesus no.  Ed said it was three kinds, deer, dog, and cow."

            "What happened to it?" I asked stepping forward.

            "Why he dumped it in the river of course!" Mrs. Badin said and noisily sipped at her water.

            I looked startled and was about to say something when I noticed my mother eyeing me suspiciously.

            "Was it really animal poop?" I asked Billy later realizing that the whole thing might have been a trick he had been playing on me.

            "Of course not.  Ed didn't know.  He isn't a scientist."  Although I didn't really believe Billy I decided to anyway.  It had been smelly carrying that box of do-do around for the past week, but I couldn't deny that it had also been exciting.


 

 

 

 

 

SIN AND CELLULOID

 

 

            The picture on the screen was only black and white but my heart was filled with enough color to paint it to perfection, and actually I preferred the black and white for in my imagination the sky was bluer, the blood redder, the tears down the face of the heroine more glassen than any Technicolor could provide.  Grandma passed the popcorn down the line of us boys, Carl cautiously took a few kernels out careful not to spill any, Billy took a handful and stuffed the whole of it in his mouth, and I, too absorbed in the movie, took none. 

Kathy was home asleep back at Grandma's.  Grandma had taken my cousin Billy and I to the movie so that my mother might have some time to herself.  Carl came along just because he had been at the house watching Grandpa sort through pearl buttons and buckles made from Mississippi River clamshells when Grandma had announced it was a movie night.  A special night.

            As the town hall squeezed us out into a night filled with the flash of lightning bugs and the creaking of tree frogs, Carl grabbed his crotch and said he had to tinkle.  Billy, older than me, was given the responsibility of taking him down the alley beside Ed Bandel's store.  The way he held his crotch it was obvious he could not wait the five minutes it would take us to walk Carl through the small town to Grandma's.  Billy, nine and tall for his age but not as tall as Carl, took his hand and lead him down the alley while Grandma and I waited under the one street light in the town, moths weaving a canopy of light above us.

            "How old is Carl?" I asked Grandma as she laughed to herself as the boys disappeared around the corner into darkness.

            Before Grandma could answer a pale woman who had been sitting beneath the shifting beams of light in the back of the hall came fluttering out the door like a lunar moth.  Silent, we waited for her to pass so that we could greet her with a nice night and perhaps a welcome to the town for we had not seen her face before.  But as she glided by us she did not look up from beneath her straw hat covered with pink silk roses.  In the light from the one street light, the soft glow of the moon, we could see her eyes were submerged in tears. 

In a moment, her moon blue dress clinging to her shimmering nylons, she had walked off into the darkness.  The words of a planned greeting still parted Grandma's lips.  She took a minute to collect herself after the strange apparition.

            "Well Mickey, I really don't know.  Carl is not like us; the Indians would say he was blessed.  In the city they would feel sorry for him.  Here we just accept him the way he is.  Dr. Belliot says he has the mind of a four year old and that is the way he will always be, so you see it really doesn't matter how old he is, though he is almost as tall as me now."

            "Does he go to school?" I asked thinking maybe that he didn't have to and that was why the Indians thought he was blessed.

            "Of course.  I'm not sure what grade he is in.  His teachers just advance him each year according to how tall he is.  None of the kids make fun of him, why should they?  Everyone here in town just takes care of him, sees that he doesn't wander off.  He is a nice kid." 

Grandma slapped at her fleshy upper arm where a mosquito had just had his dinner.

            As I watched Billy coming back down the alley, Carl walking in his crazy bent knee sort of way as though something in him knew he was too tall for how old his mind was, I remembered a tiny room at the end of the hall in Layton Hall Elementary School back at home.  You went by there to go out the side door to the playground.  The door to this room was most often closed, even as the early summer heat settled around the brick building, but occasionally it was open.  Inside I had seen a strange group of students, some tall, some short, some with shortened limbs, others missing limbs.  And in my school back in Virginia, the only black students were in this class kept separate from the rest of us.  Others would refer to this group by various names, Spazzes, Retards, Dummies, but no one had actually talked to any of them.  We rarely even saw them. They ate when they were the only ones in the cafeteria, they left quickly by the side door and were ushered by their two teachers into a special bus whose growth had been stunted.  Then they were gone.  I realized that were he back in my school, not here in a community in rural Iowa that accepted him, I would not know Carl.  He would be hidden in that room at the end of the hall by the door with the glowing red exit sign.

            We dropped off Carl at his house, catty-corner across the dirt road from Grandma's and picked up Aunt Jesse who had been sitting with his mother getting her hair braided so that she could spend the whole next day out fishing with her boy friend that was driving down in the morning from Spring Grove.

            "Oh thanks so much for taking my boy Carl with you," Mrs. Badin, his mother, said lightly touching Grandma's arm as if to touch it any firmer she might scratch it with her rough hands.

            "No mind." Grandma said, "A pleasure, that boy."

            Carl's mother was always overly grateful when Billy and I took Carl someplace with us.  We couldn't really understand why since we took him along because we liked him.  Embarrassed by her thanks, Billy and I had taken to using Grandma's phrase, No mind.

            While Grandma and Jesse went in the house to see what my mother had done with her free time (it smelled like she had baked a cake for tomorrow's visitor) Billy and I wandered around the yard in the dark kicking at roots that in the slivered moonlight looked like dinosaur bones, or picking up pieces of mica that had looked like silver coins, then tossing them far out into the darkness and listening for what they might strike.

            For the past few weeks Billy had been sneaking off by himself during the day, not for the whole day, but for just a few hours.  He would return with a smile on his face, one so devious that I had been afraid to ask him what he had been doing for I was certain it was something I would get in trouble for if I knew what it was.  Perhaps he was off climbing up the bluffs.  Though I often went exploring there with him, I was forbidden, something that made the doing even the more thrilling.  Perhaps he was farther down the river than I had ever been.  Maybe he went over to the Indian camp at Waukon Junction with some of the older boys (the ones that Mom told me to stay away from) and they had gone to watch the Indian girls swim naked in the river.

            "Where do you go when you..." I asked surprising myself.  I had not intended to ask him; it was just that my thoughts had slipped into my words.

            "Best friends, right ickeyMay?" he said and I nodded as the lightning bugs rose higher in the sky.  "I mean you can't laugh at me if I tell you, I didn't laugh when you told me you wet your pants during that Frankenstein movie last month.  Don't tell anybody but I go talk with this old guy.  Sounds stupid huh, but we just sit on his front porch and he tells me all these stories about how if he was President he would make the world a really great place.  He would get rid of the Reds, and make everything safe and really neat."

            "Where is he, here in town?" I asked thinking that the town was so small I knew everyone, something I loved because at home in our suburb I was surrounded by people I didn't know.

            "Remember that day you guys went up to Dell's place to pick tomatoes and I had to wait around for my mother to call up?  Well I didn't want to talk to her really so I said I would take the bread Grandma baked for Aunt Dot up to her place.  On the way back I was walking along that road by the river and I heard this loud music, like a band playing out on the island in the center of the river.  The only way to get there is to take a boat or walk across the old railroad trestle and climb down.  So I walked the trestle.  There was this man there sitting beside a record player.  Then I figured out who he was.  He's the guy that Aunt Dot and Uncle Clarence go visit to dance!"

            Aunt Dot and Uncle Clarence were not direct relatives of ours, but like so many people in the area were related to us in some very indirect way.  A couple of nights earlier they had come to Grandma's for dinner.  They came dressed in fancy clothes not unlike those we had seen in the movies, clothes not suited for a simple farmer and his wife, but probably suited to the celluloid dreams they had about themselves, the ones that would never come true but they none-the-less persisted in dressing for, just in case. They had talked with shinning eyes about a neighbor of theirs, a retired businessman from Switzerland who had come to Iowa with his wife to spend his time painting the countryside and inviting the neighbors over for drinks and dancing in his parlor.  The reason I had not seen him around was that he went to the Lutheran Church in Decorah, that Dot said he had just given money to buy stained glass windows.

            "What do you talk about?" I asked feeling that Billy wanted to tell me more.

            "Things.  Maybe I shouldn't tell you though.  Maybe you should meet him too seeing you don't think its sissy sitting around and talking with him and listening to records.  In a barn by the landing across the river from his place he has a real great car.  He showed it to me.  It's from some other country and is the color of a coke bottle.  Let's go tomorrow, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.  He can be our special friend."

            "I swear on my sister's dead body."

            "That doesn't count, she's not dead."

            "Okay, I swear on my Captain Video secret decoder."

            "Now I can trust you."

            That night Billy and I stayed up late into the night, past the time adults ended their whispers in the front room, their coughing and squeaking of beds above us, and talked about the movie we had seen.  It was a film about World War II with gray images of tanks and explosions that wanted to follow us into our dreams.  We tried to scare them away with words, as if words could hold back the terror we felt when we realized that if they had started numbering wars this must mean they had another already planned.  For Billy the thought of a war was something new.  He lived with my uncle (though he was usually away selling whatever it was he sold) and aunt in a small town in Minnesota.  But I lived just outside of the nation's capital where the news was always of worldwide tensions, flags flapped above government buildings where wars were planned, and most of our neighbors went off to work dressed in military uniforms.

            "Why did they have a second war anyway?" Billy asked as if I was possibly some authority on the subject.

            "To fight this evil guy named Hitler."

            "What was it he did that was so bad?"

            "I don't know," I answered wondering if anyone really needed an excuse for a war.

            The next morning, felled on the battlefield of my dreams, I slept late but Billy was up early.  He came in the room, jumped up on the bed and shook me awake screaming, thinking Germans were attacking me.

            "Quick before Aunt Jesse takes it down!  You have to come see this!" Billy said frantically and in no time I was following him out the back door. 

We stood perfectly still on the back porch as if we might scare away what it was he wanted me to see on the clothesline.

            "It's a bra!" whispered Billy. 

I had seen this secret garment women wore on my mother through the crack in her bedroom door, or quickly pulled from the laundry and stuffed into a drawer.  But here one was out in the open, just hanging there, the cotton cups filled with the wind like the sock at the airport that told the wind direction.  It was only years later that I was to learn, to my surprise, that though bras in the 1950's were shaped into perfect pointed cones, women's breasts were not.  We stood there staring until Grandma called us in for breakfast.  We quickly ate and went out again.  Though we had not seen anyone go out the door to take down the laundry, it was gone.

            That afternoon, while the chicken hawks rippled out in circles from the drop of molten sun in a thin blue sky and locusts conversed in hidden places; Billy and I went to visit his mysterious friend.  We climbed the stone supports and crossed the railroad trestle to the sound of violins.  We found Mr. Wolfe sitting in a grandly carved rocking chair beside a record player.  He greeted us warmly and seemed especially glad to see me for he kept running his thick old hands through my short blonde hair as if he was rubbing on some lucky stone.

            "Billy has told me about you, but not enough.  I have discovered that Billy is special.  He is very brave and someday I believe he will be a leader of men, but you, what is your special talent?  Now don't look away embarrassed.  I know that you have one and I also know that if you are embarrassed for your talents, for how they set you apart from others, you will never use them to their true potential.  So what is it that you do special Mickey?"

            "I draw pictures," I said looking down at my feet, but Mr. Wolfe pulled my eyes to his with a hand under my chin.

            "I thought as much.  You have the hands of an artist.  Let me get some charcoal and some paper for you and while Billy and I talk you can draw for me."

            While others had always sounded as if my talent for drawing was indeed a talent but silly or useless, Mr. Wolfe praised my work as he praised the ideas Billy had, such as to organize a group of boys much like the Scouts but to do things like collect pop bottles for the deposit or sell American flags door to door.

            So began a series of afternoons spent on the shade of his front porch, moving our wicker chairs further and further back towards the clapboard house as the sun inched towards us like a hot poker.  Mrs. Wolfe, a quiet woman who loved to laugh when there seemed to be nothing in particular to laugh at, would bring out a pitcher of pink lemonade filled with ice crackling as it melted, then retreat back into the house where we would hear her humming to herself.  Mr. Wolfe's charm to us as children was that he listened so intently to us, leaning forward from time to time in the rocking chair, his long silver gray hair with the dark roots falling over his brow, then leaning back again and laughing at something we had said he thought was especially clever.

            "You boys make me happy because you give me hope, hope for the future when this great country can be free of the banks and the news organizations, and everything will be..." he often said then rambled off into his own thoughts, a lane too dense for us to follow him down. 

While Billy really loved this man who paid so much attention to him, more I suspected than he received from his father, I was not particularly fond of Mr. Wolfe.  But I could not explain to Billy exactly what it was about him that I didn't like, I never understood it myself.  Was it the thickness of his body and his round head sitting like a cannon ball on his shoulders?  Perhaps it was how much affection he gave me and seemed to need back from me.

            This was not to say that I did not enjoy our visits with him for they were always fun and exciting.  Mr. Wolfe and his wife often threw parties for the people who lived nearby and sometimes we would show up to find the house still decorated with paper streamers, the furniture pushed back for dancing, and the dining-room table still covered with a fine linen cloth and silver trays with leftover cakes and candies.  While we munched on the leftovers we would help move the furniture back into place, perhaps Mrs. Wolfe singing "Whistle While You Work" with Mr. Wolfe and Billy and I whistling as best we could.

            These were not the only parties Mr. Wolfe threw for he had arranged a number of charity events in Decorah.  Through these events he had met many people who would stop by his house.  We would hear a horn honking on the banks of the river and Mr. Wolfe would let Billy and I take the boat over to retrieve his guest.  Though Mr. Wolfe insisted on treating us like adults, sitting with his guests and including us from time to time in the conversation, Billy and I could rarely understand what they spoke of.  Sometimes his guests had strange accents, and we understood even less.

            One afternoon Mr. Wolfe took us into a glass roofed studio he had built on the side of his house.  There he proudly showed us his paintings, finely done scenes of local places.  Pike's Peak overlooking the Mississippi River a few miles downstream, the plain on which Prairie Du Chien stood, and scenes along the banks of the river.  What was most interesting was that in each of these scenes had been added a building, a grand and imposing building that reminded me of those in Washington.  I told him that one looked like the Pentagon building.

            "Have you seen the Pentagon, in Washington, D. C.?" Mr. Wolfe asked surprised for I had not mentioned much about my family or where we lived.  It was usually Billy who did the talking and me the nodding.

            "Yes, I've been in there too, that's where my father works." 

After I said this I felt Mr. Wolfe's attitude changing towards me, as though I was special in some new way, but as to whether it was in a good way or a bad way I could not say.

            As August arrived the river seemed to boil and it's steam filled the air.  Even before we had begun our journey up river to Mr. Wolfe's house our shirts were soaked with sweat so Billy and I decided to stop by Grandpa's gas station/motel knowing that he would give us a cold soda.  We found Grandpa sitting outside against the cool cinder block wall in the shade with Carl.  They were both opening clamshells with knives on which the tips had been broken off.  The dead clams lay in a bucket on one side of them, the shells, their insides glistening pearl and pink, were in a pile on the other side.  We watched for a while hoping to see them discover a real pearl, then went in with Grandpa to get a soda.

            "Let's take Carl,"  Billy suggested and I agreed. 

Mr. Wolfe had been a special secret between Billy and I but Carl was a special person to us.  We liked the way everyone trusted us with him, and the way he let you take care of him, depended on you.  It made us feel very adult.  And besides Carl was just nice to have around.  So we decided to include him in on our secret.

            Carl knew that he was being included in something special and he loved it.  He skipped in circles around us laughing as we walked down the road to the railroad trestle.  But when we came to the trestle and Carl realized that he had to cross it he was frightened. 

“I'll fall, I'll fall,” he began to cry as we climbed up to the tracks.

            "I won't let you fall Carl, you know I wouldn't,"  Billy said holding out his hand.  Carl had to think about this for a while but seemed to come to the conclusion that it was true, and taking Billy's hand, we crossed the bridge.

            "What a tall handsome young man you are Carl," Mr. Wolfe said extending his hand to him. 

When Carl took it, more to hold onto than to shake, Mr. Wolfe's face went blank.  I could not tell what he was thinking, but I knew then that he realized that though Carl was a strong and healthy boy of Swedish descent, his mind was not developed nor would it ever be. 

While we ate a lunch of sausages and rolls, Mr. Wolfe grew sad and lamented the fact that he was old and would not see the wonderful future he expected here in America. 

"Europe is dried up and the best of it is in glass cases in museums, but America...” he said to his wife.

            "He always wished we had children, that is why he enjoys your visits so much,” Mrs. Wolfe said reaching over and taking her husband's hand.

            "I would have liked two grandchildren just like Mickey and Billy," he said.

            "And Carl," I added as Mr. Wolfe looked down at his empty plate.

            After lunch we sat on the porch.  Mrs. Wolfe stayed with us.  She had realized that Carl had the mind of a young child and had adapted to it easily while Mr. Wolfe had not.  She had brought out some old socks and some yarn and sat with Carl making them into puppets.  Mr. Wolfe whispered to Billy and they went inside the house.  I told myself that it was because I had to go to the bathroom but it was really out of curiosity, maybe jealousy, that I soon followed them.  I heard them in Mr. Wolfe's studio talking.

            "...mind is stunted in it's growth but not his body.  I don't think you really understand this but you must trust me.  He can't be allowed to grow up and have children because..."  I could hardly hear Mr. Wolfe now for it sounded as though they were walking away from me.  I edged closer to the open doorway, hoping that they could not see me.

            "But what can I do about it?" Billy said loudly. 

There was a hushing sound then some whispering. I got down on my knees and crawled into the room.  I could see their legs from where they stood behind a large painting sitting on the easel.

            ".... on the porch, and saw you crossing the bridge.  Carl has to go on his own.  It is nature's will that he should..." but as Mr. Wolfe spoke they walked further into the room.

            "You must be brave and do what is right," Mr. Wolfe was saying but I couldn't listen any more for they were quickly walking in my direction.  I crawled as fast as I could to the doorway then stood and ran to the bathroom.  I heard them in the hallway as I silently closed the door.  I didn't think they had seen me but I wasn't certain.

            It was only later as we left that I understood what Mr. Wolfe had been talking about to Billy.  Helping Carl climb up the stone pylon that supported the railroad trestle on the island, I reached the top first.  The sun was melting down the porcelain bowl of the sky and I was anxious to get home before Grandpa closed up the station so that I could get another soda.  He had just gotten in a case of Grape Crush, a flavor the distributor was usually out of by the time he made it out to Bandel's Crossing.  I imagined people from all over the town coming by and drinking them all up on me.  I started across the trestle and was halfway across when I heard Carl crying.

            "Help me Billy, help me," he cried out to Billy who was already halfway to me.  Carl had managed a few steps from railroad tie to railroad tie by himself, but when the land below turned to water so had his courage, and he stood unable to move.

            "Do it yourself, if you fall you fall," I heard Billy's voice say but it did not seem to be coming from him. 

He stood very still against the clouds, not watching Carl but looking across to the island. 

On the porch of the house I saw Mr. and Mrs. Wolfe standing and watching Billy.  When Mr. Wolfe nodded, Mrs. Wolfe ran into the house, the banging of the screen door reaching us as a crow circled overhead.

            "Billy, help Carl, take his hand," I said heading cautiously back over the ties sticky with old tar heated by a summer sun. 

The Mississippi River was frightening, I had only been too caught up in following Billy and doing everything he did to worry about it before.  But I had heard many tales from family members of people who had vanished in it's waters, a shallow suddenly turning to deep water beneath them.  Wasn’t this where Fox had found his brother’s body?

            "Carl come to me by yourself," Billy said.

            "Don't tell him that, he's scared and he'll fall."  I grabbed Billy by the arm as I came up to him to get by, but being larger than me he pushed me off and stood blocking my way.  He didn't seem to be listening to me but to some silent command that Mr. Wolfe gave below.

            "I can't Billy, come get me!" Carl cried.

The crow circling above us gave out it's own cry and swooped just past Billy's face and broke his eye-lock with Mr. Wolfe.  His eyes followed the flight of the crow as if it were writing messages in she sky.  Then Billy began walking towards Carl.

            Uncertain now of Billy, not understanding why Billy who always took pride in helping him now refused to, Carl stepped back to the next tie.  Billy came up to him and held him by the shoulders.  I knew Billy was saying something to Carl but I couldn't hear what. 

The thought fell like a tumbling, screaming body, into my mind that maybe Billy was going to push Carl off.  But then I looked away from them, away from the man I knew was watching on the island, away from his wife who I knew was peering out from behind the lace curtains, and into the sky where the crow circled and it all seemed so clear and removed and I knew that I did not have to worry.  Both of us, Carl and I, we could trust Billy.

            "Come on, let's go.  I guess he can't walk across by himself," Billy said beside me, his hand in Carl's.

            We knew we would never go back to Mr. Wolfe's house though we said nothing about it as Billy, Carl, and I drank grape soda back at Grandpa's. 

But that was not to be the last time that we saw Mr. Wolfe.  It was a movie night.

            Before the movie the projectionist (Pete Bandel who never stopped exaggerating about his war years) put on an old newsreel that he had gotten hold of somehow.  It was a report on World War II.  Then I knew.  Billy had paid a quarter he had saved for Carl to come along with us, and he sat between us, but Billy asked Carl to move over so he could sit by me.  Billy didn't say anything, neither did I.  I have always had a remarkable memory for faces and perhaps that is one of the reasons today I am an artist, but Billy did not.  There was something else about the face on the screen that made him recognize Mr. Wolfe as the former leader of the Third Reich.

            Was it really Hitler that we had found living in a charming house on an island in the Mississippi?  There have always been stories about a second bunker where Adolf and Eva were hidden while in the bunker known as Hitler's a couple was killed to mask their escape.  Billy and I were uncertain so after a week of sleeplessness, we decided to go to Grandpa and tell him the whole story.  We knew that Grandpa would listen to us, not dismiss us, or call us silly.  He had even treated us fairly when we told him the reason we had dug up his potato patch was that we thought we had found a dinosaur bone there and were looking for the rest of the remains.

            "Could it be him Grandpa?" Billy asked Grandpa as we sat on the floor in front of Grandpa at the station.

            He chewed on his wad of tobacco for a minute in silence.

            "Everyone talks about Mr. Wolfe like he is such a nice man," I added.

            "Evil can exist right under your nose, and that is the time you are least likely to recognize it.  All I can say is that I'll ask around about Mr. Wolfe over in Decorah and then go to see him myself."  Then Grandpa opened the bottom drawer to his desk and spit a wad of tobacco into a coffee can he kept there.

            Grandpa never did meet Mr. Wolfe though he did as he said and asked about the man.  People who knew him praised him.  When Grandpa went to see him though, he was gone, his house empty, his fine car no longer in the garage.  Where he had moved to or why no one knew, they only said that they certainly would miss him.


Close the closet please. 

Shut the door

and pull the curtains so I can relax.

In the darkness

contained in a dark space,

that emptiness pregnant with horrifying potential,

my mind may suddenly conjure a form

about which

my fears will gather like flies

 

NIGHT OWLS AND BURNING LADIES

 

 

            "Pull the shade all the way down before you get back in bed," I asked Billy and barely suppressing the urge to make fun of my fears, he went to the window.  But before he pulled down the yellowed shade he stopped to look out into the night and stood there staring at some horror I could only imagine.

"What is it!" I asked knowing it must involve lots of blood and werewolves. 

Finally I could stand his silence no longer and I jumped out of bed and slid across the floor to where he was still watching the night.  Though afraid to see what he was seeing, I instinctively knew that any horror he saw could not be as gruesome as the one I imagined on the blank screen of my mind. 

"Tell me what it is!"

            "Sh-h,"

He ducked down.  I followed.  Slowly we peered above the sill, out the window, and across to Mrs. Badin's house.  I hated looking in their night filled windows and waited for some apparition.  Which appeared.  A light floated on night's black waters, passing from window to window on the first floor of the house. This light was not the harsh white from an electric bulb or the vibration of neon, but the faint flicker of a flame, shifting it's light from pale yellow to a dim blue.

            "Do you think its Carl?"  I whispered hoping it was our friend.  Because Carl was mentally handicapped I took it as a responsibility to look after him.  Feeling that it was not a ghost but Carl up to some mischief I must rescue him from made me feel better.

            "No, Carl's asleep upstairs.  Besides he's afraid of fire.  His dad died in a fire in that house, that's what I heard Grandma saying."

            Then I said what I was thinking but didn't want to think, "Maybe it's his ghost!"

            Billy agreed and moved closer to me as the door to the Badin's house opened and a figure, a confusion of shadows, hobbled through shadows cast by the moon.  In one hand the figure held a kerosene lamp, in the other some sort of stick, which formed an extra leg among the jumble of it's two legs.  Beneath the cry of a deep throated night bird, the sawing of cricket legs, and the croaking of tree frogs, we heard the dragging of feet along the road down to the river.

            "Wow this is real creepy," Billy said squinting into the night that had dissolved the form. 

We had been sitting up late in bed with the light turned out telling scary stories to each other while the rest of the house had gone to bed, and now had a bad case of the creeps. 

Perhaps to try and find someone to tell of the apparition, Billy ran out of our room into the parlor.  I wasn't about to stay in our room alone with the only other people in the house asleep so I ran after him.

            He was standing in the middle of the parlor.  The dark forms of the furniture huddled about us like animals about to pounce.  Billy stood facing the old rocking chair, not rocking, but still with a figure sitting in it.

            "What are you doing up this late?  You gave me a start!" Aunt Jesse said as light burst from her match and settled into the candle beside her.  "Bet I scared you sitting here, but I'm a night owl.  I was just sitting in the dark thinking."

            "About what?"  Billy was always nosey.

            "Well about the spat I had with my boyfriend when I was up in Spring Grove the other day.  Let me ask you a question.  You look scared, what's up?"

            Billy went to the window to look out so I blurted out, "A ghost, of Mr. Badin, we saw it coming out of the house and going down to the river."

            "Well I can't lie and tell you I don't believe in ghosts but I don't think that was one.  That was probably Mrs. Badin's other son, Georges."

            "I thought Carl's brother was off living some place by himself since he's so old, I mean like you."

            "No," she began as Billy, satisfied there was nothing to see, came over to listen, "Georges is my age. We went to school together, that is until he hurt his legs.  I'm not sure what happened to his legs; Mrs. Badin doesn't talk about it.  Whatever happened to Georges legs not long before Mr. Badin died in the fire.  He was out in the shed on the back of the house doing something with a kerosene lamp, maybe getting ready to go night fishing, when it happened.  The house wasn't hurt, just him.  One day Mrs. Badin just came over and said he had died.

            "I'm not sure if Georges quit school after he hurt his legs or after his father died and he had to support the family.  He's a night owl too I guess.  Sleeps during the day and at night goes out on the river to trawl for clamshells.  He sells them to your grandfather."

            "Is he dumb like Carl?" Billy asked not certain the word dumb was what he wanted to use.

            "Carl isn't dumb, just slow.  No, Georges was always bright, but a little strange, quiet.  I never spoke with him much but I sure had a crush on him."

            "You crushed his legs?" I asked.

            "No-never mind.  I haven't seen Georges in years.  He keeps to himself.  Look since you boys are up why not keep me company so I won't sit here and mope.  Let's make hot chocolate and tell stories!"

            "Didn't you say you believed in ghosts?" Billy asked as we settled down at the kitchen table.

            "You bet I do.  But it's too late now for ghost stories.  I've got another one I've been dying to tell someone like you who like to go exploring up on the bluffs."

Jesse told us a frightening story of a giant frozen in stone.  The carnival barker didn't know what he was, only that he was twelve feet tall and after being buried in the ground for perhaps thousands of years, he had turned to stone.  When Jesse went in the tent with her brothers she had been frightened of him.  She didn't trust that he would stay frozen like that all the time.  Her brother's laughed at her fear until, just before the carnival left Dell's field near town, the stone giant disappeared. 

The carnival owner came knocking on Grandma's door one day accusing the boys of having stolen the giant but they knew nothing about it and Grandma had chased him away.  So the carnival left town without it's stone giant.

            But that wasn't the end of the story, only the beginning.  Over the years the giant was seen.  At first it was just one of the local Indians reporting a sighting, but then respectable citizens reported seeing him while on a picnic in the hills or out hunting.  It seemed that they would think they were standing beside a rock when suddenly it would rise up and turn into the giant, or that the ground beneath them would begin to bulge and up through it would come the giant.  When the story was finished so were we, with our chocolate, with scary stories, and with staying up late.  We went back to bed expecting bad dreams.

           

            In a strange orange light the color of weak tea, as dirty clouds blushed and rushed by, Billy and I sat on a log looking about us at the walls of drift wood and branches we had used to construct our secret place.  The only opening to the place, beside our secret entrance blocked by a sticker bush it had taken us all afternoon to dig up, was towards the river, which sucked at the mud shore inches from our feet.

            "Do you think the bodies of many people who have drowned suddenly wash ashore."  Billy was silent as though considering my question.

            "I've only seen one body wash up," a voice said.

I looked up from my feet to see a man in a boat staring intently at us.  Billy and I jumped off our log and were about to abandon our secret place, which was no longer much of a secret when the man continued, "Don't you want to hear about it?"

            We considered a minute then sat down and listened to his story.  Some years back a body had washed up near the fishery.  They pulled it out of the mud and packed it in some ice in the fishery while they contacted the police.  But the police couldn't turn up anyone who would claim the man's body as one of their relatives.  Finally, not knowing what to do with the body, a meeting was held at the church and it was suggested that they give the body a good Christian burial.  But when they went to undress and clean the body they noticed a strange tattoo of the devil on him and decided that perhaps he wasn't a good Christian.  Then one night the body disappeared.  A strange glowing mist had been seen traveling over the water towards the fishery, engulfing it, and then went back out into the river.

            "The Devil came to claim his own," the man said pulling his lips in tight.

            We had come down to the river after supper to inspect our day’s work on our secret place.  With the clouds that filled the sky it was becoming dark early and we wanted to get back and stood up.  The man in the boat raised up with the help of a long staff carved with animal heads in one hand and the paddle to push himself off in the other.  We could now see that his legs were bent in ways painful to look at.

            "You must be Georges Badin!" Billy exclaimed and the man nodded.

            "And you are Mickey and Billy.  You're staying over at your grandmother's for the summer.  I've seen you out the window of my room.  Your Great Uncle Shang carved me this staff here," and he held it up proudly.  Then looking down at his bent legs, "Sorry, do my legs bother you?"

            "No," I said for they didn't bother me at all.  "I just thought you only came out at night.  Are you a vampire?"  I scared myself and slipped off the log onto the mud bank. 

Georges looked at me for awhile as if deciding if he wanted to be my friend, perhaps sizing us both up to see if we would make fun of his deformity.  Maybe because we were his brother's friends and never made fun of him he decided to, maybe it was because Billy and I realized how silly it was to think he was a vampire and smiled.  Though his face was handsome what was really appealing about it was the way he seemed so unnecessarily guilty.

            "I had to come out before the storm and tie up my boat.  And well that's not quite all.  My Ma has this boyfriend from Waukon Junction who is over at the house.  I'm kinda afraid of him."

            It was Billy who asked why.

            "Because he might turn out to be like my father was.  Look I gotta shove off, but why don't we meet here tomorrow night.  I got plenty of stories to tell and no one to tell them to.  They make Carl too scared."

            A hot humid summer day dribbled by and finally night came.  Billy and I heard everyone go to bed, then waited until we no longer heard them tossing and turning in the night's heat and went out into the parlor.  There was Jesse.

            "Well I was wondering if you boys would be up again tonight.  Are we going to tell stories?"

            "We're going out," I said and Billy jabbed me afraid Aunt Jesse, being an adult though a pretty neat one, would stop us.

            She would have stopped us but we asked her along.  At first she was hesitant to go but when we told her that we were going to meet Georges she became interested. 

"I would like to see Georges again, but if I'm going we're taking a flash light."

            Billy led the way with me pulling Aunt Jesse along in the rear just like she was our friend.  Outside of our secret place we made her promise that she wouldn't tell anyone where it was.  We felt funny about letting a girl-type person in on our secret but we did anyway.  She wasn't really like your typical silly girl.

            Shortly after our arrival we saw the light of the kerosene lamp hanging on Georges clam trawler floating towards us.  He rowed his boat up to the bank, threw out his anchor, and then noticed Jesse.

            "I hope you don't mind I came along," Jesse said softly as they stared at each other.  I saw Georges hands reaching for the rope on the anchor to pull it up and spoke quickly.

            "She wants to hear your scary stories.  She tells good ones too."

            "I wanted to see you Georges, it's been a long time," Jesse still spoke softly and her words became confused with the croaking of the tree frogs.

            "I didn't want people to see me like... With..."

            "I've got a big ugly birthmark on my leg."  Georges stared at her confused, and then seemed to understand something I didn't because he let go of the rope.

            "You like scary stories too?"

            "Oh yes, I love to get scared.  Maybe that's one reason I stay up late at night, it's kinda scary and exciting."

            Billy was tired of this small talk between them and wanted to hear a scary story, not one that had been made up, he said, but a real one.

            Georges told us about the Villa Louis, the home of Wisconsin's first millionaires, the Dousmans.  The house was located down river a bit in Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, the other side of the Mississippi River.  But the house was not in what was now the town, but where the French had set up a town years before on St. Friole island, a site for some reason sacred to the Indians and where the various tribes had met each year to trade furs and goods with each other and later the French.

            "Perhaps it was sacred to the Indians because some famous chief of old was buried there," Georges said, "In fact the Dousman house sat high above the island on a mysterious mound that the Indians no longer remembered why it had been built."

            In the 1800's Nina Dousman lived there and it was her tragic life that haunted the house.  She was very close to her brother Jack for the rest of the family seemed to hate her.  Perhaps there was family intrigue and she blocked some family member's inheritance just by her birth, Georges did not know for sure.  Jack went away and joined the army when Nina was 14. 

“One day she looked up at the portrait of him that still hangs on the stairs and saw that it was dripping blood.  "Oh my God, Jack's been killed!" she screamed and fainted.  She lay in a fever for a week until news came that Jack had been killed with General Custer at Little Big Horn.

            Nina fell into a terrible depression knowing her days would no longer be cheered by her brother's letters and that when he had made rank in the army and settled at some fort he would not be sending for her.  There was no hope to leave the household she felt hated her.

            But time passed and Nina began to recover from her depression, and in fact wanted to get out and meet other people.  Perhaps she could make friends in Prairie.  So one evening she had decided to have the coachman take her down to town.  The house had been installed with electricity, but Nina was doing her hair with an alcohol burner and curling iron.  Noticing that the lamp was nearly empty, she poured some more alcohol into the burner though it was still lit.  The burner exploded and she caught fire. 

“The newspapers said her mother who was lying down in a room near the accident heard, her screams and ran into the hall with a quilt to smother the flames, but the girl was gone

“But it was whispered that everyone in the house remained where they were as the terrified girl ran from the house and towards the river to quench the flames.  In shock she fell to the ground. 

“It might have been better for her if she had reached the river and drowned herself for the whispers also said it was two days before the family admitted she had an accident and called the doctor.  By then it was too late.  She lay screaming for two weeks before she died.

            That was not the end of Georges' story however true it was or however much he was making up to scare us.  Other Dousman's were said to have heard her screams in the house long after she had died and been driven to suicide, though the press was not allowed to print how they really died.  Another member of the family was rumored to have dropped dead from a heart attack when one night he saw Nina's burning apparition fleeing from the house towards the river.

            "So even to this day the ghost of Nina makes that run to the river with her clothes burning, hoping this time to drown herself in the waters of the Mississippi and end her pain."

            "I've heard some of the story before, but it never sounded so horrible!" Jesse whispered.  "How could they have let her burn?"

            Then Georges was watching the flame in his lamp and whispering also.  "Perhaps it was for the best that they let him die, perhaps he was cruel and evil and hurting them and this seemed the only way out."

            "Gee I feel real creepy now, I don't think I could feel any creepier," I said moving closer to Aunt Jesse.

            "I've got goose bumps.  Oh I love being scared like this," Jesse laughed and for no reason we all laughed.

            "Want to get really, really scared," Georges asked and Billy immediately spoke up and said yes.  "Okay, night after tomorrow is August 8.  In 1894 that was the date that Nina caught fire.  I'll take you in my boat down to the Villa Louis, it's right along the river and we can wait to see the ghost.  I'll meet you here before dusk, so we can be at the house ‘bout the time it happened."

            Billy and Jesse seemed excited about the adventure Georges had planned.  I was terrified.

 

            In the west, above the smoldering bluffs, the sky erupted with red and yellows, spewed the thick blue dust of dusk and it drifted silently down about us.  The tress along the muddy banks of the river stepped back into darkness as our boat entered the main channel of the river hardly rippling the thick dark water.  The kerosene lantern floated above a ghost likeness of it's light in the water at our bow.  The bats that slid through the dusk above our heads were not after our blood but after the mosquitoes that had already sucked at our blood.

            "I hate bats," Jesse whispered and, rocking the boat gently, moved back to the rear of the boat where Georges sat working the oars with his strong arms. 

While Billy and I sat high in our seat so as to see the glowing fishers gliding back to their nests or a lone fisherman slid down river in his boat, Jesse huddled down on the bottom of the boat near Georges legs and held them tight.  Once I looked back as Georges bit his lip uneasily.  Once again I looked back and in the pale light he seemed to be smiling to himself.

            The oars ceased to pull at the water and we were taken by the current down river.  A wisp of white could have been a ghost or merely the oncoming mist.  Either way Billy and I were in awe of the night and the river.

            "Sometimes, when I am out here at night on the river alone, I will hear voices, and then the splash of a fish hitting the surface of the water.  The Indians tell tales of how the souls of the dead come to the river and are dissolved into the water.  They are swallowed by fish.  One night as I leaned over the side of the boat near my lamp, I looked down and saw a fish coming out of the water towards me.  It broke the water and opened its mouth and in it's mouth was the face of my father. 

“`I'm sorry for what I have done', I heard my father's voice say.  I meant to answer something but then the fish was gone.  Now, night after night I will spend the hours out here on the river looking into the water and waiting to hear my father's voice."

            Billy and I watched the lantern's light polishing the water so it looked like a precious stone, but saw no fish and heard no voices except the whispers behind us of Jesse and Georges.

            "There it is!" Jesse said and we looked up to see the Dousman house a dark form against the vibrating blue of the night sky.  The river, the current taking us along, had seemed an enchantment, but the Villa Louis, an empty space against all that sky and all the stars that were coming out made me wish sleep would suddenly overtake me.

            "This is what we came for!" Billy spoke loudly and excitedly, something that seemed a mean intrusion on the peace of night's sounds. 

When Georges pushed the boat over to the bank, Billy jumped out with a splash and cried for us to hurry up.

            "We don't want to miss the ghost!" he said pulling me from the boat.

            "We can see it from here.  Her path should be from the back door of the house down towards us here on the river," Georges said knowing he could not run after us. 

There was nothing that would persuade Billy to stay in the boat, so he and I headed through the once well-kept lawn that was now weeds to the house.  Jesse stayed with Georges.

            "I'm glad they didn't come.  I want to get into the house to see the painting that bleeds and Aunt Jesse might not let us.  Adults aren't much fun, but I knew you would come," Billy said. 

I couldn't say anything.  I was looking ahead of us at the house, a huge house filled with windows that looked at us like the empty eyeholes of a skull.  Unable to look away from those windows, I knew that at anytime they might blink.

            What dead warriors lay in the mound we climbed up to the house?  Why was the night suddenly so still, the silence so deep I could no longer hear the crickets in the tall grasses?  The windows that had seemed empty moments before now were hung with curtains.  Billy hesitated.  One was open.  We both had the feeling that inside there was life, movement, voices, the smell of food cooking.  We ducked down so the windows were now above us and we could not see what moved inside, the living or the dead. 

The reflection of lights moved across the window glass and the sound of a carriage behind us.  We both started to turn when we heard screams.  I ran down the mound, past a team of horses and towards the river when a hand grabbed my arm and swung me around.  Billy pointed.  Looking back to the house, the French doors opened.  A girl in flames ran down the steps towards us.  I watched her frantic motion as the fire broke off into the black night around her.  Billy and I turned and ran and ran until we reached Georges' boat.

            "She's coming, she's coming," we cried out to the single form huddled in the boat. 

When they heard us Jesse and Georges broke their kiss and their embrace and moved away from each other.

            "What are you talking about," Jesse said with a smile on her face.

            "The ghost, Nina on fire!"  I paused.

Once again the nocturnal noises had returned.  They looked past me to the house and I saw in their faces that it was dark and silent.  Just and empty old house, at least for another year.

            Billy and I never got anyone to believe that we had seen the ghost, only, at the most, that we thought we had seen the ghost.  Maybe Georges believed us, and perhaps Aunt Jesse too though they knew as adults they could never out and out admit it to other adults.  But maybe to each other. 

Though Georges was occasionally seen taking his brother down to the river to fish during the day, he still spent most of his time out at night.  Sometimes I would be lying awake, trying to find sleep like some lost toy, and I would hear the door to the Badin's house across the way open and close and then his shuffling legs.  Then I might hear footsteps coming down the stairs, going across the kitchen floor, and out the front kitchen door, and I would know that it was Aunt Jesse going down to the river with him.


I was a child

lay in bed at my Grandma's with a morning red and wet lipped cheek,

I could smell the aroma of coffee brewing

in the big black enameled pot with the white speckles all over it. 

I would think that this drink adults sipped on so slowly,

as the smoke from their cigarettes rose

 in messages to the next cigarette in another adult hand,

 must taste good. 

And that

was why it was denied to children. 

Adults kept the best of life to themselves

in their late night world we were not allowed to participate in.

 

 

SUMMER BROTHERS

 

 

            "Don't you wish you were older?" I asked Billy as, in one smooth motion, he leapt from our bed and pulled on his pants.

            "I am older than you stupid." 

He next slid a clean t-shirt over his head, but in the seconds it took to pull down it had already soiled somehow.  That was Billy and what he would always be like I suspected.  Someday he would be a man and we would meet someplace dark and smoky for a drink of those luscious kinds adults only were allowed, beer, wine, or gin with a lime. 

It would be like the place we had once taken Dad to meet an old friend in downtown Washington D.C. while Mom took Kathy and me shopping.  When I met Billy he would no longer be Billy but Bill or maybe even William.  I would no longer be Mickey but Michael.  He would be wearing a suit, something dark that collected little balls of lint.  Beneath this would be a starched shirt and a shiny silk tie.  I would feel strange being with him, as adults always seem to feel strange when they are together.  But then I would see he had a spot of gravy or ketchup or something gooey on his tie.  I would realize that he was the kind of person, no matter how well dressed, who could never quite keep his shirt tucked in.  And even though we were both adults, I was still Mickey and he was still Billy.

            "You mean parent-like older don't you," Billy said throwing me my clothes so I would get up and have an adventure with him.

            "Yes and drink coffee and use the lawn mower and drive cars wherever we liked."

            "Sounds fun but adults never really look like they are having any fun at it.  No, let's not grow up.  Deal?"

            "Maybe they don't like to have fun around us kids.  Maybe that's what they do at night after they send us to bed or when they keep the bedroom door closed."

            "Stupid, that's when they fight the worst,"  Billy said sitting straight down on the floor and becoming silent.

            I came down on the floor and sat across from him, the wool rug scratchy on my legs.

            "Maybe we should always stay kids," he said dead serious, "Maybe we should make it a deal between us.  Deal?"

            "Deal."  I meant it with all my heart.  Suddenly it seemed to me as though when you were a kid you were alive but as you got older you began to die inside until finally it began to show through your skin.  Then after years of this slow death, God saw what you had wasted of his creation and gathered up what was left, deciding to start all over again.

            "Swear in blood, like the Indians that were our ancestors did."  The green and lavender shadows crossed between us.  A woodpecker pounded away at a tree trunk like some signal.

            "Like we were brothers?"

He looked at me with the pupils of his eyes vibrating then jumped up and returned with a long hatpin Grandma hat left on the dresser.  Before I could protest he had grabbed my hand and stuck my finger so that a globe of blood suddenly appeared balanced on my fingertip.  I was glad he had done it so quickly because I might have chickened out.  Billy jabbed himself and watched as the blood came from his finger.  I held up my finger and he pressed his to mine.  I heard the rumbling of a motorboat starting up down on the river, a car choking down the road, a crow cawing above the house.

            "I have something to tell you," Billy sucked his finger as he spoke. 

I sucked on mine wondering how long it took for the blood to stop flowing and the metallic taste in my mouth to go away.

            "My Dad is coming to take me back home later today."  He spoke so quickly that at first I didn't understand him.

            Then I understood and felt myself slowly slipping into that longing I had when I realized it had been months since I had seen my father.  And Billy would be leaving.  Summer brothers only.  I had always wanted a brother, but at least each summer when we came to Grandma's I had my cousin Billy.  And he, being an only child, had me as a brother during the summer.

            No, not summer brothers, blood brothers now, even if he was leaving.  We were brothers.

            "I thought maybe you would be mad at me.  My mom called Grandpa the other day and he told me.  I thought you might be mad because your Dad isn't coming to pick you up too."

            We were best friends, now we were brothers, but most of all we were our father's sons and for awhile this summer as we searched for and found our adventures, I had forgotten how my father was too far away for me to understand where or why.

            "I don't mind." 

But I did and afraid that tears would give me away, I stood and pulled my t-shirt over my head letting it cover my face until I could pull the tears back into my heart.  "I'm just mad at Dad.  Let's go eat,"  I said pulling the shirt down and hoping to loose myself in some adventure.

            But no adventures were to be found that morning.  It was on the radio news.  The Blue Ford was out hunting.

            "Will it get me?" Kathy asked at breakfast as Mom put a Band-aid strip with stars on her finger.  When Mom had seen Billy bleeding into his cereal she had gotten out the box of strips and put one on him and one on me.  Then Kathy had started to cry that she wanted one too.

            "No pumpkin.  But that's why I want you children to stay in the yard." 

Mom closed the metal band-aid box as Kathy admired her new decoration, then checked her doll's hand for cuts.

            "Don't scare the kids.  You'll give them nightmares," Grandpa complained quickly spitting into the sink before Grandma turned around.  "You'll have them too afraid to come over to the motel and get a chocolate soda from me."

            "Oh let them be scared a little," Grandma said eyeing something in the sink then giving Grandpa the evil eye.  "It keeps them cautious.  Better safe then sorry."

            "Gee ma, you got me scared." Aunt Jesse spoke from behind the cigarette smoke she had just coughed up.  Since she had last come back from Spring Grove where she did all kinds of mysterious things like have a boy friend and a part time job, she had taken up smoking but was still in the learning stages.  She did not relish each drag the way her older sister, my mom, did.  The last couple of days it seemed that every ashtray was filled with lipstick-smeared butts that looked like bloody stumps cleaned off some battlefield for tiny people.

            "The world has gone crazy."  She snubbed her cigarette out and ran her finger over her red lips.  "This is crazy, these kids disappearing and the only clue they have is a blue Ford seen in the vicinity.  Gee Gods!  I have a blue Ford.  They could make a mistake and arrest me!"

            "We'll all visit you in jail.  It might ease my mind.  At least I would know where you were instead of running up to Spring Grove and doing God knows what..."

            "Ma, please!" Jesse whined the same way Kathy wined at our mom.

            "I always wanted to go to jail, I mean to visit," Billy said.

            "Maybe you should become a priest and then you could visit the prisoners," Grandma said but almost immediately realized this didn't seem like Billy's future at all and began to laugh.

            "So what can we do if we can't go anyplace fun?" I complained to Mom tugging on her dress.

            "Later Aunt Dot is coming over.  She's taking care of the baby while her daughter is in Waterloo getting her teeth fixed.  Maybe we could all go down to the river together and have a picnic for lunch," Mom suggested to Kathy's delight.  She loved having someone younger around so she wasn't the baby.

            Billy and I stood on the edge of the yard, as far out as we could get without disobeying Grandma and leaving the yard and yelled for Carl to come out and play with us.

            "Quiet!"  Kathy screamed at us from where she stood beside the garden, "I'm doing something important."

            We continued to yell until the screen door of the Badin's house banged open and Carl came running out, his long legs taking huge strides through the clouds of dust on the road and his long arms swinging loose at his sides, the hands bent back as if he was swimming through the air. He came up and stood in front of us like he was at attention waiting for orders.

            "Are you always going to be a little kid," Billy asked Carl, his teenage body looming above him.  .

            "I don't know.  Are you?" Carl asked and Billy smiled at me.

            "What are you doing?" I asked Kathy when we went over to see what she was so occupied with. 

I will never know or understand what my sister did with all her solitary hours when we were growing up, because I was a social person always searching out friends, but also because I never bothered to ask her what she was up to, except now, when her kneeling beside a hole in the garden intrigued me.

            "I'm burying my doll," she said seriously.

            "Why?" Billy asked.

            "Because she's dead."

            The rest of the morning, to Kathy's surprise, we spent with her helping to bury her doll.  We dug a deeper grave, found a cigar box for a coffin, and Carl, who could sometimes be very clever, fashioned a cross out of some sticks and wire.  Then we put the doll in the box, covered her over with dirt, and said things like, "May she be dead for a long time and have a good time doing it."

            "Now let's dig her up," Kathy said but Billy pushed her away from the grave.

            "You can't do that," he said, "It's a sin to dig up a grave.  She might become a vampire and suck people's blood."

            "She wouldn't do that!"

            "She isn't there any more," Carl said touching Kathy's long thin brown hair, "She's gone to stay with God.  That's where my Daddy went."

            Kathy was ready to whine, tired of the game, when Mom called from the house that Aunt Dot and the baby were there and we had to get ready to go down to the river.

            When we went in the house I had to kiss Aunt Dot, which made me feel kind of sick.  She always wore this strong perfume that smelled like the stuff my mom rubbed on my chest when I got a cold.  To her this picnic by the river seemed a great social event and along with her Sunday hat, piled with dusty roses, she wore gloves she had crocheted.  Tony, her year and one-half old grandson was given up by her with relief to Jesse.  Before we could leave the house Dot had to go to the mirror in the parlor and rearrange her hat and dress, then we headed out.

            Carl was given the job of pulling the red wagon in which we had put Tony for the trip.  When we arrived at the bank of the Mississippi, which was only down the hill from the house but which we acted as if it had taken us days to reach, we began to walk by the water looking for a suitable place to lay down the blanket Grandma had brought and unload the basket so full of food that Mom carried with difficulty.

            Under a large oak tree where the shadows were thick stood Mrs. Easily stirring a huge black metal pot from which steam rose blurring her into what seemed like a ghost.  Kathy was frightened. 

"A witch!" Kathy whispered and grabbed hold of me but I pushed her away afraid she would pee on me. 

While Kathy was not allowed to go alone to the river, Billy and I had often seen Mrs. Easily there setting a fire under her pot.  Then when her husband and son came in with their barge they would dump the their clam shells and leave her the task of boiling them open so that the slimy creature inside was removed and the shells could be sold to Grandpa who would in turn sell them to a strange Japanese man who appeared once a month.  He took them away on his huge barge to someplace far away where they were made into buckles and buttons.

            Because the day was hot, and because Dot was too tired to go further down river to find a spot for our picnic, Mrs. Easily was invited to our lunch (my mother was the oldest of a large family and always had enough food on hand in case ten extra people showed up) and they began to set things up in the shade of the oak.  Carl and I were left with Tony who sat in his wagon playing with a leaf that had fallen to him.  Billy searched around for some big rocks to hold down the blanket in the wind that came off the river.  But Carl and I were not as attentive as we should have been and instead of minding the baby we yelled out orders to Billy to look this way or that for a bigger and somehow better rock.

            Was it the sound of the baby crying, the sound of the wagon wheels beginning to roll down the hill or was it that time seemed to have suddenly halted that made me turn to see the baby wiggling around in the wagon as it headed down the incline towards the pot of water? 

"The Baby!" I yelled out not knowing what to do.

            Carl lunged towards the wagon.  I stood perfectly still watching his body reclining across the shadows and thinking that he would grab the wagon and stops it's descent.  Carl hit the ground, the wind knocked out of him, his hands just missing the wagon as it rolled by him.  The wagon hit the side of the metal pot, tipped up and threw the baby out, up into the air, and into the pot.

            There was yelling and screaming and before I knew it I was watching Billy reaching down into the hot water and pulling Tony out.  Then everyone was running.  Billy, still holding the baby was running up the hill.  Aunt Jesse was close behind him. 

"Grab Kathy!" my mother yelled to me as she ran past.  I was too confused to respond.  Grandma grabbed Kathy's hand and finally I ran after them.

            When I got to the house I found them round back by the pump.  Aunt Dot was crying and running her hands through her gray hair, her hat lost between the river and the house.  But Mom had the presence of mind to be working the handle of the pump as cold water ran out over Billy's hands and over the baby who was hardly crying, but seemed to be gasping instead.  Grandma came from the house with Kathy carrying a sheet as Jesse drove her car up on the lawn and by the pump.

            "Wrap up the baby and take him to the doctor in Waterloo," I thought Grandma said but I wasn't certain for Carl and I stood away from the scene watching but not really comprehending what was going on.

            "It's my fault," Carl said crying, "I was supposed to be watching the baby but I'm too dumb to.  I'll never grow up and be smart."

            I took his hand.  "No Carl, it's my fault."  And I knew it was for I was the one was should have acted responsibly.

            Aunt Jesse's car drove away with Dot, Mom, little Tony, and Jesse.  Grandma took Billy in the house to rub Ungentine on his hands but the burns on his sun-toughened skin were hardly bad at all.  Carl went home, Kathy went to dig up her doll, and I sat by the pump waiting for someone to realize the whole thing was my fault and to blame me.  What if the baby died?

            "Now what am I going to do?" Billy came up to me later with his hands covered in the shiny balm.  "Grandma said I have to keep this stuff on my hands all day!"

            "I could be your hands." 

Though I offered the service of my hands I was offering my apology for being such an idiot and not doing anything when the accident had occurred.  I wished I could be like Billy and have been quick and brave enough to save the baby.

            "Neat!  Okay, you go around with me and do everything with your hands I tell you!"  Billy said and I was relieved to see he didn't blame me.

            So the afternoon passed too quickly as they do when you want them to last forever, the two of us playing in the back yard as I dug for worms and put them in the empty box that had been the casket for Kathy's doll. 

A woody station wagon drove up.  I knew it was my Uncle Frank, Billy's father.  I watched as Billy ran from where we were playing to his father's arms.  The tale of Billy's rescue of the baby was told again and again that evening, each time embellished a bit more.  Mom and Jesse had returned to report that the baby would be fine thanks to Billy.  The fact that the baby was alive relieved me.  I had been ready to burn in hell for eternity.  I waited for someone to accuse me so I could cry and maybe feel better but no one accused me, nor for that matter said anything to me.

            "I hope your Dad comes soon," was all Billy said as he got in his father's car. 

Then the car was driving away as he waved out the back window at all of us standing in the yard.  But I hoped that he was waving at me most of all.

            With the shuffling of feet through the gravel on the road we knew Grandpa was coming home from the motel for supper, a meal consumed without tasting for mouths were too busy being used to go over the details of the rescue again and again.  Soon the potatoes were gone, what was left of the chicken put away and the dirty dishes in the sink.  I sat on the front porch listening to the grinding of the kitchen pump, the splash of water in the sink and Grandma humming to herself as she ran a sudsy cloth over the flowered plates.  I heard dust shuffling in from somewhere down the road, watched the sky turned to glass tinted blue, the trees to a deep emerald green, the Badin's house shinning like an opal, and my hands as they lost their pink color and become cold and blue looking.  Somewhere a cat was wandering through the weeds crying out.

            Finally night came like an illness I had felt coming on. Kathy turned over in her metal crib upstairs, creaking the spring right above my head where I sat at the old upright Baldwin, my fingers strolling unmelodiously over the yellowed ivories.  The screech of one of the chrome kitchen chairs away from a card game, and Mom came in to tell me it was time to go to bed.

            "Lonely?" she asked after she had kissed me good night.

I nodded yes.

            "Me too.  I think we better hug each other." 

And we did until the blue night crawled under my closed eyelids and drowned me in sleep.

            Dreams occupy the space in our lives left vacant by reality, and I was filled with dreams which sat heavily on my eyelids as I attempted to open them.  A summer that had passed without a rainy morning was now thick and a steel gray.  I held my hand up to see it blue and dead looking in the light.  Outside the window rain fell like gray sheets flapping in the wind.  But I could smell coffee brewing and heard Mom's voice growing louder as she did when she wanted to wake us.  Grandma shushed her and played one more old piece on the piano outside my door, the notes sticking to the walls and sliding slowly down.

            After breakfast I was given the job of watching Kathy while the women in the household worked on a new dress for Jesse. 

"If only I had your chest Mary," I heard Jesse complain as I left the house with Kathy's hand in mine. 

The rain had stopped and we were told that if we were careful and went straight there we could walk to the motel to see Grandpa.  It was a Saturday and he had gotten up extra early to meet any sport fishermen who might come in for the weekend so we had not seen him at breakfast.  No day really began until we had buttoned the cuff of his arm not crippled by polio and kissed his check bulging with his wad of tobacco.

            The clouds skidded across the slick blue surface of the sky.  Though it was not raining now, huge drops like glass Christmas ornaments exploded in puddles around us.  I wanted the sun to cheer me.  I felt all cold and strange inside.  We had on our rubber boots and Kathy had to splash through every puddle we passed, but I was not interested.  I let go of her hand so as not to get wet and walked along the edge of the road.  I stopped when I saw a bone of some sort sticky up out of the ground, the surrounding dirt excavated by a night’s pounding rain.  If Billy had been with me it might have been a dinosaur bone, but since he was gone it was only some bone a dog had probably buried.  When I looked up Kathy was gone.

            At first I thought the car up the road was Jesse's and wondered why she had decided to stop work on the dress I know she wanted to finish for the next day when she would go back to Spring Grove.  But as the car began to pull away and Kathy was not in sight I remembered the tales of the blue Ford that had been rumored to be hunting for children to kidnap.  I began running down the road as the car picked up speed, the water from my splashing feet filling my sight.  The car was beginning to go faster than I could run and I was very fast on my feet, perhaps even faster than Billy.  I thought I saw something at the back window, a figure that might have been Kathy waving to me.

            But I had one advantage the car didn't have.  While it had to stay on the muddy roads, I could run across the field as it made it's turn away from the river.  I did not feel the weeds cutting at my legs or the muddy land grabbing at my feet.  I knew that I had to make the little hill before the Blue Ford passed it and could pick up speed and head straight out of town.  I didn't know what I would do when I got to the top of the hill, only found myself lunging through the air towards the car as it sped by. 

With a thud I landed on the hood of the car and grabbed tight to the windshield wipers.  My eyes were closed tight but it seemed that through the lids as if a shadow in some strong light, I could see the form of the man inside.  Had the sun come out? 

Kathy screamed, I was certain it was her, and the car suddenly lurched to the right, then to the left, my feet thrown one way then another as I hung on as tight as I could.  One of the wiper blades broke off and clattered down the hood as I took hold of the other with both hands and tired to remember how to pray. 

With the rise and fall of the car like some giant whale about to dive the car stopped.  I kept my eyes tightly shut and my hands tightly holding on not knowing what to expect.  Then I heard the car's tires racing in the mud.  It was stuck. 

"Run Kathy!  Get Daddy!" I screamed. 

The car door opened and I heard footsteps sloshing through the mud.  I let go of the wiper and slid endlessly down the hood of the car, farther and farther until it felt like I was falling into a giant hole.  Then large hands grabbed me and shook me.

            "Mickey, wake up, wake up!"

            I opened my eyes and there was my Dad sitting on the bed beside me.

            "I took care of Kathy, I really did. I saved her from the blue Ford!"

            He couldn't have known what I was talking about but he smiled at me and held me.

            "Sh-h, you'll wake the rest of the house.  It's so early your Grandma's not even up.  Why don't you tell me what has been going on before we wake them and tell them I'm here."

            "How did you get here, the train doesn't come into McGregor this early?"

            "I didn't take the train.  I drove.  You don't have to take the train when we come here anymore.  I got a promotion, a better job, up the ladder you know, and I don't have to travel around anymore.  My job will be to tell others to travel around."

            "You drove here?"

            "Yes, straight through from Illinois last night.  And next week we'll all get in the car, I got a new green Pontiac, and go back home.  It will be time for school to start real soon.  I missed you."

            "I missed you Daddy.  Can we go sit in the new car for a while?  Then we better wake Mom up.  She missed you real bad."


 

 

 

 

 

EPILOG

SUMMERS LATER

 

 

            A train no longer makes a stop near Bandel's Crossing, Iowa and I no longer live outside of Washington D.C.  The 1950's passed and left behind a sweet nostalgia.  But to me the fondness most find for that time is as sweet as saccharin and leaves an after-taste as false.  While others might assume that the reality of that decade was that of FATHER KNOWS BEST, I know that such a TV show was no more typical of life in the 1950's than THE COSBY SHOW was typical of the 1980's black experience.  Remembrance is filled with generalizations.  Remembrance is more often forgetting than recalling.

            But I wanted to recall those years not to regain some lost innocence or simplicity, but so that people I had left back in those years would not be left out of my heart.  And I missed the people who were no longer in Bandel's Crossing as I drove with my Mom and Dad and my not so little sister now, Kathy, past the rows of vacationer's trailers that sat in what had once been a corn field on the outskirts of town.  Grandma and Grandpa were no longer alive though the gas station/motel still stood and their old white clapboard house was still there though now painted a horrible pink and looking like an open sore without the elm tree out front to shade it.

            We pulled up to the new corrugated metal firehouse filled with my relatives as Pete Bandel arrived with Great Aunt Holda.  "Why it's Mary's boy!" she laughed and waved to me.  Otto was gone and she lived alone in the tar paper house (it had never walked off on chicken legs as I had feared).

            Aunt Val was there without Uncle Sy for he had been divorced husbands ago.  She wore her mysterious past like some exotic necklace, fingering it as she referred to a husband who smuggled emeralds from South America, the years she dealt blackjack in Las Vegas, or selling Bibles door to door.  She would never tell too much, but teased us with her tales.  Then she would wink at me and smile as though I was the only person to whom she would one day tell her racy secrets.

            Aunt Jesse was there with her postman who was now retired.  Some people change so little and raising a large family had not lessened her need to have fun and laugh.  Between talking with my aunts and uncles (I had more than most) and my cousins (I had even more of these) I managed to sit and talk with Jesse about silly things, as we had staying up nights past laughing and telling scary stories while the rest of the house slept.

            "What happened to Carl and Georges?" I asked wishing they were there.

            "When Mrs. Badin remarried, Georges took Carl to Des Moines with him.  I hear Georges got his legs operated on and works now as a bus driver.  Carl lives with Georges and his wife, who also works, and helps take care of their kids when they come home from school." Then she was silent amongst all the shouts and laughter and I suspected she was thinking, as I was, of all the different courses our lives could have taken.

            But I could no longer sit and talk or eat.  I was too anxious and finally had to ask Aunt Joan and Uncle Frank whether Billy was coming or not.  Before she could answer I heard a rattle and rumble and went outside to see Billy driving up in a car held together by gray putty and copper wire.  He got out of the car dressed in leather jeans and a vest looking big and tough and the kind of guy I would probably avoid.  But his mustache drooped down the sides of his mouth the way chocolate milk had once done and I laughed.

             "See you got your ear pierced," I said touching the dangling silver cross.

            "See you did too, but didn't wear it.  Bandel's not ready for it?" Billy said touching the empty hole in my ear.

            After we had eaten the huge potluck dinner (where I ate helpings of four different potato salads), Billy and I headed off in his car in search of the stone Wexford church our great great grandfather had built.  We never found it for we were too busy driving the back roads and talking.  Over the years I had heard from Billy when he was depressed.  The rock and roll tour he was electrician for was over and he had no work, or his girlfriend had left, or life was turning out to be just too damn weird.  And he had heard from me in, I suppose, similar circumstances, a divorce, a failure to find a dealer for my artwork.  But now we didn't have to worry about the phone bill that would plague us at the end of the month.  The hills lifted us into the clear sky where a crow circled, the green valleys gulped us down and we talked and talked as we drove through this part of the country that I knew would always feel like home.

            We stopped when we came back near the Mississippi and got out of the car.  Walking down to the muddy bank we looked up in the sky for a boy flying on false wings, down at our feet for dinosaur do-do, then skipped rocks across the water in silence, the silence that comes from the love between brothers.

 

 


 
 
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