An unaccountable number of years after: Is it that circumstances of one’s birth create one’s destiny?
Joe’s Uncle, Mr. Bradley, opens his Grocery Store early morning. He is probably the only man in our town, New Braintree that wears a badge on which it is written in Gothic letters: “Store Owner”.
“People don’t know, who the owner of a store is, and who isn’t,” he explains. A proud man!
If you stare at his badge and still dare to ask him: “Are you the store owner?” he’s going to show you a picture:
“This was taken on the very day when my granddad opened this store: 2nd of October 1933. It all started when the recession kicked in”.
He’d try to explain to you how his business works now. One day I heard him saying that the name of the store was borrowed from an early Hollywood movie: “Champs Eloise”.
In the front window a framed blue paper that carries a stamp and a serial number DCBD02101933 is the proof that the store does a legitimate business.
“One of my neighbors was summoned to provide proof of authenticity for such a paper and when he couldn’t provide it, he got beaten”.
Uncle Bradley wakes up at five, smokes a cigarette and is ready to live another day until midnight. I saw him looking at Fay’s butt as she got in. Fay isn’t in the right mood:
“If you want to know”, she says, “The eggs I bought Saturday were all spoiled. It is spring already and you keep the eggs in the window. Isn’t that silly? Two-dozen eggs… A waste. Of course that the sun was so hot that day didn’t tell you anything! So, I’m telling you; your whole assortment of eggs is rotten…”
“Yes, Madame!” Uncle Bradley says. But Fay doesn’t want more eggs from him. She wants her money back.
“I hope you’re a fair gentleman,” she says. “I want my money back!” Uncle Bradley doesn’t seem to understand.
“I don’t mean to offend you madam, but I think I have a good memory. And, no offense please, but I didn’t see you shopping in my store last Saturday”.
Fay leaves the shop but she doesn’t go away. She stands in front of the store’s front door and tells to whoever walks by:
“He’s a crook… spoiled eggs and all that shit… rat infested…”
Eventually Uncle Bradley comes out and counts 94 cents, the price for two dozen eggs:
“Stingy thug…” she mumbles. “I hope you’ll die burping, like a pig. What did you keep six cents for? Some kind of a pussy addict you are…”
She is still screaming dirty words but her voice turns soft… Hastily she switches from drama to comedy showing her naked ass while crossing the street. She is in such a hurry that she drops a shoe in the middle of the traffic. The cars go around her in small curves. She is the crazy one in town, young enough to take chances.
Uncle Bradley laughs: “I never put up with her. But I know that if I don’t give in right away she’s going to show me her ass. It’s worth 94 cents”.
Joe, his nephew, chuckles. Uncle Bradley would like to tell to his customers that the boy behind the counter is his son, but he can’t do that. Joe wouldn’t allow him to say that. Joe and his dad, Mr. Emerson, live in a brick house, four blocks from the store.
Joe’s dad won’t allow anybody to call him by his first name or just “Sir”. He wanted to be addressed as Mr. Emerson. “On the way of becoming a man I sat down and thought about who I was. I don’t remember when it occured to me that I was indeed Mr. Emerson”.
You could see Joe every Saturday and Sunday helping Uncle Bradley to put the store in order, loading new merchandise on shelves, mopping the floor with a wet broom and covering the new rat holes with a mix of plaster and pesticide.
Walter and I would stop by occasionally, though we thought that to help Uncle Bradley would be boring.
Joe would show up in the doorway and ask: “What’s up!” He’d just stand there in the doorway waiting for an answer. We’d smile! His Uncle would watch our talk with some envious interest.
“Uncle told me,” says Joe, “that this is what we have to do if we want to help: Walter and I would move the merchandise around and you’d sweep out the emptied shelves”.
“I’m too lazy”, I say.
“Now listen!” Joe says. “If you’d like to do some nice stuff, that’s one for you: take the white hose and wash my Uncle’s car in the backyard. Usually I love to do that, though, I’ll let you do it today!”
“Thanks,” I say. “I can’t. Mom just bought me this T-shirt yesterday. If I mess it up she’d ask what happened… and she told me not to work for anybody if I don’t get paid…”
“Your mom is a bitch!” Joe says.
“What your slang!” I say.
More interesting than washing Uncle Bradley’s car would be to glance inside the shack that Uncle Bradley had built himself near the garage. You could see through the dirty windows lots of models of birds and kites and Zeppelin helium balloons hanging from the ceiling, shivering in the dusty air. Uncle Bradley got a thing about flying objects. What he lacked was an investor that would back him up with enough money to build a life size machine. He’d have been famous already if he had an investor to help him rent a hangar and build the damn machine. The best of his flying models looked like a fountain pen, with the pilot cabin, that he calls “nose”, detachable and its huge tail sliding back and forth on a bed of beads.
He’s talking sometimes about the troubles he had with this model, how he had to rectify its tail’s shape to make it perfectly aerodynamic, like a dolphin tail cut into two halves, he’d explain. This model was painted red and it used to float next to the ceiling among balls of cotton well packed as clouds. If he would succeed to build a life size machine Uncle Bradley promised that he’d take all of us along with him on its maiden flight.
“I’d stay”, I said, “if you’d let me look at your Uncle’s flying models”.
“No way,” Joe hurried to answer, “The air currents could do a lot of damage. Especially the butterfly wings… they’re so fragile”.
As I leave, I glance towards Walter.
“I’m staying with Joe…”, Walter says.
“Pete’s mom is a bitch!” I overhear Joe saying.
“To work and get paid is really a matter of self-respect,” I remembered mom saying. “Some adults think that a child’s work could be disposable of…” Then I hear Joe yelling after me: “If you want a well-paid job why don’t you become a lawyer!” and I hear Walter laughing like an idiot. That’s how they both are, they settle right away into having fun.
Walter and Joe thought that they belonged to the same fate because they were born on the same day at the same hour of the day. It would become obvious that this was true as their lives went on, since they both lived in the same neighborhood, they both went to the same schools, and, if this would be a relief for this story, they both grew up to be big boys while day dreaming about the same girl, Laura. I didn’t like Laura too much and, to be honest, reading and doing math kept me well and happy at that time. I thought that I would make a mess of my life if I got seriously involved in the early love game.
The truth is that love kept being marginal to all of us if it interfered with our ambitions. I remember quite well my swollen nose I got while being involved with a senior girl in high school: she bit my nose till I couldn’t swell anymore.
Though, what is more memorable was that our parents never got involved in our upbringing. “Boys are boys! If they stay out of trouble for one day they lose their masculinity”, mom used to say. Parents having girls are different, they’re always get worried:
“Too much danger! Girls are like the first pale flowers that leap through the icy layer during the last winter night”.
Ms. Marjorie for instance - Laura’s mom - made a principle not to shun any disturbing worries. They were like ingredients to her parenthood, as her nonsense worry of what was going to happen to Laura, her twelve-year-old baby-girl when she gets to be a woman?
“She is so tiny and life is so tough!” The sinking feeling that Laura was going to suffer made her cry.
Sometimes I saw them sun bathing in the park. Ms. Marjorie would read a book whilst Laura would sleep with her mouth open on a little rug. Her breasts are growing discretely: spring buds walking on tiptoe.
Then I saw Laura standing in front of the ice cream cart waiting for her mom, curling her hair. Her mom thought that, although she was Jewish, she’d better put Laura in a Catholic school where she could be controlled and disciplined. Laura used to call her “my domineering religion-less mother!” The closer Laura was to submitting her lips to some boy’s pubescent explosion the more her mom thought of sending her to a boarding school.
Laura was a settled woman now, ex-married for four years and with two kids – a girl, Margi, and a boy that she didn’t want, Chisel, who resembled his dad and had been living from early infancy on the brink of disobedience. People would say that Laura used a German abortion pill to get rid of the boy but then - after she had a dream that the boy was going to become a famous ruler - she changed her mind.
“Having a second child when you are only twenty one years old, you know, life could be malignant with a baby in your belly… That’s when my hubby began to see that woman…”
Mom saw the end of Laura’s marriage long time before it happened: “That girl doesn’t take her life seriously. And then, those two people are so different… He is tall like a wireless pol and she is mignon and decorates herself like a Tiffany lamp”
Laura couldn’t pinpoint anything tangible - like that she was small and fat and that he was slim and tall or that she was young and fat and that he was old and lean - or something else. I saw Laura and her husband coming together at one of the musical events in the park: she looked isolated and awkward while holding his arm.
“Once it emerges, the estrangement grows at a fast pace. It is less sort of an organic process, the way love is. Estrangement and hatred needs additives to counteract the stench; it needs coloring…”
Laura got a flattering divorce package from her husband: ”Lots of money”. She was talking some other day about her prenuptial agreement: smart idea! When they got married he may have had protested while signing it:
“It’s that somebody is questioning your integrity and it’s your woman, the one you chose to live with”.
Well, he could scream now and howl. And she knew that the divorce was inevitable after her hubby discovered that she had been paying an agency to spy on him.
“She was such a confused creature those days…”
People change their mentalities once they live on their own and have money. She wouldn’t give a damn about any man on earth. Though she’d remember her short marriage when she’d say: ”My ex…” Some days she’d pass through some nostalgic moments and then through some rough ones.
Laura says that if her hubby had just a little bit of humor life would have been more palatable. When she caught her hubby in bed with that woman she tried to catch hold of her legs, pull her out of there and throw her amidst all that junk food and dirty spread lying on the bedroom floor.
“Obviously, if it wasn’t for my little thrill, my hubby would not know that I was around. I called her ‘whore’ over and over again until he said: okay, okay, she is a whore! Now leave us alone!”
What Laura was saying now was that she was at the end of that labyrinth called sex and that she decided to stay put on her position and not let herself dragged into an intimate game again. For a while she frequented single bars and, “It’s Hell,” she says, “to get a man in bed nowadays”. She thought I could understand that. “Sex, after all is either raw love or trash”.
She said that she avoided the temptation for sex by thinking of God: “A little fellow, like a dwarf, though handsome, that I held by the hand and I carry with me anywhere I went”. With her inarticulate and somber tongue she couldn’t pronounce “God” without spitting. Laura still thought that her passion collapsed not because of a generation gap, but in view of the fact that she was oversexed while her husband wasn’t. Endocrine words: “He used to sweat all the time like a lid on a pot of boiling stew”.
Now, only God and Godly words could arouse her interest. What is more, furtively she adopted the latest trivia theories on praying, by eating proper food in pairs like fibers & intestines, greens & blood, etc. and got the strong belief that nothing would stand in her way to achieve whatever she wanted if she stopped being narrow and insensitive to the idea of life after death: having a “what-is to-be seen-as” life, at the spark of her age. “Bible says that life is an exercise in love with whoever proves to be worthy”.
As far as her career went, she wanted to be an actress. Given that her acting career never really took off she used to supplement it with a waitress job. That was before she got the settlement money. What Laura missed most was the interaction with the stage decors and the prompter. That’s why she went to the church every weekend: sort of getting involved in a show. Shows are all alike, aren’t they? Besides the show what she wanted - and she’d tell everybody that – was to reach the understanding of the essence, which is God…
“If you want to reach something so high you’ll have to abstain from eating like a pig…” Joe would comment. “In fact you’d have to abstain from everything like it or not, food, sex, shaving your armpits… What you need is a short nap and then long meditations… That pleases God”.
She was kind of the same naïve girl we used to know in the high school: no change there. Then there was something else, which was not obvious to anybody else but me, and maybe to Mom, but not to Joe. That was that low-taste habit that Laura had to throw little coins into the church’s fountain. I saw people doing the same thing in Rome – paying for their dreams of happiness. Every week the fountain was drained. The sewer would suck all the water and the priest would say: “We have a lot of stupid people in this town. How much do you think is there? Twenty bucks and change! Maybe more…” Laura would eat her Danish while sitting on the fountain edge and throwing nickels into the water: happiness bought with a nickel floating among inaudible waves towards the muddy bottom.
Walter and Joe still remember how Laura used to look during her teen years: huge breasts that made one’s heart pump with blood and long dark hair that didn’t match the washed out color of the puff under her armpits. In some ways I thought she wasn’t beautiful at all: too much jaw and the nose too curved. But Walter and Joe loved Laura the way she was so they were able to share confidential memories, what they both thought about being with her in bed, and how it would have been to make love to her and go all the way down there.
“Lousy liars”, she called them. She couldn’t understand how Joe and Walter could still claim her as “their high school sweet heart”. If one tried to show warmth or love to her one had to discover in her defiant attitude the incipient feminist defensive! A cold beam would flash for a second in her eyes before one could hear her cursing around… Then her eyes would turn salty.
It was her astrological sign to blame: governed by Uranus and Pluto, the dirty snowball? (I am just curious, now that Pluto isn’t an accomplished planet anymore aren’t the astrologists in trouble with all their predictions? Or, maybe Pluto could still work, sort of a wild card good for whoever holds it?)
If underneath Laura was still that fragile girl we used to know (now wrapped around in an overgrown layer of flesh), she must have learned how to hide her feelings: no more sobbing, no more giggling. She was now a cranky woman, plagued by unhappiness and regrets. And she wasn’t in need of love anymore. When beautiful women become obese they lose the ability to look for love.
Everybody knew that when she tried the abortion pill one of her glands blew up. When you’re pregnant you don’t take a pill (especially German pills if you’re Jewish) and you don’t put herbs in your ovaries to make the baby want to come out before it is due. Or, it was that her divorce made the food get stuck in her belly? She was telling everybody that if she wants she could go back to her husband.
“No! No way! No more mistreatment for me!”
Why was she complaining about? I remembered that she was always moved by men brutality… Now that she was living on her own – for four months already – she could see clearly and laugh about it especially when she talked “a propos de” her husband’s defects: his endless arguments, his deafness to logic, his New Orleans rural memories and his propensity of siding with the absurd.
“A blood sucker, that’s what he was!” She would go daily for a checkup to a she-doctor who examined her breasts “badly abused by her man” that she despised today so much. Then she’d go to a massage parlor and let her breasts rubbed to keep them in good shape for some prospective good man petty desire.
She thought now of a tiny man, her counterweight, a small town man who’d like to live with her and her two kids and divide their bank account wisely to put some money on the side so that she could go every day to the movies. Though her ex was right when he advertised her as to not “eat a pound of cookies to gain two pounds of fat!”
I mean her belly was dripping wet real saturated fat, greasy sweat (lipids + cholesterol galore?) that made a black round stain on her blouse and spilling creases over her big-and-tall skirt. She was like a huge candle burning fat. From the old good days when she used to be a star what was left was her low register laugh plus some hand sign words. Her huge bottom may have weighted a ton (=40 cu. ft.).
“I got a shitload of problems” she used to complain. Compared to her, Walter was a gentle blow.
“I want you to experience that woman”, Joe would have told Walter that time, as if he was referring to her as food.
“Slim women make love in a simplified manner. The fat ones need help so they would hold on up to a point, until they get hooked up. If they can lie down without moving they’d begin sensing the innumerable love attempts of their man. They can’t see the man as he struggles, buried in their flesh, but they can sense that the man is somewhere there. That’s why an obese woman would be considered more chastised than a lean one. Though, I don’t think a lean woman gets turned on faster…” said Joe.
“If I can’t sleep at night and I have to, I think of Laura. Usually I see myself climbing up her body, clowning around her big teats”.
Then he continued by repeating his usual stories about his first obsessions with Laura,
“It’s clear now, she was in love with that old guy, Stable, not the slightest doubt, and what about that mulatto, Zech, what a jerk, to pee on the Altar, and yet he thought that he can have her…” all those stories mixed with mystical accounts of his mom’s last days, unhappy days:
“She didn’t complain. She just smiled. To die like that… She got a hell of a vision, which”, he had to admit, “wasn’t so great”. “Where is she now?” “Behind the tunnel, in the picturesque Heaven…”
Sunday, at the Church (Laura is now a distinguished converted member of the Episcopalian creed), while people light assorted candles for the dead, one can see Laura turning heads and bodies as she struggles to get to the front row, whistling with her deep and disturbed breath: “Ex-Cozy-Me!” Her words travel like a murmur. Once there she crosses her legs to feels safe.
Her next act is to let her little shoes slip from her feet. Long time ago ten admirers would have rushed to pick them up. Not today! Though, Joe and Walter are there, no doubt! Both good church goers – to a certain point. It’s brainwashing time for everybody around. One could rot while standing in the deadly smell of the sacristy. Yet, one could resurrect also.
Other church regulars besides Laura, Joe and Walter are the twin sisters: Maria and Jane. They look always troubled as they pray. I think they’re having a hard time coming to the church. But they come regularly, anyway. You could see them taking a pill now and then as they begin insinuating: “God’s medicine…” Jane, I’m sure, is involved in some kind of dirty business, but she’s still able to borrow an air of innocence when she smiles. Her lips are red and soft, like two patches of poppy flowers. “She distinguished her ass here and there,” people used to say.
What I like in a church is that nobody gives a damn about what you are or what you are doing. The other sister is wearing a low cut dress that makes the priest blush. She acts cheerful but pointless. Though she has the audacity to dye her hair red and treat her ears as separate entities, one wearing a pink diamond, the other wearing a two-inches shiny platinum ring.
One day I crossed their path: I could smell that organic odor coming from a fresh made sweat, some humorous release, women stuff, I thought… “That’s marvelous!” I exclaimed.
Once a year every parishioner is allowed to have a hygienic speech at the stand, something like an AA talk, to allow people to cure themselves of sins. Jane’s went like that: she used the allegory of a saintly woman whose mission was to educate brothel workers how to keep them from sinning. Instead, the saintly woman found out that sin doesn’t deserve pity, but rather compassion and understanding. And she fell for it: “I renounce now the utopian world of those who stop living because of their fear to sin,” she’d have said. Eventually the crowd understood that the allegory was Jane’s own life-story. Then she wanted to convince the parishioners of something more: “I’m a very clean woman,” she said.
The crowd laughed that day and the priest got upset. Mom said then that it would be difficult for the twin sisters to wash their hands of their upbringing. Though what was amazing was how the twin sisters could make a good living from little illegal trades, that they called business. In reality they called what they did “charity sports”, a code name for drugs, that they thought were indispensable to the American mentality. The charity part was that they acted as a liaison between the hospital and derelicts: the sisters supplied needles and medicine to the drug addicts. The attitude of the sixties… What an intelligent solution!
Who else would know where the needy is if not those that supply the needy. The twin sisters’ names and phone numbers were written on the walls of the abandoned houses around the burned church. There was nothing like the local newspaper said, that moral aspect of people that makes one keep a distance from those afflicted by drugs or by disease, that is, all those armies of believers that would let others to suffer and live their life in transit from here to nowhere until they died: the two sisters would be really of help to everybody including the scavengers living under the bridge. They were saints.
Every now and then the priest – a wide-eyed Southerner fellow whose face always expresses astonishment - has an interesting homily which sounds like the gossip column from the local newspaper.
“We’re all in God’s hands, aren’t we? Then, why some of us are beaten, others are not?”
All this astuteness makes Father Mongoose popular: the church crowds love him monotonously. He might comment, for instance, on current events from the life of the community and give appropriate advice to sinners.
Everybody knew for instance that Laura’s baby son came into the world through an accident pregnancy. The result was a new born American citizen described by his prudish mom, as “German abortion pills cannot stop Americans from breeding”.
The priest though thought that it was God’s will to make it happen. And he’d continue his homily: “Now that the old values are gone life tends to become objectionable. It’s not true anymore that when everything is right nothing terribly wrong could come about. It’s more likely that almost nothing is right and that nobody wants to look at what is wrong!” said the priest.
At times the priest is so theatrical that Joe and Walter can’t abstain from laughing, sometimes so loud that they need to give assurances to people sitting around that their laughing is not some kind of a sickness. “Yes, I’m okay!” they’ll answer in a voice. In reality every Sunday the priest was telling almost the same story: there is a small detail for which he tells the story all over again. His story! Somehow he changes a little bit that one story making it fit for each occasion: usually the current events alter it…
Today, the passionate voice of the priest began the homily with a question: “Why should life, the way we live it, follow the morality found in the Bible or other books derived from it? Why?” followed by a long pause, “I asked God! Why?” followed by another pause. At that moment Joe and Walter began laughing. The priest stopped his act and addressed them both: “Am I not worthy of your attention?” As he stopped for a pause he looked even more comical then before. “Your body grew up but your mind didn’t. You’re still those two little boys that I baptized 22 years ago”. Again, his voice rose undisturbed:
“Why? I asked God why? And God didn’t answer…!” Hell! Now they were all ears, silent lambs, listening to the priest talking about sins, abominable sins and crimes, like forced labors (he wouldn’t call them abortions), and punishments, terrible ordeals before death comes, like earthquakes which are nothing but signs that the divine order is crumbling… He would utter a sentence and follow it with like “Why God!” gestures of imprecation and pointing to the church crowd.
He would then say: “That’s why!” Then he’d start up again. Luckily, at a certain moment during the homily people sitting in the first two front rows were asked to move back to make room for the boys’ choir. Before the commotion was over, Walter and Joe left the church trying to unleash another laugh and by doing that emptying the meaning of the whole homily…
Mom used to say that whenever she went to the church she felt ennobled, though, the priest, with his very off-hand manners intimidated her. “No head is allowed to run sideways; no lips could smile towards a neighbor singing a psalm. It strengthens me, it puts my life back into my head”, she used to say.
Dad would stop her from saying more. “But we sit too much!” she’d continue. “After a while I feel pain creeping into my buttocks”. She was always afraid that she’d do some blasphemy lapse talking about God. She’d start crying abruptly: “Forgive me God for what I’m saying!” But no question about, the church was for mom a sacred home.
“As soon as I cross the thresholds I feel like being part of God. It comes with a change in my attitude!” she’d say. Her insistent tone and her search for faith and the help she looked for – in the Bible – made the priest believe that Mom’s future had some messianic meaning.
“A bit of a prayer each Sunday wouldn’t do any harm to you too!” She tried to lure me but to no avail. Mom kept being completely ignorant of any fundamental concepts such as the true vehicle of the universal being. However, she thought for instance that the faint shadow of Madonna in her last appearance in Utah was worth taking into consideration though it didn’t leave an imprint on her film. Dad would say that she was a strange sentimental case for a cause that cannot buy a head of cabbage nowadays. Though, even Dad used to like when Laura sang with her sweet voice “Soon it will be all over!” a romantic melody using odds and ends from Beatles and lyrics written by reverend Franklin Goldman:
“That’s your age/ Under the blue sky/ Don’t be sad/ Don’t cry/ As you see/ The non-reversible end/ Is still far and wide”.
Listening to the song mom used to display a quick and smiley sob. Age had slowed her determination to express herself and made her opinions hesitate between a hidden belief that God existed and the accepted quasi-indifference of Dad that if existed God wouldn’t ask for anybody’s worship.
That’s Mom’s speech given to the assembled parishioners on the Lent: “Everything that hurts yields to love. Then love hurts more. (She really felt good while wiping her tears away, keeping her lips moist to be able to continue). Thanks to what I learned in this church, like being good and fair to other people, I grew up a better woman. There was nothing more gratifying than helping those in need and falling in love with them. That’s a must for those who want to see and talk straightforwardly with the Creator”. Mom made a difference between people who showed up just to be seen attending the church services and those who came to get together for the sake of their faith.
In those days, the future seemed so far while the past was touching my every step. I could feel it, still alive, wandering around me. Though what I noticed one day was that people close to my heart began slowly to die. Joe’s philosophy might be of help when interpreting those times: “Life goes on, in rounds, making sounds to be heard, and again, going in rounds, until there are no more rounds, for there is no more sound…”
What I suddenly understood in a satori kind of moment was that those who disappeared from my life had so much to tell. What I needed to do was just to ask. My dreams were still revealing their amazing beauty in flashback sequences.
“Twenty years from now”, I thought, I’ll be here again, looking at a different but clearer future. In fact, I thought, we’d all be here. It seemed it was still a long way to go. Not at once, as it seems now, anyway. So many dreams, wasted! Was it worth trying to find a substitute for whatever I lost?
Mom used to say: “It’s impossible to understand the future by scavenging the past. Let it go; and never try to go back. There is so much new stuff on the other half of one’s life…”
Zech, the queer one, will be a family man then, like anybody else. He’d own a bagel shop on 4th Street (positively naughty) with a color portrait of his older brother (Ronald Zech, dead in the Vietnam War), mounted on the front window. The store would make cookies too and, (this is new stuff), it would serve Colombian coffee in a new kind of paper cup with cute colored handlers. When the old Zech got buried the town was quiet. He came home too soon. Everybody was sorry for the three surviving brothers so, for a while, people bought more cookies than they needed.
What was strange was that the old brother Zech went to Vietnam and came back dead after only one-week, before even being involved in any combat. Nobody knew how to interpret that. It’s like when one gets stuck in a puzzle. No help there! One would have to take a different path to find the appropriate word and even then… Certain war events were consumed in discussions one would initiate in the Irish pub. Some began rumoring that Zech may have had deserted the army. He was one of those old style boys who felt uncomfortable with the version of military discipline that a war asks for. Then the rumor had it that he died of a cocaine overdose. Nobody really knew what did happen. Military secret, I suppose!
But people liked what they heard, that he came from a troubled family – which was true – and how he took care of his brothers after their mom ran away and how he teamed up with the Special Forces because he was a street wise guy, etc.
Walter was in shock like anybody else. The mayor kept the flag in front of the city hall at half-mast for two days. Then eight people designated as Zech’s friends were lined up for a wait that was kept short. Little Zech, who wasn’t little anymore, was crying. “What are they doing?” he asked while turning his hat backwards. Death is like a photo processing: it doesn’t get consummated before the image is developed.
“Some extortionists,” middle Zech was saying, “tried to convince the mayor to bury my brother in the other cemetery”, which was located on the outskirts of the town and was used at that time for humans as well as for their pets. They even showed to the mayor a map of the out of town cemetery with free spots highlighted in red.
“I said, gee, but my brother was a hero! And the mayor said that he wasn’t really what one would call a hero. So I told him, either the cemetery behind the city hall or nothing. Who needs cheap glamour?”
That part of the cemetery is gone now. When they built the highway they relocated half of it, leaving untouched only the historical wall flanked by the brown stones belonging to the monks that inhabited the cemetery morgue during the 18th century. The city hall is gone too. The local government operates now from within a mansion used years ago by the psychiatric clinic. The Main Street where we used to bicycle had been enlarged and looks now just like a minor segment of the highway. And then there is nothing else I could remember belonging to that past!
“People are losing their personality because of this overwhelming road development,” Dad would complain. You can’t see any more kids playing around the vacant lot where I broke my toes playing clay hockey! Both of my big toes! The mini-golf square lot, near the barbershop, is now a garden where people, who qualify, get a small 3ft/6ft lot to grow vegetables. Mom is making her soup with dill she grows there. And the gazebo where we gathered to listen to the brass music is gone. What the past had offered us? Mom used to say that it’s okay not to be suspended in the past though the past was supposed to teach you how to live your life in the present. What did it teach us? I heard her saying that hundred times: that if the past didn’t teach you how to live in the present it means that you still live in the past. Let it go! Let it go!
She thought that it was difficult for a child to understand those simple thoughts of hers. The time came for me to use her sayings in my writings. As I watched how life went by I realized that my parents were very much following the teaching of the past. But when I think that Dad almost left us with his silly idea that he wanted to go to a Buddhist monastery and get enlightened; I have this thought that he was wrong thinking like that. Then I think that maybe mom drove him crazy so he had to run away.
I thought and thought about them both: Dad used to slap Mom’s butt, sometimes in public, as for instance at that street fair when he slapped her twice, so they quarreled until Mom calmed down and apologized to Dad for making such a fuss…
As far as I was concerned they were interested in one thing: to see me excel in something they saw important for them such as politics or to have a carrier that provided more excitement than responsibility, like for instance being a diplomat.
The reason to become the later was that I knew French before I exchanged the first few English words. When I was ten years old I was allowed to decide for myself what I wanted to do, so I dropped French from my other interests and I opted for math. Without French my life became quiet, no more buzz exchanges with Mom.
I miss Mom, especially during the cold winter days.
Compared to me Walter was different. He was the spoiled rich kid. His dad owned a company called “Copper.Al&Wire”, a multinational corporation. The factory name was engraved on a huge copper electroplate above its headquarters. I was little but I still remember that for some reason whenever I passed by the factory I felt like throwing up. People would tell stories about acid fumes that made lots of workers get sick and dying. “That is true” mom would say. “Stay away from the factory”. Anyway copper made Walter a rich boy. You could see it from the way he was dressed: yellow soft leather shoes, a “members only” dark blue jacket from London, blue stripped shirt and gray pants. It was within the school dress-up norm, okay, but his uniform went so far beyond it that you could see Walter across the hallway and have no doubt about it: his dad was a distinctive member of some yacht club. And then the way he got to school and the way he got picked up by a valet and whisked in the window tinted chauffeured automobile, and then, that enigmatic old black man who wouldn’t stop smiling before moving the wheel and get off! And eventually, the way the car moved, without making a sound, just a small purr of a big black Rolls Royce cat.
Joe, on the contrary, didn’t give a damn about clothes or anything else. He may have been poor, but, as far as I know, he was better off that way! He was a dreamer, a well-played distracted genius. I remember how he installed himself in the Empire chair one day, making the girls cheerleaders giggle as they looked up and saw two big holes in Joe’s pants, just between his legs.
“You are not supposed to give to anybody an idea about your underwear…” Miss Molly dared to say. That didn’t make Joe step down.
“My eyes hurt!” said Miss Molly.
“Mine too,” said Joe and this was it.
Getting back to that volleyball match that showed me how strong was Joe in his determination to “correct the wrongs” as he used to say: two or three times a year, our schools – boys and girls – had to compete with two schools from Warren, a nearby town. We always expected them to win. Joe saw the whole thing conspicuous and decided to change the rules of the game, having two boys, one from each school, acting as empires rather than having a certified empire from the other town make the calls. Joe was chosen to be the empire for our schools and the effect was terrific. Joe learned the rules of the game so well that he succeeded to make all the calls during the game. The other empire-boy was reduced to watching the game and agreeing with Joe’s calls. Our mixed team, that appeared to have guts it never showed before kept roaming all over the place and won the first set. The other team seemed to comply.
Then something strange happened. We saw this big guy running towards the volleyball court and shouting and gesticulating wildly. I thought the guy was kind of an official from the other schools for I never saw him around here before. He called out to Joe to get down and kept shouting something I couldn’t hear because I was hundred yards away and because the crowd became suddenly vociferous.
Then the guy took the cornet from Joe’s hand and shouted: This game is annulled because of illegal changes made in the championship rules”. Then we saw Joe taking the cornet in his hand and shouting: “Get out of here! Get out!” right to this guy’s face and then all the teachers began entering the playground and quickly the whole thing became a mess and one could hear Miss Molly’s hysterical voice trying to make order, shouting “Order! Order!” like in a court of justice and the crowd shouting “Cheaters! Thieves!” until the principal climbed up on the empire chair and the crowd got silent.
“We won!” he said, and then he addressed the big guy: “Let the kids work it out between themselves, for now! We’ll discuss the rules after this game is over. If what you say is correct we’ll have to reschedule the game some other time!”
He made though a compromise and allowed the big guy to stand behind Joe and watch his calls. With the principal standing still on the other side of the ground, things got back under control. At the end though, everybody was shouting so loud that you couldn’t understand what Joe was saying. The cheerleaders were screaming and I remember laughing at the whole mess and feeling dizzy.
Where did Joe’s guts come from? One would be always surprised by his sudden faith in himself. It wouldn’t last though. That day we won the match. Of course, it got officially invalidated, because Joe wasn’t a certified empire. But now, that Joe completed his act, he went back to his withdrawn self. This was his boyish class, a class by itself. He surely knew how to play big roles. Whenever he went back to himself he didn’t talk too much.
Mom said, at the moment she saw Joe: “Something is bothering him, like a bad thing he’s waiting to happen”. For her there was always something wrong with him.
She would have liked to give Joe the same advice she always gave me: be modest, like anybody else, try less and be open to events. Nothing wrong is going to happen if you don’t make it happen.
Joe would have taken her advice in the wrong way, anyway. Like on that day when he wanted to prove that he could break a window glass with one punch without getting hurt! We went that day past the ruins of the old Catholic church that burned down to its very foundation a couple of years ago. Nobody ever figured out if it was a thunderbolt that got it or arson. The house next to it was abandoned because the owner thought that the burned church was a bad omen.
That day, we all went there, six of us plus Laura, to watch Joe showing off. We even ran bets on it. Laura was jumping up and down and applauding. Anyway, we were supposed to have fun. Once there, we looked at Joe preparing for his showcase. He’d charge his arm mocking a punch hit, and then he’d wait a moment, and try it again. Eventually he was pleased with his exercise. He swayed his punch for the last time and then hit the window glass forcefully.
First, I heard an awful scream and I saw Joe’s arm bleeding, caught between the sharp spikes of the shattered window. The spikes were so close that it made difficult for him to pull his hand out. Laura was screaming and trembling like a leaf. It was horrible to watch Walter trying barehanded to break the spikes to free Joe’s arm. Joe showed always character when it came to suffering and pain. Some small whiter traces of skin scratched that day would remain visible on Joe’s arm for the rest of his life.
Just to have an idea how Joe was those days I’d have to continue this story to its real ending. Next day after the accident, Joe called Walter who then fetched me, and as we got to Joe’s house he told us that he could prove to us that he could do it. Walter didn’t want to hear about it. And, honestly, I was tired of Joe’s gimmicks.
“Don’t worry!” Joe would say. “Yesterday I had a bad day! Maybe because Laura was there, who knows?” Eventually I had to go back with him and Walter to that dreadful place again.
Walter kept repeating: “Be careful!” as if what he said could have helped Joe to perform better. I knew in advance what was going to happen and I couldn’t loosen up at the idea that we’d have to escort Joe to the hospital. And then how were we going to explain to our parents what happened? And then we’d have to live through the scandal that will break loose once we got back to school… Then, what about Joe’s dad whom everybody called Mr. Emerson, who didn’t like us, and who’d call us names, as if we were responsible for Joe’s acts, etc.
That day, though, Joe’s demeanor was different. He kept balancing his arm back and forth, saying: “I’ll show you! It’s a matter of mechanics! You’ll see!” All of a sudden he punched the window glass. “Wonderful! Isn’t it?” he gasped. Obviously, Joe was enjoying himself. As he hit the window the shattered glass fell almost entirely off the frame.
“That’s the trick! Like Houdini!”
Walter put Joe’s success on the cotton band Joe was wearing over yesterday’s cuts. He’d say that the cotton acted as an absorbent of the punch and helped distributing the shattering force uniformly!
Joe was yelling and screaming, calling it: “Bull! That’s bull! You’re jealous! You just have to hit it with a centered punch, as perpendicular as possible, to get the whole thing smashed. The hole gets bigger when you hit the glass in a perfect perpendicular way”.
On the next window, used for yesterday’s bragger, you could still see a bit of Joe’s bloodied skin, hanging.
Joe turned to me: “Nice, huh?” He was sucking his finger. One of his yesterday’s scratches bled.
“Nice, okay! But I didn’t see the purpose of it!” said Walter. “Was it worth anything, like, was it knowledge like worth what you did? It didn’t mean a thing! It was worthless!”
“It wasn’t worthless,” insisted Joe. “It was a challenge! It was worth accepting a challenge and being a victor at it. The worst thing that could happen with every challenge is that you lose or you die. I drew up a list of challenges I’d like to risk taking. One of them is not to fear death. And not to fear life either! It is like being ready to take risks”.
Joe looked elated. We knew at that time that whatever Joe was going to do he’d be a winner or he was going to come out fine, as he did today, no matter what.
Walter was skeptical but we knew that he was a pussy. That’s how he was. I think I was a pussy too. But I’d stay on to watch the full drama. Walter would disappear whenever he felt something we’re doing was not going to turn out okay. You could see him and his older sister Gwendolyn, walking through the park on Sundays. Walter was holding his mom’s hand, dependent on her caress and sort of a damn elegant British boy, while Gwen was holding her dad’s arm.
Gwendolyn had a lisp that inspired Joe to call her Gwendolisp. It made Walter mad whenever…
I liked Gwendolyn though she was two years older than all of us. Otherwise, Walter’s family was a comfortable cocoon for a prince like baby that Walter was and that’s the way he was going to grow up and die.
Joe grew up differently, squeezing his lips to kill “his instinct of crying” as he’d confess lately, and becoming the one who wouldn’t like to show emotions whatsoever. This was his ideal. But then, Joe’s family, what a colorful crowd it was? His father, a 6ft 7” body, the tallest man in town though his small head made him look shorter. Then Uncle Bob, fifteen years younger than Mr. Emerson, the most generous Uncle, Joe used to say, and a dreadful womanizer, whose victims were always women whom a normal man would call close relatives. And then Joe’s mom, Ellen, who was the most beautiful woman around, and a certified beauty queen!
As far as my life went, I remember mom, of course, stuffing the dough with potato and fried onions, the first telephone installed in my room and the first color TV when it got switched on, the upsurge of American consciousness held back by fear and cowardliness, the McCarthy’s witch hunt. Then, of course, my childhood swarmed with aunts and Uncles as anybody else’s. That’s the only way one feels that his family is institutionalized.
Long time ago Dad built a genealogical tree to prove that our family tree had roots in Jura, a Scottish island, from which Lord Galosh emerged. Around the year 1824 the name got re-spelled, and became a stamp on the Great Commonwealth map, as Jaleshwar, a village in the Indies. Mom always got caught in those interminable arguments about our ancestors. She thought that acknowledging royal stuff on the American soil was kind of creepy.
“Get back to your senses, we’re just middle class Americans,” she’d say. One of my Uncles, Tim Banjos Chamberlain Jalesh, suffered dearly because of Mr. McCarthy. Uncle Tim Banjos was an idiot and I guarantee you that. And none of his neurons thought in any leftist way. He always looked to me as if he lived at the bottom of his life. He wouldn’t have any room to fall further. After he saw Dad’s designed family tree he became fanatic about the idea that we were aristocrats. Whenever he came to see Dad he’d supply him with new information about Lord Galosh. To me he looked more and more like a freak.
The illusion of aristocracy – more destructive than a poisonous drug…
“Nobody wants to change his soul or his body or his brain,” he used to say. “What about blood? As far as blood is concerned I’d like mine to be blue”.
Dad asked him why he doesn’t move to Scotland.
“To be what?” he asked. “A Scottish bastard?” His best years of life got pissed away on cars extravaganzas and women, until that fatal day when he lost his front teeth in a car accident. He was a changed man after that; he felt neglected by friends and of no use to his wife. One of his best words of “honor-kind-of-a-saying” was: either you give a diamond to a woman to show her respect or you kick her in the ass.
He couldn’t stand the “indifference” as a feeling: “Indifference throws a man’s soul sideways”. In loud terms he was pointing to any of us. Then another saying was: “We are alike when we have to beg. When we have to get we’re different”.
His wife Esther was like a pink-wrinkled doll: “I couldn’t get the one-two dance right,” she’d complain. Those were times when old women would take tango classes. Evita’s craze? Uncle Tim accompanied her to Buenos Aires. (Relationship strictures in a discussion about women and their dependency on dance: “You’re still thinking in American terms,” she told him. “Argentina is a land of passion!”).
Tim thought that Esther, at her age (43 years old, probably more) had remained the same misguided girl he used to know before they got married. Though, he sensed that, once in Argentina, Esther’s soul, as he knew it, disappeared in a vacuum and reappeared there as something else, a strange pink creature made out of candy and fashioned like a doll that had to live on its own. He couldn’t stand it.
“It wasn’t a real thing, nevertheless!” he’d try to explain. Esther was flirting with Argentineans male dancers while Tim kept being as he ever was, a reliable husband wearing oversized dentures. Esther had a genuine sense of her value when she danced tango. She glanced at times sideways to watch the movers and tossed a flattened smile towards Tim to show that she was still his. Suddenly Tim understood that even Esther, so committed to accepting maturity with an open mind, didn’t want to get older.
Then, of course, my Aunt Clarita was among those relatives that impersonated outsiders. She’d like to show to all of us that her life was fundamentally different than ours:
“Family shouldn’t be like the need of all of us to respect some customs which we don’t want to be aware of”. Mom used to call her an extremist: “Why don’t you go to see a shrink?”
Then lastly, my Aunt Augusta and her husband which I refused to call “Uncle”. She met him in a small Brazilian town called Jales. She thought that due to the name similarity with our Scotish roots it was meant to be. I heard that he puts her body up as collateral for some risky business.
“Love is a game” her husband used to say. “Some win, others lose”. Or: “I did this for you darling,” he’d say. Two centuries ago they’d have to bet a pair of boots for their women. Now it’s a cards & drugs games, or stocks & bonds or acres of rain forest in Brazil. That’s what turned Aunt Augusta’s tiny love upside-down.
“No more bodily stripping, no more sexual exploitation”. She turned to motherly companionship with a boy half her age.
“When they are together they talk, they blush together”. Though, she discovered lately the security that comes from being part of a large family. “
“Augusta doesn’t have any body parts of hers left untouched by sex and there is more to be said about what illnesses she might have caught meanwhile, I’m sure you know, though I always agreed that she should be accepted as an equal member of our family. At one time or another we all do or try what she did. Thanks God, in our time nobody had to use a rubber. But I think she got something. You get a hint if you catch her while she’s scratching herself”.
Aunt Augusta, who had a heart of gold, confessed to mom, (and I remember hearing that) that she had an affair with the School counselor. She told mom that she didn’t want to go as far as it usually goes. She thought it was just a flirtation. “I teased him!” she said. “But then he became violent, and, you know how Latinos are, he banged the shit out of my pussy…” Aunt Augusta seemed impressed. The School counselor retired in 1968. By then my aunt’s story became kind of a Cio-Cio-San story. That she’d have to get pregnant with a Latino became the obsession that kept her life going.
Now that she passed away her “cardinal secret”, as she used to call it, will hang about forever blurred and foggy. Giving birth to a new race was her desire. Being American was her fatigue. The day Aunt Esther left for Argentina I heard Aunt Augusta saying: “What a woman (that is a cheap imitation of sainthood) can do out there? She can’t lay her hand on anything”.
The doors of my brain are now widely open: you can read it or write on it as you please. Otherwise, what I hate to remember is that I worked like a dog doing my homework, that I resolved all my school assignments or I found a way to avoid failures by veering around them in order to become what my parents wanted - a good lawyer. I’d have preferred to be a draftsman like my father, but I couldn’t draw a straight line. But hey! There is a whole world waiting for lawyers to suck up people’s money. People don’t really know where they’re at with a lawyer. They’re waiting for something to happen so that they could go to their lawyer. It’s like a check-up with their doctor. A legal check-up! As far as my life went I knew that nothing dramatic could ensue. I made my life predictable.
On the most fortunate side of this story, Walter would become a capitalist, owner of two fancy restaurants and of a modest joint near the train station.
“With restaurants – you know what you could expect. You go through a lot of trouble finding waiters and a good chef” Walter would say. Then you’re in business! “Food, one bank on!” was the label Walter’s restaurants were running ads on. “What else is more important than becoming very materialistic when playing with ideals”, he’d defend himself. And of course, what used to be those ideals? Nobody could guess. “The least important aspect of the human life on Earth is its allegiance to an ideology or religion, or to a system of thought. They are all perishable!” he used to boast.
Though Walter deserved unmediated praise for his books and critical essays on Joe’s writings, despite the fact that Walter’s name on the cover was written in bigger caps than Joe’s. One could see there how he used to stamp his ego.
Well, his restaurants are gone now. The last dinner I had there seems still memorable: ten littleneck clams, two spring potatoes sliced in four, sprinkled with olive oil and a pinch of stir fried young garlic, 1 bay leaf, 1/8 coarsely ground pepper and fresh blue Swiss bread. No more soufflé, no more gateaux.
Eating in town became catastrophic. On the other hand, Walter’s books are out of print. Susan, his wife, is a celebrated widow. I saw her twice standing in the official rostrum, elbow to elbow with the new young black mayor, watching the 4th of July fireworks.
(Erotic locale: the mayor kissing Susan’s hand, a long kiss at the expense of her patience. Her lips stretched apart in a nervous angle: “Don’t be stupid,” she says, “People are looking at us”).
Nonetheless, people understand that the mayor is the law and order in this town. He made it to the top without losing his head; hence he wasn’t going to lose it there on the official rostrum. Would anybody remember how life was when we all were alive and well?
Susan won’t talk about it. “It looks like yesterday!” She wouldn’t talk about Walter either who has been dead for two years already. Next, she won’t talk about what she does nowadays or about what she doesn’t. Then all of a sudden she’d talk: “I could tell you something that will make you throw up, if you promise not to say anything to Lilly. One day I set out to explore the attic. I found a chest filled with all sort of boxes, mostly Walter’s old courses, handouts and notebooks. I thought I heard Walter talking to me from his grave so I had to mix the two prayers I knew to keep searching. Well, and what I discovered? That Walter lied almost about everything to me.
One of his journal’s notes says that his life with me was boring. He then says that our marriage was like playing tag with a girl. Well, he started this game even before we got married. He writes full pages about a woman named Alice, who knows who she is, and then about his affair with Lilly that happened just before we wed. Did you know that Lilly got pregnant? And that it was Walter’s baby?”
I said “No! That’s impossible!” “Now all these” she continued, ”are behind me and I can look at my life with clear eyes. I don’t give a damn shit anymore that he lied to me. But I feel sorry that all this time after he died I prayed for him to go to Heaven. I hope he went to Hell! And I can’t be sorry anymore that I don’t want to talk about him now that he is no more…” Her voice was chocking. She called Walter “a lone assassin!”
“For me,” she continued, “Love was a matter of life and death. I mean life wasn’t simple when Walter was here. He was very demanding, fat and noisy. I didn’t care less. I’d rather be unhappy with Walter, I thought, than happy with anybody else… And look what he did to me!”
Every single day from the past lives in the mess of my head, waiting for the proper time to resurface. I wish I could put some order in my life as I remember it. I know that I should have started with my early childhood and gradually get to this point in time where truth meets life and vice versa. Some of my old memories are so blurred that I have to reinvent them. Still, they spring out messy.
“That’s how a grown up’s life is: an illusion without guidance!” Mom used to say. She meant life wasn’t anymore the way it used to be, that it became unreliable. There are too many people living around at one time. More people means added fateful days. Though, they’re not too many fateful days that I could recall. People yes! I wish I could remember them in a roll call, despite the fact that memories never surface in the alphabetical order.
Joe is there with his so damn complicated personality, grinning in agony, with his black and blue eye he got from Zech. “What’s the point of befriending the weak?” Zech would have said. Our principal used to treat the bad guys almost affectionately though he protected Joe against Zech. I feel like I could finish up this story of our youth on one page. Then the Vietnam War would follow. As we all tried to discard it as unimportant it became bloody. I had to look at those horrible pictures showing soldiers with their heads cut off to understand that life was not okay.
Joe came back home as an anonymous witness of a tragedy that he tried not to talk about. He wouldn’t ever acknowledge if it were a defeat or a victory. He couldn’t swallow defeat anyway.
“What can I do? To put history on trial?” he’d say. After the war he became bashful: a messy exit, that’s what the war would end like. Joe mind was a mess also. One day he’d make up horrible stories he played a part into, the next day he’d deny any wrong doings.
“That’s what we need now: a new wave of lies!” Those times Lilly was still thinking that Joe - her life-size love – was her potential husband and she thought that their lives were the natural continuation of that beginning, when they were unofficially recognized as the first sweetheart couple sprouting from the junior high school embryonic jam. Then she saw Joe sinking deeper and deeper into his depressive withdrawal:
“We were still happy. If I looked at others, everybody got lost in some family scheme… We stayed together against all odds”.
“Lilly leans too much on Joe,” Walter would complain. Slowly life moved outside Joe’s range.
“This is my most unfulfilled desire, that I didn’t marry Joe!” she’d say. Joe always said that his priorities were Philosophy, fist, and then realization. The whole world was on the outside perfect. In his most secret thoughts the idea that he was going to die young didn’t exist.
“He was such an ego maniac!” Lilly would say. Lilly is still laying out her future as a single woman, thinking of Joe. As teens we learned a few things, too few to be valuable in real life, like the sweetheart love that proves to be immortal. Lilly still talks about her “co-marriage” with Joe, trying to invent a new concept: nothing else could have taken place, she says, but this, though it never happened.
In a conversational mood Lilly thinks that regardless how principled a life might seem to others there are always confidences to be made, and she’d refrain to make any public statement about Joe’s responsibility for the mess in her life.
Strained meanings: “If it wasn’t Joe, someone else would have done it. It was my fate!” She tells me about how she sees our lives, what each of us did wrong: her story sounds totally different than mine. Up to a point of course. “It always got from bad to worse. No matter what I did!” She is turning her senses off, even when she weeps in search for some compassion much needed.
She usually reenacts her last period in their life, Joe’s return from Vietnam and how it evolved towards that horrible ending. A wasted time! Some kind of anomaly! She looked at me and her eyes got hazy: “He wanted to possess us, to overwhelm us, to see us on our knees, begging for his attention and love”.
That was Joe’s fantasy in Lilly’s view. “You’re still so damn connected to the past”, I said.
“Not true! I killed all my memories. It’s like Joe never existed. But let’s be honest: what about you and Beth?” She thought that what Joe and Beth had in common was that they remained for the rest of their lives the same misguided characters that we knew during the high school years. Lately, as Beth’s portrait emerged as the most negative ingredient to this story, Lilly got her revenge:
“She was such a phony!”, she said.
I thought Beth’s case was different than Joe’s.
“She tried to seduce everybody around, including Joe,” Lilly added.
I remembered how Beth looked after high school: an attractive, though chubby, Marilyn Monroe. A young and beautiful woman in search of an insulation love! A fragile woman who would live her short daily life and then die on her way back home! She used to cross her legs like a model, gently, as if her legs belonged to some kind of photo ritual: weightless legs. It suggested more haunting desire than she could put up with. She wore a dress that would have wrecked the Paris fashion trend: a baroque dress covering every patch of skin, wrapped in a neck scarf left to fall unevenly on her two or so breasts. The only compromise was a cut above her knees that was for me a clear invitation to the opposite sex. And, between her breasts, a bloody ruby hanging on an invisible chain played the role of a sexual counterpoint. Now I could see her whole image in its true colors.
These were Beth’s morals written in bloody lines: “Intelligent people take advantage of other people’s raw desires”.
Her mom liked to tell to every new audience how she gave birth to Beth in an elevator. Babies born in elevators don’t develop a conscience like ordinary babies do. And they have an elevated esteem that makes them vulnerable. That was not what I would have expected!
People used to talk dirty about her, that she was a frivolous heart with an ice-cold mind. She didn’t care much about what people said about her. Her frail voice had that touch of a sentimental hysteria that makes women interesting subjects for psychoanalyses:
“Why would I care? Why do I care?” Even now as I look at her portrait I see her being just a simple neurotic girl trying to seduce the passer byes with a desolate smile. I would step for the rest of my life on this thought that seem painful:
“How could she…” “An empty soul/The cause of it all!” She was the charming gangster; I was the gullible victim. Today she is still going strong, shouting, bickering, and racing into the night of her brain. She can’t take pity of herself. Why would she? She threw her parents into the oven and got loaded with money. Life could look at her just as the haste of a hyena to get more from those who died.
Mom asked me one day: “What’s so worthy to you when it comes to this woman?” Though, she panicked when we first separated. Katharine, Beth’s mom, would recall happy memories like her daughter’s communion, when she wore white – such a candid portrait - and the moment when she kissed me in front of so many people.
“You robbed her of her virginity, remember?” and continued: “I wasn’t an angel either, though Pecks would never let our marriage alone…” Beth was weeping and that’s what made Katharine believe that she was still genuinely in love with me.
“I don’t know, she didn’t tell me anything, like that she was unhappy or that something was wrong between you guys. But I felt that she was holding something back,” said Katharine.
And Mom would insist: “You used to be so much in love with her! A man should tolerate some moods in a woman. Men have other needs; their character is straight… You should show some strength! You trust each other…”
Katharine was sitting there in her chair, saying nothing, holding her tears, thinking that what was obvious could be overlooked: poor Katharine! I knew when she got scared: her hollow eyed face would get dark and she’d move her lips in and out trying to control her emotions.
“Things look so bad,” she said, “you never know if this divorce is not the better solution of all”.
She began to cry asking for Mom’s consent. Long quiet moments bring uneasiness, so Mom nods: “Yes, I think so!”
“Is it true that you slapped her because she cheated on you?” Beth’s mom asked.
I told her that I was far from being a brutal man.
Her aunt Ethel, who sat two chairs away, clutching to her gentle memory exclaimed: “Beth is so flimsy! One day when she was a teenage girl of course her dad held her tightly squished on the bed edge and used his belt to tie her down. She was crying like a sheep. That time her dad was so brutal because she drank a lot. It was all about a boy he forbade her to see. When he touched Beth he turned into a doomed man for me. Then he’d be cranky the whole daylong; I never understood why he was so hard on her. Most likely because he drunk like a pig! She befriended this neighbor Japanese boy with whom she’d drink rice brandy and eat rice cookies. She started to look like him. Closely… He couldn’t get his eyes fixed. They could have been good buddies if there wasn’t that cultural gap, which Beth’s dad used to call cultural Jap. Remember? Maybe that’s why she cheats to revenge those moments of cultural inadequacy”.
For me the divorce was kind of a mental hardship: ”How can it be that all of a sudden somebody could relieve himself of feelings that were so much alive short time ago?” A divorce is a mind-boggling disaster of the mind. When it happened I felt like being separated from the whole world. “It’s from lack of contradictions!” I thought. People live with each other and eat and drink and make love and kill each other. A routine thing, don’t you think? People should do whatever they want guilt free. Love is something redeemable if one doesn’t feel the cursing of a deep hatred once it is gone. Even a passionate and high-tempered woman like Lilly couldn’t understand how it happened that I became fascinated with “this empty character: Beth”.
“It’s amazing to think that we all go one day. Some people are obedient – just waiting to see it and endure whatever is happening nevertheless; when their time is up they die. Then, no matter how you see it, for instance, that your life was lived correctly or not… Even the most virtuous, the ideal of you, has to die. And everything else will die with you. At that last moment, you look around and without saying it, you don’t understand!”
And even if one dared to write down how we were then and there, our lives would still disappear like a soap bubble in the hot air. Death, a deaf infinite but a minuscule dark reality! Everyone gets used to the thought of death. But to die, to go… literally… that isn’t so easy. Eventually a lifeless moment gets a replay, like the day when Beth and I swore that we’d take care of one other’s last wishes: “If I die I want you to do something that may sound awful… I want you to cremate me, my whole body, except my heart. I want you to keep my heart locked in a silver box, like they did with the regent in France. Gradually it will dry to the size of a peanut so you could carry it with you”. But, after people die there is nothing one can talk about it. Some condolences, if any…
And the time cannot be held captive to stop it from becoming history. As time runs it turns into past! What I’d like now is to live my life one more time, or just a day from my past, any day, to know about things that are bound to happen and smile. Not to care about future for a whole day!
That’s not possible, I know that! Katharine would have liked it too. She went away in a satin covered casket that was set aside before she was thrown into the oven. “Why satin?” she’d have asked. “Isn’t it expensive?”
The funeral house employees cleaned her body with isopropyl alcohol and dressed her body with a simple white cotton dress. “Did they put her favorite silk panties on?” They might have kept the panties for another body. They wash the body in a low bathtub before rubbing it with isopropyl alcohol. The bathtub is designed this way on purpose. Some funeral houses use an iron stand board instead. They lay the body onto it and then shower it all around looking for hidden holes or dimples that need special care.
Nobody cares that the puddle of water that forms under the iron stand board might be a collection item for family members. “This is the water we collected while washing your mom’s body!” Alaskan spring water? Why not? Those people work the same way as we do: any job is a routine, a habitual run from doing things proper, running from responsibility.
“How am I sure that this is that water and not some flushing water you’re selling me for gold?” Did anybody checked if the ashes sent by the funeral house were in fact the ashes of whatever parent or grandparent burned to ashes over there? The funeral houses might turn the real bodies into cosmetics and send you a container filled with sequoia tree ashes instead.
Life is like marmalade, old fruits melted together to create a new taste. Then, there is how one markets it. “Life is marketing”, Joe used to say. Lilly would comment: “Life is marketing. It is true also for love!” Certainly most lives have this in common. Sometimes it is even worse. The smell and the taste… It may knock you out! A smell that forces one to hold one’s nose… And then the heat and the steam bursting out of the town’s sewers comes to tickle your nose. This morning I saw white rats around the old school building. No wonder the pizza parlor from its vicinity went bankrupt, I thought. As I walked by, they dashed straight to their holes. I called the Health Dept. I had to fill out a complaint, etc. They said that the rats are coming for sure from the school’s chemical lab.
Things aren’t the same, we aren’t the same, you aren’t the same, and they aren’t the same. I should be proud of my declination. Yesterday morning, my aunt, Jeannine began complaining about her swollen feet: gout! She called it arthritis, a new word to me. Her illness wasn’t obvious to whoever happened to sit around: some people didn’t want to know, though they showed that they know about it already. My aunt never complained about anything before and everybody outside the immediate family thought that she was okay.
“The primal urge I have is to squash my feet against the wall”, she says. “When I was young I could crack a water melon between my legs. But then I could crack between my legs a whole male pretender. I used to wear pointed shoes then. I can’t do any stuff like that anymore. The pain and the nausea... Sometimes the pain is so bad that it makes me urinate in my panties. I have to move, I have to walk, and I have to dance…” Her discourse made out of echoes. Two echoes: “I’d better die! I want to die!”
I’d just sit there, petrified, listening to her, my heart racing like mad: “Don’t die!” I’d beg her. More and more she felt that she’s losing the ground she owned. “But I can’t let myself go; I still have memories I had to deal with, some unresolved matters. One of the most painful memories that she’d never forget is when she left her mom alone on the white balcony of the nursing home for she didn’t want to put up with her talk a bit more. She was so delicate, a thin creature that couldn’t carry a cup of tea without fainting. In the last months she shrunk so much that Jeannine would call her “my little Mermaid”. That made her laugh... Then her mom would indulge herself in sensational tale telling about some bike race around South-Point that she was part of, long time ago, maybe sixty years ago or even more, which she felt was an awkward way for the big girls “that they wanted to compete with the boys”.
That day it rained and the sky was so gray and foggy that you couldn’t see the hill from the start line. Jeannine couldn’t understand how that event became her mom’s most incurable memory: “I saw those boys lined up in the rain, and as we came they left us go in front of them, laughing, especially Ganglia and Herbert, though some of them kept being serious and protective, but anyway most of them laughed, and I remember hearing the pistol crack and I saw the emotional despair of the other girls eager to inhale more oxygen so they could start rolling”.
What she wanted now was to see a picture of that event, for she was sure that somebody took a picture of it, and she remembered that she must have put it in the family album behind another photo, that’s why Jeannine couldn’t find it. That race was the most significant event of her life, that she mistakenly believed she didn’t win because of that nasty boy, Ganglia, who waited between Herbert and Martinez and then when he dashed to reach the finish line he touched her foot which made her fall. If she could look one more time at that photo she’d be able to confirm that it was Ganglia’s fault and not hers. Or Hebert’s…
“I was there; I still can smell his funny sweat when he passed the finish line, in front of me, that stupid boy, who thought that I had to lose that race to him because he was a boy. He left the town and went to live somewhere in Vermont and nobody heard a thing about him ever since. Then for a while boys and girls were at each other’s throat. Everybody took offense but none of them seemed to be burdened the way I was shaken by that race”. Her mind seemed like trapped in this event. To make her stop thinking about that race Jeannine had to tell her again and again stories about how her plants were doing and how her friend Elisabeth got married for the sixth time, “What a roundabout whore!” her mom would have commented, etc.
Though, besides the bike race there were some intricate matters that she’d never discuss. Such as the fact that she got rid of her female-cat for she didn’t have any energy left to take care of others, while she couldn’t take care of herself. She went today to see how her female-cat was doing at ASPCA. Strangely enough her name was Monk! That’s the name my aunt Jeannine used on the adoption form. She instructed the worker, at least she thought that’s what she did, and “correct me if I’m wrong, but these cats don’t wear socks and it is so cold on this cement floor that they’d die for sure!”
Piles of feline fresh asleep, one on top of the other, as if the cold weather made them weightless! Complying with her civil rights my aunt wanted to talk to the manager. “It’s my choice” she said, “I want my pussy-cat back! Did you hear? I want her back!” That’s what she wanted to do; there was no other alternative but this, she’ll take her back and she’ll see… She was sitting on a spare chair with her feet up to ease her pain: less blood to feed the nerves meant less pain to her brain. As far as the cat went there was no trace of any compromise.
“That’s what you want to do?” asked the manager. “Okay! Take her but don’t bring her back again!” That’s where my aunt’s determination began to fade.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to bring her back in the spring when it is warm…” This was the first sign of weakness and she felt it as a shock of pain in her legs… “Maybe I’d bring you more kittens,” she says. “Pussy has a lover in the next-door apartment”. Of course she’d like to tell the manager a story, how she saw Monk in love, surrounded by cats moving on all directions in rounds, courting her. Once back home she pushed the windows wide open; she couldn’t stand Monk’s new smell. She also had quarantine Monk for her shedding hair in the bathroom too! She remembered the ASPCA pile of kittens: “So odd!” she mumbled.
During those old better times I witnessed my aunt waxing her legs while looking at Monk; she’d smile, and assure me that she wouldn’t go to sleep until she’d bath Monk in her French bubble shampoo. Something in her voice made me believe yesterday that she wasn’t okay after all. Today, when Mom called her my aunt’s phone had a busy signal. In the evening Mom decided to go and see how she was doing. She found her drown in the bathtub holding Monk between her legs. Next to the bathtub on a stool there were two pharmaceutical bottles, one labeled “Lyrica”, the other “Phish Oil” and a note avowing her love for Charlton Heston in simple words: “My love for you is astounding, like the antique love of Liz Taylor for Burton in the beautiful movie Cleopatra which I am sure you watch sometime. So long my marvelous Lilly dancer. I screwed up…”
“People don’t commit suicide in real life”, Dad used to say when we watched Ana Karenina, one of his favorite oldies. When the ambulance arrived, I was able to see Aunt Jeannine’s body through the open door: she looked like a crimpled off white shadow, though her legs looked gray-blue. Mom wouldn’t let me get inside the house and kept screaming: “Go and fetch your dad! Bring him here!” Of course I went nowhere. Not long time ago I saw my aunt counting money she kept under her mattress. She looked so healthy and happy to me. And now, it seemed that she was the first one in the race with death; the only race one would like to lose against others.
Though I remember her almost fainting on the church’s steps carrying an Easter wreath. And now she was gone. Then a lawyer employed by Hesston & Willie came to talk to mom. Aunt Jeannine wanted to rest in peace so she had to be resolute about what was going to happen to her possessions after she passed away. Death, as a state of one’s will! Aunt Jeannine had a will, a real will, on which thoughts of the dying are written in small rectangular paragraphs, one after the other.
Mom complained that there were too many papers to be signed. “The Persian blue carpet” was to be auctioned ($25,000 estimated value); same the silverware, that she took a meticulous care of, though those tiny teeth marks from the time she was a baby may lessen their sale price to a trickle ($10,000). The money accrued from the auction would have to be put into a trust fund used to provide grants for students involved in research to cure arthritis.
The Japanese dishes were to be given to her friend Claudine (who lived somewhere in Switzerland). In case she couldn’t be located, they were to be given as a gift to Mr. Emhart Bloom who expressed interest in buying them. The will was just too ambiguous to mom. Aunt Jeannine left me all her books, and there were hundreds, all leather bound with filigree letters in gold and a monogram: JP (Jeannine Period).
Next day after the burial I heard mom quarrelling with Mr. Bloom in front of my door, shouting kind of obscene stuff: “Such a small price for the most precious item on sale!” she was screaming. “She was really proud of her Japanese dishes! She inherited them from her dad, you know! Her dad was crazy about Japanese stuff. She was convinced that the Japanese would win the war and that Zen would be taught in the American schools. When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima he bled, he bled so hard that day…”
Mr. Emhart Bloom was an old man walking his days in a terrible shape, but still, mentally healthy enough to get a good deal. “The price you’re giving is more than a theft!” mom said. As she tried not to give in, she kept gyrating on the bar stool with which she put up for so many years until she caught her finger in its springs and screamed: “Oh!” When Mr. Emhart Bloom heard her scream he offered to buy the dishes by doubling his initial price offer. Mom shouted then: “Sold!”
This morning I felt clean, sane and detached from any worries. As far as my future was concerned I was okay. Young people are obviously more concerned about present as opposed to old people. Mom, exceeding her usual ardor brought me coffee and cookies. I heard her scratching at the door. Every morning the same ritual: she knows that I cannot stomach noises so she is whispering: “Joe I tried to wake you up this morning, twice!” Then she leaves the room and comes back and shows me a bundle of papers: a waste bag filled with forgotten poems and short stories. I see mom watching my reactions. That’s nothing to laugh about failures. “Throw them in the garbage,” I say. “Wow! You don’t have vanities any more,” she says. “That’s good!”
She thought I was gambling with my future waiting in too long a line for a position at Lobe & Liable Company. “A judge robe will fit you well!” Meanwhile life sets traps.
I tried to remember Joe’s story while looking at it from this middle point of my life, when, every one of us, whom I’ll talk about, was still alive and fairly well. First of all: a life is not a long story. It has a few twists and turns but, in fact, it’s a shoddy anecdote to be told. By adding a melodramatic note here and there the story becomes kind of an epitaph. Though, one’s life has to have some weirdness to deserve to be told. Joe won this centerfold contest. It was between him and Walter though, since I couldn’t find anything interesting in my life to make it part of a published story.
Joe would have started his biography with his family portrayal: “My father, Mr. Leonard Emerson, is a master salesman of committal papers (life insurance policies); Mom, Ellen, is working for Popular Bank Ltd. as a clerk and she is also a helpless romantic gardener”. Still smiling at countless family arguments? One’s extended family seems always made out of dishonest and harassing people.
“Life is an alien rap” was Joe’s dad’s axiom. He was taken as a polished man as long as he stood within his insurance business when telling stories. Whenever he talked he’d reuse some school “student” style (or idiom, if you wish) while getting into subjects like history or anatomy: “History? I hated it! Also I didn’t like anatomy. History did a lot of damage to lots of people. Vietnam War for instance: Whoever started it wouldn’t have a single bit of remorse, of course, for what the war did”. Or about anatomy: “What we love sounds commonplace”, he’d say. “Sex is needed otherwise hatred is going to put us ahead of times! War and sex don’t mix easily”. Then, there was Joe’s most generous Uncle, Robert Lassoing, or simple Uncle Bob, using his erect talk to molest any unresolved personality that dared to move around.
Then there was my Aunt Clarita who married Joe’s Uncle Bradley, (does it mean that Joe and I are cousins?) making me believe that somehow the whole world was interrelated. Aunt Clarita was a spoiled form of a well-dressed mentality wearing her pathetic and bittersweet voice while announcing her entrance; a compulsive loud talker interjecting everybody with a “Hey!” She lacked a certain age but appeared old enough if you gazed straight in her glazed eyes. She was just telling a fabricated story, which she said, was her own about man incapacity to surrender to only one woman’s love. Everybody sensed that time that she was madly in love with Charlton Heston.
Her eyes seemed so fixed on this idea: a dark glance into the man’s soul. She thought of becoming a body language teacher, which was odd. “Every seer dog has his/her own blind spots”, she’d say about those who thought they knew enough to guide other people’s life. “If people could learn how to move their body to express ideas…”
Uncle Bob would gossip that Aunt Clarita succeeded to help some young humorless people regain their sexuality: obviously a body language was involved…” Soon after those gossips faded away people began watching Aunt Clarita. What they were saying was that she was going crazy. It was strange, they said, how she stays on the porch all day long smiling at little flying things invisible to others. When she failed to use logic to utter sentences people thought that she was just playing dumb. She’d say that she could put out of sight her logical thinking in order to help one reach some higher reality. By the end of this story a schizoid virus would infect her and make her act wildly: the ferments of one’s mind distil poisons. The truth is that her last unhappy love drew her to madness. What went wrong there? Her mind turned out not to be an independent thing after all. She couldn’t put her brain together once more. There was no warning: some fuzzy mystical thoughts and then the mental void. Unhappiness: she couldn’t take it anymore!” Her last logical statement: “Few things are more foreign to me than my own life”. After she said that her mind immediately evaporated.
Aunt Clarita called Joe a perfect baby. Of course, nothing seemed to be perfect from the very beginning. Even Joe’s name came to be chosen from a comical roster: there was a concert at the church given by the chamber boys from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The poster said: “Classical music: Johan Sebastian Bach!” As Ellen read it she exclaimed: “I never knew that Bach’s first name was Johan”. Everybody laughed. And rather then call her son Johan she decided to call him Joe. “Prince” was Uncle’s Bob favorite name. “Blue-Boy” was Aunt Clarita’s favorite, as she tried to refer to some blue blood lineage Joe might have inherited from his mom, Ellen Period Cole, who was a direct descendant from De Sade-Period family.
Then there were other funny names like “Joe +” or “Joe Max” which was Joe’s mom’s golden joke. When Joe was only one year old he learned how to whisper. People around him would bend to listen to his whisper. Then he surprised everybody when he developed breathing troubles; he’d swallow the wrong way and have that jackass cough that kept the whole house awake; and then he’d jerk like a dog in sleep. Joe’s mom thought that he couldn’t breathe normally because he was too busy doing other things during his sleep: “Too much awareness! That’s what scares me! When you’re much aware, you can’t live your life… Too much awareness is like taking poison mixed with sweets in large quantities… My boy is going to suffer a lot until he’d eventually learn to become practical…”
Walter’s house, that is, “Fritz’s mansion”, was only two blocks further down the street, a huge gray and stony house surrounded by a stone wall and an adjacent fence, made out of tall and thin pines touching the roof with their crowns. Two corrugated gates acted like a curtain in front of a driveway, covered for as long as I remember, with brown pine needles and red weeds. There was that rumor, that during Halloween, people have seen ghosts and crows mating on the roof of the house. Fritzmenshs lived there. They lived behind huge hardwood doors, always closed, and drawn down blinds.
The mansion was the most beautiful house in town. In front of the house there were four five feet Tiffany like orange lampposts that everyone in the town envied. If you waked by the house at night you could see the orange lights palpitating in the water of the two round-shaped fountains flanking the driveway. The house was now just a wreck. “Time doesn’t come to linger around and as it goes it kills”, Mom used to say. Another thing mom used to say which doesn’t have anything to do with this story was, “In the uniform flight of the air the times’ jerky movements create unfathomable waves…!”
Though, it seemed so, the roof of the house was well preserved and the pine needles gathered by the window most likely made the same squeaky sounds as they did a century ago. Walter was born here. The day he saw the dawn light through a crack in the blinds, the wind suddenly stopped roaming, so, Walter’s mom, Veronique, could have a good hour of sleep after giving birth. She knew it was near for she felt the “midget” punching violently her womb walls. As the contractions began Walter snapped out. It took only half an hour! People would gossip about Veronique’s light birth, saying, as all the pharmacists in towncould confirm, that she might have used petroleum oil to ease the boy’s head out.
Walter came into living at 5:30 a.m. when the light just began rolling over the hills surrounding the town. The doctor who attended Walter’s birth was not from our town. He told Veronique that her labor was as natural as a fox’s labor was. Veronique used to say about Walter: I didn’t give birth to a boy. I threw him out! The doctor found odd that the umbilical cord was 26 feet long. “She must have thought to have the boy kept on a leash”.
The news about Walter’s birth got trumpeted for a couple of days as if it was the most important event in the town’s recent history. The main local newspaper published an editorial called “A 26 feet long birth rope”. People were having fun discussing indirectly the events that made possible such an anomaly, and, for days, Veronique urinary tract became a cordial subject in pubs. A rolled up pork gut accompanied by a label saying “Our umbilical cord is even longer” was displayed on one of the pub’s windows as a delicatessen from their Chef’s menu.
After wrapping the boy in white cotton cloth the nurse went into the living room to show him to his dad, Walter. “He is Walter Jr.”, the nurse said, as the baby blinked trying to reach with his red fingers his mouth.
When Walter was born he was a healthy 7.8 pounds boy, a real Viking, as Walter’s father used to say. After only six months he began teaming up with his mother, bubbling, doing simple spelling together, of a(s), o(s) and e(s). That made Veronique emit tiny laughs and made Walter Sr. jump around like a mad elephant. The only mistake Walter parents did was to feed him too much protein so that at the age of two he was so fat that his belly rolled down in layers making him tumble over every piece of junk he wasn’t able to see while running around.
Then there was his hair that his parents let grow without trimming. They both wanted to see Walter growing free and happy so nobody was allowed to control him including his nanny. “I’m Walter Fritzmensh. I think you heard of me!” Walter Jr. used to say when he was only five years old. It was always like that; from the day the ancient Fritzmensh reached the American shores two centuries ago and counting.
To make one understand the difference between these two babies born within an hour interval, Joe and Walter, one has to browse their families’ albums. It’s obvious that when Joe was born the life in the vicinity of the house remained quiet. Walter’s birth changed the whole neighborhood: the huge mansion opened its gate for celebration. To people still asleep in the neighborhood, the early morning (5:30 a.m., for God’s sake) fireworks sounded like unwelcome gunshots. The house façade got a new cream paint. The flowers-bed around the fountains got replanted. People watched the changing world of the Fritzmenshs with interest and envy. The revered heir was going to be a perfect child, of course.
Joe, on the contrary, was going to be the worst boy in town. What is interesting about this early picture taken in the kindergarten is that, I figured out at that time too, that Joe, Walter and I were part of a group. The thought that three people make a group was for me a tremendous discovery at that early age. Even more so, I might include others in this group, whom I’ll introduce later, such as Manuel and Puffy. Manuel showed indulgence to Joe’s excesses while Puffy did not. Manuel would break anybody’s neck to protect Joe for being abused or whatever.
Then there was Vince, who used to sell his lunch sandwich for 25 cents and who was going to be the only one to succeed in politics. And Jessie, his mother’s “wonder”, like the spread on the wonder bread that Jessie kept in a small box and which he picked with one finger during the class. Then, there was this guy who played trumpet, Marty, that we call Marty-The-Brick-House, because he was built like a Texan bovine, who behaved the same way he played basketball, shaking his torso and moving it back into place while making his legs quiver. And so on, and so force.
But wait: Only Walter, Joe and I were serious contenders for a group friendship for life. I don’t really know if Joe was worse than Walter or if I was worse than both of them. Mom always saw something ill in Joe’s attitude. I didn’t! What counts in a friendship is the perception that we, as people, were essentially the same. We used to call ourselves names: Walter was the Bigmouth (BM), Joe was Blah-Blah (BB) or Tempered-Nickel or Dice-Man, and I was the American Leprechaun or AL. I recorded those names in my photo album, which proves that I was ready by then to write this story.
A group of three people works like a charm. That time Laura was out of the picture. Zech brothers were our rivals though they’d come and play with us out of some competitive respect. We’d usually play clay hockey or dice. The old Zech would try to win fast. Usually we’d play all our expense money. Zech would try to steal something from every deal, coming to words especially with Joe. After four hours of playing dice Zech would eventually lose all his money and go berserk. We knew what kind of an animal Zech was.
Next day he was back on his feet, ready to lose more money and quarrel more. Somebody had to mediate a dialog and this was Walter. This would alienate the whole Zech clan and make them bark. Would they win? Difficult to overcome the odds! Joe would let them win waiting for the next turn to rap. Then bang! Poor old Zech, such a jerk… You’d think that he’d never come back to play again. What was he going to do now that he lost again all his money? Old Zech signals to his brother to leave, we rise.
Sometimes it is odd to see tough people being shy. But that may quickly pass: Joe wants to know if Zech would come back tomorrow. They look at each other: “That’s right, tomorrow,” Zech confirms. Walter would say: “It’s time to eat! Who’s buying today?” We’d throw dice onto the near wall to see who was the looser that’ll pay for dinner. Joe, the money grabber wouldn’t pay. At the end of the game he’d say: “I did a good job. I deserve to keep the money”. He was a common cheater but he could blind his thinking whenever he pleased. The dice game got nastier every day. Joe was winning big. Walter talked about probabilities and all that crap and play by rules and loose. Other kids would just sit back and watch. “Doubling is my art!” Joe would say after getting a double.
We were afraid that some freak policeman would pick us up so we asked Larry and Manuel to be the watchdogs. They were supposed to get for their watchdog job 10% from the biggest winner. Of course, Joe always won. Little by little other kids got interested in the game. One of the guys,
Burt told Joe that if he sees anything funny he’s going to take his money back with his scalpel. “I’ll get my money back out of your bowels!” he’d say. Burt couldn’t play for a long time. Every ten minutes he had to go and pee. Joe marveled how on earth such a thin guy makes so much pee in such a short time. While he was away we had to let the thing going. When he got back he’d let first the shivers go – so we knew he wasted a lot of warm stuff in the bush. Then he’d take a short cut throwing the dice while holding them tight between his fingers, which was not permitted, and scream: “Don’t touch them before they stop rolling!” Joe let him win sometimes. He’d start bouncing up and down and shout at the top of his lungs: “Fuck you! Fuck you! Looser! Ha! Gotcha! Shake my dick!”
When he eventually lost everything he had, he’d say: “Impossible! You’re a rat! I’m going to kill you jerk! God! How can you do this to me?” He kept begging Joe to give him half of his weekly allowance back. Joe would say: “Why don’t you shake my dick now, dickhead!” Burt even called Joe’s dad to ask for his money back and was surprised that Mr. Emerson didn’t want to hear anything about it. Joe would cheat always: “No matter how much I win it is never enough!” Usually Walter had more money than most of us. Joe would say, “You lend us today, we’ll borrow from you today!” that sounded like an unsuccessful variant of the local bank’s ad: “Borrow today so you can lend tomorrow!”
Walter will smile and produce the money. But this was later on, after we got in the junior high school. Before that, Walter was a teacup kid. He used to carry in his lunch metal box a porcelain jar “Ceylon green” with some bouncy jelly in it. We used to mess around with his lunch while he ate. The jelly was good but not enough to feed up three bellies. Joe was mean and naughty, talking about Walter’s mom as being a bag lady for not giving Walter better things to eat but jelly and that he saw her lined up among the needy waiting for a church meal, which wasn’t true of course.
After Joe’s mom died he wanted to see everybody’s mom dying. He’d call everybody’s mother names and wished them dead. Our teachers tried in vain to cut off his fury with shout-and-shut sounds. For Walter, Joe’s attitude was okay, as he tried to put a smiley face on each happening and ask everybody to have mercy for Joe. He wasn’t a hypocrite. He was pitiful, afraid that people was going to whoosh Joe away from him. And Joe wanted to get everybody’s attention.
“You’re talking about a boy who felt that his life ended when his mom died, who didn’t see any use of obeying anybody and who said on his death bed: It still hurts that Mom is not here to take care of me!” But then, all of us were there. We’re not going to leave him alone at that time. I’ll go back to this moment later on, again and again. Am I going to figure out, in the labyrinth of our lives, what was so wrong, as it seems, in what we did - Walter and Joe and I - to have our memories razed - not by our own old mind - but by the degraded memory of people living around us! For no one could precisely remember how this whole story used to live on its own, sixty years ago.
What some remembered, and used to brag daily about it, was that Walter and Joe were now gone. They were the most revered local ghosts, one could say. But, Joe was the only one who reached the mind’s sky limit while we all were too distraught by our mundane interests to notice it. At the end of his life he’d still ask: ”What life means?” Joe’s mom, Ellen, was kind of a last catching memoir: I remember her filling her curls with shiny rollers and popping her head into the expensive white furnace, trying with her little hands to put a rebel curl back onto the curler. She used a line that deserves to be mentioned: “I hate anonymity,” she’d say.
Aren’t we all anonymous? I wish I were young again and rethink this claim. Though, as far as I was concerned, my desires were still running wild - like a nose under the weather - and all those memories I had, sealed like smelly pickles rotting in broken jars, looked up to the pages that follow as their anonymous storage. Of course, Beth for instance would have preferred to see her traces erased. She knew that there were things which she didn’t do right. I survived her killing skills. I wish I knew why some people survive all odds, like I did for instance.
My life is still echoing those bits of memories when my life was under threat of annihilation. If I get deeper, those watch-out ramblings keep bringing back some forgotten stuff into the picture. I think of one of those events and I feel like all the details come back to my mind and get collected in clusters of data ready to be filed. Some of this data is totally unclassifiable, like for instance Stan’s death. All of us were riding in his carriage. When it turned upside down, everybody escaped unharmed except Stan. He got pined by the pole onto the gravel. He was already dead when the ambulance arrived. Then Dick’s death, hit by a train while crossing the rails. The view of the incoming death through his little round eyes could have been terrifying. Whenever somebody died I imagined that I escaped his death. That’s how I used to think.
Mom would laugh: “You get involved too much in other people’s fate”.
Curiously enough, I had to conclude that only boys were dying. Because they were more daring than girls, I suppose. Sometimes I look back at all the perils I survived to be alive today. That happens when I feel gloomy. Usually, as I look back, those dreadful moments cast an optimistic glow around my present life. The fact that I survived those moments makes my life look okay. The second time I got a close call with death was when I escaped from being squashed under the pile of wood logs stored behind the furniture factory. We used to hide there under the trunks by sliding down until we reached the humid ground. The shade and the smell of fresh cut wood made that place a heaven during the hot summer days. The factory used cranes to move the trunks from the heap onto the factory ground. One day as I hid between the trunks the crane began moving the pile away. I heard Joe calling my name four or five times. He called me again then he began screaming: “Get out! Get out! The crane is moving!”
Before I could react I felt the whole huge pile of trunks moving. One of the trunks bared my way out. I felt like fainting. I didn’t have room to move my arms or my legs around. Then I heard something like a huge blast. The crane must have lost the grip on the trunk for I felt again the whole trunks formation rolling dangerously above my body. The room around my body became even tighter. I knew that I could breathe but the claustrophobic feeling was stronger than my surviving skills. I was shit scared. I felt like my heart became an aching knot.
Suddenly the sound of the moving crane died down. Joe kept calling me, telling me that the engineer called the police and the firehouse for help. Soon Mom and dad rushed to the scene. Mom was asking me if I was okay, if none of my limbs got squashed. Mom’s obsession with limbs… Hearing their voices made me feel better. It took the firemen three hours of preparation and painstaking work, to remove the trunks jam-packed above my body and pull me out to safety.
Another time when I felt that God helped me escape a definite death was when I fell from the roof while trying to dredge the gutter. I felt my bones crashing, especially my hills. For days I couldn’t walk. As I tried to put my foot down I could feel millions of needles going upward my hills. My knees were swollen and my toes got stiffen. I would roll in bed in pain and cry. Though, I didn’t say a word to mom or dad.
Only somebody that is plain stupid would fall from a roof that was almost as flat as one’s palm. I was much too proud to make a big deal out of it. It took an awful lot of will and suffering and stupidity I might add not to go to the hospital. Later on in my life when I went for a physical exam to enlist in the National Guard the doctors read my X-rays and saw cracks on my hills: “What happened to your hills? Did you fall or something…” “Something….” I said.
For whom it may concern, especially for anthropologists doing research on writers’ hills, mine could be of interest for they would bear those scars for eternity. Then later on in my life, meritoriously surviving so many attempts against my life: Dad’s hatred, Nevada mushroom project, Beth’s dad’s malevolent invitations in which he used to pour for me drinks laced with fatal medicine, Beth’s poisoning mania, my own paranoia…
Something of a celestial nature made me vigilant all those times, small signs showing that a dangerous event was going to happen for which I’d had to be watchful. I couldn’t do anything to prevent them from happening though I knew when they came along. The feeling of danger would grow like an aching ball inside my guts. It was as if my guts would get dragged by a painful string and gulped down by the outside world. Whenever I passed successfully through a danger I felt that the painful link with the outside world would slowly fade away.
What is the reason that I escaped so many frightful moments unhurt? This is an implausible deed, I suppose, that I’m still alive after passing so many instances designed to be lethal. Now, again, what’s the reason that I survived all those moments? Joe called it quits long before he died. He did it to himself rather than being helped. In most cases things were different with me: other people tried to kick me out of this world. They kept trying and trying. And that’s the end of the story.
Eventually life is what life is: nobody can bring somebody else’s story to life. Then, what is even worse is that nobody believes a dreadful story to be true. Susan put it in her direct way: “If somebody wants you dead then you’re dead!” I wanted to point out to Rosa how lucky I was being alive when she said: “Hold on darling! You still have time to die being butchered by a doctor who operates on you the wrong way”.
Though, Beth wasn’t part of my life then, in any imaginable way. And when the time came I remembered what Rosa said. “Death could be the consequence of a romance going askew,” she said. Love and marriage, hatred and death, aren’t these much needed disparities to judge whom you should keep around and whom you should hurl away.
When I began writing this memoir I thought it was going to sound like a new book genre that could be of interest rather than writing a supermarket romance that makes me always puke: “Screwed-up loves”, “Screwy romances”, “Fucked-up passions”, “Pretty screwy sentimental crap”, etc.
Of course, I feel sorry sometimes for being the only one alive, and I think of myself as being an interesting medical subject rather than a subject of a story. As I walked the streets towards the ducks’ pond of my birth-town, kids came running towards me from the nearby school. They didn’t wear uniforms as we used to when I was little, as little as they were, and were running at random and spreading all over the street; they seemed like a swarm of wasps trying to get attached to my body, an alien and nauseating swarm of wasps.
Walking the streets at a midday hour became a nuisance. I had to hide behind a tree or prop my elbows over a fence and listen to the swarm as it passed by, sniffing the cold air and stamping over the bumpy road like some kind of miracle toys.
There was nothing I could remember in my life that could have resembled these little new lives roaming around. And what a sweet life I had! Especially because the town was smaller and there were not so many silly clubs around, such as the Internet Café or the Web Aficionado Club or the awful mall & the arcade building further down the street. When I was a child my first impression was that people knew each other for a long time: probably they disrespected each other and they snubbed each other and they boycotted each other as they do today!
Not in public, though! In public we loved to see our people presentable like in a LIFE magazine illustration of the New Braintree which even today makes my heart pounding: it shows the Main Street of our town on a sunny day. People are seen walking, a bicyclist races along a white car racing in the background. If you look carefully you can see on the right side of the picture Mom crossing the street. It is as if you see her through a cloud, because of the lens effect on the right and left end of the picture.
My mother was so beautiful! I think this is the main reason Dad married her, for Mom didn’t have any dowry. My father was bursting with love and gentleness towards Mom. And, what I think was important; he behaved like a gentleman when I was around. I felt sometimes jealous of him and I hated listening to their laughs and giggling sounds during the long summer nights. When mom died she was still beautiful and Dad was still a gentleman. Mom even tried to think who could be a good substitute for her in Dad’s life if she died. Though she eventually said: “If I die I don’t want people to see you with another woman!” Dad looked away. He had that feeling that in any situation a man should be fair-minded. No use to argue! Though, he agreed to carry out her last wish: “I hope you could find a designer to make for me an aluminum cross surrounded by interlocking neon lights in the shape of hearts!” “How many,” Dad asked. Mom asked for her glasses. She couldn’t see anything because of her tears. “I’m telling you… I saw my grave in dreams lately. I was lying in a metallic box, I was rigid, and I couldn’t even smile”. She cried a lot that day. She said that she couldn’t stand the idea of a dark place, cold and airless.
Mom was not like the rest of us, because she was kind and honest and everybody loved her as one loves his own mom. Dad was not kind but he was diligent with his work and patient with my mother’s mood swings. This is how he kept a good response from her when he needed. I remember that Dad used to read his newspapers in the toilet and Mom saying: “Some people understand only what they smell!”. Otherwise, Dad received appraisals for his “architectural scrap” as he called his work as a restaurateur of the town’s landmarks. He got respect from people he was hanging out with, like the mayor, for instance, who would call him Mr. Prime, like one would call a minister without a ministry.
I remember an event on Dad’s life that he tried to let go. We went for a walk in the park and we saw a crowd gathered around the city hall with banners that read “Jobs for workers in a socialist America” and cops with batons surrounding them and as we approached the crowd all men got summarily arrested and thrown in a waiting buss and taken away. I’d never forget that image. Dad began to argue that he wasn’t part of the group of protesters. A policeman hit him with a baton and forced him to get into the bus. Dad asked mom to go home as fast as she can. Dad came back home at night. The leader of the group of protesters told police that dad was not part of his group and police let him go.
Parents, I think, are an important part of what we dream and make of us during a lifetime. But, as I always felt absorbed with my own torturous personality I couldn’t find any resemblance with theirs. Take for instance my grandparents. They used to live in Northampton. My grand dad used to be a cattleman. But, as Mom used to emphasize, he played piano and knew French. When I was little I remember him singing French songs to me, like “Sur le pont D’Avignon…” He had a nice voice that he wanted to call baritone though I remember it sounding tenor. I was very proud of him. One day he molested my grand mom, so I remember. It happened just two weeks before the gold anniversary of their weeding.
He was drunk most of the time so his mouth smelled like a roach dust. When he came home he was so drained of strength that he couldn’t listen to my grandma warnings: “I’m going to leave you if you don’t stop drinking!” My grandma was always monopolizing a dialog: “Do you understand?”
My granddad was different. So he slapped her. She called off the gold celebration of their wedding and threatened my granddad with divorce: “Too physical for me! An obnoxious man; that’s how he is! You can pee tears he wouldn’t give a damn! He may fake some sigh but he won’t get it! For him a wife is like heavy metal one can hammer on an anvil”.
I understand now why he slapped her. My grand mom was a bitch. If Dad had done to mom what my grand dad did, my God, mom would have killed him. My grand mom took my granddad to court. “I heard you sing in the Church choir”, the judge said. “Wouldn’t be nice if you’d sing a song for us before we begin here?” he continued. (Of course, objections, we are not in a church! Overruled!). My grand dad was in tears. It was a hot day in Northampton and as my granddad began to sing he was heating up. He sang like a lion.
Then exhausted by emotion he fell. “We need a doctor,” shouted the judge. “”Don’t touch him! Wait! Let me see!”, my grandma said. “He’s faking it!” The crowd reacted with the well-known ohs! and ahs! Like an educated court crowd carried away by a subdued murmur! My grand dad, cramped on the floor like a pumpkin leaf told to my grand ma to go to hell then died slowly. Quite a man!
The crowd kept applauding though when the ambulance came they took my granddad away in a body bag. After my grand dad died I lost my interest in the French language. My grand ma sold my granddad’s piano for a nice amount and bought sweaters for all of us. In less than a year she sold her house and ended up living as a nurse in a hospital for the needy. After only a week of her “nurse exercise” she came to live with us, with no money and not enough will to live. Mom wanted to rent an apartment for her somewhere in the neighborhood.
My grandma didn’t understand what was that generation-conflict that plagues the American families? What she meant was why all of sudden people who get old live in a different culture; young people enjoy life while old people die forgotten in some nursing home. She thought she was very much young enough to enjoy life like anybody else.
Talking about my grandpa stirs up old emotions: “If you didn’t bring him to court he’d be still alive”, Mom would have said.
“Obviously he wasn’t a terrific singer”, my grandma counteracted. “He couldn’t hold a high note that’s why he died. He began splitting the words, he even yawned, and he began to rush the end of the line, that’s what killed him. Though he died after he lived his life fully…”
What I remember is that, early in my life my parents used to live their life being happy and in love more, it seemed to me, than any other people around. I decided that I’d try to do the same. Unfortunately I couldn’t figure out how they did it. Whenever I tried to imitate my father I was afraid not to look like a show-off. I wanted to be authentic, to find my own way to live my life. Most of the time I felt like my brain was dangling by a thin wire, ready to slip into darkness. With the puberty showing its horrible dim-split personality I thought that once I get through it, I’d become invincible.
When the puberty was over I saw that the town was changing its colors, and the life had sometimes that awful rattling one might hear in places left as lunch for the dust winds.
Like the town outskirts looks today: the main street is worn out on each side of the highway that crosses it and the old railroad is rotting. Of course the highway running around the North side of the town and the silver bridge over the dried up riverbed makes a difference for cars but not for humans. The town seems deserted. Nobody trims the trees anymore and the “perfect lawn summer contest” is long gone.
Every Sunday, the way I remember, looks like uninhabited; the orchestra playing in the square is gone. I miss it. Not because I loved the military marches that time in my life, but because that was the Sunday outing for all families, including mine. The best part of it was when the church choir sang. One day a beggar who came from who-knows-where reclaimed a seat in the front row that was normally reserved for the town’s invitees. He listened for a while to the choir’s religious lament, and then, without warning he stripped down to the bone and began dancing. All the women ran hiding while the men stood silently talking objectively about the size of the man’s entrails.
“What the hell is he doing?” a woman asked, as if it wasn’t clear to her that the bum was getting naked. She wanted obviously to watch more by sounding unsure of what was happening. The bum even had the time to arrange his shoes on a chair and carefully hang his shirt on a post. Not his pants though! The only thing that made mom have sympathy for the bum was that he was carrying an American flag with him. People don’t seem to feel comfortable with the idea of a bum showing patriotic feelings.
He kept taking the flag and then put it down as if accompanying his striptease, punctuating it with his thought that that flag was his. People would burst out laughing. Then he’d disentangle himself from the flag and get rid of another piece of cloth, constantly rubbing up against the post. He seemed to want to be taken seriously and gave me the impression that he was determined to dance to some end if the choir wouldn’t stop singing abruptly.
I thought that what was sad that Sunday was that we were all going to miss the four o’clock singer competition when girls, Laura was one of them, would sing pop songs for a $5 prize and a flower braided crown. In the mess that followed I remember how the beggar invited everybody to look at his tattoo on his biceps that said “Jakarta, Mumbai, Kyoto”. There was another town that stubbornly wouldn’t show up under bum’s panicked rubbing.
Dad showed some weird interest for the bum’s stories. The bum’s name was Guido. A picnicker brought a tablecloth to cover the man’s private parts from being viewed by the female audience. It was thank to him that the fanfare started to play again. I complained afterwards of having an itch here and there and Dad got convinced that - as the bum was dancing - he spread lice all over the square.
A picture of the man convulsing under the tablecloth was published in the local newspaper next day. Dad is seen holding up the tablecloth around the man‘s buttocks and being surrounded by a crowd of men laughing. Walter’s head, cut in half by the picture, looks like a staring pair of eyes under a pile of wondrous hair. Behind him one could see Miss Molly or somebody resembling her that seems like yelling at the top of her lungs.
Dad had the funny idea to arrange a marriage between the bum and Fay, the crazy one: “Guido and Fay, it sounds perfect!”. When the police car came I saw the bum fighting with the two policemen, defending himself, with his hands and his feet, feeling free to express himself with his naked parts, while his tongue full of phlegm and emotional ballast couldn’t. Then he succeeded in one brusque move to free his right hand and show its index finger to the crowd.
“Of course”, mom said, “the struggle builds character”. A picnicker intervened: “Men like him are jamming our welfare programs. They go from place to place and they strip. Meanwhile somebody has to work to make money and pay for their liquor”.
All that made this event more special than before. Sometimes I have this strange thought that all the musicians who played that day are now dead. A whole musical crowd, dead! Mom couldn’t stand looking at the old bum dancing but she mentioned that night and we laughed about it, that seeing his lean body she felt all of a sudden an urge to eat
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Publication Date: 11-17-2011
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