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The Fence and the Sadness of Men

 

The Fence and the Sadness of Men

 

I was standing by the fence on the morning of the stillest day of the winter. Frost clung to the ground, the eucalyptus were mute and dying, their outer branches at least. I saw him at some distance. John Burrows on his 1949 John Deere row tractor, the high ping ping of the engine carrying across the cold fields.  It was the A model with the close-together front wheels and the overall tricycle look. Its twenty-five or thirty horses were geared down to make a powerful ploughing machine and an unstoppable widow-maker when one of the two rear wheels climbed a stump or dropped into a hollow, tipping the tractor over sideways and pinning the driver under too much weight for him to breathe.

I imagined him smoking but had heard he’d stopped since Alice had died. The one thing he treasured most he gave up as a way of being with her when he normally would have been with himself. A neighbor said he also wore his wife’s scarf, a cream-colored Angora sort of thing that farmers did not wear and felt uncomfortable about even when their wives wore them. But John had changed, and he was dangerous to laugh at. At least, no one dared to and wouldn’t have anyway.

We talked about him in Booth’s Cafe. How he wore the scarf, and the pipe in his mouth, upside down because of the rain—except that it wasn’t raining, therefore some sort of half-mast gesture. We talked about his farm and how it needed painting and plumbing and tanks that needed to be cleaned and cows attended to. Gary the vet had come of his own accord finally, with an excuse that the county required it of him—an inspection for sleeping sickness, or something like that. But we all knew that Gary had come because of John’s grief and had spent as much time watching his friend as feeling cows’ udders and the veins in their necks.

 

The whole time Gary was there, John drove the tractor out across the corn stubble and frost, leaving herring-bone tractor tire tracks, crisscrossing the fields enshrouded in frost and cold and bereft of meaning, navigating this way and that with no discernable pattern. That was what worried Gary, whose father had walked across his own fields with a shotgun and blown off an ear out of desolation when Gary’s mom died. Gary had come after him, found him, and led him home, the old man not being able to hear a thing, weeping, and laughing about how he’d missed and what a goddamn fool he’d been and how much he loved Gary. And then he had stumbled, and the two of them went down, fell and then got up on their knees and held each other for the first time in their lives and wept and held each other the way the frost held the fields.

Gary couldn’t keep inventing reasons to watch over John. He’d made four long veterinary visits that same week, and his receipts were showing it. He called and suggested maybe I should find something to do up by the fence, that John would come by eventually—and so I’d just gone straight over, driving the pickup up the gorge road, stopping briefly to see if I could see trout in the black icy water beside it, then on up to the ridge that separated the Burrows farm from ours.

I could hear the tractor long before it came up over the horizon. Then I could see him. There was purpose in his life again, at least enough to have him follow the line of the fence and not just make crisscrosses all over the fields. I tapped the fence post in front of me as if it needed something, banged on the top strip of the barbed wire a few times, testing for tension. I walked around the pickup, kicking the tires, checking the pressure. And then it occurred to me what needed to be done. I opened the hood and pulled one of the distributor wires off and dropped it down through the engine onto the ground and continued bending over the engine, poking around at nothing.

I heard the tractor stop. That was a good sign. John sat looking at me, and I watched him, gazing into his sad eyes, looking for some indication of what his intentions were. He sat for a long time, his Alice scarf hanging down like a college boy’s, his pipe inverted, his hands red and blue from gripping the iron steering wheel. I said nothing. No greeting seemed appropriate. And he—I hadn’t required anything of him—he just sat there, the engine running, the white sun above us sailing slowly toward the dying eucalyptus grove to the west.

“My truck won’t start,” I managed to say eventually. His face remained as before. With just the hint of a smile appearing at the edges of his mouth, as if he saw through my ruse.

His lips moved.

“What?” I shouted. But not that loud. His mouth opened further. I wanted to say, “How are you?” But I already knew how he was.

“I miss Alice,” he said.

I was unprepared for that. He reached up and took the pipe out of his mouth. I mounted the wire fence, jumped down on the other side and approached the tractor. He handed me his pipe, stem-first but didn’t let go when I took it. His eyes brimmed and filled so much I wasn’t sure he couldn’t see me. The pipe trembled and I continued pulling him by the pipe, at the same time taking another step toward him, pulling him past his tipping point, until he came away from the tractor, slipping down onto the field, and I knew what to do, although I had never done it before and held him while he cried and then couldn’t hold back myself and let loose, the two of us howling like two sad dogs, Gary said, who had returned for the fifth time that week and had followed the most recent herring bones across the field and along the fence until he saw us. He stopped his truck a little way off and shut off his engine and listened to the cries and howls, he said, coming across the dark field, the ping ping of the tractor swallowed up by the silent clinging frost, and the cold white sun curving westward.

The next day, at the Booth’s café, where the town’s most silent farmers—all of them my friends—met for coffee late mornings after milking, feeding and mucking, someone asked Gary how John Burrow’s cows were doing, as if Gary might have veterinary information that could be useful to all of them. The question was slow and neutral. And so Gary began to tell the story. Everyone stopped talking. Even fierce Agnes Booth stacked dishes in slow motion so she wouldn’t miss a word. Not a farmer met Gary’s gaze as he spoke, he said later. He told about telling me to go up and wait by the fence, that John would come along. How he had let himself in the field and had followed the most recent herring bone tire track until he had seen the John Deere and me standing beside it. He said he couldn’t tell whether we were talking. That I was just standing there, and John was holding out what appeared to be his pipe. A farmer stirred sugar into his cup, clinking the spoon against porcelain. A big red hand came out from the man beside him and calmed the stirring. Someone else blew his nose quietly into a red bandana with his eyes closed. One or two others rubbed at something in their eyes with their forefingers. Men folded the flap of an ear forward to hear better. Gary told how I had pulled on the pipe until John had swiveled around in the steel bucket seat and come down into my arms. That was when Agnes Booth, without a sound, and with her head down, withdrew through the swinging door to the kitchen, easing the door shut behind her and studying the farmers for a moment through the round window, as if realizing the gathering had suddenly become something very private and foreign. Then Gary told them about John and me howling like sad dogs. Which is when the men gasped, coughed, sniffed in mucous, and said “God!” to explain why they were crying and suppressing the tears with heels of their powerful hands, trying to recover with deep, deep breaths.

A week later, in a soft voice, Agnes told me she had thought a dam was about to burst and that that was the the reason she had left the room, that she hadn’t known whether it would be water she would be able to swim in. A week later, I was there when John Burrows walked into Booth’s Cafe without the scarf, sat down, ordered Agnes’s coffee and lit his pipe.

 

 

Sudden Naps

 

 

 

 

Sudden Naps

“The blank page is the mirror image of my brain,” my friend often said, and then one day went out into his orchard to check for buds forming on his favorite apple trees, the Gravensteins. He loved their smooth elephant gray bark against the dark green spring grass and the sun on his back. Then he went to the pump house and retrieved the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum he kept there, wrapped in an oily rag, tucked out of sight behind the pressure tank. Or maybe he did what Heinrich Himmler did, Hitler’s Head of the SS and bit more. The British identified him in spite of his disguise, and so he bit down on his glass cyanide capsule. He had to work fast to spit out the splinters, while he could still work his tongue and lips. The bullet or the glass ampule? There was no evidence of poison. Not even a body. His wife had gone for a walk. When she got back she ran the washing machine so she’d have some nice things to wear that night for their lovemaking date. She couldn’t account for his absence. She drew hot water before starting the dishwasher. If you got the water hot, then the dishwasher didn’t have to run its electrical element to heat the water, thereby saving energy. She heard the vroompf when the gas ignited in the expensive on demand hot water heater that he had installed himself, with all the complicated plumbing. She noticed the red hue of the water, then went through the house looking for him. He would be able to fix the water. “Are you in here?” she asked, knocking once on his door, stepping into his room, expecting to see him bent over his computer, typing furiously with two fingers, focused intensely on some plot, some yarn that would make people laugh or cry or gasp. Sometimes sneer or, more often, frown. But he wasn’t there. She went to the stairs, said “Dear?” and ascended the worn, termite-weakened steps and crossed the blue painted floor to the far end. She bent to look through the finger hole of the low door—there was no latch—looked through to see if he was sleeping on their bed. This was a man who took naps after asking, “Where will you be for the next half hour? Are you going to be telephoning? If so, could you do it away from the bedroom window?” A wry smile, a look of incredulity that said “I know it’s going to be hard for you to remember but I would sure love it if you’d try.” But he wasn’t there either. She went downstairs again. Outside, the old  Ford tractor was standing in the field with its rotary mower attached to the hydraulics, the grass mown, and no husband. She went around to the shop, looked in, and said “Jim?” the Swampscott Dory he was building was coming along. Sunlight from a high Rembrandt window fell on the Sitka spruce steam-bent lap strakes and on the shavings that the hull rested above. You could see what it was becoming. It gleamed like a new egg after the hen gets up and walks away from it to spread the news. His wife kept going toward the pond. He wasn’t in the dark water up to his chest, throwing algae up on the bank to dry and then be spread on her garden as mulch. He wasn’t sitting there on the granite slab bench, trucked in from New England, watching for the big bass that liked the shadows from the overhanging blackberries that ripened too slowly because of afternoon ocean fog. She kept going up the hill. He wasn’t in the upper garden with the eight-foot deer fencing around it, the place that got winter sun, where he weeded his garlic and onions. She went along under the cypress, to check the disintegrating aluminum chaise-longue where he corrected blue books. But the chair was empty, and the blue books were back in the hands of their chastened authors. She came down the hill through the field past the sleeping platform where they spent summer nights sleeping under stars or costal fog, between paths deer passed on, who added snorts of alarm to their own of passion. He would mow the field again later in the summer when the new grass was dry and before the thistles sent their dried seeds drifting across the field toward the pond below. He wasn’t in the orchard. She checked his car to see if he was lying with the seat back, listening to a recorded book. David Copperfield now, she thought. She crossed the road, picked her way down the path through the Eucalyptus to his writing cabin. The collapsible green canvas cot was propped against the wall. He wasn’t there. Back up at the house she checked the bikes. Both leaned against the shop. She drew water from the bottled water carafe, put the kettle on the gas flame. She looked out the kitchen window to see if she could see whether the blue birds  had accepted the birdhouses he had put up for them on ten-foot 4 by 4’s. She membered the dishwasher. She turned on the hot water. She watched as it grew warmer and redder. She thought about the plot of the murder mystery she was working on. Her publisher was asking her to hurry up. Her readers were calling him. They loved her woman detective who solved murders for the Mexican federal government in an inland colonial city in Mexico. She thought about the redness. The water came from a well in the pump house exactly six feet deep, fed by an ancient spring used by earlier people. Miwok or Pomo Indians. They knew this because of all the arrowheads and obsidian tools they found fifty feet downhill from the spring. It was the same water they used now to cook, drink and bathe in. If you forgot and drained the well, you had to wait five or six hours for it to fill again. In July and August, over night, when there was less fog to drip from the old cypresses on the top of the hill and replenish the aquifer. Jim had made a wooden cover for it to keep out the Norwegian rats that he left  poison for in in the house, in the cubbyhole over the bed. That was a dark side. The poor rats plunged into the water to escape their lethal thirst. And each time he discovered one, coated in the white fur of decomposition and fished it out, he buried it in the compost pile and didn’t tell her about it. She knew he just plopped a small chlorine tablet into the brownish water.

Jim walked back to the pump house. He too was thinking about rodents. As boy he had once found a nest of field mice and had thrown some ten pink babies into a stream to watch them drown. He had horrified himself in the process that he was so easily capable of cruelty. When he was a little younger perhaps eight, toward the end of WW2, he had seen a black and white government Newsreel, between two Walt Disney films, showing bulldozers pushing mounds of flopping emaciated corpses of Jews, Russian prisoners of war, and political prisoners into mass graves.  He had been disturbed for a couple of years afterward. His mother hadn’t known how to explain it to him, she said, and, as a student of Freud, she had encouraged him to draw pictures of what he’d seen. At the same time, he dreamt of dark three-legged cats that thumped down from a higher level onto the level of the bedroom floor where he and his brother slept, coming for him. He dreamt of black Panthers in stairwells, racing up after him. His mother still suffered from the loss of her mother, father and thirty-year old sister, who all died within one year. The thirty-year old sister from a botched abortion.  That was 1942, he thought. At twenty, he went to Germany and visited the concentration camp KZ Dachau and stood before the ovens. He courted and later married a beautiful, slightly walleyed German girl and had two fine sons. He taught German at a university in Northern California. He wrote stories that subconsciously always skirted the image of mass graves and the question of Why? He decided that that was the central question in his life, including his own execution of the baby mice.

This time, when the spring sun turned warm, and the gravensteins showed their buds and everything was still, he heard the pump running in the pump house and so he went to see why. He reached behind the pressure tank and lifted out the heavy oily red rag. He unwrapped the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and held it with two hands, as if it were evidence, went outside and laid on a tuft of grass away from the boggy area near the door. He went back in, found a piece of wire and wired the gun rag around the leak. He remembered why he had bought the gun. Someone had killed two women and left their bodies in the eucalyptus forests across the street from their old slanting farmhouse. The forensics people collected the rotten corpses in coffee cans. Then they drove away, leaving thick patches stinking black tar where the bodies had lain. Incensed, he brought a gasoline can, matches and a shovel to the grove. The fallen Eucalyptus leaves were six inched deep and dry. He splashed gas on the tarred spots and struck a match. He had barely been able to beat out the fire. Afterward, he was bathed in anger, sweat, self- recrimination, and shame for nearly igniting a forest fire. His two young sons slept downstairs. What if someone came into the house, looking for two little boys to slaughter? What then?

Now they lived their own lives elsewhere. Only the gun was still there. A dangerous thing for depressives. His second father-in-law—the second wife— had labeled him a depressive. Better a depressive than a man so self-centered that at times he spoke to his daughters in Latin when what they craved was attention in English. That man’s father had been the psychiatrist for the great German writer Thomas Mann, who was exiled in Los Angeles. Jim removed the cartridges, walked to the pond and threw them in. Then he threw in  the .357 Magnum. In time, mud would cover everything so deeply that not even a swimmer’s would touch it.

And so, he did not blow his brains out, nor find a son hanged from the shower head in the shower.  Nor had he been attacked by the Nazi father of his wall-eyed German love. The architect who built airfields in France for the bombing of London and Coventry, while his own father had been the president of a fish line factory in upper New York State that had been converted to manufacturing parachute cord and glider cord for the Invasion of Europe.

Then he bought a pump shotgun with a short barrel called “The Defender.” He hid it loaded with five shells in the cubbyhole above the LL bean bed he slept in with his mate. She was a lovely Midwestern woman, bright, loving and funny who became the compass that had been missing up to that point in his life. She did not know that she slept beneath a loaded 12-gauge shotgun, and she and didn’t like it when he finally told her. It was terrible weapon, preferred by soldiers in close-quarter combat. He took a lesson at a local redneck gun shop. on how to shoot from the hip at a human target twenty feet away, and not miss. It had never occurred to him to kill himself with the shotgun. The .357 Magnum was a different matter. It suggested the act the way standing before a great drop-off suggested jumping. He had always resisted and backed away. After all, he had sons and had already accrued his limit of guilt about parenting—most of it, single parenting.

The cloth he wired up the leak with was one of those cheap red rags you buy in an auto shop. Now it kept the leak spray from causing a short in the expensive pump. It leaked the same amount, but in a controlled way. He would replace the pipe later. The escaping water, tinted red from the cloth, found its way to the well and up through the system again, all the way to the dishwasher and kitchen faucet. The red hue was probably the same as the water in the abortionist’s sink when he washed his arms and hands and watched Jim’s thirty-year old aunt turn pale. That had been 1942, the same year Heinrich Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich and SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann were meeting at Wannsee to discuss what they referred to as the Jewish Question, Die Judenfrage. The Holocaust policy of mass murder. If only the abortionist had been more skillful and the mass murders, less.

 

Now, as Jim approached the house, he frightened himself thinking about parachuting into Czechoslovakia with a .357 Magnum or something similar to assassinate Heinrich Himmler of the Round Eyeglasses in his open military field car. Would he have been so brave and self- sacrificing, had he been assigned the job? He thought not. But he would not have hesitated for a second if, while holding the shotgun, Heinrich Himmler had come for his boys.

The Curve of the Earth

The Curve of the Earth

 

One day, they say, a man my grandfather knew— actually it was my grandfather—fired up his tractor early and chained on the twelve-by harrow and started across the black earth, in his wake a cloud of crows swooping down over the damp soil. He followed the curve of the earth, toward a distant boundary where, as his story went, maybe the lovers were below deck, he peeling her bathing suit off her brown body, exposing white skin, curly hair, and sighs, while the seacocks opened, popped inward, and the tractor disappeared from the earth’s round, sailing over the horizon, leaving only the crows, and worms exposed to beaks  and cries and sun and the sadness of young people’s death, lovers with flowers in their hair and flushed cheeks, dying into each other. That was the sort of thing he said, my grandfather.

There were other things, too. It was the summer my grandmother got up on the roof and refused to come down or to speak to him until he promised to keep his rutting to himself, at least to ask first and to try thinking about her the way he first knew her, standing between the sunlight on the counter top and the glowing jars of apple sauce, peaches, and cherries. And the flurry of snow, holly trees, and red berries. Didn’t he remember her with lipstick, her chestnut hair in a knot and her lower lip undiscovered, her blue eyes unkissed, their breath like steam between words. Did he remember her blue eyes, the sunlight on her white aprons, the silver buttons specially sewed over the round of her breast?

When my grandfather disked or harrowed and I sat on the fender holding on, the sun circled around the field and finally dropped like a duck coming in to land—over near the bog with the rushes and herons and turtles and quiet newts. I shouldn’t tell you these things, he used to say, but how will you know if I don’t. You don’t want to be like me in every way.

The dust followed us across the field before the rains, making arabs of us, or indians, or pirates, unrecognizable to ourselves, sailing across vast planes, lovers caught below with flowers, and preserves and touchings of joy and sighs and bathing suits that fell off just when the tingling reached boundaries like the far end of the field, and disappeared just at the curve of the earth.

I saw things drown in the furrows of that sea. Thistles, mugwort, tar, small flowers, and surprised potato bugs, who didn’t know the ship was filling, too much in love, slipping bathing suits, candles, ice cream, the preserves on the window sill, still golden in the last of the afternoon’s sun.

My grandmother stayed on the roof for something like nine months. At least the whole summer. At least it seemed that way. Grandfather said she was giving birth to someone he didn’t know—to a woman who sang not only in church but also alone in the bathtub which she had placed outside at the edge of the garden, overlooking the field so that when he passed he would see her and remember what she could have been but never became, because of his intrusions at night when the fields sleep their damp sleep.

When the nine months had passed and the wheat rose and fell in swells, with us sailing before the wind on the red-seeded sea, my grandmother—who had not spoken since she first climbed the roof—all at once did speak to my grandfather when he had just switched off the tractor and stepped down over the hydraulics and jumped ashore.

“William?” she said. That was his name, and it was a question. He didn’t really hear her because of the seacocks and bathing suits and dust, I suppose. And she said it again: “William?” standing there in the claw-foot bathtub in the garden near the rhododendrons, naked, her hair up in a knot, and, as he still likes to tell it, with lipstick on her lips and the sun catching her chestnut hair, no longer twenty, nearer fifty, as I recall. And that was when it struck him, what a wonderful woman she was and he actually knelt before her and cried and apologized for his damn tractor and said other things about seacocks and dust and would she teach him to see her the way she had always been, and other things, a lot of it hard to understand after a world that curved into the distance all the way to the bog, with drowning flowers, thistles folded under, and the smell of tar weed and hope, and crows swooping down over the wake of his red tractor and the fresh earth. That’s all I remember really—with variations. Memories that come around like the morning sun, and set, and are never ever quite the same, except that they’re always true.

The Correct Position

 

The Correct Position

Even as a pre-kindergardner I was aware that girls had private areas. And I say areas because I really didn’t know how many of them there were. Or exactly what they were. And once I knew, and that ocean of complexity lay before me, my focus first changed to my place in that complexity and then to everyone else’s. And it has been that way ever since.

My Uncle Albert weighed just over three hundred pounds and stood some six feet five inches and limped, staggered really, when he walked, shuffled in a ponderous forward crab-like strut. In short, he was out of alignment, heeling over before burdens and forces I could not see. My father said he was one of the kindest men he had ever known. And that he was deeply private.

 

He married Aunt Sally when he was almost fifty and she just a few days over forty. She stood no more than a few inches above five feet and also limped and was unable to maintain a true course, angling her diminutive torso first right, then the left, driven by her own little pendulum of awkwardness and later, pain, as her joints froze, at first slowly, and then more rapidly, until their walks together were limited solely to the hottest days of July, August and September. Even then with her piggybacked up behind him.

Uncle Albert taught school, and was beloved by his sixth graders, who – parents complained – would not leave at the end of the school day, begging him to tell them one more story about this legend or that carefully concealed and controversial lesson in history, biology and Inca astronomy. The last straw was when he began teaching them rudimentary Latin so they could one day read the love poems by the Roman poet Catullus. At the school board hearing held to consider his case and his future, an Episcopalian with knife-sharp creases in his trousers and indignation in his voice, got up and read a poem from a dusty translation in which one object of the poet’s romantic interest, a young woman, on being approached by the poet, trembled like a fawn on a mountainside.

I had been one of his former six graders and was now an eighth grader. I sat beside my father at the hearing, who had come to assure himself that his brother would receive justice. My father was a fearless if slow public speaker when he stood up, took off his felt hat and began to speak at our town’s town hall meetings. There he was known for his furious defense of the beavers that swam submerged and blocked the culverts that, left unattended, flooded the town’s woods and marshes, making them breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“The woods and marshes become a haven for fish and wildlife when there is water,” my father’s voice boomed out over the graying heads. “It’s a natural rhythm. Flood and bounty, flood and bounty. It only takes a few minutes now and then to break up the beavers’ dam building in the culverts. We can hire a college student for that. The beavers bring a richness to the county, fishing for everyone, a biology lab for our children, interesting hiking grounds for our scouts, and protection for our deer, raccoons and wildcats. Let me remind you that before the arrival of culverts and dirt roads the area was called Wildcat. As for mosquitoes, it costs very little to pour barrels of mosquito fish into the water where they will breed on into the future. That is a far better solution than the present one which is to fly C47s low over the town, spraying tons of DDT on all of us.” This was the kind of talk that came out of the mild, quiet man who was my father.

“As for my brother, he is, as you all know, a brilliant teacher for our children who are reluctant to leave the classroom at the end of the day because of the interest and enthusiasm he kindles in them. I sincerely doubt that my brother made any reference to romantic activity when he described a young woman trembling like a doe on the mountainside. I even went to the extent of asking him this question to which he replied he had not and would not ever. So, good citizens, it is not as if he were reading to his 6th graders from the secret sex diary of a reprobate. What he is in fact doing is showing them that there are other languages and that they carry our history of literature in themselves. What he has done is elicit curiosity and the desire to learn in our students, not just in language but also in biology, history and even mathematics. My brother invites you to visit his class, with permission from the principal, of course, to see for yourselves how lucky we are to have a man of this stature and devotion.

No one spoke after my father. People looked at each other as if to say, “Who left the door open? or “Why are we even sitting here?”

And that was the end of it.

I saw other things as I grew up. How each day Aunt Sally waited for his huge frame to come in sight at the corner of Pitnam Ave. and Curtis Place, when Uncle Albert rocked and swayed and elephanted his way home, always with a thin bouquet of poppies, rock roses or Shasta daisies, which he plucked from this or that forgotten bloom between the sidewalk and the street on his path home.

Once I watched him pass by our wooden porch, and then saw Aunt Sally waddle toward d him, rolling from side to side from their house, which was next door to ours. Saw this from the window of my bedroom when I had just gotten up from a nap. They were smiling and wiping tears from their eyes as they came and then held each other in a delicate, tender long embrace, where his massive arms held her head against his stomach, at a level not much above his belt, even when he was leaning forward to accommodate the difference in their size.

When I grew a little older and a little meaner, I found myself preoccupied pretty much with one question, and that had to do with the act. The way it was clearly done according to the movies I saw, where the male held his doe-eyed love below his muscles and bounced around on top of her while she sighed as if she were just short of fainting.

Then my Uncle Albert choked to death on his own saliva during my freshman year in college when a nasty flu  brought the city to its knees. Then something happened that made my father very angry. At first I thought it had something to do with me and my attitude. But that wasn’t it. My mother told me to listen carefully, as she rushed to finish a flower arrangement for the funeral. It was during the war, she said. The Navy rejected Uncle Albert because of the way he walked, but then inducted him because of the way he swam. They trained him in demolitions and appointed him the leader of a squad of some forty other men who together with my Uncle Albert arrived at Utah beach, Normandy, dropped off by submarine, long before the great armada and in silence and predawn darkness blew up steel landing boat traps and obstacles, clearing routes for the Allied invaders, and who only faded away, mostly submerged, when the German defenders, boys themselves, raked the beach with searchlights and M60 machine gun fire, killing all but Uncle Albert and three others. “But why is my father angry?” I asked. “Because somebody said again that Albert had died because he had drunk too much water staying submerged and hidden from the German machine guns—a stupid cruel joke that we’ve heard before. In fact, he received some sort of distinguished service cross for towing the three wounded survivors all the way back to the distant half submerged submarine when he was badly wounded himself.”

Aunt Sally lay beside him for two days, refusing to release her grip on the man she loved so much, and only let go when our doctor decided her own health was in crisis and slipped a handkerchief laced with chloroform over her nose and laid her unconscious into a waiting stretcher. A special coffin had to be built, and a truck with a crane swung it up onto the back of a second truck and after the trip to the cemetery they unloaded the box beside an oversized grave.

In the space of a few days, Aunt Sally found time to make several quick arrangements, one of which was a note for my father saying she was too distraught to attend the service, that she would contact him about other matters later, and then she dropped out of sight completely.

When the crane was about to lower Uncle Albert’s huge box at the end of its greased cable, and we bowed our heads and tried to weep for the sadness of it all, a dark van drew alongside, stopped, and two men, not quite dressed as funeral directors, carried a small pomice-whitened box to the edge of our circle of mourners and stood back. In a voice that was deeper and stronger than usual, my father asked the mourners to come away from Uncle Albert’s grave, to ask no questions and to face away in the opposite direction. Which the mourners did, murmuring and mildly miffed, but complying. Thinking, I suppose, my mother and father needed a moment to kiss the coffin or something. Though I was too old for it, my father took my hand and led me back to the grave.

Following someone’s instructions, probably my father’s, one of the new coffin bearers raised a hinged window of old beveled glass, and we saw our Aunt Sally looking up at us, but not really looking because her eyes were shut, sad, and serene.  She held a very familiar looking bouquet of flowers, the kind of flowers you could not find between the street and the sidewalk, and very much unlike the kind Uncle Albert had liked to pick.

The new funeral directors, who seemed more relaxed and pleasanter than real ones, turned some wooden latches on Uncle Albert’s coffin and removed the lid. My uncle lay face down. I expected an awful commotion, like the one I was feeling myself, part shock, part horror, part sadness and anger. But the mourners continued facing away. With my father’s help, the two men placed the flower arrangement in Uncle Albert’s coffin and Aunt Sally herself on top of him, higher up in what you would have to call a piggyback position – not the one I would have chosen if I had done the planning. Because it could not have been the position they chose for themselves in the private moments of their strange and unbalanced relationship. Plus, it was all a little ghoulish, I thought, to have moved her even stiffer limbs so that her hands wrapped over his shoulders as if she were hanging on.

After the coffin crunched down on the bottom of the hole and the cable snaked back up and the truck left us standing in diesel fumes, my father handed me a shovel and together we set to work on the great mound of excavated earth, rattling it down over his brother and Aunt Sally. We did not talk. At times, when I glanced over at him, his eyes were red and filled with tears. Then, when we were finished and the mourners had left, a few of them Navy veterans, he turned to me, laid his hand on the back of my neck, held me for a moment and said, “Now you know.”

  I learned that Aunt Sally had taken sleeping pills. But for a long time I did not really understand what my father had meant by his comment, and then he himself was gone before I was old enough, mature enough, and kind enough to ask him.

 

Storytelling:Why Now?

STORYTELLING. Why now? I recently decided to use the pandemic to share my stories. I had been lamenting to my love that local writers here in Guanajuato could no longer get together and read to each other and their friends. So I am going to “read” by posting stories in the style of 14th Century Boccaccio with his collection of short stories contained in Decameron when the context and setting was the Black Death. The advantage is that I resuscitate and share what might entertain. It forces me to continue to perfect my craft, honors earlier efforts and encourages new ones and accepts the challenge of drawing eyes away from Netflix, maybe by suggesting that we all have stories that need telling. So maybe get out your quill and ink and pull together that yarn that you keep seeing and hearing at different moments, from different angles, through the years, so that a daughter, granddaughter, or great-granddaughter will have some bearing on where she came from or may be heading, thanks to you. So she has something to peg her stories to, so she can be connected to a history of storytelling.

Foreground

Foreground

The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort.”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.

Tail of Horse, Hair of Corn

I follow my translator’s recommendations in all matters. He says drink teas of pelo de elote, hair of corn and cola de caballo, tail of horse. These are common Mexican folk medicines sold in bulk at any outdoor market, as well as by poor people in the alleyways of my small colonial city Guanajuato, Mexico. This is for my kidney infection, which, it appears has grown worse and invaded other areas. Possibly the hippocampus, where trauma is often recorded and rarely forgotten.

Translating what? you may ask. My first novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, from English to Spanish, now with the redoubtable title of El Pianista de Pancho Villa. I know. I have asked myself the same question. If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, why not leave the book alone?

But then there is the kidney infection. Did someone spit on my kidneys? Or sneeze on them? Or is it something far more sinister? Like some kind of design flaw? Having to do with this thing called la próstata? I have to say it in Spanish to gain distance. But that’s like trying to gain distance from an adolescent python that has wrapped himself around your urinary canal and forced the liquid up into the brain.
It is hard for me to talk about these things. My sense of privacy and all that. This is why I have turned to Hair of Corn and Tail of Horse, seeking some sort of resolution short of Death. I believe I have maintained a positive attitude. I listen to Antonio Vivaldi. I practice writing English in the hope of someday being included in a Writer’s Quotation Book like the one edited by James Charlton. Something for beaten down writers to keep in a little homemade shelf beside the toilet. To give relief. I also follow actor Michael Cain’s advice. 1. Change your weakness into your strength. In my case, starting with urine on the brain. And 2. Never compare yourself with other writers, artists, painters, or actors. And I might add, never compare your kidneys with anyone else’s.

You could argue that writing is a kind of infection of both the hippocampus and at least one kidney. And so I also take white pills of some weight and heft at 12-hour intervals. Pill of kidney, tail of horse, horse, as in Greek hippos, kámpos, as in Greek, sea monster. I’m not sure which, but one of them produces a roaring between the ears, as if I am standing too close to an angry sea.

“Have you taken you pill?” my wife asks.

“Of course, I have,” I snap, and pull the straight–grained fir tiller toward myself with all the force I can muster. The lead-weighted rudder, levered against the passing water, plows a boiling white furrow behind us. A cat boat mast is placed too far forward. The rigging is unbalanced. It makes her want to flee into the wind and, at the same time, drives the leeward gunnel under water.

“Are you alright?” my sweet wife asks.

“Yes, fine,” I say. “It’s just a problem of balance. And urine.” But I do not say the last part. Because I know she will reflexively seek a solution.

“Do you have your life vest on?” she asks, wisely.

“Yes,” I lie. And I’m amazed at her prescience.

I can hear Vivaldi too. The piece is Nisi Dominus. RV 608. Don’t worry, I also don’t know what the numbers mean. R and V. Perhaps: “Return to Village and dry your nets.” Or, more likely: “Return to Village and Vacate the bladder.”

Nisi Dominus means, “Unless with God, you’re screwed.” Being open minded, I ask myself whether I’m with God, or whether God is with me, and which is better. Meanwhile, the tip of the boom, pushed too far out by the force of the wind, is dragging in the greenish water and pulling us toward our tipping point. And so, now there is no choice. I push the tiller away from me, the bow slews up into the wind, and we heel over even more. I leap to windward side to counterbalance, but I am not quick enough. The wind catches the exposed raised side of the hull, and over we go. The mast goes under first, then the sail, and then the rest of us—and we begin to sink.

It’s all a metaphor for death, one that, like urine, has been forced up into the hippocampus.

My wife asks, “Have you taken your pill?”

I say I have.

“What about side effects?”

“Not really,” I say, but I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that she doesn’t believe me. The water is cold and I want to pee. The mast points straight down, and I claw my way up onto the bottom of the capsized catboat and cling to the exposed center board. The old tub appears to have trapped some air, and we stop sinking. A thick, warm rain drums down on us. The air smells of salt and mud flats. I hear something approaching. The thump–thump of pistons. It’s the Boston-Nantasket steamer and she hasn’t slowed down in the least and is navigating blind through the fog of heavy rain and is coming straight at me.

“Are you going to have an egg?” my wife asks me.

“Nisi Dominus,” I say.

She frowns. She puts the eggs back in the refrigerator without giving me one. I get to my knees on the upturned hull. The bow of the steamer, copper-plated and blunt, throws water out ahead of itself, hissing as it comes like an oversized Costa Rican Ctenosaur lizzard. And just when I’m about to dive away from it like Huck and Jim, it sheers off, missing me and my catboat by about—I want to say—twenty próstatas. The bow wave and hull wave, mountainous, raise us up and throw us down into troughs that come at intervals too close for recovery. But the old tub refuses to sink. A line of portholes on the steamer rushes by. One of them is open. A boy about eight peers through, staring at me open-mouthed and wide-eyed. The great hull shields me temporarily from the wind. It’s like a Melville moment of mother whales and calves circling below in a quiet green deep. I see a man, close up, standing at the stern of the steamer, out of sight from the other passengers. About my age, in his middle 80’s, that is, his sea legs braced, trying to keep his balance, at the same time trying to pee down into the angry sea. He looks at me. I look at him. As he goes by, he releases one hand and points toward the sky, saying, I assume, “Just a second, it takes me a bit to finish. Then I’ll sound the alarm, and we’ll circle back to get you.”

But more likely it’s a kind of admonition. Something to do with Vivaldi and Nisi Dominus. Something like, “You can’t sail a catboat in a gale and expect to come away un-drowned, if you have not honored God.” Or: “The unauthorized mixing of Tail of Horse and Hair of Corn with Bactrim—the latter without a doctor’s prescription—”And you will reap the wind.”

The sailboat begins to sink again, and I hear no thump–thump of pistons from the returning steamer.

I feel my wife touching my right kidney, from the outside of course. A soothing stroke. Tender. Nisi uxor, I think. “Without wife, there is no hope.”

And I am glad that I have, it appears, honored her sufficiently. And do not need the Nantasket steamer. Nor an unbalanced catboat to keep me from drowning.

High Voices and Maritime Pines

I am sitting in a table-wobbling Bohemia café in a colonial Mexican town recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, listening to Andreas Scholl sing Bach cantatas in his counter-tenor voice, which sounds like a castrato but isn’t, yet prompting my friend, a retired officer of the British Royal Navy, to make silly, limp-wristed gestures with upward turned eyes as if appealing to God to join him in rejecting this kind of music, while of course the whole time the real target of his ridicule, his gentle jab, is someone close to me, if not identical, the one who loves listening to Andreas Scholl, about whom I know nothing at all except that he has a long and distinguished career in the music world and is surely one of the most talented in his field, again about which I know very little, except for one experience in an ancient abbey on the French Coast near Montpelier when a another friend and I—he had painted the abbey many times in wonderful studies of light and dark, as if the building, surrounded by Maritime Pines were a ship of lesser tonnage, not English, approaching through a thinning fog, backlit by a weak sun that had forgotten that it was a Mediterranean sun—were sitting in the middle of the empty pews, when a similar voice, carried on perfect acoustics, filled the abbey for several minutes, followed by a silence during which I waited for the mezzo-soprano to emerge from somewhere above and behind the altar, which happened but as one of three young men, not a woman, grinning at their daring contribution as they passed by, and we, marveling, smiled right back at them, enchanted that a male voice could sound like that, in an abbey surrounded by dark Maritime Pines that had survived Roman shipbuilders—I’m talking about masts—all of which made me wonder whether the Roman soldiers, sitting around their campfires, wiping heathen blood off their broadswords, had asked their own castrato or falsetto warrior to get up and sing a tune to relax his exhausted comrades, whose eyes would have been a mixture of Germanic Blue and Mediterranean Brown, or Cow-Eyed Limpid—Homer’s phrase—if they were of Greek descent, and who didn’t think for a second of their singer as menso, zafado, loco, missing a wooden screw, or someone whose goats had gone to the mountains, hence Mexican for whacky, but just singing with vocal cords designed differently from yours and mine, hence completely undeserving of ridicule of any kind, least of all by me toward myself for going on like this without the usual punctuation, since Andreas Scholl, surely not dressed in a leather Roman battle skirt, was stringing me along, as well as allowing me to make whatever I wanted to of his voice and the mystery surrounding it, as well as of Maritime Pines, in rich darks, made into tall masts, approaching off the coast of Montpelier, ghosting toward me, carrying a delegation of people I wouldn’t know but who are mezzo-sopranos and Hermaphrodites who can sing like Andreas Scholl and have been hoping for some time to find a writer wanting to write to their sonatas, which also go on and on, as their voices caress first the abbeys, then the Pines, and finally the mountains where my goats have gone when I listen to this music, which, as far I’m concerned, I wish would never end.

Life Imitating Art

Who knows where stories come from. My novel Comandante Ibarra, the first book in a trilogy of three love stories, was about a Mexican rural policeman, or as they say in Spanish a Rural. He had had had a stroke from which he had mostly recovered. But it changed his thinking about the Mexican constitution of 1857 which had not granted many rights to the Yaqui Indians of the Mexican State of Sonora just below Arizona.

For hundreds of years the Spanish crown and then the governments of Sonora in Mexico had been trying to wipe out the Yaquis and take their rich farmlands and water for themselves. And they are still at it, the state and the federal governments. Then a few years passed and I began a sequel to the second novel in the trilogy: Playing for Pancho Villa, called Himari Likes Water. Frank Holloway, the protagonist from Playing for Pancho Villa, returns from WW1 gassed and wounded. Again, he rides down into the Mexican State of Chihuahua to recover in the mountains he loves. There he suffers a stroke and topples off his mare Himari. He falls in with a fifteen-old girl who has fled from her abusive father’s circus train. A train that also carries war surplus French 75mm cannons which he sells to factions in the ongoing Mexican Civil War. The girl Fátima escapes with her best friends, a camel and a white Bengal Tiger. Fátima is damaged, but so is Frank. He hopes to dump them. She helps him cope with his stroke and war damage while looking for a good father. It is 1920 when this strange family finds its way through ancient Apache land to Mogollon , New Mexico and the silver mine his father runs and where Frank’s extraordinary wife Rosa Marta waits for him. Not too much later after starting this novel, my fourth, I the author suffered a stroke here in Guanajuato, Mexico in 2020, 100 years after protagonist Frank Holloway and some 120 years after protagonist Comandante Ibarra.