Category: ~ Darkness in the Stories

An exploration of why we, I really, write about the unspeakable suffering of others.

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.

Darkness in the Stories

When I was little, and the Walt Disney film – maybe Dumbo the Flying Elephant – had come to an end, in Norwich, N.Y. in 1945, when I was still seven, a News Reel film flickered black and white in front of me. And I watched as a bulldozer pushed a mound of white, flopping, skeletal bodies, like so much rubbish, toward the edge of a mass grave, already half full.

I do not know what happened in that moment, in my young mind. Did I learn forward, did I sit back in my too large movie theater seat? Was my mother with me, and my brother? I have no memory of those particulars. I probably knew I was looking at a place in Germany. I knew it had to do with war. The boy across the street, at eighteen, had already survived many B-17 bombing raids over that country. We, my brother and I, and other neighborhood kids, played guns, shooting at imaginary enemies. My father made us guns out of wood. He also carried a nickel-plated 38 Smith & Wesson in his back pocket. I am not sure when I began telling people he carried it in case German paratroopers landed in our town of five hundred souls, to knock out the fish line factory he ran – that Roosevelt ordered converted to the manufacturing of glider and parachute cord, for the Invasion of Europe.

No one talked much about the war in our family, at least not to us boys. No one talked about the mass graves I had seen. Much later in life, in one of her last lucid moments, when I had brought the subject up, my mother said she had not known how to talk to me about what I had witnessed in the News Reel film. She said I was disturbed for about two years. I knew I dreamed over and over about black panthers bounding up behind me in a warehouse stairwell. About a dog-cat with three legs and one stump that thumped down over the one steep step – which did not exist –into the bedroom where my brother and I slept, my bed closer to a closest whose dark interior twitched with menace.

At roughly the same time, my mother lost her youngest sister to a back street abortion, an event she herself had arranged, because decent doctors, even her own uncle, would not help. Her sister and her sister’s lover, an instructor at a famous boys’ academy, could not marry because, as the academic authority put it, there were already too many married instructors at the school. Then her father died – they said because of a broken heart. Then her reclusive mother, about whom little is known in our limited family history, except that she wore white gloves and once brought us boys small green cones of pine incense.

I associated the small after-rain toads of Maine’s dirt roads with death, when I was seven and sent off to summer camp for two months. I associated gray rainy days with death, specifically with my mother dying. Then this all went away for the next fifteen or sixteen years. Sank below the surface, as Mr. Freud might have said, if he had been there. But then, in my second year at college, I dropped everything and began reading thick red books called something like the Nuremberg Reports, information published, I suppose, from the Nuremberg Trials.

I read page after page, chapter after chapter, list after list of detailed atrocities, about torture and murder, committed against Jews and homosexuals and the handicapped and the infirm; against children and Russian prisoners of war and black French-African troops and religious leaders Protestant and Catholic, who had spoken out.

At the concentration camp Buchenwald, on a hill overlooking Weimar, the lovely city of Germany’s great humanitarian poets Goethe and Schiller, you can still see the bullet holes in the floor of a room with a drain in the center, where they executed Russian prisoners of war, who were probably sitting or kneeling.

You can add your own list to mine – of atrocities, of the inexorable, mad, heartless cruelty and mayhem practiced on people. 8,000 Polish officers – Stalin’s victims, Native Americans, 800,000 Rwandans, Armenians, Cambodians, the women of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. Over and over, without end. The Japanese army in Shanghai. Acts more sophisticated. Atomic bombs. What is the difference, I ask, between a Predator drone’s Hellfire missile and a plastic bag or a club?

All of this recedes and is forgotten  because the human soul cannot endure the images for too long. My mother had me draw pictures of the still flickering black and white images in my mind. I drew page after page of naked, white, flopping bodies. The black panthers and the three-legged hyena cat-dogs gradually dimmed and faded.

The drawing helped, I suppose. But it has not been enough. And that is why, I think, the images keep coming up in my writing. Bubble up, as it were. I try to give them form, I suppose as a buffer, a layer of protection. But I have never been able to get over the idea that people can decide to torture and take the life of another person. It is that simple. It is always there. The images, close to the surface. The two men dressed in military greens, pushing a young Polish officer, who stumbles ahead of them, his hands bound behind him, still a boy inside, with a mother, a lover, a wife, a son or a daughter; he is a young man with a history and the assumption of a future. They push him toward the pit, and he sees what is inside it. A third man steps up behind and slips a wire noose over his head and wraps the other end around his wrists. He resists, cries out in horror, to his god or mother. A fourth man steps up behind him, raises an automatic pistol, the Russian version of the German Lugar. The two men holding the Polish officer’s elbows turn their heads away, to avoid the coming sound and spray. The executioner fires, catching the prisoner in mid-cry, and they throw him forward into the pit, taking advantage of the split second he is still standing. Katyn Forest, 1943. Eight thousand times.