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|About Paul Dueweke||Priona||Lamb of God||Rocking Horse West|
My mother designated me to be the general in her struggle against Satan, a war she inherited from her mother. She trained me and prayed for me to someday lead men in this holy cause. I failed her.
My brother, Joe, wasn't the chosen twin--but he was the real soldier. Playing my role for me cost him his life. Our little sister, Susie, was innocence, the glue that held our young trio together. Mother and father played their roles exceptionally well. My father was treacherous, a crusher of bones and wills. Mother was the comforter, the confidant. Her treachery exceeded even my father's, but subtlety wove through it, softened it. Then there was Grandpa, my wonderful grandfather. He was love. But he had neither the strength nor the resolve to save us from our parents.
I alone had no real role--except survivor. First, innocence was borne away in conspiracy, destroying our vital trio. Then strength was crushed by the fears of a father and the weakness of a twin, his only brother. But weakness bends and survives long after strength has broken.
* * *
Glass panels of the elevator flew by and disappeared beneath me. As I rose, the city transformed from decay at the human level to a world of twinkling stars, both above and below. My eyes swept a cityscape they hadn't seen for half a century as it rapidly mellowed before them.
When my eyes happened upon their own reflection, they halted. Had I never looked into a mirror before? How then could I have overlooked the resemblance? My grandfather stared back at me. Images of Grandpa welled up, competing with each other for attention. I felt Grandpa's stubble beard that once scratch my tender face, his "tangle finger," and the bronzed neck we gripped like a lifering. A lifetime of washing windows seasoned his skin. His lips defied the tide of my parents' misery. But my eyes, silent for a lifetime, began to whisper. Though Grandpa's eyes had always been playful, they were now imprisoned in my neutered face.
My mind leapt back fifty years. We were here in Detroit in 1943, in an elevator--Grandpa, Susie, Joe, and I. It was Grandpa's elevator ride. As another glass panel dashed by, I heard him say, "I wouldn't have no cause to go in an elevator. They don't have windows, right?" The corners of my mouth momentarily turned up to meet his.
With these visions teasing me, I studied my graying hair, and those murky eyes, with city lights drifting in the distance. Then I saw my hands. They showed the ripples of age, but not the furrows and canyons that Grandpa's always had. But the veins--they flowed together between the first and second knuckle just like on his hands.
I remembered tracing Grandpa's veins with my young, innocent fingers as we listened to his stories. Grandpa sometimes told us stories about pilots, although he had never flown and had probably never been closer to an airplane than when they flew over him as he washed windows all over Detroit. His hero was Colonel Lindbergh, and we knew the story of that Atlantic crossing long before we could recite the alphabet.
Grandpa believed that flying was the most magical thing a person could do. If he'd lived to see astronauts, they would have been angels to him, not bound by the physics of men and ladders. He spent much of his life either on a ladder or driving his wagon behind Pal, whose reins draped over his palms as a world of motors challenged them. Daydreams probably filled his mind as he washed away a mighty city's grime. He would tell us about his days and his dreams when we converged on him, submerging him with questions and begging for stories.
* * *
It was August, 1943. My twin, Joe, and I were nine and Susie was six. It was our happiest summer. Grandpa told us once more about the famous 33-hour flight that changed the world. "Would you like to fly an airplane, Grandpa?" Susie asked.
"Oh, now, Susie, that's something I couldn't even dream of. You know I'm just an old window-washing man. That takes a whole lot of training to be one of them pilots. I don't think the good Lord meant for me to get any higher off the ground than just the top of my ladder. But sometimes I get up there to a third story window, and I look up and see one of them airplanes going over, and, you know, I can feel myself flying. That's plenty good enough for an old joker like me."
"Grandpa," Joe said. "I saw this ad in Life Magazine, and it had a cartoon about this guy showing a lady how easy it is to learn how to fly this little airplane. I forget what kind it was, but--"
"A s-s-single engine Piper Cub," I said.
"Anyway," Joe continued, "this guy said all you need is about an hour of practice, and you could fly one yourself."
"It takes … e-eight hours of ground and flying instruction before you can s-solo," I corrected.
"I'm the one that saw the ad, Mike. How do you know so darn much about something you didn't even see?"
"The ad was in the July 14 issue of L-Life Magazine," I said. "You aren't the only one around h-h h … around here who knows how to read, you know."
"Anyway," Joe said, glaring at me, "it says if you learn to fly this little plane, maybe it was a Piper Cub, but you could join the Army Air Corps. And then you'd be a Thunderbolt pilot in a month."
I just shook my head but didn't try to butt in again.
"And they really need them for killing Japs." Joe stood up and blasted me with all eight .50-caliber wing-guns. "That's what I want to do, Grandpa. Think this war will still be going on when I'm old enough? I hope so."
Grandpa's smile faded and he looked at the floor for a minute. Then he finally said, "You know, they make some of them big airplanes right around here somewheres. Maybe Ford."
"But Ford makes cars," Joe said.
"Not any more." I couldn't keep quiet any longer. "They used to make c-cars. Ever hear of World War Two?"
"And I heard Colonel Lindbergh his self actually works there," Grandpa said. "Sort of makes sure they're making them planes just so."
"I think those are B-24s, Grandpa," I said.
Susie pushed away from Grandpa and flew in a circle around us with her wings out straight and her engine at full throttle. She executed a perfect landing back into Grandpa's lap. "There, you see, Grandpa. Even I can fly!"
"You sure can, Susie. But you're a right piece smarter that your old Grandpa."
"Hey, Grandpa," I shouted. "I-I've got this great idea. You can go up almost as high as an a-a-a--"
"Grandpa!" Susie shouted. "Help me take off again!"
"Now, Susie," Grandpa said, "you just wait your turn. Mike has something to tell us. Go ahead, Mike."
"Well, Grandpa, you could go up almost as high as an airplane if you ride up an," my eyes squinted shut as I struggled, " … elevator. It's not e-e-exactly like flying, but it gets you way up in the sky just like an airplane."
"Now that's really smart," Joe said. "Standing in a box up in a building is just like flying, huh?"
"I didn't say it was j-j-just like flying, but it's similar. You can feel the elevator push you down when you take off and push you u-up when you stop, right? And if you close your eyes, you can imagine that you're in an airplane doing all kinds of ma-ma-maneuvers while you're flying up through the air. It's probably closer to flying than Grandpa ever did before."
"What we gonna do up there, Mike?" Susie asked. "Did you say manures or something?"
"Ma-maneuvers, Susie," I said. "It means tricks."
"Then why didn't you just say tricks," Joe responded, "instead of making up some fancy sounding word?"
"Because maneuvers is what the pilots say when they mean making banks and l-loops and dives and stuff. Remember when we read that story about J-Jimmy Doolittle in reading class, and he was teaching his pilots how to do maneuvers?"
"No, I don't remember, Mr. Smarty. I don't remember anything about any Doolittle guy. I think you made the whole thing up."
I wagged my head that my brother could be so stupid. "Remember the B-25s? How they bombed T-Tokyo?"
"Yeah. They took of from an aircraft carrier--"
"And bombed the heck out of Japan," he continued, "and flew to China."
"Well, that was Jimmy Doolittle."
"How was I supposed to know that? Our book didn't--"
Grandpa interrupted our quarrel. "You know, maybe Mike has something with that elevator thing. Maybe an elevator ride would be like an airplane, or maybe like one of them rockets! But I wouldn't have no cause to go in an elevator. They don't have windows, right? So I wouldn't have no cause to be there."
"But Grandpa, you don't have to just go places where you wash windows," Susie said. "They've got all these big skyscrapers downtown, and we can show you cuz we know where they are and what bus to take and everything."
I shook my head to Susie and mouthed the word no over and over. Joe interrupted me saying, "It's okay, Mike. Grandpa can know about our trips downtown. He won't tell anybody. You wouldn't tell Mom or Dad, would you Grandpa? We sometimes sneak on the bus and go downtown."
Susie threw her arms around Grandpa's neck. "Please don't tell, Grandpa! Please! Dad might lock us up or something."
"I'll say," Joe said. "After he beat us with a chain." Then Joe threw a smirking glance at me. "At least some of us."
I retreated into silence.
"You mean you little kids go downtown all by yourselves--on the bus and everything? But you don't even have any money. Don't buses cost to ride?"
I eagerly shook my head yes and then no and started to reply, but Susie beat me to it. "We'll show you, Grandpa," she said. "We'll show you how to do it for free!"
Now Joe's interest started to come alive as the adventure mounted.
The next morning, we showed Grandpa our trick of sneaking through the back door of the streetcar when the driver was busy checking the fares of the throngs boarding at the crowded Grand Boulevard stop. He admonished us for our dishonesty, then grinned as we showed him how to hang on when the streetcar took off.
Before long, the four of us stood on Woodward Avenue looking up at the tallest building in Detroit. We couldn't imagine how any building anywhere could be taller.
"Okay," Joe said as we approached the front door. "All we have to do is act natural, and when the elevator guy asks, Grandpa, you just say 45. Got it? He won't argue with you because you're an adult."
"But what if he a-asks us where we're going," I said. "Grandpa can't just s-say he's going on an airplane ride. Have you thought about that?"
"Don't worry so much, Mike," said Joe. "All you got to do is get on and tell him what floor you want. That guy doesn't care why you're going there."
We walked up Fort Street with what seemed like half the population of the country. The wartime bustle of downtown Detroit was crushing and magnificent. But it did not compare to the great stone archway with the polished brass letters a foot tall reading Penobscot Building. People hurried past us entering and leaving the building. Others shouted for taxis or ran to catch the Woodward Number 10.
I was the first to spot the sign we didn't expect: US Army War Materiel Command Center - Authorized Personnel Only. "I wonder what that means," Grandpa said.
"It means we can't go in there, Grandpa," I said. "It's an Army place, p-probably full of secrets. They have to make sure that spies d-d-d--"
"But we aren't spies, Mike," Susie protested. "Who ever heard of a third-grade spy, anyway?"
"But they don't know that," I said. "We could have been smuggled in on a U-boat right from G-Germany. Grandpa could be in the SS. They can't be too c-careful."
"Look, kids," Grandpa said. "Maybe this elevator ride thing ain't such a good idea after all. Maybe we should head back home. This here elevator idea might not be so hot. You know, I'm pretty happy just being up on top of my ladder. I don't need no fancy elevator ride." He tried to usher us away from the building entrance, but Joe stalled.
"No! It's just not right!" he said. "Grandpa's not a spy! He's a loyal American! And all he wants is one little ride on their elevator! I'm going to find out about this right now!"
Before anyone could stop him, he walked right up to the revolving door and marched inside. He couldn't have gone ten steps inside when we saw him dash right back out through the same door, walking much faster.
He charged past and said, "Let's get out of here, you guys!"
We followed him as fast as we could. After about a half block, Grandpa tugged him over.
"Joe! Joe!" Susie shouted. "What happened in there?"
"Jeez! You should've seen it in there." Joe looked back toward the entrance. "Is anybody coming?"
We all looked back and saw nothing unusual.
"There were all these army guys with helmets and rifles and bayonets! And this one really big guy had this rifle that was twice as big as the others, and he just looked at me when I got through the doors. I stood there and this one guy said, 'Looks like another spy, Captain.' And you saw what happened then. I about knocked over this one lady trying to get back through the door."
"Wow!" Susie shouted. "My brother's a spy!"
"Quiet, Susie," I said. "You want to get us all a-a-arrested? I knew this wasn't a good idea!"
"What?" Joe said. "What the heck are you talking about? This was your idea! Did you just forget that?"
"Okay," Grandpa said. "This looks like it wasn't one of your better ideas, Mike, so I guess we just ought to go home now."
We stood in a circle, disappointment bonding us to that spot, waiting for someone to make a move. Finally, Joe broke the silence. "That was just bad luck. We picked the wrong place. That's all. There's still lots of skyscrapers around. And with elevators, too. And I bet there won't be any soldiers. Least not at all of them. They're just here cuz they made this into a fort or something. Let's just find another place."
Joe looked at me. I shifted my eyes to the sidewalk. He turned his head toward the crowds at the Penobscot Building entrance. "Grandpa won't ever get his ride if we don't do it today."
"Look, Joe," Grandpa said. "Maybe we should wait till after the war and then go for our ride."
"No, Grandpa. It's real important. We should do it now, or we might never do it."
"Come on, Grandpa!" Susie said as she tugged on him. "Let's find a elevator."
I looked from Susie to Grandpa and nodded yes.
After a while of walking and regaining our courage, we stopped in front of a likely candidate. Carved in stone beside the entrance, it simply said Dime Building. We looked up and judged it high enough for our purposes, and not a soldier in sight. We entered the marbled lobby and saw an elevator open and waiting.
"Look," I said. "There's nobody r-running it like at Hudson's."
We watched a man walk in, push a button, and wait as the door jerked closed. The dial over the door reached 18 and stopped. Another elevator door opened and several people walked out. Joe tugged Grandpa toward it. "Come on! This is our chance!" We followed. "Come on! Before somebody else comes."
"Look at all the buttons," Susie said. "What's the right one?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Well, we've got to push one," Joe said
"It's your r-ride, Grandpa," I said.
"So I should push the button, huh?" His hand reached for number 22 at the very top, and pressed it. The doors closed halfway, hesitated, and then clunked shut. Grandpa blinked and forced a smile. "Here we go, kids, your Grandpa's first airplane ride."
He squeezed Susie's hand. The elevator started with a lurch, and we all steadied ourselves against a handrail. Once under way, the ride was smooth. We gently swayed to the song of cables overhead.
"What if the elevator doesn't stop at the top?" Susie said. "What if it's going so fast it just shoots right out the top? Then what?"
"It couldn't do that," Joe said. "It couldn't, could it Mike? I mean if it's going too fast, and maybe it can't stop on time at the top. What would happen then?"
"I don't think it could shoot out the top, but maybe it could b-break the stuff up there that holds it up."
Just then, a loud clank scared us and our hands grasped for something. The elevator slowed and bumped to a stop, but the doors didn't open. Grandpa's eyes opened as I said, "You know what's u-u-under us right now?"
"Don't be stupid," Joe said. "This elevator has a real strong floor."
"Maybe, but just think about what's under us--this floor and a h-h-hole 22 stories deep."
"Mike," said Susie. "This floor is real strong. Look!" With that, she jumped and shook the elevator.
Three voices shouted, "Susie!"
Then the elevator lurched and stopped once more, and the doors squeaked open. We stepped out, embracing the feel of stone under foot.
Many offices lined the hallway. Each was hidden from view by a windowed door, but the windows were like those bathroom windows that only let you see shapes. One door was open, and it was a very small room with about a dozen school desks and a table in the front.
"Is this some kind of high-up school we're in?" Grandpa asked.
"Could be, Grandpa," I said. "M-Maybe we ought to get out of here."
"Well, maybe we shouldn't run off quite so quick," Grandpa said. "I don't suppose this here teacher would care if we just took a look out his window. Since we're here, anyway."
That was Joe's queue. "I think we should. We haven't been up this high before, not even at Hudson's." He led us into the room. We approached the lone window slowly. After our nerves steadied, we crowded around the window. What a spectacular view.
"I bet you can see a thousand miles," Susie said.
"Farther than that," added Joe.
"C-Can we see our house?" I asked.
"Which way is our house from here, Grandpa?" Joe asked.
"Huh? Oh, I don't know, Joe."
I noticed Grandpa looking at the window and I poked Susie.
"What you looking at, Grandpa?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing much. But I was just thinking that the feller that washed these windows done a real good job. He must of used a squeegee cuz there ain't no lint anywhere on the glass. And he didn't leave no dirty water marks on the sill, in fact the whole sash is clean as a whistle. He's a real particular window washer. Takes a lot of pride in his work. You got to have a lot of pride. Yup, a lot of pride. When you got as many windows as in this here building, you got to have a lot of pride in your work to do this good of a job."
We kids looked at each other and then at Grandpa as he ran his hand over the clean white sill and then looked straight down to the street below. He lifted his head and inspected each top corner of the windows. The corners of his mouth curled upward as he shook his head and mumbled, "Pretty good job. I wonder how he did it way up here without killing his self."
Once home again, we didn't share our adventure with anyone else. It was our secret for the short time that remained for us to be together. When we later relived that day with Grandpa, he said he admired that unknown man who could keep all those windows so spotless way out of the reach of ladders. Maybe he saw that mystical window washer as somehow related to the pilots of his daydreams.
* * *
Grandpa and I were a maze of opposites. His simplicity, maybe aided by fantasies, bore him above a defective world where he could not be overwhelmed by it. He daily climbed his ladder and washed away sins from life's windows with easy strokes. He did it naturally, and he did it well.
I fought to climb the ladder my mother had erected for me to fulfill her mission, the same failed mission she had inherited from her mother, Grandpa's bride. But I never made it past the first rung in spite of all the coaxing from my mother, the Old Testament zealot. Why did Grandpa never warn me about that? Did he even recognize the damaging force of her fanaticism, a force that ultimately destroyed his grandchildren? How could he not? And yet his view of life was so exceptional, in many ways, so naive.
The most powerful heritage from my grandfather was the one that prevented me from saving my strong twin and my innocent sister. It was his weakness. My misfortune, and the frustration of my life, has been that I inherited his weakness, but never acquired his gift to love.
Had I loved Joe, I could have found some way to save him when his strength was spent. Had I loved my mother, I could have forgiven her for loving me more than Joe--or for hating me less. Had I loved Susie, I would not have befriended her greatest enemies, her parents, who were blind to her vitality as the glue uniting a young trio who shared an unfortunate birthright. I was blessed with intelligence, but lacked the focus supplied by love.
My story is replete with the adventures of kids growing up in a mighty city gone to war. But there was another war, not fought with B-29s and V-2 rockets, but with the lives of hostage children. You will experience the rage of a father frustrated by failure and fearful of a son who may surpass him. You'll suffer the sweet kisses and toxic lessons of a mother trying to fulfill Old Testament prophecies laced with the remnants of her own mother's failed crusade. But there were many others essential to those early years, others who tried to teach me love after the lonely escape from my war in Detroit. And you will know Grandpa as I knew him.
My story is sometimes funny, sometimes sad--but always as I remember it. I can promise no more than that.
Donnie slept in the bed behind me as I looked out the upstairs window of this old farmhouse, my new home. I rested my elbows on the low sill, which was already beginning to warm in the morning sun. The scene before me was wonderful, and frightening--so different from the first twelve years of my life. If only I could share this place with Joe.
A swallow went down hard as an image of Joe raced into my thoughts. He would help me figure this out--if he were here, if he could ever be with me again. I hugged him, then chased him out of my mind. He could never help me again. I had to forget. He wasn't real anymore.
But this place was real, and it was really me kneeling on these worn planks. Just yesterday, in another world, I had dreamed of a better place. But this new home was even beyond what I could have imagined. The window in my old world stared out through a web of telephone wires at a rat-infested cinder alley lined with leaking, reeking garbage cans.
This morning, I missed the sound and smell of Detroit. Doves replaced diesels; crowing roosters replaced screeching streetcars. In the distance, a tiny tractor pulled slowly across an endless maze of green and brown stripes, followed by a dust cloud that couldn't quite catch up.
Uncle Johnny was already at work in the yard. He whistled and sang while struggled one of the giant wheels off the faded red International Harvester tractor. He wasn't very tall and seemed even smaller as he rolled a giant lugged wheel toward the barn.
He was singing, and a few of the words reached my ears--something about a June field. Later, I learned from him that the song was about a jeune fille, a young girl in a land even farther away than Detroit.
The weather vane on the roof of the barn pointed northeast. For the next two years, I would see it point every possible direction. The giant black barn doors stood open, framed against the dull red of the barn. Every other barn around was red with white doors. Uncle Johnny liked black doors. On one end of the barn, just visible by stretching to see past the maple tree in the yard, was a fading Mail Pouch Tobacco billboard.
The deep breathing behind me had now stopped, and a voice interrupted my thoughts, "What's so interesting out there?"
"Nothing," I replied, moving only my mouth.
"Well, if it's nothing, how come you can't take your eyes off it?"
"Just looking around."
"Okay. Wake me up for the Fourth of July. I don't want to miss the fireworks." Donnie yawned at me as he rolled over.
I studied the yard again, taking in one sight, then meeting the next, always comparing, never really trusting. At any minute, they could take me back to that other world, the real world. Everything here was so different. At least yesterday I understood my world.
There was Donnie in the bed, or at least a bulge that must have contained him. To him, this was all just ordinary. It would never be ordinary to me.
My eyes scanned the room. It could have been about anywhere. But who was this new boy? My new brother. I slept with him last night, like I used to sleep with Joe.
I dressed and crossed the creaky planks to the hallway, then went down the steep steps, deeply worn from a million feet before me. Stopping at the bottom, I listened through the door between the dining room and me. There were two voices in the kitchen, but I could make out only a few words. It was Aunt Rachel and Margaret.
I pushed the door silently until it squeaked about half way open. Aunt Rae turned and looked through the dining room at me. Margo was around the corner in the kitchen out of site. She stopped in mid sentence.
"I thought maybe you two were going to spend the whole summer in bed," Aunt Rae said.
"Donnie's still in bed," I said to the floor. "He said to make sure we wake him up for the 4th of July."
"He's so lazy, Aunt Rae," Margo's voice rounded the corner. "Gets worse all the time, too. Why do I have to have the most worthless brother on earth?"
"Well, I don't think he has to worry about sleeping through the 4th," Aunt Rae said with a chuckle. "He's got a lot of miles of beans to hoe before then. I don't suppose he said anything about that to you."
"No," I replied.
"Probably just forgot about that," came the voice from the hidden Margo. "That boy only has a half a brain during the school year. And in the summer, his brain is …" Margo paused as Aunt Rae cut some strips of pie dough. "Mush, just mush. It embarrasses me for other kids to know we're related. Sometimes I just--"
"That's okay, Margo. You just make sure none of those cherry pits get through," Aunt Rae said. "Nobody likes to chomp down on hard-rock cherry pie." Aunt Rae walked to the door I held by the knob, pointed her head up the stairs, and said, "Donnie! Donnie!"
"Huh," came the muffled reply.
"Could we please have your presence down here this morning?"
I crossed the dining room to the bathroom and locked myself inside. When I reappeared and stepped to the kitchen doorway, Aunt Rae was just laying down the last strip of crust across the top of the second cherry pie. Margo looked on with pride and glanced at me as I entered the kitchen. Aunt Rae didn't look up from her task as I entered but asked, "Did you wash your hands, Mike?"
I looked at my hands in silence and then at her floured hands and replied, "No." Margo turned away and looked out the window at a field of green wheat just after rolling her eyes.
"We have a rule here, Mike, that you wash your hands every time you use the bathroom," Aunt Rae said softly and with clear eye contact.
I put my hands in my pockets and looked down at my feet against the creamy linoleum floor. Aunt Rae turned back to her work and separated two strips that had gotten tangled. In the process, some flour broke loose from the edge of the pie pan and drifted toward the floor, seeming to evaporate before reaching it. Margo continued to watch the wheat field grow. I slowly turned back toward the bathroom after a long silence.
Aunt Rae followed me, wiping her hands on her apron, turning a brilliant red rose to a gentle pink. At the bathroom door she touched my shoulder and whispered, "Please use lots of soap, and don't spare the elbow grease. And comb your hair. And, Mike, do you have a toothbrush?"
I stared into the bathroom where the white sink stood on two chrome pedestals. Above the sink near the silent pansied curtain, four toothbrushes stood at attention, held in a circle by white ceramic. I shook my head.
"Don't worry about it. We'll get you one when we go into town today." Her hand left some flour on my shoulder and returned toward its cherry pies. I looked at the faint white smudge on the wide blue stripe of my tee shirt. It looked like a smile. Then my eyes followed Aunt Rae back to the kitchen. She passed through a gleaming white doorway, past a white refrigerator that mirrored the morning sun toward me, and stopped at a white sink with bright red flowers behind it on the windowsill. I looked at yesterday's dirt on my hands and went back to the bathroom sink.
Burton was laid out neatly along a short stretch of Highway M-82. Its business district was bounded on the west by Short's Elevator and Fertilizer at the railroad crossing and on the other end by the new Mortensen's Mortuary with its white Greek columns against a red brick front. A black iron clock marked the center of town where Boreman Road stopped for the state highway.
Catty-corner from the clock was Neil's Tavern with its old, raised boardwalk wrapping around two sides of it. Only Jack's next store to Neil's and the Sturgis Hotel and Parlor a block away, retained the nearly extinct boardwalks. The Depression and World War II had brought change even to Burton. The streets downtown had been paved, but the Sturgis kept two hitching posts, one on each side of its front steps.
Aunt Rae parked her black '46 Mercury diagonally in front of Schoensy's Market. That Mercury was the most luxurious car I'd ever sat in and still even smelled new. The gray tweed upholstery was spotless and soft under my massage. It reminded me of the soft velvet seat I sat in on the one time in my life I went to one of the big theaters downtown. Some lady, I don't even remember who, took me to the Fox Theater. It was VE Day. It was the day we buried my brother.
She bought me candy and popcorn, and I don't even remember what movie we saw. But the seat was red velvet. Joe's coffin was lined in red velvet. I wanted to touch it, but I didn't. It didn't seem right to me then. Now I wished I had that touch to remember him by. All I remember is the color--and a million people singing and dancing about the end of the war in Europe.
This seat wasn't the same color and didn't feel like the theater seat, but it was somehow the same. That seemed so long ago, yet it shouted at me now. That world, and those people, owned me. They would always own me.
But I wanted the world of Mercuries, red barns, and flour smiles to own me. I wanted Aunt Rae and Uncle Johnny to own me--and the white kitchen with the red geraniums, and this soft back seat with the new smell. But I knew that would never happen. These new owners wouldn't last. They were like Mom, Dad, Grandpa, and Susie--and Joe. But I owned this place right now, and wasn't going to take a chance that it might disappear like everything always had before. It could happen any time. I had to keep my grip on it.
The only time I'd ever even been close to such a wonderful car was when I was five years old. Someone visited us, and he had a brand new 1939 Packard. I was so thrilled by its shiny chrome gleaming in the sun that I ran up to it and put both hands on one of the chrome headlights that begged to be touched as it rose out of that sleek black fender.
My father yelled, "Get away from that car!" and knocked me into the street. I lay there for a long time, afraid to get up. Then I ran to my mother on the front porch.
Joe made an even bigger mistake. He opened the front door, climbed inside, and sat behind the wheel, gripping it with both hands and making motor noises while stretching his neck to see. My father stormed at him and shouted a burst of saliva as he wrenched him through the open window. The simple blow I had received was just a warmup. All the while he beat Joe, he shouted bits of sentences about consideration for other people's property. Mom and I watched from the front porch.
Suddenly, a hand on my left shoulder brought me back to the present. I jerked away. Aunt Rae stood just outside the open door beside me. Margo and Donnie stood on the sidewalk in front of the car. My eyes fell to the white knuckles of my right hand gripping the armrest folded down in the middle of the back seat.
"You going to stay in there all day?" came the words from Margo as her fingers outlined the Mercury shield on the hood.
Aunt Rae's shadow surprised me as she stooped, coming so close I could smell her last cup of coffee. She whispered to me, "Where were you, Michael? You scared me the way you …"
My gaze darted first to her eyes, then to my shoes, Joe's shoes. I always wore his after he outgrew them. I had to put a couple Wheaties-box insoles in them. Were these the ones he wore that day? Aunt Rae's moving shadow rescued me from the answer.
I desperately wanted to stay with my new owners, to make sure they couldn't leave me behind. I had made up my mind on the way into town. Aunt Rae would never desert this beautiful new car, so as long as I held onto this back seat, I would see her again. The velvet touch of the seat and armrest would keep me company, and torture me, until her return.
"You can stay here if you like, Mike," she said. "We'll only be a few minutes here at Schoensy's Market and then at the drug store. But you might get tired of waiting for us while we're at Thompkins' Ice Cream Parlor. Or, you might want to come with us, to Thompkins', just to help me pick out some ice cream. For Uncle Johnny."
"Come on, Aunt Rae," Donnie whined. "If that creep doesn't want any ice cream, I'll be glad to eat--" He stopped suddenly as Aunt Rae's shadow threatened him.
Her shadow returned to my shoes. "We might even see something we like."
My eyes made the slightest movement toward her. My fingers slowly released the armrest, like they were saying goodbye to it--like I would say goodbye to someone I might never see again. I felt like a traitor.
"Well, don't do us any--"
Margo had already left and was strolling toward Burke's Dime Store to check out the window displays.
"Why don't you and your sister go to Schoensy's and get us a basket, Donnie."
Aunt Rae's shadow turned toward him with an outstretched finger showing the way. I slipped out of the car and closed the door, but it didn't quite latch. Aunt Rae opened it a little and reclosed it with just enough force to get a proper thud.
"It takes me a while to get used to new surroundings, Mike," said Aunt Rae. "We have plenty of time, and we aren't going anywhere." She gave me a hug. At first I stiffened. Then my shoulder sank into her waist.
I followed her into the market and glanced back to check on the car. The wooden screen door slammed, and I was nudged inside by a red and white Coca-Cola sign.
When we walked out with a Vernor's Ginger Ale box and two Van Kamp's Pork and Beans boxes loaded with groceries, the Mercury was still there, and its trunk took the boxes. We made a similar trip to the Binson's Pharmacy. A bag of half-inch nuts and bolts and a can of penetrating oil followed at Schuster's Hardware. Then we were off to Thompkins'.
"Make mine a large chocolate milk shake!" Donnie announced to Ralph Thompkins with a spin on the stool to my right. A voice from the far left stool reprimanded him. "Where are your manners, Little Brother? Don't you know it's ladies before gentlemen?"
Donnie leaned far enough forward to see past Aunt Rae and me. "I'll be a gentleman first time I see you being a lady."
"Ralph, would you please serve Donnie and Margo last?" Aunt Rae said. "He does need a lesson that gentlemen don't jump ahead of ladies. But I think Mike and I should go first since a real lady would never chastise her brother like that since it wasn't her place to do so." I heard a poorly muffled chuckle from my right. "Go ahead, Mike," Aunt Rae said. "This is your first time here so I think you should lead the way."
I searched the menu behind the soda fountain and then read it again. "Well, I guess a small chocolate cone would be fine."
"Great! That'll only take a couple seconds to make," Donnie said. Margo just shook her head and mouthed, "A small cone?"
"This is your chance to try to spoil your appetite," Aunt Rae said. "I have plenty to do in my garden for everybody to work off as much ice cream as you can eat. Supper is down the road a piece."
"Anything I want?" I said. I looked at Aunt Rae and then back at the menu.
"That's the message, Retard," Donnie said.
"Okay, Mike, what'll it be for you?" Mr. Thompkins put both hands on the counter in front of me. "It's your nickel." Then his huge laugh made me jump.
"What's a banana split?" I asked.
"Jeez!" I heard from Donnie.
"Well, when I manufacture a banana split," Mr. Thompkins leaned forward and rounded up a few things, "I start off with a banana sliced right down the middle like this in a bowl like this. Then I put three scoops of any kind of ice cream you want right on top. And I have eighteen flavors to choose from. Then I spread chocolate syrup all over the top and let it run all over the ice cream and down around the banana slices, and I smother the top with crushed peanuts and smother this whipped cream all over it and make this big pile in the middle. Then I put this big red cherry right on top. And all around the edges, I put these mint chocolate wafers, all standing up at attention." He looked proudly at his make believe banana split. "Now, for a first time split, I finish off with this American flag stuck right in the cherry."
I stared at his hands and then smiled at his laughing face. It felt good to smile, though it took me a little off guard. My eyes fixed on the cut glass bowl before me, and an exquisite banana split rose out of its emptiness, like a dare. I wondered what even greater delight might lie a little farther down the menu. "What's that next one?" I asked, not wanting to admit that I was unsure how to pronounce it.
"Well, that's a sundae, Mike," Mr. Thompkins confided in me.
"Jeez, Mike!" said Donnie. "Don't you even know what a sundae is? Have you been living--"
My smile shrank quickly as I wondered if I was the only kid in town who had to ask what's in a sundae. Aunt Rae was now sitting between Donnie and me.
"Now, in my sundae, I start off with this kind of glass. I put two scoops into it and top it with any topping you like, and then a dab of whipped cream and a cherry." Mr. Thompkins caste a broad smile at me and then looked at Aunt Rae. He shifted his eyes back to me and asked, "Well, what do you think it'll be today, Mike?"
"A banana split," I said. "Is that okay, Aunt Rae?"
"Now there's a smart lad, Rachel," he said as he began the assembly with focused eyes and a tongue stuck between his lips.
"You can have two if you think you're up to it. But they're pretty monstrous. You might need some help."
"I think I can handle it," I said as my eyes followed Mr. Thompkins' every move. "But just one, Mr. Thompkins."
Margo leaned forward and looked at me. "You weren't kidding about not knowing what a sundae is, were you? Didn't you ever go to an ice cream parlor before? Don't they have any down there in Detroit?"
"Sometimes, when Popsicle Pete would come around, we, I mean I …" I stopped in mid sentence and stared at Mr. Thompkins as he layered the crushed peanuts over the chocolate syrup. "Sometimes I would get a Popsicle or a drum cone. But Pete never had any banana splits or sundaes."
"Sometimes Aunt Rae and I share a banana split," continued Margo, "but my piggy brother is the only one I ever saw eat a whole one by himself. And we had to call Uncle Johnny to come and get him with the tractor and wagon because the car wouldn't hold him."
"How about the time we were over to Buzzy's," Donnie shot back, "and you stayed home and ate that whole apple pie all by yourself? And pu … and got sick out behind the barn."
"I did not eat it all! Jenny came over and was hungry and started eating it and--"
"Yeah! And she was still hungry when she left cuz you stuffed--"
"Donnie and Margo!" said Aunt Rae above the two. "If you two don't stop right now, Mike and I will be the only ones having ice cream today!"
I counted the chocolate mint wafers as Mr. Thompkins carefully lined them up like sailors around the railing of a battleship. He carefully placed the mountain before me and set a long spoon and three napkins beside it. I picked up the spoon while examining each part of the mountain. Aunt Rae's chocolate milk shake, Donnie's triple-decker triple-dipped cone, and Margo's strawberry sundae were all lost in the background as I dove into my first ever ice cream parlor treat.
When Aunt Rae's shake settled in front of her, I diverted my attention just long enough to see her lips lower to the pair of straws. When Donnie's cone arrived, I had already gotten down to the banana at one end. He was impressed with my progress and cast a sneer at Margo just as Mr. Thompkins asked for her order. By the time Margo dipped into her sundae, I was undermining the red cherry on its southern flank. Donnie's final crunch of the point of his cone coincided with my cherry rolling down the north slope into the banana valley below. Only a small clump of ice cream remained in the point of Margo's sundae glass when I devoured the last of the mint chocolate wafers, and only the bright red cherry remained at the bottom.
I rolled the cherry all around the bowl to get the last of the melted ice cream. All eyes, including Mr. Thompkins', were riveted to that single cherry as it wandered under my control. Placing it on the end of my spoon, I drew it toward my mouth as I realized I was the star attraction for that historical moment. A slight grin came over my face as I looked over my audience just before popping that bit of history into my mouth and savoring its delicate juices. When I finally swallowed and placed the shiny spoon in the dish, my fans applauded, and I nodded.
When we left Thompkins' with our drug store and hardware store bags, my eyes darted a half block to the right and across the street. There was the black Mercury, still parked in front of Schoensy's. There was Aunt Rae and Margo in front of me, and Donnie pushing past me. We were all still together, and I was confident that Uncle Johnny would be there at the farm, probably working on his tractor and cultivators, and happy to see us return with his pint of maplenut ice cream.
As we drove home, I sat quietly on the back seat next to the open window. The wind forced my eyes closed, and I had to gulp the air down. My two hands fondled the soft seat cushion. But the banana split and the hurricane of fresh air forced every thought out of my mind.
A voice interrupted my flight. "What?" I said.
"You want to go down to the creek when we get home?" came a question flung at me against the wind from the other side of the car.
I lowered my head and let the wind carry me. "Sure." The wind swept that word from my lips and swirled it around the Mercury before delivering it to Donnie.
"I don't suppose anyone is interested in lunch now," Aunt Rae said as she turned off the engine in the oval driveway beside the house.
"I know one person who isn't," said Margo, looking over her shoulder toward me.
"Probably won't want any supper, either," Donnie completed the thought.
"Okay, kids, my garden has some weeds in it that I didn't invite there, so how about if you divide it up three ways and work off your ice cream getting rid of them?" A groan arose from Donnie followed by a comment from Margo about her brother's laziness. "I don't care when you do it so long as it's done by supper time. Margo and Donnie, you can show Mike how it's done. It'll be good practice for hoeing beans. That starts tomorrow."
This time the groan came from Margo. "We just started our summer vacation, Aunt Rae. Can't that wait a little longer?"
"Weeds don't go on vacation, Margo," said Aunt Rae.
"That's right, lazy Margo," sneered Donnie. "You ever see a weed taking a day off?"
"Sounds like you want to be our lead hoer, Donnie," said Aunt Rae. "I can fix you up with a hoe for each hand, and you can cover twice as many beans as we do."
Margo clapped in approval.
"Big joke, Margo," responded Donnie. "Big joke. Come on, Mike. I'll get a bike for you in the barn."
Donnie ran across the green yard toward the barn. I ran a short distance behind him and then stopped part way to the barn, turned around, and watched Aunt Rae and Margo walking into the house. After the screen door closed behind Margo, I continued my trip to the barn behind Donnie. He rummaged through several old bikes leaning against a wall next to the workbench. "This one's Uncle Johnny's, but he hasn't used it for a while. All we got to do is pump up the front tire. Well, maybe that's all."
I watched him work, and in a minute the bike was ready to go. "Okay, let's hit the road," he said jumping on his bike and scooting toward the door. I hesitated with one hand on the dusty handlebar before walking my bike outside behind him. Donnie was pedaling over the grass toward the driveway as I left the barn and stood looking after him.
As he turned onto the road, he looked back and saw me standing in the shadow of the barn with my blond head in the sunshine. He stopped and shouted back, "What's the matter?" I stood still as he road back. "What's the matter? Something wrong with your bike?"
"Where we going?" I asked.
"Down to the creek. I want to show you the bridge where we go swimming."
"How far is it?" I asked.
"Just down the road a little. Why?"
"Can we see the house from there?" I asked.
"Sure! It's right there," he said pointing down the road.
My eyes followed his finger and searched for a bridge. "I don't see any bridge."
"Well, shoot! You can't see the bridge. It's behind those trees. They're right before the creek."
I studied where he pointed. "So you can't really see the house when you're at the bridge. Right?"
"What the heck difference does it make if we can see the house? You crazy, or what? We're just going down to the creek. What's your problem?"
I studied the house and the black Mercury in the driveway. Aunt Rae was somewhere inside. "I'm not going."
"What the heck! You're too weird for me, Mike. Far too weird. No wonder your mother didn't want you at home. Probably too weird for her, too."
His insult might have stung, but I was already drifting into another arena, one that his words couldn't penetrate. The white farmhouse before me transformed into a small, gray duplex with paint peeling into potato chips, where there was paint. The whole neighborhood looked about the same. My eyes slowly closed as I ascended the stairway to the upstairs flat. I had to walk on the far right side of the steps because one of them had broken through one time as I ran down.
"Mama! Mama!" I called as I walked into the kitchen. I stopped abruptly as my gaze fell on the refrigerator. Its door was standing open with its motor grinding away trying to keep up with the heat of the late May afternoon. The kitchen was no more of a mess than usual. It was my daily job to clean the kitchen when I got home from school.
I had about one hour after school before Mama had to leave for work at the Plymouth plant a couple miles away. She had to leave by 4:15 to get there by the starting time of 5:00. A quick glance at the wall clock told me she still had nearly an hour before she had to leave, but there was no sign of her. There was no sign of any men's clothes in the living room, so I tiptoed to the hallway and stood outside her bedroom listening for any sounds inside. Nothing.
My knock wasn't answered. I was both relieved and worried. Relieved because I wouldn't get knocked around by some guy for interrupting them, and worried because Mama's absence probably meant just one thing--another drinking binge.
"Mike! What's the matter?" Donnie shouted. "You gonna die or something? You sick, or what?"
I looked first at Donnie, then at the white farmhouse with the perfect back porch and the kind aunt inside.
"You okay?" asked Donnie.
"Uh huh," I nodded.
"I'm getting out of here before your weirdness rubs off on me!" Donnie spun gravel with his bike as he took off down the oval driveway and turned onto the road away from the creek. I watched him as he pedaled furiously along the road, mesmerized by the churning legs that seemed part of the machine he rode. He turned into the driveway of the next farm down the road and disappeared behind that white farmhouse. My spell was broken by a shadow that touched mine.
"Pretty stupid, isn't he?" Margo said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
"What were you thinking about before when you closed your eyes?"
I looked down and cleared away some stones from the driveway with my right foot. "Nothing," I finally replied.
"I can show you the creek, Mike. It's neat under the bridge, just watching the water. There are suckers, and sometimes you can watch them swimming around in the pool under the bridge. It's kind of a neat place to think." She cleared some gravel of her own, "Did you know Plato used to sit under a bridge and think a lot?"
I shook my head and studied her shadow. She had changed her clothes from the cream flowered dress she wore to town to the faded blue jeans she normally wore around the farm.
"Uncle Johnny says everybody needs a quiet place to go and think. And dream. Have any place like that where you lived?"
I enlarged the bare spot and cleared it down to the dirt beneath. "There aren't any quiet places in Detroit," I replied.
"Then why don't you let me show you the one down by the creek? There are lots of places like that around here."
"I … I don't want to," I said.
"We've got plenty of time before we have to be back to weed the garden."
"I know," I replied.
"Well then, why not?"
I now had a great pile of stones at each end of the spot, and my Keds were getting caked with dirt. "Will Aunt Rae … ah … be here when we get back?"
"Sure! She's fixing some stuff in the kitchen," Margo said.
"You're sure she's not going somewhere this afternoon?"
"No. She has lots to do here, Mike."
"You're sure," I persisted.
"Uh huh. I'm sure."
"I guess … okay."
"Great! Hang on right here while I get my bike!" She reappeared with her bike a moment later while I was still filling in and smoothing the ditch I'd made. She led the way down the driveway, and I tried to follow but fell off my bike. I was back on it in a flash and wobbled down the driveway behind her. By the time we got to the bridge, I was doing much better, having ridden off the road into the ditch only twice in that distance. Margo laughed each time I did and then applauded when I dragged myself and my bike back onto the road.
Under the bridge was cool and secluded. A farm truck would pass over once in a while, but otherwise the only sounds were from the local residents--the pigeons, the water trickling past on its way to Lake Huron, and a winding row of rustling trees following the stream. . The concrete bridge abutment had a pair of ledges on each end of the bridge directly under the road. These ledges were perfect for sitting and walking. We sat on the upper ledge with our feet on the lower one for a long time in silence.
"One evening I was sitting here just before dusk," Margo said, "and the light was kind of dim in here. And I was watching the water just kind of meander by, and this family of ducks swam right in here under us where the pool's deep. There was this mother and her five little ducklings, and they were really little. They swam all around here, and they were diving and splashing, and they didn't even see me because I didn't move a muscle. Then they all waddled up on that sandy bank right over there, and the mother sat down next to that tall grass. She quacked a few times and all the little ones came and gathered around and started pushing at her and squeezing under her, and after a little while you couldn't even see one of them any more. They were all under her feathers. You could here them, but you couldn't see them.
"It was getting pretty dark by then, and I was afraid to move because it would scare them. So I just inched over toward that end real slow, like this, and in about five minutes, I was all the way over to the end of the ledge, and they still didn't know I was there. Then I had to climb up the bank in the dark, but when I stepped off the ledge, my foot slipped and I slid right into the water and made an awful splash. Well, I could hear all this quacking and peeping, and before you know it, the mother duck took off and I could see her silhouette against the sky right there where there aren't any trees. And she was gone, and those little peepers were panicking, they were so scared. So I figured I better get out of there as fast as I could so the mother could come back. I went up the road a little bit and stopped to see if the mother was coming back, but it was dark, and I couldn't tell anything, so I just went home. She probably came back as soon as I got away from the bridge."
After her story ended, we just sat there for a minute. I stared at the spot where the ducks had been and imagined the little ducklings alone in the dark.
"Next morning, I came back to see what happened, but there wasn't any sign of them. So I was sure she came back and got them."
"Maybe she didn't come back," I said in a monotone. "Maybe she just flew away. Maybe some raccoon or something, got the ducklings, and killed them." There was a long pause. "That could be what happened, you know."
"No! That's not what happened! You don't have any idea what happened! You weren't even here! I was! So how could you know? You're just a stupid little boy, and you think you know everything, but you don't know anything!" She walked to the end of the ledge and climbed up the bank out of sight. I stayed where I was and just watched the sand bank and the water that trickled by it.
After a few minutes, Margo returned in silence and sat back down, further away than before. "What happened to your mother?" I asked, not looking up?
"She died, about three years ago. That's when Donnie and I came to live with Uncle Johnny and Aunt Rae."
We both studied the creek for a while. "What about your mother?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"You don't know what happened to your mother? Didn't think that was possible. You must know if she's dead or alive."
"I said I didn't know!" I shot back.
We watched the water together for a while.
"How about your dad?"
"I don't have a father," I replied.
"Have any brothers or sisters?"
My eyes were fixed on the little sandy beach where the ducklings had either been rescued by their mother or killed by some prowler. I saw Joe lying there, crumpled and still. Thoughts trickled through my brain like the water in the creek. It would eventually get to the lake and then to the ocean no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the delay. It was as sure as gravity. My lips answered in a whisper only I could hear.
"What?" queried Margo.
"I said I don't have a father!"
Margo turned her head to examine the same sand bank. "My father got killed on the battleship Arizona. But it was way before the war started. Just some freak accident. Mom said some cable or something broke. He was just in the wrong place. I hardly remember anything about him."
"You're lucky," I muttered.
Margo said nothing for a long time and then turned toward me and continued. "Mom caught cancer, and after a while, she couldn't even go to work or anything. Aunt Rae came and stayed with us most of that summer. She died just before school started. Mrs. Gladstone said Mom loved us too much to even interfere with our education, and that's why she died before school started."
I felt Margo's eyes on me, but the funny thing was, it didn't make me uncomfortable. I responded, however, by speaking to the sandy bank. "What did your mom look like?"
"I'll always remember her the way she looked that spring, before she got real bad. She had long, yellow hair. I asked her once why she had long hair, because she always put it up in a bun before she went to work. They wouldn't let women wear long hair in the factory. But she told me that Daddy used to love her long hair and bought her shiny combs to hold it back, and he liked to take the combs out and let her hair fall down over her face and then smooth it back with his hands and kiss her. She said that was how she would always remember him.
"She said she would get up in the morning and sit on her bed with her mirror and brush back her hair and pretend Daddy would come up behind her and pull her hair back and kiss her neck and tell her how beautiful she was and that she should never cut that beautiful hair. Never. And then he would kiss her some more.
"When she got cancer, they gave her some drug. Said it was some experimental stuff, and in about two weeks, all her hair fell out. It would just lay in clumps on her pillow, and she would cry, and then she would yell at me, and then she would squeeze me and say how sorry she was, and then later she would yell at me again. Donnie was just starting school that year. He would stand in the doorway and run away when Mom yelled and then come back when she said she was sorry. Aunt Rae said that the drug made her kind of crazy.
"She never yelled at me before she got sick. Sometimes yelled at Donnie. He couldn't stay out of trouble. One time he brought some really dumb boy in the house while Mom was at work, and this kid dropped a quart of chocolate milk on the floor in front of the refrigerator. So instead of cleaning it up, they just pushed all the milk under the refrigerator and didn't tell anybody. Then a couple of weeks later, Mom was complaining about some awful smell. After we found the mess and cleaned it up, Mom found Donnie and had a little talk with him. I think that was the last time she got mad at him before she got sick."
We went back to staring across the creek at the empty bank. "She sounds nice," I said.
"Was your mom nice?" Margo asked.
I closed my eyes and finally said, "I don't remember."
"I bet she loved you, though."
"Uh huh," I replied.
"When was the last time you saw her?"
"A couple weeks ago."
"What happened?" she persisted.
"I don't know." I looked at the spot right next to the tall grass. It was like any other spot along the creek, but it was very different. "Well … maybe I know a little. It was just before the end of the school year, and my teacher said I was doing really well. I was happy about that, but I didn't want summer vacation to come."
"What?" exclaimed Margo. "Every kid loves summer vacation!"
I kept my head pointed toward the creek, but my eyes wandered down and to my right. Margo's bluejeaned leg paralleled my own. It didn't seem like a girl's leg, just a kid's leg. I felt I could trust her, and I hadn't trusted anyone since Joe died. I wanted to trust her. So I began my story. I told it to the sandy bank across the creek but with Margo's leg listening, too.