William March: Company K (amazon / ebook / indiebound) / The Bad Seed (amazon / ebook / indiebound) / Trial Balance: And Other Stories About Schools (amazon / ebook / indiebound)
LINEAGE: 7 VARIATIONS
My grandmother’s alone, more alone than I, though less alone than my grandfather, who lives in a hut back of our house—like Tolstoy—and who I sometimes believe must have a secret family tucked away in a little ruined port town, where he goes when he needs to talk to somebody, or squeeze somebody’s hand, or just stand beside somebody on a creaky, barnacled pier stretching out to sea. Even so, my grandmother, who never leaves our attic and whose love for absolute solitude I never question, may likelier possess a secret family: sometimes, late afternoons, practicing my cello in the tan hills overlooking our house, I’ll see an arm fling out of her tiny circular window—a signal that she’s hungry—but is it really her arm every time? She could have an entire other family up there, and I (holding a high note, climactic, heavy vibrato, in the citrus-scented shade of a lemon tree) could be responding to somebody else’s arm. You can imagine, maybe, how difficult it is to live with them: unsheeted beds, empty fiddle-backed chairs, spotless placemats, the wind lifting the blue curtains. Would you even believe I stalked a family last night—mother, father, two boys, a girl—into a café, into the gelato parlor, then through the lamp-lighted park and down a narrow, bark-chipped path and to the lake, where I at once darted away like a skittish deer under the pinery? I had the sudden, cold-sweat feeling that my grandparents, in my absence, needed my company: my grandfather on the porch tuning his fiddle, or my grandmother folding back my comforter, all set to tuck me in. But could I ever reach them, could I ever burst into our house in time? Let me tell you: the silence, when I arrived, was deafening. I gazed up at the starlight; I did not dare go inside. Too afraid to face such solitude, too fragile to be let down, I tromped round to the side of the house—yellow porch-swing cushion shoved under my arm—then dropped down through the black hole of the storm cellar, where sometimes I’ll spend the night.
When it begins to exist for others it ceases to live in us.
You’ve been so quiet, so much quieter than I, even if you’re still less quiet than your father, whose only sound each evening, as he puffs on his after-dinner cigar, lost in a reverie of woolly smoke, like a mountaintop, is a long belch-like groan of satisfaction. Still, we hear things at night (the pop of a cork, a chair scraped back) and believe, lying upstairs in the dark, that you must be talking to somebody, leaning in close, giving away all your secrets. In fact we worry that you’ll soon have no private life at all, no warm interior space in which to hide, as a ground squirrel hides—needs to hide—under frozen earth, wrapped in its thin tail. And then, tell me, what will you do? You will wander the brick streets looking for others’ secrets, for the quietest people, as though you could hide (and you cannot hide) inside them. Maybe the best way to protect you is to show you, here, now, in this letter, that language contains innumerable trapdoors: the word pebble is uttered, and at once you’re standing on the bank of a sunset-smeared river littered with white funerary petals, squeezing my pinkie finger, and talking about how the water gurgled over stone, or what one decrepit woman whispered, or why you could not look at the red-faced men sobbing and gripping their hatbrims—so that a secret, a private feeling, however minuscule or trivial, is now outside of you, now an object that strangers can lift and peer into, the way a monstrous eye can fill a dollhouse window. Would you even believe that last night, because I heard, as your father’s belly quietly rose and fell, nothing at all, I tiptoed downstairs and out of the house and from shadow to shadow, my wine-colored bathrobe streaming behind me, slunk toward the louder neighborhoods, expecting to find you? Quite soon, behind a corner maple, I spotted a man I used to know, before I’d met your father, chatting with a young woman (not you, thank goodness) outside a Moroccan restaurant, no doubt exchanging some exotic-breathed secrets en route to a cinematic kiss, and I realized that I could, after all these years, still taste the salt on his lips, still feel his thick mahogany hair (now flecked with silver) between my fingers, still hear him breathe—pant almost—right in my ear. I didn’t love him, this older man, this onetime Assistant Professor (“Ass Prof,” he used to quip) of Cultural Anthropology, yet he activated something inside of me (an exuberance, a verbosity) that your father, who I nevertheless love eternally, seemed to shut down. Ohh, it is so quiet in our house, in our bedroom—only the faint scratching of my pen as I write by candlelight at our rolltop desk, like a monastic scribe. Indeed, listening to the sharp ring of silence, I suddenly believe that you are sound asleep, you are your father’s daughter, and I am the odd, unquiet one who hears things and gives away secrets and in the quiet center of the night must scribble in her little lavender notebook, sighing. Maybe I should thank you for surrounding with me such quietness; then again, maybe my quietness is the best expression of my gratitude. Thus, as quiet as this candleflame, as quiet as my tall empty glass of milk reflecting the candleflame in our dresser mirror across the room, I’ll slip into bed, and I’ll pull the gauzy covers up over my voice and body. Gute nacht, my daughter. You may not hear from me for a long time.
My early stories are action-packed, more action-packed than (as one friend, swirling wine with half-closed eyes, put it) my “reflective middle period,” but less action-packed than my current stories, which are chockfull of car chases, explosions, shootouts, swordfights, wild sex, the works. Still, I admire the naïve, even vulgar, audacity of my early stories: lead characters tumble down elevator shafts or vanish in snowstorms, their Oldsmobiles idling bluely on the sides of roads. Now sensible reasons underlie all of my decisions—my pencils are ruminatively teeth-marked—so that the action of writing is, despite the excitement on the page, rather unexciting. At this very moment, in fact, gazing out from my study window at the dark birch woods across our road, I consider the weapons (dagger, derringer, throwing star) most quickly secreted into a leather boot, and I grow nostalgic for my middle period: the woods are so much more meaningful, more mysterious, than little (or big) weapons; I ought to stand before the darkness in my red silk dragon-print kimono, imagining this or that character sloughing through leaves and underbrush, loping over rocks and fallen branches, hacking with a machete through ancient emerald vines, drawn inexorably toward a moon-silvered chalice from which he or she (throwing off an enormous hiking pack) would drink—deep amber wine dribbling down his beard or between her breasts—and sink at last into a deep amber sleep wherein his or her entire life, soft-edged, in slow-motion, begins once more amid the quiet birch trees… Or something like that. The inescapable problem of such stories, the reason I stopped pursuing them, is that nothing outside of a character’s mind actually happens; the virtual supplants reality; the reader, twice removed, is like a woman watching a woman watch an autobiographical film at the back of an empty theatre, dust motes floating celestially in the projector’s beam—a woman who will, I now imagine, walk home in the rain in her flesh-colored stockings under a lemon-yellow umbrella thinking about her life, about her film, pausing for a spell before an illuminated bakery window to follow with her eyes the glistening braided swirls of cinnamon rolls and Danishes. But where, dear reader, is the action in that? My life is already actionless enough. Pick up a book. Write. Take a snoozer. Watch a sitcom. Whip up a stir-fry in my tattered sockfeet. Hence, my stories are action-packed: the woman will enter their bedroom, find her husband’s face buried between the deep amber asscheeks of a housemaid, and in a shriekingly dissonant instant of mindless rage reach down into her bootleg and grasp her derringer—I’m right now gripping my pencil over a blank page as though it too were a weapon, as though I too could inflict pain—and raise it and fire pointblank into their chests in quick succession: first the husband, who flails backward, still erect, spouting blood from his neck, and then the maid, who simply crumples to the floor like a dropped trench coat (with a blood-red rose in its lapel). Yet it occurs to me now that both action and “reflection” are, at root, just two different ways of searching for the same—well, something. I can go downtown and carelessly or methodically search for it in the smoke-filled, neon-lighted bars; or else I can sit up here at my desk and, slurping my cold sour metallic coffee, search for it in the mind. What difference does it make, finally? Ohh, hell, it makes a world of difference: reflection cannot poach my eggs, for example; neither can action interpret or examine or at all comprehend any other action, like the late June night in which I, after a sublime blues concert, clambered with a bunch of strangers into a graffitied, black-windowed sedan. Perhaps my stories, my late stories, will cease their searching altogether—as Kafka once said: “My stories are a kind of closing one’s eyes”—and instead center around the derringer in the bootleg, moonlight trickling through the birch leaves, wine in the chalice, nothing at all on the page, dust or darkness or silence, faint piano music from another room, faint wind billowing the curtains, the blood pooling over the rustic pinewood floor, seeping into the crevices, into the fibers, seeping deep down into the earth.
I’m handsome—a bit handsomer, I think, than my brother—but perhaps not quite as handsome as our father, whose dark eyes and delicate brushstrokes of gray about his ears make him look dignified and private—like a great exiled European poet—though he is in fact rather gregarious and clumsy. Just this morning, for example, emptying the dishwasher in his V-neck Hanes, a plate slipped from his hands and shattered instantly on the marble tile, an accident we’d witnessed a gazillion times: he stares down at the shards, nostrils flared, arms flung out, underlip angled grotesquely rightward, as though snagged on a fishhook. I must admit that he looks at such times (that is to say frequently) quite ugly—not at all as handsome as outsiders believe—which makes me, whose handsomeness is never marred by actions, the actual handsomest man of the household, don’t you think? Still, whenever I look at my brother, who ought now to envy me and watch me, the way the two of us long envied and watched our father, he is gazing at himself in a gilded mirror, or a storefront window, or a bottle-green puddle out back, so that I think that he (with his crew cut and tight black tees) may indeed be the handsomest, and that I have little sense of my own appearance, or of my very self—inside or out. Now, at dusk, I reach into the kitchen trashcan, lift out a shard of broken plate, and hold it up to my face, as I’d seen somebody do in a tragic opera: my left eye, funhouse-mirrored, stares back at me dimly, disfiguredly. But I refuse to look away; I feel certain that my brother and our father are, from their respective doorframes, silhouetted behind and on either side of me, waiting for me to renounce myself, to slam the shard back into the trashcan, and to—why else would they be so quiet?—slink away into the shadows, an ashamed monster. Thus I continue to gaze at myself, thus I begin to sway from side to side in the dusk-lighted kitchen, running my free hand through my hair. My handsomeness, I must admit, seems not to matter at all anymore. As long as I keep up this performance, as long as I keep them silhouetted in their doors . . .
Yesterday is so boring, don’t you think?
—David St. John
Yesterday is so boring, so much more boring than tomorrow, though not quite so boring as today, don’t you think? Today I trudged out to that little bus stop at the edge of town, where I once passed a woman paring mushrooms in a yellow nightie, but the place was desolate: the shadow of an immense condor wheeled before me in the dust. At least yesterday I sat beside my aunt in her wheelchair on the sparkling convalescent lawn, nodding and looking off and slurping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, even if she didn’t speak to me, but only stared out from under her heavy lashes, like a cow, which can be so boring. And yet tomorrow—tomorrow I may at last, in the watery predawn silence of my bedroom, sense a presence so cold and unseen hovering above me, waiting for me to enter it like a man thrust into nothingness, into silence, whereafter yesterday and today and even tomorrow will have all become so boring, don’t you think? Well, I think so, and I feel so, too, almost as though tomorrow is in fact today, and I am hovering in the starless night above a blazing bonfire: boys drinking with the firelight in their teeth; girls dancing in circles, jiggling music from their silver earrings. Still, the idea of now prodding this mental picture for meaning, whether today or tomorrow or even yesterday, is frankly so boring, too, don’t you think? I belong down there in the dust, kicking Coke cans, whacking things with sticks. Chucking rocks at telephone wires. I mean, for Chrissake, how did I even get myself up here—an invisible sailor in an invisible crow’s nest—with the sky so dark and the sea stretching out so calm and boring over almost everything?
A people’s dress tells one a great deal more about them than their poetry.
Our grandfather’s brown flannel suits tell us a great deal more about him than his poetry, more about him even than his tastes in music—polka and Dixieland and gypsy swing, nothing else—though maybe less about him than his gestures, which are as rehearsed and grandiloquent as an old silent tragedian’s. Today, for example, when my sister and I rang his bell after school, he promptly swung open the screen, clapped his heels together, lifted his chin, and, very butler-like, swept one arm toward his darkened, fusty-smelling interior. In his starched shirt and blue- and yellow-striped tie, he looked non-retired, a man still at the office crunching numbers or making sales calls, still married to our rosacea-cheeked grandmother who, chain-smoking Capri Super Slims, refurbished antique dressers on their back porch—nothing at all like the retired widower bent just seconds ago over a poem (my body like a tamarind on a branch . . .) in his study, listening to the Hot Fives. I realized, in fact, that our grandfather’s suits are rather misleading. Because of them, he is mistaken for part of a community, one of many brown flannel suit-wearers, as opposed to what he is: an isolato, on the fringes of even his own family, which may incidentally account for the grandiloquence of his gestures. If he felt close to us, would his arms, after escorting us into his living room, really dart and waggle over his leather sofa, as though playing stride and boogie on the keys, beckoning us to sit? He soon popped King Kong into the VCR, gave us each a Klondike bar—an afterschool ritual—and then retreated down the shag-carpeted hall and into his study. We never stayed more than fifteen minutes.
Now, at dusk, walking the winding creekside paths behind his neighborhood, running our fingertips along the brown flannel pads of cattails, I wonder, too, whether he would have, if he felt close to us, any desire at all to write poetry; to perpetually address with a dull pencil his late-lamented “you” (car accident, on her way to Raley’s for asparagus and eggs); to grasp as it were at nothingness, page after empty half-page—a disembodied gesture, no less grandiloquent—in the presence of actual flesh and blood. The writing of poems is no doubt a lonely enterprise, and lonelier still to write them in such a public, upper-middle-class uniform. (I always imagine poets draped in heavy robes.) Still, the scratchy music issuing from our grandfather’s old Victrola in the corner of his study, causing his neighbors to slam shut their windows or, after midnight, swing open their shutters and bark at him to turn it down for Chrissake, announces his isolation, creates around him an impenetrable enclosure, a carapace of brass and reed improvisation. Right now, however, Django and Grappelli are playing (quite softly, too), and my sister and I, peeking over his back fence, tippy-toed on the sun-bleached plastic milk crates that Hmong fishermen use for stools on Sunday mornings, see our grandfather standing among antique dressers on his back porch, just looking out over the green sea of his overgrown yard. Suddenly he plucks from the ceramic ashtray one of a gazillion stale accordioned cigarette butts, which he then presses counterclockwise against his lips, smearing ash, and after a minute places it a little erotically, a lot Eucharistically, on his outstretched tongue, an image he may later insert into a poem (whoever is bereaved enough to eat the past . . .).
I watch him as one might watch a memory in a crystal ball through a telescope in a silent movie, as though I am already much older, looking back—maybe leaning against a pillar on my own back porch, blowing the steam over a mug of black coffee—and now at last understand the pain implicit in, and seeping odorously out of, his flannel suits and gestures, his poetry and tastes in music. No attribute is more telling, finally, than any other. Yet we are, my sister and I, mere children: we haven’t the means or the desire to comprehend, much less breach, the old man’s self-protected psyche. What do we make of his blank, heavy-lidded face now gazing straight ahead, swallowing the cigarette butt? Not much, I tell myself, as we pitch the milk crates back toward the edge of the creek, and though a little corner of my heart wants to stay, we start together up the dirt path. Nothing worth thinking about at all, really. And indeed the scene is already nothing more than a brief, impromptu stop on our way to our cousin’s, where we will eat Pringles and fruit snacks; where we will construct an enormous room-sized fort out of sheets and afghans, chairs and cardboard boxes; where we will crawl on our bellies through dark narrow tunnels, scarcely breathing, trying so hard not to be found.
My father’s a very fine musician—a better musician, at least, than my uncle, who will strum his guitar and croon to old wide-hipped ladies in the subway, like a troubadour—though he’s not nearly as fine a musician as my wife, out of whose centuries-old violin rise warm rich earthy phrases, as redolent as the steam of mushroom soup issuing from a cottage. And yet, last night, when I heard (tugging our little King Charles Spaniel around the block) ever so faintly in the still air the third movement of Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, I thought only of those long mauve childhood summer evenings in which, walking home from a friend’s house, I would hear my father playing trumpet in our living room—luring me the way feral cats are lured toward singing—so that the memory of his horn (regardless of quality) actually supplanted my wife’s violin, and I was for half a second a child again: baggy red windbreaker, weird alien dog at my feet. How could my wife, even with her extraordinary talents, compete with that, the very sound of my childhood? Well, as it turns out, with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, which my uncle will hum in falsetto at family barbecues, tossing onions on the grill, and which my wife is right now playing in our bedroom, as I lie across our bed in white cotton briefs, arms behind my head, as though she should—and she can—snake-charm my member. Though my father’s playing can do nothing (thank goodness) of the sort—the sound of a trumpet in fact repelled my mother and has done little, in her decade-and-a-half-long absence, to attract a surrogate—my uncle’s deep, syrupy voice has no doubt flushed a few women’s cheeks in its time. Possibly, then, a gazillion people have fallen under the spell of my wife’s violin: I wonder how many neighbors are sprawled across their own beds, letting her music pour in over them through their open windows, like peasants being showered with coins, and I wonder how I have come to be—implausibly—the one allowed to behold her (and the spider-dance of her fingers) here in our dusk-lighted bedroom, listening to her as one might listen to a message on a phonograph during a rainstorm through a walkie-talkie, a secret I cannot quite discern. Am I not therefore a deficient partner, incapable of understanding, much less responding to, my wife’s deepest communications? I belong in my father’s living room, or riding the subway with my uncle; I am still, deep down, the nine-year-old who falls asleep to a cassette of lullabies (instead of Chopin’s Nocturnes). My wife deserves, in other words, a better listener—a trained listener—even if nobody’s more willing than I to throw himself at her feet, to massage her neck after rehearsals, to soak her hands and wrists in warm olive oil and lemon juice. Indeed, I have already stood and am now, not unlike our little King Charles, kneeling at her feet—a ridiculous attention-getting trick, very effective: it receives a brief, knowing smirk—as her music (climactic, heavy vibrato) streams forth celestially overhead, like an aurora. I must admit I am quite comfortable here beneath her, in my tighty-whities, arms and legs outspread. Who would believe I do not belong here, that within her music is not contained my father’s trumpet, my uncle’s guitar and voice? Perhaps that is the static-glittery secret of my wife’s music: her deepest communications are, in truth, my deepest memories: when the tonic swells in the arch of her ring finger, it swells from the past, it swells from the kitchen table at which I sat poking cold string beans, craning my neck toward the dark tunnelish hall, at the end of which I could see my mother, as through a fisheye lens, stuffing things into a suitcase—which is to say my wife is the finest musician because she has found me, her muse, her carpet angel of inspiration, while my father lost his (if he’d ever found it) fifteen years ago, and my uncle finds his wrongly, frivolously, each and every day. Now our blue- and green-striped curtains rustle, Vocalise is concluding, and my wife sways a little, closed-eyed, threading the long final note into silence, into still air . . . Already my entire naked chest has flushed with panic, as though her music, my memories, my family, are leaving us forever, though of course there will be—she lowers her violin and her bow—other performances, many others, as many as meals in a lifetime, private or otherwise, that pull me out of myself, that pull me back in.
Portions of this story have appeared in The Collagist, Memorious, The Minnesota Review, Puerto del Sol, and Whiskey Island.
Jaydn DeWald is a writer, teacher, jazz bassist, and the author of the chapbook The Rosebud Variations: And Other Variations (forthcoming from Greying Ghost, 2017). Recent poetry, fiction, and critical essays have appeared in or as forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, Fairy Tale Review, Poet Lore, south: A Scholarly Journal, West Branch, and many others. He lives with his partner and two kids in Athens, GA, where he’s pursuing a PhD at the University of Georgia.