Postcard sent from my grandfather to his estranged wife in December of 1943.
The legend reads “Seneca Rock 900 feet high, overlooking old Seneca Indian Trail or Warriors Path, which was the Indian Highway from New York to the South in West Virginia.”
A climbing friend of mine has “been to the top of that rock more times that I can count via a hundred different routes. I have no doubt some of those Native Americans took a detour to the summit too. The right-hand peak is only about three feet wide at the top, a person can sit with each foot dangling over the opposite valley.”
The postcard reads in a crimped script:
Arrived as usual, O.K. Will be in Montgomery for part of next week, so don’t fail to write. Do you still remember? Keep smiling.
Be seeing you.
It was one of two mailings sent from Mullens, WV in the same day. A letter and this card went to two different addresses in Mon City. He was either unsure exactly where she was staying or simply wanted to cover all bases.
He was thirty eight at the time and had three kids who had been shipped off to his mother.
Ma still had most of her teeth at the end. At least parts of most of them and it was one of the few sources of vanity she had left. There were gaps, of course, mostly along the sides and in the back but they weren’t too obvious unless she wide smiled which she really didn’t.
With the gaps she had to chew her nicotine gum in the front where you’d see it flopping about threatening to drop out at any time which it sometimes would but never threatened a fire or left a burn mark as her Pall Malls did. She’d just pick it up off her lap or the table (if it made the floor it stayed there) and popped it back into her mouth.
Things changed the day she broke off one of her front teeth in a sandwich. “The hell?” she asked angrily looking at the small yellowish nubbin stuck crookedly like an old gravestone in the bun. Her dentist was long dead and she wasn’t interested in finding another. Just smiled less, talked into her chest and concentrated hard on chewing away front the new jagged hole in her mouth.
Eventually, for a short time, she went back to smoking. She was shaky then and needed both hands but knew enough to move the whole operation out onto the sunporch where her plastic chair and concrete floor presented less of a fire hazard.
A poem by Louis Jenkins with an afterword
“The spring wind comes through and knocks over trashcans and trees. It has something to do with warm fronts and cold fronts, I think, or with high and low pressure systems, things that I don’t really understand and that aren’t really an explanation anyway. Ultimately, the spring wind is the result of some relationship between the Earth and the Sun that may not be all that healthy after all. The wind comes in a big huff, slams doors, pushes things around and kicks up the dirt. The big bully spring wind comes through on its way nowhere and, ha ha! We love it.”
No Louis, not all of us do. For me, the winds carry at least a discomfort, sometimes-depending on the spirits- a full blown dread. Whether in the woods, where the trees groan and grind together, the leaves sweep up and fly fearfully backward torn away from the soft place where they rested, peacefully composting. Or in the yard wondering which garbage can would go rolling (not so much fun when you got to chase it), which shingles would go or is this the blow that’ll finally bring the limb from the old hickory down on the shed. Ma told a story about the spring winds, how they picked up her little cousin Jeffrey and tossed him off the escarpment where her auntie lived and into the river below, to drown in full view of the Easter revelers who couldn’t get down the hill in time to save him. It was a story that never seemed quite right to me. Ma was little herself then, hadn’t seen Jeffrey blow into the river, just heard about it. Then of course, saw him in his casket looking like a little angel in his white suit and blonde hair-his sky blue eyes closed forever. You ask me, something else happened to that boy. I’ve seen the pictures of all those people; the flinty gray eyes (of course they were black and white pictures so it would figure) but still. There was something unsettling about the way they stared unsmiling into the camera. And there were other stories Ma almost told afore biting her lip. At any rate, they’re all dead now and I’m the onliest one who even remembers that story. The shit we carry through life can be burdensome.
The refrigerator crapped out at an opportune time. Not the dead of winter when everything would have frozen solid and not proper spring when everything would have spoiled but right in the middle when the outside temperature was just about refrigerator cold. While the repairmen spent days futzing about with blown motherboards and compressors that were apparently too small and ran too hot (whatever), I got used to going out onto the predawn porch in my robe for the milk and eggs. The cold slab on my bare feet was bracing and took me back to the time when we would actually have eggs and milk on the porch and to old Missis Timko across the alley stepping out in the snow in her bare purple Carpathian feet to snatch her cream.
And it’s true, I thought. Everything in the house-every convenience, every necessary imposition, is lying in wait. Waiting for just the right time to go bad and upend everything you had planned for the day or week. (Even if it’s nothing-because plans don’t have to entail the actual doing of things. They just have to be plans, ideally complete with lists and bullet points.) And the cost! What can go wrong with a root cellar, a cooking pit, a grill on the porch, an ice chest-provided there was a source of ice in the summer months?
She wasn’t happy when I continued leaving my dairy and eggs on the porch after the refrigerator was returned to it’s humming best. The neighbors were complaining, she said which I doubted but there were times when I’d step out sans robe enjoying the stunning chill first thing. They could just look away-nothing to see here. What are they doing up so early anyway? True, raccoons did abscond with my cheddar one night, but it’s a small price to pay.
Frustrated one night, she told me that I’d be happy living in a shack. The next trip out back, I measured the shack and thought I might get a couple of pallets in there next to the mower and be just fine. Then I could dig out by the compost. Always thought shitting in the house was barbaric and the plumbing, the piping and the water and the loud “whoosh” at night a complete pain in the ass. An outhouse would serve just as well.
The mulberries stained hard-deep purple bruises across the back of my shirts. Ma never minded though. They were her Dad’s trees and we only saw them when we visited the old place. She kept a few of the stained shirts, clean otherwise, in a drawer and would have me wear them around the apartment where we lived in town. She’d hug me and run her hands over the splotches which I couldn’t feel but she could. She’d whisper “Daddy” and sometimes cry.
I climbed one of those trees once. Not too high-I was a little kid-but high enough that the inevitable fall left me splatted and dazed, flat on my back. Lying there, the sun leaking through the purple flecked leaves, a man took shape. A man I wouldn’t meet for years.
He was big and dark, up from the Islands to live with his daughter next door for the summer. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt that stretched sorely across his bulk. The sun glistened off his head as he picked mulberries into a dented pot from a tree in the park across the street.
“Daddy!”, his daughter cried her accent only revealed when she was agitated. “Don’ pick the berries! People up here will tink you too country!” She said this running in her bare feet. His smiling eyes caught mine.
“She say dat til she taste da pie…” he said. Then he laughed a rolling rumble that I couldn’t help but join.
She was still telling the story about the time Laurence Fishburne tried to pick her up in the Village. How she rebuffed his savage suavity, not realizing she was dating herself when she called him Morpheus. The Village wasn’t the Village anymore and Laurence was no longer Morpheus.
It wasn’t a story she should tell everyone, but it was one she told me too often. And when she told it, she stood too close and let her hand linger on my arm just a beat too long. We were working long hours on her project and I’d fly in from headquarters for a few days at a time.
She knew I was married which probably made me safe for her fantasies but trying for mine. There was the time she had taken me to a bar for drinks, somewhere out on the Island, then for a walk down a quaint sandy street. She was working through one of her divorces. “That bar is my husband’s favorite”, she said nodding across the street. “He’s probably in there now. But I don’t see his truck.” She smiled sweetly, careful not to catch my eye.
It was the same trip, or the one after, when she came to my hotel room to use the bathroom after passing on the one in the lobby. This was after an evening of dancing and dinner. I had the knees for it then.
She was wearing a fashionable for the time letterman’s jacket that bloused at the waist. It had faux leather sleeves that she rubbed against me as I held the door ushering her from the bathroom right into the hall.
The twinge of her leaving was nowhere near the nightmare of her staying.
I was no longer Morpheus either.
I watched him kill sparrows once, in the field behind his old farmhouse. This was years after Kate died, but you’d never know it because her stuff was still everywhere. He blamed sparrows for the for the loss of songbirds and his beloved finches and titmice. The trap was a box like contraption of heavy metal screen wrapped around a wooden frame. At one end of the box was a hole and just inside the hole a cantilevered arm with a screened cover. The birds would hop onto the arm which would simultaneously drop them into the box and cover the hole-trapping them inside.
This was back in the Permian Hills, which he called the place where they-he-lived. Soft hills that rolled and undulated between the horizons like waves in a washtub. He loved saying it, planting his flag in the region as if naming it made him something more than a short time caretaker. Remember the place as brown. It wasn’t, of course. Not always. It could be beautiful in the summer when everything was planted and the high sky was deep blue swept with wispy high clouds. But my memories allow it no more than the sickly greenish tinge of a catfish’s belly.
He would bait the device with millet and rough grain, not the thistle or black oil sunflower seeds that he fed the songbirds. He’d set it on the stump of an old oak out back while we went about our business. Later we’d find any number of birds milling about inside contentedly nibbling until we walked up on them and they thrashed against the screen trying to get away. He’d reach into the box and gently grab anything with color that had been trapped and toss them into the air to flit furiously away. The sputzies, as he called them, he’d drop them into an old work sock. Then he’d spin the sock over his head-said it would put them to sleep-before bashing it into the stump.
He’d toss the tiny downy carcasses into the field, food for owls or kestrels, foxes or coons. His face never changed from the lifeless and dull chore-look, the same as if he was changing a tire on the tractor. I still wonder if he did this when Kate was alive. Somehow doubt it.