by Bodwyn Wook
I Am three in my fourth year and at night the once-upon-a-time gaslit streetlights of St Anthony Park glow on their green-painted iron posts through the net curtains in my Irish Step-grandmother’s parlor in the old house on Ludlow Avenue. Long before I was born the city will have had wired all the lanterns and now the warm glow of electric globes in that old garden-quarter of nineteenth-century houses is called ‘newfangled’ and ‘too bright’ by that old woman whose only grandson one day will miss their fifty-four years’ ago dim light, in a brighter as-fleeting age of gaudy reports on TV of cruise missiles in Baghdad and Tel Aviv, and fierce fires and great explosions though the Chinese say as always firmly they aren’t having any, thank you. In the parlor of 1911, the year when my Granther who died the year before I was born was then on his way to Australia from London and instead bought this house so he could stay for the Winter Carnival and later be a fireman, now Pop and I are as snug in there as two boxelder bugs in this 1952 Summer as a night breeze swells the wide-open Southeast August curtains. Mom works late in the Midway between Minneapolis and St Paul, billing truck-shipments for the Dakota Transfer Company and I sit in one of the matching overstuffed chairs of 1919, watching my father’s tropical fish in their orange-lighted bubbling ten- and twenty-gallon, warm, tanks on wrought-iron leafy metal stands before the open long Southwest windows out onto the nighttime side-yard. Through the black-painted iron screens with rust spots late Summer sighs in elmtops where it is black outside in the nighttime yard and I slide low in my chair so the Garks and Hoos won’t see in, to reach and peep over my right shoulder and go: Gurrrrrf! The chair is bristly velour and dark brown like my Alive Grandpa’s big workhorses that remind me of Mom because she grew up with them there in someplace called The Country, but here in St Paul the upholstery all smells of my Great-Uncles Jim’s and Clarence’s cigars when they sit to play chess with Pop in the Winter. They’re my Grandma’s brothers and next Christmas the chessplayers’ accustomed chairs will be just not quite high enough for my first electric-train set my Pop gets to play with to run under. Tonight it is Summer still and as always Pop sits in the corner end of the matching sofa opposite under the smoke-defined cone of 40-watt light from the curlicued brass floorlamp and reads Time magazine and the St Paul Pioneer Press, the airmail Guardian. Every so often he reaches with his right remaining hand for wooden matches to relight his Lumberman pipe or to tune a bit the new small honey-colored radio on its corner leafy iron stand at the end of the painted-brass low radiator beneath the front windows. The semicircular dial glows orange behind its red needle and there is a warm radio-smell of hot tubes and varnished wooden cabinet all around it. When Robert Trout says ‘in Jerusalem’ in a crackling faraway shortwave-voice and the CBS announcer says Korea and ‘again the Chinese say “no”‘, and the news goes off my Pop says then to me: ‘alright for you, Squirt!’ The light glitters briefly in his right eye as he grins at me and we read Golden Books and Mrs Tittlemouse side-by-side before we go together up to bed. My Grandma is already asleep because she gets up to go to Matins in the Corpus Christi Church in the Summer on the streetcar that will clang on Como Avenue when we ride it downtown to go see Father Christmas in his Santa Claus getup at Christmas. I’m a Big Little Devil now — all my grownups say so at different times in different voice-tones — and will go to sleep on my own in my crib in the West corner back bedroom upstairs till Mom comes home. Something is wrong so then I will tuck in with her on the cot in the nursery while Pop flies away wherever it is he goes in the night in my parents’ bedroom in the Southeast front of the house, upstairs. It’s okay for Pop to go away at night, though, because my Grandma is always there. We go up the steps together, my Pop in his dot-and-carry way stepping up with his left foot and bringing behind his right-braced leg. Forty years later after a foot surgery I know why Pop seems to whistle between his teeth on stairs and now on the landing he holds my hand while I look East out the beveled window. There is a dim orange glow of city-night like faraway fires. They are coming closer. So after a last tobacco-y whisker-rub Pop lies me down and covers me with just an upstairs-hot sheet and in the terrible darkness I lie now motionless on my back in my crib, sucking my thumb and studying intently the vertical dull light-line of the ajar door where it disappears below the top edge of my crib-end. In the morning I will ask my Pop ‘did you go on the air-raid?’ and maybe he will grin and butter me more toast. Or he will be dull and very tired and my Mom will look as if she could cry. While every night in dreams for a year after Pop dies on Easter Sunday from the car-smash in 1964 I will fly on every mission he ever flew the year I am fifteen and dull and sixteen and waken every morning falling. As I doze now will come an anguished yell, it is helpless, as my Pop looks out of the cockpit of the Wellington while the fiery oceans in Germany heave below and the black shapes of two other bombers beside him with his friends inside rise and descend on converging courses until the fans of the lower bomber lash open the belly of the upper and the laden bombs just-armed detonate the night like the flashbulbs when they take your picture, on Father Christmas’ knee in his American Christmas-costume. Every night I fly with my Pop over the North Sea under the high Winter’s Moon peeking down into my bedroom where I am pressed low and warm and snug in January at Mom’s back, just as I flew home with her in her tummy in the belly of the Constellation airliner across the wide Pacific in 1948 in sixty-eight hours, from Spring and Australia to Fall and Wold-Chamberlain field in dull Minneapolis with its November-iron hat on. While every night my Grandma comes to get us back again as she gets up at the sounds of battle in her flannel gown and carpet-slippers and shuffles with her rosary, hushing Pop: ‘Oh, my boy, my poor boy….’ Then I sleep hard till my Mom gets back and sleep hard with her until the dull morning when maybe Pop can go to work, and while Mom sleeps on after all these night-flights and if Pop goes away into the day I visit with my Grandma in the parlor on the sofa in the rising light after breakfast. She shows me her rosary and says what the priest said and tells me all about when you die:
‘The angels and the imps all fly way low over the new graves, my little boy. Oh, the clouds of ’em! They’re in a race, you see, to get all the new souls. The angels take all those they catch straight up to Heaven. And the imps, why, they catch theirs with wienie-forks and stick ’em ALL, Poop! just like that, in gunnybags and, Zip! down we all go to see the Evil One, when those bags are all so nice and full…. But never you mind, my little boy — because your Grandma prays for YOU!’
Then my Mom comes down rubbing her eyes and says Hi! dully to Grandma and gets coffee and a bismarck and another bismarck and orange juice just for me, and up the stairs we go together now. I play with my sofa-brown Bears, and Hal Horse and How Now Brown Cow and Rooster Baby (these last all are rubber toys with squeakers!), and my Noah’s Ark and blocks, while Mom mutters around dully about ‘that evil old woman’ my Grandma and then in a brighter tone altogether reads to me about Pooh and Curious George. But, I have never felt that The Man in the Yellow Hat is all that reliable. In the afternoon then I will watch as my Mom helps my Grandma in her garden with the veg and hollyhocks — these are all brown and crispy now — and delphiniums and day-lilies, and pruning all the roses, roses everywhere and oafish bumblebees. Only when Pop comes outside with us do I see that in the Sunlight he looks two ways at once when he grins at me and I wonder who else he sees with his eye looking away? But out-of-doors now no one I need is dangerous now in the waning Summer Sun and there are three birdbaths too and wren-houses hidden in the morning-glories on leaning poles, and a glittering black-and-yellow Spider I am scared of the size of silver quarter or a shilling so that especially I like to sit and watch the last thread of gleaming water run from out the hose-end after my Grandma waters the birds — bright and clear and shining amid the grassroots and red-bricked paths I will remember in my Grandmother’s garden with white seashells.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 21 August 2006]