by Emmett Smith
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 same old woman whose only grandson, one day, will miss their fifty-six-years-ago dim light in a brighter age to be just as fleeting, of gaudy reports on TV then 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. Now 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, Pop and I are as snug in there as two boxelder bugs in this 1952 summer. A night breeze swells the curtains through the wide-open southeast August sashes while Mom works late in the Midway between Minneapolis and St Paul, billing shipments for the orange Dakota Transfer Company and green Murphy Trucking and yellow Buckingham Transport. With Pop at home 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 stands before the tall southwest windows open 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 black chirping cricket world, and I slide low in my chair so the Garks and Hoos can’t see in blackly between the glowing tanks to peep over my right shoulder and reach to growl of blackness: 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 instead of horses smells of my great-uncles Jim’s and Clarence’s cigars where they sit for hours 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 to run underneath on its toy tracks my first electric train set that to play with too my pop gets for me. Tonight it is summer still and as always Pop sits in the far end of the matching sofa opposite under the smoke-shaped cone of 40 watt light from the curlicued brass floorlamp in the corner, 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 iron leafy 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, then, the news goes off my pop says now to me: “Alright for you, Squirt!” The light glitters briefly deep 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 everyday on the same streetcar that will clang on Como Avenue when we ride it downtown to go see Father Christmas in his Santa Claus getup at Christmas time. I’m a Big Little Devil now, all my grownups say so at different times in different voices, 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 with my grownups about the nighttime 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 alone, in my parents’ bedroom in the southeast front of the house upstairs. It’s okay for Pop to go away at night by himself though because my grandma is always there. We go up the steps together holding hands, 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 will know why Pop seems to whistle between his teeth on stairs while now on the landing he holds my hand as I look east for a moment every night, out the beveled window. There is a dim orange glow of St Paul city night like faraway fires. They are coming closer. So after a last tobacco-y whisker-rub Pop lays me down and covers me with just a single hot-upstairs-at-night sheet and in the terrible darkness I lie not moving now. I suck my thumb and study intently flat on my back in my crib the vertical dull light of the ajar door where it disappears below the top edge of my far crib end, and from there I watch in odd dreams of going through the walls for the first light of day. In the morning I will ask my pop “did you go on the air-raid?” Then, maybe, he will grin and butter me more toast. Or else 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 to awaken every morning falling. As I doze now will come an anguished yell, it is his helpless cry 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 and deadly in their bays detonate the night like flashbulbs when they take your picture on Father Christmas’s 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 tucked in with her until the dull morning when, maybe, Pop can go to work, and so while Mom sleeps in after all these night-flights and if Pop goes away into the day I can 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. Only 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 in the afternoon 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 glass eye looking away from me, the right one that comes out and I can hold in my hand? But out-of-doors now no one I need is dangerous now in the waning summer sun, where there are three birdbaths, wren-houses hidden in the morning glories on leaning poles and, now, a glittering black-and-yellow spider I am scared of the size of a shilling or a silver quarter, so that especially now instead 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 it is amid the grassroots and red-bricked paths I will remember forever, now with all my grownups in my grandmother’s garden edged everywhere with white seashells.
(This is a revision of a piece first written by me in August of 2006 and revised 12-13 August 2008 — ES)
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 21 August 2006]