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Authors: Matthew Stadler,Columbia University. Writing Division

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Landscape: Memory (21 page)

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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Returning  to  
the  Fair




12 AUGUST 1915

We came by boat, returning down the Marin coast and in at the Golden Gate. The sky was crisp blue, lightly marbled with thin wisps all combed out and curly, and the air was bright and clean. It wasn't Duncan's boat, alas. The Narwhal stayed in Bolinas, where it could succeed at navigating the small hazards and hardships so sheltered a place might pose. The open sea was a wholly different level of danger, one more fit for U-boats and dreadnoughts than little silver skiffs.

We rode a journeyman's steamer, all busy with ropes and hoists and hot oily motors spitting steam. A slight, graying engineer rambled roughly about the deck swearing a salty stream, jamming in wedges, wrenching pipes and yanking levers as if that was the activity by which the boat was propelled. Duncan and I were both dressed neatly, clean white shirts, collars and bow ties, our soft worn caps and twill shorts too. Flora stayed in Bolinas, due back in a week (or two, she said).

I watched the rough brown headlands, imagining them as Dover, and cultivated a nervous fear of U-boats and hidden mines. In a split second, I tried to convince myself, the rippling blue water could tear open in foam and flame blasting clear up to the wild heavens, ripping the steel plates from off our hull and sending us down in pieces to the mucky mysterious floor of the deep dark sea. I sat still on my satchel, gazing out over the gunwales, conjuring up this possible terror. Duncan was no help, chattering away about the Fair and Flora's motorcar, to which she'd given us the key.

"We'll drive to Hollywood," he proposed. "Your mother must know someone in movies."

I stayed mum, preferring my fantasies to his just then. I thought of Dunkirk, how the bombs came from nowhere, sailing invisible through the beautiful blue sky. Point Bonita jutted out into the sea just a half mile down the rocky, tumbling coast, one last weak push of land west before the sea came rushing in through the Golden Gate, flooding in to fill the wide flat bay. We sat on our luggage, out on the open deck, the wet salty breeze blowing over us.


A third passenger rode with us, sitting stiffly on her heavy leather portmanteau, trying to arrange her legs in a suitably feminine fashion and failing. She finally planted her feet firmly and let her elbows rest on her knees, as though taking a dump into her lovely brown luggage. A stiff straw hat was pinned fast to her neat gray hair. It featured paper flowers and a desperate stuffed canary, poised to leap off into the gloom. Its slight, feathered shoulders were back, wings lifting. Its chipped lacquer beak was wide open, waiting, I imagined, for its own queer song to emerge.


But other sounds came in from "out there," as Father calls it, interrupting my reverie.

"Are you involved with the cinema?" our companion asked, filling the long silence I'd let follow Duncan's whimsy. We'd come clear of Point Bonita and turned in. Rough shoulders of land plunged down suddenly on either side of the narrow channel. The choppy water was busy with boats and blue and beautiful. It ran right in, opening up on the sheltered bay. Alcatraz, a squat white rock of an island, cracking through the blue, sat smack in the middle, straight ahead now, as we pulled in past Land's End.

"We're college boys," I answered. "We'll be freshmen this year."

"If we're unsuccessful in Hollywood," Duncan added.

"You wish to be actors?" The eyeless canary dipped and bobbed inquisitively with each inquiring nod of this woman's head.

"Duncan," I gestured toward him, "wishes to be. I would like to direct."

"Hollywood is so full of deceptions," our companion mused, "or so I am led to believe."

The scene was suddenly busy, the air filled with noise. Boats crowded in close, ferrying about in all directions. Horns blasted and bells rang. There were fishermen and ferry boats and long, low, open-decked barges, loading and unloading. Far in front, proudly pushing east, two armored gray dreadnoughts cut across our view, black smoke rolling from their stacks, long and sharp as sabers, and solid and swift. The Presidio appeared, rising green and rugged away to our right. The boom of cannons could be heard marking the hour and puffs of smoke seen drifting from the trees. Whole columns of drab brown soldiers marched in military formation right across the crest of one field. Battalions of men on horses rode alongside. The Fair opened up below, rising like a fantastic dream of the Orient, all golden, pink, red, orange and blue. The domes looked more unimaginably grand than ever they'd seemed from land. Thin pillars and minarets, the Tower of Jewels, like liquid silver, washed in the sun— from the Presidio clear across to the marina, they rose, sparkling in the brisk salty air.

Our steamer rattled along, running parallel to the Fair. The oom-pah pounding of various brass bands sounded across the open waters, mixing with the hungry cry of sea birds and our boat horn. Its blasting announced our return to the city.

 * * *

The business of landing and the confusion of the docks had me in a dizzy spin. Bleats and blats and warnings and boys grabbing bags, jitneys roaring past. I hadn't been in a motorcar in almost two months, nor seen this many people at all, total, during our time in Bolinas.

Duncan seemed charged up, waving down this or that boy to see us through, buying hot Italian sausage and negotiating our steamer fare all at once (even getting sausage for our captain). I was numb from overstimulation, and could only stare dumbly at the spitting links, lying dead and bursting on a dirty black grill over coals. Duncan flagged a jitney down.

The mud-splattered jitney pulled away as I was still falling into the backseat, pulling the back door closed behind me. Duncan had already climbed in with our bags and I landed in his lap and nearly lost my hat. We tore through traffic, skidding about the crowded streets, blasting death calls on Gideon's horn and paying little mind to the unfortunate pedestrians dumb enough to walk these same streets. The buildings seemed so incredibly tall, rising up on either side of Post like sheer canyon walls.

We sped out of downtown on Bush, rolling over the long hills west to our house. The inhuman speed and noise of the motorcar rattled through me. It worked inside me so I wanted to either sleep or throw up, the two seeming equally viable and, somehow, quite similar. It was like that when I was a child.

(Vomiting Coke syrup, my little wet mouth sleepy with yawns. I've a dog in my bed, someone else's dog, and a funny rash all up and down my pale skin. I've never been up so late. What am I, five at the oldest? More likely four.)

* * *

Mother and Mr. Taqdir were home, still stocking the cupboards and folding linen. We'd sent word by mail, insisting they make no fuss and certainly not feel they had to meet us at the docks.

Mother had had her hair cut, scandalously short, barely reaching the bottom of her neck and bouncing with a slight bob. If that was not enough, Mr. Taqdir's thick mustache was gone, recently, it seemed, for a pale ghost of it sat all bluish with shaven beard just below his nose. I slumped in through the familiar door and collapsed on the divan.

"Lovey, pumpkin," Mother cried, smushing her face into mine. "You're a perfect wreck." I did feel a perfect wreck, rumpled and rattled by the confusion of the city, wanting more than anything just to go to sleep. Mr. Taqdir was squeezing Duncan lustily in the doorway, lifting him up off his feet like a bear mauling its prey.

"You're so thin," Mother said to me, though I wasn't thin at all.

"I'm fit," I explained.

"And so brown and handsome," she kept on, squeezing me more. "Your hair is a fright." She ran her fingers through my thick dark hair, all wild and wonderful. "We'll have it cut."

"No we won't, thank you very much." I loved my hair like this. I wanted only to wash it and, if it got much longer, tie it back in a ponytail.

"You must be starving for some nourishment." She was persistent, abandoning one motherly desire and picking up another. And I was starving.

"I am. Something warm and delightful, soup or bread. Let's not eat out." I nuzzled into her, smelling all the familiar smells—her lavender-and-soft-cotton-dress smell, the house all sweet wood and tinged with smoke and spices, nutmeg and coriander and pepper.


13 AUGUST 1915

From the whole summer's mail, just one letter from Maury.

Dear Robert,

What sorts of birds should one expect with spring here? I find myself wondering about the reality this place once was. I don't recognize it as land really. A few frightened starlings have arrived in the trenches, looking, I guess, for what scraps of bread or seed we might have left scattered.

Perhaps the war's a wound that will heal with the weather and the seasons. A golden thatch of wheat grows thick across the lip of a mine crater. The gray lifeless earth stretches away all around it, ripped by scars and crossed by dead wire and bones. Sheep and cattle who've made it through a year of war wander the middle ground, putting their noses to the dead or wounded. They stand in their beautiful animal stupidity and graze on the few tufts of grass that have sprung up. The winter was much more beautiful, and the smell was not so rich and terrible.

Cut the leg off an old friend of yours. Chapman, I believe. Mortar had ripped his calf silly. One of ours, it was. He sends his hello.


I had a lovely long bath this morning and we met Mother after breakfast, to shop for our college wardrobes. We've decided Hollywood isn't really an option.

Mother drove, which was a blessing. She drives slower than a horse. Usually it makes me crazy, but today it was bliss, turning the car into an oversized pram, rolling gently along the busy roads in no great hurry. She had a simple garland in her hair, about which a bee kept buzzing. Duncan and I squeezed in up front with her, me in the middle and Duncan suggesting routes.

Mother paid him no mind and kept rumbling along her roundabout, taking whatever road looked widest and getting us to Market Street soon enough.

We parked down by Stockton, in the midst of the busiest jumble. Trolleys clanged past four abreast. Horses and carts and cars and bicyclists wiggled in amongst the mayhem. It seemed some disaster had struck, some terrible trembling from deep in the earth and this was the ensuing panic.

Ladies bustled into traffic, navigating boldly through the various conveyances, stopping to converse on thin islands of safety between lanes of traffic. One raised her little gloved hand and a jitney jammed its breaks and skidded to a stop nearby. Other cars swerved out behind into the trolley paths. I hesitated before following Duncan into the street.

I wanted to take my clothes off. They all felt so terribly heavy and constricting. I hadn't worn them in some time. Certainly my feet had grown. Coffee seemed like a good idea.

"Things don't seem quite right today,'' I suggested meekly, hoping Mother or Duncan might set the chaos back into order.

Mother put her hand to my forehead. "Perhaps, pumpkin, you're still feverish from your little boat ride." She gave an optimistic prognosis and promised coffee after we'd procured a few bare necessities.

She began with Cravanette pumps at Rosenthal's. I got tan Russian barefoot sandals, very airy and open and easy to slip off. I dumped my old shoes in the garbage when Mother wasn't looking. I am quite the peasant in them.

We swung past The Owl for a pack of Tiz. Duncan was poking his nose around the Spiro Powders, sniffing through the decorative bottles to try to determine the scent most suited to him. I believe I smell best when I've sweated. The air outside is so much more pleasant. Mother called the clerk a "paranoic loon" and Duncan bought some Beachnut and Sugar Fruit Tablets to appease the management and we left.

Hundreds of colorful shoes jumbled about in rows, filling the windows beside me from top to bottom. A disembodied hand reached in from behind them and pulled one away, leaving a gap, as in a boxer's bloody mouth. I'd never seen so many shoes.

"Things seem so much busier than I remember them," I observed.

"Maybe your memory's bad," Duncan suggested, peering into my ear to get a better look.

"No, no dear," Mother said to Duncan. "I believe Maxwell is right. Things have gotten much busier over the summer. It's all the visitors and the merchandising. The New Prosperity, the papers call it."

One advertisement fairly screamed, its loud letters leaping off the page of newsprint into my unfixed mind:

"Your hair is calling you." The lady in the picture was standing, letting her long hair tumble down her back. "Answer 'La Toska Bang,' and hear the ring of delight!" Her face was frozen, fixed in fear, apparently, searching for the telephone. I felt as though her hair were calling me and I couldn't find the phone to answer. I ducked into the nearest doorway to find some shelter from the noise. Mother pushed me in through the double doors, into the din of The Hub.

The Hub was packed and I was in no mood for suits, which Mother says all college boys must wear. If it's true I'd rather wear Father's baggy old suits than buy one of these trim-cut modern things.

"Max said we'd wear shorts and sandals and bundle in big sweaters," Duncan told Mother, revealing my college plans. It's true I'd said that, though I hadn't intended to tell Mother.

"He's mistaken, dear. College boys dress quite smartly, even here in the West." Mother picked through a rack of dark wool overcoats.

"I'll join the army," I threatened, as she pulled a horrible black funeral garment off the rack. "I can't stand suits."

Mother paused, then placed the suit back on the rack. "Don't be morbid, pumpkin," she said. "If you don't like a particular suit, just say so. No need for histrionics."

"I don't like that suit," I said simply. "Or any other. Father has suits and I'll wear them, should the need arise."

"I hate suits," Duncan echoed. "You said we wouldn't have to dress like monkeys." He stood waiting for some sort of explanation. Mother had drifted on to dress shirts, evidently figuring she'd get us into those first and work us up to suits gradually.

"We won't," I insisted. "Mother's just being Mother. This is what she's here for. Otherwise she'd have just sent us out with the money. She's got to insist on suits, even though she knows we'll never do it."

"What if everyone else is in suits?"

"Then we won't make friends."

"We'll be lepers."

"Flora's going. She'll find friends and we'll be their friends."

"She'll find friends who don't wear suits."

"That's right, and who drive fast in their motorcars and dance naked in gardens."

"In the moonlight."

"Right. We'll live in the trees and attend class in loincloths."

"Pumpkin?" Mother interrupted, holding up a stiff white shirt.

I nodded my head no.

"Let's think about suits later. Mummy. We should try Hale's for some active wear, something we can all agree on."

(I smelled a ghost smell from the ground. Light gas and fresh dirt and the smoking engine of a jitney. We were just nine and small as ponies. Duncan was knocked over flat by a crazy man with a plank and big tattoos. Right here, when we'd gone shopping for rope licorice.)

Next was the smell of chocolate wafting out of Borlini's as we ambled by. I needed it badly so we stopped and took a nice long rest, sipping cafe chocolatta at a little table by the window and planning the week's events.

"Tomorrow's your matriculation exam," Mother reminded us. "I do hope you'll dress nicely." I was pleased she'd not used the word "suit."

"Of course we will," I promised. ''We'll wear our bow ties." Even Duncan enjoyed the bow ties, especially with shorts, as that made us look so queer.

"And registration," she added.

"And classes," Duncan added woefully.

"Not till Monday," I reminded him. "We'll find lodgings and move before then."

We were all silent, thinking some about that ambiguous event. I was excited to think of moving, our few things all bundled up and gathered on the ferryboat, going across the bay. I imagined we would find some third floor in a house or maybe an attic up a few flights of narrow steep stairs. It was hard to imagine a nicer house than the one we'd had all spring or, even harder, the one we'd had all summer. No bed could be as beautiful and bouncy as our mammoth feather bed in Bolinas. No fireplace could be so warm and welcoming as ours in San Francisco. And I would miss our mysterious neighbor, her work forever in progress, perhaps until some terrible midnight fire, the little oil lamp spilled across the drapes, the dog barking madly through the flames, trying to wake his asphyxiated mistress . . .

"Can we bring some things from our house?" Duncan asked Mother. "Carpets and lamps and things like that?"

"Of course, dear," she assured him. "You two may take whatever you need to settle in. From either house. I don't suppose you'll be needing a lot."

"I'm thinking of a few things," Duncan allowed. "Just things I like to have with me."

I tried to imagine what Duncan felt about moving. He seemed to me to have given up planning, allowing everything to happen around him. I'd been the one making plans, Bolinas, Berkeley, moving across the bay.

"What do you think about moving?" I asked him. "In general, as something we're doing."

He looked at me, and Mother looked out the window, fiddling with her spoon. I realized this was an important question I'd never before thought to ask him. We three sat in silence for some time.

"We can't go to school there and live here," he offered. "That's for certain, anyway."

"No, we couldn't do that," I agreed. I pursed my lips and looked down into my coffee.

"And that's certainly the best school for us to go to," Duncan added. He stirred the chocolate up from the bottom of his coffee and drank it down, leaving a dark mustache on his upper lip. I felt his leg bumping up against mine under the table and looked up at him, his head tilted, his mouth soft with an ambiguous smile. He looked at me easily and directly with sort of sad eyes.

"We'll want to be getting to know a new place too," he added, "and learning how to live on our own." I just wanted to hold him, so he could stop talking and I could feel what he meant and not have to hear all those words. I looked at him dearly and nodded my head up and down yes yes yes I know how unsettling everything seems just now.

"Well said, dearie," Mother interjected briskly. "Those goals are admirable ones for this busy year. You're very lucky to have such an opportunity." She smiled curtly at both of us. "We mustn't waste the challenges that life offers us."


14 AUGUST 1915

We went to Berkeley for the exams today. We were told to see a Mr. Thwing in Admissions, who looked to be nothing more than an arrangement of sticks inhabiting a suit, with thin pasty hands and a melonlike head emerging from its various openings. He clattered up from his desk and leaned gingerly against the wide counter, pointing accusingly at the clock on the wall behind him.

"Examinations have
begun, boys," he spat, drumming his cadaverous fingers on the countertop.

"We're come from there," I explained cheerfully. "Miss Tartaine sent us to have our records checked."

He crouched down, the top half of his melon head rising like a harvest moon from behind the wide barrier. His two black eyes darted around like little fish. "Well, well," he began, staring at me and feeling around blindly under the counter. "Under what appellations might we find these 'records,' as you call them?"

"Kosegarten, Maxwell Field," I put in, using the order of the day.

"Taqdir, Duncan Peivand," Duncan added.

"One moment please, Mr. 'Kosegarten.' " Mr. Thwing flipped through a thick file of colorful papers, various greens and blues and pink, but mostly bright marigold. He pulled one out and held it up to the light, looking over at me, then back up at the sheet.

"Maxwell Field, was it?" he asked, leaning recklessly across the counter.

"Yes. Maxwell Field Kosegarten." I wondered what the bright blue little slip said.

"Very good. Next I believe is Mr. Taqdir, am I right?" And he put my slip into his vest pocket.

"Yes. Duncan Peivand," Duncan said, looking into the box.

Mr. Thwing drew it violently away from us, almost losing it off his side of the counter. ''Just a moment, Mr. Taqdir." He fiddled about in the box for a few more moments and drew out another blue slip.

"Bingo," he burst, tearing my blue slip from out of his pocket and holding them both above his head, pinched between thumb and forefinger like some offensive soiled undergarment. "You both win!"

We stood in silence, waiting for Mr. Thwing to explain, but he remained motionless, frozen in his little pose.

"I don't understand," I said. "What do we win?"

Mr. Thwing drew his arm down carefully, as though it were a brittle limb, in danger of snapping. He slid the two blue slips onto the countertop and leaned out across them. "Why, university admission, of course. This is the Admissions Office, after all."

"Don't we have to take exams?" Duncan asked.

Mr. Thwing drew back from the question, looking physically wounded. "What do you suppose this is, young man, the Inquisition? We have no need to examine you.'' And here he plucked the slips from the counter and pushed them in our noses. "Mr. Morton at dear old Lowell High has approved you. He's given the A-OK. You're free to enter."

"Mr. Morton put us on the approval list?" I asked. "When?"

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
2.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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