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Authors: Matthew Stadler,Columbia University. Writing Division

Tags: #Young men

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BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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The arms never reach for my face. The workmen stop and leave. I'm left aloft, still shackled to the machine.

 

10 APRIL 1915

A well-to-do man called Weston Brown killed himself at the California Electric Crematorium by a shotgun blast to the head. He left a note.

Dear Sir: I wish to have my body cremated and I enclose thirty-two dollars to pay for the incineration. Thirty dollars is the regular fee and two dollars is for incidentals. I am quite sure you will have everything carried out faithfully.

I am a stranger here, single, childless and without property or friends in California. Keep my death from the public. Do not put my body in the morgue. There will be no claimants, as my relatives are far away. I have an acquaintance, a Mr. Carter, up the state, whom I have written concerning my case. Should he come, please tell him the particulars so he can inform my people, far, far away. There is no necessity for anyone else, especially the newspapers, to learn of my demise.

Yours truly, Weston Brown.

 

20 APRIL 1915

A woman asleep in her apartment dreamed an intruder scaled her back fence and came in through her open window. She awoke to find the man she'd dreamed of next to her bed cutting whole chunks of her long brown hair off her head. They say an infected bone buried inside her brain is the cause of her clairvoyance. She's in the hospital now and doctors hope to remove the bone surgically and end her suffering.

The British are holding the line in Belgium and France. They say a treaty may be signed on the exposition grounds, the two sides meeting here to affirm their belief in international growth and commerce.

  

24 APRIL 1915

I went shopping with Mother today. I want a European bathing costume where there's just undershorts. Mother was keen about the idea and thought we'd easily find some, San Francisco being so cosmopolitan and all. We didn't find any. I'm going to swim naked always just to make a point. Duncan almost does, being much bolder than me and quick. I don't like shopping. Saw Flora.

 

After all this with Mother and Father IVe been quiet. I talked to Duncan I guess that evening. His father had told him too, but he didn't have so hard a time as I. IVe not had so hard a time either, truth be told, as there's not that much to adjust to. Father is gone. Really, it means nothing. Mother is flitting about from one event to the next, trying to see each and every special lecture the Fair presents. I suppose it's only natural that she and Mr. Taqdir should be so preoccupied. The Fair is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That leaves Duncan and me.

 

That first evening we tried to be practical.

"It's bad and all," Duncan began, "but there's a lot that's good in it." I felt insensitive to the good and bad alike. It was simply a physical presence for me, a thing too large to have qualities. Mostly I just listened to the reassuring tones of him speaking, unconcerned with content. I only wanted to hear a voice fill the empty night air, keeping these terrible thoughts present to mind and manageable, contained by his spoken words.

"We'll get to try out living by our wits," he continued cheerfully. "Breakfast and shopping and making it wherever on time."

"Mother and your dad will do all that," I answered. "I don't know that we'll get to do much new." I was loath to find cheer in any aspect of the day's events.

"Not if we don't want. There's two houses." Duncan's eyes got a wet sparkle with the very thought of it. Two houses. "We'll hole up wherever we want. No one says we've gotta tag along with those two."

It was a welcome thought. I had imagined he'd want to tag along with those two, or I'd want to. This new possibility became the simple obvious choice, just by him saying it.

"Won't we have to get jobs?" I asked, feeling very sad and sorry. "We'll need money for food and ice and house whatnots."

Duncan shook his head at me, smiling, and reached both his big arms around me. "You've gonna be sore no matter what, aren't you? Just don't think now. Don't think of them or any of it." And he rocked us over onto our sides. I closed my eyes and tried to rest my mind, sinking into him. And the night air was cold and moist and smelled of wood smoke, and we lay there and didn't say any more.

Dear Robert,

We've had heavy snow since Tuesday. It's buried this gray muddy sea and lent a queer grace to the burned remains of trees, all scattered across the pitted landscape. I felt like a boy whose school might be canceled, the signs of the war slowly obliterated by the feathery snow. Still I was wet and frozen, chattering in the small cave I'd carved out of the wall, looking, not through the lead-paned windows of King's, but through mist and smoke and the spark of snipers firing into the middle ground. May I tell you a story?

By dusk the snow had come over a foot thick and up and down the line we were engaging Jerry in a snowball battle that fell just short of bringing us up over the wall and out into no-man's-land. We'd lob long shots from the hole and listen to the laughing yells and feigned agony across the line if we hit, or the derision, spoken in fair English, if we didn't. Their big guns fired back, without the same accuracy they'd shown at Dunkirk but good enough to do what damage a snowball does.

With night come on we sent our team out to the wire and one boy too young to know better lobbed a quick shot in at the first line, just caught up in the winter play of it, like he was still a lad in public school.

The line lit up bright as day with a jet of flame shooting near twenty yards out from Jerry's hole, like the mouth of hell had opened there and then. It wrapped round the dozen of them standing in that last moment before they disappeared into the blinding light of it. The jet kept up for a long minute or two until about fifty yards of the middle ground was melted back down to stinking mud and the bones of them could be seen, some movement there too, just in a pile and smoking by the wire.

I've been reading poetry by this young soldier Brooke. His more patriotic verses are quite popular among the men, but it is this one that stays with me. Herewith, Brooke:

 

SAFETY

Dear! of oll happy in the hour, most blest

He who has found our hid security, 

Assured in the dark tides of the world that rest.

And heard our word, "Who is so safe as we?" 

We have found safety with all things undying,

The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth, 

The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying.

And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth. 

We have built a house that is not for Time's throwing.

We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever. 

War knows no power. Safe shall be my going.

Secretly armed against all death's endeavour; 

Safe though all safety's lost; safe where men fall; 

And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.

 

26 APRIL 1915

I cooked breakfast, as I do these days, and Duncan and I got off to school only a little late, as we do these days. Tomorrow Flora says she'll swing by and motor us there so we don't have to run for trolleys or hitch a jitney.

* * *
 

Duncan's kitchen is so full of elegant items, each meal masquerades as a fancy banquet, served up in ornate tureens and covered with fine metal tops. I play the sophisticated waiter at breakfast, bearing scrambled eggs or a well-cooked mush on platters fit for pheasant. I miss some things, like Melmoth by the fire and the particular view and smells of my own house. But life here is exotic. I'm on a Persian retreat in some distant land. I made tea with, I thought, sugar from the sugar jar. It was salt. I nearly threw up.

 

Mother and Mr. Taqdir are with us quite a bit, as it turns out. We sup together two or three times each week. It seems to be part of a larger design Mother has engineered. Groceries appear each week in our larder. Messes are miraculously cleaned and our lessons have continued apace.

Some evenings find the four of us, together with Flora, off to the Fair, viewing, once again, those horrible Futurist paintings Mother is so keen on. Duncan and I disappear to some distant corner of the grounds, wandering the Massachusetts shoe exhibit or the redwood Parthenon built by the state of Oregon. Flora, it seems, is everywhere, equally at home with the adulterous couple as with me and Duncan.

 

Tonight she came with us, leaving fine arts to the adults, and led us to the House of Hoo-Hoo which, she says, is a Maybeck. It's put up by the Lumbermen's Association and sits big as a giant's house made from thick, untrimmed redwood. It's all in scale, just two or three times normal size. I found it very appealing. It made my secret wish come true, and shrank me closer to invisibility.

"I like this," I said simply. "Can we be even smaller?"

"I think it's creepy," Duncan said. "I feel like the door's about to swing shut and, bang, we'll be trapped forever."

"And a giant ogre will bake you for his bread," Flora put in.

"Or maybe he'll just sit on us till we suffocate," Duncan offered. I sat down, backed into a corner, and smiled benignly at their unpleasantries. I looked up at the faraway ceiling and tried willing myself smaller still.

"Dogey's gonna disappear now."

"I would if I could."

"Try closing your eyes," Duncan put in helpfully. "It always works for me."

I closed my eyes tight as could be and shrank smaller still, slipping into my empty black mind. Duncan started making fun, calling me "Disappearing Dogey." It made me suddenly very sad. I got up and walked to the far wall and sat very close facing it. Duncan and Flora were quiet then, and I stayed still through the heavy silence. It was just one of those moods that Mother says is from my being sensitive. I thought I might cry.

Flora knelt down beside me. "Let's just go back outside," she suggested.

I mumbled some meaningless words to her without turning. Duncan stood staring at me, wondering what to make of my sudden mood.

"Fresh air is a good idea, Max," he suggested, feeling my forehead with his clammy palm. "You've looking kind of green." They each took an arm and propped me up. But I didn't want to go back outside.

"Maybe I should be by myself," I offered, giving them a weak smile to appease.

"So what's up?"

"I don't know," I said honestly.

"Joy Zone?" Duncan offered.

"No. Thanks. Maybe I'll come later."

"No Joy Zone?" Flora asked unbelieving. "No Giant Babies? No Grand Canyon?"

"You go. I'll meet you."

They both squeezed my shoulders and left me there in the House of Hoo-Hoo. I heard the big door bang shut and closed my eyes again, feeling the enormous walls around me, their rough, sturdy timbers stretching up to the high ceiHng, dwarfing all that was within, me shrinking ever smaller, slipping away into nothing.

 

I guess I fell asleep. They were closing and I was made to leave. I went out into the clear night and down the broad boulevard as all the lights went out. The drifting couples were quiet, their minds exhausted, I imagined, by the density of things demanding their attention. I walked under the archway in the Tower and out onto Scott Street, still busy with revelers and drunks. Fair-goers and delinquents roamed about in raucous throngs.

 

Their noises came disjointed, sharp and foreign and difficult to locate. The quick blasts of the car horns seemed so close, I jumped and started at each one, crossing Lombard as quickly as I could and headed uphill toward Pacific. I felt as though I'd not woken, but merely had been made to move on into the busy nighttime. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, standing watch on porches and roaming in packs up and down the wide street. A big sturdy shepherd stood up to the trolley, barking and growling, dashing clear of the clanging car just short of death. Empty bottles flew out into the night and broke in noisy shards at the feet of the running dog.

The heady smell of the cold night air preoccupied me. Sea salt and smoke and sweet cedar. My attention was fixed on the distant houses at the top of the hill, huge stone mansions, all dark save one where lights burned in every room. French windows opened wide, and women and men dressed to the nines drifted out into the evening, gazing at the panorama from their high perch. Their soft conversations and laughter carried on the wind down toward me, glasses clinking, it seemed, next to me, and then nothing as the wind shifted or the dogs let loose in howling, whole packs ranging down the pedestrian walk and disappearing into side streets as quick as they came. I wanted only to get back home.

Low fog rested on the lee side of Presidio Heights, pushing past the silent houses and up into the trees. I had no idea how late it might be, nor any concern. There was my house, straight ahead. Our lights were on, the living room dancing in the flicker of firelight. Only then did I remember I wasn't living there now. I stood in the wet bushes, looking in through the window at Mother and Mr. Taqdir sitting in armchairs both reading. I heard nothing, even as their silent figures would look up and their mouths move. Mr. Taqdir's hands and arms swept about in mute gestures, the two companions leaning forward in apparent laughter. A turn of the head. An exchange of books.

I felt I was watching my own past, like Scrooge, invisible and sad, looking in at events condemned to memory, seeing the dumb, unalterable play of things as they have been.

Was that my father once?

I am upstairs, asleep, their conversation and laughter, a warm murmur through the wooden floor. They're discussing me.

Are these movies?

I am drinking tea in the kitchen, looking at a picturebook. They're in the living room together.

I'm outside in the wide open night watching. They're a picture in a picturebook or a moving silent picture.

 

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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