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Authors: Matthew Stadler,Columbia University. Writing Division

Tags: #Young men

Landscape: Memory (7 page)

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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Dear Robert,

Cigarettes and books, please.

 

27 APRIL 1915

I woke very late as I didn't get in till almost two o'clock a.m. and was so deep in sleep I thought Flora was Mother when she woke me, and I had little idea who I might be, though it all came back quite quickly. Flora said she'd honked and honked and finally just came in the kitchen window and found me there, dead to the world, out like a light.

"Up and out, lazybones," she called, shaking the headboard with her greasy gloved hand. "We're late late late." Indeed we were, almost two hours late, and Duncan was already gone, content to let me sleep the day away should I wish. "I've got ten minutes, Dogey, and then we're gone, dressed or no."

I lifted the curtain and looked out into bright sunshine.

"Where's Duncan?" I asked. "What time is it?"

"Duncan's at school where all good boys should be. It is ten-thirty and we've got good fun ahead, if we make it back in time."

"What good fun?" I asked, pulling on my pants and shirt from last night and rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

"Mr. Spengler's. Philosophy Forum, dummy. Alphonse Bull will be defending chastity."

"Alphonse." It was all coming back to me. "Will someone attack chastity?" I ambled down the hallway without a reply and turned the faucet on full throttle. I fancied myself a primitive wildman, what with my hair all this way and that and my shirt not yet buttoned. I growled into the mirror and dunked my head in the brisk churning water.

 

Flora drove as she always did, fast and efficiently, zipping tight around the corners and revving along the straightaways. I braced myself on the safety bar and yelled to her over the noise.

"I'm not at all keen to enter into this discussion. I haven't any sense these days."

She looked at me as I talked so I kept it all short and to the point, staring straight ahead in order that I might inspire her to do the same.

"Just speak up as thoughts come, Dogey. You're perfectly coherent. Mr. Spengler would be crestfallen if you kept mum."

"
You
speak up. Flora. You'll say whatever I'd say and then I could sit peacefully. I'd make amends with Alphonse." His rather grim aspect and imposing physique swam through my dreamy mind. "We wouldn't want another brawl." And she laughed at this very serious worry of mine.

"No, no, Dogey. You speak. I'll punch it out with Alphonse after." We came flying over the crest on Buchanan, hurtling down the hill toward our date with philosophy, Flora's scarves flapping and my wet hair now wilder than any wild man's I could imagine.

"We'll have Duncan speak," I suggested brightly. "That'll throw old Alphonse."

 

Flora pulled at a piece of tattered rubbish that had flattened up against the windscreen. "Oh, Dogey, look there, sailors!" And there were, scores of them, spilling off the pedestrian walk, hooting and laughing like a pack of hyenas, looking, it seemed, for San Francisco. Flora sat up smartly and held her scarf aloft, giving them a crisp wave of the hand and a grim smile.

"Soon to be dead," she said matter-of-factly, leaning across the worn leather seat to plant that fact in my ear. We sped past them and out into the bright sunshine.

I looked back and imagined them torn and bloodied, their limbs useless or gone. I fancied their smart blue uniform. It had a nice close fit that showed the shapes of their bodies and the ornamentation was tasteful, topped off with a gay pompon. Watching their rough-and-tumble play, their mistaken sojourn through this dull residential district, no doubt in search of the Barbary Coast, I thought it would be keen to dress them as fish, a serviceable cloth costume with little fins and their own faces peering out through the fishy maw. The pilots could be dressed as birds and the army as landed mammals, antelope, leopards and buffalo. If that were policy, I'd join the armed forces straightaway.

 

Alphonse had brought charts. One showed "Spirituality Quotient" and its relation to chastity. He'd drawn colorful sketches of different sorts of persons, a priest, a college man, a flyer, a drunk, a harlot, Emma Goldman, and, begging certain questions that went unasked, a little boy. The bold, vertical bars of black that stood for "S.Q." descended sharply from left to right, excepting the little boy, whose dizzying "S.Q." was easily the equal of the priest's.

A second chart divided up the various races, both upper and lower, and assigned them each a Chastity Index. The Germans scored highest, followed by the rest of the northern races. The passionate Latins of the Mediterranean came in a good sight lower. Scraping the bottom were the Negroes, with the various Asian races receiving an N.A., not applicable.

"Most importantly," Alphonse was concluding, "the chaste man uses his passionate energies for the betterment of the human condition. Not like immoral men who can be seen doped up or asleep in doorways, all his energies gone to immoral degradation. That accounts for the first chart and the high S.Q. of chaste men and how horribly low the accomplishments of leches are." Alphonse nodded in agreement with himself, tugging at his ear, as he did whenever he presented work in class.

"Is Emma Goldman a lech?" Flora asked. Alphonse snorted a brief, breathy snort and rolled his eyes up.

"Miss Profuso has a point, Alphonse," Mr. Spengler put in. "How do you account for the tremendous energy of so immoral a woman?"

"And where would you rank our fighting men on the S.Q. chart?" Flora continued, fixing a scarf about her head in the manner of Miss Duncan.

Alphonse fidgeted briefly, tugging again at his puffy ear, and stepped back to his charts, tapping the tip of his long thin pointer on the face of the chart.

"Our fighting men, to begin there. Flora," he began. "Our fighting men are right up there at the top," he said, inching the pointer ever higher on his chart. "Right up with the priests, you gotta think. And Emma Goldman is something else again.

I couldn't pretend to account for her, Mr. Spengler. No, sir." This was meant as something of a joke.

"If I may account for her, Mr. Spengler," Flora began again. "Miss Goldman is above such distinctions as moral and immoral. Her activity is spiritual in the best sense, urging an indulgence of the human spirit that more 'chaste' individuals have kept locked away from all of us. Alphonse seems to have confused prudishness with virtue, and that may explain his inability to understand Miss Goldman.

"As for the young child on Chart 'A,' it is the glory of children, and Miss Goldman, I might add, that they remain ignorant of the damning restrictions 'civilized' adults place on human behavior. They are blind, as we all should be, to Alphonse's precious morality. They swim unclothed and hold and hug one another on impulse. There's is a world rich in spiritual communion, unfettered by petty civilities.

"By way of contrast, the fighting man's chastity is typical of our tragic, if I may use so strong a word, tragic condition. Forced to curb his natural desire for human contact and, if I may, Mr. Spengler, sexual communion, forced, in a word, to be 'chaste,' these men turn to barbarous murder, slaughter and, there is evidence, dismemberment. Is this the high spiritual achievement Alphonse is applauding?" Flora finished her strong speech, still fixing her headdress and scratching at the back of her knee with her bare foot. Alphonse looked meek and crestfallen. He had tight hold of his ear now, milking it like a small, pasty udder. He, like the rest of us, waited in silence for Mr. Spengler's comment.

The wise Mr. Spengler said nothing.

 

"Alphonse," Duncan asked into the silence, polite as could be. "Why are there Germans?"

Alphonse squinched his face and looked back at his charts, trying to locate the meaning of this odd question. There it was, jumping off the Chastity Index Chart on a bold black line. He slapped his pointer to the desktop and leaned forward with a menacing glare.

"If you'd been listening, Mr. Smartypants, you'd remember that chastity is a moral status, not just physical abstinence. Having babies within a legal marriage can hardly be condemned as unchaste."

"Oh," Duncan said. "I see."

"Soldiers aren't chaste," I said aloud, forgetting for a moment exactly where I was. "It's all of it so sexual." I looked to Flora, I imagine because I thought she was the only one there.

"Max?" Mr. Spengler interrupted my reverie. "What point is it you're making?" Mr. Spengler was always eager for my contributions, me being modern, as he liked to say, yet less confrontational than Flora.

"Excuse me?"

"Soldiers, Maxwell. You said something about soldiers."

Alphonse had a small spasm of snickering. I tried to focus my thoughts.

"Sir?"

"Soldiers, Max," Duncan put in. "Chastity."

"I see." And I began to remember. "I'm having some difficulty with my memory, sir." The windblown trees made wild shadows across the front of the room, dappling Alphonse and Mr. Spengler in a motley of bright and dark. I looked out the window. "Do you imagine memory can just disappear, Mr. Spengler? I mean, why couldn't it?"

The wind rattled the window casings. Mr. Spengler sighed a sigh and sat down on the front desk.

"It is odd, Maxwell. Odd and troubling. The mind is so elusive." He walked past the silent Alphonse and looked out into the wild spring day. "Everything shifts, I suppose. Sometimes so sharply we lose the thread. What connects one moment to the next."

I was watching the sky. A swarm of starlings dashed and dove, buffeted by the winds, whipping and wobbling chaotically forward toward the western hills. I thought they'd be driven out of the sky, shot into space by an updraft, or buried deep in the black earth by a wild wind whomping down on them.

"I was in the Philippines, You've aware of that." He nodded at the class, and Flora in particular. "I was about to shoot a man, a sniper holed up in some thick woods. I'd flanked his position. I was within a few yards of him, and he turned and looked at me. We neither of us brought our guns up. Really we were too close. This pertains, I believe, to your question. Max. Stop me if I bore you.

"It was like greeting a man in the street. He offered me a cigarette, I suppose he didn't speak English, and we sat in those woods and smoked our cigarettes in silence. Just shaking our heads and laughing every now and again." He paused to remember.

"To get back. Maxwell, I could not connect those moments, before, stalking this sniper, and then enjoying this man's company. Somehow they're placed together, but in my head everything had slipped apart."

 

29 APRIL 1915

I met Mother for drawing in the afternoon. We met at home and took our picnic down to Cow Hollow like we've always done. April is rarely as stormy as it has been this month. All through it's been blustery and wet, weather whipping in every hour, a different season every day. I didn't know whether to wear my slicker or shorts, bring my sweater or go barefoot. Today I wore knickers, for old times' sake.

Really I wanted an actual lesson, with Mother teaching, and me maybe reading aloud, or following her clear directions. My mind was still adrift, blown through the crashing clouds and carried off above the ocean on a strong sea breeze. I needed a sturdy guide.

 
* * * 

 

Mother spread our blanket and sat calmly, kit on lap, her little jelly treats within easy reach, no instructions forthcoming. She ignored my passivity, concentrating instead on her panorama. I opened Ruskin and began with Problem XI, "To Draw Any Curve in a Vertical or Horizontal Plane." Here was my anchor, my one stable mooring on this blustery afternoon. "Let AB be the curve. Enclose it in a rectangle CDEF. Fix the position of the point C or D." Of this I could be certain. It was older than the rich leather binding, old as the ocean winds. Mother smiled at my busy working hands, my careful lines. I sharpened my pencil every three inches or so, intent on keeping it razor-sharp, drawing the line as thin as could be. If I could locate each detail, isolate its form and place it in proper perspective, my landscape would, I was certain, come out right.

Mother got up to stretch, extending her arms up and back to improve her breathing, and twisted from side to side. She peered down at my crowded surface.

"That's a busy memory you have, pumpkin. So different from your earlier renderings."

"It's the structure, the forms and all. Before I was trying to make it up from the surface, eyeball stuff." This explanation sounded right enough. "This way it all comes out right." I looked up at her and forced a grin.

Mother smiled and looked away, strolling to the tree to lean there for a moment.

Maybe this is like my brain problem, I thought. Maybe memories have shapes like these and you lose the shapes or they shift and all your memories shift or disappear. If I found the proper set of forms, through which my memory would be accurately rendered. If I had the right steps, clear instructions from A to B. Maybe I have several sets pertaining to different things and they've gotten mixed. My weather forms all mixed up with my emotional memory. My family rendered as animals ought to be. Maybe there's an infected bone in my head. I thought of chastity and soldiers and Rupert Brooke buck-naked and spread-eagle in the mud of Ypres, ejaculating to the high heavens.

'*What are you thinking, pumpkin?" Mother put in.

"Just how things are," I allowed, trying for honesty and tact. "I wonder about things."

She looked at me like mothers do, thinking, I supposed, that she was on my mind. And Father, and Mr. Taqdir, even though it wasn't that and I hoped against hope she wouldn't try to talk about that.

"Do you suppose my memory could collapse?" I started, before she got going about that. "You know, disappear somehow, or slip and shift till it seemed strange to me?"

She sat down, truly concerned, and brushed my dirty hair back with her hand. "Has something happened. Max?" I giggled from her hand tickling my ear, and it turned into a shiver down my spine. "Has something happened?" I thought. Has something happened? Has something happened? It wasn't that, exactly.

"Not exactly. I'm tired from staying up late." This truth surprised me. It was so simple. I hadn't thought I was about to tell her the truth. "Then sometimes I feel odd, like I'll never sleep again. Things can be so strange to me, like they're all the wrong size or they've moved somehow."

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
10.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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