August, 1973. An evening of moles.
On hands and knees above burrowed sand, we sleuth a creature we’ve never seen. Marching knees collapse bubbled soil. Stars blink, birds sing nocturnal songs. We are in an ether dream, skimming the minutiae of mole track—dirt crumbs, leaves, insects.
“Oh God,” Mitch says. He rolls onto his back. “No more scratching sound.”
My eyes feel small and blind, but I understand what is happening. The mole has dove for the deep, past grass roots and termite nests, down a trough of ancient beach sand, through pools of ground water and veins of limestone, to the hot center of the earth.
“Icarus in reverse,” Mitch says. The image of black-haired Mrs. Janzen, our eighth-grade English teacher, blazes briefly before us.
“Whoosh,” I say.
“Sizzle, sizzle,” Mitch echoes.
We lie on our backs and watch moths slam into the streetlamp, resurrect their bodies into fiery brightness, then turn into weak, wobbly streaks of light.
“So this is what it’s like?” I say.
“One and only,” Mitch says.
“Do you think we can go inside?” I whisper. The shrubbery rattles with cricket chatter.
“Play it cool, Charlie,” Mitch says, happiness verging on tragedy.
Banjos greet us, Flatt and Scruggs. Dad turns and looks through us as though the screaming crickets will invade the house. My father isn’t pleasing to look at—he lost his left arm to a German sniper in World War II and his body is slightly crooked (a hiked left shoulder and a slight limp in his gait)—but his face is a comfortable place to rest your eyes, which is what Mitch foolishly does.
Dad says, “Boys . . .” but I’m already gone, heading to the safety of my bedroom.
A few minutes later Mitch enters and locks the door. As I remove the black light from my ancient toy box, the head of Fred, the desiccated stuffed squirrel in the golfer’s cap, plops to the floor and stares up at me. I shove my index finger into its head, feel the crinkled remains of the stuffed newspaper, circa 1938, and hold it up as an impromptu puppet. I speak in the high-pitched squeal of mole: We are brothers. We devour the same earth.
Mitch writhes with laughter until a knock reveals Dad, who sits in my desk chair in front of the window.
“You know,” he says, grinning, blinking slowly, “I used to think you were old if your nose hairs grew out your nose.” The wind that shook the trees now blows the curtains, though the windows are closed. “Then I thought you were old if you shaved your nose hairs.” My father’s eyes are dark caves, his cheeks whorls of black stubble. “But now I know you’re old when you just let your nose hairs grow and you don’t give a damn.”
The curtains flutter their empty sleeves toward my father’s hiked shoulder. Sometimes, when he doesn’t wear a shirt and the scar where his left arm used to be is fully exposed, pink and tender, as though the limb had just been severed the day before, I imagine what his arm must have looked like, removed, before it turned into gray smoke above the chimney at Lawson General Hospital.
Mitch bleats, “Do you see the drapes?”
“Yes,” I say.
Mitch is crying with laughter.
Dad is pleased his joke has been received so well.
“Unreal,” Mitch gasps.
“You boys don’t get into any trouble,” Dad says. He pulls the door to but pokes his head back in for a parting shot: a clown’s rolling eyes.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Mitch says, breathless.
Hendrix is dead three years, but his music spins on the turntable. I plug in the black light, switch off the overhead.
“Nice,” Mitch says.
The guitar notes hitch and rise into one another, then round into a larger note, thick and vibrant and tangible—a solid beam of music.
Mitch reads the writings on my wall, a message to Mother written in black-light glow paint above my bunk bed: YOUR LIFE IS NOTHING MORE THAN BASEBOARDS, COUNTERTOPS, WINDOW PANES, CARPET FIBERS . . .
He finds a painting and asks what it is.
“Midge Lovejoy,” I answer, a neighborhood girl—on her side, head propped by hand. The body is orange, mostly curves and flowing lines, no detail except suggestive anatomical attempts highlighted in red.
“Impressive,” Mitch says.
He studies his hand for a while, shades of fingernail, hair follicles, and microorganisms. The music climbs into an electric monk’s chant, full and radiant, and Mitch reemerges, reading a message to my college-attending sister, written under the light switch: MOTHER ERASED YOU THE DAY YOU LEFT.
“Genius,” he says. His face is purple. I know he thinks he has created me, awakened my imagination, orchestrated the entire evening. I don’t care. I know better. On his neck a pimple comes to a volcanic point and glows milky white. I try to pop it, but he slaps my hand away.
“He wants me?”
“I don’t think he knows what he wants.”
I find Dad in his couch seat, sitting forward. The music is off, and he is mumbling in a trailing bottomless baritone.
“What’s the matter, Dad?” I sit beside him, Mitch across from us in Mother’s seat, all of us leaning forward.
“There’s nothing the matter.” He blinks. His eyes two stars. His fingers work against his thumb as though they are in conflict with one another.
“He’s talking about the war,” Mitch says.
“I was.” Dad looks at me for the first time. A sick grimace.
What I am thinking is Dachau. I have grown up, after all, playing army, looking at Dad’s army pictures, fingering his war metals, sneaking his army cap from the back of the closet. I have read his war book, The Fire and the Furnace, which chronicled the movement of his infantry division. I’ve studied its maps and diagrams, the pictures of the death train, the three skeletal remains by the potato sack, the severed leg of the Jew. But I’ve never heard him talk about it, directly. The day when he was shot, he has told me, when he was laid on his back on a street in Firth, Germany, burning in the icy numbness of shock, all he saw were his own two legs kicking the air above him. All he heard was the pinging of bullets so constant they whistled—at that moment he began to think he was back in Dachau, that the whistle was the death train, onto which he was about to be loaded.
Dachau, I think, as he begins.
“I had only been in Germany for a few weeks. We hadn’t been in combat yet, but we were headed toward it and we were ready. They’d made sure of that. We were like a spring waiting to be sprung.” He laughs, palms his knee.
“Were you scared?” Mitch asks.
“No I wasn’t scared.” Dad reclines into the cushion and throws his arm back, sending Mother’s doily into a free fall. “We wanted the action. They’d beat the hell out of us in boot camp and we were ready.” He locks onto a space between Mitch and me; his voice drops out from under him. “I was in the best shape of my life,” he says softly. Then cheerfully, “Imagine beat-up me weighing a hundred and eighty pounds. All muscle.” He leans forward, his thumb and fingers going at each other again. “You see,” he says as if it were the most important thing in the world, “we were young. We were ready . . . .” His head goes down. He’s lost his place or remembered something impossible to confess.
“Ready for what?” Mitch asks.
“Ah shit,” Dad says. He rubs his eyes, takes a huge breath. Then as if by rote, “We were out in the middle of—I don’t even—Stratsburg. We were in Stratsburg. It was a nice little village. Trees and a lake and a cobblestone road.” His hand shoots out a pointed finger. “You know they make Volkswagens near there now. The People’s car,” he says bitterly. His hand squeezes his knee, then goes for his drink.
“In Stratsburg?” Mitch says.
“Yes. We were in Stratsburg, just on the edge of town, when we started taking sniper fire. We hated snipers because they only had two purposes. One, to kill you and, two, to get on your nerves. Which was worse. They were methodical. They took their time. They didn’t mind waiting. And they could hide like foxes.
“There were only two ways to get rid of them: kill them or capture them. At Stratsburg, we caught three of them. The patrol brought them to the field by our camp. Naturally we were interested, so we all gathered around. At that point, we really hadn’t seen much of the enemy. We’d seen their damage.”
“What kind of damage?” Mitch asks.
“What kind of—” His mouth hangs open. “Christ.” His nostrils flare as if he’s just been sucker punched. “Things,” he says. He rubs the shoulder of his missing arm, digs his thumb into a chord of muscle. Sometimes he experiences phantom pains, like a fingernail being ripped from his missing hand.
“So what happened?” Mitch asks.
For a second it’s just silence, just Dad’s vacant eyes. “The sergeant asked for volunteers.” When he opens and closes his mouth, I can hear the dryness of lips coming unglued. I hear the clock in the living room, the pinprick sizzle of late-night air. “You see,” he says, his eyes watery now, his face struck with sadness and gloom, “we were just kids. The sergeant said he only wanted volunteers. He didn’t want to make anybody do anything they didn’t want to.”
He stops and closes his eyes. The walls buzz. Light bulbs crackle. Somewhere deep inside my father a memory is being discharged. He inhales, opens his eyes.
“So what happened?” Mitch asks. I look at Mitch and begin to think I don’t like him very much.
“I volunteered,” Dad admits. “Me and two other guys. We were a big circle of men in a clearing at the edge of a field. In the distance on a hill was a house with a stone fireplace. A road cut through the woods behind it. At the center of our circle were the snipers. They had smeared their faces with so much axle grease they were as black as spades. One wore glasses. They were on their knees and the sergeant told us which one to take. One of the snipers kept calling out, ‘Ich habe eine familie!’ I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I had an idea. ‘Ich habe eine familie, ’ he kept saying.”
“What does it mean?” Mitch asks.
“‘I have a family,’” Dad says. “He was the first to go down. It happened so quick I missed it. There was the crack of the shot, and when I turned, he was already laid out, face first into the dirt. It shook me, you know, him hunched over so unnaturally, the mud on the bottom of his boots still shiny from the morning’s rain. I went second. My man wore the glasses. I raised my rifle until the barrel was behind his neck. Someone—the sergeant, I guess—told me a little higher, so I raised it to the base of his skull. Right before I pulled the trigger the sniper bowed his head and said something.
“He went down, dead weight, and I looked away, toward the house and woods. A flock of white birds had taken to the air. But when I turned back, his right leg was corkscrewing into the dirt, and the sergeant told me to give him another one, which I did, as quickly as I could.”
Here he pauses, so glassy eyed and hollow, I can’t look at him.
“The boy who was supposed to shoot the third sniper couldn’t do it. The sergeant did it with his revolver. And that ended it.”
Dad coughs and blinks and takes another sip of his drink.
“Dad,” I say, “it was war.” My words, I tell myself, excuse him from everything.
“When I came home,” he says, ignoring me, “after I’d been shot, and I was in Lawson General Hospital, on my back, paralyzed, I sometimes . . . I’d sometimes see his face. The black grease, the wire-framed glasses. Even now,” he looks at me, “sometimes, when I dream,” he smiles, embarrassed, “his face comes.” He laughs as if to say this can be a joke if you want it to be. “It’s like he’s still with me.”
“Does anything help?” Mitch asks.
Dad holds up his drink, his eyes, which I realize now are not his own, blur into the clown’s face again.
“Here, here!” Mitch says, an ally answering a toast. I begin to think we might drink more beer, but in the same instant, we are turning our heads.
“Nobody’s helping anybody tonight,” Mother announces, standing over us. “Goddamit, Oli, will you please come to bed.” Her eyes are swollen from sleep. “Do you know what time it is? These kids need to go to bed. ”
Mitch is on the bottom bunk, me on the top. We talk about what happened, but mostly we lay in silence, under the neon constellation of my walls.
I am ready to turn off the black light when Mitch tells me to put my fingers in my ears and listen. I do. The sound is monstrous, a nuclear powerhouse of stored energy.
“You hear it?” Mitch asks.
“Know what it is?”
“It’s your spirit purring.”
“Really?” I say. It makes sense.
Mitch is snickering, but I am somewhere inside the drone of my body’s engine. The static of the acid has faded, and I see myself clearly, objectively, the star of my own documentary. Hendrix is the soundtrack. Mitch is the director. Dad sits on the couch and confides. Mother tries to take back his story, but can’t, because it’s already mine, and somehow I understand that my father’s past is also my own, as if I could see with my own eyes the wet mud on the boot of the German soldier. I lay with my fingers stuffed into my ears, listening to the whir of my body’s motor. Tomorrow we will wake to the smell of bacon and eggs.