Beyond the Western
All things began and ended, Georges Amocine always believed, in shadow, going into or coming out of, cave or womb or thought, place or circumstance not withstanding. And here he was again, with a semi-darkness beginning, telling him beforehand it was coming.
The shadows had been there forever. At times there were stars with them, and then not, or with horizon glare, and then not. Ragged clouds and alleys and valleys often crawled or frolicked, often atop each other, and all bore shadows. Shadows climbed into trees and down out of them, and leaped from lamp posts and doorways stiff as tunnels, being old hands at darkness, and out of clumps of soft debris holding out in the mind.
Shadows had entity, he vouched, and intensity, and longevity. They were pervasive yet global, submissive but exploitive. They cranked themselves out of mountains and moonscapes and the endless limits of stars. How long he had believed this he did not know, but his bones said so, his mind, and the cool side of his skin.
Shadows were irrepressible, like old hounds about the porch, or old friends when trouble brews. Once they disappeared, they were bound to come back. Dawn or dusk would take care of that; the sun or a dim bulb at the fallow end of day. Perhaps in another endeavor, perhaps on another day, it would be the white light at the end of a tunnel. Despite these beliefs, fear was not foreign to him; he had forgotten more of it than he could remember. Fear would not pile up in him; it never had.
From his seat on the milk crate in the middle of the garden, he looked back toward the house, illumined at the end of the corn row aperture, like the narrowness of his full life, his crowded life. It was a photo coming at him. Black and white, but a photo, alluring but never sophisticated, having an identifiable background, cause and effect faint but colored up like life itself.
He saw Esmel at the window. Oh, girl! Oh, girl! She was watching out for him still, more than fifty years worth, and her warmth penetrated his entrails, as if magnetized. From that distance she could touch him; always she had had a tactile sense emanating from a core the sun itself would own up to.
She was his only worry; he was adamant about that. There was no other matter for him. How would Esmel handle the stove? Who would shovel her out come winter, the wind beating against the walls, the windows rocking? What had he not done to pave the way? Name a task, he felt himself saying, and shied away from any resolution. Would she again sit in the front seat of the car, knitting in hand, a book closed for rare minutes, a hand like his playing a fly line over the rail of Thunder Bridge, sun in the eyes of two people in love with dawn?
Light refracted someplace within his bodily confines, made angles, caused corners, bounced loose as a kaleidoscope in a child’s hands. The world was full of tangents and whispers. They came unannounced, owning silence and dimness all the way in, from wherever it was they came. Speed had never been important, but was obvious.
“The single tick of a second hand,” rolled out the voice of his father from its dim yesteryear, “is an echo of history.” The shade thrown by the slim hand was known. Finally, doubts and all arguments about that adage dissipated, he agreed he had never known until now what the other old man had meant sitting on the edge of a railroad bridge over the Saugus River, a drop line drifting toward the Atlantic three miles away.
The voice sounded further judgment. “Down the short haul,” that other old man used to say, “that’s how far. Down the short haul.”
Now, here shaded once more, in the midst of leaping corn, he thought of Basho the poet. Involuntarily he smelled the salt air, monstrously sharp, with creditable edges, as it came up the confines of the river, up the reedy and contorted valley, to touch him with memory and saline beauty. One ugly moment on the mud flats as a boy came back to him, the sucking threat at his young feet, the threat of total immersion of his body a thing to be reckoned with. These images had kept the marsh’s beauty on tap for the longest time. He loved the muddy flatlands downriver, without tree or shade, and the rich ocean beyond, bearing the sense of eternal breath, as though it yet waged a long war.
“Down the short haul, that’s how far.”
Sitting on the milk crate, the tall rows of corn gave him a moment from the heat of the sun, from the high day. Again he wondered about the achievement of shade, where he stood in its measure. When the smallest threat of breeze hurried its hustle he could hear the maize and yellow tassels at their play, the whisper of spider webs, and the silent music of the spheres. On top of it all he swore he could hear the sun’s steam pot, hear it hiss away.
The milk crate, an old Hood’s Milk crate, scored by fire and ice and earth, by knife or ax, was hard under his rump. Impressions made themselves known on his butt, but were as vague as old scabs or old scars. After all these years, he wondered why he had brought the crate into the middle of his garden, into the middle of the corn. And just a day earlier. Another measurement, he thought, making itself known, as if it were the solution to an equation long looking for an answer. Another sense of shadow, of shading.
With a rigid stab at light, he tried to remember everything at once, the small lore and legends of a gardener, his current posture as crop raiser if not farmer. The radishes were done and pulled in, the peas, the small bed of asparagus, twenty tomato plants with little yield left, the corn now just about ready for a good old fashioned corn boil, the kind they had down New Brunswick way, in Molly’s back yard. The iron pot there was almost three feet across, the fire smoky, the grass coming off mustard-colored, the potato fields tilled anew for miles on the sides of rolling hills and the flats of valleys, Molly and Esmel at the picnic table, their hands and mouths busy with the day, winter hiding out miles away up the continent.
The light broke a lightning across his memory, like catalogues of sorts being opened, emptied.
He heard the ghosts of his youth coming on, the smells of the garden making it happen: his grandfather talking, like it was a record being played back, a tape, one of the new CDs they talk about, miracles of miracles: “An old Down East saying, I believe,” his grandfather was saying in that high-pitched voice, all the way from the back of the barn on Blackhill Road in Franklin, Maine. "Peas go into the ground on the Fourth of July. Given the climate up here, it seems that some have struggled to meet that deadline, as a few would be ready on occasion, but not until some began to grow an earlier variety of bush pea that was only knee high-- thus less growing, climbing. Some have planted peas as early as March 31-- and as long as the ground wasn't wet they came up. Everett Coocker from Machias would plant them every April 1st for years just for the sake of planting them. He would clear snow off the ground to do it. Sometimes he was lucky, but it was more of a tradition for him. Lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, turnip, can all go in the ground now,” (It was late April then, May breathing easy) “but most people wait. If spring rains keep coming the seed could rot. Sometimes people would plant an early row of potatoes to have new potatoes where the skin is supple and are considered better tasting… Irish cobblers, Khatadin, Kennebec, and such. Strawberries are planted as root clumps or sets and are mulched over in winter and are perennial. They come up each year. They are a bit of work, too; much pruning and eliminating the dead canes. Corn-people usually wait until Memorial Day or a week before because the seeds need warm soil. The old timers would soak the seeds in arsenic to kill the scrabbling crows that try to feed on them. Cucumbers require warm soil like corn. Some plants, like kale, taste better after a fall frost. A lot of times squash, pumpkins and potatoes are picked or dug when the vines dry off. Potato vines wither all brown. Then it is good to leave them in the barn doorway in the sun, to cure and dry the skin a bit before storage, so they will keep and not get wet and rot out on you.”
The voices went on. The crooked bar of light shone as if it were loose in the northern sky or way out over the Atlantic in a September storm. It broke like scars or marks of retribution.
Esmel came back to the window, he thought, figuring him to be in deep thought. He waved at her. She waved back, startled, he was willing to bet. He could not stop thinking about the catalogues. The destinies. The days at count. The newest alert, working on its own, he couldn’t put his finger on, electrical in nature but microscopic, down the far end of touch. A messenger afoot, like Mercury, wise and winged.
If the shadows were his new movie theater, they held an opaqueness, a sepia quality for him. A shade of yellow or copper touch. Tawny. Fulvous. As real as metal. Objective.
At the end of the corn row, below the window in the upper hallway she had just retired from, he saw, still-opaque, old comrade Londo Leuter with the nickel smile you could buy cheap; Londo from Pennsylvania by way of Korea, stripped to the waist, washing out of his helmet, the high mountains a faint backdrop behind him, the radio truck they had called Kumbanchero dug into the hillside with its backside protruding. The name was painted on the bumper alongside HH Co 1st Bn 31st RCT. The names and the signs and the sweetness and the innocence bothered him in the midst of the war.
The faint reel moved.
Perhaps that was Chicago’s Bob Breda over to the left cleaning his weapon and Stan The Fist Kujawski checking a Walkie-Talkie 300 radio and still committing to memory the names of all the guys he ever served with in the First Cav through WW II and then the 7th Division here as they busted out of Chosen Reservoir and Hamhung and at the end of his tour, with rotation breathing down his neck, digging his holes so deep he never slept but kept digging, thinking about his Japanese wife and the two kids back in Japan and how playing softball in Chicago some day soon would be the dream come true, and over there, leaning on the tailgate of the radio truck, was Billy Pops Podgurski (Oh, Billy, someone out there said, as if ever under breath: Oh, Billy. Oh, Billy, swearing now he could hear the cry) moving at the end of the rows of corn, coming out of the haze, from where he had gone off more than fifty years earlier. Billy Pops gone off into one of the long shadows and never coming out of it, like he had become darkness itself, all black and proper in its memorial tuxedo and all melted into one canister of deep shade you could carry if you had the right handle on it, and he suspected, as he had for a long time, that he had found the handle.
Oh, Pops, you beautiful son of a bitch. Where’d you go? I know you didn’t die in Mung-dung-ni. Not there against the tailgate of Kumbanchero, but later, in Connecticut when you came home, but I never saw you again, Pops, and you were maybe a hundred miles away and you began dying then, shriveling up, drying out, you beautiful son of a bitch, so full of laughter even when all things piled up and came down as hurt that day when you got a bad letter and cried in the night like Tex Goode, only Tex lied all the time, a son of a bitch of a pathological Texas liar saying how his wife had died one night and I cried with him in the tent on the side of the hill and a few days later he told some guys from Easy Company that he was shit mad because she wanted more money to fix her teeth and let her go chew dog meat on her own he ended up saying, being the frigging liar he was in the first place, but not like you Pops, dying on me in my own backyard after all the shit and shinola we went through and I can’t even begin to forget the huge smile you wore like the Earth wears the Equator.
Oh, Pops, you beautiful son of a bitch. Where’d you go?
He wondered where Jack Slack had been hiding for those fifty years. “Go into any head in any pub in Albany and my name will be jackknifed on the wall,” Slack had promised. He and Esmel had tried, twice, knocking on every door of his old street, Van Schoick Ave., and no forwarding address at all. No evidence he’d ever been there. The one time shadows had lied. “You and Londo wuz a pair of the greatest. I seen ‘em come and I seen ‘em go in the pine box express. You guys wuz a pair.” His old letters echoed now in amongst the corn tassels with the spider web music, the shifting and measuring of shade, the essence of cool skin sneaking under his shirt. “I’ll write from my next assignment, when I get out of here, though I’m writing this now directly in the light of tracer bullets. Ha ha!! I’m in for the long haul, you know. I’m RA all the way! Try the walls in all the men’s rooms in Albany. They’ll all know me, me and Ernie Gatti. We wuz a pair too. We just got rations and Ernie’s skunk drunk in the back of the cook’s tent. The old man’d shoot him if he saw him, but he’ll be straight and narrow in the morning. Old RA himself.”
Verbatim, even from the shadows, came his message to a veteran’s site: In my search for Jack Slack I've enlisted (free) detectives who are veterans, newspaper people, and have called/talked to 171 John R. Slack numbers found in White Pages or left a message. I've been offered Slack Family histories, dinners if we get by (assuming Jack is with me), and all have been cordial. But I have to share the following with all the searchers out there: Here's a morsel for you, from one of my free calls I do on the computer looking for Jack. Got a woman answering the phone, someplace out West during a host of random calls, and follows the conversation and what went with it: "Ma'am, I'm calling from Boston and I'm looking for a John R. Slack who served in Korea in 1951." Great noise, exuberance, yelling to her husband: "Daddy, daddy, there's one of the guys from Korea on the phone." Chair-moving sounds in the background, the sound of a book dropping on the floor, some other unintelligible menial and muffled racket. I thought of a walker in use, crutches, a cane, had awful pictures in the back of my head. The guy comes on: "Slack." The voice hard and steady and not like the pictures in my mind. "John R. Slack?" "Yup" "You in Korea in '51?" "Yup." "You there in '52, too?" "Yup." "You in the 31st Regiment?" "censored, no. I was in the Marines." "Oh, shoot. I thought I had you." Lots of noise on the other end, part of a hacking cough. "Hey, Mary, whaddya think of this sonofabitch! Here I've been telling you for forty-five years of married life that there's only one of me in the whole world, and now this strange sonofabitch from out of nowhere is trying to tell me that there is two of me." We talked a good thirty minutes on the phone, at times hilarious, at times sad, some old pals really missing, and on parting he said, "I hope you find your pal, Georgie, and let me know if he's as good lookin' as me.” As one newspaperwoman said, "It's not always the destination, is it?” She's a great help but can't get an assignment out of her editor because "that war” is old news, is a good guess. Pro Patria.
And suddenly old Pete Leone had a piece of a shadow all to himself. The first time Pete Leone crossed in front of him, back at Fort Devens in 1950, he had seen the grace of carriage saying here in fatigue uniform of floppy pockets and customized drabness of dull green was an athlete, saying he was cocky, saying he was countable in spite of the first attributes he’d come away with. Later, in Korea, they had crossed paths a number of times, Pete riding the gun carriage of a 155 Howitzer down the MSR near Chorwon, an hour later bringing him along to chow by going right to the head of the chow line, like he was a frigging general; Pete busting their balls as he elbowed his way right up to the front of the chow line to the First Cook, saying, “Charlie, this is a pal of mine. He’s a writer too, so give him extras or he’ll make a numb nuts out of you some day. You can never get away from the black and white, Charlie. Never. It can haunt you until the day you drop and there ain’t a hell of a lot you can do about it. The book on you will follow you to the grave, Charlie, every last goddamn line written about you. Every goddamn word, curse or not, plaudit be damned too. You think you got secrets, Charlie. Even your mother will find out what you’ve been hiding all these years.” Pete’s laughter ran the length of the disarmed chow line, feet shuffling to an unknown tune of hurry up and wait, mess kits dangling in anticipation, the air based with metallic elements stretching out every sound, every note, and the quick laughter to be noted as though out of place.
Charlie had waxed purple. Popovers he hadn’t seen since Anthony’s Restaurant back home, in the neighboring city of Lynn, fell on his mess kit, fried chicken he might never get again in-country, mashed potatoes thick and white as snow, Pete all the time cajoling each of the cooks and attendants in the serving line, drawing allusions, looking back at Charlie every now and then as if punctuation was being rendered, giving advice, smiling and nodding at him all the while. “Hey, Zebra, old buddy, new corporal, this here’s the real new Hemingway, if he ever gets to cut back on his vocab. This is Zebra, Georgie, whose letters are priceless, not his but the ones from his pappy back in Elizabethton, Tennessee, home of the angels of the written word. Ain’t that right, Zebra? Ain’t that old man of yours the new coming of Will Rogers or more like Rod Jenkins of the 278th than old Rod himself, still at the still, still carrying the same load of bricks on the back of his truck, the stuff stuffed down inside the bricks and straw?”
Then, as now, Pete’s eyes were Italian gray stone and lit up, his hair black and severe in its trim, his jaw with the merest sense of slack cut into it. Later, on a visit to Pete’s home high on a hill in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, his wife Barbara put out the same spread for them, right down to the goddamn mess kits she scrounged at an Army-Navy store after reading an old letter for the tenth time. A lady like Esmel. Shadow of shadows.
On the milk crate, seeing it all clearly, he knew everything in the whole world had aged except for the very moment of the pictures; the pictures were as sweet as they were then even in the midst of the horrors of the war that most people had forgotten. He felt funny thinking of it that way, but it was true. It ran through him like a delicious train, pistons popping, steam belching, thrusting, knocking down walls. Sweetness and war, and not seeming to push against each other with much effort, yet co-existing, sharing the shadows if nothing else. There was a sweetness to the irony, a sweetness of and by itself, hanging out in its own shadow in among all the other shadows.
Oh, Christ, the old wounds could gather yet a storm. Oh, that damn yetness.
Then the phone had rung one night and Frankie Mitman’s voice came out of a longer shadow. “I can’t find your house. I’m at the White Hen and I can’t find your house.” You can’t beat that for timing and irony, can you? He gets all the way here to Saugus from Bethlehem via Korea and he’s not three blocks away and can’t find the house. This gymnastic kid, purveyor of Polish goodies, who knew the reality and the scourge of the two-way Steeler linebacker, Chuck Bednarick, right out of Bethlehem High School with him, hard rock as hard rock can get. But Frankie’s voice is breaking up, sounds dry and the beer is loose and cool and another shadow’s coming out of the long night, and it’s Frankie coming up the trail as he's coming down and Ralphie Moore is almost sitting on the point of Frankie’s bayonet and he’s driving him up the hill as the 17th is replacing the 31st somewhere in the Iron Triangle.
“I’ll come down tonight and tell you about it,” he says, and prods old Ralphie up the hill. Ralphie is noted as not carrying a weapon and not wearing a steel helmet and that is fishy enough in itself. It sort of broadcast what it meant; that Ralphie had taken a trip on his own and didn’t get to where he wanted to go, which was the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River where he had worked on boats since he was eleven years old and once there could hide out forever.
Of course, shadows demand light. The pronouncement comes easy.
The light shook in his eyes again, a stream of light, now a straight arrow of light, a beatific beauty, a laser punch. It went to the back of his head. It lit up the far ways. Something caught itself in his throat. His fingers tingled, his arms. Behind his eyes both shadow and light had sudden places of combat before he settled down. The old tasty breath came back, the reserves touched upon and counted. The movies. The catalogues. The shadows.
His lungs eased.
A sweetness, he fathomed, had been fully released.
It was fifty years old, the sweetness, the bitter sweetness, the testament of time, a yellow busty sweater looming in front of him in a morning high school study hall and his groaning with a morning erection that would cause laughter if he stood in front of the class. The sweetness tasted like the South Side of Breda’s or Kujawski’s Chicago. Or his own North Shore, crowding in on Rockport or Gloucester. Or the edge of a small lake near North Barnstead, New Hampshire and cool on the face. Cool on the face, on the arms, in under the edge of his shirt, talking to him about Leon Bellargeron or Eddie Lampack, surely there, off to one side.
It smelled like he was thirteen or fourteen and one war was long over and there’d never be another. Or it was the same full-blown sweetness that he once was, later on, when Esmel on a steep night heavy of passion had said her mouth was cursed by his sweetness. “I labor to remember all other things but not your sweetness.” That’s how she said it, her smile in a curving and wicked radiance reflecting again in his eyes.
Oh, she owned him forever, the lady in the window in that house in the shade. She owned him forever and ever.
Then he remembered why he had brought the milk crate into the heart of his garden a full day earlier. All of sixty years had gone by and he recalled his grandfather’s other words of warning: “Old Sam Parker went sitting on the crapper. That’s where Mildred found him, straight up like he was frozen to the damn seat. On the crapper, and his pecker stiffly upright.”
Not fair to Esmel, if I went that way. Not fair at all. My drawers down around my ankles, me stiff as a board. God forbid the scene!