VIEWS: 50 PAGES: 11 CATEGORY: Fiction POSTED ON: 3/16/2010
Part 1 of 3 from the collection "3 Christmas Stories" using Christmas not as a religious celebration, but the cultural and personal reflection point of the year it becomes for everyone, regardless of faith or lack there of.
qwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyui opasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfgh jklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvb nmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwer tyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopas dfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzx “Watermark” cvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmq wertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuio From the collection Three Christmas Stories pasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghj By Lee Sarter klzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbn mqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwerty uiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdf ghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxc vbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmrty uiopasdfghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdf ghjklzxcvbnmqwertyuiopasdfghjklzxc -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2010- The door to the garage sticks, forcing me to turn the knob then push with all my weight to get it to open. It rattles as the frame releases, sending a shiver through the old splintering wood, shaking the thick and imperfect rectangles of glass. The wavy slats chatter in their slots contracted from the cold of the new day, broadcasting the door as being breeched throughout the small yard and garden of the house. My eyes turn first, then slowly my head follows to scan behind me, back toward our slightly peeling white Victorian while thinking casual thoughts. Breath held in preparation, to see if the sound brought her to her feet and to the window. She’s very sensitive to noises lately, but that’s one of the strange things about sleep deprivation- you become a zombie and can’t think, but your hearing, your reaction to sharp noises shoots through the roof. It’s akin to looking though the ancient garage glass- foggy, but you can still make out enough detail to interpret or assess. I put the toe of my boot on the woven mat just inside the door with care, attempting to slink into the stilled air of the garage like a cat. My foot is announced by a plume of dust and particles collected by the weave, spreading into the heavy air to create fleeting shafts as they drift through and past the window opposite the entrance- the light flickering between shadow and glare inviting me in. I contort my body to fit through the gap, as not to open the door farther and tempt it to creak. I make one last look up to the window of the second floor, pushing the door until it just sticks enough to appear closed. The morning feels different than usual, like it knows. Like the strange feeling you get- a tingle in your stomach and behind your eyes- when you graduate from something or the day you get a new job you’ve been vying for. The day seems to know it is something different than just another Saturday. The dust whips and whirls as I slide the green canvas cover off and give it a hard shake, particles gathering on the window of our silver Camry, on the paint cans and solvents, scattered tools, old cabinetry- rising and relocating the layer to coat each surface again with age and a deep wood smell. I cough and try to control the urge to sneeze as I inhale lungs full of the thickened air, folding the canvas like a cheap flag and placing it as the top layer of strata on the workbench. I pull the key ring out of my pocket, which jingles with the harmonics of each task it locks and keeps secure; the key to the house vibrates with a deeper, more definitive brass clink, the thin key to my locker twinkles in the cacophony as a fleeting and personal reminder of a gym membership rarely exercised. I find the chipped silver key and release the giant rusted lock keeping the latch to the main doors secured. The old paint of the doors somehow sticks after so many years too- must be the humidity of the morning, as it’s days of sticking from freshness had past long before any of us were even born. It was fresh, at least the base cotes, back when the garage would’ve been better known as a carriage house, filled to the brim with buggies and tack and horses braying every few moments. The worn latch releases and the doors reluctantly part and open onto the alley, catching the long shadows of the still new light in the weeds and gravel and backs of other centuries in dwelling form- very old wood slat siding being crisscrossed with power lines and phone wires added where they could be as technology and affluence required. From back behind several forgotten boxes of clothes intended for charity I pull out a helmet, deep shimmering red with a scratched visor, and a brown leather bomber jacket. The leather, like any of us do, dried out from being moved then hung then worn again for some thirty years, but still grips the Air Force and base insignias with what tensile strength it and the stitching has left. The jacket belies its serenity with cracks and repairs, mementos of the missions it had flown on, the towns it moved through somewhere on the other side of the globe, in a corner different than our own; the lining still smells of a long since smoked cigar at an officer’s club and the feeling of growing up and being flashed into a man like water to steam. No cordless phones to connect you to loved ones, nor satellites to pinpoint the target and the enemy. It was the generation that followed flying fortresses and grit. I can’t help but feel connected to it, to him, through the memory of the soft leather. Like wearing his second skin, hoping to absorb some sense of wisdom and responsibility in a time when the words seem to have changed. I put the jacket on with a soft, satisfying creak only time can give it. I tuck in my shirt and zip the cover up half way to keep the lilting breeze out. I run my hand down the black metal of the gas tank of the shining motorcycle, closing my eyes as if I were blind and had a chance to know the machine through its contours and components, not as a brand or point of pride. A nice idea that helps to pretend I only ride because of the feeling of it and I slicing through the barrier between man and bird, gliding through streets effortlessly and with nothing to stop the wind from flowing through me. I would like to be that, but it’s just not true. I ride for the feel, but I also ride for a feeling of who I am, or whom I want to be seen as. I put my foot on the kickstand and push with all my weight forward and down toward the floor, releasing it and letting the wheels touch the concrete with a small squeak. I wipe some persistent dust from the gauges and seat, using one of the shirts from the charity boxes. After, I make sure to get some of the chrome pieces too and stuff the worn cotton into one of the saddlebags on the back, just in case. I brush the black plastic side of the container once more, the only whimper of a motion my hands can muster with my mind racing through a thousand turns and straight-aways that have been conquered as passing scenery. I lazily step back, almost trying to seal the memory with any strange angle I can find, to remember the small imperfections or overlooked details that mark good motorcycles like a fingerprint. I know the bike like a child and have been through most of the situations it will ever go through. I learned to work on these engines because of this bike. It never took much at all truthfully, but it made me ask and learn to be ready if it did. Something about its design seems to resist breakdowns, especially when the basic needs are attended to. I don’t totally understand it. I guess if a bike can have a fingerprint or something like a personality, it can have DNA too. There hasn’t been much to maintain on it, just the oil change and such. In spite of that, I’ve still been acting like a doting father, overprotective and over killing the waxing or buffing, thinking too much about build up on the electrical system, detailing the gauges whenever possible. My wife joked a few times that the bike was what made her want to get pregnant- she saw how much care and attention I can give something I truly care about. That’s what she told me, anyway. I think she’s probably just giving me grief, making fun and seeing first hand how much I have obsessed over this thing for the few years we’ve been married. At the same time, there could be something to that, I don’t know. Check the gas gauge, which shows three quarters of a tank, good oil level, tires have air. Ready to fly. I brush the surface of the saddlebag again, amplifying the hollow sound of my hand playing the texture of the thick plastic, scratching as my fingernails push against it’s. The “FOR SALE” sign slides silently out from the box. The wax paper backing peels from the adhesive tape, which I let fall to the ground, trying to make sure the sign is centered and sticking to the plastic. All I can do is push until my bent thumbs turn white with pressure, rubbing left to right and back several times to pretend I have nothing more to consider beyond what the sign reads. It means that Monday, when I put out the ad, it won’t be long before the deal is done. The machine is somewhat rare- the color, the chrome additions, the engine- and so people have asked me if I would consider selling it long before it ever truly crossed my mind. My care of it has slipped the last few months and I feel guilty about it, like I’m not being fair to it. I don’t know- sometimes it’s just easier to let go of something if you can wear that connection away. In my experience, it’s the familiar, the intimate details that really hurt when they’re gone. I secure the latch closing the plastic box and step back again, absorbing the sheen in the glow of the morning. The helmet slides on, stopping with a dull thud as my head pushes into its place, secured by tension with a metal snap of the chinstrap. The shield goes down over the gap of the helmet with the hinges softly creaking and making the view resemble a movie on a television: black surrounding a window onto the world outside. I turn the key to “Start” with little resistance and my right thumb hits the ignition button on the handle. The starter wakes and stutters with a high-pitched cough in bursts, finally turning over and coaxing the engine to grumble with a pulse. The aging frame shivers when the attached parts start their circadian rhythm, punctuated with a belch of exhaust that fills the small space of the garage, rolling up and out into the air in a quickly disappearing plume. My breaths become shallow as my heart beats faster, sitting on the machine. My body adjusts; muscles tighten at attention, eyes strain for any more sharpness that can be squinted out of them. A vibrating hand gently turns the grip, foot eases up, while first gear catches gently and moves the two of us out of the garage and onto the gravel of the alley. The gas is touched gingerly to minimize the noise until I hit the street, and then open her up like she should be. The rolling boom of the engine ripples through the serene trees that line the wide streets of the neighborhood, like a call and response between two old friends who have seen opposite sides of time’s move forward. The houses shining with their lost workmanship in stages of reclamation, the machine coughing a phlegm of long since dead animals refined to a commodity and burned two strokes at a time. You tend to see things slightly differently holding on to an engine with wheels as opposed to sitting in the cab of a car. In a car you see the house, the yard, street, the people walking from their vehicle to a locked front door. On a bike, you see the broken slats on the old wooden siding, the brightly colored plastic toys that sprinkle the dark green of a well maintained lawn, the pock marked concrete that makes up the meandering sidewalk, the keys that jingle and twist as the right one is found and the furrowed brow of a tired resident that punctuates the action. You see the small. You see the glue that holds together the larger gestures as a residue of an everyday life. The details remind me of lazy evenings sitting in our manicured grass when I was younger. Mom would pass the window above the kitchen sink briefly, shining for seconds in the warm yellow glow of the lights in the house. Her face rang as almost too real, the window taking the look of an old photo set against the darkening blue of the evening as a frame. I would play with my toys, swing on a grey metal swing set, and pretend to fly like my father. I loved to sit at the top of the small, shiny slide and hold my hands up as if they gripped the controls of a jet somewhere over a far off sea. I could feel the gravity become heavy as I banked hard, not only to test my machine, but for the fun of it, just like he used to talk about with his friends when they would come over. The summer air played along, providing a soft breeze to fuel my imagination and help me see my father, there in the plane next to me, waving with the ear-to-ear smile that embossed his face whenever he talked about being in the air. My body shakes with the string of cracks and holes the tires roll over and into, accelerating through the interstate corridor. Both north and southbound are flanked by large sound barriers featuring concrete renderings of the surrounding area- city billboards in the form of pseudo permanent advertisement. The economy depends on tourism to a large degree, so any amount they can remind a person of all the incredible things they are driving through, the better off they are going to be. Most people seek out the tourism, but the town isn’t exactly that well known, so capturing travelers bound for anywhere else can only help them. I weave through what light and distracted traffic there is, opting to exit the interstate to take a cut off through a backstreet. The houses of this neighborhood are smaller and newer by about thirty years compared with what my wife and I live in. Yet, they look older, like the years that have been seen by one place have been harder or different than another. Maybe the same realm the bike finds itself in now. These houses are where I always imagined myself living at this point in my life, just really getting started with everything. I imagined a ranch style like my old house. I could see an attached garage with handles to lift it up, ready for an automatic opener any day soon. My children could sit and play with their toys in the backyard, hugged by the “L” shape of the house and being watched with a smile by my wife and me, finishing dishes from dinner. I always wanted that feeling I got from my parents, that life was vital and chaotic, but the direction, the reason to risk was as simple as coming home to it. Being present for your family, for yourself, for your own imagination; acting as the catalyst for a life well lived. After several more blocks of houses shimmering with blinking lights and plastic saints the bike rumbles and hiccups to a stop at the stiff hand of a uniformed guard. “Morning Sir, what can we do for you today?” The man spoke with a stiff lip, his uniformed body still without twitching a single regimented muscle. “Hello there, “I said while lifting my visor, my voice muffled by the padding of the helmet. “I was hoping to get a ride in before the day takes off on me.” I took my driver’s license out and gave it to him. “Understand completely, Sir. If there isn’t going to be snow, we should at least have a beautiful morning like today.” He took the license, looked at it carefully then slid it through a card reader in the shadow of his booth. His computer beeped twice, showing my name and the date, December 25 th, on the large glowing monitor for the daily log and handed it back to me. “Ride safe and slowly, Sir. And Merry Christmas” he said with a halfhearted salute. “Thank you, Duncan,” I said as I squinted to read the embroidered name on his uniform. “Same to you and thank you for all that you do,” I gave him a strong salute I learned from watching my father when he would take me in or out of a base. It’s strong, but somehow informal at the same time. I don’t ever feel comfortable saluting, like I don’t have the right because I never joined up. At the same time, I have so much of that just burned into my brain, most of the time I do it without thinking. I just mechanically salute, like some people when they say “God bless you” after someone sneezes. These things are like remainders of where we’ve been, sometimes who we are on some unconscious level, when the filter or editor is away. The bike sputtered a bit, but kicked into gear and pushed on from the gate, flowing through the staggered concrete barriers used for extra security; my father told me all about it once when I went with him on a job for the commissary. No matter what rank he had, he always volunteered to get supplies for the café in the back, near the deli in the decrepit old grocery building, if he could fit it into his day; he had to drive a small refrigerator van off base, get food or dishes or whatever they needed faster than the Air Force system could provide, and come back as quickly as he could. It was far below what his rank should’ve been concerned with, but that’s how he was with everything- he simply did what needed to be done. I rode with him occasionally and he told me the barriers were there to make sure no one could just drive straight through and force their way onto the base. After he told me that, I had this daydream of me kind of losing my mind and flooring the accelerator of the van one time when we came back from a pickup. It was always very dramatic, and in slow motion in my head. I told him about that and he just laughed hard, after shaking a finger and reminding me to never actually try something so stupid. I passed signs giving directions to the planetarium or chapel, to the football stadium or B- 52 display and memorial, each followed by a “Welcome to the Air Force Academy” sign shortly after. There are a few entrances to the large academy, so when you are going through it you will see a lot of repeats of the same signs, military redundancy, I suppose. Literally at every cross street, you’re likely to be told how far you are from everything else and given an arrow as a guide to the direction of it. Of course, just like the rest of the military, the roads often go far out of the way of your destination to accommodate some strange corner that’s a training ground or range. The entire place is so wide open and expansive, you just have to read the signs as best you can, get on a road and trust that it will lead somewhere you want to go, no matter how much it seems to twist and turn. I’ve been through the tangle of roads enough times that I pretty much know which ones to use. I follow one through a small grove of pine trees that seem to float on top of the long golden grass converting breeze into waves below the dark needles of the thick trunks and branches. The road has a canopy of them covering it and blocking the sun, giving way to chunks of deep blue sky in flashes of pure daylight as they stream by you. Suddenly, and as abruptly as the thicket of trees appeared, they stop and the road is exhaled onto the ascending edge of a large rock valley. The two lanes turn west and climb toward the sloping foothills that rise quickly like rocky fins of the earth’s crust. The sun coats the surrounding forest, making florescent the green of countless cones marking the edge of another wood on the far side of the valley. It then turns north and cuts a barrier between the stone slopes just to the west and undulations that form the anchor of the Great Plains, extending far beyond the eastern horizon. The asphalt straightens and comes to the dormitories and classrooms of the institution, placed as a stark contrast to the land in the form of angular concrete boxes set in geometric platforms of paving tiles and peppered by rigid metal tables and benches. The campus lays in silence, freezing the theory and tactics taught there as fleeting moments of a darker humanity, one stopped for a moment when the souls of men are allowed to measure and renew themselves, and the year, during the holidays. Our family came to these grounds and this town at the end of my time in elementary school. My father flew in many more missions than he ever talked about with his young son, so his experiences were never made that clear to me. I know he ran rescues of wounded soldiers so they could return to their families after healing as much as that type of situation will allow. I had heard references to formations and actual dog fights hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. In empty moments after dinner and before the adults had their cocktails and I had to go to sleep, my father’s friends would tell me snippets of stories featuring him as the warrior or savior or strong will that brought them all through somehow. Often, lost in their memories and just beginning their highballs or vodka tonics, I saw their eyes cloud with tears as they told me they wouldn’t be talking to me if it weren’t for my father. All I could do was tug automatically at my worn cotton pajamas, look ahead as I saw each of them do when not knowing what to say, and wait for the pregnant silence that followed their confession to be broken by something, anything. Often, it was my mom or my father entering with a friendly offering of a cigar or a joke, which was usually followed by me being shuttled off to bed. We came in the mid sixties after living in Canada for several years. My father was stationed at a base shared by both Americans and Canadians as a test pilot and occasional instructor for refreshing techniques. As I have been told, he rose quickly through the ranks there as his reputation was validated by the calm and charismatic way he interacted with his fellow soldiers. I was very young, so I mostly remember ice-skating on the frozen river that cuts through the city or stopping at a chips stand for a cone of newspaper filled with French fries doused in malt vinegar. I remember the strongly scented steam that fogged my small glasses as it rose from the cone on the cold days and the mounted police that would chuckle and say hello as I pushed my face into the potatoes. The Mounties loved watching me come home from school on base and would usually talk to me and let me pet their beautiful horses. One of their watch stations was just yards away from our little bungalow in the tangle of residences on one side of the compound, so they would always have some joke to tell or trick to show me. I do remember their deep laughs at how independent I wanted to be for such a small person. After our conversations, they always said, with a sort of twinkle in their eyes, that I was becoming more and more like my father every day. As we went into our later years being on the base, I recall father being around less and less. Mom made dinner for three every night, but usually only set the table for two, as he would be called away on a flight, which over time turned to a procedural meeting, which eventually gave way to constant briefings others gave him as the new base commander. She made a plate for him and placed it in the oven with care so it would be waiting when he eventually made it home. It seems confusing so many years past, but in spite of all the time he spent away from us then, I don’t remember feeling like he had abandoned us. I was never sure of what time he would find himself home again, but every night, regardless of what had happened or how tired he was, he always gave me a kiss on the forehead and a few pats on the shoulder before going to bed. He spoke in such a hushed tone I could never understand his words, but he talked to me while sitting on the edge of my bed. Usually I was asleep, but there were many times that I simply faked sleep, feeling restless unless I knew he was home for the evening. I never told him I was awake for those moments. I can’t explain it even now, those were somehow our anchors- him saying what he wanted to say to me in near silence, me soaking in the radiant glow of his quiet affection and neither of us ever acknowledging it happened. A short time after his promotion to base commander, the word came down that we would be moving back stateside, so he could become the base commander and chancellor of the Air Force Academy. The move was a blur, but I recall feeling anxious about leaving my friends and going to a country that, even though I was born in, I didn’t remember at all. We arrived to the wide-open spaces of the town, were given a very nice house with new walls in what was then the outskirts, and were driven to the Academy everyday by friendly Air Force chauffeurs to work and school. He was happy, mom was happy he was around more and I was struck by all the time we had together, all the families we were in contact with. Not that long after arriving and getting settled into our new life, he volunteered to go over to Vietnam to help establish a crucial base for the escalating war. He went back and forth several times without any problems. The government wasn’t that crazy about it, but he had a way of convincing anyone around him that the risks he took were not that at all; that somehow, with some kind of unique logic, it was his duty to do anything and everything he could for the cause of people, no matter who or where they were. According to the official report, or at least what part of it I have seen, his transport plane was hit by enemy fire and disappeared somewhere over the jungles of Vietnam. Some wreckage was found burning, but not all the bodies of the people that were on the plane. Mom told me he had been killed when it happened, but I have always wondered what actually happened, if he could be out in the world somewhere. From that year on, during the holidays, mom and I would visit the sharp spires of the Crystal Chapel at the Academy and light a candle for peace, one for ourselves, and two in his name: one each for his memory and our ability to move closer, inch by inch, toward a meaningful life without him. Mom made a point, especially in December, to try and make things as they had always been: happy and grateful. I can think of so many Christmases that were warm, that smelled of strong spices and the dust that collects when decorations are used once a year. I can remember the satisfying tear of wrapping paper or the sleepless excitement that melted to joy when the box was opened. I think of these and reluctantly wonder why, twenty plus years on, I must come to this place- a beautiful bench overlooking the vast formation fields below and the looming structures holding classrooms, all sitting at the foot of monuments both of nature and to the destructive force of humanity- to share it all with him. To update him somehow with this act of repetition, year after year, in a hushed tone. Only a plaque, gilded and placed in a well- manicured spot he called his favorite amongst the expansive grounds, to remind me that he is gone; that he lived to love and seek himself out, but also to be someone to look to in times of need. I think of it and wish I could touch his hand, not his name in relief on a metal surface. With each ridge of the letters, I feel in myself more and more a resolve, a need to know that I will not allow a chance of missing my life. I cannot allow some desire of my own to temper a future that I am responsible for. He will not be made brittle because of my influence. So I cry for more minutes than I’d like to admit, just as I have every year since it all happened, letting the tears roll down my face with a warm tickle and soak into the skin of my cheek. I lean in and give a small kiss to his name, wishing it a Merry Christmas, look to the haze floating amongst the line of foothills, and start the bike to shatter the silence. I push it hard to prove nothing to myself or anyone else, but just to push it. My hand squeezes with rage and twists the grip, trying to get the bike to howl as loud as I have always wanted to, but never could. This is the last ride of my old self, my old direction. I am different now, I have to be. I have to feel this speed to remember, to see it has no place, no function. I have to release this need, this impulse to fly. I have no use for my phantom wings, they need clipping. I push harder, but the engine doesn’t respond. I push again, watching the trees slow as I pass. The engine roars, then buckles and sputters with a metallic grinding sound I have never heard. I push and push, making it through an exit gate with a backfire shot and out to the still deserted streets of town. I throttle harder, but the momentum is slipping, the engine is grinding louder and louder, when the frame pops and shutters hard enough to lift me off the seat for a moment. I push and push, but the engine has given it’s all and stops running. I feel the breath leak out of the machine between my legs and guide it to the side of the road. The key turns, but the starter doesn’t, giving off some remainder black smoke and wafts of burning oil and components. I put the kickstand down and sit on the crumbling curb, keeping my helmet on to hide my angry and tear soaked eyes from the few that might see a sunken frame on the road as they pass. My mind races, recounting a myriad of moments from this life, obscuring themselves as distant. I stare at the concrete, tracing cracks with my eyes and wondering, when and in what sense, I will return home for his first Christmas Day. I lose myself and hope, above all other hopes, this can be the beginning of a new tradition for me and more importantly, for my young family waiting at home to craft our own memories as fodder for an unseen future.