The October People. Chapter 22: The Dam, the Musketeer, and the Little Man
“What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks-is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.”
“In a Dark Time”
Despondent, grim. Sense of a freight train-like fate hurtling me down to my end. There is no way to describe how I feel, knowing now the damage that was done, what my life could have been like, the potentials I’ve been robbed of.
I see now that I’ve been a blind, uncomprehending pawn in a game with a stacked deck, trying to fight my way through life, always taking wrong turns and making bad decisions that then had to be later undone.
What good has it done me to uncover this cesspool of a childhood and to have lived through this Kafkaesque adulthood? What good? It’s robbed me of the one thing I did have; my strength and surety.
On days like this these I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to stay blind. At least I could have finished out what’s left of this asinine game of life with my pillars, though false, intact and giving me support. Instead, like Samson, I’ve wrought my own destruction. I look around me now, and say to myself with outrage:
“This? This? This is what you’ve done with the life allotted you? All that sound and fury? It brought you this? How many others did you drag down with you? You robbed Melissa of her potential as an artist and caused her 20 years of grind, tension and suffering. Nice job, Idiot.
Even with her, who’s been so supportive and compassionate, I can’t be who I am at times; I have to keep a stiff upper lip for her. It’s not that I’m not trying to hide myself; it’s just that all it would do is upset her even more.
She’s not living through this the same way I am, no matter how empathetic she is. No one can know what it is to live in any one else’s soul; to know all the uncertainties, confusions, the mess of emotions, and all the silent writhings.
This mood will pass. But that won’t alter the facts: It’s too late, I’ve run my race. It’s always been anathema to me to wish ill on others, to admit to even a hint of Schadenfreude in me…But I hope those assholes go through at least one tenth of the pain and sorrow they’ve caused me.
It’s good to spit out that poison. Trying to put it into words helps tremendously to deflate it. When I read back over what I’ve written in those ‘Black Moods’ even a day later I can’t recognize myself.
I have always thought of myself as intelligent, (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), even above average to be perfectly honest. Which is why it has been so difficult for me to accept that the ‘family’, even my own children, view me as somehow mentally inferior to them.
My memory does point out that after those last injuries before the move to the Island, whatever they were, I was seen as mentally deficient; a brain-damaged “Fritz”, as my Uncle Ralph used to call me. It was like I was somehow ‘Shell-Shocked’; silent, confused, unable to think clearly. But I don’t know why.
It wasn’t just that I was confused in elementary school by what seemed to be the arbitrary rules in math of what meaningless thing was done to what other meaningless thing, nor that this math had no practical application to anything in my life. I recognize now that while I could memorize facts easily, I had a distinct inability to think analytically, logically, sequentially, and perseveringly.
This weakness showed itself most dramatically in arithmetic and in the playing of strategic board games. Jakey, 4 years my junior, routinely beat me at those games. For years I would not play them because I could neither win, nor stand to lose and not be allowed to wipe that smug look off his face.
Luckily, it seemed to have been a transient problem that gradually lessened. By the time I was a young adult, I found pleasure in playing, an admittedly unsophisticated, chess and enjoyed writing computer programs to solve specific needs at work and for projects I was working on. I re-took an algebra course to prove to myself that I could successfully understand how to solve the equations.
Jesus. I remember now. I remember where I saw that musketeer, and that dam.
As hard as I’ve tried so far, I can’t find a memory of Al that I can say was from within the first two years of my life. I can remember Loony Lily all too well, and Al’s parents, my Babi and Dede, but not Al. But I suppose it’s reasonable to assume it was Al who decided to sober me up after a picnic when I had just about turned 2.
For about 150 years, the Czechs have had a nationalistic organization devoted to physical fitness called “Sokol”, which in Czech means ‘The Falcon’. Everywhere the Czechs lived, they would build a place where gymnastics and calisthenics were taught and practiced. It would usually have a bar, restaurant, and a playing field as well.
Each year in early May; men, women, and children of all ages in uniforms would perform mass callisthenic drills to traditional music in what was called a “Slet”, or ‘Exhibition’. Afterwards, they’d all repair to the picnic areas to eat, drink beer, and generally celebrate life. Czechs love their beer, but the majority don’t get drunk and leave fairly early. As usual it was the young adults that stayed and got royally drunk.
At different times both Rosa and her daughter Agnes told me there was a photo somewhere of me at age 2, lying on my back under a beer keg’s tap, catching the drips in my open mouth. They seemed to consider it very funny for a toddler to be allowed to drink beer.
That story goes a long way to fitting in with a nightmarish memory of panic and sheer terror. It wouldn’t take much alcohol to affect a child that small. My guess is that I got enough beer from the drips, or more than likely from a cup of beer, to make me either drunk and fall asleep.
‘Someone’ took it into his head that it would be a great joke to sober up the little boy using the traditional method: Immersing his head in the tub of water that had been used to keep the beer keg chilled.
Suddenly there was the shock of being submerged in ice-cold water, my arms held behind my back, unable to breathe or get free. Then being pulled up into the night air only long enough to sense laughter, loud voices, the smell and sight of a wooden tub filled with water and ice. Then plunged face first back down into the water, gagging, my arms still pinioned. That 'someone' may have been Al.
However, my first indisputably clear memory of him is when he and Loony Lily brought me to the place I was to die.
It was late summer and I was a couple of months older than 2. I’m able to deduce the time of year to the month by the seasonal age of the vegetation, the lack of bird songs, what insects I remember hearing, and the type of clouds. It’s that clear.
He set me down on my feet in the middle of a dry, rocky, stream bed. There was no water except for some tea-colored little puddles hiding from the sun at the bases of some of the bigger rocks.
“Don’t move. Stay dere.” His voice ordered.
I didn’t look up until he had turned and scrambled up a steep bank that was overgrown with tall weeds. I watched his laborious, almost frantic progress, in his city shoes up it and then up another, less steep one of unmown grasses to a tall, square-meshed black wire fence. He squeezed through the chained gate near a large, yellow-painted wooden sign hung on the fence.
That was where Loony Lily was waiting for him, wearing cuffed blue jeans and a grey pullover sweatshirt. She looked at me through the fence with an unblinking, flat stare. We gazed at each other silently.
As soon as Al re-joined her, she turned wordlessly to her left and walked away. He followed her quickly. To their left was a dark, evergreen woods, the narrow-trodden dirt path they followed was carpeted here and there with the short, brown needles of the trees. The path disappeared around a bend to the left. He kept looking around nervously. She just walked.
I had just come down that path with them in his arms. It followed the irregular, rocky shoreline of a good-sized cobalt-blue lake covered with small tight waves. Some sailboats were out on it under the ranged, marching clouds that often come from Canada in late summer. Mountains rose up on the other shore.
For a long moment I stared at the last spot I saw them. When they didn’t come back, I turned my attention to my surroundings. In a vague way something bode ill. On the other side of the stream bed was another set of slopes like the ones Al had scrambled up, but I could see no path beyond the fence there, just woods.
I was at the bottom of a large, sort of V-shaped gulley. The bed itself led right up to a concrete wall like a truncated triangle, leaning back into an earthen dam which spanned the area between the 2 sets of slopes. At the base of this concrete wall was a cast-concrete protrusion about a third of the height of the dam. In the center of it was a large, circular black hole. Broken rock was piled up beneath it and between the arms of the buttresses. From either side of the triangle, concrete buttresses fanned out to hold back the earthen walls.
I followed the bed of rocks with my eyes down from the dam to where I stood in the middle of it. Turning, I saw that it seemed to disappear from view some distance away. It looked like a very messy road of rocks going through a weedy valley to nowhere.
I squatted down and sat on a large stone. The sun was fairly hot, but it wasn’t muggy, and there was no breeze. I heard a few flying insects, but wasn’t bothered by deerflies and I heard no birds; so, it had to have been mid-August or a little later. I had no name for crickets nor knew that was the source of the mesmerizing sound I focused on, which seemed to become louder and louder.
Everything but the crickets’ chorus and the warmth of the sun melted away. I absorbed it into me, for I don’t know how long.
An incredibly loud noise came out of nowhere. I shot to my feet, instantly clamped as tight as a touched clam.
The terrifyingly loud, raucous brayings of a warning alarm came from somewhere nearby above me. I was confused and disoriented by the harsh clamor that filled the air. I felt danger but saw nothing. I turned to face where the sound seemed to be coming from, in the direction of the dam. It suddenly stopped. In a moment the silence became as alarming as the din had been; because it was pregnant.
Then a new sound began; a faint one, a muffled, grinding growl of metal on metal. My eyes locked on the first hint of movement in the black hole in the dam: A dark stain of water quickly ran down the chin of the concrete from the hole. Instantly, a sharp bristle of spray shot out toward me in a rapidly increasing arc, further and further. The hole disappeared behind a solid, churning charge of greenish-white water that hid everything from view.
I stared at it, frozen. I was only about 20 feet away and when that cannon of water hit me it was more than head-high. I was carried like a rag doll, like a leaf in a gale. The air was knocked out of me, and I remember my body folding up over my face and hearing a nauseating, muffled thump to the back of someone’s head.
How long I was unconscious; I don’t know. Nor do I know where I was found, after how long, or by whom. The only thing I can say is that based on old photographs from the 50’s that I’ve seen that fit what I remember; I’m forced to conclude that I was a patient in an upstate New York hospital; maybe Saratoga, probably Glens Falls Hospital. Glens Falls; where I came to live twenty years later.
As best I can reconstruct; I regained consciousness by degrees. Long hospital stays provide little fertile soil for children to root memories in. Its tedium, uncomfortableness, pain…and boredom. There’s little to differentiate one day from the next. My earliest memories of that hospital stay are dyed with the remembrance of deep bone pain, headaches, grogginess, and crankiness.
My left arm and leg were elevated in canvas slings. There was a cast over my whole torso. I remember the blackness of stitches, sunlamps, and an X-ray machine that looked like a long-necked dinosaur. That, and being weighed by being lifted up and placed in a canvas sling that was then hooked to the boom arm of a scale. It was daytime then; there was a weak winter light. I can smell the coarse canvas, and feel again the chill of being taken out of bed. Someone told me not to be scared.
One night I woke up in the quiet, darkened hospital room and looking toward the window, I saw that it had snowed; it was the first snow I remember. The radiator hissed softly. Through my sleep-blurred eyes I saw a small Christmas tree with silver garlands there near the window. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. That’s my earliest memory of a Christmas tree.
A group of short, hearty-looking people sang Christmas carols to me in my room one day. After they left I listened as they went from room to room, singing to all the patients, their voices slowly fading. That was about midway through my stay. By then I was, if not comfortable, at least not in real pain anymore.
What I find curious is that I have no memory of being in a ward, or of any roommates; only private or semi-private rooms on the 3rd or 4th floor. When I first saw myself in a mirror it shocked and terrified me, especially because the monstrosity I saw there mimicked my horrified reaction. I looked like Charles Laughton’s “Quasimodo” from the film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. My head was swollen and misshapen with just patches of hair. My features were distorted by swelling, my mouth was pulled to the left in a grimace, and bristling black stitches puckered the edges of the wounds across my nose and under my eye: I had nightmares for years.
The real problem, however, was that I had no feeling in my left leg and arm. I couldn’t use them. When the doctors started to work with me, trying to get me to learn to move, I fought them crankily. I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want people bothering me.
But I grew to like the patient doctors and nurses. They were very kind, and I liked the praises they gave me when I tried.
A nurse worked my arm and leg daily, moving them all around, flexing and straightening them. I felt nothing at all except a curious rubbing, like something was brushing against something roughened where the dead limbs met the live flesh at my hip and shoulder. We used to laugh together at this silly game she did with my limbs.
At some point though, something began to happen.
I can easily call to mind what the effort to force the message:” Move” through leaden flesh feels like, because I recognize now I’ve re-lived that sensation over the years in that twilight realm between waking and sleep. It is an assertion of the Will, a distinct effort. The feel of forcing life through unresponsive material has a certain synesthetic quality about it. It’s like water moving through porous stone deep underground, with slow, steady pressure. Forcing my will through those channels to the ends of my fingers and toes was every bit as much an effort as trying to run through deep water or pushing up a heavy weight.
They used mittens first and then gloves to help me sense the fingers of my left hand by putting them on and taking them off. I regained the use of my arm before my leg, but my arm stayed weaker longer.
There was a sunny room with a ballet bar below a bank of windows, and musty-smelling, thick, gray gym mats. The first time I walked the length of that bar, holding onto it clumsily with my left hand, the staff cheered for me. It felt like I had conquered the world.
I have no recollection of any visits by my ‘parents’; I don’t think I had any, as strange as that sounds. That conviction is strengthened by the fact that I did not recognize them when I was discharged to them much later. They were strangers in my eyes. I wouldn’t go with them. I had to be calmed down by the nurse, and it took a lot of persuading by the staff to get me to accept that it was okay; that these were my parents, and they had come a long way to take me home. I didn’t know what that meant.
In examining my memory of this almost year long period, I’ve been able to trace a gradual growth in the level of my self-awareness. By the time spring came, I was no longer just a pair of eyes uncritically absorbing what was presented to my senses. An Ego, a sense of self, had appeared. There was now a someone behind those eyes; one who thought, judged, willed, and knew his name.
That year, 1955, my birthday fell on the Saturday of the Memorial Day Weekend, and I was given a feting. I really wish I knew who to thank; but I don’t. No more than I know who footed those hospital bills. The re-telling of this story is the only thanks I can give to all those kind people who were so good to the little boy they adopted.
I remember riding in a black convertible, driven by an older, balding man in a dark suit. I stood up on the front seat between him and the young woman who sat on the passenger side. She was slim, with pretty, regular features, and her brown hair was pulled back tight. She wore a dark blue skirt and jacket, white shirt and gloves, and a blue boy scout-like cap.
We passed a sparse line of spectators on both sides of the street as we followed the yellow fire engines ahead of us. I got a good look at them all when they made a left turn on the parade route ahead of us. Behind our car was a small marching band of maybe a dozen musicians in blue dress uniforms with gold trim.
A little later I was sitting on a folding chair outside on the grass with a lot of other people. It was sunny and warm, with just a few small, puffy clouds drifting lazily by high overhead. I was in the front row, right on the center aisle, which was to my left. That same young lady was seated next to me. Not far in front of us was an outdoor stage, maybe 4 feet high. The center aisle between the 2 sections of chairs led up to painted wooden stairs that climbed to the stage. A band was playing off to the left.
On stage, the “Three Musketeers” were performing a rousing song, with clashing foils and shouts of “All for one, and one for all!”
Then they stopped, and the largest one, the one in the middle with the deep voice, stepped forward and addressed the crowd. When I understood what he was saying I couldn’t believe my ears.
“There’s someone special here today…And it’s his Birthday!!”
He looked directly down at me. All 3 of them were grinning broadly and beckoning me. The blood pounded in my ears. I was excited and wanted to go, but was unsure too, and shy. The lady was smiling.
“Go on, dear. It’s okay. Go on up there. You can do it. I’m right here.” she said encouragingly in my ear.
“Come on up here, Frankie Novak!!” the large one boomed cheerfully.
I awkwardly slid off the chair, and made my way to the stairs. I grasped the railing with my right hand, and stepped up with my right foot. Then I pulled my left foot up to join the right one. I heard applause behind me, and that deep voice from somewhere above me as I took another step up, concentrating hard.
“Let’s have a big hand for the boy they said would never walk again!!...But here he is!!”
The clapping almost drowned him out. I couldn’t wait to get there. I climbed haltingly, my left arm cocked at my waist. Suddenly, there I was, looking up at that giant Musketeer’s chest. The applause deafened me.
The other two Musketeers gathered around, clapping their gauntleted hands and beaming at me. The giant hung his huge, plumed hat on my head, and turned me around to face the audience. I felt suddenly dizzy as I looked out over more people than I had ever seen before in one place. I’m guessing there were maybe a hundred or so seated on folding chairs facing the stage. Beyond the crowd on the lawn was a border of shrubberies, past that was a parking lot, and to the left of that was a large, squat, brick building of a half dozen stories, with many chimneys projecting above its flattish roof. The giant stood behind me, his soft, brown suede gauntlets resting lightly on my shoulders, engulfing them.
“I give you Frankie Novak!... A real Musketeer!” he cried out.
A fresh wave of applause broke out from the smiling crowd. He scooped me up, and held me to his shoulder. My heart was in my throat, and all I could do was cry. I was overwhelmed by it all. The other Musketeers patted my back and wished me a happy birthday. The giant rumbled some gentle words to me as he carried me down the stairs to the young lady.
I buried my face in her neck, feeling her warmth, and breathing in her perfume: It was sweet, and flowery, like Jasmine. She thanked him, smiling, and gave him back his hat. The clapping seemed even louder here than on stage.
Those good folks wanted to make my last weekend with them memorable. And they did. It just took 50 years to remember it and thank them. There was an outdoors party later with a pink-frosted cake and candles, ice cream, hot dogs, and root beer spread out on picnic tables covered with white paper tablecloths.
Then they took me and a half dozen or so other children in wheelchairs from the hospital to “Storytown” in Lake George, which had just opened the year before. On the way back, we stopped at “Mack’s”, a Drive-In restaurant, where the sign there bothered me. The eyes of the boy eating the hot dog on it were always looking at me and their whites were visible all the way around.
When I first moved to this area in the late 70’s the whole area looked somehow, hauntingly, familiar. The lay of the land, the mountains, the vegetation, even the clouds evoked an inexplicable sense of “I’ve been here before”. At the time, I had no idea that “Mack’s” had first opened up in the 40’s, and was about the last place left with ‘Car-hops’. Soon after my moving here, my Mother-in-law at the time asked me to go pick up some burgers there. I shrugged, said “Sure”, got in the car and followed her directions on how to get there.
When I had pulled into the parking lot, it felt like I’d gotten an electric shock. Above the restaurant was a large, handmade sign depicting a boy in a sailor’s outfit and cap about to bite a hot dog.
I knew I had seen that sign before. I didn’t know where, but I knew I had.
The same thing had happened to me when I was 13. Al and Loony Lily took the family to “Storytown”. I knew I had been there before, but I didn’t remember when. I knew all the attractions, and where they were before we got to each one. But Lily insisted I’d never been there before.
Other than the hornet, I can’t remember much about the long trip south to Woodside after I was discharged in early June, except that I think they stayed a night in a motel in Lake George. I remember playing with a fireboat while sitting on the cement floor of a shower stall, seeing Al’s legs next to me as he showered.
Al pulled their black, late 40’s sedan into a rest area, or picnic grounds, near a small lake. Based on the angle of the sun, it was late in the morning. He parked along the edge of a roofed pavilion. There were picnic tables both under it and outside on the grass that led to the shallow water’s edge. As soon as he parked, he and Loony Lily rolled up the small, high, windows, got out, and left me in the car. I assume they were looking for food or a bathroom.
When or how that hornet got in, I don’t know. It made its presence clearly known however. It was a large, very angry, White-Faced Hornet. I had plenty of opportunity to emblazon its features into my memory. Years later when I bought my first field guide to insects, I instantly recognized Vespa Maculata.
She roared from window to window on the sunny side of the car, frustrated in her attempts to get out. I was instinctively afraid of her because I could sense her rage building. I knew she was going to take out her fury on someone, and I was the only one there. I scrooched down as low as I could on the floor below the tan faux woven-straw upholstered seats, trying to hide.
It was inevitable though, like fate. She suddenly dove straight down and landed on my shoulder. Though I flailed at her, she clung on and stung me full of hot, hot, pain, then took off. Just as I started bawling, Loony Lily and Al showed up. He leaped back when he opened his door and the hornet flew out past him.
They kept telling me to stop crying, but I couldn’t. There was no touching, no hugging, no comforting from them. They stood there looking at me like 2 unemotional aliens puzzled by the emotional outburst of a strange life-form. They became aware though, that people were now watching them because of my crying. Lily must have realized something was expected of them by the on-lookers.
“Do sumthin!” she gritted at him through her teeth.
I was lifted out of the car and carried as far as the grass, where Lily pulled me by the hand, following Al to the lakeshore. Short, bright green grasses and arrowhead-shaped leaves poked out of the shallow water. I stopped crying as I watched him. He scooped up a palmful of black, sulpherous ooze, pulled up my shirt sleeve, and clamped the mud on my fiery shoulder.
“Dere…Dat’s what my fatha use ta do fa bee-stings…Don’t it feel betta?”
“No. It hurts.” I began to cry anew.
I missed my hospital, and the nice people there. I wanted to go back, I wanted to go home. My crying again led to exasperation and irritation on their part. People all over the picnic area were silently staring at us like cows. Loony Lily sternly stated the facts.
“Dere’s nuthin else we can do. Ya jest gonna have ta put up wit it. C’mon.”
It was evening by the time we reached Woodside. My shoulder just ached and itched now. I slept a good part of the trip, which settled me down somewhat. When I woke up, I had more or less accepted this new situation. They did yell at me for having left a magenta crayon on the shelf under the back window where the hot sun had melted it onto the fabric, but it didn’t lead to violence.
When the car door was opened and I clambered out, I felt both curious and apprehensive. The only world I had known for a large chunk of my short life was gone; all the boring, yet comfortable routines were no more. I was set loose, sent out into a strange world with 2 people I didn’t know.
Climbing those 4 flights of stairs up into the apartment seemed never-ending; it was tough going for me. Finally, I stood in front of a brown wooden door with a frosted glass window covered with a curtain on the inside. Al unlocked the door and I was pushed in.
Instantly the strong smells of habitation hit me: Coffee grounds, ashtrays, garbage can, gas stove, and fainter odors; bathroom mildew, perfumes, clothes, shoes. All of them combined to create a thick scent of occupancy. This was the apartment they rented from Mr. Chesnek, a slim, middle-aged man with close-cropped salt and pepper hair. His butcher shop took up all of the ground floor, except for the entrance vestibule for the apartments above. He and his wife lived on the 2nd floor, the Golub’s lived on the 3rd, and Al and Loony Lily had the top floor, the 4th.
The next morning, Loony Lily gave me a quick tour of the apartment’s four rooms. From the kitchen window, she pointed out the 2 tallest buildings on the Manhattan skyline 2 miles away and told me their names; The Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings. From the parapeted flat roof where the laundry was hung, she pointed out to me her mother’s house on the next block.
In the living room on top of her sewing cabinet was a small cubical, yellow case. In it was a record player, which she told me was mine, that I had gotten it as a birthday present when I was ‘away’. It had come with several records. “I’m a Little Teapot” and “I Got No Strings” were 2 of them. Lily played one for me.
As she cued it up, she repeatedly stressed that only she could operate it, I wasn’t to touch it unless she was there and said it was okay. I was mesmerized and enchanted by the sounds I heard. I quickly noticed that while the radio in the kitchen was always on, Loony Lily never seemed to listen to the music. She never hummed, sang along, or otherwise indicated she was aware of being surrounded by sound. I loved the music I was hearing, especially the yearning songs, the big, bold ones, and the ones that soared. Babi used to hum unconsciously non-stop, but this was very different.
For a short while, I found this a pretty interesting place. I actually got cooked meals a couple of times; real dinners. It didn’t last of course, but I did get some. Hospital food may keep you alive, but the taste is muted, at best. And as for aroma; there isn’t any. I re-learned how good food can smell.
The unbearably mouthwatering aroma of frying onions and liver taunting my desperate hunger soon after I arrived there stands out vividly. That and the fact that they were both trying to be nice to me, like they were currying favor. Particularly Al. Loony Lily wasn’t as effusive, like an over-eager dog, but at least her eyes didn’t look like she wanted me dead then and there.
For some reason, there was an air that night that this was a special event, but not only because we were having liver. It was because of something that we were having it. Lily held forth imperiously on how much she liked a good cut of calf’s liver, one with no gristle, that you could cut with a fork. They both agreed; Chesnek had good liver.
“Onions are good fa ya. Dey clean ya blood.” Al said, adding his wisdom.
There was no special ‘mood’ the night we had lamb chops, but that fragrance is etched into my hungry memory too. I loved the lamb and the steak fries, but the canned beets ruined it. I’ve always hated beets. It is the one food I can’t stand. They served them a lot in the hospital. I still associate beets with that sickly-sweet smell of anesthetic, Loony Lily’s perfume, and the color of her fingernail polish. Even seeing the Crayola magenta crayon was enough to make me nauseous. At least in the hospital, I didn’t have to eat the beets. Here I did. Being bullied into eating was a new experience for me.
In the short period of time since I was ‘back’ I was introduced to other new foods. One was Lily’s favorite, soft-boiled eggs, and there was buttered and sugared noodles, farina, canned Orange juice, and canned “Bluebird Apricot Nectar”. All convalescent type foods.
I think I uncovered why.
Soon after I had arrived, I was back in Babi’s kitchen one night. She was feeding me as usual; Kolacy, a delicious Czech pastry not unlike a Cheese Danish. She stood behind me as I ate, stroking my head.
Perhaps it was something about the way I favored my left arm that led her to pull up my sleeve. My shoulder was fiery red, swollen, and oozing. She anxiously called for Dede to see it. He came quickly from the living room, looked questioningly into my eyes briefly, then took a long, measuring look at my shoulder, and headed for the phone. I could hear him talking fast, loud, and angrily to someone. I kept eating while Babi checked me over. She found a sore on my left ankle, and interrupted him on the phone to tell him.
I’m surmising that they were responsible for the sudden concern for proper nutrition by Al and Lily, and why “cleaning the blood” was so important. Particularly if you had a bad infection threatening blood poisoning. These foods were probably on Doctor’s orders and they only lasted till I had healed up, then they disappeared forever. Another piece of evidence was that Dr. O’Brian came to the apartment every day for a while. Each visit ended with me getting a shot in the buttocks.
In July I made the acquaintance of most of my cousins. Compared to the world of the hospital, there was a lot going on. Having to adapt to so much new being thrust at me made me feel cautious. This is my earliest memory of the Alter’s tiny, narrow, house. It was warm that afternoon, and the dining room table was ringed with children and adults. From the way they were introduced to me, it was obvious that this was the first time I’d seen them when I was old enough to know it. Each cousin was introduced in turn.
“…an dis is ya cousin Abbie.” the woman with the cackling voice called “Aunt Edie” said. She beckoned me over to where her daughter was kneeling on a chair, busy with pencil and paper on the table. “She’s gonna be in first grade. She knows alla bout dat stuff.”
Though at the time I had no idea, it seems from that peculiar introduction that they had just been talking about me and my ‘accident’. For my part at that time, I was immediately intrigued. Here was somebody, almost a grown-up, who knew something, and was willing to teach me. Abbie began very seriously, and very grown-up sounding.
“Most people think dat ya heart looks like…dis.”, she sagely pointed out, drawing a Valentine’s Day-shaped heart. “But it don’t. It looks like dis…” she continued smugly, and drew a roughly triangularly shaped object with rounded corners.
This impressed me greatly: Here I was, learning something important.
“An inside ya heart, dere’s a little man who’s got a tire pump dat he uses ta pump ya blood around.”
That did not sound right to me, and I frowned. She went through other organs in the same way, drawing little stick men operating machinery in each. I grew more and more disenchanted as I listened. Then she got to the head.
“An inside ya head is a little man, an he sits dere like fa a steam-shovel, ya know? An he looks out through ya eyes, cause dose are really his windas…”
That was where I silently drew a firm line. Whoever this ‘cousin’ was; she was nuts. I looked out my eyes; no one else was in there, just me. Right then and there I stopped listening to her.
The Cartesian split between ‘body’ and ‘mind’ was already present in me by the age of 3. A strong sense already existed of a separate, non-physical ‘ego’ that looked out through my ‘body’s’ eyes as if it were but a machine that housed it.
There was no birthday party, but Loony Lily used a photo of me seated shyly in the midst of my cousins from that day in the ‘Baby Book’, and labeled it “3 years old”. The print is stamped “July” by the printer. It was a good, clear, 35mm shot taken by Lily’s brother, “Uncle Freddie”.
On the enlargement I made of it, there are several long scars on my face, as well as strange zigzag scars across my nose, and others extending under my right eye. My left side is held peculiarly; especially my hand. It’s held palm upward, fingers curled. That’s the way I remember holding it in the hospital.
One day Lily and I were alone in Grandma’s house, waiting for her to return from shopping. She told me she wanted to show me something, something she had made when she was younger. She went into the living room. I could hear the secretive roll-top desk being opened.
She came back holding something that looked like a small shoebox. From it she lifted out a little stuffed figurine of a man, maybe 10 inches tall, that had been carefully nestled in padding. This was no child’s toy. It smelled of dusty cotton. The head and hands were of a cream-colored fabric, and the feet were of brown. The legs were sewn from blue cotton, and the arms and torso of a green and brown striped cloth that made it look like the little man was wearing a long-sleeved shirt. It had a strange little tuft of yellow threads to represent a topknot of hair. Stuffed with batting, it was floppy in all its joints.
Seeing it made me sad, and something else; I felt sorry for him. I asked her why were his eyes like that? Because he was sleeping, she replied. But it was obvious to even a 3-year-old that the little man’s eyes and mouth were made to look sewn shut with crude stitches. I watched silently as she took a long pin with a red head from an ornate metal box that had been stored with the doll.
She stuck it into the little man’s neck, and slowly pushed it all the way through.
“See? It don’t hurt him.”
I knew it didn’t hurt him because he was not alive. I was afraid, and not of him. But I showed her no sign of it. I had already begun to learn to hide my fear.
Even if he did feel anything, I thought, his eyes and mouth are sewn up, so he couldn’t tell anybody. Like me. The pain would have to stay inside, unable to get out.
I wanted to get out of there, or for Grandma to get there so I wasn’t alone with Loony Lily anymore. I no longer wished to go back to the hospital, but I had nightmares now and they were getting worse; the blush was off my new adventure.