Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Shadow and Rose

The outboard engine of the old pontoon boat catches and rumbles, a couple of chuffs of black smoke, and then it settles down. My Dad, the old fisherman and master of boat craft throws off the ropes that hold us to the dock and gives it a minute to smooth out. He puts it in reverse and we drift slowly out onto Eagle Lake #3. I sit morosely looking down at the deck and off at the trees moving away from us. Up in the lake cabin my step mother is getting lunch ready for when we get back. We don’t expect this to take long.

Dad is sitting in the little captain’s chair in front of the wheel and changes gears and gives the wheel a spin. We begin moving stately and slowly away into the deeper water, and no one is speaking. On a little rock island further out, a bald eagle the size of a small dog, is sitting in the top of a dead tree, watching us with that permanent scowl.

Next to Dad’s rudder wheel is a red and yellow Big Gulp paper cup with a single red rose we bought in Bemidji on the way up.

I look down at the old deck carpet and see deer moss taking over the edges of it. Dried brown pine needles. I notice these blemishes more today, because I’m moody, feeling the whispers of old ghosts inside my head. I think about her and the old fear stirs in me. Will I go mad someday too?

My kid is fiddling with the video camera, testing it and making adjustments. He wants to capture the ceremony exactly right. He’s young but already he has a sense of mortality and time passing and knows that soon all of us will be slipping off into his wooly past when he out grows us someday, which he will.

Dad says he knows a little spot under some trees past the Anderson’s place. It would be peaceful and private. We’ll go there, alright? Alright.

He glances down at the little silver digital camera lolling in my fingers. We’re both thinking of her.

When I was a boy in Gilbert, and dad was probably the only Hispanic man in Story County Iowa, he fed his family with the boxy black camera that now sits in state on my bookshelf. It was his pride and joy, the only possession of his that I truly coveted after he passed away later, because it was a symbol of that hungry time, my time, back when we were the only family he knew. It’s a Zeiss-Ikon twin lens reflex, made in Germany with owlish, deep Carl Zeiss lenses. In photographer’s parlance it is a medium format, “shooting two and a quarter” film. He put food on our table with the basketball games, gruesome car pile ups and weddings that passed through its glass, freezing time.

Whenever Dad was off somewhere doing something I crept into the bedroom he shared with mom, sniffing for secrets like a furtive rodent, my nose twitching. Looking under the bed. Looking in his drawers. The junk drawers were most interesting, but one time in his underwear drawer I found a little silver box with a Roman soldier on the cover filled with strange smelling balloons. I unwrapped one of the tough little balloons and tried to blow it up and it tasted bitter against my lips. They looked a little like the ones carnival clowns used to twist into animal shapes for a dime.

On a warm summer afternoon, when Dad was out doing the lawn, I took a chair and put it up against the closet, standing inside the rack of clothes that smelled warmly of my mother and him, because there was a crowded shelf high up above I wanted to get to. Standing on toes, reaching up, I felt around with my little hands, guessing at objects by feeling their shapes until, there, pushed back in the shelf I lit on what felt like a box. I took it down, thinking it might have more balloons, but it was different. A little red and orange Kodak box with a flip top lid. Inside were a pair of colored lens filters in flat velvet padded boxes and neat rows of gray, translucent glassine envelopes. I got down off my chair and sat on the floor with the little box, pausing to listen if Dad had come in yet from mowing the lawn.

When I was a little kid, I was plagued with nightmares as most little kids are. I had this one recurring nightmare, always exactly the same. In the nightmare I enter a very small room. The room is dark except for a greenish, ghoulish light spotlighting a small table with a chair. On the table is a little cardboard box with a flip top lid. I sit in the chair. I look at the box, trying to decide. When I do decide, and I always decide, I reach to the box, my fingertips touching the lid. But then I’m outside myself looking. The little boy at the table, seeing him sitting there, opening the little box. What the little boy doesn’t see, but I do, is Frankenstein’s monster looming behind him, his huge stitched together hands reaching down to clutch the little boy’s throat.

Sitting on the floor, I flipped open the lid and took out an envelope and saw there long wide strips of black and white film, with images in neat little squares. They were dark and hard to see and I had to hold them up to the window light. In the images I saw the same window in the bedroom, except my mother was sitting in the window, all in shadows and outlines. The clean sharp lines of her bare, thin form contrasted with the bright white light, blotting out any detail. Sweeping feminine lines and curves. I put down the film and took another. This time my mother was standing in dark silhouette against the window, stretching, hands and arms high above her head like a dancer, bending backwards, her sharp breasts pointing. The bright lines of her bare body suggesting but not showing. Only skillfully hinting. Another envelope, another shadow dance. Hips and thighs and stippled bumps. My mother nude, but not revealed. And then another. And another, each a little more daring. A little more light and a little less shadow.

How long had my dad been standing in the doorway?

When we reach the spot he cuts the engine and lets the boat drift a little. Some willow branches pass low over head. We gather at the stern. My son says a prayer. I say a prayer for my mother. My dad says a prayer. He prays for her soul, asks her ghost why she cut us all off, drove us all away and drifted alone at the end. He prays that she is at peace, and at last tosses the rose into the water. My kid films it as it floats and we stand there looking it.

Okay? Okay.

We put the cameras away and he starts the engine again. He takes us for a little tour of the shore and the bald eagle flies past us at eye level which is a treat. Then we start back to the dock. My stepmother should have the sandwiches and chips ready by now. As we pass the spot I look to see the rose, but it’s gone.


  1. Garce,

    These meditations of yours send shivers down my spine - the way you weave the past, present and future together into a tapestry of love and regret.


  2. Hi Lisabet!

    Getting ready for work over here, coffee and toast.

    I have this book called "A writers book of Days" which is all about writing practice, a different theme each day of the year, and one the themes was "write about something you weren't supposed to know" and I remembered those black and white negatives and wrote a little sketch about sitting on the floor and looking through them when I was a boy. It seemed both erotic and forbidden and human to remember myself as a boy sitting on the floor and looking at sillouettes of my mother and only realizing much later in life why Dad was so upset - because my mother was nude. Is that Freudian or what? Then - that raises a very interesting muddle. Whose idea was it? They were a young couple in their 20s at the time. Did mom come to him and say "Hey stud, put that Playboy down and take some pictures of me instead." What a sexy thing to do. We never think of our mother's as having that side to them. Or did he come to her? "I want to take some art photos of you because you have such a beautiful body." Did she demure? Did she need to be seduced? If mom were alive and sane, it would have been interesting to worm the story out of her, but of course that's not possible. That memory is a reminder to me, that even if she wasn;t the great love of his life, she was his first love.

    When you look back at the past you realise all these unsolved little mysteries that you will never know the story behind.


  3. Hi Garce,

    I admire the skill with which you handle the timeline changes here and the way in which you achieve the point of view from your younger self.

  4. Hi Mike!

    Thank you and looking forward to your work.


  5. Beautiful and evocative, Garce. And what a perfect picture to accompany!

  6. Emerald! Hello again!

    Thank you for reading. The picture was a lucky find. Everything in the piece is true. When I was writing it, it occurred to me for the first time - did the nightmares with the box begin BEFORE or AFTER Dad caught me with the negatives? Now I really wonder.



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