Monday, November 16, 2015

Third Monday with Bob Boldt

My grandmother’s house
(a short story)

By Bob Boldt
The movie never changes. It can’t change. Every time you see it – it seems different because you are different.
            –James Cole, from Terry Gilliam’s movie,
            Twelve Monkeys
The war with Germany was over. We had recently defeated Hitler and my dad was home from the European theater. His unit was not scheduled to go to the Pacific. I wasn’t sure what the name “theater” meant. When the Germans surrendered, I was in a theater, and after the man in the projection booth shouted out “Germany surrendered!” all the service men threw their hats in the air. I remembered the white screen with no film in the projector, the shadows of all those hats flying high in the air, and the happy whoops and hollers filling the theater. Soon after that my dad came home from the Navy.
    My world was bounded by the familiar buildings and streets of Tinley Park, Illinois, the town I had grown up in, filled with the green summer lawns, my school, the lumber yard across from my grandmother’s front porch, and the pond in the woods at the edge of town. News, if I happened to hear it, only came in on the fringes of my radio adventures: Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy, The Green Hornet, and the emphatically announced title, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT!
    One evening my father came home from his job in the city. He always smelled of his Chicago Tribune he had been reading on the train, and of his Camel cigarettes. As we walked home from the train station, he was quiet. As I was telling him about all the events of my little world, I had the feeling he was only half listening. Even at the family dinner, my parents were silent. When supper was over I asked to go out and play, and after helping clear the table I passed through the living room on my way to the front door. That was when I happened to see resting on our living room couch the front page of the paper my dad had brought home. On it was a half-page photograph of what looked like a huge cloud rising up from the surrounding smaller clouds. The headline read, “A-BOMB HITS JAPAN!” I stood looking at it, wondering how this was different from all the other bombs that we had dropped on the Germans and the Japanese in the war. My dad later explained that this was a special bomb and that, in an instant, it had killed thousands of people and flattened a whole city. The name of the City was Hiroshima.
    The stress of the war I had gown up with had formed the backdrop of nearly my whole life. Its end suddenly gave way to a most unfamiliar sense of universal celebration. Everything was now upside down. Everything was changed and yet everything in my world looked just the same. We did learn a lot about the outside world in our Current Affairs class in grade school. It was there that I saw what Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like after the bombs were dropped. We kept a scrapbook called “World Events” in which we pasted pictures from the newspapers and from Life and Collier’s Magazines with LePage’s glue, which stuck to your fingers and smelled like the sauce my mother put on mashed potatoes. I still remember pasting up the picture of the funny little brown man sitting at his spinning wheel in his home in India. He wore only a loincloth even though he was famous and went around with well-dressed kings and ambassadors. I could not imagine why they killed him, his own countrymen.
    My parents’ home, the train station, my school, and my grandmother’s house were all within the familiar boundaries of my everyday walking world. My grandmother’s back yard was directly across the street from my school. When the bell rang, releasing us from desks, books, and lessons, it was a quick walk across the blacktop and I was on home turf. The main house was past a long expanse of lawn, flowerbeds, and a large vegetable garden full of tall tomato plants, sunflowers, and big potatoes sleeping under a thick bed of mulch. The house was a beautiful Victorian, two and a half stories tall, if you counted the basement, which was only partially below ground level. Nearly the whole side and the front was surrounded by a wide porch occupied by bright green metal lawn chairs and a wooden swing suspended on chains from the ceiling. On rainy summer nights I can remember my parents, my younger brother, and me visiting, sitting, and talking, safe in the dry, open porch. We used to count the time between the flash of lightning and the roll of thunder to determine our distance from the heart of the storm and whether it was moving towards us or away from us. Sitting on the porch floor, my back against the cool bricks, only half listening to the splatter, the squeak of the porch swing, and the grownups’ quiet talk, I felt peaceful and secure. Even today, I cannot hear the sound of a constant downpour without evoking those early images of wonder and safety.
    The interior of my grandmother’s house was a haven of familiar smells and cherished objects. Even on the hottest days, the tall rooms were cool and dark. Everywhere were polished wood surfaces. Crocheted doilies and bric-a-brac filled every horizontal table and sideboard. I rarely entered from the front, past the cut-glass oval-windowed door, past the umbrella stand, and the mirrored coat rack reserved for formal callers. Rather, the entrance for 12-year-old boys with muddy shoes was through the squeaking back screen door and across the linoleum on the enclosed back porch. Who would ever want to use the front door anyway, when the shortest route to the fresh-baked kitchen cookies was through the back door?
    At the end of my twelfth year we moved lock, stock, and barrel, grandma and all, to a town seventy-five miles away. We bought another house in Naperville, Illinois. My Grandmother moved into a small, utilitarian duplex, just down the hill from our house, a block away.
    Shortly before our departure, I had begun to discover science fiction and the early work of such legendary writers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury was my favorite. Many of his stories took place in small midwestern towns like Tinley Park. In the process of imagining his stories, I used the settings of my grandmother’s house to frame many of the events I was reading about. The house lent itself well to the stories. It was more dramatic than my parents’ home, an antique from a bygone era, and, most accommodating of all, many of the closeted rooms were dark and mysterious. The setting was a perfect one for my adventures of imagination.
    I remember becoming obsessed with time travel. I would sit, after reading some marvelous story of adventures set in the distant Twenty-first Century, staring at the accompanying cover illustration depicting hovering bullet-shaped rocket cars and beautiful damsels in tight costumes. I can clearly remember one incident less than a month before the move. Looking back, it still holds my mind fixed, half way between memory and fantasy. One afternoon, I was reading in the window seat, in one of the upstairs sitting rooms of my grandmother’s house. After finishing a particularly absorbing story, I began looking intently out the window to the manicured, hedge-lined front lawn below. I tired to see myself standing on that very lawn twenty, perhaps thirty years, in the future. With all my might and imagination, I stared and stared, trying to pierce the veil of time, to see my future and my form as a grown man staring back at me from that lawn below. I had no luck. All I noticed were the advancing shadows that told me I was expected home for dinner.

My grandmother’s house still stands in Tinley Park. Last year, on a late October drive that took me in the vicinity, I decided to pay it a visit. I had not returned since my departure fifty years earlier. Sure enough, it was still standing, although I would never have spotted it based solely on my memory.
    It must have been remodeled sometime in the late fifties, because its second story now sported a skin of hideous white, worn aluminum. The wonderful open porch had been completely enclosed in siding and thermo pane. I doubt if you can even hear the splatter of rain through it. They built an exterior-enclosed extension reaching from the ground to the second floor to allow the upstairs tenants private access to their space. The front door with the oval, cut-glass window that refracted beautiful rainbows into the parlor had been removed and replaced by a brown, painted plywood door. I did not have the heart even to knock. It seemed diminished, and not just by the artless modernizing it had suffered. I wondered how much of the original structure would have been recognized by me even were it not so defaced by these strangers. So many changes had been wrought by my own imagination. Its widows, floors, walls, and all its details had been changed and redesigned to match so many of my flights of fantasy. On that fall afternoon, I experienced not so much a change of scale of the kind so often reported: They all say, “But how everything seems so much smaller now!” I was met, not with a changed familiarity, but with a nearly totally unfamiliar landscape, transformed by the interior remodeling of memory.
    No one really believes it is possible to see the future. The prospect seems to defy even its own logic. Yet everyone believes in the past – a past that somehow remains set in an immutable mold. I discovered that afternoon, that even the past can be rendered by our mind’s memories to be as shifting and uncertain as our future.
    Later – fifty years later, I found myself standing on that lawn absurdly staring up at a strange house I barely knew, staring up at the room on the second floor, staring through that same glass window trying to pierce the veil of time, reaching out to my own lost boy. A boy no longer there – lost in time.

Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt

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