Lineage (8)

A people’s dress tells one a great deal more about them than their poetry.

—Henri Michaux

Our grandfather’s brown flannel suits tell us a great deal more about him than his poetry, more about him even than his tastes in music—polka and Dixieland and gypsy swing, nothing else—though maybe less about him than his gestures, which are as rehearsed and grandiloquent as an old silent tragedian’s. Today, for example, when my sister and I rang his bell after school, he promptly swung open the screen, clapped his heels together, lifted his chin, and, very butler-like, swept one arm toward his darkened, fusty-smelling interior. In his starched shirt and blue- and yellow-striped tie, he looked non-retired, a man still at the office crunching numbers or making sales calls, still married to our rosacea-cheeked grandmother who, chain-smoking Capri Super Slims, refurbished antique dressers on their back porch—nothing at all like the retired widower bent just seconds ago over a poem (my body like a tamarind on a branch…) in his study, listening to the Hot Fives. I realized, in fact, that our grandfather’s suits are rather misleading. Because of them, he is mistaken for part of a community, one of many brown flannel suit-wearers, as opposed to what he is: an isolato, on the fringes of even his own family, which may incidentally account for the grandiloquence of his gestures. If he felt close to us, would his arms, after escorting us into his living room, really dart and waggle over his leather sofa, as though playing stride and boogie on the keys, beckoning us to sit? He soon popped King Kong into the VCR, gave us each a Klondike bar—an afterschool ritual—and then retreated down the shag-carpeted hall and into his study. We never stayed more than fifteen minutes.

Now, at dusk, walking the winding creekside paths behind his neighborhood, running our fingertips along the brown flannel pads of cattails, I wonder, too, whether he would have, if he felt close to us, any desire at all to write poetry; to perpetually address with a dull pencil his late-lamented “you” (car accident, on her way to Raley’s for asparagus and eggs); to grasp as it were at nothingness, page after empty half-page—a disembodied gesture, no less grandiloquent—in the presence of actual flesh and blood. The writing of poems is no doubt a lonely enterprise, and lonelier still to write them in such a public, upper-middle-class uniform. (I always imagine poets draped in heavy robes.) Still, the scratchy music issuing from our grandfather’s old Victrola in the corner of his study, causing his neighbors to slam shut their windows or, after midnight, swing open their shutters and bark at him to turn it down for Chrissake, announces his isolation, creates around him an impenetrable enclosure, a carapace of brass and reed improvisation. Right now, however, Django and Grappelli are playing (quite softly, too), and my sister and I, peeking over his back fence, tippy-toed on the sun-bleached plastic milk crates that Hmong fishermen use for stools on Sunday mornings, see our grandfather standing among antique dressers on his back porch, just looking out over the green sea of his overgrown yard. Suddenly he plucks from the ceramic ashtray one of a gazillion stale accordioned cigarette butts, which he then presses counterclockwise against his lips, smearing ash, and after a minute places it a little erotically, a lot Eucharistically, on his outstretched tongue, an image he may later insert into a poem (whoever is bereaved enough to eat the past…). 

I watch him as one might watch a memory in a crystal ball through a telescope in a silent movie, as though I am already much older, looking back—maybe leaning against a pillar on my own back porch, blowing the steam over a mug of black coffee—and now at last understand the pain implicit in, and seeping odorously out of, his flannel suits and gestures, his poetry and tastes in music. No attribute is more telling, finally, than any other. Yet we are, my sister and I, mere children: we haven’t the means or the desire to comprehend, much less breach, the old man’s self-protected psyche. What do we make of his blank, heavy-lidded face now gazing straight ahead, swallowing the cigarette butt? Not much, I tell myself, as we pitch the milk crates back toward the edge of the creek, and though a little corner of my heart wants to stay, we start together up the dirt path. Nothing worth thinking about at all, really. And indeed the scene is already nothing more than a brief, impromptu stop on our way to our cousin’s, where we will eat Pringles and fruit snacks; where we will construct an enormous room-sized fort out of sheets and afghans, chairs and cardboard boxes; where we will crawl on our bellies through dark narrow tunnels, scarcely breathing, trying so hard not to be found.

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