Al told me stories:
When he was ten his father dragged him outside and ordered him to use the tip of his shovel to chop the head off of a cat that had torn its back leg in some fighting. When Al's father pressed Al's nose down to look at the wound, the matted yellow-orange of the cat's fur reminded Al of his first memory: his mother's red hair.
"Kablooie," Al's father said when the cat's skull exploded.
That was in 1943 right after the United States entered the Great War. Massive bunkers were erected all along the West Coast. In order to show solidarity the mayor of Crescent City planted thick, sweet-smelling hedges all around the town's city hall, which was the size of the library, which was the size of an outhouse -- not even its own room.
Al used to eat salted pumpkin seeds in the library after his brother Saul was born with three teeth in his distended upper jaw. Saul bit his mother instead of nursing. It was obvious from the start that the small, hairy child would never learn to speak, only growl.
When Al's mother left it was rumored that she went back to Virginia but no one knew the location of that far-off state, or cared to. Al's father had arthritis from working the crab-traps. When the prison moved in he, along with almost every other man of his age, exchanged his gumboots for the blue janitorial uniforms handed out by young guards. By the time Al was ready to take his place at the helm, the old crab and whale boats had rotted down to nothing but swollen ribs.
Sometimes Al tied his brother to a tree and went off to Catholic school. He was timid with the nuns. Their mass litanies only made him feel guilty about leaving his brother out in the hot sun. He could have left his brother in an empty jail cell instead but Al's father was no great one for babysitting; besides, there were getting to be fewer and fewer empty cells.
At Catholic school the nuns scolded Al for strange things, like walking too slowly with his nose in a book. If he didn't stop doodling fat, flippered dragons on google-eyed boats the nuns said he'd pay for his heresy through a boxing match with the priest.
The head Irish Catholic took off his collar when he fought. The nuns held his specs. A huge crowd of acolytes turned out to watch God's triumph. Al clenched his fists in the shape of his father's. He tried to get the same cast of jaw but when the time came he couldn't hit a man with red hair. According to the acolytes God knocked Al out with one blow. For the last time, Al thought. He left his brother tied to a tree that night and hitchhiked to Jenner so he could fake being older and sail to Vietnam.
"I learned a lot about history there," was all that Al ever said when describing Saigon.
I was one of five children, and nine years old when I met Al. Our rickety green trailer broke down under the mossy-fork beech across the road from Selah and Dr. Ted's rental cottage in Gaylord's woods. It turned out that we'd parked on top of some mushrooms that Al had been about to collect. He sprang out of the bushes with his beret and peacoat and three-paneled board games about war. All of his maps had detailed renditions of the campaigns seen from the point of view of the generals. World War II was Al's favorite: Hitler vs. Stalin, the Russian Campaign. My mom liked that Al kissed her hand. She hoped he would tell my dad not to be a dolt all the time but he didn't do that. Al marched up the trailer's aluminum stairs at sundown, sharing my awake shift, because I said I'd play Stalin's side in the war.
Inside of the trailer it was cramped. Behind me Obe and Ean and Promise and Hope slept through their shifts on the fold-out benches of the trailer. Al's dog tags clanked in his stiff-collared shirt. The trailer's fold-out table had no legs; just a rusty old hinge affixed to its middle. Al had to untilt the table up by holding it up with his knees. He had to lean forward so as not to brush my mother and father's bodies, tangled behind him under a curtain of beads. Al contained himself politely, elbows never touching the table, thin hands setting up markers and dice.
"Think of the war brides," Al said. His voice was hoarse, thin as a cracker. An octagon marked off every section of the board, continents and oceans alike. That was how it was in the Summer-Winter Campaigns 1941-3. None of the countries had more than dotted-line boundaries. Those were for history to decide, and our skill.
During the siege of Leningrad, Al said, children -- especially little girl children -- made circuses on freezing wood floors. They carved their performers out of icicles: everything from bears to ballerinas, which the whole winter didn't melt. In fact, many ballerinas and bears outlasted their children. Modest girls refused to take baths when the Soviet Women's Councils came by with wood. Budding ringmasters saved food for supposedly returning fathers, and starved.
Still, in those times there were war brides, Al said. His pencil mustache twitched when I made my first formation at Mlinsk. He told about Lena, who could have been my great-grandmother if only she'd survived just a few more short years. Lena escaped from the war by covering herself with mud in an unsuspecting farmer's hay cart. She fled with the dirty clothes on her back and a single letter that she couldn't throw out. It read: "Lenka, I've got a piece of bread for you. I'll get more. Love, Morris."
That story wasn't the only thing that made me like Al. When he reached for the dice to make his move on the Caucuses, it seemed somehow right that the trailer's one window was a thick, yellowed plastic with purple checked curtains, sewn too big for feminist reasons. Yellowed plastic didn't let the light in like glass but that was part of it, Al said. At first blackouts were ordered because of flyover bombers. Later no one had oil to spare.
"Were you ever brave enough to get married?" I asked Al. He had just ordered his troops to move up the Volga into Moscow. He, as Hitler, had even more troops in the Ukraine. Al settled them on the border town of L'vov to make sure that no more great grandmothers slipped out. It was only after he had his pieces settled that Al set our conversation on a new course. He agreed, finally, to take a closer look at my scars.
I told him how my dad had insisted that we, children, infect ourselves all together with last spring's chicken pox: get it while you're young was the plan.
"A homey immunization procedure," my mom and dad had decided after consulting the stars.
Al didn't try to make it seem good that each family member snored to drown out the others. We shivered together about the things my dad preached in his sleep:
"The Lord's hand was upon me, and he carried me out by my spirit and set me down in a plain that was full of bones. He made me pass among them in every direction. Countless in number and very dry, they covered the plain.
"O man," the Higher Power said to my dad, "can these bones live?"
My dad answered, "Only you and I, Lord, know where they hide water."
"Prophesy over these bones," my dad said. "Say: 'Dry bones, hear the word of I and the Lord, the Lord and I.'"
So the Lord he listened, he said to those bones: "I am going to put breath into you, and you will live."
Breath entered them. They came to life and rose up in the woods.
"O man," the Lord said to my dad, "these bones are the whole people."
"That's Ezekiel, Chapter 37, verse 1," I told Al.
His elbow aided the 30th U-boat flotilla's submarines in their move across to the Black Sea. I was too busy watching my mother and father's cracked lips to care whether Turkey had been persuaded to break the Montreux Convention of 1936.
"Dwell in darkness," my dad said, "let the Whole be thy sight."
Al told about how loudly an army general could to yell. During his first months in Vietnam without his brother he slept grunting at the gun beside him in the army's mosquito-filled cot. Ever since Vietnam all allusions to sex have caused Al to have visions of bestial palms. At that time, however, it was just loneliness. The Catholic School hadn't let in young women and Al missed his mom.
Before long he had won a Purple Heart for exterminating his first gook wife and her family at their own dinner table with his bare hands. The generals sent Al to Washington D.C. when malaria made him weak. There, he sat in a dark room, smoking and filing papers for a scandal that later became Watergate. It wasn't really his job to read the White House transcripts but he did because he liked the swear words Nixon used. Perhaps it was even Nixon that caused him to marry a young Jewish girl for her money. She took his medals and pension and opened a brothel. It turned out she didn't have her own money at all. Still, Al thought, he had been in love.
"No oceans without water," Al quoted. "No wars without blood."
I told Al why our unstable table was decorated by a cartoon blizzard made by the blue snowflake wallpaper that had once covered my three-speed. I gave up the bike in Utah after our turtle, Yorick, hanged himself in the spokes. I couldn't have been easy for him to tunnel through our soup cans and blocks. My brothers had taken great pains to build Yorick's terrarium sturdy. They covered every hole with mosquito netting so he wouldn't eat the wrong bugs. How did he find the crack near the wheel? How could a mere turtle climb out onto the back hitch where my three-speed was strung up with four bungee cords? I told Al about how my brothers Obe and Ean blamed me for Yorick's death, how later they tried to get back at me by hanging themselves in the woods.
Al nodded knowingly when the snake eyes turned up. That winter Obe and Ean tried it again. They snuck out just before sunrise, an hour into my awake shift, jockeying our trailer's aluminum stairs between their frail hands. They chose for their hanging two adjacent, tall pines but the hitch rope that they were using broke. Al was the one who brought them both home. When my dad found out he smashed a bottle across the back of my head and called the boys traitors.
"O Absalom, Absalom," he said. "Where is Joab to stab three darts in your skulls?"
"Coming of age," my mom said about Obe and Ean's strung nerves. She's an aura seer, but doesn't always know where we are. Only Al and I knew the pubic truth about Obe and Ean. We often heard them groaning at night over Selah. Only Al and I knew that Promise sometimes slipped out. We never followed to see where she went.
Everything got worse after we all saw Selah naked. Her golden retriever had caused a skunk to void its wet fear on her legs. The only way to wash off skunk spray, my mom said, was for us to bathe Selah and her dog in tomato juice. When they both stepped out of the tub Al and I toweled off Selah. Obe and Ean took the dog. Both were practically glowing. Every one of Selah's pores was freckled with pulp. She was a redhead anyhow, former groupie to the Beach Boys, and that day her skin had a tomato-bright sheen that made Al and I -- anyone who saw it -- want to betray my dad's movement, flee to the city, and eat pizza after pizza until we got sick.
It was about that time that Gaylord started charging rent for the trailer. His white Cadillac raised a wide swath of dust between our woods and Selah and Dr. Ted's cottage. The two macrobiotic psychologists discoursed on the dangers of overcrowding; they said that the boys should move in with them. My mother was too proud to ask about herself or us girls. Al said, anyhow, that Gaylord's orneriness was easy to explain. It came from the fact that his feet had probably rotted in Pacific Front trenches. The only other way your face got so chewed up was smallpox and, as one could see from his lumpy, liver-spotted wrinkles, Gaylord was closer my dad's age than Al's. I didn't mind looking at the stump where Gaylord's right calf was missing. He balanced so well that you had to watch closely to see how he hopped, just barely brushing the ground for balance with his white cane, which wasn't gold-tipped or carved, it was more like an old dowel topped by a plastic strap held on with a nail. Gaylord didn't have an expensive haircut either, just plain old shaved. And his forehead was bony. Whatever he ate, the scars sucked away.
"Malaria," Al said, "was common during the war."
I hoped that my own scars would make me skinny. I sucked my cheeks deep into my bones, but Al said that I only succeeded in looking like a bourgeois gentilhomme.
"Some people are generous," my mom said, looking with puffed mushroom-cloud eyes at Gaylord. Selah and Dr. Ted still hadn't offered to let her move into the cottage. Instead of helping my mom beg I looked at the French-fry cartons, coke cans, and candy wrappers, which had not yet risen to cover the seatbelts in the back of Gaylord's car. He offered to take me and Promise and Hope for a ride. I would have said yes if he hadn't looked towards the back seat. I could see already how he lifted his cane at the tip, wanting to poke the wooden end into me like a felon who redeems community fines by picking up litter from the side of the road. I never was queasy about the folded up pant leg that frowned from Gaylord's pocket like Gaylord thought. The pant leg was nicely creased where it bent. The pants were black army nylon and there was a bulge in the pocket where Gaylord had stuffed the cuff deep.
I smiled at it from behind the tail of Al's peacoat.
"Which leg are you?" I whispered to Al. That's a Co-operative Cosmonauts game that my dad taught to visiting Black Sea Camp kids who had asthma during the Cold War. The game was supposed to teach everyone how to find out which cog they were in my dad's greater plan.
"Let the Whole guide," my dad liked to say, "and you'll be as full of joy as a stick shooting lengthwise down a river rapid that never dams up."
Al was so chivalrous, he wanted to save the good leg for me.
"I'm emptiness," he said.
I wanted to hug the back of Al's peacoat but it seemed more fitting to step beside him and salute.
"We'll both be the good leg," I said. "We can hop."
When we both rolled the dice, Morris became a tailor. Al temporarily lost control at Kursk but there was not yet any indication this time around that Stalingrad would become Hitler's losing obsession. Russia's Siberian troops had long been hardened from informal Manchurian border classes. From the age of six young Mongolians considered it a sport to joust with machine guns in order to show off their horsemanship skills. Both Al and I laughed when the godseyes my mom had strung up for Christmas sagged down on our heads.
It was really what my mom said about Gaylord's Cadillac that scared me. She said he threw all his trash in the back seat. When it got filled up, he'd buy a new one.
Because of my hatred of Gaylord I rattled my feet against Yorick's terrarium mosquito netting and lost three thousand peasants. While disease cleared the Caucuses of artillery fighters, I picked at the corner of our table-bike wallpaper until a snowflake wedged under my nail and drew blood. Al offered his handkerchief but I snatched the dice off the Sudetenland. Maybe no peasants ever deserve to be freed.
"Let's take a day off and go out to the fair," Al said when he saw he would win. Even though it wasn't my awake shift, he piggyback rode me all the way out to Willits. He won a doll in a side booth by popping balloons with red darts while I slept at his feet. I had never wanted anything so much when I awoke to see the barker unwrapping twisty ties from around the doll's porcelain neck. She had a cloth body and blonde, painted-on hair.
"That round was for my daughter," Al said.
For the first time he showed me the picture that he kept with his dog tags and can-opener on the chain round his neck. She was a small ringletted girl, blonde with blue eyes and my height.
"I'll win you a doll next," Al said.
He easily popped more balloons: two green ones, three orange.
The barker's eyes darted, looking for a porcelain brown-haired doll but there were only more blondes.
"I guess I can take one of your ducks," I said. "The blonde doll can ride on its back."
Al's neck got stiff, as it always did when he was preparing for battle. From under the counter, the barker dragged up a plastic doll with black nylon hair and nylon eyelashes that covered her hard plastic eyes when they opened and shut. Al let me take the horrifying figure, but he also thrust his daughter's porcelain doll into my hands.
"We can paint both dolls," he said, holding tight to the carnival counter, shaking it firmly with both hands, "and anyone else that we please."
I cradled the dolls in one arm and they wrapped their legs together for strength. The barker replaced his popped balloons while Al and I marched away to buy pink cupcakes with sprinkles, and blue fizzy drinks. It was our victory day, Al said. I wanted to celebrate by riding on an elephant like the Russian tsarinas.
"I might even educate your peasants," I told Al.
I could see that the elephants' drooping trunks made him sad. He brushed a hair from my cheek and asked if I would feed the oldest elephant his bag of peanuts. He'd do it himself, he said, but the elephants' snaky tails made Al's legs weevil with guilt.
In the Razorback Mountains near Khe Sahn, Al said, there was a waterfall called the Whining Place. During the Tran dynasty spurned lovers would drown themselves there. Just below was the Valley of Names, where American troops disposed of the families they'd shot. Generations were piled one on top of the other -- four meters deep.
"You can't stand at the top of the waterfall without looking down," Al said.
Tourists flocked to the spot. They took trams down the side of the cliff so that they could walk in the flat, sunken earth where the ground had been dug. There were no markers, nothing to look at but elephant grass. It had recently rained when Al went. The swampy soil soaked his old army boots.
"Cold and cholera were what really defeated Hitler," Al said. "Unlike bullet holes, those pains require victims to endure."
Maybe it was that saying that let me get by without Al.
It was December 16, 1981 when the Great Offensive ended. Selah, Dr. Ted, my mom and my dad had become religio-existentialist Co-Cottage Sleepers, a fact which they celebrated for three weeks straight, popping beers and reading about the Findhorn garden, a macrobiotic paradise where the plants told their caretakers not to be concerned if brown leaves popped up every once in a while.
When Al fell down the stairs, everyone raised their drinks.
"It's important to let people die when it's their time," my mom said.
For four hours Al struggled and called. Having cracked his skull on Selah and Dr. Ted's washing machine, he could do nothing but gurgle up his own blood. It was no help when the washing machine overflowed, adding its pine-scented suds.
"Napoleon lost at Waterloo because of hemorrhoids," I told Al.
I had been the one making him wash his peacoat. Because of me he hadn't had a drink in five days. He was trying out some anti-buse pills that the government shrink had prescribed to my dad. A second chance with his daughter, I said. I refused to start a new game until Al had gulped the pills down.
"You and me and your daughter can run away together just like Morris and Lena," I had said.
Al said that there weren't always places to run.
"By the end of World War II Morris had sold his violin to buy cameo-carving tools," I told Al. "The Austrians paid well for these. The Americans did not. Morris became an accountant after a year in New York."
Both my sisters became pharmacists -- legal. Promise ran off to England the day she turned thirteen. Hope married a doctor in Arizona because she was pregnant, probably with Gaylord's twelfth child. She lasted four days before running back.
Even though Obe and Ean and Promise no longer slept on the trailer's fold-out benches, I still held down all of my awake shifts. I, alone, drank from Al's smooth silver flask which, repeatedly, spilled on Murmansk. Three steppe towns near Archangel were wetted. Kovosk was not. I blotted out the ripples in the White Sea with our purple checked curtains. The checks, anyhow, had faded to a dull brown.
"After Morris became an accountant, Elena requested alimony, but not the children," I told the dead Al.
My mom turned off the light when she saw me still up.
"Good night," she said. "And stop brooding. Al and your brothers are in better hands."
"In Poland they fought house to house," I said to my mom.
She said that history made her yawn.
Selah and Dr. Ted said that I was angry that Al had failed to reveal the secret of Deep Throat, which he had promised to whisper into my ear when it became clear that there was no hope.
"The forest gets thicker as you go deep," Al liked to say, "but a true soldier never lies."
Selah and Dr. Ted thought that I cared about Watergate. But what is American politics to someone like me? 1972 wasn't a high point in my life except for being born.
"We are a traumatized people with an atom bomb in its hands," my dad told the Macrobiotics Meeting when it convened in our woods.
"I'm a scroll of agony," I said to my dad.
When Selah and Dr. Ted offered me an organic six-pack, I refused.
"Pickled my kidneys already," I said, "in a past life."
It's really the fact that Al's honor was betrayed that upset me: a promise is a promise -- don't forget his religion: Catholics have to worry about lies because in the end St. Peter demands a full account of each soul.
"It's really hard being a general," I said to poor Al. "The winter's just cold."
My dad hopped around with Gaylord at Al's funeral. The wealthy veteran said he'd only come to pick up the rent but for some reason he also brought out four pairs of shoes that he found near a dumpster. They were stiff, Buster Browns. The stack of shoe boxes went higher than his head. Gaylord only managed to hold onto his cane by letting the strap chafe his wrist.
"Henceforth, we shall receive as we have given," my dad said over the hole where Al's body lay wrapped in the purple and brown checked curtains that my mother had agreed to let go. "My Annik's had enough time to mourn."
To present the shoes, Gaylord shook the tops off his boxes and lined the four pairs of shoes up on the side of the trailer where Obe and Ean had once found it convenient to pee. Each shoe had cardboard inside and there was a whole nest of tissue paper padding. My mom and dad and Gaylord seemed to see the shoes as fine china. That made me suspicious because why would anyone wear breakable shoes?
"Try them on," Gaylord said.
He sounded like a general commanding troops that he knew had to die.
"Here's a hot squaw," Gaylord said, hovering over Hope when she tried to squeeze her swollen up foot into a narrow size five. "I'd like to meet this one. Burn you right up."
"Just look away," my mom said when I asked what he meant.
Gaylord offered my father a cigarette and lit it with a lighter that he claimed had cost him only twenty-five cents.
"Bought it in Chinatown," Gaylord said. "You should get one. Light up them Chinese cigarettes: kablooie."
I clenched both of my fists on behalf Al.
"Will you look at this lighter?" Gaylord said to my dad. "Twenty-five cents. It goes on. It goes off. Happened to me a few times."
"We've got some nice colored lighters," my mom said, "yellow and bronze."
I slapped the red lighter out of her hand.
"On and off," Gaylord said to my father. "Then it doesn't go on."
"Give us some air," I said to my dad.
Under my dad's direction, Gaylord retreated to the Cadillac. He stood straight as a pine and watched while Hope and I, even Selah and my mom, hopped and flopped, cramping cramped toes and twisting weak ankles to make the shoes fit. Gaylord and my dad smiled like they had just worked out a new Whole. Gaylord didn't even have to lean on his cane he was so proud of his gift.
"Just enough room at the toes," said my dad.
My mom said that Gaylord had agreed to chauffeur me and Hope out to some kind of survival school run by vets.
"The whole world is a classroom," she said. We'd learn as we drove. And Gaylord would pay our expenses. He, after all, had fond memories of the two Cambodian girls he'd sponsored during some war that was not quite Vietnam.
"It was a much smaller rebellion," Gaylord said, "another one of the cute nameless ones."
Gaylord had fudged paperwork to help his girls cross to Thailand. Still they stole his loose change.
"That was the end of the girls," Gaylord said.
He balanced carefully against his Cadillac not scratching the white paint job that he polished constantly with his nylon-clad rump. My mom and dad knew that I didn't want to leave the trailer or woods because Al was buried there. What if my brothers were rallying the Hawaiian troops? Or Al rose from the dead? My mom and dad looked at Gaylord cunningly. Hope started to blink at him like she already depended on him for a college fund for her next child even beyond the one that she already had. It was she who opened the back door to the Cadillac. French fry containers and empty wax cups with straws inside them tumbled out -- right on top of Al's lost mushroom spores.
I ran into the forest and scuffed Gaylord's shoes against the edge of a rock so they'd be veterans, like Al.
Gaylord scooped with his cane arm as if he'd like to shovel me into the trunk of his car.
"You want to be trash," Gaylord said. "You'll have to get off my land."
"It was an accident," I told Gaylord. "A bear pushed me down."
"The only important boundary is between life and death," Al said from his grave. "And what is there? Who is there? With what army will we conquer this land?"
Does any of that explain why I agreed to leave home?
I've thought long and hard what to tell St. Peter about Al. My war partner's greatest deed? Just bitterness! Once, Hitler gave Stalin a porcelain doll.