patterns of ink
How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
See? I Told You She Loves Hats...
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Thursday, May 13, 2010
"Four in Corduroy" Part III (conclusion)
“I thought I’d seen you before. Did you bring me some flowers?”
“You picked ‘em for your mother?”
“Yes, for May Day. Mrs. Palmer told me to…”
“Mrs. Palmer told you to pick my tulips?” he said scratching his bald head.
“No. Not your tulips. Just flowers. I didn’t know these were…”
“So today’s May Day, eh?” Pete interrupted. “I lose track of what month it is half the time.”
“Me, too,” the little boy smiled. "I didn't even know May was an inch until today, but Mom says this is the first day of it."
"May Day..." Pete mumbled again.
Mr. Pete looked across the road at the boy's house, took a deep breath and said, “Your old man was right, you know?”
The boy looked puzzled. “What old man?” he asked the man with gray whiskers.
“Did I say that? I meant… Your father was right. You really can’t go around taking people’s flowers without asking. Daisies in the ditch are one thing, but flowers by a house were likely put there by the folks inside.”
“Tell you what. Hold these,” Mr. Pete said giving the boy the tulips. dropping to his hands and knees, he picked the remaining tulips that were under the other window. “Now, step in here and we’ll find somethin' to put 'em in.”
On the top shelf, were empty jelly jars that had been collected one-by-one to serve as drinking glasses. From the far end of the shelf, Mister Pete grabbed an empty coffee can for the tulips, added some water at the sink, and brought them to the boy.
“Now let me put the ones you have with these, and then you can take them all to your mother.”
“Tell your dad he was right, boy. These flowers weren’t yours to take... but they are mine to give. I want you to have 'em. Tell him that. Can you hold that can?” he asked, letting the boy out the door.
“I think so,” he said from behind the blooms.
“Hold them off to the side so you can see.” Pete laughed.
“Thank you, but what if my dad says no?” asked the boy.
“You just tell him ‘Ol’ Pete said..." his voice cracked, "Tell him I said I wish I had a mother to give ‘em to. Tell him that, and he’ll know I mean for you to keep 'em.”
The old man gently turned the little boy toward home, and patted him on the back to start him across the narrow yard and down and up the ditch where he stopped to look both ways then turned back to the man beside the little house. Pete waived him on, then nodded again toward the windows of the new brick house, somehow certain he was seen.
A few minutes later, a vase of opening tulips graced the kitchen table. The boy didn't know it at the time, but his father returned the empty coffee can to Mr. Pete, who of course, did not expect it back. It was an excuse, really, for the father to go and thank a man he barely knew for adding thoughtfulness to what he thought the boy must do. Sometimes solving problems is not just a question of right or wrong; it's knowing how to do what's right in the right way. None of this was said, but it was part of what both men had learned that day.
In an hour or so, a yellow bus would stop in front of the little boy's house; the double door would split open, and his three siblings would come bounding out and up the gravel driveway. After a quick change of clothes upstairs, they would hurry down to see their father finishing the mantle in the front room. Around the corner, in the kitchen, their mother would be starting supper on the stove, and their little brother would be sitting at the table, much quieter than usual, staring past the flowers in the vase at the calendar picture on the wall. It was the cottage and not the tulips that intrigued him. He wondered what it was like inside. Below the picture were those letters M-A-Y and rows of numbers, but he still had no idea what they meant.
To a child it is the rhythms
of long-remembered days,
like petals from a vase,
that mark the passing of time,
and this had been one such day.
(The details and dialogue of "Four in Corduroy" are based entirely on a very true story. It was an hour of my life that I would never forget with a character (Mr. Pete) whose kindness turned a childhood blunder into a gracious gesture toward my mother and a vivid contrast between justice and mercy for my father and me. I have no doubt that the next May, Pete and I could have picked Mom another bouquet (had he been home), but four months after this incident, we moved from our new house on Atkins Road in Port Huron to our little house in the suburbs of Detroit. About ten years ago, I took my daughters down Atkins Road to show them the first "dream house" my Dad built. I also wanted to show them Ol' Pete's place (and see if it was as I remembered), but the little house was gone. Mrs. Palmer still lived next door, after fifty years. We visited a while, and then I asked her about Mr.Pete. She told me he lived there alone and just as enigmatic the rest of his life. He had passed away a few years back, but the house had just been torn down about a year before I stopped by. I told her this story. She assured me it was as I remembered. (The title phrase was a descriptive term my mother sometimes used of me when she spoke of the year the six of us lived on Atkins Road. I had actually just turned five the month before this story happened, but "Five in Corduroy" does not have the same caché as Mom's phrase so I let the boy be four. Still not sure about the title.)
Sunday, May 09, 2010
"Four in Corduroy" Part II
". . . [The little boy] passed the oak that held the tire swing, pushed the last bite of sandwich in his mouth, and took the cup in both hands as he approached the ditch of the road between their house and the Palmer place. There was something else he had to pass, Ol’ Pete’s little shack-of-a-house that sat on a sliver of land along the ditch on the other side. Because he had to walk across the narrow un-mowed yard, the little boy stood looking at the house as if for the first time."
Actually, Pete was not as old as he looked, but he had led a hard and lonely life, first in the Merchant Marines during the war and now as a deckhand on one of the hundreds of freighters that coursed from port to port across the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. All of this the father was learning while the little boy, oblivious to most of the conversation studied only details of their faces, occasionally tugging at his father’s hand to remind him he was there. They spoke of places that had "port" in their name—not like Port Huron but Port of Duluth, Port of Milwaukee, Port of Thunder Bay...names like that. Finally, the men stood looking at the sky, chatting about the weather until with an awkward parting nod, the father and son headed home.
The little boy’s father told him Mr. Pete was a sailor on a big ship like the kind they could see from the beach by the Blue Water Bridge. “He’s a sailor like Popeye?” the little boy asked. “Something like that,” his father replied, “except without the sailor suit.” “And without the muscles,” the little boy added, meaning no disrespect, but it was true: Mr. Pete was a little man whose trousers seemed synched a notch too tight at the waist and whose frame barely filled the undershirt he wore when he ventured past his door. "I imagine he's stronger than he looks," was all the boy's father said.
The boy recalled that conversation from the summer before as he stood staring at the little house on this the first day of May, 1961.
There were many things, however, that the boy, the father, and no one on the road knew of Mr. Pete: To start with, no one seemed to know his last name. Had they ever needed it, they could have asked the mailman, but Pete was all the name they needed for a man so seldom seen. He spent about nine months a year on the Great Lakes in approximate three-months-on-one-month-off patterns. The weeks off were spent there in that little house alone—no wife, no dog, no friends or guests that anyone had seen.
The house was a small one-room structure with a low-peaked roof. In the middle of the front wall was a door with a four-paned window with drawn curtain at each side. These window eyes were always closed whether or not Ol’ Pete was home. Such a little place could only serve a man accustomed to the tight quarters of ships who slept for months on a canvas bunk attached to a steel wall. Such a man has little need for extra space—what is space, after all, but emptiness? The smallness of the house helped hide the fact that it had so little to hold.
When Pete built the place, ten years before, Atkins Road was just a gravel lane that ran along the southern ridge of the Black River, and the smaller road (where the boy now stood) that made Pete's a corner lot was a two-track trail to a pasture that hadn't been used for years. He had chosen to build his place in the country not for its solitude—though that suited him—but for the fact that he had grown up a few miles from there. Those woods, and pastures, and the hill down to the river felt as much like home to him as anyplace on earth.
Two years before, the pasture was parceled into lots by a land developer who paved the road beside the little house. It was at that time that Mr. Palmer and the boy’s father, who worked together at the phone company, had bought their acres of land along that road and built their homes with every thought of being neighbors for life. Pete's place was so near the new Palmer place that, had it been made of matching brick, it may have looked like a guest house a few steps from the driveway. It was somewhat in the way, but easy to overlook, and the grown-ups often forgot that little house was there. Not so for the little boy. He stared at the empty house whenever he walked past, much as one watches a sleeping dog when walking past the circle path that’s drawn by the compass of his chain.
The little boy knocked on the aluminum side screen door of the Palmer house.
“Well, looky who’s here,” said Mrs. Palmer, followed by a gravelly laugh. “What have you got there?” she added.
“Your cup of sugar,” the boy said shyly, “Mom sent me.”
“She didn’t have to do that,” again came the gravel laugh. She opened and closed the door just long enough to grab the cup.
“Oh, and Happy May Day! That’s today. It’s not April anymore.”
“You are right. I’d let you step in and visit but the parakeet is out of the cage and I’m trying to get him back in. So I better go. Tell your mother ‘thanks.’”
And with that, Mrs. Palmer turned and stepped up into her kitchen, but from the open screen window she said, “Oh, and Happy May Day to you, too. Say, why don’t you pick her some flowers for May Day. That’s what we used to do, and put ‘em in a May basket.”
The sun on the screen made it impossible to see her face, but the boy waved anyway, then turned and stepped from the driveway to Pete’s narrow yard. It was then the boy saw them for the first time. How he’d missed them moments before was something he gave no thought, but the reason he had not seen them was because the idea of picking flowers had not yet been put in his head. But there they were. Just like in the picture for May on the wall. Tulips his mother called them. Right there in front of him in a row. He bent down, carefully picked a handful of them, and continued across the narrow yard.
It was true the tulips were in a row in front of him, but what the little boy chose not to see was that the row was in front of the little house on both sides of the door below the sleeping window eyes.
“Happy May Day,” the little boy said, holding the bobbling bouquet up to his mothers face.
“Oh, those are beautiful. That was nice of Mrs. Palmer. Did you give her the sugar?”
“Yes but she couldn’t let me in ‘cuz the bird would get out.”
“Let me put these in a vase. Your father’s home—upstairs changing into his work clothes. Why don’t you go surprise him. He asked where you were when he came in.”
The boy sneaked up the stairs but his father was already walking toward him as he reached the top, and before his foot hit the landing, he was scooped up in his father’s arms.
“Happy May Day!” said the little boy.
“Happy May Day to you, too, kiddo. How’s yer ol’ straw hat?”
“I haven’t got a straw hat,” the little boy laughed.
It was an exchange the boy and father shared whenever his dad came home with nothing much on his mind. They stepped into the kitchen, just in time to see the flowers being moved from the window sill to the center of the table.
“They look nice in the window, but they’re a little too tall for the sill. I think I’ll put them here,” the mother smiled.
“Where’dja get the tulips?” the father asked.
“Mrs. Palmer sent them,” she said.
“No she didn’t,” the little boy said, “I picked ‘em for you. Happy May Day.”
“Picked them where?” his mother asked.
“I don’t know. Just picked ‘em.”
The father sat the boy on the edge of the table, still holding him in his outstretched arms but looking in his eyes and said, “Picked them where, young man?”
Strange how the entire mood of the room, the house and world could be changed so quickly by such a simple question. The boy of four could feel his heart beating behind the bib of his corduroy overalls.
“Picked them where?” his father asked again.
“Over by Mr. Pete’s house.”
The father walked across the kitchen to the far window, but from there, he could not see the flowers.
“Where by Mr. Pete’s house?”
“I don’t know. By the front door I think.”
“Did you ask Mr. Pete if you could pick them?”
“He’s never there…” the mother began.
“Well, he’s there right now,” said the father. “I just saw him step back inside. He’s probably wondering who stole his flowers.”
“He didn’t steal them,” whispered the man’s wife in his ear.
“Well, what else do you call taking something from under a man’s nose without asking?”
“Young man, I want you to take these flowers right back to Mr. Pete…”
“Honey, don’t,” the wife interrupted, “He’s only four. He didn’t…”
“He’s old enough to know he can’t just take things from someone else’s house.”
“He didn’t take them from a house. They were outside..."
"Outside...inside... It's still the man's house..."
"He didn't know…”
“Well, now he does,” said the father pulling the flowers from the vase and putting them in his son’s hand. The boy began to cry, but his father was unmoved. “Now take these flowers over there to Mr. Pete, knock on the door, tell him what you did, and tell him you're sorry.”
“He’s four. I’ll do it,” insisted the mother who was now almost in tears herself.
“No. He picked ‘em, and he can return ‘em. Now go on, young man, I’ll be watching from the window.”
A mere sixty seconds had passed since the little boy said, “Happy May Day," and now everyone was sad.
There are, no doubt, as many different ways to handle moments like these as there are different parents in the world. A thoughtful response is more prudent than a visceral reaction, and many a father wishes he could apply the wisdom of age 60 to his actions at age 30, but readers from one time would be wise not to judge too harshly parents from a different time. The average father in 1961was raising his family in a time when certain things were true, a time when right and wrong were not explained away, and circumstance held little sway in telling the two apart. Self esteem was not bestowed by sparing kids from loss or guilt but by helping them strive for the way things ought to be. It was a time when the choice between right and wrong was sometimes as clear as knowing which was the harder thing to do. By that virtue alone right choices were often identified... and all that remained was their doing.
The little boy walked slowly past the oak that held the tire swing, as if carrying his own flowers to the gallows. Each breath he took between sobs sputtered and halted in his heaving chest, but his feet kept moving forward to the road. Down the ditch; up the ditch; a glance both ways through teary eyes before crossing; then down and up the ditch on the other side; a few slow steps and there the boy stood at Ol’ Pete’s door. With a half-dozen tulips in his right hand, the left hand reached up and knocked. The soft young knuckles barely made a sound. He knocked again, and this time the sound of his skin against the wood was heard inside the house.
Part III, the conclusion, of "Four in Corduroy" scheduled for posting late Wednesday night.
Thursday, May 06, 2010
The Voice of Summer
I mentioned I heard Harwell's voice this morning in my head. It wasn't a dream so much as an early-morning memory before I woke. Here's the scene I recalled:
I was dozing off on a blanket in the shade of trees at a place called Marysville Park, just south of Port Huron. It would have been the summer of 76,77, or 78, because I'd been working midnight shift at the Ford Vinyl Plant—hence the nap on the blanket at noon.
The centerpiece of that park for over fifty years has been this old steam locomotive. As I lay on the blanket, I could hear children’s voices and the hollow metallic echo of their feet stomping in the coal bin of the train, and I remembered the many picnics long-past when my brothers and I would have been among those kids. Between that train and me, were three tables pulled together with my Uncle Bob's family and our family getting ready to sit down and eat—and somewhere in the distance someone was listening to the tiger game. There was a cool breeze coming off of the St. Clair River, and I had pulled the edges of the blanket around me. I must have looked like a giant cocoon there on the lawn, but between the sounds of children in the distance, a dozen familiar voices nearby, and Ernie Harwell’s folksy tones filling the air between, it was an unforgettable sliver of time—how else could it have blown like a dandelion seed to the part of my mind that dreams?
Part Two of "Four in Corduroy" coming this weekend.
Sunday, May 02, 2010
Four in Corduroy: Part 1 "May Day"
And so this day, when his fingers finally pinched the second strap of his overalls and pulled it 'round the peak of his shoulder to the slide-snap on the bib, and he slowly double-stepped down the stairs to breakfast, he did not know what to think when his mother chirped, “Happy May Day!”
“Happy what?” he said, picking sleep from the corner of his eye.
“Happy May Day! Today is the first day of May. Look outside, it’s gorgeous!”
“Does that mean it’s not my birthday anymore?”
“Honey, it hasn’t been your birthday for over a week. You mean it’s not April anymore, and yes, that’s what it means. It’s May. I’ll show you.”
She went to the calendar on the wall beside the refrigerator, pulled out the tack that held it there, and flipped the new picture over the one of Easter lilies and a cross. The new picture was of flowers in a row along a pathway to a little house. Below the picture was the smallest word above a page of numbers—three letters only, but it meant nothing to him.
“M-A-Y,” his mother said, pointing at each letter. “This month is May.”
“So you’re the one who makes it May? You turn the page and then…”
“No, Honey, I didn’t make it May. I turned the page because today’s the day to do it.”
“Well, who made it May?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“God?” the little boy asked.
“God made the seasons and the snow and the sunshine and the flowers. He made the things that grow and change, but May is just what we call one part of it. May is a month. There are thirty days in each month—except some have thirty-one days and February has only twenty-eight except in Leap Year when it has twenty-nine.”
The little boy looked lost. "How many years are there?" he asked.
The mother looked lost. "I don't know. I guess there's too many years to know how many. This one is number 1,961, but there are lots more than that. Right now just think about the months. There are twelve months—like inches on a ruler. May is just one of the inches—except it doesn't measure anything...well, time I guess. It measures time. There are thirty days in each month—except some have thirty-one days and February has only twenty-eight except in Leap Year when it has twenty-nine.”
The little boy looked even more lost.
“It’ll all make sense to you someday,” she laughed pressing the calendar tack back into the same hole in the wall. “Just trust me for now. It’s May. It comes right after April and before June. June is the month when summer begins, but May is the peak of spring—like in this picture with the tulips. That’s what they call those flowers." She paused and leaned toward the picture. "Isn’t that a pretty cottage? It reminds me of the one in the painting at your grandma’s house.”
“It’s very small," the little boy said, "Too small for a family.”
“Maybe a grandma or grandpa lives there.”
“Maybe somebody like Ol’ Pete,” the boy smiled.
“That’s Mister Pete to you, young man, and his house is even smaller than that, I’m afraid,” and added without thinking, “Compared to this cottage, Pete’s place looks more like a shack.”
She looked outside the far window of the room at something beyond, shook her head, and smiled down at her boy. Taking the damp dishrag from the sink, she pressed flat a cowlick in his hair and combed it into place as best she could with her fingers. “That looks a little better. Now let me fix your strap,” she said, undoing the wire clip he’s worked so hard to fasten. She fixed a twist at the shoulder refastened the strap to the bib. “Do you want breakfast or lunch?” she asked, and her son looked blankly back at her. “You slept in. The kids have been gone to school for hours. It’s past eleven o’clock— kind of late for breakfast.”
The boy had only a slightly better grasp of clock-time than he did of months and calendars, and he wondered why it was that he sometimes slept so long. He liked to wake up with his family for breakfast, but sometimes they were all gone by the time he came downstairs. The same thing happened when he took a nap in the afternoon. Sometimes he barely tired enough to blink and just stared up at the ceiling until he heard his siblings coming home from school, but other times he drifted off so deep in sleep they had to wake him just in time for supper. Sometimes he woke up on his bed when he had fallen asleep in the car or on the davenport. He never remembered being moved but for the dreams of flying, and then he’d wake and shake his head and wonder where he was and how he got there. He had that feeling when he heard his mother say, “…kind of late for breakfast,” and with a slight shake of his head he said, “I’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sammich.”
“A sammich?” she mimicked, grabbing the jars from the cupboard.
The little boy nodded, not knowing he’d left out the “w” in the word. His mother made the sandwich and cut it from corner to corner because she’d learned that biting into triangle-shaped halves helped keep the jelly off her children’s cheeks. She took the knife, pressed off a corner of the oozing bread, and popped it in her mouth. This was her trademark on sandwiches she made, her meager reward for being “chief cook and bottle washer” for six.
“There’s your sammich,” she said, pouring him a half glass of milk. “Your father called and said he’d be home just after noon to work on the fireplace mantle. Why don’t you play outside until he gets here. I have something you can do for me when you go out. Take this cup of sugar over to Mrs. Palmer for me. I borrowed it last week. Don’t bring back the cup because that is hers, too. Okay? Can you do that for me? When you give it to her, be sure to say ‘Happy May Day.’ She’ll like that.”
To be continued in Part II ...
"Four in Corduroy" is a short story in three parts. It has been in draft form for years, but unfortunately it is trapped on my old "palm pilot," which I cannot open and so I am rewriting it from memory. That's why it will be coming in parts. It is based on a true story that happened fifty years ago. This is not a picture of Pete's house. His was not so overgrown in the front (as we will see), and his roof was shingled not tin, but it was about this size and looked very much out of place once larger homes came to the area.