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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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Four in Corduroy: May Day: Part II

Continued from Part I...

Only once had the little boy seen Mister Pete up close. Several months before, in the flannel days of fall, he stood beside his father while the two men talked in the very spot where he now stood. It was then he studied the man’s face and knew why the grown-ups called him Ol’ Pete. Most of his hair was gone, and what had not turned loose turned gray before its time. Even grayer were his whiskers. He didn’t have a beard as such but never shaved without a reason. Sparse gray stubble circled his mouth and filled his hollow cheeks. He did not look as old as the little boy's great grandfather, but standing there beside the boy’s father, who was around thirty at the time, Ol’ Pete looked old enough for his name. His voice sounded old, too, like he needed to clear his throat but never bothered to do it.

Actually, Pete was not as old as he looked, but he was a little man whose trousers seemed synched a notch too tight and whose frame barely filled his worn shirts. HIs was a hard and lonely life, first in the Navy during the war and now as a deckhand in the Merchant Marines 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.

The little boy gently tugged at his father’s hand to remind him he was there, but the men continued to speak 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. His father told Pete that he had also been in the Navy, but only the Reserves, and soon the conversation grew thin until it sputtered into talk about weather and how it was getting darker sooner each evening. Eventually, the two men sighed in awkward unison, said 'good night,' and parted ways. The boy's father slung him onto his back and carried his tired son home. 

The boy recalled that conversation as he stood staring at Mister Pete's little house.

There were many things, however, that the boy, his father, and most others did not know about Mister Pete: To begin with, no one seemed to know his last whole name. Pete was all the name they needed for a man so seldom seen. He spent about ten months a year on the Great Lakes in cycles of four-months-on-three weeks-off. The weeks off were spent alone there in that little house—no wife, no dog, no friends or guests that anyone had ever 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 four-paned windows at each side. To the boy, the drawn curtains of the windows were like sleeping eyes. 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 bought the place, ten years before, Atkins Road was just a gravel lane that ran along the southern ridge of the Black River, and the road now called Charmwood was a two-track winding back to a pasture. Pete had chosen to live his days on land in this rural part of Port Huron not for its solitude—though that suited him—but for the fact that he had grown up a few miles from the little house Those woods, and pastures, and the long hill down to the river felt as much like home to him as anyplace on earth.

Atkins Road was paved and wider now, and two years before, the pasture road was pave when the land was parceled into lots by a land developer. And that was the time when Mr. Palmer and the boy’s father bought each purchased an acre of land on which to built their homes with every thought of being neighbors for life. Pete's house was so near the new Palmer place that, had it been made of matching brick, it may have looked like a guest house on the far side of the driveway. But it did not match anything. It was out of place and in the way at the same time. So much so that the neighbors often treated the empty house as if  it weren't 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 resumed his walk with cup in hand and 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 in 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 bounded up the three steps to her kitchen. From an open screen window she said, “Oh, and Happy May Day to you, too. Say, why don’t you pick your mom some flowers 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. The reason he had not seen them moments before was because the idea of picking flowers had not yet been planted in his head. But there they were. Just like in the picture above 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, and continued across the narrow yard.

It was true the tulips were in a row, 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.

He continued walking, down and up the ditch, across the road, down and up the other ditch, then walking faster as he neared the back door, crossed through the laundry room and up the steps to the kitchen.

“Happy May Day,” the little boy said, holding the bobbling bouquet up to his mother's face.

“Oh, my! 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. He scooped his youngest son up in his 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 placed on the center of the table.

“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 by myself. 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 and looking in his eyes. “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, standing him on the floor.

“Over by Mister Pete’s house.”

The father walked across the kitchen to the far window to look at the house, but he could not see the flowers.

“Where by Mister Pete’s house?”

“I don’t know. By the front door I think.”

“Did you ask Mister Pete if you could pick them?”

The mother began, “He’s never there….”

“Well, he’s there right now,” said the father. “I just saw him step out and in his front door. He’s probably wondering who stole his flowers.”

“He didn’t steal them,” whispered the mother 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 Mister 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 Mister 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 there was not a happy eye in the house.

Here we must pause in this scene from more than half a century ago. 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. In mid-century America, the father was considered the head of the home, raising his family in an era 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 toward 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 the 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 and 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 changed the flowers to his left hand and knocked again, and this time the sound of his skin against the wood was heard inside the house.
3016-3056
Part III, the conclusion
© Copyright 2010, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink

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