Monday, November 11, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 11

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter here.

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Of arms and the man, I sing, puttering around the house, an exile (or ex-pat) driven by fate. I look at the picture of my Union Ancestor, Great-Grandfather Logos, still showing the bandages that made him a war-time statistic, his uniform not so neatly pressed, his one leg shorter than the other at the knee, its limp pants-leg dangling from the edge of the chair. His wife, Bereshith, worn out with care looked no less wounded, standing by his side, had leaned his crutches against the fireplace beside them – not this fireplace, some other homestead, perhaps his father's house in which there must have been many mansions, some other Adam Kadmon.

He was a veteran who proudly served his nation – or at least, his side of his nation – and suffered the consequences, regardless. Few stories have survived generations of telling if they were told at all. I had not seen this stiff and formal, heart-rending photograph until after I'd moved in here. Had my father known it existed? Had Junior hidden it with the rest to erase the memories of the past, or had it been hidden much earlier by families who thought its pose too gruesome, its reality too raw? We forget when Johnny came marching home there were those who were somewhere between the survivors and the dead.

Would Bereshith have recognized her Logos when she found him at the train station (where are the legs with which you ran, haroo, haroo), sent home from the hospital in Philadelphia months after he'd been found nearly dead in some wheat field? Coming home at last, he was not marching when, finally, he did.

How long before Young Logos had moved from the Nearly Dead to the side of the Living? How many nights before the nightmares passed and he no longer awoke in the darkness, screaming? How did his wife manage to look after his healing and keep both body and mind mending, his and hers, and raise their children?

And yet he managed to build this house and move his family into it seven years later. Did the love of his wife and the love he felt for his family help him overcome his experience in the war? He was not yet 21 when he almost died at Gettysburg, yet built this house when he was 27.

Who was his father and who was he, to have been able to afford it, beyond being this wounded young man, a boy still, nursed by his bride, a child herself if one could imagine it, looking at her.

Was Grandfather Khronos – my great-grandfather – a good son to him? Were there other children? I see names in the family Bible going back two generations before Logos – what came before the beginning?

Names were written in the book in different hands but all steady and formal, recording years of births and years of deaths, sometimes not too far apart.

Father Hemon served in World War I – a photograph of him in uniform as a young man of 25, ready to join the American Expeditionary Force setting off for France. There are no photos of his return, of his wounds, of his slow recuperation, of the trials he and his wife, married with a baby boy born earlier. The boy in this later picture is Uncle Junior, not yet three, hard to believe. He would serve in World War II, the war that followed the War that Didn't End All Wars.

My father was 15 then and only enlisted when he turned 19, during what became the last months of the war. He never made it overseas, not yet deployed when the war finally ended. It was close: another reason, no doubt, that Junior hated him, the lucky bastard.

I did not serve in Viet-Nam, as close as I got to being drafted. A college deferment would only last so long. When they drew the lottery to determine the order young men would be drafted, my birthday was low on the list. I felt I had been delivered from death.

A college friend, "gung-ho" to kill his share of Commies, came in lower on the list than I and decided after all there was now no need to enlist. Others should go and fight and kill (or, by implication, risk being killed) for the cause he believed in. Irony was not something that came easily to him. Another friend, an avid pacifist and frequent protester, was No. 1 on the induction list and so he went and did not come back.

My son, Stephen, was eager to fight in the First Bush War though he was all of 13, but when the Second Bush War came around and it could be his turn, now, despite the patriotic outrage after September 11th, he had changed his tune (his mother and I both glad), and he found excuses not to enlist though he needed none. There was no draft to evade, no reason to equivocate or consider leaving the country as I had done. It was a choice which no one, fortunately, seemed to mind. He was not called a coward, a traitor.

Stephen did not have sons – or daughters, now – to worry about with this on-going war: if he had, they would be, these grandchildren of mine, around ten years old now. I would hope this war would be over by then, but it shows no sign of letting up, twelve years on.

There will be other wars, if this one ever ends: peace is not profitable.

Last month, I had found some picture frames at a local hardware store, some discontinued items that looked vintage enough without the expense of being an antique and lacking the shoddiness of being an imitation. I collected some photos I had found in other albums I'd brought with me and placed them with the earlier generations of this house. My father in his army uniform – undated – looked excited and proud, a smiling young man who probably knew the war would end soon. I set this on the opposite side of the mantel from the one of Junior taken at the beginning of the war. He looked serious and intent, a scowl he intended would scare the crap out of the Jerries.

There were other photographs of my mother and her family, and several of me and my sister as children. These less historic photos I placed in the lower-case parlor across the fireplace mantle or on the end tables beside the couch. It seemed, after so many years, I should honor my own family, having lived here among the past for so long.

There were photos that ran parallel with those of my parents: Madeleine and I when we were dating (did I keep pictures of any women I'd dated before her? I don't recall), another one from shortly after we were married – no wedding pictures: odd – and a few of the children growing up – one of Millie taken just months before she died.

If Stephen is going to visit for Thanksgiving, these should be out to remind him: they will be his, some day, whatever he chooses to do with them. The house, too, I expect, though I can't see him moving here when he inherits the house. I suppose I ought to have that conversation with him, while he's here.

It's good I didn't have these photos of Madeleine out when Sybil stopped by yesterday in need of consoling. That choice of word always makes me laugh, what's become a standard euphemism for having spontaneous and often pointless sex. It seems whatever happens in her life, Sybil is always in need of consoling. But I'm old-fashioned enough to still feel uncomfortable to have pictures of my late wife as if, through them, she could be watching me. Did it matter at other times of day or when I'd sit around naked during the summer? It didn't occur to me then.

Her visit – Sybil's – was as brief as it was unexpected, shortened perhaps by the sense of unease we felt following her consolation: sitting around and talking afterward must have seemed like therapy if the quick and perfunctory sex we had wasn't therapy enough. This brevity was a habit of late on those occasions – fewer now – when it happened. I was glad I could still "perform" without making a production of it, small consolation for me.

There were piles of books beginning to materialize around the house and I knew I would have to set a new rule if I made regular trips to the library. Looking around at the photographs with the pride of accomplishment of one who'd just redecorated the entire house, I realized any borrowed book should only be read here in the den or upstairs in my bedroom: otherwise, it risked quickly becoming lost or forgotten. There were music books that needed to be returned to my studio upstairs; scores I read while listening to recordings in the studio but I found myself doing that less, these days.

A list of household chores should include a daily scouting of the house for books left conveniently where they shouldn't be, if not returned to the shelf at least to the table by the TV set in the den, there to be reshelved eventually. I had spent years struggling to maintain some order to my libraries, upstairs and downstairs. They were "cataloged" in some logical fashion that I could follow – all that was necessary – but I wondered how it would pass muster if a real librarian inspected my shelves?

Over the years, given the time I could spend reading, I had developed the habit of rereading the Great Books I Should've Read in School but Didn't Really Pay Attention To. This led me eventually to wonder how something like Moby-Dick could ever appeal to a teenager even then. I'm sure I only skimmed through it looking for plot points, something I could point out in the obligatory book report or regurgitate, Jonah-like, on a test. Where had I read that some critic saw it as an analogy of the Conquering of the Wild West with the Arrival of the Railroad? (And I thought musicologists had a corner on the market of the absurd.)

Lately, I'd taken up other books I'd never read before: George Eliot's Silas Marner may have been required when I was in 8th grade, but I had read so much about Middlemarch, yet never even looked at it. During my period of recuperation, I'd started reading all of Henry James's novels in chronological order (Henry Jordan wondered that I had managed to survive at all). If James thought Middlemarch was a major influence on his Portrait of a Lady, my favorite novel of all novels, didn't I owe it to him to at least try reading it?

Yesterday, it had started out pleasant and sunny but the clouds I saw along the horizon during the morning quickly covered over my clearing in the woods and turned it into a cold, gray day despite the mildness of the temperature. I'm still not ready for the cold weather which the forecast says is coming soon: they're calling for a chance of snow flurries tonight. Wednesday looks like a good day to hibernate, the low reaching down into the low-20s. This is what marks me as an outsider – I still dread the onset of winter.

The wind was rough overnight, making it sound colder than it really was. The thermostat read the same this morning as it usually does but it felt chillier because of the sound and I found myself putting on a heavier sweater than I might normally wear.

Once we'd set the clocks back, I rather enjoyed starting the day an hour earlier but I'm not sure about the sun setting at 4:30, now.

This has been a good day to think about the dead as I watched the solemn dying of the year. The slow, inevitable descent of mortality is also something I dread but at least, once the winter has passed, it will be spring again, with any luck. I can feel the ache in my bones, though, and that is not a good sign.

It will be a good evening to sit and read, whether I find myself deep in the middle of March or not, the cats curling up with me on my favorite chair.

That reminds me, I need to bring in some more wood for the fire.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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