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Fall 1996, Volume 13.3

Fiction

 

Margrethe Alschwede

Photo Real


Margrethe Ahlschwede (Ph.D., U of Nebraska-Lincoln) teaches writing at the University of Tennessee at Martin where she directs the West Tennessee Writing Project. Her works have appeared in
South Dakota Review, Zone 3, and Writing on the Edge.

 

"He was what?" Kate looked up from Seventeen spread open on her lap.

"Resistance. A member of the Danish resistance."

Kate's grandmother sat by the fireplace, in the rocking chair by the north window. It was part of her ritual, the part that came after the part where she came in the front door, put her coat and purse in the bedroom, checked her hair in the mirror, and proceeded down the hall, finally ready to greet her family and to settle into the chair to visit.

In the kitchen Kate's father lifted the pork roast out of the oven and at the table her mother set dishes, napkins, forks, knives. From downstairs came the murmur of a television set, Tod watching football.

Now Kate stared at her grandmother. This story had started the way she had heard it start a hundred times before—how the old aunts served tea in their apartment by the docks and how her Uncle Christian, age seven, showed up at their door after school asking if he could have tea, too. She had listened to her grandmother, smiled, looked back at Seventeen, then up again, smiling. She knew what was coming so she had taken her I'm-your-granddaughter-so-I'll-be-mildly-interested position on the sofa. The pillows fit like a hug into the small of her back, she had her feet up—no shoes—magazine on her lap.

"I never heard that before. They were bishops." Kate had seen the pictures in her grandfather's study, two old black and yellowed photographs of the ancestors, the bishops, each one a nearly-bald man whose chin touched the top of a deep, stiffly pleated ruff. As she had grown older she considered the photos differently, loosening and lightening each ruff, picturing it frothy and billowy at the neckline of a long-sleeved black velvet gown worn by a black-haired Vogue model with shadows for cheeks.

"Well, they were, the ones two generations back. But this one was your grandfather's nephew."

"But I thought they made butter and exported it."

"They did. Grandfather's father, and then grandfather's older brother and sister. But this one was your mother's generation, her cousin, your cousin."

Kate was stunned. Here sat her grandmother, her old fingers curved over the end of the wooden arm rests, completely re-arranging her family history. How could she do that? Kate knew the photographs. And she knew about the business. Once, just after her fifth birthday, when her mother had taken Tod to the doctor and she had spent the afternoon at her grandparents', she had wandered into the study, drawn up her grandfather's chair, and sat at the desk pretending to be him. She pulled open the top drawer where, about half-way back, she found a rubber stamp. She had spent the next few minutes happily stamping "Sørensen Exports" all over a piece of typing paper until her grandfather had come in.

"Kate, the stamp—where did you find it? I thought it was gone."

She pointed to the drawer. "What's it for?" she asked.

"A business, a long time ago." And he had told the story of how when he was younger—a little older than her parent—she decided he would not stay in Denmark to be a businessman but would, instead, marry her grandmother, the woman he had met when he had studied in the U.S.

"Why didn't anybody tell me this before?" Kate asked, still staring at her grandmother, her white hair framed by the needles of the pines outside the window hanging long and stiff like porcupine quills.

Up until now, her grandmother had been a woman in whom Kate took a polite but, for the most part, mild interest. Not that she didn't like her. She did. But her grandmother wasn't very huggy and even though she lived in the same town she seemed, ever since Kate's grandfather's death, to be in touch mostly for "occasions," like Sunday dinner, Kate and Tod's performances at school, Christmas, and birthdays. Sometimes the presents she gave Kate made sense and sometimes they didn't, like the leather saddle bags for the back of her bike and the reflecting sun glasses the year after they had gone out of style. "Oh, I thought they were cute," her grandmother had said as Kate pulled them out of the wrapping paper. Another year Kate and Tod each had received a box of blue stationery, a ball point pen, stamps equivalent to the number of envelopes in the box, and ten address labels—their grandmother's. Everything in its place and a place for everything, that was Kate's grandmother.

"So what was his name? What did he do?" By now Seventeen had spilled to the floor.

"His name was Claus, a pharmacist. After the war Claus' company sent him over here on business trips. He came to see us once. He had flown into Omaha and Sven drove to the airport to pick him up. Your mother would have been twelve or fourteen at the time."

"I remember that." Kate's mother's voice came from the dining room.

"You actually met him?" Kate called out. "Once."

"But what did he do, Claus?"

"I can't remember it all. I got tired and went to bed." Kate's mother again.

"I heard everything," her grandmother said. "They derailed trains, parachuted between German occupation troops, dropped leaflets, sabotage. The Germans caught him once, put him in the back of a car and beat him nearly to death." She rocked slowly back and forth, her finger tips pressed together like a church steeple under her chin. Her eyes looked at something far far away.

Whenever her grandmother came to visit, Kate closed the door to her bedroom, took down the full-length color poster of Sting that hung on the outside and stuck up the poster her Uncle Christian had given her—a black and white picture of a field of corn stubble with the words Ski Nebraska across the bottom. Her Uncle Christian lived in California and when he wrote it was usually about sun, flowers, beaches, and mountains. Kate wasn't sure if her uncle meant the poster as a joke or a jab, but she liked it and felt that while the humor might escape her grandmother, the poster was at least safe. She didn't have to explain it the way she always had to explain Sting pictured in full medieval regalia with the word "Read." "Who's Read?" her grandmother asked. All she had to say with Ski Nebraska was, Uncle Christian sent it.

Kate's room was in the basement but with a deep window that let in the morning light. On the chest of drawers under the window was a twenty-gallon fish tank with angels, neon tetras, algae eaters, swordtails, snails, and two albino catfish. At night she would slide the "Polovetsian Dances" into the tape deck, pull up her quilt, and watch the fish swimming, the only light in the room coming from the light over the tank. She would count the fish and, in the process, fall asleep.

On the wall at the head of the bed was a bookcase, the kind made with board and brackets. Four shelves. All of Madeleine L'Engle, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, her collection of Tomie dePaola, the Little House series, Agatha Christie, the Brontës, Jane Austen. The shelves held other things—the mold of her teeth before she got braces; a picture of her grandfather before he was married; jars of marbles—cats' eyes, swirls, Benningtons; an old Sunkist juice can with pencils.

From the ceiling hung fish line strings of paper cranes folded of squares cut from Christmas and birthday wrapping paper. Her fourth grade Sunday School teacher had taught her how and ever since, after each birthday and each Christmas, she folded a new string of cranes.

But to Kate the best part of her room was the green nylon hammock that stretched from the top book shelf to the molding of the door across the room. It held pom-poms from football games, pillows and stuffed toys, old birthday streamers loopy and dangling. Last year at Pier 1 she had found a mobile of a fish that hung from a dowel. She wove the dowel through the web of the hammock and the fish hung there by its mouth, turning with the force of the air from the vent.

Now, a week after her grandmother's visit, Kate sat on the bed, her door partially open, her medieval Sting back up on the other side. Her parents had gone to the neighbor's for dinner group and Tod was at church playing basketball. She had the place to herself. She put on Sting's "Love is the Seventh Wave," leaned back on the pillows, and listened," there is a deeper world than this that you don't understand, there is a deeper world than this tugging at your hand ."

Sabotage, she thought. A relative of hers, her mother's cousin—a saboteur. On Monday, she had mentioned it to Rick Handelman, her debate partner, the pigeon-toed cross-country runner with an incredible memory who could talk fluently on any aspect of their case. He was impressed, said he'd read Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War in which the Danish resistance hadn't figured at all.

Later in the week she had searched for the old Book of Knowledge but instead found a book called Denmark, An Official Handbook, 1974. She had turned to the index, looked under "resistance," and found a reference to page 101: "One of the earliest resistance groups was the Churchill Club, a group of Jutland schoolboys who carried out sabotage operations even when the Gestapo thought them locked up . Sabotage groups carried out more than 2,500 industrial operations and 2,000 attacks on railways." Her mouth had hung open. A relative of hers, of her mother's, did this? Kate always had thought of her mother as different from her friends' mothers—older, not given to small talk, always standing up for what she believed. Kate figured the cousins would be just like her mother, different, firm in their convictions. But this?

She looked up at the fish turning from its lip. She had thought about the saboteur all week. She always had thought her grandfather's family seemed comfortable, safe, too safe, with prescribed rules, no risk. Nobody had to work at it much to be somebody, to mean something. Meaning came from the weight of history—bishops, business—and from volume. Her grandfather was the fourteenth of fifteen children, a fact that still amazed her. And their occupations. What risk did that involve? Being a bishop was safe—state church, state income. And the business. She had seen the pictures in the albums—the three-story stucco house by the coast, the bath house on the beach, interior shots of homes with paintings, fresh flower arrangements, light wood furniture, wooden floors that glinted with polish. It all seemed so rich and so safe—white-haired kids at the beach, her grandparents on their wedding day smiling in front of a church door, a garland of flowers draped over the door frame. But now she knew something far bigger had never been in the pictures. High risk and high danger.

What if they hurt innocent people? What if they made a mistake? Kate couldn't imagine. Earlier in the semester for Citizenship Issues class she had presented a report on Nebraskans for Peace. She had interviewed the director, a woman in her fifties operating out of a closet-size office on the second floor of the educational wing of a downtown church, earning a part-time salary below minimum wage, speaking softly and carefully about non-violence. Kate had sat awe-struck, her admiration for the director and her work growing with every answered question. And now she wondered, how could she, a relative of a saboteur, in good conscience, be sympathetic to Nebraskans for Peace? Wasn't that phony?

The albums. The photo albums. Where were the albums? Kate had to find the albums. She changed Sting to side two, turned up the volume, opened her door all the way up and walked down the hall.

The overhead light wasn't very bright. She felt as if she were sitting in a glow like the glow in the TV ad where the old man wears an eye shade while he works at his desk. But she kept opening boxes anyway. She sat on the floor, three packing boxes behind her, another open in front of her. This one had what looked to be her parents' old college books, Chief Modern Poets of England and America, Fourth Edition, The Art of the Novel, a chemistry book, economics. Nothing here.

She went to the closet and dragged out another box. Trays and trays of slides with thick frames. She held one up to the light. Black and white. People from a long time ago. She dragged out another box and in it discovered her grandfather's old unfilled books of stamps—heavy faded blue things—envelopes of canceled stamps, a pincher, hinges.

Back to the closet, another box, smaller than the others. She knew the albums were not a figment of her imagination. They existed the way she knew the bishops in the study existed. She distinctly remembered once seeing a picture of her grandfather, a sober baby in a long baptismal dress. She remembered pictures of old people sitting in painted wooden chairs near a sun dial, squinting at the sun; of her mother when she was six, white hair, bangs, wearing a droopy bathing suit that made her look like a baby flapper.

She pulled the smaller box over to the others and as she sat down beside it noticed handwriting that looked like her mother's, in black marker, "Dad's albums." She pulled open the lid and there they were—the albums, all with the red covers that looked like alligator skin but weren't, standing on end in the box, cover to cover, each one held together at the side with faded red cording, fringes of it sticking out.

She pulled out three at once and put them in her lap. She hadn't seen these for years. She opened the first one. It was as she remembered—the black construction-like paper, little black triangles holding the photos to the pages. No names, no dates, just page after page of black and white pictures of men in jackets and baggy pants, women with dark hair pulled back from their faces, standing in pairs, in rows.

She opened the next album. In this one the pictures had names—Poul, Steffen, Marie, Sophie, Hanne, and Elisabeth with an "s", the way her middle name was spelled. The women were laughing, dressed in dark skirts, light-colored blouses, and wore what her grandmother would call "sensible shoes."

Sting had long since stopped. The only sound came from the recycling of the water softener, the furnace cutting on and off, and the whish and slide as Kate turned another page. Then there was the picture she remembered—her grandfather—small head, tiny hands, in a white dress, the skirt twice as long as he wasset into the corner of a sofa, pillows poking out behind his shoulders.

She stared at this photo of the tall man she had barely known. He had died the spring after he found her in his study stamping "Sørensen Exports." At the cemetery she had wandered away and found some dirt. What she remembered now was how it had felt in her hand, her mother's hug, how her mother had kissed her and kept holding on to her as she stood showing her the dirt, the sprinkles of dirt on the casket lid where she had thrown them, how her father finally had caught her up in his arms and carried her across the grass to the car, away from the hole in the ground.

She turned another page, and then another, and there was her mother in the baggy bathing suit, on a beach, and behind her the North Sea, white triangle shapes on the horizon. Sails, Kate thought.

Still no Claus, "but," Kate said to the empty room, "this could be Claus." In the photo at the bottom of the page stood a young man about twenty years old straddling a bicycle. He wore dark shorts, a light short-sleeved shirt, and standing beside the bike, her face turned up, a small girl she recognized as her mother. No name, no dates.

"You," said Kate to the man in the picture, "are Claus." In her mind, this young man—confident, vigorous, cigar in his mouth, cap pushed back on his head, fingers gripped to the handlebars—was Claus. "I think you could have done all that," she said. "And you would." Sting played again as Kate sat up on her bed. In one hand she held Claus and in the other a pair of manicure scissors. She had lifted the picture out of the album and slipped into the triangles in its place a note written on a recipe card—"I took Claus. Sorry Mom. Love, Kate," and the date. Then she had put all the albums back in the box and all the boxes back in the closet. By the time she heard the front door open she had completed clipping around the end of the cigar, down the side to the foot pedal, and had started clipping along the front bicycle tire.

When the mail finally came she had to think a minute before she realized what it was. She had pasted Claus to a piece of white stationery. Then she had written a note saying that while this picture might seem odd, this was the picture she wanted made into the poster, as tall as they could make it.

She took the tube to her room, cut open the end, and stuck in her fingers to twist out the poster. Then she unrolled it to the full length of Claus, even more heroic looking now than in the album photo. She grinned as she held it up. "Claus," she said.

She pulled down Sting, rolled him up, and put him behind her door. She opened the top drawer of her dresser and got out the museum wax. "It'll hold elephants up," the salesman had told her. She borrowed a needle and a smokey-colored spool of thread from the sewing room. From her closet she pulled out a sack full of old birthday and Christmas wrap. Then, sitting on her bed cross-legged, a lap board to work on, she began measuring out five-inch squares of paper.

She finished in little over an hour. Sitting on the bed, leaning back on her elbows and looking across to the open door, she was satisfied. She smiled, admiring what she saw—a long grainy picture of a handsome blond man straddling a bicycle—a member of the family, her family—and he had strings of peace doves dangling, 3-D, from the handlebars.

 

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