By Ted Lardner
My grandfather wasting from cancer had smooth and hairless legs; chemo did that; he wore his sturdy brown bedroom leather slippers, and sucked oxygen through a little airplane emergency facemask; his skin was shiny on his legs, his flesh seemed almost without color; under his pajama shirt, his breasts were flattened down; he was melting from inside his body to the other world, and the “whiff of eternity” was in his nostrils; he looked away so he could not see me see him crying.
My grandfather was scared, and so was my dad, although it has taken, let’s see, 2016 minus 2007, nine years, to know it (for Dad), and, alright, 2016 minus 1973, whatever that leaves, for my grandfather.
Caleb, my son, said this to me: “Fourteen billion years ago there was a big bang, and now we have”—he was looking at them as we rolled by, on the way to the relay meet, two Canada geese, standing on dead grass beside the cold early spring road—“geese.”
I watch the traffic from my office window, I float out of my body, I see the flow, I see it move many directions through interchanges, trucks and cars, seven, eight, nine directions, depending on how you count, all ramps, cloverleaf merges and partings crawling all over with traffic that, closer and closer but never quite matching, approaches the exact same speed.
The young scientist describes using lasers to listen to objects at a distance. We learn the voices that cause objects to vibrate. Anything can be a resonator, a relay. We can dial in on an old bridge, a road by a river or a railroad crossing, and it will whisper to us, like a postcard, bearing through time the trace of voice, a murmur of what we feel when we drive the old sad car of our memory along its horizon.
My grandfather loved his daughter and his grandchildren, and to his son-in-law he gave a job in the family company, and, one year, for the young family, he bought a new model station wagon made by the Ford Motor Company.
Theoretically, vertigo only happens when you have a point of reference, a sense of moving to, or moving away. Without an up or a down, there isn’t any falling. Without an in or an out, no dizziness, no space. From my eighteenth-floor office window, a postcard flutters out, shimmied with old vibrations, and the crystals in the vestibular labyrinth of my inner ear lose their footing between the cars.
That night he dreamed a long time about his grandfather. His grandfather held him in his arms then walked, showing him room by room, the upstairs, the downstairs, even the basement of the old house on Hawthorn Road.
The next day, snow is melting.
The next day, at a table at the edge of the sea, chipped plates from the old house turn over in the waves, the waves with their sun dapples, like summer Sundays on the terrace eating breakfast at Hawthorn Road.
Let’s say you just sit down the universe and you say okay explain this to me, what love is.
The office tower where I work throws its morning shadow backward, over all the cars on the roof of the parking ramp. In the east-facing windows in all the tall buildings downtown, a sun climbs its separate sky.
At the spring relays, snow blew across the runners and the boy P.R.’d his leg of the four-by-mile. That night at the table he sighed. “Way to go, Caleb!” we’d cried. “The Earth just travelled eight-hundred kilometers when you said that,” he said. And, “This is so hard to believe, but this table, everything around us in this room, is mostly space.” He looked around. “There is so much space inside atoms. And everything. This avocado.” He picked it up. “That knife. All made out of the same thing.” “Electrons? And protons?” I asked. “And quarks,” he said, “and neutrinos.” He put down the avocado. “I don’t understand atoms.” He sighed, glumly. “In the time it took to say that,” he said, “we travelled another eight-hundred kilometers.” He paused. “Eight-hundred more.” “Eight-hundred more.” “What direction is it going?” I asked. “Everything is moving,” he said. “There is no direction.” In the four-by-mile, each of the relay team’s runners circle the oval four times. I drift to sleep, the snow handing off the baton to itself over the roof of the house.
About the postcard that my grandmother wrote to me in 1963, for most of my life, I had no idea the postcard existed, and then, around age forty, it turned up. My mother, I guess, may have come across it while cleaning out a closet shelf or a desk drawer. And she must have looked at it, I now realize, and read it, too. And then my mother, and again, I’m making only educated guesses here, added the postcard to some other items she wanted me to have. She would do the same for each of my sibs. She had begun to empty her house of the past this way, two or three slips of paper—letters, clippings from The Argus, photos—at a time. For several years, between I think the year I was given tenure, and the year I started reading my State Teachers Retirement System statements, I kept the postcard thumbtacked to the wall in my university office. My desk, with its imitation wood grain top, was and still is shoved against the east wall of my room on the 18th floor, and so above the desk but beneath the lowest of the four shelves that span that wall, the postcard was visible. But mostly forgotten. The California Zephyr hurdling the Rockies, boring its headlight through the Moffat Tunnel, day after day, semester after semester, year after year. This is what the postcard showed, as nearly as I can remember. A mountainous vista, hillsides glimmering with aspen trees, the leaves a singeing, retouched yellow, as they are wont to appear in autumn in the Rockies, as depicted by the tourism industry. From what I have always and with no reason assumed would have been the eastern portal of a tunnel, a silver passenger train, some portion of its length still engulfed by the mountain, emerges under a high, blue backcountry sky. Mounted above the tunnel entrance on a lintel of granite, the words MOFFAT TUNNEL are spelled in letters that look vaguely classical, and vaguely fascist. As postcards typically do, this one had a caption on the reverse side, which bore the information that this was the California Zephyr train and that was the Moffat Tunnel, and it may have mentioned Colorado and the Continental Divide. My grandmother—my mother’s mother—had written on the postcard with a pen, a fountain pen, I think, in ink, which though faded, was blue. I realize as I remember this that my mother also wrote and still writes postcards to her children and especially to her grandchildren, especially when she is travelling, which she did quite a lot after her children had grown up and moved away. Not like a jet-setter and not like a snowbird fleeing the middle-western winters for sunny Arizona, but widely and interestedly, she travelled with my father, when he was still alive. I also realize that, while riding the train as a girl in the 1940s winters when her family, seeking more suitable climes on behalf of her brother, whose asthma was a cause of continuing fright, travelled to Coral Gables, Florida, my mother must have watched her mother write postcards, and mail them, from the train. And then, when it was 1963, and her youngest child had settled in marriage (my mother to my father) my grandmother with her husband, who would at that point have had, almost exactly, ten years to live, wrote a postcard with a picture on it of the California Zephyr and the Moffat Tunnel, and mailed it to me. I was four years old.
Suppose it was Monday morning, quarter to nine in the parking ramp at the university and, here and there through the yards out through all of the suburbs, melting, the snow, which, all night, falling, had been bending the daffodils’ faces to the ground, was letting the daffodils go. Their yellows, as dusk fell or morning dawned, would seem, in the dim light, to brighten. A contrast effect is what I seemed to feel whenever in the course of writing class notes or grading, taking a break from office emails, my eyes would swing up and land on the postcard, the train still flying over the Rockies, boring through solid rock. And I might as well say this now and get it out there: though I half-doubted it later, I threw the postcard away. Recycled it, to be specific. With a mix of anger—probably mostly anger—and a tincture of curiosity, I frisbeed the postcard my grandmother wrote me in 1963 into the U.S.P.S. bin that, since the day some years ago that from the department mail room I carried it down the corridor turning left, proceeding east past my American Lit colleagues, my Shakespeare friend, the fiction writer, and the post-colonial theorist, to my office, second door from the end on the right, and, placing it so it was handy, I used to collect recyclables, among which can now be counted my grandmother’s words, the California Zephyr, the Moffat Tunnel, the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountains, autumn, aspens, a sky with I think no clouds and no people, my grandmother’s hand lifting her words down from its blank reaches, words still alive in the loops and troughs of her script; along with pounds of office papers, wrecked drafts of class handouts, wrecked drafts of letters of recommendation, drafts of teaching reports for colleagues; wrecked poems; outdated fliers from campus staff and employee offices for wellness programs, for the annual charity drive, for readings by visiting novelists, poets, scholars, researchers, public figures, retired and emeriti professors, civic leaders, class advertisements, Please Announce To Interested Students….Had she written the postcard while she was riding inside one of the cars of the train that it pictures? I realize, as I hear car doors slam up and down the rows of the parking ramp below me, that I have always imagined that she had. Then I recognize also that I have always imagined a kind of impossibility: she occupied two places at once: not only was she in the train that the postcard pictures, but she and I also shared the same perspective portrayed by the postcard: she must have flipped the postcard back and forth as she wrote it: we both are looking uphill, watching as the Zephyr flies forth—I’ve always assumed eastbound—from the “O” of the Moffat Tunnel.
I searched my office. I knew—I knew—I wouldn’t find it. But I searched. What part of me was telling me, “No, go ahead, search. You probably put it in a drawer.” What part of me threw the postcard away? Since Monday (and it really doesn’t matter what day it was, or when most of this actually happened, or in what order) when I opened the top right drawer of the desk in my office and began to dig through its contents, searching, I’ve wondered about why I threw it away. I was, I realized, angry. I’m angry now, a little, trying to dredge the moment up again. When I held the postcard the last time, I felt, deep down, hardly consciously, the surge of sorrow and, hot on its crest, anger. But something else, too, a kind of revulsion, perhaps, from the feeling of turning invisible, of disappearing. The postcard with its over-retouched golden hues and chemical tints of blue sky, addressed to my four-year-old self, who could not have read it, and to whom this man now, his fifty-six-year-old avatar, unimaginable, would have been an annihilating specter. At the same time, this postcard, an artifact of leisure travel, an idealized moment in an idealized space, already, in its own instant, an impossibility, was, to me, in the office of the building where I am employed, a tantalizing glimpse of an unattainable sensation of freedom, I think. A lost past, yes. I craved it! I wanted to eat the postcard! Feel its colors and contrasts slip in, saturate my deep self, let its vistas and velocity shimmer from my belly out into all of my cells! Sunshine and daydream. I suppose my mother would have read the postcard to me. Right now, I’m wishing I could hear again my mother’s voice, reading what my grandmother had written.
When I found the image, on the California Zephyr Museum postcard gallery page, I was immediately sure it was the exact one, and immediately surprised. Rather than a restful horizontal image of peaceful horizons, the image has a vertical orientation. Which seemed to explain a lot. The image shoots skyward, a challenging look from below, up very steep slopes. Near the tree line, the tunnel entrance is swallowing the engines of the westbound train. Looking at it, you feel like you are just about to begin falling, that you have just stepped backward off the mountain. You have fallen off or been left behind by the train, the dream is leaving you behind, it is going back, into the underground. You feel like you weren’t ever quite there, and “there” is already gone. You feel your existence as thin as the postcard feels. Like you barely exist, your name is written in someone else’s hand, and that someone isn’t here anymore.
It’s time to mention my grandmother’s father, the great-grandfather, who was arrested on conspiracy to commit murder charges. It is here that this sensational detail of family history threatens to pull this whole essay down its own tunnel, a line of thought bent on its own wrecking, so keep in mind that the problem with the postcard is that the train is disappearing. You, the viewer, holding the postcard in your grubby little fingers, are left behind. You can’t read what’s written on it, and anyway, that’s the last car you see there, the one with the vista dome on top. Somewhere, inside the deep belly of the lightless mountain, in the year 1963, your grandmother, with her wonderful soft voice and French toast she made for you once for Sunday breakfast on the terrace, is sitting absolutely still, rushing pell-mell through an oblivion of echoes and thundering wheels.
In addition to the postcard, my grandmother gave me a maple wood dresser, and a mirror that I hang in my office, which for twenty-five years I have positioned so I can see, on an angle, past the recessed edge of my south-facing window, west, toward where Rock Island is. I can stand, gazing at an angle into the mirror, and imagine I am watching the past fall, rushing away behind me, farther and farther into the murky distance. My grandmother also gave me a handful of stock, shares in the insurance company that my great-grandfather, along with a half a dozen other downtown businessmen and co-murder-conspirators, founded. They wrote coverage for the coal companies who dug the strip mines around Geneseo and up the Rock River valley toward Oswego. You can see to this day from Interstate 80 the slag piles out there, they were still orange-ish with oxidation, rusty-looking hills, when we were little, in 1963. They have grass on them now. Also, my grandmother gave me two deep sorrows. The haunted space in my life where with my grandfather and I used to go hunting. And her own aging. It included a terrible fall on a sunshiny walk when she was in her eighties, when she broke some teeth and shattered her lip. A stroke some years later. The morning the hospital called my mom to come. We had been getting breakfast, coffee, and the phone rang. My mom was telling me how the smell of the coffee, and the French toast cooking in the electric frying pan, reminded her of mornings when she was a little girl. My grandmother, although I was sure that she would, right in front of us, when a few minutes following the call we got to the hospital that morning, didn’t die. “Come on!” my mother had turned, urging me more quickly along the dim corridor toward where the hospital room’s huge door stood, swung wide open. Not without speech, but without the musical control to make words, but not without the feeling: my grandmother’s mouth moved, and from her throat, a sound in three beats: I love you. She died at home. Preparations for care had been made, and they had moved her comfortably back to her own room. I was back at work in Cleveland. I don’t remember her funeral. I think I didn’t go. (I didn’t.) When we buried my dad in 2007, I think I saw for the first time my grandmother’s grave.
Every fact is a tunnel, opening. A black hole. Sink or swim, the fact is, I threw the postcard away. I did it with fascination. Fascination comes from a very old verb that meant “to bewitch” in Middle French, and the verb’s root originated in a noun that meant “charm,” or “enchantment,” or “spell,” such as that could render one unable to move or to resist. A what-will-happen-now, open-eyed curiosity. A kind of dissociation. Actually, I threw the postcard away to break the spell. Once, I explained to my wife in a conversation that made me freshly understand something about my life, I realized there’s a part of me I think of as the inner teenage vandal. He’s the one who throws the postcard away, the same way he gets in the strange man’s Bronco in the rain in the near dark on the beach at Padre Island. The same way he tilted the tumbler of vodka, pouring it down his throat. The same way he shot a smooth round river stone the size of a golf ball through the plate glass window of the old woman’s house, who lived at the end of the street, who yelled once, feebly, about not letting the dog run through her yard. The same one who rolls the car window down to make everything louder on the interstate going almost the same speed as his joy one spring when he felt he could reach his hand through time into the sunspot glare shooting from the chrome hubcaps of eighteen-wheelers and rub the glare like sparking sharps, slivers, deep into his eyes. The same one who wants to sleep in the arms of his grandfather, even while his grandfather whispers in his ear, “Fritzee, I’m dead. Wake up.”
It wasn’t Nixon I was sad about. It wasn’t the ruination of the presidency. Watergate makes me sad because I loved my grandfather, and in 1973 my grandfather was dying. Sam Ervin on TV could have been my grandfather. Watching the telecast of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, when John Dean testified, I saw my grandfather, a huddle of shame and bones in loose pajamas. Slumped in a fetal curl in his wheelchair, the day nurse looming over him, he sobbed and mumbled. My grandmother hiding, quaking in fear, around the corner in the kitchen. “I was s-scared,” he stuttered. “I c-couldn’t breathe,” his voice cracking. The nurse was a woman who had curly brown hair, a large and kindly featured face, and of all the nurses who cared for my grandfather that summer, I’d seen her the most often, and she was the friendliest. The cancer had got into the bones, the marrow. His blood wasn’t holding oxygen? He’d begun to have seizures? For years, I would hear John Dean, a voice on the radio, and see my grandfather trembling under the oxygen mask. With the sick feeling, I held my stomach. My sister asked me what the matter was and did my stomach hurt. No, I told her. Which, because it was mostly true, was the sort of lie that can plunge you so deep and far into the dark that you can’t see out of it, or find its end. “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Howard Baker asked. The conspiracy was, no one had told me my grandfather would not get better. No one had mentioned he was dying.
The coolest thing I ever saw my grandfather do happened in early September, right around the time of year when he died. It was afternoon and a scorching, still day, it was still summer, although school had started, and it was hot, so the teachers had pulled all the windows open, and the kids in their desks in their classrooms could hear the rest of the world going by, which sometimes sounded like long, far stretches of quiet, with little sounds, elsewhere, floating over the playground fence and drifting like dream trains past the windows. Where I stood next to my grandfather, who had taken me out of school, a field of soy beans drooped in the withering sun, and a very slow current of creeping, brown water sloughed through the woods. Outside all day, drinking cans of Coca Cola, hot in the sun, my head ached. We were getting ready to drive home, up the long hill leaving the bottomland, then the straight shot up Route 67 through Rushville to Roseville, Industry to Good Hope, Macomb to Monmouth, Viola, the turn-off to Dog Town, then Milan, then the bridges, over the Hennepin Canal, and the, count them, one, two, three channels of the Rock River, the third of which is where a girl in high school in the seventies crashed her car off, into the water. Later, we could see where the car had punched through the railing. She was driving home from school. The car hit the water and tunneled straight down, sinking so that—as I picture it—only one taillight could be seen, just under the surface. My grandfather stood in a tunnel of shadow under a mulberry tree. He was holding his hunting hat upside down in his hands. When I walked up to him, he tipped the hat toward me. In a nest of dry grass I saw feathers. The feathers moved and I saw baby birds, bobwhite quail. “Grab the box,” my grandfather said. I opened the lid of the box—a carton for 20-gauge shotgun shells, which I emptied into my pockets. He lifted the baby birds into the box and closing the lid lightly, put his hat on his head. The water creeping under the trees in the woods at our backs, that was the money that was making this small country miracle possible, slowly running out. Years later, but not too many years, a terrible and stupid disaster would kill a man up the road from where I stood, sweating. Patching a fuel tank, a farmer neglected to consider what would happen when the heat from the torch he was using to weld on the patch ignited the fumes in the tank. When the fumes exploded, the tank blew apart. The man’s eldest son had been on the scene, but there was nothing anyone could have done. Where I stood, sweating, handing the carton of baby quails back to my grandfather, that spark was a tiny pinprick of light, deep in the dark of the future, the explosion still just a faint flicker, a vibration from far down the rails, a rumble deep in ballast, in the roadbed of time. I watched my grandfather fiddle the carton into his left hand and draw between the second and third fingers of his right, the pack of cigarettes from the chest pocket of his hunting vest. He tapped it against the back of his left hand, and a cigarette slid loose, which he drew forth, holding it between his lips. He slid the pack back in the vest pocket. I could see my dad walking the corner at the far end of the field, slowly but purposefully, headed our way. I heard the “clink” of my grandfather’s lighter and the “click” when he snapped it shut. I loved to watch him smoke. He jetted two streams of smoke from his nose. He loved to smoke. More smoke from his mouth. The sun was pretty far over the end of the field. My father walked up, looked at us. “How’d you do?” he asks. “Pulled some feathers,” I said. I read in a copy of a Sports Afield at the barber shop that the mourning dove can fly sixty miles an hour and its “twisting, rapid flight” makes it a difficult target. We managed to keep those baby quail alive—they were a gift from my grandfather to his daughter—long enough for them to grow out their wing feathers. Eventually, one got caught and killed by our dog. One died when the old, wooden-frame storm window screen, which we used as a cover on the pen where we kept them, made from the very old playpen that my grandmother had used when her babies were little, slipped and fell on it. One flew away. I remember thinking I heard it, somewhere across our yard. Several evenings after it disappeared, I’d go out, listening, scuffling around in the weedy euonymus, and peering through the little tangles of branches of the amur maple trees burning the last waves of red from their leaves.
What makes it kind of hard to know for a fact where anyone actually is, is “particles can be two places at once…because the universe itself splits into parallel realities at the moment of measurement, one universe for each particle location—and thus an infinite number of ever splitting parallel versions of the universe [and of us] are all evolving alongside one another,” says Adam Frank, in “Cracking the Quantum Safe.” But. I mean. What else is there. To do, I mean. But, try?
Caleb’s friend on the internet tells him about cosmology. Caleb tells us. We’re working, in the kitchen, as families sometimes will. The preparing of food, its small, celebratory consumption, the putting away of the cleaned things. Astride a corner of the counter, like Xiao Dre in The Karate Kid, Caleb says that every one of us is entirely alone. Our perceptions are entirely, uniquely ours and no one, because—and this seems to be the huge part of Caleb’s friend, Mike, on the internet, his argument—because none of our nervous systems are connected and none of our nerves is shared by someone else, our experience of perception, our living in the universe, is entirely ours, alone. No one knows what it’s like to be us. Look, my great-grandfather and some of his downtown business friends were arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, yes, by the crooked police chief of Rock Island, who was in the pocket of the well-known mobster, last name of Looney, who Sam Mendes made a movie about, it was called The Road to Perdition, it starred Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, and they didn’t shoot it in Rock Island, because Rock Island evidently didn’t look enough like Rock Island as they imagined Rock Island, so while John Patrick Looney was in reality a gangster in Rock Island who ran brothels and speakeasies, the movie, a story about a gangster named John Rooney, was shot in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, the internet says, and in Geneva, Illinois, and maybe in Evanston, and in Los Angeles, California, while for sure, my great-grandfather and a couple of his downtown business friends, sometime in the early 1920s, had a meeting in which they discussed how to have John Patrick Looney and his gangster son, Connor, murdered. The Rock Island police chief, the crooked one, widely understood and openly acknowledged as an integral figure in John Looney’s wide-ranging vice operations, Chief Tom Cox, who might also be a relative, ordered the arrest. Anyway, Looney started out as a lawyer, he got into vice and his notorious life of crime of bootlegging, pimping, gambling and racketeering, through the prostitutes he represented. No one knows who most of the prostitutes were. They most certainly have family, whether in the area, or anywhere. The insurance business was known as the Cleaveland Agency. It is still there in the phone book. You can look it up.
So Caleb was saying our experience of perception is entirely our own and he lets this, the spear-point of his argument, land—chunk!—in the butcher block cutting board that is our conversation. He goes on: How, then, do we connect up all of our separate, unique perceptions, fact upon fact, into a train, into any kind of agreement? The example he used was color. There is no possible way to explain the color “red” to someone so they will know—know?—see?—red. There is no way to “explain” red. The irreducible divisibility. Somehow, this factotum related next to a visual exercise, which involved picking hidden numbers out of mosaic fields of color-tones. A hidden 5. A hidden 7. Caleb could see a hidden 3 in one mosaic. Helen couldn’t see any numbers in any of them. And there was no way we could “explain” them into her seeing.
From some lines in Amplitude, by Tess Gallagher:
The stars have not moved since before you were born, Father.
That I never called you “Father” my whole life should not
matter now. A mile above me a train
drifts out the Moffat Tunnel. It is 1956 everywhere
except in the stars, and you are riding home from the Army.
On this shore out over the Gulf last night they counted
me down, the stars, to the edge of the water, and caused me to think you
near, to look for you in the dark, the ocean going on it would seem forever.
An exponential decay of distance, the hummingbirds ride the warm fronts north. From Guatemala, young men ride north through the warm nights on the roofs of boxcars. A hummingbird, says my son, weighs less than a penny. He is holding the carcass of one in one hand, the red of its throat talking to the burnished image of Lincoln on the penny that he holds in the other. We spend, he says, two years of our lives on telephones. No one can really know what it’s like to be us. Calling home to Rock Island, to Guatemala City, to anywhere from anywhere, north of any train ride, must always feel a little strange. That close distance. That last gap. What have I got to feel sorry for myself about? Out the 18th floor window I can see all the way to Independence, Ohio, where a cluster of cell phone towers stands, their strobe lights flashing. Like acupuncture needles, they plectrum the invisible meridians in the air. Caleb holds the hummingbird, the penny. Arms out, scaling. Feeling their distinct weights in his own body. Curious, not attached to results. What’s the postage, God? How far over their borders do our souls travel? Boxcars string north, a music of wheels, rolling, rolling. Steel on steel, the prototype of love was a hummingbird. The prototype of a bird was distance. The prototype of distance was a song, and the prototype of the electric guitar was made by Les Paul, from a section of steel rail, which held Oaxacan sunlight racing like forever along its top.
Ted Lardner's work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Cleaver, Blue Fifth Quarterly, One, and Arsenic Lobster. His most recent chapbook is We Practice For It (Tupelo 2014). He teaches writing and literature at Cleveland State University.