Thursday, July 26, 2012

Carolin Combs: "Inheritance"

by C.J. Combs

            Grandfather was a tall, beaky man with translucent skin whose preferred costume was a dinner jacket and white tie.  He refused to call it a tuxedo.  "Tuxedo is a place," he would snarl.  Mother always said that he felt most like a man in his evening clothes.  She didn't say what he felt like the rest of the time.
            I have a snapshot of my grandparents taken sometime in the lost twenties.  It was a dancing evening, maybe a private ball. Grandmother looks like a Reubens portrait in her glowing satin dress.  The camera captures the contrast between Grandfather's purposeful dark eyes, brooding under a heavy brow, and the glowing pearl studs down his front.
            Grandfather became a rich man in the Yankee tradition: he inherited a lot of money.  Black Friday didn't make him poor, but he took it as a personal insult.  The strain wore on him.  He dressed for the office as usual each morning, singing to himself as he danced alone before a full-length mirror.  But then he might suddenly change his mind midway through and dress for golf instead.  He took to wandering Park Avenue in his golf knickers and house slippers, grasping the lapels of passersby and mumbling rude slogans about Jewish bankers.  The family knew something was wrong because Grandfather was a fastidious man and would not wear his golf clothes in town.
            They found a private asylum on Long Island with a bland, tranquil name that suggested a holiday destination.  Grandfather went along without evident distress.  His condition and location were never mentioned in public.
            Years later, Mother would tuck a stray hair into her chignon and wistfully say that they all missed the Depression.  She spoke as if it were a cotillion for which she had not received an invitation, or a long, slow train, pulling out of Grand Central, leaving them waving from the platform.  Except for Grandfather's absence, life went on as usual.  The maids lived in, the silver was polished, and the family decamped to the Adirondack lodge each July.
            Mother visited Grandfather regularly with treats from the Swedish bakery and neighborhood gossip.  She remarked that he was improving his mind.
            "That's the point, isn't it?" said Pearson, whisky at his elbow, his face frozen in concentration as he buffed his nails.  "I mean, we're paying them all that money to improve his mind."
            "No, silly, he's studying.  Brushing up on his German.  He's awfully keen on languages at the moment."
            Grandmother pulled a linen handkerchief from her sleeve and fanned herself slowly. "Ah, Berlin," she reminisced to herself.  "'21, wasn't it?  And Leipzig.  All very nice.  He liked the naked ladies best, you know."
            Mother and Pearson looked at each other.  Grandmother was probably dotty too, but they couldn't see having both parents in the asylum.
            "He's asked me to bring him some German books from his library.  He gave me a list."  Mother showed it to Pearson.  "Do you think those are all right?  They won't excite him, will they?"
            Pearson held the list over his head so he could read it with his head tilted fully back as he drained the last vapors from his glass.
            "Nietzsche, Goethe, Mann; sounds like a pork butchers' club if you ask me."

            Grandfather's fascination with Hitler dated to sometime in '37, when he suddenly demanded a copy of Mein Kampf.  He had read about it in some foreign newspaper and insisted that he must have it.  Mother conveyed the order to Pearson and they looked at each other hopelessly.  In what may have been the first and last bright idea of his life, Pearson ran to Schweim the butcher and bought his copy.  Schweim noted his approval by throwing in a package of liver sausage.
            Grandfather, in his not-quite-sane condition, was delighted to find a thinker like himself in Herr Hitler.  He hated the New Dealers like the spawn of Satan, and supported anyone that Roosevelt was against.  He began to write friendly letters to Hitler from the asylum.  Most of them never went any further than the staff room at the asylum.
            His one-sided correspondence went unremarked until the FBI came calling, sometime early in the war.
            "Oafish little men," Mother said.
            Someone at the asylum thought Grandfather was a spy.  The G-men waved a stack of Grandfather's recent letters at Mother, who assured them that her father was certainly insane, probably battier than Herr Hitler’s entire staff, and no threat to anyone’s war effort.
            "Father has gone quite off the deep end," she reported to Grandmother, "and it's a good thing that Hitler fellow never wrote back."
            The whole episode might have languished in family history if Mother hadn't been the one to empty Grandfather's room after he died.  She brought his books and papers home and left them in the library, where I found them.  I spent many snowy afternoons of childhood in the library, nestled among tapestry-covered pillows, turning the pages of books I couldn't read.  There was an illustrated Dickens that I never tired of, and a tiny edition of Jane Eyre with delicate line drawings.  I don't know how I came upon the shelf of Grandfather's books, but I returned to them again and again.
            I loved Mein Kampf because opening it called forth all the smells of Grandfather. Imbedded in the pages were his good Havanas, the cologne that reminded me of marzipan-covered fruitcake, and his lightly citrus hair oil, bought from an Italian barber on Staten Island.  The black, gothic script was sharp and unfaded.
            When I began to study German at school, I moved Grandfather's books into my bedroom, hoping that their proximity to my head would cause their contents to seep into my brain during the night.
            My father, who was none too impressed with the level of sanity in my mother's family, watched doubtfully as I pored over Mein Kampf at the breakfast table.  Hitler might have been my grandfather's imaginary pen pal, but he was my father's blood enemy.  His memories of North Africa were still fresh.
            "He's only a boy, dear.  He'll tire of it," was Mother's soothing explanation.
            "I suppose we should be glad your father didn't write to Stalin," Father observed archly.
            A group of us at school formed a secret Hitler fan club.  We delighted in shocking adults by decorating things with swastikas.  This activity was much more interesting than the pursuit of girls to shy and sheltered boys like us.  In the rarefied atmosphere of a sedate and expensive school, it was about the naughtiest thing we could do.
            Piggy, the janitor, finally caught Ted and me drawing swastikas on the bathroom wall.  Piggy was a large, red-faced man with a booming voice and a southern drawl whose belly overhung his belt like a bowling ball in a sack.  He was angry.  He scowled at us and his color deepened.  We dropped our markers in panic.  He yanked us by the belts and marched us to the Headmaster, who gave us detention and said that notes would be sent to our parents.
            We served our detention by following Piggy on his rounds.  He made us wash chalkboards, sweep, and empty wastebaskets in the classrooms.  Our larger trial lay ahead.  We followed him into the bathroom.
            "Swab the head," he growled.
            "Excuse me?" Ted answered.
            "Wash the toilets."
            Ted drew the line there.
            "Absolutely not," he said, his voice breaking.  "My parents would be extremely angry."
            Before he could finish, Piggy picked him up and dunked him headfirst into the nearest toilet.  I nearly wet my trousers in sympathetic dread.  Ted's hair dripped onto his shirt.
            "You'll scrub 'em with your tongue if I say so.  Now git a move on."
            We scrubbed in terrified silence.  Piggy leaned against the wall, picking his teeth with a penknife.  When we finished, he motioned us to follow him to his home in the basement.
            Piggy lived at the school in a large room beside the boiler.  There were no sexy pinups on his walls; only a saccharine pastel print of Jesus with the children.  He had an iron cot, a radio, a hot plate, and a table.  He pulled a heavy footlocker into the middle of the room.
            "Boys, there's something I want to show you," he growled.  He sat on the cot with a wooden box in his lap.  Inside, several ribboned medals nestled on a piece of velvet.  Ted's eyes widened and he drew in a whistle.
            "What did you get those for?" he asked in admiration.
            Piggy looked into the distance and grinned serenely.
            "Killin' Nazis."
            Ted forgot about our club.  "Wow!  How many?"
            Piggy shrugged.  "Maybe a hundred.  Maybe more."
            Ted and I looked at each other.  Piggy snapped the box shut and we jumped out of our skins.  His serene grin was gone.
            "Killin' one or two more wouldn't bother me," he said softly.
            Well, that was the end of the club.  Mein Kampf went back on the shelf.  We took an interest in girls.  Ted joined the Air Force.  I have a normal life and my share of the inheritance.  I put Grandfather's obsessions behind me.
            But there are times...evenings when the house is quiet and I'm alone in front of the TV with a smoky scotch, I'll flip past a black and white war movie with strong-jawed Nazis in black coats and damned if I don’t get the faintest frisson of sweet nostalgia.  I suppose that sensation comes to other men from having been Boy Scouts.
            It never lasts more than the blink of an eye because I know that there are men out there, men my father's age who may be mailmen or bartenders or cab drivers, men who lead ordinary lives; men it wouldn't bother to kill one or two more.

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