Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Typewriter Downstairs

  

  

Richard knew the rattle was just a woodpecker in the trees behind the barn. At least, at first he knew. Then the lightning flashed and the thunder blasted and he was along the Rhine again. He dropped to the floor.

 

 

 

The fire splattered all around us. The German mortars came next, dropping closer and closer. I pawed the earth, digging with my hands. Digging and digging. Then a round fell near the squad and the screaming began. My own men, screaming. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t set up the mortar, I couldn’t look toward the screaming men.  More than anything, I wanted to run. Run and run and run.

 

Later, between the barn and the house, Richard draped a grain bag over the milk pail to keep the rain out. The rain drummed his back and shoulders and plopped into the puddles along the dirt path—dozens of tiny craters in the water, splashing back at him. When he got to the porch, he set the pail of milk in the cooler and stepped into the kitchen.

 

Pork chops. The house was full of the smell of frying pork chops. Carolyn, reading the latest installment of her correspondence course, stirred gravy in the pan. She didn’t look up.

 

Andy sat at the dining room table, poring over his homework. Sissy ran the circle from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room and back to the kitchen, chanting, “Poohsticks, poohsticks, stuck under the bridge. Poohsticks, poohsticks, stuck under the bridge.”

 

Richard said, “What’s she doing? What’s that mean?”

 

Carolyn looked up. “It’s okay. She’s just tired.”

 

“She’s not making sense.” He opened the cupboard and poured two fingers of whiskey into a tumbler. After he’d emptied the glass and set it on the counter, Carolyn turned from the stove. “Are you okay? You’re all dirty. What happened?”

 

He looked down, saw the straw and grain and dirt clinging to the front of his coat. He stepped toward the porch again. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing happened.”

 

Outside again, on the porch steps, he brushed his coat and pants. The whiskey began warming his stomach, and he was able to relax a bit. He watched the rain softly drumming the lawn beyond the eaves. He breathed in the smell of the rain. It was clean, so clean. The thunderstorm had passed, already. Now there was just the soft rain, and the wind whispering in the trees. Like the wind in Europe, in the trees above his foxhole. He’d looked up at the trees one night and felt closer to home. Wind in the trees—it’s the same everywhere.

 

That was one of the good memories. You can block out the bad stuff if you remember the good stuff, he thought. The good—the early stuff.

 

* * *

 

Carolyn opened the door and Richard jumped. “Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” He looked back and up at her. His hands were fists. She watched him shake the fists away. She said, “Are you coming in?”

 

“Yes. Of course.”

 

She held the door open. He followed her into the house. She said, “Are you okay, Richard? Is anything wrong?”

 

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I’m just getting some air. Is that okay with you? That I get some air?”

 

“I’m sorry, Richard. It’s okay. I was just concerned.” And now she truly was worried. Something was wrong—again. It was happening again.

 

She watched Richard at the dinner table. He was talking with the kids. His face was flushed, his speech a little slurred. But she could tell he was making an effort. He was trying to be cheerful.

 

He asked Andy, “So what’s the Latest News From The Seventh Grade?”

 

“We’re studying satellites,” said Andy. “And Sputnik.”

 

“Spoot-nick,” said Sissy. “Spoot-nick, Spoot-nick, Spoot-nick.”

 

Andy scowled. Richard smiled at Sissy. “You don’t like Sputnik?”

 

“I’m sick and tired of Spoot-nick.” She made an “O” with her mouth. “Spoooot-nick.”

 

Andy said, “You don’t know anything about it.”

 

“Do too. That’s why I’m sick of it. That’s all anyone talks about. Spoot-nick this, Spoot-nick that.”

 

Carolyn could see a fight coming. She cleared her throat. “Would anyone like to hear The Latest News From Mom’s Correspondence Course?”

 

Everyone looked at her. No one said yes.

 

“Well,” she said. She cleared her throat. “My assignment this week is to write one paragraph without punctuation that describes an emergency in progress.”

 

Sissy laughed. She made a cylinder out of her hand and pressed it against her mouth. “Amergency in progress,” she droned. “Amergency in progress.” She laughed again and threw her arms into the air. Her right arm caught her water glass. It hit the floor and shattered.

 

Richard ducked his head. Then he yelled and jumped up. “Clumsy,” he shouted. “Damned clumsy.” He stormed from the table. The door to the back porch opened and slammed shut. Sissy wailed, “It was a accident, Mom. A accident.”

 

Carolyn touched her arm. “I know, darling. Don’t cry, now. We’ll clean everything up. It’ll be fine. It’s not your fault.”

 

“Daddy thinks it is.”

 

Andy pushed himself back from the table. “I finished my plate. May I be excused?”

 

Carolyn nodded to Andy. He took his plate to the kitchen, then ran up the stairs to his room.

 

“It’s not your fault, Sissy.” Carolyn brought a dustpan and dishtowels from the kitchen. She began picking the glass off the floor. “Daddy’s just not feeling good right now.”

 

“Is he sick?”

 

“I don’t know. But don’t ask him about it. Okay, Sissy?”

 

“Don’t ask him?”

 

“Don’t say anything.”

 

Sissy said, “May I be excused like Andy?”

 

“You didn’t finish your dinner like Andy.”

 

“I think I don’t feel good—like Daddy.”

 

Carolyn kissed her forehead. “Maybe you can eat some more later. I’ll leave your plate in the oven.”

 

As soon as Sissy left the table—to play with her dolls by the oil heater in the living room—Richard came in from the back porch. He stopped in the kitchen to pour more whiskey. He sat at the table. He said, “The kids left already?”

 

“Richard. Maybe you’ve been working too hard. You work all day downtown, then you come home and do chores.”

 

“I’m not working too hard.”

 

“What is it, then?”

 

“I’m not feeling good.”

 

She looked at him, but didn’t speak.

 

He said, “Okay. I’m sorry I yelled at Sissy.”

 

“What is it, Richard, if it’s not the work?”

 

“Thanks for making dinner,” he said. “You know pork chops are my favorite.”

 

“Richard. Tell me. Please.”

 

He drank from his glass. “I don’t feel good. That’s all. Sometimes you don’t feel good. Do I nag you about it?”

 

“Do you think you should make an appointment with Dr. Wheelwright?”

 

His eyes flashed. “I’m not sick. I told you.”

 

She sat still. She looked at her plate. After Richard began eating, she looked up at him. “Is it me, Richard? Am I doing something wrong?”

 

“Chrissakes, Carolyn. It’s not you, it’s not the kids, it’s not my work. I have everything I always wanted—a family, a farm, a wife.” He drank again. “Can’t we just eat dinner? I want to eat dinner.”

 

Carolyn tried to eat. Everything was cold. Specks of fat had coagulated in the gravy. She took a bite of mashed potatoes from the edge, from a part the gravy hadn’t touched. Her stomach was sour. She sighed, rose from her chair, and carried the plates and the dishes of food into the kitchen.

 

She ran soap and hot water into the sink and began washing the dishes. The worst part was not knowing why—what made him act this way. If she knew why, maybe she could predict it, maybe she could know what to do—or not do. Maybe she could control it.

 

 

 

Later, she sat in the living room on the couch next to Richard, waiting for Lucy to start. Sissy sat to the left of Richard, Andy to Carolyn’s right. Carolyn glanced at Richard: he seemed better now. He had his arm over Sissy’s shoulder. He said to Andy, “I still want to hear about Sputnik.”

 

Sissy said, “Oh no. Not Spoot-nick.”

 

“But first,” said Richard. “I’ll have to tickle your sister so she won’t notice we’re talking about Spoooot-nick.” He poked a finger into her ribs and she giggled. Then he covered her ears with his hands. “Or maybe this would work better.”

 

Sissy pulled Richard’s hands away. “It’s okay, Daddy. I was only kidding about it. I really don’t hate Sputnik.”

 

Andy said, “It’s about two hundred miles up, it goes twenty thousand miles an hour, just enough to escape the Earth’s gravity but not enough to fly out into space, and it takes ninety-six minutes to make a complete orbit. It has two transmitters, one that operates at twenty megacycles and one at forty, and it weighs 184 pounds.”

 

“And,” said Sissy, “It’s Roosian.”

 

“That’s right, but we’re gonna have one soon,” said Andy. “Real soon. And ours will be better.”

 

At that moment, I Love Lucy began. To Carolyn, everything seemed okay, again. She wanted to write this into a story. She wanted to save it and make it a part of a story with a happy ending. But mostly, she just wanted to write it—to save it, to keep it. Keep everything the way it was, right now.

 

 

 

As soon as Lucy ended, Richard told the kids it was bedtime. As usual, Sissy whined and begged for more time. Andy left without a word. “See?” said Richard. “Andy goes to bed at bedtime.”

 

Sissy said, “Because he doesn’t go to bed. When he gets upstairs, he’s going to read. He reads all the time.”

 

“How about if you go up to bed and snuggle with your doll a minute, then I’ll come and read you a story?”

 

When the shuffling and footsteps upstairs settled, Carolyn said, “You’re a good father.”

 

“I’m not,” said Richard.

 

“You are,” she said, hoping more than knowing it was true. “You are.” She smiled. “I have a few things to finish down here. How about if you go to bed and then I come and you snuggle me?”

 

* * *

 

Richard peeked in the door. Sissy’s eyes were closed. She breathed quietly, her chin next to her doll’s head. He stood a moment, watching her, then he stepped back and—part of the nightly ritual—said, “I guess she’s asleep already. Oh well.” She opened one eye. “Tricked you. Tricked you,” she said.

 

He sat on the bed, his leg above the covers, touching the bottoms of her feet below the covers. He pulled a book from the shelf. He said, “Poohsticks, I assume?”

 

“Poohsticks,” she said.

 

Whenever they visited the park downtown, Sissy had to play Poohsticks. And each time, she had to explain the game to him: “See, you drop the stick on this side. It goes under the bridge through the scary, dark part. And you hope everything’s okay under there.” She would run to the opposite side. “Then you see: there’s the stick. And everything’s okay. At first, it doesn’t seem like everything’s okay, but it is.”

 

Richard opened the book. As soon as he read the first line, Sissy interrupted: “Are you okay now, Daddy?”

 

“Okay?”

 

“You weren’t feeling good at dinner.”

 

“I’m fine, Sissy,” he said. “Sometimes I’m just a cranky old man. I’m working on not being a cranky old man.” He smiled at her, but she wouldn’t stop scowling. He began to read again.

 

She interrupted him. “It’s not a silly thing, you know.”

 

“What’s not a silly thing, Sissy?”

 

“Poohsticks.”

 

“It’s not?”

 

“It’s very serious, you know. And real.”

 

This was not part of the nightly ritual. Richard said, “I’m sure you’re right.” He waited. She closed her eyes, and he began reading again.

 

“A course,” she said. “It’s silly, too.”

 

He put the book down. “How do you mean that, Sissy?”

 

“When it doesn’t say something, it says something. And when it says something, it doesn’t.” Her eyes stayed closed. She’d begun to breathe again calmly, shallowly.

 

Richard said, “Sissy?” But then he felt a small shudder, her feet against his leg, and knew that she was sleeping. He read another page, more for himself than for her—looking for an explanation of what she’d said. Then he arose quietly, turned out the light, and tip-toed from the room.

 

 

 

Andy sat propped on pillows at the head of his bed, reading. Richard said, “Let me guess. Rockets, right?”

 

The boy lowered the book to his knees. “About Robert Goddard,” he said. “And how the United States ignored him, but Hitler didn’t. Later, Germany built V1 and V2 rockets in the war. Did you see any of those during the war?”

 

Richard winced as the sight of the rockets flashed in his mind. But that was part of the early stuff, the good stuff. He shrugged his shoulders. “Sure. In France, they went over us.”

 

At first, I was pulling supplies off the landing craft and driving them inland toward the front. One night I looked up and saw this red plume, heading west, pulsing like Mom’s old washing machine. My partner looked up, too. “V1,” he said. “Be glad you’re not in London, tonight, pal.”

 

 

 

Richard said, “I bet you’ve read every book in the library about rockets.”

 

“Almost,” said Andy. “But there aren’t that many in our library.”

 

“Then I guess you’ll have to write some. A lot of people want to know about rockets, these days.”

 

“I want to work in the space program, Dad. I want to go to Cape Canaveral and work on rockets and space ships, anything related to rockets. I want to be close to what’s happening there.”

 

“You can do that, son. You always get good grades in school. By the time you get to college, they’ll probably give degrees in rocketry.”

 

“I can’t wait that long—all the way through college.”

 

Richard said, “I know how you feel. I was impatient when I was your age. But you have time, you know. When you’re eighteen . . .”

 

“I can join the Army at seventeen,” said the boy. “If you sign for me. Or the Air Force. They’ll probably have rocket specialties by then. I could enlist for rockets. I wouldn’t need to go to college.”

 

Just then, the lights flickered. Somewhere, the storm was still strong enough to threaten electric lines. The lights blinked off and on three times—one second on, one second off. Each time they came on, in that second of light Richard saw a snapshot of his son—a picture of someone he didn’t know.

 

Every change in his son, from infancy onward, had surprised him. He supposed this was a normal thing for parents to experience, but each time it happened to him it caught him off guard. One day you notice something new in your child, something that wasn’t there before. Maybe you notice that he moves differently today—stronger, more confidently—or he talks differently—a new word, a new way of gesturing. Or later, maybe, he develops an interest in something you were never interested in, like science, or drawing. Or rockets. And suddenly—for a moment or two—your kid has become a stranger.

 

After the lights flashed the second time, Richard saw one of the boys who stood beside the road in Germany.

 

We were in convoy, packed into trucks, rushing toward the front. I was a replacement, hadn’t seen combat yet. These two German kids waved as we passed. They were twelve, maybe thirteen years old. The GI next to me said, “I wonder where they hid their uniforms.” Another GI said, “Or their weapons.” I said, “Weapons? They’re just kids.” Everyone in the truck laughed at me.

 

 

 

The lights came on and stayed on. Suddenly, Richard had to stand. His voice shook. He said, “Goodnight, my son,” and hurried out of the bedroom. He pulled the door closed behind him and stood outside the door, clenching and un-clenching his teeth. The good stuff. The early stuff. You have to remember the good stuff.

 

It took awhile before he could get ready for the shower.

 

* * *

 

Carolyn’s typewriter, on the desk in the pantry, seemed to call her. She left the dishes in the sink, switched on the pantry light, and pulled a chair to the typewriter. The correspondence course booklet lay open beside the typewriter: She read again, “Write a paragraph without punctuation . . .” She pulled her dictionary from the shelf above the typewriter and found the definition for emergency. She closed the dictionary, stared at the keys a moment, and began:

 

The tsunami it’s coming run here it comes over the seawall the boats with it and now trees and trucks and parts of buildings and it’s right behind us it’s going to get us it’s going to get us climb that tree climb those stairs climb

 

She looked up. She could hear Richard moving around upstairs. The ceiling below Sissy’s room squeaked, then Sissy’s bedsprings squeaked. Carolyn turned back to the typewriter.

 

Richard the brakes put on the brakes slow down I’m trying but the brakes are out this hill this hill it’s steep Richard there’s a curve at the bottom Richard there’s a curve at the bottom the trees flying past we’re going to crash we’re going to crash . . .

 

She heard Richard again, moving upstairs, this time into Andy’s room. The lights flickered. They went off and on three times. She waited until the lights stayed on. Then she heard the water in the shower, upstairs.

 

She ripped the paper from the carriage and wadded it into a ball and threw it into the waste basket. She drummed her fingers on the desk. She rolled another sheet of paper into the carriage. She typed

 

Emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency emergency

 

 

 

* * *

 

Richard shut off the shower just as the hot water began to fade. Soon, he would have to get a bigger water heaterespecially with Sissy getting bigger, taking longer baths. Kids get older, take Marathon baths. Andy was already doing that. Maybe just a second water heater upstairs, in the hall closet. How much pipe would it take?

 

He toweled off, calculating the cost of pipe and fittings, how much time it would take, where he would route the pipes. He shaved, splashed the aftershave, and tried to remember where he’d stored the pipe wrenches. On the way down the hall he paused to listen at Andy’s, then at Sissy’s, door. He could hear their steady breathing.

 

He smiled: My kids. In this house I provide. They ride the bicycles I fix for them, play on the swings I build for them. My kids.

 

He stopped to open the hall closet. He pushed the hangers aside. There would be only enough room for a small water heater, but a small one should do it. Maybe twenty gallons. He closed the door.

 

He stepped to the head of the stairs and leaned over the banister. He called, “I’m out of the shower.” Then, in the bedroom, he dropped his towel at the foot of the bed and slipped naked between the cool sheets.

 

Carolyn’s typewriter clickity-clacked downstairs. Richard propped his head on a pillow. He reached to the bedstand for his Mechanix magazine. The typewriter stopped clacking, started again, stopped, then started again for a long stretch, like bursts of automatic fire.

 

Richard lay on his back and pictured Carolyn sitting before the Underwood. She could think at the typewriter while she typed. Amazing. Effortlessly, words in her brain seemed to go to her fingers, find the right keys—and come out, words on paper. The short bursts must be short sentences. Then she gets inspired: a long burst for a long sentence. Then a short burst, then another long one.

 

I always thought the German countryside was like the countryside back home: small farms, plain working people. The civilians were clean people, with ruddy, fresh-air faces. They disappeared when the Army came through, then reappeared out of nowhere after the fighting, to start working again. They were so impatient. Anyway, that’s the way they seemed to me. Impatient to get their families together again. Old people and little kids—that’s all we saw. Old people and little kids.

 

When the German army retreated it often left someone behind with a rifle, dug in and camouflaged. The rifleman would get off a few rounds; the whole platoon would hit the ground. There would be a delaythe reason the Germans left the rifleman therewhile someone called in mortar to clear the nest. Then the column could move again. The small arms fire would rattle again, a quarter mile or more ahead: short burst, long burst, short burst—and we’d do it again: hustleset up the mortar, wait for the numbers. Fire off the rounds. Silence. All clear, move out.

 

 

 

Richard lay on his back, staring at the patterns in the ceiling. The texture guy had made a long swoop with his trowel over the plaster, then another to cross the first: vague shapes in the ceiling, nascent figures like shapes in passing clouds. You could see anything in them. You could see an old woman’s profile; you could see a pudgy kid’s face; you could see the outline of a village.

 

 

 

Sometimes the Germans left two or three snipers. Once in a while they left a machine gun. You had to approach a village carefully.

 

Short burst. Hit the ground. Short burst, long burst—set up the mortar even before you get the word. The word comes, you sight up, send off a long round, then correct, send off two more. Everything gets quiet. You get the all clear. You move out.

 

It happened a hundred times. All those times, a blur.

 

Except one time. Outside this abandoned village. We’d just cleared a sniper. We were picking up the mortar when point squad took more fire from a second nest, a machine gun behind a house. It was bad this time, like the Germans had planned to wait until we’d cleared their first one. Our guys were screaming, calling for medic, calling for mortar. We slammed the base into the mud again. We leveled the sights and sent off the rounds—it only took two this time: you get good, after a while.  And finally—finally—it got quiet. The medics got the wounded to the rear; the platoon started to move again, and we passed the house with the machine gun. There wasn’t much left of the gunners.

 

No one talks about that stuff. No one talks about the way people look after a mortar round hits. And no one talks about the boys the Germans conscripted at the end and placed in those rear guard positions. Boys ten, twelve years old. Children. Behind a machine gun.

 

No one talks about that.

 

 

 

Richard threw back the covers. He jumped to the door and slammed it shut. He stood at the foot of the bed, leaned over the bed, groaned. He could still hear the typewriter downstairs. He could still see the boys behind the machine gun.

 

He began running in place. He ran as hard as he could, lifting his knees as high as he could. Running, running, running.

 

* * *

 

Carolyn opened the bedroom door just enough to look in. “Richard?”

 

He was running in place, his arms pumping, his eyes closed, his face and body shining with sweat.

 

She came in and stepped in front of him. He kept running.

 

“Richard?” she said. “Richard?”

 

 

 

 

 

Larry E. Graham lives and works in Sacramento, California.  His fiction has appeared in Straylight, Susurrus, Descant, The Avalon Literary Review, The Chaffin Journal, and The Listening Eye. His current project is a short story cycle about people who live in a rooming house.