Polka​

I

 

Marsell put his bare hands into a bagful of lime like it was sugar and scooped out a heap onto the plastic-kid-swimming-pool we used to make cement. He grabbed the shovel and began mixing it with water and sand. He saw me stare with my jaw down as he palmed another handful of the corrosive powder straight out of the sack saying we needed to get more. I coughed as he sprinkled, the mix was like fox hairs squeaking in a boiling cauldron.

He says in a Marseillan accent, “Après du temps, tes maings s’adapts.” 

Like skin ever gets used to dissolving.

“C’est corrosive, non?” I say, my hands bleeding from just wearing the dusty gloves.

"Tous les maçons–enfin, les bons, le fait.” 

He continued to mix the cement with the shovel and told me to slowly add in the water. A thick texture formed as the scraping of metal on plastic inched beyond the threshold of my ear wax. This was a special red sand from Aix-en-Provence—it had that Roman vibe. We each grabbed a hawk and slapped some mortar on it with a trouelle and began filling in the cracks of the wall. The shapes around the river stones looked like squiggly figures smoking cigarettes.

He wore a beret and made coffee for all the volunteers each morning—and for eighty he seemed to be still in his prime. We’d see him lifting river stones in the early afternoon, or jack-hammering bits of filler from the Hôtellerie façade. Ah, to make coffee for the people who wake up later than me, to have people wonder about my past lives via my wrinkles and scars. What was his life before the days he woke up at sunrise to fill that coffee filter to the top and set out the confitures and bread for these twenty-somethings that he didn’t know? Has he ever done anything for himself? I drank a cup of the coffee he made every day despite the floating grounds and thick sludge that collected at the bottom. I heard a rumor that he and his friends found the Village back in the 60s—one day I looked at his hands—the calluses, knuckle hairs, varicose veins and I understood something like history. I caught him looking at mine and I wondered what he thought of all the holes.

The mail had arrived. I waved at the yellow poste van as it swerved back around the bend, it seemed to float like on a busy river, a rally ghost car that smiled as much as it haunted. The driver never waved back but stayed smiling with the radio blasting and teeth in full view. Shooting up and down the six-kilometer road, coming and going with letters as veins carry blood. This letter, a rare one addressed to me, was from a friend who’d left a while back. She wrote often about love—better than anyone I knew at the time. And in all honesty, I still don’t know anyone else who writes letters, especially not to me.

Dear Henry,

I was out for drinks the other night in a pub in my town near London thinking of you again as a band was playing to polka-dot-mini-skirts in red lipstick, the guitarist looked like you. Oh, you should’ve seen the musician’s hands, his smokey odd ephemeral hands—elongated, stretching, dissolving—how they wisped over drunken ears. The room was just fingers from wall to wall, I couldn’t help but get up to dance, it was as if I was inside plumes of weeping willows, and the stars were picking fruits in my brain frantically like their lights were already wilting traveling to the rotted dimension. But this was all noise! I kept saying, the language of fungi digest me alive!  

O what a sound? What have we landed on here?

Is this just a bath of warm music? Duble buble then.

I splashed some water in wakes of threes to my face and the pub disappeared. It was a harvest moon. And well that's all there is to say. Bonne nuit.

Très Haute Amour,

Desirée

I read this on a picnic table bench under the sureau tree. I wanted to hear her speak in a voice different from the one I imagined while reading, I wanted to hear her voice. My imagination was insufficient in building a representation of her essence. I could never build something like that to any redeeming value comparable to what she really was. Even here, her letters were better than this reproduction. It is a sad attempt really, this capturing and retelling of memories. But attempt we must, regardless of how sad it is, how pathétique. Her handwriting was the final sensation I got of her, and it didn’t do enough. Or, maybe it did too much?  Because I still think about her handwriting—the ink she used, the little drawings she'd add in the margins of the letters of trees and my beanie and mountains. The smell of her room. I think about those sketches more often than when we tried to make love. That ink creeps into my dreams like a late night talk show at low volume. She continued to write to me for years, I don’t know why, and the yellow post van never acknowledged me as I stood smiling every few weeks with a sacred look of anticipation.

II

Oma Elena took me polka dancing when I was a teenager. She knew steps to dozens of styles from all over Europe even though she suffered from memory loss. There were partners and group dances in different lines and circle formations. Dances that made us twirl in that three-four: oomp paaah paah. We were in a beer garden in Northern Wisconsin. I laughed as I spun my Oma there, with all the banquet tables surrounding the fold out wood dance floor, the lights and musicians all dressed up in lederhosen. In a break between songs Oma told me that my Opa used to be a great dancer, and all the women swooned over him. Ooom paah paaah, it sounded like Opa. Now I know that’s not his actual name, but I was a teenager when my grandmother told me that. The old men of that Silent Generation as they may be called, had very firm hands that pressed into the flesh on backs when they danced, holding their partners’ spines up like a corset.

"Do you think I'll ever find someone, Oma?"

"Are you looking?"

Gnomes with long pointed hats still stand below her paradise palms, which date back to 1957, well before my father was born. Pictures of Cathedrals in Bavaria hang next to a portrait of me from the first grade. My eyes look bright aqua blue, and the rest of the photo faded. A wooden cuckoo clock remains dormant. Her cats used to wait for the bird to come out, but that hasn’t happened in years.

Once Opa died, she didn’t seem to feel at home in Wisconsin but said she could never go back to Germany. I was visiting her on a Sunday and I asked about a picture of Opa when he was my age. She looked at the picture and did one of her rare smiles.

I stood by a photograph with my hand supporting my chin, eyes squinting.

“That picture was taken during the War. He dug ditches to bury dead soldiers in Ukraine,” she said, and I thought about him touching limp bodies. And how his was the first one I had ever seen lifeless besides bugs and animals. In the picture he and his friends were locking arms and pointing in different directions like they were acknowledging fans from across the room. I wondered what his days as a double agent, spying on both sides for cigarettes were like.

“In the War, Ukraine was kaput by Russia and Germany. If Opa stayed he would have died, so something had to move. Russia would be treated him worse. He took an offer from the Germans to get him out of Ukraine. He had the choice of either joining the Army or working on a farm. He chose the farm. That’s where we met. I was still a teenager, you know. He lived in Wasserburg, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Germany,” she said.

Every time I sit in the breakfast nook, I get the feeling that a world I never knew has everything to do with who I am. These two youngsters' decisions led to my own existence.

“We got married in Saint Alphonsus catholic church, on the north side of Chicago. It was a crowded day and we had to have the service in the basement sanctuary. After the ceremony we held a reception at the German restaurant next door. It’s a parking lot now,” she said, looking down at her purring cat named Carrot who was strutting and rubbing against the chair leg. “Your parents were also married there, but they got married in the main parish hall,” she said, and I could not believe that both my parents and grandparents were married in the same church.

That following Sunday I went to a service and saw with my own eyes the place that assured my spot at the nook. This had to be a memory of before I was born, what was this odd familiarity of the altar? I remembered the gold-framed portrait of Mary and Joseph slightly crooked in its lean against a brass vase. And the sky-blue rosary dangling from a leather hymnal on a stand beside it. The choir sang old chants with soft organ playing. I walked down the aisle and felt my shoes sink into the red carpet.

 

I saw my parents while they were getting married. Asked if I could get my Wendy’s shake and fries after the service if I was good. I know I had talked a little, no one is perfect. But they didn’t hear me.

 

III 

At four years old I saw what the end of being in a body was like. I was never the same since that fourth of July, Opa face down on the floor? Up until that fireworkless day, humans could feasibly live forever here on Earth. In my mind, we lived in a colourful, perfect, eternal place like that of an all smiles Super 8 commercial on laundry detergents: the bold yellow, green, and red of my parent’s t-shirts. Live with your fabric not against it (a golden retriever runs through puddles in slow motion). Deep cleaning agents will wash out any stain. But at the same time, I knew that my Opa was pretty old, and a year felt like an eternity. I had only lived through 22 million blinks, and already so much happened. Little electric Jeep, home-baked cookies, seeing Japan from the backyard, concrete construction tube that I played in with graffiti of a face on it, mountains!

It wasn’t until the week after my twenty-first birthday that I experienced what it was like to lose someone young, and the loss only seems to grow as I get older, realizing the years he could have done so many things with, but perhaps after a while I’ll feel like I’m catching up with him. The Tour de France passes. Costumed women on Vespas honk and wave. Sponsored vans, candy cannons, and clowns dance along the street to cheer on the delirious epic of our time. Odysseus in neon green spandex fights mont blanc! How sad that he can’t be here to laugh at this with me.

How could I enjoy watching this long form sports ballet, and the parade of unicyclers in underwear? Is this indeed the same as Homer once told it, that of the human epic, man vs. nature? Or is it nature-personified-by-man vs. man? Unicycle vs. underwear? What is the purpose of fighting against it all? I asked myself as they crowned a dog best dressed, not at all involved in the race mind you. If only I would have gone to see him before my flight to Paris. I suppose it was a miracle we crossed paths at all. That anyone crosses my path—that I even have a path to cross. We had made plans to meet at some pier in Santa Monica, but his phone battery went out.

I drove two hours and just walked the empty fog-lit boardwalk, no answer.

The Shepherd asked Cody if he could watch his flock for a week while he went to the Ukraine to meet with a woman he had met on the internet. ‘Do you speak Russian?’ Cody asked him and got a shush. I got recruited second hand through Cody, because he couldn’t handle the workload alone. We had to wake up at five to be able to feed all the animals before the morning meeting started. We opened up the barn and ‘bahs’ and ‘buhs’ echoed off of the cheap tin walls. The Shepherd’s six dogs were barking incessantly as they ran up and down the walkways between the pens. We grabbed the feed and hay and began pouring into the troughs. The stronger sheep budded their way in. The barn now sounded like giant mouths chewing in stereo at different rates.

We continued on to make formula milk mixes and sealed the bottles with a teet that the baby lambs could drink from. We fed about twenty lambs, and I was getting antsy as to when we would be out of there. As I was feeding number 667, I looked over to the entry area of the barn that is used to stock hay and I saw a dog eating a dead lamb. I put my shirt collar over my mouth.

I thought we had finished the job and I wanted to leave, but Cody came up and said, “Now we have to feed the ones inside his house.” Ok, weird.

“Why are they in his house?” I asked.

“Cus they might not make it dummy,” he said.    

We opened the door and walked through the undecorated living room, turned left into the hallway. Brushed the dangling beads aside. There was a laundry room with a little barrier set up where four lambs made tiny sounds. We had to give them a bit of medicated formulas. Three of the four looked healthy and were head butting and playing. Cody thought that, yeah, they could soon go back to the barn. We watched them mess around for a minute and then saw the weak one cough. He lay on a piece of padding and couldn't open his eyes. I kneeled and patted his head and put the bottle to his mouth. He had a spray-painted red stripe on his back and a yellow tag in his ear which read 908. He was so tired that he could barely suck hard enough to get any milk. Did what could. We finished feeding them and turned off the lights and closed the door.

The Shepherd came back from his trip that Sunday and said that the three stronger babies we saw so rambunctious had died can you believe it? And, get this, he said the little weakling was doing much better. Little red striped, sickly lamb number 908 would survive that winter.