Thursday, March 30, 2006

 

A Crowded Bed

We all referred to him as the 'Dummy'. He was a mute and had been all his life. It may have genetic, for his sister was also a mute. He was always able to communicate, perhaps because he taught us the signs that mean words to the deaf. He also taught us the alphabet. He was handsome, small and agile, though he walked with a forward leaning of his body as though he were anxious to get to where he was going. He always wanted you to stop and say hello if you met him on the road and if you didn't he would remind. Generally at the small community club we all belonged to. He would come in and stare at you, and want to know why you didn't speak to him. You would try to explain that you didn't see him, but it was no excuse.

He would tuck his thumbs under his armpits and extend his elbows outward and strut about the room, occasionally pointing at you and telling everybody that it was you who was the arrogant one for not speaking to him. Most everyone sooner or later apologized and he would clasp them around their shoulders and say it was all in fun. And they were forgiven. Although he could not speak, he was a wonderful mime. During the war, he gave his interpretation of Hitler and Tojo. How he would sneak up on them and kill them in their sleep. We all liked his pantomimes and asked him to repeat them.

He was lonely, I always thought, for all the guys his age were in the service. Because of his problem, he was not drafted. It must have bothered him not to be in the service. He was obviously healthy and the right age.

He and my brother were good friends. Perhaps because my brother took him to the whorehouses in town. He could not get in by himself, because when the madam opened the door and saw him standing there waving his arms and grunting and making gestures, she would become frightened and slam the door. I don't really know if that's what happened, but it must have been that way or we all said it was that way. Anyway he and my brother were great friends. And he was sad when my brother, along with the other guys his age, went to war.

While my brother was away, he always wanted to know where he was and was he okay. He seemed happy that my brother was safe and told me often that he was eager for my brother to get home.

Years before, when I only knew him as the 'dummy', he had come to our house to go swimming, but my brother was not home.

It was early spring then and I was in the back yard. The sun was hot, but the air was still cool. He stood beside me for a long time, only the birds chirping broke the silence.

"Where is Joe?" he finally asked using his hands to spell the words.

"I didn't know," I told him shrugging my shoulders and using the sign language.

"Was he coming home soon?" he asked pointing to his wrist where a watch would be.

I shrugged my shoulders.

He waved goodbye. I watched him walk away and he looked like he would fall forward, he leaned so much as he walked.

The first summer my brother was gone to the war, he came often to our house to ask about Joe's whereabouts. He always spoke to me, for no one else in the house could understand him and sometimes even I had a hard time making myself understood.

But he was patient and when I finally did make him understand, he would nod his head and smile and make grunting sounds that meant he understood.

We kids used to play around the old water tower. It had huge pillars to support the large tank and places for hiding. He must have been out for a walk and was passing by the tower and noticed me and came over and talked to me. It was nearing dusk then and the day was still warm and he asked me to go for a swim. I said it was too late, but he insisted.

From the tower we passed by Mrs. Winovski's garden. I saw the tomato plants and the red ripe tomatoes hanging from them. It must have been that our minds ran in the same vein for almost without asking each other we crept silently into the garden and stole some of the ripe tomatoes. It was getting dark but there was still enough light to see the fruit and he laughed as he grabbed the ripe ones. His laugh was loud and guttural and shrill and I cautioned for him to be quiet, but he did not listen. I was frightened and did not want to be caught so I grabbed him by the arms and pulled him from the garden. We had several tomatoes each which we ate as we walked to the swimming hole, an old abandoned strip mine that had filled with water.

I remember the first time I went swimming with my brother. There had been a group of us and we tore boards from an old shack along the way to build a bonfire. It was dark then and the fire made some light and kept us warm in the cool night air.

There were three sink holes that had filled with water. They were all in a line, following the coal seam that has been mined. We only swam in one of them, even though the other two were just the same. But for some reason, we never swam in them. There were bets that night as to who would go in one of the others which we had named the 'green dam'. No one would until they dared the dummy. It took some explaining to get him to understand what the bet was about. My brother finally made it clear to him and then dared him to swim in the hole.

He said he wasn't afraid, but he did not want to go.

"You're afraid," my brother told him.

"Not me," he said shaking his head. "I'm not afraid."

My brother waved his hand, meaning that the dummy was afraid. "Then why don't you go in?"

He said he wasn't feeling good.

"Big shot, you are. But you're afraid to swim in the green dam." My brother began laughing at him.

It was then that the dummy agreed to do it. We all followed him the green dam. It was almost dark then, but a sliver of moon reflected on the water and we could see the dam, set deep in the strip mine. Its edge dotted with trees and rocks and muddy. I had fished there once for catfish, from an old rock that jutted out into the water. We all stopped near the rock and waited for the dummy to dive in. We were all nude and clustered together under the large limb that overhand the rock. No one spoke, the silence mounted.

The dummy blessed himself and grunted something we couldn't understand and dove in.

"Jesus, he did it," someone said loudly.

We watched him strike out for the far side. We cheered and shouted, but he could not hear us. He cut through the sliver of moon that reflected on the water and we could hardly see him for the rest of the swim. The shouting stopped and we all watched in the darkness, the only sound was the splashing of water as he swam.

Then came the shout, a loud guttural shout from across the dam and we knew he had made it. I wanted to congratulate him by shouting, but I knew he could not hear, so I just remained silent.

We waved for him to come back by a path along the edge, but there was another loud splash and soon we could see him cutting through the sliver of moon.

When he came to the rock where we were all waiting, my brother pulled him out and we followed him to the bonfire. He smiled at us and we all asked how the green dam was.

"Good," he said rubbing his stomach and closing one eye.

"How was the water?"

"Good," he rubbed his stomach again. "Let's go there again." He grabbed someone's arm and began pulling him toward the dam.

We stopped him for no one wanted to swim there, even though the spell was broken. No one said any more about the swim and we let the fire go out and dressed and left for home. The dummy walked with my brother, their arms thrown about each other's shoulders.

But now I was alone with the dummy. The darkness deepening, yet light enough to see the road. All the tomatoes were gone, two partially finished ones thrown in the brush surrounding the swimming hole. We undressed and placed our clothes in piles, the shoes underneath and the pants and shirt on top.

There was a raft in the water, resting against one of the banks. The edge of the hole was wet and muddy and slippery. A tower had been built by some of the older guys and aside from the raft there was nothing else in the water. Sometimes when the older guys tried to touch bottom, they would bring up old burlap sacks that had been used for drowning animals, or else they would bring up old bottles.

There was a slight chill in the air, as the sun had long since slipped over the mountains that surrounded us. The dummy stood at the edge of the dam and cautiously dipped his foot in. Then he smiled. Warm he said rubbing his stomach and forming the words with his lips.

"You first," I said.

He nodded his head, but continued to stand there.

"What's the matter? You afraid?" I asked. Though I knew he wasn't.

"You first," he said.

I dove in and swam underwater for a while. When I surfaced and wiped the water from my hair and eyes, he was still standing near the tower. I got out and motioned for him to go in. He climbed up the tower, the top level. It was dark and I could hardly see him, but he began grunting and shouting and dove in. I waited for him to surface, but he didn't come up for a long time. I was getting scared, he had not surfaced for such a long time. Finally, there came a splash of water and I saw the dummy. His dark hair made him less visible, but I could just see him. He shook his head and began swimming to the shore. He was gasping for air as he swam. When he reached the edge, I helped him out, and he slipped on the wet mud and fell to his knees.

"Shall we make a fire?" I asked when he stood up.

"No," he shook his head.

We swam for a while, playing games in the water and diving from the tower. He was a funny swimmer, staying under for as long as he possibly could, so when he surfaced he was gasping for air. I became scared at times, when he stayed under for so long, for it seemed he would never make it to shore. I was always ready to dive in and help him.

It was dark when we were ready to leave. We dressed in the darkness and started walking home. There was no bright moon this night, the darkness was everywhere enveloping us. I was still a little wet and the night air was chill but as we walked I could feel the dampness disappear. It felt strange to be walking with the dummy. I was not able to speak to him, for it took light to see the words that he and I made with our fingers and hands.

He went out of his way to walk me home. Up the railroad track and through the small patch of woods and finally I was home.

I wanted to say goodnight, but I was unable to do so. He would not have seen the fingers or the hands and not be able to know. It was strange standing in front of the house and not be able to say anything. All I could do was to wave and watch him disappear into the darkness.

I did not see him a lot after that. He got a job at the colliery picking slate and he began spending his time at the local tavern. But when he did see me, he always asked the same question: "When was Joe coming home?"

It was a warm day in July when my brother came home on a leave. I saw the bus stop near our house and Joe get off and I ran as fast as I could. I was expecting a sailors cap and was anxious to get it.

I was out of breath when I got home. My brother was at the kitchen table when I came in. I said hello and where was the cap? He had forgotten to bring one for me. He would bring one the next time he came. I was disappointed and he noticed it and assured me he would not forget the next time.

"The dummy keeps asking about you," I said.

"What does he want?"

"I don't know. But he keeps asking about you. He's slate picking now."

"I'll see him later."

Then all of us talked about the war. My brother told stories about training and we were all proud. He looked good in his uniform. We were still talking as we sat around the kitchen table when suddenly there were loud sounds, grunting and shouts. The dummy was standing in the doorway. He came in and threw his arms around my brother.

"You look good," he said rubbing his stomach. "Good, good."

"Jesus, I thought you died," my brother kidded him.

"Me. No. I'm working now. Lots of money," he said patting his pants pocket.

"Big deal."

"No. we go out tonight."
"Yes."

"We go to the whore house." He made gestures with his hand.

"Not here, " my brother said. "Don't do that here." He pointed to my mother and sisters who were busy at the kitchen sink and had not see him.

The dummy dropped his head as if in shame. "I won't say that again."

"Come on ," my brother said, grabbing him by his arm and pulling him outside.

They disappeared around the corner of the house and were gone. I went to the club soon after.

I did not get home until late. My sister and her boyfriend were in the kitchen and my mother was there.

"Joe is going back tomorrow," my sister said.

"He just got home," her boyfriend said.

"I know, but it was just a twenty four hour leave. He has to go back."

"For long?"

"No, he'll be back again."

I said hello to her boyfriend.

"He'll be staying here overnight, "my sister said, pointing to her boyfriend.

"Why?" I asked.

"His car is broke and there isn't any busses till tomorrow."

"Take Joe's car," I said.

"He'll need it for tomorrow. He has to leave at five o'clock. You'll have to drive him."

"That's okay," I said.

"He'll need your bed," my sister said pointing to her boyfriend.

"Okay."

We talked for a while, my sister and her boyfriend. It was warm in the kitchen and the door was open and the coal stove was out, its lids a dull rust color now that they were cold.

I had been sleeping alone since my brother was gone. It was a large double bed and now I knew it would be crowded with me, my brother and my sister's boyfriend. I poured a glass of milk.

My sister went up to bed and her boyfriend and I just sat there and talked. He was soon to be drafted. I could see he didn't like that.

Then suddenly the screen door opened, its hinges creaking and then the grunts and noises of the dummy and my brother trying to quiet him.

They came in and said hello and sat down. The dummy sat next to my brother and watched him, a faint smile on his face.

"You going back so soon?" I asked.

"Yes. I'll be back in a few weeks for a long leave after I change stations."

"I'll drive you in. John's staying here for the night. His car broke down."

"We better go to bed. Five o'clock comes quick."

John went up and I stayed to finish my milk. My brother stood up and the dummy stood up.

"I'm going to bed ," he told the dummy. "You go home now."

The dummy shook his head 'no'.

"Jesus Christ," my brother said. "Don't tell me I'm going to have trouble making him leave, " my brother said quietly to me.

The dummy was shaking his head. "I sleep here with you."

"There's no room. There's three of us already," my brother tried to explain.

"I sleep here. I sleep on the floor." He indicated he would sleep by folding his hands like a person praying and placed then along the side of his chin and tilted his head slightly.

"There's no room," my brother said again.

"I go in with you to the train station."

"Okay. I'll pick you up in the morning."

"Maybe I miss you. I just sleep here."

"But there isn't any room." My brother was getting a little annoyed, but he could see he was getting nowhere.

The dummy just sat down and refused to leave. "Okay, okay," my brother said.

The dummy smiled and put his arms around him. "You and me the best of buddies."

He took his wallet and opened it. "If you were broke and I had money I would give you all I had. Everything I had. You and me the best of buddies."

My brother nodded his head. "You hungry?"

The dummy extended his thumb and first finger and placed them a little distance apart. A little the fingers meant.

I went upstairs while they began getting something to eat. John was already asleep and I crawled into bed in the near darkness. It was hot and I could not sleep. I lay there for a long time, the night light in the hallway casting some light into the room. The faint sounds of someone talking keeping me awake, even when I knew it was my brother talking and the occasional grunts of the dummy.

I must have dozed off, for the next thing I remember was them standing near the bed, my brother pushing me and crawling into bed. The dummy lay down across the foot of the bed. I was cramped in the middle.

The dummy and my brother must have been to a whore house, for I could smell the odor of perfume. The smell strong and lingering. And there was the light giggling of the dummy. For I could feel his stomach moving in quick ripples with my feet. And the odor of perfume was strong when I rolled toward my brother.

Then someone was shaking me. I awoke with a start. It was my brother. "Come on, let's go. It's time," he said anxiously.

I got up and dressed. John was still asleep and the dummy was rubbing sleep from his eyes. I said hello and he waved his hand. He was still smiling.

"How did you sleep?" I asked.

"Not so good. Too many feet.' He began mimicking the way feet had been hitting him all night. 'Sore, sore, " he said holding his ribs and stomach.

We ate eggs and coffee. My mother crying as she made the breakfast. "You sleep good?" she asked the dummy.

He shook his head "No." He again mimicked the way feet hit him all night. My mother began laughing.

The dummy and I went out to the car and waited for my brother to say goodbye. He came out in a few minutes. You could see he had been crying, his eyes were red. He got in the back seat and I drove.

"When you coming home again?" the dummy asked.

"Soon. A couple weeks."

The dummy smiled. We were silent for the rest of the trip.

The train station was quiet at this time in the morning. The train was ready, steam hissing from its cylinders.

A few people were milling around. My brother got out and said goodbye. I shook his hand. The dummy got out and hugged him then came back to the car. We watched as my brother got on the train, stopping before he got on to wave to us. We waved back and he was gone.

I put the car in gear and before I could let the clutch out, the dummy pushed it out of gear.

"We wait till the train goes," he said.

"But we can't see anything," I said.

He held the gear shift handle. "We'll wait, " he repeated.

I shut the engine off and leaned back in the seat. The dummy looked straight ahead. It seemed silly to just sit there and wait. I had no idea how long before the train would leave. And the dummy just sat there. He would not answer me when I asked again, but I knew he didn't want to go because he continued to hold the gear shift handle.

Then I could hear the train start. I motioned for him to look. He turned and watched the cars banging and the steam hissing loudly as it gathered speed. We watched until it faded out of sight.

The dummy's hand slipped from the handle. I started the car and drove home. We said nothing on the way back. I stopped at his house and again there was the strange feeling of knowing I could not make him understand. It was not the darkness now, perhaps it never was the darkness. He got out and though I did not look at him, I knew he was crying.

Copyright 2006 by John Fedako

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