Alexandria Peary's third book of poetry, Control Bird Alt Delete, received the 2013 Iowa Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers and Lid to the Shadow which was the recipient of the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize as well as the forthcoming Creative Writing Studies: An Introduction to Its Pedagogies (edited with Tom C. Hunley). Her work received the Joseph Langland Award from the Academy of American Poets and has recently appeared in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Volt, and The Gettysburg Review. She is an associate professor at Salem State University.
The first problem with the knick knacks was their incongruity—oh, how we would spend years at the back of our heads trying to figure out their rationale. It itched at the jay-blue dome of our minds, a cipher scratched into the wall. The figurine of an otter, the stocky little children, two wooden bookends—one of Abraham Lincoln, pensive on a throne-like chair, and the other of Don Quixote, an inexplicable pairing. Without knowing it, we were trying to find the pattern for their lemon-Pledged and dusted entitlement on the built-in wall shelf. It was a continuously running puzzle so much a part of our environment we didn’t notice it, a machinery hum. The porcelain otter had a feminine back and reached for fruit hanging off a tree. A woman’s back caught in a mammal close to rodent, it turned slightly to look back at you, coyly, which begs the question of whether otters even do pick-your-own. The Hummels were all children. They wore mostly reds and greens in plaid kerchiefs or short pants, patted a dog, walked alongside a picket fence or dove with stiff knees on a swing. A Scottie, a terrier.
The books were hard-cover editions of Don Quixote and of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord, a National Geographic table-top book with aerial views of mountains and volcanoes, and a history book with the post-war German politician Willy Brandt on its cover. His pose suggested that Brandt had just finished propping up the bombed-out buildings my mother played in. I was sure that the Thoreau and Don Quixote were purchased by my father for his one semester of college—no freshman buys such handsome copies these days. From ValuHouse, from Service Merchandise, in the days before the home-shopping channel, cut-crystal vases and dishes caught and held onto the late afternoon light in prismatic sides, minimalizing whatever light to a small blue square—like light at the end of a New England winter day snared in a piece of ice. Plastic plants mixed with real plants, house plants, as in “water the house plants,” which always seemed such a German thing to say, the house part, as though there were house plants, garage plants, barn plants, job plants, school plants. Inscrutable ivy dropping from a coppery bucket on a high shelf in the kitchen.
The knick knacks weren’t like the contents of the card table: we got that, the crumbling cones of incense, the playing-card smell of the drawers, the ash tray of black lava carved into a near-topless woman in a hot-tub-like tidal pool. Those were the things from their few years in Hawaii, years that doubled as their honeymoon after my father’s transfer. Even as children, we knew these trinkets had a whiff of freedom, the surf pounding, the hibiscus-blossom silhouette corsages, the magic of having found one another and then moving to an island-state, the adrenalin of leaving her bombed-out city of birth, city known for its jewelry, coming to America as someone’s maid and then marrying all-American, 21 and 25, respectively.
The knick knacks had the sheen of Sunday dinners, the moment after the Revere pots and pans had been dried and put away and the damp kitchen towels hung off the oven bar, food put away in old yoghurt containers and tomato-stained Tupperware, the abstraction of afternoon light, the static boredom of a child made to sit a long time inside an adults’ interest, of waiting at a bank while your parents did their deposits, of watching a woman buy shoes. I look carefully at the bric-a-brac and see how I tagged along as our parents daydreamed at ValuHouse, peering into glass display cases mottled with the tea-leaf leaf-rot of their reflections and overhead light, the dullness of looking at gold, sterling, crystal, engravings, pearls, ivory, scrimshaw, of fountain pens, wristwatches, cuff links, broaches, lockets, tie pins. After Sunday dinner, we each looked out from our separate bedroom windows at the splices of the poplar woods, doing homework while other members read a library book on the couch, crackle of the book jacket, head on an embroidered pillow, of our father napping in the recliner, of our mother starting to chop vegetables for the next meal, in later years, when they could afford to hire a few part-time employees, irritated if the rotary dial phone rang (tenants? problem at the store?).
Now that my parents have retired, moved to a condo in Florida, to a house in Alabama, to a RV, where have these knick knacks gone? Divested of all power of Once, on the shelf in a Goodwill with fondue sets, greasy pleasure domes of college popcorn makers, appliances and griddles for the cuisine of the 1980s, more cords than appliances present? In boxes at a self-storage facility for us to discover in the After?
Even as a child, I sensed very little difference between the couches on one side of the built-in wall shelf and the other. The golden upholstery, the compliment to that 1960’s jade green that was in the lampshade, was like the back of a stuffed lion—carved coffee table with a glass top—heavy drapes. I noted how no one from town sat for coffee, only these people from Rhode Island or New Jersey or West Germany, from the 1960s or 1950s or 1940s, on this golden-boy couch.
How adults liked to look through photo albums, those plastic inserts with fading shots of other living rooms with other afghan-and-couch combos, of their fading younger selves with older hair styles sitting on couches after other meals, talking again and again about relationships with starting points in the years after the war. There was the aunt who had brought our mother over as her maid, the owner of a New Jersey jewelry factory suitably called Atlas Chain. This aunt and godmother who “owned a jewelry factory” gave us gold and silver necklaces for presents—herringbone snakes, plated and solid gold garden snakes which we snarled in heaps at the bottom of those three-story cheap jewelry boxes forced upon us when we preferred our ballerina-wind-up. But the apple seed necklace in Mom’s jewelry box from Hawaii, the charm bracelet with the hula-hula dancer on it that swayed her tiny silver hips, the smell of those velveteen compartments, the jewelry box on the dresser near our parents’ bed where we watched the black-and-white campaign, Carter versus Reagan, missiles ascending, as we lay on our stomachs on their pom-pom bedspread.
In the duration of a child’s years, when these objects stayed around for epochs and millennia, I could have trusted that they had significance, but as time sped up, as I started sitting in on courses at the near-by college on introductory art history, Pallas Athena to Baroque ceilings, and then met people who took me to fancy restaurants, veal stock and bananas foster and a stove-top espresso pot, and had real-live Matisse sketches on their living room wall, these objects got changed-up more and more regularly. They were increasingly replaced or supplemented by bolsters and foot stools and rockers and reproductions—most alarmingly, an African mask phase with wooden zebra sculptures and elephants—purchased on Friday evening drive-by’s from salvage lot stores after salad bars and Meat Lover’s. “Train-wrecked goods from New York” (a phrase we heard a lot but now to wonder exactly how many train accidents happen, specifically trains of Jones New York pants and Ralph Lauren shirts). Where class was shuffled and sold in separate components and covered with Scotch Guard fabric protective spray and where labels were interpreted by people based on whether they sounded New York or French, QVC or Home Shopping Channel. The shuffling of heavy winter boots or leather work boots on a Friday evening and a night on the town making the floor briny.
We were the merchant class, the near-brahmin in the central Maine town with our country store or convenience store, depending on how rustic your take on things. The truly untouchables were like the cow-hand David, near-toothless and in his early twenties, or the person who married his second cousin and lived deep in the woods. Double-wide trailers, wooden lawn ornaments of bending-over women, snowmobile parts and undone trucks, the single-story Capes with grimy pastel siding, a whole family who lived in a rickety converted one-room schoolhouse. We had the time/ability/inclination to purchase decorations until something better—the college crowd—came around. That my mother was a German in a town of so much in-breeding I’m sure did something for how people perceived us. And we maintained certain European habits. Taking coffee with relatives and spazierengehen (an afternoon family walk on weekends). Someone came to our house to give us piano lessons—a woman with waist-length hair who ate brewer’s yeast and brought us some in a plastic baggie. Meanwhile, our parents’ store was the stomping of heavy winter boots or leather work boots at the door jangle, slightly off grammar usually involving changes of prepositions, people who went by one of two or three surnames, tops, in the town, Cummings and Philbricks and Braggs and Coles. Wet slab floors, stains from road salt like white perspiration marks on a dark shirt, the sensation of one’s jean cuffs damp, air-drying. Hands gripping the cardboard handle of a six pack, patting cigarettes into a shirt pocket. (The Quakers, the Sanborns, way off to the side on a farm with draft horses and a barn of fairy-tale hay, were a sort slingshot of relief from all that.)
I once saw a woman shoplift a canister of deodorant right in front of me—the small stock of beauty products kept close to the register on hooks that were inserted into holes in fiber board. Packs of bobby pins, razor blades, and a jar of cold crème. A single bottle of Head n’ Shoulders. I think there even were condoms. She had to reach high, exactly the reach of the otter, as a matter of fact, and she looked back at me where I was standing for some reason behind my parents’ counter, near the register, the wooden drawer under the counter where my father kept his pistol, the pistol set on a paper plate, and I said nothing about it to no one. Lila D., a neighbor two houses over. In her reach, she had in fact the exact posture of Ingres’ “Bathing Woman.”
The second problem with the knick knacks: it was a straight shot, from the knick knacks on the third or fourth shelf up and the locked walk-in closet.
This closet was frequently locked in front of us. The banking was done at the boomerang-shaped kitchen counter, bills and checks in green zipper bags, the coppery smell of the zipper and its proximity to much-handled bills, handwritten receipts, our mother’s forehead wrinkled in concentration, counting in German under her breath, the accounting books, also worked on at the kitchen counter. All carried into the walk-in closet and promptly locked up.
We were trusted enough to be left at home alone as children and young teenagers but not trusted with that room.
A line from a popular song of the day was “Private Eyes are watching you. They see your ev-err-yy move.”
Locked up in front of us easily became Because Of Us—because after a while there was no one else around, no guests, no friends stopping by, only us. My younger sister bore the brunt of the mistrust. I absorbed my share, turning it among other emotions into the mirrors of side glances, metaphors, and teaching. When our younger brother was appointed the pre-teen business partner of our parents, it became a patriarchal matter, but at this point, all three of us were on the side of tree houses, of a backroom-playroom of garage-sale toys and antique school desks, and of games in the canned goods and detergent aisles of the store.
Later, with our mother’s binge shopping at discount stores, the closet would contain the duplicates and triplicates of coats in slippery plastic bags, mid-level brand sweaters, and baby outfits on tiny hangers, gifts for others since our own life trajectories suggested we were nearly past our sell-by dates.
What was locked up? Death, for one. How our pets died, our golden retriever, zebra finches, miniature bunnies, where they were taken and why, disappearing in full health, taken to the animal shelter, put outside in the snow bank, while we were at school, while we were in bed delirious with pneumonia. How and when and where our relatives lived and died—what they died of, the maladies seeming to switch and expand each time a name was mentioned, lung cancer, kidney cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, throat cancer, “woman’s” cancer. And when someone received an overseas diagnosis of dying, who was this person on the phone that made our mother cry while hanging up laundry?
What was locked up included basic generational information as well as my own age, the birth order in our family, why did I always feel like the youngest and not the eldest, the issue of -er versus no -er at the end of a last name, were we or were we not Jewish (probably not). I wasn’t even sure I was as old as I was said to be. Who was the woman who denied being the birth mother of my German grandfather? Why did my grandparents consider giving away my mother to strangers, so neatly paralleled by the New Hampshire doctor’s offer to adopt me when my mother returned for her post-partum check-up? Near death at the corner, outside the store, two anonymous men of death hiding from the floodlights with baseball bats and an intention for the contents of the cash register, then the rape and murder of a neighbor, also a mother of young children, working as a clerk the same night as my mother at another “convenience” store. A store like that attracting not-from-around-here activity like refuse in the back yard attracting wild animals, the alarm system going off, Lewis and Thelma Johnson from across the street phoning. A mile away at the house, on an ordinary afternoon home alone, we’d call the store to sense if a break-in was in-progress or if our parents were under some threat by the tone of their voice. “Peary’s Market. How can I help you.” 547-3322. The rotary dial phone under the shelf for lottery tickets and the bank of cigarette brands near the windows facing the gas pumps and the dusty road, Middle Road, the farms spreading out on either side like wet wash clothes. We visualized the homemade “money bag” in one of the wooden bins under the counter, the cash register with the downward slope of its many plastic keys, an adding machine near-by.
What was locked up included the right to know our own relatives, or in my case, the right to know why my organs were so jumbled leading to surgeries and hints at certain inabilities, and the people we couldn’t develop relationships with, something as basic as grandparents and aunts and uncles.
There was no Right To Know policy.
Asking a basic question, one faced restricted access. In conversations, a bank officer eyeballed us and turned to walk down a long hallway of sealed doors, presumably to retrieve their part of a conversation—the answer part—but they never return. You wait a long time, an uncomfortably long time to be standing at a service window—an hour or more—in one case, I waited thirty-five years that included the birth of two of my own children. It was always metaphoric, elliptical, a trailing off, a walking down a bureaucratic corridor to retrieve a response but never returning, and the waiting, waiting for the return. Years later, I’d meet a colleague, Monica B., and there would be a rapid exchange of parental mysteries. It was like pulling snakes out of our insides and making a pile of them, like loosening belt after belt, the fact that her grandfather was also a German P.O.W. on the Russian front, very-few-made-it-out-alive and who-knows-what-they-did-to-survive and fewer intact, the head-in-the-oven depression of young German grandmothers who would have better off as widows. Always the air of an Import as in the boxes and tins on the imported food stores, half American but half something else. Dusty food that’s lost its quality, a facsimile of what is actually eaten by natives. And then she was rising from the campus center coffee table and tying the belt of her London Fog, and we would never speak this way again or really ever speak again.
As a child, I didn’t put two and two together. I didn’t know I was German. I didn’t have a name for it until it was named for me in grade school by my best friend who said, You should know. About the black and white flickering footage of horrors. You should know about that awfulness, that awful heap. Unfair because it hadn’t been named until then, the identity, and then in that context. You mean I’m German? Confusing because the outing came from a girl who actually had a long and ungainly German last name with hard to pronounce e’s- before-i's and grand peaks of g and t. Suddenly, to have words and a nation to pin to the different-looking matching dresses sent at holidays to my sister and I, to the board games that were not Parker Brothers: Menscharglichnicht. (People, don’t argue.) In her bedroom, near Beach Boys posters, tiny painted wooden owls circulated from the ceiling and around the small draft in the old farmhouse. They were sent to her from her father, absent in Germany for the length of something called a “sabbatical.” He didn’t even have relatives to visit! Unfair!You should know. I didn’t have a name for it.
The Hummels were all children. They wore mostly red and green colors in plaid kerchiefs or short pants. The porcelain otter had a feminine back and reached for a fruit hanging off a tree.
Down below was the laugh track. Lying on our stomachs on the carpet, we watched Green Acres, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and Gidget on a tiny black-and-white set. The shows were only twenty years old at the time: the equivalent now to watching Friends reruns.
By all accounts, we were deemed “good kids”—mostly A’s, smattering of B’s—had manners that were slightly off-kilter from our surroundings, as though drawn from an out-of-date etiquette manual, said polite expressions like “fine thank you how are you,” as young children pronouncing it as one stream of words, thinking it was perhaps a stock phrase from our mother’s original language but curious that we would have to say it to these farmers from Sidney, Maine—but when someone inquired about us, how we were doing at school, we mumbled of failure, a lack of confidence, that’s what it seemed like to adults, didn’t match the record, because we were suddenly facing that locked money-green room.
Where did this mistrust come from? We hadn’t done anything to earn it, so it must have been something they saw in our future selves. Filching a few Swedish fish, a lottery ticket, a packet of unfiltered Lucky Strikes in college, spending one summer, part-time, behind the cash register. They mistrusted a lot of people—it surprised me over time to learn who my mother doubted. Never trust the neighbors. I walk into a Rite Aid or the grocery store or a clothing boutique—even the dollar store—and it’s a type of double consciousness almost every time. I am who I am but at the same time I am an unwitting shoplifter. If something is suddenly found missing, I immediately suspect myself. Those large reusable grocery bags. I avoid bringing large handbags to shops and prefer just my purse. A friend has a benefit sale at her house, discovers she is missing one of the donation checks, and I immediately feel she is accusing me and wonder if I should inquire later whether she’s found the check.
After the birth of my first daughter, I called the German embassy in Boston to inquire about the process of applying for a dual citizenship to ease our future family travels, maybe living abroad (my husband had obtained one, his father British). Because I was female and of a certain age, the man on the phone from the embassy in a thick accent, he says: “I’m afraid Germany does not want you.”
Really, it was only a raised ranch, modest, brown on bottom, white on top, with in-wall shelves and an open-floor plan, plastic flowers in the upstairs bathroom near a stack of towels that collected dust, an overstock of food in the fridge, mismatched pieces of furniture, the big dull eye of a TV (not the all-knowing flat-screen type of the hour), a mildew even in winter from the downstairs bedrooms, the linoleum in the downstairs bathroom cold to the touch with vaguely human faces in its pattern, people who worked long hours, through weekends, holidays, not even a single family vacation, no Disney, one funeral (northern Maine). Yet there were poetic elements such as the patio, quite extensive, actually, and sometimes you could see the hills of Camden, Maine, like a pastel corner in a Cezanne painting, and magnificent wild birds in bright threads of jewel tones came to feed on bird seed, and there were upright piano lessons and books from the library. Hours of rest on Sunday after a pot roast or baked chicken with celery and a bay leaf (always take it out so no one swallows it). Hope chests in the girls’ bedrooms already filling with Revere pots and a crystal vase against their protests. Further back, inside the walls, the graffiti the carpenter’s teenage sons had left in 1977, words we didn’t know we lived with until years later and remodeling—like a pentimento—before the day of tags seen on subways, odd sexual comments that stood in the walls for years behind tapestries of women waving fans or of bullfights, scenes from when we lived on a military base in Spain, before Maine.
One afternoon when we were in high school and home alone, we knocked over the china cabinet, catching it in our arms before it fell completely to the floor. We had been dashing around those mildewed rooms playing “deodorant wars,” writing our names in this white liquid ballpoint on each other’s bedroom doors, when one of us hit the china cabinet with a shoulder. Glass tinkled, handles broke their arms, gold-lipped cups slid their rotund bellies into one another. A moment of awful silence, a gripping of the weight until the breaking sound stopped, and then all three of us slowly raised the structure to its height. We rearranged the unbroken, erased dust circles, and I recall my brother burying the broken glassware—burying it—I imagine the drinking vessels surprised to be standing up inside the dirt—near our abandoned tree house in the fringe of poplar woods. That is, we knocked over the tower, the city hall with the mahogany cathedral tower, and a low-ranking petty official, some burgher with keys on his hip that were certainly not the keys to the city, the cuckoo-like menagerie at the top of the cabinet, comes out to shoosh off the hoodlums, the punks, the skateboarders, the non-natives, the outsiders to the town. We set the cabinet aright and buried the broken wine glasses and sherry glasses, and it was the near last act we did together, the three of us, before we went our way to separate crimes and the infliction of our disappointments.