One autumn, years ago, I was visiting one of my brothers, and his new wife and her two pre-teen sons, living in a two-bedroom unit, in an apartment complex outside of Nashville TN. One afternoon, while the other adults were occupied, the kids and I wandered around the grounds of their new home -- they'd only moved there a few months before -- and we talked about their new school, the friends they missed, that sort of thing.
The brick-faced apartment buildings reminded me of the Air Force barracks I'd lived in -- similar two-story cinder-block constructions, with a wide central entry hall, and narrower, only partly sheltered exit stairways at either end. There were maybe ten of these structures in the complex, scattered about in what I imagine was supposed to be a charming manner, but which didn't really do much to disguise their rigid uniformity. The main advantage of their design, at least for us though, was the easy access to these exit stairwells, which allowed for chasing each other, and racing around to the top, or for looking over the surrounding landscape from different these perspectives.
At ground level, where you would have expected the stairs to stop, meeting a flat square of cement, instead there was another descending flight, down to a small dark underground alcove opposite an opening without a door. We all agreed it was a good idea to see what was down there, and I could only imagine the activities spaces like these would spawn -- how many cigarette butts and prophylactics the manager would be sweeping up every weekend, at least in the warmer months. Our midweek explorations rewarded us with a corner full of dry, red-brown oak leaves, and some sticks. A dirty green tennis ball. An empty plastic soda bottle.
I was interested, though, in that dark doorway, that seemed to be secured only by its sheer lightlessness. There was no fire door, no standard school entry with the safety glass, no lock requiring the janitor's key -- just empty, solemn blackness. The boys told me they'd heard vague stories already, about bad things happening in all these underground hallways. I wanted to see for myself.
So I walked in. The hall was too wide for me to guide myself by touching both sides at the same time. I couldn't reach the ceiling. The floor felt reliably smooth and level. No puddles or running water, that I could tell. At least not yet. I stepped on another leaf as I made my way deeper in. The principal feel was my own footsteps, and that almost greedy darkness.
Being a long-time city-dweller, I find darkness to be a relative term -- I could almost always move around freely in my apartment without the lights on. Or to navigate unlit streets that were considered dangerous. Here, though, the cliche of not being able to see my hand in front of my face was literally true. In this darkness, I might as well not have hands, there really wasn't anything for them to do, except hang off the ends of my invisible arms. It felt like the walls themselves were sucking up any hope of light, it was that dark. Back behind me, the boys made to encourage me, and I reported back with 'Just more dark'. Their enthusiasm for all this quickly leveled out, and then hovered on the border between excitement and alarm.
And just when they couldn't see me anymore, and started suggesting that maybe I should come back, I saw the thinnest sliver of light ahead of me, down along the floor. It had to be... an office? The furnace room? Who could tell? The light was so feeble. But suddenly I needed I to reach that little line of light, even if all I found was a locked door. Or I might walk into the janitor's storage room, and piss off the cleaning crew. I just really wanted to get to that light.
But the boys were nearly hysterical by now -- they couldn't see me at all, they thought I'd fallen into a hole -- and really, there could be one, in another step, I thought. Just because the floor was level and dry, that didn't mean it was safe, or could be trusted. Finally the younger boy sounded like he might start to cry, so I gave up and told them I was coming back. They were glad to hear this. They shouted when they saw me again, and came to give me a hug. Then we went and found a store, and got ice cream, and talked about other dark places we'd seen.
But I've always been a little sorry, really, that I didn't push on -- not because there was anything of value to be found and claimed, but just because I had set out into the darkness, and the darkness itself was the point. Until I saw that little light, that is, at the end, only a few more yards away. I'm not sorry that I let myself be stopped by my new nephews -- it was actually flattering, really, that these boys who barely knew me, should be so honestly scared on my account. I didn't even stop to consider, then, which was more important, their sense of safety and well-being, or my stubborn curiosity.
Did I make the right choice? If I'd gone to the door we couldn't even see when we first confronted this black hallway, and had found a refrigerator filled with soda, free for the taking, would their ensuing relief, and maybe even a sense of delight have been just that much keener? On the other hand, what if I slipped unexpectedly, and hurt myself, and one or both these boys would have needed to come into the darkness to help me? What if the maintenance man behind the dim-lit door had a bottle of whiskey, a real bad temper, and a gun?
I think that this has come up again, this little insignificant non-event in a basement hallway in Tennessee, because in some ways, I'm about to go on a similarly unsettling little trip. In this case, however, the trip is internal, and I know full well exactly what I'm going to see and hear and feel. I'm also fairly ambivalent about the effort -- I'm the wary on-looker, who's not sure this is such a great idea, and the determined, not wholly secure point man, who's steeling himself, moment by moment, against the danger of incoming fire, as he makes his way deeper into the past.
It's been relatively easy, actually, talking about things related to the orphanage. There's an almost impersonal quality to the experience -- sort of like the accident of getting on the wrong bus, and it rolls over in traffic, and some people die and some people live, and the living now have a story to tell. But when I get to the next period in my young life, it really is as though the light goes out, as though I have to creep forward into an awful, awful darkness that was, in this case, specifically designed with me and my brothers in mind. Sitting here at my kitchen table, with a vase of lilies and a cup of coffee sitting beside me, I'm ashamed to admit that I'm a little afraid to do this. My eyes are hot with shame.
So I have a plan. I'm going to tell you a story. I'm going to tell it slowly, and gradually, and with great attention to detail. Though I'll be tempted, I'll try not to skip around too much in time, to relieve the pressure by telling any of the many endings sooner than necessary. This will all be like a somewhat less pleasant version of my dream of heaven, where we each tell our own story, as it was lived and forgotten and rediscovered, and we will all listen to each other, and contribute our part in it -- what we knew, because we lived down the block, because my sister used to date your brother, because my cousin worked in the office next to your aunt... Because all of twists and flows, entwining endlessly, everywhere.
But, my story. My story will also be a true and factual story. Some of it can be proved; in some cases, you'll just have to believe what I describe, what I say happens, even though you may wish that I was lying, that no, that couldn't have taken place. This story will happen to a family exactly like my own -- so alike, in fact, that if you saw us together in public, you would shake your head and think you were either drunk, or seeing double. We share the same birthdays and eye color, the same tics and talents. We've lived right across the street from each other, everywhere we've ever lived, all our lives. Our brittle joys and durable sorrows are indistinguishable; in fact, the only difference is this: late in the tale, my family gets a beagle named Bourbon, even though my dad wanted a boxer. The family across the street gets their dog on exactly the same day -- and even though the dad wanted a rottweiler, they ended up with a basset they named Rotgut.
So. Let's meet them.
Here is the Hertz family. A big group, for the late 1950's. We're meeting them as they stand outside their newly-purchased three-bedroom home in rural Pennsylvania, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh PA. The house has pale blue aluminum siding and an asphalt shingle roof. A garage door at one end of the basement. The house stands on a double lot, halfway down a steep hill, at the end of the narrow, single-lane blacktopped street, with one row of newly construction homes facing each other across it, making what there is of a neighborhood.
The Dad is Warren Wallace Hertz Jr. He prefers the nickname Hans. No one knows why. He's 30, stands 5'10" tall, weighs about 125 lb, and is proud of having a 28-inch waist. Warren was married once before, to a woman name Prudence. Together, he and Prue had five children. Now, standing here to meet us, Warren has his four sons with him, and somewhere, Prudence has their daughter. We can't know whether or not Warren thinks about his former wife and his daughter, because he's not given to talking about much of anything. He has a high-school diploma, was in the United States Army Air Force at the end of World War Two, training as a tail gunner. He flew over part of Mexico once. He hs always wanted to be an electrical engineer. He likes to drink beer. In his current job, he travels 50 miles round trip every day, to service vending machines in Pittsburgh -- he occasionally brings home candy bars for the kids, and the used coffee grounds, which he piles by the basement door. He says they will make good mulch.
Beside Warren is Jane. Jane is 20, and this is also her second marriage. There were no children from her first. Well, as her first marriage was annulled, by her parents, Myrna and Stan Roth, maybe this is her first marriage after all. Jane is petite and quite pretty, with sleek dark hair that turns under at her neck, lovely skin, and an interesting cast in one eye, from when she was a kid of about ten, and her younger brother Jake hit her with a dart, and she needed an operation. Now she wears those cat's-eye reading glasses, with the rhinestones at the corner. Her nails are polished, a maroon almost identical to the big new Mercury convertible she and Warren had decided to sell, to buy the new house the new family was all going to live in together now, and be happy.
The tallest of the boys is Warren Wallace Hertz III. His family nickname for him is Fizzy, or Fizz, which he hates. Warren is 11, and a chubby with thick straight brown hair. He is a dreamy, quiet boy in public. He likes to read and draw pictures, and would prefer never to go outside if he can help it. He is clumsy at sports, although he can run faster than you would think. He is in the 7th grade at the local elementary school, and he's also a member of a Cub Scout Den. He hopes to become a Boy Scout soon, but he's having trouble figuring out the knot diagrams for the test he has to take. He generally has a good appetite, but he doesn't like canned green peas.
The next boy, the one with the dark curly hair and the big dark eyes, is Gregory. Or Greggy, as the family calls him. Greggy is an outgoing boy, who loves to meet and talk with strangers. He has a rich fantasy life which he sometimes can't distinguish from reality, and is strong for his size and age. He and Warren are especially close. Greggy is in the fourth grade in the same school with Warren.
Next, we have the blond son, Nelson, who has brooding brown eyes, and seems watchful, as though someone is going to sneak up behind him to steal something. Nelson is in the third grade. He is considered bright, like all his brothers, though Warren is acknowledged as the smart one. Nelson is serious and thoughtful, and usually says very little.
Finally, there's Elliot, the youngest, who's just starting first grade, even though he's old enough to be in second. (There was apparently some problem with his reading, at his last school, and he was held back, until his teachers realized that he needed reading glasses) He's small for his age, with dirty blond hair and fleshy lips. His eyeglasses are an indistinct yellow-grey color, and make his eyes look smaller than they are. Elliot is actually a fraternal twin. His sister, Ellen, is the girl their mother Prudence took after the divorce, to live with her somewhere else. Elliot was only four at the time, and doesn't seem to remember any of this.
One more thing, before we let the Hertz family go inside and finish unpacking. Get themselves nice and settled. All four of these boys have recently been institutionalized, at a Church-supervised orphanage north of Pittsburgh. Warren lived there, at The Home, for a year and a half, and was taken out of the orphanage a year ago now; he was initially told by his dad that Warren would be living with his paternal grandparents, Warren Wallace Hertz Sr. and his wife Marcia, in Florida, but that turned out not to be the case. The three younger brothers, who all lived at The Home for nearly twice as long as their oldest brother, just arrived here, to this new home, from the orphanage yesterday.
(My own family, remember, lives just across the street. We're peeking through the curtains, wondering who these new people are, and whether or not they'll fit into the neighborhood. Whether they'll notice what goes on with us. Time surely tell. And we never miss a thing)
So. There we are. And as they say in the entertainment business: the stage is set, the actors are made up, in costume, and going over their lines. Soon the curtain will rise, and the first act will begin. Bring your popcorn and a hanky. It's that kind of show.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman