Vindicating the Kaiser
From then on, I was fascinated by the mystique of it all. I remember raising my head like a periscope above the top of the pew and looking two rows back to study the Kaiser's face. If my grandmother caught me staring, she pinched the back of my leg just below my knee. I would squint in pain, slump down like a feed sack, and twist back to face the front. Even so, I was able to steal some long looks, and I saw that his face was deeply pocked and leathery. Once at an after-church dinner, I noticed that something wet and reddish-brown had pooled in one of those giant pockmarks. It looked like blood, and lent strong credence to some of Sonny's warnings. I asked my grandmother about it, and she whispered that it was just Red Ribbon Tobacco. From that day on, I connected Red Ribbon with blood and pockmarks, and stayed well clear of it.
One morning before church started, I lingered to stare at Kaiser Bill through the parted burlap curtains that divided the Sunday school rooms. His eyes met mine, and he smiled ever so slightly and winked at me. It was clear that I had been discovered, and a sudden rush of fear made me quickly turn away.
My attention turned to the services, which had started with the Lord's Prayer. My grandmother made me memorize the prayer before I even knew how to pledge allegiance to the flag. But there was a part of the Lord's Prayer I always skipped. It was the part about "forgiving our debtors."
The omission came as a result of innocent confusion. Once I saw my grandmother getting dressed for church, putting layers of gadgets on her torso-things that laced and buckled. I pointed to her breasts and asked what they were. In a soft voice, she said they were "dinners." She told me how God put them there for the nourishment of tiny babies but that I should not be referring to a lady's chest as a matter of daily conversation.
"Dinners are wonderfully private, and young boys don't talk about them in public," she explained. She went on to say that if I was ever in a situation where I absolutely must refer to them, "dinners" would be both polite and respectful to any ladies present. Her name for breasts made good sense to me. I accepted that "dinners" was functionally descriptive, but not for daily conversation-especially when we had company.
Then came the mixup. During the Lord's Prayer, I noticed the part about forgiving our debtors. I thought the preacher was saying, "as we forgive our dinners." Ah, I thought, dinners must be something grown people could say in public, but not me. So every time we came to that part, I just skipped the sentence altogether. I figured my grandmother would be especially proud of me.
After services were over the unthinkable happened. Kaiser Bill invited me out to his farm to ride his horse. As I looked into his face, I quivered with fright. But the lure of an afternoon on horseback and my grandmother's nods of reassurance seemed to make it okay.
We drove out to the farm in his faded flatbed truck. I don't think I took my eyes off the floorboard except when I cut them slightly to the side to study his gnarled hand on the gearshift knob. It was the size of a baseball mitt, with wadded-up fingernails that resembled melted plastic spoons. My grandmother had taught me to respect the hands of toil. "Hard work is honorable," she said, "and God loves working men." I was glad I studied the Kaiser's hands. My heart relaxed into a rhythm of relief-the same feeling one gets when a hound comes at him with curled lips, but then wags his tail.
Kaiser Bill's farm on Five Notch Road looked weathered and tired. The barn had such a lean to it that at high noon there was still a wide shadow on one side. He had a long hen crib nailed to it, and it hung at a steep enough angle that eggs rolled forward and stopped at the lips of the boxes.
"The barn ain't plumb, but my eggs gather easy," he said.
The trepidation I felt about going to his farm was erased as soon as he lifted me up onto the back of his plow horse, "Gert." I rode her bareback except for a feed sack blanket, and she had that good horse smell-like damp hay. I rode alongside Kaiser Bill as he repaired fences that day, re-stretching a section where a tree had fallen across it.
"Dutch elm disease," he explained, peeling back the powdery bark. "I wish it would infect the bull nettles instead, but I guess that won't happen. It's nature's irony-like how Bermuda grass grows in my walk but not my yard."
That first visit to the farm was the beginning of a bond between a still-malleable boy, and a man not yet willing to concede to uselessness. Soon it seemed I was out at Kaiser's farm more than I was home. I helped him with chores, fed the animals, and rode Gert to the end of Five Notch Road and back every Saturday.
In the evenings we sat together on the porch swing, celebrating the red-rouge Texas sky. We shared cookies and iced tea, and to this day I am still fascinated by his ability to safely partition the cookies from the Red Ribbon tobacco in his mouth. There was something confessional about those evenings on the porch, and I told him things about my life that only my pillow knew.
My mother left me when I was six months old, and I felt forever stained by that fact. When kids asked me why I lived with my grandmother, I reached for the paints that would portray my mother at her best, but they were painfully shallow colors. I needed to salvage honor from disgrace, so I told my friends she was a Cherokee Indian. I told them that she had died from cholera, a disease once so rampant that most kids had seen it carved on at least one relative's tombstone. I knew there was something very honorable about being Cherokee, and I was especially proud of having embellished my mother's character.
I didn't have to lie so much about my dad, because his exploits were certifiable. His work in freelance aviation called him to strange places around the world, and my telegram collection included cables from Rangoon, Calcutta, Bombay, and Djakarta. His cable address, "Tailwind," best summed it up. He was forever rushing away, and my memories of him are limited to the three short years we lived together. I saved all his telegrams in a shoebox until time and frequent handling and refolding caused the strips of words to crumble into meaningless shards of the alphabet.
My favorite picture of Dad was the one in front of the Great Pyramids. That day he wore a fez and a crisp khaki uniform with an abundance of pockets on it. The photo captures a swirl of dust behind him, and one can almost hear the sound of the wind squeaking across the hot sand. The smile on his face is fleeting-not lasting beyond the click of the camera shutter. I bet that as soon as the photo was taken, his lips returned to their tight, pursed line. In all my memories of him, I never recall him genuinely laughing. He was a serious man, and his lifestyle was as hurried as his death, at age 41.
It wouldn't be fair to either man to say that Kaiser Bill became my father figure, but suddenly fate thrust the comparison upon me. On one of the weekends I spent with him, we stayed up late Saturday night listening to my favorite radio serial, Gangbusters. I awoke the next morning to crowing roosters, but something was missing from daybreak's usual sensory cues. Butter-Nut Coffee. I didn't smell that special coffee. I got out of the bed and skipped through the living room toward the kitchen. The Venetian blinds were tilted, and the ribbons of sunlight on the floor inspired my hopscotch gait. The coffeepot sat washed and empty, like we left it the night before. Suddenly I knew there was something very different about this day. I moved in quiet half steps down the hall to the bathroom, its door standing open. Kaiser Bill was on the commode; his pajama bottoms pulled down below his knees, with a copy of Argosy Magazine resting on the elastic waste band like a little tray. He was leaning forward slightly-his hands clasped and folded across his knees. He didn't seem to know I was there. Then I looked into his unblinking eyes. The kind blue pupils were gone, and there was only gray.
Kaiser Bill's funeral was the only one I ever attended besides my dad's. There weren't many people there, and most were strangers. Then I saw Sonny Cox sitting on a crowded sofa in the only room where smoking was allowed. I squared my shoulders and marched right up to him as he fumbled his cigarette trying to stand up. I wanted him to know right then and there that he was dead wrong about the dirt daubers, and that Kaiser Bill had never once been bowling.
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