August 2007

John Michael Cummings


John Michael Cummings John Michael Cummings's short stories and essays have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Iowa Review. He has fiction forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review and The Kenyon Review. His first novel, The House of My Father, will be published by Penguin in the summer of 2008.

Indians And Teddy Bears Were Here First

I poked through the Nakakoji Land Development website until "Welcome to Sunrise Hills" popped up on the dusty screen, in big cloud-like letters floating through fancy English Tudor windows open to a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in autumn.

"Wow," I couldn't help but say aloud in the school's computer lab.

"Set amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and encompassing more than 1,000 acres with 36-holes of championship golf, 6 tennis courts, skiing, swimming, fishing, and more—all just 58 miles from the nation's Capitol and minutes away from historic Harpers Ferry. Homesites from $235,000; homes from $329,000."

So this was where my grandfather lived now?

With a devilish grin, I emailed the page to my mother at work, then logged onto the school's message board. There were a few messages from last evening about the school protest, mostly that everyone should be suing the cops for brutality. But as I scrolled on down the screen, I saw a posting from the last few days I was more interested in.

Re: Bayonet! (My suspicions)—Whoever found Bolívar's bayonet is probably being paid to keep shut. I'm guessing one of its own—a park archaeologist.

� by: bayonettalk101

Re: Bayonet! (My suspicions)—Fellow sleuths: here's one of my blogs (from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK "X-File"...another historical artifact, like the Ark of the Covenant recovered from the Temple in Jerusalem, has been locked in a crate and put in a giant warehouse somewhere in Harpers Ferry, never to be seen again—all to ensure that no history books will have to be rewritten and that no history professor will have to revise the lecture that he has been giving for the last 140 years..." Edit me:

—by: History Dick

I signed off and hurried back to class. At 3:50, when Severe St. Cyr finally let us go, assigning twenty pages of French by tomorrow, I made a beeline for Granddad's gated community, printed-out directions in hand. In my heart I had a special kind of invitation: the school protest. It was just the kind of rebellious event I was sure he'd admire.

I hadn't seen Granddad in a full year, and, honestly, until now, I doubted that he would have wanted to see me again. After Grandma died last year, Mom tried to make me into his teddy bear or something—you know, be a cute kid for him to watch baseball games with, make him all happy again. At the time, he was in a club of the worst kind, the Harpers Ferry widower's club—short, old Irish men with bad knees who wore the same brown slacks everyday and stood out on the sidewalk as if not sure which house was theirs. Everyone expected him to die of grief and loneliness. We watched a few Orioles games together. He told me to do well in school. I even mowed his lawn.

But for some reason, that was the end of it. He acted like he wanted me to stop visiting—or like he wanted to be somewhere else. Growing up, I hadn't known him very well. Suddenly, I was visiting him. Suddenly, I wasn't. I was too confused to be hurt.

Then, not long after, he went off the deep end. He traded in his old car for a flashy new one and took half a dozen trips to Florida. With Grandma, the farthest he had ever gone was 22 miles to Berryville, Virginia, for the Apple Blossom Parade. He started wearing spandex pants, behaving like a man half his age. He even sold the treasured old Harpers Ferry house he and Grandma had lived in for forty years and moved—not saying where for the longest while. Mom said good riddance. She thought he was perfectly ridiculous.

Secretly, I thought he was cool for finally getting a life. With Grandma, he had been a boring husband. She had bossed him around, and all he ever did was nod like her servant. He drove her to the Women's Club every Thursday. The rest of the time he sat in his air-conditioned living room and played around with his DVD recorder. He even kept a bird feeder. Dad said that was the problem with men who raised only daughters.

Then, last week, Mom told me Granddad was back in the area, living in Sunrise Hills. So, today, with some extra time between classes, I decided to check out where he lived. Using Google, Yahoo! People Search, and MapQuest, a guy in Japan could find my grandfather as easily as anyone in this town. Honestly, I couldn't wait to see him again, to see how different he had become. Telling him about the student protest was the perfect excuse.

Walking out Washington Street, I passed the oldest Harpers Ferry houses. All had big names. "Our Lady of Longstreet" was a yellow mansion with curvy white columns. "McClellan's Charge" and "Burnside's Brigade" were not imposing structures, but actually adorable brick bungalows with white candles in the windows.

Exactly at the Bolivar town limits, the red, white, and blue center lines that were the pride of Harpers Ferry ended, and the road continued on, unlined and cracked up. The sidewalk stopped, too, replaced by a weedy shoulder littered with junk cars and broken glass. Years ago, someone had spray-painted "Eat me" across the "Entering Bolivar" sign, but the "Leaving Bolivar" sign across the road, they left alone. That one was joke enough. "Leaving Bolivar," it read. "Please come back!" Harpers Ferrians still howled about that.

Following the map, deeper and deeper into Bolivar I went, past pool halls with busted up Coke machines in front, a closed KFC Express, and a tavern called The Little Brown Jug. Shirtless black kids were out on every corner, gawking at the whitey coming through.

At Tarton Street, buildings were nothing but cinderblock shells. What stoplights there were, were blinking red. Graffiti was everything—on telephone poles, dilapidated porches. Window fronts were black and cruddy, doors boarded up. Tops of parking meters were missing. Yellowed newspapers lay on the walk.

I came to a stop, looking down at the map. This couldn't be right. MapQuest must have screwed up.

Ahead stood Senator Dove's new roadside sign that read, "Federal Restoration Project. History of Old Bolivar Campaign. Please donate your time." There was even a smiley face underneath.

I turned left, past a burnt-out laundry van, then right, down a dirt street full of little aluminum-siding houses every shade of blue and gray.

I followed MapQuest to the tee, but somewhere on River Street, I managed to get completely lost. Dogs were barking all around me, and overhead was the sizzle of sagging power lines, like black snakes frying on the sky. I ended up cutting through weedy lots, crossing patches of woods, and roaming down pig paths full of beer can tabs. Where in the hell was I? Granddad would never live around here.

I went farther than I thought I should, over a concrete bridge without guard rails, to a potholed area of street. To get my bearings, I tromped out into an open field, my sneaker laces picking up thistle burrs. Then, over the rise, I came to a stop as if having walked up on a flying saucer. Just past the drooping mulberry trees was an incredible sight—emerald-green grass to the horizon, new asphalt streets the color of chocolate, and a hundred little red roofs pitched sharply against the sky. A brand-new, perfect little town!

I ran forward into a little park in the community. There were picnic tables the color of my father's good oxblood shoes, slides as shiny as bumpers, and bright-orange rocking horses mounted to the ground by truck springs painted baby-blue. There was even an old-time bandstand with an American flag over it—all surrounded by a chain-link fence shimmering a diamond wire pattern high and wide enough to keep out King Kong.

"This is it!" I said to myself, spinning around.

Somehow I had taken the worst streets here, but this was definitely it.

"Sunrise Hills," it said on a big sign off to the right. "Private Community." I had to say the words again. "Private Community?"

Nearby was a smaller sign. "Lakefront Home Sites. Equestrian facilities by appointment/reservation only." I had only one thought—"Shit, this is nicer than Harpers Ferry! Tennis court, golf course, lake." Actually, two thoughts. "He's rich!" I could hear my mother popping out her miserable laugh.

I jogged along the shiny chain-link fence until I came to the security kiosk, where a potbellied guard leaned out. He seemed to remember me, or thought he knew me. He pointed down over the hill toward the lake. My grandfather, he told me, was at the café by the caddie cars. Stay off the grass, he added.

As I passed through the main gate, I had the feeling of entering a futuristic world. Spotless grass. Trees that looked cloned. No broken glass on the street. It was a night and day difference compared to the old houses on Tarton Street. Made me wonder who would put a private community so close to the worst houses around, where it would gloat about its money and not care how bad off anyone else was.

I wandered around the parking lots filled with new cars, most with Maryland and Virginia plates. There were no signs of black people in here, no plastic crucifixes over the mirrors, no KFC boxes on front seats, no fishing poles in back. These Audis and Toyotas were spotless, many with colorful kayaks on the roof, beachballs and baby strollers in the backseat.

Finally I came upon a red sportscar, a Sierra XL with a personalized license plate—REBORN. I peered through the back window. Just a clothes hanger hooked above the backseat window. In the glass I saw the reflection of a man looking down at me from the porch above. I whirled around—Granddad!

I hardly recognized him, he looked so different. Wearing a pumpkin-colored shirt and khaki-tan shorts, he looked like a tourist from the KOA campground.

"Well, hello," he said, standing up straight over a planter of red flowers and smiling. "I see you found me." He glanced around the cars behind me. "Your brother with you?"

When I shook my head, he waved me up the patio steps. I charged up, running into a lady wearing a belt so tight it squeezed her in the middle like an ant.

"Monica," Granddad said, putting down a nifty green sprinkler bucket, "this is one of Katie's boys."

I drew back into infinity. Granddad had a "friend." She looked pretty much as older women do, standing there as if she owned not only the porch but the whole community as well, smiling with perfect fake teeth. She said hello in a dry, fancy voice. All the while, a car alarm was going off in my mind.

Granddad has a girlfriend!

Granddad has a girlfriend!

Granddad has a girlfriend!

He went into hospitality mode, and we all sat at an iron table under a big yellow umbrella. Granddad had apparently outgrown his spandex phase because he was wearing cargo shorts, which hung down his short legs like saddlebags. He had on a sporty black wristwatch and wire-frame glasses that made him look retired and rich. All the years he had been married to Grandma, he never wore anything other than brown slacks and Arrow shirts. He had lost weight, too, and if he was still limping, I sure didn't see it. Some of his hair had grown back, too. Life inside this fence, with this woman, had made him younger. He looked like Theodore Roosevelt with one of "The Golden Girls."

"I was just reading about your classmates," he said, nodding at a newspaper on the table.

When I caught sight of "Protesting Students" in the headline, I sat up and jabbed my thumb against my chest. "I was in it!"

"Oh, you were in it?" he said back, getting excited, too.

He looked over at this woman. I sat nodding my head off. And just like that, it seemed I was in his good graces.

"But have you seen this article, dear?" asked this woman.

Her voice was every kid's nightmare. It had the quintessential nasally, disapproving sound of a librarian. Granddad slid the newspaper under my nose.

Protesting Students Miss the Point of Bolívar's Bayonet

HARPERS FERRY, WV. (June 3) �—Harpers Ferry police and mounted park rangers dispersed a crowd of student protesters Friday on the historic streets of Harpers Ferry. Several cases of vandalism—

I glanced up at Granddad. Vandalism? There was no vandalism. I swear. He sat giving me a look that I couldn't easily read. Not disapproval exactly. Not admiration either. I read on.

—there were no arrests, however, and only one minor injury was reported.

Dozens of Harpers Ferry High students took part in the protest calling for the town to change its name to Bolivar and be incorporated into the neighboring town by the same name, in light of a recent historical find some say challenges the validity of historical accounts of the region. In March, a socket-type bayonet reportedly containing Simón Bolívar's seal was uncovered by park authorities, throwing into question the town's historical bragging rights—the American Civil War or Bolívar's South American war of liberation? Simón Bolívar, nicknamed "George Washington of South America," is renowned for leading bloody revolts against Spanish authority in Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia in the early 1800s. Bolivar, West Virginia, ranks as one of the state's poorest towns.

Friday's protest took place on historic High Street in front of scores of landmark scenic homes. Students blocked holiday traffic, cheering and waving banners, in a sixties style sit-in that lasted some four hours and drew media attention as far away as Frederick, Maryland. Park authorities said the interruption, which caused only minor traffic jams in the historic town, had no lasting effect on tourism on the first weekend of summer. An estimated one million tourists visit the lower town each summer.

According to Harpers Ferry Principal Walter Higgins, the purpose of the gathering was to encourage school spirit in civic action. A petition calling for a referendum has collected nearly three hundred signatures, he said.

"If this was some sort of civics lesson, they missed the point," said Harpers Ferry third-term Mayor Alexander Baxtor. "This kind of behavior sends the wrong message to the town's youth—that change can be demanded."

I sat stunned. They were out of their minds. We had done a good thing—no, a great thing! What could be better than knocking Harpers Ferry whites down a peg?

Granddad, putting the newspaper aside, tried to make light of the moment. He asked about school, home, and my mother, and I kept the answers simple. All the while, a big worry was flashing in my mind—what vandalism? No one had gotten out of hand, unless Gregg or Corn Puff had done something. What would Granddad think of me now?

As I looked down at the fancy iced tea glasses, then around at the hundreds upon hundreds of yards of spotless green grass set against the blue mountains, gone was feeling of this being a perfect place. Instead, it felt like we were sitting on an Indian burial ground or something.

Soon Granddad ran out of small-talk, and he and Monica were passing glances.

"You know, I'm surprised they let you in," he said. "They're usually pretty good about that." He looked over at her. "All visitors must be announced. That's what the sign says."

She reached across the small table and, with a fancy paper napkin with lettering on it, wiped up the water ring left by my glass.

"Well, they should be pretty good about it," she said, dabbing the spot dry. "We pay them enough."

She had perfect older skin and bright-red fingernails, and for that I wondered if she was a rich widow. Finally, Granddad cleared his throat and gave me a furrowed look.

"Son, did your mother ask you come here for some reason?"

"Oh, now Roy," Monica said, with a big phony smile, "Katie would never do that."

She tapped him on the hand, then asked me how my mother was, sounding as if she knew her—knew her well. I said fine, for the second or third time. She took over the conversation from this point on, saying she didn't know how my mother managed two boys where we lived, surrounded by all those tourists. My mother should move up the hill, she said, to one of those quiet backstreets. Katie should do this, Katie should do that. All the while, Granddad sat quietly, his hand having been tapped.

Then we all started inside, with Granddad holding the door for me. He and I sat on a bright, flowery sofa, and Monica on a TV chair made of black leather. Above her on a shelf was a strange lizard figurine with a head that came out as a water sprinkler. Beside it was a small cactus. On the walls were sailing pictures and paintings of clowns. There was a coffee table made entirely of green glass, and a vanity mirror curved like a woman. I looked on around the room. Except for the wind chimes outside, I didn't see one thing from his old house. No heavy-framed, old pictures of Grandma, no chipped antiques, and no rolling ball clock.

"I tell you what's got me worried," Granddad said, keeping the conversation on the Orioles. "The outfield. Without Castleberry, they've got no speed."

"They can always move Lowenstein over to center and put Williams in right," I said, watching Monica get up.

As she stepped past me toward the kitchen, I couldn't help but look at her figure. She was smaller than my mother, but wore a belt as wide as my brother's weight-lifting belt. Red and glossy, it looked like a bow around her middle. Grandma had been at least twice as fat and would have never worn hula hoop earrings.

"Josh," she said from the refrigerator, "Roy tells me you want to be an artist."

"That reminds me," Granddad said. "You should talk to your counselor about scholarships."

"She said wait till my junior year."

"Wait until your junior year?" he said. "That's ridiculous."

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Monica wheel out a fancy cart full of the tiniest, diamond-shaped sandwiches. As Granddad and I made room for her, she told me she had once dabbled in pastels herself. She had a voice that made me think of a boarding school. I could also tell she wasn't from Jefferson County just by the way she wheeled the little cart. She made it do all the work.

Granddad, meanwhile, went on shaking his head over my counselor, grumbling that this wait-and-do-nothing attitude was typical of people around here.

"Son," he said finally, "we've got to get you out of this place."

Monica looked at the side of his head as if there was a gaping hole in it.

"Why, Roy?"

He turned to her. "Well, he's not like his brother, dear."

"I know, but where? He can't just go anywhere," she said. Her smile turned awful-looking. "I mean, he's grown up here."

"Corcoran School of Art & Design," I started spelling out for her, too. "500 Seventeenth Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20004..."

Granddad, after giving me a blank look, said to her, "Well, I grew up here, too, dear."

"But you, dear," she said toward his ear, as if he was hard of hearing, "didn't leave."

In that instant, I knew everything. I knew that this condo was hers, that she had all the money, and that she was in charge. I even knew why he never loved Grandma, as Mom said it, or at least why he had always been so quiet around her, if he was ever around her. His life, even after Grandma, was still on hold.

Monica, meanwhile, went on about how hard it would be for me "adjusting" to living in D.C., that it would be a lonely place. She reminded me that my family was from here. She used the word heritage. This was my heritage, she said.

"Why?" she asked me again. "Why do you want to go there, Josh?"

Why? No one asked why. But she didn't sound like my father who spoke out of fear. She sounded worse—smart.

"I think maybe your counselor's right," she said. "You should wait until you get a better idea of what—"

"No, no," said Granddad, pulling his chair up to the table, "he should plan."

"Plan, yes," she said back, shaking her head, "but I just don't think we should be giving anybody any unrealistic expectations."

She said this like the name of a book. When she asked me when I had been to D.C. last and I said five years ago, in the fourth grade, back came her awful smile. Not that she had pink sandwich guck between her teeth, but it had a definite way of putting me down.

"You two make it sound like this is some horrible place," she said, putting her sandwich down.

You better believe horrible. She just didn't understand. She had this attitude that all of Harpers Ferry was so charming and quaint, with its pretty little shops and grand views. She sounded just like a tourist. She was obviously sheltered back here in this fancy place.

"What about schools around here?" she said. "They have a good art program at Longwood. That would be more realistic."

Longwood Smongwood! My stupid art teacher had gone there and wanted all his students to follow in his footsteps. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I was better than a stupid West Virginia teacher's college.

"Why don't you get a summer job at one of the museums here in town first?" she went on.

The woman wouldn't stop.

"Young man, you're living in one of the most historically rich, scenic areas of the country—I mean, as an artist, I would think you would flourish here!"

I hated her. She had found my pain. We sat eating quietly. The ham spread had no taste, the bread was stale, and the iced tea was warm. I put my food back on the plate—I had lost my appetite—and went back to looking around the room. Acrylic rugs. Lavender curtains. Lots of what Mom would call imitation-wood furniture. Granddad was living like a mousy yuppie.

Monica, having calmed down, helped herself to another bite-sized sandwich, then wiped her lips with her pinky, which she held out as if to have fitted with a diamond ring.

"Roy—hmm, I think I put in too much dill—do you remember that time—" She stopped, looked over at me, and, suddenly pretending to be friendly, asked me if I at least enjoyed my art class up at the high school, if I had a good teacher, and if he taught watercolors.

"He's okay," I mumbled.

"Just okay?"

"He's too easy now. Paint by numbers stuff."

I was just trying to get through the rest of the visit. But I only made things worse again when I said Mr. Thompson had never been out of West Virginia, and I could hear myself trying to sound like a big-shot when I said he had never seen van Gogh's "Gardens of the Sunlight" or Picasso's "Tragedy" at the National Gallery of Art.

"Van Gogh himself," she said right back, "never saw a city until he was 28."

"Is that right?" Granddad said, trying to make us all agreeable now.

Monica nodded a superior little nod.

"Well, I guess it doesn't matter with art," he said.

She kept looking at me. And the sorer I felt, the more she looked. She hated me, and the feeling was mutual. When she asked me if I drew every day, I said no. When she asked me if I carried a sketchpad everywhere I went, I was forced to say no again. When she asked me if I kept a journal, read art magazines, talked to local artists, I was beginning to feel taken apart.

"Why the rush, Josh?" she finally asked.

I'd never answer her now, even if she were the last person on earth.

"Because, Monica, dear," Granddad said, "he doesn't want to end up like me."

Suddenly, she was full of apology. When she bent down to kiss his bald head, I looked away. Granddad won the argument for both of us, but at his own expense.

Minutes later, when he walked me outside, he was all smiles and said that Monica was just playing Devil's advocate. She was the devil all right.

"So," he said, heading me over to the picnic tables, which was the same as escorting me off the grounds, "who do you think was here first—Simón Bolívar or John Brown? It's in all the papers."

I looked at him, daring him to speak of what really mattered. It wasn't this fancy show-off place he was living in, right in the face of all the poor blacks. It wasn't that Mom had disowned him for having a girlfriend now at 70, after having been married to Grandma for a hundred years. It wasn't even that he had picked one a hundred times worse than Grandma—more critical, snooty, and condescending. I mean, didn't he learn his lesson the first time? How could he talk to me about life or the city? It was that, after a year, I had to come and find him. He had left me behind like a worn-out teddy bear.

"The Indians," I said, walking on toward the gate by myself. "The Indians were here first."




John Michael Cummings: Fiction
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 36The Cortland Review