Friday, June 21, 2013

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 2nd Tale (Unexpected Visitors)

twelve tales in another town: the 2nd tale (unexpected visitors)
by Douglas Messerli

My parents were basically honest folk, who taught my sister, brother, and me that lying was not a good thing to do, which perhaps accounts for my determined decision in writing these memoirs of speaking only the truth, even admitting when my memory might be in question—despite the fact that, as I have revealed throughout, I have not always told the truth, particularly early on about my sexuality and various actions throughout my life. It seems that perhaps I can make up for any lies in my life by telling the truth, as best I know it, in the numerous volumes of my annual memoirs.

       Even my parents, however, were occasionally caught in a fib. The most notable of these in my childhood was when one my father’s cousins, Irwin, would suddenly arrive in town. I can’t really remember what Irwin even looked like, or how he was related. I suppose him to be one of the numerous relatives from the Zumbach tribe, a large conglomerate of my father’s cousins who farmed, and, through my mother’s sister and the marriage in the previous generation of two great aunts on my mother’s side to two Zumbach brothers, popped up regularly at all our family reunions. Irwin, who apparently lived in Arkansas, was, I realized the one time I did see him, just a step up from a hillbilly, a real “hick” of a person whom my parents, in their bourgeois journey from farm to noted town leaders, did not even be want to be seen with. When Irwin arrived the two or three times he visited, he would come early in the morning, beginning to shout out his greetings even before he had exited the car or truck or whatever vehicle he was driving.

      Those greetings, when we were still gathered about the breakfast table, resulted each time in looks of complete terror sweeping across my parent’s faces, followed by an immediate attempt to turn off all lights and a rush of both my brother and me into a dark bedroom, where my mother would whisper, “ you must all be quiet.”  For young children there was something terrifying about this suddenly enforced quietude, particularly when the man outside, now pounding upon the front door, had only grown louder in his call outs of my parent’s Christian names: “John, Lorna, where are you? You there?”

      Clearly, even my younger brother must have known that we were most certainly not at home, as our mother gestured for us to duck down as he went around the house, peering into window after window in search of his disappeared kinfolk. I’m sure our car, still in driveway, must have given us away, for no matter how long we lay low Irwin continued his assault, making a ruckus loud enough, certainly, to attract the small-town neighbors of Newhall over most of the village. “John, Lorna, are you there?” After a while, I began to giggle, my mother frowningly gesturing with a finger pushed up against her lips. Of course, that made me giggle even more, my brother simultaneously, in his increasingly curiosity about the would-be intruder, raising his head higher and higher.

       Each time when Irwin suddenly descended upon us in this matter, my parents ultimately gave in, probably because of the neighbors, granting him a belated entrance to our house, muttering, I am sure, something about having slept late or having been unable to hear him—an outright lie that even someone as apparently ignorant as he must have sensed.

       To be fair, it was not only that John and Lorna were “embarrassed” about their country cousin, but because, so I ascertained, that his visits also were linked to requests for money which, with two children and a third on the way, by young father and mother could ill-afford to offer as a never-to-be-paid-back loan. My father, in fact, was a true “man of the people,” embarrassing me, years later, for his willingness to talk to literally anyone he might meet in a café, no matter how down-and-out or just plain stupid the man or woman might be. Oddly enough, I now react the same to nearly anyone I meet in a bar—although, I admit, the bars I frequent attract a much more sophisticated clientele than my father’s sandwich shops. My dear friend Charles Bernstein, once replied—after my telling him of the fascinating conversation I had just had at a bar—that he believed he had never spoken to any stranger in a bar or restaurant. “Pity, I replied. It’s there I’ve had some of the most elucidating conversations of my life.”        

       Nonetheless, my parents were “embarrassed” by cousin Irwin, not only because of the width of his palm-treed ties, the sweat dripping down the side, back, and front of his unironed shirts, and the height of his pants cuff, but because of the loudness of his voice and the coarseness of his language. Upon one of the two or three visits he actually dared to confront my father at his office as Superintendent of Schools, leaving my father’s poor secretary with something near to apoplexy.  “Irwin,” I remember father saying as he repeated the details of the onslaught to us at the dinner table, “you must never visit me at the office again.” Yet Irwin, obviously a true innocent, could hardly be expected to attend to that command, and I believe, after yet another home assault, he did show up in the holy halls of Newhall High.

     Oddly enough, the nearby farmer Zumbachs never visited us. Although my parents were friendly with several of the brothers, and, as a family we quite often visited my mother’s sister, Carol and Myron Zumbach, none of them except Carol ever crossed our doorway as far as I remember. The Zumbachs, as I relate in My Year 2000, grew, through their corporate farming, rather wealthy, controlling much of the richest farmland in Eastern Iowa, growing corn and soybeans and raising pigs, cows, and chickens.

      Years later, visiting my home and the environs with my senior editor, Diana Daves, we drove to the beautiful small town of Manchester, where my grandmother had lived, driving back along a highway that passed through the Zumbach farmlands. The sky had suddenly grown quite dark and, somewaht in worry and partly as a joke, I suggested to Diana that it looked a bit like a tornado was in the brew. She quickly grew nervous. “Don’t worry,” I quipped, slightly tauntingly “we can stop anywhere along here. Almost every farm contains a Zumbach, all relatives!” She laughed.

      Not truly believing my own bravado, I suddenly determined to turn down one of the gravel roads which cross at regular mile-long intervals through the Iowa countryside. “Let’s visit my Aunt Carol and Uncle Myron,” I laughed. “There you’ll see a real Iowa farm,” I boasted, recalling my horrible visits to their home, where the barns stood so close that large flies and mosquitoes hovered over everyone and everything. “Only I don’t really remember how to get there. Here let’s stop at this farm to ask directions.”

      A bit like the Irwin of my childhood, I boldly drove up to the back door, knocking to see if anyone was there. When there was no answer, I knocked once more, and called out, not at all certain that this was one of the famed Zumbach farmsteads. As Diana got out of the car in a kind of fascinated horror, I called in through the screen, “Anyone there?” Finally, after a few more hoots, a man stood up in the doorway. It was indeed one my father’s Zumbach cousins whom I recognized despite his age.

      “Doug,” he called out—my name throughout the midwest—what are you doing here? Hi, I responded, not exactly sure of his Zumbach surname. “I just stopped by to get directions to Myron’s.” He peered out. “Sorry, I was asleep,” and suddenly seeing Diana, paused a moment, as I introduced her. I am sure he was startled since presumably all my large Iowa families had long ago heard about my being gay. Who was this woman? he surely asked himself.

     “It’s up three intersections, over two to the right,” he responded.    

     “You see?” I asked Diana as we pulled away. “Out here,” I bragged, “everyone’s family.”

     And, sure enough, up three, over two we drove, uninvited, into the driveway of my uncle’s and aunt’s farm, Diana surely startled to encounter the primitiveness of it all—all those flies, mosquitoes and the barnyard stinks. They, my uncle and aunt (as well as the flies and misquotes) greeted us, however, with open arms, delighted that we’d found our way to them.

      This week, so I am told, my Uncle Myron died of cancer, leaving his wife, Carol, in a nearby hospice, where she is dying of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. My mother, who now has difficulty traveling, can no longer see her sister, and wouldn’t be recognized if she were to attempt a visit.

     To my knowledge, Irwin never returned after those two or three times in my childhood for another assault. And I don’t know if he still lives.

Los Angeles, June 19, 2013

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