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Nolde's Sun by Dennis Must - Emil Nolde's "Portrait of the Artist and His Wife," 1932, courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

by Dennis Must
  

Decades have passed and I still don't understand why a sequence of events that occurred over a span of three weeks caused a sun that never sleeps to rise in my consciousness. To this day it continues to burn, perhaps not as bright, but it does cast its glow over all aspects of my daily routine.

And the color of the sun is an Emile Nolde red. Like blood filtered through yolk. Luminescent, yet flesh-alive. As if it were a heart beating on the horizon that is shot through with a seraphic orange, an orange that erupts in the mind, curls off that star like fire hairs, and burns much of what the mind ingests to ash.

I mustn't get carried away. It's that damn Nolde sun. Let me attempt to explain. I reclined on our bungalow's porch one evening long ago in the company of my parents and their two best friends, Bernice and Thaddeus Richter, who had strolled up the hill from the house they occupied at the bottom of our street. Their daughter, Leila, two years older than me, babysat young Ben. Gently rocking on a swing secured to the porch's rafters by chains, I lay listening to the soft palaver of the adults. The four of them sat on the top step. My elementary school faced our house. It was my final year.

Soon wearying of their chatter, I concentrated instead on the celestial patterns the fireflies traced about me in the night air, when a distinct change in the timbre of the conversation occurred. The women's words began to bubble, interrupted by a nervous, high-pitched laughter; the men's voices sawed viola-like.

"Oh no, she wouldn't," I heard my father profess.

"That's how much you know about me," Mother answered.

"Tell him, Margaret," Bernice urged. "They think they know all there is to know about us. Just because we've undressed for them."

"It's always dark," Father said.

"You don't give me the pleasure often enough, Bernice," Mr. Richter chided.

"Well, maybe I just haven't any reason to."

Both women chortled. Mr. Richter lit a cigarette.

"Some men bring their wives flowers or gifts. Jake here brings home a satchel of the clothes he soils at the pottery each day. Sits down and asks 'What's for supper?' Pretty damn hard to get amorous about that."

"Same like Thaddeus, Margaret. Leaves for the foundry at 6:00 in the morning. Maybe not home before 7:00 at night. Smelling of flux and sulphur. Grease-covered like he were in a minstrel show. And he wants to lie on my white sheets that I've bleached and aired out in the sun. You men got to understand we ain't farm animals. We're bloomin' women . . . and we like, in fact enjoy, being romanced from time to time. Ain't that right, Margaret?"

Emil Nolde's "Sultry Evening," 1930, courtesy of Tigertail Virtual MuseumI heard no response until my father spoke up.

"Shit. Why didn't you both say so? If that's all it takes, I'll go upstairs right now, take a bath and sprinkle some talc on my jewels. And if it's flowers you want, by Jesus, just you wait here."

They laughed. Jake loped around the side of the house, and I sat up on the swing. Momentarily he was back standing before the others in the middle of our sidewalk; he'd dropped his trousers, and there sticking out between his legs-a hollyhock stalk. The showy clusters glowed reddish purple in the wavering streetlight.

"Jake, what will the neighbors think, for God's sake!"

Mother dropped to her knees, tugging up his pants, still laughing as were Bernice and Thaddeus. When my father sat back down, and the excitement evaporated, Mother absent-mindedly dropped her head onto his shoulder, cradling the heliotrope bouquet. Thaddeus draped an arm around Bernice. Soon the couples were dead silent. The fireflies now seemed more abundant.

Until laughter exploded in the street down near the McCart's house. Male and female laughter-there must have been several people who were raucously advancing. I sat up in the swing again.

"Jake, will you look at that?" Thaddeus enthused.

"There, Margaret. That's what you and Bernice talked about," Father crowed.

"Where do you think they're headed to?" Bernice asked.

"Out to Cascade Park. A pack of dogs following the bitch's scent-whadaya expect?"

"Two women, four men," Thaddeus corrected.

"OK, two bitches, Ted," Mother replied.

"Look at that one with the red hair, will you, Margaret? Do you think they'll ever get there in time?" Bernice giggled.

The auburn-haired girl, perhaps eighteen, was dressed in a Turkey-red summer shift, dropped low at the bodice. A sooty rouge caused her cheeks to cup unnaturally in the scarce light. She strolled with a cool insolence while two buzz-cut males swaggered at her sides. They were all strangers to our street. The other female, a wispy blond, hung back and appeared to be lost in thought. The young men in tow smoked jerkily.

We watched them wander up the street where they stopped directly under the streetlight. The redhead tossed a paper sack onto Miss Gresham's, our music teacher's, lawn, then erupted with the others in a communal hoot before disappearing into the dark.

"Westley, go get that bag. See what it is she dropped," Mother said.

"Oh for chrissake, Margaret, don't tell the kid to do that. God knows what's in it."

"Go ahead, Westley."

I dutifully fetched the bag and handed it to Mother. The adults all huddled to see what it contained.

Mother began to open it, then stopped. "You do it, Bernice."

"Give it to Ted," Bernice said. "He's seen everything, haven't you, Honey?"

Thaddeus Richter, without responding, took the bag from Mother and opened it. His head twitched backward.

"Whew!" He tossed the bag out into our lawn.

"Oh my God! Can you believe it, Margaret?" Bernice cried.

Mr. Richter spit into the grass.

"What a little whore. Oh, Jesus!" Mother exclaimed. Both women jumped up, brushing their chests as if a toxic powder had laced their garments. They waddled about in a choreographed dance of disgust. The men just howled.

"What was it?" I asked.

Nobody answered.

"Tell me. I want to know." Still no response.

Emil Nolde's "Wildly Dancing Children," 1909, courtesy of Mark Harden's ArtchiveI bounded off the porch to retrieve the bag, but was summarily collared by my father. "Go back up on the swing, Son. Or go to bed. It's something adult."

"Well, how's she going to give those whoresons what they're panting for if she's got the curse, Margaret?" Bernice asked.

"The bitch's in heat," Mother huffed. "I certainly wouldn't."

Both men snickered when Father said something to the effect that he "mightn't be Casanova, but he damn well sure wasn't a bloodhound, either."

"Let's follow them," Mother said.

"I'm game," Mr. Richter answered.

"You want to come, Westley?" Father asked.

"Oh, Jake," Mother scolded.

"He fetched the sack for you, didn't he?"

"He's only a kid."

"That's how much you know," Father said. "How else is he to find out? You going to tell him?"

"Well, it's for damn sure he ain't going to learn it from you . . . sticking gladioli between your legs."

"Weren't no gladioli, Margaret," Bernice softly intoned.

We all piled into our '36 Dodge sedan with Father taking the wheel, heading out to Cascade Park. By then I knew our journey had something to do with sex. It was a taboo subject, and I only sensed it because it left a strange but powerful smoldering at the drop of my spine. I felt at once nauseated and stimulated. Like Nolde's sun had begun to rise in my groin. Of course I didn't know that then.

The adults scanned the roadside. Mother suggested that Father turn off the headlights.

"There they are!" shouted Bernice.

Sitting up on a hillside overlooking the park's garishly lit entrance, the revelers shared a smoke. It passed among them like a firefly. I could barely make out their shadowy forms. The Jackrabbit plunged metallically into the gorge below to the delight of the amusement park's evening riders.

"They've finished," Father said.

"I'm not surprised," Mother replied.

It was an anticlimax for sure. The parents taking me on this little excursion to witness what adults do in the dark. (And that mysterious bag.) But the revelers only shared a cigarette, leaning detached against a mighty oak. As we drove the Richters home, words flitted about in the cloth-lined automobile much the same as yesterday, not going anywhere, a palpable, post-coital air hanging stale in our sedan.

Lelia's light was still on.

The following Monday from my arithmetic class I saw Mother suddenly appear on our front porch looking distraught, then rush down off the steps heading straight for the school.

"Westley, take your seat, please!" Mrs. Robbins shot up from her desk in the back of the room.

"Westley, come home immediately." Of no mind to explain her urgency, Mother waved me out of the classroom. "You play in the woods across from the Richters' house," she ejaculated, dragging me down the schoolhouse steps. "Maybe you know where he might be hiding."

"Tell me what's wrong, Ma!"

"Little Ben's wandered out of his backyard this morning while Bernice was hanging out the wash. He's been missing over an hour, and I fear the worst."

We raced down the hill. Ben was three years old, redheaded, and-unlike his laconic father-adventurous. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, "a handful" as Bernice described him. A week earlier he'd gotten lodged behind their claw-footed bathtub, his legs twisted around its hot and cold water pipes. Greasing the boy's legs with Vaseline, Mr. Richter pulled and tugged. Finally he shut off the water and hacksawed laughing Ben free. This day Bernice had disappeared into the cellar to retrieve another basket of wet laundry. Ben sat playing trucks in the sandbox.

Emil Nolde's "Autmn Sea VII," 1910, courtesy of Tigertail Virtual MuseumIn the pucker brush and alder across the street from the Richters', my friends and I'd built a camp out of screen doors salvaged when the grade-school bought new aluminum ones. I'd told young Ben about taking him to our secret camp one day. I said it was a long hike and he and I would pack a lunch and go on this journey into the woods.

"Ben keeps talking about going to 'Westley's camp,'" Bernice said whenever she saw me. "He wants me to pack him a lunch like I do for Thaddeus each morning," she'd erupt in a watery laugh, patting me on the shoulder. "'When is Westley coming down, Mom?' he badgers."

"You're such a good friend to him, Westley. He thinks you're his brother."

I liked the kid, especially his irrepressible spirit. Everything else was always too perfect in the Richters' household for me. Thaddeus had a good welding trade, working on all the semi-trailer rigs and large stamping machinery over at the tin mill. A Steinway sat in their living room for Leila to play, and every year Thaddeus went out and bought a top-of-the-line Chrysler station wagon for Bernice, indigo blue. She also kept crystal bowls freshly supplied with cellophane-wrapped candies on her end tables.

"White Shoulders," Mother answered when I inquired what kind of perfume Bernice wore. I'd watch her primping inside her bedroom suite (separated from the rest of the house by French doors)-a Turkish towel wrapped about her head and garmented in a thick terrycloth robe, dabbing a glass stopper to her neck and bare legs. I was used to smelling soap powder, or occasionally pie flour on Mother. Bernice Richter smelled like I thought a woman was meant to smell.

I know my father was attracted to her.

In our camp I didn't find Ben. A galvanized culvert, in which a grown man could stand, snaked behind and down a gully several hundred yards long. I walked into the pipe until the circle of light behind me closed.

"Ben! Ben Richter!"

Ben! Ben Richter! the echo.

Hurrying back out of the woods, I saw Mother loping down our dirt road that had been freshly oiled by the sprinkler trucks that morning. Her shoes were sticking to its surface. She screamed as if she were on fire.

"Ben's dead! Little Ben's dead!"

The neighbor women all rushed off their porches. Summoned the minute Ben'd been discovered lost, Thaddeus Richter was out scouring the neighborhood with Father at his side. Bernice lay caterwauling in her shuttered bedroom while Mrs. Gee, her backyard neighbor, applied cold wash cloths to her forehead. Mother had became unstrung when Leila began punching dissonant chords into the baby grand.

I ran up towards the steel mill. The foundry, located at the edge of the neighborhood, broadcast a grating metallic din day and night. In a supply yard surrounding the complex lay a farm pond, a frothy slime bubbling up on its surface smelling of methane-a biting sulphurous odor. Ben lay face-down in the green liquid, his arms languidly out to his sides in a dead man's float, darning needles flitting about his head. Mr. Richter held a two-by-four in his hands, and, betraying no emotion, mechanically oared the boy back to land. My father stood staring off into the red horizon.

Once I'd watched Thaddeus weld a fender that had come unhinged from the body of a neighbor's Chevrolet. An intense concentration mapped his expressionless face. The only thing missing here was the spark. The flame from the torch. Nolde's sun.

By now the acid bath had caused Ben's carrot-red hair to stand in marked contrast to his jaundiced complexion and rayon sun suit. Mr. Richter pressed his son's head to his breast. I could smell Ben. His scent was that of a dud firecracker, an ignited one spiked into the black earth, impotently spewing a sulphurous phlegm into the air.

The bilious liquid dripped as the two men walked grimly toward the fence. Thaddeus crawled under and on the other side retrieved Ben from Father's arms. I walked down the freshly tarred road behind the pair. Not a word passed between them. It was a somber parade, Father walking ramrod stiff next to Thaddeus Richter, whose dark blue work shirt now turned lemon-yellow about young Ben's body. Neighbors gathered reverently on the side of the road, some quietly sobbing. The two fathers marched stalwartly, me tagging behind, until the cold procession halted at the Richters' lawn.

Emil Nolde's "Mask Still Life III," 1911, courtesy of Mark Harden's Artchive"Bernice! Oh God, Bernice," Thaddeus shouted. "Look what I'm bringing home. Bernice!"

I lay down on the grass bank and wept. In the house I could hear yowling women inveighing God to answer. Mr. Richter appeared dazed. The indigo blue shirt with the mechanical pencils in his breast pocket had begun to decompose, melt like it were on fire. Nolde's fire. Father gestured to Mr. Gee and the other men to give assistance. They encircled Thaddeus, closing in on father and son, grasping each other by the elbow as if not to fall-like pallbearers. Up the Richters' banks they trudged in a solemn phalanx, inexorably, now as one. My father turned the crystal knob on the French doors, gesturing the cortege disappear into the house of screams.

Ben Richter's drowning that day killed the innocence on Cascade Street. There would be no more adults snickering on porch steps after dark. My friends and I abandoned our camp. No desire to lie inside its screen-door enclosure late afternoons gazing though the canopy of alder leaves into a hemorrhaging twilit sky. Our dreams had all dissolved in young Ben's corrosive bath. Bernice Richter, once she recovered (it took over a year for her to regain her senses) now sent her laundry out. And for reasons I never understood until much later-Mother ceased being her friend. We moved to the west side of town.

"You aren't man enough to admit it, that's all."

Having returned from yet another night of drinking and carousing with his friends, Jake sat across the kitchen table, glaring at Mother.

"Wipe that shit-eaten grin off your face!" she cried.

Father sat remarkably stiff.

"Why don't you just say it after all these years?"

"It ain't right to condemn a good woman, Margaret." He was taking drunken umbrage.

"She was innocent as you pretend to be."

"I ain't innocent."

"No, and it's goddamn right that adulteress weren't either."

"Bernice Richter is no whore, Margaret."

"You slept with her, didn't you?"

Father tenaciously shook his head.

"You lie through your teeth!" Reaching behind, she grabbed the dish of stew she'd kept warming on the stove, hurling it across the Formica table. It shattered, bleeding umber rivulets down the buttercup wallpaper.

Father sat stoically.

"It was happening all along, wasn't it, and both of you made fools of me and Thaddeus. He was blinkered, too."

"Weren't nothing to know, Margaret."

"Bullshit you say. That's why Ben was taken away, wasn't it, Jake?"

Father, appearing alarmed-pricked out of his sardonic stupor-jumped up and drew back his arm as if to strike her. I moved out of the shadows of the dining room.

"What's going on?" I said.

He slid back into his chair.

"Your father was going to hit me, Westley."

"I weren't," he said soberly.

"You were about to strike me."

"I ain't ever hit a woman."

"But you screw them, don't you, Jake?"

"Only you, my love."

She spat on his shoes. "Tell Westley the awful truth, Jacob Daugherty!"

"Weren't no awful truth."

As if to muster the resolve, she braced herself against the porcelain stove. "Is it you want me to say, then?"

"Go right ahead, Margaret." He swung his chair about, eyeing me and her defiantly. "It's about Ben Richter, Westley," she said.

"What about him?" I asked.

"He's . . ."

Steadying himself against the table, Father stiffly rose: "He's your dead brother, Son," watching his dinner slide down the kitchen wall.

Emil Nolde's "Child and Large Bird," 1912, courtesy of Mark Harden's ArtchiveMother fell back into the chair, spent. A supercilious grin melting her grimace as she clasped my hand . . . just as she'd done the day of Ben's funeral. They'd attired him in a yellow suit identical to the one he wore floating in the pond, the one that began to melt away before our very eyes on the procession down Cascade Street. Like Nolde's sun were dissolving it. And by some cosmetic miracle, the undertaker, Joshua Reynolds, had made young Ben's body lose its sallow shade. It looked almost natural again, but, . . . yes, as if he'd dabbed leg paint on it. He'd rouged Ben's lips, too. They were anthracite-black on Jake's and Thaddeus' parade. Mother drew me into the glow nimbusing Ben's body, reflecting off his satin coverlet and rising out of the throats of the heliotrope gladiolus tipping his hair. She clasped my hand, lifting it up over the casket's rim, to deposit it on Ben's stomach.

"Press, Westley," she said. "Go on, press. Don't be afraid," she said piously.

Ben was hard as granite. I drew my hand away in shock and looked to her for some explanation. She dropped her eyes, seductively, just as she had that evening long ago when the four of them invited me on that ride in the family sedan, and we turned our headlights off, heading east towards Cascade Park.

  

Dennis Must's collection of short stories, Banjo Grease, was recently published by Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Blue Cathedral: Short Fiction for the New Millennium (Red Hen Press), Rosebud, Cortland Review, RiverSedge, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog-The Southeast Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Exquisite Corpse, Alsop Review, Southern Ocean Review, Big Bridge, Linnaean Street, and elimae. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

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