Page 3

Horgan - Black Snowflakes

SNOWFLAKES about Mr. Schmitt and Ted? They only come down our street twice a week." "They're friends of mine." "Ah. Then I understand. We all hate to leave our friends. Well, my darling, they will be here when we get back. Don't you want to see Grosspa take the great ship? You can even go on board to say good-bye. You have no idea how huge those ships are, and how fine." "Why can't I go the next time he sails for Germany?" At this my mother's eyes began to shine with a new light, and I thought she might be about to cry, but she was also smiling. She gave me a hug. "This time v,t rust all go, Richard. If we love him, we must go. Now people are coming for dinner, and your father is waiting downstairs. Now sleep. You will love the train, as you always do. And in New York you can buy a little present for each one of your friends." It was a lustrous thought to leave with me as she went, making a silky rustle with her long dress. I lay awake thinking of each of my friends, planning my gifts. Anna, our servant, was a large, gray, Bohemian woman who came to us four days a week. I spent much time in the kitchen or the basement laundry listening to her rambling stories of life on the "East Side" of town. She had a coarse face with deep pockmarks. I asked her about them one day, and she replied with the dread word, "Smallpox." "They thought I was going to die," she said. "They thought I was dead." "What is it like to be dead, Anna?" "Oh, dear saints, who can tell that who is alive?" It was all I could find out, but the question was often with me. Sometimes in the afternoon, when I was supposed to be taking my nap, 1 would hear Anna singing, way below in the laundry, and her voice was like something hooting up the chimney. What should I buy for Anna in New York? And for Mr. Schmitt, the iceman. He was a heavy-waisted German-American with a face wider at the bottom than at the top, and when he walked he had to swing his huge belly from side to side to make room for his steps. He had a big, hard voice, and we could hear him coming blocks away, calling, "Ice!" in a long cry. Other icemen used a bell, but not Mr. Schmitt. I waited for him to come, and we would talk while he stabbed at the great cakes of ice in his hooded wagon, chipping off the pieces we always took—two chunks of fifty pounds each. His skill with the tongs was magnificent, and he would swing a chunk up on his shoulder, over which he wore a sort of rubber chasuble, and move with heavy grace up the walk along the side of our house to the kitchen porch. "Do you want to ride today?" he would ask, meaning that I was welcome to ride to the end of the block on the high seat above Ted's rump, where the shiny, rubbed reins lay in a loose knot, because Ted needed no guidance and could be trusted to stop at all the right houses and start up again whenever he felt Mr. Schmitt's heavy, vaulting rise to the seat. I often rode to the end of the block, and Ted, in the moments when he was still, would look around at me, first from one side, and then the other, and stamp a leg, and shudder his harness against flies, and in general treat me as a member of the ice company, for which I was grateful What could I buy for Ted? Perhaps in New York they had horse stores. My father would give me what money I would need, when I told him what I wanted to buy. I resolved to ask him, provided I could stay awake until the dinner party was over, and my father, as he always did, would come in to see if all was well. How much love there was all about me, and how greedy I was for even more of it. The next day we assembled at the station to take the train. It was a heavy, gray, cold day, and everybody wore fur except me and my Great-aunt Barbara- Tante Bep. She was going to Germany with my grandfather, her brother. This was an amazing thing in itself, for, first of all, he usually went everywhere alone, and second, Tante Bep was so different from her magnificent brother that she was generally kept out of sight. She lived across town on the East Side in a convent of German nuns, who received money for her board and room from Grosspa. She resembled an ornamental cork that my grandfather often used to stopper a wine bottle. Carved out of soft wood and painted in bright colors, the cap of the cork represented a Bavarian peasant woman with a blue shawl over painted gray hair. The eyes were tiny dots of bright blue lost in wooden crinkles, and the nose was a long wooden lump hanging over a toothless mouth sunk deep in a poor smile. Now, wearing her jet-spangled black bonnet with chin ribbons, and her black shawl and heavy skirts that smelled like dog hair, she was returning to Germany with her brother. I did not know why. But her going was part of the strangeness I felt in all the circumstances of our journey. On the train my grandfather retired at once to a drawing room at the end of our car. My mother went with him. Tante Bep and I sat in swivel chairs in the open part of the parlor car, and my father came and went between us and the private room up ahead. In the afternoon 1 fell asleep after the splendors of lunch in the dining car. Grosspa's lunch went into his room on a tray, and my mother shared it with him. I hardly saw her all day, but when we drew into New York, she came to wake me. "Now, Richard, all the lovely exciting things begin! Tonight the hotel, tomorrow the ship! Come, let me wash your face and comb your hair." "And the shopping?" I said. "Shopping?" "For my presents." "What presents?" "Mother, Mother, you've forgotten." "I'm afraid I have, but we'll speak of it later." It was true that people did forget at times, and I knew how they tried then to make unimportant what they should have remembered. Would this happen to me, and my plans for Anna, and Mr. Schmitt, and Ted? My concern was great—but, as my mother had said, there were excitements waiting, and even I forgot, for a while, what it had seemed treachery in her to forget. We drove from the station in two limousine taxis, like high glass cages on small wheels. My father rode with me and Tante Bep. It was snowing lightly, and the street lamps were rubbed out of shape by the snow, as if 1 had painted them with water colors. We went to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and soon after I had been put into the room I was to share with Tante Bep, my father came in to make an announcement. He lifted me up so that my face was level with his. His beautifully brushed hair shone under the chandelier, and his voice sounded the way his smile looked. "Well," he said, "we're going to have a dinner party downstairs in the main dining room." I did not know what a main dining room was, but it sounded superb, and I knew enough of dinner parties to know that they always occurred after my nightly banishment to bed. "It won't be like at home, will it?" I said. "It will be too far away for me to listen." "Listen? You're coming with us. And do you know why you're coming with us?" "Why?" "Grosspa specially wants you there." "Ach Gott," Tante Bep said in the shadows, and my father gave her a frowning look. We went downstairs together a few minutes later. I was dazed by the grand rooms of the hotel, the thick textures and velvety lights, the distances of golden air, and most of all by the sound of music coming sweetly and sharply from some hidden place. In a corner of the famous main dining room was a round table sparkling with silver, glass, ice, china and flowers, and in a high-backed armchair sat my grandfather. He leaned forward to greet us, and seated us about him. My mother was at his right, in one of her prettiest gowns. I was on his left. "Hup-hup!" my grandfather said, clapping his hands to summon waiters. "Tonight nothing but a happy family party, and Richard shall drink wine with us, for I want him to remember that his first glass of wine was handed to him by his alter Miinchner Freund, der Grossvater." At this, Tante Bep began to make a wet sound, but a look from my father quelled it, and my mother, blinking both eyes rapidly, put her hand on her father's and leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Listen to the music," Grosspa commanded, "and be quiet, if every word I say is to be a signal for emotion!" Everybody straightened up and looked consciously pleasant. For me, it was no effort. The music came from within a bower of gold lattice screens and potted palms—two violins, a cello and a harp. I could see the players now, for they were in the corner just across from us. The leading violinist was alive with his music, bending to it, marking the beat with his glossy head, on which his sparse black hair was combed flat. The dining room was full of people, and their talk made a thick hum; to rise over this the orchestra had to work with extra effort. The rosy lampshades on the tables, the silver vases full of flowers, the slow sparkling movements of the ladies and gentlemen at the tables, and the swallowlike dartings of the waiters transported me. I felt a lump of excitement in my throat. My eyes kept returning to the orchestra leader, who conducted with jerks of his nearly bald head, for what he played and what he did seemed to emphasize the astonishing fact that I was at a dinner party in public. "What are they playing?" I asked. "What is that music?" "It is called II Bacio," Grosspa said. "What does that mean?" "It means 'The Kiss."' What an odd name for a piece of music, I thought. All through dinner— which did not last as long as it might have-1 inquired about pieces played by the orchestra, and in addition to the Arditi waltz, 1 remember one called Simple Aveu, and the Boccherini Minuet. The violins had a sweetish, mosquitolike sound, and the harp was breathless, and the cello mooed like a distant cow, and it was all entrancing. Watching the orchestra, I ate absently, chewing hardly at all, until my father, time and again, turned me back to my plate. And then a waiter came with a silver tub on legs, which he put at my grandfather's left, and took the wine bottle from its nest of sparkling ice and showed it to him. The label was approved, and a sip was poured for my grandfather to taste. He held it to the light and twirled his glass slowly; he sniffed it, and then he tasted it. "Yes," he declared, "it will do." My mother watched this ritual, and over her lovely heart-shaped face, with its rolled crown of silky hair, I saw memories pass like shadows, as if she were thinking of all the times she had watched this business of ordering and serving wine. She blinked her eyes again and, opening a little jeweled /orgnon she wore on a fine chain, bent forward to read the menu that stood in a little silver frame beside her plate. But I could see that she was not reading, and I wondered what was the matter with everybody. "For my grandson," Grosspa said, taking a wineglass and filling it half with water, and then to the top with wine. The yellow wine turned even paler in my glass, but there was too much ceremony for me not to be impressed. When he raised his glass, I raised mine, and while the others watched, we drank together. And then he recited a proverb in German which meant something like: When comrades drink red wine or white, They stand as one for what is right, and a flourish of intimate applause went around the table in acknowledgment of this stage of my growing up. THE SATURDAY EVENING POST "Your mother and I have decided it's about time you learned how to fly." 34


Horgan - Black Snowflakes
To see the actual publication please follow the link above