Carole Buggé
Kite
New Prose From the USA
 
 

      When I was nine years old my father decided to rewrite history. Not history in the sense of this country or that, but his own personal history. He entered a kind of Life Style Crisis (as opposed to a Midlife Crisis or an Identity Crisis, both of which were very popular at the time). Moreover, his move was predicated on theory rather than on personal need: he wanted to test the extent to which any given individual was capable of demonstrating free will. It all started when he read Walden Two by B.F. Skinner, that cold-skinned proponent of conditioned responses in human beings. My father was a history professor at the small private fine arts college in our northern Ohio town and had assigned the book for his "Twentieth Century Intellectual Traditions" course. The course title was sufficiently vague to include just about anything my father chose to put in the syllabus, and he used to broaden his own reading by assigning books he "had never read but always meant to"; Walden Two was one of those books. My father found the book and its author appallingly evil, and made a vow that spring to devote his summer to disproving the book's "arrogant, spiritually void premise." And so he set out to methodically and radically alter his own "thoughtlessly entrenched life-style."
      He began with politics. A lifelong Republican, he began reading Marx and Lenin and became one of the few Ohioans in history to subscribe to The Village Voice, which he read every Sunday, locked up in his study with a pot of tea and his pipe, which he chewed rather than smoked. He questioned the nature of capitalism at cocktail parties full of practicing Republicans. Eventually my parents were invited to less and less of these parties. In one of the last my father attended, at the Worthingtons', he argued so vehemently in favor of socialism with a local industrialist, Harry Miller that Miller threatened to cancel his grant to my father's college. This failed to stop my father, so Miller pushed him into the deep end of the Worthingtons' kidney-shaped pool. However, Miller was such a large and badly coordinated man that he lost his balance and went in after my father. Mrs. Worthington, being the ultimate hostess, immediately jumped in too in an effort to put her guests at ease, whereupon the rest of the guests leaped in one by one, caught up in the spirit of the moment -- or perhaps they did it out of fealty to their plucky hostess.
      In any event, the scene as described to me by mother was like something out of a movie starring Hayley Mills or Jerry Lewis: fifty or sixty inebriated Republicans heaving their soft, mayonnaise-fattened flesh out of the Worthingtons' pool, breathing heavily at poolside, water dripping from their thinning, matted hair. I envisioned these same Republicans pulling up at gas stations and stop lights all over town, their expensive clothing already beginning to shrink or run in rivulets onto their plush velour car seats.
      Mrs. Worthington called my father the next day to thank him for helping to create such a memorable evening. Mr. Miller was not so forgiving, however; that year he really did cancel his contributions to my father's college. This saddened my father but he remained unchastened. Fortunately, the president of the college refused to believe Miller's contention that my father had pushed him in the Worthingtons' pool. In spite of his philanthropy, Mr. Miller was regarded as somewhat of a crank at the college: once, stricken with hepatitis and believing he was on his deathbed, he confessed to an affair with one of the faculty members -- a small, timid English professor named Wallace Stripple -- but Miller recovered from his illness and was condemned to live down his own confession. The faculty and administration had a wonderful time with that one for weeks; there was even a Harry Miller memorial garter belt passed around at opening night of the senior class musical. Nobody thought to make fun of Wallace Stripple; he was such a harmless, inoffensive little man that people only felt sorry for him.
      Another front on which my father decided to make a break was the domestic one. His father had never so much as washed a fork, and my father seldom set foot in the kitchen. Part of this had to do with my mother's gift of incredible efficiency, as opposed his own infuriatingly slow approach to housework. My mother had little patience with his method of dish washing, which involved meticulously scrubbing every piece of silverware and rinsing each piece separately, whereas my mother preferred to scoop huge handfuls of spoons, forks and knives from the hot soapy water, rinse them in bunches, plopping them onto the dish drainer as she breezed by to wipe off the counters.
      After weeks of badgering, my father finally talked my mother into allowing him a "kitchen night" -- so it was agreed that every Monday night he would clear the table and do the dishes. This job would take my mother about twenty minutes with my "help." (I was a pretty ineffective dish washer myself, but I had a list of chores that were expected of me, mainly for the purpose of "building my character"). On my father's kitchen night, however, my mother and I were not allowed to set foot in the kitchen. This twenty minute task routinely took my father well over an hour. First he would clear and "organize" the dishes into "categories" -- silverware, china, etc., and then he would carefully wash each one, changing the soapy pan of water each time he changed categories. My mother cooled her heels in the living room doing crossword puzzles or reading Agatha Christie. She refused to read Walden Two, calling Skinner "a lunatic fringe writer who will sink into merciful oblivion where he belongs." I usually went to my room when my father was doing dishes because he would always turn on the radio and listen to rabidly loud classical music. To this day I cannot hear the Eroica symphony without the accompaniment of rattling dishes in my mind.
      My mother put up with my father's desire to prove himself on the domestic front, but she put her foot down when he came home with marijuana one day and suggested they try some together. I have always suspected my mother's morality to be more closely aligned with her innate Calvinism than anything else -- I don't believe, for example, that she thought marijuana was evil -- I think she rather found it threatening because it represented a new form of sensuality, a possible loss of control. After all, gin, with its astringent, medicinal taste, was the drug of choice in my parents' circle; only in those days no one saw it as a drug (in spite of what I now know was rampant alcoholism among those god-fearing folk). But marijuana, now that was a drug.
      My father was disappointed to have his idea rejected, but he was determined to sample this strange intoxicator of Democrats, and so he did it in secret, behind my mother's back. On Saturdays he would take me to the park to fly kites, and it was on those forays that he partook of this sinful weed, destroyer of good Protestants. He would stop at the Convenience Food Mart on the way to the park, send me inside with a quarter, enough to buy any kite I liked, or even two (the paper kites were ten cents, the fancy plastic ones twenty-five cents). As soon as the glass door closed behind me, my father would light up what he always insisted on calling his "marijuana cigarette." I would come out of the store after a long and hard decision on kite buying. I almost always bought a kite with a black and white design of a skull and crossbones, not because I particularly liked the design, but because these were frequently the only kites left in the store on Sundays. (Eventually I developed a fondness for this logo, silly as it was; simply because so many of my kites were skull and crossbones, I became attached to the design). I was hard on kites, and the average one would last about a week before crashing to the ground and splintering into pieces or impaling itself in the branches of a tree.
      I would come out with the Ohio sunlight glaring at me, reflecting up from the blacktop driveway, and there my father would be, sitting in his red Volkswagen beetle, his window rolled down, smiling at me with bloodshot eyes.
     "How d'ya do, cowboy?" he would say, imitating John Wayne (I knew it was John Wayne even though I'd never seen a Western; my mother believed they were "too violent" and would warp my young mind). I would smile back at my father, squinting and blinking from the intensity of the sun.
      I loved Sundays. My father's undivided attention would send me into paroxysms of ecstasy and excitement; I was like a dog whose owner has returned home, feeling everything with my whole body: the park, the tress, the grass -- even the smell of gas at the station where my father always filled up the tank for the week -- for me, the smell of gasoline at a pump is forever associated with Sundays with my father.
      As I climbed into the front seat next to my him, trying not to catch my jacket on the sharp bits of straw stuffing poking out from the torn seat cushion, I could smell the heavy sweet aroma of his "marijuana cigarette." My father knew I knew what he was doing in the car while I was in the store, but he never smoked in front of me. He would not have lied if I had confronted him on the subject, but we never spoke of it. (Even then, I was learning to become a good Wasp.) We would drive to the park in silence, my father driving very slowly and carefully the remaining half mile there. I was busy opening my kite and assembling it, attaching the tail of rags and string I had made earlier in the day. When my kites self-destructed by crashing to the ground, I was able to recycle their tails, but when they landed in trees the tails were frequently unsalvageable; the kite would hang there for weeks, a grim warning to other impetuous kites.
      The method for getting kites airborne was always the same: I would stand with the roll of string in the center of the park's largest field, and my father would stand about twenty yards away, holding the kite over his head. When I felt the wind gust up a little, I would yell "Now!" and begin to run; just at that moment my father would release the kite. I would take the first few steps holding the string taut between my hand the kite, but after that I would gradually let out the string as I ran, looking back over my shoulder to see my kite soaring upwards, skull and crossbones leering down over all of Northeastern Ohio. The take-off was of course the most difficult part, and I considered my father and myself to be among the finest team I ever saw in that park or any other.
      Wind, like all forces of nature, is a fickle and tricky thing, and my father and I had launched kites in conditions that would intimidate lesser flight crews. Even strong down gusts or near-gale conditions did not daunt us: our timing was impeccable, instinctive. My father seemed to anticipate my "Now!" by the tiniest split-second, and his hands would release the kite the instant my right foot took its first running step, creating that essential tension between pilot and kite. He would always let out a kind of "Whoop!" sound at that moment of release, a sort of invocation to the kite, and when it was airborne he would laugh with delight like a child. I was the stern, serious member of our team; as chief controller of the kite I felt my responsibility keenly, and clenched my teeth as I played the kite to its highest altitude, carefully letting out just enough string to balance the pull of the wind, but not so much that a gust of wind could cause the kite to plummet.
      Flying a kite is like sailing; you can feel the wind in your hands, and, like sailing, it depends upon balance, finesse -- the tension of the string connecting you to the kite must be just right: too much and the kite will plummet suddenly earthward; too little and the kite will languish and float down to the ground. I learned to concentrate all of my nine-year-old energy on maintaining that vital link between the kite and my hands, and even then it seemed to me to be a sort of dialogue between the three of us: the kite, the wind and myself. The wind was neither foe nor friend, but simply there, to be made use of if I could manage it, and it was as capricious as an unruly child, full of tricks.
      I liked the tricky winds best because they challenged my skill the most, even though I lost more kites to them. Sometimes a strong gust would push the kite into such an inexorable down spin that I would not be able to pull it out until it was too late and the kite had cracked into torn fragments, jagged splints of pale balsa strips sticking through the ripped paper like broken bones through skin. Sometimes a sudden strong wind would just tear the roll of string from my hands, and I would run across the field after it, yelling to my father to join the chase. Sometimes we would catch the kite again -- if the roll of string happened to catch on a bush or other obstacle -- we would dive at it, grabbing it before the wind could take off with it again. Frequently, though, if the wind was really strong it would simply lift the cardboard roll of string high into the air beyond our reach, until the kite was caught in the branches of the tall trees that bordered the park, or until it sailed away, above the trees and beyond our view. I always liked to think that my lost kites landed eventually in another child's back lawn somewhere in neighboring towns, a gift from the sky.
      I mourned my lost kites, though -- mourned each one of them, and the longer I had owned a particular kite, the longer I mourned it. I wanted them to last forever, although I knew that sooner or later the thin paper and flimsy balsa wood would fall prey to the forces of nature. I felt as though each outing was me and the kite against the wind. Each lost kite was a defeat, and I can still remember running breathlessly across that autumn-stubbled field, calling, not to my father it seemed, but to my kite, its skull and crossbones grinning down at me even as the wind stole it right from my grasp.

     One Sunday of that spring, the spring of my ninth year, as I stood on the cusp of childhood, of double-digithood, and my father stood on the cusp of whatever it was, we left for the park a little earlier than usual. We didn't need to stop at the Convenience store because I had not yet lost my present kite, but my father had some books to pick up at his office and wanted to swing by there on the way. The college was situated on a hundred pleasant tree-lined acres and had some buildings that were of great interest to me, especially the student union building, which also housed the main cafeteria. I loved this building because it reminded me of a ship or a spacecraft: a creation of the early sixties, it was oblong and the walls were entirely glass, so that from a distance you could see people moving around in it; from a distance, they always seemed to be moving in slow motion, dream-like. In the cafeteria you could get hot dogs, deliciously grilled (my mother always boiled hot dogs, which in my opinion ruined them), served with bright green relish and wrapped in toasted slices of soft white bread.
      So as my father pulled up his Volkswagen to the entrance to College Hall, the main administration building which housed his office, I had my plea ready: could I run over and get a hot dog at the cafeteria -- I would be very quick -- it would be a good idea to stock up on nourishment (my voraciously devoured breakfast of French toast notwithstanding), since I'd be running around flying kites all afternoon -- and I could bring him a hot dog too? To my surprise, my father pre-empted my spiel; before he had even turned off the engine, he fished a dollar from the glove compartment. My father's glove compartment, held closed with the help of black electrician's tape, was like Ali Baba's cave. You never knew what treasures you would find in it: loose change, wrapped hard candies, various hats and scarves, single gloves, buttons, bits of string, students' papers, a pipe or two, shoelaces, packages of raisins, an occasional orange or apple, paper coffee cups, pens (some of which occasionally worked), manila folders, a comb with a few teeth missing, a man's tie or two, used emery boards, notes he had scribbled to himself, a wristwatch with a broken strap, and a schedule of his classes. These were all things I had found in there at one time or another, and now that my father had taken up marijuana I half-expected a joint or two to come rolling out when he opened it. None did, though, and I stared at my father a little wildly when he gave me an entire dollar -- enough for three hot dogs.
     "I'll bet you'd like to go get a hot dog, cowboy, wouldn't you?" he said, smiling.
     "Sure," I replied, my mouth slack from amazement, "You want one?"
     "Sure," he said, struggling with the door latch on his side, which liked to stick now and then just to remind us of the power of inanimate objects. I stuffed the money into my jeans pocket and hopped out of the car; my father gave up on his side and followed me out my door, folding his long thin legs to climb over the stick shift.
     As I ran across the lawn towards the cafeteria building, I felt the ground squishy under my feet, full of spring rain and worms. All around me fat robins were laboring industriously at their worm farming, yanking long rubbery earthworms out of the ground, flipping them into the air before swallowing them or carting them off to a nearby nest. Squirrels were even more numerous than robins, and sat up on their puffy haunches to observe my passing -- some even hopped over to me expectantly, tame and spoiled by decades of college students feeding them.
     It was the first warm day of March, and though not officially spring yet, it was emotionally the first day of spring, a day in which the air itself seemed a cause for celebration. Through four long months of Ohio winter the air had been our enemy, and now it was beckoning me out into its pure delight. I sprinted to the cafeteria building, digging the toes of my sneakers deeper into the soft, yielding ground. The cafeteria building hovered before me, that mysterious, transparent vessel -- I wouldn't have been at all surprised if it really did take off one day, spinning into space with its cargo of college students and hot dogs.
     Now that my own college days are many years behind me, when I see college students they seem to me impossibly young, smooth-faced, raw -- with the curious mixture of the moss of childhood clinging to an emerging adult, like a butterfly still covered with caterpillar fuzz -- but when I was nine years old they were to me the essence of sophistication. They were gods, graceful beings in black Danskin stirrup tights (my father's school had a large modern dance program), long skirts, spotless white Levis, and plaid flannel shirts, moving serenely through ivy-covered buildings and hallowed halls. In contrast, I was sloppy and disjointed, an untidy child always in motion, always in a hurry to be somewhere or do something. In fact, the only time I felt a sense of power and grace was when I was running across an open field with the string of my kite firmly in my right hand, the wind searing my face and rushing through my ears. When I was their age, I thought, I would be like them -- contemplative, elegant, serene -- but I was wrong. I am to this day untidy and kinetic, like my father; serenity is not in my blood.
     Upon entering the building through the swinging glass doors, I immediately smelled the hot dogs, being grilled to a golden brown, awaiting me in the snack bar. I rushed up the wide staircase to the second floor -- usually I would take the elevator for the novelty of it -- but today that siren smell drove me to impatience. The Snack Bar was not very crowded; only a few students sat at the small round fake marble tables sipping sodas and smoking cigarettes. I stood for a few moments watching a girl with long, blond hair as thin and fine as a child's -- she held a Parliament filter-tip between her index and forefinger with the grace of a sylph -- and then I approached the stand to claim my treat.
     "Onions-relish-mustard," I chanted under my breath as I waited for the counter girl to notice me. I tapped the counter in rhythm, gently: "Onions, relish, mustard."
     "Yes? Can I help you?" She was suddenly facing me, wiping the Formica counter with a damp, stained dish rag as she spoke.
     "Onions-relish-mustard," I said, startled, and she smiled. She was short and unglamorous, obviously not a student here; the coeds here were all willowy and long-limbed and owned their own horses.
     "I mean, two hot dogs please, with onions-relish-mustard," I said, fingering a tiny spot of dried ketchup on the edge of the counter. She turned a speared two perfectly browned, sweating hot dogs from the rotating, rolling grill and put them into steaming buns. I watched her spoon on the sweet green relish, then the delicious, vinegary onions, and finally the dark yellow-flecked mustard. My mouth was a symphony of saliva.
     "Thanks," I said hurriedly, thrusting the dollar at her. I stuffed the change she handed me into the brown paper bag with the hot dogs and took off for the stairs, suppressing an impulse to slide down the shiny chrome banister. Out into the air and across the lawn to where my father waited in his office. We would eat together at his desk, unwrapping the white waxed paper over his green blotting pad, and he would put his feet up and let me play with the reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder he kept in his office.
     College Hall did not face the cafeteria building; if you went directly across the lawn you would be facing the back of College Hall, so I decided to see if the back entrance was open. I pushed on the horizontal copper-colored bar on the black exit door, and to my surprise it had been locked in an open position; usually on a Sunday the building was closed except for the main entrance. Pushing my elbow against the door, clutching the brown paper bag containing the precious hot dogs, I stumbled into the stifling, overheated stairwell. The radiators on each floor hissed at me as I climbed the three flights to my father's office; the warm weather of the last few days was sudden and thermostats were still set for winter temperatures.
     As I rounded the corner to begin the final flight, something made me hesitate -- a sudden feeling of fear, almost foreboding. This was not unusual; I loved empty buildings, but at the same time they frightened me. This building was not empty, though, I told myself: my father was there waiting for me. I began to climb the third story. Halfway up, I was sure I heard voices. This was not unusual, either; other professor besides my father were known to drop in on a Sunday to work or just to pick something up. These voices, however, stopped me on mid-stair: there was something furtive about them; something secretive, conspiratorial. I couldn't quite tell, but it sounded as if one voice was a man's and one a woman's.
     Behind me, the radiator let out a sudden loud hiss of steam and I jumped, dropping the hot dogs. The bag landed on its side, and the change I had carelessly thrown in it began to roll out and down the stairs. I grabbed for the coins, but as I did I heard a woman laugh, softly and secretly. The meaning of that laugh was clear even to a nine-year-old, and I froze, a quarter in my right hand and the bag of hot dogs in my left. I knew better than to do what I did then -- but then, people often know better than to do something, and they go ahead and do it anyway. I knew that whatever was going on in that hall was none of my business, but that is precisely why it interested me. I moved, trance-like, towards the fire door leading from the stairwell to the hallway. The door was wooden, with a glass window in its upper half. I knelt so that I was underneath the window and held my breath, listening.
     The two voices -- I was certain now it was a man and a woman -- intertwined, weaving in and out of one another like vines. They were so soft and low that I had trouble making out any words, but I thought I heard the woman say, "Of course, darling," and I thought the man said "I know, I know" several times. After several minutes, the suspense was too much for me. I inched my head slowly upwards until my eyes were just over the edge of the glass partition. My eyes cleared the glass partition and I saw them. They were standing face to face, eye to eye, nose to nose, lips to lips, their bodies reaching towards each other even as their lips met in passion. The woman was small, lithe, and dark, with smooth black hair. I recognized her as Lydia Haddad, a literature professor, fiercely feminist and much lusted after by all the undergraduate boys. Her eyes were as black as her hair and it was rumored that she was part American Indian. The man was my father.
     I tried to turn and run, afraid they would see me, but I could not. My feet were as firmly planted to the spot as if I had suddenly sprouted roots. The couple was so absorbed in each other, however, that they did not even glance in my direction. I watched, fascinated, horrified, a small animal transfixed by a swaying snake. My father stood leaning against the wall and she stood with her body leaning towards his, her hands on either side of him. There was something both comical and touching about this pose, with her in a dominating position; she was a tiny, elegant woman and my father was a rambling, shaggy man well over six feet tall. He resembled a large sheepdog cornered by a whippet. They seemed unaware of the awkwardness of the picture they presented, so totally concentrated were they on each other. The universe for them began and ended with their two bodies; I might as well have been watching from a distant galaxy. Their conversation was low and proceeded in fits and starts, interrupted by kisses and the touching of hands. Once, he took her head in his palms and looked down at it for such a long time that I was certain he was going to kiss her, but instead he merely leaned forward until their foreheads touched.
     They stayed like that for so long that I thought perhaps they had fallen asleep, but then they stepped back from each other, and, still holding hands, walked back down the hall toward my father's office. I stood looking at the empty hallway for a long time, until another loud hiss from the radiator made me jump. I turned, picked up the crumpled bag of hot dogs, and went to meet my father.
     He was seated at his desk reading when I arrived, and looked up at me with a friendly smile when I entered.
     "Hey there, cowboy," he said, "Everything go okay at the corral?"
     I nodded, still standing in the doorway, clutching the wilted bag.
     "Okay, let's have 'em," he said, busily clearing the clutter from his desk. I handed him the bag and he filled two coffee mugs with Hires root beer from a bottle he had purchased from the vending machine down the hall. He handed me the mug that read "Life Sucks And Then You Die" (a present from a philosophy major). His mug said simply, "Professor." This was our routine, our Sunday ritual, this was what I lived for, but I sat there like a stone as my father gobbled up his hot dog, chatting about our vacation plans for spring break. I did not hear him, and when he asked me why I wasn't eating my hot dog, I shrugged. He looked at me for a moment searchingly, and I thought he was going to say something, but just then the phone rang. It was my mother asking him to pick up some milk on the way home. He spoke to her cheerfully, twisting the gold ring on his left hand as he talked.
     "Well, pardner, let's go," he said as he hung up, "We'd better get over to the ranch before the cattle have all wandered off." I followed him obediently out to the car. If my father noticed my remoteness he did not acknowledge it; in fact, he was particularly jocular and cheerful, singing along with the radio, tapping his hand on the dash board and joking about various college eccentrics.
     By the time we reached the park the wind had picked up, and it shook the trees like a dog worrying a rag. The kite I had brought that day was, for me, a veteran. It had lasted through two Sundays and several smaller excursions in the schoolyard -- it was, I was certain, a charmed kite. My father stood at his usual spot, holding up the kite with stiff arms. The wind was blowing hard in my face as I began my run down the field; it whipped against my cheeks, making my eyes water. I ran over the winter-scarred, crew-cut short grass, doggedly, lips set in a determined frown. Behind me my father called something out to me but the rushing wind was loud in my ears and I could not hear him.
     "Now!" I yelled over my shoulder, "Let go now!"
     He did, and the kite rose hesitantly, raggedly, dipping and swooping dangerously. I ran harder, pounding the ground, punishing the stubborn earth with my feet. The wind bit my face and took my breath away, the ground rose up before me to trip me, the string cut into my stiffening fingers. Still I ran, furiously, pumping my legs until they ached. The kite stopped wobbling and began to rise swiftly, cutting through the wind with a force of its own -- up, up towards the pale March sun.
     I looked back at my father. He stood, hands in his pocket, looking at the kite with the eager, expectant face of a child. Suddenly I stopped running. The kite sailed higher, its leering face blocking out the sun's orb. I stood for a moment, breathing heavily, and then I let go of the string. The kite paused as if unsure of its freedom. Then, as I stood watching, hands at my sides, the kite sailed quickly away over the treetops, towards the waiting sun.