At the center of the piece emerged the somber, life-size portrait of a senior man. He stood, arms crossed, wearing baggy trousers, belted, and a sleeveless white t-shirt, the kind my grandpa wore under dress shirts decades ago. The t-shirt hung loosely on his slightly stooped, aged frame. Hair tousled, curly, with a mixture of gray and black, mouth a straight line, corners turned downward, his restless gaze averted. What was he looking at? The half-dressed pose was unusual for such a detailed portrait. Compelled by the man’s countenance, his demeanor portrayed a dignified weariness without the slightest bit of joy. I stared at the painting. It was uncomfortable, the sense that this art, this man spoke to me in a way I didn’t yet understand. Don’t turn away. A part of me wanted to move on to check out the more cheerful pieces of art, and I reasoned I would certainly see this portrait again as I left the gallery. But I was rooted. I admired the realism, the lines and wrinkles of his face, the sag of skin under the chin, ruddy cheeks, brown spots on arms and hands, the bags under the eyes, creased eyelids that drooped. I noticed the salt and pepper sprinkles of a five-o’clock shadow, the bony definition of collarbone against white t-shirt, the contrast of tanned hands and knotty fingers with bulging veins that clasped arms against his chest. The man’s arms were pale, probably covered by shirts most of his life. He could have been a man of scholarly consequence, someone who had invented something of importance. He could have been a doctor, a pastor, a janitor or retired schoolteacher, someone to pass on the street without taking notice. But he was none of those things. His history revealed by a series of tattoos, black numbers that trickled up his right forearm like a marching group of ants. Dozens of scenarios, all familiar, dreadful, unthinkable, invaded my mind. I shivered. Gracing the top border of the portrait were Hebrew words; perhaps it was a declaration or a prayer. The man clutched himself, story and soul exposed.”
Chapter 10 Excerpt (Continued)
…It was a mid-September weeknight and everyone was home for dinner, a rare occurrence. The kids came to the table, chattering, laughing. I loved the noise, opening an orchestra hall door, a symphony of family coming together. Everyone held hands while Alex said a quick prayer. Dishes passed. Alex rambled about football practice. Paul fidgeted, knuckles rapping the table, left knee bouncing. During the first break in Alex’s story, Paul blurted, “I fink German teenagers know more about sex den teenagers here in United States.”
I pondered how long Paul rehearsed this bomb of enlightenment. Alex snickered while Caroline’s eyebrows lifted, her eyes at attention. Jeff swallowed wine, glanced my direction and shot a go ahead, I know you’re dying to respond look. Paul brought more than a large appetite to the dinner table. Craving attention, thirsting to shock, hungering to teach – the reason didn’t matter. Paul wanted to talk about sex.
“You’ve been in school, what…two weeks? Have you taken a poll at Catholic Central? Perhaps during tennis practice you’ve asked your team mates whether they know the basics of reproduction…maybe what method of birth control they favor,” I said.
Surviving Paul’s Proclamations meant going on the offensive. Small doses of sarcasm, my ammo of choice.
“No, I not ask anyvone,” Paul shook his head, scooping salad onto his plate, “I fink teens in Germany learn about sex at earlier age. Not so many teen pregnancies. Many teens have sex at age fourteen…maybe fifteen. Dis is not a problem.”
A flick of the wrist, a wave of the hand, teen sex was no problem according to our in-house sex expert. Paul cut meat off a chicken drumstick, slid the morsel with knife onto fork and stuffed the piece into his mouth. Speechless, Alex and Caroline stared.
I asked, “So your parents wouldn’t have a problem with your sister having sex? She’s fifteen, right?”
Alex laughed. Paul squirmed, chewing and swallowing another piece of chicken before continuing, “She has no boyfriend now, but someday she vill. My parents understand.”
I was unclear what Paul’s parents understood. Later, no doubt, Paul would explain…”
Boy On A Rope (Continued)
The room smelled of perfume, pot, and sex. Familiarity. Powell sat up, reached for a box of tissues on the nightstand. A couple of used condom wrappers – one chocolate flavored, one ribbed with lubricant – lay amongst a pile of wadded tissues on the floor at the side of the bed. After wiping his belly, he dropped the sticky clump, adding to the pile.
Knocking resumed, louder, urgent.
“Hey, whoever’s in there…time’s up already,” said a guy from behind the door, voice pleading. Powell imagined a girl clung to him, hands playfully feeling him up, giggles turning into groans, maybe her tongue tickled his ear.
Powell stood, pulled on underwear and jeans. Nothing new on his phone. He flipped through a few birthday messages from yesterday. Seventeen. Fuck, he was old. No message from Lauren, Powell’s twin. He tried recalling last year’s message. Some funny shit about how she had struggled hours to make his passage into the world easy. “Happy BD, lazy ass! Party w/me tonight?” Lauren always reminded Powell she was the first-born by two minutes. He swallowed hard, twice, and put the phone in his jeans pocket.
Hero Worthy? (Continued)
“…When in junior high, during the height of the Vietnam War, social unrest and the Watergate scandal, I discovered a shocking new reality about heroes. Heroes were human. Heroes made mistakes, sometimes unforgiveable ones. Heroes toppled off man-made pedestals when struck by instruments of truth and public opinion. While WWII and Korean War veterans marched in patriotic ceremonies, weary Vietnam War soldiers paraded across tarmacs to greetings of vilified protest. Equal meant equal for some, not for all. People in positions of authority were no longer trusted. Poverty, hunger, illiteracy, crime, inequality – the world was far more complicated than I once envisioned. Splattered with muddied facts of human failings and suffering, layers of child naiveté washed away revealing a harsh often cynical adult reality. What room did heroes have in this new world I now inhabited? Perhaps saints were the only true heroes, best left determined by the saint-maker’s in Vatican City.
Or not. Learning about heroes taught me this: Failings and mistakes are part of the human condition. People, from all walks of life, from all periods of time, from all corners of the world, are capable of atoning for sins in order to accomplish extraordinary heroic feats. Sainthood is not a prerequisite for displaying courage, perseverance, compassion, faith, service and honor.”
Chapter Two Excerpt (Continued)
“A week before Paul’s arrival, a package arrived from Germany addressed to Familie Poole. Inside the package was a large hardcover book entitled, Der Landkreis Günzburg, which translated to The District of Gunzberg. A letter, written in English, was taped to the inside cover of the book. A photo of an elderly gentleman dressed in a fancy red vest smiled from the opposite cover. Three shiny medals hung from the bespectacled man’s vest. A business card taped beneath the photo stated the man’s name and title in bold letters.
The letter read:
Dear Family Poole,
May I send you – as the grandfather of Paul – my best regards from Germany and Bavaria. I would like to thank you very much that you will give Paul the possibility of staying in your family and in your city for a year. I am sure that you will have a great time with Paul who isvery delighted to come to you.
Enclosed you will find a book about our wonderful state Bavaria and especially our district Günzberg. As a former member of the Bavaria Parliament for the Christian Social Party and as well as a former mayor of my hometown may I ask you to read about my life on page 253. With thisbook I want to express my thankfulness towards you and your country The United States of America which gave freedom and liberty to Germany especially after the Second World War. We haven’t forgotten it!
Finally, let’s say again that we are happy that Paul can come to your family and to your country to gain new experiences. Whenever you intend to visit Germany, it would be a pleasure for my wife and me to welcome you to my house. May God bless you, your family and your country. I am looking forward to seeing you in Germany.
The room awaited. School uniform clothes hung in Paul’s closet. To accommodate five, an extra leaf was added to the kitchen table. An open dialogue existed between our families. What more was there to consider? After reading Karl’s letter, I could not help but think I was missing something.
Jeff and I read the Germany fact sheet provided by CETUSA. It listed general statistics about population, climate, government, economy and tourism. Nowhere had we read anything about what it meant to be German. Karl’s letter prompted me to think – How do Germans view Americans and the United States? Would a German who could remember WWII think differently about America than Germans born in later generations? What do I know really know about Germans and Germany? Did it make any difference that Paul was German instead of French, Chinese or Australian?…
…I wanted to believe my understanding of Germany grew more refined and sophisticated during adulthood, but I was woefully ignorant about German history and current German culture. I possessed a smattering of German facts, a handful of stereotypes. If I held this sticky mess of German views in my hands, I wondered what American stereotypes Paul and his family possessed.
Karl’s words accomplished more than humble thanks. His statements caused meaningful reflection. But more important, Karl’s letter expressed love for his grandson, a spirited patriotism and an openness to share his home with us, complete strangers. More than any advice or uninformed commentary from neighbors and skeptics, and certainly more than my own limited experiences, Karl’s words served a reminder that Paul’s visit was about human relationships. With relief, it was far easier to appreciate the similarities between our families and cultures rather than focusing on the differences. With this new understanding the old fingers of Germany opened, extending a hand in friendship, inviting a welcome embrace.”