The cars past the front porch are few. The dark green of the swing has begun to chip, exposing a collage of color: red, blue, yellow, and in some places, where the chip is deep, the backs of my bare knees collect splinters of wood.
It is August, the lightning bugs heavy in the unmowed grass. Perspiration from the cold Sam Adams bottle drips down my wrist. Inside I hear my grandmother's evening sounds. There is the barely audible sound of CNN, the heavy sound of dishes being loaded into the washer, her slippered feet moving from room to room, collecting things: the day's newspaper, my grandfather's coffee cups, and from end tables, the various magazines she's read too many times. It has been many months. In the in-between I sent postcards of the clear blue Mediterranean, of lavender and sunflower fields.
The swing sighs as my grandfather sits beside me. You sure can fit a lot on the back of one of these, he says to me. In his hands are the cards I sent. The one he is reading was written during a train ride from Florence to southern France, mailed from Marseilles. My handwriting is miniscule; I fit an entire letter on the back of a postcard. Michelangelo's David, how fast the street peddlers packed up their leather purses and shoes when the cops approached, my friend's face as she pulled away from me in the wrong train. My grandfather holds each card, as if judging the weight and texture of one against the next. He rereads them and I reread them, too. "I am on train at Marseilles," I wrote, translating French thoughts to English--prepositions and articles finding funny sounding equivalents. He laughs and then I laugh. It took both Grandma and I to figure out what you were trying to say, he says.
The cicadas begin to sing and I scratch at my bare arms where mosquito bites swell. He looks at me, asks for stories. The night before I left for France he had opened his atlas, spread it across the table, and flipped through the pages, remembering. I'm sure it'll be different than when I was there . . . , he had said. He looked at my grandmother then. And when she asked him if he wanted to go back, possibly visit me in the summer, he looked at neither of us. And said no. I had hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, slipped the twenty from him and my grandmother in my back pocket.
Where to begin. All summer I carried his questions within me, viewed the countryside outside train windows as he must have at my age. I imagined what it must have been like for a nineteen year old farm boy from Nashua, IA to have first tasted wine other than during Sunday's communion. Had he bought a bottle for himself, let the cork fly? Had there been a headache the next morning? I imagined what it must have been like for the same boy to witness cathedrals larger than any building he'd ever seen blown apart as easily as he and his brother had let off bottle rockets behind the barn.
My grandmother's geraniums droop heavily from hanging pots. My cousin's Hot Wheel cars, lined from smallest to largest, cover several feet of floor boards. The interior kitchen light spills through the curtain and onto us, his face glows. I think of the village I visited, torched and left to burn at random and just because, the guide had said, by the Nazis two days after the battle at Normandy had been decided. There were still tricycles on sidewalks, turned brown from the fire and the remains rusted from the weather since. There were phone booths, the doors long ago melted closed. There were the stone foundation remains of homes, from which women had thrown their children through windows when they realized it was this or nothing. In the cemetery there was a memorial, a glass box full of bones and teeth, wedding rings. The remainder. I walked alone through the town's few streets, touched the walls of the buildings carefully. He had been in such villages, at my age, after the destruction.
I want to tell him about the Arc de Triomphe, how we'd jokingly taken pictures in front of it and stood in the middle of the Champs Elysees as the traffic came behind us, light turning green. I want to tell him that we climbed the stairs, didn't take the elevator. He asks me about these things. Says that he's been there once, and I wonder how long ago that seems to him. I know that when he stood at the Arc it had a different meaning, that he wasn't concerned in risking his life for funny photos to show his parents at home. Napoleon's tomb, we saw that too, he tells me, and we ate for free at a cafe near the Louvre, because we were in our American uniforms.
I wait until he begins to push the swing again, its motion bringing him back to the present. There was an amazing pastry shop beneath my school, I say. Raspberry tarts, chocolate eclairs, custards and creme-filled croissants. We ate them with our fingers, our faces glistening with sugary syrup when we returned from our lunch hour. I tell him about the cathedral I visited often in the old part of the city, the only church in the area with the original stained glass still intact. My favorite window--a rose shaped window six feet in diameter, the blues, purples and wine colored glass so clear in the mornings. He leans over to light a citronella candle, nodding as I describe my courses, my new friends.
I tell him about the weekends on the Mediterranean, about the trip my friends and I took south. When we reached the station at Marseilles we were overcome by the water. How blue it was. As the train rolled along the coast, we sat half out of our seats, waiting to jump out. Our host parents had packed us lunches, hard boiled eggs and sea salt, parts of bread loaves and cubes of cheese, dark chocolate with orange nougat. Those around us read the daily papers or slept. We couldn't eat anything. This isn't like Chicago, my friend had said. And I kept saying, Africa, on the other side of this water is Africa. And he, leaning closer to look out the window, laughed.
It was after we'd visited the Resistance museum. I tell him that my host parents were glad I'd gone but that they'd never go. His eyes look through me. I wonder in his life of four children, one dead already, seven grand-children and two great grand-children, how often he remembers the devastation. The village named Latoix, where there had been a crash landing and the fear then. Last spring it had been a story for me, a point on a map in a distant destination. If you get the chance, if you're in the area, stop by. I'm sure you'll find someone here who remembers the day we crashed there, me and my buddies. I had nodded, yes.
The photos in the Resistance museum were faded and brown beneath glass. I remember one, her name was Madeleine, because she was also nineteen. Her picture was pretty; huge brown eyes, dark hair, mouth pouty with lipstick. A checkered skirt. I listened to her story on the headset in French. It was odd at first, I had always thought of this history in English, taught by high school teachers, read in text books, seen on A&E specials. In French it is more real, this is a true story.
There was a page under Madeleine's photo that she had written, about being in this building, held prisoner. It was after an officer tried to rape her on the bridge over the Rhone that I crossed each day to visit the cathedral. She had grabbed the knife from his boot as his hands went up her skirt, she had stabbed him in the back and pushed his persisting body over.
She walked home, a different officer following her from behind corners. She didn't see him behind her, she'd said. They had brought her here, tortured her. The Resistance found her with a shaved head and body weighing 96 pounds, and helped her escape. And so she joined them. Her story is the one I remember, her face so calm. The rest of the summer I walk over the bridge stopping at odd intervals to peer over the side.
I saw film clips of French resistors piled five bodies high outside of the doorway I walked through each morning, ten a.m. after a croissant and coffee. Their blood had pooled beneath, the officers stood by them, proudly. I blindly chose to write my report on the passageways of the city. Resistors, I write, used these to carry secret messages to one another during the occupation, as hideouts. When I visit these winding and complex passageways I find them pretty; notice their architecture, how the stairways wind down into courtyards. What we know of survival is little.
After visiting the museum I wandered the city's streets for hours, the dates transformed to lives and bodies, the images burned into my eyes. So that every side street I found I felt someone around the corner, behind me, above me. Everywhere people pushed past me, it was a day of a World Cup match. The Colombians ran through the streets waving flags, bright yellow against the stone of the tall buildings. I found a tree beside the river, and sat. Across the river children played loudly in the community pool, slid down water slides or belly-flopped off the diving board.
To live knowing you could do only so very little, hoping your family wouldn't be shot, hoping you could eat, hoping you would sleep at night or make it to the fruit market in the morning. And yet, my host parents told me that they had continued. Marie baked custards for the neighbors and Bernard volunteered at the emergency shelter each Wednesday, clinging to normal routine because nothing else was. I don't tell my grandfather about any of this, knowing he's heard it first-hand more times than I've even thought about what it means to live through. Instead I narrate my travel to Italy. A country he does not know. The train car had been incredibly hot, the air conditioner noisily spurting out hotter air, a pen cap lodged somewhere within. The Alps had flashed by in an hour. Through them, that is what amazed me most, we had traveled through the Alps in an hour. Intervals of darkness sometimes twenty minutes in length if the mountain was large, the pass long. In Florence we ate three hour meals of pasta, salad, desert, wine and more wine. Over and over again.
From indoors my grandmother turns on the porch light, knocking at the window and waving at us. The moths gather thickly around the bulb. I have pictures, I say. There I am smiling in front of the monuments. Look at me, I'm here, I'm alive. There I am with my friends, drinking in a cafe, eating in an Italian restaurant, swimming at the beach, waiting for the train the day there was a strike. Some are just of the land; hills so steep and rolling I'd call them mountains, the pastures of the Alps, the cliffs along the sea. Then the blurred fast forward photos from the train. I know these. This one, I say, holding a photo that is a mess of blue and brown and red, is a villa along the sea, where the beach is rock. And this one, I say, interpreting the next: the orange is the rising sun, the gray the haze still on the sea as the air grows hot again, the pale blobs my friends and I after a late night. These I bring back.
My grandfather is smiling at me, occasionally glancing for a few seconds at the photos. He takes my empty beer bottle and tells me I have a good head on my shoulders, that he's glad I went over there. Some meanings are understood despite lack of language. On my walk home I peer into the windows of my neighbor's homes. There are families eating dinner, watching t.v.; couples washing dishes together; single old women letting out their dogs. At my house I sit on our porch swing in the dark. Our neighborhood smells of laundry exhaust, fresh-mowed grass. There is a letter sticking out of the mailbox, it is a Sunday. I'd forgotten that. I imagine my friend opening the letter later in the week, remembering me and laughing at that horrible dark photo of our entire travelling group the evening we sat along the ocean at Nice, watching the fireworks after France won the World Cup, our friend from Arkansas asking all of us in her cute drawl why we'd come.
The bottle was passed to me and above the stars were spinning, the stars were exploding. I sat in unacknowledged silence, my mind pounding from the wine, from the images and people. I placed my camera on a large rock in front of us, pushed the timer. In the photo I have just stumbled on top of three of my friends, my rush back to my spot a little off in direction. A little drunk, were you? my mother had asked, counting the empty bottles in the photo. But it was more than that, I had tried to explain. The bottom half of the photo is pure light, the flash reflected off the rock's surface and glaring back into the lens. The top half shows part of the beach behind us, a sidewalk. In the foreground our faces are smiling; I am laughing; we are looking in all directions.