Andy Hardy Meets Maigret

    The tough part of winter has arrived. Late fall through early January at least offered a succession of holidays to dread. The only promise to be kept from now until late March is gray and frigid. Naturally there are attempts to alleviate Northeastern nature. Mostly radio stations playing Beach Boys’ tunes. As if reminders were needed of what we’re missing. And while Miami is a direct flight away, there’s always soldiering those returns to LaGuardia parts.

    The only beneficial aspect to shorter colder days is optimum conditions to think, to contemplate. Or if one is so moved, brood. Or if mired, mope.

    By now I’ve culled 2011 Christmas’ cards. I used to retain them but the years grew into decades that piled up. Besides, keep those greetings long enough and infants become toddlers, and they transform into adolescents who enter young adulthood.

    Skip pencil marks on doorframes indicating growth spurts. Just yank out those boxes whose still glossy pictures illustrate how toothless babies sprouted into toothy women and men.

    Kovacs’ children are a fine example of this process. That is the process of my future having been devoured while they’re on the cusp of beginning to fulfill theirs. In yearly increments the transformation is obvious. Their transformation. As to my own, well, one day I was leaping tall buildings in a single bound, the next fuming about how the elevator took so long to reach my floor.

    Kovacs and I attended Arizona together. I knew him many kegs before his wife. Then, his meeting Penny seemed fortuitous. Laura, the woman she luckily supplanted, portended nothing but great stretches of loud tension. On her best days.

    Even pessimists would’ve seen Penny as that rarest of rare, a sure thing. Laura was unstable dynamite. We never knew when she’d explode. She never knew either. A lively vision, her attitude balanced delicately between enticement and rampage.

    Somewhere, under or between something, I have photograph of the three of us. Looking at it no one would suspect a Penny just beyond the horizon to save Kovacs’ days.

    A long ago date, so long the hambone Reagan White House myths being revived and repackaged today were still fresh. I drove down to Baltimore where Kovacs then worked. Laura, cleaving to his side, had trailed him East. Football the pretext behind my appearance. Maryland hosted Clemson at Memorial Stadium. I recall the cold, our nosebleed seats, snuggling against Laura’s left while her erstwhile boyfriend heated up her right side, not the final score.

    After the final gun we carried our threesome down to the harbor and pub crawled. It must’ve been a Halloween weekend because of the costume-wearing patrons. Either that or we’d stumbled into an ordinary John Waters Saturday night.

    That photo may be the clearest explanation why Kovacs willingly juggled Laura’s nitroglycerine. In it he’s just too chipper. Too besotted to recognize her instability, he couldn’t see beyond the next round.

    Bridging us, Laura. A passerby unaware of her history ought have seen and understood what enthralled Kovacs. The flashes from Laura’s eyes reminded me of the monsoon season lightning we watched as undergraduates arcing the Sonora Desert night sky. Her smile demanded much and promised delivering more. Those two delights alone could’ve been enough, and obviously for Kovacs were, to mitigate Laura’s spontaneous torments.

    Unlike his kommilitones who instinctively sensed what Laura was about, Kovacs, an engineer, likely challenged himself on how to tame her. Wind can be harnessed. Tornados must at best be evaded, if not altogether avoided.

    Penny, pretty and calmer, much calmer, radiated contentment. The way things first worked out, Penny could’ve been regarded as June Cleaver 2.0. She remained a throwback for the longest. A housewife. One who deferred to her husband, maintained an immaculate home, whose children never filled the “latchkey” designation.

    One prefers to imagine the Kovacs kids often scampered home to fresh from the oven cookies or brownies, an unrushed parent gently inquiring about their schooldays’ minutia while Flintstones jelly glasses brimmed with frosty milk. That is an idealized portrait gilded by idolized 1960s afternoon TV suburban idylls.

    Yet under the lulling image Penny hid and nurtured her own tumult. While nowhere near as suddenly ferocious as Laura’s, Penny’s eruption certainly startled with equal concussion.

    Wasn’t it Fats Waller who sang it best? “One never knows … DO one!?”

    These past triggers brought to mind letters I found while donating or discarding my father’s possessions. Going through his clothes and personal items in a manner I never would’ve dared when he lived, his essentials and privacy lost their power to intimidate or embarrass or stupefy me.

    Who now wears suits and shoes he’d kept lovingly sharp or shined? Under what circumstances? Likely nowhere near their former care.

    His “things,” his glasses, watches, the binoculars I gave him one distant Christmas, a Polaroid camera still loaded with exposures for that next trip to the Caribbean which time and infirmity postponed forever, a car bought two months before his death, all were dispersed among the worthy and unknown. One hopes the latter were grateful.

    Letters were among the discoveries revealed to me. Thankfully not love letters. Does one really want to read about and then imagine lovers with whom our parents swapped gushy endearments? Here. Let’s squash the curiosity factor. Instead of our parents, let’s make the found treasure our own fevered entreaties. Now you’ve become the dead subject gaped at by a third party or two. What is the most valuable property we leave behind? Our reputations.

    And photographs. I found pictures of father and who knows who else. Everybody is gone though several remain in memory. I picked out a few sharing the black and white frames. Of course that required some heavy mental retouching.

    Forget young. Everybody looked so fall-down happy then. “Then” approximately stretching from 1946-7 until maybe 1953. Signposts narrowing the years were the broadness of men’s hat brims, dainty women’s hats, some still veiled, the clean lines of the suits and dresses worn, and the bulbous monstrosities they drove, as well as the whiskeys they drank. Lord Calvert and Martin’s VVO? Are these labels even distilled any more?

    None of the women were familiar. Just dates or sweeties who failed making ring connections. Father and his recognizable buddies eventually married other women. Gauging the latest snapshot, ’53, father had yet to meet and marry mother for another two years.

    Anyone having seen these exposures then and hardheartedly begrudging the grinning figures would’ve lacked basic humanity. They all endured the Depression. The men, none of whom could ever have been considered Fortunate Sons, survived the Second World War. Father and his friends strove through strife from their teens into solid adulthood. Perhaps these pictures record their first real opportunities to cut the fool and behave selfishly.

    In father’s hidden trove a few “French postcards” buried deep from his North African service. I bet he’d forgotten he owned such souvenirs. Though when first acquired, I’m sure each was marveled upon. Often.

    The letters fascinated me far more. They spilled a secret history. Aren’t our parents anything but mysteries?

    In this case father was merely a correspondent, not a conspirator. Well, not an active one.

    Both my parents’ families had lived and worked on farms. Likely why their generation, one that came of age during the 20s and 30s under those circumstances, led balanced measures of life and death. They didn’t exult in births nor overly mourn the deceased. They migrated to Quarropas, concrete America, having brought with them elemental rhythms and cycles.

    Seeing it that way, understanding it that way, explains the early 50s casual revelation.

    Father’s sister, the only one out of three girls who survived infancy, informed him that a younger brother had become a father. The brother turned the joyous occasion on its head. He declined acknowledging his son. In a twist, instead of compelling responsibility, the woman matched and beat his obstinacy: she welcomed his decision not to give our name to their boy.

    My aunt, whom I’ve always known as outwardly pleasant, was a surprisingly piquant chronicler. Much younger, she wrote in neat, steady cursive. In ink. No cross-outs. From her manicured hand flowed tartness. The situation left her with two minds. Obviously their brother should succumb to decency and do right by his son. On the other, the woman who’d issued his child was worthless. And my aunt catalogued those deficiencies without quarter.

    Her pitiless evaluations made me laugh. Probably made the original recipient laugh. Then the image of father laughing let me laugh even louder.

    The matter settled, assigned to wherever incomplete histories are stored, the remaining letters dealt with the usual family interplays. Reading the geneses of events which eventually cast or deformed certain relatives lent bright insights into what would become several of their tomorrows and parts of my yesterday. These told me how courses were set, their outcomes unavoidable.

    I informed mother. The letters, their contents, intrigued more than surprised her. Having better recollections and deeper interactions with many of the subjects on those pages I understand how they did.

    She queried me regarding the phantom cousin. Years afterward my once diffident uncle married a woman who channeled his waywardness into middle-class propriety. Chafe as he might’ve, he chafed all the more because she kept him on a short leash. But he must’ve realized she had his best interests in mind because they prospered, remaining a couple until his death a year after father’s.

    Mother speculated aloud whether my uncle ever told her sister-in-law about his unacknowledged son. No recrimination would’ve been involved. It all happened years before they met. And while she shared his agrarian background, their respective hometowns were states apart. The prior woman would only been a stranger. A nebulous one at that. Someone who knew her husband before wedlock; when it didn’t matter.

    I surmised the circle excluded his wife as well. Or else my uncle’s disdained son would’ve risen up in some conversation sometime. Probably over a fifth of VVO.

    Mother and I left it there. No need to extend the topic beyond ourselves. A made for TV movie plot as it appears, our family never increased by a sudden one. Our history did not assume an additional branch. It might’ve turned out bad.

    People had settled into their lives. Why bother them with a long-passed incident? Why subject my uncle, aunt, their daughter, and given genealogical advances, inexorably, the dismissed son, as well as whatever lines he’d established to such unnecessary, late-stage questions?

    What’s past is done. Quarropas is not Faulkner territory.

    We needed a more urgent reason than curiosity. None existed on that late summer day seven years ago.

    Everyone had made it as far as they had. I resorted to prior lessons. One father certainly would’ve commended for its circumspection, an attribute he prized. His son just left well enough alone.