The Earliest Model

Sometimes the scary story turns out to be about compassion.

Only I knew of these treasures.

A dull steel sword in a stained leather sheath tilted behind the coat rack in Aunt Gertrude’s foyer. A fiercely dead bear rug hibernating in her basement. Ceramic ladies, smiling with billowing skirts. Some Benny Goodman 78s had gone musty in their sleeves alongside Thor Heyerdal’s Kon Tiki and other volumes.

Secret alcoves, wardrobes. Dresser drawers strewn with Lost Generation beach photos.

It was all mine to plunder. Gert didn’t seem to mind. I was the only one brave enough to spend the night with her. With that courage came privileges.

I had decided not to be afraid. Unlike my lily-livered siblings, and cousins, who could’ve discovered too this rich trove of antiques, artifacts and relics. Were they only a little braver, like me.

Out a dormer window in the attic a torso-model held vigil. A raw embodiment of the female, headless, looking out over the chaparral gardens of Oakland’s hills. I’d approach her at intervals, reassuring myself that she, like the bear in the basement, was still there. I’d touch the blue muslin padding. Had she arms, they would fall gracefully to her sides, the hands palmed delicately outwards. I never imagined what a head on her might look like.  I was not afraid of what she might look like with a face, it was more that I somehow had no right to put a living head on her, as if to do that would mean to take one from someone else.

I’d come back down the attic stairs, wondering where Gert might be. Though I wandered freely in her house, much more so than I was allowed to at my own house, there was one room that I was strictly forbidden to enter. The reason for all those other kids’ fears.

Someone else was living with Aunt Gert.

*

I’m sleeping and the yellow papyrus window shade has been lifted, just enough. Across the street the torso model appears, now with long legs in white pants and a powder-blue plunging blouse, but still headless, no arms. She begins to lope blindly towards the house. Gert wakes, in my dream, and hurriedly tells me to get under the bed. She gets in the closet.

I hear the familiar creak of the front door opening, footsteps in the living room. The low-heeled pumps that walk around the bed are polished white.

I awake suddenly, discomfited, my eyes opened to a slightly risen shade. The window behind it has been opened too. Bric-a-brac voices drift up from the sunny backyard. I get up and look out. Gert’s there, and Myrtle, over the back fence, admiring Gert’s bougainvillea. Mae has come over, holding a trowel from her own garden. Mr. Carlson grumps about something that came in his mail and the women laugh.

St. Mary’s bells, its nine a.m. Saturday morning.

I walk past Hanna’s room on the way to the bathroom.

I pause, but there’s never a sound from behind the door.

*

This aura of agedness charmed the arched porticos and sloping lawns of Madera Hill in a way that, at least by afternoon sunlight, welcomed me. It wasn’t only that I was the only child in Gert’s house. I don’t believe I ever saw another child on Madera Hill. The entire neighborhood was old, even the pets, who seldom barked or got in cat fights, and often made visits to vets.

As their owners did, to various general practitioners in converted-residence offices that bore the same stigmata of age. It got lonely, in a comfy, breakfast nook kind of way, but I never had to share anything.

Gert’s place was nothing like the boisterous bike fields I’d leave behind, each month or so, when my mother told me that Gert was asking for me. She’d never need to ask twice, knowing that I, unlike the rest of my generation, would jump at the chance.

I knew a good thing. My timid cousins and siblings were missing the boat; I wouldn’t betray my luck.

They were all scared of Hanna, who never came out of her room as far as I could tell.

The Asian grocer would smile broadly as Gert walked into his corner store. He knew a good thing too. It was usually a Friday, and he’d hold up two white-fish fillets, knowing her Catholic abstention from meat would make the sale. My mother would have called the sweets Gert added to the cart “a crime.” It was only a short ride from there, past craftsman bungalows and fine stucco flagships, with red masonry porches and accented wood sashes. After driving carefully up the matching red concrete ramps which led to each detached garage, Gert would squeeze her 1950 Pontiac in. I’d help her carry the groceries to the breakfast nook, setting them on the blue-checked table cloth, then run back outside, anxious to find some of the huge snails that didn’t seem to exist in the dry, flat backyards of Hayward.

At dusk, while she made dinner, I’d check on the torso model, or take the basement staircase to see if the bear was still there. I’d set up some of Uncle Harold’s antique toy trains.

*

There was always Hanna, but there was a time when another invalid lived on Madera Hill. Chawing cigars on the porch, and not saying much. Uncle Harold always seemed tired.

In his day, before the Depression, he could point to masterpieces like “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco” on billboards all over Oakland. He moonlighted house painting jobs when the union sign work slowed to nothing. Gert raised eyebrows when she’d brought Harold home, a handsomer, more inscrutable guy than any her more fetching sisters had produced.

He drank then, first with his sign-art buddies, then less selectively. My grandmother told a story that he’d strayed once, early in the marriage, that she and Gert had once dragged Harold out of another woman’s house.

They were childless, her and Harold, (another hazy area); Gert had worked all her life, and it was whispered that her job as Chief Nurse at Del Monte’s big San Leandro cannery had always supported them both. He’d been in the passenger seat of the Pontiac for years by the time I came along. Lead paint and the booze had taken a lot out of him. He’d sit quietly as Gert drove us around, maybe grunting now and then, indicating a sign he thought he may have known. I waited in the backseat for the ride to be over, the liberation of the snails.

Gert kept him home during his decline. On those visits I was asked to play quieter than usual. There were now two forbidden rooms. But I did, peek, into theirs, the master bedroom. At the foot of the bed two yellowed feet had come out from under the covers. That’s as far as I got, as I needed to.

Finally he was transferred to Merritt Hospital. I was there too. Harold seemed shriveled; it was his liver. Gert asked me to sing “Volare” in his room.

He loved trains. When he got too sick to set up his antique box cars and flat cars and passenger coaches with plastic people in some of the windows, he turned to his magazines, pored over articles about locomotives from a spate of periodicals that had been coming forever.

Time passed and Gert hadn’t asked for me. When she finally came again she was alone.

I wasn’t afraid. I was alarmed though, as the car steamed up, as she cried and cried, her hands on the steering wheel.

The torso model in the attic had been rolled over closer to the window to make room for some of Harold’s things, but still looked out over the waving cypress which topped Madera Hill.

*

I saw Hanna! But only her back. She was, amazingly, at the kitchen sink doing dishes when I walked in with the groceries. A crabby-haired, tiny figure in a gray robe. I stood staring, but she wouldn’t turn around, it was terribly unsatisfying. Gert led me away.

Of course I’d asked, Aunt Gert and my own mother about how Hanna had ended up there. There was a conspiracy of silence–even my talkative grandmother changed the subject. Unlike other secrets waiting for discovery in the old home, this was left obscure, as if somehow my willingness to be the only kid who’d spend the night at Aunt Gert’s might be at stake.

*

With a 1927-vintage nursing degree and indefatigable energy she had risen to the position of Chief Nurse at the Del Monte clinic. As the thrumming cannery mass-produced canned goods through the darkest hours of the Depression, her legend grew as healer and confidant to the seasonal grifters who brought in the harvest. Gert was often the only medical care they’d ever see.

Measles, burns, poison ivy? “Call Nurse Woods.”

Once a gleaner got his arm caught in the stalk-shredder. Gert ran out and stopped the line, wrapping the mangled limb in a tourniquet, calling for buckets of ice. He lived, and they put him back to work at a one armed job. Del Monte loved her.

Another revelation. It was Gert who’d bought the home on Madera, the white Pontiac. There was more. She’d parlayed her better-than-average salary into a bevy of modest rentals. Cannery housing, collections of California sticks with a few windows and a neat front door. When my visits came around the end of the month, we’d go collecting. Her tenants were elderly or the working poor. There was always a bag of fresh Del Monte fruit, in exchange for their rent checks.

Another thing my chicken brothers and sisters were missing: Gert was rich.

“Has anyone ever lost a finger in a pineapple can?” I once asked, repeating the cannery-town legend. She threw her rinsed brown perm back with a laugh that was hardly reassuring.

But I wasn’t scared.

I still jumped at any chance to go with her.

We’d have the white-fish, then watch a first-run episode of “I Love Lucy”. There was never much discussion about where I’d sleep. Having her rounded body next to me seemed strange at first. I had my own bed at home. Her alarm clock ticked loudly after she turned off the bedside lamp, after I knew she was asleep. I’d lay there, never too tired to sense again the house’s otherworldly aura of mortality. It was strongest then.

I’d hear Hanna get up a few times in the night.

Toward dawn Gert’s snoring drove me to the living room couch. In gray light I’d not fall back to sleep. A painting of ruins, blanched columns under a brown sun, hung reflected in the mantle mirror.

“Was I snoring? Oh dear,” she’d say, coming out in her robe, waking me, smelling of a green ointment she slathered on every morning.

*

Her rounds had begun to include funerals. Or maybe they always had, but now I went too. She was making appearances; none of these people were family. I couldn’t wait in the car, but I could stay in the back pew, the pew furthest from the altar. There a man (usually) lay groomed and pasty-faced in his open casket. Gert would briefly embrace a crying widow, and I’d feel sorry for the man in the box.

After we’d go to lunch and the talk would turn to toys. I wasn’t greedy but my fantasies were colored by a knowledge that only I, above all those nervous-Nellie’s at home, seemed to grasp: she can afford anything in the store.

*

An era of specialization, and lawsuits.

At a cafeteria luncheon Gert accepted the handsome cherry wood desk clock inscribed “Forty Years Service” as plump line-matrons and a few balding supervisors queued past. The cannery nurse would hereafter be a mostly clerical position. A million forms to fill out and everything but stomach upsets and headaches sent to private physicians or hospitals.

After her retirement I realized why I’d never been afraid. Surrounded by the glimmering of life’s force, Gert herself had never seemed old. She had some wizened magic, a joyfulness that seemed missing in the flatlands, the striving families, the sapling birches planted self-same in every yard. The appearance of her car in front of our four-bedroom was like a gleaming ice cream truck, come to take me away.

But that changed after Del Monte.

She could still get the Pontiac up those red ramps and into the garage, but we didn’t go driving around. The rent checks came in the mail. Myrtle, Mae, and Mr. Carlson, became the nexus of her life.

And church. The cathedral in Oakland, so much taller and more imposing than our little slant-roofed chapel in Hayward. I’d kneel quietly in perfume-soaked air as the spoken choruses came up in Latin. After church all of Oakland’s cracked sidewalks and grinning storefronts seemed at peace with the Lord.

*

I remember the day. I had already had one bad moment.

Down in the basement, one glass eye had fallen out of the bear’s head as I draped him over my shoulders. I carefully set him down and placed the eye back into its socket. Although Gert had never once scolded me about anything, I didn’t want to tell her. She’d been irritable on the ride home, not with me but with other drivers. Her face had fallen in the unremitting glare off the windshield. “People don’t drive like they used to,” she’d said in a cracked voice.

She’d waited in the Pontiac while I carried her list into the corner market. The grocer smiled broadly and said, “Ah, you here for the white fish.” Once home Gert took aspirin and went to lie down.

For the first time, I felt stranded, resenting the fact that I was stuck at Aunt Gert’s with a long weekend ahead of me. In Hayward mothers would be calling their children to dinner, fathers pulling into driveways. Young birches at the fence lines would quiver as children balked, shouted, came in.

I wanted to be home. I felt ashamed, imagining how it would hurt Gert to know that. But I was angry. It must have been that rebellious impulse that made me open Hanna’s door.

She was bent hard and straining over a chamber pot, her withered hairy behind facing the doorway. I heard her sharp intake of breath and she turned, oddly crumpled, a tiny little creature with liquid eyes.

I was struck by her outrage. Her capacity to still feel violated after years living in that bedroom. Wide-eyed I shut the door and ran outside.

It was a cooling afternoon, a bay fog headed toward the East Bay canyons. Each shaded window and red porch seemed abandoned. I’d never seen any living person in ten years of visits on a lot of those porches. And I’d never seen a naked adult before. I stopped at the basement window, translucent with dirt, and looked in. The bear’s eye was still cunningly affixed.

Gert was calling me from the back door.

*

And then Hanna died.

“She was never dealing with a full deck,” said my grandmother, finally willing to divulge all after the funereal, “even before the accident.”

Del Monte had hired Hanna for the maintenance crew. She was a dependable, if solitary worker. “She dressed like a man,” said grandma by way of epitaph, “always dressed like a man.” After the bus door caught her jacket, dragging her three city blocks, all she would say to the people gathered at the curb was “Nurse Woods, Nurse Woods.”

She said the same thing on the emergency ward at Merritt Hospital, to the doctors who did what they could to straighten her broken body and realized she had nowhere else to go.

Two weeks later, on a stretcher, they carried her up the clay-red ramps, to Gert’s back bedroom, the last patient. Very early on I remembered asking my mother if it was Gert who ran Hanna over. It was a childish putting of two and two together, Gert did this, and that’s why she took Hanna in. In the youthful vibrancy of Hayward there was nothing to compare it to, no situation in which such an unfolding of the Christian charity I’d learned had ever yet become necessary.

*

At the very crest of Madera Hill a view of east Oakland’s industrial flatlands can be seen through the hedges. San Francisco’s drab sister had a backyard full of welding shops and metal fabricators even then. It would seem like another universe Saturday mornings, a far off gray machinery from amongst the idyllic homes. Further down the Bay Shore newer homes were risen, and rising, without trees, or venerable snails. Increasingly, that’s where I wanted to be.

My mother laid the guilt, saying it would be nice if I would go visit Aunt Gert.

After she got the Pontiac up the ramps, she was tired, she had to lie down. I peeked in Hanna’s old room, which now was stored with impersonal belongings that held no clue about the woman who’d lived out her injured existence there. Then, with a healthy afternoon snore coming from Gert’s room, I went up and found the torso model. I walked over to it. I put my hand on the shelf of her breasts, then reached around back to her rump, couldn’t help myself, didn’t stop myself. I embraced her, the woman who had loped in my dream, the woman who I could put any face, or no face, on. Now with a strange heat on her.

Later I went down for what I couldn’t have known would be my last meal with Aunt Gert. The same blue-checked tablecloth that never wore out. She didn’t say much as she fried the hamburger patties. I knew then that if I came back again, it would be for her, upstairs.

I had a secret on Madera Hill, and it scared me.

I was thirteen, and I told my mother that Gert’s house was boring and that I didn’t want to go anymore. And I didn’t have to.

*

Thereafter I’d see her only at family gatherings. I’d find her in a chair and bend down. She’d call me the “apple of her eye.”

Now she lay in the corridor of a bustling intensive care unit, eighty-three years old and having palpitations. Harried physicians tend to younger emergencies. She knows me, but speech won’t come. The only clear idea I got from her partial sentences and short breaths was that she wasn’t happy with the nurses.

But I saw the tear in her eye as I tore myself away, another first, the moment of ultimate separation.

*

The torso model dream only came once, that morning on Harold’s side of the bed, but remains an enduring phantasm. Her image arrests me, the smooth svelte shape of her, her firm breasts and fine little rump. Her moment is stronger than moments in later dreams, recurring dreams, about hands in windows. Nightmares about neighbors who don’t talk, who only moan in the night.

She is the embodiment of my memory of Madera Hill, of Aunt Gert, of things both passing over and moving into the heart of the moment.

 

Photo—Mr. Mystery/Flickr

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About Mark Ellis

Portland journalist and writer Mark Ellis is the author of  Ladder Memory: Stories from the Painting Trade

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