Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Novel excerpt: Mandelbrot, Algonquian. Chapter: “Catskills”

Novel excerpt: Mandelbrot, Algonquian. Chapter: “Catskills”

by mykl sivak
2005, 2009, 2014

When he was a boy, Viktor Mandelbrot’s mother worked in a small factory polishing brass fittings. Her fingertips were permanently gray from handling the fittings each day, her fingerprints all but worn smooth. In my next career, I’ll be a burglar, she would sometimes joke in the thick old-world accent that Mandelbrot did not share. And young Mandelbrot would secretly delight in the thought of fantastic adventures, he and his mother stealing through the night in black clothing and stocking caps, potato sacks of loot slung over their shoulders, avoiding the coppers and ransoming hostages. This was, of course, outrageous even to imagine. His mother once punished him for pocketing a grocery store cherry. She had made him apologize and barred him from cherries for a month.

The factory was housed within a turn of the century brick building alongside the slow Housatonic. Even then the river was filthy. In the overcast light it expressed a polluted opalescence. Its varying depth seemed the defy any system of prognostication, being not influenced by the tides alone, but also by the seemingly arbitrary operations of the hydroelectric dam floodgates ten miles to the north, which themselves were often influence by the weather further north still. From its headwaters in Northwestern Massachusetts down into Connecticut, it traced the New York state line, flowed past countless factories and plants that imbued the waters with their chemical effluence and organic wastes, so that when it spilled itself into Long Island Sound, south of the factory, the so-called waters were little more than a flimsy liquid matrix, a filthy solution pushed to the limits of molecular saturation.

Once as a boy, Mandelbrot had accompanied his mother to work, and though she sat him in an old uneven side-chair with a storybook and told him not to stray, he wandered through the factory, away from the churning, growling engine lathes and milling machines, down dusty dark-pitched stairwells of hand-hewn planks and beams to strange storerooms and places filled with weird contraptions of heavily painted iron, the uses of which his young mind could not decipher. Along the back wall of one wide room were many windows, covered thick with grime and dust, and against them he could hear a periodic rapping, irregular in measure and frequency. Closer, he saw an undulating line across each window, the glass divided in two values, the lighter grey quivering above darker brown. He stared, placed his hand against the dirty pane, felt the cold rhythm pulse against his palm.

In a corner was an old stool and he brought it to the window, stood upon it to reach the tarnished brass latch, then pushed hard until the mechanism turned. He pushed the stool to one side with his leg and grabbed the wide brass grips at the window’s low bottom rail, hoisted, and the brown water flowed in. It rushed cold past his bare calves, filled his shoes, and coursed across the dust caked floorboards. He tried to close it, but he did not have the strength. He thought of running, but instead stood there, water pouring in around him, like some stupefied and ineffectual version of the Dutch boy. The water was past his waist when the men came tromping down the stairs. They ran through the water toward him. One lifted him up, trudged back to the stairs with Mandelbrot in his elbow like a floppy violin case. The other man went for the window, and Mandelbrot watched dazed as the man lowered the sash, shut it with one quick push. Then all was quiet, save the muted sound of the upstairs machines which kept running. The man placed Mandelbrot on the steps, and the two adults stood looking at one another, hands at hips and forehead, in quiet disbelief. He could hear their flushed breathing, the soft burble of the water around their rocking calves.

He figured he was a goner. His mother would be fired and he would be sent to some orphanage. But those things did not happen. Instead they were sent home early. Mandelbrot was bathed, fed soup, then sent to bed early. His mother said nothing, and Mandelbrot was certainly not going to bring it up. After that, he was never again asked to accompany his mother to work.

Not long after that, the man who had shut the window began escorting Mandelbrot’s mother home after work. His name was Mr. Novak; he was the plant manager, and sometimes he would stay for diner. And as time went on, he would be there until Mandelbrot was put to bed, and sometimes he was there in the morning when Mandelbrot awoke, in the same clothes he had on the night before appearing to have never left.

It became usual that for one week each summer, Mandelbrot and his mother would go with Mr. Novak to his camp in the Catskills. Mr. Novak was himself a Polish immigrant. As time went on, Mandelbrot got the sense that he looked out for Mrs. Mandelbrot, as Novak called her. Years later, when he thought about things through the eyes of an adult, Mandelbrot assumed that Novak had planned on making Mrs. Mandelbrot his wife.

Novak was old country, a well groomed, neatly dressed man with a clean-shaven face like a lungfish. His thin blonde hair was always combed flat against his red scalp, and though his suits were not the expensive type, they were always in good repair and well pressed. He spoke to Mrs. Mandelbrot in Polish mostly, and was, Mandelbrot later concluded, somewhere in the area of fifteen years her senior. He was never short-tempered or ill mannered, nor was he warm or kind. His manner toward Mrs. Mandelbrot was stoic and businesslike, not exactly the way a manager might act toward an employee, but similar, perhaps the way a banker might interact with a person seeking a loan: congenial, distant, and slightly skeptical.

Still there was something vaguely fatherly about the man, though Mandelbrot could not be sure of that having only witnessed such things secondhand. During the times they spent in the Catskills, Novak acted as if the Mandelbrots were his own wife and child. He drove them everywhere in his clean, though aging, Sedan. He paid for their meals and activities, took Mandelbrot to pony rides and paddled them across the lake in a canoe. Even then, the sight of Novak in sleeve garters, sweating as he paddled the full canoe beneath the hot sun was almost too much. Even as they sat atop the red and white-checkered picnic blanket, eating fruits and cheeses in a buttercup field in the shade of an old gnarled oak, Novak possessed a professional detachment. Even when he rolled up his shirtsleeves, he did not convey an air of getting down to business like a man preparing to invest some elbow grease, he just looked like he was about to do his taxes.

Often, in the long sticky afternoons, Mrs. Mandelbrot would send her son away.

“Viktor,” she would say, perhaps leaning against the jamb of his bedroom door, one arm against her waist, the elbow of the other resting upon its wrist, fingers holding a cigarette just beyond her lips. “Go into the woods and explore. Exercise your legs. Why not take Mr. Novak’s gun and hunt squirrels or little birds. What ever you like. But don’t come back before lunch time.”
He would go into the woods, Novak’s old bird rifle slung over his shoulder, and imagine himself an Indian, hunting the great bear, the whitetail, the pheasant. He killed squirrels, sparrows and mourning doves. He would bury their carcasses, perform improvised Indian burial rites.

Once, deep in the woods, he knelt above the grave of a thrush he had tracked into the wood’s interior. He killed with a single shot to the skull as it dug for grubs among the litter. He dug, first through the rust-colored blanket of pine needles, then the fertile black loam, with his fingers, whispered brother bird you died so my people might live as he plowed the earth and shoots above its lifeless form. He fashioned a cross out of twigs, he had seen this in movies, and realized then that he had never wandered this far in before. Even as he called out to the Great Spirit on the dead bird’s behalf, he ignored the nagging fear that he was hopelessly lost and would not be able to find his way back to Novak’s camp before dark.

He watched a red-tailed hawk spiral slowly above the valley, watching for prey, patient as the hills. A smaller hawk trailed, beating its wings fiercely to keep up as its mother rode the currents with her wide wings, not flapping once, just hanging there spinning like a feather at the surface of a little river eddy.

Mandelbrot checked the sun’s position. It was sinking faster now; soon it would be twilight. The threat of wolves was real. All week, and the summers before, he had heard them calling their tribal songs from the hills in the night as he lay beneath thin cotton sheets, bathed in the white light of the bright rural moon. There were mountain lions too, and black bears, and those could climb trees if they wanted and he did not doubt that his soft pink body would motivate them to do so. He did not like the sound of spending the night in the woods. He slung the rifle over his shoulder. Said one last blessing above the buried thrush.

At first, he did not think it strange to see the man standing there, at the hill’s crest, looking toward him, but in an instant the incongruity of it manifested and his blood froze. Suddenly it appeared to him that though the man was looking in his direction, he could not see Mandelbrot. It was though he was looking through the boy, over the hillside and across the valley, toward the barley visible pond that lay secreted among the trees in the valley among the hills.

The man was shirtless, dressed like a television Indian. He wore buckskin leggings and moccasins. His hair was cut short at the top, and at the back ran down his neck to fan over his shoulders. His skin was the color of pine needles, his cheeks and chest marked with white and red clay. The boy watched the man for a moment, became somehow unafraid. He raised his hand but the man made no acknowledgement. He just stood there staring into the wilderness. It was as if Mandelbrot had found his way into some motel room painting, or slid somehow into an ancient moment long passed.

In a strange instant, an improbable emotion overcame the boy. He became overwhelmed with the notion that the man was his father, whom he had never met. He raised his palm to the man, and the man turned away from him, moving like a somnambulist, took a step and disappeared above the crest beyond Mandelbrot’s line of sight.

He felt something like a punch to the ribs, ran wildly up the hillside, the rifle slipped from his elbow, bounced crazily on its strap that hung from his elbow. He sought to catch the man, to grab him, face him, make him see him there, shout you are my father! I am the son you never knew and I have found you! At the crest, his foot caught a stone, and it sent him flying to his belly. He slid for feet across the floor litter, down the opposite slope, wind knocked from his lungs. He struggled to get up, but he could not see through the tears. All that was visible was the vague shrinking shape of the man’s form as it moved down the hill, until it disappeared amidst the trees.

He sat there for a moment, wiped his eyes on his wrists, picked sediment and needles from the scrapes on his knees. He stood up, brushed debris from his body, picked up the rifle from where it had fallen, then without a thought took off across the forest. He ran without thinking, as fast as he could. The sun was already dipping below the western ridge. He was going in the correct general direction, he knew that at least, but soon the moss laden roof of the cottage peeked between the trees and he fell into the yard like a ballplayer sliding for home. He imagined a wolf at his back, its slobbering maw snapping at his heels just as he leapt from its reach beyond the boundaries of its woodland realm. Safe. He saw glowing eyes in the shadows, among the tree trunks, heard disgusted growls from beastly throats. “Better luck next time,” he said then spit, slapping his hands together repeatedly in a that’s that movement.
He dropped the rifle beside the back steps and entered the cottage. He was thirsty and his legs stung in the spots he had skinned them. In the back porch he found his mother sitting in an Adirondack chair, looking through the wire screen toward the place along the hills where the sun had set. A cigarette languished between her fingers, slowly burning to the long ash that hung precariously from its tip. There was the tinny music of the wireless radio, piano and nearly inaudible guitar strumming, deep bass plunking, and the sad soulful sound of a deep female voice singing something in another language. It wasn’t Polish, he knew that, but what language it was, he had no way of knowing.

“Mom,” he said, but she did not appear to hear him. She did not look toward him. Her gaze stayed fixed on the hills. There were a few candles lit in the cottage, and some stray rays of blazing red sunlight, and these sources filled the rooms with a flickering mystical ambience.

He approached her, placed his small soiled hand on her arm. “Mom?” He spoke again.

She turned slowly to him and smiled a slow pulpy smile. Her eyebrows did not move.

“Hello, kochanie,” she said, swiped a palm across his dirt coated forehead, touched his cheek soft with smooth gray fingertips.
She was still a young woman then, not much older than thirty. Her flesh was pale and soft, but on her forehead and beside her eyes and lips thin creases had already formed. She was dewy with sweat, and the candlelight played upon her damp skin, made her glisten as if coated in fine crystal dust of sugar or quartz. Her hair was pulled back in a sloppy thoughtless bun. The two top buttons of her summer dress were unbuttoned and her eyelids looked sleepy and heavy. She smelled of alcohol and something else and her breath near his face was like smoke and skim milk.

 “I saw an Indian,” he said, and she smiled.
“Did you?” She said. The smile dissolved and her eyes moved back out the window. “Did you shoot him with your gun?”
“No,” he said. He took the cigarette from her fingers, flicked the ashes into a candle, then placed the still lit butt between his own pursed lips and inhaled a little. He plucked it from his lips with his thumb and forefinger to speak.
“I think he was a ghost. It was deep in the woods and I tried to chase him but I fell and skinned my knees. When I got up he was gone. Disappeared.”

She didn’t respond, swiped gently at his hair with the back of her fingers making tiny circles with the backs of her knuckles. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes.

Mandelbrot watched as his mother drifted quietly to sleep. He turned on the old ceiling fan and placed a knitted afghan up over her shoulders. In her sleep she settled in to it, nuzzled her cheek against the needlework.

He did not find Mr. Novak anywhere in the cottage. He poured himself a glass of lemonade from the icebox, then went and sat on the back porch and smoked his mother’s cigarettes as phantom bats flitted past his head and yellow-green fireflies drifted by in the starry darkness. The candlelight cast flickering shadows across the lawn before him until it went out from the fan or was suffocated by its own tallow. The little blue lights of all the Universe slowly spun overhead and the red cherry of the cigarette pulsated in the darkness between his face and his fingers.

That night beside the open unscreened window, he drifted to sleep. And as the waking world turned to dreams, he saw a string of fireflies float weaving across his bed to hang at his ceiling like stars. In his slumber he dreamed of the Housatonic, its cold clean waters bursting the dam to rise ever deeper beside the factory walls until the building was submerged. The windows dissolved like sugar and the waters flowed in, sinking the machinery, sending little brass parts to the purified floor. Then he saw his mother floating peaceful in the clear blue water. Her pure white fingertips were rutted and furrowed and her face was not.