Tribute to Lucia Berlin
It’s a pity it’s raining. Summer is coming to an end just when I found a spot where I think I could endure a few more weeks. Maybe a few more weeks is all I need.
The roof at the end of the brick steps leading up the hanging garden behind the house. It’s not exactly a new discovery, I used to spend a lot of time there as a child. A flat roof entirely covered with greyish blue tar paper, I loved the rough feel underneath my bare feet and the palms of my hands, still do. Now it is also loaded with that childhood nostalgia, a golden brown feeling, sun filled and like honey dripping off a knife, musty in secret spots and with dry dust tickling in the nose and the back of the throat.I put a padded deck chair cover on it and roll up my cardigan as a cushion.
Like a game or a dare I lie from time to time directly on the tar paper, it’s hot in the middle of the day, like sand on a mediterranean beach, and it leaves a pattern like cellulitis on the backside of the body. I lie completely still and let the heat seep into me until it becomes unbearable.I used to have a lot of games like this, see how long I could stand some discomfort.
I usually went for slow building torture, gradual heat or cold, or pain.
Nothing short and spectacular, like a cigarette burn, or a jump into a freezing lake.
Something where you get acquainted with the sensation slowly, get to know it in all its dimensions and you can trace the facets of your reaction and your responses, to all the new twists and turns, and it’s like a dialogue where you start to appreciate the opponent and think: oh, smart move. It’s like respecting each other’s intelligence.
In the corner of the roof where there is some shadow from the chimney rising up, still sits a big black blob of hardened tarmac.
The neighbours girl and I had found it one day beside some roadworks a few streets away. The workers had gone somewhere for their break and had left some spilled tarmac for paving the road, it was still warm and looked deliciously viscous. We couldn’t resist.
We scraped off a whole large blob, as big as a child’s head, carried it home and put it on the roof. Then we sat beside it and observed its transformation, how its wet lacquered shine dulled while it hardened and at the end something like a fine white chalk dust seemed to cover it.
We poked with sticks at it, made patterns on its surface and smoothed them over again, savoring the satisfaction of the seamless surface.
It took several days to dry completely and we came back to look at it ever so often.
Our parents weren’t pleased for some reason, maybe our hands had been full of tar and hard to clean, but memories on this part are hazy.
I brought a book but for now I just lie flat on my back, forearm across my face to block out the sun. On the grassy slope beside the roof is a big bush and birds, yellow tits, fly in and out.
How different birds fly, I never really noticed before, you have the birds of prey hovering for long minutes motionless in the sky, or flocks of grackles doing tiny jumps with their bodies bent back and then lifting off, with rather cumbersome but also forceful flaps.
The tits flapping their wings sounds like spoke cards on a kid’s bicycle.
It takes me a while to come up with that comparison, I have been lying there observing three tits flying in and out of the bush, and the faint echo tugging at my brain, I know that sound.
I never used spoke cards. Maybe I should have. I have a brief moment of regret, it would have been even cooler.
But we loved to race down the steep roads of the city, my friend, not the neighbours girl, on the back rack, my legs working like pistons.
Once my brakes wouldn’t catch, we were still far away, only half way down the road, just passing the magic moment of highest speed, when pedalling more strongly doesn’t make a difference anymore, the movement overtakes itself and you can keep still and just enjoy the terrifying descent.
An old lady was crossing the road at the end, where it flattened out again, I could see her, we were the only people out for miles it seemed. High noon, everyone else was inside for lunch and a nap.
My friend on the back was oblivious still, my back hiding what was in front of us.
The lady made her way slowly across, one small elaborate move after the other, stopping briefly to catch her breath in between. And we were flying toward her, like a bullet train, and I had realised with a fleeting, detached terror, that I could not work my brakes. Later I would see that the brake pads had worn off completely. We were advancing steadily at breakneck speed, never had we achieved such a speed before, we were running on tracks, impossible to swerve and divert disaster.
It was as if the old lady and my bike were connected through a rubber band and would snap back together, there was no other way.
On that roof I am just atop of what is going on in the house below, I can observe without taking part, hiding.
Looking up the sky opened wide, beyond clothes lines and electricity lines, chimneys, wooden posts, tree tops.
Afterwards I pushed the bike home, as the brakes were not catching I had to twist the handlebar from side to side all the time, to keep it from veering off. My friend and I had just looked at each other, unable to find words, and she had gone one way, towards their house, and I the other way. I left the bike in the cellar and went up to my room. I couldn’t stay there. I went into the sitting room, then the bathroom. There I looked at myself in the mirror. I was recently tall enough to see myself in it, above the sink.
Then I turned around, opened the apartment door and walked out, and a few steps down the stairs. From below I could hear my father’s voice talking to someone at the cellar door.
I screamed. And screamed.
And ran back into the apartment, my father behind me now, grabbing me, turning me around, holding me at arms lengths, asking what’s wrong, panic in his voice, but I kept screaming and screaming, and then I tucked myself into his chest, cheek pressed against the buttons of his work coat, until my screams turned into sobs and then stopped.
I didn’t cycle again for years.