Pattern on an Umbrella

When he visits, everything grows quiet.

“Something happened in the war,” Mother tells me. “Something the Major is not proud of.”

I do not know what this incident was, but the Major carries it always with him like a shroud for a funeral. Around him we murmur, and do not shout. We pass the tea, dressed in our scratchy white lace dresses, and are not allowed to play with our toys. Father leans forward and listens attentively to everything the Major says, nodding and smiling; he does not read his newspaper. The Major is treated like the porcelain dolls Grandmother mails me that I have on display in my bedroom. Move too quickly, and we would frighten him. Talk loudly, and he would shatter.

The Major himself is a quiet man, friendly. His dark eyes glitter when he watches us open the little toys he buys us around Christmas-time; Mother says this is because he never married, and he always wanted little girls like us. He has wavy dark hair and he never wears a uniform. Not muscular or broad, his frame is thin and small-waisted. No grizzly facial hair, but a smooth, milky white chin and cheeks. He teaches at the high school, which is where I will go as soon as I turn fourteen, six years from now. His manners are gentle and have what Mother calls “class”. Father says this is because he comes from a well-to-do family of British descent. Whenever I look at the Major, though, all I can see is that his eyes droop a little bit more than is normal, and that he always appears to be sad in a place deep enough inside him that nobody could possibly ever penetrate it. He laughs, he chats; but his drooping eyes and the little sighs he lets escape between sentences convince me that he is sad.

***

Years ago, now…in the sweat of Vietnam…sick and wounded, sick and wounded, everybody dies now and then and all you ever hear of is the sick and wounded…a respected Major, top in class, popular and friendly with men and women…and a Lieutenant who is notorious for his bravery and toughness, wears leather gloves and carries a whip with him wherever he goes, show of action, a fast comradeship between the two. Amidst the perspiration of the heavy plants and the muddy water and the guns, friends who fight together…a piercing gunshot, and our man the Lieutenant is wounded in the leg, sent to a makeshift hospital with makeshift nurses…

***

He lives in the small house next door to ours. Of course, ours isn’t any bigger—all of the houses on our street look the same. The Major usually lets Mother and Father do most of the speaking during tea, but one of the few things he complains about with some frequency is what he calls “the stifling conformity of the small-town existence.” One time he told Mother, “After the war…I cannot easily live here. This superficial film belies the holes of our existence that only emerge when a man lives breathing in death’s shadow.”

This seemed a funny thing to say at tea, and after he left I asked Father about it. He frowned and explained that as a history teacher, the Major overanalyzed the small and unimportant in life. “This is a fine town, Gracie,” he assured me. Mother agreed from the kitchen where she was washing the cups.

The Major never invites us over to his house, and what’s even more interesting is that my parents don’t seem to press the issue. Whenever any of my friends fail to invite me to their house after I have invited them to mine, Mother gives me a long lecture about the rules of polite society and the consequences for people who disobey them. But, for some reason, this rule does not seem to hold between adults. Or, at least, not when the Major is involved.

After we get home from school and have had our snack, Lucy and I often crouch in the edge of the overgrown shrubbery across the street from his house, hoping to catch a glimpse of the inside. Countless times, we have seen his little blue car pull into the driveway as he comes back from the high school, but we have never glimpsed much else. Squatting there with nothing else to do, we often hold competitions in which we imagine what the inside of his house must look like and see who has the better idea. I always imagine it dark like a dungeon, with crooked narrow windows and dusty shelves. Mother says we ruin far too many gingham dresses crouching across from his house like “little animals”, but she hasn’t forbid us from it yet.

The Major never has any visitors at all, but my parents seem to think it particularly strange that he never has any female callers. I don’t see why that’s such a surprise—if he doesn’t let anybody into his house, why would women be any different? My mother always shakes her head, “But he is so wealthy!” which I don’t understand because his house is, if anything, smaller than ours is. Whenever she says this Father peers at her over his newspaper in this funny way and asks whether his salary is good enough. Mother always blushes and stutters some sort of answer as she fumbles with breakfast or the dishes or her knitting—her hands are always busy with something.

Anyway, when Lucy and I come home from school one day to find a gold sedan parked in the major’s driveway next to the blue one, we creep up to a window at the side of his house wearing our gingham dresses and backpacks, glancing inside for the first time. The living room doesn’t appear so different from ours, and is painted a fresh, springy green. The Major sits on an old sofa next to a woman, but because of the position of the window, we can only see the back of their heads—the woman’s hair is auburn, swept up into a tight bun. Try as I might I can’t hear any of what they’re saying, though the woman shakes her head a lot and the Major is more animated than we have ever seen him.

The woman gets up off the couch and the Major rushes over to a closet in the corner, opening it and offering her a navy blue pea coat. We are both alerted to the fact that this means one or both of them is about to leave the house, and of course the Major would not be happy to see two young girls in gingham dresses dirtying their shoes as they stand on tiptoe to spy into his living room. Lucy dashes off without waiting for me, and from the shock of everything going on I stumble and fall to the ground, muddied from the rain of the morning. Hearing the front door open, I jump to my feet and run frantically towards my house, eyes tearing from the wind ripping against them. I am almost there when I hear a female’s voice cry out to me, sharp like a cut from a knife. I stop, grimace, and turn. The two of them are there, in the driveway, and in front of them I can also see plainly the spot of my recent deviance from the “rules of polite society.” I wonder if they can tell I was there. Did I leave footprints?

She beckons to me and, so as not to appear suspicious, I reluctantly jog over to the major’s driveway, wondering with every step I take if it will be my last. Lucy, of course, escapes scot-free; she is nowhere in sight. As I approach, the woman holds out a hair bow and asks if it is mine. For fear that she can see my guilt, I snatch it from her hands without looking her in the eye and murmur thank-you, regretting that I had ever been so careless as to let it fall out by the window. I stand there for a moment, hesitant; the Major says gently that I can run along now. Nodding nervously I turn and dash off for the security of my house, but not before noticing that around the woman’s long and slender finger, she wears not a ring but a faded bolt of green silk.

***

…she is there, Auburn, and she is assigned to the Lieutenant. Tranquilizers, painkillers, sedatives, no food, thin blankets, broken leg…Lieutenant shouts out, shouts out, Auburn shushes him but to no avail. Heavy, boiling glares, several slaps, the Lieutenant jokes with the Major visiting with him about his bitch of a nurse…his bitch of a nurse with Irish Auburn hair…gentle strokes, secret smiles, rosy blushes lead to kisses, surprise engagement with the promise of an emerald ring after the war, substituted for now with a bolt of green silk the Lieutenant managed to buy off a villager. She wears it faithfully, shows the Major smiling, everybody singing “Auburn and Lieutenant, Auburn and Lieutenant” until madman shouts for no more sick men. What makes him mad, who is he, why is he mad? Who knows what makes a man mad among the places where the human condition is exposed to the raw bone, twisted and played with until it doesn’t have any coherent meaning…gnashing teeth, bloodshot eyes, kerchief tied around sweaty head, an insistence that to save the sick and wounded is a waste of space, time, and women…and the Major is witness, sees the Madman as he approaches and could stop him, has the gun in his hand ready to shoot, save his friend…what keeps a man from doing what he should be doing when his morals are shot, his body fatigued, and he doesn’t know anything about sane and insane anymore and he’s wondering if the Madman isn’t right…?

***

I move back to my parents’ house the day after I graduate.

“She’s staying with us while she pays off her debts,” they explain to the neighbors that they invite over for tea. “She’s a smart one, she is—going to go to medical school and be a doctor. A brain doctor, fancy that.”

I never participate in these teas unless I am obliged to, since I see them as a representation of what the Major once called “the stifling conformity of the small-town existence.” Ah, yes, the Major. I haven’t thought about him since I entered college—I never did have him as a teacher in the high school. But last night…last night I dreamed about a woman who wore a bolt of green silk around her finger, and I remembered that strange female visitor of the Major’s who never returned. Ever since I had that dream I am convinced that the Auburn-cloaked woman is a clue to figuring out what happened during the war to make his eyes droop and his lips sigh. I ask my parents but they wave it off. “It was Vietnam, Gracie, you know, all the vets get that way about it. Miserable war and all that and we’ll never allow it to happen again.” Their words ring hollow with me—returning to the small town from college I am no longer fooled by its gloss, and the manner of living and thinking it promotes only irritates me. I feel sick, possessed as I am with the irresistible desire to figure out the Major’s mysterious past.

One afternoon I return to my old favorite hiding spot across from his house, this time alone. Lucy goes to a community college several towns away; she has long since forgotten the quiet and unobtrusive neighbor of her childhood. I would have forgotten, too, had it not been for the dream. About an hour after I first get there the Major leaves his house and drives off to go on some errand or other. As the familiar navy blue car slips out of the driveway, the sunshine sparkling of off its paintwork, I tiptoe over to the Major’s yard.

From my childhood days I remember that the Major always leaves the back door to his house open; when my parents used to ask why, he would shrug and respond that old habits die hard. No need for him to explain himself now—my parents long ago stopped inviting him over. I guess the lack of reciprocation finally started to bother them. Sure enough, the back door is open, and I tiptoe inside onto the soft rug of the house I have never before entered.

All of the walls in his house are painted either with the springy green of the living room I glimpsed so many years ago or with a powdery light blue. These colors sing of springtime, and here as a child I imagined it as a home of darkness! The man is highly orderly, I can see from the way his shoes are arranged by color in his closet with the open sliding-doors. Not an item out of place; the soap in the bathroom is either wrapped and piled inside the cabinet or cleanly positioned into the exactly three soap-holders distributed throughout. His living room absurdly seems as though it has never been lived in—not a magazine or a collection of DVDs, nothing that would make a house a home. Well, I do spot a small bookshelf in the corner, and it’s not as if the books haven’t been touched in years—they seem a natural extension of the environment, though, highly impersonal.

His hallway closet is filled with nothing but dozens of umbrellas, all with the same design, a brown and crème checkered pattern. Seeing these remind me of the umbrella of the same design I used to see him carry to school in the morning on rainy days, but why he would ever have a need for a closet full of umbrellas with the same pattern is beyond me. They are stacked on the two upper shelves, four to a row and three rows high, and on the closet floor, ten to a row and seven rows high. They are also knotted, hanging down from the rod where coats are meant to be kept.

Shaking my head of this strange image I enter his bedroom where I see the second peculiar item, or items, I should say—on top of his nightstand table are a whip and a pair of leather gloves. The woman with the green silk ring flashes in my mind, the Major towering over her with a whip in his gloved hand. Could the quiet schoolteacher with the secretive past really be into this kind of thing? I wasn’t aware that he had any sort of sex life, at least not anymore…I feel a hand on my shoulder.

I gulp and close my eyes, heart fluttering angrily because it did not hear the mutter of the car pulling back into the driveway. Who ever heard of a fifteen-minute errand? I don’t know what he’ll do, I’m sure he’ll call the police, and here I am ogling his sex toys—how strange, a man thirty-five years older or so than myself!

“It isn’t what you think it is,” he says quietly, gently turning me around so that he can look at me. Well, I don’t really know what to think anymore, gazing into those drooping dark eyes and wondering why he doesn’t act more angry that a total stranger has trespassed into his bedroom, the most private of places. His hair is streaked with gray now, and looking into his eyes I realize all of a sudden the magnitude of the character of this man that I have taken for granted throughout my life. How sad that he must sleep alone each night with only a whip to keep him company, a man who understands that life can never be understood! Lost in my thoughts I with a start am brought back to reality and remember the “polite rules of society,” which I am afraid I have broken in a very serious manner. I begin to stammer an apology, but he cuts me off.

You are the neighbor’s oldest girl, he says, and I don’t believe I ever had you as a student. Gracie, is it? Grace, now, or still Gracie? How you have grown, he says, and how pretty you look.

Upon hearing I have just graduated that familiar glitter comes into his eyes. “So you are twenty-one and you can drink. Would you like to have a drink with me tonight, my dear? We can chat about these.” And he gestures toward the items on the nightstand.

I agree, wondering vaguely why somebody hadn’t just asked him by now about his past, if it is this easy to get him to talk about it. As we move toward the kitchen in this surreal scenario, as my mind explodes with angry questions because this man’s reaction to my intrusion is contrary to everything I have ever learned about human nature, I vaguely hear my external self asking about the umbrellas in the closet.

He shrugs and tells me it’s so he has extras in case he breaks one.

***

Finger on the trigger… blow to the Lieutenant’s head, right in front of Auburn…killed him…Auburn left a widow before even her marriage could be done and consummated against cool satin bed sheets…consummated instead against the hot blankets of the Vietnamese forests, surrounded by the Vietcong on all sides…she will never see anyone again, now, she is doomed to remain faithful to her love…who was killed…the Lieutenant…the Lieutenant…

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