Before and After

Before and After

Where I come from in summer the tortoise grazes on the lawn, her shell chained to a standpipe. There’s always a little puddle and tall grass. She remains within her shell when the dogs are at play. They ignore her. She would outlive them by a hundred years, if she were not destined to be turned into soup for soldiers.

Where I come from the Riesenschnauzers are well-bathed and handsome. Year-round, they frisk outside and sleep inside. They have seven puppies. The old female takes care of the human child, grabbing her overall straps whenever she heads down to the driveway, placing her back on her feet in the garden. The dogs meet strangers with confidence and trust. They are easily led.

Where I come from men are round-headed with buzz cuts and clean pink cheeks. They smell of cologne. Their blue eyes look fixed in marble. They do not blink as they rumble forth their many-syllabled views on what the world is coming to and where it is going. They want you to absorb these views, unaltered, in paragraphs. Sparing of contemporary praise, they extol the giants of the past. Their wit is sharp and cuts both ways. They wear perfect neckties but relax enough to laugh: ha ha, twinkle, wink. They rise, cigar in mouth, to the hard heroism of executive offices. They live with galling bosses, also with poor relations on the doorstep who must be swept away. Outside it is always early spring.

When the fateful summer comes, they put on uniforms, for they have been called. Or, if they have been culled, homburg hats and polished shoes. They cover their cheek-draining fear by standing straight. In winter, if still alive, they, too, are gone. In a new crystal setting, a globe of terror and illusion, they roll over the earth, landing in a foreign city, here or there, a crack in a pavement or an apartment high up. They contemplate, unbelieving, the dead man on the subway stairs, limp, flung down the gob-slippery iron. They observe the crowd, in heavy coats, stepping robotically around the corpse, pretending ignorance.

Where I come from women strike out beyond but then retreat within their allotted sphere. They dress to impress. They plan menus. They walk quickly and appear tall to each other. They have affairs, they form ménages à trois. They do not sin impulsively but the details of their well-planned escapades appear as flashes of inspiration. Their rare smiles are ambiguous, skeptical, or sad as well as amused. They dine with delicacy but, in the kitchen, stuff leftovers into their painted mouths. They inspire fear and longing. Realizing this, they smile—and withdraw their favors. Their children are well-dressed and obedient, trained not to love.

Seeing servants rise up indignant and bankers bent like lackeys, they are aggrieved. Their houses shatter, their families scatter. They gather their remaining goods. They herd their children and men to safety if they can, or else to bone-by-bone destruction. They write amusing letters in bomb shelters, pretending still to possess embossed blue stationery. They fold their stockinged legs to hide the runs. When this fails they paint their legs. When this fails they pull their ancient mothers through rubble-filled towns in a child’s metal wagon with rickety wheels.

Renee Watkins is a retired professor of Renaissance history, a child counselor, and an occasional writer. She was born in Berlin, Germany. After many years in New York and New England, she has found herself at home in Berkeley.

Click here to go back to the main feature page.

Faces of the East Bay