I say to him that my father always told me, Whatever you do, Kurt, don’t ever join the Army. I’m not joining the Army, my cousin’s son says, I’m joining the Marines. I have no idea what my father would have said had I made a similar remark…”
by kurt eisenlohr
I returned from Michigan early this morning with a chest cold brought on by too many cigarettes, too much drinking, not enough sleep, and too much exposure to too many sick babies. The babies are all related to me. Nieces and nephews, second cousins. I’m an uncle. Uncle Kurt. Uncle Kurt with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Uncle Kurt picking up all the sick little babies and kissing them. Uncle Kurt visiting home for the first time in two years.
There were fewer babies on my last visit. My people keep having babies. There’s nothing else to do in Michigan. Is there? Anyone? Anywhere? The whole world keeps having babies, it’s one big collective small town. Where does all the food and water come from? The planet keeps shrinking, the population keeps going the other way. A mob of ants devouring a bread crumb on the kitchen floor. The bread crumb is small, getting smaller. It’s disappearing–oh, look, it’s gone. No more bread crumb, no more ants. Dinner is over and the paper plates are being bagged and taken to the trash.
My mother is taking a blueberry pie out of the oven. The babies are adorable, of course. You’re an uncle, you know you love the babies, Uncle Kurt. It’s true, I do. Forget about the coming global catastrophe and concentrate on the cuteness of the babies. I pick them up, bounce them on my knee, pat their heads, talk to them, give them a kiss. And when they begin to fuss, I hand them back to their mothers, back to their fathers. I step outside to smoke another cigarette. I am not a father to anyone or anything. I’m a mother to my cats, but they’re low maintenance. I think of my own father, buried a mile and a half away, in the Pentwater cemetery. He’s been buried up there for the last twenty-two years. His name was Chester James Eisenlohr. He had six children when he died, at age 48–I myself will be 42 next month!–from a heart-attack brought on by too many cigarettes, too much drinking, not enough money, too many kids. He was a high school math teacher, an Army recruiter on the weekends and, on occasion, a truck driver, or a sea wall builder. Chester James Eisenlohr: a juggler, bringing home the bread to buy the groceries to feed all of those…
Well, the planet continues to shrink, oil supplies dwindle and wars are waged. I pull a disposable lighter from my pocket. I already know it’s spent so I take a Sharpie Mini out of my other pocket and write the word DECOY on both sides, then set it on the picnic table, near the barbecue, close to an ashtray. My cousin’s 24 year old son, who is also out for a cigarette, tells me he’s joined the Marines, leaves for boot camp in six months. He wants to go to culinary school and become a chef. But he can’t afford the tuition. I tell him I can’t afford a car. I tell him I take the train, ride the bus, but that it’s frustrating sometimes because you are often packed cock to ass with a multitude of other people who can’t afford cars. Like many things, this is both good and bad. Ultimately, you have little choice in the matter. Get on the bus and make it to work or get fired and starve. Or get a better job and buy a car. Either way, you have to get there somehow.
I need a light. I ask my cousin’s 24 year old son if he’s afraid of getting blown up in Iraq. He hands me a book of matches from the Antler Bar. He says he’s going in as a cook, he’ll be on base, in a mess hall– making food, not fighting. I tell him cooks can get blown up the same as anybody else. He tells me he’s not worried. I say to him that my father always told me, Whatever you do, Kurt, don’t ever join the Army. I’m not joining the Army, my cousin’s son says, I’m joining the Marines. I have no idea what my father would have said had I made a similar remark, so I wish him luck. He wants to get out of this small town he’s living in, he wants to get out into the world. Anywhere is better than here, and he’s going to get there somehow. He’d rather go to culinary school in Grand Rapids or Chicago. But he aint got the bread. We stand there and smoke. We drink our beers. He looks like his father, when his father was his age.
Nice mohawk, I tell him. Nice cowboy shirt, he says. It’s a western shirt, I tell him. It’s a nice one, he says. Why did you write DECOY on that lighter?
I tell him that my girlfriend just bought a car. A 1980 Mercedes Benz. I tell him I’m afraid to drive it. Why? he asks. Too much responsibility, I want to tell him. He’s the eldest of six kids, just like me. I finish my cigarette–American Spirit, $5.75 per pack–and say I’m going back into the house to kiss the sick babies some more. My cousin’s son walks over to the picnic table and picks up the DECOY lighter. He tries to get it to light, tries again and again, then gives up and laughs. DECOY, he says–that’s funny!
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr • decoy: o’grady)
Kurt Eisenlohr is a painter, writer and bartender living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to illustrations contributed to all issues of Smokebox his poetry and fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Asylum, Verbal Abuse, River Styx, Another Chicago Magazine, Cokefish, Decoy, Way Station, and STOVEPiPER. His chapbook, Under Hand and Over Bone was published by Alpha Beat Press in 1994. His art has been shown in many galleries and is featured on the Future Tense Books web site. More stories and art can be viewed in the Vault of Smoke.