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Blues Lessons

A Novel
By Robert Hellenga

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Chapter One: Vocation

1954

It was not unusual for missionaries -- sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs -- to visit the Methodist church in Appleton, Michigan. They'd speak in church on Sunday morning and then, after the regular offering, there would be a special collection for whatever mission they were serving. These visitors were generally middle-aged, stout, and earnest, but Miss Prellwitz, who came late in the summer of 1954, just as I was about to enter my junior year of high school, was young and beautiful and lighthearted and spoke with a clipped British accent, and the stories she told on Sunday morning in church itself and the slides she showed in the evening at the Epworth League made me want to follow her into the heart of the dark continent. She was more entertaining and mysterious than the movies I sometimes saw on Friday nights at the Oriental Theater on Main Street, movies in which, after the previews, a large map of Africa would suddenly fill the screen, and then you'd see a line moving in from the coast toward the center, and later on in a jungle camp a huge spider would fall out of a tree onto the shoulder of a beautiful woman and the hero would knock it off. I pictured myself knocking a huge spider off Miss Prellwitz's shoulder.

"In my opinion," my mother said at breakfast the next morning, "these missionaries do more harm than good, though at least they're more interesting than Reverend Boomer."

"Reverend Boomsma." My father, who was on the vestry, corrected her out of habit. He had lived in Appleton all his life and accepted people on their own terms, whereas my mother, who had grown up in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, was often impatient and critical.

At that time my cousin Lotte, who was three years older than I, had been waiting for her vocation for almost a year, and a great deal of importance had been attached to Miss Prellwitz's visit. "Voco, vocare," my mother explained. "To call. She's waiting for her calling." My mother taught Latin and French at the high school.

Her calling? Very mysterious. Was it like waiting for a telephone call? When the telephone rang you could hear it ring: one ring for Lotte's parents, Uncle Barent -- my father's half brother -- and Aunt Margriet; two rings for Uncle Piet and Aunt Sophie, next door; and three rings for our house. But how would you know when you got this other kind of call? Would a bell ring inside your head? Would you pick up an imaginary phone? And then the missionary came, Miss Prellwitz, and I began to understand.

The missionaries always stayed with Uncle Barent and Aunt Griet, who lived right on the corner of Dijksterhuis Corners, one mile straight north of the stoplight in the center of town. It wasn't called Dijksterhuis Corners on road maps or in my mother's big Rand McNally Atlas of the World, but that's what everyone in Appleton called it -- dike-stir-hoice (rhymes with choice) -- and Appleton Road and Kruger Road were lined with my aunts and uncles and first and second cousins: Dijksterhuises (my grandmother's first family) and Schuylers (her second). Kitty-corner from Uncle Barent and Aunt Griet, my aunt Bridget, my father's sister, lived alone in the original Dijksterhuis farmhouse.

During Miss Prellwitz's visit I spent quite a bit of time at Lotte's house myself. I even ate tapioca pudding. The whole family -- Barent, Margriet, Lotte, and Lotte's older brother, Willem, who had left home and was now a Methodist minister in Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula -- seemed addicted to tapioca pudding, which I couldn't stand; but Miss Prellwitz said it was like a kind of gruel made from the manioc root and that the Mbuti were very fond of it. So I choked it down.

"We used to play a game called Missionary," I said one day, just as we were sitting down to lunch. It was the third day of Miss Prellwitz's visit. "When we were younger." As far as I could remember, this was the longest a missionary had ever stayed. "Corinna Williams was always the leader of the natives -- she's a Negro -- and Lotte was always the missionary. She'd get dressed up in an old choir robe and preach just like Reverend Boomer, I mean Boomsma. Out in a clearing in the woodlot." The clearing was also the bridge of our ship, the cockpit of our plane, the Railway Post Office car where we sorted mail like my favorite uncle, Gerrit, and staged train robberies. Gerrit had to carry a pistol when he was working, and sometimes Cory and I would ride into town with Uncle Jan, Gerrit's brother, to pick up Gerrit at the end of a run. The train would slow down just beyond the crossing and Gerrit would jump off holding his RPO grip in one hand and waving the other around in the air to help him keep his balance. Sometimes, when he saw us, he'd shake his head, and we'd know that he hadn't foiled any train robbers on this trip; but sometimes he'd pat his revolver, which he carried in a small holster under his coat, and tell us stories about the good old days when the mail trains were loaded with cash payrolls and robbers used dynamite to blow up the tracks and to blast open the doors of the RPO cars.

Uncle Jan was a Watkins dealer, and we stocked the clearing -- our hospital and pharmacy -- with Watkins products from his garage: herbs and spices, vitamins, bottled tonics, patent medicines. When you got shot during a train robbery, whether you were one of the robbers or one of the RPO clerks, you'd be well taken care of.

"You shouldn't call him that," Aunt Margriet said, meaning Reverend Boomsma.

"And what did you do?" asked Miss Prellwitz.

"I'd be a lion, and I'd start roaring out in the jungle -- it really is like a jungle out back: raspberry canes and nettles and poison ivy. And then I'd attack the natives. And the missionary." I looked at Lotte, who was sitting with her hands in her lap. Lotte didn't say anything, so I didn't know if she was pleased or otherwise at this story, but I continued. "And sometimes I'd be Superman or Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot or Tarzan and rescue the natives. And the missionary, of course."

There had been no explicit sex in my fantasies at that time, because I hadn't known what explicit sex was, but I could clearly remember the little tingle I'd felt whenever I rescued Cory and took her off on the back of my steed to a place vaguely based on Sherwood Forest, where I turned into a Robin Hood figure presiding over a band of merry men, and over Cory and Lotte and my other cousins too. I hadn't understood my emotions at the time, or the damp spots on my pajamas.

"Your mother wouldn't let you wear your Superman costume on the swing," Lotte said. "She was afraid it would get caught on something and choke you. And she wouldn't let you play with your sword either after you hit Lucia with it." (Lucia was one of my female cousins -- there were fifteen of them -- on Dijksterhuis Corners, though most of them were Schuylers rather than Dijksterhuises.)

"I had a Superman costume," I said, since no one else seemed to have anything to say, "and a Sir Lancelot outfit, made out of cardboard and tinfoil, and a wooden sword that my dad made out of a piece of lath. My mother's English," I explained to Miss Prellwitz. "She used to read the King Arthur stories to me. We had a book of Robin Hood stories too, and she taught me how to play chess."

"Where did she come from in England?"

"She didn't come from England herself," I said, "but my grandmother did. She ran away from home when she was nineteen and came over in steerage to live with a cousin in Chicago. My dad built a little house for her next to ours, but she's dead now."

Miss Prellwitz smiled. "Would you like me to tell you a story about a real lion?"

Miss Prellwitz, who was a good storyteller, had seen many things in the jungle, or forest, that most people will never see. She'd seen the Pygmies -- the Mbuti -- drive a lion into a net; she'd seen an Mbuti warrior kill an elephant all by himself; and she'd heard the song of something called the molimo and seen the dance of death.

Lunch consisted of olive loaf and mayonnaise on white bread, and more tapioca pudding. I could see the little china desert bowls lined up on the counter next to the toaster. Miss Prellwitz sang two verses of "Amazing Grace" in the Bantu language, and then she prayed in English. Unlike Reverend Boomsma, she spoke simply and clearly, aiming her words directly at us, like a Mbuti warrior thrusting his spear upward into an elephant's stomach.

"Dear Lord and Heavenly Father," she said, "help us to live a life of service rather than selfishness; help us to be mindful of the needs of others. We are like the Samaritan woman at the well. She did not recognize you, but you spoke to her and she listened. Speak to us now, for you know that our hearts are restless and will not find ease until they rest in thee." She gave my hand a little squeeze to indicate that the prayer was over. We both looked up and smiled at each other; and then the others, accustomed to longer graces, looked up and smiled too.

Looking back, I've sometimes thought it was the tapioca pudding that saved me. I could imagine living in a hut made out of saplings in the Negro village on the edge of the forest, or in a leafy shelter in a Pygmy camp in the middle of the forest itself. I could imagine being tested in the hunt -- if Miss Prellwitz had been invited to go along on a hunt, why wouldn't I be invited too? I could imagine singing hymns (with Miss Prellwitz) in a church built of palm logs; I could imagine eating moss and berries and wild honey and chunks of antelope meat that had been wrapped in leaves and roasted in the embers of an open fire. But the prospect of eating tapioca pudding day in and day out was more than I could handle, and when I refused a second bowl, saying that I was too full, really, they all looked at me and at one another and shook their heads, and I knew I wouldn't be going to Africa.

Summer was winding down. Peach season was over. The migrant workers had already started picking the early apples, Jonathans and Transparents. My mother had taken me to Niles to buy a new pair of school shoes with sharkskin toes that wouldn't scuff too badly. I had very narrow heels and couldn't wear the penny loafers that I wanted desperately. A week went by and still Miss Prellwitz, who was planning to go back to England to get married before returning to Africa with her husband, stayed on. The sense of expectancy surrounding my cousin's vocation increased. And then on Saturday night some of the members of the vestry, including Cory's dad, showed up at Dijksterhuis Corners, and we knew something was about to happen.

I could hear Aunt Else, Uncle Jan's wife, calling in Anna and Maria, breaking up the game of Red Rover that the younger cousins were playing under the yard lights by the garage. Cory and I were sitting by the well pump like two people waiting for a storm to break. We could hear the music of the pickers in the distance -- guitar and harmonica and the scrape of a washboard. Soon it would be time for us to go in too, but we were hanging back. It was getting hard to see Cory, whose skin was as dark as the semisweet Hershey bars that we bought at the bowling alley when we walked home from school together instead of taking the bus, but I could hear her playing with the safety clasp of her ID bracelet.

"What do you think it's like?" I asked.

"I think it's like a woman who's going to have a baby and she's overdue, and here comes the doctor now." She laughed and pointed at Reverend Boomsma, arriving late in his old Ford coupe. His black briefcase banged against his leg as he walked to the back door of the house without seeing us.

"It will all be decided tonight," I said.

"What's to decide?"

"She must have heard her calling," I said. "That's why everyone's showing up now. She's either going to Africa to do missionary work or she's going to Albion." Albion was the Methodist college, halfway across the bottom of the state, where her brother had studied for the ministry.

"If somebody called me from Albion College and told me to come, I'd be there in two shakes."

"What if they called you from Africa?"

"Maybe," she said. "Someday. I'd go anywhere."

"Voco, vocare," I said. "To call."

"I know," she said. "I'm taking Latin too, remember."

"It's a calling. I keep thinking about that."

"I'll be lucky if Lakeside calls me." Lakeside was the new junior college between Bridgman and St. Joe. I was destined for the University of Chicago, my mother's alma mater, but I didn't like to think that far ahead.

"Do you want to go listen to the music?"

"I don't want to get a whipping, if that's what you're asking, because that's what'll happen if Mama finds out."

The picking camp was strictly off limits, doubly off limits at night. It was like the one room in the castle we weren't supposed to enter, or the magic gift we weren't supposed to open no matter what, or the one tree in the garden we weren't supposed to eat from.

"Just for a few minutes," I said. "She won't find out."

We followed the path that Cory's father had cleared, with a brush cutter, through the "jungle" -- the old woodlot that separated the houses along Appleton Road from the peach and apple orchards that my dad and Uncle Piet and my grandfather had planted back in the twenties. This was the Michigan Fruit Belt, and Berrien County was one of the six richest agricultural counties in the United States -- at least that's what everyone said -- and our own orchards, almost two full sections, seemed to confirm this by producing between forty and fifty thousand bushels of peaches and apples every year. Cory's dad, Cap, was a kind of foreman. He contracted with an undertaker down in Georgia to put together the picking crew for the summer and helped my dad and Uncle Piet with the pruning in the winter.

We didn't speak till we came to the little clearing in the briers and nettles where Lotte had once preached to the natives. I had a clearer idea now about explicit sex than I'd had in the days of my heroic-rescue fantasies, or even than I'd had two years ago, when Barbara Kramer and Donny Holbrook had caused a minor stir by going off together at a class party out at Potter Dunes. They'd reached an age (my mother explained) when kids wanted to touch each other. It hadn't made any sense to me at the time -- why would kids want to touch each other? -- but it made sense now. But though my understanding was clearer now, it wasn't perfectly clear. I'd studied the two-year-old pinup calendar from the Harris Lumber Yard that I'd bought from Mr. Harris's son, Alvin, who was in my class, studied it like a detective studying the scene of a crime, looking for clues; and my father had taken me to watch Emmet Dziepak's father breed his big Poland China boar, Gunner, to Harlan Portinga's sows, but that was a mystery too. How did you translate that into human love? I couldn't picture Cory, or any woman, in the contraption they built for the sows to keep them from being crushed by the weight of the boar. Nor did I recognize my own longings in the little volume called Into Manhood that appeared mysteriously on my desk one day.

But there was another mystery, too, that was equally puzzling. As far as I can remember no one ever said anything, in all our years in school together, that might have made Cory feel at all self-conscious about being a Negro, and in fact her parents were pillars of the church -- Aunt Flo in the choir and in the kitchen, Cap on the vestry and in the basement looking after the old furnace. We were not, in fact, naïve about race. My mother kept the new novels by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin on the coffee table in our living room, and she had in fact almost single-handedly put a stop to the annual minstrel show. And yet no one was at all surprised that Cory's date for the class dances that had begun our freshman year was always a cousin from Benton Harbor. It didn't seem strange to me, or to anyone else; it was just the way things were. And that's what was really strange. I'd breezed through Go Tell It on the Mountain and Invisible Man, and I'd shared my mother's indignation at the minstrel show; but John Grimes and the Invisible Man were creatures from another world.

Cory, on the other hand, was right there in front of me -- right next to me, actually -- and the knowledge that she and her cousin danced with each other and no one else, and that no one thought it strange, left a taste in my mouth as mysterious and troubling as a boy's first taste of alcohol.

I wanted to dance with Cory now, jitterbug or box step, just to touch her, taste her. My hands cupped; saliva rushed to my mouth.

"Do you remember how we used to play Missionary?" I said.

"I remember sitting on a log and listening to Lotte preach. She was more interesting than Reverend Boomsma, I'll say that for her." She looked around for the log, but it was almost too dark to see it in the woodlot.

"Over there," I said.

"There" was the edge of our little clearing in the brush, hardly more than a widening of the path.

I could hear the music a little more clearly now. I'd heard it all my life, usually from a distance, though sometimes when I'd slept outside in my father's old pup tent I'd snuck over to the picking camp and spied on the migrant workers, who followed the ripening fruit crops up north from Georgia and Mississippi, and listened to the singing. I hadn't really thought of it as music. Music was something else; music was the songs we played on the jukebox in the bowling alley: "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," "You Belong to Me," "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" "Vaya Con Dios," "You, You, You," "Three Coins in the Fountain." Music was the choir cantatas at Christmas and Easter, and my mother's long-playing records, and piano lessons from Mr. Haptonstahl, and then the recitals at the end of the year ("Spinning Song" and "La Cucaracha," and then, more recently, Handel's Harmonious Blacksmith and Chopin preludes). My mother played the piano too -- lots of Brahms and Chopin -- and piano lessons were non-negotiable.

I took a step toward Cory but I didn't quite know how to begin doing what I wanted to do, so I settled for taking her hand, and we followed the path to the loading dock at the back of the packing shed. We had to cross an open area where the trucks had packed the dirt so hard it didn't turn muddy even when it rained in the spring.

The dormitories for the single men and women were on the far side of the packing shed, separated from each other by about twenty shacks for married couples. We went in the back of the packing shed, around the culling table and the grader, to the big sliding front door, which was open about six inches. We were close enough to smell the remains of the barbecue, and to see the migrant workers gathered around the remains of a small fire, and to hear the music. Cory looked out the door and when she turned back to me I kissed her, not hitting her mouth squarely, but at least touching her lips.

"Marty," she said, "what's got into you?"

What had gotten into me was that I was seeing her in a strange new light; I was falling in love with her. She was my Guinevere, my Maid Marion, my dark-skinned Jane of the jungle, with untamable hair and hands so quick she could reach down and catch a mouse scampering across the floor of the packing shed. But who was I? Still the little boy who'd pushed her in the tire swing in Uncle Piet's backyard? The little boy in his Sir Lancelot getup who'd rescued her from the lion?

"You've never kissed a girl before, have you?"

"I've kissed lots of girls," I said.

"Name one."

"That would be telling."

"You haven't got anything to tell."

"I've kissed Dixie Carpenter," I protested; "and Frances Cochrane. I kissed Frances after the dance."

Cory laughed, and then pulled my face toward hers and kissed me hard on the mouth, but by the time I figured out that I was supposed to open my mouth a little so that our tongues could touch, she'd pulled away. "I've got to go back now," she said. "You coming?"

I started to follow, listening for a moment in the darkness to figure out which way she'd gone. I could hear her footsteps, and her fingertips brushing the sizing rollers on the grader; could hear her opening the door next to the loading dock and jumping onto the hard dirt, letting the door slam behind her. I started to follow her, thinking she might wait for me in the little clearing in the woodlot, but something called me back, the cry of a harmonica and a sound I'd never heard before. I know now that it was the new man, Chesterfield, who drove the tractor that pulled the wagons in from the orchards, and I know now that he was playing the ugliest guitar I've ever seen in my life, a guitar made out of some kind of metal and painted the color of a baby's diarrhea; and I know now that he was playing it with a knife that he held between the first two fingers of his left hand. But I didn't know that then. All I knew was that the music filled me up, like Miss Prellwitz's prayer, like Cory's kiss, like a wound. And I thought of the beautiful color pictures in my Boy's King Arthur of the king thrusting his spear into the traitor Mordred, and of Guinevere praying in the cell of the convent where she spends her last days.

I couldn't cross the lighted area in front of the packing shed without being seen, so I jumped off the loading dock in the back and scooted along the edge of the jungle till I was covered by one of the big outhouses that my father relocated every year. The sounds came into me. I breathed them, inhaled them, along with the odors of the outhouse and the smoke from the fire. Through my mouth as well as my ears. Through my eyes. Chesterfield was singing a song about love, but not the kind of love I knew about from movies and from the radio, not "No Other Love" or "Till I Waltz Again With You." This was more like someone driving nails into a piece of oak: Moon goin' down, Lord, North star about to shine. The words pierced me. I had to get closer. I had to see as well as hear: My baby tole me, She don't want me hangin' round. And then a hand clamped down hard over my mouth so I couldn't yell and a strong arm pinned my arms.

"Jesus, it's Marty."

There were two of them.

"Marty? Marty, what the hell you doin'?"

"Jonah, is that you? I just wanted to listen."

"Your old man know where you are?"

"Yes," I said.

He looked at me. "Like hell."

"He don't mean no harm," said the other man, whose name was Jake.

"I don't mean no harm," I said. "I was just listening."

He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the circle of firelight.

Chesterfield looked like he was attacking the guitar, striking it with the heel of his right hand and hitting the string with his thumb at the same time. A train pulled into the station at midnight. The singer heard the whistle blow and saw his baby climb on board.

I'd been working in the orchards for as long as I could remember. My father paid me twelve cents an hour my first year for dusting the faces of the bushels with a big paintbrush. Later I learned how to face the bushels myself and fill them and turn them in the basket turner at the end of the line. But I preferred loading them onto the big trucks that took them to the market in Benton Harbor or to chain store warehouses in Chicago and Detroit. My father didn't want me to get a hernia, but I didn't care. You didn't get as much peach fuzz on you, and it seemed more manly.

Some of these men and women I'd known all my life, but now I was seeing them for the first time. For a moment I was not the boss's son but a stranger surrounded by a circle of black faces. Soft. Not black either, if you looked closely, but chocolate, coffee, ebony, honey, red, tan, alabaster. All with large eyes pointed at me. I was the boss's son too.

"Run on home, Marty," said a woman named June, who worked at the culling table. "We don't want no trouble."

"Let him sit with you," Jake said. "He don't mean no harm."

"How you know what he mean?" the woman said.

"It's just a kid."

Chesterfield was doing something to the guitar, changing the pitch of the strings. My heart pounded. I wanted to hear him play. Jake was still holding my arm while the woman inspected me. Pretty soon the guitar started to cry, like a man crying, and Jake let go of my arm. The music began to fill me again. I wanted to sing, I wanted to rush over to Chesterfield and put my hands on the guitar; I wanted to touch it.

There was a time I didn't know your name,

Why should I worry, cry in vain,

But now she's gone gone gone, and I don't worry,

'Cause I'm sittin' on top of the world.


The next morning I went to see my cousin Lotte. Uncle Barent's car was gone, the kitchen was empty, but Lotte was up in her room, sitting on the edge of her bed.

"What happened?" I asked.

I was expecting her to be radiant. But she was quiet. She had been called to do missionary work in Africa, she said, about a hundred miles from Miss Prellwitz's mission, near a Belgian station de chasse on the Epulu River in the Congo, where her knowledge of French -- she'd been in my mother's French classes -- would be useful. She'd be leaving in a week for training at the missionary headquarters in Léopoldville. Her clothes had been sorted into piles on the floor. She showed me her list from the mission of things she'd need. Miss Prellwitz had given it to her.

We sat together for a few minutes without speaking.

"Are you happy?"

"Yes."

"Happy that it's over, or happy that you're going to Africa?"

"Just happy."

"You don't look happy. I wouldn't be happy," I said, "unless I could stay in a hut with Miss Prellwitz."

She gave me a look to let me know how childish I was being. "You're not me."

"Lotte, I know I'm not you. But going off to Africa? Is that what you want to do? Live in a hut?"

"Don't talk like that," she said. "There's a mission school, and houses." She showed me a picture. Three white figures posed for a photo, surrounded by about thirty Bantu villagers.

"What about the Pygmies?" I asked. "The Mbuti."

"They live in the forest," she said.

"Do you really want to leave here?"

"It's my vocation," she said.

I started to argue; I started to tell her that I'd never wanted to go anywhere or do anything other than work in the orchards with my father and Cap and Uncle Piet, but something stopped me. A sudden thought: "I think I've found my vocation too," I said, for I too had heard something calling me from afar. Voco, vocare. Something that would take me away too, maybe even farther than Africa.

Copyright © 2002 by Robert Hellenga

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