Welcome to America – a short story by Nick Cooke

NICK COOKE

WELCOME TO AMERICA

A short story

Rolf had looked forward to meeting Cousin Ingrid. His mother had always said what a clever girl she was – never lower than fourth in her high school years, twice second, and once, in her penultimate year, top of the whole class. His mother had gained this information not directly from Cousin Ruth, who was in contact so seldom, but through Cousin Josef, who had some years earlier persuaded Cousin Ruth to send him copies of all her daughter’s report cards.

            As she walked towards him, Rolf thought how well Cousin Ingrid looked, with her short blond hair, and her figure so solid and sturdy. He put out his hand, and was surprised to find her squeezing him around the shoulders and slapping his back in much the way a man might do. She even wanted to carry his case, but that he could not allow. “An old-fashioned gentleman, huh?” she said, putting her hands on her hips and drawling her words a little. “What you got in there anyhow?” she asked, observing him strain with the weight of the case. “Look like you came for the whole semester, not just a weekend.”

“I always carry my encyclopaedia and guide books,” Rolf replied with a hint of pride. “In case I have difficulty sleeping.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, slowly, looking closely at his face. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

            Cousin Ingrid had an automobile parked in the station forecourt. Rolf was very surprised that college students were permitted automobiles on the premises. How much freer things were here in the United States. And wilder too, at times. For instance, Rolf was much struck by the way Ingrid threw things. She began by throwing open the automobile door so hard the hinges buckled. Then she showed her almost unnatural strength by picking up his case with ease and tossing it onto the back seat. The instant they were both inside, she flung her seatbelt on, hurled the gearstick forward, and propelled them out into the traffic, seemingly indifferent to the blaring of horns. And threw so many questions at Rolf he felt his head spinning before they had even reached the campus. How was he finding Philly? How was Mom? Was the house as messy as ever? Wasn’t he hot wearing that necktie in this weather? Oh, by the way, she hoped he wouldn’t mind sharing a room with a friend of hers, just down the hall, a guy named Jim. And what was all this Cousin bullshit?

            On this last question she looked round at him for the first time and laughed, not the cruel kind of laugh he had heard so often, but a sort of friendly dog’s bark that was like a second question in itself. He straightened his tie and simply said he had been taught it was respectful to give family members their full title.

            “So what’s your Mom call you – ‘Son Rolf’?” said Ingrid, more sharply this time. But then she smiled, punched him lightly on the shoulder and added, “Anyway, you needn’t bother Cousining me, I won’t take it amiss, okay?” Rolf nodded and after a silence asked who Jim was.

            “Oh, Jim Dodd, he’s a friend, on the soccer team I run. Kind of what we call a jock. You know, the big sporty type. You like sport, Rolf?”

            Rolf stared despondently through the rather dirty windshield. He saw his mother, her grey hair tied in a neat bun, standing in the scullery, holding the huge steam iron that was her pride and joy and had been in the household since the days of her grandmother. Her smile, such a rare event in itself, was made almost ghostly by the gusts of steam, as she prepared to tackle Rolf’s school sports jerseys, which she would do with meticulous care, refusing the help of housemaids, as if polishing the armour of some heroic husband on the eve of battle. This picture then gave way to a montage of ball games, with people shouting at Rolf to catch it, or stop it, or hold it, and him invariably dropping it, or missing it or losing it; and his surname being mocked with bellowing sneers of frustration and contempt. The school was an enormous private institution, situated on the outskirts of a city many miles from his town, where no-one either knew or cared about his family’s local pre-eminence. Once, when he had been forced to play goalkeeper, someone had swung themselves up onto the crossbar above him, undone their flies and urinated on his head. The same boy later approached him with a grin, made as if to embrace him, and proceeded to sink his teeth into Rolf’s arm. The bite went right through his jersey, leaving teeth-marks in the skin for days.

            Soon after those marks finally faded he began refusing to join in the games of his classmates. One morning, he painted his whole face bright red, using a watercolour set he had been given for Christmas. Terrified it was scarlet fever, his father had rushed him to the doctor’s; and Rolf would never forget the silence as the doctor took a long look at his face, shook his head, took out some cotton wool, dampened it under the tap, and mopped the paint off in slow downward strokes.

            Ingrid was shaking his shoulder and gently repeating her question. By then they were turning through the campus gates. Rolf struggled to regain control, thinking that he should take his medication earlier than usual today.

            That evening, Ingrid, Rolf and Jim went to see a film at a cinema in downtown Ithaca. Rolf sat in the darkness listening to the others laughing – Ingrid more loudly and freely even than the rest. Sometimes Jim put his arm round her shoulder and whispered in her ear. At one point, when he seemed to be attempting to tickle her, she caused several people to look round in amusement by shrieking with laughter, upsetting at least two boxes of popcorn, and giving him a firm slap on the thigh. Rolf wondered how an audience in his own country would react to people shouting out and slapping each other. He pictured his mother whirling round with a huge Shhh! and a glare of disapproval. And how would Ingrid and Jim have responded to that? In this sort of mood he could see them opening their popcorn boxes and pouring the whole lot over her furious face.

            When Cousin Ingrid had introduced them that evening, Jim had been very friendly to Rolf. “Hey Rolf, how ya doing, enjoying the States?” he had said, flashing his huge smile, almost crushing Rolf’s hand in his. Then, before Rolf could reply, he had chased Ingrid down the residence corridor, picked her up in one arm and held her over his shoulder like a trophy while she drummed her fists into his back. During the movie, Rolf had thought of a list of questions to ask Jim when they got back to his room, about his studies and family, but he did not get the chance. Jim had no sooner turned the key in the lock of his door than he was saying goodnight. “Listen,” he whispered. “Don’t bother with the couch, take my bed – the linen’s clean on today. See you in the morning, okay?” And Rolf had lain down on the tiny bed, staring at the ceiling, loosening his tie. For many minutes he thought that Jim might be joking, and would suddenly burst in, having tiptoed back down the hall and waited his moment by the door. An hour passed, two hours, and eventually Rolf, his headache gradually clearing, fell asleep, though he did not dare remove his clothes. He had been watching the shadows on the walls and wondering what Cousin Ruth would make of these sleeping arrangements. To say nothing of his mother. He must take care not to mention this part of his visit when recounting it to family members.

            There were no curtains on Jim’s windows and Rolf woke at dawn. In the distance he imagined he heard someone moaning. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, got up and walked to the window. The room looked onto a playing field. He heard the moaning again, low but unmistakeable, like a distant engine. He was not a complete innocent, he knew what such things meant. He had read about them, illicitly, and gaining no pleasure from the transgression, in the wrong sorts of magazine, the ones he often found discarded at train stations and in public toilets. Now, torn between listening to the moans and trying to blot them out by humming, he wondered, not for the first time, if this was how he himself had been produced. From some casual union of young people caught up in all the laughing and shouting. In the milieu of his parents, casual union of any kind seemed unlikely, but he had once overheard his parents – or perhaps he should say Mathilde and Otto – mentioning that he had been born in the depths of the countryside, a wild and permissive place, inhabited by very low people. He had visions of a nocturnal festival deep in the valleys, a whole community gathered round a huge bonfire, in commemoration of some seasonal milestone. He saw torchlight, and dancing, and sturdy young milkmaids dragging drunken stable lads towards the hayloft…

And then he saw the days after he failed his final exams, the period before the cruel looks and the barbed remarks, when his parents, especially Mathilde, were simply stunned –too stunned, it seemed, to react. Their only son, not merely exposed as an inadequate, but the sole pupil in his class to be thus adjudged! Some days later he was sent to the doctor, the same elderly gentleman with horn-rimmed spectacles and silver hair, who had wiped the paint from his face all those years before, and who now referred him to a specialist. The specialist ran some tests and diagnosed his condition as “a progressively worsening displacement from reality and a failure to cope with the demands of normal social interaction”. As he withdrew into himself and his room, Matilde took every opportunity to remind him that had it not been for his father’s influence in the town, the doctor would have entered the diagnosis on his medical records, with incalculable consequences for his future. Meanwhile she gave it out around the town that her son was deep in study for a forthcoming engineering apprenticeship that his father had arranged in the United States, where he would be staying with her emigrée cousin, the well-known actress and director, Ruth Markham.

            One night, hearing Otto’s voice in the hall below, Rolf had emerged from his room, gone downstairs and announced that he wished to contact the agency and begin a search for his real parents. Otto, who had just returned from work and still had his favourite velvet-lapelled overcoat over his left elbow, lifted his free hand and dealt Rolf a ferocious smack across the face. Rolf found himself lying face down on the hall floor. As he stared at its chequered marble tiles, his cheek smarting, his mind burning, he wished he had never been born, either in the countryside or here; and when Matilde helped him to his feet, he started screaming at the top of his voice and kicked her in the shins. She gave a yelp of shock, and jumped out of range, before Otto, flinging the overcoat aside, called Rolf a fucking crazy little bastard and punched him hard in the ribs. This time no-one helped him up, so he lay there until the doctor appeared and gave him a sedative.

            Ever since then, he has been on his best behaviour. SLQ

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