In the whole of Riverside Cemetery this was the one stone that had slipped its mooring, leaned not forward into the new millennium, but backward, into the one passed by mere years ago, as if saying it was tired of all the holding on. In one instant the scribed name was home with me: Dumont Pulsifier, an old pal from my neighborhood, but everybody, including his mother and his dead father while he was here, had called him “Scratch.”
We often wondered about his real name and how it came to be, with family history hanging on for the ride, but his nickname came right out of the locker room, so I bet you get the picture.
Momentary joy seized me as I thought of getting a scribing drill and putting “Scratch” right where it belonged: dead center on that stone, without dates to accompany it, a universal toast to one of the good guys. That moment of joy lasted longer than it should have, and hours later I was wondering who I could share it with. But most of my pals were gone too, which is mainly why I was in the cemetery in the first place, today and every day.
Scratch’d say things such as, “It’s like the eye of the needle and the cockroach. You won’t find them in your soup.” He was so serious, we kept our mouths shut, thinking his observation was acute, touching on something we had trouble bringing up out of the mud in our minds, a fumble in a big game, a cupped breast making you inert for eternal moments, a tongue in your ear in the back seat of your father’s car parked in the driveway, mouthing heaven-sent dialogue, or a petition from the devil’s side.
Scratch had always been smarter than us, all the way through school, as far as he went with us, and he wasn’t even letting go now. He knew algebra and trigonometry and calculus before we could spell them, and lines from books so great and so big and so famous we might never get to them. He’d drop a few of those lines at our feet too, every so often as if to keep us in check. We sat on the steps of the Pythian Building, our gathering spot for any evening, with The Rathole, four pool tables and four bowling alleys, down on the ground floor beneath the street level, being weather shelter, money spot, high stakes stuff in the halcyon days… Eight Ball games at a nickel a piece. Sitting on the Pythian steps, Scratch would look across the street, see a bevy of passing beauties, bouncing in the way they were special at when all eyes are well-trained to find such goodies as may get noticed, and he’d say, “For all the chocolates we find in life, legs get there first, ‘cause we know where they end up.” We’d swallow that one, some of us for months before our heads came up out of the same kind of mud.
We were all fifteen years old, in the same grade, on the same teams, might have hungered for the same things in life. One rainy evening, most all our summer jobs done for the day, packing ice up flights of stairs since morning, mowing and trimming the grass on a dozen lawns, or even in the cemetery working for Al Powers, loading up the mushroom plant beds with horse manure that had been fertilized in a huge pile for Freddie Rippon up in West Peabody, we gathered around the first table for a special game of Eight-Ball. Scratch was not there. Everybody else was, but not Scratch. He didn’t show up that night, or the next, or for weeks after. One of the guys asked his mother when he saw her at the paper store.
“He went away,” she said.
“She looked real lonely, or sad,” said the inquisitor, “like she didn’t know where or why, but Scratch always had some strange parts working for him, didn’t he?” He looked around for confirmation of his statement. Nobody said a word.
Mostly it grew from that night, the things Scratch had said and brought back in recall, the zany way he had of finding either perspective or dallying charm in his observations. He became a legend in absentia. It was Ziggy who said, “Member the night Scratch said if moles had eyes they’d’ve invented electricity. We couldn’t put it together until he said it wasn’t really the truth because what they really needed was light bulbs, but then the little buggers’d need sleds to push the light bulbs around in their dinky tunnels but that would mean there was snow down there.” We laughed like hell at the look on Ziggy’s face because we were all caught up in something we had no answers for.
Anyway, Scratch was gone, and after a while, like it always happens, we went our separate ways. What got in our way of total dispersal was another war, which, in its odd separation, brings people together after a fashion.
Perhaps I had totally forgotten his given name; Dumont Pulsifier does not sit well on the tongue or in the mind, other than as an oddity, and soon disappears. In time Scratch disappeared from memory because it was talk or zany talk that always had brought him temporarily back from wherever he had gone. Someone said his mother ended up in a nursing home down by Lynn Beach and when she died her only daughter got married and went to California. She was never heard from again either. Their house on the next corner from mine went empty and then two or three families passed through its front steps and back yard and all the rooms and an identity was lost. Scratch’s father had died many years ago in a fishing accident out on Georges Banks; and Scratch had been gone all this time, like an apparition out of our past. I’d get those extreme problems of trying to picture what he looked like. He’d been tall for his age, had dark hair, dark eyes, thick eyebrows, a straight nose, and… none of it would come all together at one time. I’d see him in a blue sweater on a fall night or a red jacket on a winter night, or him just being taller than all of us… and then nothing, as my mind went blank. We never stopped long enough for pictures. I bet everybody out there can bring back some lost pal at the back of his mind, go scraping for him, find him for a second or two, and then lose him all over again. I bet that happens more than you know. That’s about as sad as you can get. Sometimes I thought he might have been a dream, that he was some company we had invented for humor or good feelings or the zaniness we all needed every once in a while, so we wouldn’t take ourselves too damned seriously.
That has room for thinking about.
When you don’t have contact or a sense of contact with someone, space happens, like space between stars or moons. Clouds of it. Rooms of it. Long narrow corridors of it. Room for other things crowds in and takes their places, and where you wanted to go in the first place, to some target of a person or a place or an event, loses out to what is freshest, or darkest, or more illuminating.
One day Scratch was gone. There was no explanation; not ever.
History moves in its tolerable way. My brother did his war. I did my war. Time and memory have their great merge. Before you know it, before I knew it, I was eighty years old and walking through the cemetery, saying hello here and there, and just as suddenly there was Scratch, back home from wherever. I had to find out where he had gone. The haunt for fulfillment began to grab me at all hours. His grave was almost thirty years old. I was fifty when he died and was buried, out and about the town, in tune with things, or so I thought. I had read nothing in the newspaper about him, no obit of an old pal, no homecoming word. Never heard a word from any of the guys either, for most of them had gone on, finally sharing common ground or whatever with Scratch once more. I did not feel left out, but I was still quizzical.
One day, sitting at the computer my children and grandchildren had given me on a special day, I typed in Scratch’s real name. I searched all leads that came my way. There was nothing, but it was a 10-year old granddaughter Alexa, “who’s keen on the machine,” as her mother would say, who drew my attention to a small, unobtrusive notation she had found. I followed it up. There was Scratch, or other memories of him, in Alaska, just about as far away as you could get from The Rathole or the front steps of The Pythian Building. Dumont Scratch Pulsifier had been almost 39 years in Tobiak, Alaska and teaching most of the time. There had been some trouble when it came to proving he’d earned a degree, but that came up after he’d been teaching for over ten years. Probably started from a feud of sorts, a wrinkle in a personality, perhaps a love affair gone wrong or some other teacher passed over. There were no further explanations other than he continued on the job by acclamation of all previous students of his.
Scratch said on his application that he’d earned a degree from the University of Chicago. I checked with their graduate administration office and they could not come up with any proof that he had even enrolled there. I put the whole charade to bed, thinking Scratch had probably hoodwinked a small village out on an ice floe in Alaska, a piece of cake after taking a big university for a ride. Occasionally I’d walk by his stone, try to clean up around it within the minor limitations of an old man, and at least say hello. Again, as in the past, I thought the ghost had been about for a little while, then retreated to his wherever.
But three months later, after the contact with the university, I received a letter with a return address in Oak Park, Illinois, one of the suburban areas of Greater Chicago.
Dear Thomas, it said, and carried on in elegant script:
It took me some months to dare write this letter. It is most personal, but Dumont Pulsifier was important in my life and I am trying only to be true to his memory.
I work in the administration office of the university, as did my mother for a good number of years. I am the product of her short liaison with Dumont Pulsifier. They were lovers for a few months until he headed further west. I was born about 8 months after he left and he never knew he had fathered a child. But my mother heard from him later and was able to do as he requested, provide proof if it was ever asked that he had received a degree from the university. My mother, loving me, loved him forever and was never married. She gave me all that she had and just before she died, filled me in on the love of her life. She said he was the most informed man she had ever met, had more humor in him than any man known, and “could rock my cradle any time he wanted.” She wasn’t talking about me when she said that.
He told my mother that some great desire had filled him one day when he was young and he had to help a group of Eskimos who desperately needed help. He made it his life’s work. When he died, and I was still a child, she received a letter from Tobiak, Alaska, saying that he requested that his ashes be buried in his hometown of Saugus, MA. ‘I have missed that place all my life,’ he had said to his Eskimo friend, ‘and have missed dear friends who also needed help but not as much as out here in the far north. If it is at all possible, when I die, please send me home when the ice goes out and spring comes. I will wait.’ He was only 54 when he died in a terrible hunting accident, but he had been loved by his students, had two wives out there and a few children, I am sure, none of whom outlived him. It sounds like a sad life but a most productive one.
The cost to send him home was collected by people he had taught, and my mother took care of local arrangements in your town.
You, as stated in your letter, were one of his youthful friends, and I hope this will settle any matters in your mind.
Please know that my mother loved him all her life, swearing that he got his great degree here, the last part speaking about me, I am positive.
In memory of a man I never met and have come to know quite well, my father, Dumont Pulsifier.
I began to stop by every day to say hello, trying to remember all the strange quotes that Scratch had thrown our way, in jest or alertness. Little more came back, and though there was a modicum of closure, it still carried a hole begging to be filled. I went looking again.
I wrote to the school in Alaska where Scratch had spent the better part of his life. Perhaps, I thought, there’d be some minor reflection and information in response.
But Scratch, as it turned out, had left an impression in Tobiak.
I am the principal of the Tobiak School, and I am a former student of Dumont Pulsifier. We had a problem pronouncing his name, so he insisted we call him Kumiktuq. That was on the very first day in class and we laughed so hard at this outsider, because Kumiktuq means to scratch. When we had laughed ourselves silly, he began scratching his arm pits and then behind his ears and under his chin. We were all boys in the class and when he started to scratch his groin, we almost fell on the floor, each one of us. No matter the weather, as you might imagine it, it was always warm in Kumiktuq’s classroom. He was the sun on the darkest of days.
Without a doubt, those days were some of the happiest days in my life. He gave all he had, often his last meal when things were tight, his share of seal meat, oil for lamps to study by. Never was there in our midst a man more devoted to our village, our school, we students.
When he had a problem about his educational testament, we stood as one body for his continuance as our teacher. There never was one dissenting word, except from whoever had questioned his education in the beginning; that person has never revealed himself, which speaks well for his good sense.
There is so much that has been forgotten about him, even from some of his former students that I have talked with these many months, but what remains foremost with me is the grand manner he had of opening our eyes to fact and fancy, as he might have called it. Kumiktuq had this extraordinary ability of locking our minds on a specific idea or thought, or a position he had taken on an argument. I vaguely remember him calling it “This other world of the mind.” He said, “When you can control both sides of the mind that you have, you have arrived at destination and departure at the same time.” I have been getting there and leaving ever since. I hope that you can understand that.
His death was a most tragic accident here and he is still to be remembered for what he brought to us.
Kumiktuq left a gift that we all share in Tobiak, whether we know it or not in the present state.
I can only assume, from your inquiry, that you are still on that journey with him.
Tobiak School principal
I’d love to share this with some of the guys, but they’re all gone. I hope they all catch up some time, sit around and shoot the breeze, have those grand thoughts, think about what Scratch just said, like it was a special revelation he had found for us. Maybe they know a hell of a lot more now than I do right at this minute, and first hand from Scratch or Kumiktuq off in that other world of his. I’ll tell you; I think about that a lot. Even as it eases into you, it makes you sit up and pay attention. That’s probably all that Scratch wanted from the very beginning.