Klassen sketches rural life with humor and compassion.
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From "Summer of '36": "Josef. Josef! Where are you? Get in here, you little Hanswurst. I'm dying. Damnit, Josef, I'm dying right now." Grandpa Dietrich always wanted something now. He hadn't always been so bossy. I ran into the bedroom, puffing, as if I'd come a long way. He lay in his bed, his pillow soaked with sweat, 385 pounds sagging to the center of the mattress. His body was barely covered by the edges of the sheet. Two butter-yellow rectangles of light glowed behind the shades. Strips of old sheets jammed up into the cracks didn't keep out the dust. It was Friday, August 14, in the fourth year of the drought.
"Where the hell were you, Josef? That fan, turn it to the left. No, no! Wie alt bista doch? Don't you know your own left from your right? When I was your age I had my own plow and team. My brother Payter, too. And Anton. We broke this prairie, grass high as your head, land never touched by a plow, the spring of '65. During the Indian uprising. Who could ever forget it?" He sighed.
Not the Indian uprising again. Everybody knew he was born after the uprising. The fan at my back loosened the shirt stuck to my spine. I was in the little spot where Grandpa couldn't see me without cricking his neck.
"Come here when I'm talking to you. Verdammte Hitz'!"
My reflection moved in the glass of the Sacred Heart picture but he didn't see it. The bed creaked dangerously as he turned.
"Ja, there you are, Josef. Where the hell were you? Get me some ice water . . . if there's any left. You'd think there'd be ice for me." He mumbled, "That woman." He pushed himself up on his elbows. "Wait, if Grandma's in the garden, bring me a bottle of beer. Quick, before she comes back."
"Grandpa, she said no more beer. I'll get in trouble."
"Bring' es doch, du kleiner Schisser. Get it, you little shit. I'm not in jail here."
Through the window I could see Grandma carrying water in the pickle patch, the only green as far as I could see.
I ran down the steps into the quiet cool of the cellar and pulled the light. The walls glowed with a hundred reflections of the single bulb, jars of plum jelly, canned beef, corn and peas. I walked through the sweet smell of onions and the rot of last year's potatoes to the stacks of beer cases that Meinulph had brought out from the saloon. Grandpa had counted them, sucking in his breath at each number. When Prohibition came back, he was going to be ready. I opened the bottle and hid the bottle-cap in my pocket. Grandpa grabbed it from my hand. He tilted it to his lips and the beer foamed and ran into the folds of his neck.
"You shake it when you came up?" he asked. I made for the door. "Wait, it's OK. Stay here, Josef. Danke. You can run the empty back in a few minutes. Can you move the fan, please? Point it right at me?" He whispered, "Bring me another one, Josef. Schnell. Give you a nickel if you do." He gave me his best smile.
"Grandma says not to. She'll kill me if she finds out."
"Everybody's gotta die sometime. It's right there in the Bible-seventy years. I've got that and nine more. I'm not afraid of dying."
He closed his eyes. "This damn heat. Purgatory couldn't be much worse." He peered at me from lowered lids. "I'm having your mother call in the priest. Now don't tell your Grandma." He handed me the empty bottle. "Go. Right now. Bring two." His loud whisper followed me out of the room. Nein, drei. Drei, Josef. Bring' doch drei."
I raced down the stairs, thinking about why Grandma and Grandpa hated each other. I'd heard Mom and Dad talking about Grandpa and the hired girls who had to be sent away. Back when he was skinny. The floor felt cold to my bare feet. I grabbed three bottles, then thought, how old do you have to be to do what you want? I pulled out a fourth and ran up the stairs. The rippled edges of the bottle-caps bit into my fingers.
"You open them," I said. "I don't want to."
He cranked his body against the creaking headboard. The smile that lit his face pushed his cheeks up and nearly closed his eyes. "Bless you, Josef. You'll go to heaven." He pulled an opener from under the sheet. I just started at the picture of the Crown of Thorns flaming around the Sacred Heart. He tilted his head back, emptied the bottle, and wiped his mouth with the edge of the sheet.
"Josef, mein Bubchen, there's a dime for you, right next to my snuff box. That's right, take it. It's yours. Go now. Don't worry, I'll get rid of the bottles." His heavy hand weighed down my shoulder. "Josef, I wish I could still sleep out under the trees with the rest of you. It might make me feel young again."From Kirkus Reviews:
As part of the Minnesota Voices Project, newcomer Klassen offers 15 stories varying in quality, originality, and polish--all set in small-town and farmland Minnesota. A standard-issue gothic comedy gets things started (``Summer of '36'') when an obese and irascible grandfather dies in bed and has to be taken out the window in a sling because his coffin is too big to fit through the door. Klassen has an inclination to put familiar figures through familiar paces--as in ``You See What's In Front of You,'' about a retarded man who gets teased- -to death. Yet even as you hear the gears of a story grinding, Klassen simultaneously delivers wonderful observations of the countryside, including in this case a boy's view from a bell tower. Klassen's stories can decline into anecdote (the single-note girl-hopes-to-impress-boy ``First Impressions'') and clich‚ (a five-year-old, in ``Juletta and Josef,'' being taken for medical care through a blizzard). Again, however, the qualifications are what count: Even in his weakest stories, Klassen's eye for the details of plains life seldom fails him. A 1950s tale about Catholic kids with bad teeth who go to a Protestant dentist (``Mrs. Cabot and Mrs. Abernathy'') is alive and vivid with things to see and hear, as are stories like ``Taking Stock'' (a farmboy's first trip to the city) and the even more subtle--and outright moving--``Rimpel-Zimpel'' (hired hands falling in love). When he hits his stride, Klassen can make even high melodrama moving (as when a four-year-old tries to wake his mother in her coffin--``There Is a Name For This''); and something close to pure beauty is sustained in the economic telling of life and death (``I Will Fall Into Barley'') that closes the volume. Hits and misses, then, though all touched at least somewhere with the genuine breath of life. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Book Description New Rivers Press. PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0898231698 Brand new. Bookseller Inventory # SKU1004765
Book Description New Rivers Press, 1996. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0898231698
Book Description New Rivers Press, 1996. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0898231698
Book Description New Rivers Press, 1996. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110898231698