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A Sinful Place—John Brantingham

John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines. He has twenty-one books of poetry, memoir, and fiction including his latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press) and Kitkitdizzi (Bamboo Dart Press). He lives in Jamestown, New York.

A Sinful Place

Ellen’s asleep as you drive into Las Vegas. You came through here as a kid riding in the way back of the station wagon among the luggage so thick and soft, it was all you could do to keep your eyes open. You wanted to stay awake because your grandfather told you it was a sinful place, and you wanted to see sin. You were moving from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, leaving everything you knew behind, including your grandfather, including your friends, including your house and a way of life. Now, you’re crossing back to clean out and sell his house and collect your inheritance such as it is.

You just found out that your grandfather left the house and his things to you, not your mother. Your mother told you she doesn’t mind. She says that she doesn’t want anything that was his. You can have it all. 

You just found out that your grandfather with his German accent had been a Nazi during the war.

You just found out that your mother has been lying to you about him your whole life. The story you grew up with was that he’d left before the war in protest to what they were doing. The day you learned he’d died, you and your mother sat in the living room drinking schnapps, and she’d mentioned in passing that he had a blood tattoo. You’d asked what that was and pressed, her resisting, until she finally gave up and told you that it was a way for SS soldiers to keep information about their blood type on their bodies in case they were wounded. 

Your grandfather who taught you how to shoot a BB gun along the banks of the Monongahela. Your grandfather who clasped you on the shoulder and said you were a good boy who would grow to be a good man. Your grandfather who shared your blood. Your grandfather who told you that a man needs to know how to shoot so he can fight for what is right in this world.

You reach over and stroke Ellen, who doesn’t wake up until you squeeze her shoulder a little. Then she blinks and looks around. You say, “We’re just coming up to the strip.”

“Oh, yeah? Do you want to stop and check it out?”

You shrug, squeeze the steering wheel tight like it might go away. “Yeah, I do. I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be a good thing if you and I got married today?” Except, you weren’t thinking that. You’re not sure where that came from, and there was an odd pitch in your voice, one you’d never heard before.

You don’t look at Ellen. You don’t want her to read your mind through your eyes right now, but you can feel her watching your cheek. “No,” she says. “My divorce isn’t even final yet.” You nod as though this is no big thing, as though your question was fleeting, as important perhaps as asking her if she wanted to stop for burgers. “Do you want to get married?” she asks.

The question has never occurred to you, despite the fact that you just asked it. There is the exit to Tropicana Avenue off I-15; you watch it pass you by. You suppose there are other places to get married in Vegas, but it’s like you’re watching the possibility of having a new family pass you by too. “No,” you say. “Not now. It’s not right.”

Ellen laughs. “Thank God,” she says. “You can’t wake a girl up like that.”

You force a smile and a laugh, and she turns to watch the city neon itself even in the sunshine, thankfully no longer trying to read your mind through your eyes. Who knows what she might read there? Maybe she would see the pride you had at hitting the target your grandfather had made for you, a silhouette of a person on white poster board. 

Maybe she would see your shame today for what the old man must have done. Maybe she would see that you can argue all you want with a ghost. You can call him names and prove what he has done and who he was was vile and unspeakable, but that you will never change his mind. Maybe she will see that you love him still and that you wonder how much that love has infected you. Maybe she will see the you lurking down inside of you that not even you are aware of. Maybe she will be relieved that she just told you no. 


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