A Short Story
As I have told you I have never had the blues. But, as with the weather systems, tropical low pressure systems are of the most intense low pressure systems, so while I have never had the blues, I have flirted with the blues. So it was on the evening in question. A Pacific low pressure system was passing through bringing with it the steady splash and drips of its persistent rains. The drops hit the skylight and roof with two distinct tones, answered by the drops pelting the windows and the gurgle of the runoff down the drainpipe.
I stood in the dark looking out the windows at my own reflection suspended like a phantom on the glass. The vision of myself stirred up memories from my past that haunted my mind just below the limes separated from conscious memory by an invisible but impenetrable barrier. There lay those troubling ghosts that I had spent my life trying to exhume. The suppressed memories, those most painful episodes in a troubled life, that dominated my consciousness from the beyond and directed my energies into unfruitful channels.
Loosing the spectres of the past was my preocupation. I had long studied Freud and De Sade, self-analysis of my psyche had often nearly driven me mad, but how could I, how can I desist. Our minds are on the beam of the same wavelength so I can tell you this without overt shame or embarrassment.
Reading, my usual refuge and solace, had failed me on this particular evening. I had replaced on their shelves Athenian Propertied Families 600-300 B.C., Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds as well as Robertson Smith’s Religion Of The Semites.
I opted for a bottle of scotch and some old phonograph records. Now I’m not what you would call a drinker, and you know I’m not, but this night as I saw the Blues sitting on my couch batting her eyelids at me, I though I’d fortify myself with some protection and possibly open a door on one of those troublesome memories. Aiming for lighter hearted frivolity I got out some old Louis Prima records and tried to lift my spirits. Oh, of course I was amused by Josephina Please No Leana On Da Bell and Prima’s other amusing frivolities but as I sipped away at my scotch I found a need for more ineffable sadness. Thus just as Louis was swinging into Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I don’t Want To Leave The Congo, I levered the tone arm up and began digging through my collection for someone giving voice to their hurt. I passed up Hank Snow and Webb Pierce because they don’t reach the area I was reaching for, although both are great singers of sad songs.
Reaching down into the section labeled ‘Moaners’ I pulled up Jesse Winchester’s first LP and Mickey Newbury’s It Looks Like Rain. Mick and Jesse knew enough about rain and pain to satisfy my desires.
My bottle was half empty as my brain fogged up and the notion of lying down occurred to me. The rain was still descending as I weaved toward the bedroom with the lyrics of Winchester’s Yankee Lady and Newbury’s pleas for his Angeline dancing around in my brain. I had hopes, even in my sodden state, that my memories would be jostled around and one might come up. One did. I wish now that it never had.
I stood for a moment clutching the door jamb while trying to relocate my balance. I had wanted to connect links with suffering humanity and I had. I was feeling lower than a catfish on the bottom of the mouth of the Mississippi way down South in New Orleans. I oriented myself in the direction of my bed and gave a shove. With a deftness unplanned and of which I would not have thought myself capable I caught the covers up and in my fall actually slid between them. I didn’t have to wait for sleep for Sleep took my head and slammed it into the pillow. I disappeared into the abyss of oblivion.
Sometimes, most of the time, sleep is never so deep that you’re unaware of your blood circulating or your hair growing or anyone of a number of physiological matters, but this night, probably because of the alcohol or possibly because of psychic exhaustion I slipped below the level in the abyss of oblivion where the sun had never penetrated. If there had not been a bottom I would probably be falling yet.
My exhaustion was psychic rather than physical. After a couple of hours of total amnesia, my body sated with rest, the alcohol in my blood stream diminished but not yet dissipated set off discharges in my mind that lifted me from the pleasure of oblivion to the threshold of pain. I lay there flickering in and out of consciousness until I reached a state that was half waking, half dozing.
I didn’t dream, but my liberated sub-conscious sent up images and images from my subliminal reservoirs faster than I could grasp them. Just as I was about to recognize an image it fled before my mental grasping. And then, I can’t explain it, it’s only happened twice in my life, my inner being, my doppel-ganger, my alter ego, that image of myself in the rain splattered window, that phantom who may be more real than myself, perhaps he is the guardian of my sanity, he who suppresses and hides my most painful memories; puts them in a place where they can’t harm me, transweaves the unpleasantnesses of life into a fabric that makes my life presentable, who didn’t, can’t make himself known, seemed to say, athough nothing could be heard: ‘All right, you want to see? Look!’
Then, somewhere along the limes where my conscious and unconscious meet, a hatch, a skylight opened and I was shown, I don’t say I remember, but I was shown the worst moment of shame and sorrow I have ever known. The guilt of a thoughtless and callous man rose up and took possession of me. I let out a low moan. It was too late to turn away.
Don’t think badly of me. It was my fault but I wasn’t entirely responsible, there were mitigating circumstances. I’m sure you’ll agree once you know. Let me tell you the story. I’m sure you will find mitigation to soften your censure into a compassionate pity, empathy, or even sympathy. Never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
I was eighteen, no, nineteen, when I committed that despicable act. But let me begin the story much earlier so that you can understand much better. No man can be understood without a knowledge of his childhood. My own was not imbued with the vibrant and cheerful colors of happiness. No, my friends, it was quite the reverse. Nor do I seek your pity although I will not reject your sympathetic attention. I have always been of the opinion that one must accept the situation in which one finds oneself and try to convert that dross into gold. To shed our past like a caterpillar sheds his skin and emerge transformed into a newer better creation. I hope when my life is over I will not have failed in this task.
I am not an orphan but I was abandoned by my mother when I was seven. She left me on the steps of the Municipal Orphanage and I never saw her again. My life in the orphanage is not germane to my story, but you must know the hardships which orphans must endure. Orphans are social outcasts. Just as a man without a country has no place to rest, so the child without a parent is an outcast of society. An orphan child has no protector. He is a wanderer in a desert with no boundaries. He is despised and victimized by adult and child alike. He is compelled to wear the badge of inferiority just as the Jews in medieval times were required to display their yellow Star of David. He wears his as the Negro wears his skin.
In our case we were dressed in oversized or undersized clothes. We were compelled at various times to wear mismatched socks or shoes. Oversized shoes and socks that were more hole than sock. Shirts so large that the sleeves had to be cut back to expose our hands, the ragged edges flapping at our wrists. Our hair was cut with cowlicks sprouting every which way. We were made to look ridiculous, so that others might appear normal. We did look ridiculous and we were sent to public school that way. I have often envied Blacks and Jews their solidarity. Despised though they may have been they could find solace together, or at least as much as humankind will allow from each other. At school we were not allowed to win, and were denied any success. The gates of charity were closed to us although the ‘decent folk’; gave us small conscience offerings at Christmas. It was demanded that we be hewers of wood and carriers of water for our masters with the parents. But the worst was yet to come.
When a child turned ten he was no longer welcome at the Children’s Home. Orphaned or abandoned he was even rejected by the custodians of the damned. The Angels of Charity arrived to claim their due. Our foster parents arrived to pick up a means of livelihood and a slave for the house. I was either selected by or assigned to, I don’t know which, the Wardens. The Wardens did not really want the money they were sent for my care each month, or, that was not their prime motivation, although precious little of the money was ever spent on me. What they wanted was a clown.
The Wardens were much less than successful people. Jack Warden, or Mr. Warden as I was compelled to call him, had delusions of grandeur based on some sort of imagined connection to the royalty or nobility of ancient England. He even kept a collection of coats of arms on the wall. He would point to this particular one and say, ‘Yeh, that’s the one right there. That’s the one all right.’ just like it was his, but I knew it wasn’t. He was white collar over at Malleable Iron so that he could maintain his dignity over the blue collar workers.
The Wardens lived in a decent house on Bay Street which was OK, but beneath his supposed diginity. Geli Warden, Angelica, his wife, affected manners which she thought the immaculate reflection of the ‘Well born.’ But, I shouldn’t complain because those manners have stood me in good stead. They had two sons, Skippy and Cappy. Cappy was two years older than I and Skippy was four. Neither boy was amounting to anything. The townsfolks’ opinion of the Wardens was much less exalted than their own. The status of Skippy and Cappy consequently was not the highest. The Warden’s were not totally oblivious to reality. While they were masters of delusion they were also acutely aware of the disparity between their illusions and reality. They could not levitate their sons over the children of more affluent and successful people. They could invent innummerable reasons for themselves but the neighbors rebuked them when they made exorbitant claims for the lads.
I was the solution to their problems. On the one hand they could demand credit for their charity from the neighbors and on the other society paid them to keep a fool for them and their boys. What radio beam I followed to keep me on track I’ll never know. I suppose religion had something to do with it. I had been compelled to attend church since a small boy. I knew the Baptists, the Methodists and non-sectarians , whatever their fantasy may be, now, as the Wardens were very sanctimonious I found the Presbyterians. I was always revolted by both the Bible and its devotees, but as the Bible is the dream story of a despised and ineffectual people whose lives are irradiated only by an irrational hope, I identified with that strange peoples’ desperate situation and seized the only life raft that fate had to offer me. I embraced a vain hope as a fat man embraces a full refrigerator. I made it my own. It was all there was between myself and psychic desolation. For the Wardens drove me further and further into a mental zone that was very far from normal. As my childhood progressed I became aware of two existences. The one, the despicable clown that I was compelled to be and the other, the real me, that stood aside and watched and doled out encouragement and hope to the wretch that walked in my shoes.
As society would not honor Skippy and Cappy in the manner they thought was their due, I was to give them that status in their eyes. I was denied and ridiculed. I was made to mow the lawn with a dull mower and compelled to watch in silence and mortification while Skippy ‘did the job right’ with a sharpened mower. But it’s more important that you see what I was forced to become.
While the boys dressed well I was made to look shabby and unkempt. Just as at the orphanage my clothes never fit. I had to wear Skippy’s worn out shoes. Cappy’s old clothes, although I actually outgrew him. By high school I was flopping around in oversize shoes and a pair of too small grey gabardine pants. High in the leg and the crotch pulled up tight between my legs. The pocket openings were all frayed and the pockets were all worn out. Girls wouldn’t even look at me.
Then after Skippy and Cappy graduated it was even worse. Neither went to college as was expected. Both just kind of bummed around. The Wardens turned on me savagely in their disappointment. They wanted me to be even more ridiculous as they now thought their sons had failed them and I had been a bad influence. I don’t like to drink because sometimes the memory of it seems to drive railway spikes through my brain.
I don’t know when it started but I know that it was the result of the accumulated opprobrium, ridicule and denial that I had endured all my life. It became an especial burden as I became old enough to understand, even if in primitive outline, what was being done to me. I rejected all accusations of unworthiness and knew in my heart and grasped intellectually that I was as good as my detractors. Nevertheless the weight of their scorn and hatred, which they of course denied, bore down heavily on me. As my various neuroses and eccentricities developed in relation to this ostracization I began to hear a sound in my ears, a roar as mighty as Niagara. It stood as a barrier between myself and the world. I had to listen to people around it, with an especially attentive ear. I was afraid.
I held myself together through high school but upon graduation, abandoned by everyone, ridiculed and laughed at by the Wardens, I fell apart. I became ineffective. I had difficulty tying my clown shoes. I often had to make two, three or four attempts before I could succeed at that simple task. Once while receiving change from the paper boy I turned my hand sideways just as he released the change which clattered to the floor. I was mad with anguish and self-criticism. The hope that had sustained me fled and I was hopeless.
Throughout the summer I knew not what to do. When the days began to shorten and daylight began to flee I, by association, thought that I too must flee. I had some few dollars that I had managed to save and putting on my clown shoes my shabby grey pants with the short legs and high crotch, an old white T-shirt and a too small denim jacket that I had inherited from Cappy, I walked out of theWarden’s house for the last time.
I wanted to get far away. As I had never been far away before I thought in short distances. Primary to my mind was to leave the Valley. I rejected Detroit and the South because I knew I couldn’t deal with that many people. I thought of going out into the Thumb but the Wardens had relatives in Caro and I didn’t want to be close to them at all. For probably psychological reasons I decided to head up North to the Grand Traverse, The Great Crossing. A divide that once crossed would divide me forever from a hated and hateful childhood. As my mother had abandoned me I would symbolically abandon her. Not that she cared. I had never heard from her.
Blinded by my desperate urgency I walked out of that house of the distraught and just kept walking. I wouldn’t have spent the money anyway but it never occurred to me to take a bus. It never occurred to me to put out my thumb; I just walked along listening to the roar in my ears which seemed to be intensifying; to be getting louder, it seemed to be engulfing my brain. I don’t remember much of my flight. I remember passing the multitudinous churches of Midland. The chemical stench of the place corresponded exactly in my mind with my opinion of the parishioners of those churches. No love had I ever known from those sanctimonious hypocrites of God.
After Midland the roar seemed to affect my vision. I saw but registered nothing. The tears repressed for eighteen years began to flow and I walked and walked sobbing and sobbing.
I don’t even know whether I stopped to rest or not. I just kept picking those big clown shoes up and laying them down. Because of the size of the shoes I had to lift my knees high to bring my foot forward. I was oblivious to the catcalls of passing drivers appalled by the sight of the strange apparition that I was. At night, local boys drove by and threw beer cans at me. One reached out the window and tried to hit me with his fist. I grabbed at his arm and pulled it back. I escaped their wrath for playing ‘unfair.’
As I say I walked on an on until my woes engulfed me completely, until my body and mind separated and we existed in two different worlds. As my body trudged on my mind descended by stages into a hell of despair. Oblivion overwhelmed me, nothingness became my reality. I don’t know what happened.
When my senses returned, when the terrible fog lifted and dissipated and became a mere haze I found that I must have left hell and gone directly to heaven. My overall impression was white but I was surrounded by the most heavenly colors. White, a delicate pink and the palest of blues. My head was resting in billows of soft clean pillows, the cases of which I never seen the like. My body was covered by the sheets, pink and blue and a downy blue comforter. Above, the white underside of a blue canopy glowed cheerily back at me. It was daylight but still semi-dazed I lay there drifting in and out of consciousness. Then just as the sun was going down I heard the door open and shut. I looked up to find her smiling down at me. It was Angeline, my redemptress.
A feeling of security warmed my heart and saying nothing I slipped off into unconsciousness for the night. When I awoke, sometime before dawn she was laying there beside me, sleeping peacefully. Not daring to move I lay there quietly studying her. She began to stir. I pretended to be asleep and she, solicitous for my welfare, dressed quietly and left for work. As I tried to rise I found I couldn’t and spent the morning fitting my mind back into my body. The reunion was difficult and imperfect. I would spend decades trying to match the edges.
I found myself weak and lethargic, unable to concentrate or even to grasp my situation. Sometime in that morning, feeling the pangs of hunger, I compelled myself to rise and seek nourishment. During the process of alimentation I surveyed my surroundings. My shelter, and it was little more than that, was a one room shack. It was small and mean but immaculate. The lovely bed, although bed is an inadequate description of the little paradise in which Angeline reposed for her slumbers, was in one corner. A bathtub was adjacent to it. On the other side of the room, where I now sat, were her kitchen facilities. Dressers and a table with chairs occupied the front of the room. In the middle of the front wall was the door.
After eating, still exhausted, I lay down again to rest.
It was as though I had received a great injury, suffered a debilitating illness for as the fall turned into winter I remained faint and listless. As the approach of spring became imminent my mind began to regain some of its sharpness and my body its vitality.
Angeline was very patient with me, neither pressing me nor hurrying me. In those few months, even in my depressed state I came to appreciate and love her. She was twenty-five and had also had a difficult childhood; which fact I only surmise as she never talked about her past nor complained about her present. She sought complete self-sufficiency and within reason did everything for herself. She eschewed radio and television and even never bought magazines and newspapers. She wanted to create her own perfect world without obtrusions from an unsympathetic and hostile reality. In the time I knew her I never saw her with another person.
My own laughable wardrobe had disappeared and she had tailored new clothes for me. She knew how to do everything. Where she learned I don’t know. Even my oversize shoes were gone, replaced by a pair of moccasins Angeline had sewn. For the first time in my life I was dressed in clothes that fit. Clothes that were meant to dignify me and not ridicule me. Clothes that signified manhood and not foolhood.
Angeline worked as a waitress in town. What town I can’t remember except that it was on the Lake Michigan side of the Grand Traverse. It was a small town. Angeline’s cabin was on the rise looking out over the cool blue waters of Lake Michigan, over the Grand Traverse separating the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. the place where Lake Michigan without any discontinuity or break changed its name to Lake Huron.
On those cold winter days I often sat on a stump looking out over the Great Crossing, The Grand Traverse, that might someday separate me from my past, that might lead to a new and better life on the other side.
Angeline was always cheery, what cheeriness I know I learned from her. Much cheerier she than I. I was not the best of company that winter and I often wondered why she didn’t turn me out. She didn’t. Angeline had the capacity to make the best of everything. She could warm up the coldest night and cool off the hottest day. She could make the darkest corner bright. She was able to nurse me back to health.
So my winter of recuperation passed in the heaven created by Angeline. Recovering by day, fed by a divine cook and passing my nights beside the loveliest incarnation of woman ever made. Angeline would have been no-ones cover girl but there was no woman more beautiful than she.
As Spring came on my strength and energy returned. My psyche repaired itself and I attempted to recover my balance or perhaps I began to seek a balance I had always been denied. As the days grew longer and daylight appeared between Angeline’s return and nightfall we began to take long walks through the woods and down to the lake shore. There were delightful little streams in the woods, there was an abundance of wild flowers. The air was fresh and sweet. The skies were clear and blue. There was nothing more a man could want-except escape from a hateful past that lay too close behind.
As I began my slow recovery I felt the need to tell the world of the way it really was, to save it from doing to others what it had done to me. I began to write about my pain in little stories. I sent them to magazines but they all came back. the world was not interested in my pain, or perhaps, my pain was so new and fresh that the jagged edges terrified whoever my readers were. Angeline encouraged me and urged me on so that I never quit trying.
The roaring in my ears had continued and continually distracted me. I was compelled to be patient with it for there was no way to avoid it. But then one night that summer during my sleep that mighty Niagara ceased to flow. When I awoke that morning I was aware that something was different but I didn’t know what. Something was missing. It was so quiet. And then when Angeline spoke to me it was as though I could hear her voice clearly for the first time. It was then that I realized that the roaring had stopped. The very worst part of the pain must have been dissipated. My joy suffused my body and the look of love and gratitude with which I embathed Angeline brought a flush of pleasure to her cheeks. Whatever happiness I was able to give her she enjoyed it then. I could never understand what pleasure Angeline could find in me. I wanted to be pleasant and charming for her and I tried very hard to be so but I know that my injuries were so grievous, my self-absorption so complete that I couldn’t have been.
But we spent the summer and fall roaming over our little paradise, dipping our feet in the cool streams and exploring the lake side. And then came the winter once again. We still walked in the woods on Angeline’s days off and it was there on that cold January day that we came on our portent of disaster. We discovered a deer that had been injured by a bow hunter. The arrowhead and the broken shaft of the arrow were still lodged in the deer’s foreleg. the wound had festered and the deer was in great pain, limping badly. If it had been healthy it would have run away before Angeline could have charmed it. Perhaps Angeline could have charmed it anyway; she was that spontaneous and wonderful. The deer, with the trust and docility of one bereft of hope, subordinating his fear out of desperation in his pain submitted to Angeline’s graces and the two of us guided it to Angeline’s little cabin in the woods.
She lavished attention on the deer and with all the care of a loving and open heart began to nurse it back to health.
I am ashamed. It wasn’t jealousy. It wasn’t envy. I too had enough compassion to want to help the deer. It was a feeling of foreboding. My own pain had been so great, indeed its dissolution had only a year earlier just begun, that I had been unable, it had not occurred to me till then, to ask Angeline how it was that she had found and brought me to her home to mend. I wish I had not thought to ask myself that terrible question then. I certainly could not have been a prize. My face must have mirrored the distraction of my mind. I was wearing those ridiculous clothes, dirty from I don’t know how many days of tramping along the highway. I was grateful to Angeline then, I’m even more grateful today, but I couldn’t help comparing myself to that deer on which she lavished as much love and attention as she lavished on me.
I didn’t really think about it, I didn’t consciously dwell on it but my past, just behind me, began nipping at my heels. As I stood outside her door and gazed out toward the Grand Traverse, escape from that past seemed possible and necessary. Without really thinking about the notion of flight, or leaving, leaving Angeline behind, the notion began to take shape in my mind.
As winter passed once more and the beauties of April and May arrived, the deer, now healed, nodded a goodbye one morning and disappeared into the woods. I stood by Angeline and watched him leave saying nothing. That April and May I enjoyed Angeline’s company as never before while I, myself, grew more sad and morose.
On a day in May Angeline and I were out walking through the woods. I had my head down my mind dwelling on myself, Angeline and the deer. Thinking me sad, in an effort to cheer me Angeline exclaimed: ‘Oh, Greshie, look up, look at the sky, isn’t it beautiful?’ And it was.
It was a sky such as I’ve only seen in Michigan. The clouds were drifting in majestic rows from the Northwest. Each wisp seemed no bigger than a cream puff. Each was separated from its neighbors by an equal distance; each row separated from the others equally. These serried battalions of fluffy white clouds marched on in endless succession with absolute precision across the blue of a fading day.
Each cloud was tinted with overtones of pink. Pink, white and blue. Angeline’s colors. The colors of happiness with which she surrounded herself, surrounded us, me too, each night in her arbor of bliss. She pointed this out to me glowing and joyous. Of couse I shared her joy but I also noticed a dark grey band forming behind each of the thousands of clouds. I said nothing. An answering ominous shade formed in my own mind.
When we returned to the cabin the deep blue of the Grand Traverse was still visible in the fading light of a perfect day. It was then I think that I first saw the path across the water. I didn’t think any of this out at the time and perhaps I’m only making excuses for myself now, but Angeline was on this side of the Grand Traverse at childhood’s end.
Perhaps if I had made the crossing and she had found me on the other side things could have been different. There was no hope on this side and there was on the other. As part of my future rather than my past I might, I might never had had to leave her. Perhaps. I can’t be sure.
How could I tell her; How could I explain? How could I possibly find the words to say it? What right did I have to leave the savior of my life? There were no answers that came to my mind. There were no answers.
And this is my shame. That deer had more compassion for Angeline than I had. He had a deeper sense of gratitude. He at least gave Angeline a nod good-bye. With me Angeline just came home to an empty cabin and an empty bed. Oh god! I am so ashamed of myself. How could I be so cruel and heartless? I who knew what cruelty and heartlessness was. How could I…
As the ferry pulled from the slip leading across the Grand Traverse toward St. Ignace and the Upper Peninsula I was on it. Across the water lay escape and freedom or so I thought.
Once across the Traverse I had no idea what to do. So I just started walking down the highway toward Sault Ste. Marie. I had walked for a day and night; I was out there somewhere when I was overwhelmed by despair again but not so bad as last time. I threw myself down on my back in the middle of the road spreadeagled. I don’t know how long I lay there, perhaps five minutes, perhaps a couple hours. Maybe I thought a truck would run over me and my problems. None did. There wasn’t even a car came by, either way.
I had no choice but to get up, I couldn’t lay there forever. Once on my feet I looked off to the West over a mile of cutover ground. Away in the distance the forest began again. With shaking steps that slowly grew firmer I walked off to the woods into which I disappeared…