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Category Archives: Mickey newbury

 

 

Far Gresham And His Angeline

A Short Story

 

Pages wrung from the Memoirs of Far Gresham

7/4/76’

Edited by R.E. Prindle

 

As I have told you I have never had the blues. But, as the weather system of the planet is characterized by a system of highs and lows, tropical low pressure systems being the most intense of lows, so, while I have never had the blues I have flirted with the blues while evading the depths of the blues comparable to those feared tropical lows. So, it was on the evening in question. A Pacific low pressure front was passing through, bringing with it the steady splash and drips of its persistent precipitation. The drops hit the skylight and roof with two distinct tones, answered by drops pelting the windows and the gurgle of 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 skeletons of the past 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 preoccupation. I had long studied Freud and De Sade, self-analysis of my psyche had often nearly driven me mad, but how could, how can I desist. Our minds are on the same beam of the same wave length 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 instead. 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 thought I’d fortify myself against the rain 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 Louis Prima’s other amusing fripperies, but as I sipped at my scotch I found a need for more ineffable sadness. Thus, just as Prima 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 the Hurt. I passed up Hank Snow and his Nobody’s Child and Webb Pierce singing Pass that bottle over here 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 to satisfy my desires. My bottle was half empty as my brain fogged over 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 plea for his sweet 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, but 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 slid between the pale blue lower sheet and the light pink upper sheet. I didn’t have wait for Morpheus, where did I read that? let’s just say Sleep for Sleep took my head and slammed it into the downy white pillow case. 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 any one of a number of physiological matters, but this night, probably because of the alcohol or possibly also because of psychic exhaustion I slipped below the level of the abyss of oblivion where the sun has never penetrated. It there had not been a bottom I would probably be falling yet.

My exhaustion was psychical rather than physical. After a couple of hours of 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 of half waking half dozing.

I didn’t dream, but my liberated sub-conscious sent up 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 doppelganger, my alter ego, that image of myself that was 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 my life into a fabric that makes my life presentable, who didn’t, can’t make himself known, seemed to say, although nothing could be heard: ‘Alright, you want to see, look.’

Then somewhere along the limes where my conscious and unconscious meet, a hatch, a skylight, opened up and I was shown, I don’t say remembered, 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 will 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 a 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 friend, 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 your past like a caterpillar sheds his skin and emerges transformed into a newer, better creation, or at least a more attractive one. I hope that when my life is over, when my trials are done, when my sorrows have ended, will not have failed in this task.

I am not an orphan, per se, 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 this story, but you must know the social 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 unsanctified outcast of society, driven to the fringes of the sanctified. Forced to the edge of the pale, if not, out side it. He becomes a species of outlaw who has committed no crime. Nobody’s child, a child with no protector. A wanderer in a desert with no boundaries while always being its geographical center. 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 Mogen David. The orphan wears his like 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 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, or at least as much as humankind will allow, in each other. We, while in a world of our ostensible peers, despised each other as we were despised. At school we were not allowed to win, often not allowed to compete, and were denied any success. The gates of Christian charity were closed to us, although by a misconstruction of the world charity, the ‘decent folk’ distributed largesse, which they misconstrued as charity, to inflate their self-esteem, to us in the form of small conscience offerings at Christmas and, perhaps, also Easter. It was demanded that we be the hewers of wood and carriers of water for out betters with the parents. But the worst was yet to come.

When a child turned ten he was no longer welcome at the Orphanage. Orphaned or abandoned he was even rejected by the custodians of the damned. At ten the Angels of Charity arrived to claim their due. Our prospective foster parents arrived to claim their due. Our foster parents came 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 need the money they were sent for my care each month, or, that was not their prime motivation, although precious little of it was ever spent on me. What they wanted was a clown.

The Wardens were much less than successful. 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. 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 O.K. but beneath his supposed dignity. Anne Warden, Anne as she said had been the queen of England, affected manners which she thought were the immaculate reflection of the ‘well born.’ But, I shouldn’t complain because those affected manners have stood me in good stead. They had two sons, Skippy and Cappy. Cappy was two years older than I was 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 was therefore not of the highest. The Wardens 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 innumerable 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 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 might 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 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 hope as a fat man embraces a full refrigerator at midnight. I made hope 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 who 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 placed in impossible situations so that I might perform badly, while Skippy and Cappy would then show their superiority by ‘doing the job right.’ One time 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 were 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 big shoes and a pair of too small grey gabardine pants with a shiny behind. High in the leg and the crotch pulled up tight between my legs. The pocket openings were all frayed and the pockets all worn out. You could see your reflection in the seat of the pants the cloth was so shiny. 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. I don’t like to drink because sometimes the memory of it drives 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 my 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, or rather the world from me. 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 must flee. I had some few dollars that I had manage 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 the Warden’s house for the last time. I can still hear the slam of the screen door. The tongue and groove on the green painted porch numbered ten. I can see them all as my shoes passed over them.

I wanted to get far away. As I had never been far away before I thought in short distances. Primary in my mind was to leave the Valley. I rejected going to Detroit and the South because I knew I couldn’t deal with that many people. I thought of going out in 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 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 the 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. That city was dominated by large chemical plants and a chemical stench constantly hung over the whole city. In my distracted state I imagined that that oppressive smell was emanating from that army of churches. No love had I even known from sanctimonious hypocrites of God.

After Midland the roar in my ears seemed to affect my vision. I saw and 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 and on until my woes engulfed me, 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, white pillows, the cases of which I had never seen the like. My body was covered by the sheets, pink and blue and a down slightly darker 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 a door open and shut. I looked over 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 lying 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 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 the 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 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 or 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 oversized 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 not ridicule me. Clothes that signified manhood not foolhood.

Angeline worked as a waitress in town. What town I can’t remember except that it was on the South side of Lake Michigan near the Grand Traverse. It was a small town which I never had occasion to visit. 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 wintry days I often sat on a stump looking out over the Great Crossing, the Grand Traverse, that might someday separate me from the 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 was than I. I was not the best 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 would 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 in the evenings and passing my nights beside the loveliest incarnation of womankind. Angeline would have been no-one’s cover girl but there was no woman more beautiful than she.

As Spring came on my strength and energy returned. My psyche began to repair itself and I attempted to recover the mental balance that 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 sweet and fresh. The skies were clear and blue. Berries as summer progressed. 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 fresh that the jagged edges terrified whoever my readers may have been. 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 I realized that the roaring had ceased. The very worst part of the pain must have dissipated. My joy suffused by 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 to 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.

We spent the summer and fall roaming over our little paradise, dipping our feet in the cool streams and exploring the lakeside. 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 pitifully. 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 spontaneously wonderful. The deer, with the trust and docility of one bereft of hope, subordinating its fear out of desperation to his pain, submitted to Angeline’s graces and the two of us guided the poor beast to Angeline’s little cabin.

She lavished attention on the deer; with all the care of a loving and open heart she began to nurse him back to health.

I am ashamed. It wasn’t jealousy. It wasn’t envy. I too had enough compassion 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 he had 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 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, walked away, looked back at us, 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 her company as never before while I, myself, grew more sad and morose.

Then one day in May we were out walking through the woods, I with my head down absorbed in my depression when in an effort to cheer me she said: ‘Oh, Greshie, look up, look at the sky, isn’t it beautiful?’ And it was. It was a sky such as only happens in Michigan. The clouds were drifting in majestic rows from the northwest. Each wisp was bigger than a cream puff. Each separated from its neighbors by an equal distance; each row separated from the other rows by an equal opening. These serried battalions of fluffy white clouds marched on in endless succession 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 each night in her arbor of bliss. She pointed this out to me glowing and joyous. Of course I shared her joy, but I also noticed a dark grey band forming behind each of the thousands of clouds.

When we returned to the cabin, the blue of the Grand Traverse was still visible in the fading light of a perfect day. It was then, I think, that I knew that I would be leaving soon.

Now, 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 the end of my childhood and my life lay on the other side. Perhaps if I had made the crossing and she had found me on the other side things would have been different. As part of my future rather than my past, I might never have had to leave her. I was once again numb. How could I tell her. What could I say. How could I find 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. None.

And this is my shame. That deer had more compassion than I had. He at last gave Angeline a nod goodbye. With me, Angeline just came home to an empty cabin and an empty bed. Oh God, I’m so ashamed of myself. How could I be so cruel and heartless. I who knew what cruelty and heartlessness were. How could I….

Still, as the ferry pulled from the slip heading out across the Grand Traverse, I was aboard it. As the ferry glided across the water I stood looking back along the shoreline hoping to sight the scene of my salvation. It was already too far away, around a bend in the coastline which I would never be able to find again. It had vanished from this earth as far as I was concerned. My Eden existed for me in memory alone and I had forgotten that.

I became conscious, as with tear blurred vision I gazed outward, of the twitters of other passengers around me. Not knowing what to think I cautiously and discretely looked about me. They were laughing at me. Dismayed I searched for a reason. Then I discovered that the moccasins and clothing that had been so perfect in the House of Love were not appropriate for the vulgar wide world. No matter, they were crafted with love by the loveliest woman the world had ever known. They were men’s clothes not fool’s clothes. I knew the truth and it was sufficient for the day. Tears of gratitude coursed down my cheeks.

My tears ran over my cheeks, past my ears and onto the pillow as I awoke to the reality of the present. Still partially intoxicated I sat up on the side of the bed elbows on knees head in hands, trying to calm my aching heart. What had I gained and what had I lost? At the Wardens I used to spread the Sunday Funnies on the floor to read them. On the masthead had been a picture of Puck bearing the legend: Oh, what fools ye moral be.

Exuent.

A Short Story

Angeline Gower

by

R.E. Prindle

     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.

page 1.

     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.

page 2.

     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.

page 3.

     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.

page 4.

     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.

page 5.

     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.

page 6.

     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.

page 6.

     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.

page 7.

     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.’

page 8.

     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.

page 8.

     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.

page 9.

     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.

page 10.

     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.

page 11.

     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.

page 12.

      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…

Finis.