“Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il rèsonne.” – De Béranger.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country—a letter from him—which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said—it was the apparent heart that went with his request—which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very singular summons.
Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other—it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.
I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment—that of looking down within the tarn—had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy—a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.
Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.
Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me—while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master.
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellissed panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality—of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.
In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision—that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation—that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.
It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy—a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. “I shall perish,” said he, “I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”
I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth—in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated—an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.
He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years—his last and only relative on earth. “Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.” While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. When a door, at length, closed upon her, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the countenance of the brother—but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.
The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis. Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself finally to bed; but, on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed (as her brother told me at night with inexpressible agitation) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain—that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.
For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom.
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why;—from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least—in the circumstances then surrounding me—there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.
One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.
I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments. It was, perhaps, the narrow limits to which he thus confined himself upon the guitar, which gave birth, in great measure, to the fantastic character of his performances. But the fervid facility of his impromptus could not be so accounted for. They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the words of his wild fantasias (for he not unfrequently accompanied himself with rhymed verbal improvisations), the result of that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial excitement. The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily remembered. I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne. The verses, which were entitled “The Haunted Palace,” ran very nearly, if not accurately, thus:
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunéd law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad, led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher’s which I mention not so much on account of its novelty, (for other men* have thought thus,) as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke,) in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none.
*Watson, Dr. Percival, Spallanzani, and especially the Bishop of Landaff.—See “Chemical Essays,” vol v.
Our books—the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorium, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and OEgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.
I could not help thinking of the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence upon the hypochondriac, when, one evening, having informed me abruptly that the lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building. The worldly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute. The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family. I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and by no means an unnatural, precaution.
At the request of Usher, I personally aided him in the arrangements for the temporary entombment. The body having been encoffined, we two alone bore it to its rest. The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention; and Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead—for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue—but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage. At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness, for I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound. It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.
It was, especially, upon retiring to bed late in the night of the seventh or eighth day after the placing of the lady Madeline within the donjon, that I experienced the full power of such feelings. Sleep came not near my couch—while the hours waned and waned away. I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room—of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. Shaking this off with a gasp and a struggle, I uplifted myself upon the pillows, and, peering earnestly within the intense darkness of the chamber, harkened—I know not why, except that an instinctive spirit prompted me—to certain low and indefinite sounds which came, through the pauses of the storm, at long intervals, I knew not whence. Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste (for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night), and endeavored to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro through the apartment.
I had taken but few turns in this manner, when a light step on an adjoining staircase arrested my attention. I presently recognised it as that of Usher. In an instant afterward he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door, and entered, bearing a lamp. His countenance was, as usual, cadaverously wan—but, moreover, there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes—an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor. His air appalled me—but anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured, and I even welcomed his presence as a relief.
“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly, after having stared about him for some moments in silence—“you have not then seen it?—but, stay! you shall.” Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried to one of the casements, and threw it freely open to the storm.
The impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet. It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving this—yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.
“You must not—you shall not behold this!” said I, shudderingly, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement;—the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame. Here is one of your favorite romances. I will read, and you shall listen;—and so we will pass away this terrible night together.”
The antique volume which I had taken up was the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning; but I had called it a favorite of Usher’s more in sad jest than in earnest; for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend. It was, however, the only book immediately at hand; and I indulged a vague hope that the excitement which now agitated the hypochondriac, might find relief (for the history of mental disorder is full of similar anomalies) even in the extremeness of the folly which I should read. Could I have judged, indeed, by the wild overstrained air of vivacity with which he harkened, or apparently harkened, to the words of the tale, I might well have congratulated myself upon the success of my design.
I had arrived at that well-known portion of the story where Ethelred, the hero of the Trist, having sought in vain for peaceable admission into the dwelling of the hermit, proceeds to make good an entrance by force. Here, it will be remembered, the words of the narrative run thus:
“And Ethelred, who was by nature of a doughty heart, and who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken, waited no longer to hold parley with the hermit, who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn, but, feeling the rain upon his shoulders, and fearing the rising of the tempest, uplifted his mace outright, and, with blows, made quickly room in the plankings of the door for his gauntleted hand; and now pulling therewith sturdily, he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder, that the noise of the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarummed and reverberated throughout the forest.”
At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story:
“But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but, in the stead thereof, a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor, and of a fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver; and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten—
Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win;
And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard.”
Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement—for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.
Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber; and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of Sir Launcelot, which thus proceeded:
“And now, the champion, having escaped from the terrible fury of the dragon, bethinking himself of the brazen shield, and of the breaking up of the enchantment which was upon it, removed the carcass from out of the way before him, and approached valorously over the silver pavement of the castle to where the shield was upon the wall; which in sooth tarried not for his full coming, but feel down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound.”
No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver—I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.
“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
In March I received an invitation to appear at IdiotFest, the second most prestigious event on the entire Idiot circuit. I called my mother.
─Don’t you remember, Mom? It was in San Diego last year. I was an alternate.
─Oh, right. Of course. Congratulations, honey. That’s wonderful.
─I have a solo performance the first night. On one of the side platforms. Then, the last morning, I’m supposed to participate in a workshop on fluids.
─I bet they probably heard about what I did at the Canadian Summit.
─I’m sure they did. You got a lot of attention for that. Listen, I wish your father and I─
─Don’t worry about that, Mom. Indianapolis is quite a haul from California, and tickets aren’t cheap. I need to start looking for bargains myself.
─They’re not paying for your travel?
─No, just a discounted room at the main hotel.
─I’m only performing on a side platform, Mom. I’m not exactly Maury Benjamin.
─There’s only one Maury Benjamin. Still, I’m sure you’ll do great.
─This could be a really big break for me. If I make a good impression there, I got a great chance of winding up at the Gathering in December.
─Did you tell Michelle?
─Will you? What about the girls?
I counted fourteen people gathered around the small, wooden platform, including a friend of mine from high school who lives in town. We had talked about going out for a beer afterward. I blamed the weather. Fucking rain. At 6:30 there were still probably two-hundred visitors snaking around the lobby waiting to check in. I tried not to think about it.
I opened with some incoherent bellowing, my mouth still dry. After moving to the floor and yanking out a fistful of hair, I began my slobbering sequence. This was the first time I was using an oil capsule in public. I had no trouble bursting it, but I had some difficulty determining the rate of its drainage. In the solitude of my apartment, I had trained myself to gauge the size of the capsule’s rupture by concentrating on the strength of the oil’s flavor in my mouth. Once that was clear, I would decide how much saliva to mix with the oil in order to create a plausible degree of viscosity. I used a rosemary infusion. With a crowd this small, and with this kind of professional lighting, the oil was probably unnecessary. But it would have been foolish to pass up an opportunity to try it out in front of an actual audience. Plus, I could ask my friend about it later.
As I prepared to return upright, I noticed the assistant to the impresario standing against the back wall, nearly hidden in shadow. Somehow, I had missed her entrance. She contacted me with the initial invitation. Called me out of the blue and proceeded to compliment me throughout the conversation, she even made reference to the fact that I craft my own dental prosthesis. They had done their research. Maybe she had come to this room to check on the sound and the lighting, or to record the turnout, or just to get a feel for the overall atmosphere here on the first night. Maybe she just wanted to enjoy my work, to catch the act of that up and coming guy who refuses to order his hideously yellow buckteeth out of Chauncey’s Idiologue. Still, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that she had arrived primarily to judge me. To decide whether or not I deserved this platform, to consider whether or not I would be invited to return next year, to estimate the potential long-term commercial appeal of my idiot, to ask herself if she hadn’t made a mistake by bringing me here in the first place.
By now I was standing back up, moving into my bluster. The snot, thick and generous thanks to the air travel, bubbled out of my left nostril and ran onto my lips. But then, for the first time ever in the middle of an actual performance, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. As I heaved my shoulders and used my forearm to spread the phlegm across my right cheek, I found myself focused on the assistant to the impresario. Like more than a few idiots, I had considered the route of the moron and the fool as well. And despite the fact that I believed deep down my talent lie in idiocy, I was haunted by what might have been had I elected to become a moron. After all, even my manager would admit that the moron circuit had more than doubled in the last five years and was now threatening to surpass foolishness in overall market share. My manager didn’t try to hide this from me. But he insisted that none of this mattered. All you should do now is be an idiot. It’s all you can do. You are an idiot. It’s that simple. An enormously talented idiot. You’ve spent too much time, you’ve sacrificed too much to give up now. Could you have made it as a fool? Perhaps. If you had gone the moron route, would you be on magazine covers today? It’s not impossible. But you know what, your time is coming, I truly believe that. There’s no turning back. All you can do is go out there and do it. And be it. Be the perfect idiot. I’ll take care of the rest.
The assistant to the impresario shifted her weight and moved her clipboard from one hand to the other. My website had eight-thousand hits last week. In April I learned I had made it to the final round of a major fellowship and was encouraged to reapply next year. Plus, there were rumors of increased government funding. And I did still enjoy the actual appearances, when I always felt I had found my calling and been true to it. My manager knew I had started meditating, he knew I was reading some of the Buddhist masters. He was kind enough to resist taunting me for this, he understood that with everything I was going through there wasn’t any other way. The point of my craft, the goal in my eyes, was to empty myself into moments of absolute presence, such that all my practice and devotion could be translated into simple effortlessness.
A couple of high school kids got up and left the room, walking past a young woman at the edge of the third row who looked to be a professional photographer. The assistant to the impresario greeted an older man who, judging from his suit, likely worked for the hotel. I was finding it difficult to cry. Rather than fight it, I released an especially violent moan, which drew the faces of the audience back to the platform, and brought my attention to the closing urination. I made myself perfectly still, letting the drool and mucus run off my chin. Fixing my eyes on a random spot near the side of the room, far away from the assistant to the impresario, who remained visible only as the small yellow patch of her hair, the hair I recognized from her picture on IdiotFest’s website, I prepared to empty my bladder. The jock strap and tape had done their job, and the tip of my stretched-thin penis remained fixed high above my right thigh. I began to relax my entire body, starting simultaneously from the tips of my toes and the crown of my skull. My eyes closed as my feet sunk into the uneven heels of my orthopedic shoes. With arms hanging limp from my shoulders and with knees slightly buckled, I allowed my abdomen to relieve the pressure it had been forced to endure for the last three hours. I sensed a gradual shifting below my waist, and soon my pant leg grew heavy and warm. Visualizing the expanding contours of the darkness steadily covering the worn khaki on my thigh, I sought to limit the rate of flow. At around fifteen seconds I heard a faint gasp. At half a minute the room had grown perfectly silent. By the time I was done, a full minute later, by the time my right sock was drenched and a fair-sized puddle was likely glimmering as it spread out along the platform, I allowed myself to seek out the assistant to the impresario. She had tucked her clipboard under one of her arms and was leading the stunned audience in a round of applause that sounded like the work of much more than twenty-six hands.
The beer with my old high school friend was so-so. Naturally, he praised my performance, and his words seemed very sincere. Said he was blown away. He may have been willing to continue talking about my idiot much longer, but it didn’t feel right. So I asked him about his career, something to do with marketing or PR, or marketing and PR. We shared what little we knew about the other guys we used to hang out with almost twenty years ago. Laughed a little. Food was decent. Even though we left the hotel, I couldn’t help scanning the bar from time to time to check if I recognized anyone, or if anyone recognized me. He listed the other divorces he’d heard about. There were more than a few. I reminded myself to be thankful that he came out. Even told him I was grateful. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about my performance, but I couldn’t really talk about any my art if I wasn’t allowed to express what it meant to me to be both exceptional and overlooked, to be an obscure genius, to be a man nearly, but only nearly, capable of finding solace in the expression of his own unique vision. I tried not to hate myself and my life again, so I reminded myself that here I was in a pleasant bar in Indianapolis, where I had recently shared my authentic self with a dozen or so perfect and similarly grateful strangers. He insisted that he pay and we told each other to take care.
Then I found myself back in the lobby, which was crowded, though not quite bustling. I scanned a number of small lounges, places where four or five pieces of furniture had been assembled for casual encounters. There were a few faces I recognized, but no one I really knew. I could think of two options. Go to the bar and order a drink, sit by myself, look at the televised sports, perhaps find someone to talk to. Adults did things like this, including adults at IdiotFest. Or go to my room. Turn on the television. Try to read. Take a pill. Sleep eight to ten dreamless hours.
I took out my phone, called Michelle, and had this conversation over the cheery din of the people gathered around me:
─Hi. It’s David.
─It went pretty well.
─My performance. I think it went well.
─Yes, I know. That’s good.
─The audience was kind of small, but I made a big impression, I could tell.
─That’s great. I’m happy for you.
─How are things there?
─Can I talk to the girls?
─They’ve been asleep for over an hour. It’s past ten here.
─Right. Of course. They’re okay?
─Well, thanks again for taking them this weekend. I appreciate it.
─You know, I gave a really strong performance tonight. I know I did. It could mean something for me.
─That’s wonderful, David, it really is.
─ Someone from the organization saw it, and I could see that she was amazed.
─Great. Really, but look, I─
─No, I mean, I just want to say, and I know I’ve said this before, but if my day comes, and I don’t know if it ever will, but if it comes, I won’t forget about your support and everything, about all those years…
─I won’t. It’s important you know that. I’ll make it up.
─No, I don’t mean that. I’m not asking for… but to you and the girls, I will.
─I should go. It’s late.
─Will you give them a hug for me?
On my walk to the elevators I passed a circle of people that included Paul Drexel, who had recently been awarded a genius grant. He was the first idiot to restrict his work to video installations, narrative-driven pieces shot in public spaces. We had met a few years earlier at a regional event, I found him tedious.
I turned around to see the blond head of the assistant to the impresario. She was smiling and looking at me.
I smiled back. She extended her hand. Her other hand was still carrying the clipboard.
I know. Hi.
Her hand was small for her height, but her grip was firm.
─I really enjoyed your performance.
─Thanks. Thanks a lot.
─No, really. I was truly impressed.
─I had heard some good things─
─You did? From who?
─From a number of people. It’s our job to hear things.
─But I mean it, that was better than good. That was a lot better than good. I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a bigger crowd.
─Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you liked it. I felt like it went pretty well.
─I hope we can get you a better platform next year. I don’t know, maybe you could even perform a Center Piece on the first night.
─That would be amazing.
─I mean, I can’t promise anything like that. Obviously.
─But, but you’re ready for something like that. You are.
─Thanks. That’s really great to hear. From you especially.
Her phone rang. She said just a sec, pulled a device out of her pocket, answered the call, and turned a quarter-rotation away from me. Someone from the organization. She mentioned the name of a cable station, and then I realized I shouldn’t be trying to listen to her conversation. I started to back away when she raised her finger toward me and made a strange face. She may have been apologizing or making fun of whoever was on the other line. I think it meant I shouldn’t leave. So I didn’t. I looked at her body briefly, at her face, wondering if she was attractive. I don’t think she was beautiful, but there was something warm about her, something that made her look more inviting that her physical features all alone would suggest. Some kindness, perhaps.
She got off the phone.
─Sorry about that.
─No problem. Everything okay?
─Just more bullshit. Nothing new.
I nodded. She asked if I wanted to have a drink.
I hadn’t been with another woman since the divorce. Just two dates. Or one and a half dates. A little kissing with the second one, someone my brother knew from his company. I wanted it to happen, I didn’t want it to happen. I tried not to think about it.
Gretchen wanted it to happen.
I was grateful to her well before we got to the room. She had an easy confidence about her, was able to put me at ease as she let me know she was happy to be in charge. I didn’t know what to order, so she suggested a particular beer. I didn’t know what to ask her, so she told me about the organization, about what it’s like to work with the impresario. I didn’t know if I wanted a second, or a third, beer, so she ordered for both of us. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I let her talk. When she started asking questions, I answered them, telling her whatever she wanted to know about my past, my art, and my ex-wife. And then she said, while the bar was still filling up, would you like to come to my room. I didn’t know that people ever really said such things. I knew they must. But I wondered how common it was and how likely it was that I would ever be asked such a question. For fourteen years it hadn’t been much of a possibility. It was, all in all, not a bad question to be asked, and I was thankful for my beers, for the way they allowed my face to not respond very much at all.
We had sex. This outcome was clear to me the moment she used her card to let us into her room. I was surprised to be so sure of something so new, but there could be no doubt. She went to the bathroom, tried different lighting combinations, took off her earrings and placed them on a dresser. Then she kissed me. We must have had the exact same breath. I smelled nothing.
Soon we found our way to the bed and our way out of our clothes. Her body, if not altogether better than Michelle’s, was fresher. This was a younger woman, with a tattoo of a pear tree on her hip. It felt remarkably reassuring to be with someone who seemed to have so few compunctions.
Quite quickly I was inside her. I thought, in these words, which announced themselves loudly, so this is what it’s like inside another person. Another fit. I removed myself for a moment, concerned about the possibility of premature ejaculation.
─Yeah. It’s just the first time since.
She smiled generously. Raised her head to mine and kissed my check.
─Well, I expect you’ll enjoy this. I’m going to do my best.
She may have laughed. I returned to her and things accelerated rapidly. Much more than not, her prediction proved accurate. I found myself calling upon some of my training in order to postpone my orgasm, and after a time I sensed she was both extremely pleased with and fairly impressed by my self-control. After perhaps ten to fifteen minutes we knew somehow to pause for a moment. Or maybe she just decided to ask me a question:
─Did you. With Michelle, did you ever?
─Did you ever, you know?
─Pretend to be an idiot.
I looked at her.
─Did you ever have sex with her as an idiot?
─No. No. I didn’t.
─Did you want to? Ever?
─I don’t think it was ever much an option.
─But did you want to? Did you ever want to?
─I guess I probably thought about it a few times.
─But did I want to?
She was stroking my back. We were on the thirty-fourth floor of a downtown hotel.
─Would you like to? Now?
I looked at her, at her nose and the way it lead to her mouth. Her features were a great deal more angular than Michelle’s. I touched her chin, which was smooth and red.
─Would you like me to?
─A little bit I would.
And so I did, a little. I watched her as she watched me, as I brought her such strange pleasure. It felt wonderful, mostly. I was good at this. The room seemed to grow perfectly quite except for me and the sound of our bodies, as if her attention silenced the circuits and pipes, the elevators and footsteps alive in this building, the late night traffic in the streets below. As I finished I thought, has Michelle been with another man yet? Was he kind to her? Did he invite her to be someone I discouraged her from being? Did it make him as happy as this Gretchen is right now?
I opened my eyes and found myself in a moment of pure uncertainty, with no idea where I was or even when I was in my life. I must have been dreaming just a second before, and my confusion led me to wonder if I still was. But I soon remembered. My head, near the edge of this bed, was pointing toward the outer wall. I tried to be completely still and listen for Gretchen’s breath, which was soon audible. The world outside was still dark, as dark as it ever got in the center of a city like this. I slowly left the bed. Once standing I looked back at her and a combination of red numbers on a digital clock that I had never before seen in a dark room in a strange hotel.
I walked to the window, pushed aside the curtains, and considered the view for a very, very long time. I was naked and unexpectedly calm, as if large parts of me remained asleep in that bed. The skyline was both unremarkable and interesting, as the traffic lights changed steadily even when there were no cars to direct. Though the rain had stopped at least three hours earlier, much of the city was still damp, and together the lights and the moisture created a pleasing effect. I felt truly alone, every bit as alone as I would have felt in my own room, twenty-nine flights below. This did not bother me. Eventually I turned away from the window, suddenly struck by an urge to wander the streets before dawn. I quietly found my clothes and shoes. While getting dressed I wondered what it would be like to be a source of pride for my family. I left Gretchen’s room, stepping carefully over the morning paper already waiting just outside her door.
The elevator stopped at the thirty-second floor. After the door slid open, Maury Benjamin stepped inside and pushed a button. I had only seen him in person three times since I first attended one of his shows over twenty years ago. I was visiting my older brother in New York, where he was going to school, and he and his friends dragged me to a performance. Idiocy was still a new art then, and, my brother told me on the way to the theater, Maury Benjamin was going to be its ambassador to the world.
In the twenty-plus years since I had only ever seen a few pictures of him out of character, and I was, in addition to the larger shock of being alone with him in this elevator, amazed by how conventionally he was dressed. A button-down blue Oxford, cuffless grey trousers, a herringbone sports jacket, a pair of plain penny loafers. He was holding a couple sections of that same newspaper under his arm, standing right next to me as the elevator resumed its descent.
He turned to me, studied my face.
─You look familiar to me, you know that?
I smiled, perfectly speechless. Not five minutes into that first show I was overcome with fear. As if the man on the stage were a source of heat, some out-of-control flame, as if by merely watching him I was exposing myself to great danger. But I experienced a weird joy, too, as if his performance were an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about, nothing except its overwhelming authenticity. I decided that night, sitting right there in that crowded theater, this is what I will do with my life. He was responsible.
─I know! Of course. Look at this.
And he opened the Arts section of the local paper. And right there on the front page, right below the headline, “Idiots Invade Indy,” was a large, color picture of me from the end of yesterday’s performance.
─That’s quite a bit of piss, young man.
He laughed briefly.
─I mean, you must have been keeping some of that in your lungs. Unless you were smuggling it in a sack.
─Not me. Never.
─No, you look like the real deal to me. Must have hurt like hell, sitting on that bladder. That’s talent. And determination.
He turned back away from me and watched the elevator display the floors passing by in quick succession. Until he spoke again, without turning his head.
─You know what I did on my sixtieth birthday?
─About a month ago. 60. I moved my bowels in front of almost 4,000 people, some of whom had reportedly paid over $500 for the privilege to watch. Then, after a late lunch at the best restaurant in all of Manhattan, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. I gave the professors and donors a short speech, fresh out of crap as I was.
The elevator stopped just above the lobby, the display said 1R. The door behind us opened. Maury Benjamin started walking out.
─Oh, I eat all my meals in the kitchen. I don’t mind the performance, but I can’t stand the autograph hounds and all the other lunatics at these events.
I looked at him as he stood in the doorway.
─Say, you going to be at the Gathering?
─Not sure. I hope so. Haven’t heard back from them yet.
He pointed at the caption under the picture in the paper.
─Did they get your name right?
I read the caption.
─Yes. That’s me.
─I’ll put in a good word for you. But don’t think of it as a favor. Just curious to see all that piss in person. I myself was never much in the piss department.
Before I could thank him he turned and walked away, the door sliding closed a moment later. I got off at the lobby, only to see that it had started raining again. According to the clock above the reception desk, it was already late enough to call Michelle and the girls. But first I decided to a drink of water. Wanted to see if I could hold it until lunch.
Elli wouldn’t let me stop until we’d crossed the line into Utah. She was a nail in the passenger seat—rigid, sharp, her blue eyes darting back and forth between the speedometer and the double yellow lines. Dry rivers of makeup connected her eyes to her chin. Leon lay where I’d put him across the backseat. His chin was propped on a pile of Carlos Castaneda books. Strands of drool hung from the orange spines. His haunches trembled whenever we went over a bump. His glazed, suffering face was fixed on the back of Elli’s bare shoulder. We’d gotten most of the blood out of the slate-colored fur on his back but there were still flecks on his pale belly.
Route 89 flanked the scrub brush and dust of Nevada for thirty miles before turning north through Kanab. A half-empty bottle of Popov rattled in the cup holder. Elli lifted it by the neck. “We might need that,” I said. She paused, considering, and then sipped it anyway. Power lines, suspended from transformer towers, were strung across the sky as far as I could see. Probably they ran all the way down to Mexico, like bandits.
Kanab only had one gas station, a neat little Sinclair with a scrubbed forecourt and gleaming green pumps. I pulled in, parked. It hardly even smelled like gas, the air was so fresh. A pine forest came right up behind the store. “Home of the State Champion Lady Rams” read a banner on the window where the beer advertisements should’ve been. I put my foot on the concrete plinth beneath the pump, swiped my credit card, and lifted the nozzle from its holster.
Elli got out and stretched. Her long torso gave her a snaky, undulating look as she leaned right and left, her arms over her head, her bare feet on the pavement. She walked stiffly to the bathroom at the side of the store, rolling her neck. ‘Put some shoes on,’ I wanted to yell after her, but I knew she wouldn’t. She was free-spirited about germs, money, underwear, and directions. Everything else she worried about.
A clump of fur clung to the hem of her orange dress. One of the shoulder straps had fallen. It hovered above her elbow. Clothes had a way of slipping off her frame, unable to disguise the girl beneath. My shoulders ached from driving all day, and from carrying Leon.
She came out with a wad of wet paper towels, her face radiant with worry. She opened the Sentra’s dust-sprayed back door and started dabbing the fur around Leon’s wound. We’d doused it in vodka and bandaged it up as best we could with athletic tape and a clean t-shirt from my gym bag. The bullet had gone in through his hip. I wondered if it was a bad place for a coyote to get shot—if they kept any organs back there.
“He’ll be fixed up by this time tomorrow,” I said. “He’ll make it.”
Elli didn’t answer. She just kept dabbing. Her thin arms were surprisingly muscular. She didn’t work out, but she was tense all the time. Even in sleep she ground her teeth. Leon didn’t complain about her touching him. He never did; never growled, not so much as a snort. Elli put her cracked lips against Leon’s nose. Their eyes met.
A gust of wind came in from the north and I shivered as I replaced the nozzle. We were climbing into winter latitudes. “Montana,” she’d said, when I’d emerged from the canyon with Leon a bleeding bundle in my arms. She knew a vet there, a friend of her father’s. She’d seen him bring a shot wolf back from worse, apparently, and he wouldn’t report us to animal control.
“Everything okay out there?” the cashier asked, when I went in to buy some water and chapstick. She was prettier than most women who work in gas stations. Tan, with feather earrings and a mother’s worried smile.
I nodded, realizing there was blood dried on my shirt. “Spilled some coffee.”
Mountains began to break through the desert. Red ones first: mesas, buttes, hoodoos. I told Elli about the time my father took us to Zion. We stayed in a Travelodge in Hurricane. It had HBO, and my brother and I just wanted to stay in the room and watch. My dad got so angry that he broke the TV screen with his fist and we went home two days early. Elli traced triangles on the window with her finger as the yellow-brown landscape blurred by. She wasn’t listening. Her lips, wet now with chapstick, were pressed together. Freckles shone through the makeup carelessly dusted on her nose. She was beautiful in a wrung-out, haggard sort of way that I couldn’t get over.
Leon peed. It hissed onto the floor, soaking the carpet and empty Styrofoam cups under my seat. The sweet toxic vinegar stink made my eyes water.
Elli turned and watched him struggling to get out of his mess. He knocked two of the books off the seat. His paw flailed the air. His hind leg was soaked, the wet fur matted to the bone. Yellow drops slid down the plastic seat cover onto the floor. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I rolled the windows down and let the dry air blast my face. We merged onto I-15: four wide lanes running north all the way to Butte. I kept my eyes away from the rearview mirror. In a day or two, three at most, I’d be back home, freshly showered, lying on my couch with a cold beer, watching women’s tennis. Brown grass grew through gravel in the median. Semis rattled as we passed them, spitting diesel from their dark underbellies.
An hour went by before Elli spoke. “He needs food,” she said.
“It’ll just make him shit,” I answered.
She looked at me like I was a half-squashed insect.
“I’m kidding,” I said. “C’mon.”
I took the Nephi exit and drove up and down the quiet Mormon streets, past rows of white clapboard houses with blue trim and lawns mowed down to a military stubble. There was a hardware store, a confectioner’s. I didn’t know what we were looking for. Leon liked to eat cats, and he liked to eat them when they were still alive. I suggested using catnip as chum to lure one into the car.
“It isn’t funny,” Elli said.
We found a shaded parking spot behind The Country Kitchen, between a dumpster and a waxed red Mustang, probably the manager’s—some kind of hotshot. I changed shirts, gathered the piss-soaked cups in the old one, and threw the whole mess into the dumpster. Elli cracked the windows. She opened the back door and promised Leon we’d be back soon. I came and stood beside her. I’d need new floor mats, maybe new seat covers. Her head barely crested my shoulder. If she ever left, it was the fresh coral smell of her scalp that would haunt me. “Be good,” she said, like he was her own son. “Stay.”
He lifted his head off the books, blinking. His amber eyes were wider than usual, glowing in the short white hair around them. His mouth was clamped shut. He was embarrassed, hurting. When he was happy, his mouth lolled open toothily.
Damn coyote. I reached out to touch his face. He whipped his jaws at my fingers, snapping.
“Goddammit.” I jerked my hand away. He’d bit me once, when he was just a pup, and I still had two small scars beneath my thumb. He was five times that size now. His incisors were a half-inch long and I’d seen what they could do to a cat’s skull. My ears rang. I wanted to hit him. I turned and walked quickly toward the restaurant.
Elli murmured to him, gently shut the door, and followed me inside.
The waitress led us to a booth in the corner. Each of her thighs was as wide as Elli. Her blue apron was stretched tight across her groin like a linebacker’s jock. I hoped the Mustang was hers. The vinyl covering the booth squeaked when I sat down. There were paper placemats and a cup of crayons. Elli looked out the window at a gray steeple knifing into the sky. Her blond hair was cut one length all around, at her chin. Her face was drawn and gray at the edges, marked by exhaustion, physically beat, but also lit by it, as if she were becoming more alive.
She ordered a cherry malt and a steak.
“You need food too,” I said.
“I’ll eat the potatoes.”
The steeple didn’t have a crucifix but it was a church, sure enough. I’d heard somewhere that you had to be a Mormon to go into a Mormon church. I wondered if that was true, and if so, what was inside. I drew Richard Nixon in green on my placemat—all glowering jowls.
The waitress brought the malt on a silver tray. A cloud of whipped cream floated on top. Elli gave it all of her attention. The tendons in her neck stretched tight as she worked the straw. The skin on her right shoulder was sunburned a deep red from the car window.
“Slow down,” I said. “Your brain will freeze.”
When the glass was empty, Elli folded the straw into a triangle. She filled the triangle with salt—a white pyramid. Dry blood was crusted around her nails.
“He tried to bite me,” I said.
She broke a grain of salt with her thumbnail. “He’s hurt and scared.”
“Well they’d kill him here. All these hunters.” I nodded at the empty street.
Country music was playing softly and the waitress snapped her fingers just once as she pushed through the swinging steel doors into the kitchen. My burger came out separated into components on the plate: lettuce, tomato, onion, bun—all lined up next to the patty. Elli watched me put it together and then she watched me eat. The steak in front of her was shaped like Nevada and just as barren. I could tell she was counting the seconds in her head—tick, tick, tick. The waitress was leaning on the counter by the pies, watching me too. I hardly chewed.
When the check came, Elli didn’t ask for a box. She just wrapped the steak in a paper napkin and carried it out, dripping, in her bare hand. I left a tip and followed her, smiling apologetically.
The air outside was sharp with the coppery smell of exhaust. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. A drop of steak juice ran down her calf. It had been hot in Phoenix when we left. Now, dusk was settling over the Wasatch Mountains. The snowy ridges made a jagged pink EKG running north. I put my hand on her shoulder, feeling the bones.
“It was Rod,” she said, opening the back door. “I know it was.”
I shook my head. “There’s lots of people it could have been.”
“It was Rod.” She held the steak out to Leon. I told her to be careful, but it wasn’t necessary. He ate it gently, keeping his teeth away from her fingers. He nodded his head back after each bite, gulping down the meat. Juice clung to his whiskers. He glanced at me, smugly.
“Rod’s a fag,” I said. “They don’t have guns.”
Leon finished and licked Elli’s hands clean. “They have cats.”
“Had.” I laughed, despite myself.
Elli exhaled, long and slow, and I pictured myself as a chart inside her head. Two sides: good and bad, with scraps of conversation, things I’d done, memories, posted on either side. The bad side just kept filling up.
“I’m doing this for you, you know,” I said. “Skipping work, driving all this way. I mean, I care about Leon.”
“Do you?” she asked.
“Of course.” Anger warmed my chest. “But he’s a wild animal.”
She squeezed his skull, massaging the base of his ears. “So you’d let him die?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.” But maybe it was. He’d been trouble since the day we brought him home. He stank up our bed, gnawed the baseboard, shed everywhere. I’d find cat parts strewn around the yard: a paw wedged in the gate, innards on the tomato plants, a half-chewed skull on the welcome mat. He’d start to growl whenever I raised my voice at Elli.
He pressed his long bristly chin into her hands and licked her wrist. “We’re almost there, love,” she whispered. “Just a few more hours.”
I turned the heat on and we continued north. I held the needle at seventy-five for a while—I didn’t know what I’d say if a cop pulled us over—but Elli kept staring at me so I edged it up over eighty. The big empty plains closed around us until the only light was the wedge of the high beams. I was exhausted. My head hurt. The muscles in my thighs ached from climbing up and down the canyon walls, tripping in the dark. Leon had been well hidden in a dugout between two boulders. I’d found him and carried him out. Elli seemed to have forgotten that.
She sat with her feet up on the passenger seat, her arms wrapped around her shins, her thighs against her stomach. Her chin hovered above her knees. The dashboard lights shone hazy and green on her drawn face. Her left eye twitched, the pinched skin revealing the pattern of future wrinkles. We listened to the radio until it crackled and turned to static. I knew there were farmhouses and pastures not far off but it felt like the world could end and we wouldn’t know till morning.
Trying to stay awake, I pictured her naked. Right there in the passenger’s seat, like she was, except the dress and underwear gone. Her thin muscled arms wrapped around her knees. The skin over her ribs scratched and bruised from clambering through the canyon. Her body folded over itself, pressed together, the color of wheat.
I put my hand on her knee. I let it slide down to where I could feel the rough lace hem of her underwear. She shifted away from me, pushing down my hand and her dress.
Fine, I thought. Fine fine fine.
Salt Lake City was a ghost beneath the freeway: silent buildings forming the uneven steps of a skyline at night, the slow blink of airport lights. The temple, with its turrets and balustrade, looked like a lost castle, stranded on the wrong continent. An American flag hung motionless on a hilltop, lit from below.
Past city limits, the houses gave way to fields lined with huge crouching sprinklers. One of them was on, throwing arcs of mist into the night. Time sped up and skipped forward. I thought of the women I’d known, the places I’d been, bandits, wolves. The car was so warm. My head fell, then jerked upright.
“We have to stop,” I said. “Get some rest.”
We switched places at another gas station. The clerk watched us through the window, a toothpick rolling between his lips. He was black. Black in Utah. It couldn’t be easy. The motel next door was a long low twenty-roomer slung around a parking lot. ‘Thunderbird,’ read the blue neon sign. I knew the mattresses were probably thin with stained yellow sheets and sharp springs, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to stretch out. Leon’s eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror. Part of his tongue hung between his teeth, pink as bubblegum.
Elli drove with both hands on the wheel, ten and two. Her lips moved every once in a while. Pursing into an almost kiss, then pulling back over her teeth.
“Does this vet have beds?” I asked.
“At his house,” she said. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you.”
I let my head roll against the seat. It smelled like fur and piss. The engine hummed beneath me and I imagined giant horses and giant natives, a hundred feet tall, thundering over the dark mountains.
The car was stopped when I woke. We were on the shoulder, a vast plain all around. The headlights were off. Pure black, and above, a field of stars. I blinked, trying to swallow some moisture into my parched mouth. “Look,” Elli whispered.
Leon was sitting up. His front paws were underneath him, propped unsteadily on the shifting covers of the books. His nose was pushed against the window. His scrawny body—only two, still a puppy—was angled down to where his wounded hindquarters rested on the seat. His eyes were fixed on the waning thumbnail of moon as if it held the answer to all suffering.
The dark southern hills rose and fell like waves. His breath fogged the glass.
He pressed his long gray ears flat against his skull, opened his mouth, and howled. High and sharp, the sound sliced open the roof and carried into the night. He held the note. Piercing. Desperate. It was so loud it hurt my eardrums.
“No,” I said. “No barking.”
His haunches shook. He slipped and fell against the door.
Elli was twisted around in the driver’s seat, stretched toward him, her face contorted, her skin the same color as the moon.
“Where are we?” I asked.
She paused, staring at me. Her bared eyes held something frightening: disgust, maybe, or the beginning of hatred. “Get out,” she said.
I looked at her blankly. A few strands of her hair stuck to the headrest, straight out beside her, taut with electricity.
“Please. Just give us a minute, alone.”
I fumbled with the door; I kept yanking the handle until she reached across my chest, shouldering me back, and unlocked it. I pushed open the door. The cold night air stung my face. I stood up, dazed, then leaned back into the car. Elli stared at me, her lips pulled tight, the tendons in her neck raised against her skin. Leon’s claws scrabbled the plastic seat cover in the back.
“He’s going to die,” I said, and slammed the door.
Pebbles crunched beneath my sneakers. I walked away from the highway, down into a ditch, and back up again. I smelled snow, trees. Idaho, maybe. I thought I’d walk until I found a place to fall down. Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper hung at opposite ends of the sky. I couldn’t remember any of the other constellations. Just a mess of stars.
*This story originally appeared in Narrative magazine, 2013. Copyright © Maxim Loskutoff.
Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died. When Mr. Weeks doesn’t call, I write everybody I know about my boy. Some of my letters always come back, and the folks who write back say nobody knows where he got off to. I can’t help but think he might come home at night when I am gone, so I let the kitchen light burn and go on out the door.
The cold air is the same, and the snow pellets my cap, sifts under my collar. I hear my hogs come grunting from their shed, thinking I have come to feed them. I ought to feed them better than that awful slop, but I can’t until I know my boy is safe. I told him not to go and look, that the hogs just squeal because I never kill them. They always squeal when they are happy, but he went and looked. Then he ran off someplace.
I brush the snow from my road plow’s windshield and climb in. The vinyl seats are cold, but I like them. They are smooth and easy cleaned. The lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat. I heft it, put it back, I start the salt spreader, lower my shear, and head out to clean the mountain road.
The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead. They never sit still and wait for the salt to work.
I think I am getting too old to do this anymore. I wish I could rest and watch my hogs get old and die. When the last one is close to dying, I will feed him his best meal and leave the gate open. But that will most likely not happen, because I know this stretch of Route 60 from Ansted to Gauley, and I do a good job. Mr. Weeks always brags on what a good job I do, and when I meet the other truck plowing the uphill side of this road, I will honk. That will be Mr. Weeks coming up from Gauley. I think how I never met Mr. Weeks in my life but in a snowplow. Sometimes I look out to Sewel Mountain and see snow coming, then I call Mr. Weeks. But we are not friends. We don’t come around each other at all. I don’t even know if he’s got family.
I pass the rest stop at Hawks Nest, and a new batch of fools line up behind me, but pretty soon I am alone again. As I plow down the grade toward Chimney Corners, my lights are the only ones on the road, and the snow takes up the yellow spinning of my dome light and the white curves of my headlights. I smile at the pretties they make, but I am tired and wish I was home. I worry about the hogs. I should have given them more slop, but when the first one dies, the others will eat him quick enough.
I make the big turn at Chimney Corners and see a hitchhiker standing there. His front is clean, and he looks half frozen, so I stop to let him in.
He says, “Hey, thank you, Mister.”
“How far you going?”
“You got family there?” I say.
“I only go to Gauley Bridge, then I tum around.”
“That’s fine,” he says. He is a polite boy.
The fools pack up behind me, and my low gears whine away from them. Let them fall off the mountain for all I care.
“This is not good weather to be on the road” I say.
“Sure ain’t, but a fellow’s got to get home.”
“Why didn’t you take a bus?”
“Aw, buses stink,” he says. My boy always talked like that.
“where you been?”
“Roanoke. Worked all year for a man. He give me Christmastime and a place of change.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“You bet. He’s got this farm outside of town — horses — you ain’t seen such horses. He’s gonna let me work the horses next year.”
“I have a farm, but I only have some hogs left.”
“Hogs is good business,” he says.
I look at him. “You ever see a hog die?” I look back at the road snow.
“Hogs die hard. I seen people die in the war easier than a hog at a butchering.”
“Never noticed. We shot and stuck them pretty quick. They do right smart jerking around, but they’re dead by then”
“What can you do with a hog if you don’t butcher him? Sell him?”
“My hogs are old hogs. Not good for anything. I just been letting then die. I make my money on this piece of road every winter. Don’t need much.”
He says, “Ain’t got any kids?”
“My boy run off when my wife died. But that was considerable time ago.”
He is quiet a long time. Where the road is patched, I work my shear up, and go slower to let more salt hit behind. In my mirror, I see the lights of cars sneaking up behind me.
Then of a sudden the hitchhiker says, “What’s your boy do now?”
“He was learning a mason’s trade when he run off.”
“Makes good money.”
“I don’t know. He was only a hod carrier then.”
He whistles. “I done that two weeks this summer. I never been so sore.”
“It’s hard work,” I say. I think, this boy has good muscles if he can carry hod.
I see the lights of Mr. Weeks’s snowplow coming toward us. I gear into first. I am not in a hurry. “Scrunch down,” I say. “I’d get in trouble for picking you up.”
The boy hunkers in the seat, and the lights from Mr. Weeks’s snowplow shine into my cab. I wave into the lights, not seeing Mr. Weeks, and we honk when we pass. Now I move closer to center. I want to do a good job and get all the snow, but when the line of cars behind Mr. Weeks comes toward me, I get fidgety. I don’t want to cause any accidents. The boy sits up and starts talking again, and it makes me jittery.
“I was kinda scared about coming through Fayette County,” he says.
“Uh-huh,” I say. I try not to brush any cars.
“Damn, but a lot of hitchhikers gets killed up here.”
A man lays on his horn as he goes past, but I have to get what Mr. Weeks left, and I am always too close to center.
The boy says, “That soldier’s bones — Jesus, but that was creepy.”
The last car edges by, but my back and shoulders are shaking and I sweat.
“That soldier,” he says. “You know about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“They found his duffel bag at the bottom of Lovers’ Leap. All his grip was in there, and his bones, too.”
“I remember. That was too bad.” The snow makes such nice pictures in my headlights, and it rests me to watch them.
“There was a big retard got killed up here, too. He was the only one they ever found with all his meat on. Rest of them, they just find their bones.”
“They haven’t found any in years,” I say. This snow makes me think of France. It was snowing like this when they dropped us over France. I yawn.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe the guy who done them all in is dead.”
“I figure so,” I say.
The hill bottoms out slowly, and we drive on to Gauley, clearing the stretch beside New River. The boy is smoking and taking in the snow.
“It snowed like this in France the winter of ‘forty-four,'” I say. “I was in the paratroops, and they dropped us where the Germans were thick. My platoon took a farmhouse without a shot.”
“Damn,” he says. “Did you knife them?”
“Snapped their necks,” I say, and I see my man tumble into the sty. People die so easy.
We come to Gauley, where the road has already been cleared by the other trucks. I pull off, and the line of cars catches up, sloshing by. I grip the wrench.
“Look under the seat for my flashlight, boy.”
He bends forward, grabbing under the seat, and his head is turned from me. But I am way too tired now, and I don’t want to clean the seat.
“She ain’t there, Mister.”
“Well,” I say. I look at the lights of the cars. They are fools.
“Thanks again,” he says. He hops to the ground, and I watch him walking backward, thumbing. I am almost too tired to drive home. I Sit and watch this boy walking backward until a car stops for him. I think, he is a polite boy, and lucky to get rides at night.
All the way up the mountain, I count the men in France, and I have to stop and count again. I never get any farther than that night it snowed, Mr. Weeks passes me and honks, but I don’t honk. Time and again, I try to count and can’t…
I pull up beside my house. My hogs run from their shelter in the backyard and grunt at me. I stand by my plow and look at the first rims of light around Sewel Mountain through the snowy limbs of the trees. Cars hiss by on the clean road. The kitchen light still burns, and I know the house is empty. My hogs stare at me, snort beside their trough. They are waiting for me to feed them, and I walk to their pen.
*This story is taken from: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983.
There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.
There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to anyone in the neighbourhood.
Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.
At last the mother said: “I will see if I can’t make something.” But she did not know where to begin. She racked her brains, and tried this thing and the other, but could not find anything successful. The failure made deep lines come into her face. Her children were growing up, they would have to go to school. There must be more money, there must be more money. The father, who was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, seemed as if he never would be able to do anything worth doing. And the mother, who had a great belief in herself, did not succeed any better, and her tastes were just as expensive.
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
It came whispering from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse, and even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink and smirking in her new pram, could hear it quite plainly, and seemed to be smirking all the more self-consciously because of it. The foolish puppy, too, that took the place of the teddy-bear, he was looking so extraordinarily foolish for no other reason but that he heard the secret whisper all over the house: “There must be more money!”
Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
“Mother,” said the boy Paul one day, “why don’t we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle’s, or else a taxi?”
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother.
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well – I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because your father has no luck.”
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched her with unsure eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky.”
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.”
“He ought to, then. And are’nt you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, it I married an unlucky husband.”
“But by yourself, aren’t you?”
“I used to think I was, before I married. Now I think I am very unlucky indeed.”
“Well – never mind! Perhaps I’m not really,” she said.
The child looked at her to see if she meant it. But he saw, by the lines of her mouth, that she was only trying to hide something from him.
“Well, anyhow,” he said stoutly, “I’m a lucky person.”
“Why?” said his mother, with a sudden laugh.
He stared at her. He didn’t even know why he had said it.
“God told me,” he asserted, brazening it out.
“I hope He did, dear!”, she said, again with a laugh, but rather bitter.
“He did, mother!”
“Excellent!” said the mother, using one of her husband’s exclamations.
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention.
He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to ‘luck’. Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared not speak to him.
When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!”
And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there.
“You’ll break your horse, Paul!” said the nurse.
“He’s always riding like that! I wish he’d leave off!” said his elder sister Joan.
But he only glared down on them in silence. Nurse gave him up. She could make nothing of him. Anyhow, he was growing beyond her.
One day his mother and his Uncle Oscar came in when he was on one of his furious rides. He did not speak to them.
“Hallo, you young jockey! Riding a winner?” said his uncle.
“Aren’t you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know,” said his mother.
But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes. He would speak to nobody when he was in full tilt. His mother watched him with an anxious expression on her face.
At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.
“Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.
“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back at her.
“That’s right, son!” said Uncle Oscar. “Don’t you stop till you get there. What’s the horse’s name?”
“He doesn’t have a name,” said the boy.
“Get’s on without all right?” asked the uncle.
“Well, he has different names. He was called Sansovino last week.”
“Sansovino, eh? Won the Ascot. How did you know this name?”
“He always talks about horse-races with Bassett,” said Joan.
The uncle was delighted to find that his small nephew was posted with all the racing news. Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot in the war and had got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he had been, was a perfect blade of the ‘turf’. He lived in the racing events, and the small boy lived with him.
Oscar Cresswell got it all from Bassett.
“Master Paul comes and asks me, so I can’t do more than tell him, sir,” said Bassett, his face terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters.
“And does he ever put anything on a horse he fancies?”
“Well – I don’t want to give him away – he’s a young sport, a fine sport, sir. Would you mind asking him himself? He sort of takes a pleasure in it, and perhaps he’d feel I was giving him away, sir, if you don’t mind.
Bassett was serious as a church.
The uncle went back to his nephew and took him off for a ride in the car.
“Say, Paul, old man, do you ever put anything on a horse?” the uncle asked.
The boy watched the handsome man closely.
“Why, do you think I oughtn’t to?” he parried.
“Not a bit of it! I thought perhaps you might give me a tip for the Lincoln.”
The car sped on into the country, going down to Uncle Oscar’s place in Hampshire.
“Honour bright?” said the nephew.
“Honour bright, son!” said the uncle.
“Well, then, Daffodil.”
“Daffodil! I doubt it, sonny. What about Mirza?”
“I only know the winner,” said the boy. “That’s Daffodil.”
There was a pause. Daffodil was an obscure horse comparatively.
“You won’t let it go any further, will you? I promised Bassett.”
“Bassett be damned, old man! What’s he got to do with it?”
“We’re partners. We’ve been partners from the first. Uncle, he lent me my first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honour bright, it was only between me and him; only you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning with, so I thought you were lucky. You won’t let it go any further, will you?”
The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close together. The uncle stirred and laughed uneasily.
“Right you are, son! I’ll keep your tip private. How much are you putting on him?”
“All except twenty pounds,” said the boy. “I keep that in reserve.”
The uncle thought it a good joke.
“You keep twenty pounds in reserve, do you, you young romancer? What are you betting, then?”
“I’m betting three hundred,” said the boy gravely. “But it’s between you and me, Uncle Oscar! Honour bright?”
“It’s between you and me all right, you young Nat Gould,” he said, laughing. “But where’s your three hundred?”
“Bassett keeps it for me. We’re partner’s.”
“You are, are you! And what is Bassett putting on Daffodil?”
“He won’t go quite as high as I do, I expect. Perhaps he’ll go a hundred and fifty.”
“What, pennies?” laughed the uncle.
“Pounds,” said the child, with a surprised look at his uncle. “Bassett keeps a bigger reserve than I do.”
Between wonder and amusement Uncle Oscar was silent. He pursued the matter no further, but he determined to take his nephew with him to the Lincoln races.
“Now, son,” he said, “I’m putting twenty on Mirza, and I’ll put five on for you on any horse you fancy. What’s your pick?”
“No, not the fiver on Daffodil!”
“I should if it was my own fiver,” said the child.
“Good! Good! Right you are! A fiver for me and a fiver for you on Daffodil.”
The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire. He pursed his mouth tight and watched. A Frenchman just in front had put his money on Lancelot. Wild with excitement, he flayed his arms up and down, yelling “Lancelot!, Lancelot!” in his French accent.
Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. The child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene. His uncle brought him four five-pound notes, four to one.
“What am I to do with these?” he cried, waving them before the boys eyes.
“I suppose we’ll talk to Bassett,” said the boy. “I expect I have fifteen hundred now; and twenty in reserve; and this twenty.”
His uncle studied him for some moments.
“Look here, son!” he said. “You’re not serious about Bassett and that fifteen hundred, are you?”
“Yes, I am. But it’s between you and me, uncle. Honour bright?”
“Honour bright all right, son! But I must talk to Bassett.”
“If you’d like to be a partner, uncle, with Bassett and me, we could all be partners. Only, you’d have to promise, honour bright, uncle, not to let it go beyond us three. Bassett and I are lucky, and you must be lucky, because it was your ten shillings I started winning with …”
Uncle Oscar took both Bassett and Paul into Richmond Park for an afternoon, and there they talked.
“It’s like this, you see, sir,” Bassett said. “Master Paul would get me talking about racing events, spinning yarns, you know, sir. And he was always keen on knowing if I’d made or if I’d lost. It’s about a year since, now, that I put five shillings on Blush of Dawn for him: and we lost. Then the luck turned, with that ten shillings he had from you: that we put on Singhalese. And since that time, it’s been pretty steady, all things considering. What do you say, Master Paul?”
“We’re all right when we’re sure,” said Paul. “It’s when we’re not quite sure that we go down.”
“Oh, but we’re careful then,” said Bassett.
“But when are you sure?” smiled Uncle Oscar.
“It’s Master Paul, sir,” said Bassett in a secret, religious voice. “It’s as if he had it from heaven. Like Daffodil, now, for the Lincoln. That was as sure as eggs.”
“Did you put anything on Daffodil?” asked Oscar Cresswell.
“Yes, sir, I made my bit.”
“And my nephew?”
Bassett was obstinately silent, looking at Paul.
“I made twelve hundred, didn’t I, Bassett? I told uncle I was putting three hundred on Daffodil.”
“That’s right,” said Bassett, nodding.
“But where’s the money?” asked the uncle.
“I keep it safe locked up, sir. Master Paul he can have it any minute he likes to ask for it.”
“What, fifteen hundred pounds?”
“And twenty! And forty, that is, with the twenty he made on the course.”
“It’s amazing!” said the uncle.
“If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you: if you’ll excuse me,” said Bassett.
Oscar Cresswell thought about it.
“I’ll see the money,” he said.
They drove home again, and, sure enough, Bassett came round to the garden-house with fifteen hundred pounds in notes. The twenty pounds reserve was left with Joe Glee, in the Turf Commission deposit.
“You see, it’s all right, uncle, when I’m sure! Then we go strong, for all we’re worth, don’t we, Bassett?”
“We do that, Master Paul.”
“And when are you sure?” said the uncle, laughing.
“Oh, well, sometimes I’m absolutely sure, like about Daffodil,” said the boy; “and sometimes I have an idea; and sometimes I haven’t even an idea, have I, Bassett? Then we’re careful, because we mostly go down.”
“You do, do you! And when you’re sure, like about Daffodil, what makes you sure, sonny?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” said the boy uneasily. “I’m sure, you know, uncle; that’s all.”
“It’s as if he had it from heaven, sir,” Bassett reiterated.
“I should say so!” said the uncle.
But he became a partner. And when the Leger was coming on Paul was ‘sure’ about Lively Spark, which was a quite inconsiderable horse. The boy insisted on putting a thousand on the horse, Bassett went for five hundred, and Oscar Cresswell two hundred. Lively Spark came in first, and the betting had been ten to one against him. Paul had made ten thousand.
“You see,” he said. “I was absolutely sure of him.”
Even Oscar Cresswell had cleared two thousand.
“Look here, son,” he said, “this sort of thing makes me nervous.”
“It needn’t, uncle! Perhaps I shan’t be sure again for a long time.”
“But what are you going to do with your money?” asked the uncle.
“Of course,” said the boy, “I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering.”
“What might stop whispering?”
“Our house. I hate our house for whispering.”
“What does it whisper?”
“Why – why” – the boy fidgeted – “why, I don’t know. But it’s always short of money, you know, uncle.”
“I know it, son, I know it.”
“You know people send mother writs, don’t you, uncle?”
“I’m afraid I do,” said the uncle.
“And then the house whispers, like people laughing at you behind your back. It’s awful, that is! I thought if I was lucky -“
“You might stop it,” added the uncle.
The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them, and he said never a word.
“Well, then!” said the uncle. “What are we doing?”
“I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky,” said the boy.
“Why not, son?”
“She’d stop me.”
“I don’t think she would.”
“Oh!” – and the boy writhed in an odd way – “I don’t want her to know, uncle.”
“All right, son! We’ll manage it without her knowing.”
They managed it very easily. Paul, at the other’s suggestion, handed over five thousand pounds to his uncle, who deposited it with the family lawyer, who was then to inform Paul’s mother that a relative had put five thousand pounds into his hands, which sum was to be paid out a thousand pounds at a time, on the mother’s birthday, for the next five years.
“So she’ll have a birthday present of a thousand pounds for five successive years,” said Uncle Oscar. “I hope it won’t make it all the harder for her later.”
Paul’s mother had her birthday in November. The house had been ‘whispering’ worse than ever lately, and, even in spite of his luck, Paul could not bear up against it. He was very anxious to see the effect of the birthday letter, telling his mother about the thousand pounds.
When there were no visitors, Paul now took his meals with his parents, as he was beyond the nursery control. His mother went into town nearly every day. She had discovered that she had an odd knack of sketching furs and dress materials, so she worked secretly in the studio of a friend who was the chief ‘artist’ for the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned several thousand pounds a year, but Paul’s mother only made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face as she read her letters. He knew the lawyer’s letter. As his mother read it, her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a word about it.
“Didn’t you have anything nice in the post for your birthday, mother?” said Paul.
“Quite moderately nice,” she said, her voice cold and hard and absent.
She went away to town without saying more.
But in the afternoon Uncle Oscar appeared. He said Paul’s mother had had a long interview with the lawyer, asking if the whole five thousand could not be advanced at once, as she was in debt.
“What do you think, uncle?” said the boy.
“I leave it to you, son.”
“Oh, let her have it, then! We can get some more with the other,” said the boy.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, laddie!” said Uncle Oscar.
“But I’m sure to know for the Grand National; or the Lincolnshire; or else the Derby. I’m sure to know for one of them,” said Paul.
So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother touched the whole five thousand. Then something very curious happened. The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. There were certain new furnishings, and Paul had a tutor. He was really going to Eton, his father’s school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and a blossoming of the luxury Paul’s mother had been used to. And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”
It frightened Paul terribly. He studied away at his Latin and Greek with his tutor. But his intense hours were spent with Bassett. The Grand National had gone by: he had not ‘known’, and had lost a hundred pounds. Summer was at hand. He was in agony for the Lincoln. But even for the Lincoln he didn’t ‘know’, and he lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.
“Let it alone, son! Don’t you bother about it!” urged Uncle Oscar. But it was as if the boy couldn’t really hear what his uncle was saying.
“I’ve got to know for the Derby! I’ve got to know for the Derby!” the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness.
His mother noticed how overwrought he was.
“You’d better go to the seaside. Wouldn’t you like to go now to the seaside, instead of waiting? I think you’d better,” she said, looking down at him anxiously, her heart curiously heavy because of him.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes.
“I couldn’t possibly go before the Derby, mother!” he said. “I couldn’t possibly!”
“Why not?” she said, her voice becoming heavy when she was opposed. “Why not? You can still go from the seaside to see the Derby with your Uncle Oscar, if that that’s what you wish. No need for you to wait here. Besides, I think you care too much about these races. It’s a bad sign. My family has been a gambling family, and you won’t know till you grow up how much damage it has done. But it has done damage. I shall have to send Bassett away, and ask Uncle Oscar not to talk racing to you, unless you promise to be reasonable about it: go away to the seaside and forget it. You’re all nerves!”
“I’ll do what you like, mother, so long as you don’t send me away till after the Derby,” the boy said.
“Send you away from where? Just from this house?”
“Yes,” he said, gazing at her.
“Why, you curious child, what makes you care about this house so much, suddenly? I never knew you loved it.”
He gazed at her without speaking. He had a secret within a secret, something he had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar.
But his mother, after standing undecided and a little bit sullen for some moments, said: “Very well, then! Don’t go to the seaside till after the Derby, if you don’t wish it. But promise me you won’t think so much about horse-racing and events as you call them!”
“Oh no,” said the boy casually. “I won’t think much about them, mother. You needn’t worry. I wouldn’t worry, mother, if I were you.”
“If you were me and I were you,” said his mother, “I wonder what we should do!”
“But you know you needn’t worry, mother, don’t you?” the boy repeated.
“I should be awfully glad to know it,” she said wearily.
“Oh, well, you can, you know. I mean, you ought to know you needn’t worry,” he insisted.
“Ought I? Then I’ll see about it,” she said.
Paul’s secret of secrets was his wooden horse, that which had no name. Since he was emancipated from a nurse and a nursery-governess, he had had his rocking-horse removed to his own bedroom at the top of the house.
“Surely you’re too big for a rocking-horse!” his mother had remonstrated.
“Well, you see, mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about,” had been his quaint answer.
“Do you feel he keeps you company?” she laughed.
“Oh yes! He’s very good, he always keeps me company, when I’m there,” said Paul.
So the horse, rather shabby, stood in an arrested prance in the boy’s bedroom.
The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny. His mother had sudden strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour, she would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish. She wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.
Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town, when one of her rushes of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart till she could hardly speak. She fought with the feeling, might and main, for she believed in common sense. But it was too strong. She had to leave the dance and go downstairs to telephone to the country. The children’s nursery-governess was terribly surprised and startled at being rung up in the night.
“Are the children all right, Miss Wilmot?”
“Oh yes, they are quite all right.”
“Master Paul? Is he all right?”
“He went to bed as right as a trivet. Shall I run up and look at him?”
“No,” said Paul’s mother reluctantly. “No! Don’t trouble. It’s all right. Don’t sit up. We shall be home fairly soon.” She did not want her son’s privacy intruded upon.
“Very good,” said the governess.
It was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up to their house. All was still. Paul’s mother went to her room and slipped off her white fur cloak. She had told her maid not to wait up for her. She heard her husband downstairs, mixing a whisky and soda.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to her son’s room. Noiselessly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. There was a strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, hushed motion. What was it? What in God’s name was it? She ought to know. She felt that she knew the noise. She knew what it was.
Yet she could not place it. She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it went, like a madness.
Softly, frozen with anxiety and fear, she turned the door-handle.
The room was dark. Yet in the space near the window, she heard and saw something plunging to and fro. She gazed in fear and amazement.
Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pyjamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.
“Paul!” she cried. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. “It’s Malabar!”
His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.
But he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained, with some brain-fever. He talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side.
“Malabar! It’s Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It’s Malabar!”
So the child cried, trying to get up and urge the rocking-horse that gave him his inspiration.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” asked the heart-frozen mother.
“I don’t know,” said the father stonily.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” she asked her brother Oscar.
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby,” was the answer.
And, in spite of himself, Oscar Cresswell spoke to Bassett, and himself put a thousand on Malabar: at fourteen to one.
The third day of the illness was critical: they were waiting for a change. The boy, with his rather long, curly hair, was tossing ceaselessly on the pillow. He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones. His mother sat, feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone.
In the evening Oscar Cresswell did not come, but Bassett sent a message, saying could he come up for one moment, just one moment? Paul’s mother was very angry at the intrusion, but on second thoughts she agreed. The boy was the same. Perhaps Bassett might bring him to consciousness.
The gardener, a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul’s mother, and stole to the bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child.
“Master Paul!” he whispered. “Master Paul! Malabar came in first all right, a clean win. I did as you told me. You’ve made over seventy thousand pounds, you have; you’ve got over eighty thousand. Malabar came in all right, Master Paul.”
“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you think I’m lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I call that lucky, don’t you, mother? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?”
“I went a thousand on it, Master Paul.”
“I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure – oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!”
“No, you never did,” said his mother.
But the boy died in the night.
And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother’s voice saying to her, “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
Who was Burke? His beginnings.
Born a caulbearer in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “the Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a winter child of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who survived.
It was a typical quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining and sporadic bouts of schooling: quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. In the summer he ran with the flocks of children terrorizing the streets with their play.
He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when in the course of a single moon, he learned to lip out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath. Two brothers, thinking they were bona fide Dick Turpins, had treaded into a life of brigandage, but by the grace of his mother’s daily prayers and father’s belt, Jacob Burke turned from the taste of apples and back to the straight and narrow of his bloodline, joining Burke père on the docks.
On the docks he remained, lifting barrels of fish and slabs of iron cold from the sea air, until his back broadened and his forearms broke his cuffs.
The ascent of Burke, including: the Riots. Also: his early career and its vicissitudes.
At age nineteen, Burke became known.
On the quay was a man named Sam Jones, and Sam Jones was a stevedore too, lifting with Burke from dark hour to dark hour. Sam Jones was an old man of forty when one morning his foot punched a rotted board on the dock and he went down beneath a load of flounder, one hundred and fifty pounds of fish in an oak-slatted crate that snapped his neck against the railing before he slumped, slipped, limp into the sea.
Sam Jones had a month’s wages coming, but the Company didn’t pay his widow, and on the docks the stevedores sat down and not a boat could move. Then the owners sent out their thugs, who fell on the men with clubs and iron pokers, and from the melee exploded the QuaysideRiots, of fame.
It was a newspaperman from London who first saw Burke throw a punch. When the riots were over (and Jones’s wages still not paid) the newspaperman found the boy back at work, resigned, murmuring a sad, low lifter’s song as he threaded the pier.
On that day (gray, preternaturally August cold, seagulls hopping on the jetty-rail) Burke stood on the dock, a ninety-pound bag of wheat thrown corpse-like over his shoulder. The newspaperman talked a streak. Jacob, not accustomed to long converses, didn’t set down the bag, said, Yes sir, like he was taught to speak to suits and elders, and occasionally repositioned the weight over his back. At long last the fellow drew out a calling card. Well? What do you think? Ever fought? asked the man, and Burke asked back: There’s a man’s never fought?
On the card was the name of a warehouse on the harbor, where over the following week Burke sent three men to the floor. They were hard affairs, fighters showing up on the minute as if it were nothing but a shakebag cockfight. No seconds, no ropes, no purse. If the Fancy went, it was only to scout. On the third night came a man, Cairn, who made an offer.
How Muscular became known.
There are five fights that first year. Five fights and Jacob Burke wins four. They are hush matches, dueled in warehouses or country inns or levees east of the city. Broughton’s rules. Bare knuckles. Twenty-four-foot ring. Round ends when a man goes down. Thirty seconds of rest, and the fight doesn’t end until a man can’t get back to the scratch. No gouging, no biting, no blows below the belt. No faking down to win a rest.
Cairn is his second. Also in his corner, holding his bottle, is an associate of Cairn’s, a Yankee who’d once been champion in New Orleans. Yankee must have a Christian name, but he changes the subject when Jacob asks. He has a crablike way of moving, of facing you, of rising to his tiptoes when he is about to speak, and Jacob thinks these are habits from the ring.
They are good to Jacob Burke, treat him like a son. Give him breeches and spiked shoes, read him the fighters’ correspondence in the Weekly Dispatch, get him victuals when victuals are dear. Take him to the pushing school, where they put up the socket fee and tell the girls he will be Champion of All England. There, amidst the crepe and taffeta, he is humiliated by the men’s attention, feels like he’s back in the ring, half thinks Cairn and Yankee will follow him and the girl to watch. When that winter his father is laid out with cough, they advance him money against his purses, and Jacob finds himself buying gifts for his mother and his brothers and his sisters. His winnings are small, five, ten pounds. He spends it all and borrows more.
Before each fight, Cairn takes him aside and tells him what scum the other is, makes it sound like he’s some avenging angel, meting out justice to a line of murderers and thieves and virgin-defilers. But Jacob Burke doesn’t much care. He likes the chance to hit and watch his man fall. A ha’penny Bristol rag, with a full page on the fistic, covers his fights but can’t seem to settle on a moniker, calling him the Quayside Brawler, then Stevedore Burke, Bruise Burke, then “Muscular,” which Cairn picks up for their promotions. It’s elegant, thinks Jacob. He buys a copy of the rag and brings it home, shows his mother which word on the page says “Muscular.” He writes it out for her in big letters on a piece of butcher paper, which she folds and tucks into the pocket where she keeps her lice comb. To prove the magnitude of his strength, he grabs two of his youngest brothers, one in each hand, and lifts them squealing high above his head.
He begins oiling his hair back in slick rows, which does little for his looks except emphasize the weight of his brow. He listens to tales of the professional fighters. He wants to be like Gully, so he buys a scarf for an ascot. Purse rises, fifteen and twenty. Buys a stovepipe of the first and wears it at a rake. Like Cairn wears his. Like Cairn, who in his day, he learns, was a bruiser too.
His days of cutting a swell are numbered. In his fourth fight, his match comes kicking and flapping at him like a bird out of a cage. He takes a thumb to the eye and has to spend a week taped up with brown paper and vinegar. Spikes a fever, but Cairn gets a surgeon to bleed him and he’s cured.
In his fifth fight, Burke defeats Bristol’s Beloved. It wasn’t supposed to happen; the fight was an exhibition, a setup conceived to make the champion look good taking down a specimen like Muscular, but Muscular is triumphant.
How it came about that Burke fought Blindman.
This is how it came about that Burke fought the Blindman:
In Lincolnshire, Broken Head Gall lost to the Moor, and in Liverpool, Will Skeggs beat Tom Johnson, who had no less than the great Peter Crawley in his corner, the butcher’s son known in his day as the “Young Rump Steak.” But Skeggs wouldn’t fight Broken Head, and at Moulsey Hurst, Tom Tate lost to “Le Petit.” So Broken fought Tate, but the fight was a cross, the Weekly Dispatch breaking the story that both men had met a fortnight before to fix. Then they went to Ted Shannon the Vainglorious, but Vainglorious knew Blindman, and Vainglorious said that if he was going to get killed, he needed a bigger purse for his widow. This left the Fancy looking for a man, and this left Burke.
The match was scheduled for February, but no one would post a farthing on Burke. So they called again on Vainglorious, but Vainglorious was gone, convicted of thieving and transported. They found a miller in Melchior Brown, from Manchester, who’d been breaking gobs on the tavern circuit under the nickname Sparrow. But Brown went down in just four rounds, and the next pick, Frank Smith the Picturesque, refused to fight Blindman’s murderous fists. So again they came looking for Burke. They decided Burke’s mum’s blood would get the Irish out, and Blindman would draw the Scots, and if there was a riot, then all the better. Besides, everyone knew the best fighters wore the Bristol yellow, and by then Burke had moved out of the quay, showing his mettle in a pair of battles at Egan’s Abbey.
Who is Blindman?
This is Blindman: Methuselah of thirty-five, icon of Scottish nationalists, hero of boys’ magazines, where he was drawn in monstrous proportions, sweeping Lilliputian armies down as if clearing a table for a game of cards. A dexterous hitter of steam-engine power. Won eighteen, lost two. Baptized Benjamin McGraw, he got his nickname in a fight in ’14, in the forty-third round, with eyes so swollen by the punches that he couldn’t see. Refused to have his lids lanced, saying he could beat his boy blind, and then leveled him, hard, as soon as they hit the scratch. After the fight, they asked how he’d done it and he answered, I hit where the breathing was. He had a patron in the Earl of Balcarres, who was said to slum with McGraw in Glasgow’s most notorious. He liked to tell how he’d even been asked to be Yeoman of the Guard, but with all the stories of cursing and rough living and all the girls he’d pollinated, the offer was rescinded. In ’16 he’d knocked down the champion Simon Beale in two rounds, and Simon Beale never rose again. In the famous cartoon published in the Gazette, McGraw was drawn shaking his fists over a gravestone, on which was written:
here in the shade lies simon beale
jaw of iron, fists of steel
won twenty-four fights with nerve and zeal
at twenty-five showed his achilles heel
took just two rounds for fate to seal
that no soul’s spared by fortune’s wheel.
Of course, there wasn’t a man among the Fancy who didn’t doubt Jacob Burke was going to get lathered. And Burke knew the rumors, but Cairn and the Yankee said he stood a chance, that Blindman was growing old, and Burke was improving daily in strength and science.
Truth was Burke didn’t need to be told. And Cairn knew, for Cairn had been organizing fights for thirteen years, and knew there wasn’t anything so proud as a twenty-three-year-old, except maybe a sixteen-year-old, but try to find a neck like Muscular’s on a kid. Only problem with Burke, he told him, finger pressed against his pectorals, only problem with you, is that Burke was too good and polite and he needed a little more meanness in him. Burke spent a good deal of time wondering about this, how a hitter could be a good man, wondering if he was good only because he was on the bottom and he couldn’t be anything else, that if conditions were different and he had something going, he wouldn’t be so. Once in a pub he’d heard, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world, which he was told meant that the Devil was in everyone and it was a rare fellow who could keep him down. Then later, he started thinking that maybe he’d heard it wrong, and it should have been, There’s no such thing as a good man only a good world, and he started repeating it enough that he couldn’t remember if the basic situation was sin or good. Cairn said he was too good, but he knew inside that he hit because he liked the feeling of hitting the other fellow, which seemed at first like sin, but then he started thinking that if the other fellow was just like him, then the other fellow liked hitting too, and that meant he, Burke, was beating a sinner, and so he, Burke, was good, except when he looked at it another way, then the other fellow was also clobbering a fellow who liked hitting (him, Burke), this meant the other fellow was good, and Burke was a sinner for milling an upright man.
The reasoning went round and round like one of those impossible songs that never stopped, until Muscular decided that what he liked about the fight was that he didn’t have to wonder about such questions, only hit, because if you didn’t hit, you got hit. That was the answer!
The day approaches.
So Burke takes to training: docks in the day, dumbbells at dusk. Cairn has him running his dogs in the hills. Hits the bags of sand. Bans drink and the amorous.
The word spreads fast around Bristol. He hears a hush follow him where he walks. In the streets he’s besieged by the shoe-shiners, who beg to see standing flips and then set on one another for the title of “Muscular.” The girls lower their bonnets and lift their eyes when he rooster-swaggers past.
One night, on the docks, an old lifter called Booth approaches Burke as he makes his way home. Stepping in front of the boy, he grabs his forearm in a steel grip, says, This is a fool thing, and Jacob Burke says, Yes sir.
The posters go up, with sketches of the two men facing off as if they had posed together, shirtless, in ankle-boots and breeches, tied close with sashes. They say the fight will be held at Moulsey Hurst, southwest of London, but all know this is a sham to throw off the magistrates. The papers take to calling the fight Blindman’s Brag, as if it were not a fight but a showcase for McGraw. As if Burke weren’t even fighting.
One night, his mother is waiting for him when he comes home. They say you’re going to get killed, she says. Who says that? asks Jacob. They all say that, she says. I’ve been to the market. They say: Make sure they promise you the purse, Annie, ’cause your boy isn’t coming home.
Unspoken, but hidden in her words, is his father, who is coughing himself to bones and hasn’t been down to the docks in months. But she doesn’t say Jacob should walk away. Had she, then he would have squared his jaw and proclaimed he had his honor to protect. It is because she says nothing more that the doubts begin to eel their way in.
Except he knows he can’t get out even if he wants to. He owes Cairn, for the scarf, for the stovepipe, the food. Cairn says that with the purse from the fight with McGraw, he’ll be paid off and then some. He decides “then some” means even more if he wagers on himself. Then he will stop.
They find a patron.
Two weeks before the fight, Cairn quarries a Patron in a Corinthian named Cavendish; the rest of the purse is put up by the Pugilistic Club.
Cavendish meets Burke and Cairn at Ned Landon’s public house. He’s a dandy: curls, perfume, talking proud and fast and high. Wants to be called Cav, but Jacob calls him Mister Cavendish, and he smiles. He made his blunt during the Regency, and flaunts it, burns a bill before Burke’s eyes. Recites a fight poem that he had published in Bell’s Life, full of lettery words Burke has trouble getting his ears around. Cavendish tells a story about a fighter, laughing, says, Poor Tom had his eyes knocked from his head. Just like that. Plop. Plop. Couldn’t find work and suicided. Drank prussic. Plop. He laughs. Burke hates him immediately, feels his whole body tense when he hears him talk. He knows Cavendish is trying to look big by making him look small, but he can’t think of fast words to answer. Any other man, and he would hit him so hard he’d lose more than his eyes. He looks to his trainer, and Cairn tilts his head, just a little, as if to say, Easy, swallow the toad, Cavendish is putting up the purse.
Soaked, Cavendish begins to slur. Calls a wagtail over and throws an arm around her waist. Tells Jacob to remove his shirt. Says, Look at the symmetry, look at the strength. Says, Your mum’s Irish, Burke? Calls him My little boy. Touches his arms and says, Look, this is pretty. Drinks his blue ruin until it runs down his chin. Says he was a boxer, but he holds his fists with his thumbs inside.
They travel to the scene of the fight, where Burke meets a man who imparts his Philosophy.
The fight is set in Hertfordshire, in a field south of St. Albans called Dead Rabbit Heath. In St. Albans, they spend the night at a coaching inn. Cairn and the Yankee drink until they’re reeling, but Muscular is too nervous to keep anything down. The Publican is an aficionado of the fistic, the walls are decorated with sketches and mezzotints of the great fighters, and Burke recognizes Broughton and Painter, and the Jews Mendoza and Dutch Sam, and Gasman and Game Chicken. He wants to be like the portraits, still and quiet and distant on a watercolor patch all alone and glorious. But among the rabble that’s crowding the tavern, Muscular is cornered by a farrier, a fat, spectacled man who seems to have some reading behind him. Says he was a priest, once, which explains his fine diction, though he won’t say why they stripped his soutane. You’ll be one of the greats, he tells Jacob. Just look at you. Maybe you’ll lose tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Just hold your own, and soon you’ll be Champion. He asks if Burke knows of the battle between Achilles and Hector, but Burke has never heard of these two fighters. The farrier shrugs it off. You ever seen McGraw? he asks. Burke hasn’t, sketches only. Goliath, says the farrier. Like someone pressed two men into one. Misshapen like that too. You’ll see. Cauliflower ears. Ears? No! Cauliflower face.
He presses on. You want to hear my Philosophy? How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. Pastor Browne’s theory of the fight—you can tell the rest—is that anger only takes a man so far. That’s what all you poor boys start with: anger, needing it like a horse needs a rider. But soon that gets in the way. You boys go out and think you are fighting a boxer, but really you’re fighting the world. But a good fighter, you see, like Blindman, he knows that the man he’s fighting is fighting first to hurt and next to win. And he’ll use it. Use your hating to get you. That’s the difference. Men who fight to hurt will get it in their time. Gladiator in arena consilium capit. He’ll finish you. Mill you to a jelly. Get your head up in chancery and then where will you find yourself?
Burke doesn’t have an answer. He stares at the man, who’s got whiskers thick as string. The man’s going on about anger, and Burke’s tempted to say, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world. I’m just hitting. He doesn’t want to talk anymore. But he won’t leave, won’t go to sleep either. A tavern chant swells. Then let us be merry/while drinking our sherry…
He has a sick feeling and thinks maybe he is scared.
They gather at Dead Rabbit Heath.
The fight is to take place another two leagues from the inn, on a field not far from the road, in a soft depression between a pair of hills.
Soon after sunrise, they take a coach. They pass crowds coming up the road, on horseback or foot. It is a cold morning, the light hesitant, the fields wet with dew. There are tents set up for peck and booze. The traffic’s slow, thick with broughams and horses. It takes Burke a long time to realize that the crowd is there, in part, for him. They park their carriage at a small clearing halfway up the hill. Burke gets out, followed by Cairn and Yankee. Almost immediately he is set upon by the tag-rag, who jostle him for no reason but to try to get close. They sing, Gotta get the Blindman, or the Blindman gets you. Muscular wears his stovepipe low over his eyes, his seconds flank him, leading him up a long path through the wet grass, over a rise and then down toward the ring. Both men hold him by his elbow. He knows it’s supposed to comfort him, but there is no comfort there. He thinks, Where do they flank men like this? and the answer is the gallows.
As they approach, there’s a massive crowd already gathered at the ropes, and he can hear a hushing in the near. They’ve got two stands set up by the ring for the paying, but the crowd overflows up the hills. He looks for his opponent, but Blindman is nowhere to be seen. He wants Blindman to be there, as if Blindman’s the only one who could know what he is feeling.
The ground is turned up like a pack of pigs came rooting through, but the ring is clean, neat, covered with sand, like nothing he’s ever fought in. They’ve strung two lines of painted rope, the scratch is already chalked. He keeps his greatcoat on as Cairn goes and speaks to the judge. He feels the eyes of the crowd on him, tries to ignore them, looks down, and keeps clenching his hands again and again. Finally, he lifts his face and looks out. The hill is all men, far as the eye can reach. There’s a pair of swells near him, ascots blooming, suits of bombazine, capes, and pearl buttons. Hey, Muscle, says one and then laughs. I’ve got money on you, Muscle, says the other. They’re talking funny, and then he realizes they’re mocking a brogue. He looks away.
Cairn comes back. This’s big, boy, he says. Ten thousand men, and not a stable free for a sleepy nag. Half the country wants to see our boy fell the Blindman.
Cheers and jeers as his opponent approaches.
Late in the morning, McGraw arrives. Burke hears the murmurs thrumming through the crowds, then shouts going up, the hillside parting for a dark figure to come through, surrounded by an entourage. They are far off, descending the opposite slope. For an instant it is as if he is watching a shadow at sundown, the dark hulk lumbering over his seconds. A fight song materializes out of the noise, but he can’t hear the words. Then suddenly, with McGraw halfway to the ring, something ugly must have been said, for the goliath lunges into the crowd. Then tumult, the black suits turning over as if they were dominoes. Burke can’t tell if McGraw is swinging: it’s all men coming up and falling back and shouting and flailing like some giant sea animal thrashing in the surf. Then his seconds must have gotten hold of him, for he’s pulled back, and the crowd ripples and is still. Murmurs now: McGraw is out of control, He’s an animal, they shouldn’t let him fight, but Burke knows his man did it for show, though he doesn’t know if the show is for him or for the crowd that’s come.
There are no more incidents. As McGraw gets closer, a quiet descends. At the edge of the ring, McGraw hands his greatcoat and hat to his second and steps inside. From his corner, Burke watches Blindman strip to his colors.
Jacob Burke has prepared himself for a giant, but he doesn’t think he has ever seen such a human as this. McGraw must be eighteen stone. Six foot six at least, but the illusion of height is increased by the size of his chest and belly, which set his head back like some faraway peak. Arms as thick as Muscular’s hams. Fists slung low. Skin pale blotched red. To call his ears “cauliflower” would be a compliment. Tuber is more like it, thinks Burke. Raw tuber that could break a knuckle. His nose is a gray-yellow color that makes it look like a dead man’s nose. There is so much of him that it is difficult for Burke to see where the man’s muscles begin: he looks like someone has taken a massive sculpture of a strong man and kept throwing clay on it in lumps, until the clay ran out. Burke doesn’t even know where he is going to land his fists. It seems like certain rules, like rules against grabbing the throat, don’t matter when it comes to Blindman, for Burke is uncertain where the neck ends and the head begins. He feels as if he were told to lift an awkward stone without a place to set his hands.
He knows now that he has been seduced by the promotion posters, which show the men facing off, as if they were two men fighting. This isn’t two men fighting. He thinks of the games of speculation he played as a child: If a lion fought a bear, if a turtle fought a buck, if a shark fought a giant fox. If an eagle fought a man of fire. Who would win? Who would kill whom?
If Muscular Burke fought the monster McGraw.
It is then that Jacob realizes he has been set up to lose, that Cairn and the Yankee could never have expected him to stand a chance against Blindman.
His pulse skitters, mad like a water bead in a hot pan.
He looks back out at the crowds. Now they stretch all the way to the crest of the hillside. The sound of their chanting is deafening. But he hears only Blindman, they are there to watch Blindman win or Blindman lose. Curse and praise but only Blindman’s name. The crowd doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Burke. Thinks Jacob: Who cheers the fox, when you’ve come to watch the hound?
The fight begins.
The Padders are at the ropes. There are six of them, a quintet of London coalmen and an ostler who is retired from the fistic. Their jackets are off, their cuffs rolled, fighting to keep the crowds back. Muscular realizes that while he has been lost in thought, his arms loose at his sides, his seconds have stripped him to his breeches.
He stands in a daze. He realizes he’s staring into the crowd, looking for someone he knows, another lifter from the docks or—thinking frantic now—a brother, or even his mother, when Cairn whispers something in his ear. He has almost forgotten his second, but now Cairn is behind him, his hands on Burke’s shoulders, massaging the massive deltoids of which he is so proud. Jacob shivers him off. Is he in on this? he wonders. How much is he being paid to have me get killed? He shakes his head as if there’s poison in his ear.
Behind him, he hears Cairn’s voice. Show ’em, Muscular. He coaxes Burke’s arms into the air, and Burke flexes. That’s right, Muscular, says Cairn. Show the old man.
What are the odds? whispers Jacob through his teeth. What am I at?
Cairn rubs his shoulders. Don’t worry, boy. You do the milling and I’ll do the betting and we’ll both go home rich men. He laughs, but Jacob doesn’t join him. No matter how hard he tries to throw his anger back toward the giant in the ring, he feels only betrayal, fury at his handlers for what is about to happen. The thought that Cairn and Yankee want him to lose vanishes, but what remains is somehow worse, that he is inconsequential. The idea that they could have cared for him any more than a trainer cares for a dancing bear seems now like an absurd fantasy. He was a fool to believe. He should sit, lay it down, get back to “the Rat,” to the quayside, to home.
They are called to the scratch. The judge joins the Padders in the outer ring. Burke sees Cavendish in the front row, toppered in a white stovepipe that is immaculately, impossibly clean. Beside him: the jostling bettors, the flit-fluttering fingers of a tic-tac man.
The two fighters shake. McGraw’s paws are like the rest of him, geologic, and while Jacob has a grip that can shatter a bottle, he cannot even get a purchase on the Scotsman’s hand.
Time is kept by a Lord from Essex. The judge launches his cant, promising strength and speed and stamina, a battle of brawn, a beautiful combat, a most severe contest for the benefit of Honorary Gentlemen. The crowd erupts.
May the best man win, says the judge.
Fists up and in the crouch, Burke can’t hear the bell for all the shouting. Before him, McGraw holds his pose, shoulders squared, his face a mask, waiting for the boy to come. Burke wants to strike, but he can’t move, can’t see a line through the giant’s arms. Blindman makes a kissing motion and the crowd roars. Muscle muscle, comes a taunt, and out of the corner of his eye, Burke sees the two swells laughing, and beside them Cavendish doing nothing to fight off a smile. Off the scratch, he strikes Blindman’s jaw. McGraw doesn’t budge. Again Burke strikes, and Blindman stops it with his left. His forearm barely gives. Blindman makes a face of mock surprise, brushes his arm as if brushing off a fly. Flourishes his fists. It’s a show for the crowd, and they reward it with laughter. Burke rushes again, left to Blindman’s jaw, feeling at the same time as if a brick has come down against his head.
Cairn takes him back in the corner, sits him, whispers, Tire him, Muscular, feet, Muscular, quick on the pins, dance like Mendoza, but Burke pushes him away, is back to the scratch before the Lord says thirty. Throws the instant Blindman gets up from his corner. Foul! he hears, but before they can pull him back, he’s down again, unaware of what happened. He tastes dirt this time, hears the judge call, First blood, and feels his cheek is wet. Hears numbers. Can’t distinguish the crowd’s shouting from the roaring in his ear.
Back to the scratch and Muscular down.
Back to the scratch. Blindman charges. Muscular turns, plants a fist in McGraw’s neck and the giant tumbles. The hillside roars like artillery fire. Then McGraw is up, his flesh shifting and shimmering, and Burke advances. He can’t think now; he can only move.
The fight continues.
The rounds seem to roll through him. Hook to Blindman’s ear. Burke to the mouth. One-two. One-two. Blood, tooth, and Muscular down. Jab to nose and Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Muscular pounds to the pudding bag, to the ear, to the ear, and the ear seems to crumple, break like a potato beneath a heel. Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Blindman rushes. Breadbasket, breadbasket, Muscular down. Topper in the ear and Muscular down. Pirouette, turn, and Blindman rushes. Muscular back, catches a heel and both men down. Back to the scratch. Fast in the eye, Muscular down. Again in the peeper, Muscular down. Blindman muzzled and Muscular down. Blindman coughs, spits out a grinder. Chop and chop and Muscular down. Back to the scratch and Muscular down. Blindman Blindman, Muscular down.
Eyelids swollen, tasting blood on his tongue, his knuckles wet with gore, Burke sits in the corner, letting Cairn’s hands caress his chest, Yankee sponge his face. He feels as if his men aren’t there. He’s being touched by bird’s wings. He wants at McGraw, needs to hit. It hurts to breathe, he doesn’t know how much lung he’s got in him, but something in him says that he’s taken the worst. That Blindman’s not going to hit any harder than he’s hit but that Burke’s still got it, still could heave a load. He murmurs a lifters’ song: Still lift the barrel still lift the barrel still lift the barrel, Hey!/Twelve kittens in the kitchen and another on the way. His lips, swollen, blubber. He rinses his mouth with Old Tom, rises before the thirty, and is at the scratch before Blindman stands.
By now the crowd is thundering, pressing up against the rope, throwing punches at the Padders, curses flying. Again Burke rushes. McGraw catches his wrist this time, turns with the force and throws him, coming down with his knee in Burke’s gut. Muscularmouth fills with bile, pants go wet. He hears hissing and a cry of foul, but McGraw, snorting through his broken nose, doesn’t care, he cradles Burke’s head, whispers something rasped into his ear, kicks Muscular in the flanks as he’s standing up. Again, Foul! but this is coming from the crowds, closer, and Burke sees a man breach the outer ring, hurling ugly curses at the Scot, followed by another and another, and Burke, up on his knees, thinks, Here we go, and he isn’t even standing when the punches start flying.
Pandemonium in the ring: the two fighters join forces to restore order.
A gasman hits a liveryman hits a brewer hits a baker. Two swells pound each other as if to send each to his maker. An ostler lands a muzzler while his best man lands a quaker.
The Padders overwhelmed, the ropes broken, the crowd implodes into the ring. They don’t seem to be after the pugilists but one another, though Muscular, spinning, can’t seem to make heads or tails of what’s happening. There’s a mob come down cursing the Scot. There are canes swinging and stones thrown and someone heaving a rope, and the air’s filled with curses, all kinds of animal and things that are going to be done and a liberal use of the Monosyllable.
Then Muscular and Blindman have joined the Padders, pounding to clear the ring, because both are hungry for the fight. Blindman is red-faced and breathing heavy. Rested, Muscular feels the strength in him returning.
By the time the riot is cleared, a dozen men have been carried off. Then the ropes are restaked, the colors returned. A quiet settles, but the judge is still shouting, threatening to end the fight unless order is completely restored.
But what has become of Muscular’s eyes?
Time has played Blindman’s ally: by now, Muscular can barely see, both of his eyes are weeping, swollen shut, crusting over. With the stage reclaimed and the Padders back at the ropes, the boxers repair to their seconds. In the corner, Cairn runs his thumbs over Muscular’s lids. You’re out, he says. You’re out or I cut them, and Jacob just nods. Cairn pushes his head back, grabs the lancet, grabs his face, and the relief is immediate. His face streams with the claret, his cheeks feel as if he is crying.
Back to the scratch, and McGraw is fighting dirty, but the judge lets it fly. He’s angry, thinks Burke, he knows it shouldn’t have gone on this long. It was supposed to be easy, done. Face contorted, McGraw rushes, gets a hand on Muscular’s neck, drives him into the rope. Muscular down. Cairn calls Foul! but Burke’s back to the scratch.
Now it’s Burke who leads. Forward now, and Blindman back. Fists up and McGraw circles, spits, coughs, scratches the ground. Blindman back, Burke forward, watching, waiting, watching, and then he sees it, sees his channel in. Not now, but two moves from now, like a game of checkers. Feels the warmth in his arms, feels joys, thinks, This is glorious. Feints high and McGraw goes high and then Jacob Burke is inside. Left to the jaw, left, and Blindman ducks. Straight into Burke’s right and rising.
Jacob Burke knows then that the fight is over. Hears it, something slacken. Something soft, something broken in the jaw or in the face, something creaking in the temple. He’s worked shipbreaking at times, and there’s a feeling when a sledgehammer comes against a beam and nothing breaks, but you know the next time you swing it’s going to give. The fight’s over. Blindman is standing, but Burke has only to wait and Blindman will fall. An expression comes over Blindman’s face, a puzzled expression, like he’s hearing a song he’s never heard before.
At which point Burke has a very complicated thought.
Jacob Burke’s thought takes the form of a memory.
In his childhood on the docks, like all boys, Jacob and his friends spent days in games of earnest battle, clashing sticks and throwing stones long into the dark, chasing and fighting and raising hell. They played by the universal rules of cruelty and chivalry and thrill, thrill to strike and throw and be thrown at, and throwing and chasing one day Jacob and three friends had cornered an enemy knight and were taunting him before delivering the coup de grâce, which in such a situation, with such easy prey, typically consisted of touching him with the stone or tossing it lightly, as the boy was trapped against a wall and had no way to escape. But that afternoon the boy, who was a bit younger than the rest, went scared on them and started to cry, and, surrounding him, the others began to laugh and throw, and then the boy was crying louder, which only made the others laugh louder and throw harder, and then the boy was slobbering for his mother, and they all went grabbing more stones and throwing, and Burke reached down and felt his fist close around a stone he knew was too big for that game, but the crying had removed from him any restraint, and, laughing, he took hard aim at the head of the boy and he threw.
Watching from the crowds, amidst the cheers and curses, there’s not a soul that day at Dead Rabbit Heath that knows what Jacob Burke knows, that the fight is already over. For Blindman’s standing and Blindman’s fists are still up, and if he’s slack in the lip no one can see from what Muscular Jacob Burke has done to his face. They’ll know, in breaths they’ll know and for years they’ll talk about it, but in this half-second between Muscular’s knowing and the crowd’s knowing, it’s as if Muscular has been left alone with a knowledge and an omnipotence only God should have.
There is a moment when a lifter takes a load and heaves it onto his shoulder, when the massive weight, the sack or the crate or the barrel at the top of its heave, becomes briefly weightless, and the lifter, no matter how tired he may be, poised between his action and the consequences of his action, feels both an incredible lightness and the power of the weight at the same time. It is as if he is master of the weight, not struggling below it, and Jacob Burke has learned over the years to seek this joy, cling to this joy, knows secretly that in the misery of everything else, there is one moment when he is king.
Maybe he thinks this or maybe he feels it in the movement of his arms, for now there is no difference between thinking and feeling and hitting.
Blindman’s fists are down and Muscular comes in on his man. He is feeling for the break, the hole, the soft, searching again for that seam, hitting, hitting, that half-second gone, and now there’s no turning back, hitting, knowing that when he’d told himself he hit so he wouldn’t be hit he was lying, because beneath it, the reason he hit was that there was joy in hurting, real joy in the simplicity and the freedom and the astounding number of answers in a single movement of his arms. Later he’ll have pity, but not now, now there is no pity, not because he is cruel but because there is no more Ben McGraw. For Muscular is alone, mind clear of all but such joy and beauty as he moves in, striking his man, searching, knowing there is only one way that he wants this to end, only one ecstatic way for it to end, only one, and hitting he thinks, Blindman I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cairn I am hitting Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m killing Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cav, and then feeling the soft thinks, I’m in the break thinks in the crown thinks in the line thinks into McGraw thinks there is a line into McGraw into the soft into McGraw into the crown of Ben McGraw into the temple of McGraw the broken temple of McGraw
The broken temple of McGraw.
thinks there is no such thing as a fast man only a slow world
thinks break break
*This story is taken from: The Piano Tuner © by Daniel Philippe Mason, 2002.
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, In Alabama—Bill Driscoll and myself—when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward expressed it, “during a moment of temporary mental apparition”; but we didn’t find that out till later.
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious an self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities; therefore, and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things. We knew that Summit couldn’t get after us with anything stronger than constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical blood-hounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers’ Budget. So, it looked good.
We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser. The kid was a boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair the color of the cover of the magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch a train. Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent. But wait till I tell you.
About two miles from Summit was a little mountain, covered with a dense cedar brake. On the rear elevation of this mountain was a cave. There we stored provisions.
One evening after sundown, we drove in a buggy past old Dorset’s house. The kid was in the street, throwing rocks at a kitten on the opposite fence.
“Hey, little boy!” says Bill, “would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?”
The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick.
“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars,” says Bill, climbing over the wheel.
That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away. We took him up to the cave, and I hitched the horse in the cedar brake. After dark I drove the buggy to the little village, three miles away, where we had hired it, and walked back to the mountain.
Bill was pasting court-plaster over the scratches and bruises on his features. There was a fire burning behind the big rock at the entrance of the cave, and the boy was watching a pot of boiling coffee, with two buzzard tail-feathers stuck in his red hair. He points a stick at me when I come up, and says:
“Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?”
“He’s all right now,” says Bill, rolling up his trousers and examining some bruises on his shins. “We’re playing Indian. We’re making Buffalo Bill’s show look like magic-lantern views of Palestine in the town hall. I’m Old Hank, the Trapper, Red Chief’s captive, and I’m to be scalped at daybreak. By Geronimo! that kid can kick hard.”
Yes, sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself. He immediately christened me Snake-eye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun.
Then we had supper; and he filled his mouth full of bacon and bread and gravy, and began to talk. He made a during-dinner speech something like this:
“I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet ‘possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot’s aunt’s speckled hen’s eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars hot? I whipped Ed Walker twice, Saturday. I don’t like girls. You dassent catch toads unless with a string. Do oxen make any noise? Why are oranges round? Have you got beds to sleep on in this cave? Amos Murray has got six toes. A parrot can talk, but a monkey or a fish can’t. How many does it take to make twelve?”
Every few minutes he would remember that he was a pesky redskin, and pick up his stick rifle and tiptoe to the mouth of the cave to rubber for the scouts of the hated paleface. Now and then he would let out a war-whoop that made Old Hank the Trapper, shiver. That boy had Bill terrorized from the start.
“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”
“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, Snake-eye, will you?”
“Not right away,” says I. “We’ll stay here in the cave a while.”
“All right!” says he. “That’ll be fine. I never had such fun in all my life.”
We went to bed about eleven o’clock. We spread down some wide blankets and quilts and put Red Chief between us. We weren’t afraid he’d run away. He kept us awake for three hours, jumping up and reaching for his rifle and screeching: “Hist! pard,” in mine and Bill’s ears, as the fancied crackle of a twig or the rustle of a leaf revealed to his young imagination the stealthy approach of the outlaw band. At last, I fell into a troubled sleep, and dreamed that I had been kidnapped and chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.
Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs—they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.
I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before.
I got the knife away from the kid and made him lie down again. But, from that moment, Bill’s spirit was broken. He laid down on his side of the bed, but he never closed an eye again in sleep as long as that boy was with us. I dozed off for a while, but along toward sun-up I remembered that Red Chief had said I was to be burned at the stake at the rising of the sun. I wasn’t nervous or afraid; but I sat up and lit my pipe and leaned against a rock.
“What you getting up so soon for, Sam?” asked Bill.
“Me?” says I. “Oh, I got a kind of a pain in my shoulder. I thought sitting up would rest it.”
“You’re a liar!” says Bill. “You’re afraid. You was to be burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he’d do it. And he would, too, if he could find a match. Ain’t it awful, Sam? Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”
“Sure,” said I. “A rowdy kid like that is just the kind that parents dote on. Now, you and the Chief get up and cook breakfast, while I go up on the top of this mountain and reconnoitre.”
I went up on the peak of the little mountain and ran my eye over the contiguous vicinity. Over toward Summit I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the country-side for the dastardly kidnappers. But what I saw was a peaceful landscape dotted with one man ploughing with a dun mule. Nobody was dragging the creek; no couriers dashed hither and yon, bringing tidings of no news to the distracted parents. There was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay exposed to my view. “Perhaps,” says I to myself, “it has not yet been discovered that the wolves have borne away the tender lambkin from the fold. Heaven help the wolves!” says I, and I went down the mountain to breakfast.
When I got to the cave I found Bill backed up against the side of it, breathing hard, and the boy threatening to smash him with a rock half as big as a cocoanut.
“He put a red-hot boiled potato down my back,” explained Bill, “and then mashed it with his foot; and I boxed his ears. Have you got a gun about you, Sam?”
I took the rock away from the boy and kind of patched up the argument. “I’ll fix you,” says the kid to Bill. “No man ever yet struck the Red Chief but what he got paid for it. You better beware!”
After breakfast the kid takes a piece of leather with strings wrapped around it out of his pocket and goes outside the cave unwinding it.
“What’s he up to now?” says Bill, anxiously. “You don’t think he’ll run away, do you, Sam?”
“No fear of it,” says I. “He don’t seem to be much of a home body. But we’ve got to fix up some plan about the ransom. There don’t seem to be much excitement around Summit on account of his disappearance; but maybe they haven’t realized yet that he’s gone. His folks may think he’s spending the night with Aunt Jane or one of the neighbors. Anyhow, he’ll be missed to-day. To-night we must get a message to his father demanding the two thousand dollars for his return.”
Just then we heard a kind of war-whoop, such as David might have emitted when he knocked out the champion Goliath. It was a sling that Red Chief had pulled out of his pocket, and he was whirling it around his head.
I dodged, and heard a heavy thud and a kind of a sigh from Bill, like a horse gives out when you take his saddle off. A niggerhead rock the size of an egg had caught Bill just behind his left ear. He loosened himself all over and fell in the fire across the frying pan of hot water for washing the dishes. I dragged him out and poured cold water on his head for half an hour.
By and by, Bill sits up and feels behind his ear and says: “Sam, do you know who my favorite Biblical character is?”
“Take it easy,” says I. “You’ll come to your senses presently.”
“King Herod,” says he. “You won’t go away and leave me here alone, will you, Sam?”
I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled.
“If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home. Now, are you going to be good, or not?”
“I was only funning,” says he sullenly. “I didn’t mean to hurt Old Hank. But what did he hit me for? I’ll behave, Snake-eye, if you won’t send me home, and if you’ll let me play the Black Scout to- day.”
“I don’t know the game,” says I. “That’s for you and Mr. Bill to decide. He’s your playmate for the day. I’m going away for a while, on business. Now, you come in and make friends with him and say you are sorry for hurting him, or home you go, at once.”
I made him and Bill shake hands, and then I took Bill aside and told him I was going to Poplar Cove, a little village three miles from the cave, and find out what I could about how the kidnapping had been regarded in Summit. Also, I thought it best to send a peremptory letter to old man Dorset that day, demanding the ransom and dictating how it should be paid.
“You know, Sam,” says Bill, “I’ve stood by you without batting an eye in earthquakes, fire, and flood—in poker games, dynamite outrages, police raids, train robberies, and cyclones. I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid. He’s got me going. You won’t leave me long with him, will you, Sam?”
“I’ll be back some time this afternoon,” says I. “You must keep the boy amused and quiet till I return. And now we’ll write the letter to old Dorset.”
Bill and I got paper and pencil and worked on the letter while Red Chief, with a blanket wrapped around him, strutted up and down, guarding the mouth of the cave. Bill begged me tearfully to make the ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead of two thousand. “I ain’t attempting,” says he, “to decry the celebrated moral aspect of parental affection, but we’re dealing with humans, and it ain’t human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty- pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You can charge the difference up to me.”
So, to relieve Bill, I acceded, and we collaborated a letter that ran this way:
“Ebenezer Dorset, Esq.:
“We have your boy concealed in a place far from Summit. It is useless for you or the most skilful detectives to attempt to find him. Absolutely, the only terms on which you can have him restored to you are these: We demand fifteen hundred dollars in large bills for his return; the money to be left at midnight to-night at the same spot and in the same box as your reply—as hereinafter described. If you agree to these terms, send your answer in writing by a solitary messenger to-night at half-past eight o’clock. After crossing Owl Creek, on the road to Poplar Cove, there are three large trees about a hundred yards apart, close to the fence of the wheat field on the right-hand side. At the bottom of the fence-post, opposite the third tree, will be found a small paste-board box.
“The messenger will place the answer in this box and return immediately to Summit.
“If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand as stated, you will never see your boy again.
“If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not accede to them no further communication will be attempted.
“TWO DESPERATE MEN”
I addressed this letter to Dorset, and put it in my pocket. As I was about to start, the kid comes up to me and says:
“Aw, Snake-eye, you said I could play the Black Scout while you was gone.”
“Play it, of course,” says I. “Mr. Bill will play with you. What kind of a game is it?”
“I’m the Black Scout,” says Red Chief, “and I have to ride to the stockade to warn the settlers that the Indians are coming. I’m tired of playing Indian myself. I want to be the Black Scout.”
“All right,” says I. “It sounds harmless to me. I guess Mr. Bill will help you foil the pesky savages.”
“What am I to do?” asks Bill, looking at the kid suspiciously.
“You are the hoss,” says Black Scout. “Get down on your hands and knees. How can I ride to the stockade without a hoss?”
“You’d better keep him interested,” said I, “till we get the scheme going. Loosen up.”
Bill gets down on his all fours, and a look comes in his eye like a rabbit’s when you catch it in a trap.
“How far is it to the stockade, kid?” he asks, in a husky manner of voice.
“Ninety miles,” says the Black Scout. “And you have to hump yourself to get there on time. Whoa, now!”
The Black Scout jumps on Bill’s back and digs his heels in his side.
“For Heaven’s sake,” says Bill, “hurry back, Sam, as soon as you can. I wish we hadn’t made the ransom more than a thousand. Say, you quit kicking me or I’ll get up and warm you good.”
I walked over to Poplar Cove and sat around the post-office and store, talking with the chawbacons that came in to trade. One whiskerando says that he hears Summit is all upset on account of Elder Ebenezer Dorset’s boy having been lost or stolen. That was all I wanted to know. I bought some smoking tobacco, referred casually to the price of black-eyed peas, posted my letter surreptitiously, and came away. The postmaster said the mail- carrier would come by in an hour to take the mail on to Summit.
When I got back to the cave Bill and the boy were not to be found. I explored the vicinity of the cave, and risked a yodel or two, but there was no response.
So I lighted my pipe and sat down on a mossy bank to await developments.
In about half an hour I heard the bushes rustle, and Bill wabbled out into the little glade in front of the cave. Behind him was the kid, stepping softly like a scout, with a broad grin on his face. Bill stopped, took off his hat, and wiped his face with a red handkerchief. The kid stopped about eight feet behind him.
“Sam,” says Bill, “I suppose you’ll think I’m a renegade, but I couldn’t help it. I’m a grown person with masculine proclivities and habits of self-defence, but there is a time when all systems of egotism and predominance fail. The boy is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times,” goes on Bill, “that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of ’em ever was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been. I tried to be faithful to our articles of depredation; but there came a limit.”
“What’s the trouble, Bill?” I asks him.
“I was rode,” says Bill, “the ninety miles to the stockade, not barring an inch. Then, when the settlers was rescued, I was given oats. Sand ain’t a palatable substitute. And then, for an hour I had to try to explain to him why there was nothin’ in holes, how a road can run both ways, and what makes the grass green. I tell you, Sam, a human can only stand so much. I takes him by the neck of his clothes and drags him down the mountain. On the way he kicks my legs black-and-blue from the knees down; and I’ve got to have two or three bites on my thumb and hand cauterized.
“But he’s gone”—continues Bill—”gone home. I showed him the road to Summit and kicked him about eight feet nearer there at one kick. I’m sorry we lose the ransom; but it was either that or Bill Driscoll to the madhouse.”
Bill is puffing and blowing, but there is a look of ineffable peace and growing content on his rose-pink features.
“Bill,” says I, “there isn’t any heart disease in your family, is there?”
“No,” says Bill, “nothing chronic except malaria and accidents. Why?”
“Then you might turn around,” says I, “and have a look behind you.”
Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and sits down plump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid for his mind. And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole job through immediately and that we would get the ransom and be off with it by midnight if old Dorset fell in with our proposition. So Bill braced up enough to give the kid a weak sort of a smile and a promise to play the Russian in a Japanese war with him as soon as he felt a little better.
I had a scheme for collecting that ransom without danger of being caught by counterplots that ought to commend itself to professional kidnappers. The tree under which the answer was to be left—and the money later on—was close to the road fence with big, bare fields on all sides. If a gang of constables should be watching for any one to come for the note, they could see him a long way off crossing the fields or in the road. But no, sirree! At half-past eight I was up in that tree as well hidden as a tree toad, waiting for the messenger to arrive.
Exactly on time, a half-grown boy rides up the road on a bicycle, locates the pasteboard box at the foot of the fence-post, slips a folded piece of paper into it, and pedals away again back toward Summit.
I waited an hour and then concluded the thing was square. I slid down the tree, got the note, slipped along the fence till I struck the woods, and was back at the cave in another half an hour. I opened the note, got near the lantern, and read it to Bill. It was written with a pen in a crabbed hand, and the sum and substance of it was this:
“Two Desperate Men.
“Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter- proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbors believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back. Very respectfully, “EBENEZER DORSET.”
“Great pirates of Penzance!” says I; “of all the impudent——”
But I glanced at Bill, and hesitated. He had the most appealing look in his eyes I ever saw on the face of a dumb or a talking brute.
“Sam,” says he, “what’s two hundred and fifty dollars, after all? We’ve got the money. One more night of this kid will send me to a bed in Bedlam. Besides being a thorough gentleman, I think Mr. Dorset is a spendthrift for making us such a liberal offer. You ain’t going to let the chance go, are you?”
“Tell you the truth, Bill,” says I, “this little he ewe lamb has somewhat got on my nerves too. We’ll take him home, pay the ransom, and make our get-away.”
We took him home that night. We got him to go by telling him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears the next day.
It was just twelve o ‘clock when we knocked at Ebenezer’s front door. Just at the moment when I should have been abstracting the fifteen hundred dollars from the box under the tree, according to the original proposition, Bill was counting out two hundred and fifty dollars into Dorset’s hand.
When the kid found out we were going to leave him at home he started up a howl like a calliope and fastened himself as tight as a leech to Bill’s leg. His father peeled him away gradually, like a porous plaster.
“How long can you hold him?” asks Bill.
“I’m not as strong as I used to be,” says old Dorset, “but I think I can promise you ten minutes.”
“Enough,” says Bill. “In ten minutes I shall cross the Central, Southern, and Middle Western States, and be legging it trippingly for the Canadian border.”
And, as dark as it was, and as fat as Bill was, and as good a runner as I am, he was a good mile and a half out of Summit before I could catch up with him.
The Paradise of Bachelors
It lies not far from Temple-Bar.
Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street – where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies – you adroitly turn a mystic corner – not a street – glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.
In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library, go worship in the sculptured chapel: but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle. Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.
Templar? That’s a romantic name. Let me see. Brian de Bois Gilbert was a Templar, I believe. Do we understand you to insinuate that those famous Templars still survive in modern London? May the ring of their armed heels be heard, and the rattle of their shields, as in mailed prayer the monk-knights kneel before the consecrated Host? Surely a monk-knight were a curious sight picking his way along the Strand, his gleaming corselet and snowy surcoat spattered by an omnibus. Long-bearded, too, according to his order’s rule; his face fuzzy as a pard’s; how would the grim ghost look among the crop-haired, close-shaven citizens? We know indeed – sad history recounts it – that a moral blight tainted at last this sacred Brotherhood. Though no sworded foe might outskill them in the fence, yet the worm of luxury crawled beneath their guard, gnawing the core of knightly troth, nibbling the monastic vow, till at last the monk’s austerity relaxed to wassailing, and the sworn knights-bachelors grew to be but hypocrites and rakes.
But for all this, quite unprepared were we to learn that Knights-Templars (if at all in being) were so entirely secularized as to be reduced from carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land, to the carving of roastmutton at a dinner-board. Like Anacreon, do these degenerate Templars now think it sweeter far to fall in banquet than in war? Or, indeed, how can there be any survival of that famous order? Templars in modern London! Templars in their red-cross mantles smoking cigars at the Divan! Templars crowded in a railway train, till, stacked with steel helmet, spear, and shield, the whole train looks like one elongated locomotive!
No. The genuine Templar is long since departed. Go view the wondrous tombs in the Temple Church; see there the rigidly-haughty forms stretched out, with crossed arm upon their stilly hearts, in everlasting and undreaming rest. Like the years before the flood, the bold Knights-Templars are no more. Nevertheless, the name remains, and the nominal society, and the ancient grounds, and some of the ancient edifices. But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill; the monk-giver of gratuitous ghostly counsel now counsels for a fee; the defender of the sarcophagus (if in good practice with his weapon) now has more than one case to defend; the vowed opener and clearer of all highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre, now has it in particular charge to check, to clog, to hinder, and embarrass all the courts and avenues of Law; the knight-combatant of the Saracen, breasting spear-points at Acre, now fights law-points in Westminster Hall. The helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanter’s Wand, the Templar is to-day a Lawyer.
But, like many others tumbled from proud glory’s height – like the apple, hard on the bough but mellow on the ground – the Templar’s fall has but made him all the finer fellow.
I dare say those old warrior-priests were but gruff and grouty at the best; cased in Birmingham hardware, how could their crimped arms give yours or mine a hearty shake? Their proud, ambitious, monkish souls clasped shut, like horn-book missals; their very faces clapped in bomb-shells; what sort of genial men were these? But best of comrades, most affable of hosts, capital diner is the modern Templar. His wit and wine are both of sparkling brands.
The church and cloisters, courts and vaults, lanes and passages, banquet-halls, refectories, libraries, terraces, gardens, broad walks, domicils, and dessert-rooms, covering a very large space of ground, and all grouped in central neighborhood, and quite sequestered from the old city’s surrounding din; and every thing about the place being kept in most bachelor-like particularity, no part of London offers to a quiet wight so agreeable a refuge.
The Temple is, indeed, a city by itself. A city with all the best appurtenances, as the above enumeration shows. A city with a park to it, and flower-beds, and a river-side – the Thames flowing by as openly, in one part, as by Eden’s primal garden flowed the mild Euphrates. In what is now the Temple Garden the old Crusaders used to exercise their steeds and lances; the modern Templars now lounge on the benches beneath the trees, and, switching their patentleather boots, in gay discourse exercise at repartee.
Long lines of stately portraits in the banquethalls, show what great men of mark – famous nobles, judges, and Lord Chancellors – have in their time been Templars. But all Templars are not known to universal fame; though, if the having warm hearts and warmer welcomes, full minds and fuller cellars, and giving good advice and glorious dinners, spiced with rare divertisements of fun and fancy, merit immortal mention, set down, ye muses, the names of R. F. C. and his imperial brother.
Though to be a Templar, in the one true sense, you must needs be a lawyer, or a student at the law, and be ceremoniously enrolled as member of the order, yet as many such, though Templars, do not reside within the Temple’s precincts, though they may have their offices there, just so, on the other hand, there are many residents of the hoary old domicils who are not admitted Templars. If being, say, a lounging gentleman and bachelor, or a quiet, unmarried, literary man, charmed with the soft seclusion of the spot, you much desire to pitch your shady tent among the rest in this serene encampment, then you must make some special friend among the order, and procure him to rent, in his name but at your charge, whatever vacant chamber you may find to suit.
Thus, I suppose, did Dr. Johnson, that nominal Benedick and widower but virtual bachelor, when for a space he resided here. So, too, did that undoubted bachelor and rare good soul, Charles Lamb. And hundreds more, of sterling spirits, Brethren of the Order of Celibacy, from time to time have dined, and slept, and tabernacled here. Indeed, the place is all a honeycomb of offices and domicils. Like any cheese, it is quite perforated through and through in all directions with the snug cells of bachelors. Dear, delightful spot! Ah! when I bethink me of the sweet hours there passed, enjoying such genial hospitalities beneath those timehonored roofs, my heart only finds due utterance through poetry; and, with a sigh, I softly sing, “Carry me back to old Virginny!”
Such then, at large, is the Paradise of Bachelors. And such I found it one pleasant afternoon in the smiling month of May, when, sallying from my hotel in Trafalgar Square, I went to keep my dinner-appointment with that fine Barrister, Bachelor, aud Bencher, R. F. C. (he is the first and second, and should be the third; I hereby nominate him), whose card I kept fast pinched between my gloved forefinger and thumb, and every now and then snatched still another look at the pleasant address inscribed beneath the name, “No. – Elm Court, Temple.”
At the core he was a right bluff, care-free, right comfortable, and most companionable Englishman. If on a first acquaintance he seemed reserved, quite icy in his air – patience; this Champagne will thaw. And if it never do, better frozen Champagne than liquid vinegar.
There were nine gentlemen, all bachelors, at the dinner. One was from “No. – King’s Bench Walk, Temple;” a second, third, and fourth, and fifth, from various courts or passages christened with some similarly rich resounding syllables. It was indeed a sort of Senate of the Bachelors, sent to this dinner from widely-scattered districts, to represent the general celibacy of the Temple. Nay it was, by representation, a Grand Parliament of the best Bachelors in universal London; several of those present being from distant quarters of the town, noted immemorial seats of lawyers and unmarried men – Lincoln’s Inn, Furnival’s Inn; and one gentleman, upon whom I looked with a sort of collateral awe, hailed from the spot where Lord Verulam once abode a bachelor – Gray’s Inn.
The apartment was well up toward heaven. I know not how many strange old stairs I climbed to get to it. But a good dinner, with famous company, should be well earned. No doubt our host had his dining-room so high with a view to secure the prior exercise necessary to the due relishing and digesting of it.
The furniture was wonderfully unpretending, old, and snug. No new shining mahogany, sticky with undried varnish; no uncomfortably luxurious ottomans, and sofas too fine to use, vexed you in this sedate apartment. It is a thing which every sensible American should learn from every sensible Englishman, that glare and glitter, gimcracks and gewgaws, are not in dispensable to domestic solacement. The American Benedick snatches, down-town, a tough chop in a gilded show-box; the English bachelor leisurely dines at home on that incomparable South Down of his, off a plain deal board.
The ceiling of the room was low. Who wants to dine under the dome of St. Peter’s? High ceilings! If that is your demand, and the higher the better, and you be so very tall, then go dine out with the topping giraffe in the open air.
In good time the nine gentlemen sat down to nine covers, and soon were fairly under way.
If I remember right, ox-tail soup inaugurated the affair. Of a rich russet hue, its agreeable flavor dissipated my first confounding of its main ingredient with teamster’s gads and the rawhides of ushers. (By way of interlude, we here drank a little claret.) Neptune’s was the next tribute rendered – turbot coming second; snowwhite, flaky, and just gelatinous enough, not too turtleish in its unctuousness.
(At this point we refreshed ourselves with a glass of sherry.) After these light skirmishers had vanished, the heavy artillery of the feast marched in, led by that well-known English generalissimo, roast beef. For aids-de-camp we had a saddle of mutton, a fat turkey, a chickenpie, and endless other savory things; while for avant-couriers came nine silver flagons of humming ale. This heavy ordnance having departed on the track of the light skirmishers, a picked brigade of game-fowl encamped upon the board, their camp-fires lit by the ruddiest of decanters.
Tarts and puddings followed, with innumerable niceties; then cheese and crackers. (By way of ceremony, simply, only to keep up good old fashions, we here each drank a glass of good old port.)
The cloth was now removed, and like Blucher’s army coming in at the death on the field of Waterloo, in marched a fresh detachment of bottles, dusty with their hurried march.
All these manoeuvrings of the forces were superintended by a surprising old field-marshal (I can not school myself to call him by the inglorious name of waiter), with snowy hair and napkin, and a head like Socrates. Amidst all the hilarity of the feast, intent on important business, he disdained to smile. Venerable man!
I have above endeavored to give some slight schedule of the general plan of operations. But any one knows that a good, genial dinner is a sort of pell-mell, indiscriminate affair, quite baffling to detail in all particulars. Thus, I spoke of taking a glass of claret, and a glass of sherry, and a glass of port, and a mug of ale – all at certain specific periods and times. But those were merely the state bumpers, so to speak. Innumerable impromptu glasses were drained between the periods of those grand imposing ones.
The nine bachelors seemed to have the most tender concern for each other’s health. All the time, in flowing wine, they most earnestly expressed their sincerest wishes for the entire wellbeing and lasting hygiene of the gentlemen on the right and on the left. I noticed that when one of these kind bachelors desired a little more wine (just for his stomach’s sake, like Timothy), he would not help himself to it unless some other bachelor would join him. It seemed held something indelicate, selfish, and unfraternal, to be seen taking a lonely, unparticipated glass. Meantime, as the wine ran apace, the spirits of the company grew more and more to perfect genialness and unconstraint. They related all sorts of pleasant stories. Choice experiences in their private lives were now brought out, like choice brands of Moselle or Rhenish, only kept for particular company. One told us how mellowly he lived when a student at Oxford; with various spicy anecdotes of most frank-hearted noble lords, his liberal companions. Another bachelor, a gray-headed man, with a sunny face, who, by his own account, embraced every opportunity of leisure to cross over into the Low Countries, on sudden tours of inspection of the fine old Flemish architecture there – this learned, white-haired, sunny-faced old bachelor, excelledin his descriptions of the elaborate splendors of those old guild-halls, town-halls, and stadthold-houses, to be seen in the land of the ancient Flemings. A third was a great frequenter of the British Museum, and knew all about scores of wonderful antiquities, of Oriental manuscripts, and costly books without a duplicate. A fourth had lately returned from a trip to Old Granada, and, of course, was full of Saracenic scenery. A fifth had a funny case in law to tell. A sixth was erudite in wines. A seventh had a strange characteristic anecdote of the private life of the Iron Duke, never printed, and never before announced in any public or private company. An eighth had lately been amusing his evenings, now and then, with translating a comic poem of Pulci’s. He quoted for us the more amusing passages.
And so the evening slipped along, the hours told, not by a water-clock, like King Alfred’s, but a wine-chronometer. Meantime the table seemed a sort of Epsom Heath; a regular ring, where the decanters galloped round. For fear one decanter should not with sufficient speed reach his destination, another was sent express after him to hurry him; and then a third to hurry the second; and so on with a fourth and fifth. And throughout all this nothing loud, nothing unmannerly, nothing turbulent. I am quite sure, from the scrupulous gravity and austerity of his air, that had Socrates, the fieldmarshal, perceived aught of indecorum in the company he served, he would have forthwith departed without giving warning. I afterward learned that, during the repast, an invalid bachelor in an adjoining chamber enjoyed his first sound refreshing slumber in three long, weary weeks.
It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Comfort – fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers, too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fireside.
The thing called pain, the bugbear styled trouble – those two legends seemed preposterous to their bachelor imaginations. How could men of liberal sense, ripe scholarship in the world, and capacious philosophical and convivial understandings – how could they suffer themselves to be imposed upon by such monkishfables? Pain! Trouble! As well talk of Catholic miracles. No such thing. – Pass the sherry, Sir. – Pooh, pooh! Can’t be! – The port, Sir, if you please. Nonsense; don’t tell me so. The decanter stops with you, Sir, I believe.
And so it went.
Not long after the cloth was drawn our host glanced significantly upon Socrates, who, solemnly stepping to the stand, returned with an immense convolved horn, a regular Jericho horn, mounted with polished silver, and otherwise chased and curiously enriched; not omitting two life-like goat’s heads, with four more horns of solid silver, projecting from opposite sides of the mouth of the noble main horn.
Not having heard that our host was a performer on the bugle, I was surprised to see him lift this horn from the table, as if he were about to blow an inspiring blast. But I was relieved from this, and set quite right as touching the purposes of the horn, by his now inserting his thumb and forefinger into its mouth; whereupon a slight aroma was stirred up, and my nostrils were greeted with the smell of some choice Rappee. It was a mull of snuff. It went the rounds. Capital idea this, thought I, of taking snuff at about this juncture. This goodly fashion must be introduced among my countrymen at home, further ruminated I.
The remarkable decorum of the nine bachelors – a decorum not to be affected by any quantity of wine – a decorum unassailable by any degree of mirthfulness – this was again set in a forcible light to me, by now observing that, though they took snuff very freely, yet not a man so far violated the proprieties, or so far molested the invalid bachelor in the adjoining room as to indulge himself in a sneeze. The snuff was snuffed silently, as if it had been some fine innoxious powder brushed off the wings of butterflies.
But fine though they be, bachelors’ dinners, like bachelors’ lives, can not endure forever. The time came for breaking up. One by one the bachelors took their hats, and two by two, and arm-in-arm they descended, still conversing, to the flagging of the court; some going to their neighboring chambers to turn over the Decameron ere retiring for the night; some to smoke a cigar, promenading in the garden on the cool river-side; some to make for the street, call a hack, and be driven snugly to their distant lodgings.
I was the last lingerer.
“Well,” said my smiling host, “what do you think of the Temple here, and the sort of life we bachelors make out to live in it?”
“Sir,” said I, with a burst of admiring candor – “Sir, this is the very Paradise of Bachelors!”
The Tartarus of Maids
It lies not far from Woedolor Mountain in New England. Turning to the east, right out from among bright farms and sunny meadows, nodding in early June with odorous grasses, you enter ascendingly among bleak hills. These gradually close in upon a dusky pass, which, from the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasingly driving between its cloven walls of haggard rock, as well as from the tradition of a crazy spinster’s hut having long ago stood somewhere hereabouts, is called the Mad Maid’s Bellows’ pipe.
Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. From the steepness of the walls here, their strangely ebon hue, and the sudden contraction of the gorge, this particular point is called the Black Notch. The ravine now expandingly descends into a great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains. By the country people this hollow is called the Devil’s Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels suddenly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible lowlands.
Conspicuously crowning a rocky bluff high to one side, at the cataract’s verge, is the ruin of an old saw-mill, built in those primitive times when vast pines and hemlocks superabounded throughout the neighboring region. The blackmossed bulk of those immense, rough-hewn, and spike-knotted logs, here and there tumbled all together, in long abandonment and decay, or left in solitary, perilous projection over the cataract’s gloomy brink, impart to this rude wooden ruin not only much of the aspect of one of rough-quarried stone, but also a sort of feudal, Rhineland, and Thurmberg look, derived from the pinnacled wildness of the neighboring scenery.
Not far from the bottom of the Dungeon stands a large white-washed building, relieved, like some great whited sepulchre, against the sullen background of mountain-side firs, and other hardy evergreens, inaccessibly rising in grim terraces for some two thousand feet.
The building is a paper-mill.
Having embarked on a large scale in the seedsman’s business (so extensively and broadcast, indeed, that at length my seeds were distributed through all the Eastern and Northern States and even fell into the far soil of Missouri and the Carolinas), the demand for paper at my place became so great, that the expenditure soon amounted to a most important item in the general account. It need hardly be hinted how paper comes into use with seedsmen, as envelopes. These are mostly made of yellowish paper, folded square; and when filled, are all but flat, and being stamped, and superscribed with the nature of the seeds contained, assume not a little the appearance of business-letters ready for the mail. Of these small envelopes I used an incredible quantity – several hundreds of thousands in a year. For a time I had purchased my paper from the wholesale dealers in a neighboring town. For economy’s sake, and partly for the adventure of the trip, I now resolved to cross the mountains, some sixty miles, and order my future paper at the Devil’s Dungeon paper-mill.
The sleighing being uncommonly fine toward the end of January, and promising to hold so for no small period, in spite of the bitter cold I started one gray Friday noon in my pung, well fitted with buffalo and wolf robes; and, spending one night on the road, next noon came in sight of Woedolor Mountain.
The far summit fairly smoked with frost; white vapors curled up from its white-wooded top, as from a chimney. The intense congelation made the whole country look like one petrifaction. The steel shoes of my pung craunched and gritted over the vitreous, chippy snow, as if it had been broken glass. The forests here and there skirting the route, feeling the same all-stiffening influence, their inmost fibres penetrated with the cold, strangely groaned – not in the swaying branches merely, but likewise in the vertical trunk – as the fitful gusts remorselessly swept through them. Brittle with excessive frost, many colossal tough-grained maples, snapped in twain like pipe-stems, cumbered the unfeeling earth.
Flaked all over with frozen sweat, white as a milky ram, his nostrils at each breath sending forth two horn-shaped shoots of heated respiration, Black, my good horse, but six years old, started at a sudden turn, where, right across the track – not ten minutes fallen – an old distorted hemlock lay, darkly undulatory as an anaconda.
Gaining the Bellows’-pipe, the violent blast, dead from behind, all but shoved my high-backed pung up-hill. The gust shrieked through the shivered pass, as if laden with lost spirits bound to the unhappy world. Ere gaining the summit, Black, my horse, as if exasperated by the cutting wind, slung out with his strong hind legs, tore the light pung straight up-hill, and sweeping grazingly through the narrow notch, sped downward madly past the ruined saw-mill. Into the Devil’s Dungeon horse and cataract rushed together.
With might and main, quitting my seat and robes, and standing backward, with one foot braced against the dash-board, I rasped and churned the bit, and stopped him just in time to avoid collision, at a turn, with the bleak nozzle of a rock, couchant like a lion in the way – a road-side rock.
At first I could not discover the paper-mill.
The whole hollow gleamed with the white, except, here and there, where a pinnacle of granite showed one wind-swept angle bare. The mountains stood pinned in shrouds – a pass of Alpine corpses. Where stands the mill? Suddenly a whirling, humming sound broke upon my ear. I looked, and there, like an arrested avalanche, lay the large whitewashed factory. It was subordinately surrounded by a cluster of other and smaller buildings, some of which, from their cheap, blank air, great length, gregarious windows, and comfortless expression, no doubt were boarding-houses of the operatives. A snow-white hamlet amidst the snows. Various rude, irregular squares and courts resulted from the somewhat picturesque clusterings of these buildings, owing to the broken, rocky nature of the ground, which forbade all method in their relative arrangement. Several narrow lanes and alleys, too, partly blocked with snow fallen from the roof, cut up the hamlet in all directions.
When, turning from the traveled highway, jingling with bells of numerous farmers – who availing themselves of the fine sleighing, were dragging their wood to market – and frequently diversified with swift cutters dashing from inn to inn of the scattered villages – when, I say, turning from that bustling main-road, I by degrees wound into the Mad Maid’s Bellows’-pipe, and saw the grim Black Notch beyond, then something latent, as well as something obvious in the time and scene, strangely brought back to my mind my first sight of dark and grimy Temple Bar. And when Black, my horse, went darting through the Notch, perilously grazing its rocky wall, I remembered being in a runaway London omnibus, which in much the same sort of style, though by no means at an equal rate, dashed through the ancient arch of Wren. Though the two objects did by no means completely correspond, yet this partial inadequacy but served to tinge the similitude not less with the vividness than the disorder of a dream. So that, when upon reining up at the protruding rock I at last caught sight of the quaint groupings of the factory-buildings, and with the traveled highway and the Notch behind, found myself all alone, silently and privily stealing through deep-cloven passages into this sequestered spot, and saw the long, high-gabled main factory edifice, with a rude tower – for hoisting heavy boxes – at one end, standing among its crowded outbuildings and boarding-houses, as the Temple Church amidst the surrounding offices and dormitories, and when the marvelous retirement of this mysterious mountain nook fastened its whole spell upon me, then, what memory lacked, all tributary imagination furnished, and I said to myself, “This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre.”
Dismounting, and warily picking my way down the dangerous declivity – horse and man both sliding now and then upon the icy ledges – at length I drove, or the blast drove me, into the largest square, before one side of the main edifice. Piercingly and shrilly the shotted blast blew by the corner; and redly and demoniacally boiled Blood River at one side. A long woodpile, of many scores of cords, all glittering in mail of crusted ice, stood crosswise in the square. A row of horse-posts, their north sides plastered with adhesive snow, flanked the factory wall. The bleak frost packed and paved the square as with some ringing metal.
The inverted similitude recurred – “The sweet tranquil Temple garden, with the Thames bordering its green beds,” strangely meditated I.
But where are the gay bachelors?
Then, as I and my horse stood shivering in the wind-spray, a girl ran from a neighboring dormitory door, and throwing her thin apron over her bare head, made for the opposite building.
“One moment, my girl; is there no shed hereabouts which I may drive into?”
Pausing, she turned upon me a face pale with work, and blue with cold; an eye supernatural with unrelated misery.
”Nay,” faltered I, “I mistook you. Go on; I want nothing.”
Leading my horse close to the door from which she had come, I knocked. Another pale, blue girl appeared, shivering in the doorway as, to prevent the blast, she jealously held the door ajar.
“Nay, I mistake again. In God’s name shut the door. But hold, is there no man about?”
That moment a dark-complexioned wellwrapped personage passed, making for the factory door, and spying him coming, the girl rapidly closed the other one.
“Is there no horse-shed here, Sir?”
“Yonder, to the wood-shed,” he replied, and disappeared inside the factory.
With much ado I managed to wedge in horse and pung between the scattered piles of wood all sawn and split. Then, blanketing my horse, and piling my buffalo on the blanket’s top, and tucking in its edges well around the breast-band and breeching, so that the wind might not strip him bare, I tied him fast, and ran lamely for the factory door, stiff with frost, and cumbered with my driver’s dread-naught.
Immediately I found myself standing in a spacious, intolerably lighted by long rows of windows, focusing inward the snowy scene without.
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.
In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it – its tame minister – stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper, which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing.
Seated before a long apparatus, strung with long, slender strings like any harp, another girl was feeding it with foolscap sheets, which, so soon as they curiously traveled from her on the cords, were withdrawn at the opposite end of the machine by a second girl. They came to the first girl blank; they went to the second girl ruled.
I looked upon the first girl’s brow, and saw it was young and fair; I looked upon the second girl’s brow, and saw it was ruled and wrinkled. Then, as I still looked, the two – for some small variety to the monotony – changed places; and where had stood the young, fair brow, now stood the ruled and wrinkled one.
Perched high upon a narrow platform, and still higher upon a high stool crowning it, sat another figure serving some other iron animal; while below the platform sat her mate in some sort of reciprocal attendance.
Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery – that vaunted slave of humanity – here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.
All this scene around me was instantaneously taken in at one sweeping glance – even before I had proceeded to unwind the heavy fur tippet from around my neck. But as soon as this fell from me the dark-complexioned man, standing close by, raised a sudden cry, and seizing my arm, dragged me out into the open air, and without pausing for word instantly caught up some congealed snow and began rubbing both my cheeks.
“Two white spots like the whites of your eyes,” he said; “man, your cheeks are frozen.”
“That may well be,” muttered I; “’tis some wonder the frost of the Devil’s Dungeon strikes in no deeper. Rub away.”
Soon a horrible, tearing pain caught at my reviving cheeks. Two gaunt blood-hounds, one on each side, seemed mumbling them. I seemed Acton.
Presently, when all was over, I re-entered the factory, made known my business, concluded it satisfactorily, and then begged to be conducted throughout the place to view it.
“Cupid is the boy for that,” said the dark complexioned man. “Cupid!” and by this odd fancy-name calling a dimpled, red-cheeked, spirited-looking, forward little fellow, who was rather impudently, I thought, gliding about among the passive-looking girls – like a gold fish through hueless waves – yet doing nothing in particular that I could see, the man bade him lead the stranger through the edifice.
“Come first and see the water-wheel,” said this lively lad, with the air of boyishly-brisk importance.
Quitting the folding-room, we crossed some damp, cold boards, and stood beneath a area wet shed, incessantly showering with foam, like the green barnacled bow of some East Indiaman in a gale. Round and round here went the enormous revolutions of the dark colossal waterwheel, grim with its one immutable purpose.
“This sets our whole machinery a-going, Sir in every part of all these buildings; where the girls work and all.”
I looked, and saw that the turbid waters of Blood River had not changed their hue by coming under the use of man.
“You make only blank paper; no printing of any sort, I suppose? All blank paper, don’t you?”
“Certainly; what else should a paper-factory make?”
The lad here looked at me as if suspicious of my common-sense.
“Oh, to be sure!” said I, confused and stammering; “it only struck me as so strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean.”
He took me up a wet and rickety stair to a great light room, furnished with no visible thing but rude, manger-like receptacles running all round its sides; and up to these mangers, like so many mares haltered to the rack, stood rows of girls. Before each was vertically thrust up a long, glittering scythe, immovably fixed at bottom to the manger-edge. The curve of the scythe, and its having no snath to it, made it look exactly like a sword. To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragged long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint. The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.
“This is the rag-room,” coughed the boy.
“You find it rather stifling here,” coughed I, in answer;” but the girls don’t cough.”
“Oh, they are used to it.”
“Where do you get such hosts of rags?” picking up a handful from a basket.
“Some from the country round about; some from far over sea – Leghorn and London.”
“‘Tis not unlikely, then,” murmured I, “that among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors. But the buttons are all dropped off. Pray, my lad, do you ever find any bachelor’s buttons hereabouts?”
“None grow in this part of the country. The Devil’s Dungeon is no place for flowers.”
“Oh! you mean the flowers so called – the Bachelor’s Buttons?”
“And was not that what you asked about? Or did you mean the gold bosom-buttons of our boss, Old Bach, as our whispering girls all call him?”
“The man, then, I saw below is a bachelor, is he?”
“Oh, yes, he’s a Bach.”
“The edges of those swords, they are turned outward from the girls, if I see right; but their rags and fingers fly so, I can not distinctly see.”
Yes, murmured I to myself; I see it now; turned outward, and each erected sword is so borne, edge-outward, before each girl. If my reading fails me not, just so, of old, condemned state-prisoners went from the hall of judgment to their doom: an officer before, bearing a sword, its edge turned outward, in significance of their fatal sentence. So, through consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life, go these white girls to death.
“Those scythes look very sharp,” again turning toward the boy.
“Yes; they have to keep them so. Look!”
That moment two of the girls, dropping their rags, plied each a whet-stone up and down the sword-blade. My unaccustomed blood curdled at the sharp shriek of the tormented steel.
Their own executioners; themselves whetting the very swords that slay them; meditated I.
“What makes those girls so sheet-white, my lad?”
“Why” – with a roguish twinkle, pure ignorant drollery, not knowing heartlessness – “I suppose the handling of such white bits of sheets all the time makes them so sheety.”
“Let us leave the rag-room now, my lad.”
More tragical and more inscrutably mysterious than any mystic sight, human or machine, throughout the factory, was the strange innocence of cruel-heartedness in this usage-hardened boy.
“And now,” said he, cheerily, “I suppose you want to see our great machine, which cost us twelve thousand dollars only last autumn. That’s the machine that makes the paper, too. This way, Sir.”
Following him, I crossed a large, bespattered place, with two great round vats in it, full of a white, wet, woolly-looking stuff, not unlike the albuminous part of an egg, soft-boiled.
“There,” said Cupid, tapping the vats carelessly, “these are the first beginnings of the paper; this white pulp you see. Look how it swims bubbling round and round, moved by the paddle here. From hence it pours from both vats into that one common channel yonder; and so goes, mixed up and leisurely, to the great machine. And now for that.”
He led me into a room, stifling with a strange, blood-like, abdominal heat, as if here, true enough, were being finally developed the germinous particles lately seen.
Before me, rolled out like some long Eastern manuscript, lay stretched one continuous length of iron frame-work – multitudinous and mystical, with all sorts of rollers, wheels, and cylinders, in slowly-measured and unceasing motion.
“Here first comes the pulp now,” said Cupid, pointing to the nighest end of the machine. “See; first it pours out and spreads itself upon this wide, sloping board; and then – look – slides, thin and quivering, beneath the first roller there. Follow on now, and see it as it slides from under that to the next cylinder. There; see how it has become just a very little less pulpy now. One step more, and it grows still more to some slight consistence. Still another cylinder, and it is so knitted – though as yet mere dragon-fly wing – that it forms an airbridge here, like a suspended cobweb, between two more separated rollers; and flowing over the last one, and under again, and doubling about there out of sight for a minute among all those mixed cylinders you indistinctly see, it reappears here, looking now at last a little less like pulp and more like paper, but still quite delicate and defective yet awhile. But – a little further onward, Sir, if you please – here now, at this further point, it puts on something of a real look, as if it might turn out to be something you might possibly handle in the end. But it’s not yet done, Sir. Good way to travel yet, and plenty more of cylinders must roll it.”
“Bless my soul!” said I, amazed at the elongation, interminable convolutions, and deliberate slowness of the machine; “it must take a long time for the pulp to pass from end to end, and come out paper.”
“Oh! not so long,” smiled the precocious lad, with a superior and patronizing air; “only nine minutes. But look; you may try it for yourself. Have you a bit of paper? Ah! here’s a bit on the floor. Now mark that with any word you please, and let me dab it on here, and we’ll see how long before it comes out at the other end.”
“Well, let me see,” said I, taking out my pencil; “come, I’ll mark it with your name.”
Bidding me take out my watch, Cupid adroitly dropped the inscribed slip on an exposed part of the incipient mass.
Instantly my eye marked the second-hand on my dial-plate.
Slowly I followed the slip, inch by inch; sometimes pausing for full half a minute as it disappeared beneath inscrutable groups of the lower cylinders, but only gradually to emerge again; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; now in open sight, sliding along like a freckle on the quivering sheet, and then again wholly vanished; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; all the time the main sheet growing more and more to final firmness – when, suddenly, I saw a sort of paper-fall, not wholly unlike a water-fall; a scissory sound smote my ear, as of some cord being snapped, and down dropped an unfolded sheet of perfect foolscap, with my “Cupid” half faded out of it, and still moist and warm.
My travels were at an end, for here was the end of the machine.
“Well, how long was it?” said Cupid.
“Nine minutes to a second,” replied I, watch in hand.
“I told you so.”
For a moment a curious emotion filled me, not wholly unlike that which one might experience at the fulfillment of some mysterious prophecy. But how absurd, thought I again; the thing is a mere machine, the essence of which is unvarying punctuality and precision.
Previously absorbed by the wheels and cylinders, my attention was now directed to a sadlooking woman standing by.
“That is rather an elderly person so silently tending the machine-end here. She would not seem wholly used to it either.”
“Oh,” knowingly whispered Cupid, through the din, “she only came last week. She was a nurse formerly. But the business is poor in these parts, and she’s left it. But look at the paper she is piling there.”
“Ay, foolscap,” handling the piles of moist, warm sheets, which continually were being delivered into the woman’s waiting hands. “Don’t you turn out any thing but foolscap at this machine?”
“Oh, sometimes, but not often, we turn out finer work – cream-laid and royal sheets, we call them. But foolscap being in chief demand, we turn out foolscap most.”
It was very curious. Looking at that blank paper continually dropping, dropping, dropping, my mind ran on in wonderings of those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be writ on those now vacant things – sermons, lawyers’ briefs, physicians’ prescriptions, love-letters, marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of births, death-warrants, and so on, without end. Then, recurring back to them as they here lay all blank, I could not but bethink me of that celebrated comparison of John Locke, who, in demonstration of his theory that man had no innate ideas, compared the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper; something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell.
Pacing slowly to and fro along the involved machine, still humming with its play, I was struck as well by the inevitability as the evolvement-power in all its motions.
“Does that thin cobweb there,” said I, pointing to the sheet in its more imperfect stage, “does that never tear or break? It is marvelous fragile, and yet this machine it passes through is so mighty.”
“It never is known to tear a hair’s point.”
“Does it never stop – get clogged?”
“No. It must go. The machinery makes it go just so; just that very way, and at that very pace you there plainly see it go. The pulp can’t help going.”
Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy vail of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. A fascination fastened on me. I stood spell-bound and wandering in my soul. Before my eyes – there, passing in slow procession along the wheeling cylinders, I seemed to see, glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp, the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls I had eyed that heavy day. Slowly, mournfully, beseechingly, yet unresistingly, they gleamed along, their agony dimly outlined on the imperfect paper, like the print of the tormented face on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica.
“Halloa! the heat of the room is too much for you,” cried Cupid, staring at me.
“No – I am rather chill, if any thing.”
“Come out, Sir -out – out,” and, with the protecting air of a careful father, the precocious lad hurried me outside.
In a few moments, feeling revived a little, I went into the folding-room – the first room I had entered, and where the desk for transacting business stood, surrounded by the blank counters and blank girls engaged at them.
“Cupid here has led me a strange tour,” said I to the dark-complexioned man before mentioned, whom I had ere this discovered not only to be an old bachelor, but also the principal proprietor. “Yours is a most wonderful factory. Your great machine is a miracle of inscrutable intricacy.”
“Yes, all our visitors think it so. But we don’t have many. We are in a very out-of-theway corner here. Few inhabitants, too. Most of our girls come from far-off villages.”
“The girls,” echoed I, glancing round at their silent forms. “Why is it, Sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?”
“Oh! as to that – why, I suppose, the fact of their being generally unmarried – that’s the reason, I should think. But it never struck me before. For our factory here, we will not have married women; they are apt to be offand-on too much. We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fastdays. That’s our rule. And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls.”
“Then these are all maids,” said I, while some pained homage to their pale virginity made me involuntarily bow.
Again the strange emotion filled me.
“Your cheeks look whitish yet, Sir,” said the man, gazing at me narrowly. “You must be careful going home. Do they pain you at all now? It’s a bad sign, if they do.”
“No doubt, Sir,” answered I, “when once I have got out of the Devil’s Dungeon, I shall feel them mending.”
“Ah, yes; the winter air in valleys, or gorges, or any sunken place, is far colder and more bitter than elsewhere. You would hardly believe it now, but it is colder here than at the top of Woedolor Mountain.”
“I dare say it is, Sir. But time presses me; I must depart.”
With that, remuffling myself in dread-naught and tippet, thrusting my hands into my huge seal-skin mittens, I sallied out into the nipping air, and found poor Black, my horse, all cringing and doubled up with the cold.
Soon, wrapped in furs and meditations, I ascended from the Devil’s Dungeon.
At the Black Notch I paused, and once more bethought me of Temple-Bar. Then, shooting through the pass, all alone with inscrutable nature, I exclaimed – Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
On the afternoon of June 25 while on my last outing to Rhyolite, I was driving down Cane Springs Road some ten miles outside Beatty and happened upon what looked to be the debris left over from an auto accident. I got out of my truck and took a look around. The valley was bone dry. A hot west wind took the puffs of dust from where I stepped and curled them away like ashes. Near the wash I found broken glass, deep gouges in the dirt running off the side of the road, and an array of freshly bought groceries tumbled among the creosote. Coke cans (some full, some open and empty, some still sealed but dented and half full and leaking). Bud Light cans in the same shape as the Coke. Fritos. Meat. Et cetera. Of particular interest to me were the two almost-full prescriptions that had been filled at the pharmacy in Tonopah only three days before, and a sealed Ziploc bag full of letters signed M. I also took notice of a bundle of photos of an old car, part primer, part rust, that I presume was or is going to be restored. The car was a Chevy Chevelle, a ’66, I believe. I once knew a man who drove a Chevelle. Both medications had bright yellow stickers on their sides warning against drinking alcohol while taking them. Enter the Bud Light, and the gouges in the dirt, possibly. I copied your address off those prescription bottles. What happened out there? Where is your car? Why were the medications, food and other supplies left behind? Who are you, Duane Moser? What were you looking for out at Rhyolite?
I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well. Please write back.
PO Box 129, Verdi
PS I left most of the debris in the desert, save for the medications, pictures and letters from M. I also took the plastic grocery bags, which I untangled from the bushes and recycled on my way through Reno. It didn’t feel right to just leave them out there.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
This morning, as I fed the horses, clouds were just beginning to slide down the slope of the Sierras, and I was reminded once again of Rhyolite. When I came inside I borrowed my father’s old copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference from his room. From that book I have gathered that before driving out to Rhyolite you may have been feeling out of control, alone, or hopeless. You were possibly in a state of extreme depression; perhaps you were even considering hurting yourself. Judging by the date the prescriptions were filled and the number of pills left in the bottles – which I have counted, sitting out in the fields atop a tractor which I let sputter and die, eating the sandwich which my wife fixed me for lunch – you had not been taking the medications long enough for them to counteract your possible feelings of despair. ‘Despair’, ‘depression’, ‘hopeless’, ‘alone’. These are the words of the PDR, 41st Edition, which I returned to my father promptly, as per his request. My father can be difficult. He spends his days shut up in his room, reading old crime novels populated by dames and Negroes, or watching the TV we bought him with the volume up too high. Some days he refuses to eat. Duane Moser, my father never thought he would live this long.
I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel. Please, write back.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
I slept terribly last night, dreamed dreams not easily identified as such. Had I told my wife about them she might have given me a small quartz crystal or amethyst and insisted I carry it around in my pocket all day, to cleanse my mind and spirit. She comes from California. Here is a story she likes to tell. On one of our first dates we walked arm in arm around downtown Reno, where she was a clerk at a grocery store and I was a student of agriculture and business. There she tried to pull me down a little flight of steps to the red-lit underground residence of a palm reader and psychic. I declined. Damn near an hour she pulled on me, saying what was I afraid of, asking what was the big deal. I am not a religious man but, as I told her then, there are some things I’d rather not fuck with. Now she likes to say it’s a good thing I wouldn’t go in because if that psychic had told her that she’d be stuck with me for going on fourteen years now she would have turned and headed for the hills. Ha! And I say, Honey, not as fast as I would’ve, ha, ha! This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
I’ll tell you what I don’t tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.
I imagine you a man alone, Duane Moser, with no one asking after your dreams in the morning, no one slipping healing rocks into your pockets. A bachelor. It was the Fritos, finally, which reminded me of the gas station in Beatty where I worked when I was in high school and where I knew a man who owned a Chevelle like yours, a ’66. But it occurs to me perhaps this assumption is foolish; surely there are wives out there who have not banned trans fats and processed sugars, as mine has. I haven’t had a Frito in eleven years. Regardless, I write to enquire about your family, should you reply.
Our children came to us later in life than most. My oldest, Danielle, has just started school. Her little sister, Layla, is having a hard time with it. She wants so badly to go to school with Danielle that she screams and cries as the school bus pulls away in the morning. Sometimes she throws herself down to the ground, embedding little pieces of rock in the flesh of her fists. Then she is sullen and forlorn for the rest of the day. My wife worries for her, but truth be told, I am encouraged. The sooner Layla understands that we are nothing but the sum of that which we endure, the better. But my father has taken to walking Layla to the end of our gravel road in the afternoon to wait for Danielle at the bus stop. Layla likes to go as early as she is allowed, as if her being there will bring the bus sooner. She would stand at the end of the road all day if we let her. She pesters my father so that he sometimes stands there in the heat with her for an hour or more, though his heart is in no condition to be doing so. In many ways he is better to my girls than I am. He is far better to them than he was to me. I am not a religious man but I do thank God for that.
I am beginning to think I dreamed you up. Please, write soon.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
I have read the letters from M, the ones you kept folded in the Ziploc bag. Forgive me, but for all I know you may be dead, and I could not resist. I read them in my shed, where the stink and thickness of the air were almost unbearable, and then again in my truck in the parking lot of the Verdi post office. I was struck, as I was when I first found them out near Rhyolite on Cane Springs Road, by how new the letters looked. Though most were written nearly twenty years ago the paper is clean, the creases sharp. Duane Moser, what I do not understand is this: why a Ziploc bag? Did you worry they might get wet on your journey through the desert in the middle of summer? Then again, I am reminded of the Coke and Bud Light. Or am I to take the Ziploc bag as an indication of your fierce, protective love for M.? Is it a sign, as M. suggests, that little by little you sealed your whole self off, until there was nothing left for her? Furthermore, I have to ask whether you committed this sealing purposefully. She says she thinks she was always asking too much of you. She is generous that way, isn’t she? She says you didn’t mean to become ‘so very alien’ to her. I am not so sure. I love my wife. But I’ve never told her how I once knew a man in Beatty with a ’66 Chevelle. I know what men like us are capable of.
Duane Moser, what I come back to is this: how could you have left M.’s letters by the side of Cane Springs Road near the ghost town Rhyolite where hardly anyone goes any more? (In fact, I have never seen another man out on Cane Springs Road. I drive out there to be alone. Maybe you do, too. Or you did, anyway.) Did you not realize that someone just like you might find them? How could you have left her again?
I have called the phone number listed on the prescription bottles, finally, though all I heard was the steady rising tones of the disconnected signal. Still, I found myself listening for you there. Please, write soon.
PO Box 129, Verdi
PS On second thoughts, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that’s no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
My wife found your pictures, the ones of the Chevelle. The one you maybe got from a junkyard or from a friend, or maybe it’s been in your family for years, rotting in a garage somewhere because after what happened nobody wanted to look at it. I kept the pictures tucked behind the visor in my truck, bound with a rubber band. I don’t know why I kept them. I don’t know why I’ve kept your letters from M., or your medications. I don’t know what I would do if I found what I am looking for.
When I was in high school I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station in Beatty. It’s still there, on the corner of I-95 and Highway 374, near the hot springs. Maybe you’ve been there. It’s a Shell station now, but back then it was called Hadley’s Fuel. I worked there forty, fifty hours a week. Bill Hadley was a friend of my father’s. He was a crazy sonofabitch, as my father would say, who kept a shotgun under the counter and always accused me of stealing from the till or sleeping on the job when I did neither. I liked the graveyard shift, liked being up at night, away from Pop, listening to the tremors of the big walk-in coolers, the hum of the fluorescent lights outside.
Late that spring a swarm of grasshoppers moved through Beatty on their way out to the alfalfa fields down south. They were thick and fierce, roaring like a thunderstorm in your head. The hoppers ate anything green. In two days they stripped the leaves from all the cottonwoods and willows in town, then they moved on to the juniper and pine, the cheat grass and bitter salt cedar. A swarm of them ate the wool right off of Abel Prince’s live sheep. Things got so bad that the trains out to the mines shut down for a week because the guts of the bugs made the rails too slippery.
The grasshoppers were drawn to the fluorescent lights at Hadley’s. For weeks the parking lot pulsed with them. I would have felt them crunch under my feet when I walked out to the pumps that night, dead and dying under my shoes, only I never made it out to the pumps. I was doing schoolwork at the counter, calculus, for God’s sake. I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.
I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?
There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.
I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.
Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile. The deputy sheriff, Dale Sullivan, who was also the assistant coach of the basketball team, came and sat beside me. I had my hands over my head to keep the grasshoppers away. Kid, it was bound to happen, Dale said. The boy was a troublemaker. A waste of skin.
He told me I could go on home. I didn’t ask what would happen to the car.
That night, I drove out on Cane Springs Road to Rhyolite. I drove around that old ghost town with the windows rolled down, listening to the gravel pop under my tyres. The sun was coming up. There, in the milky light of dawn, I hated Beatty more than I ever had. The Stagecoach, the hot springs, all the trees looking so naked against the sky. I’d never wanted to see any of it ever again.
I was already on my way to college and everyone knew it. I didn’t belong in Beatty. The boy’s family, his mother and sister and stepfather, moved away soon after it happened. I’d never see them around town, or at Hadley’s. For those last few weeks of school no one talked about it, at least not to me. Soon it was as though it had never happened. But – and I think I realized this then, up in Rhyolite, that dead town picked clean – Beatty would never be a place I could come home to.
When my wife asked about your pictures, she said she didn’t realize I knew so much about cars. I said, Yeah, sure. Well, some. See the vents there? On the hood? See the blackout grille? That’s how you know it’s a ’66. I told her I’d been thinking about buying an old car, fixing it up, maybe this one. Right then she just started laughing her head off. Sure, she managed through all her laughter, fix up a car. She kept on laughing. She tossed the bundle of photos on the seat of the truck and said, You’re shitting me, Tommy.
It’s not her fault. That man, the one who knows a ’66 when he sees one, that’s not the man she married. That’s how it has to be. You understand, don’t you?
I smiled at her. No, ma’am, I said. I wouldn’t shit you. You’re my favourite turd.
She laughed – she’s generous that way – and said, A car. That’s the last thing we need around here.
When I was a boy my father took me hunting. Quail mostly and, one time, elk. But I was no good at it and he gave up. I didn’t have it in me, my father said, sad and plain as if it were a birth defect, the way I was. Even now, deer come down from the mountains and root in our garden, stripping our tomatoes from the vine, eating the hearts of our baby cabbages. My father says, Kill one. String it up. They’ll learn. I tell him I can’t do that. I spend my Sundays patching the holes in the fence, or putting up a taller one. The Church of the Compassionate Heart, my wife calls it. It makes her happy, this life of ours, the man I am. Layla helps me mend the fence. She stands behind me and hands me my pliers or my wire cutters when I let her.
But here’s the truth, Duane Moser. Sometimes I see his eyes above that bandanna, see the grasshoppers leaping in the lights, hear them vibrating. I feel the kick of the rifle butt in my sternum. I would do it again.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Duane Moser
This will be the last I write to you. I went back to Rhyolite. I told my wife I was headed south to camp and hike for a few days. She said, Why don’t you take Layla with you? It would be good for her.
Layla slept nearly the whole drive. Six hours. When I slowed the car and pulled on to Cane Springs Road she sat up and said, Dad, where are we?
I said, We’re here.
I helped her with her coat and mittens and we took a walk through the ruins. I told her what they once were. Here, I said, was the schoolhouse. They finished it in 1909. By then there weren’t enough children in town to fill it. It burnt down the next year. She wanted to go closer.
I said, Stay where I can see you.
Why? she said.
I didn’t know how to say it. Crumbling buildings, rotted-out floors, sinkholes, open mine shafts. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions.
Because, I said. It’s not safe for little girls.
We went on. There behind the fence is the post office, completed in 1908. This slab, these beams, that wall of brick, that was the train station. It used to have marble floors, mahogany woodworking, one of the first telephones in the state. But those have been sold or stolen over the years.
Why? she said.
That’s what happens when a town dies.
Because, sweetheart. Because.
At dusk I tried to show Layla how to set a tent and build a fire but she wasn’t interested. Instead she concentrated on filling her pink vinyl backpack with stones and using them to build little pyramids along the path that led out to the town. She squatted over them, gingerly turning the stones to find a flat side, a stable base. What are those for? I asked.
For if we get lost, she said. Pop Pop showed me.
When it got dark we sat together listening to the hiss of the hot dogs at the ends of our sticks, the violent sizzle of sap escaping the firewood. Layla fell asleep in my lap. I carried her to the tent and zipped her inside a sleeping bag. I stayed and watched her there, her chest rising and falling, hers the small uncertain breath of a bird.
When I bent to step out through the opening of the tent something fell from the pocket of my overalls. I held it up in the fire light. It was a cloudy stump of amethyst, as big as a horse’s tooth.
I’ve tried, Duane Moser, but I can’t picture you at 1077 Pincay Drive. I can’t see you in Henderson period, out in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac, in one of those prefab houses with the stucco and the garage gaping off the front like a mouth. I can’t see you standing like a bug under those street lights the colour of antibacterial soap. At home at night I sit on my porch and watch the lights of Reno over the hills, the city marching out at us like an army. It’s no accident that the first step in what they call developing a plot of land is to put a fence around it.
I can’t see you behind a fence. When I see you, I see you here, at Rhyolite, harvesting sticks of charcoal from the half-burnt schoolhouse and writing your name on the exposed concrete foundation. Closing one eye to look through the walls of Jim Kelly’s bottle house. No, that’s my daughter. That’s me as a boy getting charcoal stains on my blue jeans. That’s you in your Chevelle, the ’66, coming up Cane Springs Road, tearing past what was once the Porter Brothers’ Store. I see you with M., flinging Fritos and meat and half-full cans of Coke and Bud Light from the car like a goddamn celebration, a shedding of your old selves.
It’s almost Christmas. I’ve looked at the prescriptions, the letters, the photos. You’re not Frankie, I know this. It’s just a coincidence, a packet of pictures flung from a car out in the middle of nowhere. The car is just a car. The world is full of Chevelles, a whole year’s worth of the ’66. You know nothing of Hadley’s fuel in Beatty, of a boy who was killed there one night in late spring when the grasshoppers were so loud they sounded like a thunderstorm in your head. I don’t owe you anything.
When I woke this morning there was snow on the ground and Layla was gone. I pulled my boots on and walked around the camp. A layer of white covered the hills and the valley and the skeletons of the old buildings, lighting the valley fluorescent. It was blinding. I called my daughter’s name. I listened, pressing the sole of my shoe against the blackened rocks lining the fire pit. I watched the snow go watery within my boot print. There was no answer.
I checked the truck. It was empty. In the tent I found her coat and mittens. Her shoes had been taken. I scrambled up a small hill and looked for her from there. I scanned for the shape of her among the old buildings, on the hills, along Cane Springs Road. Fence posts, black with moisture, strung across the valley like tombstones. Sickness thickened in my gut and my throat. She was gone.
I called for her again and again. I heard nothing, though surely my own voice echoed back to me. Surely the snow creaked under my feet when I walked through our camp and out to the ruins. Surely the frozen tendrils of creosote whipped against my legs when I began to run through the ghost town, up and down the gravel path. But all sound had left me except for a low, steady roaring, the sound of my own blood in my ears, of a car rumbling up the old road.
Suddenly my chest was burning. I couldn’t breathe. Layla Layla. I crouched and pressed my bare palms against the frozen earth. The knees of my long johns soaked through, my fingers began to sting.
Then I saw a shape near the burnt remains of the schoolhouse. A panic as hot and fierce as anything – fiercer – rose in me. The slick pink vinyl of her backpack. I ran to it.
When I bent to pick it up I heard something on the wind. Something like the high, breathy language my daughters speak to each other when they play. I followed the sound around behind the schoolhouse and found Layla squatting there in her pyjamas, softly stacking one of her stone markers in the snow.
Hi, Dad, she said. The snow had reddened her hands and cheeks as though she’d been burnt. She handed me a stone. Here you go, she said.
I took my daughter by the shoulders and stood her up. I raised her sweet chin so her eyes met mine and then I slapped her across the face. She began to cry. I held her. The Chevelle drove up and down Cane Springs Road, the gravel under its tyres going pop pop pop. I said, Shh. That’s enough. A child means nothing out here.
*This story is taken from: Buttleborn © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins.
There’s a handsaw hanging on the wall of my living room, a house key from a giant’s pocket. It’s been there a long time. “What’s your saw for?” people ask, and I say, “It’s not my saw. I never owned a saw.”
“But what’s it for?”
“Hanging,” I answer.
By now if you took it down you’d see the ghost of the saw behind. Or—no, not the ghost, because the blue wallpaper would be dark where the saw had protected it from the sun. Ghosts are pale. So the room is the ghost. The saw is the only thing that’s real.
These days, though it grieves me to say it, that sounds about right.
Here’s how I became a singer. Forty years ago I walked past the Washington Monument in Baltimore and thought, I’ll climb that. It was first thing in the morning. They’d just opened up. As I climbed I sang with my eyes closed—“Summertime,” I think it was. Yes, of course it was. “Summertime.” I kept my hand on the iron banister. My feet found the stairs. In my head I saw myself at a party, leaning on a piano, singing in front of a small audience. I climbed, I sang. I never could remember the words, largely because of a spoonerized version my friend Fred liked to sing—Tummersime, and the iving is leazy / jif are fumping, and the hiver is rye…
Then a man’s voice said, “Wow.”
In my memory, he leans against the wall two steps from the top, shouldering a saw like a rifle. But of course he wouldn’t have brought his saw to the Washington Monument. He was a big-boned, raw-faced blond man with a smashed Parker House roll of a nose, a puny felt hat hanging on the back of his head. His slacks were dark synthetic, snagged. His orange cardigan looked like rusted Brillo. He was so big you wondered how he could have got up there—had the tower been built around him? Had he arrived in pieces and been assembled on the spot? “Wow,” he said again, and clasped his hands in front of himself, bouncing on his knees with the syncopated jollification of a love-struck 1930s cartoon character. I expected to see querulous lines of excitement coming off his head, punctuated by exclamation marks. He plucked off his hat. His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast.
“That was you?” he asked.
I nodded. Maybe he was some municipal employee, charged with keeping the noise down.
“You sound like a saw,” he said. His voice was soft. I thought he might be from the South, like me, though later I found out he just had one of those voices that picked up accents through static electricity. Really he was from Paterson, New Jersey.
“A saw?” I asked.
I put my fingers to my throat. “I don’t know what that means.”
He held up his big hands, one still palming his hat. “Beautiful,” he said. “Not of this earth. Come with me, I’ll show you. Boy, you sure taught George Gershwin a lesson. Where do you sing?”
“Nowhere,” I said.
I couldn’t sing, according to my friends. The only person who’d ever said anything nice about my voice was my friend Fred Tibbets, who claimed that when I was drunk, sometimes I managed to carry a tune. But we drank a lot in those days, and when I was drunk Fred was drunk, too, and sentimental. Still, I secretly believed I could sing. My only evidence was the pleasure singing brought me. Most common mistake in the world, believing that physical pleasure and virtue are in any way related, directly or indirectly.
The man shook his head. “No good,” he said very seriously. “That’s rotten. We’ll change that.” He went to take my hand and instead hung his hat upon it. Then I felt his own hand squeeze mine through the felt. “You’ll sing for me, OK? Would you sing for me? You’ll sing for me.”
He led me back down the monument, the hat on my hand, his hand behind it. My wrist began to sweat but I didn’t mind. “Of course you’ll sing,” he said. He went ahead of me but kept stopping, so I’d half tumble onto the point of his elbow. “I know people. I’m from Philadelphia. Well, I live there. I came to Bawlmore because a buddy of mine, part of a trio, he broke his arm and needed a guitar player so there you go. There are two hundred and twenty-eight steps on this thing. I read it on the plaque. Also I counted. God, you’re a skinny girl, you’re like nothing, you’re so lovely, no, you are, don’t disagree, I know what I’m talking about. Well, not all the time, but right now I do. I’ll play you my saw. Not everyone appreciates it but you will. What’s your name? Once more? Oof. We’ll change that, have to, you need something short and to the point. Take me, I used to be Gabriel McClonnahashem, there’s a moniker, huh? Now I’m Gabe Macon. For you, I don’t know, let me think: Miss Porth. Because you’re a chanteuse, that’s why the Miss. And Porthkiss, I don’t know. And Miss Kiss is just silly. Look at you blush! The human musical saw. There are all sorts of places you can sing, you don’t know your own worth, that’s your problem. I’ve known singers and I’ve known singers. I heard you and I thought, There’s a voice I could listen to for the rest of my life. I’m not kidding. I don’t kid about things like that. I don’t kid about music. I was frozen to the spot. Look, still: goose bumps. You rescued me from the tower, Rapunzel: I climbed down on your voice. I’ll talk to my friend Jake. I’ll talk to this other guy I know. I have a feeling about you. I have a feeling about you. Are you getting as dizzy as me? Maybe it’s not the stairs. Do you believe in love at first sight? That’s not a line, it’s a question. I do, of course I do, would I ask if I didn’t? Because I believe in luck, that’s why. We’re nearly at the bottom. Poor kid, you never even got to the top. Come on. For ten cents it’s strictly an all-you-can-climb monument. We’ll go back up. Come on. Come on.”
“I can sing?” I asked him.
He looked at me. His eyes were green, with gears of darker green around the pupils.
“Trust me,” he said.
I wasn’t the sort of girl who’d climb a monument with a strange man. Or go back to his hotel room with him. Or agree to move to Philadelphia the next day.
But I did.
His room was on the top floor of the Elite Hotel, the kind of place you might check in to to commit suicide: toilet down the hall, a sink in the corner of the room, a view of another building with windows exactly across from the Elite’s windows.
“Musical saw,” said Gabe Macon. He opened a cardboard suitcase that sat at the end of the single bed. First he took out a long item wrapped in a sheet. A violin bow. Then a piece of rosin.
“You hit it with that?” I asked.
“Hit it? What hit?” Gabe said.
“Look,” he said. The saw he’d hung in the closet with his suits. I’d thought a musical saw would be a percussion instrument. A xylophone, maybe. A marimba. He rosined the bow and sat on a chair on the corner. The saw was just a regular wood saw. He clamped his feet on the end of it and then pulled the bow across the dull side of the blade. You could hardly see the saw, the handle clamped between his feet, the end of the metal snagged in his hand: he was a pile of man with a blade at the heart, a man doing violence to something with an unlikely weapon.
It was the voice of a beautiful toothache. It was the sound of every enchanted harp, flute, princess turned into a tree in every fairy tale ever written.
“I sound like that?” I said.
He nodded, kept playing.
I sound like that. It was humiliating, alarming, ugly, exciting. It was like looking at a flattering picture of yourself doing something you wished you hadn’t been photographed doing. That’s me. He was playing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
He finished and looked at me with those Rube-Goldberg eyes. “That’s you,” he said. He flexed the saw back and forth then dropped it to the ground.
I picked it up and tried to see my reflection in the metal. “You don’t take the teeth off?”
“Nope,” he said. “This is my second saw. Here. Give me.” I lifted it by the blade and he caught it through the tawny handle. “First one I bought was too good. Short, expensive. Wouldn’t bend. You need something cheap and with a good length to it. Eight points to an inch, this one. Teeth, I mean.” He flexed it. The metal made that backstage thunder noise I’d imagined when he’d first said I sounded like a saw. “This one, though. It’s right.” He flipped it around and caught it again between his brown shoes and drew the bow against it. He’d turned on just one light by the hotel bed when we’d come into the room. Now it was dark out. I listened to the saw and looked at the sink in the corner. A spider crawled out of it, tapping one leg in front musingly like a blind man with a cane before clambering over the embankment. The saw sighed. Me, too. Then Gabe reached over with the bow and touched my shoulder. I flinched, as though the horsehair had caught a case of sharp off the saw.
“That’s you,” he said again.
Maybe I loved Gabe already. What’s love at first sight but a bucket thrown over you that smoothes out all your previous self-loathing, so that you can see yourself slick and matted down and audacious? At least, I believed for the first time that I was capable of being loved.
Or maybe I just loved the saw.
We left for Philly the next day. The story of our success, and it wasn’t much success, is pretty boring, as all such stories are. A lot of waiting by the phone. A lot of bad talent nights. One great talent night in which I won a box of dishes. The walk home from that night, Gabe carrying the dishes and smashing them into the gutter one by one. Don’t do it, I said, those are mine—
He held one dish to my forehead, then lifted it up, then touched it down again, the way you do with a hammer to a nail before you drive it in.
Then he stroked my forehead with the plate edge.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he said.
He wrote songs. Before I met him I had no idea of how anyone wrote a song. His apartment on Sansom Street smelled of burnt tomato sauce and had in the kitchen, in place of a stove, a piano that looked as though it had been through a house fire. Sometimes he played it. Sometimes he sat at it with his hands twitching over the keys like leashed dogs. “The Land Beyond the Land We Know.” “A Pocket Full of Pennies.” “Your Second Biggest Regret.” “Keep Your Eyes Out for Me.” He was such a sly mimic, such a sneaky thief, that people thought these were obscure standards, if such a thing exists, songs they’d heard many times long ago and were only now remembering. He wrote a song every day. He got mad that sometimes I couldn’t keep them straight or remember them all. “That’s a Hanging Offense.” “Don’t You Care at All.” “Till the End of Us.”
We performed them together. He bought me a green Grecian-draped dress that itched, and matching opera gloves that were too long and cut into my armpits, and lipstick, and false eyelashes—all haunted, especially the eyelashes.
History is full of the sad stories of foolish women. What’s terrible is that I was not foolish. Ask anyone. Ask Fred Tibbets, who lied and said I could carry a tune.
We cut a record called Miss Porth Sings! For a long time you could still find it in bins in record shops under Vocals or Other or Novelty. Me on the sleeve, my head tipped back. I wore red lipstick that made my complexion orange, and tiny saw-shaped earrings. My hair was cashew-colored. That was a fault of the printing. In real life, in those days, my hair was the color of sandpaper: diamond, garnet, ruby.
I was on the radio. I was on the Gypsy Rose Lee Show. Miss Porth, the Human Musical Saw! But the whole point was that Gabe’s saw sounded human. Why be a human who only sounds like an inanimate object that sounds human?
This is not a story about success. In the world we were what we’d always been. The love story: the saw and the sawish voice. We were two cripplingly shy, witheringly judgmental people who fell in love in private, away from the conversation and caution of other people, and then we left town before anyone could warn us.
In Philadelphia he began to throw things at me—silly, embarrassing, lighter-than-air things: a bowl full of egg whites I was about to whip for a soufflé, my brother’s birthday card, the entire contents of a newly opened box of powdered sugar. For days I left white fingerprints behind. He said it was an accident, he hadn’t meant to throw it at all. He was only gesturing.
And then he began to threaten me with the saw.
I don’t think he could have explained it himself. He didn’t drink, but he would seem drunk. The drunkenness, or whatever it was, moved his limbs. Picked up the saw. Brought it to my throat, and just held it there. He never moved the blade, and spoke of the terrible things he would do to himself.
“I’m going to commit suicide,” he said. “I will. Don’t leave me. Tell me you won’t.”
I couldn’t shake my head or speak, and so I tried to look at him with love. I couldn’t stand the way he hated himself. I wanted to kill the person who made him feel this way. Our apartment was bright at the front, by the windows, and black and airless at the back, where the bed was. Where we were now, lying on a quilt that looked like a classroom map, orange, blue, green, yellow.
“My life is over,” said Gabe. He had the burnt-tomato smell of the whole apartment. “I’m old. I’m old. I’m talentless. I can see it, but you know, at the same time, I listen to the radio all day and I don’t understand. Why will you break everyone’s hearts the way you do? Why do you do it? You’re crazy. Probably you’re not capable of love. You need help. I will kill myself. I’ve thought about it ever since I was a little kid.”
The saw blade took a bite of me, eight tooth marks per inch. Cheap steel, the kind that bent easily. I had my hands at the dull side of the saw. How did we get here, I wondered, but I’d had the same disoriented thought when I believed I’d fallen in love with him at first sight, lying in the same bed: How did this happen?
“I could jump,” he said. “What do you think I was doing up that tower when you found me? Windows were too small, I didn’t realize. I’d gotten my nerve up. But then there you were, and you were so little. And your voice. And I guess I changed my mind. Will you say something, Marya? You’ve broken my heart. One of these days I’ll kill myself.”
I knew everything about him. He weighed exactly twice what I did, to the pound. He was ambitious and doubtful: he wanted to be famous, and he wanted no one to look at him, ever, which is probably the human condition—in him it was merely amplified. That was nearly all I knew about him. Sometimes we still told the story of our life together to each other: Why had I climbed the tower that day? Why had he? He had almost stayed in Philadelphia. I’d almost gone back home for the weekend but then my great-aunt Florence died and my folks went to her funeral. If he’d been five minutes slower he wouldn’t have caught me singing. If I’d been ten minutes later, I would have smiled at him as he left.
We were lucky, we told each other, blind pure luck.
One night we were at our standing gig, at a cabaret called Maxie’s. It hurt to sing, with the pearls sticking to the saw cuts. The owner was named Marco Bell. He loved me. Marco’s face was so wrinkled that when he smoked you could see every line in his face tense and slacken.
There’s a land beyond the land we know,
Where time is green and men are slow.
Follow me and soon you’ll know,
My green dress was too big and I kept having to hitch it up. It wasn’t too big a month ago. At the break, I sat down next to Marco. “How are you?” I asked.
“Full of sorrow,” he answered. He leaned into the hand holding the cigarette. I thought he might light his pomaded hair on fire.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You do it, Miss Porth. With your—” He waved at the spot where I’d been standing.
I laughed. “They’re not all sad songs.”
“Yes,” he said. There was not a joke in a five-mile radius of the man. He had a great Russian head with bullying eyebrows. Three years earlier his wife had had a stroke, and sometimes she came into the club in a chevron-patterned dress, sitting in her wheelchair and patting the tabletop, either in time to the music or looking for something she’d put down there. “You’re wrong. They are.”
I said, “Sometimes I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favors.”
Then Gabe was behind me. He touched my shoulder lovingly. Listen: don’t tell me otherwise. It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say—as people will—that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well, it might not have been nourishing, but it sustained me for a while. Once I’d left I’d be as bad as any reformed sinner, amazed at my old self, but even with the blade against my neck, I loved him, his worries about the future, his reliable black moods, his reliable affection—that was still there, too, though sullied by remorse.
I stayed for the saw, too. Not the threat of it. I stayed because of those minutes on stage when I could understand it. Gabe bent it back and it called out, Oh, no, honey, help. It wanted comfort. It wanted to comfort me. We were in trouble together, the two of us: the honey-throated saw, the saw-voiced girl. Help, help, we’re still alive, the saw sang, though mostly its songs were just pronouns all stuck together: I, we, mine, you, you, we, mine.
Yes, that’s right. I was going to tell you about the saw.
Gabe touched my shoulder and said, “Marya, let’s go.”
Marco said, “In a minute. Miss Porth, let’s have a drink.”
“Marya,” said Gabe.
“I’d love one,” I said.
Maxie’s was a popular place—no sign on the front door, a private joke. There was a crowd. Gabe punched me. He punched me in the breast. The right breast. A very strange place to take a punch. Not the worst place. I thought that as it happened: not the worst place to take a punch. The chairs at Maxie’s had backs carved like bamboo. He punched me. I’d never been punched before. He said, “See how it feels, when someone breaks your heart?” and I thought, Yes, as it happens, I think I do.
I was on my back. Marco had his arms around Gabe’s arms and was whispering things in his ear. A crowd had formed. People were touching me. I wished they wouldn’t.
Here is what I want to tell you: I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it.
About five years ago in a restaurant near my apartment someone recognized me. “You’re—are you Miss Porth?” he said. “You’re Miss Porth.” Man about my own age, tweed blazer, bald with a crinkly snub-nosed puppyish face, the kind that always looks like it’s about to sneeze. “I used to see you at Maxie’s,” he said. “All the time. Well, lots. I was in grad school at Penn. Miss Porth! Good God! I always wondered what happened to you!”
I was sitting at the bar, waiting for a friend, and I wanted to end the conversation before the friend arrived. The man took a bar stool next to me. We talked for a while about Philadelphia. He still lived there, he was just in town for a conference. He shook the ice from his emptied drink into his mouth, and I knew he was back there—not listening to me, exactly, just remembering who was at his elbow, and did she want another drink, and did he have enough money for another drink for both of them. All the good things he believed about himself then: by now he’d know whether he’d been right, and right or wrong, knowing was dull. I didn’t like being his occasion for nostalgia.
“I have your album,” he said. “I’m a fan. Seriously. It’s my field, music. I— Some guy hit you,” he said suddenly. His puppy face looked over-sneezeish. “I can’t remember. Was he a drunk? Some guy in love with you? That’s right. A crazy.”
“Random thing,” I said. “What were you studying?”
“Folklore,” he said absentmindedly. “I always wondered something about you. Can I ask? Do you mind?”
Oh, I thought, slide down that rabbit hole if you have to, just let go of my hem, don’t take me with you.
“I loved to hear you,” he said. Puppy tilt to his head, too. “You were like nothing else. But I always wondered—I mean, you seem like an intelligent woman. I never spoke to you back then.” One piece of ice clung to the bottom of his glass and he fished it out with his fingers. “Did you realize that people were laughing at you?”
Then he said, “Oh, my God.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Not me,” he said. “I swear, you were wonderful.”
I turned to him. “Of course I knew,” I said. “How could I miss it?”
The line between pride and a lack of it is thin and brittle and thrilling as new ice. Only when you’re young are you able to skate out onto it, to not care which side you end up on. That was me. I was innocent. Later, when you’re old, when you know things, well, it takes all sorts of effort, and ropes, and pulleys, and all kinds of tricks, to keep you from crashing through, if you’re even willing to risk it.
Though maybe I did know back then that some people didn’t take me seriously. But still: the first time they came to laugh. Not the second. I could hear the audience. I could hear how still they were when I sang with my eyes closed. Sure, some of them had thought, Who does she think she’s fooling? Who does she think she is, with that old green gown, with those made-up songs? But then they’d listen. It was those people, I think, the ones who thought at first they were above me, who got the wind knocked out of them. Who brought their friends the next week. Who bought my record. Who thought: Me. No more, no less, she’s fooling me.
Later I got a letter asking for the right to put two songs from Miss Porth Sings! on a record called Songs from Mars: Eccentrics and their Music. The note said, Do you know what happened to G. Macon? I need his permission, too, of course.
The night of the punch, I went home with Gabe for the last time. Of course, don’t call the police, I told Marco. He was exhausted, repentant. I led him to the bed, to the faded quilt, and he fell asleep. From the kitchen phone I called his sister in Paterson, whom I’d never met, and I told her Gabe Macon was in trouble and alone and needed help. Then I climbed into bed next to him. Gabe had an archipelago of moles on his neck I’d never noticed, and a few faint acne scars on his nose. His eyebrows were knit in dreamy thought. I loved that nose. He hated it. “Do I really look like that?” he’d ask, seeing a picture of himself. He’d cover his nose with his hand.
I didn’t know what would become of him. I had to quit caring. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t the saw and it wasn’t a fear of being alone that kept me there: it was wanting to know the end of the story, and wanting the end to be happy.
At five a.m. I left with a bag, the saw, bamboo-patterned bruises on my back, and a fist-shaped bruise on my right breast. Soon enough I was amazed at how little I cared for him. Maybe that was worse than anything.
Still, no matter what, I can’t shake my first impression. Even now, miles and years away, the saw in my living room to remind me, when I think of Gabe, I see a 1930s animated character: the black pie-cut eyes, white gloved hands held flat against the background, dark long limbs without elbows and knees that do not bend but undulate. The cheap jazzy glorious music that, despite your better self, puts you in a good mood. Fills you with cheap jazzy hope. And it seems you’re making big strides across the country on your spring-operated limbs, in your spring-loaded open car, in your jazzy pneumatic existence. You don’t even notice that behind you, over and over in the same order, is the same tree, shack, street corner, mouse hole, table set for dinner, blown-back curtains.
*This story is taken from: Thunderstruck and Other Stories © 2014 by Elizabeth McCracken, The Dial Press, New York.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
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