Sunday, November 30, 2008
Yesterday, still on the sea, I was Jules Bourglay.
Today I am nobody. I am like a pane of glass. Clear. Brittle. People look through me and see only what is beyond.
My former life is buried in the waves, and blown by the wind that carried me to this new country. This country where any criminal, any sinner, any saint may begin anew. This new land, America.
Today a new life begins.
This I vow. To the life of my dear Marie, I forever dedicate my own life. And to beg forgiveness of those who loved her, like I did. I dedicate my journey.
I left Lyon unwillingly. But I accept my fate with my open heart, crushed though it is. This I know. In a country where I am a stranger, I will melt like a Spring snow and run through the earth until I am carried away again, purified. I have no need for Jules Bourglay.
And so Jules Bourglay, I bid you adieu.
The great port of New York is crowded. It hums with commerce. There is a beautiful indifference to the stranger, the immigrant.
"Ask for nothing," New York seems to say. "And nothing you will receive. Ask for the world, and it is yours."
The costume and custom are foreign, as is the language. Occasionally I catch a phrase of my native French, but rarely is it the polished, musical song my father taught me. It is the sour French of the port and back alley. It is a French that calls to me from Lyon.
More often I hear Italian, or Spanish. And most often the formidable, unconquerable Anglais.
I traveled the street until I found an outfitter. For my walking I would need sturdy boots, and trousers of a heavy twill. The man sold me roomy farmer's boots, and trousers of a blue canvas. I gave to him all my silver, and let him keep the clothes I wore on my crossing. Though I understood none of what he said, he seemed to understand less of me. He took the silver happily, and gave me a soft cotton shirt, and a light wool coat as well.
It was September, and he mimed pulling a blanket around his shoulder, shivering. If the balmy weather of this September day is as cold as it gets in New York, I have nothing to fear.
Next I found a sailor's seafaring shop, spent my gold on a canvas duffel, a cast iron skillet, a straight razor, scissors, and a long knife.
At a bookstore, I bought a second journal, this one, plain paper between heavy leather covers, and a small hymnal, in French, I found on a corner book shelf. I recognized the songs, and could have sung them by heart, the man charged me three coppers for it, but I gave him the remainder of my gold and walked into the street.
I was too generous too soon in my career as a wanderer, and in my haste to begin my journey I forgot to procure a hat. This I bartered for. No need for time, I traded my Swiss pocket watch for a felt hat that seemed to me to have the shape favored by the Americans wandering these narrow streets.
Though the day is bright, and the noise of the street powerful, my heart is leaden. I still cannot understand how any mother can smile at her child when she knows how cruel a fate awaits him. I cannot comprehend how a lover can take another's hand when he knows he is holding, beneath her pale flesh, a fan of bones which the earth will, in the end, bleach white.
This I know. Life is but a mockery. The soul is trapped here. All men are fools seduced by a colorful charade.
Today, I step into the street, free, unencumbered by belongings save for those strapped to my back. This is how I will live until I die. This is where I will lose myself and find peace.
Adieu, Jules Bourglay. Adieu.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
From down in the village these brick buildings up here look mighty handsome. Aside from the Methodist college they're the only real institution in Middletown.
And the college buildings, at Middletown's other institution, on the hill opposite this one, most of them don't look like they were built by the same hand, yet most of them's made of the same red brick as this place. Dug out of a pit and fired over in the meadows, they say.
Vinny told me once that some proud father escorted his son into the main hall here and wanted to enroll him. It impressed him so from the outside that he thought it was Wesleyan. Vinny said he thought the son looked like he would fit in right well here.
Vinny also said that the old man was disappointed when he got over to the college. He didn't think the buildings, or the grounds were nearly as pretty as the Goodman property. I've got to agree with him. Of course, I don't know how Vinny might of known what the old man thought. And I've never asked him.
The old main house is used for the hospital offices now. It's almost four stories and sits on the crest of the hill closest to the village. The hills rise higher up behind us, but what's not farmed, or corralled, is forest and ledge. The guards hunt quail, turkey and venison in those woods in the autumn. My sister says that from the bedroom windows you can see from one bend in the river to the next, and right across to the Portland cliffs.
Fifty-year elms line the drive. Out back, a two-story carriage house and a small wooden barn sit among a nest of six or eight boulders, the kind you see in every Connecticut farm field. The kind that looked like they were dropped by a hooligan god trying to drive the poor farmers mad.
We've had a few mad farmers up here. Lawrence Shaw drove his pitchfork through every animal on his place. He was about to start on the family when his daughter caught him on the head with an iron spade. She was angry that he lanced her cat. Now he's here. If he'd a got to the family he'd of danced on the end of a hangman's rope.
Donal Quinlan didn't kill nothing. He just took his clothes off and walked through Chester village. Maybe he wouldn't of been here either if he wasn’t so well masted, and his yardarm, on that particular day, hadn't been swinging so straight and proud.
Elizabeth Goodman was the last Goodman to live in the old main house. It was Mrs. Goodman began to take in the strays who no one else wanted. Her father made a fortune selling fertilizer he made from dried blood, bone, phosphate and cow flops. She used the money her father left her to build the two halls. Men's and Women's.
Vinny said she was going to name both of them after someone in her family, but had second thoughts about a building called the William Goodman Men's Lunatic Dormitory or some such.
Vinny hauled bricks in a hod with the Irish and Italians who helped build the halls. He says Mrs. Goodman came out to supervise the work each day, and to stand behind a table draped in a linen cloth to serve the boys lemonade on a hot day. Vinny says she was a do-gooder from the word, "Go."
When Mrs. Goodman died, before the halls were even finished, Vinny wanted to go to the funeral, but he wasn't allowed. None of the servants were. They had to walk to the graveyard, down behind the college, right next to the Indian Hill burying ground, on Saturday, and put flowers on the grave. On the way back home, while walking through town, Vinny got beat up when he wouldn't be dragged into a tavern where some tough wanted to display Vinnie’s rosebud to the patrons. In the end, everyone in the place got to see Vinny's ruined face as he lay unconscious in the middle of Court St.
Mrs. Goodman left the buildings and the land to the state, with the instructions that it be turned into an asylum for the insane. She also instructed them to leave her family name off of all of the buildings.
So, it's the main house, Men's, Women's and the lockup, for the hard cases. The kitchen is in Women's, where it’s handy for the matrons to find capable women who are able to help prepare the meals.
My sister is a matron. Though she lived with the patients, and not off the grounds like most of the other matrons. She works during the day in the laundry, and a night in the kitchen, and like me, for her labors gets a bunk and three meals a day.
I've never heard the whole story, but my sister Elizabeth said that my mother died shortly after I was born. My Daddy, I don't remember, but Elizabeth says just as well. She says he used to go off and leave us, and not come back for days. Lizzie took care of me, and she took care of herself. One day Daddy left and didn't come back. That's when a neighbor lady was kind enough to put us in the back of her cart and drive us up here. All I remember is here.
"Just as well," my sister Lizzie said in her big sister way.
When she’s on kitchen duty, I get my dinner no matter what Chester Hight sang.
I walked round back of Women's to the door of the kitchen and pressed my nose to the window. Even with the heat and humidity of the day, the window was steamed from the tubs of water heating on the cookstoves. When the tin dinner plates were collected from the long plank table in the eating hall, they'd be dropped in the tubs to soak, and then to be scrubbed by my sister, and whatever loony was assigned to help her that night.
I couldn't see her for the steam when the door opened and Mrs. Lucinda McAllister stepped into the door frame. Though I was standing, nearly staring into her waist sash, she looked right by me. Looked off into the hills like I wasn't there.
"Evening ma'am," I said softly, hoping not to startle her.
"Young man, this is the woman's dormitory. Have you nothing better to do than stare through windows you ought not even be glancing at?"
"Mrs. McAllister. It's me Jack Conroy. I'm looking for Elizabeth. She in there."
Then Mrs. McAllister got to looking at me again, like she wasn't seeing me at all.
"Have you seen any soldiers from the encampment?" she asked, once again looking into the hills.
I turned around to look too.
"No, ma'am. I'm not familiar with any encampment."
"I'm looking for my father. He promised he'd return when the war was over."
"Ain't been a war for mor’n five years ma'am."
"He makes me wait, he does."
"Yes'm. Is Elizabeth inside?"
"My sister, Elizabeth Conroy."
Lizzy must've heard my voice for she tugged Mrs. McAllister gently out of the doorway.
"Hello Jack. Dorothy looking for the soldiers again, is she?" Lizzie looked off into the hills where Mrs. McAllister had gazed.
I turned around and looked again too.
"Leave her be, Jack. Come ‘round her."
I reckoned my sister was as sane as anyone I'd known. Fact is I didn't know much difference then between sane and insane. The only difference I knew was that in general that most so-called sane people seemed to be less kind.
"Old man Leather's due tonight," I heard Deely, the negro cook call from inside the kitchen.
"Fix him a plate, Deely," Lizzie shouted back.
"Is it my father?" Mrs. McAllister asked.
"I do believe he asked you to clean up those dinner dishes, Dorothy."
"You're right, he did. He did."
Mrs. McAllister shuffled into the billowy heat of the kitchen.
"What can I get you Jack?" Lizzie asked.
"What's left?" I asked.
"Pork hash and johnny cakes. Same as old man Leather'll get. But maybe if you ask nicely, Deely'll cut you a piece of the raspberry pie she cooked up for him."
Old man leather, some called him the Leatherman, was a hobo in these parts. He wore handmade leather coat and pants, bulky and brown. Once a month he showed up here at the door begging a meal.
Lizzie smiled and looked into the hills again.
Vinny said Lizzie was beautiful. I don't know. I know she's more handsome than most of the women around here. But it ain't much of a compliment. Most of these women've seen hard times. Anyway, Vinny said you're blind to the beauty of your family and friends.
"Blind to the ugliness too," I ventured, then winced.
"Or you couldn't bear talking to me. God is good, Jack. Even a snake loves it's young."
I looked up into the hills where my sister stared.
"No, poor Dorothy. Her Daddy run off with a circus girl. Her Mama didn't know what to tell her. She was just a young thing. So her Mama told her he'd be back. Then her Mama jumped in the river at flood, and left Dorothy standing on the bank. Stood there all night, they say. Next morning they brought her here."
"She ever ask about her Mama."
"No, I reckon she doesn't expect her back."
"What're you thinking Lizzie?" She had a faraway look in her eyes. She’d get it, once in awhile.
"Nothing Jack. I'll bring you your dinner. You want it on a plate, or in a sack."
"A sack. I'll be eating down by the river."
"Don't want that pie, then?"
"Didn't say that. Put it in the sack."
"I expect Deely won't let you carry it off. If she gives you any at all, I expect she'd like you to eat it here."
"Here, or by the river, what's the difference?"
"Old man Leather'll want to know where the missing piece went," Deely said poking her head over Lizzie's shoulder.
"Give it here now, if you please. I'll eat it first," I protested.
"That's bad for your digestion," Lizzie said.
"That's bad manners. Even for the loony bin," Deely added.
"Must I wait then?"
"You must. But not for long. Here he comes now." Deely lifted her gaze. A soft smile lit her face like the sun turning a field in the cold hills warm.
I turned around once more and saw a brown speck against the tan hillside in the distance. For a moment it looked like a bear. Like one of the blacks that rumbled out of the woods and made away with a calf, or a kid. But the speck moved too determinedly. It was shapeless, like a bear. Shapeless even as it grew closer.
"Old man leather?" I asked.
Deely nodded but shushed me.
"Listen," she said. "Just listen. You'll hear him acomin'. And don't say a word. He's as skittish as a doe. If you chase him away, you'll chase my good luck along with it."
I looked into the steaming kitchen and thought, "Good luck?" But I didn't say it. I just looked into the hills toward the spot where Deely was now pointing.
Old man leather was still no more than a shambling speck in the distance when I heard the sound. It was a creaking, or a squeaking. It sounded to me like the passing of a division of mounted soldiers, without the horse hooves, or the neighs.
"What is it?" I asked.
As the speck grew larger I could see it walked upright. But it was still brown, and shapeless. The squeaking continued, along with a scraping.
"Leather," I shouted. “Leather against leather.”
Deely looked at me sternly. Her gaze was a punishment fit for a murderer. Fortunately it dealt me a glancing blow, then set fixed again on the field where the speck crossed.
“Old man leather's got a big cowhide coat, ain't he?" I said, hoping to win Deely’s favor.
"Hasn't he," Deely corrected me.
"I don't know, that's why I asked," I laughed and dodged the end of Deely's dish rag as it cracked the air next to my ear.
Lizzie shrugged, while Deely stared intently at the speck. It stopped. The squeaking stopped.
"You scared him," she said. "He won't visit now."
But after a moment, a moment in which he stood so still I couldn't make him out from the domes of hay we'd been raking that afternoon, he continued walking, and in our direction.
"Now you just take your lunch elsewhere," Deely scolded me in a hushed voice.
"What about the pie?"
"You can just forget the pie," she said, pulling her apron above her head in a linen wave, as if I were some cat she was chasing away. I looked at Lizzie for intercession. She clucked and told me I best leave.
I looked over my shoulder to where the squeaks were getting louder. I saw old man leather getting closer, but I couldn't see much more than that he was a big man in girth. Maybe two hundred pounds, and that weight concentrated in a compact body standing at about five foot ten inches.
"Scat," Deely gave me a shove as if to get me out of sight before the waddling brown giant approached.
I took it in my mind to raise up my arms, turn toward the approaching visitor and screech like a piglet with a wolf's teeth in my haunches. But Lizzie must have read my thoughts.
She said, "Don't Jack. Just go."
"Go before you spoil my luck forever," Deely hissed.
I picked up my sack and headed between the two brick dormitories, and down to the churning Connecticut.
After passing through Glastonbury, the Connecticut River makes a slow turn to the East. It travels through farmland and pasture until it reaches the great bog just outside Middletown. The bog is a wide flood plain that is underwater for most of the Spring, during the freshet. and the floating pastures, full of wild rice, muskrat, beaver and catfish, stays wet for the remainder of the year. Except on the winter's coldest days, which is the only time I've seen the bog close up.
On those frozen days, it becomes a skate pond. Ice dark as the ebony of a new piano. With crazy tufts of blond marsh grass piercing the black lustre. I skated there, with a pair of wooden skates, fashioned by Vinny. He forged them from the runners of an old wrecked sleigh that he found in the barn.
Of course, between Vinny and me, an orphan from the insane asylum, and a monster with a wrecked face, we spent hours trying to outskate the local boys. When finally I tired and tripped over a tuft of the yellow marsh grass, I found myself buried beneath a cascade of snowballs.
Still, it was a day I still remember fondly.
The Connecticut passes through Middletown lethargically. Though the river is deep. Deep enough to make Middletown an important mid-river harbor. Here, it's full of tricky and unexpected currents. Strong as a stevedore.
Vinny says he saw two strong boys, and a man who meant to rescue them, swim to the middle of the river and just disappear. Pulled under. And all the bodies washed ashore within three feet of one another down in Essex.
Still I've taken to the river myself. Found a battered rowboat one spring after the flood. It had a hole in it's bottom as wide as a parishoner's yawn.
I plugged it first with rags, but found it took on water too quickly for me to make the main current. Then I tried some veneer I found peeling off an old table. Another piece of river treasure. And I fastened it with roofing nails and some roofer's tar. It held good enough to get me to the other side, using an old wooden snowshovel for a paddle. But I found the other shore, the Portland side, downriver, unfriendly. Cliffs towered hundreds of feet above me. I paddled back, but the current dragged me downriver four or five miles before I reached the home shore.
I carried the boat back halfway. Then decided to stow it ‘neath some rubble until I could make it back to haul it the rest of the way.
When I did return, I couldn't find it again. Couldn't find the pile of rubble. Probably some other kid out there on the river with big dreams of rowing to the ocean, and back again. Or maybe keep on going all the way to Virginia or Bermuda.
That day, I just wanted a dry log, and a view of the river's great muscle pulsing and pitching and pulling. I 'd eat my hash and dream I was a fish facing that great wall of water, pushing against my nose day after day, as I struggled to make it to Hartford.
Glad I wasn't a fish.
I found the log. My log.
I guessed it was an elm by the bark that didn't get stripped in it's ride downriver. I like to think it's from Vermont, or Canada, where Vinny says the Connecticut runs as small and quick as the current in a drainage ditch after a thunderstorm.
It had a great mass of tangled roots that elbowed twenty feet out into the current. From it's crook I could drag my hand in the current, and pretend I was a sailor adrift in some bottomless sea.
I opened my sack. My sister had filled an old canning jar with the hash. Though it was probably some of the same meat that had been served to us for the past few weeks, it was easier to eat. Easier to chew, that is, and tastier. Deely had a way with the spices. She'd given me two slabs of brown bread spread thickly with butter, and three plums from the asylum orchard. These were prizes, for most of the crop was put away for the administrator's eating, or sold at market. Though we pruned and harvested these plums, we rarely got to eat them.
"Gonna eat that hash cold," a thin voice, like a horseshoe on slate, came from behind me.
I turned, and there, standing where the first branches spread from this old dead elm, stood a man as thin as the branch he leaned against. He was raggedy, and he looked old. But I knew he was a hobo, and generally hoboes look much older than they really are.
"The name's Drake. Jebediah Drake. Happy to make your acquaintance. You gonna eat that hash cold?" he trailed his words together so that he barely let a breath slip in. As for my opportunity to answer, it didn't exist.
“I know a woman who eats cold pie for breakfast. Pie and cheese. She calls it a delicacy. Not for me, no. I like my food warm. To warm my inside,” he babbled.
"I like cold hash," I said, turning from him. I neither wanted to talk, nor to share my supper.
"I've got a fire. A hot fire. Just coals, glowing red. And a spider hot and ready."
"I don't want to put you to no trouble," I said, and I knew I was loosing the battle for my supper, for hoboes are always hungry, and therefore more skilled at talking a sometimes-hungry man out of part of his meal.
"It's no trouble. Always room in my skillet for some cold food. Come lad, cold hash is bad for your digestion."
"Why is it that suddenly everyone is so danged concerned about my digestion. Here, what'd you call yourself?"
"Drake. Like the explorer."
I had no idea what he was talking about but I offered him half of my bread and hash, if he'd just leave me be.
"Wouldn't think of it lad. Not a't'all. If you won't join me, I must say I'm forced to refuse your hospitality.
"Have it your way."
I began to turn, hoping he'd leave me some peace, but he stood his ground silently.
"All right then," I said. "Show me the fire."
We walked from the fallen elm, away from the river, toward the steep bank. The trees grew thicker toward the bank, with some wiry tangles of wild rose and raspberry. I couldn't spot the glow of the fire, as the dusk filled the woods with thick shadow.
"Where's your fire?" I asked.
"Yonder, past my hut," Drake rasped.
All I could see of a hut was a ruination of a wooden wall. Its foundation was black and broken railroad ties from the Saybrook-to-Hartford line that ran fifty feet above us on the crest of the bank. The wall itself was a patchwork of crates, chicken wire, tin advertising signs, and driftwood, twisted and swollen into a shape that invited the wind through the wall.
As we stepped around the hut, I spotted the fire. It was built inside a well of small boulders shiny with the feldspar embedded in the rock of these hills.
Drake ducked into the hut and emerged with a large black iron skillet. A spider, he called it. And it looked like one, black legs to stand on hot rocks, and a handle for a head. By the looks of it, it had seen a thousand fires.
"What're you waiting for, Sonny?" Drake asked. "It's past dinner by two hours already."
“I thought your skillet was hot?” I said.
I thought him bold, for a beggar, but I bent anyway to open the sack.
That's all I remember of the day. For I felt the skillet as it landed on the crown of my head. And I saw bright cinders fly behind my eyes. And the day was gone.
Monday, November 17, 2008
I was working the hay field across from the insane asylum. Pierson had a gang of us out there with rakes. It was the first week of August, and hot. The locusts were squalling. I could look down and see the broad blue elbow of the Connecticut River in the valley below, and it only made the heat worse. The sweat ran in currents through my scalp and down my neck. And the haydust clung to my skin like a burlap shirt, but it itched worse.
I was the only sane one on the gang. Except for Vinny. But it seemed like I was the only one sweating.
I stopped for some water and Pierson spotted me.
"Conroy," he said. "Keep raking."
"I ain't your prisoner. And I ain't no madman. I'll get a drink of water when I'm thirsty," I yelled back.
"You're the only one gets paid." Pierson called back.
"I'm thirsty too," Chester Nealy shouted in his cow voice. Then it was too late. Pretty soon the whole gang of them crazies was mooing for water.
"Drink then," Pierson spat a muddy gob. His teeth looked like piano keys from that black twist he chewed. "But get back to work as soon as you're done."
I got to the water first, and was glad.
I was mostly used to these men by now, living with them as I did. But I know some people couldn't bear to look at them, with their faces twisted and squashed like they were. I got over that a while back.
But I didn't want even one of them getting to the water first and drooling in the bucket.
"He's a bitch's bastard's whore, he is. He can bite my arse," Vinny whispered to me.
Vinny learned to curse when he sailed with a freight line out of New London. He was abandoned in Spain when he beat the boswain of the Mary Lee near to death in Madrid. The boswain tried to sell him to a circus.
"Fuck Pierson, but don't fuck his mother," he leaned into me, "She'll give you the clap."
And he laughed.
Vinny was nearly as sane as me. And I don't say that with any pride. He was, down deep, a better man than I. But he'd lived up here at the insane asylum for eighteen years, and that pushed him off center. That was before I was born, by four years. Before they called this place the insane asylum.
When he got back to New London on another freighter, the police were waiting for him on the dock. They never told him why he was arrested, but he says he remembers seeing that boatswain smiling as they loaded him into the Paddy Wagon. He didn't go without a fight. He still carries a leather oval that he shows when he tells the story.
"There's a one-eared, son-of-a-papist, Irish copper pounding a beat in New London. That flat-footed potato thief won't ever forget me. I'll never forget him, either" Then he'd stash the soft, wrinkled oval in his pocket again, shrug his shoulders and laugh softly.
They put him in lockup for awhile, then shipped him up where his family came from. His family weren't very happy to see him again. Fact is, they thought they'd seen the last of him. Vinny swears they put the boatswain up to selling him to the circus.
Middletown didn't want him either, jail or no. The chief of police couldn't stand to look at him. So they sent him up to the Goodman home, what we call the insane asylum now, and he's lived with these lunatics for eighteen years.
That's why I say he's almost as sane as me. After eighteen years with this kind -- the night screams and the fits, the arms and legs and necks twisted all the wrong way – you'd fall a little off the track too.
Vinny's face was one of the hardest to look at when you first saw him. His really doesn't look much like a face at all. It's a bright violet blotch. It looks like it's turned inside out, like a butcher slit it down the middle, pulled what was underneath out, and chopped it up some for good measure. ‘Cept with a nose three time the size you'd see on any normal man, and bright blue eyes.
I knew what that ship captain was thinking. There'd be plenty of folks who'd pay money to see a face like this in a circus tent. They'd see it again in their nightmares once they got home.
He called his face his "rosebud." But it reminded me more of a tub of innards. He's told me it'd been like that since he was born. Says, "Can you imagine the looks on the face of my Mam and Da. It's a wonder they didn't kill me, then and there."
But just like these others, once you saw him a couple of times, you could look in his eyes when he was talking to you and almost forget that he looked like something that stepped out of your worst dream. And living up here, you have some pretty bad ones.
"Three more hours ‘til dinner" I said to Vinny.
Meals were the only partially pleasant intervals in days filled with numbing boredom or deadening labor. In my thirteen years, these meals were the only way I marked my days. Still I couldn't remember a good day, all the way through, yet.
"Don't count on food tonight," Vinny replied. "Pierson says his legs tell him rain is coming. He wants the hay in the barn before the evening dew sets."
"If it storms, there won't be any dew. He's got to give us dinner. These loonies'll fall over dead."
I shouldn't have said it. Vinny was starting to get agitated. And when he got agitated, his cursing got worse. He told me he didn't have any control over it, but I never believed it. He'd stand there and roll his eyes back in his head, and jerk his arms forward, just like he was pummeling some forgotten enemy, and curse to beat the band. Never heard such words before, or since.
"Fucking Pierson. Fuck him, fuck."
"Relax Vinny. Finish your water and let's get back to work."
"Shut up. Shut, shu-shut. Fuck Pierson. Fuck him, fuckshut."
I was sure Pierson heard that. And though I hated Pierson as much as I hated any man, I was tired and I wasn't sure I wanted to get beaten just to protect someone who didn't know better than to curse his boss in the noonday sun, even if he was my friend.
I shook Vinny, and that was a mistake. He sputtered and spit and his arms started jerking. The rest of the lunatics had finished the water, and were walking back to the hay rows. Cooley Hanson was pissing in the middle of the field with his britches around his ankles. Pierson stopped and said something to him, then headed our way.
He walked straight up to us. He didn't stop, and he didn't say a word.
"Fuck you, Pierson. Shit, shit, shit, stuck shutfuck. Shutshutshut. Fuck you Pierson, shut."
Pierson raised the handle of his rake when he was a step away from Vinny, and as he reached him he carried it in a wide arc then swung it hard into Vinny's face. Vinny staggered, and his rosebud seemed to blossom with blood through the fingers he pressed to his face.
"Fuck. Fuck. Shutshut." Vinny said as he fell to the ground.
Pierson was raising the rake to take another swipe when I landed my fist in the side of his head. He staggered back a step, but didn't fall and now he raised the rake handle and aimed it at me. He was a good foot taller than I was, and I knew I was beaten. I covered my head and readied myself for the blow.
"This is your fault Conroy. Your friend would be fine if you didn't need to stop for a drink of water."
The blow to my head never came. Instead I felt the sting of the maple rod against the back of my legs. My knees buckled and I fell to the dust.
"I don't want you unconscious," Pierson laughed. I need to get the hay in the barn and you're the only sane one here.
"Fuck you." Vinny spat. It sounded like he was drowning.
I took Vinny back to the hall. After I roused him and got the bleeding to stop, I saw that his nose had a severe pitch to the left. Overall, given the condition of his face, if you hadn't seen him before, you'd never guess the new angle was man-made harm. And I thought the alteration actually had the effect of making his huge snoot seem smaller.
"What'd I say now?" Vinny asked me in a raspy nasal whine as we crossed the field to the hall.
"Get off it. You know what you said. And I can barely walk because you don't like Pierson's looks."
"What'd I say, Jack. I swear, I don't..."
"You do swear. That's the problem."
"Pierson give us the afternoon off?"
"It must've been the sweet way you asked, Vinny."
We played Bristol pitch the rest of the afternoon sitting on our bunks in the hall with a worn deck of cards Vinny pulled from his bed chest. The room was as big as a church, but instead of rows of seats, there were beds. Vinny and I slept on two in the middle. We had straw mattresses with worn flannel ticking. And in winter, grey horsehair blankets that scratched like grandad's Saturday evening beard.
Vinny pulled a cigar tin from the chest.
"Medicine," he whispered. "For my nose."
Inside was the jar of the potato liquor he favored. He brewed it in an old kettle down by the river. He sold it to some of the crazies who got a few pennies from their with families. Why they gave them money I'll never figure. What didn't get stolen by the guards got spent on Vinny's potato liquor.
When they drank, the quiet ones got noisy and the noisy ones slept. So things weren't much different for the rest of us. You still woke up every hour with one of them moaning like a heifer birthing her first.
"You know," Vinny said, sending a drizzle of alchohol onto the playing cards. "I'd sell my soul to Beelzebub if I could look like you, instead of owning this blasted mug of mine.
I had heard Vinny begin to strike this sorry bargain with Satan before, and I just wanted to play cards.
"Not that you're so good looking Jack. Not that at all."
I tried to give him a look that would put an end to this tired sermon, but he misinterpreted.
"Oh, don't go getting hurt Jack. Shit, I didn't mean you weren't good to look at. Lots of rich boys would pay to have that silky hair and grey eyes of yours, just like they paid not to fight the damn rebels. You're skinny sure, but you're taut as the line on a mainsail. And you're tall for your age. I was as tall as I am now when I was fourteen."
"Vinny let's play cards," I pleaded.
"Your mama and papa must've been handsome to produce two like you and Elizabeth."
"Listen, Vinny. You don't want to finish this game I got some reading I could do."
"Oh leave off those sorry dime novels Jack. Errant Dave and his Indian pal Pequot Bill will be under your mattress all night long. You can get to them later. Here, I've got a trump."
He pulled away my nine with a jack and won a point.
"Just that I'd like to look normal. Not like this, that's all," he sighed.
We didn't bother going over to the dinning hall at six, sure that they'd already gotten word that we'd skipped out of working. No meals for loafers. At eight, Chester Hight ran into the hall in his famous crouch.
"You boys missed dinner."
"No grub for the lazy," Vinny replied dropping a red-headed Queen on my ten. "Pitch."
"You boys missed dinner," Chester repeated.
"He's got his song for the night," I folded my cards as Vinny added three points to his total. He played better drunk than sober.
"Got my nourishment right here." Vinny held the tin aloft.
"You boys missed dinner."
"Should I kick him?" Vinny asked.
"Let him be. If it weren't dinner, it'd be his hat or shirt..."
"Or his John Thomas."
"You boys missed dinner."
"I need some dinner."
"But we haven't finished the set," Vinny said, and began to deal.
"It's yours. I need to eat and sit by the river. Want to come?"
"No, I'll just stay here and listen to Chester sing."
With that, Vinny fell back against a coarse flannel pillow that coughed a cloud of dust into the last finger of sunlight reaching through the darkening hall.
"You boys missed dinner," Chester said again as I moved down the hall.
"Shaddup," I heard Vinny yell as I walked down the worn path that led to the kitchen.
I was hungry and figured I'd have to be happy that way.