Sunday, February 22, 2009
I found Marie a year later. She remembered me as we passed in market. I had given up my search for her, but I knew her as soon as she placed her hand on my sleeve.
"Monsieur Bourglay," she said. "I am right, aren't I."
"Hello, sir. How are you? And your father?”
She had taken my breath away, and I gulped and stuttered to answer her simple enquiries, never once stopping to ask after her own health or that of her father's.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm keeping you from something. You are a very busy man."
She turned to leave and I found my voice.
"Marie," I croaked, humiliatingly, "Don't leave. I'd like to talk with you. May I buy you a coffee."
There was a small decrepit cafe at the end of the market where the merchant gathered, but rarely the customers. The merchants all seemed to smoke that foul-smelling turkish tabacco, and they drank coffee as dark and as thick as the tar I'd seen sailors place in the chinks of wood in a ship's hold where the light showed through.
She picked a table close to the bustle of people on the street. It was difficult to hear what she said. We ordered coffee and I forced her to have a croissant.
I drank my coffee down fast, it was bitter and strong, and then I began to interrogate her.
"Your father. He is well?"
She told me he was as well as could be expected, and when I asked her what that meant she just repeated that he was well.
I asked her more about her life and she told me that she kept house for her father in the mornings, worked with him at his trade in the afternoons, and cooked for him in the evenings. This had been her life since her mother died when she was a girl.
I asked her what she did for pleasure, and she told me that she had no time for anything as frivolous as pleasure. She spent much of her time on Sunday at church, and the rest at home preparing a huge meal, with her aunts, for her father, her uncles and her male cousins.
She asked me the time, and when she realized that we had been speaking for over an hour, she began to rise and excuse herself.
"May I see you again," I asked.
"I cannot prevent you from seeing me, unless I were to blind you."
"I don't mean for you to take me so literally."
"I am not taking you in any way, Monsieur Bourglay. I simply do not know what you mean by "seeing" me. If you mean visit, then yes you may visit me. If you mean to court me , monsieur, it is a matter that you must first take up with my father."
"And would you like me to court you?"
"I will leave that to my father."
With that she smiled, turned on the heel of her sturdy boot, and left.
I was perplexed, for I did not know if her words meant that she cared for me. I felt foolish. I was not unwise to the ways of women, but this one puzzled me. She was playing a game of bouree with my heart, but using different rules from the ones I knew. Our happenstance cup of coffee had distracted me completely from the business I had planned for the morning. And once I abandoned it mentally, I found I was able to discard all other chores for the morning, and in its place, make a visit to Marie's father.
It took me more than one turn around the block of houses that made up a small industrial corner of the city, before I found the alley that led to the man's shop.
I entered a room fetid with hides. In one corner were the hides of cattle, in another beaver pelts, marked roughly with a sheet of paper, "Hats." In another corner were pelts of an animal that had been every shade of grey between black and white. I could not identify the animal. Behind another pile of glistening fox pelts stood the man I was looking for, Monsieur Brilliard. He looked much the same as I remembered.
"Bon matin, bonhomme." I said walking toward the man separating the great pile of pelts into two smaller piles.
"I'm sorry, have we met?" he said extending a hand.
"My name is Bourglay, my father has purchased pelts from you."
"Ah, Monsieur Bourglay. Welcome. Is it about more pelts? The leather is not so good at the moment, but I'm sure I could find if there were a shipment due into Lyon any day soon."
"No, I haven't come about leather. I've come to talk to you about your daughter."
I felt I was leading into the conversation smoothly, or so I thought, perhaps catching the man off-guard so that I might politic my way into the rest of the answer."
"You are not the first man, nor the first man of circumstance, who has come to me to ask permission to court my daughter."
"None have been successful?"
"Few have made it past me. Of those who have, my good Marie has not found long satisfaction. I would love for her to marry someone who understands her. Someone who is like her. Like me. A tradesman, a sailor, even a laborer. But she has had her head turned by the likes of you, and now will not settle for a commoner."
"Sir, I am a hard worker, and can offer you proof."
"I know you are a rich man, Monsieur Bourglay. That does not mean you are a hard worker. And hard work will not necessarily win the heart of my daughter.”
"What do you require?"
" I require, now that you mention it, that you be a hard worker. Wealth does not last forever, and I require that you know how to earn another fortune in the case that you should lose your first."
The old man squatted and leaned against a bail of some unknown skin. He invited me to do the same. I did.
"Good, you know enough to be deferential to an old man."
"How will I prove to you that I am a hard worker."
"Stop working for your father. For a year, find other occupation, and at the end of that time if you have proven yourself worthy, then I will know that you are a hard worker."
"And I may have your daughter's hand."
"Like all men you move too fast."
"What else is required?"
"You must respect your parents, and your in-laws."
"Of course, I would."
"I'm a lowly dealer in skins. You are a wealthy leathergoods merchant. You can say, without doubt, that you would listen to me if I required something of you in a marriage with my daughter."
"Monsieur Bourglay. I only ask for respect, and not fealty. I don't believe, at this point, that you are prepared to provide me with either, but you can learn respect. Even for a dirty old skinner like me."
"Is there anything else required?"
"Yes two things."
"What things?" I asked.
"That she love and that she is loved."
"I'm not sure I can guarantee those things now."
"I know you cannot Monsieur Bourglay, as you cannot prove the others. But in the end you must prove them all. You may see my daughter as soon as you like, but not without her aunt as chaperone. You may see my daughter as long as she wishes to see you…"
“But not without a chaperone.”
I left the small shop heady with his assent. The possibilities, which up to a moment ago were implausible, were now the nourishment of my dreams and aspirations. I pictured us in a fine town house overlooking the river, with servants and children. I saw her dressed in the best finery I could afford. I saw myself kissing her.
I planned our first outing as if I were planning the construction of a building in which I were going to live forever. I debated over whether we should have a ride in the country, a visit to a museum, or perhaps an evening at the opera. The ride into the country won out, until I could get to know more about her, and could trust that she would not be intimidated by culture, my education or her lack of it.
I asked our cook to prepare a fine meal for the Sunday following, then set a messenger around to invite Marie and her aunt for a carriage ride.
To my dismay, my offer was refused, and I was crushed. Was this the reason her father was so eager to let me see her, because he knew that she would never agree to it?
When I received the reply I drank two large goblets of brandy and dressed. I had to find out the reason my offer had been spurned. I marched down the quiet streets of the damp morning unsteady with the brandy that was now racing through my veins.
I knocked on the door of her apartment. No one answered. I knocked again. Then I banged. Then I called out. Finally someone answered.
"Quiet, on God's morning."
I was instantly humbled. It was, after all, Sunday, and I was breaking the peace of the day.
"Where is everyone?" I shouted, hoping my scolder hadn't closed her window.
"All the good people of the world are with God in church, my young scaliwag. You and I are alone. You without a friend, and I nursing a head that speaks to me louder than God will on judgment day."
"Sorry to wake you good friend," I called back.
"You haven't woken me," she replied. "You merely reminded me that I was alive. Come have a cup of coffee with me."
Below me, a house away, a large door opened, and a middle-aged woman looked up and beckoned me to her door.
"It will warm you until your friends come," she said. "And I need to be distracted from my aching head."
I followed her into her home. I t was dark and cramped, with only a few sticks of bare wood furniture to fill the small emptiness. A lamp burned low on a rough table. A coal mourned its life each time the wind coughed down the flue of her tiny hearth.
"I've some bread, as well. Though I don't feel up to it. And butter."
I sat down by the table and she hung a pot of water over the coal then poured some coffee in. She moved to a box on a small counter and uncovered a loaf of bread, and a small wedge of cheese. These she dropped on the table in front of me, scrapping away a knob of green mold, and stabbed a carving knife into its surface.
"So you are the boy Marie is to see?"
"She has not agreed to see me."
"She would be a fool not to."
"I thank you for saying so, but neither Marie, nor her father are as sure of this relationship."
She stared at me for a long moment before she spoke again.
"You are rich, are you not?"
"I suppose I am."
"You are educated?"
¬ "I've gone to public school."
"Are you the fool, or am I?"
"I believe I am. I don't seem to know what you're talking about."
"What I mean young man is, that I see Marie each day. She talks to me because she has no mother to talk to. She talked to me the first day she met you, many months ago. And she talked about you, the young son of a wealthy merchant, like she never had spoke of anyone before. I remember sounding like that in my youth, when my heart burned for a young man. I had felt that way myself once, perhaps twice, in my life, believe it or not.
"Then again, when she met you in market. She fairly ran to my door to tell me of meeting you again. To tell of your coffee. Yes.
"And again, with tears in her eyes, when her father made her refuse your invitation because she must attend Mass."
"Mass? It's Sunday."
"You are educated then?"
"Yes, but stupid as well."
"Not stupid my good young man. I am old, but I am not blind. And you, you are young and cannot see what lies before your eyes. Another cup of coffee? Mass will be done within fifteen minutes."
I stood and declined her offer. I swept crumbs from the hard-crusted bread to the floor, much to her chagrin, and excused myself.
"Thank you. For the coffee, the cheese and your wise words. But I must not be here when they arrive," I said as I walked out the door, bowing to my host slightly. She smiled and her face was woven with a lifetime of wrinkles. I stepped forward once more.
“Your name, I didn’t get your name?” I asked.
“My name is Lorraine Courville,” she nodded. “But everyone in this neighborhood calls me Tante Toutsais.”
“Tante Toutsaid,” I repeated. “Merci.”
I walked to the end of the street and met a crowd pouring down the steps of the local church. I stopped, then backed into an alley and waited as the crowd passed. I spotted Marie and her father and walked to the head of the alley, watching them traverse the street that I had just had recently staggered up.
I followed at the tail of the crowd and stood once again at Marie's door. My new friend, who had served me coffee, stood at her door, broom in hand. She put a finger to her lips, then to the side of her nose, made a smacking noise with her lips, and was gone into the gloomy interior of her home.
I knocked and Marie stood in front of me.
"Have you been to Mass?" I inquired.
She look surprised. Pleased, I hoped, then gestured for me to enter.
"We've just gotten in," she smiled. Her father stepped from the shadows and greeted me with a knowing grin.
"Will you join us for a meal?" he asked. "Marie has some bacon, and fresh eggs, and bread that came from the oven last night."
"I'd love some food," I said, standing back. At all costs, I wanted to avoid having them catch a scent of the brandy that must still linger on my breath.
Marie left me to her father as she went to prepare breakfast. He led me to a small but airy sitting room. It was lined with books, and Marie's father must have seen the surprise on my face.
"Not what you expected from a skinner, eh Jules?" he laughed.
It was not what I had expected, but I was reluctant to say otherwise.
"That's all right boy," he clapped me on the shoulder. "I wouldn't know if I was holding a book upside down, or right side up."
I turned again to the books. These were no texts on alchemy, or skinning. These were the novels of the great men of French culture. I looked back at the man still puzzled.
"They belonged to my wife. She was educated in public school and loved reading. These I bought for her, a few at a time, at auction, or when a house was being cleared at a death. She gave that love of the printed word to Marie. These same books that my Giselle read with such pleasure now give the same pleasure to Marie. Me, I don't even understand them when Marie reads me a passage out loud."
I pulled a book from the shelf. It was a bound set of plays by Moliere. I leafed through the pages and found passages lovingly notated in a feminine hand.
Marie called us for breakfast.
The kitchen was a south facing room, and so was brighter than the sitting room we were just in. It's view, a courtyard strewn with the debris of industry, was not as pleasant as that of the sitting room with it's rooftop view of the cobbled street. But when we sat at the rough hewn table, all we could see was treetops and puffy white clouds in a blue sky.
I was here eating a meal with my Marie, and I could have been in Eden.
We ate without speaking much. We could not seem to settle on a topic which would blossom for us. Finally Marie's father hit a subject that was mutually attractive.
"Do you read, my good Jules."
"I read at school, but I don't have much time for reading now."
"Monsieur Bourglay you must make the time. Reading can make you a different person,” Marie said.
"And what about me?" her father asked.
"You have always been a different person, Papa."
We ate until we could eat no more, and then Marie served a sweet pastry filled with raspberry jam. I was about to burst.
"Shall we still have a drive in the country?" she asked after the table had been cleared, and her father and I sat, near sleep in the sitting room.
"Yes," I cried, hopping to my feet, like Lazarus, from my near repose. "Bring your aunts and your cousins, whoever must come, and we will scandalize the countryside with our sophisticated joy.”
Our ride into the country that day was notable for only two events. The heat rose as we left the riverside, and the poor horse, who was neither used to pulling six people, Marie and I, her father, two aunts, Jeannine and Catherine, and an uncle, Adam, nor used to the heat, gave way. We struck a trade with a farmer, who sold me a mule, and now we have the only fashionable carriage in Lyon pulled by a mule. The horse, relieved, trailed behind.
The other event was a simple kiss. Stolen by Marie in the thin shadows of a stand of poplars. While her family fed bread crusts to a gaggle of trumpeting swans, we walked a path along the narrow brook that fed the pond, and Marie slipped her hand into mine. It was as if she touched me with a hot poker, it sent heat through my arm, and flushed me throughout. And then with a tug of her hand she stopped us, faced me, and bold as you please, she stood on her toes and kissed me, quite unsatisfactorily at first, for I was unprepared, and abashed. And then, with a deep breath, I recovered, and kissed this woman, as if she were the only woman to be kissed. She tasted like honey and cloves, and she smelled like the damp grass of morning. I found the world to be out of focus, and enveloped in a warm, bright light. I did not want to leave go, but with a slight push she stopped the engagement as surely as she had begun it.
"You've kissed a man before, haven't you?" I asked.
"I'm nineteen," she replied, turning and hastily rejoining her family.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
I had to admit to myself that I burned with a kind of inner fire once I stepped off the stage and stood in the wings.
“Billy Reed’s my name,” the minstrel said to me, as he grabbed my hand. “I saw your whole act. You’d make one hell of a partner.”
I smiled and nodded, but I wasn’t really listening to his offer. Another of the blackface dancers tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s go Billy,” his stage partner said. They cakewalked onto stage, and Billy began to sing a song with an irregular rhythm, and the two men danced a high-stepping, knee-bending strut that had the audience cheering.
“Ol massuh got a whip, but I got my smile,” Billy sang. “And it bite his soul like a crock-o-dile.”
Billy’s voice was strong, but not pure. There was a gravelly raggedness that made it stand out from the other singers who vainly attempted to reach operatic levels.
“His missus got charm, and a spy-glass figguh. But massuh don’t know, how she like us niggruhs.”
The audience howled as Billy thrust his hips spectacularly.
I watched his entire routine and realized that I was looking at a headliner in the making.
After the number they cakewalked back into the wings to thunderous applause, and then took two curtain calls during which Billy tapped a pattern with his shoes, that his partner imitated, until it became a dancing duel.
The men bounded into the wings sweating and breathing hard.
“What do you think?” Billy asked me.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” I answered.
“That’s because it’s mine,” he said. “For now. Only ones know these steps are me and Seamus.”
Seamus was blotting a towel to his forehead. It came away stained with blotches of black greasepaint.
“Pleased,” Seamus said. “This is one smart coon.”
Seamus spoke with a brogue as soft as the warble of a brook in July, as he hooked his thumb at his partner.
“We could use a partner. A smart partner,” Billy said. “What’s your name – McDonough?”
“Oh no, that’s the boss’s name,” I replied.
“Boss? You got a boss?” Billy asked.
“He’s not really my boss. I work with him. He pays me.”
“Sound’s like he’s your boss.”
“You interested in partnering up?”
I didn’t know what to say. Before my own performance I was ready to head home to Middletown. I was anxious to stop my wandering. But the response of the audience was so seductive. I didn’t know my mind. So I didn’t say anything.
“Come on back to the dressing room while we get these things off,” Billy said, pulling at his damp shirt. “We’ll talk.”
I followed Billy and Seamus through the cramped backstage, avoiding set pieces and half-dressed dancers. I saw McDonough in a chair, his head tipped forward into his chest. He was snoring loudly.
“There’s McDonough,” I said to Billy.
Billy laughed and clapped Seamus on the back who, then turned and threw a few harmless punches Billy’s way.
Their dressing room was in a far corner of the theater. It was dark, cramped and dirty. We entered the tiny room which was stacked with two traveling wardrobes, opened to reveal a bouquet of stage clothes, and dressing mirrors.
Each man stripped the damp stage clothes and stood in their underwear as they dipped hands into vats of white cold cream which they massaged into their blackened hands and faces.
As Seamus rubbed the black greasepaint from his face into a quickly blackening towel, he pulled his nappy wig from his head, and removed a black stocking which revealed a shock of bright orange hair. Beneath the makeup his skin was pale and freckled.
“Have you heard of Elmo and Harrison?” Billy asked me.
“No,” I said, turning toward him. He seemed to be having a more difficult time removing the black greasepaint. His towel was as black as widow’s veil, but his face didn’t seem to be getting any cleaner. Then I realized the problem.
“You’re a negro,” I shouted.
Billy face looked shocked. He touched his face, turned to the mirror then turned back to me.
“Dear lord,” he cried. “When did that happen?”
Then he and Seamus and they fell into one another’s arms, laughing.
“So you don’t know Elmo and Harrison?” Billy asked, ignoring my stupid revelation.
“No,” I said.
“They brought us up. Seamus and meself,” he said affecting an Irish accent. “We were doing our act on a street corner in Baltimore, and they asked if we wanted a job in a real troupe. They were working for Dockstader and they got us a job in his troupe. That is, until he saw me one day without my greasepaint.”
“He said the same thing you did,” Seamus said pointing at me. “You’re a negro.”
“Now, Dockstader don’t have nothing against negroes, or so he says,” Billy explained. “But he was afraid to travel the south with a real negro. The stage nigras were all right, Dockstader told me. But he was liable to be run out of town if anyone found out they were watching a real nigra sing and dance.”
“It’s all the rage in California,” Seamus interjected. “San Francisco is crawling with real negro blackface minstrel troupes.”
“Dockstader told me to go to California,” Billy said. “I told him to go to hell. Or at least back to Hartford.”
“He fired us before we could quit,” Seamus added.
“So, we’re independent. But we could use a frontman. Someone to do the talking. A storyteller. A jokester.”
“You’re a negro,” I said, again.
“You’re right. Now are you interested?”
I didn’t know what to think, or to say.
“Don’t like negros?” Seamus asked. “I don’t much meself, but Billy here’s a different sort.”
“I don’t have anything against negroes,” I protested.
“You wouldn’t believe the money we make,” Seamus said. He opened a leather valise a pulled out a fistful of bills. “When the money isn’t going to the producer, it comes right here,” he said, and patted his pocket.
“Why me?” I asked.
“You’re good. I’ve been around this business long enough to know who’s good and who isn’t. And you’re good. You had them in the palm of your hand right now, and your material is excellent.”
I could feel my vision begin to clear, and suddenly my future was not as certain as I had thought it was four hours ago.
“How much would you pay me?” I asked.
“Three-way split,” Billy said. “In a bad week we each make fifty dollars.”
That was more than McDonough paid me in a month.
“In a good week we’ve each walked away with $300,” Seamus said.
“Where do I sign up?”
Billy clapped me on the back and laughed. Seamus pulled a half-pint from his pocket and tipped it to his lips. Then he passed it to Billy who did the same.
“How old are you,” he asked.
“Eighteen,” I lied.
He handed me the half-pint and I took a swig and came away coughing.
“More like sixteen, I reckon. But between me and the truant officer, who cares,” Billy said, and we all laughed. “One more thing,” he had suddenly grown serious. “I’m a negro.”
I laughed and Seamus laughed, but Billy’s face remained dead serious.
“I know you’re a negro,” I said.
“But you never traveled the countryside with one,” he replied.
“I’ll show you how to land a sucker punch,” Seamus hooted. “You can clock a three-hundred pound blacksmith with a head butt aimed just so. Stick with me. I’ll teach you to survive, that is, as long as you’ve got some good foot speed.”
“The audience will clap and shout for us good and hard when we’re onstage,” Billy said. “But we’ll spend more than one night sleeping in a stable or under the stars. On the stage I’m a negro. On the street I’m a nigger. And you, if you come with us, you’re a friend of a nigger. A nigger lover. You may as well be a negro yourself.”
“Or an Irishman,” Seamus added.
“I wouldn’t wish that on my dog,” Billy laughed. “Are you with us.”
What I could do with three hundred dollars a week.
“When do I start.”
I left the theater with Seamus and Billy, and we stood outside the stage door.
“Would you like to join us in our room?” Seamus asked.
“We’ve got a camp down by the river,” Billy said. “Wasn’t a hotel that could find us a room. But you’re welcome to join us by the campfire for a drink and a plate of beans. And we’ve got an extra bedroll.”
It sounded like home to me. I spent so many hours sitting by the Connecticut River, that a log by the campfire sounded comforting.
We soon left the lights of Sing-sing behind us as we walked a steep and curving path from the heights to the river. I felt happy, and I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey or the fact that I had a new job.
I noticed first Billy, then Seamus turning anxiously and listening carefully as we walked.
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
“Keep walking,” Billy shushed.
Now I was sensitive to the impenetrable underbrush on the path beside us and I was sure I heard rustling there as well.
“What is it?” I asked again. But before either could respond, I got my answer as three men stepped from the shadows.
“Evening,” Seamus said. He never stopped smiling. “What can we do for you gents?”
“We’ll relieve you of your cash,” the largest of the three said.
“What makes you think we have any money,” Seamus replied. “We’re hoboes.”
“Not dressed like swells, you aren’t” said another of the men, and he raised a pistol in our direction.
“Don’t go getting nervous with that gun,” Seamus said.
“We won’t have any trouble if you give us the money, mick,” the big man said.
Ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, Billy was backing into the shadows. I wouldn’t have noticed it myself except that I had been standing parallel to him on the path, and now he was a step away and into the brush. Each time Seamus spoke, Billy moved.
“Now, how much would satisfy ye,” Seamus asked, almost cheerily.
“All of it,” the man with the gun said.
“What’ll that leave us?” Seamus asked.
“Your skin,” the man said. “If you’re lucky. I’m getting impatient.”
“Not so fast nigger,” another voice came from the shadows behind us.
We all turned to the voice and we saw a fourth man emerging from the brush, with a substantial hunting knife at the back of Billy’s neck.
“Drop the club,” the man with the knife said.
I don’t know where he had it hidden, but Billy had a three-foot length of polished oak in his hand, which he dropped when asked.
“I think they need some convincing,” the big man said. Then he hammered his fist into Seamus’ kidney from behind. Seamus buckled at the knees and grimaced.
“Get me some rope,” the man with the gun said.
Two men walked into the dark stand of hemlock and returned with a rough length of rope. The big man fashioned a noose and placed it around Billy’s neck. He threw the other end around a thick branch over our heads.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
I didn’t see where the fist came from, but I felt the pain at my temple, and next I knew, I was watching the scene, flat on my back with a boot on my chest.
“Okay, harpie, you want to hand over the money, or would you like to see your partner dancing in thin air,” the man with the gun said.
Seamus reached into his coat and pulled out a large worn leather wallet bound with coarse twine.
“There you go, laddy,” the man with the gun said as he took the wallet. Then he kicked Seamus in the jaw, and Seamus shot backward in a storm of blood and saliva.
“Hang the nigger,” the man with the gun said.
“What about the others,” the big man said.
The man with the gun drew his forefinger across his own throat, and the man with the knife coughed a murderous laugh.
I struggled against the boot as I saw the two men pull on the rope and realized Billy feet were dangling. His hands, which they had failed to secure, were trying to find room beneath the noose.
Then the man with the knife fell. He was obviously unconscious before he hit the ground, for he hit like a sack of coal. And his knife, which he had been holding threateningly in his hand, sliced the nose right off of his face.
“Whore’s breath,” the man with the gun said as he saw one, than the other of the men hauling on the rope fall as well, both dropping to the ground like sides of beef. Between them stood old man leather, his walking stick raised in the air, and now bloody from the scalps he had just walloped.
“Sweet Jesus,” Billy said as he looked up at old man leather.
“Don’t worry,” I shouted. “He won’t hurt you.”
“Like hell,” Billy said, as he rolled into the underbrush. “He just brained these two, and neither of them will be taking another breath.”
That’s when I heard the shot, and I saw old man leather stagger back and fall.
The man with the gun lifted his boot from my chest and ran to his friends.
He bent down to check them.
“He’s kilt them,” the man with the gun said. “He kilt them sure.”
The man with the gun stood wild-eyed. Then he walked deliberately to the brush where Billy was still struggling with the noose around his neck.
“Billy,” I shouted. But before I could get to my feet, old man leather was standing behind the man with the gun, his walking stick extended to it’s full length above his head. He drove the great carved ball at the end of the stick toward the man’s head. The man with the gun must have had some instinct that someone was behind him and he shifted just before the stick landed. It missed his head, but hit his shoulder with a terrible crack. The gun dropped from his hand, and his arm spasmed horribly as he screamed and fell to the ground.
“Are you all right,” I said. I was addressing old man leather but I heard Billy then Seamus say, “Yeah, you?”
Old man leather stood back from us. He undid the rough button of his great shingled leather coat, and I swear I saw a wisp of smoke rise from his chest. He reached his thick grisled fingers into the great leather overalls and plucked the crushed bullet from a crease in the leather. He held it close to his eyes to examine it, then dropped it on the man with the gun, who was now without a gun, and writhing on the ground.
“Skedaddle,” Seamus said to me. “That’s act four, scene five. This drama is over. Curtain’s down.”
“But what about being partners?” I asked.
“Partners in crime?” Billy asked back. “There are three dead white men lying here, and one who can still speak. There’s a negro and an Irishman, both actors. There’s some crazy lunatic dressed in saddles, and there’s an orphan boy. Who would you blame for the murders?”
“It was in self defense,” I shouted.
“Tell that to the judge,” Seamus said.
He and Billy shook hands.
“It was great while it lasted,” Billy said.
“I’ll miss you, ya great buck coon,” Seamus said tightening his grip.
Then they let go and ran separate paths into the night.
I looked around and old man leather had made off too. I was the only one left standing, and when the man on the ground screamed again, I ran back towards town.
I awoke in bed and the room buzzed as if I had coated the furniture with honey and the flies and bees had gotten in through an open window. I was, daresay, surprised to find it was the snoring of a young women, of whom I had no recollection, snoring.
For a moment, I felt fine, for the woman was a fine looking woman. Then a sharp pain wracked my head from the stem of my skull to my cheek. I rose and looked in the mirror and saw the bruise on the side of my face, and I remembered what happened in the woods by the river the night before.
The woman in bed snorted loudly, and I jumped.
I recalled making it back to town, hiding in an alley for what seemed like hours, and upon emerging bumping into members of my company who pulled me into McGear’s Tavern where I filled myself with cheap whiskey.until I awoke here.
It was not the first time I slept with a woman. But this was the first time I slept with one so close to my own age. I paid to sleep with most, and those whom I had not paid felt they were giving me a gift, when indeed I felt I was granting them an obligation of respect.
This young woman was none of those. As I watched, she shifted from her back to her side, the snoring ceased and the sheet fell to reveal that she had come to my room without sleeping garments. Her hair was a cross between honey and a autumn maple's leaf, and she had eyebrows that barely showed. Her nose was straight, but not long, her lips thin, but chiseled in a fine geometry. Her neck was long and begged nuzzling. Her eyes were closed.
I wish I could enjoy the loveliness, but the images of the night before swept her beauty from my head.
I rose, and I pulled on my trousers and looked at my pocket watch. It was a quarter to ten and the hanging had been scheduled for seven. I missed it.
I finished dressing, and wrote a short note to my bedmate. I was afraid to wake her lest she be frightened and realize that she made some dreadful mistake by sharing her bed with me. Then I went to breakfast but found I had no hunger.
The streets were empty.
I walked toward the center and found all the stores closed. It was a Saturday morning, and I wondered for a moment if this was some quaint provincial habit. I then realized that I had been in Sing-sing on several other Saturdays when the stores were indeed open.
I walked out of town and toward the prison grounds. Sure enough as I got closer I found human activity. Boys chased each other down the streets while others clung to the branches of neighborhood trees like monkeys from the yardarm.
In fact a large crowd was gathered around the site of the gallows. Perhaps I had not missed the hanging after all.
I stopped a well-dressed couple and I asked if the hanging was done.
"Well, first try, anyway," the man said. "Pardon?"
"Hangman missed first time through," he explained.
"I'm sorry to bother you," and I was. "But how could he miss?"
"Henry let me explain," the woman interrupted. "You see, the murderer was up on the scaffold at seven with the rope around his neck. But then the lieutenant governor had to speak, and the mayor, and two selectmen. By then it was nine, and somehow, someone had gotten under the gallows and loosened a knot so when the trap door was finally engaged a few minutes ago, the murderer fell through the floor and kept going."
"We'll see two hangin's today," the man offered cheerily.
"Two dyin's I suspect too."
"He should've thought of that when he was killing them poor innocent children. Serves him right. Maybe they ought to hang him three times for good measure," the woman was getting red in the face, so I decided to excuse myself.
“And with a triple murder by the river…” the man interjected.
“Just last evening, laws,” the woman gyrated as if a swoom were imminent.
“May as well live in Manhattan,” the man said.
“Lawsy” the woman agreed.
“They’re after some nigger,” the man said confidently. “They’ll find him and we’ll have another hanging party in a few weeks.”
I shuddered and took my leave, drawn inexplicably, toward the site of the hanging.
The crowd grew thicker as I approached the scaffold. There was a holiday atmosphere among them, which I suspect, was heightened by the failure of the hangman's knot to put a murderer to rest on the first try.
When I got closer I could see much of the activity on the raised platform. I saw the hangman, hood still in place, sitting solemnly on the steps to the scaffolding. On the platform itself I saw the two carpenters I spoke with yesterday, and though they probably had nothing to do with the loosened knot, they were doing their best to inspect the rest of their work, so that the killer could be dispatched once and for all this time. Behind the scaffold, in the wall of the prison, faces peered from behind bars at the crowd, and I suppose, at the scaffold itself, and on the thick wall of the prison, above, guards with rifles, and what I could only guess to be city and state officials and their families, stood, patiently waiting for the final approval by the woodworkers.
I missed the sign, but I knew it was time when the crowd began to applaud. Was this the same applause they gave me in the theatre last night? If not what distinguished it from that spontaneous outburst.
Before I could ponder further, the hangman brought the accused up onto the scaffold. The murderer was handsome, in a way, and had a roguish smile upon his face, as if he would beat death in the end. Suddenly he broke from the somber procession of priest muttering chapter and verse from the bible, and hangman, head shrouded and hung in respect of prayer, and stepped toward the front of the platform.
"The gov'nor promised he'd pardon me if the rope don't take this time."
The crowd was, at first, stunned into silence, and then a ripple of laughter spread, and eventually saturated the throng.
The condemned man made his way back to the procession, and was blessed by the priest then hooded by the executioner.
Nearly all in the crowd had smiles on their faces still when the rope went taut, and there was an expectant moment when they, as I did, hoped the rope would snap, or come loose, and this man, who had killed his family and shown no remorse, would stride among us, look back at the scaffold and wonder aloud how a man could escape twice in a day from his own death, and how it surely meant that he wasn't supposed to die.
But the rope swung back and forth, ringing the opening to the trap like a clapper to a bell, and it never became loose. There was not even a motion on the line, like the motion you would feel when you were fighting in a particularly feisty bass. It hung taut and still, the body unseen in the bowels of the scaffolding, swinging back and forth.
I turned away and looked into the crowd and saw that most no longer had any trace of humor on their faces. For many, the smile had turned to a grimace. Others held their faces in their hands. Many of the women who were mothers wept.
Then I saw McDonough. He was decked in his finery, and the only man in the crowd smiling, at me.
"Jack," he called. "You're the toast of the town."
He came over and embraced me, and with my chin tucked into his shoulder I looked through the crowd and saw a face I had seen last night. The face of the man with the gun. His arm was bandaged and hanging from a sling tied around his neck. He saw me too, and as McDonough pulled me to arms’ length, I lost sight of that man’s face.
“Let’s get out of this ugly town,” I said to McDonough as I pulled him toward our hotel.
I turned and walked with the crowd down the streets that headed toward the train station, the docks and the river. As it turned out, many boarded trains north and south. This hanging had been a regional attraction, and if I had been thinking I would have known that the street in front of the scaffold held far more bodies than had been in Sing-sing at any one time in many years.
“Death is the only thing that pulls them in more readily than dancing women,” McDonough said. “And women and children can enjoy a hanging. Shame.”
We climbed onto the train and I slunk low into my seat and pressed my face to the window, where I could get a good view of the Hudson and not be seen well myself. The river was wide and grey under the lowering sky.
I thought about my own river, the Connecticut, and how narrow it seemed in comparison to this great giant that flowed to the sea with the mountains as its handmaidens. I watched a negro casting a line from the shore. He didn’t rest long after each cast, hauling in fish nearly as quickly as he could cast. He was catching some kind of bass. Riverdogs they called them up here. They looked like any other fish to me. I stared at the river until it's slow, steady, strong movement carried me from my worries, carried me from my thoughts of death, from my thoughts of lost friends, and of family I'd never know. Carried me as sure as if I were some flat-bottomed boat. Soon even the black man was gone with his skein of fish, and the train began to move, in the direction of the water’s flow and it was me and the river.
There was something hypnotic about watching it. I sometimes talked to other people about it. Vinny used to like fires. He'd go out the back of the building and start a campfire and watch the flames lick the shadows for hours. He told me about men who loved to watch the motion of the ocean’s waves. To sit in the bow of a great boat as if it were a cradle and be rocked into tranquility by the movement of that great unfathomable body of water.
For me it was a river, the great and relentless movement forward. The constant push and pull of currents. The subtle and invisible strength. And the color that could change from slate gray to the shade of a robins egg. I sat for hours watching that Hudson carry ships and shavings and sticks and foam, down past the levies and the waiting train passengers, and thought that just a small stick, thrown into the current at Sing-sing, will flow past the great warehouse on the great city's of Manhattan’s west side. Past the docks, and past the stevedores, and past the great ocean riggers. And while I'm still sitting in this train, this stick will sail toward lands that I can only dream of.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
At the age of fourteen my mother, my brother and I moved from Persia and back to France when my father bought the leathergoods company in Lyon which employed him for fifteen years.
In the years when I lived in that exotic city, I learned much from the man in the garden. I learned to speak the language of the country in which I lived, something which no one else in my family, no one else in the European community seemed to have accomplished. Some of the businessmen had a passing familiarity with Farsi, but few of them could sustain a conversation.
I learned about the religions of the east. I learned about muslims and hindus, Buddhists and Jews. I learned that there were gods other than those of the Christian deity. I learned about men, the priests of these religions, who left home and family. Left all worldly possessions to make themselves more likely to reach their idea of heaven. They were not like the priests I knew.. Not like the priest in our own compound. These priests had no sense of superiority. No power over others. No declaration that they, by their words or actions, were in a position to judge those around them. They were humble men, who garnered respect for this humility. They begged for their food. They didn't preach. They simply existed in the best and quietest way they could. And they were loved and cared for by all.
I also learned how the people lived and worked. Learned that their religion was woven like a thread into their everyday lives. That worship was with them in every task. They worked where they could, and ate what they could raise themselves, or could barter, and few had even two coins to jangle together.
I learned all this, and I never learned my teacher's name. I called him Hamid, because I needed to call him something. But he would not tell me what he was properly called.
"Why do you need to have a name for me?" he asked whenever I asked him.
I explained that practicality and civility had something to do with it.
"Practicality, my son, means that you want something to be easier than it should be. Anything that does not take effort has little value."
On another occasion I expressed the need to know his name as a sign of affection.
"Show your love in how you act, not in how you call me. Live a good life and I will know that you love me."
On still another occasion I told him that I would need to know his name in case I could not find him and I needed to ask someone where he was.
"If I am not here, you will not need me. If I am here, you will not need to call me."
Finally I explained that I wanted to teach others what I had been taught. I wanted to be able to say that this great teacher showed me a glorious path through life.
"If you find those," he said, "Who want to follow you in the “glorious path through life,” as you call it, then they need not know my name, for they will see me in you."
"Then why must I have a name?" I asked.
"You have a name, because someone has given you one. When you have found yourself. When you know for sure what you are, and what you must do, then you will no longer need this name and you may shed it like a snake sheds its skin."
Today as I walked along the path, a young boy called to me.
"Old man leather. Hallo"
I am given yet another name, but it's not a name I must accept. At any rate, it's more a description than a name, but as such, it's more a name than the one my mother gave me.
My memories of her are cloudy. She died when I was fourteen, the year we returned to France from Persia. I remember our ship voyage home. She was sick the entire way. But then again so were many other passengers. My father called it wave sickness. He harrumphed it off as he did everything that he understand or feel himself.. He harrumphed all the way across the Mediterranean. It was typhoid.
Mother was no better on our coach trip from the south to our home in Lyon. And my father stopped harrumphing and knit his brow in the most frightening way. He spoke little, nothing to me, only to my mother, and then in whispers, as if any noise would give her pain.
In her bed in our new home (father explained again and again that it was our family home, our ancestral home, and as such was our old home, but I persisted in calling it our new home, for to my memory it was not a home I was familiar with) she was pale, and slept much.
Father had his new business to tend to, and so I stayed with the nurse and fed my mother the little that she would eat at breakfast, and for her afternoon meal. When my father arrived home late from the leatherworks, smelling as he always did, like a new saddle after a day's ride, he would sit beside her, into the evening, until she found peace in darkness and sleep. He never slept in that bed with her, but sat in an upholstered chair pulled close by.
I don't believe in that first month home that I ever saw him sleep in, or rise from a real bed.
My mother lingered like this for weeks. Some days she would seem to gain some energy. I remember for three days straight she lost the low fever that plagued her, and even rose, and moved about the house commenting on what needed to be done. For indeed, many of our belongings were still packed in crates. Then the fever returned, and she was bedridden again. After that, I don't remember seeing her stand again.
I was at school when she died. They didn't call for me, but when school was dismissed for the day I found a great grey carriage waiting to take me home. My uncle was inside, and I knew before he could tell me what had happened. I didn't cry immediately. I didn't start to cry until they told me I would not be able to see ma mere right away. That I would have to wait until she was prepared.
I howled until my father consented to take me into the room for what would be my last look at my mother. She remained in that room for the days that followed, for the calling of relatives and neighbors, but I never once went into the room again.
Lying on her bed, silent beneath the sheets she appeared more restful than she was since we arrived back in France. But soon I was to realize that the peacefulness was unnatural without the rise and fall of her chest. Without the flutter of eyelid, or a sleep-skittered finger. She was not sleeping. She was dead.
She was gone, and the realization made me stop crying for just a moment to calculate my loss. Then I began to cry again, and as may father told me later, I cried for three days.
The funeral is a blur. A black blur, and I believe I am better for it, but there was an emptiness in this grand house that was not yet home to me. I longed for our cramped quarters in Persia, and for those days when ma mere was still with me.
I held onto my sorrow for months, like it was something precious, something emblematic that demonstrated my eternal love for my mother. I carried it like a new born pup. I felt it expanded my heart, made it swell. It certainly made it ache. At first my mother was the focus of my sorrow, then the sorrow became a focus in itself.
I was kept from school for three weeks, and at the end of that time, my father thought it best for me to be out of the house and back at school. I was not happy to return. I did not like the school, and I had no friends. These boys were raised in a different culture than I.
I knew none of their games. They knew none of mine. And while their games together were a fascinating mystery whose rules and secrets I wished to learn, mine were of no concern to them except to be the object of their great joy in tormenting me.
On my reluctant return to school, my eyes were red-rimmed from weeping in the carriage. And if my face looked anything like I felt it did, then it was molded in a grimace of horror and sorrow.
The headmaster met me at the door, and uncharacteristically placed an arm on my shoulder and led me to my first class.
In class I remained somber, but stoic until our professor of classics read us the greek story of Antigone, I cannot remember which now, about a mother who finds her dead son on a battlefield and goes mad because he cannot receive a sacred burial.
I burst into tears.
Immediately the rest of the boys exploded into laughter. They were sternly silenced by the instructor. It made me cry even more.
As we lined up hours later for our noontime meal of soup, bread and cheese, I found myself surrounded by boys whispering, "Femme d'Afirique, - woman of Africa."
I ignored the taunts, and continued in line. I took the food doled out for me knowing I'd never be able to make myself eat it.
As I turned to search for a table I bumped directly into Pierre Martinette. He looked at me unmoved as the day’s soup dripped down the front of his waistcoat and shirt.
For the first time in weeks I found something to smile about. Here was Peter Martinette looking all grim and threatening with green pea soup begriming his school uniform.
"Now look what you've done, oaf." he said to me, finally realizing that he was dripping stewed legumes.
""You stood in my way, Pierre," I said rather meekly.
"Look what you've done oaf. Wipe it up."
"I won't," I said, now defiantly. And the surprised look on his face made me laugh. And my own laughing sent titters through several of the other boys in the dining hall.
"I'll make you lick it off," he said lunging toward me.
"I prefer more salt and pepper," I said, ducking his grasp, and laughing harder.
Now I ran among the tables and the boys began to laugh and cheer, and the teachers and the headmaster began to scurry among the tables to apprehend Pierre, or me, whomever they could lay their hands on first.
I was too quick for them. But poor Pierre was cuffed on the shoulder by Monsieur Arsenault, the professor of geometry. He was short and white haired, and didn’t do much harm to Pierre, and yet Pierre turned and caught Arsenualt with the his elbow, sending him sailing onto a table of soup and cheese.
Horrified by his own actions Pierre stopped for a moment to consider his next move.
He backed me into a corner and began to pound me with his fists. At the same time, I found out later, small fights began to break out throughout the dining hall. The fights broke off into two camps, those who supported me, and those who supported Pierre.
And so, I took the pummeling for a few moments, thinking that I would be rescued at any time by an instructor, or the cook, or maybe even a gendarme. But my arms and hands, which were taking most of the punishment, were getting sore, and lowering them once I felt a surprisingly powerful blow to my eye. Pierre was obviously not tiring, and the blow angered and surprised me.
It moved me to strike back. Which surprised Pierre even more. My first blow was weak and uncertain and it glanced off of him, but not without harm. He took advantage of the opening and hit me in the eye again.
I was blinded, not by the blow, but by the fury I felt as a result of the blow. I began to windmill my arms, keeping my head low to prevent further blows to the eyes, and I began to feel some of my punches landing.
Quite unexpectedly, I found myself on top of Pierre, sitting astride him, his face to the floor, arms covering his head, and me beating a tattoo on his shoulders and head.
I didn't stop until I felt myself being dragged off by someone larger than myself. It was Monsieur Arsenault who held me, as Pierre was told to stand up. He glanced nervously over his shoulder to be sure I was far enough away from him. And this made me laugh again.
Suddenly I was laughing with abandon, and laughing with me were Monsieur Arsenault, and most of the boys who were not by now crying. This fevered battle ripped the mantle of sorrow which I had been wearing, and at once, this battle made me a part of a community that shunned me before.
I never needed to fight again that way, until I was a man.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Sing-sing was famous for nothing more and nothing less than its ability to prevent people from departing when they wished.
Those people, of course, were not the residents of the town, but the prisoners in the state penitentiary, which sat like a dull unpolished piece of granite on a bluff above the Hudson River. It had the best views of the river, and in that way, it reminded me of the Insane Asylum in Middletown. The property was the envy of the wealthy citizens of town who were often heard to grumble that the magnificent views should never have been wasted on criminals.
Had they given it much thought, these men and women, who made their fortunes selling goods to the prison, should get on their knees each night and thank the vengeful God who made criminals, and who thereby made the prison a profitable necessity.
In the minds of any New York state resident the name Sing-sing was one and the same with the prison, and most were surprised to find that the town was called Sing-sing also. The name was a gift from the Indians who likely called it Sing-sing long before any white man murdered or stole on these shores.
I first read about Sing-sing, the prison, after we already passed through town at least a dozen times. It was in one of the New York City papers, the Tribune. A butcher from Olean named Fredrich Hortzel murdered his wife and children in a fit of rage and fed them in bits to his hogs, which he later slaughtered. For many years after his trial, sausage was an unpopular dish in Hortzel’s hometown.
Hortzel's trial was splashy, with stories of his own, and his wife's multiple infidelities, with lurid details of how he cut the entire family to pieces with a butcher’s skill and how he crushed their bones in a powder mill, and spread the white meal, with manure, amongst the roses which surrounded his home. Had he not confessed the murder to one of his mistresses in drunken braggadocio, he might never have been caught.
He sat in Sing-sing now, awaiting a hanging that was imminent, though his guilt was still being challenged by his lawyer. This, of course, said more about the size of Hortzel’s wealth, than about his lawyer’s passion for the truth.
“That butcher will be hung yet,” McDonough said confidently after I had read him the story at a breakfast. “Unless they elect him sheriff.”
McDonough said this about everyone who was to be hanged.
They were building the gallows when we entered town, this time. We heard so from the locals. If things went as planned, our stay at the Hibiscus Theatre would mean that we'd be in town when Hortzel swung to and fro with a magnificent, and final view of the river.
When we got into town, McDonough and I unloaded the wagon. Then he sent me in the wagon to pick up the girls at the train station which sat below the prison, at river level.
I parked next to a printed poster which advertised our show. We were second on the bill, in the second act, of a minstrel extravaganza. I had time to kill, so I read the lineup carefully.
Friday through Sunday. Bryant’s Eureka Minstrels. Hibiscus Theater. Main and Spring Street. Featuring homely songs and stories of the old plantation.
With music, dance and Dixie tragedy performed by Willie Foley, Matt Keefe, Tommy Hyde, and Dunning Bryant as the interlocuter. And featuring “Bamboo Gambols” with Eddie Mazier singing “The Ragtime Coon” and introducing buck and wing dancing by to the Essence of Old Virginia Band with the Niggertown Strutters and the happy pastimes of plantation darkies. Hear the rich Ethiopian baritone of authentic Negro minstrel Abel Rice. Marvel at Professor Burton’s $10,000 Dog Circus. Feast the mind and imagination on McDonough’s Marvelous Molls. With a dozen new songs by Gant, Work, Templeton and Clark, including, “Do Smell Like Roses,” and “Father is a Free Man,” and “Down in the Gully” along with favorites like “Surprise Party,” and “A Mother to All,” and “Sailing on a River of Tears.”
Box seats, a dollar. Orchestra stall three dollars. Balcony stall two dollars. Stall and orchestra seats fifty cents and front circle seventy-five cents.
After I read it for the third time, and hoping my name would magically appear, I fell asleep staring at the giant hills on the opposite side of the mahogany colored river, and woke only when the 3:15 from Manhattan rolled around the bend in the tracks and blew her whistle to signal her arrival.
The girls arrived, four of them, Betty Mahoney, who mothered the girls and kept the anxious men away, Doris Turnbuckle, thin and blond and bitchy, Mary Smith, who wouldn't let on to anyone that her real name was Antolucci, and Emilia Burke, a dark-haired beauty whom I fell in love with each night when I saw her lift her hem in a dance during the "Springtime Shearing" number that McDonough himself choreographed.
I drove the girls, who moaned with each bump, to a rooming house on Third and River where they stayed at each visit. The landlady was a Mrs. Raedecker, a Dutch woman who claimed her great grandfather sailed up the Hudson on the Half-moon with the captain who gave the river its name. She greeted the girls like long lost daughters and I told them I would pick them up an hour before the show.
We would have no rehearsals. We needed none. In the past two years this show had become our life, and I, who only sat on the stage with my melodeon for one Paris street scene number, could sing ever word to every song. When changes came, they were such a welcome relief to the tedium of singing the same songs, that they were learned immediately and with relish. But these new songs too soon became part of the nightly tedium.
What broke the tedium of hearing our own songs over and over again was that McDonough’s Molls, as they were billed on the sandwich boards, train posters and handbills which preceded us into every town we visited, were a vision of fleshy improvisation, incorporating the feminine strut and wiggle into every new performance.
I met McDonough at the theatre, and he had a local group of teamsters grappling with the scenery.
"Need any help," I asked.
"Everything's under control Jack. Get yourself some dinner."
"Won't you be eating, McDonough?"
"The widow Morton lives in Sing-sing, or did you forget, Jack?"
"I forgot. Mind if I drive up to get a look at the gallows?"
"Do what you please, Jack. Just be at the theatre with the girls in time for the show."
The road to the prison was lined with homes, and though they were not the fanciest homes in town, they were far more respectable than the ones you'd expect to find leading up to a prison for the most hardened prisoners in the state.
In fact, driving down the street that lead to the prison's gate, Jack found the street lined with these humble two and three story homes. He was suspecting some sort of desert of barren lots and trash to separate the last home from the prison, only to find that not twenty yards from the front porch of a cheery house painted yellow and rust, was a sign that announced the penal fortress.
A huge grassy lawn ran for yards before the first massive granite wall rose to give you the sense that this edifice meant serious business. It was on this lawn that the gallows were being built.
The builders were two young men, in carpenters' frocks and canvas aprons. One was whistling, the other chatted when there was a break in the whistling. At this stage the scaffold was a framework of beams that could easily be mistaken for the skeleton of a new cottage.
"When'll it be done?" I shouted above the noised of pounding hammers.
"Another day," the whistler said.
"Finished or not," the other said. "It's got to be used day after tomorrow. I suppose worse come to worse, they could hang him right well enough off of this cross beam here. Don't know what the need to be so fancy is. Don't build many houses this well."
"Don't you be complaining, Petersen,” on of the other workers shouted. “I say hang one a month so we'd be busy throughout the year."
"Does this get torn down as soon as you're done," I asked.
"As soon as he stops twitching. Then we burn the wood. Or we're supposed to..."
"We burn it. Wouldn't no one want a dead man's joist holding up his house."
"Hangman in town?" I asked.
"So we're told," the whistler said. "But I wouldn't know him from Adam. Wears a black hood, you know."
"Hear he's a hunchback," the other carpenter said.
"Hear he's deaf and blind, I heard," the whistler said.
"Deaf and blind! Why he's like to hang himself."
They went on like this for some time, conjecturing what defects the hangman must have, and laughing off the possibilities. Whether he had one arm or two, a wooden leg, a glass eye, or a mule hoof dent in his head. They were convinced that no man, perfect but for the normal faults that every man had would ever be a hangman.
"The women love them," the whistler asserted.
"I seen it. I seen them standing around that gallows eyeing the man with the most legal lethal power in the world."
"Copper or judge got more legal power."
"Copper or judge don't take a man's life right from him. Hangman can."
"Well, why's a woman love a man with blood on his hands."
"Woman loves any man with power. Gets them excited."
Again the pair talked for minutes about the power of the hangman to make widows shed their black, wives shed their husbands, virgins wish they were whores, and young girls wish they were grown.
I left without them even noticing and decided to walk the perimeter of the prison, to see just how big it was. My walk was cut short when I got to the Northern edge of the prison, and found that I would have to scale a steep rock outcropping to walk the river's edge. I returned to the road and drove the wagon back toward the theatre.
The day was still young as I passed the theatre. Inside, I knew, lay several hours of work if I were to show my face. The green hills East of town beckoned me. I felt sure a few hours among the trees and ribbony streams would do me as much good as a two hours nap.
I pointed the horse away from town and drove him. The roads climbed slightly as the tightly drawn homesteads of Sing-sing's neighborhoods dropped off behind me.
It was just summer, and the oaks, maples and elms bore leaves of a startling new green that would only last a week or two. There was still the sign of a slight red vein in some of the leaves, while others were the color of a Florida lime. As the roads headed out of town, they grew rougher, the ruts deeper. A recent rain left puddles of uncharted depth, and I steered the cart slowly and carefully around them when I could. When I couldn't, I found them either to be nothing more than a skim on the surface of the road, or some deep, treacherous trenches.
On each side of me lay fields early with table greens or and peas. Rows of green shoots with plenty of the brown dirt showing through. Occasionally, in the distance, a lone farmer beat a hoe against a furrow, or a farm wife hung a snapping sheet to the wind. Sometimes the farm house was visible, sometimes hidden in a stand of Northside pines, or a thundercoud chestnut, the house visible only by tracing the string of cookfire smoke down through the branches.
It was through one of these farm fields, stubbly with rows of some kind of new growth, that I walked. I left the horse by the side of the road where he was content to chew on the new grass.
I was headed for a large rock outcropping that lifted high over the field, which would, I assured myself, give me a good look at Sing-sing as it spread down to the Hudson.
The rocky cliff looked closer than it actually was, and I pulled my watch from my pocket to be sure that I could make it up, and back, and back to town well before the curtain rose for tonight's show.
I felt confident I would, and climbed a gradual hill that led eventually to the base of the cliff. It rose only thirty or forty feet, but, set on a hill like it was, it looked like a tower from the road. I turned and saw my horse still working on the grass. He was a good horse, and would not move from the spot where he was placed.
The rock seemed to slope sharply off to the north and I searched for an approach to the top that would be less arduous than a straightforward attack up its Western face. I found a well-worn path that brought me to the top in a matter of minutes, and was rewarded with a view of Sing-sing that was rooftops and gables only. As for the river, I could only catch a glimpse of it, shining bright with the sun, as it jagged ever so softly toward Tarrytown.
But though I could not really see much of the town of Sing Sing, the view was exceeding beautiful, and the sky full of fluffy clouds floated through the sky without once blocking the sun. I checked my watch again, then lay on the warm rock outcropping and closed my eyes.
I woke several minutes later, I checked my watch, in a panic, and saw that an hour had passed, and I had just enough time to climb down and get back to town. But what woke me was a scratching and scraping from somewhere below me. I was sure that I was about to be hopelessly treed by a big black bear, missing my stage entance and having to face McDonough’s wrath. I preferred my chance with the bear.
I turned over on my stomach and crawled to the edge of the cliff. I checked the wind direction to be sure that my scent would not give me away, and assured that it was a stiff breeze blowing east off of the river, I cautiously moved my head over the edge to see what was causing the commotion below.
I peered all along the base but could see nothing. Then I heard it again. It seemed to be coming from the direction of a large flat rock that in ancient times must have fallen from the cliff and now made a table by the side of the road. Then I saw movement at the back end of the rock closer to the base of the cliff. I had to pull myself forward even more, and saw that directly behind the rock, several more huge rocks leaning and angled, in conjunction with the table, made a rock shelter about six feet deep, with a low roof. I was sure something was foraging around in that shelter, but I couldn’t see what it was.
Then I saw the brown leg first appear. I thought it a bear's leg. But though it was brown, it was hairless. It was no bear.
But it was not a man's skin, it was too rough and loose fitting.
And then I knew I had seen that leg before. I knew who it belonged to. But I wasn't sure it was possible that this was old man Leather, a hundred miles from Middletown, scuffling about in a cave in Sing-sing. I watched him for awhile, but from my vantage, I could see nothing but the one leg sticking out of the mouth of the shelter. Though it was only six o’clock, and still light, he was settling in to sleep.
I climbed down from the rock, and was tempted sore to move in for a closer look at the old wanderer, but I knew two things, I needed to make it back to the theatre for a seven o'clock show. And I also knew that if I got too nosy, I'd scare him away for sure, and not only would he lose a night's sleep, but I'd lose any luck I ever had in this world.
So I ran back to the wagon, and made my way back to the theatre.
"McDonough," I shouted as I ran through the stage door.
I received no answer, so I shouted again.
"Jack, we've got an audience in the house. Be professional."
A quick glance through a crack in the curtain told me McDonough was correct. Thirty minutes to show time, the bars were still open.
"Must be hungry for entertainment," I surmised.
"Must be hungry for womenflesh," McDonough advised.
"McDonough, you'll never guess what I found up in the hills.'
He stared at me blankly.
"Well?" I asked.
"You're right Jack, I'll never guess."
"Old man leather, Jack. He's up on a cave behind a farm field on the outside of town."
"There's plenty of hobos, Jack."
"Only one hobo 'at looks like this Jack. You know that. You seen him, haven't you."
"Just once Jack. Beggars hold no appeal for me. Their either shiftless or crazy, or both. Either way, I keep my distance."
"This is old man leather, I know it. I've seen him up close, every month. At the leatherworks. We fed him a sandwich, and sometimes he took scraps from the pile."
"What of it Jack. We got a show coming up."
"He come all the way from Middletown, McDonough. Don't you see. It's over a hundred miles."
"What of it Jack. We came from Middletown, too. You're not so happy to see me."
"See you every day, McDonough," I said. "Do you suppose he walks."
"I think I told you Jack, I don't rightly care."
"I wanted to go up to him, to say "howdy" but I figured I'd scare him off of that cave and some poor farmer'd be mad at me."
"I'd think he'd be glad, Jack. Running a tramp off is likely to get you a reward in any of these parts."
"Old man leather's good luck. If you touch him."
"Ever touch him, Jack."
"Couldn't ever get close enough."
"Maybe it's true then," McDonough said, and without warning gliding into motion and moving behind the curtain that masked the brick backstage wall from the audience.
"But I don't blame him for leaving Middletown," he said without turning back toward me. "Get your stage clothes on."
My stage clothes, my costume, was a black suit, with a multicolored vest of a floral pattern. I played a French waltz during a stage set that had McDonough dance with a dozen women, our four with three separate costume changes each, until he finds that the last woman he dances with is his lost love, curtain falls.
This night, McDonough played all his lines with a certain distractedness, and when the final curtain fell, McDonough did not even return to the stage for a curtain call, even though it was warranted by the hoots of the men of Sing-sing. The girls did return to the stage for a final can-can, much to the pleasure of the audience.
I felt McDonough's heavy hand on my shoulder.
"Come into my dressing room, Jack."
Inside his room, McDonough was quiet. Thinking. He poured a glass of whiskey slowly from a flask that he'd drawn from a vest pocket - the vest hanging on a hook on the wall. The gas lamps flickered, and made the shadows in the room dance even more than McDonough did that day.
"I'm homesick, Jack. How long have we been on the road."
"I'm going back to Middletown. I'm going to bring some new acts into the Palace. I'm not going to let that damn sheriff touch me."
McDonough suddenly looked old
"Do you think they'll have forgotten," I asked.
"I hope to hell not," McDonough said, coming back to life. "If they've forgotten they won't flock to the theatre like they used to. And now, I intend not only to bring them minstrel music, comedy and beautiful women aplenty, but also the oddities of life in this great country."
"Like Mr. Barnum?"
“Phineas T. Barnum is crass, and cheap. He appeals to the lowest common denominator. No, Jack, we're getting off the road while we can. You can take it, but it's not the life for an old man like me. We aren't making more than we need to stay alive. I have no love in my life. I need a permanent roof over my head, not the canvas shade of a buggy, or the rattling joists of a train car, or the musty divans of a riverboat. I want floors that only bounce when men stomp on them to see more of my creations. I want a roof that shakes only with the thunderous applause of four hundred. I want a bed of my own, and a woman to put in that bed next to me."
McDonough seemed impassioned enough, although I'd seen him get impassioned about everything from beaver felt hats to overcooked beefsteak. And he only exaggerated slightly. I knew for certain that he was making a small fortune on the road, and we certainly weren't sharing in that good fortune. But he told me, when whiskeyed up about the shares in Pennsylvania oil wells that he held.
And as for love, McDonough was known to romance at least one woman in each town. And if the town were big enough, he would sometimes romance two or more. Not that he led any of them on. He didn't. They pursued him, and he obliged their passion, for as he said, it kept his stomach full and his head clear.
"Jack, I can see it now. We'll put the passions of our time on the stage. It’ll be a new kind of minstrel show. A completely respectable kind of minstrel show. Dockstader thought he did it, but Lew’s too much of a ham to give up the burnt cork and the bad jokes. Think of it. Murders, scandal, broken hearts and broken backs. People will travel to us to see the drama. No longer will we have to travel to them. I've learned a lot on the road, Jack. I've learned that I hate the road. But I learned the blackness in man's heart is the same from town to town. And what's more, I've learned that man will pawn his own soul to learn about the blackness that affects his neighbor's heart. Look at the New York newspapers, Jack, they're full of it."
McDonough was right. The newspapers always scraped up the muck of humanity to sell papers, but of the twenty or so major papers that came out of New York City at the present, there seemed to be some sort of contest as to which could find the most detestable slime to print in their headlines. I had my own theory that many of the stories owed more to the vivid imagination of a tired reporter who could not be bothered track down the real thing. But people read, and people believed.
The truth is that New York City is a detestable hell-hole. Murders every night in the five corners. Irish gangs robbing, raping and murdering. Hadn’t I witnessed some frightening, unprovoked attacks myself.
"We'll bring the headlines to the stage. Maybe we'll even bring them to Broadway," McDonough said, very excited now.
"But I thought the idea was to go home to Middletown?"
Manhattan was a wretched, pitiful hellhole unless you had the money to live away from the poverty and the violence. And even then you couldn’t quite escape it.
"Jack, you know Manhattan is my second home."
I picked up my melodeon and began to practice a new French waltz that a Quebecer had taught me when we stopped in Tarrytown.
"What's that?" McDonough asked.
I told him it was the St. Anne Reel, and he considered it briefly. Normally, if he liked it, he would tell me to include the new song in the show, but this time he shrugged it off and strode to center stage.
"These are my last days on the road, Jack. It's home to the Palace, and a bed without lumps."
"It's home to Sis."
"When was the last time you saw Lizzie, Jack."
"Just over a year, McDonough. Before she got married."
"Heard from her?"
"One letter. Didn't say much, so I figure she must br happy."
We talked as McDonough surveyed the last minute stage changes, and I felt a kind of excitement in the air, because suddenly I was working towards something. Suddenly I had a goal. From the time we started out, I had a funny feeling. At first I didn't notice, because everything was so new and different. But after a few months there was some acute dissatisfaction gnawing at me. I wasn't quite sure what it was until now, and now I knew.
It was the fact that the road was endless. Until now. Before, the only goal in sight was the next town. And the next town brought different faces, and a different stage, but after awhile even those got to look alike. I was only on the road because McDonough asked me, and because I had nothing else to do. It wasn't really my idea, although it wasn't such a bad idea. That's how the road had got to seem to me. I couldn't see the end of it over the next horizon.
Now I could, and now, even this stage looked different. I looked at it like I wasn't ever going to look at it again, and I hoped I wasn't. And for the first time, I saw it. I looked at the brick wall backstage plastered with announcements of shows to come that were already shows past. I walked over to the curtain and brushed my hand along it velvet sheen. I wanted my hand to remember this last road curtain. I walked out to the middle of the audience seats and turned around and looked at the stage, something I had never done in any of the dozens of theatres we had visited in the past three years.
This theatre in Sing-sing was going to become my memory of the road theatre, and I was bent on remembering it.
I didn't see McDonough again until the performance. This strange feeling of newness hadn't worn out for me, and when I saw McDonough rounding the corner, headed for the stage and his introduction of the evening, I was ready to grab his arm to stop him so I could tell him how I was feeling when I saw the terrible scowl on his face.
I didn't grab him, by elbow or collar, I knew that wouldn't stop him. Instead I ran fast enough to get in front of him and in a narrow backstage passage stopped short, facing him, so that he to would have to stop.
He saw me, but kept coming. I crossed my arms in front of me, and braced myself for an impact that didn't come.
"Out of the way, Jack."
"You're drunk McDonough."
"I did some celebrating. This is the last house on the road we'll be playing. Know what it means, Jack, me boy."
"McDonough, you can't go onstage drunk."
"I'm brilliant drunk. More brilliant drunk than most of those Broadway hacks are sober. And they're likely not sober very often."
He moved forward and I shoved him back.
"McDonough, you've got an audience out there."
He was now leaning on me, scowling, half-relaxed, half-belligerent like a stubborn cow waiting for a scratch.
"McDonough, you'll tarnish your reputation. You'll ruin the good name of everyone in the company."
He moved foreward a notch.
"McDonough, you'll have to refund our guarantee to Bryant.
His eyebrows raised slightly, although his mouth remained frozen in a scowl. He stood stock still for a moment then pushed forward. This time I pushed back harder. Now McDonough fell over. I knelt beside him.
"McDonough, get up. The show..."
He opened his eyes and stared not at me, but at the ceiling forty feet above.
"Jack, you've got to make up your mind, either you want me onstage or not. Until you make up your mind, I've got some sleep to catch up on."
He closed his eyes and could not be stirred by me, or the theatre owner, or any of the girls even when a water pitcher's contents were poured slowly over his face.
As luck would have it, Bryant himself took this occasion to pass by. He was about to go on stage to make our introduction. It had come to the point in the evening when the men in the audience began to speak as one. They put their hands together, and began to stamp their heavy boots on the uncarpeted floor.
"Get this show on stage," Bryant shouted in my face. His face, blackened with greasepaint and cork, seemed an exaggerated evil mask. His teeth yellow and sharp. He leapt onto stage to a whoop from the crowd and began to make our introduction. Now he was smiling, charming and affable. What an actor.
I motioned to the girls, who were always the first on stage and gave a cue to our piano player. The music began, and the house got very quiet, then the women hit the stage and the roar from the men should have lifted the roof from its rafters.
Bryant was not back in the wings rubbing his greasy hands up and down the sides of his thighs. He was smiling. But when the women stopped dancing, it was my cue to begin.
I bounded on stage, accordion in hand, and played a jig that grew progressively quicker as it neared its end. The crowd picked up the rhythm, that is, most of them picked up the rhythm, and by the end of the jig, they erupted in a cheer for me, and for themselves.
I made it off the stage without saying a word. Now a local Irish tenor came on stage to much recognition and sang three sweet numbers, followed by the Paris street restaurant scene, during which McDonough’s women waltzed with each other and the men in the audience found great satisfaction in seeing members of the same sex embrace so dearly.
The time in the show was nearing for McDonough's monologue. It was our last bit of drama before the girls took to the stage one final time to bare their ankles for the good men of Sing-Sing.
I ran to McDonough's dressing room, which was the same as the women's dressing room, and shook McDonough. He was sprawled on a smallish sofa, with a few springs poking through the upholstery, but McDonough was none the wiser, and dead to the world.
I looked around in a panic for help, but all I could see was crinoline, and the sight of pink arms, thighs and shoulders. The room was filled with McDonough’s molls in the midst of a costume change. It stopped me for a second, I was never in this room when the girls were undressed. I was never allowed. And what I was seeing now would change me drastically, and forever, but it didn't stop me for long, and the panic set in again.
I turned to Merilee, with a a half-formed question on my lips.
"Get on stage," she said. "You can tell a story. I've heard you. That's all they want, is a good story. Until we can get out there and show them a little bit of this."
With that she held up her leg, and dangled a foot, replete with painted nails, not more than six inches from my face. I felt weak. But it only distracted me for a moment, because the thought of what awaited me on the bare stage, two hundred expectant faces was enough to take the starch out of even an adolescent's enthusiasm.
"All you've got to do is tell them a story. A good one, yes, but Jack, the secret is that on stage you're in control as long as you feel you are. You've told me some good tales, get out there and share one with them. Tell them about your childhood. Tell them about Vinny. Tell them about the time you got cracked on the head. Tell them what happened to you today, for God's sake. Just tell them something."
And with the same foot that she had dangled before me so seductively not a minute before, she gave me a powerful shove toward the dressing room door and the stage.
"Give us five minutes," she said as I stumbled into the hall, "That's all we need to finish our costume change."
She was right. I had seen McDonough achieve mastery of the audience with a tale so simple that he had coughed it out in a few empty moments during lunch. Yet onstage, in the glow of the footlights, it had taken on a special meaning, a luster and brilliance so unmistakable that I forgot, for a moment, that I had heard the same story over a stew. So listened again rapt, until I applauded loudly with the audience. And in the wings, as McDonough passed me, he gave me a look of derision that was undoubtedly aimed at my naive enthusiasm.
So it wasn't the story, but the storyteller. And McDonough was a great storyteller. But people said I was too. In fact, McDonough told me as much himself. That he liked to talk with me because I was able to tell a story that no one my age should be able to tell, with such a conscious thread of drama.
I had reached the wings. Two of the buckdancers stood in the dark practicing a step. The audience was restive. The piano player was finishing a chorus of a popular song that was so new the audience did not know the words yet.
The piano player looked at me in the wings with a panic in his eyes. With some hand signals I was able to communicate to him that he should play one more number and that I would come out on stage. He fled through a polka at a pace that would have left even the most energetic of dancers gasping for air.
When his polka was done, he flourished his arm in my direction, and in the same movement mopped the sweat from his brow. I felt the same moisture germinate like seedling on my scalp.
“Looks like you’re up,” one of the buck dancers said to me.
Bryant was on stage again with his arm extended in my direction. I was about to become, the great, and gregarious McDonough.
"Kind ladies gentlemen," I began. My knees clacked beneath my baggy trousers. "In the craggy hills that surround your town this very evening sleeps a man who has seen much in his life. Some say he was a soldier from the civil war, sent South in his youth, and in witnessing the deaths of three brothers, was struck mute.
"Others say he was born without the use of his tongue, and because he could not confess to anything he saw, he was kidnapped, at an age before he could learn to read and write, by a band of marauding nomads who trained him, as an innocent child, to steal from the purses and pockets of unsuspecting farmers and townspeople.
"Still others say his tongue was cut out by an angry mother who could not bear the prattling of her youngster, and when he had grown strong enough to challenge her, he murdered her, dismembered her and fed her to the pigs.
"But in truth, no one knew him . He kept his story to himself."
A tremor that was evident in my voice early in the recitation seemed to be disappearing as I looked out to the audience and saw that the magic was happening. These men and women who earlier were shouting and hooting, demanding their money's worth, and ready to take it out of my skin if they weren’t satisfied were now strangely attentive. I paused and they seemed to lean towards me as one, then I continued.
"His silence let him travel where other's could not. His solitude would have made him invisible were it not for the strange suit of leather that he wore everywhere he went. Instead of being invisible, he was well known, and most people let him be. Some invited him in for dinner, and he never spoke a word of thanks. Instead, he tipped his hat and was on his way.
"Because he said nothing, even at dinnertime, he could listen to a family's prattle and never let on that he heard a thing, but he understood all.
"People thought because he didn't speak that he could not hear. But his hearing was as sharp as any wild animal's.
"One night, he ate in the corner of a kitchen where he had eaten several times before. This night he noticed a great deal of agitation in the bearing of the housewife. And when the husband walked in, he barely glanced at old man leather, but went directly to his wife and spoke. "I can't find him," he said shaking his head. She bowed her head and wept. "He's run away," she finally choked. "He'll be back," the man said. She wept more.
"Old man leather ate and watched and listened.
"'The Pittman boy was found stabbed just six month ago," she sobbed.
"'He walked in bad company," the man said.
"'He was just a boy, Luke."
"'Some say this one did it,” the husband said, pointing to old man Leather. “Say he carries the Pittman boy’s possessions in a sack."
"Old man leather never looked up, just kept eating as the man took his sack and rummaged through it, finding nothing but a hatchet and frying pan, knife and needle. And a prayer book. The man packed the sack again. The wife just continued to eat.
"The leatherman rose and tipped his hat again. Neither the man nor woman looked at him as he rose and left the house. He headed into the hills, as he always did, where he found rock shelters to protect him against the weather.
"Any man seeing him walk would know that he walked with a more determined step that evening. But no one would have known what he was thinking when he saw a small fire deep in the woods. Nor would anyone know that he headed off his normal path and veered in the direction of a fire so deep in the woods that only someone walking far from the well-traveled paths on a night that was autumn dark and cold could see it.
"As he got closer to the fire, he saw it was built against a large boulder of the kind that farmers were heard to curse God over. The fire blazed brightly, and in its shimmying light sat a man who spat white gobs of saliva into the fire, and regularly looked over his shoulder at something that was ought of sight. As he looked, he cursed loudly.
"Old man leather moved closer. He was practiced in silence and could move as quietly as an Injun brave. From a small rise above the boulder he could see the back of the man by the fire, and against a tree a small figure lashed tightly.
"It was a boy who sobbed breathlessly. The man by the fire turned and cursed the boy as old man leather crept closer.
"'Shut yer trap ya whining baby, or I'll not feed your sorry hide to the wolves for supper."
"The boy whimpered.
The man turned once again and cursed blasphemously. When he turned back to the fire he saw old man leather standing on the opposite side of the blaze, glowing orange and yellow in the firelight. Old man leather stared into the cursing man's eyes.
"'Jazus," the man shouted, surprised. "Who're you?"
"Old man leather stood silent. He hadn't talked to anyone before, he wasn't going to start now."
Somehow, the audience found this funny, and they laughed. That scared me. I'd almost forgotten they were there. It gave me pause, but I continued.
"The man at the fire asked again, "What do you want?
"But old man leather just stood and stared. He didn't move. But the man at the fire did. He had a shotgun on the ground under his sleep roll and in the blink of an eye he had it out and pointing at old man leather, and in another blink he had pulled the trigger.
"Old man leather fell in a flash of light and a cloud of smoke. And the man by the fire just cackled, 'Teach the old beggar,' he said. He turned again to the boy and cursed him for screaming at the noise the gun had made. As he was raining God's damnation on the frightened youngster’s head, the boy grew quiet. He stopped sobbing. He just stared over the man's shoulder with his mouth hanging open like a window on a summer's day.
“The man turned around and shouted. Old man leather stood where he had stood before. Wisps of smoke danced from beneath his collar and a black hole, the size of a cabbage darkened the front of his coat about waist level.
"I just kilt you," the man said.
And in the next moment old man leather lifted his walking staff, one with a great knot of hard wood on the end, and he swung it in a wide arc through the dancing light of the fire and landed it on the head of man. The man dropped like a sack of flour from a second floor window.
"Old man leather walked over to the boy who was still silent and undid his ropes. The boy stood for a moment looking at the strange man in the leather outfit, then he fell to the ground. “Don’t hurt me,” he begged. But when he looked up, old man leather was nowhere to be seen. The boy stood and walked over to his captor. The kidnapper was out as cold as the backside of a Nor'easter. The boy kicked him hard in the ribs and walked away.
"Well, the next morning the boy awoke on the doorstep of his father's house. He woke when his poor mother came to the door to look out and saw him sleeping on the step under an old horse blanket, and she commenced to screaming and shouting.
"He proceeded to tell his ma and pa the story of the stranger who had promised to take him off and show him where the circus was camped in the woods. And how when he got out to the woods with the man, how the man knocked him over, hog tied him, carried him on his shoulders deeper into the woods telling him all the time that he was going to eat him. And how he bound him to the tree and wouldn't give him a thing to eat no matter how hard he hollered. And how when it got dark how the man finally told him that he was going to sell him to a sea captain in New York, and how he'd never see his parents again. And how he cursed. And then he told his ma and pa how old man leather appeared out of nowhere, and the how the killed old man leather with a single blast from his shot gun. And how old man leather rose up from the dead and conked the kidnapper on the head. And then here he was, awake on the porch to the sound of his own mother screaming.
"Then his words melted into the deep breaths he was taking and the deep breaths turned to tears, and the tears to sobs, and by this time his father could fetch a cup of hot coffee and sweet bread to the porch for the boy’s nourishment, the boy told the story from the beginning, as if he needed to tell it again to believe it himself. And it was hours before any of them got breakfast.
I paused then to breathe myself. I looked at the audience. They eyed me intently. I paused a moment more, and stood up straight, and just as I saw that a few were ready to lift their hands in applause, I continued.
"Then a month later, old man leather shows up at the house once more for a meal. Exactly a month later, to the minute. And he goes through his same ritual. Eyes lowered, head bowed, he takes the food offered him, eats it and takes his leave with a tip of his hat. The only thing different was a noticeable patch of newer leather sewn into the center of his coat. The boy pointed to it and whispered to his mother that it was there, right there, where he had been shot.
"The boy followed old man leather out the door, and when he returned a few minutes later he ran to his mother and father and said, 'Old man leather smiled. He smiled at me.”’
And then I stopped for good. It took but a moment for the audience to catch on that this was the end of the story, but when they did, they began to clap, and they clapped for a good three minutes. I stood there and let it wash me like a downpour. Then I left the stage, and the applause faded, and the theatre manager clapped me on the back and shook my hand. And one of the girls hugged me. And I wished that McDonough would never wake up.
“You’re a pro,” one of the minstrels said to me. “Do you have need of a partner?”