Sunday, February 1, 2009
Chapter Thirteen - Doing Time
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?”