Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Chapter Nineteen - Vinny's Return
For someone who was such a close friend when we were young, Will Selden was a stranger to me now. His perspective and reach included Middletown, sometimes a summertime outing to the seashore at Hammonassett, very occasionally a trip to Hartford or New Haven, but Will seemed very content to stay put on the farm.
When Will and his brothers sat down at the table with us to eat, his mother begged me to repeat stories I told her before the boys came in. I repeated a few, but found to my dismay that Will did everything but call me a liar to my face. He seemed upset because he had no stories to tell in return.
I asked him how he was getting on, and he'd mumble a few words. I asked him what had been keeping him busy, and he told me that since his Daddy died, it was the crops and the animals.
I told him about the hanging in Sing-sing, and he told me a hangman never made a mistake or he had to take the noose himself. I told him about a bar fight I witnessed in the middle of an Irish tavern on Staten Island. He said drinking was for fools who had no regard for their money.
After supper I thanked Mrs. Selden, and Will asked me if I needed a ride back into town. I was tired but I told him I didn't because I couldn't bear to ride with him and try to keep up a conversation over the course of a two mile ride.
I returned to the boarding house near the Palace where I was staying and found a woman to comfort me. She was older than I by more than a fortnight, but she was knowledgeable in the ways of keeping a man distracted. So for a few hours she kept me from thinking that I came home to a town in which I no longer had a friend.
The next day I visited Lizzie. She was now a mother twice over, of two boys. One named for me, John, though in learning this it was the first I knew that my name wasn't Jack. The other, the older son, who was now two, was named for his father, Dan.
I didn't have much against the father, but I didn't have much for him either. He was quiet, and steady. He rarely seemed angry, but he rarely seemed happy either. I tried to strike up conversation with him but it always seemed to end with him going off to get some chore done.
They lived in a small walk up apartment on a quiet street by the college. Dan worked at the school on the grounds crew. He spent many an hour in foundation holes digging the beginnings of grand new buildings for the wealthy and educated. This is the one topic I ever seemed to have gotten him to elaborate on.
"Those whelps got no idea how the buildings they live in get built," he said, then spat.
"I suppose they must know someone's got to build em," I replied.
"Someone, but not them. Wouldn't get their hands dirty."
"But some of them could probably draw some fine plans for splendid buildings," for though I had no real use for these college whelps myself, I didn't want to lose any thread of conversation.
He spat generously again.
"I'll build a house without a plan, let them try to build one without working up a sweat."
"What have you got against them?"
"Luck of birth."
"Nothing you can do about that, Dan."
He considered what I said, then began to walk away.
"Got to borrow a sack of concrete from Murphy," he said as he walked away.
My sister was in the kitchen. Little Dan toddled around the kitchen at her skirts. Little John slept in a cradle in the corner.
"So you're a man of the world, are you, my Jack?" she asked, happily making her way about the kitchen.
"I'm a man of four or five states anyway, Lizzie."
"But you're grown so. You're no longer my little brother."
"I'll always be your little brother, Lizzie. But I am grown, true. And there's some things little brother ought to know when they're grown."
"Like what, Jack?"
"Like who my mother and father are? Where my mother and father are?"
She was quiet now for a little while. The happiness drained from her step. The sunny kitchen fell underneath a cloud.
"Somethings are better forgotten, Jack."
"Easier to forget when you know in the first place, sister."
"I guess you're right Jack. But it ain't easy. Mama never married your father, nor mine either."
"We don't have the same father."
The room grew quiet again, except for the babbling of Dan in the corner, who had found a wooden spoon, and was tapping the floor.
"You see, Jackie. Mama was a pretty woman. The men came to her like bees to a daisy. She smiled and the men asked her to marry. But she always said no. I don't know who my father was. That all happened before I was born, of course. By the time I came, he was long gone. And every time I asked her she told me he had gone off and was lost at sea. But on my birthday I always got a gift. Momma said it was from an aunt, but no aunt would ever give me the things that I got in the post from this aunt - a jacknife, a beaver cap, perfume when I was only five.
"I knew they were gifts from my father.
"When I was six, Mama began seeing a man regularly. He was an older man, very kind. Mama told me to call him Uncle Jesse, and that is all I ever knew him by. He was your father.
"Being six, I didn't much notice the change in mother's physical condition, but apparently Uncle Jesse did, because he stopped coming around.
"My memory is fickle about a lot of things, but I remember you coming into our small home. You screamed up a storm, almost as loud as the screams Mama made. When it was over, a big woman came out and told me I had a new brother, but that my Mama said we must go and live with some other people because she couldn't take care of us anymore.
"Of course, Mama was dead. But I didn't know that. I couldn't understand it, and I begged for more of an explanation, but I never got anything else, and soon I began to hate Mama, until we came up here to live and I saw another woman die in childbirth. Then for awhile I hated you, for killing Mama.
"When I had little Dan, I was mighty scared. The doctor and the midwife told me that not all mothers die in childbirth, though my experience was not proof. Sure enough they were right.
"And that Jack is about all I know about our Mama and your father.
I picked at a piece of pie that Lizzie put in front of me while she was telling me the story of my birth and my mother's death. I didn't eat the pie, I was consumed with a thousand questions that I knew Lizzie was incapable of answering.
I wasn't at all sure why I had asked in the first place. I had little new knowledge. My mother was dead, and my father gone. I was still an orphan. My only family was my sister. Now my half-sister.
Lizzie herself seemed to be pleased with the unburdening of her knowledge. She moved around the kitchen humming a tune I recognized as one which was played over and over in the dance halls, parlors and barrooms of this country. But I could not name it.
There seemed to be little else to talk about at the moment and so I kissed my sister and her two children and made my way back to the rooming house.
I missed supper, and my sister offered me little but pie. I think she was under big Dan's direct orders not to invite me to dinner. I searched the streets looking for a place to get something to eat and found nothing open except a tavern called Molloy's.
I wasn't looking for drink, but if I had to order some ale to get a sandwich I was prepared to do so.
I sat at the bar, where it curved toward the door that led, eventually, to a latrine out back. I ordered an ale and found that I could get a cold beef sandwich and some pickles as a free enticement to drink more ale.
The barkeep pumped the beer from the basement. It was dark, and aromatic and it tasted like a piece of bitter bread gone bad, but it was worth it, for the sandwich.
When the sandwich finally arrived, I found it was not worth it. The beef was an unidentifiable cut, marbled with tough white fat. I ate it. The pickles were of much higher quality, with enough garlic to cut through any bad brine in the barrel.
But the beef was like chewing on the leather I used to cure. Chewed soft the way the Indians used to chew it, but too tough to tear.
As I tried to digest the impervious beef a thunder clap rumbled the plates and glasses on the shelf, and a few seconds later the bright white flash froze us all for a second.
We were released from the small talk of the bartender as the thunder rolled through the tavern. The rain dropped onto the street outside as if released from a water bucket. Rivulets formed quickly carrying the dust and paper of the street to the Connecticut River where the mighty grey carpet shook it into the Atlantic.
I turned from the window to my sandwich. I was tempted to leave it for another glass of the thick brown ale the bartender served but I was just addled enough to lift the sandwich and attempt another bite.
A bell rang as the door of the tavern swung open. A man stepped through turned toward the still open door behind him and shook his hat and coat into the saturated air.
Before he turned toward the bar, I knew it was Vinny. I couldn't see his rosebud, or any of his face, but I knew him just by the herky-jerky way he moved.
"Where have you been?" I asked.
He was startled and when he looked up he studied me. Not for long, because he was puzzled at what he was seeing. But he looked and he looked around the warts and wens that hung from his eyelids and obscured his vision.
"Jack?" he said, astonished, and unable to say more. "Jack."
I moved to him quickly and we embraced. He held me tight and I could feel his shoulders heave. He snuffled and bawled against my chest for longer than a minute. I felt the hot sting of tears in my eyes, but we were now being examined carefully by every ruffian in the place and I dare not let one tear slip. A few times I tried to push him away from me but he clawed his way deeper into my shoulder. Finally I was able to pry him away far enough to look at his face.
I was amazed, in this moment, at the affection I felt for that strawberry pudding of a face. It was monstrous and weeping and I couldn't have been happier to see any other sight in the world.
"Where have you been?" I asked.
"Jack, I thought you were dead," he choked back.
"I can see that for God's sake. You've grown."
I stood back for a moment and looked at my own height as it stretched away from my shoulders and down toward the floor.
"I can't tell," I laughed.
"What happened to you?"
"I've been on the road for two years."
"You run off like that without telling Lizzie?"
I explained to him how I was ambushed by hobo. How I worked at the tannery and finally left, and how I joined up with McDonough's show on the road.
"Now, where you been?"
"I'd like to tell you I been at sea. Mebbe I will. That's right, I been at sea."
"Vinny, this is me. I can see the lie in your eyes."
"Well Jack. I've been in jail. Almost five years now."
"Jail. Jail. Whatever for?"
"Seems I got in a bit of a scuffle with one of New York's finest. I was sleeping down in an alley in Brooklyn. By the port. I was with a group of other gents. All down and out. I don't really know what happened except I was awakened by a copper rousting us. He smacked the soles of my feet with his nightstick, and I shouted. I was barely awake and I saw one of the cops lacing into one of the other rummies there. He was pounding him in the head with both fists. I got up and pulled the copper off. Next thing I know there was two cops on me, and well, they got a look at me and backed off.
"Well, I don't remember anything more, but one of the gents who got locked up with me told me the whole story. Says I called those cops every name in the book.
“Sounds like the Vinny I know,” I said.
"Says I called him some names that they say they never heard," Vinny elaborated.
I know what they mean," I said.
"Then they said I picked up some lumber that was lying in the woodpile near the fire we built, and I started swinging it.
"They say I took two cops down. One went out cold. The other I think I broke his arm. I heard about it all again in court. The judge reminded me.
"Assaulting policemen is not looked upon lightly in Brooklyn. The judge sentenced me to ten years in jail. I'm afraid I called him a thing or two also."
I looked at this man who had little control over what his own mouth said, and I wondered how he remained calm in the face of this retelling.
"But ten years aren't up."
"You want me back behind bars, Jack, bucko."
"No, no Vinny. I just meant, how'd you get out."
"Well, the filthy buggerers who ran the place never much liked me. They couldn't stand to look at me.
"And the other convicts left me alone because I told them that they would catch what I had if they touched me. It worked. No one touched me. In fact, no one wanted to stay in the same cell with me.
"I behaved myself, and after a few years of keeping my mouth shut and reading every book the visiting woman's auxiliary brought up to the prison I was told the warden wanted to see me.
"He had an offer. I was facing five more years in that cold stone cell, or I could learn a skill and get out almost immediately.
"He didn't tell me what the skill was, nor did ask. For some reason, in that time in prison, I never had another spell either. I don't know if it was the lack of threats, or the pace of living inside, but I never once blacked out. I never once fell victim to my inability to control my own foolish body.
"Well the day they took me out to the prison farm to begin my lessons I figured I had it made, that they were going to teach me about farming. Teach me all the things I had already learned at the insane asylum years ago.
"I heard banging coming from out behind the barn. Then I thought maybe they were going to teach me something new, something I could use - carpentry.
"I followed the guards behind the barn and saw three carpenters working on a small frame. An outbuilding I guessed. Standing on what appeared to be the attic ceiling I saw a tall, bald muscular man, who seemed to be in charge.
" I was introduced to him as Shelby. He immediately gripped my hand as if he were going to break it. He looked into my eyes as people usually will not when they meet me.
"'Are you strong?" he asked me.
"I told him I was strong enough.
""Strong enough to carry a man's soul to its judgment?" he asked.
"I told him that man's soul is as light as the air, and that one needn't be strong to carry a soul anywhere. He told me I was wrong. He said to me that a man's soul is the heaviest weight on earth. And he said that if you took on the burden of another man's soul and couldn't bear the weight, then it would carry you down.
"I told him to look at my face.
"'Do you see this burden I carry?" I asked. "It is the burden of my life. It is a burden than the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a weight that should not have to be carried by a beast, but it is being carried by me, a man. And I have not faltered.
¬ "He smiled and turned away.
"By this time the carpenters left. I asked if they would return to begin the lesson. He told me that they were done.
"I looked at the wooden structure we were standing on. I asked where the walls and roof was. When the windows and doors would be added. He started to laugh.
""This ain't no house. But it is a doorway, I guess."
"I still didn't have any sense of what he was talking about when a hog was led up onto the platform next to where we were standing. I was more confused than ever.
"Shelby went over and picked up a coil of rope, and carefully knotted a leash for the animal. When he had the pig secured firmly to the end of the rope, he dismissed the man who led it up.
"'Bacon tonight," Shelby laughed.
"He threw the other end of the rope to a beam above our heads that ran the length of the wooden framework.
"'Let's try you out,' he said. "Pull that lever over there.'
"I looked, and at the other end of the platform I saw a lever carved from a two by four. It was a simple affair, and the bottom portion of it ran below the platform.
"'Yank it,' Shelby shouted.
"When I did, the floor disappeared from beneath the pig, and with a squeal, he fell from sight. It was just the beginning of the squealing, and the rope jumped as if I held a big fish. I was horrified at the that I just hanged a pig, and what it was that I was being trained to do.
"I leaned against the railing on the scaffold and felt my legs go rubbery underneath me. Shelby smiled over at me and told me I had done a wonderful job, then he shouted down beneath the scaffold and told the men there to cut the hog’s throat and dress him for the smokehouse.
"I headed for the stairway down from the scaffold, and Shelby caught me by the arm.
"'Where you off to?'
"I told him I wasn't feeling well and he told me that if I left I'd be brought back to the cell and wouldn't see the light of day for another five years. And he told me if I stayed and learned the trade I would be free to walk the streets and highways of New York State from job to job. That I'd be paid well, and that, even with a face like mine, I was sure to get a woman or two if I kept my hangman's hood on.
"'Let me show you how to make a knot or two. We've got a herd of swine here today to practice on. And next week there's a man who murdered his wife, his children, and his neighbor's children who needs to meet his maker.
"I thought about the cell, and I thought about the pigs. And I thought about justice, and I followed him to the center of the scaffold to finish off the the herd."