Sunday, December 28, 2008
The smell of leather is the smell of my father. Always and forever. I remember, before I can remember, like the taste of the teat. Like the smothering warmth of my fair mother's embrace.
So was leather to my father. He'd come home from work perfumed with that strong sultry musk of cured leather. And that is my earliest memory. One that has never changed. Always, the scent of a new purse, or belt, or saddle, and my father's warm features, those he carried as a young man, a young father, appear before me.
I don't remember the father I left behind. That father was a stranger to me. Is a stranger to me still.
But the scent of leather, my father, means joy and security and love. A child's helpless, selfish, wholehearted love for a man as big as a house. A man whose arms could reach to touch the ceilings of our home, impossibly high. A man whose embrace could take my breath away. A man whose mere arrival could fill me with wonder and laughter. This was my father. The scent of leather and joy.
And the scent of my doom.
I sit with the scent of my father now.
Thick and sharp, the leather needle still needs a rap with the tinsmith's hammer to pierce the thick leather pieces I've found out behind the tannery.
My winter woolen coat is in shreds after six seasons in this most inhospitable climate. It welcomes in the chill, and invites it to stay the night.
Leather clothing, I know, will keep the wind out, and seal in the meager warmth my body's furnace burns.
Three days’ work on this coat. It is not fashionable, but it is functional. As heavy as a cowboy's saddle, it will at least keep my shoulders dry in the winter blizzard and the summer thunder. It is shingled like a leather roof. One scrap of leather overlapping the next. But each scrap is irregular like the stones in the New England stone fences which are sometimes my only companion in the long walks between towns.
I am not the man I was. I am still nameless, and silent. But I own muscles in my legs and arms that did not belong to my former self. And I am thinner by twenty pounds. Not enough food, and a bounty of labor.
I've learned that begging alone will not always win me a meal. I've chopped wood, and built walls, and have limed and cleaned the pits of privies on those white shingled farms.
I garden some, but my remote patches of vegetables must be protected from deer and raccoon, and I am rarely the victor.
Some people are generous. Some not. Some guard every potato with a jealousy that most hold for gold or love. Others invite me to pick fruit from their trees, and hold the ladder for me as I do so. And send me away with pockets filled with fruit.
I've found some friends. And I've found some who treat me as if I am the man I pretend to be. Nobody. Yet even these, who don't address me, barely look at me, will give me a meal if I show them I am hungry.
For the most part, this is a country of generosity. But where there is meanness, it is as bitter as the raddish leaf.
I have found nights of great hunger, of great fear, and of even greater cold, when even the heat of a small fire could not be coaxed from wet tinder. And I possess no fortune.
As I watch my finger push the great needle through the thick leather, and see the thread follow through like mankind after history, I remember the hard, dark, thick hands of the men in my father's warehouses.
On my visits to the warehouses, where the air was always as solid with big black flies as it was with the pungent scent of leather, I would seek one of those men out. His name was Hafiz, after a great Persian poet, or so he told me. I sought him because of all the men, he was the only one who found the time to look up from his work and spare me a smile. He was the only one who would let me feel the fine leather of the doe and compare them to the coarse, rugged leather of the pachyderm.
And there were leathers of all kinds in those dark warehouses in the tropics. But the deep shadows of those warehouses, and the lengths of shade thrown by the piles of cured skins were no defense against the dusty heat of the desert village outside.
We lived in Persia in the city of Tabreez, in the province of Azerbijan, from a year after my birth until I was ready for university. In those years, I knew several other boys from the continent, with whom I attended a private school in a green oasis, called "The Sanctuary" by the European businessman who lived in the city.
The European homes surrounded the sanctuary. Though they looked little different then the mud colored homes that dotted the city. The only difference between the rich and poor, I was to learn later, was the height of the great walls which surrounded nearly every home of any value.
The men of these homes traveled out of those homes each morning and onto the ragged paths and narrow sunbleached streets of the city where they dealt in commerce, not of their land, but of goods manufactured in this land to be shipped back to France, Denmark, England and Germany, and sometimes to the Americas. They dealt in hand-fired lacquered tiles, carpets, coarse china, tobacco, rugs, coffee and glass, stone cuttings and gold and silver brocade.
In the sanctuary, the European men and women felt safe. Though they often did not speak the same European language as their neighbor, they recognized it, and were able to create a friendly, if primitive, form of communication based more on Western and Christian conventions than any other similarity.
It was the exotic danger of the neighborhoods on the outside of the sanctuary that was the biggest temptation for a young boy.
I could stare from the hot flat roof of my home and see a constant movement of humanity, swathed in clothing, mostly white, moving in small groups of two and three. At first I would venture out of the sanctuary only with my parents, to go to market, of to visit the leatherworks with my father. On these trips I was alternately elated and frightened for my life. Dark men with flowing robes, and wild eyes, stared out at me from whiskered faces as if I were something they were considering for their next meal. Women, veil upon veil, with only black eyes uncovered, would not meet my gaze at all. And the children were everywhere, half-naked, arms outstretched to my father. They did not look like children to me, but like shrunken adults. I never saw a child of the streets, smile.
Later I would wander the neighborhoods near the sanctuary with some other European companions. We walked with a naive and stupid impunity. We were white and European, and this, we thought, was shield enough to keep harm at bay. In fact, we were never hurt. We knew the language, and we bartered at the market like our parents did. We bought food we didn’t crave, because we could, then we gave it to the beggars who surrounded us as we walked.
We strolled with an imperial air that must have angered these natives as much as it made us feel like invincible men.
Then one German boy disappeared. I remember the search they made for Gunther. They never found him. He wandered away during a school day, and it was all anyone ever saw of him again. As I recall, there was a suspect whom the magistrate picked up, and there was a trial, of sorts, and there was, in fact, a hanging. But we heard, as boys will always hear, that the man caught was paid to confess, and that he turned his money over to his family before he died. His life was a sacrifice for their survival. It was yet another resentment for his community to carry in their hearts.
Gunther's disappearance did not keep us in the sanctuary, though it was what my parents demanded, and even when my friends could not follow, or were too afraid to join me, I went alone.
On one journey I ventured down a narrow alley just off the marketplace. As I walked back through the alley it seemed to get narrower still. Staircases cut into the sides of the building and ran up to second level dwellings, and the exotic smell of cooking and spice was everywhere.
At the end of one of these buildings, the alley narrowed so that only a single person could pass through at a time. There was an archway, and a short tunnel, and at the end the sun was blindingly bright against a bleached wall.
I walked through the tunnel and found myself in a large courtyard. It was filled with fruit trees, several looms, a few goats and chickens, and a slowly running fountain surrounded by beautiful flowering bushes, which hung heavy, on this day, with large violet and red flowers.
Sitting by the fountain was a man. He was slight. His head was wrapped tightly with the colorful cloths which designated he was a religious man, and his headdress was piled so high that it appeared as if he even the slightest breeze would topple it.
I walked over to the fountain, and he did not turn to look at me. I stood behind him for a moment, out of fear, or respect, I will never know. He was motionless. I moved my feet, to make some noise, and he still did not turn.
I circled the fountain, but found, upon arriving on its far side, that I could see only the top of the old man's turban.
I climbed up onto the wall that surrounded the fountain. Yet still I could not see. A flowering vine, whose sinewy limbs must have been centuries old, twisted like a wooden waterway over my head.
I grabbed a branch and pulled myself up. But I trusted the vine more than I should have and it gave way, toppling me into the water of the fountain.
Though the day was hot, and my inadvertent dunking refreshed me, I was disturbed to find that when I climbed out of the fountain the old man was gone. I never got the opportunity to get a good look at him.
I searched the courtyard, but found that I was the only one there. I headed toward the alley and back out toward the marketplace.
"This is not the place for curious little white boys," a voice came from somewhere behind and above me.
I turned and saw no one.
"But if you seek the truth, the truth knows no color, and the truth loves the brave."
Again I turned but saw no one.
"Come back into the garden my child, if it is enlightenment you seek."
I walked back into the courtyard, and there, standing where he had been sitting before, was the old man.
He was taller than I had imagined he could be. Taller than most of the natives I passed in the streets and alleys everyday. The scarves on his head covered most of his hair, but long wisps cascaded to his shoulder where they joined a beard that seemed to explode in every direction, covering a bare, browned, wizened chest.
"Hello, child. My named is Ahmed. What truths do you seek."
"I don't seek any truths," I replied.
"Then what are you looking for," he asked, and smiled.
"I'm not looking for anything," I said. "I'm just looking."
"A boy looking is a boy looking for the truth."
I blinked into the sun.
"I must go. My dinner will be ready soon."
"When you return," he said as I began to turn, "We will speak. And I will help you find what you're looking for."
When I turned to tell him again that I wasn't looking for anything, he was gone.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
My friend the courier called himself Will. Will Selden. He lived with his family on a farm, up the hill toward Middlefield. He had fourteen brothers and sisters, and said he was working on his third mother. Though his first mother died before he was born, and his second mother was his real mother, who died in childbirth with a younger brother, Luke. His third mother was his stepmother, whom he hated like a dog hates the wagon wheel that finds its tail in a rut in the road.
Will got in and out of the house as quickly as he could, and though he contributed some of his wages to its upkeep, his status as a full-time worker kept him from the farm chores that he hated so. When I went to supper at his home with him the first time, I sat at the table and was not noticed as a stranger by any who sat around me. So numerous were the faces, so darkened with the dust of the day and the crusted phlegm of uncountable nostrils, and so frequent the strange face of a hungry visitor that I was offered victual and scolding alike with little concern that I was not born a Selden.
The job Will found for me proved profitable, and difficult.
From six in the morning until six at night, I hefted the cowhides, sometimes still warm from the slaughterhouse, and dropped them in vats of boiling water. Still steaming, I dragged them out with a long set of iron tongs, then set about scraping away the thin layer of outer skin and hair with a rake-like bladed tool, and finally a hard-bristle brush.
In the first weeks of work, my fingers bled, and my skin was as red as if I had held them in a snow bank. Now my skin was hard, and scaling white where it was not brown. My arms looked like they'd been tanned in one of the vats in McKinley's tanning house.
After six months of working, I'd saved $6. Not enough to allow me to take Lizzie away from the asylum, but at that rate I figured I'd have $28 in a year and a half. At that point, I'd be able to buy a wagon, and by renting a horse, I'd be able to perform livery service around Middletown.
McKinley let me sleep in a loft above the vat room. It was small, but so was I. And it only got cold on Sunday when the fires from the tanning vats were extinguished. On the coldest Sundays I'd head to Middlefield with Will. I could always find a warm bed there, usually occupied by at least one other body, but never too crowded to accommodate one more.
Will and I became fast friends, and spent much time with one another when we were not working, though we worked most of the time. In our few hours off, we ventured down to the burlesque to listen to Mr. McDonough play the melodeon on the back steps of his theater. And he kindly introduced us to several of his actresses, as he calls them. I also met music men, traveling actors, endmen and minstrel singers. I learned to love the music of the banjo, and the words of Shakespeare. I knew the local dancing girls by name. Will always told me to imagine them without their fancy dresses on, but I'm afraid he had a more powerful imagination than I.
Mr. McDonough continued his habit of letting me have a go at the melodeon, and I must say I became quite proficient at the simple tunes. Good enough to have Mr. McDonough invite me to play on his stage before one of the regular shows. I always declined, mostly perhaps, due to Will's hissing in my ear about "the devil's playground" and "the devil's workshop." Though he seemed the one to suggest most frequently that we visit this notorious territory of the damned.
Then, one day Mr. McDonough said that Will could accompany me inside the theatre if I decided to perform. Now, Will began to cajole me to practice the squeezebox at every chance so I could get up on that stage, and so he could get a closer look at the dancing girls.
I continued to decline the invitation because I didn't have the confidence to play for anyone besides Will and Mr. McDonough. Once, one of the actresses, she called herself Merilee, though her real name was Aggie, came out during one of my performances. My back was to the door, and Will told me later, that Aggie skipped merrily on the top step as I played. She held her leg stiff and high, and kicked like a frisky pony. And when I was finished she called to me.
"Play another, boy. That was a fine jig. I haven't danced that way since I was a girl in Tralee."
But I threw the instrument at Mr. McDonough and flew down the alley.
Breathing hard under the marquee on Main St., I didn't know if it was the fear of performance or the fear of that tall, curly-haired, blue-eyed woman smiling at me. She was a mystery in taffeta. Her waist was narrow enough for me to put my arms around twice, and yet above and below that intersection of torso and thigh, her body swelled in a way that left me, as I was from running hard, breathless.
Will followed after me and, it being Sunday, and the Lord's day in a town that feared God just a bit more than it worshipped commerce, we walked the streets and alleys of Middletown searching for any trace of Vinny.
We stopped at the yeasty doorways of taverns and listened to the shouts and curses, and the snores. We checked the barns and lofts of livery stables. We scoured the docks and warehouses. We walked from the Tuttle brickyards down by the Little River, all the way to Russell's Suspender Manufactory on the other end of Main. We stopped and eyballed the goods in the windows of Steuks and Wrubels. We peered from the hedges near Chaffee's and spied the factory owners and their wives going for a fancy Sunday dinner. We steered clear of the Insane Asylum, and we took wide berth of the churches.
When we first started our search six months ago, our investigations were as religious as those Methodists, Baptists and Catholics we saw heading for Sunday service. We searched for hours until we, or the light was exhausted. We both learned about Middletown in a way that we never would've had we searched only the main streets and highways.
Will was fascinated as much by my description of Vinny's facial affliction as he was by the re-told stories of the high seas and foreign adventure that I shared with him. Half the time when Will spoke during our search, he spoke as if he were searching for treasure, the rest of the time, it was as if there were some dangerous monster at the end of our trail.
After six months, our search had become symbolic, like those Methodists, Baptists and Catholics heading for Sunday service.
After the first three weeks of looking we never really expected to find Vinny. We turned over ever rock we could lift in Middletown, and, after all, though it seemed huge in the eyes of two small boys, Middletown was not that big to begin with.
Besides, we asked every one we came in contact with, and once seeing Vinny, you could not forget him. But despite our description, no one could recollect him, and no one had heard that such a man had ever been seen in Middletown.
Still, each Sunday morning we rose and performed our own Sunday service.
We stopped at the Italian bakery on Oak Street, where, even on Sunday, old man Salini was working. He called himself godless, and he and the devil had to bake for those who were going to heaven. Then he laughed and for two pennies we were able to get four hot loaves of bread, with a crust that was as tough as the interior was tender. Sometimes he wouldn't even take our pennies. And if we were lucky, and we were often lucky, because we planned our luck as all lucky men do, we would cross paths with Sherer’s’ dairy wagon.
It was a large elaborate affair, with a fancy paint job that listed all his products in yellow lettering outlined in black over six inches high. Mysteriously, the word "BUTTERMILK" was set in letters twenty inches high and set off to the side of the other products listed.
We'd shout to Sherer, and he happily reined his old dobbin to a stop. Then he'd scuttle down from his perch and move around to the back of the wagon. At this time of year, at the beginning of winter, before the first ice had set, when he opened the thick door of his wagon, we caught glimpses of the last ice of a winter. Ice we hadn't seen for months. This ice was precious and rare. It had grown smaller, more coarse with the passing of the year, hidden from the cruel sun in a deep cool cellar hole. It was grainy ice, lined with the thatched tattoo of the straw in which it had been packed. But even on a grey November day, when the old ice was as rare as a daffodil, he'd pluck a piece out with every purchase and encourage us to suck on the icicle he'd hold out to us.
"Boys get hot running around," he'd say. A trace of German clung to Mr. Sherer's Yankee merchant voice like thistle to a parson's cassock.
"What can I get you boys?"
"Two pints of milk," we'd shout together.
"And a hunk of your stinkiest cheese."
"It's Sunday," he'd say. "Gott don't want a man should work on Sunday. Do you boys believe in Gott?"
We both said we did. I still said a prayer each night before bedtime.
"Good," Sherer said. "Gott don't want poor boys to be hungry on his favorite day."
And for another nickel, we had food for the day.
At the end of our wanderings, we always seem to find ourselves on the riverbank, skipping stones through the current, or launching ships, the jagged driftwood that the river coughed up, and watch our rough boats weave themselves to the river's center, and off toward the ocean with our dreams.
During this season, when the sun began to dip early, and the wooded riverbank grew long with shadow, Will would take his leave and head down the bank toward town and home, while I climbed the bank and headed up toward the asylum to visit Lizzie, when it was safe, in the afternoon's dark.
"Are you dressing warm when you go out in the cold?"
"You ask me that every time I see you," I protested. Look at me. I stood and turned so she could see my coat and trousers, my boots and woolen stockings. Dressed fully, though she always managed to find an untucked shirt tail, or a stray collar that she could put to right, smoothing the offending shirt and then patting it as if to say, "now you're perfect."
"And I've got my cap in my pocket. I eat, at least every other day."
She asked to see my hands and arms, as she did ever week, with a "tsk" for every scratch and bruise, whether it was earned at the tannery, or in rough-housing with Will.
Deely served us Sunday leftovers, and Lizzie protested, but Deely would hear nothing of it. It was hocks and gravy, with potatoes and late carrots, and a big chunk of apple betty.
As always, when I left, Deely came to give me a hug and filled my pockets with bread and cheese and an apple or two if they were handy. But apples were always plentiful. The fields around Middletown were checkered with orchards.
At this time of year I walked home to the tannery in the purple dark of winter twilight. Even on a Sunday night, Middletown was a port town, the saloons and hotel lobbies threw bolts of light onto the street and the street corners contained all the energy that had been pent up inside the hold of some dark ship for weeks or months.
Blue laws or no, the whiskey flowed, and the men swayed as they held the arms of gussied up women.
On the way past McDonough's I heard music and laughter, and I stopped for a moment to wonder just what might be creating the delighted response. I was awakened from my thought by a thunder roll of applause, and the doors bursting open with the gents racing for one more illegal swallow before the saloons locked up for the night.
As I climbed the hill past the college my breath came out in shiny fair-weather clouds. The sky was burning with stars. And it made me a little sad that Vinny wasn't here to tell me which was the big dipper, and which was the archer.
Monday found me still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as a load of new skins arrived from the slaughterhouse. I saw my week piled in front of me, some still steaming with the forgotten life of the cow.
Funny, even though I knew these were nothing more than the skins of dead cows, I never associated them with the pretty black and whites that grazed in the pastures on the outskirts of town.
Steaming with near-life though they were, they were inanimate and cold as the boots they would eventually be fashioned into.
I was unloading skins and forming a pile inside the warehouse door, close as I could get to the steaming vats, when Ben Deverte passed me with a pile of scraps, for the heap outside.
"Where you going with those hides, Ben," I shouted as he stepped toward the scrap heap to toss the hides on.
"Boss says toss em'," he shrugged.
I walked over to him and examined the tanned hides. They were scraps from larger hides, but larger scraps that would certainly be used to form a ladies shoe, or clutch, or a man's wallet. At the very least the scraps would form a belt. They were free of defects, hook holes, or bruises.
"I work hard to tan these hides. Has McKinley lost his senses. This is good leather."
Ben looked at me bemused.
"Boss says throw them out. I throw them out. Can't take 'em home. Can't eat them. What good are they?"
"That's a mail pouch there. And that's a cane handle. Hell, I'm no boss but I can think of a hundred uses for them."
"Jack, boy, don't you know what day it is?"
He stopped me. He did. But it was too early for Christmas. And Founder's Day had come and gone. We were working, anyway, so it couldn't be any important holiday.
"It's Wednesday, Ben."
"Not just any Wednesday Jack. Old man leather's due today."
He spoke as if he were making perfect sense, just as Deely had. I had no notion of why the arrival of a raggedy old tramp could make a difference in anybody's day.
"Old man leather. Well, of course Ben, that explains it all."
Taking my sarcasm as satisfaction, Ben turned and began stacking the good scraps on the pile with the bits and pieces that would be burned at the end of the week in the waste fire.
"Ben. It doesn't make any sense to me at all. It doesn't even make horse sense."
"It makes all the sense in the world when the boss says to."
"Well why does the boss want you to throw away good leather."
"I told you, that old man leather will be by today."
"And I'll brew the tea."
"Oh no, Jack. He don't eat here. We ain't that lucky."
"You mean you ain't lucky enough to have some poor beggar at your door take the hard earned food from your mouth."
"No, if we was that lucky, Mr. McKinley might have a tannery twice this size."
"Ben you're hopeless. I won't ever pull any sense out of your mouth."
"Boy, don't you see. When the leather man visits, it's good luck. If he let's you touch his coat, it's better luck. And if he takes something from you. You, my son, are a blessed man."
"So, Mr McKinley puts out good leather so this old tramp will take it."
"Just like I said."
"Well why don' t he just put it in a box and put a ribbon on it, wouldn't old man leather like it that much better?"
"Old man leather don't want no gifts. Don't want no charity. Just wants to take from the world what's his, and give back a little luck. That's all."
"Well, I think I'll rub his old coat when he gets here today. I could use some help finding Vinny."
"You'll need some luck just to rub his coat."
"What do you mean?"
"He don't let just anyone touch him. Touch him straightforward that is. You can kind of sidle up to him, and brush against him. But he is a shy creature. And it's durn hard to get close."
"So what if he's shy. I won't hurt him. I need all the luck I can get."
Ben depleted his pile and began to walk back inside the tannery. I stood and scanned the horizon for sign of the tramp.
"What 'cha waiting for?" Ben asked.
"Old man leather," I said, examining a dot on a distant hill that turned out to be a cow.
"May as well wait for old man winter. Old man leather will be here at 3:00. Sure as the train will pull into the station ten minutes after he's gone."
Ben pulled off his cap and scuffed it against his knee. A cloud of dust rose in a shaft of sunlight breaking through the loose slats of the tannery building.
"He's a tramp, Ben. Never heard of a tramp with a schedule."
"Well, now you did," he said, and turned into the cool darkness of the building.
I looked once more out over the horizon. Looked up at the empty window of Mr. McKinley's office. I'd be back at three for my share of the luck.
But my luck was to be of a different kind this day. After scrubbing most of three loads of cowhide, Mr. McKinley came in the scrub room and inspected my work.
"Doing a fine job, Jack. Keep at it and we'll make a tanner of you yet."
"Thank you sir."
"But for now Jack, break off. I need you to run into town. I've got an errand for you, boy."
"What time is it, Sir."
Without hesitation, Mr. McKinley reached for a chain that draped slightly out of his right pocket. With a sharp tug his hand was holding a gold watch that seemed to fill his big palm. It was worn smooth except around the winding stem, where a delicate leaf carving made it seem as if the watch had been plucked from some plant that sprouted hours and minutes.
"It's one-thirty, Jack."
"If I run to town and back, I can get here before old man leather does."
"You won't be running jack. You've got to take the wagon. The pulley wheel on the strainer broke, and the smith is going to patch it until we can get a new one from the forge. If you hurry you'll be back in time to clean another load of skins before the Leatherman gets here. But don't you ride Isaiah into a sweat."
I was running toward the carriage shed before he even stopped talking. I shuffled backwards and told him I take care of horse and wagon.
"I'll be back."
I needed the luck.
I drove the old brown, Isaiah, down Sumner and Cherry, and onto Washington. It was just a bit longer, and less direct, but the road had less ruts, and I could travel faster. The big iron pulley wheel sang and rattled as it tipped from side to side in the wagon.
"I can fix that crack while you wait," the smithy said. He spat a great river of tobacco. A small stream ran between the seedling stubble on his chin. But he wiped this away with a rush of his great forearm.
"I ain't got the time," I answered.
"Well, McKinley'll have to wait until Wednesday if he don't take it now. I'm shoeing a unit of the governor's footguard when they come by this afternoon."
I knew the word'd get back to McKinley if I failed to take the smithy up on his offer. So I told him to fix the wheel, but to hurry. He said it'd take him a half an hour, and it was two ten now. With luck I could still beat old man leather to the tannery.
I wasn't far from McDonough's Palace, close enough to take the walk there in hopes that the man himself would be sitting on the stage door steps with his melodeon and his vest open.
When I turned the corner to the alley I saw that the stairs were empty, but the door was open a crack. I climbed the stairs and stood close to the door. I didn't hear melodeon, but I did hear a woman crying, then a man shouting. Then McDonough's voice.
I poked my head through the door to make out what the shouting was about.
"I didn't raise her to be no whore," the man's voice shouted.
"I ain't no whore Papa. I'm a dancer," the woman's voice sobbed.
"The hootchie-cootchie. You may as well sell it to every man between here and Saybrook. It's the same thing. Showing what's yours so every sailor can talk about you at every port on the Eastern coast."
"Mr. Tracy, be reaonable. I run a legitimate theatre here. No one touches these girls, without...." it was McDonough's voice.
"Without your permission. Without your accounting for how much they gets paid, no doubt. Your a panderer, McDonough. And she, to my shame, has become a whore. I'm taking her home."
"Papa, I told you I ain't no whore. I'm a dancer. Let me show you."
It was quiet like for a few moments. I could just make out the scuffling of feet on the floor.
"It ain't the hootchie-cootchie girl, but it ain't decent. Get your things, let's go. I won't have any more of it."
"I won't go, Papa."
"Certainly Tracy, she's a grown woman. She can make up her own mind," McDonough said.
"Grown woman? Why she's barely seventeen. Is that growed to you Mr. McDonough. Maybe the good people of Middletown should know more about what you think is moral, and not."
"I assure you, Tracy. I haven't touched her."
"I'm growed enough to work for you, Papa. I'm growed enough to work for myself."
"You'll be coming home with me girl. Get your things."
"I won't be going home."
That's when I heard the scuffling begin. I stepped inside the door. My eyes were still blinded by the sunlight, but I could tell that the argument was not taking place in the corridor.
I skidded through the dark room. The ceiling was high, and filled with ropes and pulleys, higher than the main barn at Will's house. Higher than the inside of South Church. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I spent minutes examining the curtains and chandeliers, and the great pieces of flat wood with farm scenes, and snow scenes painted on them. The one with the snow scene had a great black bear stalking a lone Indian.
"If she doesn't want to go Tracy," it was McDonough again.
"I don't," the girl.
"Well, all right then. Have it your way. Stubborn as my mule. Stubborn as your mother."
I followed the voice with my eyes to a lit platform on the stage. On it stood McDonough and the girl. Aggie, the same girl who said I played a fine Irish jig. She sobbed into McDonough's shoulder. A door in the back of the room swung open and shut, open and shut. The old man must have just left.
"There, there Merilee. He'd only've beaten you once more."
She pulled her head from his shoulder and looked into his eyes. Then they both looked toward the back of the room. I looked too.
The old man was back. With a pistol.
"You'll come now girl," he said, running to the stage.
"I won't Papa. Go away. Go home."
"Let's be reasonable," McDonough said again.
"I'm through being reasonable," the old man said.
He raised the gun and pulled off two shots. McDonough fell to the floor first. Then the girl fell on top of him.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
I have arrived in this country at a precipitous junction.
Not only for myself, but for the country. Having once prided myself on being accomplished in the affairs of the world - a student of politics, if not a practitioner - I feel ashamed that I know little of the recent internal upheaval here in the United States.
I know more now. I could not help but absorb it. I have wandered now, true to my vows of silence and poverty, for nearly thirty-two months. I have begged for my sustenance. I have slept in barns, alleys, and next to the smithy fire on frosty nights, to stay alive. I speak only when necessary.
But I am not alone.
The angels and the devils walk with me.
And there is danger in the air that even a foreigner, and outsider like myself, can perceive. It is the danger of a country divided against itself. I understand that territories to the south have broken away from the Union, and now the streets are absent of most young men. Though there are more dandies, then men with calloused palms. Most have gone off to fight a war that everyone seems to talk of incessantly. It fills the scraps of newspapers I pick off the streets with stories of blood and fire. It may break the back and the heart of this country if the dispirited voices around me are correct.
It has already broken many bodies.
Back from a war they limp, some broken in spirit, some with young bodies missing limbs torn brutally away, some gone so long from loved ones and families returning only to find the love and families misplaced. Some never come home at all.
I walk the roads with these men. At times there are so many of us walking through a small village that it is impossible for the kind people of the village, and they are, in large part, kind, to tell us apart and to treat us fairly. We are a mob of beggars. I heard one man shout to a friend as a group of us walked toward the center of a town that the rain clouds were approaching.
There are more of us than there are scraps of cheese and bread, to go around. And yet, at times like these, it is almost like Christ's miracle, for we all seem to put our head to pillow or rucksack with at least a mouthful of food.
Because I don't speak, these men speak to me. They know I listen because they look me in the eye, and see that I understand suffering. And yes, after thirty months of listening, the comprehension of the native tongue is much improved.
They speak to me and tell me the strange names of distant battlefields, where they've lost an eye, their courage, a friend or brother. They tell me of fear, and horror, and the stench of blood and death. And they say I cannot know. But then, they cannot know me.
And they tell me how they have been driven to this life of begging, and drunkenness by the savagery in every man's heart. I cannot debate this point, and I would not. Most of the men drink hard. I don't drink alcohol as I one did. I am left often the only man sober enough to see that others are covered against the cold.
And they tell me that life will never be what it was, and that war is not the glory of the front page.
One man, he called himself O'Connor showed me the place below his knee where his empty ragged pant leg blew like a pitiful banner in the wind.
He asked me to guess what took it.
I did not answer, and he became angry until he realized that I could not answer. So he made the answer himself.
- Cannonball. He said. Then waited for his own reply, or some sign from me that I understood.
- No. He shook his head and cackled wickedly. Not cannonball.
- Rifleshot. No. No minball from any gun.
- Knife. Sword. Guttered bayonet.
- No, son, no.
- He persisted in calling me son though I was surely ten years older than he.
- A knife'll leave a clean wound. A soldier keeps his knife clean. For he eats with it. No knife would take a man's leg before it took his life.
- You don't know, do you son?
- It wasn't walking no. Nor marching. Nor horse falling upon me.
- Do you give up son? Ha, I thought so. Then you had no chance to guess it, for it was snakes.
- I was in the Carolinas. In the west, in the hills near Rocky Ford with some Union troops. Us Yanks were winning the damn war. Marching through. Taking for our Union what belonged to our Union. But this one small town, Plenitude, it was called. I'll never forget that, sure. We were in some godforsaken valley filled with men and women didn't want to give up nothing to the almighty Union.
- So, they fought us. Weren't even soldiers, really. Just old men with raggedy straw hats, and boys no more than thirteen with bare feet. And they shot our corporal right through the heart straight off. He didn't feel nothing, sure. He was holding out his hand to some old coot. Holding out his hand saying something like we were going to take this town for the Union. Old coot wouldn't take his hand, and before he could blink, a shot came from the edge of the forest on the other side of town. One minute he was standing. The next he lay in a puddle of his own blood.
- Why the rest of us scattered. We were sitting ducks. Them old hill people were marksmen. That's how they lived, hunting and such. None of us stood around to see who next they could murder. And the shots they did ring out. I saw a few more men in the platoon fall. I seen my cousin Henry dragging his leg. And I never seen my cousing Henry again.
- I ran through those woods toward the hills and climbed. I climbed over rock and boulder. I pulled myself up a narrow ledge. I dropped my rifle, and climbed some more.
- I spotted an opening in the wall, just about big enough to hold me. I pulled myself through and found I was in a small cave. A room not big enough for me to stand in, but big enough to hide in, out of sight.
- I heard the shooting continue. I heard them a-shouting like, see one there. Shoot him. Shoot him. It was horrifying. I was ascared like I hadn’t been in the whole campaign. I heard the voices of some of my friends. Boys I growed up with. They called for their mamas when them old rebs found them and shot them coldblooded. I was deathly scared. I can tell you.
- I waited until dark, and was going to crawl out, but I stuck my head through that opening and figured I'd die trying to make my way down. So I waited another day and night. By then I was hungry. Too hungry to stay any longer. So I decided to climb down in daylight.
- I made my way down slowly. Couldn't guess how I'd ever made it up. I skinnied myself off one ledge, and was lowering myself to the next, mostly by feel. I dropped my foot lower and lower. Stretched out to the full length of my arms, and couldn't feel the ledge I'd thought I'd seen down there. I stretched my leg as far as I could when I felt something hit it. I looked down over my shoulder and saw a snake, hanging from my boot. He held for a moment, then dropped off.
- Now I was hungry, and my arms were all atremble from lack of food. I couldn't pull myself back up to the ledge I was hanging from, so I had to drop to the ledge below.
- I landed hard, and when I did, two more snakes struck. They were copperheads, brown and thick as my wrist, and both of them hit my boot. I kicked one over the ledge, and as I did, the other one sprung up at me and hit, just below the knee, and just above my boot line.
- I pulled him off and sent him sailing too.
- And the doctor who took off my leg told me that if it wasn't his second strike, I'd probably be dead now too. By the time I got back to a line of bluecoats, my leg was dragging behind me, three times its normal size, purple, yellow, and it stank. I was happy, then, to have them cut it off. It was a pitiful burden to me. A source of great pain.
- It still is, boy. Still is.
He hobbled away from me. As hungry as I. But satisfied in a strange way, because he unburdened himself of a story he had to tell. A story I was sure he'd tell again.
I would carry my story with me as I walked. It would be my pegged leg. It would be my penance.
That night, three tramps were killed by local boys run wild. They killed, feeling safe in a town that rewarded them for doing good by killing off a tramp. And they thought no one would miss these lost and wandering men. But everyone is missed. I hope I am mourned when I go.
In these weeks that I tramped I saw many men die. But they were men who did not seem to mind the dying. Like my friend with the missing leg, dying seemed a relief from a life of misery. Dying meant the pain mibht stop.
I don't intend to die so quickly myself.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
I walked onto the grounds of the asylum barefoot and with a beggar's ragged blanket wrapped about me.
My head ached.
Blake made off with the little I owned. I awoke beside the ashes of his hut, and the cold grey mound that was to be our cookfire. I looked at the stars and tried to determine the hour the way Vinny would, but the sky kept its secrets from me. The air was cold and wet, and my hair as dewy as a morning field.
The clock inside the main hall read 1:25. From the main hall, I went immediately to the well in the courtyard and drank what seemed like half a bucket to quench my thirst. Then I went to Men's. My bed was empty, and so was Vinny's.
Out looking for me, I thought.
My head ached bad, and I fell into bed, but couldn't sleep, though I knew Pierson would be around in three hours beating the bed rails to get us out into the fields.
I reached under my bed for my locker, but it was gone. I put my hand under my mattress and my dime novels were missing too.
Damn loonies, can't leave anything without it getting stolen. But like each time before, I'd recover every one of my belongings article by article, if I had to threaten the whole lot of them to do it. I let the worry fall from me like a heavy load and fell asleep.
Pierson was poking me in the side. I dreamed I was sleeping under the big chestnut in the second hayfield. He kept yelling for me to get up. Get up if you want your hash. Get up. Then it was Blake poking me. Get up. Get up.
"Get up," I opened my eyes and saw Raymond Berk reaching down to touch my face.
"Get off, " I said, and realized that my whole bed was surrounded by the lunatics from Men's.
It was morning, and they moved aside when I shouted. I stumbled to my feet and realized my head was still pounding.
"Vinny," I called. I expected him to appear from the back of the crowd with his head shaking, and a smile on his face.
"Gone and gone away," Chester Hight sang.
"Vinny," I called again. "Anyone seen Vinny."
"Gone and gone away."
I knew I wouldn't get a straight answer from this bunch. I walked to Alphonse Germano's bed and pulled his trunk from beneath it.
"Where's my gear boys," I shouted. "Either I find it fast, or I'll make sure I've got plenty of yours to keep me going."
Alphonse pulled my shoulder. He was about my size, but very farsighted. He put his great nose next to mine, and when he determined it was me, he let me continue ransacking his trunk. I could knock more sense out of him then he could afford and he knew it.
From Al's trunk I pulled a denim shirt, some pants and a pair of worn boots.
"I'll borrow these for awhile, Al," I waved to him, for a more subtle gesture would not have made a point to old blind Al. "Until I find my stuff. And when I find my stuff, there's bound to be a lot of black eyes around here.'
"You half-brains aren't dressed yet," Pierson yelled from the doorway.
"You'll be out in the field without breakfast today. Get crackin'."
He banged the nearest iron bed frame with a short, thick maple branch he'd picked up on his walk from the worker's quarters. The men shuffled quickly to their beds, and turned to the difficult task of buttons and bows. Those who were adept at threading a button helped the ones who were not, and the ones who could pull up a boot, would yank it on the foot of a bunkmate who couldn't.
"Conroy, where the devil have you been?" Pierson shouted at me. With the rest of the men scattered to their task of dressing I stood, an obvious target for the abuse of the field boss.
"Back off, Pierson. I'll be the first one in the field."
"You won't set a foot in the field, Jack. You're off the job. Fired. It's what you deserve for lighting out."
"And what harm did it do you?"
"In four day's time plenty. We lost the south field when I couldn't get these apes to bale the hay fast enough. A day of rain and the hay turned black."
"Four days? What're you talking about Pierson?"
"You ought to lay off the hard stuff Jack. You see, it'll affect your memory," he laughed and rapped the nearest bed frame. It's owner, who we called Turtle because of the strange slope of his face, and his inability to move fast, shrieked and fell to the floor.
"I was here last night before supper. I left Vinny and went to the river to eat."
"What was for supper last night?" Pierson growled.
"Johnny cakes and hash."
"We had hash three times this week, but we haven't had Johnny Cakes since last Thursday. What was it Jack? Gin? Whiskey? Wine? Some hooch?"
"I don't drink Pierson," I said, suddenly panicked. "Where's Vinny?"
"Gone looking for you I expect. He hung around a day or two after you left and then he took his ugly head and lit out too. Good riddance."
Around me the room was buzzing with the men getting dressed. I walked closer to Pierson. He didn't budge.
"Where's my things?"
"Your things ain't your things," Pierson smiled. "Your things belong to the state. And that's where they are, with the state."
"How'm I to work with ill-fitting boots."
"You ain't to work. Got another boy. A reliable boy. He's out in the field already. This boy wouldn't leave for even a day without a word. He knows what it's like to be hungry. Maybe you'll learn." Pierson banged the bedframe again. It had the same effect as knocking a steamy road apple with your boot. The buzzing flies buzzed louder.
"I wasn't gone but a night. I had my supper down by the river and some tramp hit me acrost the head."
I put my hand to my head for the first time to massage what was bound to be a huge goose egg. But my exploring fingers found nothing more than a slight wound, scabbed over and itchy from healing.
"Boy, today is Friday, August 28. We ain't seen you since a week ago last Thursday, when I beat you and that dago monster for mouthing me. We figured you had enough and lit off. You ain't got no job. You ain't got no belongings. You ain't got no bed. Now if you've got any sense left at all after drinking stewed plums for a week, then you best leave fast before you stir up the loonies here. If I can't get them out to the field, I'll be very angry. And if I'm very angry, I may have to give you one more lesson before you leave."
I looked around the room. The buzzing had stopped. Most of the men stood half-dressed staring at me and Pierson. My insides rumbled like coffee boiling, and I was tempted to put my head down and aim for Pierson's soft middle. But he had the length of maple, and more than a foot on me.
I turned to the men.
"It's Sunday boys. Back to bed," I shouted.
A cheer went up in the room. The announcement of a day off brought the kind of spontaneous celebration you have when you receive a gift unexpected, and undeserved. As the men bounced about, I made my way quickly to the back door. With my boots unbuttoned I knew I could still outrun Pierson, and if he wanted to get any work done a'tall in the field today, he'd have no time to chase me.
I ran between the dormitories and to the kitchen where the great stew kettles were already steaming meat and marrow from huge bones for the luncheon meals.
"Where's Lizzie," I called through the aromatic fog to Deely.
"Where you been, boy? Your sisters worried to a frazzle."
"I don't have the time to tell you the whole story Deely. Is Elizabeth here?"
"You're lucky your sister still has her job. Try as they might they couldn't blame your running off on her. But they like to have tried."
"Where is she?"
"Changing linens in the big house."
I let the kitchen door slam behind me and ran toward the main house. I looked over my shoulder once to see if Pierson was in pursuit. Once I was out of his sight, I figured I was safe. He had more important things to deal with. Sixteen acres of hay, and a crew that thought they ought to get the day off.
My chances of getting into the big house were slight. The doors on the administrators’ residence were kept locked day and night, and only those who lived and worked there had keys. Because the most violent mad men and women were kept locked up here at the asylum, the administrators living in the house felt that if one of these madmen escaped the administers who lived here would be the first target of a reprisal.
I'd lived here fifteen years and the only people who ever struck me were the people who lived in this big brick house.
Desperate, I knocked on the back door. Though the cooks stared through the window at me, they didn't answer the door. They had been trained well, and they knew better than to try anything that might risk their jobs.
I motioned frantically, and screamed through the glass. And I knew that they heard me, but they ignored me on purpose. I couldn't blame them.
I scanned the grassy distance between the dormitories and the house for any sign of Pierson, and with none, I plucked up my courage and headed for the front door.
My knocking brought no answer, as I guessed it would not, but the curtains parted and the cook from the kitchen, and another women looked at me again as if I had just escaped from the prison where they kept the worst of the patients.
But by my volume alone, I wished to attract enough attention so that my sister, upon hearing that a madman, was laying siege to the fortress, would peer out the window and recognize her desperate brother. After all, I only wanted to say goodbye.
I banged some more than backed off the porch and ranted at the front of the house. I felt for just a moment that I might be indeed be mad. Before I departed I had to tell my sister that I was leaving, and more importantly, that I would return for her.
I screamed like I remembered the loonies screamed at their worst moments and my sister's faced appeared at an upper window.
She opened the sash and leaned out.
"Jack. Thank God. Where have you been. I thought Vinny had filled your head with ideas about the sea. I thought you were gone for good."
"I was out cold. Some tramp knocked me over the head and took my supper."
"You mean you haven't eaten in three days?"
Except for the long drink of water I'd taken at the hospital well, I hadn't put anything in my stomach since I was ready to fill it with hash. Yet it had taken my sister to remind me of that.
"Don't worry about that, just listen. That's nothing to worry about now. I'm leaving."
The terrible finality of those words didn't occur to me until I said them. Something about my sister, my only living family, that seemed to bring all my thoughts around to the immediate center. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes. I didn't much remember tears. I knew that a long time ago I taught myself to avoid them. It just made things easier. However much I hated this place, I loved her. And not just her, but the thought of her. The thought that I was connected to her in some way. The thought that I was connected to anything a’tall.
"Why you just got back," my sister said, not without a trace of anguish.
"Sister, it's not that I want to go, as such. Pierson, he's running me off."
"I'll see to that."
"You'll see to nothing, or you'll be run off too. I'll go down to the town and find a job there. I've got enough skills. I can work a field, or run a team, or tend a stable. I'll earn my way in the world, and we'll both of us leave on our own terms."
My sister remained silent as I exposed my plans. Plans that were almost as new to me as they were to her.
"I'll visit you every day. They can't keep me away. This here's a state institution, and I live in this state. That much I know," I said, with little comfort to offer her.
"You're just a boy," Lizzie said. "Who'll make sure you eat? Who'll mend your trousers? Jack, you've got to dress warm on chill mornings."
Lizzie was grasping at straws. She wanted me to stay. And a small part of me wanted to stay too. I looked around and realized that no matter how much I hated Pierson, or how I loathed lifting bale after bale of hay onto a dusty wagon, under a frying sun, there was something secure, something familiar about this dreadful place. Even the old hateful buildings seemed like they were warmer, more inviting then they ever had been. More inviting then they could ever really be.
I was like a shard of glass catching the sunlight and breaking into a rainbow of conflicting feelings. A moment ago I felt liberated. Out from under Pierson's menacing stare. For a few seconds I felt brave and grown into an adult's britches. Now looking up at my sister, her face shiny wet with tears, I was feeling a terrible longing.
"Conroy, I'll have your hide."
It was Pierson, not three wagon lengths away, headed my way and still clutching his maple club. I looked up at Lizzie and I wanted to say something but I didn't know what it was I wanted to say. The word "Mama," popped into my head for the first time ever.
"I love you Jack. Take care of yourself," Lizzie called. “Now run.”
She seemed to know something I didn't. I looked at Pierson, now steps away. And as I began to run, I braved another glance upward to find that she had already shut the window and was gone. Not a trace, not a reflection of her in sight. She had given me permission to fly.
And fly I did. I waited long enough to feel the threatening breeze from Pierson's club as it whistled past my ear. I nearly missed ducking in time.
"You little bastard."
Pierson was no doubt right. Lizzy never was able to answer me when I asked who my father was.
I said nothing, but ran. I knew I'd be returning one day, and I didn't need to give Pierson anything to remember me by. When I came to visit with my chocolates and my new boots I would shake his hand.
"How do ye do Pierson, my man," I would say. And grab his hand and shake hard, the way I saw adults do.
For now, I ran down the hill, tumbling some, and when I reached the bottom, on the pike that led to town along the river, I looked back to see Pierson walking away from me towards the big brick buildings of the asylum.
I walked a short way on the river road. The big gray Connecticut ran silently on my right, and next to it the twin streams of railroad iron, mocked the great gray giant.
Middletown lay like a tavern-cook's apron spread up from the docks on the shore of the river, with roads running like embroidery up the hill toward the college. In between lay commerce of every sort.
I'd been to Middletown before, but never when I knew I couldn't escape the jumble of buildings, streets, people and alleys for the relative order of the Insane Asylum I walked along the docks and inquired of several stevedores about the possibility of work. They laughed at me and called me puny, or Tiny Tim, or midget, or some such.
On a turn around one of the great dock warehouses I bounced off of a boy, about my age, with a leather satchel around his shoulder. He had just run from an office with a sheaf of papers in his hand.
"Watch it runt," he said.
The boy was shorter than I.
"You got work," I asked.
"Sure I got work. Four bits a week. I'm a courier. Deliver letters and bills of lading all over Middletown."
"Think I could get a job as a courier."
"I've got the only job. You looking for work?"
He eyed me up and down as if I were a horse he was deciding to buy. He turned his head this way and that. Stood almost sideways, looked out of the corner of his eye and stroked his chin with his free hand. He imitated adult behavior so well that if he weren't so surely a child I might mistake him for my elder.
"Ever work leather?" he asked.
"Never," I replied.
"Won't matter much, I suppose. McKinley's looking for a boy to scrub hides. Don't see why you couldn't do."
"I could," I answered as if he, himself were going to make the decision about my job.
"Doesn't pay as much as this job."
"Didn't expect it could," I said knowingly. "How much do you think it would pay.
"'Spect Mckinley's paying about two bits a week."
"Twenty-five cents. Go on. How could he afford it?"
"He'll work you hard. I swear. Think you'll be able to take it?"
"I know all about hard work. Worked the fields up at the asylum for three years."
"You right in the head?"
"I ain't a lunatic, 'f that's what you mean. Just an orphan. My sister lives up there still. I just had to light out on my own to make a living. At four bits a week I'll get us a place in no time."
He directed me through the narrow streets of Middletown, walking with me most of the way. He even stopped at a grocers and bought two licorice sticks. One for him, one for me, he said, then gave me both. The candy tasted sweet and exotic. It made me realize how hungry I was.
We walked through alleys where the buildings were so tall on either side, and the passage so narrow, it reminded me of the narrow stream-broken ravines that run down the hills on the East side of town, down to the Connecticut.
We passed one building with a large sign out front that read McDonough's Palace.
"That's where the minstrels play and they do the burlesque," he said with a flourish of his hand and a shake of his narrow hips.
"The what?" I asked.
"The burlesque. You know hootchie-cootchie dancin'. Ladies shaking their bosoms and lifting their dresses."
I had little idea what he was talking about. Yet it all sounded very exciting as I imagined the dance in my head.
Up ahead a small set of stairs led to an open door into the burlesque building. A pleasant sound, like a harmonica played loud, was coming from a short, round dark-bearded man sitting on the steps. As we moved around him we saw he had some strange box-like contraption on his lap. On both sides of the box there were buttons he pushed to make the music, and in the middle was a leather bellows dyed red. It looked almost like the Smithy's bellows.
The music that came out of the box was sweet and swift, and it made me want to dance, though I had no notion of how to dance at all. I thought of those women dancing to this music and felt an unfamiliar stirring down past the pit of my stomach. It was uncomfortable, but vaguely pleasing. The man with the beard smiled at us, but kept playing. He didn't stop until he got to the end of the song.
"'The Irish Washerwoman,'" he coughed heartily. "You know it?"
We both shook our heads and he laughed.
"Don't figure anyone could figure it out from the way I played it." He rested the box with bellows on the step next to his foot. "Don't think I'll ever be better on it. Sad isn't it?"
"What is it?" my courier friend asked, pointing at the box.
"It's a squeezebox. Proper name is melodeon. I took it from a German singer when he couldn't pay for the room or whiskey he inhaled when he was working for me for a month. Simple to play. For most. He told me a child could play it."
He lifted it from his lap and handed it to me.
"Maybe he was right. Sit here," he said, patting the step next to him.
I looked at my companion. His eyes offered no advice. So I sat down.
"Now," the bearded man said. "Squeeze and push those buttons at the same time."
The box screeched at me, but after a few minutes of squeezing, and a few instructions by the man I was able to play the first few strains of "Blow the Man Down."
"What do ye know," the man laughed. "Child's play. The name's McDonough. I own this place. If you boys were a bit older I'd invite you into a show, but...."
And he didn't continue, but laughed.
"You boys looking to make a little scratch?" he asked.
I wasn't sure I understood him. But before I could ask a question to clarify, my courier friend was dragging me down the street by my sleeve.
"Could always use someone to sweep up the morning after a show," McDounough called after us.
As we rounded the corner we could hear the melodeon pick up the tune once more.
"The devil's workshop," my courier-friend hissed in my ear. "Lord help us." Then led me up the street toward McKinley the tanner.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Yesterday, still on the sea, I was Jules Bourglay.
Today I am nobody. I am like a pane of glass. Clear. Brittle. People look through me and see only what is beyond.
My former life is buried in the waves, and blown by the wind that carried me to this new country. This country where any criminal, any sinner, any saint may begin anew. This new land, America.
Today a new life begins.
This I vow. To the life of my dear Marie, I forever dedicate my own life. And to beg forgiveness of those who loved her, like I did. I dedicate my journey.
I left Lyon unwillingly. But I accept my fate with my open heart, crushed though it is. This I know. In a country where I am a stranger, I will melt like a Spring snow and run through the earth until I am carried away again, purified. I have no need for Jules Bourglay.
And so Jules Bourglay, I bid you adieu.
The great port of New York is crowded. It hums with commerce. There is a beautiful indifference to the stranger, the immigrant.
"Ask for nothing," New York seems to say. "And nothing you will receive. Ask for the world, and it is yours."
The costume and custom are foreign, as is the language. Occasionally I catch a phrase of my native French, but rarely is it the polished, musical song my father taught me. It is the sour French of the port and back alley. It is a French that calls to me from Lyon.
More often I hear Italian, or Spanish. And most often the formidable, unconquerable Anglais.
I traveled the street until I found an outfitter. For my walking I would need sturdy boots, and trousers of a heavy twill. The man sold me roomy farmer's boots, and trousers of a blue canvas. I gave to him all my silver, and let him keep the clothes I wore on my crossing. Though I understood none of what he said, he seemed to understand less of me. He took the silver happily, and gave me a soft cotton shirt, and a light wool coat as well.
It was September, and he mimed pulling a blanket around his shoulder, shivering. If the balmy weather of this September day is as cold as it gets in New York, I have nothing to fear.
Next I found a sailor's seafaring shop, spent my gold on a canvas duffel, a cast iron skillet, a straight razor, scissors, and a long knife.
At a bookstore, I bought a second journal, this one, plain paper between heavy leather covers, and a small hymnal, in French, I found on a corner book shelf. I recognized the songs, and could have sung them by heart, the man charged me three coppers for it, but I gave him the remainder of my gold and walked into the street.
I was too generous too soon in my career as a wanderer, and in my haste to begin my journey I forgot to procure a hat. This I bartered for. No need for time, I traded my Swiss pocket watch for a felt hat that seemed to me to have the shape favored by the Americans wandering these narrow streets.
Though the day is bright, and the noise of the street powerful, my heart is leaden. I still cannot understand how any mother can smile at her child when she knows how cruel a fate awaits him. I cannot comprehend how a lover can take another's hand when he knows he is holding, beneath her pale flesh, a fan of bones which the earth will, in the end, bleach white.
This I know. Life is but a mockery. The soul is trapped here. All men are fools seduced by a colorful charade.
Today, I step into the street, free, unencumbered by belongings save for those strapped to my back. This is how I will live until I die. This is where I will lose myself and find peace.
Adieu, Jules Bourglay. Adieu.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
From down in the village these brick buildings up here look mighty handsome. Aside from the Methodist college they're the only real institution in Middletown.
And the college buildings, at Middletown's other institution, on the hill opposite this one, most of them don't look like they were built by the same hand, yet most of them's made of the same red brick as this place. Dug out of a pit and fired over in the meadows, they say.
Vinny told me once that some proud father escorted his son into the main hall here and wanted to enroll him. It impressed him so from the outside that he thought it was Wesleyan. Vinny said he thought the son looked like he would fit in right well here.
Vinny also said that the old man was disappointed when he got over to the college. He didn't think the buildings, or the grounds were nearly as pretty as the Goodman property. I've got to agree with him. Of course, I don't know how Vinny might of known what the old man thought. And I've never asked him.
The old main house is used for the hospital offices now. It's almost four stories and sits on the crest of the hill closest to the village. The hills rise higher up behind us, but what's not farmed, or corralled, is forest and ledge. The guards hunt quail, turkey and venison in those woods in the autumn. My sister says that from the bedroom windows you can see from one bend in the river to the next, and right across to the Portland cliffs.
Fifty-year elms line the drive. Out back, a two-story carriage house and a small wooden barn sit among a nest of six or eight boulders, the kind you see in every Connecticut farm field. The kind that looked like they were dropped by a hooligan god trying to drive the poor farmers mad.
We've had a few mad farmers up here. Lawrence Shaw drove his pitchfork through every animal on his place. He was about to start on the family when his daughter caught him on the head with an iron spade. She was angry that he lanced her cat. Now he's here. If he'd a got to the family he'd of danced on the end of a hangman's rope.
Donal Quinlan didn't kill nothing. He just took his clothes off and walked through Chester village. Maybe he wouldn't of been here either if he wasn’t so well masted, and his yardarm, on that particular day, hadn't been swinging so straight and proud.
Elizabeth Goodman was the last Goodman to live in the old main house. It was Mrs. Goodman began to take in the strays who no one else wanted. Her father made a fortune selling fertilizer he made from dried blood, bone, phosphate and cow flops. She used the money her father left her to build the two halls. Men's and Women's.
Vinny said she was going to name both of them after someone in her family, but had second thoughts about a building called the William Goodman Men's Lunatic Dormitory or some such.
Vinny hauled bricks in a hod with the Irish and Italians who helped build the halls. He says Mrs. Goodman came out to supervise the work each day, and to stand behind a table draped in a linen cloth to serve the boys lemonade on a hot day. Vinny says she was a do-gooder from the word, "Go."
When Mrs. Goodman died, before the halls were even finished, Vinny wanted to go to the funeral, but he wasn't allowed. None of the servants were. They had to walk to the graveyard, down behind the college, right next to the Indian Hill burying ground, on Saturday, and put flowers on the grave. On the way back home, while walking through town, Vinny got beat up when he wouldn't be dragged into a tavern where some tough wanted to display Vinnie’s rosebud to the patrons. In the end, everyone in the place got to see Vinny's ruined face as he lay unconscious in the middle of Court St.
Mrs. Goodman left the buildings and the land to the state, with the instructions that it be turned into an asylum for the insane. She also instructed them to leave her family name off of all of the buildings.
So, it's the main house, Men's, Women's and the lockup, for the hard cases. The kitchen is in Women's, where it’s handy for the matrons to find capable women who are able to help prepare the meals.
My sister is a matron. Though she lived with the patients, and not off the grounds like most of the other matrons. She works during the day in the laundry, and a night in the kitchen, and like me, for her labors gets a bunk and three meals a day.
I've never heard the whole story, but my sister Elizabeth said that my mother died shortly after I was born. My Daddy, I don't remember, but Elizabeth says just as well. She says he used to go off and leave us, and not come back for days. Lizzie took care of me, and she took care of herself. One day Daddy left and didn't come back. That's when a neighbor lady was kind enough to put us in the back of her cart and drive us up here. All I remember is here.
"Just as well," my sister Lizzie said in her big sister way.
When she’s on kitchen duty, I get my dinner no matter what Chester Hight sang.
I walked round back of Women's to the door of the kitchen and pressed my nose to the window. Even with the heat and humidity of the day, the window was steamed from the tubs of water heating on the cookstoves. When the tin dinner plates were collected from the long plank table in the eating hall, they'd be dropped in the tubs to soak, and then to be scrubbed by my sister, and whatever loony was assigned to help her that night.
I couldn't see her for the steam when the door opened and Mrs. Lucinda McAllister stepped into the door frame. Though I was standing, nearly staring into her waist sash, she looked right by me. Looked off into the hills like I wasn't there.
"Evening ma'am," I said softly, hoping not to startle her.
"Young man, this is the woman's dormitory. Have you nothing better to do than stare through windows you ought not even be glancing at?"
"Mrs. McAllister. It's me Jack Conroy. I'm looking for Elizabeth. She in there."
Then Mrs. McAllister got to looking at me again, like she wasn't seeing me at all.
"Have you seen any soldiers from the encampment?" she asked, once again looking into the hills.
I turned around to look too.
"No, ma'am. I'm not familiar with any encampment."
"I'm looking for my father. He promised he'd return when the war was over."
"Ain't been a war for mor’n five years ma'am."
"He makes me wait, he does."
"Yes'm. Is Elizabeth inside?"
"My sister, Elizabeth Conroy."
Lizzy must've heard my voice for she tugged Mrs. McAllister gently out of the doorway.
"Hello Jack. Dorothy looking for the soldiers again, is she?" Lizzie looked off into the hills where Mrs. McAllister had gazed.
I turned around and looked again too.
"Leave her be, Jack. Come ‘round her."
I reckoned my sister was as sane as anyone I'd known. Fact is I didn't know much difference then between sane and insane. The only difference I knew was that in general that most so-called sane people seemed to be less kind.
"Old man Leather's due tonight," I heard Deely, the negro cook call from inside the kitchen.
"Fix him a plate, Deely," Lizzie shouted back.
"Is it my father?" Mrs. McAllister asked.
"I do believe he asked you to clean up those dinner dishes, Dorothy."
"You're right, he did. He did."
Mrs. McAllister shuffled into the billowy heat of the kitchen.
"What can I get you Jack?" Lizzie asked.
"What's left?" I asked.
"Pork hash and johnny cakes. Same as old man Leather'll get. But maybe if you ask nicely, Deely'll cut you a piece of the raspberry pie she cooked up for him."
Old man leather, some called him the Leatherman, was a hobo in these parts. He wore handmade leather coat and pants, bulky and brown. Once a month he showed up here at the door begging a meal.
Lizzie smiled and looked into the hills again.
Vinny said Lizzie was beautiful. I don't know. I know she's more handsome than most of the women around here. But it ain't much of a compliment. Most of these women've seen hard times. Anyway, Vinny said you're blind to the beauty of your family and friends.
"Blind to the ugliness too," I ventured, then winced.
"Or you couldn't bear talking to me. God is good, Jack. Even a snake loves it's young."
I looked up into the hills where my sister stared.
"No, poor Dorothy. Her Daddy run off with a circus girl. Her Mama didn't know what to tell her. She was just a young thing. So her Mama told her he'd be back. Then her Mama jumped in the river at flood, and left Dorothy standing on the bank. Stood there all night, they say. Next morning they brought her here."
"She ever ask about her Mama."
"No, I reckon she doesn't expect her back."
"What're you thinking Lizzie?" She had a faraway look in her eyes. She’d get it, once in awhile.
"Nothing Jack. I'll bring you your dinner. You want it on a plate, or in a sack."
"A sack. I'll be eating down by the river."
"Don't want that pie, then?"
"Didn't say that. Put it in the sack."
"I expect Deely won't let you carry it off. If she gives you any at all, I expect she'd like you to eat it here."
"Here, or by the river, what's the difference?"
"Old man Leather'll want to know where the missing piece went," Deely said poking her head over Lizzie's shoulder.
"Give it here now, if you please. I'll eat it first," I protested.
"That's bad for your digestion," Lizzie said.
"That's bad manners. Even for the loony bin," Deely added.
"Must I wait then?"
"You must. But not for long. Here he comes now." Deely lifted her gaze. A soft smile lit her face like the sun turning a field in the cold hills warm.
I turned around once more and saw a brown speck against the tan hillside in the distance. For a moment it looked like a bear. Like one of the blacks that rumbled out of the woods and made away with a calf, or a kid. But the speck moved too determinedly. It was shapeless, like a bear. Shapeless even as it grew closer.
"Old man leather?" I asked.
Deely nodded but shushed me.
"Listen," she said. "Just listen. You'll hear him acomin'. And don't say a word. He's as skittish as a doe. If you chase him away, you'll chase my good luck along with it."
I looked into the steaming kitchen and thought, "Good luck?" But I didn't say it. I just looked into the hills toward the spot where Deely was now pointing.
Old man leather was still no more than a shambling speck in the distance when I heard the sound. It was a creaking, or a squeaking. It sounded to me like the passing of a division of mounted soldiers, without the horse hooves, or the neighs.
"What is it?" I asked.
As the speck grew larger I could see it walked upright. But it was still brown, and shapeless. The squeaking continued, along with a scraping.
"Leather," I shouted. “Leather against leather.”
Deely looked at me sternly. Her gaze was a punishment fit for a murderer. Fortunately it dealt me a glancing blow, then set fixed again on the field where the speck crossed.
“Old man leather's got a big cowhide coat, ain't he?" I said, hoping to win Deely’s favor.
"Hasn't he," Deely corrected me.
"I don't know, that's why I asked," I laughed and dodged the end of Deely's dish rag as it cracked the air next to my ear.
Lizzie shrugged, while Deely stared intently at the speck. It stopped. The squeaking stopped.
"You scared him," she said. "He won't visit now."
But after a moment, a moment in which he stood so still I couldn't make him out from the domes of hay we'd been raking that afternoon, he continued walking, and in our direction.
"Now you just take your lunch elsewhere," Deely scolded me in a hushed voice.
"What about the pie?"
"You can just forget the pie," she said, pulling her apron above her head in a linen wave, as if I were some cat she was chasing away. I looked at Lizzie for intercession. She clucked and told me I best leave.
I looked over my shoulder to where the squeaks were getting louder. I saw old man leather getting closer, but I couldn't see much more than that he was a big man in girth. Maybe two hundred pounds, and that weight concentrated in a compact body standing at about five foot ten inches.
"Scat," Deely gave me a shove as if to get me out of sight before the waddling brown giant approached.
I took it in my mind to raise up my arms, turn toward the approaching visitor and screech like a piglet with a wolf's teeth in my haunches. But Lizzie must have read my thoughts.
She said, "Don't Jack. Just go."
"Go before you spoil my luck forever," Deely hissed.
I picked up my sack and headed between the two brick dormitories, and down to the churning Connecticut.
After passing through Glastonbury, the Connecticut River makes a slow turn to the East. It travels through farmland and pasture until it reaches the great bog just outside Middletown. The bog is a wide flood plain that is underwater for most of the Spring, during the freshet. and the floating pastures, full of wild rice, muskrat, beaver and catfish, stays wet for the remainder of the year. Except on the winter's coldest days, which is the only time I've seen the bog close up.
On those frozen days, it becomes a skate pond. Ice dark as the ebony of a new piano. With crazy tufts of blond marsh grass piercing the black lustre. I skated there, with a pair of wooden skates, fashioned by Vinny. He forged them from the runners of an old wrecked sleigh that he found in the barn.
Of course, between Vinny and me, an orphan from the insane asylum, and a monster with a wrecked face, we spent hours trying to outskate the local boys. When finally I tired and tripped over a tuft of the yellow marsh grass, I found myself buried beneath a cascade of snowballs.
Still, it was a day I still remember fondly.
The Connecticut passes through Middletown lethargically. Though the river is deep. Deep enough to make Middletown an important mid-river harbor. Here, it's full of tricky and unexpected currents. Strong as a stevedore.
Vinny says he saw two strong boys, and a man who meant to rescue them, swim to the middle of the river and just disappear. Pulled under. And all the bodies washed ashore within three feet of one another down in Essex.
Still I've taken to the river myself. Found a battered rowboat one spring after the flood. It had a hole in it's bottom as wide as a parishoner's yawn.
I plugged it first with rags, but found it took on water too quickly for me to make the main current. Then I tried some veneer I found peeling off an old table. Another piece of river treasure. And I fastened it with roofing nails and some roofer's tar. It held good enough to get me to the other side, using an old wooden snowshovel for a paddle. But I found the other shore, the Portland side, downriver, unfriendly. Cliffs towered hundreds of feet above me. I paddled back, but the current dragged me downriver four or five miles before I reached the home shore.
I carried the boat back halfway. Then decided to stow it ‘neath some rubble until I could make it back to haul it the rest of the way.
When I did return, I couldn't find it again. Couldn't find the pile of rubble. Probably some other kid out there on the river with big dreams of rowing to the ocean, and back again. Or maybe keep on going all the way to Virginia or Bermuda.
That day, I just wanted a dry log, and a view of the river's great muscle pulsing and pitching and pulling. I 'd eat my hash and dream I was a fish facing that great wall of water, pushing against my nose day after day, as I struggled to make it to Hartford.
Glad I wasn't a fish.
I found the log. My log.
I guessed it was an elm by the bark that didn't get stripped in it's ride downriver. I like to think it's from Vermont, or Canada, where Vinny says the Connecticut runs as small and quick as the current in a drainage ditch after a thunderstorm.
It had a great mass of tangled roots that elbowed twenty feet out into the current. From it's crook I could drag my hand in the current, and pretend I was a sailor adrift in some bottomless sea.
I opened my sack. My sister had filled an old canning jar with the hash. Though it was probably some of the same meat that had been served to us for the past few weeks, it was easier to eat. Easier to chew, that is, and tastier. Deely had a way with the spices. She'd given me two slabs of brown bread spread thickly with butter, and three plums from the asylum orchard. These were prizes, for most of the crop was put away for the administrator's eating, or sold at market. Though we pruned and harvested these plums, we rarely got to eat them.
"Gonna eat that hash cold," a thin voice, like a horseshoe on slate, came from behind me.
I turned, and there, standing where the first branches spread from this old dead elm, stood a man as thin as the branch he leaned against. He was raggedy, and he looked old. But I knew he was a hobo, and generally hoboes look much older than they really are.
"The name's Drake. Jebediah Drake. Happy to make your acquaintance. You gonna eat that hash cold?" he trailed his words together so that he barely let a breath slip in. As for my opportunity to answer, it didn't exist.
“I know a woman who eats cold pie for breakfast. Pie and cheese. She calls it a delicacy. Not for me, no. I like my food warm. To warm my inside,” he babbled.
"I like cold hash," I said, turning from him. I neither wanted to talk, nor to share my supper.
"I've got a fire. A hot fire. Just coals, glowing red. And a spider hot and ready."
"I don't want to put you to no trouble," I said, and I knew I was loosing the battle for my supper, for hoboes are always hungry, and therefore more skilled at talking a sometimes-hungry man out of part of his meal.
"It's no trouble. Always room in my skillet for some cold food. Come lad, cold hash is bad for your digestion."
"Why is it that suddenly everyone is so danged concerned about my digestion. Here, what'd you call yourself?"
"Drake. Like the explorer."
I had no idea what he was talking about but I offered him half of my bread and hash, if he'd just leave me be.
"Wouldn't think of it lad. Not a't'all. If you won't join me, I must say I'm forced to refuse your hospitality.
"Have it your way."
I began to turn, hoping he'd leave me some peace, but he stood his ground silently.
"All right then," I said. "Show me the fire."
We walked from the fallen elm, away from the river, toward the steep bank. The trees grew thicker toward the bank, with some wiry tangles of wild rose and raspberry. I couldn't spot the glow of the fire, as the dusk filled the woods with thick shadow.
"Where's your fire?" I asked.
"Yonder, past my hut," Drake rasped.
All I could see of a hut was a ruination of a wooden wall. Its foundation was black and broken railroad ties from the Saybrook-to-Hartford line that ran fifty feet above us on the crest of the bank. The wall itself was a patchwork of crates, chicken wire, tin advertising signs, and driftwood, twisted and swollen into a shape that invited the wind through the wall.
As we stepped around the hut, I spotted the fire. It was built inside a well of small boulders shiny with the feldspar embedded in the rock of these hills.
Drake ducked into the hut and emerged with a large black iron skillet. A spider, he called it. And it looked like one, black legs to stand on hot rocks, and a handle for a head. By the looks of it, it had seen a thousand fires.
"What're you waiting for, Sonny?" Drake asked. "It's past dinner by two hours already."
“I thought your skillet was hot?” I said.
I thought him bold, for a beggar, but I bent anyway to open the sack.
That's all I remember of the day. For I felt the skillet as it landed on the crown of my head. And I saw bright cinders fly behind my eyes. And the day was gone.
Monday, November 17, 2008
I was working the hay field across from the insane asylum. Pierson had a gang of us out there with rakes. It was the first week of August, and hot. The locusts were squalling. I could look down and see the broad blue elbow of the Connecticut River in the valley below, and it only made the heat worse. The sweat ran in currents through my scalp and down my neck. And the haydust clung to my skin like a burlap shirt, but it itched worse.
I was the only sane one on the gang. Except for Vinny. But it seemed like I was the only one sweating.
I stopped for some water and Pierson spotted me.
"Conroy," he said. "Keep raking."
"I ain't your prisoner. And I ain't no madman. I'll get a drink of water when I'm thirsty," I yelled back.
"You're the only one gets paid." Pierson called back.
"I'm thirsty too," Chester Nealy shouted in his cow voice. Then it was too late. Pretty soon the whole gang of them crazies was mooing for water.
"Drink then," Pierson spat a muddy gob. His teeth looked like piano keys from that black twist he chewed. "But get back to work as soon as you're done."
I got to the water first, and was glad.
I was mostly used to these men by now, living with them as I did. But I know some people couldn't bear to look at them, with their faces twisted and squashed like they were. I got over that a while back.
But I didn't want even one of them getting to the water first and drooling in the bucket.
"He's a bitch's bastard's whore, he is. He can bite my arse," Vinny whispered to me.
Vinny learned to curse when he sailed with a freight line out of New London. He was abandoned in Spain when he beat the boswain of the Mary Lee near to death in Madrid. The boswain tried to sell him to a circus.
"Fuck Pierson, but don't fuck his mother," he leaned into me, "She'll give you the clap."
And he laughed.
Vinny was nearly as sane as me. And I don't say that with any pride. He was, down deep, a better man than I. But he'd lived up here at the insane asylum for eighteen years, and that pushed him off center. That was before I was born, by four years. Before they called this place the insane asylum.
When he got back to New London on another freighter, the police were waiting for him on the dock. They never told him why he was arrested, but he says he remembers seeing that boatswain smiling as they loaded him into the Paddy Wagon. He didn't go without a fight. He still carries a leather oval that he shows when he tells the story.
"There's a one-eared, son-of-a-papist, Irish copper pounding a beat in New London. That flat-footed potato thief won't ever forget me. I'll never forget him, either" Then he'd stash the soft, wrinkled oval in his pocket again, shrug his shoulders and laugh softly.
They put him in lockup for awhile, then shipped him up where his family came from. His family weren't very happy to see him again. Fact is, they thought they'd seen the last of him. Vinny swears they put the boatswain up to selling him to the circus.
Middletown didn't want him either, jail or no. The chief of police couldn't stand to look at him. So they sent him up to the Goodman home, what we call the insane asylum now, and he's lived with these lunatics for eighteen years.
That's why I say he's almost as sane as me. After eighteen years with this kind -- the night screams and the fits, the arms and legs and necks twisted all the wrong way – you'd fall a little off the track too.
Vinny's face was one of the hardest to look at when you first saw him. His really doesn't look much like a face at all. It's a bright violet blotch. It looks like it's turned inside out, like a butcher slit it down the middle, pulled what was underneath out, and chopped it up some for good measure. ‘Cept with a nose three time the size you'd see on any normal man, and bright blue eyes.
I knew what that ship captain was thinking. There'd be plenty of folks who'd pay money to see a face like this in a circus tent. They'd see it again in their nightmares once they got home.
He called his face his "rosebud." But it reminded me more of a tub of innards. He's told me it'd been like that since he was born. Says, "Can you imagine the looks on the face of my Mam and Da. It's a wonder they didn't kill me, then and there."
But just like these others, once you saw him a couple of times, you could look in his eyes when he was talking to you and almost forget that he looked like something that stepped out of your worst dream. And living up here, you have some pretty bad ones.
"Three more hours ‘til dinner" I said to Vinny.
Meals were the only partially pleasant intervals in days filled with numbing boredom or deadening labor. In my thirteen years, these meals were the only way I marked my days. Still I couldn't remember a good day, all the way through, yet.
"Don't count on food tonight," Vinny replied. "Pierson says his legs tell him rain is coming. He wants the hay in the barn before the evening dew sets."
"If it storms, there won't be any dew. He's got to give us dinner. These loonies'll fall over dead."
I shouldn't have said it. Vinny was starting to get agitated. And when he got agitated, his cursing got worse. He told me he didn't have any control over it, but I never believed it. He'd stand there and roll his eyes back in his head, and jerk his arms forward, just like he was pummeling some forgotten enemy, and curse to beat the band. Never heard such words before, or since.
"Fucking Pierson. Fuck him, fuck."
"Relax Vinny. Finish your water and let's get back to work."
"Shut up. Shut, shu-shut. Fuck Pierson. Fuck him, fuckshut."
I was sure Pierson heard that. And though I hated Pierson as much as I hated any man, I was tired and I wasn't sure I wanted to get beaten just to protect someone who didn't know better than to curse his boss in the noonday sun, even if he was my friend.
I shook Vinny, and that was a mistake. He sputtered and spit and his arms started jerking. The rest of the lunatics had finished the water, and were walking back to the hay rows. Cooley Hanson was pissing in the middle of the field with his britches around his ankles. Pierson stopped and said something to him, then headed our way.
He walked straight up to us. He didn't stop, and he didn't say a word.
"Fuck you, Pierson. Shit, shit, shit, stuck shutfuck. Shutshutshut. Fuck you Pierson, shut."
Pierson raised the handle of his rake when he was a step away from Vinny, and as he reached him he carried it in a wide arc then swung it hard into Vinny's face. Vinny staggered, and his rosebud seemed to blossom with blood through the fingers he pressed to his face.
"Fuck. Fuck. Shutshut." Vinny said as he fell to the ground.
Pierson was raising the rake to take another swipe when I landed my fist in the side of his head. He staggered back a step, but didn't fall and now he raised the rake handle and aimed it at me. He was a good foot taller than I was, and I knew I was beaten. I covered my head and readied myself for the blow.
"This is your fault Conroy. Your friend would be fine if you didn't need to stop for a drink of water."
The blow to my head never came. Instead I felt the sting of the maple rod against the back of my legs. My knees buckled and I fell to the dust.
"I don't want you unconscious," Pierson laughed. I need to get the hay in the barn and you're the only sane one here.
"Fuck you." Vinny spat. It sounded like he was drowning.
I took Vinny back to the hall. After I roused him and got the bleeding to stop, I saw that his nose had a severe pitch to the left. Overall, given the condition of his face, if you hadn't seen him before, you'd never guess the new angle was man-made harm. And I thought the alteration actually had the effect of making his huge snoot seem smaller.
"What'd I say now?" Vinny asked me in a raspy nasal whine as we crossed the field to the hall.
"Get off it. You know what you said. And I can barely walk because you don't like Pierson's looks."
"What'd I say, Jack. I swear, I don't..."
"You do swear. That's the problem."
"Pierson give us the afternoon off?"
"It must've been the sweet way you asked, Vinny."
We played Bristol pitch the rest of the afternoon sitting on our bunks in the hall with a worn deck of cards Vinny pulled from his bed chest. The room was as big as a church, but instead of rows of seats, there were beds. Vinny and I slept on two in the middle. We had straw mattresses with worn flannel ticking. And in winter, grey horsehair blankets that scratched like grandad's Saturday evening beard.
Vinny pulled a cigar tin from the chest.
"Medicine," he whispered. "For my nose."
Inside was the jar of the potato liquor he favored. He brewed it in an old kettle down by the river. He sold it to some of the crazies who got a few pennies from their with families. Why they gave them money I'll never figure. What didn't get stolen by the guards got spent on Vinny's potato liquor.
When they drank, the quiet ones got noisy and the noisy ones slept. So things weren't much different for the rest of us. You still woke up every hour with one of them moaning like a heifer birthing her first.
"You know," Vinny said, sending a drizzle of alchohol onto the playing cards. "I'd sell my soul to Beelzebub if I could look like you, instead of owning this blasted mug of mine.
I had heard Vinny begin to strike this sorry bargain with Satan before, and I just wanted to play cards.
"Not that you're so good looking Jack. Not that at all."
I tried to give him a look that would put an end to this tired sermon, but he misinterpreted.
"Oh, don't go getting hurt Jack. Shit, I didn't mean you weren't good to look at. Lots of rich boys would pay to have that silky hair and grey eyes of yours, just like they paid not to fight the damn rebels. You're skinny sure, but you're taut as the line on a mainsail. And you're tall for your age. I was as tall as I am now when I was fourteen."
"Vinny let's play cards," I pleaded.
"Your mama and papa must've been handsome to produce two like you and Elizabeth."
"Listen, Vinny. You don't want to finish this game I got some reading I could do."
"Oh leave off those sorry dime novels Jack. Errant Dave and his Indian pal Pequot Bill will be under your mattress all night long. You can get to them later. Here, I've got a trump."
He pulled away my nine with a jack and won a point.
"Just that I'd like to look normal. Not like this, that's all," he sighed.
We didn't bother going over to the dinning hall at six, sure that they'd already gotten word that we'd skipped out of working. No meals for loafers. At eight, Chester Hight ran into the hall in his famous crouch.
"You boys missed dinner."
"No grub for the lazy," Vinny replied dropping a red-headed Queen on my ten. "Pitch."
"You boys missed dinner," Chester repeated.
"He's got his song for the night," I folded my cards as Vinny added three points to his total. He played better drunk than sober.
"Got my nourishment right here." Vinny held the tin aloft.
"You boys missed dinner."
"Should I kick him?" Vinny asked.
"Let him be. If it weren't dinner, it'd be his hat or shirt..."
"Or his John Thomas."
"You boys missed dinner."
"I need some dinner."
"But we haven't finished the set," Vinny said, and began to deal.
"It's yours. I need to eat and sit by the river. Want to come?"
"No, I'll just stay here and listen to Chester sing."
With that, Vinny fell back against a coarse flannel pillow that coughed a cloud of dust into the last finger of sunlight reaching through the darkening hall.
"You boys missed dinner," Chester said again as I moved down the hall.
"Shaddup," I heard Vinny yell as I walked down the worn path that led to the kitchen.
I was hungry and figured I'd have to be happy that way.