Saturday, November 22, 2008

Chapter Two: Dinner with a tramp

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?"

"Elizabeth who?"

"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 soldiers."

"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.

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