Sunday, December 7, 2008

Chapter Four - McDonough's Palace

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.

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