Sunday, March 22, 2009
I saw a boy whom I have seen before.
This of course, in itself is not strange.
I see many boys, many people, repeatedly. After all these years my wanderings have taken on a regularity that has astonished even me. I wander in a wide, irregular-shaped circuit, though I have never checked its shape on a map, I have a feeling it is a large craggy oval.
I know this, I wander no further east than the great river they call the Connecticut, and no further west than that other great river, the Hudson.
I know too, from the road signs, that I don't venture through any of the United States except for Connecticut and New York.
And I know, from the comments of farm wives and storeowners that my wamderings take me back to the same spot about once each month.
I am a man without a name, but a man whose habits call out to him like the same sort of birthright.
But this boy. I came to know him, and to watch him grow, at a tannery and leathergoods manufactury in Middletown, Connecticut. He would stand by the great pile of scraps as I chose those pieces suitable for addition to my suit of clothes.
Once I saw him in the prison town in Sing Sing. I watched him cross a great field, and I didn't recognize him until he came very close. Of course, when he was that close, he was impossible to mistake. It was the boy from Middletown, grown somewhat, but not out of his features. He still had no beard, and his eyes shone with the brilliance of innocence, as they always had.
He climbed the cliff above, and behind the rock shelter I stayed in, and only saw me when he pulled himself to the edge of the cliff for a look over. Then I ignored him. I knew he was looking at me. I could feel it.
He looked and looked for an hour or so, and then scampered off through the fields, toward the town.
Next day in that town they had themselves a hanging.
When I walked through town people stopped me and said, "Good job, saving that boy, like that."
Others just touched the hem of my coat and said thanks. I began to get frightened that they knew something, or had imagined something about me, that wasn't true, and that sooner or later I would pay for it.
That night I saw the boy again stopped by a gang of roadmen, and I did my best to help, then faded into the night.
I left town the next morning without stopping for my regular meal.
Then, as I was traveling through Middletown, I saw him again. This time he didn't see me, so I watched him.
He stood down by the banks of the Connecticut, and like a boy much younger than the young man that he was, he stood and threw sticks and stones into the slate grey river. It neither stopped flowing nor recognized him.
I sat, nearby, within the cover of a bush and watched him play with the river so for more than an hour. Then he walked up the hill toward the insane asylum, the place I was about to visit myself, for a meal from the kindly kitchen maid.
And I realized that I had seen him there before, as a boy, working for months in the fields and around the buildings.
I began to get curious about who he was, and why he ranged almost as far as I did, when I stopped myself.
Set it down in the diary, I told myself. And forget about it. I have vowed never to get attached to any other human being again.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
For someone who was such a close friend when we were young, Will Selden was a stranger to me now. His perspective and reach included Middletown, sometimes a summertime outing to the seashore at Hammonassett, very occasionally a trip to Hartford or New Haven, but Will seemed very content to stay put on the farm.
When Will and his brothers sat down at the table with us to eat, his mother begged me to repeat stories I told her before the boys came in. I repeated a few, but found to my dismay that Will did everything but call me a liar to my face. He seemed upset because he had no stories to tell in return.
I asked him how he was getting on, and he'd mumble a few words. I asked him what had been keeping him busy, and he told me that since his Daddy died, it was the crops and the animals.
I told him about the hanging in Sing-sing, and he told me a hangman never made a mistake or he had to take the noose himself. I told him about a bar fight I witnessed in the middle of an Irish tavern on Staten Island. He said drinking was for fools who had no regard for their money.
After supper I thanked Mrs. Selden, and Will asked me if I needed a ride back into town. I was tired but I told him I didn't because I couldn't bear to ride with him and try to keep up a conversation over the course of a two mile ride.
I returned to the boarding house near the Palace where I was staying and found a woman to comfort me. She was older than I by more than a fortnight, but she was knowledgeable in the ways of keeping a man distracted. So for a few hours she kept me from thinking that I came home to a town in which I no longer had a friend.
The next day I visited Lizzie. She was now a mother twice over, of two boys. One named for me, John, though in learning this it was the first I knew that my name wasn't Jack. The other, the older son, who was now two, was named for his father, Dan.
I didn't have much against the father, but I didn't have much for him either. He was quiet, and steady. He rarely seemed angry, but he rarely seemed happy either. I tried to strike up conversation with him but it always seemed to end with him going off to get some chore done.
They lived in a small walk up apartment on a quiet street by the college. Dan worked at the school on the grounds crew. He spent many an hour in foundation holes digging the beginnings of grand new buildings for the wealthy and educated. This is the one topic I ever seemed to have gotten him to elaborate on.
"Those whelps got no idea how the buildings they live in get built," he said, then spat.
"I suppose they must know someone's got to build em," I replied.
"Someone, but not them. Wouldn't get their hands dirty."
"But some of them could probably draw some fine plans for splendid buildings," for though I had no real use for these college whelps myself, I didn't want to lose any thread of conversation.
He spat generously again.
"I'll build a house without a plan, let them try to build one without working up a sweat."
"What have you got against them?"
"Luck of birth."
"Nothing you can do about that, Dan."
He considered what I said, then began to walk away.
"Got to borrow a sack of concrete from Murphy," he said as he walked away.
My sister was in the kitchen. Little Dan toddled around the kitchen at her skirts. Little John slept in a cradle in the corner.
"So you're a man of the world, are you, my Jack?" she asked, happily making her way about the kitchen.
"I'm a man of four or five states anyway, Lizzie."
"But you're grown so. You're no longer my little brother."
"I'll always be your little brother, Lizzie. But I am grown, true. And there's some things little brother ought to know when they're grown."
"Like what, Jack?"
"Like who my mother and father are? Where my mother and father are?"
She was quiet now for a little while. The happiness drained from her step. The sunny kitchen fell underneath a cloud.
"Somethings are better forgotten, Jack."
"Easier to forget when you know in the first place, sister."
"I guess you're right Jack. But it ain't easy. Mama never married your father, nor mine either."
"We don't have the same father."
The room grew quiet again, except for the babbling of Dan in the corner, who had found a wooden spoon, and was tapping the floor.
"You see, Jackie. Mama was a pretty woman. The men came to her like bees to a daisy. She smiled and the men asked her to marry. But she always said no. I don't know who my father was. That all happened before I was born, of course. By the time I came, he was long gone. And every time I asked her she told me he had gone off and was lost at sea. But on my birthday I always got a gift. Momma said it was from an aunt, but no aunt would ever give me the things that I got in the post from this aunt - a jacknife, a beaver cap, perfume when I was only five.
"I knew they were gifts from my father.
"When I was six, Mama began seeing a man regularly. He was an older man, very kind. Mama told me to call him Uncle Jesse, and that is all I ever knew him by. He was your father.
"Being six, I didn't much notice the change in mother's physical condition, but apparently Uncle Jesse did, because he stopped coming around.
"My memory is fickle about a lot of things, but I remember you coming into our small home. You screamed up a storm, almost as loud as the screams Mama made. When it was over, a big woman came out and told me I had a new brother, but that my Mama said we must go and live with some other people because she couldn't take care of us anymore.
"Of course, Mama was dead. But I didn't know that. I couldn't understand it, and I begged for more of an explanation, but I never got anything else, and soon I began to hate Mama, until we came up here to live and I saw another woman die in childbirth. Then for awhile I hated you, for killing Mama.
"When I had little Dan, I was mighty scared. The doctor and the midwife told me that not all mothers die in childbirth, though my experience was not proof. Sure enough they were right.
"And that Jack is about all I know about our Mama and your father.
I picked at a piece of pie that Lizzie put in front of me while she was telling me the story of my birth and my mother's death. I didn't eat the pie, I was consumed with a thousand questions that I knew Lizzie was incapable of answering.
I wasn't at all sure why I had asked in the first place. I had little new knowledge. My mother was dead, and my father gone. I was still an orphan. My only family was my sister. Now my half-sister.
Lizzie herself seemed to be pleased with the unburdening of her knowledge. She moved around the kitchen humming a tune I recognized as one which was played over and over in the dance halls, parlors and barrooms of this country. But I could not name it.
There seemed to be little else to talk about at the moment and so I kissed my sister and her two children and made my way back to the rooming house.
I missed supper, and my sister offered me little but pie. I think she was under big Dan's direct orders not to invite me to dinner. I searched the streets looking for a place to get something to eat and found nothing open except a tavern called Molloy's.
I wasn't looking for drink, but if I had to order some ale to get a sandwich I was prepared to do so.
I sat at the bar, where it curved toward the door that led, eventually, to a latrine out back. I ordered an ale and found that I could get a cold beef sandwich and some pickles as a free enticement to drink more ale.
The barkeep pumped the beer from the basement. It was dark, and aromatic and it tasted like a piece of bitter bread gone bad, but it was worth it, for the sandwich.
When the sandwich finally arrived, I found it was not worth it. The beef was an unidentifiable cut, marbled with tough white fat. I ate it. The pickles were of much higher quality, with enough garlic to cut through any bad brine in the barrel.
But the beef was like chewing on the leather I used to cure. Chewed soft the way the Indians used to chew it, but too tough to tear.
As I tried to digest the impervious beef a thunder clap rumbled the plates and glasses on the shelf, and a few seconds later the bright white flash froze us all for a second.
We were released from the small talk of the bartender as the thunder rolled through the tavern. The rain dropped onto the street outside as if released from a water bucket. Rivulets formed quickly carrying the dust and paper of the street to the Connecticut River where the mighty grey carpet shook it into the Atlantic.
I turned from the window to my sandwich. I was tempted to leave it for another glass of the thick brown ale the bartender served but I was just addled enough to lift the sandwich and attempt another bite.
A bell rang as the door of the tavern swung open. A man stepped through turned toward the still open door behind him and shook his hat and coat into the saturated air.
Before he turned toward the bar, I knew it was Vinny. I couldn't see his rosebud, or any of his face, but I knew him just by the herky-jerky way he moved.
"Where have you been?" I asked.
He was startled and when he looked up he studied me. Not for long, because he was puzzled at what he was seeing. But he looked and he looked around the warts and wens that hung from his eyelids and obscured his vision.
"Jack?" he said, astonished, and unable to say more. "Jack."
I moved to him quickly and we embraced. He held me tight and I could feel his shoulders heave. He snuffled and bawled against my chest for longer than a minute. I felt the hot sting of tears in my eyes, but we were now being examined carefully by every ruffian in the place and I dare not let one tear slip. A few times I tried to push him away from me but he clawed his way deeper into my shoulder. Finally I was able to pry him away far enough to look at his face.
I was amazed, in this moment, at the affection I felt for that strawberry pudding of a face. It was monstrous and weeping and I couldn't have been happier to see any other sight in the world.
"Where have you been?" I asked.
"Jack, I thought you were dead," he choked back.
"I can see that for God's sake. You've grown."
I stood back for a moment and looked at my own height as it stretched away from my shoulders and down toward the floor.
"I can't tell," I laughed.
"What happened to you?"
"I've been on the road for two years."
"You run off like that without telling Lizzie?"
I explained to him how I was ambushed by hobo. How I worked at the tannery and finally left, and how I joined up with McDonough's show on the road.
"Now, where you been?"
"I'd like to tell you I been at sea. Mebbe I will. That's right, I been at sea."
"Vinny, this is me. I can see the lie in your eyes."
"Well Jack. I've been in jail. Almost five years now."
"Jail. Jail. Whatever for?"
"Seems I got in a bit of a scuffle with one of New York's finest. I was sleeping down in an alley in Brooklyn. By the port. I was with a group of other gents. All down and out. I don't really know what happened except I was awakened by a copper rousting us. He smacked the soles of my feet with his nightstick, and I shouted. I was barely awake and I saw one of the cops lacing into one of the other rummies there. He was pounding him in the head with both fists. I got up and pulled the copper off. Next thing I know there was two cops on me, and well, they got a look at me and backed off.
"Well, I don't remember anything more, but one of the gents who got locked up with me told me the whole story. Says I called those cops every name in the book.
“Sounds like the Vinny I know,” I said.
"Says I called him some names that they say they never heard," Vinny elaborated.
I know what they mean," I said.
"Then they said I picked up some lumber that was lying in the woodpile near the fire we built, and I started swinging it.
"They say I took two cops down. One went out cold. The other I think I broke his arm. I heard about it all again in court. The judge reminded me.
"Assaulting policemen is not looked upon lightly in Brooklyn. The judge sentenced me to ten years in jail. I'm afraid I called him a thing or two also."
I looked at this man who had little control over what his own mouth said, and I wondered how he remained calm in the face of this retelling.
"But ten years aren't up."
"You want me back behind bars, Jack, bucko."
"No, no Vinny. I just meant, how'd you get out."
"Well, the filthy buggerers who ran the place never much liked me. They couldn't stand to look at me.
"And the other convicts left me alone because I told them that they would catch what I had if they touched me. It worked. No one touched me. In fact, no one wanted to stay in the same cell with me.
"I behaved myself, and after a few years of keeping my mouth shut and reading every book the visiting woman's auxiliary brought up to the prison I was told the warden wanted to see me.
"He had an offer. I was facing five more years in that cold stone cell, or I could learn a skill and get out almost immediately.
"He didn't tell me what the skill was, nor did ask. For some reason, in that time in prison, I never had another spell either. I don't know if it was the lack of threats, or the pace of living inside, but I never once blacked out. I never once fell victim to my inability to control my own foolish body.
"Well the day they took me out to the prison farm to begin my lessons I figured I had it made, that they were going to teach me about farming. Teach me all the things I had already learned at the insane asylum years ago.
"I heard banging coming from out behind the barn. Then I thought maybe they were going to teach me something new, something I could use - carpentry.
"I followed the guards behind the barn and saw three carpenters working on a small frame. An outbuilding I guessed. Standing on what appeared to be the attic ceiling I saw a tall, bald muscular man, who seemed to be in charge.
" I was introduced to him as Shelby. He immediately gripped my hand as if he were going to break it. He looked into my eyes as people usually will not when they meet me.
"'Are you strong?" he asked me.
"I told him I was strong enough.
""Strong enough to carry a man's soul to its judgment?" he asked.
"I told him that man's soul is as light as the air, and that one needn't be strong to carry a soul anywhere. He told me I was wrong. He said to me that a man's soul is the heaviest weight on earth. And he said that if you took on the burden of another man's soul and couldn't bear the weight, then it would carry you down.
"I told him to look at my face.
"'Do you see this burden I carry?" I asked. "It is the burden of my life. It is a burden than the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a weight that should not have to be carried by a beast, but it is being carried by me, a man. And I have not faltered.
¬ "He smiled and turned away.
"By this time the carpenters left. I asked if they would return to begin the lesson. He told me that they were done.
"I looked at the wooden structure we were standing on. I asked where the walls and roof was. When the windows and doors would be added. He started to laugh.
""This ain't no house. But it is a doorway, I guess."
"I still didn't have any sense of what he was talking about when a hog was led up onto the platform next to where we were standing. I was more confused than ever.
"Shelby went over and picked up a coil of rope, and carefully knotted a leash for the animal. When he had the pig secured firmly to the end of the rope, he dismissed the man who led it up.
"'Bacon tonight," Shelby laughed.
"He threw the other end of the rope to a beam above our heads that ran the length of the wooden framework.
"'Let's try you out,' he said. "Pull that lever over there.'
"I looked, and at the other end of the platform I saw a lever carved from a two by four. It was a simple affair, and the bottom portion of it ran below the platform.
"'Yank it,' Shelby shouted.
"When I did, the floor disappeared from beneath the pig, and with a squeal, he fell from sight. It was just the beginning of the squealing, and the rope jumped as if I held a big fish. I was horrified at the that I just hanged a pig, and what it was that I was being trained to do.
"I leaned against the railing on the scaffold and felt my legs go rubbery underneath me. Shelby smiled over at me and told me I had done a wonderful job, then he shouted down beneath the scaffold and told the men there to cut the hog’s throat and dress him for the smokehouse.
"I headed for the stairway down from the scaffold, and Shelby caught me by the arm.
"'Where you off to?'
"I told him I wasn't feeling well and he told me that if I left I'd be brought back to the cell and wouldn't see the light of day for another five years. And he told me if I stayed and learned the trade I would be free to walk the streets and highways of New York State from job to job. That I'd be paid well, and that, even with a face like mine, I was sure to get a woman or two if I kept my hangman's hood on.
"'Let me show you how to make a knot or two. We've got a herd of swine here today to practice on. And next week there's a man who murdered his wife, his children, and his neighbor's children who needs to meet his maker.
"I thought about the cell, and I thought about the pigs. And I thought about justice, and I followed him to the center of the scaffold to finish off the the herd."
Sunday, March 8, 2009
By the side of the road today I found several woman's magazines. They appeared not yellowed with age. They were dated in the year 1877.
If they are recent magazines, then I have been here in this country for nearly thirty years. Thirty years. I remember a time when I didn’t have thirty years under my belt to remember.
Thirty years. As old as I was when Marie met death, and left me.
Thirty years since I’d walked on my native soil.
Thirty years separated from my family.
Thirty years separated from Jules Bourglay.
I don't know where the time has gone. I have been kept busy in my walking, but if you had told me that pulling my feet, step upon step, one in front of the other, could have consumed thirty years this quickly, then I would have laughed at you.
If you told me yesterday that thirty years had passed since I left Lyon, I would have laughed.
But I have been kept busy. Busy trying to stay alive.
Yes, there are days that pass painlessly. Nearly effortlessly. Then there are days that I pray to pass quickly. Days of biting cold, or tortuous heat. Pass by, hours, fly.
Days when my angels walk with me, and will not let me be.
“You think you are a good man,” Beliel says. “But you are a murderer, and a coward.”
“You are forgiven,” comforts Adoneil. “Jesus is in your heart.”
“Jesus laughs, and you’ll be with me in hell,” Beliel taunts. “Walk your feet to the bone, and God will not forget your sin.”
“All sins are forgiven, for those who seek mercy,” Adoneil says. “Jesus is with you as you walk. So walk”
And I walk.
I walk the same paths. My feet seem to know them well. So well that I will walk miles and wonder how I’ve gotten to my destination. Unable to remember the miles gone by. I walk in a dream state. More sleeping than waking, and unless something distracts me, I may as well be walking in a great room, painted white, with no scenery to connect me to this world.
I see less and less that passes before me. I may as well have a job laying bricks, for it begins to look the same day after day. Brick after brick. Step after step.
I scold myself for still remembering who I am. Where I came from. What I know. What I’ve done.
These miles, I imagined, would have already stolen that knowledge from me. They haven't.
People treat me as if I am mad. I get the respect, and distance, bestowed upon a madman. I feel the weather has etched a permanent frown into my face. I look at it myself in still pools, and still recognize the man who once owned these features.
The people who help me are still good, good beyond my expectations of humankind. I am amazed at their kindness. Those who touch me in this way are my friends, and I feel they know it, though I cannot speak to them. A woman told me she could see friendship, and sadness, in my eyes. She looked at me and said that whatever had caused me to be silent, whether it was sickness or some event, she needed only to see my eyes to know that she is my friend.
These people had nothing to gain when they first took me in. They fed me, a beggar at their door. A beggar in a strange costume. They took me in from the rain and cold and let me warm myself at their fires. And they took me in each time I visited.
Now it seems, they all have gained something. The luck of the Leatherman, I hear them call it. Good fortune is said to smile on those whom I visit. I hope it is true. Perhaps it's the luck that has never visited me.
I have not been completely faithful to my vows. And perhpas that is why I haven't been blessed with blissful forgetfulness.
On a hot summer day, after my noon meal, I crossed a small river in Greenwich, not by the bridge as I usually do, but by walking through the river. It ran clear, shallow at low tide and cold, and looked inviting. I sometimes bath in still ponds, but the day was dreadfully hot, and my suit like a train's boiler. I crossed midway, and simply sat on the bottom.
It felt very good. While I was sitting in the water, a carriage approached. I stayed quiet do as to avoid attention, but I was spotted.
"Look, a bear," I heard a woman shout.
I didn't move. Didn't want to be shot, but I heard the carriage come to a halt. And though I could hear little above the noise of the river over the stony bed, I determined that they were coming to get a closer look. My choice was to remain still and hope they would leave me alone, or look at them and let them see who it was so they could be on their way. I sat still for several moments hoping they would make their way onto the bridge.
Then I heard someone else shout.
"Bring me the gun."
I turned and saw a look of shock and horror on the faces of two women and the man they were with. They all screamed. Carrying a rifle toward them was a black man who began to laugh, and was soon laughing as loud as the women screamed.
The two women and the man were dressed in city finery. They turned and ran past the black driver who was wiping tears and sweat from his face.
"It's only the old Leatherman," he said to them as they fled. "He wouldn't harm a fly."
Seeing that his words of solace had not slowed them down he laughed harder.
"Course no one knows for sure. Maybe he’s et everyone who mighta told us different."
"Henry, get back up here and drive us into town. Now."
The black man ambled back to the carriage and lifted himself into the driver's seat. The three gentlepeople didn't take their eyes off of me until they lost sight after the carriage turned a bend in the road.
Only then did I get up and finish fording the river. For the next two miles I dripped water, but I was cooler for my soak in the creek.
I walked then to a house at which I stopped every month. The name "Harris" was printed on their post.
The woman of the house, whose name was Maddy, by what her husband called her, always served me my meal on the front porch. It was never an abbreviated version of the meal they were about to have, or leftovers from a meal the day before. It was fresh, always cooked well, as though prepared especially for me.
When I got there this day I was dry, but my leather suit creaked louder than usual. The children of the house spotted me just as I made the bend in the farm house road. I heard them call as they ran to the house.
"Leatherman's here. Come see, Leatherman's here."
I walked up the drive and sat at my usual place on a bench and at a plank table. The place was not set. It usually wasn't, and I guessed that the honor went to the best behaved of the children that day. This day it was a little girl who looked, unfortunately, more like her father than her mother.
She carefully set two places at the table, never daring to look at me. I gave her the opportunity to steal a glance or two as I gazed unwaveringly out to the field.
I wondered about that extra place setting.
I smelled the good aroma of roast meat coming through the open window. I guessed it was fowl of some kind, and my mouth watered. Though I begged every meal I was not able to keep myself from hungering for the good country food these women cooked.
The front porch screen door slammed behind me and the woman of the house was leading someone into place across the table from me. She glanced at me, a look of stern forbearance on her face.
"He insisted," she whispered. "My Papa. He says he always takes the air when he eats."
The old man merely harrumphed, as I looked down at my place.
She looked at me again and apologized. I didn't raise my eyes.
In a few moment she returned with the meal. On my dish was a half chicken, roasted, with bread and giblet stuffing. There were sliced carrots and an onion and potato dish, fried and highly seasoned. On the old man's dish was mashed potatoes and corn cooked with heavy cream until it had lost all its identity as corn.
He looked up at me and opened a mouth as vacant of teeth as a schoolroom is of children on a summer's day, and howled.
The woman of the house came running out, and I must have had a look of horror, and apology on my face from the way she reacted. I was preparing to get up and leave as she put a hand on my shoulder.
"Don't. Stay and eat your meal. I know you didn't do anything. He's just like a child. He's lost his good sense," she smiled and nearly ran to the kitchen at the sound of her husband's voice.
I looked at the man's face. His blue eyes stared back at me unblinking. He smiled.
After years of avoiding anyone's steady gaze, I felt weak. I could not help myself, and I smiled in return.
"Donnez-moi le poullet," he said, pointing at the browned chicken.
"Vous avez tout que vous voudrais."
He smiled again and lifted the chicken from my plate.
"My parents were from Chambourg." he said in halting French. "Where are you from."
I said nothing at first. He repeated his inquiry six times, and finally to quiet him I answered.
"Lyon," I said, determined not to encourage the conversation.
"They think I'm crazy, my daughter and her husband," he cackled. “But I'm smart. They leave me alone if they think I don't understand. The only bad thing is this food she serves me. I haven't had teeth for twenty-five years and I never ate this mush."
He knocked the plate into the dirt by the porch step where it was immediately set upon by two farm mongrels who finished it off before it could leave a damp spot in the dust.
"Ask for more," he ordered, pointing a finger at the spot on the plate where the chicken recently sat.
"Go ahead. They love you. Why, I don't know, but you could have the whole brood of chickens if you wanted."
I remained silent.
"Aren't you hungry?"
"Then ask for more. Ask for more. I'll help you eat it if you can't."
"I cannot speak to her."
"And why not."
"I cannot speak to anyone. It's a vow."
"You're speaking with me."
"I thought you were crazy."
"You spoke to me in my native tongue," I confessed.
"Then I am smarter than you too, ha-ha." After he amused himself with his own joke for several minutes he returned to his interrogation.
"So you are like me."
"In what way?" I asked.
"You pretend you are afflicted by a malady that does not exist."
"I pretend no such thing. I simply do not speak."
"And so all the good people think you mute, and feed you out of common charity. It is a good trick."
"It is no trick."
Reacting to the movement of chairs at the table inside, he reduced our conversation to a whisper.
"What is your story."
"I have none."
"What is your name."
"I have none."
"Everyone has a name. Mine is Phillippe," he extended his hand formally to shake mine. I took his hand and felt a grasp still strong and sure.
"I'm Jules," I heard myself say in disbelief. "Jules Bourglay."
As I finished the whisper I heard the lady of the house step quickly toward the door.
"Papa," she shouted. "Shame. Shame, shame. You have become my child."
With this the old man wailed in a way that would frighten the souls in purgatory. Before I could be stopped, I picked up my bag and staff and hurried down the porch steps.
The woman moaned perceptibly, and picked up her scolding with renewed vigor.
"We've lost the good luck of a poor man," she shouted. "And all we have is you."
Though I frightened myself, and was frightened by the wildness in the old man's eyes, I knew I would return. For the old man, and for the luck of the woman.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
When I was out on the road with McDonough, we'd were back to Middletown several times, though never for more than a week at a time. Just enough time to visit family.
My family had grown, Lizzie was now married to a stevedore she met when he was a hired hand at the asylum, in fact, the hired hand who replaced me, at the insane asylum. Since the last time I was home, I became an uncle to a niece who was baptized, Nellie, until I showed up and christened her Tabby, because when she cried it sounded like the worst back alley cat fight. Tabby she remains.
Middletown itself has grown. The railroad built to run from Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut, through Middletown, and up to Hartford, was now complete. The airline railroad, built on huge legs made of concrete and Portland brownstone, connected the Western half of the state, and Providence to Middletown. Since Hartford was the major railroad crossroads between New York and Boston, Middletown, and all its river traffic, was suddenly opened to the big cities of the East Coast by a fast route other than water. The railroad traffic seemed to increase the business here. A passenger bridge was being built over the river next to the swinging railroad bridge, and the factories that lined the Arawana stream and Pameacha Pond grew taller and were filled with noisy machinery, smoke and sweating men. Though Hartford itself was still a major port, it seemed to be less tied up in the business of bringing goods from the world, and was now more concerned with shipping goods out. Middletown was manufacturing soap at the Allison Brothers plant, and fertilizer at Rogers and Hubbard. Mr. Russell built a huge white-columned mansion as a result of his success in the manufacture of elastic belting for industry, and men’s suspenders, though some said the real money came from the China trade, which ain’t silk, but opium.
Middletown produced locks, and bricks and pumps. Nautical hardware on ships that sailed the world were stamped out in the great smoking forges at Wilcox Crittenden, and at tea parties from Boston to San Francisco crudities were served on ornate silvered trays from Middletown Plate. And of course, the bottomless quarries over in Portand, built on broken backs, crushed limbs and the sweat and blood of armies of immigrants, provided brownstone for bridges, mansions and aqueducts from London to San Francisco.
Up in Hartford, Mr. Colt's factory was running round the clock to support the conflicts of the world, most notably the Indian troubles in our own West. He had made a fortune selling guns to both sides of the great Southern rebellion that had occupied us in this country for so long. And there was talk of a manufacturer of bicycles, one Mr. Pope, beginning to compete with the models that were previously shipped in from across the Atlantic.
But Middletown was not just holding its own. It was expanding, and not more evident than to a local boy, like me, who came home, and was getting his first long look in some time.
More streets, with more buildings seemed to crowd the already dense town center. There seemed to be more people walking and in carriages on the wide main thoroughfare. More carts, more commerce.
McDonough's Palace was about as we had left it, though somewhat more run down. The paint seemed faded and was beginning to peel. And, in fact, the large "D" was missing from the marquee making the place “Mc onough's Palace.”
The Palace was boarded up for more than a year now. The woman we left behind to run the place had finally been intimidated by the sheriff into closing down, leaving McDonough with have no source for profits in Middletown. Perhaps, in the end, this was McDonough's main reason for coming back. In the time it was open, it was a cash horde for McDonough. Though the town had grown, it was the only legitimate theatre building within city limits. I have heard since I got back that several farmers opened their barns for dances, concerts, and even the passing medicine show. But all these were closed by the sheriff and his agents.
This criminal, this murderer who was now the sheriff had also grown in power. He had his own personal permanent posse to track down the sinners of the city. He had a particular and obvious hatred for anything theatrical, and people said that he was also particularly hard on beggars, madmen, negros and adulterers.
At the same time, the tavern population seems to have exploded, and each one was filled, every day with sailors, and merchant seamen looking for a good game of cards, a taste of the brown or gold, and a woman.
Several of our dancers turned to pleasing the sailors. One, Molly Dowd, was murdered by a seaman who, by hopping one of Mr. Russell’s ships, headed for China without being charged.
"It'll take a few weeks to get this place fixed up," McDonough sighed, standing in the middle of Main Street and looking up at the sign above the door.
"I'm afraid you're out of a job until we're ready to open,” he told me.
I protested, and told him I was as good a hand with a hammer, as I had been with a rake and a skinner's blade.
"We can't have one of our actors banging away with a hammer."
I knew there'd be no persuading McDonough, because he did draw the line clearly between those who worked on the stage, and those who worked the stage.
So, for the first time in two and a half years I was unemployed. In a way, it felt good. I had nothing to do, and money in my pocket, and open days ahead of me with sure work after all the idleness.
I had family and friends to rediscover, and I had an act to work on.
"Send someone for me when rehearsals are to begin," I said to McDonough as I left.
"You are an actor, aren’t you?" he said as he directed a load of lumber past me and through to the interior of the playhouse.
I headed down Court Street and made my way to the river. The wharf was as crowded and bustling as it always had been. Ugly stevedores unloaded bale after bale of cotton headed for the threadmills in Willimantic and for belting in Russell’s plant. And crate upon crate marked with the Colt name made their way off a rail car just in from Hartford and onto a freighter called Bonhomme Jules.
The steamship called, “The Hartford” was taking on passengers for the seven hour journey to Manhattan.
At the river, I followed the flow South. I was glad to see that with its power, the banks were still clear of any construction. Only a fool or a desperate man would build here, because every Spring, at this big bend in the river, the waters always rose in a freshet and took the gifts of the shore to the sea, as an offering.
The river and the shore were unchanged, but the tree I used to climb on, my cradle above the current, was gone. In fact the whole tree was gone. Swept away by three years of March rain.
I climbed the hill toward the insane asylum, retracing steps that I had taken hundreds of times before, up the long stairway that led to the coalhouse. The buildings looked the same, and there were some I didn’t recognize with the brick still pink from newness. These buildings were larger. They looked almost like the mills we saw in our travels through New England.
I walked closer and saw that all the windows had metal bars on them. Though the buildings were ornate, and in their own way, pretty, these bars gave them a menace that was chilling. From inside I could hear shouts, and for a few moments, screaming. I couldn't see anything through the windows because they were curtained with heavy draperies.
I walked past the buildings and out to the field. The field I last worked in was fallow, but across the road, corn was planted in rows, and the rows were alive with workers. I was tempted to go closer, but I saw Pierson's wagon, and Pierson by it. And I knew that I had grown enough inches in the past year, that if I were to meet him again, it would mean a fight, and someone would get hurt badly, and the other someone would end up behind bars.
I walked back up the hill toward the main buildings and looked West at a view of a city I no longer easily recognized. A city with new chimneys spitting columns of smoke into the sky. A city with less religion but more church steeples. A city that grew on the fringes, out into the fields like a patch of poison ivy.
Then I turned East and looked down at the great deceptive peace of the Connecticut River. It's elbow nestled comfortably in the gorge it carved in limestone and mica.
One forever changing, though never changing. And one changing in a direction from which there was no return.
Suddenly I remembered Will. Will Selden. Why I? I hadn't thought about him, or his family since I left town, and I never tried to look him up, even when I 'd been back in town for those few days.
I walked the three miles to his family's farmhouse, through the old part of the city and the homes I still recognized. Through the new neighborhoods - streets that grew houses halfway up a block, and suddenly stopped in nests of empty foundation holes, each with a pair of men shovels in hand, digging into the rocky brown earth. I walked through the Wesleyan campus, and I went unrecognized, for as a traveler I had discovered style. Though I had no jacket, I wore a collarless shirt, starched, and a flowered vest, and trousers pleated and bagged at the thigh, narrowing at the calf, and short enough to show the white trim on my patent leather button shoes. On this warm day, half the boys walking dressed the same, the others were more formal with cravat or necktie, and suit.
I walked through the old graveyard, and the Indian graveyard. And listened for whispers from the dead, but heard none.
Then I walked down Washington Street, toward the mountains of Middlefield and Meriden, until I reached Selden’s farm.
I knocked five times before anyone answered. And when the answer came, it was from behind me. A woman's voice I recognized easily.
"What you want?" Will’s mother asked.
"Mrs. Selden, it's me, Jack Conroy."
She stared for just a moment and then saw that indeed, I wasn't lying, it was me, Jack. And she gave me a hug, though nothing that could be mistaken as motherly, or even sentimental, then invited me in for a meal, and some coffee. And she asked me to tell her tales of my travels until the boys came in from the fields. And I did.