Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chapter Seventeen - The Prodigal Sons

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.

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