Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ebb Tide

Ebb Tide
Roger W. Gardner

The Captain's Bounty

The Captain's Bounty was the biggest, busiest, noisiest seafood restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Bounty sprawled out over an ancient fish pier just recently, and rather misleadingly, renamed Seven Seas Wharf. It's just possible, I suppose, that some of the more gullible tourists from Iowa or Michigan had no difficulty believing that those weary old draggers and gill-netters that tied up to the pier were actually unloading riches from the Orient -- even though the Captain's Bounty Gift Shoppe featured nothing more exotic than little white ceramic figurines of jolly fishermen and endless variations on the themes of lighthouses and seagulls.

Throughout the frigid winter months the sparsely-filled restaurant subsisted in a state of semi-hibernation. But with the coming of Spring the Captain's Bounty came alive again. In early March and April they began hiring the summer help -- waitresses and waiters, busboys and busgirls, bartenders, prep cooks and dishwashers, almost all of them young people in transit, between jobs, between lives, between semesters. For three or four hectic months they'd be thrown into the heat of battle, then, immediately after Labor Day, they'd all vanish, back to their separate interrupted lives. However, during those furious summer months the friendships and romances that were born seemed, perhaps just because of their transitory nature, all the more intense and poignant. We had a camaraderie, an esprit de corps. It was us against them. We were the defenders of the castle, and they, the enemy, laid siege to us in droves. Day in and day out, they attacked relentlessly. They came in cars and trucks, vans and motor homes and buses. Endless lines of them. They were the Golden Horde, the Scourge of God, they were the tourists. One thousand-five hundred of them on a busy Sunday.

Even in some really nice restaurants, the noisy, profane confusion of the kitchen would present a startling contrast to the quiet dignity of the dining room. But at the Captain's Bounty the deafening chaos existed equally on both sides of the swinging doors. We seemed to be in a continual state of panic and confusion.

Gilly's Tiger

Tony T., our nebulous boss, had inherited the aptly named Captain's Bounty from his aged father Leo, who had indeed been a tough old Sicilian fishing captain, who had made a small fortune bootlegging. Tony T. involved himself as little as possible in the actual running of the restaurant, leaving the day-to-day management in the capable, well-manicured hands of Caroline, a nervous and somewhat faded beauty who was rumored to be his mistress.

Hugo, the head chef, ran the kitchen as his private fiefdom. Somehow Tony T. managed to overlook the fact that Hugo was a drunken and obscene Neanderthal bully. Fat, bleary-eyed, always sweating, the formidable Hugo never missed an opportunity to display his cruelty or his ignorance. His violent and profane tirades could reduce a new waitress to tears. But, typically, for all his unlimited power, fat Hugo was a coward who would back off from anyone who could stand up to him. Unfortunately, there were only a few who could. One of them was Gilly.

Gilly was our salad man. Gilly was a Japanese-Hawaiian who, since the war, despised the Japanese and demanded to be called Hawaiian. In attempting to describe him, I shall try to avoid using the term 'inscrutable', although he most certainly was. Gilly -- whose real name I can't remember now -- was an exquisite little man with a tiger. When Gilly's tiger was sleeping -- somewhere in those cool dark recesses of his Oriental soul -- he was a friendly, soft-spoken, sensitive little man. His voice had a monotonous, sing-song, soothing quality about it, like the soft tinkling of wind chimes. Gilly was an artist, who produced glorious lobster salads in the shape of lobsters, and magnificent Hawaiian fruit dishes of intricate and perfectly symmetrical design. His salad bench was as sterile as an operating table; his knives always neatly organized, sharp and clean. Gilly took great pride in his cleanliness, his salads, his knives, and his tiger.

Gilly's tiger would sleep contentedly for days, even weeks, on end. Only one thing would wake him: Jack Daniels. Helplessly subsumed by some mysterious timetable, perhaps imposed on him by some ancient and unforgiving Hawaiian god, Gilly periodically went on a binge, and the dreaded beast would be unleashed. During these times, you could hear a pin drop in the kitchen. Even Hugo, the monster-chef, tread lightly when the big cat was loose -- in an earlier episode, Gilly had supposedly chased Hugo out of the kitchen with a huge knife, threatening to cut off his balls, and Hugo knew that he meant it. So, Hugo wouldn't talk above a whisper and would carefully avoid looking in the direction of the salad area. Nobody messed with Gilly's tiger.

During these perilous days, the Captain's Bounty kitchen operated like a silent movie, Gilly stalking impatiently back and forth in his salad area, violently berating the waitresses and waiters for the slightest deviation from perfection, and hurtling continuous and virulent abuse at the entire kitchen staff. After the experience of fifteen years, Tony T. gracefully managed to avoid the kitchen.

Then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as he'd appeared, the fiery tiger would retire back into its den, and slowly, cautiously, things would return to normal. Although, perhaps 'normal' isn't quite the proper word to describe the barely-controlled bedlam of the Captain's Bounty kitchen in the summer. Yet, somehow, despite the constant uproar and confusion, we managed to put out over a thousand meals on a busy day. Everybody worked at a fever pitch -- Hugo, Gilly, the three cooks on the line, the half-dozen prep cooks, clam-shuckers, go-fors, and an endless parade of Portuguese dishwashers.

Early that Spring they hired a pair of young prep cooks, Mark and Scott. They were absolutely identical twins, both tall and blond. To make matters worse, they both wore identical white uniforms and had essentially the same jobs, which they performed at the same time. Hugo and Gilly had somehow developed their own secret methods of telling them apart. But the rest of us were never quite sure which one we were talking to. In the midst of a busy night, I wonder how many conversations begun with Mark, once interrupted, were later resumed with Scott, or vice versa? This hardly ever seemed to upset them, though, and they seldom got angry. Somehow they must have resigned themselves to a life of mistaken identity, and they exhibited a gracious patience beyond their years. For a while, I successfully skirted the issue by calling them both, "Buddy". But they quickly caught onto this ruse."Hi, old buddy," I'd say. "How's it going?" "I'm Mark," he'd offer with a helpful smile. Finally, after giving up all attempts at bluff, I'd simply ask,"Who's this?" before starting up any conversations. They were both nice boys, and they were both rather quiet. I never liked one more than the other because I never learned how to tell them apart.

The In-betweens

I was a waiter. I was also one of the 'in-betweens'. Trying to hold out against the system, working around the edges, trying my best to remain aloof and uncommitted, wanting to be neither businessman nor bum. I was one of the first waiters to be hired that season -- sometime in the middle of March, 1972. In keeping with the latest fashion trends, I sported a great round curly Afro, a fulsome moustache and thick bushy sideburns. On my days off I'd wear cowboy boots and bell-bottomed jeans. My best friend -- another 'in-between' -- was Bert. He was hired a couple of weeks after me.

Bert had a sort of scruffy, mismatched awkwardness about him, and a face that would have been sorrowful, were it not for his wide, toothy grin, which was somehow too big for his face, and a certain twinkling in the eye, as though he were in constant anticipation of some impending witticism. Which I, of course, attempted to supply. A few days after Bert was hired, his girlfriend, Laura, came to the Bounty as a waitress. A pale and poetical brunette, who looked as though she had just stepped out of fifteenth century Florence. Quiet, wistful, enigmatic as a statue, Laura only worked part-time, and had another job posing, appropriately, as an artists' model in a local studio. An incongruous pair, Bert and Laura nonetheless appeared to share some deep, unspoken bond, and were always to be seen together.

With April came Ola. Big, round, and rowdy, with constantly dishevelled hair. A farm girl from Minnesota, who was -- somewhat incredulously -- attending Divinity School. Ola had an indomitable spirit and a heart as big and full as her expansive bosom. She possessed a great, booming, boisterous laugh, unflagging energy, and an unbounded enthusiasm for life and Margaritas. Yet, she never appeared to be drunk. She was just Ola. Ola should have been born beautiful but, alas, she wasn't. In some kindlier era, she might have been called voluptuous, and could have been perhaps a rich, vivacious courtesan, surrounded by an eager entourage of fair and gay young courtiers. Unfortunately however, she was born to a time when thin was in.

But Ola wasn't one to be ignored. In lieu of beauty, she chose outrageous. In lieu of glamor, she chose bizarre. Throughout that summer, Ola competed with herself, showing up at the Barnacle Inn pool -- where we spent most of our off-duty time -- in one outlandish costume after another, always under some huge, flowery, floppy hat. And as likely as not, she'd jump into the pool, wearing the whole absurd regalia.

The last waiter to be hired that season was a brilliant young Harvard student, an unflappable Boston WASP, with the imposing title of Robert Armstrong Cunningham III. Pink-faced and portly, fastidious, impeccable, and gay, Robert the Third was irresistibly funny and hopelessly in love with Chivas Regal. Sir Robert had an almost Victorian air of propriety about him, and a quick, biting, cynical wit, with which he devastated more than one hapless adversary -- he once told Hugo that he had "all the intelligence and sensitivity of a cannonball".

The lumbering Tony T. was enthralled by Robert's supremely confident and flawless demeanor and his seemingly infinite vocabulary. And Caroline the manager swooned over him, calling him,"The most perfect gentleman I've ever met". Sir Robert elegantly danced his way through the dining room with an almost regal grace. Having never seen him completely sober, we could never tell if he was drunk. However, drunk or sober, Robert Armstrong Cunningham the Third was the epitome of proper breeding. He was also the first victim of that summer's postcard campaign.

I can't remember now whether it was Bert or me who first came up with the idea of sending people postcards -- it just seemed to flow naturally from our love of making up fictitious names. Bert and I shared a common love for drinking, for movies, and for practical jokes. One day, on one of our northern excursions we picked up a postcard from some sleazy little motel in Maine. It was perfect. With Laura's help we created a little gem which we promptly mailed off to Sir Robert, care of the Bounty. It arrived at Captain's Bounty two days later.

Robert Cunningham
c/o Captain's Bounty Restaurant
Gloucester, Mass.

Dear Robbie,
Hi honey! I miss you really awful!! Thanks for the wonderful time we had. I never let no one do the things to me that you did to me before. But it's OK. It was really nice. I hope you really mean all those things you said that night.
Write real soon,
Your honey,
Tina Rodriguez

I think perhaps Manny, the Portuguese dishwasher, was the only one who didn't get to read that postcard before Robert got it. But then, he couldn't read English anyway. Tina Rodriguez became instantly famous and Robert the Third endured an endless succession of dirty jokes. He became, however, one of our best friends, and one of the original Barnacle crew.

The Barnacle Inn

Across the harbor from the Captain's Bounty, the Barnacle Inn was a haphazard collection of old, ramshackle, wood-framed buildings rather optimistically painted a bright and promising yellow. Perched precariously on a rocky promontory that jutted out into the mouth of the harbor, it sported an outdoor saltwater pool that had a kind of second-rate splendor about it, like a cheap imitation of some dazzling Mediterranean villa. The emerald green pool was encircled by a weather-beaten promenade, adorned with crude little cupids holding broken dolphin, slatless benches, and a fading shuffleboard -- for which we could never find the puck.

But the air was fresh and the grass was green and the water clean and blue and it was, at times, the most perfectly wonderful place in the world.

The Barnacle Inn. Like a bawdy old hooker well past her prime, sagging under the weight of years, burdened by a dubious past, and an even more dubious future, she was making the most of what she had. And what she had was color and warmth and character. And sometimes, in a certain light, she could still be proud and beautiful.

The Barnacle's owner was a nervous little man named Franco. Short and chubby, with a face like a disillusioned Teddy Bear, he was reputed to have connections with the Boston mafia. In fact, some years ago, the Barnacle Inn held the somewhat dubious distinction of being known as a mafia vacation spot. Those days were, however, long gone, and now the old Barnacle had become the hangout of choice for the local restaurant workers -- who probably drank more than the mafia ever did.

Franco loved music, and he especially loved to hear his piano being played. The old upright piano was out on the porch, midst a motley collection of mismatched rattan furniture. The porch of the Barnacle Inn was right out of a scene from Key Largo. You could almost picture Humphrey Bogart out there, nursing a gin-and-tonic, cynically smoking his ever-present cigarette. I played the piano, so I spent a lot of time out on the porch that summer. I supplied the songs -- old standards, like Alfie, Stardust, and Ebb Tide -- and Franco supplied the Dewars-and-water. It had the makings of a great summer. There was only one thing missing, but that was not to be for long.

The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes

One of the new waitresses at the Bounty that summer was a dancer. Tall and slim, with fine blond hair and ice-blue Botticelli eyes, she moved through the room with a fluid grace. She had a certain intriguing, quiet seriousness about her. Her name was Deirdre, and the moment I saw her I knew I was lost.

One night early that summer Deirdre came to the Barnacle Inn. She talked with her friends at the bar for a while, then eventually made her way out onto the porch where I was playing the piano. Without saying a word, she sat down next to me and just listened while I played. Later that night, we walked together out past the pool to the rocks at the edge of the water, where we sat in silence watching the lights of the distant city dance across the harbor. Behind us, beyond the golden glow of Chinese lanterns, occasional bursts of spontaneous laughter rocketed through the summer night like distant fireworks, and silver music drifted aimlessly out to sea.

Deirdre ate only natural foods, ran seven miles every day, and would cautiously sip an occasional glass of white wine. She believed in 'vibrations', 'auras', and the 'transmigration of souls'. She referred to her body as the 'temple of her soul'.

I lived on a strict diet of scotch, coffee, an occasional cheeseburger, and three packs of Marlboros a day. I never walked further than I had to, and I referred to my body as the 'bonehouse of my soul'.

We were made for each other.

I entered the temple in the beginning of June. About a week later, Deirdre gave up her room at the YWCA and moved in with me and we were lovers.

That summer of '72, I lived on the top floor of an old clapboard house, high up on a hill, overlooking the whole city of Gloucester. From the windows of my tiny kitchen the view was stunning. The rooftops of the city stretched out below me, and out beyond the shining steeples of the Trinity Church and the Portuguese Church, beyond the town hall clock, by which I told the time, the busy little harbor opened into the endless sea. My small kitchen opened into one enormous, high-ceilinged room, with nothing much in it but a small single bed, a bar, and my old upright piano. Deirdre called it 'the ballroom', and she transformed it, filling the empty room with combs and books, all those little tiny bottles, stockings drying over doors, the fragrance of her hair and the electric touch of skin. And filling the nights with great climactic gasps of passion, little wicked whispered words, and the teasing of light fingers.

Deirdre would always get up before me in the morning and do her exercises while the coffee was brewing. Then she'd bring me coffee and a cigarette and wake me with a Good Morning kiss. And sometimes, like a child, I'd pretend to be asleep just so I could get that kiss. Afterwards, if she could break away, she'd be out the door, in her shorts and running shoes, all the way to Eagle's Point and back before I finished drinking my coffee and smoking my morning cigarettes. One morning, for some unaccountable reason, I awoke before Deirdre. I went into the kitchen for a cigarette, and then went downstairs to check the mail. Amongst the fliers and bills was a letter from Deirdre's closest friend, Ellen, who had recently moved to upper New York State. I put everything back in the mailbox and went back upstairs. Ever so quietly, I slipped back into bed beside her and waited. When Deirdre awoke, I told her about the strange dream I had just had. I told her that I'd dreamt the her friend Ellen was trying to get in touch with her. Deirdre listened attentively, then got up to make the coffee. She decided to go down and check the mail. "Oh, my Gawd!" She came running back up the stairs. "You won't believe this!" she said, clutching Ellen's letter in her hand.

The pace at the Bounty that summer was frantic. No matter how fast you worked, you were always behind, the pressure building to such an unbearable point that you'd feel certain that everything would just explode, or that you'd go out of your mind. Then, suddenly, it was over and you were free.

And free meant long hot, steamy days at the beach, listening to the gentle rush of the waves and the tinkling laughter of little children. Or watching Deirdre, erotic behind dark glasses, absorbed in Vogue, almost naked, with brown glistening skin, giving herself freely to the omnipotent sun. And free meant bicycling, and long walks, and long talks, and partying at the Barnacle Inn.

And so, the summer wore on, and I continued playing the piano and Franco continued buying my Dewars-and-water and complaining about business. As I said, Franco was a nice man; but he had this nephew named Vito.

Now, Vito was a go-for who looked like a weasel. He was the bartender, janitor, room clerk, groundskeeper, pool cleaner, occasional cook, and Franco's all-around errand boy. He was a skinny, nervous, angular little guy, with shifty eyes. He had jet black slicked-back hair, a pencil line moustache, and he made the girls nervous. But Vito had an unbounded ego. Somewhere in the vast illiterate wastelands of his limited imagination, he fancied himself as something of a cross between Dean Martin and Don Juan: a natural born lady-killer. Behind the bar, he never lost an opportunity to recount his many legendary conquests at the Barnacle. According the the Annals and Histories of Vito Frontiero, few, if any, of the vacationing beauties who showed up at the Barnacle Inn escaped the allure of his irresistible charms. Over and over, on and on, we helplessly endured his endless exploits.

So, we sent Vito a card. A handsome postcard from some elegant little inn in New Hampshire, written, this time, in Deirdre's delicate hand.

Mr. Vito Frontiero
c/o The Barnacle Inn
Rocky Neck
Gloucester Mass

My dearest Vito. By the time you receive this card I will be halfway home. I have been trying to put you out of my mind, but I can't. You've touched something deep within me. What, for you, may have been just another summer fling, will remain, for me, one of the most treasured moments of my life. Please think of me often and write when you can.
With love,
Jennifer Stockbridge.

The card showed up at the Barnacle bar a couple of days later, prominently displayed next to the cash register. After an appropriate amount of time had elapsed, I asked Vito who it was from. It was, he explained as he showed us that all-too-familiar card, from a young college coed named Jennifer, with whom he'd had a brief affair. She was, we subsequently learned, a beautiful and rich brunette, who had fallen head over heels for him. Vito proudly kept the postcard in its sacred place of honor, next to the cash register for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Sometimes, late at night, when it was just Vito and me, he'd start talking a little wistfully about Jennifer Stockbridge again, about how beautiful she was and how much he missed her. And sometimes I think I began to miss her too.

Ebb Tide

One day, towards the end of August, Gilly invited Deirdre and me out to his house in Rockport. We rented bikes and rode out along the shore, out past Eagle's Point. It was, I remember, one of those magical, dreamlike days, when you feel as though you're a part of some wonderful, lyrical, universal rhythm. We spent that afternoon in the cool, dark, oriental world of Gilly's flowered cottage, talking quietly, sipping spiced tea, Gilly flitting lightly from room to room, bringing out exotic little treasures for us to see. He was so kind and gentle, like a gracious little grandmother, offering us her special cookies from a secret jar. As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed a small table by the door. On the table was a large oriental vase, next to it was a small hand-painted figurine. It was a tiger.

We rode our bikes back towards home in silence, gliding through long shadows. Labor Day was less than a week away. That night, Deirdre started to pack a few things and it was then that I think it hit me for the first time that she was really leaving.

My dearest Deirdre,
What for you may have been just another summer fling will remain for me one of the most treasured moments...
And so the summer ended, as it had to, everyone going their separate ways, exchanging promises and addresses, all those futile rituals of farewell. The last I heard of Sir Robert Armstrong Cunningham the Third he'd had a nervous breakdown and was in a mental hospital in Chicago. Wonderful outlandish Ola quit Divinity School and went back to Minnesota. The twins finally severed the cord. Mark joined the Merchant Marines and Scott was working somewhere in Boston, both finally freed to live their individual lives without confusion. Gilly died about a year ago. Bert and Laura got married and Bert went into computers. Later, I heard they got divorced. I never saw Deirdre again. Jennifer Stockbridge never changed. Impervious to the laws of transformation, she will remain, always and forever, young and rich, beautiful and elusive. The crusty old Barnacle Inn is long gone now; a cold and geometric condominium squats incongruously in her place.

I can still remember. One of the last nights of that summer, after everyone had gone away, Vito and I closed up the Barnacle bar, and I took my Dewars-and-water with me in the cab, toasting the lonely streets of the sleeping city as we wound our way up the quiet hill to home. It was early in the morning by the time I entered the empty ballroom. I poured myself another drink, sat down at the piano and started to play. From somewhere outside I thought I heard the sound of someone calling. Was I playing too loud? I got up and walked over to the window. There was no one there. I leaned out of the window and listened intently. It was so perfectly still, as though the whole world were sleeping, just a gentle breeze fluttering light curtains. Then, from over the silent rooftops, from somewhere up the darkened street, a faint, disembodied voice called out:
"Play Ebb Tide..."

I took a long drink of scotch, sat back down at the piano and began to play Ebb Tide. I played it only the way you can play when the party's over and you're all alone and a little drunk and it's three o'clock in the morning. I played the surging of the sea and the rolling of the endless waves. I played the summer which was ending and those lovely Botticelli eyes which I would see no more. I played the fading echoes of lost laughter of lost friends and all those real and almost real loves of my life. I played it all.

Then, slowly, gently, the music of the tide within me, which was love, receded back into the sea, which was me. I finished and lit a cigarette. Through the soft darkness of that lonely summer's night, came the sound of someone clapping.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Ancient Girl

The Ancient Girl
Roger W. Gardner

And the Lord God called unto Adam
and said unto him, Where art thou?
And he said, I heard thy voice in
the garden, and I was afraid, because
I was naked: and I hid myself.
And He said, Who told thee that
thou wast naked?

Genesis 3:8

He was a kind of detective -- a solver of mysteries, a tracer of lost persons, a Sherlock Holmes of the psyche: uncovering clues, following up leads, patiently fitting all the little pieces to the puzzle until, through the use of his trained powers of observation and proven methods of pure deductive reasoning, he could put it all together and the image would appear, that shadowy but familiar image of the perpetrator of the crime: for there was, almost always, a perpetrator and a crime; and the crime was, almost always, love -- too little, or too much, or perhaps the wrong kind.
However, unlike Sherlock Holmes, whose proficiency increased with age, he felt his confidence eroding: year by year he grew less and less certain of the value of his powers, and at times, as on this cold gray Friday afternoon, he felt not like Sherlock Holmes at all, but like just another insignificant member of the fragile human race, just another helpless observer.

The distance from Saint Catherines to the Regency Park Plaza was approximately five blocks -- not worth the trouble of trying to get a cab, he thought. Dr. Phillip Altman pulled up the collar of his winter London Fog and started up Arlington Street. It was coming down heavier now, beginning to accumulate. He always like the snow, the way it settled over the city like a benign spirit, the way it hushed the jarring sounds of the traffic and depopulated the streets. He felt closer to the city in the snow.
He was thinking about Karin again. She had looked so tired this morning. But she never complained. That was one of the things he liked about her best, that she never complained. Not that she didn't have a right to. It had been almost a year and if anything things had only gotten worse. And now -- there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for what? For something to happen, something to change. But then, something had happened, something had changed. He remembered the way she had stopped and looked back at him before leaving his office this morning. Her eyes.

Phillip crossed the crowded Regency lobby and entered the artificial dusk of the Prince Albert Lounge. He stood for a moment in the doorway and looked around the room. He was early. Maury Kroll was nowhere in sight. He slipped off his raincoat and headed for the bar.
Once again, Phillip Altman found himself equally divided between two opposite and conflicting emotions -- half of him was happy to be here, half of him was wishing he'd never gotten the call. The ambiguity, he thought, always the ambiguity.
This morning, when he heard that familiar voice on the other end of the line he was pleasantly surprised; and when Maury told him that he'd be in town for a couple of hours, he was genuinely eager to see him. He still was. Yet he was filled with vague doubts and apprehensions. Why must reunions be so traumatic, he asked himself. Of course he knew why. They posed a formidable challenge to one's self-esteem: uneasy confrontations with the past, usually preceded by painful bouts of critical self-analysis. Why are you where you are, and not where you should be? Phillip settled into a stool and ordered a Dewars-and-water. He wondered if Maury was experiencing these same anxieties. No, he laughed to himself. Not Maury. Definitely not Maury.
The bartender was a little old man with a limp. Grave, morose, aloof -- like some ancient pagan priest, Phillip thought; and he named him Pontifex Maximus. He watched the old priest shuffle silently to the center of the altar, perform his solemn ritual, and return with the sanctified elixir. Phillip thanked him and smiled. He raised his glass and took a long deliberate swallow. That old familiar rush, warm and consoling. Automatically, he reached for a cigarette. Damn, he remembered: it was the evening of the fifth day, a record, the longest he had ever gone. And it wasn't getting any easier; he was beginning to feel angry and betrayed, beginning to wonder why he had ever decided to quit in the first place. And at that moment, he came close to hating Lars Pederson. At the Monday morning meeting Pederson, their pompous chief-of-staff, had announced with great gravity that the recent smoking ban also applied to the sanctum sanctorum of the doctor's offices. Officious son-of-a-bitch, he muttered to himself.

Phillip leaned back against his stool and tried to think about something else. He looked around the Prince Albert Lounge. He had been here perhaps a dozen times in a dozen years and it never seemed to change. Same play, different actors. Businessmen mostly. A few solitary souls sat at the bar, probably out-of-towners, silently nursing their loneliness. Off by herself at the other end of the bar a rather too-glamorous brunette posed revealingly cross-legged on her stool. There was something in that air of cool indifference, that exaggerated disinterest, that betrayed her. A hooker, he decided. A couple of stools down from the brunette a dark little man with a fastidious goatee was watching her intently in the mirror -- cold, hard, predatory eyes, stalking their prey, waiting, patiently waiting for the right moment. Only, who was the predator and who was the prey?
More businessmen, scattered about the room, crowded around tiny tables. Small homogeneous groups. Animated conversations. The occasional burst of Friday night laughter. And, as always, obscure in the vague periphery of the room, diffused in the smoky amber glow, secretive couples held secretive conversations -- office romances, clandestine affairs. Somewhere wives waited, prepared dinners, dinners that would eventually grow cold and be scraped into the garbage.
Of course all this was mere conjecture. But it didn't really matter. It was the play that mattered; what the audience saw or thought they saw. Who the actors really were, what they might actually be thinking at that moment was totally irrelevant.
And this room -- he swung around on his stool -- this odd mixture of elegance and despair. Rich dark oak, plush red velvet, bright shining polished brass, Mozart softly in the background -- yet despite this carefully-crafted air of by-gone opulence, this pseudo-Victorian solidity, there was something in the whole effect that seemed theatrical and false, like scenery that could be taken down at night and carried away the next morning. A place without character or substance, as empty and cold as the waitresses' smiles. A place where one would always be a stranger.

Phillip Altman took another drink of his Scotch and smiled. A long time ago, somebody once said he had the 'soul of a poet'. He looked down at his watch: ten minutes to go. He looked at his watch again, a thin gold Omega. A birthday present from Connie. Was it ten, twelve years ago? God.

First there was the tree. Whenever he thought about Hamilton the first thing he saw was that great old oak -- standing in the backyard, halfway up the hill, between the white barn, that they'd converted into a garage, and the day lilies. And the swing he'd made for Missy that first summer. Just a couple of pieces of rope and an old wooden plank, but it worked, and Missy loved it. He loved it, too. He could see it in the mornings from the kitchen window and somehow it made him feel that life was good and the world was all right. Missy was about five then. Connie was pregnant with Ben. Their first house. An island in a sea of strangers. A commitment to the future. And somehow it all made sense: those lean years in Philadelphia, the appointment to Saint Catherines, the move to Massachusetts.
Across the bar, he noticed, Goatee had made his move; he'd shifted stools and was sitting next to the girl with the legs. They were talking; she was laughing. Phillip downed the rest of his drink and signaled the old man for another. Then the Ancient Girl came back again.

He had come across her picture in one of his books, a history of ancient Scandinavia. She was, he knew, significant somehow. She meant something, meant something to him. But what? He didn't know yet. All he knew was that she kept returning, floating up to the surface of his consciousness like a recurring dream. She had been discovered in the nineteen-fifties, buried in some desolate Danish bog, almost perfectly preserved from the time of Christ. She appeared to be about sixteen, stretched out in a long woolen gown, head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth partially open. At first it looked like ecstasy -- then you saw the remnants of the noose around her neck and you knew it was something else. She had been hung, they said, most likely for adultery -- for love, or passion, or both. And there she lay in her anguish and her shame. And two thousand years later we gaze at her picture in a book; and what do we think? How curious, we think, how curious. And then we turn the page.
Pontifex Maximus brought his drink.
Maury should be coming soon. Good old Maury.

It was a Sunday afternoon. It was hot. August maybe. They were sitting at the kitchen table drinking gin-and-tonics. Maury was divulging his latest affair, some young secretary from Personnel, Beverly or something. It's not just sex, he kept explaining, unconvincingly. Connie and Doris were outside in the backyard. The kids were playing around the swing. Screams. Wild laughter. The steady repetitive swoosh of the lawn sprinklers. Somewhere faraway a dog was barking. That things could ever change was totally inconceivable.

He had met Maury at Saint Cats. He was a staff psychologist, a PhD. Turned out they were neighbors -- well, almost neighbors. The Krolls lived ten minutes away in Wenham. Doris was a writer, children's stories, pretty successful actually. They'd been married almost twenty years then. Two kids. Beautiful house. Doris had her stories and Maury had his affairs. Then he started getting careless -- or maybe he wanted to get caught. Who knows? Anyway, Doris found out.
It was all so sad. Maury moved out to California, Doris sold the house. Then, two years after the Krolls split up -- he smiled to himself. Like fat dietitians, he was thinking, there's something ludicrous about divorced psychiatrists.

The Universe is transformation, said Marcus Aurelius; life is opinion.
Phillip moved out in the summer of nineteen-eighty and took the apartment on Beacon Hill. A bachelor again. A part-time father, alimony payments, the whole routine. But life went on. He went to work and came home. Still went to the symphony, an occasional play. Still read, still voraciously -- psychology for work, history for pleasure. But mostly it was work. Laboring over other people's problems. Sometimes making a difference. And when he didn't there was always that reliable old disclaimer: Psychiatry's not a science, it's an art. Yet, he had often wondered, if that were true, who then were the Rembrandts, the Cezannes and Picassos? Weren't they mostly like Maury or Pederson? Craftsmen, practitioners, technicians, toiling, perhaps diligently, perhaps even competently, in that no-man's land between success and failure in a kind of perpetual moral twilight? And Phillip Altman? What kind of an artist was he? And why did he feel so empty, just going through the motions?
We lose ourselves, he thought, not all at once, but slowly, drop by drop.

As a young man Phillip Altman had perceived life as a kind of logical equation, an equation in which he saw himself, his will, as a prime factor: hard work and motivation equals success. It was simply a matter of cause and effect. Life was an orderly succession of problems to be solved. Pure mathematics.
Only later did he begin to question the adequacy of this basic premise. There were, he discovered, other forces at work. The malevolent forces of disorder. The ancients understood. The Egyptians had their Maat, the goddess of law and order. but they had another god who shared equal billing: the omnipotent god of Chaos. They were two sides of the same coin, the primeval forces of Light and Dark. And he had grown acquainted with the dark.
For no apparent reason, he was thinking about Norman again, and the Christmas of '79. Jesus. What sins of the profession had he not committed with poor Norman Kramer?
He'd been treating him for about six or seven months. Obsessive-compulsive, anti-social behavior, adolescent masturbatory fantasies. A kind of acute pornomania. He'd withdraw for days, sometimes weeks and lock himself away with his fantasies. Bondage. That was the thing. Women in bondage. Then it would be over and he'd have to come back and face the world and face the guilt and the shame, and try somehow toput his life back together again. Pursued by his demon, Norman hid himself away in marriages and jobs, but to no avail -- the demon always found him.
Perhaps he should have felt something for him, a trace of kindness, a bit of sympathy, but he never could. There was something about him, a certain self-centered whining unpleasantness. The truth was, he just didn't like him, plain and simple.
Norman's background was just what you'd expect. An alcoholic mother, dominating, overbearing, bizarre and sometimes violent. A cold, distant father. In his fantasies he was punishing his mother, taking away her control. Of course, there was more. The basic self-contempt, the gnawing sense of inadequacy. The women in his fantasies were always tied-up and helpless, he was the one with the power, he could have them at will and they couldn't protest, they couldn't say no. And that was the most pathetic part about it all -- that he expected them to say, no; that even in his most secret fantasies he just couldn't picture a woman saying, yes.
Under all of this, Phillip knew, there was something more important. Like his mentor Kant, he believed that all neurosis was a substitute for legitimate suffering, neurotics became comfortable with their neuroses, they used them, like alcoholics used their booze, when life got too tough they hid in them, they withdrew into their cocoon. This was the real problem, the real demon to be confronted.
He saw Norman, somewhat reluctantly, one hour a week; and he always felt relieved when the hour was up.
It was two weeks before Christmas, 1979. The party was at the Bartley's. It was late, he remembered, eleven-thirty or twelve when Trish Bartley came over and told him he was wanted on the phone, his answering service. It was Norman. They said he'd sounded desperate. So he called him back and listened patiently while Norman stumbled half-coherently through his usual long confused litany of complaints -- another bout with the demon, his wife had left him again, everything was falling apart.
He waited for Norman to finish, then offered a few encouraging words and told him to double the dose of Librium and come into the office in the morning. And that was that. He hung up the phone and went back to the party.
Norman hung up the phone and went into the bathroom. He took all of the Librium and slit both of his wrists.

Where the hell was Maury?
Phillip lifted his glass. To Scotch, he mused. As warm and soothing as a mother's caress. He smiled to himself -- he never had any difficulty relating to alcoholics. In fact, he thought, if he wasn't careful...
Oh, they all tried to be helpful, Maury and Connie and the rest. Even Pederson. These things happen, Maury said. Even if he'd been your best bosom buddy, even if you'd loved him, you couldn't have stopped him if that was what he wanted to do.
Pederson reminded him that they were dealing with very sick people over whom they had only limited control. They all understood failure, and they embraced him in his: Welcome to the club.
But to an honest mind it was meager consolation. The truth, Phillip knew, lay somewhere between innocence and guilt. If it was true that he couldn't have saved Norman Kramer, it was also true that he could have done more, but he didn't.

Among the photographs and drawings that hung on the wall in Phillip's study was a small, carefully-framed white card; on the card was a short type-written sentence, a quotation from the diary of a Russian secret policeman in the service of Ivan the Terrible. It read: "Today I did no harm to anyone: I was resting."
Surely pure, unadulterated evil exists, Phillip had decided long ago; but it is as rare in this world as pure unadulterated goodness. We seldom wake up in the morning and decide to ruin our lives, or hurt as many people as we can. But things happen. Things are said that shouldn't have been said. Things are done, or never done. This, Phillip knew, was one of the tragedies of the human state: We hurt each other, sometimes just by living.
"Phil! Phil Altman!"
Phillip turned and looked up. The stranger coming towards him was -- Maury Kroll! He hardly recognised him. The Maury he remembered was somewhat scruffy, pale and prematurely bald. This Maury Kroll was well-dressed, well-tanned, with a fresh crop of glowing auburn hair swept rakishly across his forehead. During the rest of that evening Phillip looked everywhere but at Maury's new hair.
For privacy's sake they decided to move to a table. The waitress came and Maury ordered a Stoli martini, straight-up, extra dry. Phillip passed. And Maury talked. He talked about his new life, his kids, the weather in San Diego (seventy-eight when he left), his lucrative new practice (marriage counseling). Phillip listened attentively, and gradually he became accustomed to this new Maury Kroll. Older perhaps, a little more bizarre. But then some things never change -- her name was Adrianne, and this time it was the real thing, they had something together and it wasn't just sex.
Maury went on and on, and as he listened, Phillip wondered what it would be like to be a Maury Kroll, to be so self-assured and free of doubts. But then, wasn't this too a facade. He was remembering that conversation they'd had so many years ago on Maury's back porch. For the first time since he'd known him Maury talked about his Jewishness. About what it meant to him; or rather, about how he'd never really acknowledged it. He talked about growing up poor and Jewish in Lawrence, about how all of his friends were Catholic, and about how sometimes they'd say that he didn't really look Jewish, as though that was supposed to be some kind of a compliment. Phillip wondered if he had ever said that to Maury, but he couldn't remember.
Did he ever really care that Maury was a Jew? It was easy to say, no. And it was probably the truth. But was he ever prejudiced or racist? Years ago, as a part of his psychiatric training, he, himself, underwent analysis. Among all of the other unpleasant little facets of his psyche, he was surprised, and somewhat amused, to discover the full extent of all of his inherited prejudices. He thought of them now as heriditary environmentally caused handicaps, handicaps that he had for the most part overcome. But some still lingered. Lately, he seemed to have more of them. Lately, he seemed to like people less and less. And he worried about this. He worried that he was becoming one of them, one of those people who were in the business of helping people who didn't really like people.
If nothing else, Phillip Altman was an honest man. His sense of pride and self-esteem was based, not on the importance of his credentials or his career, which he viewed more and more as a somewhat nebulous success, or on his, sometimes questionable, intelligence, nor on the dubious purity of his tattered soul; but rather on this inate ability to see himself clearly and to laugh. Integrity is in the eyes, eyes that never blink or look the other way.
Maury smiled devilishly. "Phillip, old son," he proclaimed dramatically. "You're not smoking!"
"I'm trying to quit."
"How long has it been?"
"About five days," Phillip answered carelessly, as though he didn't know down to the very last minute just how long it had been.
"Well," Maury beamed. "I think that's wonderful. Congratulations!"
Phillip made a dismissive little gesture with his hand and shifted in his chair. He wanted to change the subject. Maury had never smoked, had no idea how hard it was to quit. Besides, he felt uneasy accepting accolades for a victory that was still far from certain.
Maury swiveled around in his chair and surveyed the lounge. He scanned the bar and spotted the brunette. He stared at her until she felt his eyes and looked over at him, temporarliy ignoring Goatee. Maury smiled at her. She smiled back. Victorious, he returned to Phillip. "So how's your love life, old son?"
Phillip made another little non-committal gesture with his hand. Here it comes, he thought. Sooner or later he knew it would come.
Maury leaned in closer. "You know," his voice lowered and he became confidential and sincere. "I was shocked when I heard about you and Connie. I always thought of you two as the perfect couple."
"I know you did," said Phillip without a trace of irony; and for the first time that evening he looked directly at his old friend and smiled. It was only natural that Maury should be curious; but, he decided, he would not spend the rest of this evening conducting some tedious post-mortem on the decomposed corpse of his defunct marriage.
There was a short awkward silence. Maury spoke first.
"Well, you know what they say: If at first you don't succeed --" Unexpectedly he reached across the table and gripped Phillip's arm. "Don't isolate yourself, old son," he warned gravely.
Phillip smiled. He remembered now what it was he liked about good old Maury Kroll. It was surprisingly pertinent advice. Wasn't that, after all, precisely what he had done? But all that was over now. Now things had changed.
"So --" Maury settled back and stretched out, confidently taking possession of the chair, the room, the conversation. "Tell me everything. Tell me about Saint Cats. Pederson still charming as ever?"
Phiilip made a face and laughed. "I don't want to talk about Pederson."
Maury smiled knowingly. "Well, what about you, old son? What are you up to these days, anything interesting?"
Phillip picked up his glass and studied the contents intently, as though the answer to Maury's question might be found floating amongst the ice cubes. "Actually," he began without taking his eyes off the glass, "there is something interesting. A patient of ours. Been with us now for almost a year." He paused for a moment, as though deciding whether or not to continue; then, "Difficult case," he said softly, almost to himself. "Very difficult case."
"Well, c'mon, tell me about it."
Phillip put down his glass and glanced around the room. The far end of the bar was conspicuously empty: Hooker and Goatee had disappeared. "Amnesia," he said. "Acute amnesia."

It was an unusual case. They both knew that complete amnesia was extremely rare. Partial, or temporary amnesia was common enough, especially after shock. That's what they thought it was at first, a symptom of shock. There had after all been an accident. "He'd had an accident. Head-on crash. Had a few injuries, nothing major, a broken leg, some contusions. I was brought in later when they started to notice the memory loss." The waitress returned and put down Maury's drink and, incredibly, he ignored her. "Put him though the whole routine -- CATS scan,NMR, EEG, blood."
"Everything came up negative, and he just kept getting worse."
Maury frowned and took a sip of his martini.
"Eventually, it all just went, everything: there was nothing he could remember -- his previous life, his job, his home."
"Is he married?"
"No kids."
"What's she like?"
Karin -- he could see her face so clearly. What's she like? Like no one he had ever met, he wanted to say; like -- "She's wonderful. It's been hell for her. I don't know how she stands it. She's there almost every day. She'll leave the room for a couple of minutes and when she comes back he'll be all over her, in tears, as though he hasn't seen her for months. He forgets everything right after it happens. She'll spend the whole day with him, and when she finally leaves he'll forget that she'd been there and he'll call her up and beg her to come back. And she'll come back."
"Hm." Maury stroked his chin. "She must really love him," he said, as though, incredible as it may seem, such things really were possible.
"Yes," Phillip agreed. But he knew better, he knew that it wasn't really love, that it was something else, maybe something even finer, something more like loyalty or duty.
"We've got him keeping a journal," he laughed softly. "That's funny, isn't it? An amnesiac's journal. But it helps. He writes down everything that happens that day and then goes over it every night. He starts every new entry with the same sentence -- 'I just woke up.'"
Phillip started for a cigarette, then remembered and settled for a drink of Scotch instead. "There's something else, Maury. Something very strange. And I'm not the only one whose noticed. He's changing. He seems to be getting -- younger."
"No, not regression, more like a metamorphosis. I mean, he actually looks younger, physically. It's as though he's becoming...innocent somehow, totally innocent, like a child."
A sudden burst of laughter erupted from the group at the next table. "You see," Phillip went on, oblivious of the interruption, "there's no recall. No sense of a previous life. No awareness of sin. No guilt. He just sits there, looking out the window, waiting, waiting for something to come back. No memory. No past. As clean and empty and blameless as Adam before the Fall.
"When I come into the room I bring it all with me, the whole bloody business. We all do. We carry it around with us. All the disappointments and failures, the broken hearts and broken promises, all the little compromises and lies. They're what makes us what we are, the burdens that wear us down."
Maury shook his head. "So, what are doing for him, Phil?"
"Not much. Not enough. Therapy's damn near impossible, there's no continuity, nothing to build on. He recognizes me, but he can't remember our last session."
"And surgery?"
"I don't know. Pederson wants to operate. But it's risky. The chances of screwing it up are enormous."
"You mean --"
"He could lose it all, all cognition, become a vegetable."
"Maybe he'd be better off," said Maury: then quickly, "I'm sorry, Phillip. I didn't really mean that."
"That's all right, Maury. Sometimes I wonder," Phillip said and immediately felt uneasy, as though those simple words concealed some darker meaning. Then there was Karin's lovely face again and he felt a sudden, unexpected flush of guilt. It was too late. Too late to turn back now. They had crossed over the line, not physically, but worse. Whatever it was for him at first, respect or admiration, it was something else now. She had touched him, somewhere deep inside. Something that he thought had died had stirred, been resurrected.
Of course he knew what he should do. Disengage. Bring it all out into the open. Confess. Here. Right now. To Maury. He had after all allowed this thing to happen, he had compromised, or was about to compromise his detachment, his ethical objectivity. He must have wanted it to happen. And now he knew he wanted her. And he knew he wouldn't tell Maury. He wouldn't tell anyone.
It was wrong and he knew it and he forgave himself at once, without deilberation, without descending into devious rationalizations -- he was still too honest for that. He felt -- no, he knew that whatever it was that was happening was happening to Karin too. Something they shared in silence, something pure and subtle; a tender precious seed which he could not -- would not expose to the cold harsh light of analysis. Certainly not here. Certainly not with Maury Kroll. No. He saw it clearly, that's all that mattered. He saw it for what it was and it was good and it was his and he would keep it. And somehow he would keep his integrity too, he vowed. And suddenly, for the first time in years, Phillip Altman sensed that vague unpleasant taste of dishonesty.

It was sometime later when he noticed Maury glancing up at the clock on the wall.
What followed was inevitable, a curious and pathetic ritual. The argument over the check, the exchange of telephone numbers, promises made that would never be kept. False commitments sealed with a firm clasp of hands. Final gestures. The parting of two old friends who had lost whatever they once had shared. Too obvious to be denied, too painful to acknowledge.

Phillip stood and watched Maury make his way across the lounge; at the door he stopped and turned to wave a last goodbye. Phillip waved back and he was gone. Probably forever. Phillip sat back down in his chair. For all his flash and dash, he considered, there was something sad and unconvincing about Maury Kroll the bachelor. As though quiet Doris had lent him a certain legitimacy which he himself had never owned.
He finished off the rest of the Scotch; the ice had melted, it tasted weak and insipid. Phillip looked down at his watch again. Six-thirty. He was due back at Saint Catherines at seven to make the final rounds before the weekend. Karin would be there. The thought of seeing her again, of actually touching her produced a sudden rush of warmth that the Scotch had not. Suddenly, unaccountably, he saw the pale ecstatic face of the Ancient Girl again and now he understood. He felt hopeful and grateful and guilty and happy.
The ambiguity, always the ambiguity.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Last Storm of the Season

All she really wanted was a 'normal life'; but she might as well have wanted the moon.
It was Thanksgiving Day night and it had just started to rain. We were sitting in her car at the railroad station waiting for the train to come, that fateful train that would take me out of her life forever. The mournful beat of the raindrops drumming heavily on the roof, the windows clouded over with steam, bathing the interior of the car in a wan, bluish haze. She was crying; but she had never looked so beautiful. "It's not just tonight," she sobbed. "It's everything."

The dinner at her parents' house that night had been uncomfortable and strained. I'd had a few drinks at home before going, to fortify myself for what I knew was going to be a long, unpleasant evening, dealing with these people who just didn't like me, who didn't even go out of their way to hide it anymore. And I suppose that by the time I finally got there I was already a little abstract, just a little faraway, but enough for them to notice, and of course they did. And, as usual, I drank a little too much wine, and laughed a little too loudly at my own jokes. But it was hard for me and I was nervous. Couldn't she understand that?

We were so different. She was always so composed, so confident and deliberate. When she moved, she moved slowly, with an unhurried measured grace. When she spoke, she spoke softly, a cool, gentle, lingering sound. She chose her words carefully and meant just what she said.
I was torn apart by my own frantic energy. I was never sure that I meant what I said, I was never really sure of what I wanted. I wanted her and I needed her desperately and I wanted to be left alone. I was living in a dim lit world of half-truths and fanciful illusions, making promises that I knew would never be kept, devising improbable plans that were inevitably doomed to fail.

Oh, she knew I had a problem, she'd probably known it for years. She, like me, had been surviving on hope, that meager sustenance, that last resort of reason, hoping that things might change, that she herself might actually change them. But slowly, inexorably, that simple and preposterous dream of hers, that dream of a normal life, was slipping further and further from her reach.
I knew I had a problem, too. I knew it every morning when I looked in the mirror. I knew it when I took the Bufferin, and the Librium, and the Alka Seltzer, and tried with shaking hands to get that damned Visine into my bloodshot eyes, and missing, the salty liquid streaming down my cheeks like tears. I knew it by the ever-present guilt and the ever-present sweat in my palms. I knew it despite all the lies, and all the excuses, and all the empty self-righteous denials. And I knew it that night in the car, as clearly as I knew just what she was going to say before she said it. And, God help me, a part of me wanted her to say it, that part of me that just wanted to be left alone, to drown myself in peace.

She had stopped crying now and was sitting there watching me, getting ready to say what she had to say. Behind her, the raindrops slowly sliding down the window pane, etching transparent little pathways through the crystal. She looked so sad, so fragile and pale she seemed almost translucent in that vague silvery light. And those eyes, so hurt and gentle, like the eyes of a wounded deer. Can I ever forget those eyes? That look? Those words? Spoken not in anger but in sorrow: "You drink too much. You're never going to amount to anything. I just can't go on like this anymore."
From somewhere came the low, woeful sound of that inevitable train.

People like me tend to arrange the history of their lives into two separate, distinct, and totally unrelated eras: Before (they quit drinking) and After. The events which I am about to relate all took place in that dark, chaotic era of the Before. This is not a story about addiction and recovery -- I feel I have nothing new or insightful to say about either of those subjects. And although I actually experienced these events, this is not really a story about me. Perhaps it's a story about redemption.

I shivered and pulled my chair a little closer to the small electric heater, the only source of warmth in the deadly coldness of the room. It was the last day of March and the third day of an unexpected blizzard, which showed no signs of abating. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse -- it was snowing harder now than ever and the wind had become so strong and violent that my windows constantly rattled and the building itself shook and shuddered under the strain.
I was living at that time in a third floor apartment, high on a hill, overlooking a small New England seaport. From my kitchen window I could look out over the rooftops, past the church steeples and the Town Hall clock, by which I told the time, to the busy little harbor and the open sea beyond. My apartment was as haphazard and illogical as my life. The kitchen, where I spent most of my time, had a gas stove (which no longer operated), a small round table and a couple of chairs, and a small refrigerator, which I had painted a rather bilious avocado green, the entire contents of which consisted of a half quart of beer, a half quart of milk for my coffee, and the sorrowful remains of a ham and cheese sandwich. There was a small bathroom, and two other rooms: a tiny 'den', with a TV set and two chairs, and a large slope-ceilinged room (which she sardonically referred to as the Ballroom), with nothing much in it but a small metal cot, a wooden bar with two bar stools, and an old upright piano.

The day after Thanksgiving I quit my job in Boston. Sometime in December they shut off my phone. The following month they shut off the gas. Now they were threatening to shut off my electricity. And my meager savings had just about run out.
What had happened? Where did it all go? What had I done to myself? I suppose you could say I went on a binge, a very long binge -- although that word always conjured up for me a certain wild, raucous behavior (which by its very nature implies the participation, or at least the presence, of other people). But this hardly seemed an appropriate description of my uneventful solitary withdrawal. Of course I drank. I drank every day and I got drunk every night. But mostly I just sat. I sat in my chair in the kitchen and looked out the window. I remembered every word we had ever spoken, every look that she had. And of course I hurt. And I felt bad. And I felt sorry for myself. And sometimes I felt sorry for her. But mostly I just sat. Just sat there looking out of the window.
And four months went by.

I know now of course that there are words for all of this. Words like alcoholism , and recurring major depression. But back then I didn't know any of this; all I knew was that I couldn't, wouldn't, didn't go out. Ever. Except late at night, when no one would see me, down the hill to the corner store to get my beer and my cigarettes. And I knew that I was in trouble. And there was no way out. No way but one. The final exit. And sometimes it actually seemed kind of appealing, not too bad really.
However, earlier that day, for some inexplicable reason, I had somewhat belatedly come to the conclusion that I needed help. And I needed it right away. But where do you go for help when you don't know what's wrong? I didn't have a doctor. My parents were long gone. My friends had all drifted away. Finally, in desperation, I decided to call a church. I was, after all, I reminded myself, a confirmed Episcopalian. The fact that I hadn't been inside a church since I was fifteen years old, I reasoned somewhat speciously, didn't necessarily alter that status.
So I bundled myself up in my raincoat, and made my way down the hill through the snow to the phone booth outside the grocery store, down at the corner. I looked up Episcopal churches in the Yellow Pages and called the first one on the page. The minister himself answered, and I let it all out in what must have been a pathetic, mostly unintelligible torrent of words: My fiance had left me and I had lost my job. I was broke and living without heat and running out of food. I had a bad drinking problem and they were going to shut off my electricity and sometimes I felt like there was no way out but suicide. He paused for a moment, then agreed to see me that night at eight. I went back up the hill to my apartment and I didn't drink for the rest of the day.

I got up from my chair and, leaving my little island of heat behind, walked over closer to the window. The Town Hall clock was barely visible in the blackness through the swirling mass of snow. I could just make out the time. It was a quarter to eight. I put on my raincoat, pulled up the collar and left.

It was wild out now. The roaring wind had whipped the falling flakes into a frenzy and transformed the darkened streets into a weird surrealistic world of illusory shadows and shifting white dunes. I braced myself against the buffeting white waves and plodded on through the deep snow, down the hill towards town. At the bottom of the hill I turned off the road and took the shortcut along the railroad tracks behind the supermarket warehouse. I was coming out of the darkness, trudging through the high drifts, when suddenly I heard the awful unearthly groans and saw the old man sprawled out on the deserted loading dock like a pile of discarded rags, half-buried in the snow. I recognized him immediately. One of the town characters. A hopeless disgusting old drunk.
"Oh, Jesus!" He cried out. "Somebody help me...I'm freezin' t'death!" He was obviously dead drunk.
"Crazy old bastard", I muttered out loud. "What the hell do you want from me? Why don't you just shut up and die?" I ignored him and continued pushing my way through the heavy snow.
"Jesus.." He moaned pathetically, " me..."
"Help yourself, you stupid old drunk! I'm the one who needs help. I'm on the verge of goddam suicide!"
I crossed the parking lot and stopped at the edge of the street. Squinting my eyes I looked up through the falling snow flakes to the Town Hall clock. It was five minutes to eight. I listened for a moment but all I could hear was the roar of the howling wind; the old man's voice had blown away. I was disgusted. Something always went wrong. Every time I tried, something always went wrong.
I turned around and went back.

The old man's beard was frozen solid with dribble, his ragged overcoat encrusted with stains. The stench was unbearable. He was coughing horribly and muttering meaningless gibberish. After a long awkward struggle, somehow I managed to get him to his feet, whereupon he promptly vomited directly onto my raincoat. Finally, I got him off the platform and down into the snow. "Where do you live?" I shouted at him. He pointed off into the darkness.

Half carrying him, the two of us slipping and falling into the cold wet snow. Down all the wrong streets, then back up again. Desperately trying to follow his mumbled, all but incoherent instructions, until, at last, we found the right street, and the right house, and I knocked on the door.
Eventually, the door opened to reveal a huge round barrel of a woman, who quickly assessed the situation through beady and malicious little eyes.
"Well, ain't this sweet!" She snarled. "Jus' lookit'ya!" A great white fleshy arm flashed out, grabbed hold of him and dragged him inside like a sack of potatoes. Then she turned on me. "I suppose you're one of 'is drinkin' buddies. Well, I hope yer proud of yerself -- gettin' a poor old man drunk out of 'is mind!"
Dumbfounded and speechless, I stood stupidly in the doorway. "Thank you!" She said sarcastically and slammed the door in my face.
"Jesus Christ!" I said. "Jesus Christ!"

I turned away and walked back down the steps and up the street, hurrying in the direction of the church. It was twenty-five minutes to nine by the time I rang the parish house bell. Finally, the minister opened the door.

He was a small portly man with a shining bald head and a round reddish face, dominated by thick, ominous horn-rimmed glasses. A busy man, with innumerable obligations and limited time. A precise little man who obviously valued punctuality and abhorred irregularities.
"Wasn't your appointment for eight o'clock?" He asked, more an accusation than a question.
"Yes. I'm sorry. Something happened," I offered idiotically.
The minister shook his head and warily stepped aside to let me in. In grave silence, he led me down the long corridor to his study, an austere high-ceilinged Victorian library -- dark woods, muted colors, shelves stacked high with heavy, intimidating, leather-bound volumes, faded sepia photographs, unlovely dried flowers. The atmosphere was somber, close, oppressive, a heavy sterile sanctity hung over the room like an unpleasant musty incense. He offered me a seat and took his place, safely ensconced behind a great mahogany desk, covered with neat little piles of carefully-stacked papers. He sat there silently for a long unnerving moment, scrutinizing me mercilessly -- huge, bulbous, staring eyes, swimming hypnotically in those deep pools of glass.
I looked down at myself and saw the stains. What an impression I must be making! Half an hour late for my appointment. Soaking wet. My wild unruly hair dripping down over my palid unshaven face. My rumpled old raincoat blotched with the old man's stinking puke. Some crazy dishevelled vagabond blown in from the storm.
"You mentioned you had some problems," he began unenthusiastically.
"Yes," I stumbled awkwardly over the words. "I did...I mean, I do..." Something strange was happening to me. A kind of claustrophobia was setting in. I was starting to feel panicky and trapped. But, worst of all, I was beginning to feel a perverse but almost irresistible urge to laugh. How in the world could this cold-hearted little fat man ever really help me? The only thing I felt emanating from the other side of that desk was disapproval and contempt. It was such a ludicrous situation. I couldn't even remember his name, and he didn't seem to remember mine. We were two total strangers who didn't really want to meet. But the most ludicrous thing of all was that somehow I felt better. As though the problems I had so carefully carried with me through the blizzard had somehow slipped from my grasp and disappeared, making this whole humiliating interview seem intolerable and pointless. All I could think of now was how to get the hell out of there.
"I'm sorry," I blurted out suddenly, getting up from my chair, "I'm sorry I bothered you, but -- I feel better now. I think I'll be all right now."
Annoyed and confused, he shook his head, got up, and came out from behind the desk Then, once again, in awful silence, he ushered me back down that interminable hallway.

Finally, gratefully, I was outside again, walking swiftly, making my getaway from the parish house, as though the disgruntled clergyman might suddenly come rushing out after me. At the end of the street I slowed down and looked around. The storm had at last passed over. The furious wind had blown itself away. The dark empty streets were hushed and quiet. I stopped and lit up a cigarette.

The laugh bubbled up from somewhere deep inside, some long forgotten well. Suddenly it all seemed so ridiculous and funny. It had all gone wrong. It got all mixed up. The minister was mad at me. The fat lady was mad at me. And the old man would never remember who I was. I pictured the old man, safely home now, snug in his bed, peacefully dreaming his innocent childish dreams, and the laughter burst the surface. Oh God! It was all so funny! I let it all go and I laughed until I couldn't laugh anymore, until the pain had broken up and washed away, until I was exhausted. Finally, I wiped the tears from my eyes and took a long deep breath. The cold night air was crisp and clean and I drank it freely, nourishing my thirsty lungs with the sweet fresh nectar.

I was alive again. I had come back. Back from the icy regions beyond the great wall, back from the nothingland of nowhere. And the world was crazy. It was all absurd. But somehow it was wonderful.
I looked up at the Town Hall steeple, transfigured by the vibrant night, fixed in space, suspended in a perfect stillness like a luminous jewel. And directly overhead, watching over it all, a thousand friendly phosphorescent eyes, blinking in a deep mysterious sea.
"Welcome home," they said. "We missed you."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Through Dead Man's Gulch

Through Dead Man's Gulch
Roger W. Gardner

There are certain places that we are destined to remember for the rest of our lives. They become a part of us. They enter into our souls and become the landscape of our dreams. For me, one of these special places was a nameless little valley in New Jersey.

It was Christmas, 1944. We, my mother and father and I, lived in a great big house in a quiet little town outside of Philadelphia. My father was what you might call a “successful man” with a very important job. I always knew this by the way he walked, and by the way he’d clear his throat before speaking, as though he were preparing to address the Chamber of Commerce. His job, he would attempt to explain, was selling stocks and bonds. My earliest conception of stocks and bonds was that they were some sort of disciplinary equipment used in penal institutions. Later, I discovered, with some disappointment, that they were only paper. My father sold paper. Why this should have made him any more important than Fat Herbie’s father who was a postman, with a really impressive uniform, who delivered paper, I could not understand. But every Christmas, when we visited them, the almost reverential awe with which he was greeted soon convinced me that -- whether I understood it or not -- my father’s job must be very important.

These Christmas trips to New Jersey to visit my mother’s relatives were one of the two highlights of the year -- the other being our annual two-week summer vacation trip to Atlantic City. For my mother, these holiday visits were an emotional and sometimes tearful reunion, for me they were an adventure, and for my father they served as validation of his lofty status as a “successful man”, the opportunity to bask for a time in the respectful admiration of his in-laws.
So, every Christmas morning, after all the presents had been opened and we’d had our breakfast in the Breakfast Room, my father would load up the trunk of his big Buick with all the “New Jersey presents”; my mother would get all dressed up, wrapping herself self-consciously in her elegant new fur; and I would attempt to get every one of my new toys into the back seat of that big black sedan. This would of course precipitate a confrontation with my father, until, finally, after much pouting and stamping of feet, a compromise of sorts would be arranged: I would have to settle for a half dozen of my most valuable acquisitions.

That year, I recall, my most valuable acquisition was a gas mask. An authentic, regulation, U.S. Army gas mask. The mask was made of heavy-duty rubber and attached to the head by means of adjustable rubber straps. The front piece consisted of two large goggles, a strange projecting cylinder for the mouth, and two metal canisters, one protruding from each cheek. I wore the mask from the time we left home until the time we reached New Jersey. I fancied that it gave me a certain imposing presence, sinister and mysterious. In reality, I imagine that I must have looked rather like some overgrown, olive-drab insect. The taut elastic pull of the rubber straps hurt my skin, and the stale musty air that filtered through the canisters eventually gave me a headache. But this was a small price to pay for being so completely self-contained in such a formidable disguise.
This was probably the quietest trip to New Jersey that we ever made. I sat in the back seat in proud, impenetrable silence, thoroughly immersed in my new role as The Mysterious Stranger, content to watch the world sailing by my portholes and listening to the enormous sound of my own breathing as it echoed through the metal chambers. Whenever we’d stop at some busy intersection, I’d press my goggles up against the window in the hope of startling some innocent passerby. My mother, with that typical neurotic adult anxiety, would make me take the mask off every now and then, fearing, I suppose, that I might somehow suffocate. Adults, it seemed, had this uncanny ability to always spoil a good thing.

Like any true adventure, these trips served to broaden my perspective on the world. As we drove out from the suburbs of Philadelphia, out through Germantown, and Willow Grove, through Ambler and Hatboro and Fort Washington, the towns got smaller and smaller, until we reached the low, desolate farmlands of Bucks County -- long, monotonous stretches of somber black woods and snow-covered pastures, interspersed here and there by some lonely and dilapidated farmhouse with a refrigerator on the front porch and some old abandoned truck, rusting away in the front yard, half-buried in the snow.
And I might dimly recall my father’s words, when he’d admonish me to “count your blessings” and remind me that I was a “fortunate little man”. And, sometimes I believed him. For I could see through my goggles that not everyone lived in a seventeen-room house with a butler’s pantry and a maid, or cruised through the countryside in a sleek black limousine.

At New Hope we crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey. then on through more farms and woods and white pastures, until, quite suddenly, the highway dipped into a deep ravine. At the bottom of this valley, enclosed in dark pines, enshrouded in a primeval mist, was a small frozen lake. Black, gnarled leafless trees were trapped in the ice looking like some fearsome prehistoric monsters. It was a dreary, eerie place; my father named it Dead Man's Gulch.
I both loved and dreaded this sinister grotto, which conjured up images of headless goblins and phantom wolves, and unfailingly produced an exquisite shudder of fear and delight. This grim, foreboding place was also a landmark: when we reached Dead Man's Gulch we were halfway there.

Our arrival in East Orange would precipitate yet another confrontation with my father -- I, quite naturally, expected to greet them all in my gas mask. My father, however, was adamant, clearing his throat, he launched into one of those long meaningless discourses on the subject of propriety: I could not wear my gas mask. To me, this was both cruel and unfair. I think that I suspected, even then, that my feelings about my gas mask were precisely the same as his feelings about his Buick.
When we’d finally pull up to Aunt Lilly’s -- that little white insubstantial clapboard house at the foot of Mount Pleasant Avenue -- the whole family would come tumbling out to greet us -- except for Uncle Duke, who’d stroll out leisurely in his tall tranquil way, still wearing his crumpled old gray uniform and casually puffing his ever-present pipe.

Aunt Lily was short, fat and jolly, low to the ground like a barrel. She had bright, mischievous little eyes, an infectious smile, and strong chubby little arms that hugged you like a bear. Uncle Duke was tall and lanky, with a slow, deliberate Gary Cooper drawl. They had three boys: Fat Herbie, who was built just like his mother (but without that infectious smile); he was about my age. Neat Albert was a couple of years older and considerable slimmer and -- unlike Fat Herbie, whose worn-out flannel shirt always hung out over the seat of his pants and whose socks seldom matched -- he was always neatly put together. Tall Jack, their oldest boy, was away at the War -- that wonderfully explicit contest between Good and Evil which we called the Second World War. He was, of course, our hero (late at night, in Herbie’s room, where we slept beneath squadrons of P-38s and Flying Fortresses suspended, almost invisibly, from the ceiling, we’d lie awake and estimate the probable number of Japs he’d wiped out that day).
Herbie’s house was tiny and warm and -- unlike our house, whose rooms seemed so remote from one another, where a sound would echo as in a marble mausoleum -- it was filled with the sounds of laughter and the heady smell of homemade oatmeal.
Later that day, the rest of mother’s relatives would arrive -- vivacious Aunt Charlotte with her latest conquest, Ells; my favorite, always dapper Uncle Bill and his humorless “girlfriend”, Marge; and Uncle Bob and Aunt Mabel and their precocious, self-absorbed and excruciatingly beautiful eleven year old daughter Amy.

But we, the visiting dignitaries, invariably held the center of the stage, and, rising to the level of their admiration, we performed our respective roles with remarkable conviction. We exuded confidence and charm -- my mother, so tall and lovely, with those wistful sea-blue eyes and her flowing auburn hair; my father, so stolid and sure in his impeccable pin-striped suit; and me, all scrubbed and clean in my Sunday Best, with my well-polished shoes and my well-polished manners. We were the personifications of Good Fortune, the living embodiment of the American Dream, descending once a year from the mythic realms of our respectable prosperity.
Like the illusive fragments of a half-forgotten dream, the grim truths of our lives -- those violent late-night arguments over my father’s alleged “affairs”; my mother’s mysterious “spells”; the fact that I was becoming sullen and remote and not doing very well at school -- all these sordid memories seemed obscure and faraway, like sorrowful ghosts we had left behind to brood through the empty rooms of that great dark house. And I began to sense between the three of us a certain warmth, a rare cohesiveness, an unprecedented unity of purpose, as though we had formed a secret pact and, bound by some unarticulated code of loyalty and discretion, we protected each other with innumerable sins of omission.

While Herbie and I went up to his room to examine each other’s new toys (mine were always more expensive, while his always seemed more interesting), the men would all sit around the living room discussing the merits of father’s Buick or soliciting his opinion on the progress of the War and its effect on the market; while the women would all congregate in the kitchen gathering around my mother, ooohing and aahing over her latest Christmas fur, discussing -- whatever it was that women discussed. After dinner, we'd all pile into our cars and make the short trip to the old neighborhood to visit my grandparents.

I remember a dark, quiet house on an old forgotten street in the poorest section of town. I remember a chubby old lady with her gray hair in a bun, a smile, a laugh, the strange musty taste of homemade fruitcake, and white lace doilies on old oak tables. I remember a scrawny old Scotsman who lived up in the attic, who had his 'office' up there. His office was a great dark magic cavern crammed with boxes and cartons. In the center of the darkness, in a pool of light, sprawled a huge mahogany desk, littered with stacks of letters and papers and an incredible assortment of miraculous gadgets. The old man, my grandfather, would sit at his desk under the overhead lamp, casting long liquid shadows, sleeves rolled up over bony old arms, the green celluloid visor pulled down over his wizened old head, and with all of the secretive cabala of a medieval alchemist, solemnly perform the arcane rituals of his mysterious business. I would sit quietly on the boxes in the darkness and watch him.
His business was mail order: tricks and jokes. His modest ads appeared in the back pages of comic books and cheap pulp magazines. They promised, for a small remuneration, to make you "the life of the party", "instantly popular with the girls", and "the envy of the neighborhood". You would, they guaranteed, be able to both "confound your enemies" and "astound your friends".
Apart from the magic tricks -- which sometimes were no more than a short type-written paragraph of instructions on one of the finer points of prestidigitation, or a small tin two-headed coin -- there were the "jokes": "Joy Buzzers". artificial carnations for the lapel that squirted a stream of water, bow-ties that lit up in the dark, imitation dog-poop, imitation vomit, imitation ink-spills, imitation scrambled eggs, "Whoopee Cushions", which when sat upon by the unwary victim produced a loud prodigious fart, and magic matches, which when struck transformed themselves into wriggling little snakes.
He was, they said, incredibly cheap -- one Christmas he gave my mother a box of Lipton's Tea. But to me he was always generous and kind. He loved me, I suppose. And I -- I thought he was a wizard. He was always giving me things, and after all, what could be more valuable to an imaginative young boy than imitation dog-poop.
Except for his quick daily trips to the post office, I don't ever recall seeing my grandfather come downstairs. And I don't ever remember seeing my grandmother go upstairs. My grandmother, however, seemed quite content with this arrangement and always appeared happy and smiling.

At Christmas time, while all the adults sat in the parlor sipping their tea and nibbling fruitcake, the kids, Herbie, Albert, Amy and I, would sit at the bottom of the stairs in the hallway, waiting for my grandfather to come out of his office and perform his annual Yuletide ritual. During these times I would try to figure out ways of getting close to Amy -- which, considering her natural sense of superiority and her inherent disdain of the opposite sex, was a formidable challenge. I would begin by trying to impress her with my importance as a person, with long, somewhat exaggerated descriptions of the rarity and value of my stamp collection, or the size and intelligence of my dog, King. This would of course invariably fail to arouse her interest, and finally, in a desperate attempt to keep her attention I'd resort to asking her questions, like: Why does grandfather never come downstairs? Don't you know anything? She'd reply. And somehow the more she condescended to insult me the more attractive she became.
Suddenly, the attic door would open and my grandfather would appear, so frail and slight as to be barely visible in the darkness at the top of the stairs. Merry Christmas, children! He'd call out in that rickety old voice. Merry Christmas!
Immediately we'd be in the midst of a magical golden shower -- of pennies! Then came the mad scramble -- wrestling and tumbling, laughing and screaming. Amy, of course, remained aloof from this vulgar thrashing pile of arms and legs; yet somehow she always got her coins. I, being the littlest one, sometimes came up empty handed; whereupon my grandfather would call me upstairs, and to my amazement he would always find a quarter hidden in my ear.

These precious days flew by in a dizzying blur of frenetic activity -- visiting, exchanging presents, exploring the backyards of East Orange with Herbie, until, all too soon it would be time to leave. After one last supper in Aunt Lily’s warm little kitchen, my father would pack up the Buick, we’d make our goodbyes, and we’d be on our way.

The journey home was always quieter and less optimistic than the trip out had been. If, in some unspoken way, these Christmas visits were intended to be a reaffirmation of our familial success, then, in some unspoken way, they failed -- the only thing they seemed to reaffirm was the hopeless isolation of our loneliness. Oh, my mother had her furs, and I had my toys, and my father had his stocks and bonds and Buicks; but we never had each other, not the way that they did; and we envied them.

I envied them their little cardboard house, so filled with love and people it seemed about to burst; and I yearned for a brother, a glorious hero like Tall Jack. Or even a little unobtrusive one like Neat Albert. Why, to alleviate my loneliness I would have even settled for Fat Herbie -- despite his occasional bullying.

And that serious little man behind the wheel, the intrepid pilot of that lonesome craft, he yearned, oh yes, he yearned. My father yearned for an orderly life with a more orderly wife; a more grateful wife who’d respect his position and appreciate her good fortune; a simpler wife whom he could please and understand; a happier wife who -- despite all the doctors -- wouldn’t keep slipping away, sinking deeper every year into that dark, unfathomable melancholy.

And my mother, my poor fragile mother. For her the furs were never enough and the seventeen rooms were too much. Life was a burden of sorrows, and she yearned, she yearned for something my father could never give her, she yearned for it all to end.

And so we passed once again through Dead Man's Gulch, through that dark oppressive silence of our private discontents until, for no apparent reason, my mother would burst into tears. My father would clear his throat but offer nothing -- he had learned by now not to ask her what was wrong, for even if she knew, she wouldn’t answer.
Sporadically illuminated by the passing lights, my abandoned gas mask huddled in the shadows on the seat across from me like some poor deflated octopus, its two great lifeless eyes fixed on me with a forlorn and vacant stare.

In 1945, I turned ten years old; and in that year the population of my little world decreased by one. The Great War ended, but Tall Jack never came home; his awesome presence transformed forever into a small photograph that sat silently on their mantle, surrounded by all the carefully polished medals that he’d won for running, and jumping, and dying.

Later that year my grandfather passed away. It occurs to me now in retrospect, that my earliest conceptualizations of God were all mixed up with a little old man in an attic.

We still made the annual Christmas trips to New Jersey, but they were never quite the same. Good, sweet Aunt Lilly still laughed and smiled, but sometimes I noticed, when she’d be in the kitchen washing dishes, she’d suddenly stop, her hands forgotten, lost in the suds, and just stand there looking strangely empty and confused. And long, laconic Uncle Duke seemed older now and even quieter than ever, sitting for hours in his big easy chair beneath the mantle, smoking his pipe in a deep, ruminative silence.

Oh, we still piled into our cars and drove over to the old neighborhood to see my grandmother; but the magician had gone, and with him the magic. We all sat together now quietly in the parlor. No more pennies from Heaven. No more screaming and yelling in the hallway. And no more coins ever grew in my ears.