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.