FATHER, SON AT HOLY GHOST
“Ting, Tingle, Ting….”
--Krista Saulstein’s wind bell
For the rest of that sweltering summer of 1968, Reed stayed close to the Igloo Factory. He went to the Jewish market on Kirkland Street with Sugar from time to time, just to see all the remarkable sights along the way and notice how everyone turned their head to watch Sugar pass. He walked over to Cambridge Common with Meyer on occasion to talk with the Freaks and ‘get the lay of the land’, as Meyer called their journeys. He would wander a block or two in either direction down Broadway by himself on some early mornings before the heat was too oppressive. Beyond that, he stayed close to his new home. He wasn’t ready to move around too much—fearing getting lost and thinking to himself that since he had been brought this far he should wait around to see what happened. He kept listening for the Voice.
Most of the regulars at the Igloo Factory stayed close as well. Jerry was an exception. He left each morning to spend the day at a storefront counseling center near Central Square. Even though Jerry was under authority not to practice as a priest, he could work as a counselor. He did draft counseling for mostly Black and Hispanic young men who didn’t want to go to Viet Nam. Jerry, it seemed to Reed, was one of the few in the Factory who had an inkling about what was going on beyond Broadway. Meyer certainly didn’t care.
“What’s the news from the front today?” Meyer would ask Jerry from time to time. But as soon as Jerry would start telling him about the conflict in south-east Asia or the young men he worked with, Meyer would change the subject.
“Don’t you care about the war?” Reed asked Meyer once, more curious than condemning.
“Of course not,” he said, “and you don’t either.”
“But I have opinions…,” Reed began.
“No you don’t!” Meyer snarled. “You told me that when all the pretty little words stopped registering in your cerebral cortex, you stopped having opinions. You told me that after a bottle of apple wine.”
Reed realized Meyer was right. Meyer seemed to remember everything anyone ever said around the Factory, even if they didn’t say it to him. Meyer took great pride in his memory…and in being right.
“Maybe it was the plum…,” he added.
“The wine we were drinking when you told me about your poverty of opinions…. I don’t remember which.”
“Meyer’s memory is remarkably selective,” Jerry once told Reed. “He can recount conversations verbatim that you had two months ago if it proves his point. But he can’t remember what someone said in the last sentence if it makes him wrong.”
“I’m beginning to notice,” Reed responded.
“Meyer’s mind is like a cul-de-sac—there’s only one way in and one way out,” Jerry continued, “and Meyer decides which way is which. In a lesser person it would be a character flaw. With Meyer, it’s just peculiar.”
Jerry pronounced the word “PE-cu-li-ar”, betraying a soft Southern accent. He was originally from Raleigh, North Carolina but after finishing seminary served churches in Maryland. He had been a hard-working, if unspectacular priest, with no peculiarities except an almost obsessive interest in the Civil War. Jerry knew more about ‘The Wore’, which is how he always pronounced it, than anyone Reed had ever met. He specialized in quirky little facts: the names of the mulatto children of Confederate generals, what kind and how much whisky Grant drank before each major battle, the number of farm animals killed on Sherman’s mad march to the sea, the size of General McClelland’s sexual organ.
It was the Civil War that resulted in Jerry’s being “inhibited”.
“That’s what the church calls it, Reed, the technical term for semi-defrocked.” Jerry didn’t seem embarrassed at all about his troubles with the church, which always surprised Reed. Jerry stared at him and said, “Inhibited, isn’t that a medieval sounding thing?”
“Frockin’ inhibitions!” Meyer yelled from his room off the kitchen where Reed and Jerry were talking and drinking Schlitz.”
Jerry smiled and shook his head. His cool gray eyes twinkled as he looked at Reed. “Meyer needs some inhibitions,” Jerry said in a stage whisper.
“And Jerry needs frocked,” Meyer called.
Jerry had been the Rector of a small, elegant parish in a small, elegant Maryland town halfway between DC and Baltimore, just off the Baltimore/Washington Parkway. “Smells and bells and very high tone,” Jerry described it. “Professional class refugees from the cities seeking safety, tax shelters and high church Anglicanism,” he described the parishioners.
Reed knew people like that and wondered how Jerry related to them. “I love those people, Reed,” he said. Reed believed him.
“Jerry IS those people,” Meyer shouted from the next room. “Jesus on a bike, Jerry’s family raises racehorses!”
Everything was decent and in good order between Jerry and the elegant members of his parish until he started talking to Jesus about The War.
“Now this is not easy to believe, Reed,” Jerry said, growing suddenly serious, “but I’d go down to the Potomac on my day off and read about The War. I’d take lunch and a nice wine and a blanket and sit beside the river, working on some problem I’d discovered in the history. It gave me great pleasure. Do you understand?”
Reed tried to remember ‘pleasure’, what that had been like. But since he had trouble understanding 'reading a book', beside the Potomac or otherwise, he probably didn’t understand.
“At any rate,” Jerry continued, ignoring Reed’s confusion, “Jesus started coming down to talk with me about The War.”
“You mean Jesus, like in the Bible?” Reed asked.
“No, you illiterate asshole,” Meyer called, “he means Jesus like the Hispanic juvenile delinquent who delivers the Globe when he’s not to stoned to ride his bike!” Jerry and Reed heard a thump from Meyer’s room. He’d fallen off his bed laughing.
“You’ve probably guessed Meyer doesn’t believe all this,” Jerry said, smiling.
Jerry didn’t know for quite a few weeks that the man who came to join him on the bank of the Potomac to talk about The War was Jesus. “He was just a normal looking guy,” Jerry told Reed, “he looked a little like Yogi Berra with a beard….”
“What was he wearing?” Reed asked, thinking it an appropriately attentive question.
“I don’t know,” Jerry shrugged, “jeans and a Maryland University tee shirt, shorts and a tank top….”
“The Son of God has lots of clothes!” Meyer wailed.
Jerry never seemed to get upset, not even with Meyer at a time like that. Jerry appeared to genuinely enjoy how Meyer made fun of his talking to Jesus. Maybe, Reed thought, talking to Jesus did that for Jerry.
“But after a while,” Jerry said slowly, his accent deepening, “I knew this guy was something special. He knew things about The War that no one should have known. And when he listened to my ideas and thoughts there was a gentle intensity that…it’s hard to describe…. It’s just like knowing, ‘really knowing’, that was listening completely.”
Meyer moved silently into the room. He leaned against the sink beside the table where Jerry and Reed were talking.
“Then this one day I brought up the whole question of the loss of life in the War. I still wasn’t sure who he was, but I was thinking that day about how many people died just so that I could have something to read about on my day off. So, after we ate lunch, I said to the guy….”
“You ate lunch with Jesus?” Reed asked, startled inexplicably by that detail.
“We had some nice pate with French bread and an orange and a bottle of a nice Chardonnay I’d grown fond of and….”
“O, for Christ’s sake, Jerry, get on with it!” Meyer hissed.
Jerry smiled. “’All the people who had to die’, I said to this funny guy who’d been joining me for a month or so. ‘I have trouble with that’, I said.”
The three of them were quiet for a while, thinking of all the dead people from The War. Meyer’s Airtemp was humming in the next room. The Coke machine was humming out in the hall. Outside, beyond Broadway, Cambridge was humming. It was growing late.
“And then,” Jerry said, barely louder than the collective hums, “in words I can’t remember for the life of me and for what must have been an hour but seemed like a few moments, he told me all about it.”
Reed wanted to ask, “all about what?” but it didn’t seem appropriate.
“All about what?” Meyer asked, inappropriately, but almost reverently.
“Mostly he told me about this little slave boy in Georgia named Jefferson Andrew Smith, a boy about John Henry Davidson’s age, who was killed by his own mother. His mother had stolen a pistol from the slave owner’s house when the slave owner ran away when he heard Sherman was near. Her name was Lila and she wasn’t very bright and didn’t realize the Union Army wouldn’t harm them. She thought that Sherman’s army would take her son and rape her. So Lila and Jefferson were hiding in the chicken coop until she heard the roar of the Union’s horses. She wrapped her son in her arms, draping her arms around him like a sweater on a cool night, told him she loved him and shot him in the head. Then she shot herself in the head.
“That little boy’s great-grandson, had the little boy lived, would have been the first African-American ever elected to Congress from the state of Georgia. Instead, that little boy and his mother died in chicken shit.”
“Jesus told you this?” Reed was caught up in the backwash of the story, losing the thread.
Jerry stared at him. Jerry had a way of staring right into Reed’s slumbering soul. “Who else could know this?” Jerry asked.
According to Jerry, Jesus thought those two deaths were the most tragic and senseless and lamentable of all the tragic, senseless, lamentable deaths of The War. Not only would the Union soldiers not have harmed the boy and his mother, the Major in charge of burning that plantation had been a chicken farmer from New Hampshire. He couldn’t bear to needlessly kill chickens. So the only man-made structures left standing as that brigade swept toward the sea were chicken coops.
“I laid on my blanket beside the river and cried for an hour about that boy and his mother. Jesus finally took me in his lap and rocked me like a baby though I was bigger than he was. When I finally finished crying, he peeled another orange and fed it to me, section by section. There are no oranges like that one in Maryland…or anywhere…. The juice ran out of my mouth and down my face, sweet-stickiness mingling with my tears.
“Then, when the orange was finished, Jesus said, ‘Don’t you worry about that story anymore, Child. That boy and his mama are okay now and always will be. I keep them near to me.’ While he was saying that, I knew that he was Jesus. I just knew it. I never asked, it would have been…I don’t know, impolite….” Jerry paused and blew his nose into one of Factory’s fine linen napkins. The he said: “We met again, the next two Fridays. We didn’t talk about The War anymore. I don’t remember talking much at all. We’d eat lunch and watch the river flow. But I did ask him that second Friday, because I somehow knew he wouldn’t be coming anymore, if he would hold me in his lap again. And he did.”
Jerry’s eyes were shining. Meyer restrained a strange noise, perhaps a sniff, and went to his room. Reed sat in stunned silence. He’d never met anyone who had talked to Jesus about The War. Or anything.
“Jesus,” Reed whispered.
“The very one,” Jerry said.
A few weeks after Jerry’s Friday’s with Jesus ended, he gave a sermon about it. It was an anti-war sermon since Jesus obviously hated war. The week after the sermon, at a special vestry meeting full of troubled and elegant vestry members, Jerry tried to explain how Jesus made him feel when he fed him the orange and rocked him like a baby by the Potomac. Words failed and the best Jerry could do was undress. Jesus, according to Jerry, make him feel naked and free, new-born. Because of his accent, Jerry pronounced ‘naked’ as ‘necked’.
Jerry’s bishop, Jerry told Reed, was an understanding man, a good man, who would have liked to talk to Jesus himself about The War, or anything. And Jerry’s bishop knew someone who knew someone who knew a certain Brigham Francis….
Jerry put HONK IF YOU KNOW JESUS bumper stickers on the VW bug and the big, red VW bus that belonged to the Factory. He once told Reed, “I meet lots of Christians driving around Cambridge.”
Meyer later told Reed that Jerry was a very bad driver.
Krista Saulstein was a mystic from Sandusky, Ohio. She is perhaps the only mystic Sandusky ever produced. Coal and natural gas and steel is what Sandusky is known for, not mystics. On the other hand, as Meyer was quick to relate, most really good mystics came from odd places.
“Think about it, Reed,” Meyer said, waxing eloquent about mystics, “there isn’t a lot of evidence for mysticism emerging from cosmopolitan, overly-educated places. Urban, sophisticated soil isn’t the seed bed of mystics. Deserts and small towns, backwaters and by-ways, whistle-stops and obscure islands—those are the breeding grounds for mystics.”
Meyer was, by his own admission, about as mystical as a Buick axle. Meyer, to the best of his memory, had never had an even faintly mystical thought. Meyer’s thoughts were more akin to wrought iron and tempered steel than to starlight and smoke. He believed that the daily Red Sox box scores in the Globe were as close to the ethereal as he dared to tread. Yet he was fascinated by mysticism and mystics.
“You and I, Reed,” he said, “are the much needed ballast to the Universal Starship. We are common and ordinary as plywood and carpenter’s tacks. We are pedestrian with a capital P. Our names should be ‘T. Reed Linoleum’ and Meyer T Wallboard. We are the surfaces and backgrounds of life. Krista, on the other hand.... Well, Krista is simply magic.”
Reed agreed about Krista—she was, obviously, a mystic—but he wasn’t so fast to rate himself as basic building material. Krista could see into the window of the future. She could ring bells by the force of her soul. She was also darkly beautiful and mysterious—like a moss covered cave with free flowing ground water running black and cold, silently within the cave. And Reed came to believe, Krista would someday make a perfect candle.
Krista stayed even closer to the Factory than Reed did. She seldom left the house, not even to buy wax. Pierce would go into Harvard Square twice a week to buy two shopping bags full of the purest bee’s wax for Krista. Since Meyer wouldn’t trust Pierce with either of the cars, he had to walk to the hobby shop and back. On the way back, he carried four seven pound blocks of wax in each shopping bag. And Pierce never once complained, though Pierce seldom said anything that wasn’t in someway a complaint. Bad-ass Pierce seldom had a good word for anyone or anything, but he would have walked to Timbuktu carrying 56 pounds of beeswax for Krista. Like Meyer said, she was magic.
“One day, Reed,” she would say each day as she began melting wax in huge pots on the big industrial stove in the Factory’s kitchen, “I will make a perfect candle.”
Krista’s face was smooth and oval and faintly oriental. Her body was long and lithe and electric. The oversized work shirts she always wore clung with sweat to her valleys and ridges. When she worked with wax, her face would shine like fine oil and her long, midnight hair would glisten like spun darkness. She always reminded Reed—for some reason—of apples, over-ripe and crushed, in high, damp grass.
“It will be like giving birth,” she would say about her perfect candle. “It will be the only candle I have ever made. It will be the only candle I can ever make. It will burn without smoke, without melting, and the fragrance of its burning will fill the whole room. And the light will lighten my mind.”
When she finished saying things like that she would seem spent and exhausted, but her face would be serene and a slight smile would linger on her lips. There was something so powerfully sensual about her in those moments that Reed would try to look away. But he never could.
“Will it be a mystical candle?” he would ask in a whisper.
Krista would close her eyes. “It will be the Perfect Candle. The True Candle. God’s Candle.”
They said those things—or things much like them—over and again in the Igloo Factory’s kitchen, waiting for the wax to melt. Each time, Reed believed her more.
Krista could ring a bell. She had hung a small oriental bell over the kitchen sink. It had a butterfly painted on it in intricate, tiny brush strokes. Krista would sit in one of the straight-backed chairs around the huge table and make it ring. Most everyone came to take it for granted. Meyer, ever the agnostic, tried to explain it.
“Convex heat,” he said one night, sitting at the table looking up from a high school physics book he’d checked out of the Cambridge City Library. “I’m not sure what that means, but it must be how she does it. Something about all the air currents that damned melting wax creates—eddies and flows and counter-currents to beat the band—whole fucking room’s full of convex heat. It makes the bell ring.”
“But she can do it on cue,” Jerry said, tossing back his seventh or eighth Schlitz of the night. “How do you explain that?”
“Meyer doesn’t explain,” someone said, “Meyer pontificates.” Reed looked around the room. It was Pierce. Pierce and Sugar were standing near the door, leaning against the opposite door frames. Sugar giggled. Meyer was wearing a wet-suit even though it was breathlessly hot outside. He and Bob Copeland, the Action News Weatherman, were expecting thunder storms. Meyer sometimes obsessed on weather reports. He looked up through his face mask and stared at Pierce.
“That shows what you know,” he hissed, as if from under water, I’m not even Catholic.”
It was strange to have Pierce around for late-night talks. Pierce usually avoided being in the same room with Meyer. Rumors and legends abounded in the Factory about Pierce and Meyer. Mostly they had to do with Pierce selling drugs and Meyer threatening to slit his throat if he didn’t stop. No one was quite sure about that—some people even whispered that Pierce was a ‘nark’ investigating Meyer and the Factory. But everyone was in agreement that Meyer and Pierce in the same room was cause for a high pressure system to delight Bob Copeland.
Reed continued to look around the room. He’d only been at the Factory for 6 weeks or so, but the people in the room had become as familiar to him as sunlight, as darkness, as breath. Yodel was rummaging through the restaurant sized refrigerator, looking for yogurt. Yodel ate yogurt like a bear eats honey.
“I’d like to hear you answer Jerry’s question,” Yodel said, his head almost inside the refrigerator. He backed away as a bear might back out of his cave. “How does Krista make it ring on cue?”
Meyer seemed annoyed, though it was hard to tell through his diving mask. He shifted in his chair. The wet suit made loud, rubbery noises.
“She never does it on cue,” Meyer said, “that’s the whole point. She just sits here like some beautiful, Sandusky Buddha with her eyes closed and waits for the sucker to ring. Then she smiles that damn mystical smile and goes to bed. We all sit here amazed. She’s just waiting for the convex heat to build up. It’s simple. You guys are morons….”
“Well,” Sugar said from the doorway, and as she spoke, her voice filled with emotion like a rapid mountain stream filling with rain from a sudden cloud burst. “I just think Krista tells the bell to ring and it rings. Just like someone tells me I’m a good person and it fills me up. Just like that.”
By that time, Sugar was crying. Everyone watched her like watching for water to boil so you can cook an egg. Only Pierce moved. He gathered Sugar up in his arms like an egg.
Pierce shook his head. “Jesus Christ, Meyer, you and your skepticism.”
Then the two of them went outside into the dying heat of Cambridge. Everyone was quiet for a while, like eggs waiting to be boiled.
“Bad-ass Pierce thinks he’s Francis of Assisi,” Meyer said, though no one laughed. “Well, Sugar’s no moron, but the rest of you are,” he said, pushing away from the table. “I’m off to the roof.” He waddled toward the stairs. Reed hadn’t noticed his flippers before. In the distance, out beyond the Pru, toward the north Atlantic, summer thunder rumbled.
The next morning, Reed took the oriental bell on its thin piece of thread, from over the sink. Krista glanced up from the melting wax without emotion.
“I’m going to lie down for a while,” Reed told her, “ring if you need me.”
Krista’s face was waxen, shining with heat as he left. He hung the bell on the same nail that held up Wally’s HAVE YOU WASHED YOUR HANDS? sign and laid on his bed. He was thinking of Krista’s calm look and feeling embarrassed that he was so occidental, mid-western and skeptical. He blamed it on not having slept enough. After the brutal thunder storm, he had stayed up with Sugar and Meyer as Meyer made up with her. Rain ran off Meyer’s wet suit and they drank strawberry wine in his room until almost dawn. By then, Sugar had forgiven him and was staggering drunk. Stumbling up the stairs, Reed caught Sugar as she almost fell. She was as fragile as a bird, as cool as some sea creature, as smooth as an egg.
“Isn’t Meyer something?” she said, giggling at her fall.
Reed’s heat hurt and his ears were hollow and full of cotton. His mouth tasted like someone’s attic, all dusty and dry. He was drifting off to sleep and the Voice was calling to him. “Ting. Tingle. Ting,” the Voice said.
Reed sat up in bed and held his breath.
Then the bell rang again: “Ting, Tingle. Ting.”
He got up and moved cautiously toward the door. The bell quivered but did not ring. Reed touched it as he would have touched a baby bird. It began to move in his hands.
“Ting. Tingle. Ting,” is all it said.
He was down the steps three at a time and skidded to a stop at the kitchen door. Krista was bent over a steaming pot of wax. Her back was toward him. Her blue work shirt held her form—the gentle arc of her shoulders, the long, smooth plain of her back. She did not look up.
“Hand me the wax thermometer from the table,” is all she said.
Krista stared into the window of the future as others stare into a mirror. She saw the future as others see their sleep creased faces in the morning light. The future shined in Krista’s eyes.
“You will fall in love while you are here,” she once told Reed, shortly after he learned to believe in her. She touched his forehead with her fingertips as she said it. “And you will hold great pain in your arms.”
“Will the pain be worth it?” he asked.
“Pain is worthless,” she told him, “but suffering makes us pure. So, Reed, it will seem ‘worth it’ to you.”
“Ting, tingle, ting,” Reed said to himself.
As the summer passed, days melting and running together, Reed tried out his new life like someone trying out new glasses with bifocals. After the months of utter self-absorption, he found himself growing observant and curious. Being at the Igloo Factory was much like finding himself in Tibet or Albania, some alien land. He began to wonder about how it all worked and what it all meant. Being Midwestern, white and secretly wealthy, he found himself wondering about ‘the money’.
“Who pays for all this?” he asked Sugar one day while she was perched on the Schlitz cooler reading some new poet Meyer had found her.
“All what?” she asked, clearly distracted.
“The beer, the Cokes, the bottomless grocery jar,” he said, “the electric bill for all these air-conditioners, the air-conditioners…the whole thing.”
“Meyer pays,” she said, anxious to return to her book.
“Mostly in cash, I think,” her lips continued moving but she was reading silently again.
Sitting alone with Meyer in the kitchen one afternoon, Reed asked him directly. “How do you pay for all this?”
Meyer had carried the Igloo Factory sign into the kitchen from the hall. He was supposedly thinking about how to reattach it to the outside of the house. Mostly, he was reading it over and over.
THE IGLOO FACTORY
(pre-fab igloos, spec.)
“It’s the spec I don’t understand,” Meyer said, mostly to himself. “Could it mean a fly spec or one-third spectacular or a spec of difference?”
“I don’t know,” Reed said, adding quickly, “how do you afford all this?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering….”
Meyer’s face lit up. He sprung to attention, which was appropriate since he was wearing a World War I dough-boy uniform that was too tight.
“That’s the ticket!” he said, very animated, dancing around the room. “You’re beginning to ‘wonder’, Reed! That’s wonder full! That’s real movement. I told Brigham you’d be a quick study. We’ll have you back to normal in no time.”
“But not much has happened….”
“Nothing much has happened!” Meyer was incredulous. “Are you daft, boy? There have been numerous Meetings and wine drinking and candle making your walks to the corner in the morning. Sugar’s making you a scarf and Yodel is writing you into his next book. My God, boy, Hell’s a poppin’ all around you. I’ve almost convinced Jerry to say a novena for you, even though he doesn’t believe in such Papist things. What do you mean ‘nothing’s happened’? Are you nuts?”
Reed sat silently, contemplating his therapy.
“My God, son,” Meyer hoisted the sign as if to test its balance, “we’ll put this back up soon and then you’ll be ready for Holy Ghost.”
“What do you mean? What’s Holy Ghost?” Reed felt his familiar anxiety creeping in.
“Doesn’t matter, you’re not ready yet. And besides,” Meyer blinked his good eye several times in a one-eyed wink, “don’t worry about the money, honey.”
“The National Pastime,” Jerry said when Reed asked about the money, “and one of the world’s last great trolley lines.”
Yodel just laughed his Howdy Doody laugh when Reed asked how Meyer afforded the Factory. Yodel ate lots of yogurt, made the Factory’s bread and, according to Jerry, wrote mystery novels. All his novels were about Sgt Sam Sunshine of the San Francisco Vice Squad. Sam Sunshine and his beautiful female partner, Amber Darkly, prowled the seamiest underbelly of the City by the Bay’s nightmares, uncovering graft, corruption and rampant immorality on every page.
“Yodel’s pen name is David Endever,” Sugar explained once. “Nobody knows his real name. We call him Yodel because he does sometimes.”
All of which explained Yodel’s all night typing marathons and the weird noises, like a sea-lion strangling on a halibut, that woke Reed from his Voice-filled dreams in the darkest part of the night. But it didn’t explain where the money came from or the ropes, pulleys and strange implements that filled Yodel’s room.
“What is all this?” Reed asked him as they sat on Yodel’s bed eating fresh sourdough bread with butter and jam.
“I climb mountains,” Yodel said, slavering golden butter on his bread, watching it melt. “I’m actually a world-class climber. It’s about all I do besides write these dumb books.”
“Are they really dumb?”
“Oh yes, Reed,” Yodel laughed, “world-class dumb. But they sell like Tibet has mountains.”
Reed chewed his bread. It was warm and rich in his mouth. The butter oiled his lips. The jam was blackberry.
“And, about the money,” he added, “all this is brought to you by Carl Yastrzemski and Meyer’s natural clumsiness.” Yodel laughed some more.
Krista was the only one who could sit still long enough to piece it all together for Reed. One April day in 1966, the Opening Day of the Major League baseball season, Meyer T Meyer, law-school dropout and reference room librarian at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Library, avid fan of the writer J.D. Salinger, was waiting to cross Mass Ave while reading Franny and Zooey for the eighth time. He was reading on a traffic island in the middle of an ocean of steel and chrome and V-8’s, waiting for the light to change.
At the same time—“Simultaneously”, is how Krista put it—“Louie Poskowski was completing his afternoon bus run from Arlington to Harvard Square. Louie was listening to the Red Sox opening game on an oriental transistor radio with a three foot antenna. The three foot antenna, since Louie was driving one of the MTA’s electric buses, was extended out and down from his window to avoid interference from the overhead lines.”
Reed tried to picture the scene while Krista poured a candle. She poured it gently, lovingly, devoutly—and for all that, it was not Perfect.
When she returned to the table, she told Reed about one of those inexplicable accidents that make life so interesting. Carl Yastrzemski made a great catch just as Zooey was about to tell Frannie about their dead brother Seymour’s secret advice. So both Louie and Meyer misjudged the changing traffic light. As luck would have it, three-quarters of an inch of Louie’s yard-long antenna poked itself under Meyer’s eyelid and looked around.
As the crowd gathered, Meyer loudly announced that he had two years of legal training and began talking about the now diminished possibility of his budding career as a commercial airline pilot or brain surgeon. “He hadn’t decided yet,” Krista said.
“Which to be?” Reed, in his naïve illiteracy, asked.
“No,” was Krista’s mystical but worldly-wise answer, “which was the most expensive lie.”
An MTA lawyer reached a settlement with the injured party in the emergency room of Cambridge City Hospital after it had been determined that Meyer would never see from that eye again. The lawyer, Bernard Brown, was a little drunk from a long lunch with his shapely secretary, Silvia DeLuca, and anxious to take her to a small motel in Milford that afternoon. So, in exchange for Meyer’s signature, Bernard told him the Massachusetts Transit Authority agreed to a one-time payment of $50,000 and $97.99 a month for life. Bernard had rushed back to his office to have the agreement typed up by Silvia. Silva, tipsy and libido driven herself, had added two zeros to the one-time payment by mistake and Bernard, thinking he was saving the Commonwealth a lot of legal fees, had forgotten to put a decimal point in his hand-written note between the 7 and second 9 of the monthly payment. The tab for Bernard and Silvia’s vodka flavored lunch had been $97.99, which gave him the idea for the monthly payment.
So Meyer, who could read the mistyped agreement perfectly well with one eye, quietly requested the ER doctor to page one of the hospital’s lawyers and a notary public from the business office. The lawyer rolled his eyes at Meyer after reading the agreement but said nothing. The notary was only interested in signatures and attaching her seal to the document.
The Commonwealth’s appeal of the agreement lasted three months and cost Massachusetts high six figures in legal fees before a Superior Court Judge threw the case out of court because he was late for his grand-daughter’s fifth birthday party and tired of the incompetence public lawyers. One of Brigham Francis’ Jewish lawyers had represented Meyer. The agreement stood.
There was probably tales worth telling about what happened to Bernard Brown, Esq., the comely Miss DeLuca and the unfortunate Louie Poskowski, but Krista didn’t know those stories. She did know that Meyer used some of the money to travel the world, looking for heat until something traumatic happened in Turkey. When he came back to Cambridge in January of 1967, he bought the house on Broadway and let Brigham know that he was looking for roommates—Wanderers on the Earth.
“I was one of the first people who showed up,” Krista continued, “so he told me that much early on…. So the Schlitz will never run out. The Coke machine will never be dry. The Air-Temps will hum and Wanderers on the Earth will wander through here without ever realizing we owe it all to a reclusive novelist and a left-fielder’s catch.”
Reed was impressed that Krista knew Yaz’s position, still, he said, not yet convinced, “Meyer is rich….”
“By my standards, which are low,” Krista said, “he is fabulously rich. He owns a quarter interest in Brigham’s wine import business. He underwrites Jerry’s counseling center. And after reading the box scores in the morning, he turns to the stock market reports. Meyer is rich.”
“Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski…” Reed sang to the tune of a song about a house made out of Pancakes in New Orleans.
Krista finished the song with the four notes of the signature tune of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Even Reed recognized those four notes, though he knew next to nothing about classical music. Since there were five words in her song and only four notes to sing them, she put the third and fourth words together. It came out like this:
“Is the manI love….”
Now Reed knew how it was paid for—the Factory and all that. The second Midwestern question proved harder to discern. That question was about meaning. What was the factory ‘all about’?
Sitting around the Factory watching time pass wasn’t boring for Reed. Along with literacy and opinions, he had seemingly lost his capacity for boredom. He no longer felt a need to be busy doing something. He was willing to take Meyer’s word that he was imperceptibly getting better. He had begun to imagine it as huge creatures moving slowly under water—manatees or sea lions or dolphins. The surface of the water would be undisturbed, but deep-down, large creatures were shifting things around. He would be patient and wait, watching the time pass. Unseen air-breathing beings were healing him.
His waiting gave him time to wonder. Sometimes he wondered out loud.
“I wonder,” he said to Jerry as they sat eating some pasta salad that Marvin Gardens had left for breakfast, “what is this all about?”
“Is this a question of epistemology?” Jerry asked, looking at his wrist watch, “I have to leave in ten minutes.”
Jerry had grown fond of Reed. He liked his Midwestern expansiveness and told him so, though Reed wasn’t sure what to do with that information. Southerners like Jerry were not expansive at all. They were closed equations. Jerry thought of Reed as a Black Hole, capable of absorbing infinite matter. He also could depend on Reed to know what words like ‘epistemology’ meant.
“No,” Reed said, having thought it over, “it’s just a practical question.”
“Good,” Jerry answered, shoveling pasta and olives and sliced cherry tomatoes and garlic and olive oil into his mouth. “There’s probably time for that.”
“So,” Reed said while Jerry chewed, “what’s the Factory all about?”
Jerry finished chewing and swallowed. “That’s easy,” he said, “it’s about Jesus.”
Reed waited for Jerry continue. In the two and a half months he’d been at the Factory, Reed had learned that Jerry was not to be hurried. He’d also learned that, from time to time, Jerry would interject Jesus into a random conversation. Reed could only imagine that having talked with Jesus on the bank of the Potomac would make anyone like that.
Finally, Jerry spoke again. “This is really remarkable pasta salad,” he said, “Marvin took a great risk by using so much garlic. But it worked, don’t you think?”
“So, tell me Jerry,” Reed said, after mumbling something favorable about pasta and garlic, “how is the Factory all about Jesus?”
“Well, it’s like this,” Jerry was hesitant to stop eating and talk, “it’s about Jesus because Jesus is in all of us. And since the Factory is about us, it’s about Jesus.” After staring deeply into Reed’s eyes, right to his soul, he started eating again.
“Jesus is in Krista and Marvin?”
Jerry chewed and nodded.
“So was Jesus.” Jerry’s mouth was full, so it took Reed a moment to understand what he said.
“Jesus is in Pierce, that’s hard to believe.” Manatees were moving skepticism toward the surface of Reed’s mind. It was part of his healing.
Jerry wiped his mouth with a fine linen napkin. Meyer had them delivered weekly by the dozens from a laundry service. Meyer was partial to fine linen napkins. There were no paper napkins in the Factory. Ever.
“Something you must try to understand about Jesus is this, Reed,” Jerry began, “Jesus is almost always where you would least expect. It is Darkness that holds Power and Jesus’ power comes from there. Jesus especially loves those who live in shadows. And besides, Pierce saved Sugar’s life. That, if nothing else, should prove that Jesus is in Pierce.”
Pierce was a ‘bad ass’. That’s what John Henry Davidson, a little black kid who hung around the Factory bumming cigarettes believed. John Henry said it like this:
“Piece is a baaaad asssss….”
John Henry knew all the symptoms.
Pierce was shifty-eyed, in Reed’s estimation, like a coral snake, and looked a bit like Mick Jaggar. His shoulder-length hair was matted and tangled, Medusa like. It rolled up like snakes around his Mick Jaggar face.
Pierce was 30, Reed had learned, a month older than Jerry, and the oldest resident of the Factory besides Meyer. Factory legend had it that Pierce trafficked in drugs, had been a Hell’s Angel for a while, knew some of the Weathermen personally, and had been a Marine hero in Viet Nam. Legend had it that Pierce, in all his incarnations, could kill someone with his thumb or forefinger or with his elbow. Reed didn’t picture Pierce as a killer, but he knew him to be a bad ass.
Meyer knew Pierce sold grass and hash to the Freaks in Cambridge Common. That didn’t bother him, but Meyer had loudly sworn—several people had told Reed—to slit Pierce’s throat if he ever sold across the street at Cambridge High and Latin or if there were hard drugs involved. It would have seemed to be a strange moral distinction for most people, but for Reed in his illiteracy, it made perfect sense.
Sugar sometimes slept with Pierce. Most everyone at the Factory was horrified by that reality. But shortly after Sugar arrived at the Factory with her friend Vachel, a poet and guitarist, she got up in the middle of the night, blew out the pilot light in the big, restaurant-sized oven, turned on the gas, removed the racks sat down with her head deep inside.
Pierce came in a little after that and found her, unconscious, limp and gray. His Marine training served Sugar well. He broke out the kitchen windows with one of Meyer’s hockey sticks, turned off the stove and carried her life-failing body into Meyer’s room, right off the kitchen. Meyer, who was a Great Sleeper, didn’t wake up until Pierce had breathed life from his rubber-band lips into her sweet tulip lips. For weeks, the legend went, Pierce was inseparable from Sugar. It was something like the Cherokee notion of the responsibility for the life you saved.
So Sugar slept with Pierce from time to time. Sometimes, Sugar’s face was swollen and puffed after a night with Pierce. But she would always intervene with Meyer.
“There is so much anger within him,” Reed once heard Sugar tell Meyer when her eye was blackened and Meyer was in a murderous mood, “that it gets mixed up with the loving….” Reed didn’t believe that explanation for a moment. Pierce gave rise to an opinion in Reed—a rare thing in his illiteracy—“Pierce was a bad ass.”
One day in early September, when leaves had begun to fall, as they do at that latitude, Sugar and Pierce and Reed were sitting in the little park between Cambridge High and Latin and Ringe Tech. The park is in front of the Cambridge Public Library. It was strange for Reed to be sitting anywhere with Pierce, especially in that little park. The three of them were watching people walk through the leaves that had already fallen.
People waded through leaves to ask them directions. People waded through leaves on their way somewhere or on their way back. An old woman, obviously suffering from a spinal disease, shuffled up to them through the leaves and asked the way to Dimwittal Street or some such place none of them knew. Then she shuffled away, pain in her spine.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Sugar asked. Reed and Pierce both looked at her when she said it. Sugar was dewy-eyed and breathless.
“How can you say that?” both Pierce and Reed thought. Only Pierce said it, since Reed was too polite. And Pierce didn’t stop with that question. He went on: “She’s old and hunchbacked and it hurts her to walk, no one who cares for her is with her and, on top of all that, she’s lost. And she knows that everyone who sees her—even us—is wondering about how it feels to be hunched-backed and how she looks naked. Everyone is fucking paralyzed with fear of her. It’s horrible, not beautiful.”
Reed was shocked to realize he had been wondering what it was like to live bent over and how the woman’s hump would look unclothed.
Sugar slumped on the bench, sliding off to sit in the leaves. Then she jumped up and ran effortlessly after the woman. Sugar kissed the woman on her cheeks and on her lips and told her she was beautiful. The old woman seemed shocked and ashamed.
A fat Jewish lady, unbowed by spinal disease, her mouth painted bright red, her wig obvious but expensive, was walking her Pekingese dog in the park. She saw the whole thing. Reed imagined how she would entertain her canasta club for months to come with the story of the tiny Gentile girl, so beautiful with her odd-colored hair, who embarrassed the hunchbacked lady with a kiss.
Sugar returned to the bench and no one spoke for a long time. There were a dozen sirens in the distance, toward Somerville. Reed surveyed the horizon for smoke.
“Neither of you know anything yet.” Sugar’s voice was like a green apple.
“Don’t know what?” Pierce asked.
“About Meyer and the Igloo Factory—how it all teaches you that everything…everything is beautiful.”
Pierce was silent. Reed thought about what Sugar had said and had to agree that he didn’t know that everything was beautiful. He didn’t know that at all.
“Everything,” Sugar said. She looked at Pierce and then at Reed. “Everything is beautiful.” Her cheeks were the color of ripe nectarines. “That’s what the Factory is all about,” she said, already running away.
Calvin was a drifter, a Wanderer. He was one of the ones who came and shortly left. Reed watched him pass.
Calvin came to Cambridge to find God. He thought God might be at Harvard Divinity School. So Calvin came to track God down. But God, Calvin said, was on a sabbatical. So Calvin lived in the Factory for a few weeks as summer turned toward autumn. While he was there, Calvin mostly smoked dope and wondered about God.
Calvin was an inch over five feet tall. He had been a gymnast on the Indiana University gymnast team for four years. He had made the Nationals in his Junior year. So, being a Big Ten athlete of no mean merit, he knew who Reed was in his previous life.
“Mr. 880,” he said, the first time he saw Reed, “a pearl among swine at Iowa.”
Meyer made Calvin recount the races he had seen Reed run. Reed was embarrassed by it all.
“Then that skinny black kid from Michigan State did him in at the conference finals,” Calvin told everyone at a Meeting, at Meyer’s insistence. “Reed let up in the last 25 yards. He thought he had it won, so he let up.”
Meyer, perched on his bed, looked around the room for Reed and found him hunched back near the door. “Big Reed,” he said, “tell us the truth, did you let up at the end?”
Reed felt he was sitting in a perfect circle of silence. His embarrassment turned to anger. He did not answer Meyer. As a matter of fact, he knew, he had let up near the end. His legs ached and he was tired to the bone, his lungs empty of air and him safely ahead. The internal clock of runners told him he was breaking his own Big Ten record. He hadn’t even noticed the frail-looking black runner on the inside. All he saw, at the last moment, was a flash of old-gold and blue to his left. He had let up and lost. It would be his last big race.
Reed was angry and silent. He hated Calvin at that moment and hated Meyer even more. Unbeknownst to him, huge and ugly psychic sea creatures were moving, healing him in that moment.
When Calvin smoked dope, he stood on his head. He could stand on his head for hours.
“Why are you always stoned?” Reed asked him once, sitting in Calvin’s room. It was a question as presumptive as an appendix.
Calvin stared at Reed and frowned. Since he was standing on his head, his frown looked, for all the world, like a smile to Reed. Or an upside down pink and white rainbow.
“In my senior year, on a balance beam exercise in a meet with Illinois and Northwestern,” Calvin said, “I missed a back flip I’d made ten-thousand times. I was falling. It is a great fear, to fall from the balance beam because if you hit it with your head on the way down you can snap your spine. I did the most unorthodox twist I’ve ever done, but still I hit my forehead on the beam. People who saw it said my head snapped back so far they knew my neck must have broken. When I woke up in the hospital, I didn’t even have a headache. Nothing hurt. By all accounts and the film I saw later, I should be a quadriplegic. No kidding. It was that bad. The more I thought about it, I began to think God must have saved me.”
Calvin stood on his head with one hand. With the other he somehow fished a joint out of his jeans pocket and lit it with a kitchen match. He struck the match with his fingernail. He held smoke in his lungs for a long time. When he let the smoke go, he let some words go as well. The smoky-words drifted out of Calvin’s mouth and rose slowly, passing his feet on their way to the ceiling.
“By last spring, when I graduated, I was sure I had to go find God. I don’t know God at all, but I know I need to find Him. Someone told me he might be at Harvard Divinity School, so I came out here. I hung around the Divinity School for the summer session and for a few first lectures in September. God ain’t here. I’ll know Him when I find Him.”
Calvin took another drag on his marijuana cigarette and Reed thought about standing on his head. As athletic as Reed was, he didn’t like to put his head down below his waist. He didn’t like to dive into a pool or turn somersaults. He couldn’t imagine standing on his head, much less smoking dope upside down.
“Maybe I’ll go to the Orient and look for God,” Calvin’s voice had turned that husky, marijuana tone people get. “And when I find Him, I’ll ask why he saved me, what great work he has in mind for me.”
“What if God saved you just because He likes you?” Reed asked.
“You don’t know much about God!” Calvin was suddenly strident and angry. “God always requires a Great Work. And I’m pissed off about it. I want to get it over with.”
Reed sat quietly while Calvin smoked. Then he said, “but what about all the dope you smoke?”
“Well,” Calvin said, calm again, “that’s what the Factory is all about, isn’t it? Drinking beer and Meyer’s horrid wine or smoking dope?”
Reed let it go at that. The next week Calvin simply drifted on—to India or back to Indiana. For months, his room smelled of marijuana. Reed sometimes thought of him, how his words gathered in heavy, blue smoke.
The day Calvin left for wherever he though God might be, Reed came into the kitchen and found Krista in one of the chairs. She was staring straight ahead and the bell over the sink was singing a butterfly song. Reed sat beside her and listened to the bell. It was like being in an ancient shrine.
“Someday, Reed,” she said, after a long time, “I will make a perfect candle.”
“A mystical candle,” Reed almost chanted. It was part of their litany.
“The perfect candle,” she said, “the True Candle.” She said it softly, like the prayer it was.
The bell was silent, but it rang on in Reed’s mind.
“A man came to see Calvin,” Krista whispered. “He missed Calvin’s leaving by a half-an-hour or so. He was sad to know Calvin was gone. He had a book that belonged to Calvin, a book about St. Francis by Kazantzakis.”
Reed nodded. Calvin had read to him from that book, standing on his head, upside down. There was a line Calvin read from that book that Reed would never forget. It says: “Death is not a door that closes. It is a door that opens and we walk in all new….”
“He asked me a strange question,” Krista said, still whispering, “the man who came. He asked me if I remembered The Bananaman. He asked it like it was important, like someone he loved remembered but he couldn’t. He said he wanted to find someone who remembered. He was from West Virginia.”
“Who?” Reed asked, suddenly engaged. “The Bananaman?”
“No, the man looking for Calvin. The Bananaman was from television—I bet Marvin Gardens remembers. He took bananas out of his pockets and put them in a train he took out of his pockets. And he was French, at least that what Richard said. Richard, that was his name—not Rick or Dick…Richard.” Krista stopped whispering. She seemed tired but joyful.
“Richard was from West Virginia?” Reeds words seemed almost intrusive.
“Yes,” Krista was looking at Reed. Her eyes were so dark they might as well have been black. “Do you remember the Bananaman?” she asked. “I have Richard’s number if anyone remembers.”
Richard didn’t remember, at least not in any helpful way. He had never watched much TV. All he remembered about TV was watching The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights with his father as Caroline slept in his father’s arms. She was mall and Reed’s father—Caroline’s father too—held her like an egg in the nest of his arms. Reed remembered that.
“No,” he finally said, “I don’t remember the Bananaman.”
“Someday I’ll go to a commune in Kentucky,” Krista said, “with a man named Jacob or something like that, something Old Testament, something rich and full when you say it. And we’ll be happy. And I’ll ask him about the Bananaman.”
Krista smiled at Reed. She wasn’t speaking in a whisper anymore. “It’s important to me too. The Bananaman. Finding someone who remembers him.”
For a while, they were silent. Slowly, like a swan taking flight, the bell began to ring softly.
“Ting, tingle, ting,” is all it said.
“Richard was very nice,” Krista said, more to the bell than to Reed, “he spoke softly, like a mountain stream.”
Reed tried to remember Lysander’s voice. He knew it was not like a mountain stream. He wondered if Richard had ever been to Buckhannon, if he had ever seen the buffalo.
They went into Meyer’s room and Krista dialed Richard’s phone number for Reed. Richard answered in words like a slow stream with lots of round rocks in the bottom.
“I was once in West Virginia,” Reed told him, “in Buckhannon where to buffalo lives. Have you ever been there?”
“I passed through on a bus once,” Richard said. “The bus driver told me about the buffalo. I wanted to go see it, but it was only a five minute stop.”
Richard sounded like the kind of person who talked with bus drivers. But he didn’t sound like Lysander.
“It was like a hairy house,” Reed described to him, “and it didn’t try to shake off the snow.”
They talked for a while. Richard asked about the Bananaman and told Reed it was fine that he didn’t remember. Few people remembered. Reed asked about West Virginia accents, why Richard didn’t sound like Lysander.
“There must be seventy-eleven accents in West Virginia,” Richard explained. “Lysander’s wouldn’t have been like mine.”
Then Richard asked what he should do with Calvin’s book. He’d met Calvin in one of his summer courses at Harvard Divinity School. Richard said that God was there, after all, but in no way Calvin was looking for. “You gotta be careful how you look for God,” he told Reed, “God will show up in mischievous ways.”
Reed couldn’t recall anyone he’d ever known who said “seventy-eleven” or used “mischievous” in that way.
Krista was melting wax when Reed returned.
“Isn’t he nice?” she asked.
Reed said he thought Richard sounded nice. “But he never saw the buffalo.”
“He’s got a Bananaman and you’ve got a buffalo,” she said, without looking up. The wax was close to ready. “Sugar’s got her world where she can be. I’ve go a perfect candle. Everyone is looking for something.”
“Calvin is looking for God,” Reed said.
The bell gave a small quiver—half-a-tingle.
“Do you think maybe that’s what the Factory is all about?”
“What?” Reed asked, forgetting for the moment it was his question.
“Looking for someone who remembers, someone who actually cares about what you’ve lost. And knowing—knowing against all the evidence to the contrary—that somewhere something makes sense.”
Reed didn’t say anything, but he knew what Krista meant.
“My wax is ready,” she said, turning to pour the thick, fragrant liquid into the mold she had prepared. The mold was a Maxwell House Coffee can. She had secured the wick to the bottom with a staple and held it straight by tying the other end to a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil. As Krista poured, Reed hoped—against all evidence to the contrary—that the candle would be perfect.
If this were a book of essays, this essay would be called:
WHAT THE FACTORY IS ALL ABOUT
And it would burn like a perfect candle and light your mind. It would be a man called Aaron in a red pick-up truck coming to take you to a commune in Kentucky. It would be a snowy buffalo. It would be a banjo made from a Buick bumper. It would be the top-of-the-line Air-Temp air conditioner humming away the heat. It would be a song from a butterfly bell—“Ting, Tingle, Ting”—and it would ring in your heart long after the ringing was done.
If this were an essay called “What the Factory is all about”, it would be a walrus in a Union Army Cape; a vertebrae path through fine sand; marijuana standing on your head; a beautiful hunch-backed woman; homemade wine in green bottles; a Bananaman; a warm scarf wrapped five times around your neck; fresh bread—sourdough or date-nut; a greenbug with saran-wrap wings; a cat as round as a softball and a sleeping dog named Vincent Price; wooden-spoons and cricket-cages and mountain climbing gear; Jesus by the Potomac; a gray-haired juggler juggling three red balls; and a clown; and in the winter, snow that is white on white on white. Forever.
And it would end with a parade.
And be True.
There were lots of cats at the Igloo Factory. Reed never counted them, though he inexplicably never forgot how to count. But there were enough, he figured, to have a cat in most every window. However, Reed was a dog man. He liked dogs.
“Why aren’t there any dogs at the Factory?” he asked Sugar one day.
“There’s Vincent Price,” she said.
“Vincent Price. He shows up to go for rides. We aren’t sure where he is in between rides in the cars. It’s very weird.”
“Isn’t everything?” Reed asked.
Sugar was immune to irony. She was like someone with an irony vaccination. So she pursed her lips and thought before she said, “No, not everything.”
“Why is he named Vincent Price?”
“I don’t know,” Sugar told him, “there just isn’t anything else to call him.”
Ironically enough and as luck would have it, the very next day Jerry was going to Star Market to get cat food. He invited Reed to ride along. Reed was feeling slightly restless—a good sign, according to Meyer—so he went.
As soon as Jerry started the motor of the VW bus, a big black dog lumbered up to the car. Jerry asked Reed to open the sliding side door. When he did, the dog climbed into the bus and onto the middle seat and fell into an immediate sleep. Reed looked at the dog and knew it was Vincent Price. He looked just like Vincent Price would have looked if he had been a big black dog. There was nothing else to call him.
As they were backing out of the driveway, Sugar and Meyer came out of the front door dressed oddly. That was nothing new for Meyer, but Sugar looked strange dressed the way she was. Meyer had on a green hat—the kind your father wore to church—and a plain brown suit. Sugar had on a white blouse, a plaid skirt and knee socks with paten leather shoes.
“Ah,” Jerry said, stopping the car, “Pilgrims.”
Sugar ran over and posed beside the VW. “I’m 15,” she said, “and I go to parochial school in Concord, New Hampshire.”
“I knew it all along,” Jerry said.
“What’s going on?” Reed asked.
Sugar winked at him. It made him a little weak. “Your day will come,” is all she said before running away, like a Catholic school girl, to catch Meyer down the street.
“Remember for me,” Jerry said, accelerating the car backwards onto Broadway, narrowly missing an MTA, “we need six cases of cat food, 12 gallons of milk and about a swimming pool full of litter.”
Reed had all but forgotten about Sugar’s warning. He was gripping the arm rest as Jerry ground the gear shift into first and sped away, half-way across the center line.
From the back seat came a sound like the surf. Vincent Price was snoring.
Every other day or so, in the afternoon, Reed would notice people leaving the Factory dressed strangely. They would be wearing white shirts and ties and conservative dresses with pleats—dresses like Reed’s mother wore. The men would have their long hair pinned up or hidden under dress hats that had been out of style since the Eisenhower administration. The hats reminded Reed of pictures of Russian leaders watching the May Day Parade only the people wearing them weren’t Russian bureaucrats—it was Meyer and Jerry and Yodel, some of those who wandered through the Factory for a while, and, from time to time, even bad-ass Pierce. Pierce never looked happy.
Reed asked him one day where he was going.
“The fuckin’ hospital,” Pierce snarled.
“Are you sick?” Reed asked, genuinely concerned.
“Jesus, Reed!” Pierce said. Then he laughed. His Mick Jagger scowl relaxed and Reed found him almost handsome. “You aren’t part of this particular madness yet, are you?”
“The Dance of Death,” Pierce said, turning and heading out the door with Sugar, who was dressed in a cheerleader’s outfit.
Reed watched them go down the walk to Broadway and turn left. Sugar stopped a couple of times on the way down the street to do a cheer. Pierce would look uncomfortable and mean, but then he’d laugh and they’d walk on.
Reed experienced an unfamiliar feeling as he watched them disappear around a corner several blocks down. The feeling started deep inside his body, like an anxious itch. Then he felt a slight chill on the back of his neck and a sudden dryness in his throat. The dryness became a catch, almost like a physical object in his throat, something about the size of a marble but not smooth—rough and uncomfortable. His eyes were dry, he thought, from staring after Pierce and Sugar, but when he blinked, they filled with a sticky fluid momentarily. Reed noticed all this but couldn’t quite name it. It was the feeling of being left out, left behind, not included. If he could have named that feeling, he would have known he was becoming attached to Sugar, and in a strange way, to Pierce as well. Deep inside his soul, in a place he was only dimly aware existed, huge blind creatures, shaped like whales, were moving, massaging his emotions awake from their seven month slumber.
Back inside, he opened a Schlitz and wandered up to his room. He sat in one of the chairs and stared out at Boston. As he watched the Prudential Building he remembered Sugar telling him about it on his first day. A smile crept involuntarily to his lips, just thinking of Sugar, of how pleasant she was to look at and how she made him laugh. He thought of how her vertebrae were like tracks across the beach, of how her eyes were the color of Granny Smith apples and her hair the shade of cardboard. Attachments. Reed was making friends.
Everybody knew that Sugar was from Illinois. But only Reed knew she was from Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago. The lawns in Kenilworth were as large as polo fields and sculptured like Greek faces. Reed had been there many times. Kenilworth was where the Percy’s lived. It was also where Angela, whom Reed might have married, lived. Sugar even knew Angela’s family.
“My father is in newspapers and magazines,” Sugar said. “He’s a financial writer. He writes about stocks and bonds and pork futures, whatever that is. We know everybody. We have lots of money.”
Reed commented that Angela’s family had lots of money too.
“Angela is very nice,” Sugar said. By that, Reed supposed Sugar meant that Angela had lovely breasts and did not wantonly kill Cocker Spaniels.
Sugar had run away from the large lawns and lots of money. Her father was trying to find her by contacting all the people he knew. That’s why Sugar was so secretive about her hometown and her name. She was sure there were private investigators privately investigating her whereabouts. So far, the only person from her former life who knew she was in Cambridge was Vachel, a lead guitarist from a much lesser suburb than Kenilworth, who had run away with her. The two of them had started wandering and ended up at the Igloo Factory.
Vachel, Sugar told Reed, wrote songs about a free and beautiful world. “A world where everyone can be,” she said. “You know, Reed, where we can really be?”
Reed said he thought he knew. That was a lie, but he couldn’t bear disappointing Sugar.
Vachel, not through with wandering, wandered away from Cambridge, down to New York City, Sugar thought, looking for a world to be in and a band to join.
“I hope Vachel doesn’t go back to Chicago,” Sugar seemed worried. “My father will make him tell where I am.”
“How,” Reed asked, “how could he make him tell?”
“Like I said,” Sugar told him, “my father has lots of money.”
“But what about Vachel’s world? The one where everyone can be? Doesn’t he want you to be?”
“My father, Reed,” she answered, as close to cynical as Sugar could get, “has LOTS of money.”
Reed, who actually had considerable amounts of money himself in a trust fund in Cleveland, couldn’t imagine how much money it would take to buy out A World Where Everyone Could Be. He was about to say something about money when Sugar told him Angela’s father had given her a pelvic exam when she was only 14.
“My mother was convinced I was pregnant,” she said. The memory creased her face. “My mother has always believed I’m a tramp, so she dragged me down to Angela’s father’s office and I put my feet up on this contraption. He was really very sweet. He kept apologizing for what he was doing and he didn’t take long. He waited for me to dress and then took me into his office where my mother was waiting.”
Sugar took a deep breath and stared up at the ceiling. When she looked back at Reed, her eyes were brimming. “And he did the kindest thing, he stood in his open door with his arm around me and said to my mother, loud enough for his nurse and the people down in the waiting room to hear him…he said, ‘If this dear child is pregnant then you should get on your knees and pray, because Jesus is coming again.’ My mother almost died….He was the sweetest man.”
Reed had liked Angela’s father. Sugar’s story made him like him even more.
“You know what, Reed?” Sugar asked, wiping her face with her arm the way a little kid does.
“The world would be a better place if all the men had to have annual pelvic exams.”
As Sugar and Pierce had warned him, Reed’s day came to dance the dance of death.
He was getting a Schlitz from the cooler when he noticed Meyer peering around the corner of the kitchen door at him.
“How tall are you, Reed?” Meyer asked.
“Six-one.” Actually, Reed was six feet, one and three-quarters inches tall. But being from the Midwest, he was modest and always rounded down.
Meyer swooped into the hall, dressed in a large bath towel wrapped around his waist, and dragged Reed to his room to meet Florence.
Florence was sitting on Meyer’s bed, wearing one of Meyer’s bathrobes, drinking wine from a juice glass. She had a round, pleasant, box-office girl’s face, big brown eyes and red hair that came from everywhere on her head and went other places. Her clothes were strewn on the floor in a semi-circle. Everything—dress, bra, slip, panties, panty hose, shoes—all her clothes were white. Like snow. Like sugar. Like salt. Like sickness. Nurses’ clothes.
“What do you think?” Meyer was displaying Reed like an art object.
Florence eyed him for a while. “He’ll do nicely,” she said.
Meyer introduced them—two nods, two smiles—and pushed Reed into a chair. He looked at him for a long time, as if trying to read him like a foreign language.
“Well, Reed,” he said, “This is it—Showtime!”
He went to his closet and started rummaging. “Fill him in, Florence.”
“Your name is Malcolm,” Florence told Reed, “you’re Miss Masselman’s great nephew. Meyer is going to be George, your father, her nephew. George is the only son of her only brother, Frank, who was killed in 1960 by a Good Humor truck in Hartford.”
“How horrible,” Reed said.
Florence frowned. “You’re a senior in agriculture or forestry or some such thing at Western Connecticut State College. Do you know anything about plants?”
“It doesn’t matter, neither does she. But you should remember you’re active in some plant honorary—Delta Compsta Heepa, who knows? Just remember in case there is a God to give Mrs. Masselman the strength to ask you questions. You love Jerry Vale, for God’s sake, and your favorite foods are ham and yams in marshmallow gook….”
“Forget the food,” Meyer called from deep in his closet.
“That’s right,” Florence said, “thanks, Meyer, I forgot.” She looked at Reed. “She hasn’t had solid food for months and months and like some of them, she obsesses on food. Avoid any mention of food. Or Democrats for that matter. She still thinks Hoover was a god.”
“Try these,” Meyer said, handing Reed an armful of musty smelling clothes—brown suit, white shirt, skinny tie. “You’ll look nice.”
Reed tried to say something like, “What’s going on?” just as Meyer started undressing him. By the time he was wearing the clothes from Meyer’s closet, Meyer had gone to the bathroom.
“I know this is your first time,” Florence said, whispering, “but this is Meyer’s thing. This is what the Factory is all about…visiting people at Holy Ghost Hospital who are dying.”
“Miss Masselman is dying?” Reed asked. He whispered too.
“She’s 93, for Christsake,” Florence said, louder than before. “She has liver cancer, heart disease, ulcers, arteries like granite, ingrown toenails and Lord knows what else she’d developed since I went off duty. If she lives for two days it will be cause for several promotions. And before she dies, she’s going to....” Florence buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook through Meyer’s robe.
“Shit,” she said, lifting her damp face, “I never get over this stuff.” She tried to compose herself but what she said came out in a monotone because she was holding back her emotions. “Before she dies, she will have a visit from her only two blood relatives—Malcolm and George—who in real life don’t give a damn about her, have never come to see her though it’s only 60 some miles to Hartford. But they will come this afternoon. Do you get it now?”
Reed said he got it. Florence pulled some cigarettes out from under some of the tangled covers on Meyer’s bed. Reed recognized the packaging even though he could read the words, written in white on a red background. Florence angrily lit a Winston and drew so hard that the end burned bright and fast.
She expelled smoke that wrapped itself around the mobile of can above Meyer’s bed. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she said to nobody in particular though Reed was the only person there, “this man will be the death of me.”
Meyer and Reed walked through hallways and rode elevators. They were clutching visitor’s passes. Meyer had signed them both since Reed couldn’t write his own name, much less Malcolm Masselman’s. They walked more halls and showed their passes to a nurse at a brightly lit nurses’ station. The nurse was old and fat and took the passes, studying them carefully. She handed them back and smiled.
“Who’s your friend, Meyer?” she asked.
“My name is George Masselman and this is my son, Malcolm,” Meyer said, affecting what he must have imagined was a Connecticut accent.
The nurse looked at Reed. “What’s your name, son?”
Reed swallowed hard. Lying was difficult for him. “Malcolm Masselman.”
Another nurse, trim and in her 20’s, was studying a chart in the middle of the bright lights. She looked up and said, “Showtime!”
“If you don’t mind,” Meyer said, irritated, “we’ll go see my aunt now.”
“Father, Son at Holy Ghost,” the old nurse said, solemnly. The young nurse crossed herself. Then they both laughed, good-naturedly, thankfully.
Meyer and Reed stopped outside Miss Masselman’s door. “You’re an agriculture major,” Meyer reminded him, “so no hippie talk.”
Reed nodded. He was the son and grandson of lawyers, a product of military school, an Episcopalian with a trust fund, a Big-Ten track star. He couldn’t speak hippie talk on a bet. Meyer seemed to forget that.
His hand on the door, Meyer paused again. “Remember the food and Democrat thing and—this is the big one, Reed—when we get ready to leave you will kiss her on her cheek. It will be dry and leather-like, but you will kiss her and say, ‘we’ll see you soon, Aunty’. Do you understand?”
Reed understood. Meyer opened the door. “Aunt Gladys,” he said, rushing toward the bed.
Miss Masselman was older looking than anyone Reed had ever seen. She was older looking than Reed imagined people could look. She had tubes in her bony arms and down her hooked nose and running out from under the sheets into bags. There were three machines behind her that kept blinking numbers and patterns in green. She was tiny and covered with bruises of several hues on her wrinkled, wax-paper thin, leathery skin.
Meyer was talking a mile a minute into one of her ears. He turned and motioned for Reed to come closer. “Look who’s here, Aunt Gladys. It’s my boy, Malcolm. Malcolm, come talk to Aunt Gladys.”
“You’re looking good, Aunty,” Reed said, lying desperately.
“Cooking food?” Miss Masselman wheezed.
“Oh, Jesus,” Meyer whispered to Reed.
“I got Jerry’s new album,” Reed said.
“Cherries? New cherries?” the ancient woman asked.
“Reed, stop it….”
But Reed couldn’t stop it. He tried again. “It’s a beautiful Autumn, Aunty. The leaves in some….”
“Stev-en-son!” Miss Masselman almost sat up, straining against the tubes and wires, “Adlai Stevenson!”
“Shut up, Malcolm!” Meyer hissed through clinched teeth. Then he murmured soft words to Miss Masselman, words Reed could not hear. The old woman finally calmed and seem to understand who was visiting her. She even asked Reed how school was going.
He nodded and smiled, afraid to speak, patting her hand, trying not to touch any of the tubes and needles there.
When it was over, after an excruciation 15 minutes for Reed, he dutifully bent over Gladys Masselman and gave her a kiss on her cheek. When he licked his lips afterward, he tasted salt and only then realized that she had been weeping.
Meyer and Reed walked around in silence until it was dusk. Then they sat in silence in Meyer’s room, drinking wine and Schlitz until they passed out. Just after noon the next day, Florence came by to wake them up and tell them Miss Masselman had died at dawn.
Meyer started talking a mile a minute about his favorite books. He told them about Franny and Zooey and The Grapes of Wrath and was starting in on The Pickwick Papers, of all things, when he collapsed into Florence’s arms and cried and cried.
“Every time,” kept saying to Reed as she held Meyer like a child and stoked his face, “every time the same thing.”
She said that over and over again. Finally, Meyer slept and Florence went back to work. Reed sat on the floor by Meyer’s bed and listened to his slow, peaceful breathing.
[Buried in the piles of call slips from Byerly Library that cover my writing table, I found six call slips paper-clipped together. The paper clip had rusted, staining the top and bottom call slip with an elliptical pattern of orange. I will copy those words here for some reason I don’t quite know. They are words about a green bug I knew a long time ago.]
Tonight, as I sat in Byerly Hall, writing about the Igloo Factory—I’ve barely begun and it is a long way from True—a green bug flew through the window.
It was a tiny green bug, a round green bug. It was round like a softball in the backyard and when it landed on my desk, its wings were as thin as mist, as clinging as fog to the mountains.
It sat for a while on the edge of the desk—its filmy wings invisible—and then it walked across the call slips in front of me. To my eye, the green bug didn’t so much walk as roll. It rolled, like a ball. And it walked/rolled slowly enough for me to study it closely. Here is what I found.
*The green bug’s legs were like eyelashes—thin, fragile, ornamental.
*The green bug was green as a Lowenbrau bottle, green as a ginger ale bottle, green as a Maltuse bottle. Bottle green. The shifting, indescribable, reflecting, shining, sparkling, translucent green of glass.
I began to think that I had made it up—that it was an illusion. Or worse, that Meyer had sent it from his locked, windowless, gray room. That Jerry had taught him to pray and he had prayed a green bug. Or that Krista had taught him to charm bugs and this green bug was one Meyer charmed. Or even that his Silence, which has become epic, had gathered together into a green mass which became a bug that blew through my window tonight.
‘Any minute’, I began to think, ‘the green bug will leave the paper and fly to my ear and say,’:
“I am from Meyer. He sends you all his love.
His hopes. His dreams….”
But for Meyer, all such things are in the past. As if to prove it, the bug stiffened its wings and flew off, right into the fan near my desk, shattering into sparkling chips of green bug.
I found the green bug call slips because I was sorting through my lunch bags and spiral notebooks—which is as much a way to avoid writing as to decide what to write next. In that same search through my source material, though that sounds rather exalted for 20 year old pieces of paper, I found Fran Tucchio’s letter and my memory of the cricket hunt. The letter was still in its envelope and was addressed to me at the number on Broadway that was the Igloo Factory. I stared at the address for a while, realizing in the over-a-year I lived there, I never knew the Factory’s real address. It can’t be because I couldn’t read, because I stayed at the Factory for several months after literacy returned. I didn’t ever know the address because in some ways, the Igloo Factory never seemed like a real place. It was real enough—too real for its own good in the end—but it never seemed ‘real’ in the sense of an address. Yet there it was on that envelope from “O’Brien, Tucchio and Goldstein, Attorneys at Law”.
Francisco Tucchio was one of the senior partners in the law firm and the attorney with the most criminal trial experience. “O’Brien, Tucchio and Goldstein” represented Brigham’s wine import business. Brigham referred to them as 'Mick, Wop and Kike'. “Is that covering the bases or what?” he said to me a few weeks after Meyer’s arrest. “Is there a judge in the Commonwealth who isn’t Irish, Italian or Jewish? And these guys are good.” Plus, Meyer had plenty of money to paid them, though, unbeknownst to all of us, he didn’t plan to pay them for long.
Fran Tucchio was about 60 with a full head of black and silver hair he wore slicked back in an expensive cut. He had an Ellis Island photo face and wore $1000 suits, even back then. I met with him once, when it was still up in the air how much trouble I was going to be in and whether I’d be indicted for destruction of evidence.
“It’s a good bet,” Fran Tucchio told me, “that you’ll be called as a material witness. The question is, did you really witness anything? Did you actually see the knife?”
“It was a yataghan,” I told him, “and I didn’t see it.”
He made a note so he’d always say ‘yataghan’ instead of ‘knife’. He was that good a lawyer. “You didn’t unwrap what was allegedly in the cape? You didn’t get curious.”
“No,” I said, realizing the woman in the room with us was transcribing my every word, “I didn’t unwrap it. I guess I wasn’t curious about anything just then.”
“And you didn’t observe any blood on the cape?” He’d put on a pair of those half-glasses people always look over and was looking over them at me. His shirt was dazzling white. His tie was silk, a deep blue with tiny crests on it, probably from his law school. But mostly, I noticed his hands. His nails were perfectly manicured. He had no rough edges, no nicks in any of his fingernails. His cuticles were exquisite little arches. He wore two rings on each hand—a wedding band and three rings with diamonds. I thought he had the most beautiful hands I’d ever seen. I wondered if he shaved the hair off his fingers since his hands were smooth, hairless, like the tentacles of a small sea creature.
“It was dark blue, like your tie,” I told him. “I didn’t observe any blood.”
He asked the same question again three different ways and then smiled at me because I always used the word ‘observed’—the word he had given me to use. His smile was old world, just a bit crooked.
“You’ll do well, Reed,” he said, half-an-hour later. “I won’t tell you not to worry since you will worry. But, if the Commonwealth calls you to testify—and I hope it won’t come to that—I want you to know you’ll do well on the stand.”
I took the letter out of the faded envelope and read it for a while. It was four pages long and explained all the legal ramifications of my possible testimony—what I could say without fear of self-incrimination, how I should volunteer absolutely nothing to the prosecutor, just answer the questions with as few words as possible, and some questions he might ask me on cross-examination. He also promised to rehearse with me for as long as necessary if I ended up on the Commonwealth’s witness list.
On the back of that letter, written in green ink in the precise letters of my handwriting, was the story of the Cricket Hunt.
I read my words twice, trying to remember writing it. One afternoon or evening in May or June of 1969, I must have carried Fran Tucchio’s letter with me to Byerly Library and then, for some reason I do not remember, I wrote the story of the Cricket Hunt on the back. It is odd to me how many of the things I wrote back then I can no longer remember writing. A few things, even after reading them, I can not remember happening. A lot of brain cells die in 23 years, I suppose. But reading about the Cricket Hunt jarred loose some decades old brain cells from some obscure crack in my brain. It all came flooding back. I remembered it all.
I found Sandy in the basement working on a sculpture. She was bending over her work bench, patiently carving clay with what I would call a scalpel, but which probably has another name for people who sculpt. Just as Fran Tucchio’s letter was full of lawyer things, Sandy’s hands were often full of sculpting things. Both sets of things are faithful to their own language.
“Remember the Cricket Hunt?” I asked.
Sandy finished a delicate, slow cut. She paused and leaned back. She had on her glasses, which she only used to drive and work on her art, though she needed them other times as well. They are little half-glasses, like Fran Tucchio’s had been. I suddenly realized that Fran Tucchio was most likely dead and returned to dust. A lot of people seem dead to me these days.
“It was Krista’s idea,” Sandy said, looking over her glasses at me. I must have been a 6’1, 200 pound blur to her even though I was only 10 feet away. “Of course, I remember.”
I crossed the room and stood beside her. She was carving a statue about 18 inches tall. It was not finished but I could tell it was Carl Yastrzemski, an almost perfect likeness of my reading lamp shaped by her hands and knife. The bat wasn’t there and I imagined she’d carve that separately and attach it through some clay magic to Yaz’s hands.
“How do you do this?” I asked, knowing she really doesn’t know how she does such things. She simply does them. She looks at a lamp shaped like a baseball player and then goes and carves its likeness in clay.
“I do it very slowly, Reed, because I have heard the song of the cricket and my soul is at peace.”
“Do you want to read what I wrote about the Cricket Hunt, what I wrote back then?” I hadn’t asked Sandy to read anything since the first time when she would give me no praise. I had been too shy and embarrassed to even ask. But the story on the back of Fran Tucchio’s letter was, after all, 20 some years old and something I didn’t remember writing, though I remembered every moment of the event. Besides, I wanted to remember it with her.
“No, I don’t want to read it,” she said. “I am tired and don’t have the energy to read.”
I felt like a third-grader who had brought home something from school, something I’d worked hard on, and wanted my Dad to look at it. And my Dad was too tired and busy with something else and took little notice.
“But I want you to read it to me,” Sandy said, smiling mischievously, “I want to go lie on our bed and have you sit beside me and read it all. Then I want to make love.”
I was startled. Since I started writing, Sandy had slept downstairs or in our son’s room. I had grown monkish in all those weeks and had almost stopped thinking about sleeping with her.
“That is,” she added, pretending to be shy, “if you don’t mind a horny, overweight, middle-aged white woman.”
“Not so much over weight,” I said, “mostly just big-boned.”
“You have a way with words, Reed,” she said, laying her glasses aside.
So Sandy curled in the middle of our bed. Aided by Carl Yastrzemski’s circle of light, I read those fading green words to her. “I’m not going to sleep,” she told me before I began. “I’m resting my eyes and seeing it all in my mind. You’ll see.”
I thought she dozed from time to time, but I kept reading. This is what I read:
This is the story of the monumental, magnificent, almost metaphysical Cricket Hunt.
First, a prophecy from Krista Saulstein, Jewish mystic from Sandusky, Ohio: “Lo, the Song of the Cricket is in the land. The cricket song will bring peace to the troubled soul.”
And now a word from Meyer T Meyer, Master of the Igloo Factory: “Let the people build cricket cages and let the cages be built….”
After Krista told Meyer that cricket songs were good for the soul, there was a Meeting to organize the mass production of cricket cages. Meyer longed for peace for our collective souls. And for the metallic songs of crickets.
I had lived at the Factory for all of July and August. September had arrived that day and the heat of Cambridge was tempered by cool mornings and cooler evenings. Summer was limping away. Soon the Autumn would come. And then the snows.
“Meyer,” I said, “I have an opinion.”
“That’s good, Reed,” he said, eating an orange Popsicle, “it shows you are getting better. Thought I must tell you a terrible secret….” His voice dropped, as it always did for secret-sharing, “Opinions are not good things to have. They tend to clog up the airways. Opinions are psychic mucus. However, since you once had many and now have few, we can only assume that an occasional opinion on your part points to a return of normalcy. Continue.”
“There are no crickets on Broadway,” I said, expressing my opinion, creating psychic mucus. “I haven’t heard a cricket since I’ve been here and I listen in the night. I hear lots of buses and sirens and drunks who sing themselves home. I hear Sugar singing and Yodel typing and I even hear the distant hum of Boston. I can almost hear the River Charles flowing to the sea in the small hours of the night. But no crickets. I haven’t heard any crickets.”
“But there are crickets, Reed,” he said, searching through the freezer. “We will stalk them and track them and hunt them down. Then you will sleep. The cricket songs will lull you into a deep and dreamless sleep.”
He turned to me and smiled. “Want a Popsicle?” he asked.
Meyer was making a cricket cage out of Popsicle sticks. It looked like a kindergarten art project. He had been eating Popsicles as fast as he could for several days. He stuck them together with Elmer’s Glue-all and partially chewed Dentine.
Everyone was making cricket cages.
Sugar made a cricket cage out of yarn. She knitted a cricket cage. It wouldn’t stand up. It lay on its side like so much green spaghetti waiting for a cricket meatball.
“What do you think, Reed?” she asked me. “If I hang it from a thread, it would be a passable cage. What do you think?”
“I think there are no crickets on Broadway,” I told her, trying out my opinion.
Krista made a cricket cage out of candle wax. It was intricate work, like a spider’s web, only shaped like a box. It was like a honey comb. Krista was spinning a cricket cage.
“You’re spinning a cricket cage,” I told her, “like a spider spins a web.”
She smiled a mystical smile at me. She had painted a red dot on her forehead and a blue dot on her left cheek.
“Crickets are good for your soul,” she said, waving and spinning.
Meyer believed Krista’s cricket-knowledge had come to her in a dream, whispered to her by an angel.
Most everyone made cricket cages. From wooden things. From pipe cleaners. From coat hangers. From anything that would either bend or be tied together. Yodel tied together some wooden spoons.
“This is a wooden-spoon cricket cage,” he told me. “I have lots of wooden spoons. Do you think I should try to make a cricket cage from some of my mountain climbing gear? Or maybe from some copies of my dumb novels? What do you think?”
People were always asking me what I thought, I don’t know why. When Yodel asked me, he smiled like Howdy Doody. His was a Howdy Doody cricket cage.
Finally, on a cool September evening, Meyer called us all together. “It is time,” he announced, “to stalk the cricket.”
Everyone was serious, like we were planning the French Revolution. As if we were characters in a dark, Gothic novel.
Everyone dressed in black or navy blue since Krista said crickets couldn’t see dark colors. She told us that while she was staring in a mirror, painting her red dot black. Meyer was sure an angel told her to do that.
Ten of us went on the Cricket Hunt. Meyer and Jerry and Sugar and Krista and Sandy and Yodel and I were there. And three of the Wanderers who had wandered by the Factory during cricket season wanted peace for their souls. One of the Wanderers was from Norway and the other two from Utah. I don’t remember their names. I only remember Meyer commenting, “Given the Mormon factor, Utah is a lot stranger than Norway.”
Pierce wouldn’t come, even though Sugar cried and begged him. Pierce could certainly be like that. Marvin Gardens stayed home to watch TV although he built a cricket cage. He built it out of old TV tubes and tiny filaments. He made it so you could plug it into the wall and it would blink. “It will make the crickets think they’re seeing the Northern Lights,” he told me. “It is an aurora borealis cricket cage. What do you think, Reed?”
“The crickets are gathered on Divinity Avenue,” Meyer told us as we sat out. “They are grazing at the back entrance of the Peabody Museum.” Off we went in silence. It was a four block walk.
Meyer was wearing a Union Soldier’s cape. It had been Jerry’s until Meyer talked him out of it. The cape was for special occasions, like when Jerry talked about The War. Or for Cricket Hunts. Meyer also wore a black eye patch.
“The crickets will not see your eye patch,” Krista told him. Meyer’s bad eye was milky white. The crickets would have seen it a mile away. Two miles.
We crept on cricket-stalking feet down Divinity Avenue. Some Asian students were coming out of a building. We must have seemed to be a dark-clothed, cricket-footed, silent and solemn pageant to them.
“Crick-ET, Cricket-ET, Crick-ET,” the crickets were saying.
“Call to them, Reed,” Meyer whispered.
“Crick-et, crick-et, crick-et,” I called.
“Crick-ET, Crick-ET, Crick-ET,” they answered.
“Crick-et,” I called.
“Crick-ET,” they answered in a throaty, many cricket voice.
Meyer ran down Divinity Avenue. His cape billowed behind him like a blue storm cloud. He was in search of crickets for his Popsicle stick cage and his Soul’s peace.
We all had flashlights held close to the ground as we crawled on hands and knees, cricket searching.
The headlights of a large black and white car flooded the cricket field. A voice from the car called to us: “What are you doing?” it said. “What on earth?”
“Crick-ET?” the crickets said, many crickets.
Two men in dark uniforms got out of the car. The crickets would not see their uniforms. But the men wore shiny silver badges that would put a cricket’s eyes out.
“Turn off your badges,” Meyer hissed at them, “you’ll give us away.”
I knew one of the men. He was the policeman who helped me through Union Square. I reminded him about it. “You helped me find Homer Square,” I said. “We watched a funeral and a wedding and you gave me a Marlboro.”
Sugar came over to him. “We seek for crickets,” she said. “We have many cages and restless souls.” Then she leaned near him on tip-toe and whispered, lest the insects hear her, “Crickets are almost metaphysical.”
The policeman remembered me, which many policemen would not have, and he liked Sugar instantly, which almost anyone would have. He smiled a big, positively Irish grin and told us he too wanted rest for his soul. His name was Michael Quinn. When he said it in his Boston accent, it came out ‘Mack-el Quinn’. We called him ‘Mack’. He helped us look for crickets with his 24 inch, police issue flashlight. He captured two crickets and shared them with Sugar and me.
“Come by and listen to them sometimes,” Sugar told Mack. “Come by the Igloo Factory for some soul-soothing cricket songs.” Her eyes sparkled when she said that, like crickets sparkle in flashlight glow.
Mack’s partner was an emaciated white man named Steward. His uniform fell over him like a cloth falls over stored furniture. He did not like us as well as Mack did. He did not try to catch any crickets. His soul was as peace-less as a sleet gale on the North Atlantic.
On the way home, charmed by cricket songs, Meyer told me there were two Quinn boys on his softball team. “One’s name is Michael, Jr.,” he said, “but he couldn’t be Mack’s son. He plays center field like a young deer and told me his father was a garbage collector.”
I put my cricket in my sock drawer with a little wet grass and cornmeal. His song—like an electric tune—lulled me into a dreamless, restful sleep. The only Voices in my sleep were those of crickets.
“Leave the light on, Reed,” Sandy said after I finished reading to her, “and come on over here.” I thought she’d been asleep.
Spring had come to the mountains while I was reading about September in Cambridge a thousand years ago. The air was sharp and fragrant, moistly earth-smelling. We undressed each other with great care. We undressed each other slowly and with great care. In the light from Carl Yastrzemski’s globe, I lay beside Sandy and studied her nakedness. She smiled and sighed.
Sandy and I have been lovers since 1968—except for her months in Rockport at Newman’s clinic and the last two months since I’ve been trying to write this book, I’m not sure we’ve slept apart for more than than one night at a time. When we met, I was nearly 22 and she was almost 19. Now I’m nearly 44 and she’s 40 and 1/2. It’s almost crazy to think about where those years have gone. They’ve gone where lost puppies go, where the mate to your sock goes, where old friends disappear to. Places like that are where those years are now. And Sandy and I are still together—two middle aged, white people growing older together, watching the years slip by the way winter slips away in the mountains…slowly, tenuously, with much hanging-on; but then, one evening, without warming, spring has come.
After the Cricket Hunt, Sgt Quinn started dropping by the Factory from time to time. He lived in North Cambridge, near the Museum of Science and Lechmere Station. He had a wife and two kids. His oldest son, Michael Sean Quinn, Jr., played center field like a young deer and lied about his father’s job. Mack would drink a Schlitz or two with us and talk. He smiled a lot. Everyone liked him immensely.
Sugar always said, after he left, “Mack isn’t very cop-like.”
And Meyer would always answer, “He just isn’t copulated is he?” Sugar would always agree.
Once, when he was with us, Sugar couldn’t stand it any more. “Why are you a cop, Mack?” she asked.
He smiled shyly and lowered his head. He looked like Fred McMurray when he did that.
“Well,” he said, “it’s like this. I used to be a fish butcher. I was good too. Three slices with my best knife and you’ve got fillets.” His hands slipped through the motions. It was effortless, fluid, like a fish butcher artist. “Off with the head, slit the stomach down the tail, slip out the bones and cut through the back. Like that.” He went through the motions again and looked up. We all nodded.
“I was a showman,” he continued, “people would stand outside the window and watch. I’d give them their time’s worth. But that was over 10 years ago, when Michael, Jr. was only two and Billy was a baby. And the thing was, I had to wear gloves. Whenever I wasn’t cutting fish, I had to wear those thin, plastic gloves…like a doctor.”
“Surgeon’s gloves,” Jerry said.
“Exactly,” Mack replied. “I had to wear them because of some bacteria or another—something with a huge name I could never remember. Something in the fish activated it on my hands and…well….” He gave a sad Fred McMurray smile, “My hands would stink something awful.”
Sugar said she understood. Reed wasn’t sure.
“Some people’s feet smell,” Mack said, “because of this same bacteria. I was in the service with a guy from Little Rock who had it. God, his feet would stink up a room!”
“In Istanbul,” Meyer interrupted, pouring himself some raspberry wine, “everyone’s feet smell. The whole city reeks of feet….” Jerry glared at Meyer to keep him from launching into some endless Istanbul story. Meyer glared back, but kept quiet.
Mack shook his head and spoke slowly. “My hands were like that. The water and salt and fish…I don’t know how it works. The doctors said all I could do was wear gloves full of baking soda. I was one in a million, they told me. My hands smelled like low tide in the Back Bay. I wore the gloves.”
We all sat for a while, remembering low tide’s smell.
“Well,” Mack finally continued, “Kathleen, my wife, is a saint. She never complained. But with the boys, having to hold them with gloves on, never feeling their skin against my hands….I didn’t want them to grow up without their father’s touch. I’d been an MP in the Army and I passed the test on my first try. So I’m a cop.”
We all sat very still, like in church. Meyer sniffed a little and Sugar wiped her eyes.
“I’m a good cop,” Mack said. “I’m fair and honest. I always do what I think is right. I sleep well. But being a cop is as hard on my boys as the gloves might have been. They’re great kids—they play on your softball team,” he said to Meyer.
“Mike’s a young deer,” Meyer answered, “Billy, well, he practices hard.”
Mack laughed. “They watch the TV and all the protests at the Democratic Convention….”
“The Democrats had a convention?” Meyer said, startled.
“Shut-up, Meyer,” Jerry said sternly.
“No one told me….”
“A cop is a PIG now,” Mack took a breath and drink of beer, “even to kids, even to Mike and Billy. Well, you can imagine how hard it is for them….”
No one could imagine such a thing. We were quiet, studying our Schlitz cans and feeling our teeth with our tongues. Mack got up to go.
“I appreciate coming here,” he said, looking around at us like Fred McMurray looking proudly at his three sons. “Steward, my partner, calls me ‘Sgt Hippie’ these days. But I don’t mind. Choosing your smell might be the best anyone can do, don’t you think?”
After Mack left that night, Pierce stuck his head in Meyer’s door. He sniffed and sniffed. “Smells in here,” he said, “like a Pig sty….”
Meyer was off his bed and half-way to the door with an empty wine bottle in his hand when Jerry grabbed him. Pierce laughed wickedly and slammed the door.
After Meyer calmed down, he looked at all of them vacantly. “Where was this Democratic Convention?” he asked.
“Chicago,” Jerry said, “you would have loved it. High theater.”
Meyer shook his head. “The things you miss when you’re not paying attention,” he said sadly.
(In all the years that Sandy and I have been lovers, I imagine I’ve seen her naked several times each week—emerging wet and slippery from the shower, standing in the dawn by our window, dressing, laying beside me or beneath me or looming above me in our bed as we made love. Say three times a week, one way or another, for 21 years, I’ve seen Sandy naked. Probably, that is too low another because she is not modest about her body and moves no more quickly when she is nude. Often, she will stand in the bathroom door and talk to me, still in bed, without her clothes on. She can discuss a movie we’ve seen or politics or the world disaster of the moment as calmly and seriously disrobed as clothed. And since she has minor hypochondria, she thinks noting of asking me to feel her breasts for lumps or look for disfigurements in places she cannot see—moles that might be growing weirdly, funny colored bruises, God-knows what. But I’ll stick with three times a week seeing her nude.
That adds up to something like 3276 times I’ve seen Sandy naked. I find that remarkable. It’s the equivalent of once a day for ten years or more. I’m strangely touched by so much intimacy over so long a time.
And here’s the point to all that—there are always things about her body I never noticed before. That night, after reading the Cricket Hunt to her, in the peculiar angle of Yaz’s light, I realized for the first time that the very bottom of Sandy’s back, down near the swell of her buttocks, in the middle there, at the base of her spine, in that flat space…there grows a fine, almost invisible down of hair. That hair is not so much colorless as opaque, as fine as a spider’s web, as fine as eyelashes, but not as long.
I touched that hair with my finger tips, the back of my hand, my cheek, my tongue. It was so remarkable to discover, after all this time.
Funny what we miss when we’re not paying attention.