The First Day
“All of it’s right here.” –Sgt. Michael Quinn
According to the late Meyer T Meyer, there is a hot in Cambridge, Massachusetts unlike any other “hot” on earth. Meyer, who spent over a year of his life going from “hot to hot”, much as you and I might go from day to day, was an authority not to be lightly regarded. Meyer had been almost everywhere hot.
“There are hots,” he would say to you if you had been in his room during one of the summers of the late 1960’s, “and there are ‘hots’. Mexico City is hot, but D.C. in August when there’s no wind and lots of dog shit on the street…that’s ‘hot’. Do you get the difference?”
Transfixed by his one-eyed, walrus-like intensity, you would nod because nodding is what people do when they ‘get the difference’. And talking to Meyer about heat, even for a little while, you would get the difference. Hot was round in his mouth, like the ‘ah’ when the doctor looks down your throat at whatever dark and slimy things doctors look for in your throat. ‘Hot’, the way Meyer said it, was spit out, pronounced more like “hut”, mostly through the teeth and lips, the way you grin for a picture you really don’t want to be taken.
Then Meyer would gaze at you with his one good eye for what would seem like an inordinately long time—the time that passes before you tell an unpleasant truth or a deliberately kind lie. That kind of time. Then he’d lean back on his bed, satisfied that you’d ‘gotten’ the difference, and begin to talk to people who weren’t there. His voice would become thick, dreamy, romantic, almost seductive.
If Meyer were still alive, or if you could time-travel back to 1968 or 1969, you could hear how he seduced the ceiling of his room with his love song to the heat. “The African desert is hot! But, you see, it isn’t hot. The heat there simply is what it is and nothing else. It has no symbolic meaning. It is nothing beyond itself. It isn’t heat that transforms and tempers and makes new. Desert heat is desert heat. It doesn’t point to the essence of Heat, the Cosmic and Eternal Being of Hotness….
“But Istanbul—ah, my Istanbul, my Abdul…dearest of friends….And my Joch-e-bed, loveliest of all my loves, so long ago, infused and bathed in symbolic heat….”
Somewhere around there in his monologue, when Meyer closed his eyes and stopped murmuring to the ceiling, you might have thought he had fallen asleep, especially after all the home-made wine you had seen him consume during the evening. But you would have been wrong. He had fallen, instead, into one of the innumerable cracks in his brain—a crack that led directly to Istanbul, to the heat and to the pain, to the pain and the excruciating joy, to the joy where the heat was, to real heat, to a HOT that meant something, that mattered ultimately.
Eventually, he would have continued. His brain cracks were deep, but seldom long lasting. He would have said something like this: “The white sun, the absolute windlessness, a sun like a spotlight on the most profound dance—a dance without movement….That’s a hot. No kidding, pilgrim. That’s a hot you can have a relationship with—love, break up with, find again, really get to know, never forget.”
Meyer’s unclouded eye would focus on the homemade mobile of phosphorescent, pastel-colored Coke and Schlitz cans that moved slowing above his bed in the artificial breeze of his air-conditioner, a breeze as chill as the November wind off Boston Harbor. His clouded eye would be focused on God-knows-what, maybe the Istanbul of his memory and Joch-e-bed’s dance of pain.
“But in all the world,” he would then say, “there is no hot like this hot. This is the hot’s Hot. This is the Big Red Hot.”
To make his point, he would rouse himself enough to wave vaguely at whatever was on the other side of the humming, humongous Chrysler Air-Temp air conditioner in his window. He would say, realizing that you understood from his movement that he meant ‘outside’, “This is a hot that means something. You know, really MEANS….Jesus, Cambridge is hot!”
That Air-Temp, I assure you, hummed no louder than a cat and made breezes that would bring joy to the denizens of Siberia. During those long, hot summers so long ago, Meyer’s room was 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
Outside, Cambridge melted.
Meyer T Meyer.
Seeker of heat and lover of Air-Temps.
A murderer: that, in any case.
A suicide as well, without argument.
Taker of two lives.
A softball player of no mean repute. A madman. A walrus with one eye, kin of hundreds of dying, almost relatives. Philosopher without portfolio. Lucky and rich. A Red Sox fan to the end.
Lover of Joch-e-bed who also slit Pierce’s throat. And if, in the scheme of things, you might imagine that Pierce’s throat deserved slitting less than only a few hundred people on the planet—even if you made that argument and made it well, there is this: who would not have loved Joch-e-bed?
These are the thoughts that come to me tonight in the circle of light from Yaz’s lamp. Meyer never ran for office that I know about, never wrote a book or fathered a child. He is now dead at his own origami making hand. He sought out heat and kept his room artificially cool enough to raise mushrooms. He berated others about their lack of intimacy while going to sleep most nights high on wine and alone in bed.
But something in him was monkish, saintly, Benedictine. He was the hermit-lover of all humanity. He sat patiently as dozens died and yet murdered a man. Always, he confused. Sphinx-like, he sat by his Coke machine and uttered nonsense, told riddles and lies and, worst of all, half-truths meant to befuddle and disarm. Four legs at dawn, two at noon, three in the evening—if he got the numbers and the time of day right. Like that--always keeping you just out of step and far enough away not to embrace him. He was cool, immaculate, burning with fires too rare to endure.
I cannot adequately put him on paper, that I know. And that makes this whole “True Book” project problematic since he is the book and the book is him. I cannot put him on paper and neither can I tell you of the air under your fingernails, the gaps between your teeth, the longings of your heart, your sublime loneliness.
All I can do is piece together the outlines of memories from the lunch bags and call slips and Harvard notebooks from my soup boxes. And the most startling thing—the reason it would make more sense to endlessly rearrange Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and paint lamps rather than try to write a book, even a True one, is this: most of it is so ordinary and mundane. Most of it is air under fingernails and gaps between teeth and loneliness stuff—the fine feathered friends of all our mundane and ordinary lives. In the end, even the remarkable and the unspeakable condense down, like the reddish-pink goop of Campbell’s Tomato Bisque Soup. The little particles of astonishment, like the tiny essence of tomato blend right in—nothing to write home about and most certainly nothing to write a book about.
Ordinary, common place, day to day stuff is what most of it is. And it is what it is.
In a real way, Meyer was like that kid named Dwayne or Howard that sat beside you in the 6th grade, in Mrs. Sheerer’s class. That kid’s pants were always a little short—just an inch or so—and his socks were short as well, so there was some bony, pink leg always showing. He usually had pencils in his shirt pocket and the top button of his shirt buttoned, without a tie. Sometimes Howard/Dwayne would hold his notebook on his lap while he worked at his desk because he knew the bullies in the class would take it and hide it in the cloakroom or behind the world globe. He would pick his nose and wipe the boogers on the bottom of his desk. He was never good at gym, though from time to time his well-disguised grace would come out in softball.
He always played right field, where he could do little damage, but once Arnold Butler, one of the bullies, hit a pitch off the end of his bat over the first baseman’s head, curling toward the foul line. With the speed of something almost mythic, Howard glided unerringly to the ball, scooped it in his glove without visibly bending, pivoted on his right heel like someone trained in ballet and threw the ball effortlessly to second base on one clean hop, ten feet in front of the much surprised Arnold. Everyone on your team would stare reverently at right field just in time to see Howard stumble back to his position, wiping his runny nose on his glove, looking goofy.
Back in math class, Mrs. Sheerer would ask Dwayne/Howard/Meyer how many sides a triangle had and he’d swallow his tongue as he tried to say, “Have we studied this yet?” while searching through his English book like mad.
After the laughter died down and Mrs. Sheerer had moved on to some other kid for the answer, you’d glance across at the dopey kid’s desk and notice he’d been drawing a Monarch butterfly with those short little colored pencils you couldn’t draw with on a bet. Dwayne’s butterfly looked like a color plate in an encyclopedia—so fine, so minutely drawn, so lovely, timeless.
It was just a day like every other day in sixth grade. Nothing special. Absolutely ordinary. And except for that Roberto Clemente play in right field and that eternal butterfly, you would have guessed that Dwayne or Howard or Meyer or whoever would disappear from the face of the earth at three o’clock when he got on his bus to go home from school, picking at a zit, scratching his ass, smelling a bit funky.
Then years and years later, a college graduate with honors who had been stuck illiterate, you rode a bus for what seemed like weeks from Ohio to Boston (though it was only over night) and, after some adventures with your soul-mate and future wife and in OZ, ended up at that kid’s doorstep: longing to find your life again. And, in the end, that’s what he gave you—and a promise to keep.
That is Meyer, to the T (no period).
Reed walked through the heat of Cambridge searching for a certain Brigham Francis, who he knew lived in Homer Square, Somerville. He had been told by several helpful people that Somerville was curled around the edges of Cambridge, hiding from the heat. But walk as he had, he had not discovered Somerville. It was well hidden.
It was hot, that much we know. Reed had ridden a bus from the Mid-West all night and was already a tad smelly before he encountered Cambridge’s heat. He was desperate to find Somerville, so desperate that he stopped to ask one more person for directions. He sat beside the young woman on a low wall in front of a church several blocks from Harvard Square. She was fanning herself with a newspaper and smiled at him. “Excuse me,” he said, “would you know where Somerville might be?”
The girl was weak-chinned and squinting, as if she needed glasses. “It’s curled around the edges of Cambridge, hiding from the heat,” she said, with no discernable accent. Reed realized she was, like him, a wanderer in Cambridge. Her roots were somewhere else.
He nodded, having heard that theory before. “I’ve been riding a bus all night, just to be here,” he told her. In spite of her weak chin, the girl was attractive and Reed didn’t want her to think he always looked and smelled the way he did at that moment, so, open as the Mid-West, he explained himself.
She nodded back, squinting at him. “You have that all-night-bus-ride-look about you,” she said. The girl fanned herself and with her newspaper and then, generously, fanned Reed for a while. He watched the newspaper move before his face, astonished at the markings on it and even more astounded that so recently he would have known what they meant.
“I can’t read,” he told the girl, deeply embarrassed, “so it does no good to tell me about street signs. Can you tell me how to get to Somerville without having to read?”
She smiled, seemingly happy to be of help, as if she sat on that wall waiting to guide illiterate travelers. “This street,” she said, pointing with her newspaper to the right, “begins here and leads to Somerville. Just walk down this street far enough and you’ll be there. Cambridge calls this street Kirkland Street and it is pleasant to walk. Somerville calls it Washington Street and things get a little strange down there. But if you stay on this street long enough you’ll find Somerville—Union Square, in fact.” She paused and took a breath, as if that had been a lot for her to say at one time.
While she was talking, Reed was ironically thinking about a TV show called The Partridge Family. Shirley Jones was the star of the show and the actress who played her older daughter looked like the younger sister of the girl who was giving him directions. Months later, someone would tell him that the little church behind the wall where he was sitting, was where Shirley Jones got married once. There is so much irony in the universe it is hard to contain.
“I don’t have to read signs, do I?” Reed asked.
“There are signs,” she said quietly, recovering from her soliloquy, “but you needn’t read them.” After a deep breath she added, “the last sign, the one welcoming you to Somerville, is bent over double. I don’t know why. But when you see that sign and realize it is suddenly cooler and begin to hear people hissing at you, you’ll know you’re in Somerville.”
“Hissing?” he asked.
“You’ll understand when you get there,” she said.
Reed remained on the wall long enough to satisfy his Mid-Western politeness. Then he rose to leave, hopeful at last.
“My name is Reed Dailey,” he said. “Thank you for the help.”
“You’re welcome, Reed,” she said. “My name is Sandy Killingworth.”
When he reached the corner and turned down Kirkland Street, she called to him: “See you, Reed….”
He answered, “See you, Sandy….”
Minor prophets, the two of them.
On Kirkland Street, Cambridge, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Reed—an illiterate pilgrim and wanderer on the earth—had trees reach down to touch him and perhaps bless him, passed people walking large dogs and people in turbans and old, fat, presumably Jewish woman pushing little grocery carts, who smiled at him as he passed them. He saw a black boy, probably only 8 (who he would come to know), smoking a cigarette as fast as he could. He rubbed shoulders with Linus Pauling, the Vitamin C guru, though Reed didn’t know Linus and Linus certainly didn’t know Reed. And, right beside a package store several blocks from the wall where he met Sandy, he noticed a street sign, bent over double. If Reed could have read the sign, it would have said WELCOME TO SOMERVILLE in neat white letters. It also would have said, SUCK OFF in spray-painted red letters. The S of Suck and the S of Somerville were superimposed so that they were—red and white, neat and messy, the same S. Illiteracy, even if only temporary, is sometimes a gift of the Powers that Be.
Reed was, at last, in Somerville. It felt suddenly 10 degrees cooler. He felt like Jason nearing the fleece, Moses gazing down from the Mountain at the Promised Land, Cook looking across the last few waves at Australia, a Muslim pilgrim in sight of Mecca. All of which was premature and caused, most likely, by the relief of the sudden cool breezes. He was still illiterate and, though near Homer Square, unable to navigate the final steps without help. And, besides, just as the weak-chinned girl had told him, the dog-walking-turban-wearing-grocery-carting people who had seemed so pleasant on Kirkland Street had disappeared. Instead, he met wizened little men who hissed at him when he asked directions. They hissed in what he imagined was Polish and Italian and Greek and other, equally foreign languages. They seemed to be everywhere and when they saw him, they took one look at his wrinkled, bus-trip clothes and his tangled, shoulder-length hair and hissed. And what they hissed could not be interpreted as greetings or messages of good will. One ageless, unmistakably Italian man with an Italian war medal on his work shirt, didn’t stop with hissing. He took a shot at Reed’s knees with his cane. He wheezed like a 200 year-old Italian bicycle pump and chased Reed for half a block before acknowledging that a 21 year old, former college athlete could outrun him.
Having outdistanced the Italian without much trouble, Reed found himself at an intersection full of what seemed to be randomly clicking Walk/Don’t Walk signals with dozens of cars from half-a-dozen streets emptying into a traffic circle. The people driving the cars and the people ignoring the Walk/Don’t Walk signals seemed uniformly upset. People in cars and on the streets frowned and cursed and hissed. Everyone Reed could see—except a big blue block of a policeman with an undeniable Irish face and smile—seemed teetering on the edge of a psychotic event. And even the policeman was talking to himself.
Reed stood close to the policeman since it seemed the safest place in that confusing intersection. He was close enough to read the policeman’s badge. If Reed hadn’t been illiterate at the time, he could have read this: “Sgt. Michael Quinn--#345—Cambridge, Mass.” Sgt. Quinn was hiding from the heat of his beat in Cambridge and talking to himself in Union Square, Somerville.
Reed was close enough to hear what Sgt. Quinn was saying to himself. “O boy,” he was saying, “It’s all right here!”
“What is?” Reed asked, looking around and trying to see.
Michael Quinn—once and future fish butcher, familiar in waiting, friend to the end of his consciousness and beyond—turned to Reed as if he had been expecting him and his question. “Don’t you see?” he asked.
Reed saw a big church and large, somber Italians carrying a shiny coffin down two dozen steps to a waiting hearse. Gently, those huge men nestled the coffin in the back of a midnight black Cadillac and backed away as if they were leaving the presence of a monarch or the Pope.
Reed nodded and looked at Sgt. Quinn for more information.
“And over there,” the policeman pointed with his left hand, which, Reed noticed, was red and peeling skin.
Across the street from the church, huddled in front of a small bar, whispering softly and respectfully waiting, was an Italian wedding party—bride, groom, bridesmaids and attendants and all. Some of the people from the funeral watched the hearse pull away, spilling Cadillac fumes and headed for the chaos of Union Square. But after a suitable interval, they waved to the wedding party and motioned them to cross the street. Ignoring the WALK/DON’T WALK signs, growing appropriately gay, the young people started across Washington Street to join the remaining mourners and go inside for a wedding.
Sgt. Quinn quickly put his blue, Irish bulk in front of a bus and several trucks and cars of various makes to negotiate, in safety, the wedding party’s crossing. Then he came back to Reed, smiling to beat the band, and offered him a Marlboro cigarette.
“How about that?” he said, lighting their cigarettes with a silver Zippo. “It’s all right here, every bit of it….”
That philosophical policeman and future friend guided Reed to Homer Square and a certain Brigham Francis. And Brigham, after nudity and lunch and several too many glasses of wine, sent Reed to Meyer T Meyer, to the Igloo Factory, to what needed to happen next.
Brigham Francis was the most incredible looking human being that Reed had ever seen. He was, in Reed’s mind, the third most incredible looking creature he had ever seen right behind a hairy-house of a buffalo he’d seen in Buckhannon, West Virginia and a baby Koala bear he’d seen in the Cleveland Zoo with his father and his sister, Caroline, the day Caroline had cried without stopping until coming to the Koala exhibit. After that—after seeing that baby Koala—Caroline didn’t cry for weeks.
Brigham actually resembled both creatures. He was buffalo huge with the round-eyed innocence of a Koala. And there was hair on every part of Brigham’s body except for his nose, his eye lids and his penis. Brigham, Homer Square’s Esau, was a hairy man. Leslie, who lived in inexplicable bliss with Brigham, Brigham’s French wife and their five-year old daughter, was, like Jacob, a smooth man.
As Reed knocked on Brigham’s door, he felt confident, like a traveler whose journey was over. However, Leslie opened the door and said, “Welcome to Oz!” At that moment Reed realized his troubles were far from over. Leslie had almost no hair besides eyebrows, a thin covering of long golden hair and some reddish fuzz around his genitals. Reed knew this immediately because Leslie opened the door stark-raving, yellow brick road naked.
The house smelled of garlic and children and everyone inside—most of whom were younger than five and of remarkably various hues, were nude. Brigham was sitting on a couch, a buffalo of a Koala bear, with three small children climbing on him, pulling themselves up by handfuls of his body hair.
“This is Reed,” Leslie said, absence mindedly picking up a naked oriental boy of three or so and swinging him over his head. The boy squealed in the joyful, universal language of swung children.
“Ho, pilgrim!” Brigham called, wincing in pain as one of the children, a little white girl, saved herself from a fall by grabbing his beard. “You have a pilgrim look.”
“I’ve ridden a bus all night to find you,” Reed said, surprised by the sound of his own voice, surprised he could speak in such a foreign land. “And this isn’t what I expected.”
“Nothing ever is,” Brigham said, laughing.
Brigham and Monique Francis were licensed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a “Homecare Daycare” known as “Oz and other Familiar Fantasies.” They collected money from the Commonwealth for caring for children from low-income families and promptly signed the money over to the parents whose kids came to Oz. Brigham and Monique had no need for the Commonwealth’s money. In 1892, Brigham’s grandfather, an immigrant from Nice, longing for some familiar wine, wrote to relatives in France and asked them to send him ten cases of red table wine. Jean Francis then sold the wine to friends at an outrageous profit. Jean’s taste turned from wine to money and within 15 years he was the largest importer of French wine in New England. He hired Jewish lawyers and Italian bookkeepers and had certain legal documents drawn up. Brigham’s grandfather became a laughingly rich man. Besides educating generations of Jewish and Italian children in the best of schools, Jean Francis created a monopoly that would make money which would create money which gave birth to money and then incubated money eggs in such abundance that Brigham, his sole surviving heir, could never crack them all, even if he tried, which he didn’t. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, alcohol established two astonishingly wealthy families. The Kennedy Irish whisky money led to politics. The Francis French wine money resulted in daycare. All Brigham wanted to do was baby-sit.
“Kids are great, aren’t they, Reed?” Brigham asked, pouring glasses of wine for the adults and Kool-Aid for the children.
Reed nodded, which was the best he could manage in a room full of people without clothes. Monique, Brigham’s wife, was standing at the kitchen door speaking French. Brigham answered in what sounded to Reed as impeccable French and something seemed to be settled. Reed knew only a little French—freshman and sophomore year at a Great Mid-Western University—but he had learned it from people with flat, mid-western accents. Nothing Monique and Brigham said made any sense to him though it sounded, to his ears, like a wondrous and exotic song. He suspected the conversation had been about lunch since all Monique was wearing was an apron around her waist and she had been waving a wooden spoon while she spoke.
Reed suspected he would be invited to stay for lunch because a little Hispanic boy asked him if he were hungry. The child had spoken in Spanish, but Reed understood because the boy was rubbing his naked belly with one hand and pointing to his mouth with the other. Reed was growing more anxious and disoriented by the moment.
After Brigham quickly explained the day-care center and how it worked, Reed—gaining courage from a second glass of wine on a stomach empty since Columbus—asked, “Do their parents know?”
Brigham looked around the room absently, like a buffalo trying to understand a fence. “Know?” he asked.
“You know,” Reed said, emphasizing the word the way wine will make one do, “know?”
A Koala bear recognition spread over Brigham’s hairy face. He laughed. “You mean about the nudity?”
“Sure they know, as you put it—of course and absolutely,” Brigham said. “They are all decent, good, simple people. Real people, unlike what anyone imagines about them. They care about their children and want what’s best for them.”
Monique came back into the room with a bite of steaming something on her spoon. Brigham tasted it and approved by rolling his eyes and patting her on her shapely bare hip. Reed couldn’t help staring at Monique’s breasts. They were roughly the size of pink, Florida grapefruits and her nipples were dark, dark brown and perfectly placed. A pale fuzz began just below her breasts and descended in a perfect line down her stomach. His mid-western shame was making him feel guilty, yet he knew she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen naked to this point in his life. It might have been the wine, but probably not.
After she left, Brigham said three things:
“Nice tits, huh?” and
“Lunch is going to be outrageous.” And
“Being nude is good for the soul.”
“That’s why being nude is illegal in most places,” Brigham continued, expanding on his third point. “Like ‘downtown anywhere’, like public buildings, like churches. Nudity is liberating and transforming and if everyone were suddenly liberated and transformed….Can you imagine, Reed?”
Reed tried to imagine. The wine had taken its toll on his bus-exhausted, Somerville-searching body. All he could do was nod. That was good enough for Brigham.
“Imagine this, Pilgrim…imagine if they set a day, Reed,” he said, growing excited. “Thursday next, for example, and said that on Thursday next it would be against the law to wear clothes. Do you realize what would happen? Do you? Who would show up for work? Waitresses who had kids they left in places like this so they could work. Cops who really wanted to serve and protect. A politician or two who really care about the nation. Lots of crossing guards would be at their spots, and, I can only pray, lots of teachers. But no principals or college professors. A garbage collector or two per town but no TV anchor people…but most of the weather people. Some grocery clerks and almost every hairdresser. The only people at work—the only people dealing and buying and selling—and the only people running things that have to run, the only folks out and about on Thursday next would be people who want to feel the wind against their bodies and who didn’t give a shit who saw them nude. Can you imagine the ramifications of that on the Dow Jones Average? On the balance of trade? On the 6 o’clock news? On the Thursday next Red Sox baseball game? Who would play nude and who would sit in the right field bleachers? What would happen to the conflict in Viet Nam? Nude people don’t carry guns, Pilgrim—are you beginning to see what would happen? Peace would break out for a day. And how would those tight-assed, pin-striped, bone-dry mother-fuckers who ruin the world ever put everything back in their little box again? How could those wool-dressed assholes ever emerge from behind their locked doors and make the world work for them again?”
Brigham stopped talking. The only sounds in the room were the hum of the traffic from Homer Square, the pots and pans Monique was moving in the kitchen and the gentle, peaceful murmur of a dozen children. Reed knew little about small children, yet, he suddenly realized that he would have thought that many children should be making a great deal more noise than they were. More confusion enveloped him.
“We’re discussing cosmic transformation here,” Brigham was saying, as if from a long way off. His eyes were glazed over, Reed noticed. He was a buffalo contemplating a new-born Koala bear. All Reed could hear was the soft sound of “bu-bu, ba-bu, bu-bu….”
Leslie was on his back on the floor with a small black child astride his chest. The child was fingering Leslie’s lips as Leslie breathed out through his mouth. The sounds were like this: “bu-bul, ba-bu, bu-bu….”
“Look at that,” Brigham said, suddenly focusing again. “Ishmael’s parents were in the Panther movement. They wanted to blow up national monuments. But since he’s been here at Oz, his mom is considering law school and his father has become a social worker…. Just an example, my new friend, of the power of having your child be nude and unafraid of a man as ‘white’ as Leslie and interested in the noises that happen when he grabs Leslie’s lips. It’s only one story of the millions in the ‘Naked City’, but one to ponder, I think. That’s what I think, Reed.”
Brigham held his hairy face in his hands as a priest might hold a chalice. “So, in this long answer to your original question,” he said, as if saying the canon of the Mass, “Do the parents know? Isn’t that what you asked, Reed? Yes they know. And they know that being nude might just make their kids into people who walk softly on the earth and do no harm if they can help it. That they KNOW, damn it! You can bet your tight little white ass they know. Knowing makes it so….”
It was only the advent of lunch that kept Reed from imploding about nudity and transformation and the new world Brigham was creating. And lunch was rice and fish and something else Reed didn’t recognize with lots of garlic in it. Everyone ate like it was the Last Supper. Reed was astonished that children that young had such developed taste buds because the food was nuanced and highly seasoned and sophisticated. But the little buggers ate like animals—and so did Reed.
Monique’s breasts jiggled as she chewed and Reed tried not to notice. More of the wine that made Brigham rich beyond imagining and made Oz possible was poured and consumed by the adults. A red-haired girl curled up in Reed’s lap and started eating from his plate with her hands. Grains of rice adhered in swirls on her pudgy fingers. As she chewed and leaned back against Reed’s chest, she was singing a quiet, little full-mouthed song. He listened closely. It was a song about a house in New Orleans full of pancakes and forty stories high. Reed had never heard that song before and he would never forget the melody.
Bridget—which was the little girl’s name—stopped singing and craned around to look at Reed. “Your clothes are itchy,” she said.
“You are almost accepted in the tribe,” Brigham said. He had to say it several times because his mouth was full of fish and garlic.
“Almost?” Reed asked. Bridget’s face was inches from his. He could have counted the freckles on her nose.
“Yeah,” Brigham said, smiling the way a buffalo would smile if one ever did. “Almost.”
With much less mid-western self-consciousness than he could have imagined possible, Reed took off his clothes.
After lunch, Monique got dressed. She had on a white shirt, open two buttons and a short black skirt and sandals. For Reed, in some remarkable way, she seemed more seductive than she had been unclothed. She was going to do some errands out in the world beyond Oz. The children, beside Brigham’s daughter, all bedded down on blankets and rubber mats and fell immediately to sleep after a verse or two of Leslie’s song about pancakes and New Orleans.
The three adults—Brigham, Leslie and Reed, along with Charity, Brigham’s daughter—retreated to a pleasant room off the kitchen with leather furniture and thick, expensive rugs and shelves of books. Leslie sat in a chair near the door, so he could hear the children sprawled asleep in the living room. Brigham and Reed collapsed on the floor covered by newspapers and magazines and toys. Charity sat on the back of a leather couch and watched them, as naturally as a mushroom might grow among pine needles. Her toes, gripping the leather, even looked like tiny mushrooms. Reed liked her immensely.
“Que est cet homme, Papa?’’ she asked.
“A new friend,” Brigham answered. “A pilgrim—like Dorothy, like Alice.” He smiled—a three glasses of wine smile—“She doesn’t speak English,” he said.
“She doesn’t speak English,” Reed parroted, as if it were the appropriate thing to say.
“She’s French, like her mother. I’m French too, but not the same way. My mother was Irish, so I don’t count anymore.”
“I see,” Reed lied. They were speaking in whispers as if discussing the speaking of French were like a prayer.
“Charity apparently doesn’t like English,” whispered Brigham. “She understands it impeccably, without fault or error, and could speak it well enough, I believe, if she wanted to. And she chooses not. English offends her mouth, if you know what I mean. She has a French mouth.”
Reed nodded, as best he could, on his back, his hands linked behind his head, lying on the floor nude. The little girl did have a French mouth, he commented—puckered like her mother’s. The child listened intently to the whispers of the two men.
“English is best for common mouths,” Brigham explained, “tight, little, Anglo-Saxon orifices—plain and non-descript. Like yours, for example.” Brigham sat up and stared at him. “Do you understand?”
Reed smiled a tight, non-descript smile as an answer.
“My mouth is more like yours,” Brigham continued, as if anyone could ever see it beneath his beard and moustache, “My mother’s Celtic mouth. But Charity’s mouth is sensuous, lusty, particular about what words come out of it.”
“How are you, Charity?” Reed asked.
“Tres bien, comment allez-vous?’’ she answered.
“See?” said Brigham.
“Welcome to Oz,” Reed said. Everyone laughed. Brigham laughed as a buffalo might, if buffaloes laughed. Reed laughed an unavoidably, Anglo-Saxon laugh. Charity, for her part, laughed a deep, lusty, puckered-lipped French laugh.
All through that wine sweetened afternoon, Reed told Brigham and Charity his story. He told them of his bus ride and his journey through Cambridge and how he found Homer Square. He left nothing out except the growing longing he had to see the girl on the wall again and sit with her some more. He left that out because it embarrassed him. Embarrassment came easy for Reed. He was embarrassed by his all-night-bus smell, his illiteracy, the way he looked naked and by his feelings for the girl on the stone wall. Embarrassment drove Reed the way high-octane gasoline runs BMW’s. He had not always been that way—it was a recent phenomena—and he was still getting used to it.
“Dr. Morrison sent me here,” Reed said, when he regressed back to that part of his story. “He said, ‘Nothing else will do, my boy. You must go to Brigham Francis. Brigham’s work, it seems to me, is knowing what to do. I’m sure he’ll know what to do for you’.”
“Stephen P. Morrison,” Brigham said, his koala eyes lighting up with memory. “We went to Brown together, you know? At least Stephen went to Brown, I mostly lived there for a few years.” Brigham was delighted to know that Dr. Morrison taught at Reed’s Great Midwestern University. “We’re in touch every year or so, but I never asked what he was doing…it’s always about what needs to be done….That, as he told you, is my specialty.”
At that self-same Great Midwestern University, Reed told Brigham and Charity, he had done well and become legend.
“What,” Brigham began, “did you do, exactly? To become ‘legend’, I mean?”
“Mostly,” Reed struggled, suddenly embarrassed that he’s used that word, “…mostly I read a great number of books from lists my professors gave me and wrote papers about those books. I did that quite well.”
“Well…I captained the debate team that won the national championship, ran some track, student government things….Some thought I did those things well….”
“So, you became ‘legend’?” Brigham asked. “I think I’m understanding….”
Reed nodded, glad he didn’t have to give more details. “But then the day after I finished my senior thesis, when a great snow lay unexpectedly all around the campus, I opened a book and had forgotten how to read.”
Brigham and Charity looked at each other, both perplexed, so Reed went on. “There was nothing on the page for me. I mean, words were there, like always, made up of letters that marched across the page. But the words didn’t say anything. There was nothing in them for me…. Do you understand?”
“The words didn’t have anything to say to you—is that it?” Brigham tried.
“No,” Reed was suddenly more agitated than embarrassed. “It was worse! The words didn’t say ANYTHING! I was suddenly struck illiterate.”
“Just like that….”
“Precisely! Like that!” Reed snapped his fingers as he said “that”—at least snapped them as well as he could after so much wine. His agitation was replaced with satisfaction—Brigham understood.
Charity grew grave and asked Brigham something in rapid French. Brigham was momentarily lost in thought, but when he came back from that crack in his brain, he nodded to his daughter. “Well, you could say that,” he told her.
“What did she say?” Reed asked, his embarrassment suddenly pushing up again like the Appalachians out of the peneplain of short-lived satisfaction.
“She told me that she doesn’t understand the words either, that a printed page doesn’t say Anything to her as well. She wanted to know if she was illiterate like you.”
“Oh,” was all Reed could say.
That’s when Brigham told him that the only thing, “the absolutely only thing to do”, was to go to the Igloo Factory and stay with Meyer for a while. “That is,” Brigham repeated, moving clumsily to find the phone, “the only thing to do.”
The phone was nowhere Brigham had imagined it might be, so he followed a 25 foot long black cord around the room, over old issues of the Globe and National Geographic, under stuffed toys and children’s books, around tables and through empty wine bottles, until he found it. He finally started to dial. Reed wondered if, in his illiteracy, he could still dial a phone. All the time Charity was singing softly in French. It sounded a lot like a song about a house in New Orleans, forty stories high and full of pancakes—except in French.
Reed listened to Charity sing, while Brigham spoke quietly on the phone.
“It’s all arranged,” Brigham said, hanging up, “Meyer’s expecting you.”
“This place you’re sending me to,” Reed asked, rousing himself from the floor, “is it like this?”
“You know,” he said, “Oz like.”
Brigham laughed so loudly that he woke up some of the kids upstairs.
“Shit,” Brigham said, still laughing, “compared to the Igloo Factory, this is ultimate Kansas!”
Understandably, Reed felt some concern.
It turns out that at that point Meyer and Brigham had never met. On Meyer’s part, it was because he never found a good reason to go to Somerville. “I once went to the edge and peered over,” Meyer would later tell Reed. But for Brigham, it was philosophical.
“If I meet him in person,” he told Reed, drawing a map from Homer Square to the Igloo Factory, “it would be like the time I met my freshman roommate’s 16 year old sister. We were good friends and he always talked about his sister and imagined that I would fall in love with her at first sight and she would make me happy. It was a wonderful fantasy. But then I met her.”
He stopped drawing and stared off into space for a while, a wistful buffalo smile playing across his face. “She was nice enough…charming, really, in a 16 year old way. But how could she have lived up to my expectations given how wondrous her brother had made her?
“To me, Meyer is magical, mystical, wondrous. He’s Merlin and Mother Goose and Faust all rolled into one. I send people to Meyer because he works miracles and helps them find a way home. No kidding, I’m serious….” Brigham paused to make sure Reed knew how serious he was. Reed did, so he continued. “But if I met him, I’d see the blemishes on his face and be repulsed by that bad eye and the hair on his fingers and the food between his teeth. I’d know he was as mortal as me. I couldn’t imagine him, after that, as ultimately, unconditionally miraculous any more. His light would go out.”
Reed was feeling as uncomfortable as anyone who needs a miracle might feel. He was like a pilgrim about to enter Lourdes and suddenly wondering if being crippled was all that bad after all.
“We are lighthouses,” Brigham continued, returning to drawing the map. “His light would go out if I met him. Lighthouses, that’s how it is with me and Meyer. We’re on two shores with a whole sea of pilgrims caught in the tides in between. His beacon burns bright. I have a piss-ant beacon compared to his. I can always see him across the waters.
“It’s truly odd,” he said, sighing, wrinkling his wooly brow, “we speak on the phone almost every day. Most everyone who knows one of us knows both of us. But we’ve never met. For me, it’s creedal, a matter of faith. For him, I suspect, it has to do with convenience. But that’s the way it is—Meyer and me….But I’ll always be there for him….”
Brigham gave Reed one more glass of chilled white wine to sustain him on his journey through the heat of Cambridge. He went over and over the map he had drawn to make sure Reed understood. The map had no words—only streets and markers like schools and fish shops, public monuments, things that lived on corners where Reed needed to turn.
“Meyer is truly amazing,” he told Reed, just as he had told other storm-tossed souls about to embark on this self-same journey. “He’s a little crazy. No, that’s not right at all. He is a crazy as you can imagine and more so. But it is a crazy that makes a difference in people’s lives.” Brigham chuckled. “He finds nudity disgusting…another reason for never coming here. He once told me you should remove your clothes only to shower and make love and most often not even then. In fact, Meyer has a thing about clothes—disguises, costumes….But his light burns brightly. You’ll see.”
Reed hugged Brigham and got dressed. As he was tying his second sneaker, he realized he’d never hugged a naked male before. It was unsettling and promising, like a character from Chinese writing. Reed was treading water in a place where not much made sense, waiting for some creature from the deep to save him. He realized that hugging a naked buffalo-man made as much sense as anything he’d done in quite a while. So he smiled to himself and, map in hand, set off to negotiate the tides and shallows on the way to the Igloo Factory on a street called Broadway in a city named Cambridge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
As he opened the gate to Homer Square, Reed met Monique coming back from her errands. She threw her arms around him, kissing his lips with her French mouth and said what made perfect sense considering where he was going.
“Give my regards to Broadway,” Monique whispered in her charming accent.
Reed followed Brigham’s patient little arrows, passing all the schools and fish shops and statures, until he stood on the sidewalk outside the Igloo Factory. The Factory was a hulking, three-story gray house, plain and straight, a block from Holy Ghost Hospital and across Broadway from Cambridge High and Latin. It was exactly where Brigham’s map had promised. There were lots of windows in the house. Some had Chrysler air-conditioners in them. Some had cats cleaning themselves in them. Some of the windows sported stained glass rainbows or a vase of tulips. Every window seemed to have something in it, even if it was simply a half-burned candle in the neck of a green wine bottle. Reed stared at the windows, feeling that they were somehow staring back.
A wrought iron Irish Setter was adhesive taped to the front door. Reed thought it unusual that tape would hold in such heat and humidity, but it did, at least until a slender, balding man with a wispy, almost white mustache opened the door and came out. The mustache, for reasons that only occurred to Reed, made him look like a skinny, white walrus. He was wearing an eye patch over his right eye, what looked like an authentic Boston Red Sox uniform and a profoundly worn first baseman’s mitt.
The man looked up and said, “Ah, you must be Reed.”
Reed nodded, holding up the pencil drawn map like a flag, a green card, a birth certificate. “Brigham sent me,” he said.
“Of course he did,” the man said, taking the map and examining it for a long time. The Irish Setter chose that moment to fall noisily to the porch.
“Damn,” the man said, momentarily lifting his eye patch. Reed gazed into what looked like the glass of buttermilk his grandmother once tried to make him drink. “Just like the sign,” the man said.
Reed nodded again, though he had no idea why. This man, who he knew by now surely must be Meyer, had that effect on him.
“Why are you nodding?” Meyer asked. “Is the heat getting to you?”
“Yes….I don’t know….”
“Never mind,” Meyer said, impatiently. “The sign is inside.”
Reed avoided nodding by saying, “Right.”
“Wind blew it down back in March. Damn.”
“I understand,” Reed said, though he didn’t, not for a moment.
“We’ll put it up sometime. You any good at that?”
“Signs, Irish Setters, putting things up….Gravity defies me. You know how to put things up?”
“I don’t know,” Reed admitted.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Meyer said, brightening. “Not knowing is a good place to start.”
Meyer actually smiled at him. “Whatever comes next,” he said. Then, looking at a wrist that obviously didn’t have a wristwatch on it, he shook like the White Rabbit and said, “I’m late….I’m late….Got to go. Softball practice.”
Meyer made a minor production of passing Reed on the sidewalk. He did a little dance and pirouetted as he moved away. “Sugar’s inside,” he whispered. “She’ll clear everything up for you.”
Reed, confused and hot and growing out of sorts, went inside to Sugar.
Sugar was sitting on a beer cooler—the kind of cooler you’d find under the bar in most on-the-corner bars. The cooler, Reed later discovered, was always as full of beer as Cambridge was full of heat in June and all the beer was Schlitz. Schlitz was delivered to the Igloo Factory three times a week. Lots of beer was important to Meyer, not because he drank it, in fact, he drank almost nothing other than his own home-made wine and the occasional bottle of Merlot Brigham sent to him via Leslie—but a full cooler was, to Meyer, the sign of prosperous household. The Igloo Factory, among other things, was a prosperous household.
Next to the beer cooler was a Coke machine, so obvious and red that Reed, in his illiteracy, recognized it instantly. Against the cooler and the Coke machine, leaning at an angle, was a large sign, four feet by three feet, made of plywood with red, white and blue hand written lettering. As Reed was later told, it said this:
THE IGLOO FACTORY
(pre-fab igloos, spec.)
Sugar was reading a book. Reed had enough experience with books to realize it was poetry. The words were marching in funny stops and starts. They were words looking for each other—lonely.
Sugar didn’t look up and Reed, being from the Mid-west, waited a full minute before saying, softly, “hello….”
“Hold on,” Sugar said. Her lips kept moving while she finished the poem. Then she smiled at him. “Denise Levertov,” she said, “Meyer makes me read her. She’s great.”
Sugar had bright, unnaturally green eyes, almost the color of May grass in Ohio. Her eyes were shaped like eggs lying on their sides. Her lips were full and pouty, nearly French. Her hair, the color of cardboard boxes, hung to her waist. Reed had not believed such a hair color existed in nature, but Sugar’s was nature-given. She slid down off the cooler and the top of her head ended about two inches below Reed’s shoulder. He thought how she would fit nicely under his arm.
“I’m Sugar,” she said, grinning to beat the band, shrugging her small shoulders. “Who are you?”
“Are you a Pilgrim, a Wanderer on the Earth?”
“I don’t know,” he said, truthfully, “Brigham sent me.”
“Then you are!” she said. Her words, like birds released from a cage, soared upwards.
is how they would look written down.
Reed took her word for it and thought it must be so.
“So Meyer knows you’re coming?” she asked. She pronounce it “Mayor”.
“Do you mean Meyer?” Reed responded, saying it “My-er”.
“Well it depends, though who knows why,” she began, speaking very rapidly, her words shooting off above their heads. “Maybe it’s the weather or the time of month or how he feels. His whole name, you know, is Meyer T Meyer, is that unreal? Sometimes he says ‘Mayor T Myer’ and sometimes ‘Myer T Mayor’, and though I’ve heard him say ‘Myer T Myer’ a lot, he’s never said ‘Mayor T Mayor’—not once, since I’ve been here, at any rate, and I’ve listened for that.”
Sugar took a deep breath, since she hadn’t taken any before, and continued, “But he always pronounces the T the same way….like T.”
“Tea you drink or Tee-shirt?” Reed asked, trying to keep up his side of the conversation.
“One of those,” Sugar said. “Do you want something to drink? All we have is Schlitz and Coke.”
then,” she said.
The Coke machine wanted no coins. It was whole and satisfied without receiving change. Reed simply pulled a bottle from the other side of a long, thin glass door. He thought of Cokes—forgotten drug stores, dozens of drive-inns, road stops, Emporiums, public buildings.
The Coke machine was the reason the house was called The Igloo Factory. The place existed prior to the Coke machine, but the machine was warp and wolf of Factory Legend. Sugar told Reed about it as he drank the caramel tasting water.
“You see, Reed,” she said, her words flying away toward the ionosphere like so many helium balloons, “Meyer decided he wanted a Coke machine so, you know, people could have a Coke whenever they wanted. So he called the Coke Machine People and asked them to drop one off….”
The story continued as Sugar got more and more excited. It seems Meyer’s request was turned down, even though his credit rating was perfect and Meyer asked them politely to bring one over. He promised them ‘prompt payment’.
“Meyer is the champion of ‘prompt payment’,” Sugar continued.
But that wasn’t the way it worked, Reed learned. The Coke Machine People only brought Coke Machines to public buildings or stores or institutions or factories—places like that. So Meyer asked, according to Sugar from the story Jerry told her, “If this was a factory, you’d give me a machine?” And the Coke Machine People said, “Yes. Of course….”
Sugar was laughing so hard that Reed had trouble understanding her, what with her words flying away so high so fast. What she was saying, that he mostly caught, was this: “So Meyer, being crazy as only Meyer can be, got into the game…he loves things like that…and told them…,”Sugar said, fairly gasping for breath, “he told them…and I’ve made Jerry tell me this a hundred times so I could get it right…he told them, ‘This is the waiting room for what comes next. This is the Intensive Care Unit for the collective unconsciousness. This is the fucking Igloo Factory, you moron.’ And whatever all that means, they brought a Coke Machine right away and even disabled it to need no money, just like Meyer wanted.”
Reed watched Sugar laugh for a while. She made almost no noise, but she shook all over and wiped tears away from her face. Then he said, “So they sent it just like that?”
Sugar shook and seemed to say, “Just like that….” Then she finally stopped laughing and said, “God, I’m my own best entertainment….”
Reed finished his Coke and waited for what came next.
“He talks to it, you know,” Sugar said, growing suddenly grave, “and he hits it with his hockey stick. Meyer is crazy about this machine….Sometimes I think it answers back.”
“The machine?” Reed asked, knowing it was a silly question.
She nodded. “The Coke Machine is as crazy as he is. It’s caught his craziness.” By this time she was calm and her words were earth bound. She spoke about a man and a Coke Machine talking as if she were discussing the French Revolution or the Constitutional Convention—some historic event.
“But then we all do,” she said after an appropriate pause.
“Do what?” Reed asked, knowing he was asking for more than he wanted to know.
“Catch Meyer’s craziness,” she answered.
The two of them simply stared at each other for a while. Reed, in spite of his best intentions, realized he wished he’d met Sugar at Brigham’s house so that he might see her unclothed.
Sugar smiled a sad little smile and said, “Here’s the magic, Reed, we might catch Meyer’s craziness and get well. I’m not well and I don’t think you are either since you’re wondering about my nipples and if my pubic hair is the same color as the hair on my head and how my stomach looks….”
All Reed could do was blush and nod. He wasn’t in Kansas any more, or even Ohio.
“Meyer is Merlin,” Sugar said, not breaking their eye contact, “he’s Mother Goose and Buddha and Jesus and all those people. And know something else, Reed?”
Reed stopped nodding and shook his head.
“I look wonderful undressed, even better than you imagine,” she told him, much as a high school physics teacher would talk about inertia or critical mass. “You may even know that someday if that is part of your healing…and mine.” She rolled her eyes upwards, the way someone would look at the ceiling of a cathedral though they were in a house in Cambridge. Her voice grew soft, cathedral like itself. “This is a hospital for Wanderers…a place for getting well.”
“This,” Reed answered in a whisper, “isn’t what I expected….”
is,” Sugar said smiling again.
Reed lived in the Igloo Factory from late July 1968 until early October 1969—about a year and three months. If anyone had been counting, 57 other people lived in the Factory for a while in all that time. Many stayed only a few days or a week—only long enough to rest up for what came next for them, to gather strength to wander some more or to go home. Many of them went ‘home’ after a sojourn at the Factory. Meyer, in his way, counted those worth it all.
“Worth it all,” Meyer told Reed once, late into a winter night when snow was white on white over Cambridge. “Swallows back to Capistrano, pilgrims to Mecca, lemmings to the sea. I like it when they go home. Home, big Reed, is where the heart is…so I’m told.”
“So your work is getting people to go home?” Reed asked, curious from the beginning about what the Igloo factory was about. As polite, illiterate and Mid-western as he was, Reed was filled with an almost insatiable curiosity about certain things. He never once in his life questioned how any kind of internal combustion engine worked and treated all mechanical objects with the awe one gives to an unknown god. But he always pondered motivations and opinions and intentions. He sought to know why people did things and how they explained the things they did. He longed to catch the clue of human behavior in the way some people longed to fit together a winning poker hand. He sought to find something at least benign, if not beneficent and gracious, about the universe. Meyer quickly became the psychological equivalent of filling an inside straight to Reed.
“Hell,” Meyer responded, slowly swinging his hockey stick at the mobile above his bed, seemingly trying to come as close as possible to the painted Schlitz cans that formed the mobile without hitting them. Or perhaps he was trying to hit them as gently as he could. Reed never decided which was true. In either case, Meyer was, as usual deep in the night, a little drunk. He was either hitting the cans by mistake or hitting them too hard.
“Am I right,” Reed tried again, “is it the ‘going home’ part that you care about?”
“I don’t care if they go home,” Meyer said, distracted by the cans. “I don’t care if they come here. I basically don’t care one way or the other.” After a moment when he switched hands with the hockey stick, he continued, “But it’s nice to see them go home. I like bus stations and airports. I like to see people off. So, I suppose ‘going home’ makes it worth it in some way.”
No matter how many people drifted through the Igloo Factory, going home or not, there were never more than 13 there at one time because there were only 13 plates and cups in the Factory’s kitchen. Those plates and cups were made of the thick, practically unbreakable glass of bus stations, truck stops, boarding schools. Some one had bought them at an odd lot basement sale at Filenes’s in October of 1967. A yellowing sales receipt thumb tacked to the inside of the cabinet door gave the date and the price: $24.95. For all his curiosity, Reed never discovered who had purchased the plates and cups.
His plate had a big ‘W’ on the bottom. Sugar showed it to him when he arrived.
“This will be your plate,” she said, “you can tell by the ‘W’.” Reed took the plate and stared at the bottom. He took her word that the three marks there were, in fact, a ‘W’ and memorized the marks for future reference.
“Why is there a ‘W’?” he asked.
“It stands for Wally. Wally just left last week and this was his plate,” Sugar told him. “You’ll have Wally’s room as well. Wally was worried with germs so he painted initials on the plates so we’d always use the same one and not spread germs.” She squinted at Reed. “Wally was a Christian Scientist.”
“You’re not, are you?” Sugar asked, tentatively.
“Pardon?” Reed said, still nodding.
“You’re not of that cult are you? A Christian Scientist?”
“No,” he said, trying to stop nodding.
“Good,” she brightened, “one Christian Scientist is enough for any lifetime—though Wally was nice enough. Do you have a cult?”
“I was raised in the Episcopal Church,” he answered, truthfully.
Sugar smiled. “Jerry will be delighted. You can talk about cult things.” And then, studying the bottom of Reed’s plate, she added, “I could probably make the ‘W’ into an ‘R’, if you’d like. I know where Wally’s paint is. It wouldn’t be that hard though it wouldn’t be a proper ‘R’.”
“No,” Reed said, again nodding like a madman, like one of those yellow birds from a carnival that nod endlessly into a glass of water. “It doesn’t matter…really. I think the ‘W’ is quite nice.”
“Me too,” Sugar said, staring at the plate as if, in Reed’s mind, to avoid his maniacal nodding. “I actually prefer a ‘W’ to an ‘R’…no offense, that’s just the way I am.” She was ready to take Reed to his room. Half way to the stairs, back in the entrance hall and the Coke machine, she added, as if she’d been considering W’s and R’s, “But they are both fine letters in their own right.” Reed had no option but to agree, nodding.
Sugar took Reed upstairs to Wally’s old room—Reed’s room now. As he climbed, Reed watched her back. Sugar was wearing a halter top and had her waist-length, braided, cardboard colored hair across her left shoulder. Reed found it pleasant to look at Sugar’s back. Her vertebrae were like smooth stones beneath soft earth or a path through fine sand.
Wally’s old room was on a corner of the second floor. There was a large bed with a home-made patch work quilt, a dresser, two easy chairs and a beautiful Persian rug of considerable thickness. There was a can of disinfectant on the dresser and two windows to the larger world. One window looked out on Broadway at Cambridge High and Latin. The other window faced Boston. Way in the distance, across the River Charles, Reed could see an enormous building. He asked Sugar if she knew what it was.
“That’s the Prudential Building,” she told him, “people call it The Pru.” She seemed very solemn about the building. “You can see The Pru from almost everywhere in Boston or Cambridge. It’s very big.”
Staring at it through his window, Reed agreed that it was big.
“You don’t mind do you?” she asked, deeply concerned. Reed didn’t know if she meant if he “minded” that The Pru was very big or that he could see it from his window. Since it didn’t seem to matter in either case, he shook his head.
“Jerry says that The Pru is like God,” Sugar said, seemingly relieved. “No matter where you are you can look and there it’ll be… the Pru…just like God. Jerry’s Episcopal God.”
“You’ll meet Jerry soon enough,” she said. “He lives right above you. Jerry is beautiful.”
Sugar paused for a few moments, smiling and shrugging her shoulders. She seemed satisfied that Reed would make himself at home. Then she said, “I hope you enjoy it here, Reed.”
Reed looked at her, which wasn’t a burden, and watched a shadow cross her face.
“Enjoy isn’t quite right,” she said, her words not flying away. Her words were weighted, full of ballast, earth-bound. “Enjoy isn’t what I mean….You know how it feels when you skin your knee really bad, like on a playground with lots of little gravels and dirt, you know how that feels?”
Reed did know. He nodded.
“And you know how before it starts to get better, how it itches and burns like crazy? You know that?”
Another nod of knowledge.
Sugar smiled a sad little smile—but it was a smile. “That’s the way it might just be for you here. At any rate, that’s the way it is for me….”
She turned to leave showing Reed the cantata of her back. “Don’t mind the sign,” she said, not looking back, “we have to be compassionate to cults like Wally’s…at least that’s what Meyer says….”
The door shut behind her and Reed was staring at the sign she meant. It was held to the inside of the door with a single shiny nail. Deep in illiteracy, Reed recognized the sign and knew, without reading, what it said. It was the sign from a hundred bus station bathrooms, a thousand rest stops, ten-thousand restaurant doors. It was red and white and said: HAVE YOU WASHED YOUR HANDS.
Reed found towels and washcloths and toothbrushes and tooth paste and razors and shaving foam and Ivory soap in his closet—which was fortunate since he’d brought none of that from the Mid-West. He also found a shower next door to his room. As he washed away the bus-dust and the flush of Brigham’s wine and the heat of Cambridge, the shower head sang a song that sounded like Sugar’s spine.
That night there was a Meeting.
There were many Meetings at the Igloo Factory. Meyer swore by Meetings. Once, in private, Reed asked him why.
“Because,” Meyer said, winking his good eye, “Meetings keep the lines clear. I swear by Meetings, Reed, I really do.”
Meyer considered Meetings as a form of ritual. Meyer said that ritual orders life. The ordering of life, he would go on to say, growing serious, was a good thing. Therefore rituals are good things, he would say. “Ergo Meetings, being rituals, are good things,” he said that night Reed asked him. Meyer loved saying “ergo” instead of “therefore”, showing off his Latin. Who could argue with such logic? It was that simple.
The Meeting that first night Reed lived in the Igloo Factory was his Initiation Rite. It was so he could meet the rest of the people who lived there and they could meet him. It was to reaffirm that “we’re all in this thing together.”
That was Meyer’s way of putting it—“We’re all in this thing together.” He said that often. He said it when someone was unhappy or happy, or miserable or stoned, or confused or drunk and frightened. He said it before meals like a grace. He said it late at night to wish people peaceful sleep. He said it the way other people might say, “Have a good day.”
He said it before offering you a drink of apple wine or a seat or some Vick’s Vapor Rub for your cough. He said it when he read the obituaries or watched it snow.
Sometimes it snowed in Cambridge for days on end. White on white on white, it snowed.
“We’re all in this thing together….”
At his Initiation Rite, Reed met most of the people who were living in the Factory. Pierce and Marvin Gardens didn’t come. Pierce didn’t come because he was Pierce and never came to Meetings. Marvin Gardens, for his part, didn’t come because he was watching TV up in the attic. Marvin Gardens was not to be disturbed. That’s what Sugar told Reed, sitting next to him, almost in his lap, on Meyer’s bedroom floor. She told Reed that Marvin Gardens was involved in a ‘great work’ that involved watching TV until sign off every night. She also said that Marvin Gardens made breakfast every morning for whoever was interested in breakfast that day.
“Marvin Gardens makes breakfast,” she said, just like that, just as everyone in the room grew quiet for the meeting so everyone heard her.
“And Sugar makes scarves”, someone said. Reed realized it was a short, muscular man in a black clerical shirt, corduroy shorts and red sneakers. He had a round-happy face, shaggy blond hair to his shoulders, prominent black eyebrows and deep, deep dimples when he smiled. But Reed didn’t notice any of that as much as he noticed Jerry’s eyes. Jerry’s eyes were clear and burning, like a visual chant. His eyes were light gray, almost metallic, and full of what seemed to reed to be strange seeing. Jerry’s eyes bored right through Reed’s, searching past his cerebral cortex for his medulla oblongata.
“And Jerry makes cookies and pies,” Krista said. Reed knew her name because Sugar had introduced them before the meeting. Krista was dark and mysterious with long, mid-night black hair. Her face was elongated, almost like an egg on its end. She was not pretty, but she was fascinating, mystical. In fact she was a Mystic, and, inexplicably, she was, like Reed, from Ohio.
“And Krista,” Meyer said, sitting cross legged on his bed, twisting his moustache, “makes candles.”
Meyer rolled off his bed and pulled a Campbell’s soup box from beneath it. The box was full of candles. He showed Reed a few of them—one was a mushroom, another was a little elf-like man, another was square with glistening golds and greens all through it. Another was carved like an oriental monk. Reed held them in his hands in turn, feeling their smoothness, smelling the rich oil Krista dipped them in after they were set, admiring the art and the colors.
“They’re wonderful,” Reed said, looking at Krista.
“But they’re not perfect,” she replied, flatly, “not yet.”
Meyer carefully repacked the candles and climbed back up on his bed. He was dressed in red and white striped trousers and a blue mourning coat and wore a top hat. Meyer grew grave and serious. His moustache, Reed thought, made him look like a walrus-like Uncle Sam considering the French Revolution.
“Reed,” he said at last, “what do you make?”
“What do you make?” Everyone in the room was looking at Reed in the same solemn way, like a roomful of people considering the French Revolution.
Reed shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“It’s like this,” Meyer began softly, “everyone who lives here makes something.” It was like he was telling a secret or a piece of arcane ritual law. Reed leaned in to listen. “Marvin Gardens makes breakfast—coffee cake or pigs in a blanket or turkey sandwiches—something that will keep until noon when I get up. Krista makes candles, as you have seen. And Pierce makes…well….”
“Pierce makes trouble,” Jerry said, staring all the while into the recesses of Reed’s cranium. There was nervous laughter around the room. Meyer stared them into silence.
“Yodel makes our bread,” Sugar said into the silence.
Reed looked around for Yodel. A short, red-haired man with a jutting jaw and a smile that seemed engraved, waved to him. Reed waved back, thinking Yodel looked like Howdy Doody.
“Yodel makes our bread,” Meyer repeated, a bit grimly, taking back the floor. “He has lots of wooden spoons and bowls and bread pans. He makes lots of kinds of bread. How many kinds, Yodel?”
“Fourteen kinds right now,” Yodel said, “but I’m working on two new ones.” Reed thought Yodel even sounded like Howdy Doody—as well as he could remember how Howdy sounded—talking with Buffalo Bob about breads.”
“I like date-nut-raisin,” Sugar said, smiling at Yodel. Yodel, since he was perpetually smiling, smiled back.
Meyer seemed impatient with Sugar’s interruptions, so he continued to whisper his secrets, urgently now: “and since it snows all the fucking winter and is as cold as polar bear shit, Sugar makes us scarves. You pick your colors and Sugar knits them, wham-bang….”
“I like yellow and purple myself,” Yodel said. He and Sugar were smiling to beat the band and Reed found himself smiling too, as if infected. But Meyer stared at them with his one eye like they had passed gas in the middle of a German opera. Sugar and Reed stopped smiling. Yodel kept smiling but lowered his head.
“So everyone here makes something, Reed,” Meyer whispered through his teeth. “Everyone contributes to the tribe. People make scarves and candles and breakfast and pies and bread and waxed flowers and mobiles and potato salad and wine….I make wine.”
Meyer paused and looked around the room. “Wine,” he said again, a little louder. Then louder still, “fruit wine.”
Everyone started saying which kind of wine they liked best and Meyer smiled at them. He let that go on for quite a while before his Cyclops-gaze stared them back into deep thoughts about the French Revolution…or perhaps, the Iron Age.
“Since you are here, Reed,” he said, “the tribe will need your contribution, your gift, your offering….So, what do you make? Do you understand how important this is?”
“I understand,” Reed said. He actually did.
Meyer and everyone else suddenly relaxed. They seemed to be people who had finally agreed that the French Revolution was a good thing after all, that the Iron Age was something to be pleased about.
The Chrysler Air-Temp in Meyer’s window purred like a kitten. The room was otherwise silent, expectant.
“I make noises,” Reed said.
Seriousness flooded over the levee and back into the room. The French Revolution was an open question again. A girl back in the corner, the one who made mobiles with Schlitz cans, began to giggle. Reed realized that it was his Guide, Sandy, hidden back in the shadows of Meyer’s room. Without warning, a crack opened in Reed’s brain and he saw the two of them—Sandy and Reed—sitting on a front porch in a wooded place. He could almost smell the trees, almost hear the birds in the tree tops.
The crack closed as suddenly as it had opened and Meyer was leaning precariously off his bed, his face only a few inches from Reed’s, his good eye blazing with some unnamable emotion.
“Noises?” Meyer said, wheezing as only a one-eyed, skinny, albino walrus could. “Noises?”
“Here is a noise,” Reed found himself saying, fearful that his ritual had taken a bad turn. “This is the noise the Irish Setter made when its adhesive tape slipped in the heat and it fell to the porch: ‘shrip-CLANG-rungle-rungle-rup’.”
Sandy laughed out loud and waved at Reed. Everyone else held their breath and waited for Meyer to lean back, adjust his eye patch and sniff.
Meyer sniffed again. “That’s good, Reed,” he said. And then, a little louder, he said, “That’s really good!”
The chill air from the Air-Temp was sucked into everyone’s lungs simultaneously. Sandy said, “Make another one….”
“Yes,” everyone agreed, “make another one….”
Reed warmed to his work. “This is how the shower head sounded when I washed off the bus-dust I carried here: ‘Swooosh-schrii-schri—schriii….’.”
He wanted to tell them that was how the song of Sugar’s vertebra sounded as well, but that would have embarrassed him. So he made some other sounds: the sound of the WALK/DON’T WALK sign in Homer Square, the sound the corks made when Brigham pulled them from the wine bottles, the sound of the children eating at Oz, the sound of the bus gearing down to stop in Pittsburgh, the sound of the birds he almost heard around the porch in the future of his mind. Then he made the sound of an electric typewriter and the sound the phone made when Brigham dialed Meyer.
Though Reed hadn’t known he had such a talent, everyone seemed pleased with it. Life had, somehow, been ordered. The ritual was a success. All that was left to do was the Schlitz drinking in the kitchen just off Meyer’s first floor bedroom. In the midst of the post-Meeting beer, Meyer had Reed make the telephone sound three more times.
When Reed went to his room, re-tipsy on beer as he had been on wine, Sugar came along to sit one of his easy chairs, knitting and staring out at the Pru, blinking in the night. She told him that her favorite had been the Irish Setter.
Reed feel asleep while Sugar talked to him and when he woke up the next morning, he felt like he was waking up at home.
After I finished writing that part, I asked Sandy to read it after supper and she agreed. She sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea and smoking one of my cigarettes. I went out into the yard and walked around. There were probably useful things I could have done—stack wood, shovel up a little of the dirty ice at the edges of everywhere, clean up some of the trash that invariably—all year long—blows up from the 7-11 parking lot into our yard. But I’m not handy in many ways and seldom notice trash or ice or wood until Sandy points it out. Besides, I was frantic thinking about her reading what I had written, so I just wanted to stride around the yard with my hands in my jacket pockets like a forest ranger walking the boundaries of the woods he is expected to guard.
When I finally went back inside, I expected her to be sitting at the table wiping a stray tear or two from her eyes. But things, Brigham Francis often told me, are never as we expect. The way he usually put it was: “Nothing ever is.”
Sandy was putting clean dishes away in the cabinets and wiping the measles-like spots of sauce from the top of the stove. She smiled at me when I came in and offered me some tea and banana bread.
I finished one cup of Earl Gray and two slices of bread before I could stand it no longer.
“So?” I asked.
“A needle pulling thread,” Sandy answered, wrapping the rest of the sweet bread in aluminum foil. The foil crackled and folded neatly beneath her strong fingers.
“The..the ‘stuff’…what I wrote….What did you think?”
“The third person surprised me,” she said, joining me at the table, sitting across from me.
“You know, the third person narrator. I expected you to write it in the first person. I expected more of ‘you’ in it.”
“But I am in it!” I said, shocked, hurt, surprised and something else I couldn’t quite name as an emotion. “I’m ‘Reed’, remember? I’m on every page of it….” This was not working out as I had imagined (nothing ever does…) since I had imagined Sandy teary-eyed, nostalgic, embracing me and welcoming me back to her bed.
Her face was clear and shining. She smiled at me the way you smile at kittens, puppies and baby ducks. “It’s fine, Reed,” she said.
“Fine?” I asked, too loudly. Something soft with lots of strings was playing on the radio. I thought it must be Mozart. Sandy would have known for sure.
“Yes,” she said, her voice soft enough to smooth fur and feathers, “fine is what it is.”
The Cleveland Orchestra, or whoever, probably conducted by a Central European, played Mozart, or whatever, for a while. Sandy and I sat at our kitchen table as we had for so many years. For most of those years, our son, Meyer, sat between us in a high-chair and then booster seat and then a chair like ours and grew up. Now he was on other chairs at other tables between other people at a university a hundred miles away. Over those years when he sat between us, Sandy had taught him who wrote all the music we heard during all those hours of eating and talking and playing Parcheesi and teaching him Monopoly and five card draw poker. Ice cream, tofu, pasta, fresh trout, granola and the occasionally hard-earned Captain Crunch, sting beans and yellow tomatoes, pinto beans and cornbread—how many meals at that table, the three of us? Peanut butter sandwiches on home-made bread awash with fresh honey. Sandy’s chocolate chip cookies before bed with buttermilk, which we all love. And always the music pouring over us—the music the two them loved and I can never quite place. Lemonade around the table with strawberries in it on hot days. Cocoa with those little marshmallows melting in it as the wind howled out in the darkness. Helping Meyer with his homework or cutting pictures from magazines so he could paste together a collage. Sandy canning the tomatoes and peppers she grew with me and Meyer watching her, transfixed at the table. Making model airplanes and kites that never quite flew and Sandy and Meyer playing chess—a skill I never quite got back after my illiteracy….My mind was suddenly full of how much of my life had been around that table with the two people I love most in the world.
I was starting to smile, rubbing the deeply scarred wood of that table with my fingers, when Sandy started talking.
“We’ll do this once,” she said, sounding tired or out of sorts, but kind, “and be done with it. Is that okay with you? Just getting it done now?”
I was examining a slash in the table that I knew as surely as I knew anything was from Meyer’s first Swiss Army Knife a dozen years ago. Sandy decided that was enough to keep talking.
“You are one of the world’s great ‘starters’, Reed. You have, in all these years I’ve loved you, started more things than most people ever think about. You have what might be considered an endless capacity for ‘getting started’. But you have a marked deficiency for staying through to the end. You are a ‘forest’ person but not a ‘tree’ person…something like that. I’m not sure what it is. And it really doesn’t matter, you know? In fact, it’s fine, no, wonderful, because I love to finish things. I like things all done and finished. So you get me started on building a shack for my kiln and then, when you get bored, I finish it. You decide we need plant vegetables and after you plant them, I tend them and can them. You like to start things and I like to finish them out. You’re happy and I’m happy—it’s a good economy. I love it.
“But this is different,” she continued. By this time I was listening intently and her face had gone as serious as a cathedral. “I can’t finish this story. I don’t know it all and Meyer didn’t ask me. My memory of a lot of it, you might recall, was lost and faulty in the fog of drugs. And then I was gone for a long time. You know all that, right?”
I did and said so. Sandy was part of a story she couldn’t tell.
“If I get all misty over a dozen pages of what you’ve written, you’ll be satisfied that you’ve made a good start and we’ll be at this for years. I’d rather do something else with those years, Reed, something else with you.”
She paused and stared at me with her just out of focus eyes. I was still a tad annoyed and considering a walk down to the 7-11 for a Mountain Dew—one drink Sandy, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t let in the house—when she brought up the Bible.
“It’s like the Bible, Reed,” she said, at the end of her arguments, “it’s like that.”
I started smiling almost out loud. She was right.
I have started reading the Bible every November for 14 years. November, it has occurred to me, is the proper atmosphere for the ageless lore of the Jews and Christians. Often, I have announced my intention in much that way, showing Sandy whatever latest translation I’ve found in the library: “Now for the ageless lore of the Jews and the Christians!” Then I would sit at the kitchen table and open my latest Bible of choice.
For a few days—even a few weeks, from time to time—I’ve felt like a medieval German woodcutting, astride my chair, leaning forward, seeking enlightenment, peace, salvation…or at least ‘completion’.
And it has never been so. I’ve started in a dozen different places since I early on decided the beginning was not the place to begin. I’ve consulted about where to begin reading with Fr. Boyles down at Grace Episcopal Church, Levi Cohen, the ageless Jewish professor of world history at the college, and even Carrie Ann’s parents who are some illusive type of charismatics who go to church in what used to be a Toyota dealership down on the Grafton Road. Since most folks in Buckhannon fly American flags from their porches and buy American cars, the Justice family goes to the church with the largest parking lot in three counties.
Father Boyles has been the most help. He has lots of advice and good insights about how I might finally read the whole Bible. He’s a patient man and I’ve imagined that given enough advice and enough Novembers, he would help me finish reading the Bible.
And it hasn’t been like I’ve imagined.
Nothing ever is.
Sandy was smiling at me across the table where we’ve spent so much of my life. She was smiling to beat the band.
I must have been too.
“I see that you ‘see’ what I mean, Reed,” she said, smiling a Nobel Prize smile if they honored such things.
“Let those who have eyes, see….” I answered.
“My God,” she said, not realizing how appropriate that was, “you have read that part!”
Later that night, swimming in the light of Yaz, working on some confessions, feeling like St. Augustine, Sandy stood behind me in the shadows.
“The part about the girl on the wall,” she began, hesitantly, “is that…is…is that true?”
“Close enough,” I answered, in a confessional mood and a state of grace, unable to lie.
“Which is it then,” she asked after a long moment, “close enough” or “true?”
“It was what? 23, 24 years ago, over half-a-lifetime ago,” I said. “A long time. And it’s like the things you think you remember from your childhood—things that maybe someone told you about and showed you a picture of you and your Aunt Ursa, and told you that was a picture of the moment. So that moment becomes part of your story, part of your life, and it happened just like that. Are you following this?”
It was a stupid question and Sandy never answers stupid questions.
“Anyway,” I continued, I’ve been looking at these family photos on lunch bags and library call slips and notebook paper for so long that I’ve gotten the ‘big picture’. I’ve gotten the ‘forest’ and now I’m looking for the trees. I’ve fallen into a crack in my brain that is deep and wide and I’ve ended up on some streets and in some rooms I’ve long forgotten. And one thing I know—one thing I’ve come to see—is for me it begins and ends with you.”
I was about to start writing about Lysander and me at boarding school and the multitude of confessions there. But when Sandy didn’t respond, I put down my yellow pencil and got up to go to her.
She was draped against the door and tears were forming a delta on each of her cheeks. I wrapped her in my arms.
“You were on that wall in Cambridge,” I whispered to her through her tears and hair. “And you sent me in the right direction…just like you always have….”
“Always?” she asked, softly, like the flutter of a bird.
“Always,” I said, “Always, still and forever….”
After a long time, standing in the shadows, holding each other, she pulled away, headed to the basement or Meyer’s old room. I let her go, knowing I wished beyond all wondering that she would have come with me into our room and laid beside me in our bed.
I was back at the desk, pencil moving when she called to me.
“Reed, I bet you thought that could get me in bed with you,” is all she said.
“I had imagined it,” I called back.
“Eat a bug,” she replied. “I love you….”
“And me you,” I said, smiling, happy, but she never heard me because she was already gone.
I ate my bug and confessed to a legal pad some more.