TRACKS AND LEAVINGS
“If you can pick your own smell, you’re in good shape.”
--former Sgt Michael Quinn, Sr.
“I only read two books in my life, one was the Bible and the
other was about Baltimore. I didn’t like either one.”
–an old man in Boston Common
Things began to gather in Reed’s mind—the way lint gathers in your pockets. Loose hairs in a brush. Dust in a corner. Mold on bread.
He talked to policemen in rumpled uniforms and the policemen in brown suits and finally to policemen with expensive shoes and hair stylists. He talked to public defenders who had initially been assigned to Meyer’s case and then to the two sets of lawyers Brigham hired for Meyer. The public defenders wore sport coats and Old Spice and smoked a great deal. They were all young. Brigham’s lawyers were first Jewish and then Italian. They invariably wore tailored suits, blinding white shirts and smelled of the spices of Araby. He also talked to crime-beat reporters and then editors of the city desk and finally to 6 p.m. anchor men. He told them all, as well as he could, that Meyer was not a madman. He told them all, in halting, newly literate phrases, that Meyer was not demented or dangerous or a devil worshipper. With all the accuracy he could muster and all the Mid-western politeness he could not in a million years avoid, he told them that Meyer was, to the best of his knowledge, a gentle, generous walrus of an ex-softball player who only cut one throat in his life—and that one for what he must have thought was a perfect reason. Since the police divers never found a knife below the Longfellow Bridge, no matter how long and hard they looked, people eventually stopped asking him about that.
“The longer I talk to people,” Reed told Marvin Gardens late one night in the dim glow of Marvin’s TV, “the better dressed and groomed and smelling they become.”
“You’re moving up the ‘information food chain’,” Marvin answered. They sat in silence. The sound was off on the TV and neither of them was watching.
None of the people Reed talked with seemed to listen.
So things gathered: moss on the north side of a tree, frost on the grass, wrinkles on an old-woman’s face, junk in the basement.
Reed went to see Percy at the library. Just as Meyer has promised, Percy was not surprised. The library was in the basement of Longfellow Hall. Longfellow Hall was on Apian Way. Reed read the street sign and couldn’t, for the life of him, remember what it had been like not to read street signs.
Percy was a tall, extremely thin man with tree limbs for arms and Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils for fingers. He was so slender and tall that his age was beyond estimate. His head was oval—like an ostrich egg in a skinny tree. Percy’s head was turned just the way an ostrich would lay it.
Reed introduced himself and was about to say something about Meyer and the promise of a job when Percy said, “I thought you’d be coming by. The job is yours.”
Percy said that rapidly: like, “Ithoughtyou’dbecomingby.Thejobisyours.” Percy talked like an ancient manuscript in Koine Greek, with no spaces between the words. With Percy, you separated the words yourself. He was from New Hampshire. “Meyerwillbeexonerated,” he said, “Meyerisagoodman-thebest.” Then he invited Reed to come meet the books he’d be guarding.
Reed’s job was in Byerly Hall, which was separated from Longfellow Hall by part of a green, lush lawn called Radcliff Yard. The books he was to guard were all about education, every one of them.
“There are only three kinds of books here,” Percy said. Reed separated his words as Percy spoke. “There are books on permanent reserve and books on temporary reserve and books that aren’t on reserve at all.
“On the inside back cover of each book there is a code. If there is a star on the inside back cover, it means the book was once on reserve, as all these books were at one time. But if there is only the star, it is not currently on reserve and circulates for four weeks.” Percy took a breath at long last and Reed, separating the words madly, was able to catch up.
“However,” Percy sat off again, talking like a runaway toboggan down a snowy New Hampshire mountain, “if there is a star and a check mark, the book is on temporary reserve and circulates overnight. If the star and the checkmark are circled, the book is on permanent reserve and circulates in the same manner as books with a star and checkmark but may be recalled with 24 hours notice. But if the star and checkmark are circled and there is a line drawn under that, it means the book is on temporary-permanent reserve for the time being and circulates only overnight except for weekends and Massachusetts holidays.
“All holidays in Massachusetts fall on Monday as far as the library system is concerned—even Good Friday—so, as a practice, we ignore Mondays. For our purposes, Monday does not exist. Any book due on a Monday is really due on a Tuesday, unless there is a box drawn around a circled star and circled checkmark that have lines drawn under them. Then the book is due on Monday if that particular Monday is not, in fact, a Massachusetts holiday.”
Percy peered at Reed. “Do you understand?” he asked.
“No,” Reed said.
“It isn’t hard,” Percy said. “Pick a book, any book.”
Reed picked out a big black book entitled Crisis in the Classroom. On the inside back cover it said ‘copy 10’. There were two stars and two check marks. Both sets were circled and the set on the right was underlined.
Percy stared at the book seriously and calmly. His facial expression reminded Reed of Indians in cowboy movies, sniffing the breeze, waiting with remarkable patience for the wind to shift.
“Well,” he said, “you picked a rare example. I’m not sure what this means. There are different rules for books with multiple copies.”
Reed nodded. “Are you part Indian?”
“Half,” Percy said, closing the book carefully, “we call it ‘Native American’ these days, by the way. Now I’ll explain zeroxed periodicals. They’re a little trickier.”
The zeroxed periodicals were in semi-alphabetical order by author in four, coffin looking filing cabinets. Their circulation depended on stars, checkmarks, lines, boxes and exclamation marks. The exclamation marks were vital to understanding the code.
“Do you understand?” Percy asked.
“No,” Reed answered.
“It’ll come to you,” Percy said. “And here’s how I see it—if the students can understand the library system, they’ve earned a degree from Harvard.”
Then Percy gave Reed a key. Only Percy, Reed and an elderly, one-armed janitor named Tony had keys to the two rooms of books in Byerly Hall.
“Tony sweeps and mops with a special attachment for his shoulder stub,” Percy said. “It’s really quite fascinating.”
“May I write here?” Reed asked.
“Yes, I’m going to be writing a book. Is it alright if I write when my work is done and I’m not busy?”
“Is the book about Meyer?”
“Mostly. And some other people. And it’s going to be True, at least as True as I can make it.”
Percy pursed his full lips. “You make it True and you can write it,” he said. From the look on Percy’s half-Indian face, Reed knew Percy understood.
Percy stood very still. There was a stillness about him even when he was talking twice as fast as most mortals could. Read realized if he didn’t say something, Percy would smile and leave him alone.
“How do you know Meyer?” Reed said, holding onto Percy’s presence.
Percy smiled, a bit wistfully, almost sadly. “I’m not sure anyone ‘knows’ Meyer or ever will,” he said. “Meyer is like that, something just barely beyond the edges of things. But I know him around the edges. I know the edges he’s been around.”
Reed didn’t have to separate any of those words. Percy was speaking softly and slowly, like a Native American chant to the Buffalo Spirit.
“I had a friend, you see,” Percy continued, staring around the room at all the books like so many buffalo on an endless prehistoric plain. “Larry and I shared a life and a home for over 20 years. Then a tumor, no bigger than the fingernail on you pinkie finger showed up in Larry’s brain. Such a small thing, hardly worth noticing, except it was there on the X-ray in a most peculiar place in Larry’s brain.”
Percy had been talking so slowly it took Reed a moment to realize he had stopped altogether.
“Larry ended up at Holy Ghost Hospital….” Reed offered. Percy nodded.
“Larry and I were together since we were 15,” Percy said, smiling, speeding up his words. “Small New England towns and small New England minds had trouble with how…oh, ‘unashamed’ might be the word…we were about our love. We moved to Boston out of high school and both went to college here. Larry was a high school teacher—math and physics—the sweetest man….I called his family when he was really ill….” Percy stopped talking all at once. Reed fancied he could feel the prairie breeze himself, a scent of elk. “But they never came….”
“So Meyer came instead…?” Reed said.
Percy’s head swiveled toward Reed. “So you make it True,” he said.
Reed was alone, surrounded by his books. He sat at his desk and opened the top drawer. There was a manila folder that said KEY TO SYMBOLS. It contained four type-written pages about the possible combinations of stars and circles and things like that. Reed read it carefully, his lips moving silently. In ink at the bottom of the last page it said: IGNOR THIS CRAP!
Reed took a pile of check out slips and a pen and started writing about the time Meyer asked him to write a book about the Igloo Factory. He hadn’t been sure where to start, but on that morning in Byerly Hall, surrounded by books that were herded all around him like the ghosts of buffalo on some multi-leveled plain, that is where he started. And this is what he wrote:
“Someday,” Meyer said, “someday, Reed, you’ll have to record all this.”
“This?” Reed said.
“THIS,” Meyer answered, his arms wide, his face mellow, terrior-like,
A few days after Reed got his job, there was a story on page 5 of the local section of the Globe. This is all it said:
Cambridge: Cambridge Police Chief, Herman Pisoff announced
yesterday the dismissal of Sgt Michael Quinn for dereliction of
duty and interfering with a criminal investigation. No further
details were given.
Mack came by a few days later. He was dressed in white, stained by fish blood, wearing plastic gloves like a surgeon.
He sat with Reed and Brigham in Reed’s room. Mack and Reed sipped some of the last of the Schlitz for a while. Brigham sipped carrot juice. It was early evening and quiet.
“What do you hear from Meyer,” Mack asked. “I mean…you know…what do you hear?”
“It’ll work out,” Brigham said. “We’ve got the best lawyers money can buy on it. Lots of cards to play. Whole thing is out of hand right now. Need some time.”
Mack sniffed, “No, really….”
“Who knows,” Brigham said, “Meyer’s not cooperating. It’s a mess.”
They sat for a while, as still as the evening.
“What about you, Mack?” Reed finally asked.
Mack nodded hard. “I’m okay. I’m working at the fish place in Innman Square. Nice little shop. Restaurant next door. I cut in the front window and people watch me from the street.”
Brigham and Reed knew where he meant. Long tables in the restaurant. Saw dust on the floors. Big servings. Lines of customers every night.
Reed stared at Mack’s hands. The hairs on his thick fingers were pressed down, matted. The gloves were like saran-wrap.
“But the gloves…,” Reed began.
Mack smiled in a remote way. “Yeal,” he said, “I wear the gloves. I’ve tried cutting fish with them on—that would solve it all—but the cuts aren’t as clean. Maybe I’ll learn. But one day without the gloves and the smell was back….”
“You can take them off, Mack, we wouldn’t notice at all.”
“Not at all,” Brigham agreed.
Mack laughed. “Bet your ass you’d notice,” he said still laughing. Then quietly, he said, “it’s alright, really.”
They talked for a long time, long enough for Brigham to overcome his prejudice for imported wine and have a domestic beer. They spoke softly, in shadows, in fleeting words—a sweet, good talk among sad men.
When Mack got up to leave, he extended his saran-wrapped hand. “Don’t worry about Meyer,” he said, “my wife is saying novenas for him. Katherine’s novenas are strong medicine.” He smiled—positively Irish.
“Will you be alright?” Brigham asked.
“I’m great, honest,” he said, and they believed him. “I don’t mind the smell because I feel good…righteous. There’s a smell to everything…they’re all different. If you can pick your smell, you’re in good shape, you know?
“And another thing—my kids, they’re proud of me. They know I was fired because I ran interference and gave Meyer the time he needed. I didn’t call the lab people and the precinct until Meyer was taking a shower. I never called ‘homicide’,” he looked at Reed, “that little asshole that followed you down to the bridge did that. Oh, I ‘interfered’ big time with an investigation! My kids know that and understand I did the right thing.”
Mack had sniffed though all that. Reed suddenly realized it wasn’t a cold.
“We got good times,” Mack went on. “The kids and Katherine, they understand about smells now…how the other smell would have been worse.”
Brigham and Reed stood on the porch in darkness and watched Mack walk to his car. He stopped and called back, “When you see Meyer…well…well, tell him we’re praying. You know?”
They knew. No further details were given.
The night after Mack’s visit, on the first of May, Jerry tried to have a Meeting. Things were falling apart. Burned out light bulbs didn’t get replaced. The floors were dirty. The refrigerator and beer cooler were empty. Some utility bills arrived. Nothing got done.
The Meeting was Meyer’s idea. Jerry went daily to visit Meyer in Meyer’s cold, gray room to tell him how things were coming loose. Meyer suggested a Meeting. That was about all Meyer said to Jerry.
“That’s all he said,” Jerry told Reed. “He said, ‘have a Meeting. A Meeting will straighten it all out’. And then he just stared at his feet, the table, the walls. He’s driving the lawyers crazy, he won’t let them mount a defense or delay the trial. He hardly talks to them. He only talks to me and Brigham, and all he told me was to have a Meeting.”
“Has he told you what really happened?” Reed asked.
“No,” Jerry said, “Though God knows I’ve asked. I even asked him to write it down for you, so you could tell it someday. I told him he owed it to us. Can you imagine?” Jerry’s face was as gray as the room where he talked to Meyer. “Can you imagine me pulling that on Meyer? Telling him he ‘owed us’ something?”
Reed couldn’t imagine.
So there was a Meeting in Meyer’s room. Jerry sat on the bed, the way Meyer always did at Meetings, but it wasn’t enough.
Brigham came by long enough to say that Meyer’s checks had been temporarily stopped, that some quick lawyer for the Commonwealth had put a court order on the settlement. The Commonwealth was trying to free itself from its legal obligations to Meyer’s milky-white eye.
“I’ve got Fran Tucchio on it,” Brigham said, “He’ll have the money flowing again soon. Plus, there’s tons of money left anyway. We can pay the bills for years out of Meyer’s reserves.
Everyone sat like pimentos forced into olives, listening to Brigham talk about money.
“The coolers will be stocked, the bills will be paid,” he said. “I’ll get Meyer to sign over the cars to someone. And the grocery money starts again now.”
Brigham was wearing loose-fitting sweat clothes without pockets, so he fished down in his pants for a while and pulled out a wad of bills. “I’ll put it in the jar on my way out,” he said, obviously anxious to leave.
They all sat like air trapped in a basketball as Brigham left. Krista, Yodel, Sugar, Reed, Marvin and Jerry were there. Lane and Trotter were there. And there were four new people who had arrived three days before in what most likely was a stolen Plymouth Fury. There were two boys and two girls who all looked 16. They were from Indiana.
Jerry’s first mistake was to ask if there were any questions. Meyer, when he was leading Meetings, had no tolerance for questions. Meyer meted out answers.
One of the Indiana kids, Alan, who had a turtle tattooed on his right forearm, wanted to know where the dope was stored.
“This guy we met in Fort Wayne told us this was the place in Cambridge to find dope,” he said.
Alan and his friends had met Calvin while Calvin was in Fort Wayne asking around for God.
Before Jerry had finished explaining Meyer’s new rules about dope to Alan, Chris—who seemed to be Alan’s girlfriend—wanted to know why she and Alan couldn’t move into Meyer’s room.
“Look at this place,” she said, “it’s great!” She was waving her arms around and talking loud. “It’s a shame to waste this space. The room you gave us is really small and has all those damn mobiles in it.”
Alan and Chris were in Sandy’s old room, the room she had before moving in with Reed. The mobiles were her life’s work, her order. Reed took them down that night and packed them in Campbell’s soup boxes before he went to bed.
But this is Meyer’s room,” Jerry told her kindly, thinking that would explain it.
“So?” Chris said, “I mean, it’s just wasted space with a private bathroom.”
Sugar left the room crying about then. Chris wanted to know ‘what her problem was’.
“She knew Meyer,” Jerry said. “She understands what I mean.”
Reed followed Sugar into the kitchen. Marvin Gardens was already there, filling the coffee maker.
“We’re going to need lots of coffee tonight,” Marvin said. “Things aren’t going well.”
Sugar stood by the sink, crying. “They can’t know, can they, Reed?” she whimpered. “They can’t realize what the Factory is all about….”
“No”, Reed said, “How could they?”
“It’s all going to be different now, isn’t it?” Sugar had stopped crying but her lips were pursed unnaturally and she was hugging herself tightly. “I mean, the ones of us who know, we’ll drift away and a whole new group will come. And none of it will ever mean the same again. They’ll throw away the Factory sign because it’s always in the way. None of them will go to Holy Ghost. Everything is inside out and upside down now.”
“No,” Reed said, “we won’t drift away. We’ll be here and Brigham’s lawyers will get Meyer off and things will be just as they were before. You’ll see.”
Sugar hung her head like she didn’t see and Reed noticed a faint metallic taste in his mouth, like two-day-old tea, like the taste you get when you lie. Something like that.
The three of them waited in the kitchen until everyone else came out of Meyer’s room. Reed looked for a glass to get a drink of water and noticed that the Indiana kids had pushed the old dishes—the $24.95 Jordan Marsh/truck stop dishes—to the back of the cupboard and replaced them with paper plates and cups.
Jerry’s face, when he came into the kitchen after everyone else had dispersed, spoke of how bad things had gotten.
“Meetings are hard,” he told Reed. “Nothing worked. Krista just sat there and stared and Yodel didn’t say anything. Lane and Trotter—God knows what’s up with them—sat near the back holding each other. So those kids took over. One of them—is her name Dottie?—asked if she could throw away the sign.
“The Factory sign?” Sugar asked.
Jerry shook his head. “Yeal. She said it was in the way, she always had to move it to get a Coke. Christ, I’ve been moving that sign for almost two years now, but it wasn’t ever ‘in the way’.”
Sugar went to bed and Marvin Gardens drank coffee. It was just Marvin and Reed and Jerry left.
“Can you understand those kids, Reed?” Jerry asked.
Reed thought he could. He thought it had something to do with a missing piece of the puzzle, something to do with the absence of a big, one-eyed walrus. But he told Jerry he didn’t understand either.
Krista and Yodel eventually drifted back in. They all stayed up late, drinking lots of coffee and trying to talk about old times. But the ‘old times’ were somehow too fresh, not yet ready for reminiscence. A shadow got in their way. A film crept across their eyes.
When Marvin went out for a walk, the bell over the sink sand a quick song. “Ting, Tingle,” it sang.
Reed and Jerry and Yodel smiled at Krista. Something, at any rate, seemed hopeful. But she shook her head and pointed to the kitchen door. Marvin had left it open behind him.
“The wind,” Krista said.
“The wind,” they all answered.
They talked about getting Meyer out of jail, about bringing in F. Lee Bailey or driving the VW bus through the jailhouse wall. But their hearts weren’t in it and they know Meyer would never agree. Some white hot flame in Meyer had grown cold. He would sit and stare and not talk to the lawyers. He didn’t want any visitors except Brigham and Jerry. They could feel the cold in the Factory air—a chill that made them shiver and speak in whispers and drink coffee to guard themselves against the world.
The Indiana kids left the next night, stealing all the grocery money and much of the beer Brigham had delivered that morning. The regulars were anxious about who would show up next but, mercifully, nobody did, not for months, not until Franklin came, the Last Wanderer on the Earth to wander to the Factory. By the time Franklin came, everyone but Jerry and Reed were gone.
People leaving is like the taste of two-day-old tea.
People leaving is like watching a bird die.
A bird flutters softly as it dies—like all the flying getting out.
Yodel was the first to go. He left in early June. His bags were packed, even his mountain climbing gear was packed, when Reed came into his room. He gave Reed a Star Market shopping bag full of books.
“These are David Endevor’s novels,” he said, “I’m sometimes David Endevor. I Hope you read them someday and think of me.”
It had not occurred to Reed that Yodel ever needed to be thought of. He said he would think of him often.
“What is your real name?” Reed asked, though his Midwestern soul thought it was an impertinent question. “I mean, well, I’d like to remember you by your real name.”
Yodel smiled. Positively Howdy Doody.
“I’m sure I told someone when I first came,” he said, “but then Meyer started calling me Yodel and I grew to like it.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Reed said, suddenly embarrassed.
“No, it’s fine,” Yodel responded. “I do have a name though it’s terribly ordinary. I’m Douglas David Smith of the Oklahoma City Smiths. Pleased to meet you.”
Yodel extended his hand. Reed was still holding the bag of books and had to shift them awkwardly to take it. He didn’t remember ever touching Yodel…Douglas…before. He somehow had imagined his hand would be wooden—like his bread spoons, like Howdy Doody.
“Thomas Reed Daley,” Reed said, noticing how warm and soft Yodel’s hand was, how alive and real, like fresh dough, “of the Cleveland Daleys.” Shaking hands like that, they both smiled. “I thought you must be from California,” Reed said.
“Never been there except in my mind. But I plan to go through there on the way to Asia. I’m going to Asia to climb a mountain or two.” Yodel’s face suddenly softened out of its marionette smile. “I’ve never gone so long before without climbing a mountain. I think I’ll grow a goatee and hang around Tibet for a while. Knowing Meyer made me forget how great mountains are. Knowing Meyer and climbing mountains are about the nearest I’ve ever been to being happy.”
“Doesn’t writing books make you happy?” Reed asked, finally setting down the bag of San Francisco detective novels.
Douglas “Yodel” Smith smiled his wooden smile. “Not my writing,” he said, nodding to the shopping bag on the floor, “not writing about Sgt Sunshine and all the vices I imagine in San Francisco—though I’m quite good at it—writing about that just gives me the money to climb mountains whenever and wherever I want.
“I’m actually sorry that all I have to give you to remember me by is Sgt Sunshine and Amber, though I must admit Amber Darkly is a fascinating character. I’d rather leave you bread, but bread doesn’t keep as long as I want to be remembered. I’d rather you remember me by eating my bread rather than reading my books.”
Reed nodded. He somehow understood. Mountains and fresh bread would always remind him of Yodel.
“I did make a little bread though,” Yodel said. “It’s in the basement with Meyer’s wine making stuff. I wrapped it in cheese cloth and aluminum foil. It’s mostly fruit breads, they keep better. And I’m leaving my pans and bowls and wooden spoons. Always use a wooden spoon when you make bread.”
Reed said he would.
“And I hope Sandy is strong again soon,” Yodel said, moving over to hug Reed. “I’ll think of you two often.”
His hug was soft and warm—bread just out of the oven.
A week to the day after Yodel left, Sugar told Reed she was going home. They were holding each other against the world. It was dark, the middle of the night.
“I called my Daddy,” Sugar said, “and Vachel is flying out to get me day after tomorrow.” Her voice was fragile, delicate as hand-blown glass. “We’ll go back together. Daddy got Vachel a job in newspapers and he’d making enough money to think about getting married in a year or two, if that seems right.”
“Do you mind it?” Reed asked, suddenly as sad as wet sand, “the going back?”
“It won’t be good there, Reed. But it’s not good here anymore either. Nothing seems to fit except you arms around me in the night, just holding me.” She began crying softly, shivering like a cold bird. Reed held her as gently as an egg. Nothing more was said. They were close.
Two mornings later, Jerry drove to Logan Airport and picked Vachel up. Vachel had on a gray, double-breasted, summer suit. His soft hair fell across his face from time to time and he brushed it away with the back of his hand.
Reed and Vachel talked. Vachel told him about his job in newspapers while Sugar and Jerry loaded her few things in the VW bus. They loaded them like they were making a nest.
“Do you still write songs,” Reed asked, “songs about a world where you can be? Sugar sang some of them for me. They’re like butterflies and lightening bugs. I liked them a lot.”
Vachel shrugged and his hair fell across his face like leaves across a lawn. “Not as much as I’d like,” he said. “I’m, you know, pretty busy.” They left it at that.
Sugar and Vachel held hands and drank coffee before they left. Their hands were like dissimilar flowers longing to grow from the same root.
“Are you coming with us to the airport, Reed?” Sugar asked.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I have to go and guard books. And airports aren’t my favorite places. People leaving…you know….”
Sugar said she knew. She said people leaving was like a bird dying.
Vachel shook Reed’s hand. Though Reed was only a couple of years older, he thought Vachel was very young, childlike. “Thank you for taking care of Susan,” Vachel said, awkwardly, “she told me how you took her in. And, you know, don’t worry about her. It’ll be good. I’ll make it work. We’re going to find that world—the one where we can be.”
Sugar hugged Reed fiercely. She was a small, fierce, feathery animal. Her cardboard hair fell across her back. Reed rubbed her vertebrae with his finger tips, trying to let his hand memorize the tracks they made.
“Believe him,” she whispered, “believe what Vachel says….For me….”
Reed would have believed anything for Sugar, so he believed even that.
Vachel and Sugar and Jerry and Vincent Price got into the VW bus and pulled away. Nobody waved. Waving makes it harder.
In another week, Krista woke Reed up. It was like apples falling from the tree. She was by his bed with a tall, bearded man. She said his name was Aaron. She said his name felt wonderful when she said it.
“We’re leaving, Reed,” she said, “Aaron and I. We’re going to Kentucky to live on a commune. Aaron has a beard.”
Reed nodded. Aaron did have a beard.
“Aaron has a Ford truck,” she said. “We’re going to raise potatoes and make five girl babies. They will be as perfect as my candle and at night we’ll sit together and my head will be in Aaron’s lap and the girls will play beside us and the flame from my candles will light our minds.”
Reed smiled through mist. His eyes were stained glass windows. The sun was shining. Krista was deliriously happy.
“You know what else, Reed? We’re going through Buckhannon on the way to Kentucky to see your buffalo and put flowers on your friend’s grave.”
Krista sat on Reed’s bed and held him near. He felt her perfect body next to his for the last time. He could feel her heart fluttering like a swan about to fly. Aaron leaned over and hugged them both, guarding them against the world.
They went downstairs and ate eggs that Marvin Gardens fried in butter. Marvin had stopped watching TV and simply cooked for the dwindling population of the Factory whenever anyone wanted to eat. He also brewed dark, rich, almost sticky coffee that tasted sweet even without sugar.
As he ate, Reed thought of Lysander’s grave where Aaron and Krista would leave flowers. He thought as well of Pierce’s grave in Louisiana. After a week or so, a great aunt had claimed his body and had it flown home to Baton Rouge for a funeral with full military honors. No one had known Pierce was from Louisiana, Baton Rouge or otherwise.
While Krista packed her candle making gear into soup boxes, Aaron sat at the table and told Reed how much he loved her, how he wanted her always near him. Krista heard every word and the wind bell chimed away. Even when she took it down and put it in the box, it continued to ring. Reed was about to ask them how they met since Krista seldom left the Factory, but they were ready to go by then.
They were like two mushrooms.
Like nesting birds.
Aaron and Krista.
It was less than a week after that when Marvin Gardens announced to Reed and Jerry over French Toast with strawberries and maple syrup, that he was going to make a movie—a movie that would be True. The world’s first absolutely True movie.
Marvin sold his TV set and bought a portable Underwood typewriter. He put the typewriter of the 373 98-cent spiral notebooks he had in his attic. The notebooks, stacked correctly, made a tolerable desk.
While Reed was at the library and Jerry at his counseling center, Marvin would work on his script. When Reed came home, he and Marvin would sit at the kitchen table talking and drinking ebony coffee. Marvin’s idea for his movie came to him in a dream he felt was inspired by coffee. There was lots of coffee consumed in the Factory in those days, though there were only three people to consume it.
“My movie,” Marvin would say, “will be like a small suitcase for a two-day trip. Just enough and no more. And True. Not an untrue sock or a pair of false underwear.
Or, he’d say: “My movie will be like a sunset in Salmon, Idaho and a buffalo in Buckhannon, West Virginia and a commune in Kentucky and the heat of Turkey. Just the way that is and no other way.”
Or: “My movie will be Truth twenty-four times a second.”
Reed always thought Marvin had borrowed that last saying, but he never knew from whom.
Once he even said: “My movie will be like counting a bowl of guppies blindfolded.”
Reed never understood that saying, no matter how hard he tried.
Whenever Reed would ask him what his movie was going to ‘be about’, Marvin would get an over-the-rainbow look in his eyes and smile like the man in the picture above your grandmother’s couch.
“The silences,” he’d say, grinning mysteriously. “And the spaces between letters in a word. And the gaps between your teeth. The air under your fingernails. The sound of an empty room. The emptiness between your body’s cells. Spaces and silences…you know.”
“Will it be about Life?” Reed would hear himself asking at times like those. He was never sure he liked hearing himself say that.
Marvin Gardens would stare at him, his face as transparent as saran wrap and as unassuming as an elbow. And he’d say, simply, slowly, softly: “Isn’t it all?”
The only letter Reed ever received from Sandy was on August 6, 1969—which, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he knew was both the Feast of the Transfiguration and the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. She wrote it from Newman’s clinic in Rockport and he opened and read it in Byerly Hall when no one was asking him for a book or a periodical. It was a blazing hot day and most everyone was avoiding the libraries. The only thing between Reed and melting was a fan near his desk that occasionally shattered green bugs into little glass chips.
Reed had carried the letter in his hip pocket all day, waiting for the Perfect Time to read it. Sandy’s letter was the first thing in a long time that made Reed glad he had remembered how to read. Reading had exposed him to the endless stories about Meyer. He’d also had to read a lot about Viet Nam and President Nixon. Except for reading street signs and subway posters, Reed hadn’t found a compelling reason to be literate until Sandy’s letter. He kept the single sheet of yellow legal pad in his pocket for weeks, reading and re-reading it hundreds of times until he had memorized every word.
This is how the letter began:
Dear, dear Reed,
It ain’t for nothing they call it ‘shit’.
‘Shit’ is what Newman calls heroin. Lots of people call it
that. Even people who never used heron call it ‘shit’.
Reed read that part to Marvin the next morning at breakfast.
“Are you going to write that book Meyer asked you to?” Marvin asked.
“About the Factory, you mean?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean.”
“How do you know about that?” Reed asked.
“Everyone knows about it. Meyer told everybody. He seemed to have some doubts about your follow through.” Marvin looked at him. “Are you going to?”
“Someday I will,” Reed answered, concerned about his ‘follow through’ reputation and hoping he wasn’t lying.
“Will Sandy’s letter be in it?” Marvin was holding his coffee mug with both hands, like something holy and to keep from shaking from caffeine.
“Yes,” Reed said, “maybe not the whole thing but what it said and meant to me. And not because she put heroin in her veins, but because I love her. She’ll be a big part of the book. And her letter.”
“I remember when Newman came for Sandy,” Marvin said. “I’d been up late and overslept. I made ham and Swiss sandwiches for breakfast.”
“I remember”, Reed said, “somehow I remember everything about that morning.”
Marvin smiled. He’d been outside more since he stopped watching TV. He had a little color in his face. “What I remember is that you and Sandy never said anything to each other. You avoided her. I wondered then if you really loved her.”
“Me too,” Reed said, more candidly than he intended. “I couldn’t look at her and she couldn’t look at me. Sometimes, it seems to me, loving is like that.”
“I’ve never been in love,” Marvin said, but not sadly, “so I wouldn’t know.”
Even though they had been in love, Sandy and Reed hadn’t been able to look at each other in the few moments she was conscious that morning. She was afraid he would judge her and he was ashamed that he already had. When Reed looked at her as Jerry and Newman carried her out, he had thought: “So much….So much,” which might be the worst way of judging someone.
Marvin read Sandy’s whole letter. “It’s a good letter,” he said, handing it back to Reed like was Torah. “She’s fighting, getting better, getting out from under judgment.”
Reed waited for him to say something more.
“Meyer never judged anyone,” Marvin said, “except Pierce, I guess, but who knows what happened there.” He got up for more coffee. “I shake so much from coffee I can hardly walk,” he said, half-stumbling back to his chair.
“I’m a Jew,” Marvin said.
“No,” Marvin said, “not like that. I’m a real Jew. I read Torah with the rabbis for years. Different plates for different food. No milk with meat. Lots of hand washing and lots of prayers. A real Jew, that’s what I am.”
Reed got more coffee. He was shaking too.
“But not any more,” Marvin continued when Reed sat back down. It was a conversation that required sitting, plus they didn’t shake as much in chairs. “I’m going to be a new kind of Jew. There’s too much judgment—this clean, that unclean, a right way and wrong way to do everything.” He stared at Reed for a moment. “Did you judge Sandy?”
“Oh, yes,” Reed smiled sadly. “But not about the drugs. Mostly I judged her because the way I wanted things to be wasn’t True. I blamed her for making me wrong. I judged her for my own failings.”
“Truth is the greatest judge,” Marvin said, like he was reading from a commentary on Genesis. “Thanks for being truthful with me, Reed. I think we learned that here.”
Reed read Sandy’s letter again, for what must been the 301st time.
“Sandy will be in my movie too,” Marvin said, “or someone like her—someone who doesn’t always see the reason for living. Someone who knows what it means to want to die. There’s something ironically hopeful in wanting to die—something that says whatever comes next might be better than this.
“There’s a great deal to be said for people like that—people who don’t have the handle to life and aren’t satisfied that there isn’t a handle.”
Reed liked Marvin Gardens more and more. He liked that Marvin was going to entitle his movie “The World’s First Absolutely True Movie”. His movie, he told Reed, was going to end with a parade.
“Did Meyer ask you to end it with a parade?” Reed asked.
“No,” Marvin said flatly. “Meyer never asked me to do anything except make breakfast, which was the best thing in the world for me to do. My movie just needs to end with a parade.”
They talked about parades until it was time for Reed to go to work. Back at work, making notes about his talk with Marvin on the back of Harvard University Library call slips, Reed began to feel hopeful. It was the first time he’d felt hopeful since Sandy went away.
The article in the Sunday Globe was below the fold on page two. It was the second Sunday in August. It had been over four months since Meyer cut Pierce’s throat and the story had migrated to the bowels of the newspaper. Because Meyer wouldn’t allow Brigham’s lawyers to use the delaying tactics at their disposal and because the Commonwealth wanted “swift judgment”, according to the Commonwealth’s prosecutors, Meyer was already in court. The story of the guilty plea was back on page 2, but only because Meyer used Morse Code to enter his plea. A Coast Guard expert had to be brought into the court after the lunch break to translate Meyer’s taps.
When that happened, in the heat of Cambridge’s hottest month, Reed said to Jerry. “I didn’t know Meyer knew Morse Code. Did you?"
Jerry was pouring through the tabloids as if trying to memorize every word written about the scene in the courtroom.
“Listen to this part, Reed,” he said, almost laughing, “Distinct from his earlier appearances in court, when Mr. Meyer was passive to the point that the judge asked his counsel on several occasions if the accused was able to understand the proceeding, the enigmatic Meyer was alert and animated. He seemed to almost enjoy the events swirling around him. Dressed in his own clothes, since the Circuit Court had ruled wearing jail clothes might be prejudicial to his case, Mr. Meyer stared around the room, smiling and waving to some of the reporters. He wore jeans, black-top tennis shoes and a Red Sox jersey topped by an improbable Harvard University tie….”
Jerry was laughing. “Jesus do you believe this?”
“Jerry….” Reed tried to interrupt.
“No, wait, it gets better,” Jerry continued reading. “When Judge Maxwell asked if the defendant was ready to enter a plea, Meyer nodded solemnly, took a pencil from the defense table and began beating out a rhythm on the arm of his chair. The judge waited for over a minute, thinking the tapping was a nervous habit or merely the defendant’s way of showing he was considering his plea. Then Judge Maxwell demanded that Meyer’s counsel instruct their client to speak.
“It was then that Attorney Bruce O’Brian, a senior member of O’Brian, Tucchio and Goldstein, the distinguished Back Bay firm defending Mr. Meyer, explained to the judge that his client insisted on entering his plea in Morse Code. The judge, barely restraining his outrage, called the lawyers and prosecutors into his chambers. For ten minutes, Meyer continued to tap, from time to time pointing to someone in the gallery to indicate the next message was being sent to them.”
“Jerry,” Reed said, catching Jerry in a laugh that interrupted the staccato pace of his reading. “Jerry, remind me again, though we’ve had this conversation a hundred times, why didn’t we go to court, to watch, to see him?”
“Two hundred times,” Jerry said.
“We’ve had this conversation 200 times,” his eyes shined with a sad, gray light. “And the answer is the same as before—it just wouldn’t do, Reed. Just wouldn’t do.” Then he shrugged, “besides, Meyer told me he’d cut our throats if we showed up…and given his history….”
“He really said that, the part about cutting our throats?”
“Yeah, he did, a couple of months ago.” Jerry shook his head. “There’s a bit of fight left, but not enough, not nearly enough. It would be hard on him if we were there. And it would be too sad for us. We’d see right through this maniacal act he gave them. We’d see right through it down to the dark river of pain that’s running through him. He wouldn’t be able to tolerate that.”
Jerry paused and stared at where the wind bell used to hang above the sink. They were sitting in the kitchen, the table littered with newspapers. They could hear Meyer’s Air-Temp humming in the next room.
“We really ought to turn that damned air-conditioner down,” Jerry said. When neither of them moved, he added, “It just wouldn’t do to be there. It’s stuff for the comic pages. Listen to this one last thing.”
“I’ve read it all already.”
Jerry’s eyes burned into Reed’s with a steely anger. “Don’t get puckish, Reed,” he said, “We’ve both read it all too many times. We’ve reached the point of Ritual. Just listen.”
“Here’s the part from the transcript, Jerry read:
“JUDGE MAXWELL: What is he saying?
LT. COLERIDGE: He’s asking the court if he can have a Schlitz, your honor.
JUDGE MAXWELL: Mr. Meyer, that is not a plea…. What is he saying now?
LT. COLERIDGE: (pause) He…ah…is saying that he is pleading for a Schlitz.”
Jerry mercifully lost interest in reading and the two of them went into Meyer’s room to turn the Air-temp down to medium and drink the last two bottles of Meyer’s apple wine. “It’s like a Ritual,” Jerry said. But they didn’t seem to be able to get drunk. It was if they had forgotten how.
Then Marvin Gardens left. Another apple off the tree—it was autumn, after all, and the tree was all but bare.
People leaving is like sitting in an empty room, listening for the blood coursing through your veins, like the sound of the ocean, far away.
Marvin sold his typewriter and bought a super-eight movie camera.
“I’m going to New York first,” he told Reed, “to try to find money for my movie. New York is where money lives. But even if I don’t find any money, I’ll make my movie. I’ll produce it and direct it and film it and edit it and if I can find someone, just one person, to hold the camera from time to time, I’ll be in it too. It’s just something I need to do.”
“I’m going to miss you,” Reed said. As soon as he said it he wanted to have it back. It was something he seldom said. I was just so obvious, like saying “if you walk in the rain your hair will start to look like seaweed.” And every time he’d ever said it in his life, the person he said it to had no choice but to nod and say, “me too.”
Marvin Gardens nodded.
“Me too,” he said.
Before he left, he made some more coffee. Everyone else was gone. Marvin and Reed and Jerry wandered around the huge old house like three widows, living out some borrow time drinking coffee. So, like caterpillars becoming butterflies, Marvin and Reed drank one more cup of coffee. Jerry was out, down at his counseling center. The war was raging and he met many people who didn’t want to die half-a-world away.
“You can have the notebooks in my room,” Marvin told Reed. “They took two years to fill and seem useless to me right now. They make a tolerable desk if you stack them correctly.”
That was the next to next to last thing he said before he left.
The next to last thing he said was this: “It’s like Meyer died, you know—him instead of Pierce. I think I see Pierce skulking around the hallways from time to time. But I don’t see Meyer. It’s like he died and became the house, turned into the Factory. I don’t see him, but it’s like he’s in the walls and doors and chairs. Everywhere. Kind of sad and smiling inside the Coke machine. Somehow, that’s why I have to leave, so he can just be the house.”
“It’s like he made the place sacred,” Reed said, “and it’s very hard to live in a sacred place for long….”
Then Marvin said the last thing he ever said in the Factory. “Something like that,” he said.
Then he left, carrying his camera and his script like two precious, sacred things.
It was quiet in the Igloo Factory after the door closed behind him. The Coke machine smiled sadly at Reed and hummed like the ocean far away. That was the only sound to be heard.
Reed went up to Marvin’s attic and found a carbon copy of the first part of his movie script. Before he left to guard the books in Byerly Hall, he read it.
This is what it said:
THE WORLD’S FIRST ABSOLUTELY TRUE MOVIE
A film by Marvin Gardens
SCENE ONE: (Long shot) of the sun rising over the Bitter Range in Idaho. There is snow on the top of the mountains. The sun is shimmering orange.
CUT TO: (Long shot) of an aged woman dressed in a long, old-fashioned lavender dress. She is working in a small turnip patch.
CUT TO: (Close up of her face) it is the face of many winters and turnips. She is smiling a peculiar Idaho smile.
CUT TO: (interior of the house, the kitchen) it is streaked with sunlight. Golden mountain biscuits are cooling on the table. An ancient clock is ticking. A small, wispy boy runs in and takes a biscuit. He bursts through the screen door which shuts with a loud bang as
CUT TO: (long shot) of the boy coming through the door to outside. The boy runs toward the woman, shouting:
BOY: Aunt Ursa! Aunt Ursa!
CUT TO: shot of woman leaning on her hoe like a stick leans against the wall. She smiles and gives the boy a peculiar Idaho wave.
CUT TO: (close up) Boy eating the biscuit. As he finishes it
ZOOM BACK: boy starts throwing a softball in the air and catching it.
CAMERA TRACKS IN SLOW CIRCLE ABOVE BOY’S HEAD: He is agile, lithe, adroit, as graceful as a swan in brown water.
After Marvin Gardens left, Reed and Jerry watched time and Franklin pass.
Franklin was the last of the Wanderers on the Earth to wander through the Igloo Factory. He was a six foot five inch Black kid, 18 years old, from Savannah, Georgia who had been on a basketball scholarship at Boston College. Something happened—something racial, Reed and Jerry imagined, though they never knew for sure—and he dropped out of school in the first month of his Sophomore year. He had averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds as a Freshman, so whatever happened was serious.
Franklin had been afraid to go home, so he’d hung around Harvard Square, sleeping the doorway of the Harvard Coop, smoking as much dope as he could afford. Jerry found him and brought him to the Factory. The house was nearly empty by then. Jerry and Reed decided to let Franklin use Meyer’s room—not much was sacred anymore…or everything was.
Franklin and Reed, two jocks, became friends. Franklin would come to Byerly Hall with Reed most days and sit at a table reading books on education. He told Reed about John Holt and Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman and Montessori and Dewey. Reed never read any of the books he guarded and was amazed by what Franklin told him they contained.
All Franklin wanted to do was be a school teacher, teaching little Black kids in Georgia how to be something besides basketball players and dope smokers. It was what he called his “Mission in Life”. Franklin had a lot to say about ‘Mission’.
“This Meyer,” he told Reed and Jerry one day at breakfast—cold cereal and toasted Wonder Bread since Marvin had left, “he had a huge ‘mission’. Just sleeping in his bed, I’ve picked that up. He was sent here to do what he did, to make a space where people could just ‘be’ for a while. Just ‘being’ is hard to do. You know what I mean?”
Jerry and Reed ate cornflakes and knew what Franklin meant.
“Mission is what it’s all about,” Franklin said. “Mission, being sent for that and nothing else. You know what I mean?”
Jerry and Reed bent over their bowls, trying to know what Franklin meant.
When Franklin wasn’t talking about ‘mission’ or reading about education, he played basketball. On the warm autumn days when Reed got off work at 3, he’d meet Franklin at a school yard in Somerville, on Washington Street, and play basketball until dark.
Franklin was golden—a swan in brown water, a gull in flight, a huge bird, dipping and soaring and moving with matchless grace. Easy. Smooth. Fluid. Beside him, Reed was mechanical and sterile. All Reed’s movements were born of thought, not instinct.
As good as Reed had been at Massanuttin and as valued as he was as a pickup player at the playground, he could never begin to match Franklin. He began to merely to assist Franklin, throwing him the ball mechanically but well, leading him toward the hoop, feeding him for jump shots. The teen aged kids who hung around the playground stopped wanting to play Franklin and Reed two-on-two or three-on-two or four-on-two. They just wanted to watch Reed pass the ball to Franklin as he soared toward the basket. They just wanted to see Franklin barely ruffle the net on 20 foot jump shots time after time.
Franklin, those kids told Reed, moved in slow motion, but faster than anyone they knew. Franklin, those kids told Reed, reminded them of how much grace and beauty there could be in a game with a ball and a hoop. Those kids never said it that way, but that’s what they meant.
And those kids gathered around Franklin like moths around a flame—which wasn’t a bad analogy for it all. Franklin, for his part, took them under his wings, visited their homes to help them with math, warned them about the temptations of this world, gave them books he bought with the grocery money Brigham brought by every week.
Autumn, like a powerful river, drew Franklin home.
“I’m going to a little college in Savannah,” he told Reed one day. “Jerry called and got me in. Brigham is paying my tuition this year. No one will want me to be their basketball-nigger. I’m going to become a teacher.
“You should see them, Reed, those little kids on my block. They’re just milling around, killing time, waiting for time to kill them. They need someone like me, someone with a ‘mission’.”
By that time, Reed had money from the jig-saw puzzle box from Brigham. He bought Franklin a ticket from Logan to Savannah, with a stop in Charlotte. Jerry drove Franklin to the airport. Reed couldn’t stand airports by that time—or goodbyes.
Sunshine fell without much warmth. It was October. Reed was tired of waiting for Sandy. He was tired of guarding books. He was tired of writing down his memories on lunch bags and call slips and the last pages of some of Marvin’s spiral notebooks. He came to realize—like getting hit with a fish in the face—that he wasn’t writing a book. He was writing call slips and lunch bags and pages torn from notebooks. He wasn’t even sure any of it was True—the way Meyer wanted.
So Reed called Percy and told him he needed a rest. Percy said he would cover. Percy understood.
Reed took a train to Boston Common and wandered down to where the old men sit on an army of benches. He sat with them and wondered how it felt to be old. And since the old men sit near one of Boston’s Official Burial Grounds, Reed wondered about death. He wondered about Pierce and Lysander and his father and people from Holy Ghost that he knew who were dead. He thought about all the dead he knew and he wondered if the old men knew more dead people than living ones.
While he wondered, he watched the old men. Some of them were drunk, though it was early morning, and smelled of cheap wine. But they were not satisfied. They asked Reed for money to buy more wine and get drunker and pass out. A few old men had already passed out on their benches and smelled like rotten potatoes and soured milk. They did not ask for money. They seemed satisfied.
The rest of the old men—the ones who weren’t drunk or sleeping—were wearing cardigan sweaters and dress shirts with the top button buttoned and talking with other old men dressed the same way. They seemed almost satisfied. They talked about politics and people they knew who were dead and about the pigeons that walked all around them. The old men and the pigeons seemed to live together peaceably.
Reed spent the first day of October in Boston Common where all the old men sit on benches, within sound of busy Tremont Street and within sight of the gold dome of the capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They were all there—the old men and the pigeons and Reed—and the time was passing. While the time passed, one old man with a deeply lined face read Tolstoy and other old men talked about the Mayor and the Governor and played chess and yet other old men drank wine and passed out. One final old man came to join them. He had dark, crooked teeth and sunken cheeks and a patchy, white, two day old beard. He smelled faintly of apples, soured and crushed.
He sat beside Reed, crossing his legs so his ivory shins would shine in the cool October sun beneath his neatly ironed dress pants. They talked. The old man’s voice was raspy and reminded Reed of a Laundromat—of how hard it is to hear in a Laundromat. The old man asked questions.
“Whatya’ doin’ today?” was his first question.
“I’m resting,” Reed said. “I work in a library and I’m trying to write a book. But today I am resting, sitting here with you and the pigeons.”
“What kinda book is it goin’ to be?” the old man asked.
Reed thought for a while—mostly about the old man’s voice. Through the buzz and whirl, from all the accent lessons Jerry had given him, Reed decided the old man was from Delaware or Maryland.
“What kinda book?” the old man repeated. He must have gotten tired of waiting for Reed to answer, though he didn’t seem at all irritated. He seemed to have all the time in the world.
“A True book,” Reed said. “My book wants to be True. It wants to tell the story that has to be told—the story I promised my friend I would tell. And it will end with a parade.”
The old man shook his head. “A parade?”
“Yes, a parade.”
“Why, boy? What will that prove?”
Reed thought about that for a while. The old man waited patiently. While he thought, Reed watched proud, dirty pigeon strut around. For some reason the pigeon reminded him of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The only time Reed was ever at Arlington National Cemetery, the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier fainted. Everyone there, watching the guard, knew he was going to faint. He stumbled a few times and looked very sloppy. But he didn’t stop, even though the people were talking about him and even though they were getting their cameras ready and even though sweat stood on his face like a dozen green bugs on a leaf. He just stumbled up and down the red carpet in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier until he fainted and fell on his face.
He laid there with people taking his picture and whispering about the blood coming out the corner of his mouth that, since it was red, wouldn’t stain the red carpet and how the rifle butt hit him in the crotch when he fell. Some other guards, who didn’t seem embarrassed at all, came and carried him away amidst much saluting and clicking of heels and another guard started walking up and down in front of the tomb.
Reed’s father, who was as alive then as he was dead while Reed sat in Boston Common, had taken him to Arlington National Cemetery while Reed’s mother and Caroline watched cartoons in the hotel. Reed’s father had taken him there to teach him things. The two things Reed remembered were Rituals (which Meyer re-taught him later) and Sacred Ground.
Reed and his father had stood at stiff attention for a passing procession with muffled drums and Marines carrying rifles and a black hearse winding slowing through the cemetery. Reed asked why people had funerals and his father taught him that funerals were Rituals and Rituals are very important.
“A Ritual, Reed,” his father told him (in almost the same words Meyer used), “is something that helps us put order in our lives. You see, it’s something that helps us make sense out of living. Do you see?”
Reed said he did see. He was 10 at the time and leaving for Massanuttin in the fall. In the distance, a bugle was sobbing and guns were being fired. It seemed like a celebration of sorts. But Reed would remember it as a Making Sacred Celebration because of what his father taught him about Sacred Ground.
“The ground is sacred because people have died to make it that way. When someone dies for something, that makes something sacred. People dying. Do you see?”
Reed said he did see, though he wasn’t quite sure. He thought that Making Sacred Rituals were sad.
All that went running through Reed’s mind while he watched the pigeon and tried to figure out what the parade at the end of his book would prove. The old man waited for an answer and Reed finally gave him this one: “The parade is a Ritual. It tries to make sense out of the Truth. It is the Ritual of people living and people dying. And the dying part is what makes my story Sacred. It is a celebration—the parade, I mean—but it is a sad, sacred celebration. That’s what the parade proves.”
The old man shook his ivory shin and scratched it with a stiff, knotted finger. There was a siren in the distance toward Tremont Street. Reed thought someone might be dying, making something sacred.
“That don’t make much sense, boy,” the old man said. “Sounds pretty confused to me, but I’ll let it be alright if that’s what you say.” His voice was full of wheeze and scratch, like a vacuum cleaner. He nodded solemnly and pursed his lips. There was a yellowish stain above his top lip from the smoke of cigarettes.
The two of them sat in silence for a while.
“You don’t happen to have a spare cigarette, do you, boy?” the old man asked. “My daughter and my doctor took my smokes money away. I’m 87 and can’t die with a cigarette.”
Reed didn’t have any cigarettes and apologized, wishing he had some.
“Would you read my book?” Reed asked, after a while. It mattered to him somehow.
The cemetery guard pigeon strutted over and stared at the old man’s shin. It seemed to be looking at itself, like a child before a mirror, like a young girl catching her passing in a store window, like that.
“I don’t think I’d read it,” the old man finally said, shooing the bird away. Reed had watched his face while he considered the pigeon and formulated his answer. The old man’s face was like winter, like snow, like white on white forever. “Nothing personal, you understand. I don’t read books. I read newspapers sometimes, but not books. Mostly I just sit here and look around.”
Reed nodded, trying not to take it personally.
“I only read two books in my life,” the old man went on. “One was the Bible and the other was about Baltimore. I didn’t like either one. I know the Bible is supposed to be sacred, but I didn’t care for it.”
Reed kept nodding, realizing that ‘sacred’ might be too grand, too pretension a word to use for his book. Even though Pierce died to make it like that and even though Meyer was like dead in Cambridge City Jail, waiting to be transferred to some state prison. Even though he planned to end it with a parade.
Finally, Jerry left—the last apple to fall.
“Newman called while you were out,” Jerry said. “Sandy will be here soon, a week, maybe, so I can go.”
Reed couldn’t leave since he was waiting for Sandy and had no where else to wait. Jerry talked to Reed for hours the day before he left. He was off to somewhere, maybe the West Coast before winter came. Maybe New Mexico. He wasn’t sure.
“I’m not sure where,” he told Reed, “but somewhere besides here, at least for the winter. It’s October and you never know about snow in this latitude. Remember how it snowed last winter?”
“So, I’ve got to go,” he went on, as if asking for permission. “I hate I won’t be here to visit Meyer…Jesus, no, that’s not true! I don’t mean that. I can’t stand going to see Meyer right now. I’d rather move into a ward at Holy Ghost than go see him and watch him turn gray and disappear. Every since the guilty plea—how he hammed that up—just nothing there. The lights are on but no one’s home. Visiting Meyer is one of the things I’m running from—winter and visiting Meyer.”
When Jerry stopped talking, he just stared at the kitchen floor. He looked tired to Reed. There were puffy bags around his eyes and lines from the corners of his mouth. He clinched a fist and struck himself on the knee.
“He just gave up. Of all the things I would have expected of him, that wasn’t one of them.” Jerry shook his head slowly from side to side, like watching tennis. “Could you, in your wildest imagination have imagined this?”
Reed had to admit he couldn’t have. The one thing he would have never predicted about the wildly unpredictable Meyer T Meyer was a loss of soul, a death of spirit, giving up.
The Factory was silent. There was no noise, no movement. Sugar was in Illinois. Yodel was in Asia by then. Marvin Gardens was somewhere making a movie. Krista was on her Kentucky commune and seldom wrote to them anymore. Trotter and Lane and all the others had scattered to the winds. Pierce was dead. Meyer had lost his fight. The kids from Indiana were somewhere—God knows where. Franklin was in Savannah. When Jerry left the next morning, Reed would be alone in the house on Broadway.
“You know what, Jerry?”
“No, tell me, Big Reed.” They both smiled involuntarily at that echo of Meyer.
“I can hear my heart beating at night. I can hear the blood going through my veins. You know how that is. How it can be that still and quiet?”
Jerry nodded. He knew.
“Reed,” he said, just before going to pack, “I’d like to take the sign.”
The Factory sign, the one in the hallway, ‘the’ sign.” Then Jerry realized Reed was putting him on, pulling his leg. “Jesus, Reed, you’ve recovered in spite of all this….”
“Take the sign, Jerry. It’s yours….”
“And Vincent Price? Can I have him too?”
Reed hadn’t thought of the dog. Jerry was taking the bus and he and Sandy would take the bug. Vincent Price had to go with one of them.
“Take care of him, won’t you?”
“What’s to take care of, you moron? All he needs is a little kibble and a car to sleep in.” They both laughed in spite of themselves.
(Jerry didn’t make it to New Mexico any more than Reed and Sandy got to Idaho. He and the dog went back to Maryland for a year or two, long enough for the Bishop to reinstate Jerry as a ‘priest in good standing’, as long as he kept his clothes on. Then he headed back to Boston to begin a ministry to AIDS victims, visit Meyer in prison and look after John Henry. John Henry’s mom died of an overdose in 1972 and Brigham’s lawyers found a way to make Jerry his legal guardian. John Henry finished High School and took a degree in Social Work from Northeastern before becoming Jerry’s assistant in Blood Ties. Something about Holy Ghost never got out of their hearts. In 1974, Jerry sent Sandy and Reed a letter draped in black. Inside was a fine, vellum card that said only this:
(?—May 4, 1974)
The dog had died as he had lived, on the back seat of the VW bus. Jerry and John Henry, risking arrest from trespassing, had gone in the dark of night and buried Vincent Price’s ashes in the yard of the house that used to be the Igloo Factory. “He rests with the Call of the Wild,” Jerry wrote them, “God bless us all,” With the card was a picture of the three of them—Jerry, John Henry and Vincent Price at Nahant Beach. John Henry was 18, Jerry was aging, God knows how old the dog was. Besides, he was asleep.)
Jerry made lots of noise upstairs packing. Reed couldn’t hear his blood and heart anymore. He went to the cooler and discovered there were only three Schlitz’s left. Brigham had forgotten to buy more. But with only him there, Reed thought, he could buy his own beer.
He finished off one of the beers and then left to go guard the books. On the way out he paused to look at the sign.
THE IGLOO FACTORY
(Pre-fab Igloos, spec.)
is all it said. That is all it had ever said, what it would always say, no matter where it was. Reed knew it would be gone when he got back from work…and Jerry.
Halfway to Cambridge Common, Reed realized the temperature had dropped and he should have worn a jacket.
Thomas Hobson was born in Cambridge, England, in 1544 and died there in 1631. Thomas Hobson gave his name to the term “Hobson’s Choice”—which means to choose without any real choice, to have an illusory choice. A Hobson’s Choice is a choice that, like the darkness when you look for it with a light, isn’t there.
Thomas Hobson owned a livery stable and rented horses to the public. To prevent the rowdy Cambridge University students from renting only the fastest horses and running them until they were covered with soapy sweat and near a heart attack, Thomas Hobson invented ‘the choice’ that came to bear his name.
He left the first stall of his barn empty and whoever wandered in wanting to rent a horse, could choose any horse that was in that first stall. It was Thomas Hobson who put the horse he wanted to rent in the stall. So far as is known, the system worked for him.
Reed knew all this because he looked it up in a dictionary in Byerly Hall. The dictionary had 2059 pages and looked like a tan camping trailer. The reason he looked it up was because of something Meyer said to him in jail the day after Jerry left.
Meyer didn’t say much. He did say he wanted Reed and Sandy to have the VW bug and would have Brigham’s Irish/Italian/Jewish lawyers handle it. Right after that, he said life was a Hobson’s Choice. And death. And everything else, for that matter. It was, Reed thought, Meyer’s darkest side.
The room in Cambridge City Jail where they talked was dark, with everything at 90 degree angles. There were many shadows. One shadow, as they sat there, fell across Meyer’s face and made him look like a sad, scarred walrus.
“Big Reed,” he said, softly, “It’s all a Hobson’s Choice. The whole deal. Nobody really ever has a choice. Not really. Not even when you think you do, especially not then. The knife is there and someone’s throat is shining like a piece of ivory, like bleached porcelain. White on white. And you can’t do anything but what you do. You know?”
All the shadows in Cambridge City Jail seemed to be saying, “Yes, I know.” They said it faintly, at 90 degree angles. So that’s what Reed said too, but he really didn’t know.
“My cell’s so hot,” Meyer said. “I wish they’d give me an Air-Temp.” Reed didn’t bother to remind him it was October and getting cooler. Meyer’s sense of hot was more refined than his.
That was all he would say. He just blended into the shadows after that. Reed promised to come back the next day, but Meyer didn’t respond.
Reed went straight from the jail to Homer Square. Brigham was sitting on the couch with three small children climbing his koala-bear hair.
“Aren’t kids great, Reed?” Brigham said, looking around the room at nude children. “How could anyone dare hurt these little creatures?”
Reed undressed and played around with some of the children. Then he told Brigham and Leslie about Meyer and what he’d said. Brigham nodded stoically.
“We’re all like paper clips someone forgot leaving in some book,” he said. “We all have a place to hold and there’s little we can do about which place it is. But we can try to keep from rusting and turning the page brown. We can try to hold our places without staining anything. We have that much choice.”
Reed and Leslie looked at him, waiting.
“That’s from Meyer’s philosophy of life according to paper clips,” Brigham continued. “The whole thing is terribly complicated and I’ve only heard it second-hand. It’s basic epistemology, but I don’t remember it all. Meyer’s philosophies seem to run together at times.”
“He has a million of them,” Reed said.
“So, from what I can tell, Meyer’s stopped trying not to stain. He’s rusting away, turning his pages brown and orange.”
At lunch, Reed didn’t recognize any of the food, but it was full of garlic and extremely tasty. And there was lots of Brigham’s imported red wine. At some point into a second bottle, Brigham started talking about how garlic, nudity and red wine was the Truth and the Way.
“Nudity, garlic and good red wine will make you like a virgin,” he said, “that good and pure.”
After lunch, for some reason, he told Reed this story: “I knew a man out west who was trying to transcend the world. He didn’t read. He didn’t sleep. He drank two glasses of goat’s milk in the morning and shit two little tan marbles at night. He never passed water.
“Then he gave up walking and lying down. He just sat, with his thin legs crossed like two chopsticks. That was all. He decided to give up seeing, so he shut his eyes with wood putty. A little later he used wood putty to seal his ears. And the last words he ever said were, ‘I will never speak again’.
“As far as I know, he’s still in a cave on a mountain outside Hobbs, New Mexico. He has two disciples who bring him goat’s milk and sweep away his marbles of shit, longing for the day they can be like him. He’s transcended the world.”
If there was a moral to that story, Brigham never told it to Reed, which is just Reed’s luck with morals.
However, ‘Hobbs, New Mexico (26,275)’ was on page 675 of Byerly Hall’s tan camping trailer of a dictionary. Along with ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ‘hoard’, ‘hobby horse’, ‘hoc anno’, ‘Ho Chi Minh’, ‘hock a tchai-nik’, ‘hocus pocus’, ‘Hodgkin’s disease’, ‘hoe cake’, ‘Hofuf, Saudia Arabia (83,000)’, and lots of other words.
The first word on page 675 was ‘ho interj.’ And the last one was ‘hog’, with a picture of one (domestic).
Reed imagined the moral to Brigham’s story might be there somewhere.
After thanking Monique for lunch, Reed got dressed to go back to the lonely Igloo Factory. Charity gave him a poster she had made. It was scrawled on thick construction paper. This is what it said:
TINGS TO DO TODAA
reed a poam
fly a // kyte
smel a flowr
fall in luv
rite a poam
“Charity’s decided it’s okay to write in English now,” Brigham told Reed. “She’s only five so spelling isn’t a big deal for her.”
“This is very beautiful,” Reed told her.
“Merci,” Charity said, giving him a puckered-lipped kiss.
Reed was almost to Union Square when the little Sanchez boy caught up with him. He was panting like a puppy from running. His pants weren’t zipped up and his shirt was buttoned wrong. Brigham had dressed him quickly. Paulo gave Reed a note from Brigham.
“Give my regards to Broadway,” was all it said.
The next day, true to his word, Reed went back to see Meyer in jail. It was the last time he ever saw him alive. While he was there, bathed in shadows, Meyer asked him to do him one last favor. Meyer seldom asked for favors, but when Reed thought about their conversation, the whole thing was unlike Meyer. Like when Reed told him about his writing.
“I’ve been writing,” he said. “I’m writing on call slips and lunch bags, but I’m getting stuff down. Memories, you know, as True as I can make them.”
“What are you writing?” Meyer asked, a sad, absent-minded walrus.
“It’s for the book,” Reed said. “I write in the library, Percy understands.”
“What book? Are you writing a book?”
“The book about the Factory, Meyer—the one you asked me to write.” Reed felt cold and confused, deep in shadows.
“Oh, right, that book,” Meyer said. Then he pursed his lips.
“I’m not sure I’m, you know…getting it all right, but I’m….”
“Listen, Reed,” Meyer interrupted, “one favor you have to do for me—one favor. Go to Holy Ghost and see Mrs. McDaniel. God, I hope she’s still alive, it’s been months. She thinks I’m her nephew from St. Louis. Tell her I had to go home and can’t get back for some fucking reason, work or something like that. Make something up. She’s as blind as a rock but she hears like a hoot-owl so you can’t pretend to be me…Michael…her nephew. Just tell her I’m thinking of her. Just that. Okay?”
Reed hadn’t been to Holy Cross since April. No one had, except Jerry who kept visiting men with the mysterious disease that deflated them like a flat football. Like light bulbs not getting changed, the Holy Ghost routine fell apart without Meyer. As soon as he walked onto the floor he saw Florence. She was talking to a doctor with a long nose and a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard. When she saw Reed she rushed over.
“Have you come to see Mrs. McDaniel?” she asked without even saying hello. When Reed nodded she embraced him. “It’s so near,” she said. “At least that fucking Meyer has enough of himself left to remember her.”
Then she dragged him down the hall into a supply closet.
“How’s Meyer? How’s Meyer?” she asked bursting into tears.
“Not good,” Reed said, “not good.”
“Oh, God…Oh, God...,” she sobbed, “how I miss him.”
She cried for several minutes and then gathered herself. “How I miss that bastard,” she said.
Florence took Reed to Mrs. McDaniel’s room. Mrs. McDaniel was full of tubes. She looked like a car at a gas station being filled up from four pumps at once. Florence told her a friend of Michael’s was here, that he had a message from Michael.
“I have a message from Michael,” Reed said.
“Is Florence gone?” she asked.
“Then stop that ‘Michael’ nonsense and tell me about Meyer. And none of his cute messages. I want the Truth.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Reed asked, trying out irony.
“No,” she said adamantly, “Everyone doesn’t want the Truth. Most people want comfortable lies. That’s the whole problem. That’s what Meyer understood.”
Mrs. McDaniel knew all about Meyer. “We pretended for Florence’s sake,” she said. “Florence is the Queen of Comfortable Lies. But she’s golden deep down. Meyer and I humored her.”
She knew Meyer might kill Pierce.
“He told me all about that knife—that yakatan—what’s it called?”
“Yataghan,” she parroted. “I never can remember that. But my memory’s not all it could be, you must know that. Seems I’ve forgotten for months now that I was supposed to die. I just couldn’t until I heard from Meyer. Now that you’re here, my memory might improve.” She smiled at those last words.
“So Meyer did it, he killed that boy?”
“Yes, it seems so.”
“We talked it over several times. From all Meyer said, that’s one throat that needed cutting. One curse well fulfilled. He did good. He was true to his word.”
“But he’s in jail,” Reed said, not comprehending, thinking Mrs. McDaniel was confused. “He’s sad and gray and bathed in shadows. He isn’t there anymore.”
Mrs. McDaniel puffed up her cheeks and expelled air in a little burst, a small explosion of exhaust. “We’re all in jail,” she said, “and most of us in a worse way than him. At least he had a Curse to fulfill. At least he was True to Destiny.” Then she seemed to fall asleep.
After ten minutes or so, she woke up. Reed hadn’t moved. He couldn’t remember even breathing. He had thought about nothing. He had simply stood by her bed, fulfilling, as best he could, the favor to Meyer.
“Tell me your name and let me feel your face,” Mrs. McDaniel said.
“Reed,” he told her, leaning near her. Her fingertips expertly traced his face. It was like butterflies landing and taking off, like soft, brown birds fluttering against his cheeks, his forehead, his lips.
“A good face, Reed,” she said, “solid, intelligent, Midwestern. I remember Meyer talking about you. You were a real project of his.”
Mrs. McDaniel reminded Reed of the fantasies he had about Meyer’s Aunt Ursa. She was that kind of woman—unpretentious, lovely, wise.
“Michael, my grand-nephew, the real Michael, I hope he turned out something like Meyer. I hope he found a worthy Curse to fulfill. He was a strange and wispy boy.”
“Where is he now?” Reed asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He up and ran off one day to join a traveling semi-pro softball team. That was his style.”
“Where was all this?” Reed asked.
“Oh, back home, back in Idaho.”
After a long while, Reed said, “he must have been a good grand-nephew.”
“Oh, the very best,” she said, smiling broadly.
A little later Mrs. McDaniel told Reed he could leave. He wasn’t ready, but he honored her wishes. He had forgotten how good it could be to stand by the bed of dying people—even a blind, four-gas-tanked dying person.
“Goodbye, Reed,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Would you tell me your first name?”
“Ula,” she said.
“Goodbye, Ula,” Reed said, “I’ll be back.”
“No you won’t,” she said, “my memory’s coming back. I just remembered I’m supposed to die.”
The next morning, Florence called the Factory. Reed was sleeping in Meyer’s bed since Jerry left so he heard the phone. He was the only person there to hear it. Ula McDaniel, Florence told him, had been true to her word.
(Buckhannon, West Virginia, late August 1989)
Sandy and I were sitting at our kitchen table after supper, listening to Mozart on Public Radio.
“I have something for you,” I said to her. I ran up to our room—that had been ‘my’ room since February except the rare nights she chose to share it. I picked up two lunch bags and two yellowed pages from one of Marvin Garden’s spiral notebooks and took them to her.
She had to go find her glasses, which took a while, before she sat down to look at her gift.
“So, what is this?” she asked, peering over her gold, wire-rim glasses.
“All that’s left,” I said. “All the unprocessed flotsam and jetsam of a by-gone, over-rated era.”
“You’ve finished everything else?” she asked, still staring at me over her glasses like a fifth grade teacher checking homework.
“Every jot and tittle. All back resting in their soup boxes.”
“Your life is two soup boxes of memory,” she said.
“More than enough for one lifetime,” I told her.
She smiled, almost laughed. “So what about these two?”
“I thought I’d read them to you before I edited them and turned them into third person. I wanted you to hear them just as they are.”
“Does this involve being undressed and moving back into your room?” She asked, coyly.
“I would hope to God so,” I replied.
Sandy laid on our bed—ours again, not mine alone—and I read her the last two leavings of my recorded memories of the Igloo Factory.
The first was this:
This is the next to last thing I’ll have time to write about the Igloo Factory while guarding the books of Byerly Hall. After Sandy calls and says she’s coming home, I’ll work one more day and write about that. That will leave nothing to write but the parade. I’ll probably put the parade off for a while.
“Like twenty years,” Sandy said from the bed.
“I can’t do this unless you keep quiet,” I said, meaning it.
She pulled her right thumb and forefinger across her large lips. Then she laughed.
“I mean it!” I said, trying to be angry.
“I know, Reed,” she said, “no more kidding around. Read, Reed.”
Being finished with this will be like a leaving. Like a coming and going. All these words I wrote will be a track across someone’s back, an autumn leave scratching concrete.
Here is the remembrance.
One day in the depths of winter, I was drinking a Coke from Meyer’s Coke machine and noticed him peeking at me from behind his door. A one-eyed walrus watching a six foot penguin drink a Coke from a red machine.
Meyer had on an inexplicable band uniform. There were tassels on his shoulders like two white king crabs. Buttons like golden oysters were on his coat. His band hat had a plume as wide as a sturgeon. Everything about his uniform—which was ocean blue—reminded me of the sea. Even the stripes on his trousers looked like electric eels.
“Big Reed,” he said, “come in here. I have a secret to give you.”
Although I’ve never liked secrets, I followed him into his room.
“May I drink my Coke?”
“Yes,” he said, “Sit on my bed and drink your Coke. That will be a good way to receive this secret.”
I sat on the bed and took a sip. Meyer didn’t say anything, so I heard myself swallow. I was a wonderful spring, an artesian well, gurgling from my mouth to my stomach.
Meyer smiled at me. I waited for my secret.
Though it was winter, Meyer had his Air-Temp on low. It was humming like a huge, gentle, sleeping beast. His clock was ticking a heartbeat. The mobile above his bed moved slowly and the cans sometimes kissed. Ice in a glass.
Far away, down in Harvard Yard, a bell was tolling. It was saying it’s name: “Ver-i-tas, Ver-i-tas, Ver-i-tas,” it said, in a deep, philosophical voice.
“I’ve never noticed you could hear the Memorial Chapel bell from here,” I said.
Meyer said, “shhhh now”, and smiled.
Cars passed the Factory on Broadway, whispering in the slush and snow. “Shhhh now, shhhh now,” they whispered. “Shhhh now.”
From somewhere I could hear children playing in the snow, throwing snowballs. Little snowflake girls and ice crystal boys, dressed like Eskimos on the front lawn of the Public Library, playing. I somehow knew, from the rhythm of their voices, what they were doing.
“Meyer,” I said, about to ask for my secret.
“Shhhh, now,” he said, and smiled even more.
Another bell was tolling in a deep, theological voice. “Dom-i-num, Dom-i-num, Dom-i-num,” it said. It was the bell of Christ Church, seven blocks away.
Upstairs, Sugar was playing her guitar and singing. If I listened as carefully as a small child smells a flower, I could hear the words.
“Too much listening without ever hearing,
Loud birds calling to themselves
Where is the calm bird, the all alone bird,
Singing soundlessly his song?
And where is the answer that I need.”
It was one of Vachel’s songs. A song about a World where you could Be.
Meyer’s clock ticked it’s incessant, metallic heartbeat.
I found myself smiling.
“You are smiling,” Meyer said, “so you have begun to perceive the secret I have given you. Your secret,” he said softly, “is silence. It is too easy and too tempting to fill up your stay on this planet with noises of your own making. Just be silent from time to time, Big Reed. Just listen. Okay?”
“Okay,” I mouthed, silently. He smiled a big, one-eyed bandleader’s smile.
“Are you asleep?” I asked.
“Of course not, keep reading.”
“This is the last thing,” I told her, “except for the parade.”
The phone was ringing when I woke up. It didn’t wake me up. I was simply waking up in Meyer’s room and the phone rang at the same time. Like that. Like dawn and a sea bird far out over the ocean at the same time.
It was Newman from Rockport.
“How goes it,” he said, “how’s Meyer?”
“Sad,” I told him, “all shadows.”
“You see him?”
“Twice, but no more.”
“I understand,” Newman said, then he handed the phone to Sandy.
“Hello, Reed,” she said, singing almost. “I’m coming home. About noon day after tomorrow, Newman tells me. It could be tomorrow but Newman wants to beat me up and torture me and tempt me with heroin one more time.” Reed could hear Newman laughing in the background. “But it won’t work. Day after tomorrow at noon—will you be there? Will you, Reed?”
“With bells on,” I said. I was starting to cry.
“Real bells?” she said.
“Oh, yes,” I said. Then I said, “Yes, yes, yes….”
“I only wrote you once,” she said.
“I know,” I told her, “it was the best letter I ever got. I read it 337 times. I memorized it. I can recite it to you.”
“Not just now,” she said.
“I never wrote you,” I told her, “I just couldn’t.”
“I know,” she laughed, “they were the best letters I never got. I understand.”
“Come home, Sandy,” I said, weeping like a fool.
“Day after tomorrow,” she said. Then she said, “Reed, I’ve been talking to the ocean again. I like its song now. It’s all about you and coming home.”
“So I like that song too.”
“Listen, Reed, I going to hold the phone out the door toward the ocean. See if her song isn’t saying good things.”
I listened. There was a faint sound, like distant static. It was the ocean. She was singing. “Coming home…home…home…home,” was her song.
“I love you, Reed,” Sandy said when she brought the phone back indoors. “I love you.”
“I love you, Sandy,” I said, sobbing away. We never said that much before, but we did then.
“I feel so good,” she said, “I feel like I’ve been reborn.”
“Just like the ocean,” I said.
When I hung up I called Percy to ask him if I could work that day and the next and then no more because Sandy was coming home. I was telling him I knew it wasn’t enough notice when he interrupted me. Percy was gleeful. As always, Percy understood.
That afternoon, between fits of being overly friendly to people who came to Byerly Hall looking for one of the books I was guarding, I wrote this down and read the Rand McNally Road Atlas and planned our trip. There were a few pre-Idaho places I wanted to go.
Like to Buckhannon to see Lysander’s grave…and the buffalo. I thought Sandy would like to see him and listen to his buffalo dreams.
Then to Cleveland to see my mother and Caroline and let them see us and how happy we were. Maybe we’d stay a while and stay up late and play Scrabble and take long walks.
We could go down to Kentucky to try to find Krista and Aaron. I’d have to ask Sandy about that. We would sit by their fireplace and let the candles that light their lives light ours.
But the truth is, from Cleveland, there are Interstate highways like cut green garden hose all the way to Butte Montana. They go across Indiana and Illinois and Minnesota and South Dakota and Montana, almost to Idaho, where things get tricky. We could do it that way, going slow and watching the country and the time pass. There’s no real hurry since Idaho, so far as I can tell, isn’t going anywhere. And once we’re there, we should get to know it, just driving around and looking. According to the Rand McNally Road Atlas, Idaho is full of Indians and lakes and gold and Markers about Lewis and Clark and mountains and canyons and biscuits and geysers and volcanoes and fish in shallow streams and balancing rocks and Meyer’s relatives and lots of things—rivers, creeks, canyons, reservations, reservoirs, falls, springs—named Salmon.
Marvin Gardens might be there by then, making a movie.
And Sandy and I might live in Drummond, with the 31 other people who are already there. We will know everyone and everyone will know us.
And our license plates will say “Great Potatoes”.
And the time will pass.
And we will be happy.
I was sure Sandy was asleep by then. I had finished reading for almost five minutes and she hadn’t moved. I stood up and put the papers on my desk, which I wouldn’t need any more.
“We never got to Idaho, did we, Reed?” she suddenly said.
“No, maybe someday.”
Sandy laughed and laughed and laughed. When she finally stopped laughing, she rolled over on her back in the bed, all nude and wondrous. Modesty was never her strong point.
“But, Reed, listen to me, you’ve got to hear this,” she said, suddenly as serious as a drive across the country.
“You got the other stuff right—about the time passing and about being happy. I’ve been happy all the way.”
“No kidding?” I asked, really wondering.
“All the way?”
“Every moment, every year, every inch, every mile. All the way.”
I stood still for a long time, just listening, the way Meyer taught me to. It was very quiet in the mountains of Buckhannon at that time in the early night of August. And it all sounded good and right, wondrous, in fact. There was a catch in my throat and a mist in my eyes. I had done something right in my life—the most ‘right’ thing of all. I had made Sandy happy. All the way.
“You know what I’d like to do?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“Of course,” she said, laughing again. “But turn off that damn left fielder. Make it dark.”
“When’s vacation start,” I asked, my hand trembling on Carl Yastrzemski’s neck for the switch.
“Five days,” Sandy said, her voice low and husky.
The room went dark.