“I want to see, Reed, but not see.”
Several days after Miss Masselman died, there was a Meeting about Holy Ghost Hospital.
“Florence has completed our file box,” Meyer said, after everyone had settled into a chair or a place on the floor. A pale, distinctively Jewish looking man was sitting on the floor near the door to the kitchen. The man, from time to time, would lean back against the floor and re-pin his yarmulke like he wasn’t used to wearing it. He was wearing a maroon cardigan sweater with a white R on it. Since he waved to Reed, Reed waved back. Almost everyone in the room was wearing a sweater of some kind. September had brought cool Canadian air to Cambridge but Meyer’s Air-Temp hummed on high. The strange man seemed nervous and faintly out of place.
“Look, Reed,” Sugar whispered while Meyer was talking, “Marvin Gardens came to the Meeting.”
Reed realized he hadn’t recognized Marvin because he had only seen him in the dim light of Marvin’s TV set. Sometimes, when breakfast had been especially good, Reed went to Marvin’s attic to tell him so. Marvin would be hunched over the spiral notebook he held in his lap, scribbling notes. He would grunt a ‘thank you’ and ask Reed to sharpen one of his pencils with the butcher knife he kept on his dresser.
When Reed arrived at the Factory, Marvin Gardens had been there for almost a year and a half. Besides Krista, he had been the first person who arrived after Meyer bought the house. He spent almost all his time watching TV. Jerry explained that Marvin had a degree in communications from Rutgers. He wanted to be a writer/director/producer of TV shows. He wanted to bring quality to television. So he took notes about whatever was bad or poorly done. He had filled over 250 large spiral notebooks with criticism. They were piled like a desk in the corner of his room. The wall of notebooks made Reed regret his illiteracy. He would have liked to read them.
Most of the time, it was easy to forget that Marvin was even there. He might has well been back in Bayonne, New Jersey with his parents—Samuel and Sophie Gardens—the remarkable people whose whimsy caused them to name their first born ‘Marvin’.
Reed was thinking all those things when he realized Meyer was tapping the floor with a hockey stick and everyone in the room was looking at him.
“Did you hear what I just said, Reed?” Meyer sounded like a nun who taught third grade.
“Uh, no,” Reed said.
“Take instruction from this, people,” Meyer said, still in his nun voice, “Reed gets a demerit for day-dreaming during Meeting, but he scores points for his Midwestern honesty. Many of you would have pretended you had been listening and caught yourself in a tangle of lies.”
“I sure would have,” Jerry called out.
Meyer glared at him—a skinny walrus of a nun holding a hockey stick instead of a ruler.
“I was saying, Reed, that Florence has agreed to update the files twice a week since we’re working with people who tend to die at an alarming rate.” He held up a gray file box of 4 by 6 cards. “The names are in alphabetical order. Each card lists the disease, life expectancy, degree of awareness and closest relatives or friends. This will enable you to match yourself to your roles. The more aware the patient is, the closer the match should be. But really, it doesn’t matter all that much, they’ll want to believe you are who you say you are. These are only patients who don’t have regular visitors. I expect at least two visits a week from each of you. Make a note of the visits on the card—I’ll help you with all that, Reed—so Florence can keep up with who is being neglected and can let you know when someone you visit has died….”
Meyer had made a huge chart on poster board with everyone at the Factory’s name on it. They were going to put check marks for visits so Meyer could keep up with the slackers. He held up the chart. The only thing Reed recognized on it was a big W on the fifth line. He decided that must be him.
Little Melanie was at the Factory then. She was about a foot shorter than Sugar, which made her comparable to a small pigmy. She was probably 14. Little Melanie was from Long Island—the daughter of one of New York state’s most successful real estate developers. Her father, according to Little Melanie, build shabby, made-to-order slums with huge H.U.D. grants, pocketing most of the money. Little Melanie had trouble dealing with that. She started stealing her father’s Johnny Walker’s Black when she was 10 and her mother’s tranquilizers when she was 12. She had only been at the Factory for a few weeks. She tended to cry a lot.
“Meyer,” she said softly, “I can’t do this….”
Meyer looked at her the way a nun would look at a pigmy who had spit on the Pope.
“I just can’t stand to be around sick people,” she said, “people who smell of death. I can’t take it.”
Meyer thumbed through the index cards. “He we go,” he said, “Blosser, Matilda Jean, 71, terminal bone cancer. Three weeks. A 12 year old granddaughter she hasn’t seen for four years. Named Lana. Lives in Michigan. Perfect for you, Melanie.”
He thumbed on. “Or this: Cowell, Vernon, 88. Heart condition. Two weeks. Eleven year old granddaughter from Ames, Iowa, who he never saw because he and his daughter had some big fight years ago. Imagine what that would mean to Vern, to see her before he dies. Little starchy Iowa dress, a touch of blush. Reed can even teach you an Iowa accent. It’s you, Melanie.”
Little Melanie started to sniff and shift around on the floor.
“Or this—I’m still in the C’s—Daisy Cuthbertson, 44, blind, terminal brain tumor. Only a few days, a week tops. Flights of fantasy about an imaginary daughter. She’s childless and haunted by a self-inflicted abortion in the bathroom of the Tri Delt Sorority House at U Mass.” Meyer stopped and looked up. His face was creased by tears. “Can anyone here begin to understand what a visit from that aborted daughter would do for Daisy? Can it be conceived of? She could die having made a contribution to the planet instead of alone with her misery. Imagine that, Melanie….”
Melanie must have been imagining, because she was crying in great gasps by then. Krista moved to her and cupped her in her arms like an egg.
“So don’t tell me you can’t take it, Melanie,” Meyer said, as mean as a weeping walrus could be. “Daisy is the one who can’t take it! And you have it in your power to let her death be a thing of beauty and fulfillment instead of a bitter, awful, senseless event. You can ‘take it’, Melanie!”
Meyer’s voice had risen to just below a scream. “WE must TAKE IT! We must….”
Little Melanie tore away from Krista and ran out of Meyer’s room. Everyone looked at Meyer to see what he would do. Florence, in her nurses uniform and Meyer’s Red Sox jacket, moved from the corner of the room and sat with Meyer on his bed. He took a deep breath and continued reading aloud from the index cards.
“Dawson, Davis, 88, lung cancer. Delbert, Haddie, 63, liver failure. DeLeon, Carl, 45—Jesus, 45—pancreatic cancer, three days. Still in the D’s, Dooley, John, 62….”
Slowly and quietly, everyone left. Most went outside or to their rooms. From the kitchen where Krista and Reed and Little Melanie were, you could hear Meyer droning on through names and ages and terrible diseases. It was like eavesdropping on a Litany to Death.
Krista and Reed stayed up all night with Little Melanie in Reed’s room. Melanie cried and cried and cried, shivering like a small brown bird. “Why did he do that to me?” she kept gasping, “Why? Why?”
“It’s his obsession,” Krista whispered, gently massaging various points on Melanie’s face. “It makes him crazy, these lonely, dying people. He says that it’s really ourselves we are visiting when we visit them. He say’s we’re all in this thing together. Each of us. All of us. So we must go to Holy Ghost. We must, that’s what Meyer says….”
At dawn, Meyer came and carried Little Melanie to his room. He laid her on his bed like some precious, limp thing. Finally, she slept.
That very day, Melanie visited Daisy Cuthbertson. Daisy died exactly seven minutes after touching her ‘daughter’s’ face. She died with tears of joy still on her face and a look of wonder in her dead, blind eyes. At least that’s what Florence said. From then on, for the month Melanie stayed at the Factory, Meyer treated her with great gentleness. He spoke of her only in whispers. She became the most frequent visitor to Holy Ghost. She always cried after a visit, but her crying lasted a shorter time each day. By the time she went home to Long Island, her tears were rare but sublimely real. She almost shined with some inner light.
Jerry and Reed drove Melanie to the airport in the VW bus so there would be room for Vincent Price. Melanie rubbed the sleeping dog the whole way to Logan. Meyer was no where to be found. In spite of his claims about loving airports and bus stations, places of passage, Reed had noticed that Meyer always disappeared when one of the Wanderers wandered on. Or, like Little Melanie, went home.
At the LaGuardia shuttle flight desk, Melanie gave Reed a little locket shaped like an apartment building. “My father gave it to me,” she said, dry-eyed but with a catch in her voice. “He had it hand made, just for me. My father and I are going to have some long talks about the things he does….” She handed it to Reed. “I want Meyer to have it. Tell him to wear it to Holy Ghost for me.”
All the way back to Cambridge, Jerry and Reed discussed how Meyer could do things that made no sense and the best sense of all. Both at once.
Meyer loved weather reports. He loved them much as he loved Coke machines, telephones, the Red Sox, heat and Holy Ghost Hospital.
Every night, like a ritual, he watched Bob Copeland’s weather reports on the eleven o’clock Eyewitness News. Sometimes, he’d search the house, trying to find people who would come up to Marvin Garden’s attic and watch with him. Mostly only Reed would go, and sometimes Sandy. He would cheer when Bob Copeland came on, hoot at the day’s highs and lows like they were two weather owls, salute the national weather map like a flag, and laugh hysterically at the high tide times. When it came time for Bob Copeland’s forecast, Meyer would pace nervously and mutter to himself.
Meyer, too, tried his hand at predicting the weather. You could catch him outside at dusk, studying the sky with his one good eye, trying to remember the rhyme about ‘red clouds at night…’, and testing the wind with his finger. For a fair forecast, he’d put on swim trunks or his Bermuda shorts with the roosters on them. For cooling, he wore thermal underwear.
Suitably clothed, Meyer paced, waiting for Bob Copeland’s sacred word. If they agreed, it was time for wine and rejoicing. But if Bob Copeland contradicted Meyer, everyone in the Factory went to sleep to the echoes of Meyer beating the Coke machine with his hockey stick and cursing the gods of sun and storm in several spoken languages and some that were unknown.
After a weather report in late September 1968, Meyer and Jerry and Reed went to Meyer’s room to talk and drink apple wine. The wine was curiously bright green. Meyer was wearing a raccoon coat. He and Bob Copeland both expected frost.
The passed a bottle and a scrapbook. Meyer had pasted weather reports in the scrapbook. Reed recognized the maps you see on the back page of small town newspapers and the long columns of highs and lows for major world cities. The highs and lows looked like an unconnected arch from geography text books of Greek ruins.
“I collect weather reports,” Meyer said. “It all started when I got rich and traveled around looking for ‘hots’ for several months. Hots, it seemed to me, were where it’s at. Like the heart beat of the planet. Wherever it was hot was where I wanted to be. I spent a lot of money looking for hots.”
He pointed to a page in the scrapbook. “Here’s a weather report from the Cairo paper. And this one’s from Quinto, Ecuador. And this one’s from Brazzaville. And here’s one from Phoenix—it’s in English.” He looked at Reed as if Reed could tell the difference between languages. He turned the pages so fast that Reed couldn’t have read any of them, even if all printed languages looked the same to him. Like nonsense. Chicken scratches. Tracks in the sand.
“And this,” Meyer said, growing excited, jumping around, “God, I’d forgotten this! It’s from Pontianak in Borneo. Pontianak is right on the fucking equator. Right on it!”
Eventually, Meyer lost interest in the scrapbook and became interested in finding another bottle of green wine. “Doing this,” he said, motioning dismissively toward the scrapbook with a full bottle, “used to make all the sense in the world to me. I collected hots. Can you believe it, Reed?”
Because they were talking about collecting things, Jerry started talking about collecting accents. Accents were what Jerry collected.
“People’s accents,” Jerry said, “are like an eleventh fingerprint, something they can’t escape. Something they can’t deny. I can pick them out—South Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, Iowa City….Meyer has your standard Rocky Mountain, upper East Side, Turkish-influenced accent. It’s an easy one.”
“What about mine?” Reed asked. He was getting drunk on the green wine. Day by day, he grew more curious, more questioning. Meyer smiled. The manatees were moving.
“Your accent, Reed, is the only suburban Ohio-Shenandoah Valley accent I’ve ever heard. You must have spent a lot of time in Virginia, just off the I-81 corridor.”
Reed, shocked, said he had—in the shadow of a mountain called Massanuttin.
Jerry rambled on for a while about phonemes and diphthongs, glottal stops and swallowed g’s. Things like that. Accent things. Then Meyer started talking about colleting license plates, something he’d done before he started collecting hots.
“Do you know what it says on Idaho’s license plate?” he asked. He was slurring his words, either disguising his accent or accentuating it, Reed wasn’t sure which. “Right where some license plates say engaging things like ‘Live Free or Die’ or ‘Land of Lincoln’, do you know what Idaho’s says?”
Either Jerry or Reed needed to say ‘no’, because Meyer expected answers to direct questions. Jerry wasn’t quite as drunk as Reed, so he said it.
Meyer leaned closer to them. They were sitting on the floor beside his bed and Meyer was on the bed, so he loomed over them. “It says ‘Great Potatoes’. Can you believe it? How can you go through life knowing that when you drive around it says ‘Great Potatoes’ on the back of your car? I guess that’s why I joined the soft-ball team and left Idaho to begin with. It was just too depressing to drive around and read ‘Great Potatoes’ on everyone’s license plates.”
They all drank wine until Meyer wondered if Reed collected anything.
“I wonder,” he said, “if Big Reed ever collected anything?”
“Maybe we should ask him,” Jerry said.
Meyer nodded. It was getting harder for him to say much of anything. “Good idea. Who should do it?”
Jerry asked and the only thing Reed could think to say was “Buffalos”, so he said it.
“I’ve only collected one so far,” he explained, embarrassed that his collection was so meager, that he didn’t have a scrapbook of buffalos he had known. “He lived in Buckhannon, West Virginia and had snow on him.”
Since there wasn’t much else to say about that, they drank more wine and got even drunker. Jerry talked about Jesus’ accent. “It was sort of southern,” he said, “but maybe it was a southern Palestine accent.” He also told them that though Jesus didn’t like The War worth a damn, he liked some of the people in it. According to Jerry, Jesus liked Stonewall Jackson a great deal for reasons only Jesus and Jerry could comprehend.
As Meyer often did when he was a little drunk, or a lot, he started talking about the Wanderers who came and went at the Factory, the ones who passed like time.
“Wanderers on the earth,” he said, “looking for something that isn’t there. Like Sugar’s old boyfriend, that Vachel guy, looking for a world where he could ‘be’.” Meyer shook his wine-clouded, walrus head sadly. “He had to wander on and Sugar longed to endure. So they split up.”
Jerry touched Reed’s leg. “Sugar tried to kill herself after Vachel left,” he said. His cool, gray eyes weren’t focusing very well. “Did you know that, Reed? She put her head in the oven and blew out the pilot light. Pierce saved her life.”
Reed did know all that. Jerry was one of the people who had told him the story before. But he listened to the story again, shivering from Bob Copeland’s forecast and the thought of Sugar’s head in an oven.
After Jerry finished the whole story, Meyer said, as if to himself, “I guess that explains it.”
“Explains what?” Reed asked, words coming hard.
“Why I haven’t slit that bastard’s throat,” Meyer said, full of wine and darkness.
When Reed finally went to bed, he bumped into Pierce at the bottom of the steps.
“I want to thank you for saving Sugar’s life,” he said, slurring.
Pierce gave him the Mick Jagger scowl for a while. Then he said, “She deserves life.”
“I’m very drunk,” Reed whispered as if the world were listening.
“I can tell,” Pierce replied. “Do you need help to your room?”
“I think so.” Reed spoke deliberately, in the way of drunks.
Pierce guided him to his room and carefully, gently undressed him.
“Thank you,” Reed told him, “and thank you again for saving Sugar.”
“It’s okay,” Pierce said, “no big deal.”
Those were the most decent and honorable words Reed and Pierce ever shared on this earth. Reed’s vision was swirling like the earth does, only faster.
Meyer woke him an hour or two later. “Bob Copeland and I fucked up,” he said, “We didn’t realize the cool air would bring rain, maybe even some sleet.”
He had to say it three times before Reed understood. Reed was drunk and it was hard to understand Meyer through his diver’s mask. He was on his way to the roof to sleep in the chill rain.
Meyer caught a bad cold from sleeping in the rain that night. He took to his bed and summoned the people in the Factory to his room, one by one.
“This always happens with Meyer’s colds,” Krista told Reed as they waited in the kitchen for Reed’s turn. “Meyer calls us in and divides up his worldly possessions. Meyer always thinks he’ll die from a cold, or ‘the grippe’, as he calls it. So he sets things right with us. That’s his way of putting it—‘the setting right’.”
Sugar came out of Meyer’s room with tears tracing small, damp paths across her face. “He gave me Sandy’s mobile from over his bed,” she said, as if it were the greatest of gifts. “And his record albums. Most of them still have the cellophane on them.”
The three of them pondered virgin albums with the cellophane intact.
“What did he give you this time?” Sugar asked Krista.
“His Alf Landon button, the Ricky Nelson poster he hides in the closet and his Union Army cape.”
Jerry had come into the kitchen while Krista was talking. He had a garment bag over his arm. “That’s my Union Army cape,” he said.
Meyer was sitting up in bed when Reed went in. He had his blanket tucked under his chin. The room smelled of Vick’s Vapor Rub and apple wine.
“Come in, Reed,” Meyer wheezed, “come nearer so I can see you….”
“Do you want me to turn on the light or open the blinds?” Reed asked. It was late afternoon, but Meyer’s room was in darkness.
“No. There’s no time. Have some wine and sit by my bed. I have to set things right with you.”
Meyer had emptied his closet and all his drawers on the floor. His belongings were in piles, like the Appalachian Mountains.
“I have something to give you,” Meyer said, “something you alone must have. It can’t be trusted to anyone else. It’s under my bed, get it out.”
Reed reached under Meyer’s bed and found a slender box, shaped like a violin case. It was made of pale green leather, very fine. The hinges and clasp seemed to be silver.
“Open it,” Meyer said, “and don’t cut yourself.”
There was a two foot long knife in the box with a handle carved from ivory in the shape of a Guernsey cow’s horn. The knife had a twice bent blade. Even in the dim light, the blade glistened. The knife was nestled in fine velvet cloth dyed maroon.
“Do you know what that is?” Meyer whispered.
“Shhh, say it softly.”
“A scimitar?” Reed said, softly.
“No, no, Reed. But that’s close. It’s a yataghan. The double curve makes it a yataghan. A scimitar has only one curve. They are very different weapons. People will try to tell you scimitars are Persian and Yataghan’s aren’t, but don’t believe them. Do you understand?”
Reed nodded. He wouldn’t believe those people, if he ever met any.
“Good,” Meyer said, coughing softly, “now I can rest.”
Meyer closed his eyes, at least Reed saw him close his good eye, the one that worked. The milky-white eye was hidden by an eye-patch. Reed could only imagine that it was closed as well. Meyer pulled the blanket up over his mouth and seemed to sleep. Reed studied the yataghan. It was nearly as long as a small dog, a beagle or a Jack Russell Terrier. It looked extremely sharp. Reed had that sudden longing that lots of people have—the longing to touch extremely sharp things with a finger tip. He resisted because the knife seemed even sharper than ‘extremely’.
Meyer said something, but the blanket muffled his voice.
“What?” Reed said, distracted by his longing to touch the blade.
Meyer opened his good eye and stared.
“The blanket,” Reed said. “I can’t hear you.”
With great effort, Meyer pulled the blanket from his mouth. “Wine,” he said, “give me some wine.”
Reed held the bottle to Meyer’s mouth. He drank deeply and seemed to grow stronger.
“Do you know where I got that yataghan?” he asked, wiping wine from his lips with the blanket. “Of course you don’t. How could you know?”
“Turkey?” Reed offered.
“I got it in Turkey,” Meyer, “though you couldn’t know that. I got it from a man who refused payment and spoke a strange language—a language without consonants, a language like a bird’s song. That man’s skin was the color of ripe wheat and he would not tell me his name. But I know this yataghan has but one use, one only, and that is to cut human throats.” Meyer had grown profoundly serious.
“This is profoundly serious, Reed,” he said, “because I have considered using the yataghan. I have seriously considered cutting one more throat with it. That is why I entrust it to you. I know you will not abuse it, even if the knife was in your hand and the throat was shining like ivory before you. The yataghan is in good hands with you. The curse will be broken.”
“The curse the man told me about in his birdsong. The curse of Annabaal.”
“The curse of Annabaal?” Reed said, growing more and more uneasy.
Jerry came into the room then, dressed in full Eucharistic vestments.
“I am here, Meyer,” Jerry announced, solemnly. “I am here to receive your confession.”
Meyer’s hand raised slightly and waved at Reed. “Go now,” he said, “leave me with my confessor.”
Jerry touched Reed’s arm. He whispered, “This won’t take long, then you can come back and have some wine with us.”
From the door, Reed looked back. Jerry hovered over Meyer like some great, golden winged bird. Reed heard Jerry say, “Meyer, about my cape...,” before shutting the door.
The Making Right ritual was played out twice more in the winter and once in the early spring after Meyer had been swimming in the frigid north Atlantic. Each time, Meyer entrusted the yataghan to Reed. Each time, after Jerry had absolved Meyer of all his sins, known and unknown, Meyer and Jerry and Reed would drink wine together until Meyer went to sleep. Each time, the next morning, Meyer would be fit as a fiddle.
It was a sadly funny Making Right ritual. It always made Reed uneasy.
Meyer was much like a crossword puzzle to Reed.
When Reed had been a Great Reader, he had also been an Amazing Speller and extremely good at crossword puzzles. He knew all sorts of crossword puzzle trivia like the three letter word for an African water buffalo; and the Norse goddess of mead; and most of the rivers of Russia and Asia. During his heyday as a cross word puzzle whiz, he and Angela could do the Sunday New York Times in under half an hour, sometimes in just less than twenty minutes. Never mind that it was Monday afternoon before the Sunday Times arrived in Iowa. They would do it and without fail be right. It was mostly Reed’s knowledge that made it possible. Much of this knowledge did not return to him in his second literacy.
Meyer was like a crossword puzzle because his life had little gaps and blanks, missing letters, unknown rivers, obscure Elizabethan definitions. Such as where he was born. If you asked Meyer seven times within an hour where he was born, chances are you would have gotten at least six different answers.
There was much speculation at the Factory about Meyer’s birthplace. The most popular theory was that Meyer was born in Turkey. Jerry was the source of that theory since Jerry had been infected my Meyer’s interest in all things Turkish. It pleased Jerry to think that Meyer came screaming into his stay on this earth in Ankara, someplace in Turkey.
Besides, there were the stories Meyer told about Istanbul—about the heat there, about slinky people and the curved knives everyone carried. Curved like a quarter moon, like a capital C and sometimes curved twice like the cursed yataghan Meyer kept under his bed. As exotic as it was, Reed never believed the Turkish theory.
Reed didn’t believe the Big Apple theory either. Actually, that rumor had two versions. The first version was that Meyer’s parents were a $1000 a night call girl and a famous politician, someone whose picture you would recognize. The other version was that Meyer was the genetic combination of an aging ballerina with the American Ballet Company and a player for the Yankees who is in the baseball Hall of Fame. In either case, the legends converged because both said, as a teen, Meyer had nursed his abandoned mother as she died. That helped explain his obsession with Holy Ghost Hospital. But, for Reed at least, there was something distinctively un-Big City about Meyer—like the way he loved rush-hour traffic on Longfellow Bridge, really loved it, talking to people in the cars stuck around him, inviting other drivers to dinner. Then there was the way he freaked out in crowds in Harvard Square or downtown Boston. There would be a gleam in his good eye, hinting that all the people were alien to him, not in his blood. His blood and his eye, Reed believed, were far-western—vast and incomprehensible, full of incredible silences.
Reed’s personal theory, which he did not share with many people, was that Meyer was born in Idaho—in Salmon, Idaho. There, between the Salmon and Snake rivers, in a long valley separating the Salmon River Mountains and the Bitter Range—there, Meyer began his stay on this earth. That’s what Reed believed. He believed it so thoroughly that after Meyer was arrested and the Factory started falling apart, he decided it was his Purpose in Life to take Sandy and go to Idaho when she came back from Newman’s clinic in Rockport. Reed had never been to Idaho, but he believed he was meant to go there. And when he and Sandy got to Salmon, they would find a ‘Meyer’ in the slender phone book. It would be, or so Reed imagined, Meyer’s great-aunt. She would be almost ninety and half-blind and claim to remember the Indian wars. She would give Reed and Sandy blackberry jam and dark yellow, almost golden butter to eat on crispy mountain biscuits. They would all sit on the back porch watching the sun set over the Salmon River Mountains while she told them of the frontier, of her turnip patch in the backyard, of the old clock in the attic with the carving of a woodcutter on the face, of the snow in the winter of ’43, and of her great-nephew—a wispy, mysterious boy who ran away at the age of 14 to join a semi-professional softball team that was touring the Mountain States.
Her name would be Ursula and she would kiss them softly when they left, feeling the features of their young faces. Reed and Sandy would think of her as they grew old.
Meyer had an affinity for telephones. He enjoyed telephones in the same way he enjoyed heat and Coke machines. Much as most people enjoy Thanksgiving Day parades and chocolate-chip ice cream, Meyer enjoyed telephones. He could not help but enjoy them.
It was an effort for Meyer to pass a phone booth without making a call. He would call for the time or the weather or for United Airlines’ next flight to Tacoma. He called numbers he found written on bathroom walls. His two prize finds were a woman in Sandusky, Ohio who had been Krista’s gym teacher in high school and a hair dresser from London. He found Mrs. Strong’s number on the bathroom wall in Durgin Park, a Boston restaurant. She admitted her husband had written it there, telling her it might be interesting to see if anyone ever called them. Meyer found the second number in the bathroom of the Museum of Science. He called London once a month for half a year. Meyer claimed the hairdresser’s name was Alistair Bibblebottom, which no one at the Factory believed. Alistair had a long, trans-Atlantic affair with one of the curators of the Science Museum. On his last trip to Boston, the two of them had broken up and Alistair wrote his name on the bathroom wall after crying his eyes out for half-an-hour. The next day he flew back to London and six weeks later Meyer called him for the first time. The two of them, Meyer said, talked mostly about hair styles and British history. He also said Alistair’s voice was a cross between Anthony Eden and Petula Clark, whatever that sounded like.
Meyer would sometimes dress up in a MASS BELL telephone repairman’s uniform which he found at a second-hand clothes shop in the Back Bay, and drive around in the VW bus pretending someone was waiting for him to fix their phone. Over the years he somehow assembled a lot of tools that looked for all the world as if they were designed to work on phones. He wore the tools in a tool belt around his waist. He picked up hitch-hikers when he was out fixing phones and when they asked where he was going, he say:
“The Governor’s office,” or
“The Kennedy compound, Rose’s phone is down,” or
“Boston Garden. I’m the official repair guy for the Bruins. They won’t accept anyone else.”
He always told them something like that.
Sometimes, late at night, Meyer would dial his phone for an hour, counting every little click of the legions of clicks his phone made when dialed. “It’s like ice in a glass, Reed,” he’d say, “like people thinking. Electric. Neurons clicking. Clean. True. Somehow it’s all those things to me. A phone’s clicks are one of the few things you can depend on.”
Meyer did all his calling on rotary phones. He had stopped calling people before touch tone phones became the norm. Almost everyone who knew him wondered, at some time or another, usually when a phone chirped and woke them from a dream, not sure what had made the noise, what Meyer would have made of new phone technology.
Once, Meyer dialed a five for Reed and said, “listen to this, big Reed….”
Reed listened. The phone went, “Schrrt, brrrr….”
“Did you hear that?” Meyer asked, a wild, gleeful, only slightly inebriated look on his face. “I counted each click, every one of them.”
Reed, though he was good at reproducing mechanical sounds, could not distinguish individual clicks. He wasn’t even sure Meyer heard anything that different from the blurred sounds he heard. But he enjoyed Meyer’s Philosophy of Life according to Telephones.
“We’re all like phones, Reed,” that Philosophy went, “one wire out of a mass of millions of wires. One wire emerging from an endless multitude of wires and circuits and fuses and God knows what else makes the damn things work, or makes ‘us’ work for that matter. But the only access we have to the world is one fucking wire.” He paused to think, or at least that’s what Reed imagined he was doing. “It’s a little like Jerry’s Philosophy of Life about our being locked in an orange with the navel removed and not even knowing you’re in an orange in the first place….It’s a little like that….Anyway, Reed, we’re all phones. One wire out of all this,” he motioned to himself, to the Whole Man, to his multitude of psychic wires. “Only one wire to call out. One wire. And if we’re lucky enough to realize that, do you know the message we should send to the universe? Do you, Reed?”
Reed considered saying, “we’re all in this thing together?” But instead he said he didn’t know.
“The message we should send is this,” Meyer said, after sucking down a long drink of wine, “One word—HELP!”
Later, Reed asked Jerry about the “orange with the navel removed” Philosophy of Life.
“Oh, that’s really Meyer’s invention,” Jerry told him. “He gets confused about ownership and origination from time to time.”
Then Jerry laughed. “Like about my Civil War cape,” he said. “But Meyer has a million Philosophies of Life, a million.”
Here are but two of those million philosophies, as Meyer told them to Reed. The first is the “there’s nothing free about a freeway” Philosophy of life.
“When I was a boy in Arizona, Reed, back when Interstate highways were but a gleam in old Dwight D. Eisenhower’s eye, I dreamed this philosophy in a dream. We are all like cars on a free-way. We go from place to place, from on-ramp to off-ramp. We mostly avoid the other cars and all we can hope for in the area of relationships is to drive beside someone for a while—until the next exit. Just that: a few miles of road to share, a Howard Johnson’s parking lot, and then the cloverleaf and we’re apart. Separate. Alone again. We’re looking at different road signs, different billboards, different mile posts after that.”
“Are we driving side-by-side now?” Reed asked him.
“For a while, big Reed, for a precious while.”
“And then the exit?”
“Let’s don’t think of that just now, not now,” Meyer said, passing Reed some wine.
The second Philosophy of Life out of Meyer’s million is “The Way the Boat Gets There” Philosophy of Life. Meyer told it like this:
“A ship sets off for a distant port, big Reed, but the people on the boat are land-lovers and very foolish. They stand up on the railings and try to balance themselves on them. So, ever so often, one of the passengers falls overboard. The ship keeps circling, just circling and circling, picking up the ones who fall in the water. And by doing that—just circling and circling—the ship miraculously arrives at its destination. Just like that. That way and no other.”
“That’s a metaphor for the Igloo Factory, isn’t it?” Reed asked, caught up in his new insightfulness.
“Well, no,” Meyer said. “It’s more like an allegory, but a good try, big Reed. You’re a quicker study than most.”
Reed smiled. He was pleased with himself. Of course, he knew the distinction between a metaphor and an allegory, but he wasn’t going to argue the point with Meyer. Huge, bulbous creatures moved silently, deliberately in his soul, unbeknownst to him.
Meyer smiled benignly back. Only years later did Reed imagine Meyer’s smile was because he could sense the creature’s movement the same way he could hear all the clicks of his phone.
One afternoon in late October, Reed and John Henry Davidson III were sitting on the Factory porch, smoking cigarettes Reed bought on a trip to Star Market with Jerry for that very reason: to smoke them with John Henry. They were Marlboro cigarettes.
John Henry was in the midst of telling Reed why he preferred Carlton’s to Marlboro’s when Meyer came running out the door wrapped in a towel.
The screen door slammed behind him. Reed had tied the metal Irish Setter to the door with a piece of twine. I could not fall off now, but it banged against the screen for a while after Meyer came out.
“This is perfect,” Meyer said, “just the two men I need. Floyd and Leroy. Thank Jerry’s Anglican God!”
Neither of them said anything. They both knew it was best to let Meyer explain in his own good time.
He took them to his room. Florence was there, wrapped in Meyer’s terrycloth robe, smoking a cigarette. He clothes were scattered on the floor.
“Tell them! Tell them!” Meyer was jumping around like a three year old or a Labrador puppy. “Tell them, Florence!”
Florence took a long drag on her cigarette. The room smelled somehow of hasty, passionate sex. Reed realized he thought of Meyer as asexual, yet every time Florence came to the Factory, clothes ended up on the floor, Meyer ended up in a towel and Florence ended up in a robe, smoking.
John Henry was leering at Florence. Reed noticed that was not a totally inappropriate reaction. The robe was falling open. Reed saw the nipple of Florence’s right breast. It was lovely—deep pink and erect, set high on a creamy, spaghetti-squash sized breast. She didn’t bother covering it while she told him what Meyer wanted them to know.
“His name is Virgil Trucks,” she said, in the monotone Reed had come to associate with terminal patients at Holy Ghost.
“Just like the Tigers’ pitcher,” Meyer said, dropping his towel and reaching for some clothes in his closet. He was skinny and as white as a flounder fillet.
“Jesus, Meyer,” John Henry said, “you’re one fuckin’ white man….”
“I am a living Adonis,” Meyer replied, turning to show himself off. “And don’t say fuckin’ John Henry, you little asshole.
“In 1943,” Florence said, wrapping Meyer’s robe over her breast and ignoring the distractions, “when Virgil was only 22 years old, he ran a red light, sober as a judge, in Aiken, South Carolina and killed two people—a young high school basketball star named Floyd Fowler and a 10 year old black kid, Leroy Green. There were crossing the street together on their way home from separate but equal schools. Virgil moved north after seventeen years in a South Carolina prison on two counts of manslaughter. He’s been honest and hard working, though he’s never been behind the wheel of a vehicle since. He’s never recovered. He should have died six months ago from the worst stomach cancer I’ve ever seen. He’s only 47 and I’d bet Meyer’s bank account that the cancer is guilt eating up his insides. He’s a dead man who won’t die.”
Meyer was dressed by then. He was wearing a Boston Bruin’s jersey with Phil Esposito’s number on it. It was, in fact, one of Phil’s jerseys. How Meyer came by it was a remarkable story.
“See how perfect this all is?” Meyer asked.
Reed and John Henry looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Half-an-hour later, dressed as nearly as Meyer’s closet would allow for 1943, they were standing by Virgil Truck’s bed.
“We’re both okay,” Reed was saying, “dying isn’t as bad as most people think….”
Virgil Trucks was emaciated, skeletal, sucked dry by guilt and his disease. Reed could hardly look at him. Virgil, as weak as he was, drew himself up in bed.
“We’ve come to forgive you,” John Henry/Leroy said.
“Who are you really,” Virgil asked, “and who sent you?”
“I’m John Henry and this is Reed,” John Henry told him even though Reed was making furious signals to stay in character. “This fuckin’ guy named…I’m sorry, forgive my language…this gentleman named Meyer sent us. I told him this fuckin’…that this wouldn’t work.”
Virgil pushed his bell. After a moment or so, the slender, young nurse Reed had met on his maiden trip, came in and gently suctioned about a pint of mucus from Virgil’s nether-world. Virgil thanked her as only people from the south can thank people and she put her hand on his cheek, smiling.
In his trips to Holy Ghost, Reed had seen much suctioning. He was always amazed at how much mucus the human body can produce.
John Henry, having never seen such a thing before, was wide-eyed and opened-mouthed.
“You go back to this Meyer fellow,” Virgil told them, “and tell him it did work. I’ve been waitin’ for a sign to die, a sign that told me I was forgiven for that awful, senseless accident. And you tell that Meyer fellow ‘thank you’ for me. I’m goin’ to die now ‘cause you were my sign from God.”
Virgil Trucks closed his eyes and died, right then and there. Having received his sign, he died in peace.
On the way back to the Factory, Reed and John Henry agreed not to tell Meyer what Virgil had said. In the first place, it was such an intimate moment they didn’t want to share it with anyone. And besides, as John Henry put it, “Meyer’s fuckin’ head is big enough as it is. We don’t need to make him think he’s the Pope.”
Reed agreed. He’d never seen anyone die before, so he was shaken and willing to follow anyone’s directions. “But don’t say fuckin’ so much.”
“OK,” John Henry said, having seen several people die, but none of those deaths had been like Virgil’s death—peaceful, content and calm. “Don’t fuckin’ hassle me.”
John Henry was 12 and as brown as a cool, cloudy October day or perfect toast. His best friend Curtis was 11 and ebony. They both were ex-stars of Meyer’s softball team. Meyer kicked them off the team for sneaking smokes between innings and saying “fuckin’” too much. They took up Little League and won the Cambridge city championship. John Henry told Reed his Little League coach didn’t “give a fuck” about what he did as long as he hit triples and played flawless short-stop. “That cracker gives a shit about my life,” he said, “but that fuckin’ Meyer…Jesus….”
A few days after their visit with Virgil Trucks, Reed and John Henry and Curtis were sitting on the curb in front of the Factory watching the cars go down Broadway. John Henry was telling Reed that he was ‘proud and free’. “Marcus Garvey and that dumb-ass, bad-ass Pierce made me proud and free,” he said. He pulled a crumbled piece of paper out of his pocket. It seemed to Reed to be a normal piece of typing paper that had been dampened and left out in the sun to fade and crinkle up some. Across the middle of the paper it said, “For John Henry, a true son of Africa. Be proud and free. Marcus Garvey.” Since to Reed the words might as well have been curses written in Croatian, John Henry read it to him twice.
“Me and Curtis convinced Pierce that is was original. He thought it looked like some kid’s writing, so we told him Marcus Garvey wrote it for my granddaddy, the first ‘John Henry’ when he was on his death bed.”
“John Henry told Pierce that Marcus had lost most of his strength by that time,” Curtis said, laughing so hard he choked on cigarette smoke.
“I got the idea after we went to see that old Virgil guy,” John Henry continued while beating Curtis on the back. “Me and Curtis were talking about who we’d like to be with when they died and Marcus Garvey came up. I told Pierce it was gen-u-fuckin-ine.” John Henry started laughing and coughing too.
Curtis took the story back, Reed was always impressed how they could tell a story together. “John Henry had tears in that bad-ass Pierce’s eyes, tellin’ him how his granddaddy passed Marcus Garvey’s autograph on to him and told him it would make him proud and free. Pierce gave us five bucks and a pack of smokes for it.”
“How’d you get it back?” Reed asked, which was what he’d been wondering as the story unfolded.
It turned out Pierce had shown it to Jerry and asked Jerry what it would be worth. “Less than a damn,” Jerry told him. Pierce crumpled it up and threw it on the floor of Jerry’s room. Jerry gave it back to John Henry.
“We cut class and wrote it,” John Henry said, lighting another of Pierce’s cigarettes. “Made us proud and free.”
The three of them watched some more cars pass. The day was as brown as John Henry—cloudy and chill. John Henry was as brown as the day, smoking cigarettes as fast as they would burn. Then John Henry told Reed how his friend Donald had stolen a car and drove it into the Charles.
“Donald drove that BMW down to Northeastern’s boat dock and into the fuckin’ river. Donald’s got some balls.” He said it like he was talking about John the Baptist.
John Henry and Curtis amazed Reed with stories about their friends—little kids stealing cars and little kids taking dope and little-boy kinds knocking-up little girl kids. But Meyer was never amazed. He’d heard all the stories. He’d just shake his head and say to Reed, “John Henry is a Wanderer on the Earth with few peers. And he’s not left home yet.”
Once, when Reed and Jerry and Meyer were talking about John Henry, Meyer made a strange request. “Jerry,” he said, “promise me one thing.”
“Sure,” Jerry answered, loving promises, “name it. Anything.”
“Look out for John Henry after I can’t.”
Jerry stared at Meyer for a long time, seeming to stare into his mind. Then he said, “No problem. It’s done. I’ll give him a job someday. He’ll be my main man.”
That brown day, while Reed and John Henry and Curtis sat on the curb and watched time and cars pass, Meyer came out of the Factory. He was as excited as a Chihuahua.
“Susan Worthington,” he said. “Susan Worthington.”
Curtis and John Henry tried to hide their cigarettes. Meyer glared at them until they put them out in the gutter.
“Susan Worthington,” he said to John Henry.
“Susan Worthington,” he said to Curtis.
They both nodded, like it all made sense.
Then Meyer looked at Reed. He looked like a skinny, enchanted walrus.
“Susan Worthington,” he said to Reed as if they were the words of his enchantment.
Reed shook his head. “So?” he said, a trifle annoyed by that time.
“Don’t snap at me, Reed,” Meyer said. “It’s good for you, I know. Annoyance is important to your healing. But it pisses me off to be snapped at….Susan Worthington is Sugar’s real name. I just talked with John and Joanne Worthington, her parents.”
“Sugar’s parents,” Reed said, no longer annoyed, “where?”
“On the phone, all the way from Kenilworth, Illinois.”
Meyer shook his head and mumbled. He seemed to be mumbling “Susan Worthington” over and over.
Reed interrupted Meyer’s head-shaking muttering. “How did they find her?” he asked.
“There were other voices on the phone, you know, Reed? You know how there are sometimes other voices when you talk long distance—the old lady in Pittsburgh, the kid from Santa Fe, the insurance salesman who lives in Albany?”
Reed knew all about it. He remembered that from long distance calls. “But how did they find her?” he asked, annoyance slipping back into his voice.
“John wanted to fly right out here,” Meyer said, still shaking his head. “But I told him I’d have to tell Sugar he called and before he got here she’s be somewhere worse. I told him we loved her and would never hurt her. I even told him we had a chaplain.” Meyer rolled his good eye. “So, Jerry is now the official Igloo Factory chaplain. John and Joanne ate that up. All those Kenilworth types are good Episcopalians.”
Meyer stopped shaking his head. “And would you like to know how they found her?” he asked.
“Yes,” Reed said, snapping, “I’d like to know that very much.”
“Old Vachel himself. Old Mr. ‘World Where we can Be’ himself.”
“Sugar’s daddy has lots of money,” Reed said to himself, to the brown day, to anyone who was listening.
The four of them were sitting on the curb, their elbows on their knees and their chins in their hands, until Sugar came down the street, reading a skinny book.
Reed asked her what she was reading and she told him some poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that Meyer had given her. She said she liked Elizabeth Barrett Browning very much, though her language was quaint. Reed had never heard Sugar use a word like ‘quaint’ correctly. Reading poetry must have been part of her healing.
“Sugar,” Meyer said, as gently as you would touch a baby bird, “are you, by any chance, related to Al Worthington, the relief pitcher?”
Her eyes got as round as Granny Smith Apples. They were already that shade of green.
“Your daddy called,” he said. Then he told her the whole story. Sugar cried. Meyer stood up and draped his arm around her like a sweater. She cried into his shoulder.
“Why won’t he leave me alone?” she asked, after the hardest crying was over.
“From our conversation,” Meyer said softly, “I think it’s because he loves you. Not leaving people alone is sometimes a sign of love.”
“I won’t go back,” she said, defiant through tears.
“You don’t have to,” Meyer told her, “not until you want to. And John promised he wouldn’t come to find you. I believe him.”
Sugar cried some more and Meyer held her some more. Then Pierce came up the street. He looked at John Henry as if he intended to merge John Henry with the sidewalk. But when he noticed Sugar crying, he turned to her. She unwrapped the sweater of Meyer’s arm from around her and leaned into Pierce.
“Vachel squealed?” is all Pierce asked Meyer.
“Bingo, Cowboy,” Meyer said. Pierce led Sugar into the Factory.
After a long-brown-autumn time, John Henry said, “it’s hard to fuckin’ figure, Sugar and that Baaad Assss.”
“Don’t fucking say fuckin’,” Meyer told him.
“It’s hard to figure anyway,” said John Henry.
Reed was half listening. He nodded a long-brown-autumn nod. The other half of him was thinking about his sister Caroline, who was 14. He was thinking how if Caroline ever ran away from home, he hoped she run somewhere like the Igloo Factory and find someone like Meyer to wrap his arm around her like a sweater.
The grass stopped growing on Cambridge Common in 1967. So the little man who once cut the grass, raked the dirt instead. Those rake patterns were made strange by the ceaseless walkings of pigeons. And Freaks.
What Cambridge Common had most of back in 1968, besides pigeons, was Freaks. There were two kinds of Freaks, Reed learned. There were the ones whose parents drove them in from Lexington in the family Volvo so they could bum change…and the real Freaks. The real Freaks, like the pigeons, had no home besides the Common.
Any morning in 1968 or 1969, you would have found dozens of Freaks sleeping on the Common. Some had old sleeping bags or Army blankets to sleep under, but most just huddled together under newspapers and leaves. Meyer and Reed would watch them bedding down. The Freaks had make a deal with the little dirt-raking man—if he didn’t haul off the fallen leaves, they’d keep them in neat piles. He was the kind of little man who would agree to such an arrangement. So, each night, the Freaks would cover themselves with leaves.
“Like squirrels hiding acorns,” Reed said to Meyer.
“Like acorns that somehow hide themselves,” Meyer said back.
Sometimes Meyer and Reed would watch them for a long time—slumbering as in amber fluid, high on smoke or low on pills or dying from heroin, snuggling beneath patchwork quilts of fallen leaves. Like mushrooms. Like humus. Like the ground itself.
Cambridge Common is important to this story. The Freaks, whom Meyer loved, lived there. And Cambridge Common was where Meyer found Sandy. He found her under a cheap blanket she had somehow stolen from Woolworth’s. She was unconscious, 18 going on deceased, her arms criss-crossed with needle marks, with more heroin in her body than her body could hold. Carlton was unconscious beside her, under the Sunday Globe. As usual, Meyer knew just what to do.
Sandy told Reed about it a few days after she moved into his room. “Meyer found us dying,” she said, wanting him to know the whole story, “Carlton and me. Carlton was my friend from Florida. We came to Cambridge together. We took poison together. We laid down that night, about a year ago, to die together, so far as we knew. We’d run out of money. All we had left was poison, so we shot it all into ourselves and laid down to die.
“Instead, we woke up in a big white room. I was tied down, I swear to God, tied down. Later Newman told me I was truly crazy for a while. The place is up in Rockport. Meyer drove us there though we don’t remember. Newman runs this clinic. Newman’s a doctor and he…well, he helps people stop putting poison in their veins.
“Meyer gave us methadone for a while. Newman got it for him. But we got off it fast. Carlton got off it faster. He left before you came. He’s in college now, at George Washington University. Meyer and Brigham arranged it. Carlton’s made it. I think I’ve made it too. I think so, Reed….”
Reed and Sandy were in bed when she told him all that. It took a remarkable effort for Sandy to say so much so fast. For a long time, Reed simply laid there, feeling Sandy’s body nestled into his, tasting her words.
“I wanted to die, Reed,” she said in a voice like rain. “You see how bad that was? Jesus. I hated Meyer and Newman for not letting me die, but now I know better. I owe Meyer a lot.”
Sandy owed Meyer a lot. So did Carlton. Carlton always said so in the letters he wrote to Sandy from George Washington University. Sandy would read the letters to Reed. Carlton was going to make the Dean’s list. Carlton was going to switch his major to pre-med and be a doctor like Newman. He always said that in letters, just like he always said he owed Meyer a lot. There was one other thing Carlton always said in his letters—he always told Sandy he loved her. Sandy would read those parts in a quiet voice. At first, it bothered Reed. But by the time winter had come in its Northeastern fury, it didn’t concern him as much. From all he could tell, Carlton deserved to love Sandy. And eventually, Reed loved them both.
The first time Reed really talked to Sandy besides his first day in Cambridge, when she showed him the way to Somerville, was when they went to the movies on Election Day 1968. They didn’t go to the movies together—Reed went to the movies and Sandy did too. Afterwards, they saw each other in an ice-cream parlor and had their first real talk.
The movie theatre where this happened is called the Harvard Square Cinema. Most everyone who went there in the late 60’s was young—Freaks or Harvard Students or girls from Radcliff. They were good people to see movies with because they cheered what they liked and threw things at what they didn’t like. They would also smoke cigarettes or marijuana and drink wine during the movies. Only people who really liked movies went to Harvard Square Cinema.
Harvard Square Cinema specialized in $2 double features. Sometimes even $1.25 double features, which was cheap for a movie, even then. The double features were always interesting—in the way peanut butter and dill pickles on toast is interesting. A movie by Fellini and a movie starring John Wayne might be a double feature. Or A Thousand Clowns and The Battle of the Bulge. Or The Robe and a James Bond movie. Or a Jerry Lewis movie and something lovely and soft, something like David and Lisa.
The night Reed and Sandy were there together alone and began a conversation that has over 20 years—the double feature was Elvira Madigan, which was Reed’s favorite movie for years, and The Magus, which Reed has never understood. Anthony Quinn was in The Magus. He is the most confusing thing about the movie for Reed.
After the movie, Reed was in Brighams’, and ice-cream place near the Cinema, talking with the little Freak who looked like Harpo Marx, only with black hair. The Freak was telling Reed how Hubert Humphrey was going to be President and how hard, how really hard, it was to find good grass anymore. The two things seemed to go together for him. “Nixon is a crook,” he said, shaking his head. Then he looked Reed in the eye and said, “Do you have any grass? Any really good grass?”
Reed apologized and said he didn’t.
“See what I mean,” the little Freak said, “it’s like inflation. You know, inflation?”
Reed said he had heard about inflation. He also said he was old enough to vote but hadn’t registered.
“Ah, it’s your civic duty, man,” the Freak said. Then he said, “Jesus, it’s hard to get a good high.”
Sandy walked over to them. She was eating a mocha almond ice-cream cone with chocolate Jimmies. She smiled at them both.
“Hi, Reed,” she said, “hi, Saul.”
The Harpo Marx Freak said hi and asked Sandy if she knew where he could get some really good grass. She told him no. Reed was surprised that his name was Saul.
“Christ Almighty,” Saul sand to Sandy, “I’d like to get high.”
The three of them nodded for a while.
“Are you going back to the Factory?” Reed asked Sandy.
“After I walk around for a while and think some,” she said. Then she offered them both some of her ice-cream cone. Saul took the cone and ate almost half of it. Reed, being Midwestern, politely declined.
“You can come with me,” Sandy told Reed, “if you don’t mind the cold and don’t mind that I don’t talk much.”
“I won’t bother you,” Reed answered. “I’ll just walk around with you and leave you to your thoughts. And I won’t talk much either.”
Sandy smiled at him. In spite of a chin that many would have thought of as too weak and a little mushy, he smile was free and tender.
The two of them walked in silence down Mass Ave, past the Common, thinking. Clearing dust from their minds. They turned down Sacramento Street where there were Harvard Graduate School dorms and Leslie College dorms. There were people on the street, talking with each other. Their breaths rose like fog from a valley, spreading above their heads.
“What are you thinking, Reed?” Sandy said, unexpectedly.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he told her, “about how I love Elvira Madigan though I couldn’t read the subtitles and have no idea what it was about. I just loved the colors and the way the people moved. And I was thinking about the people’s voices around us, rising like fog from a valley. About the memory of how you let Saul eat most of your ice-cream cone without complaining and how I wished I’d taken at least a bite. About clearing dust from my mind. Things like that.”
“Are you deep, Reed?”
“No,” he said, without thinking about it at all, “not any more. Not since I forgot how to read. You don’t have to think deep thoughts if you don’t read. Most of the things I’ve thought deeply about were things I’ve read. It’s somewhat over-rated, being ‘deep’.”
“Do you miss all that? Something in your voice tells me you miss it.” Sandy’s words spread like fog around Reed’s face.
“I don’t mean to sound that way,” he floated words of fog back to Sandy. “I guess I must miss it some. It took up time. But I don’t mean to sound that way.”
“I don’t think I’d miss it,” she said. “I’ve thought about it a lot since you’ve been at the Factory, about what it would be like not to have to read. It’s so automatic that most of us can’t help it. It’s an instinct. I’ve tried to ‘not read’ since I met you, but I can’t help myself. I pass a sign and see ‘STOP’ or a truck drives by and I see ‘Legal Seafood’ on its door. I just read what it says….It must be weird.”
“That may be the word for it.” Reed thought it might be just the right word for it. Weird.
They walked over to Harkness Commons, the graduate student dining hall for Harvard. They sat on the frosty grass and watched people pass. The people were making fog and carrying many books. Presumably, they were thinking deep thoughts.
Reed smoked a cigarette from his shirt pocket that John Henry Davidson III had given him. It was all crooked and limp from being in his pocket, but it smoked all the same. The cigarette caused his breath to rise double-thick—like really serious fog over the North Atlantic. It was a Carlton cigarette—John Henry’s favorite and the same name as Sandy’s friend, a name Meyer had told him weeks before. While all the fussing with the cigarette was going on, Sandy was staring straight ahead. She seemed to be clearing important dust from her mind. From the cracks there.
“What are you thinking now, Reed?” she asked.
“About you, about the dust in the cracks of your mind. About all these people carrying books I can’t read. About how you smiled at me in the ice-cream place, how your smile was tender and free.”
“Do you think I’m free?”
“No,” Reed said, since honesty was ingrained in him like a fingerprint. “But your smile is. And I do believe you are tender.”
“I used to be free.” Sandy smiled a sad little smile, a mile longing to be free that was already tender. “When I was young I was gay and laughing and free. My mother called me ‘her little sprite’. I was like ginger ale…like the bubbles…effervescent.”
They sat in the chill silence. The only sound by that time was the distant hum of the Mass Ave traffic and the murmur of the people occasionally passing. Reed remembered that Meyer had told him how Sandy looked when he found her under her Woolworth’s blanket in Cambridge Common. “She looked like death warmed over,” Meyer had said, “no, not that good.” It had been almost a year since Meyer had dug Sandy out of the leaves. Sandy no longer looked like death. Reed was thinking about how remarkably the human body can recover from most anything—even poison in its veins.
“Have you ever been to Florida, Reed?”
“No. Only as far as Georgia. But I was too young to remember that.”
“I think about Florida, about Pensacola, where I grew up, and about the Gulf of Mexico, about the song it sings. I miss the warmth sometimes. When it starts getting cold, I feel dark and lonely and I miss the warmth.”
While they sat there, it grew colder. “It is cold,” Reed said.
Sandy smiled. “Yes, I know.” They sat in the cold a while longer while she said, “Reed, you know, don’t you, that I used to take heroin?”
“Yes, I know,” he said, “Meyer told me.”
“I’m glad you know.”
“Sandy,” he said, hesitantly, “may I ask you something personal?”
She smiled at his politeness and nodded.
“Why did you start…you know…taking heroin?”
She thought a while and turned up the collar of her coat. “I don’t know,” she said.
That seemed a fine answer to Reed.
There was a big piece of iron sculpture in front of Harkness Commons. Reed walked over to it. It reminded him of something on a playground—a jungle gym. When he touched it his hands stuck with cold.
Sandy called his name. When he turned toward her, she floated some fog toward him. The fog said, “If I told you it was because of the song the sea sings, would that be good enough?”
“I don’t understand,” Reed’s fog said as it floated to her.
She crossed the grass and stood inside the sculpture. Her hands were beside his, sticking with cold to the iron. She faced him.
“The sea, the only one I knew, the Gulf of Mexico…I heard its song for years. And it was always about the same thing. It was about time, about time passing, about everything is the same over and over….I grew sad.”
“And that’s why you started….” Reed had difficulty saying the words again.
“Taking heroin?” Sandy finished. And when he nodded, she continued, “That and lots of other things, but that at least.”
Sandy rested the palm of her hand lightly on the back of Reed’s hand. Their hands were metallic cold, like the sculpture.
“If that’s your reason,” Reed said, “then it must have been reason enough.”
“I knew it was poison,” she said slowly, as she said most everything. Deliberately. Measured. Precise. Slow waves on the beach in Pensacola. “But it was poison that made me not feel sad at first. Then it made me want to die.”
Reed considered that for a while, feeling for Sandy’s other hand with his. “When I could read, I kept reading about how everyone has a death-wish of some kind. There’s lots of agreement among people who read about that in books. I’ve never really wanted to die, but I have wanted to stop…you know, just stop. That’s a lot like dying.”
“You have ‘stopped’, Reed,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to admit, but sometimes I sit in the kitchen and listen to you and Meyer talk in his room. It’s like you were a wonderful juggler who just stopped juggling and watched all the colorful balls drop. Now you’re deciding whether to pick any of them up again.”
Reed remembered telling Meyer almost those very words once in a wine colored night. He was a juggler considering another way of living. Most of the balls he had juggled were not so bright now, covered by a thin layer of dust from the dirt where he let them fall.
He smiled. “Krista sees the future,” he said, still smiling, his teeth aching slightly from the cold, “and you see the past. But you shouldn’t want to die, Sandy, not you. Your smile betrays that you could be as free and lively as a sprite and as effervescent as bubbles in a glass. You are meant to do all sorts of wonderful things—dance and pick apples and understand The Magus.”
Sandy laughed an explosion of fog. “I do,” she said, “I do understand The Magus! It’s my favorite movie. It’s why I came tonight. And it’s just like the song the sea sings. ‘Life’, it sings. And ‘Death’. And it sings illusion. And Truth. It sings the whole thing. Over and over. That’s what The Magus is about—life, death, illusion, truth. Over and over, inside out and upside down.” She giggled and then frowned. “I don’t usually talk so much,” she told Reed. “This is a tad embarrassing.”
Reed tried to remember the last time he’s heard anyone say ‘a tad’ like that. It must have been Lysander in his odd accent. “My essay is going to be ‘a tad’ late,” Reed remembered Lysander telling some teacher or another.
“There’s nothing wrong with embarrassment, take it from a Grand Master,” Reed said. Then, because Sandy’s face was red from the chill of the dying Autumn and the coming Winter, Reed put his hand in his pocket to warm before touching her cheek. They stood for a while, still tangled in the sculpture, warming their hands and touching each other’s cheeks.
Finally, Sandy said, “Let’s go home and go to bed.”
They were almost there when Reed realized she meant together.
(One night, quite late, after I had finished writing about the night Sandy and I talked and probably fell in love—though we didn’t call it that for quite a while—I was looking through one of the Harvard University spiral notebooks Marvin Gardens gave me. Most of the pages were in his #3 pencil scratches. They are hard to decipher after so many years. But near the back of the notebook, after Marvin’s essay on “The Partridge Family”—which may be the definitive review of that show, if anyone ever read it—and some notes about the network coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention, I found two pages I had written in ink about Sandy. I thought about showing them to her, but realized it would be a plot to get her to spend another night with me in our bed. It is clear that she will choose when and if to do that! She has moved from the basement to Meyer’s room next door. But she knows I write at night, since I can’t seem to write during the day at all, and is committed to minimizing my distractions.
So, instead of showing it to her, I will copy it here—just the way I wrote it sometime in the summer of 1969, after Meyer was transferred to the state prison from Cambridge city jail. I don’t know how I remember even that about when I wrote these words. I neglected to date any of the paper bags or call slips or spiral notebook writings. That may reveal that I never intended to really write a book about the Igloo Factory. Or, it may simply confirm a truth about me—I don’t date much of anything. Sandy started writing the checks years ago because so many of the ones I wrote came back from the electrical company or the phone company or some book club because I regularly neglected to date them. I always hated writing checks.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote about Sandy all those years ago.
Three days after the election, Sandy moved into my room. It was like having a gentle warm front move into the area. She radiated. She brightened. She also took down Wally’s sign and threw it away. One less thing to remind me I couldn’t read.
Though I can never quite describe her, she brings to mind certain things: sandpiper tracks on a wet beach, the flutter of small brown birds, yellow apples and dewy spider webs, cat steps, low hums, crocheting, spiced tea, strings of red licorice, lemurs and nocturnal things, sudden rains, the smell of clean clothes in a drawer.
Sandy is different from others I have known. Before I forgot how to read, I loved a woman with impeccable taste and large breasts who read James Joyce, smoked Lark cigarettes and had many plans for us. Before that, I thought I loved loud girls with muscular calves who drank Coke floats, kissed with limp mouths and listened to AM radio. I also thought I loved prim private school girls in proper blouses who claimed to like Mozart, longed to marry a doctor and were like tornados in the back seat of my coach’s car. I had been able to deal with all the others, somehow know their minds. But, like a deep mystery, Sandy came to my room and my life.
This is about Sandy’s glasses.
Sandy hardly wore her glasses. I liked them immensely on her—they gave her face a lift and took your eyes from her weak chin and rested them on her deep, deep eyes.
“They’re old, Reed,” she’d say when I pressed her about wearing them. “I can’t see out of them anymore.”
I told Meyer and he took her into Boston for an eye exam and new glasses. They were fragile little wire-rims. Gold. Nice. The first day or so she was happy enough—able to read distant street signs and see the Pru clearly out of our window. But it wore off. I would found her glasses hidden in my sock drawer under a picture of Sandy standing in a straw hat in front of some forgotten relative’s house. She looked twelve in the picture—awkward and thin.
I gave them back to her. She said ‘no’.
“No, Reed. No way. I just can’t do it.”
“But you can see with them,” I said. “And they make you beautiful.”
“They make me beautiful to you, that’s what you mean. You like the way they look, so I should wear them.”
“You can see with them,” I sought to reason, “don’t you like to see?”
“Of course I like to see,” she said, “but not see. There are blotches and bumps and runny things on people’s faces. There are river-like veins on old ladies’ legs and mysterious stains on the front of old men’s pants and pimples on children’s cheeks. There are little red lines in the corners of your eyes, Reed and a little hair that grows out of the bridge of your nose. And crap—crap everywhere—in subway stations, doorways, front lawns. There’s garbage and crap abounding. I like it better when it just blends in and blurs together. People look…nicer that way. I like to see, Reed, but not see.”
I finally stopped arguing. Her eyes are, after all, her own.
Trying to write about Sandy here in Byerly is like staring out over the North Atlantic at night, trying to describe the lights of Copenhagen. Or Madrid. Whatever is on the other side of the Atlantic from here.
Perhaps if she were here now, if I could be with her, I could think of all the ways to describe her. If she were asleep in our bed, I could sit by the window and describe her in the glowing light of my burning cigarette. Or, if I could talk to her, pick up the phone and call her up in Rockport…but I must wait for that. The last thing Meyer said to me before Newman took her away was that I have to wait.
“Wait on Sandy, Reed,” he said, “and give her time to be ready.” I know he was right.
Sandy’s ankles are a little thick and she has a weak chin, not the chin she was meant to have. Her knees are deeply scarred, much like oak bark, with ridges and indentations. Like a contour map of Arkansas. She says it was from shooting marbles.
“Marbles, Reed,” she told me when she caught me staring at her knees while she was toweling off from a shower. “Marbles were my downfall. I was one of the best marble shooters in Pensacola and the playground where I shot marbles was asphalt. Asphalt digs out your knees when you kneel down and shoot marbles long enough. And my mother always made me wear dresses. She said pants or jeans made a girl look ‘mannish’. So marbles were my undoing.”
Sandy’s knees are irrigated, but her thighs are lovely—creamy and white and velour—and where he legs meet with her hips are two of the most nearly perfect joinings in all of Nature. The rest of her is far above fair. He stomach is almost concave and the color of two-day-old snow, as smooth as a kitten’s stomach, like a peach with white down that tickles my lips when I kiss her navel. Her navel is drop-of-water round and barely deeper than the rest of her, with a tiny button and five lines in geometric balance. Astral.
Sandy’s breasts are firm and round and uplifted with nipples the size of the last joint of a baby’s thumb. Her arms are like branches—willowy, wind-blown, long and sensuous, with a sculptor’s hands at the end of them. Her face defies my description. It is a face old before its time and younger than its years. Classic, yet subtle, beyond easy categories. Except for her soft and misplaced chin, her face is of the Ages—stark, high-cheeked and incredible.
Her eyes are Indian…or Polynesian—almond shaped and half-hidden by long, spider-leg eyelashes and the brown of highly polished walnut, speckled with tints of gold. Her hair, like her eye-lashes and caterpillar eyebrows, is black—the black of the sea at midnight, the black of sleep, the black you think of when you think of dead. It is thin and barely reaches her shoulders. She usually wears it pinned up or banded back.
But all that is not Sandy: Sandy by the window, staring into night and Time; Sandy curled in a chair, holding her cat, smiling remotely; Sandy from the shower, unashamed, powdery in spite of the wet; Sandy walking ahead of me, unaware I am near, her hands deep in the pockets of the jeans her mother disapproved of, her shoulders slumped a bit, her mind somewhere I cannot be; Sandy squinting at me when I’m trying to say something profound and bursting into laughter when I get it all mixed up; Sanding holding me in the night when I feel lonely and afraid, never asking me what is wrong, only stroking my hair and touching my face.
I have not yet heard Sandy’s Sea-song. I drive to Revere Beach late at night these days and listen, but all I hear is the sound of cars behind me and the far-off roar of a storm somewhere near Denmark.
“There is a part of me you cannot know,” she told me once, riding the Red Line down to Boston. It seemed to me a strange venue for such a revelation—but Sandy is not predictable. “I don’t remember that part of me, so I can’t share it with you. I did know it, long ago, before the Sea-song drowned it out….You must wait to know me, Reed. You must wait.”
And so I wait. And write at Byerly and stay up late, sometimes driving to listen to the sea.
A few times I’ve taken Sandy’s glasses from my drawer and put them on. They’re not much stronger than plate glass and I can’t understand why they make such a difference to her. I can even forget I have them on and wear them to Byerly. When someone says, “I didn’t know you wore glasses,” I take them off, fold them carefully and put them in my shirt pocket.
“It’s not to serious,” I always say, “I just need them when I want to see.” Then I laugh and the other person invariably laughs with me.
THE IGLOO FACTORY
(pre-fab igloos spec.)
is what the sign said. The sign that never got hung up again, though Meyer moved it around a lot. The sign that leaned against the beer cooler after they took Meyer away until Jerry left and took it with him. The sign that was the result of the Coke machine. The sign that Meyer and Reed were staring at in the late morning the day after election day.
It was a cold morning—a morning that felt like the last morning of autumn or the first morning of winter, one of those. It was a morning for drinking coffee, which is what they were doing. Marvin Gardens had stayed up all night watching the election results and hadn’t fixed breakfast. There was a note on the table that said: NIXON WON, YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN THIS MORNING. Meyer read it to Reed as the coffee brewed.
“What’s that mean, do you think?” Meyer asked as the coffee burbled and perked.
“What’s what mean?” Reed replied, absent-mindedly, caught up in the memories of his first night with Sandy.
“The note about Nixon, what’s it mean?”
“Yesterday was the election, Richard Nixon is going to be the next president.
“That shifty-eyed, greasy little bastard from California, you’re kidding?” Meyer seemed genuinely surprised. “There was an election and all that?”
Reed nodded, the coffee was done.
“Yet another reason for California to fall into the Pacific,” Meyer said, pouring steaming coffee into two truck stop mugs. One had an M on the bottom and the other one had a W. The M had a line under it—M—for Meyer.
They carried their mugs like precious things, cradled in both hands, out into the hallway. The Factory sign was standing on its end against the wall beside the Coke machine.
“It’s the spec I don’t understand,” Meyer said, pointing with his coffee cup at the sign. “Could that be a baby spectator or a broken spectacle or a partial spectrum, one with only four colors?”
Reed stared at the sign and then at Meyer. Meyer stared back at him, a look of thoughtful confusion on his face.
The chill wind had picked up. A shiver went down Reed’s back. Winter was arriving.