“Study long and you’ll study wrong….”
--Lysander Martin III (1946-1964)
Gerald Mann was a once and future Episcopal priest who lived at the Igloo Factory. When I first met him he told me he was ‘suspended’—or as he put it, ‘semi-defrocked’, a category roughly akin to ‘somewhat pregnant’. He wore clerical collars almost constantly and would celebrate communion with Meyer in Meyer’s ‘troubles’, but his standing in the church was a cloudy as Meyer’s bad eye. Never the less, Jerry put great stock in confession. He would say, as a priest might, “Confession is good for the soul.” But he never stopped there. “Confession”, he said, to anyone who would listen, “is good for what ails you. Confession is a paradigm for wholeness.”
“Say, Reed,” Sugar asked me one hot night a week or so after I arrived at the Factory, “can I ask you something?”
“Is it personal?” I asked, coyly, trying to be wry and ironic—something I often was in my literacy.
For Sugar, irony did not exist. She was that innocent—or that fortunate. So she thought a long time before answering, “Isn’t everything?”
“So ask already,” I said, smiling.
“What’s ‘paradigm’ mean?”
“It’s like a pattern or a model or an example…something like that.”
She twisted her mouth up and thought. “So what Jerry means is that confession is ‘model’ for “wholeness”?
“That’s what Jerry means.”
Sugar went up to her room then. Nobody at the Factory, not even Meyer, knew her real name or exactly which suburb of Chicago she was from and next to nothing about her life before she showed up. She was a walking, talking, living secret. Confession was not her paradigm.
I was remembering that because Ash Wednesday was last week. Sandy had told me in the morning at breakfast. We were finishing our tea and she said, “Big Holy Day today….”
“Which one?” I asked. Sandy kept up with the surging, rolling rituals of several world faiths. She sometimes claimed to pray to the Goddess, attended meditation classes from time to time and found the calendars of organized religions interesting. She said it kept her in the flow of the seasons.
So, that day at noon I left Peaches in charge of the library and walked down the Grace Church. It’s a tiny little church built of native West Virginia woods and full of muted colors. I’d go and sit in Grace Church from time to time. It was a good place to sit but I seldom attended services.
The service had just started when I got there, then Fr. Boyles, dressed in black, read some lessons with solemnity and drama. There was a little sermon about how life is like wearing a raincoat with two pockets. In one pocket, we carry dust and ashes, the earth, humus, our own mortality. In the other pocket, there is starlight and glitter, wondrous stuff of life and joy. Fr. Boyles went on to say that we need to have our hands full of the contents of both pockets. That sounded reasonable to me.
Following the sermon was a confession that lasted about 10 minutes. We confessed all the appropriate and ordinary sins along with some I’d never really thought about before. We confessed we are broken and selfish and impatient. We confessed we have royally messed up the planet and not given people different from us a fair shake. We confessed we are envious, lustful and discontent. It was beginning to annoy me—which might be the point—when he stood up and forgave us every single sin!
Properly forgiven, we got our ashes. I knelt at the altar and Fr. Boyles rubbed some gritty soot on my forehead and said, “Remember, my brother, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
I stayed for communion, thinking of all the people I know who have returned to dust, how strange it is to imagine ourselves dust that is walking around and living for a while—apparently sinning to beat the band—before laying down and being dust again. I was also trying to imagine holding ashes in one hand and stardust in the other—but dust, after all. Before I knew it, I was back up at the altar rail, chewing one of the little wafers. Jerry once told me Episcopalians needed lots of faith to imagine those wafers were ‘bread’, much less the Body of Christ.
The wine tasted like deep maroon smoke—a port, I imagine, though in my old church back in Cleveland they used a shiny, golden sherry. It was easier, somehow, to think of cheap port as ‘blood’, not so large a leap of faith as a fine sherry.
Back at work, I started thinking about how Lysander and my father and Meyer T were dust that had fallen into deep cracks in my brain. Fr. Boyles’ raincoat story had brought them up as glitter stinging my hand. I wasn’t getting much done—‘nothing’, in point of fact—thinking about all that, so it was a welcomed distraction when Carrie Justice came gliding into the library about 3:15, floating over to the check out desk where I’d been thinking.
She smiled at me and then did one of those double takes kids do naturally and you and I have to act out. Her mouth flew open and she started climbing up on the desk, knocking pens and call-slips and God know what all onto the floor. I pulled her up to kneel on the desk top. She licked her hand, pulled my head down and started rubbing my forehead with her wet, sticky saliva.
“You got all dirty, Reed Daley,” she said, breathless and whispering, just the way I taught her to talk in the library. “Your mom’s goin’ to be fit to be tied….”
“Thank you, Carrie Ann,” Peaches said, walking by with an armful of books to mis-shelve. “Those damn ashes have given me the willies all afternoon.”
Most people in Buchanan, except up at the college, are Baptists or evangelicals. Ash Wednesday makes them anxious.
Since Ash Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about how my pockets are chock-a-block full with the dust of people I know and how confession, according to the now re-frocked Fr. Jerry Mann, is good for what ails you. Here is a confession: I never intended to write this book.
Oh, I promised I would. I promised Meyer T Meyer with a sacred oath. And I played at it for quite a while, filling lunch bags with memories and Byerly Library call slips with reflections. But I was simply playing around, waiting until Sandy came back from Rockport clean from drugs and we could go to Idaho and live happily ever after. When she came back and we ended up in Buchanan, I let all thoughts of writing this book slip into a crack in my mind and left well enough alone. After all, for over 20 years, I seldom saw anyone besides Sandy who knew I had made the promise. And to justify myself a bit, after being in West Virginia for a year or so, I did write to Meyer in jail to tell him about our Meyer, his namesake, and to mention I wasn’t getting anywhere with the writing. Since he never wrote back, I took that as a sign. If he hadn’t written that damned message on his jail cell with his own blood, I would have been off scot-free and would have returned to dust without doing all this.
Here is another confession: Most of my ‘intentions’ turn out the same way.
I have lived a life of unfulfilled intentions—a life, spent away like so many shiny quarters, avoiding even having intentions. It is—or so I believe—not unlike the lives of many others. Many of us seem to be dust walking around unconscious about the promises we made.
Besides, ‘intentions’ are funny things.
Here’s an example: I was 17 years old and having sex with a cheerleader named Cindi in the back seat of my basketball coach’s Buick. It was the only time Cindi and I had sex, in a Buick or otherwise. It had been my highest intention for over a month to be just where I was that night—on top of Cindi, one hand on her firm right breast, the other hand holding us steady in the back seat, our legs entwined. That was what I intended to have happen for most of my waking hours (and some of my dreams) for four weeks.
At that very moment—precisely then—I found myself thinking about the calculus test I had the next morning. I didn’t know didley about many of the formulas that were going to be on the test. All through the consummation of my Great Intention, I was worried about calculus.
So much for intentions.
So much for lust as well.
For several years it was my intention to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and a published poet. I also intended, during that same time frame, to marry Angela, the daughter of a gynecologist from Kenilworth, Illinois and give her four babies before we returned to dust.
When I became illiterate just before my 22nd birthday, I had a friend write to Georgetown Law School to tell them I wouldn’t be coming in September to be elected to the Law Review in my second year (another intention of mine). Right after that, Angela left my life. And, the truth be known, my poetry was always abysmal.
One of my poems, a sonnet to a warm December day, began like this:
“When thus it comes upon a winter’s day,
Such a misplaced’ springtime afternoon….”
The poem ended like this:
“My sighted’ heart its mother-wet wings dons,
And seeking springtime, soars in sunlight blessed.”
Which, most everyone should agree, makes me a rotten poet.
My poetry was, if nothing else, quite alliterative. One line of a sonnet I
Wrote for Angela said:
“Shimmering sun, shining with such a sheen”
and another said:
“Tracing trickling tears of terrible trial.”
All my poems were like that—bad. Just the kind of poems an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court might find time to write. Poems only his law clerks would claim to like and which would contain many references to Greek mythology stolen from his paperback copy of Edith Hamilton.
Mercifully, not all my poems were sonnets. I also wrote in blank verse from time to time. Those poems are marginally better because they had no particular form to abuse. One of those blank verse poems was about fear and ended with these lines:
There is the fear of death
and the fear death holds.
There is the fear of love,
But most, most of all,
There is the fear of being
to near, too dear
I care about that poem, though it is a sorry excuse for poetry. I care about it because it was written in the shadow of a mountain named Massenutten and it was for my friend Lysander, who had returned to dust. There was snow all around when I wrote it. The snow was white on white on white.
I haven’t written a poem for years and will never be a lawyer, much less a Justice of the highest court in the land. And unless Sandy and I completely lose our minds, I will father only one child on this earth. So much for intentions.
Except…I am writing this book. With more luck than I’m used to having, maybe I can make it True. The way Meyer wanted.
Writing a book, after all, isn’t all that hard. Since I’ve been the librarian at the Buchanan Public Library, I’ve met several dozen people who have written books. And those are just the ones who have told me about their books. Sometimes, like bartenders, people will tell librarians secrets even their families don’t know—like they’ve written a book. Usually they whisper it to me, sliding some pages across the desk in my direction. They whisper it like a confession.
John Manor Tyson, one of the Baptist ministers in town, shared his book about sin with me this very week. He titled it SIN: THE WRONG WAY TO GO and it chronicles mostly sins of the flesh. I read most of it and marveled at how deeply he has considered the matters of lust, fornication and self-abuse. I plan to give it back with him along with a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer with page of the Ash Wednesday folded down so he might find it. Rev. Tyson has lots of things than seem to ail him.
Freda Sparks, an aging maid who teaches third grade at the elementary school, has written a book about the screwy things eight and nine year old children say. She is the malignant side of Art Linkletter. Her kids say the ‘damnest’ things. Her book is called The Child is Parent to the Wo/Man. It isn’t half bad. Although Freda’s obsessive devotion to inclusive language gets rather tedious, her thesis is, in some twisted way, ground breaking. She flies in the face of all the books about how we are victims of our parents’ mistakes. Adult mistakes and craziness, according to Freda Sparks, is nothing more than adult reactions to the inherent demented nature of children. Children, she believes, are the genesis of anything gruesome, nasty or bad that parents do. Each of us, she reasons quite well, are responsible for how our parents turned out. As theories go, it is a unique and remarkable one.
Norman Gale, a retired Forest Ranger for the National Park Service, confided in me some time ago that he had written a book about the woods he had guarded and protected. He calls it Forty Eight Years and Eleven Months Among the Trees. The sub-title is “Almost Half-a-Century as a Forest Ranger”. It’s an amazing piece of writing. Norman asked me to write the foreword if it gets published. I was deeply moved by that. “Stormin’”, which is what I call him, is a true naturalist. He can almost make trees interesting. I read his book twice though it’s written with a #3 pencil on onion skin paper and is torn in many places. Stormin’ Norman tells me it takes many fewer trees to make onion skin paper and the pencils last longer with hard lead. He really cares about trees. He has things to say about pines that, to my knowledge, has never been said before.
Sandy’s written a book—though she doesn’t even know I know about it. It’s a novella about a young girl who fills her veins with heroin and twice finds a new life in a clinic on Cape Cod. The doctor who saves her both times is a recovering addict himself who lost his medical license but takes care of poison filled people anyway. He wears blue jeans and reads Sartre. Much of his therapy, if I were to name it, is ‘existential’. Sandy’s book is a disturbing tale with lots of descriptions of the song the sea sings. The first time the girl gets clean she comes to a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and against her better judgment falls in love. The second time she gets clean, she leaves with that man and goes to live in West Virginia. I’ve read it several times while Sandy was out teaching art classes, usually skipping over the really painful parts—the parts where the girl wants to be dust again. It doesn’t have a title, but I would name it Sea Song.
Most everyone, I’ve heard it suggested, has one book in them—the one about their life. Maybe this one is mine. So, writing a book shouldn’t be terribly hard. Writing a “True Book”…that may be a different story.
One of the lunch bags I’ve read and re-read lately has these words on it:
Writing a True Book is not easy, especially since I’m trying to write it while guarding a few thousand of the hundreds and hundreds of thousand books that belong, for one reason or another, the Harvard University. Percy, who gave me the job of guarding books, doesn’t mind if I write while guarding. Percy knows Meyer and claims to understand. I only wish I did.
The people who come into my little library want me to pay attention to them. They want me to find books for them. They want me to fill out cards for them. They want me to be pleasant and helpful, and I am, though it slows my writing considerably.
My library’s name is Byerly and Byerly has the reputation of being a pleasant, friendly library, unlike some of the others in Harvard and Ratcliff’s system. There is even a sign that Percy scotch-taped to the front of my desk that says:
BYERLY IS A FRIENDLY LIBRARY.
AND A PLEASANT ONE, WELCOME.
Percy has scotch-taped another notice to my desk. It is a message to me about the books I guard so faithfully. It says:
Books on term-reserve circulate overnight.
Books not on term-reserve circulate for three (3) weeks.
Books on permanent-reserve circulate for one (1) week
unless they are also on term-reserve
in which case they circulate only overnight
and official Commonwealth Monday holidays*
(*see Library Handbook for Monday holiday policy.)
I must read that notice twenty (20) times a day. It still confuses me.
I wrote that nearly two (2) decades ago, filling most of a brown lunch bag stained with some long-forgotten lunch. I hardly remember the person who wrote it, much less what he was thinking about. It is, in its way, a confession about how hard it is to write a True Book, given the distractions of life.
Now here I am, writing again, ‘intending’ to finish this time and keep my promise. I am hoping, wishing, even praying a little, that this will somehow be true. Just like Meyer wanted before he returned to dust. For all I know, he still wants it written and written True. Bless his heart.
This is a longer confession. This is about where I was and what I was doing with my stay on earth before I forgot how to read and came to live in the Igloo Factory.
I was born in a little-known area where two rivers and three states meet. One of the rivers is known and large and the other is smaller and unknown. The rivers are the Ohio and the Big Sandy. The states are Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
There are places where I was born with names like Ceredo and Kenova and Russell and Greenup and Princess and Coal Grove and Hanging Rock and Getaway. None of those places are large or known. I always knew about them because I would look them up in the AAA Atlas, just to try to imagine the places near where I was born. Sandy and I visited there about a month after we decided to stay east and not go to Idaho. We found all of them except Princess and Getaway. When we were in Coal Grove, I got out of the car and walked up and down the road. The autumn mountains were a riot of colors. The wind was heavy with the hint of frost. I cried a little just in wonder of how I had begun my stay on earth near such a place. It was embarrassing, but Sandy kissed my tears away and told me she understood.
So, when I was four days old, about as interesting as a baby oriole, I was taken from that place to my real how. My eyes, I imagine, had not focused on anything besides swimming-kaleidoscopic-rainbows when I arrived in Cleveland, where I grew.
I was born in the emergency room in Ironton, rather than in Cleveland because my father was a brilliant lawyer for some important coal and gas concerns. He and my mother, with me slumbering in her womb, had come to Ironton so my father could meet with the coal and gas concerns and my mother—a native of the suburbs of Philadelphia—could see such a place. She used to be interested in new places and sights. Besides, she though I was five weeks from beginning my stay on this earth.
I was born where the Ohio and the Big Sandy meet and I grew up in a nine-room house in a section of suburban Cleveland with wide, well-lighted streets, groomed lawns and many high-end foreign cars. My mother and father and I lived there for eight years, until my sister Caroline was born. My mother lives there still, hale but bored at 70. Caroline lives in Columbus with her long-time lover, Monica. The two of them visit my mother often. Caroline and Monica both teach in the psychology department of Ohio State University. They even co-teach a class on “The Myths and Truths of Sexuality” every other semester. So many people sign up that they have to turn 80 or so away every time. Yet they drive separate cars to campus and keep their private life…well, private. Columbus, Caroline often reminds me, isn’t as cosmopolitan as one might wish.
Sandy and I go to Cleveland in the summer for a week or so. It isn’t as much fun without our son along and he has found other things to do the last few years. Monica, Caroline and my mother always spoiled him terribly, but it wasn’t a bad thing. Everyone, it seems to me, needs some spoiling from time to time because the world is a rather harsh place.
Without ‘little Meyer’ around, my mother tends to remember that I’m not the lawyer my father hoped I’d be or the Supreme Court Justice I intended to be. She never mentions how she feels about my being head librarian at a public library in a college town in West Virginia. She never says much about it and doesn’t ask how much money I make—though she knows, as well as I do, that I have a trust fund full of money making money and it has made so much money so far I really wouldn’t have to work at all. Yet, behind the smoke from her Kent cigarette, I can see her—if her grandson isn’t there to fuss over—looking wistfully at me and remembering my father.
I want to tell her that I am ‘fine’—better than that—that I love my work and love Buckhannon and love Sandy more than life and that life has turned out better than I ever dreamed. I want to tell her about my softball team and the woods around Buckhannon where I walk and the things I think about. I want to talk with her about all that. Yet, I must confess that I don’t.
I’m not a very good son or brother as those things go. I send cards and presents on birthdays and at Christmas and receive the same in return. I write occasional letters and call my mother every week. Sometimes I think about Caroline and Monica, their fierce devotion, and wonder how my mother feels wandering around that big house all alone, smoking her Kent’s and waiting to die. I try to picture what my mother does with her time. She works on bazaars at Ascension Church, watches Phil Donahue and belongs to a bridge club. She still drives the 1967 BMW my father bought her a few months before he died, as if making sure she’d have a good car once he was dust again. Caroline says it still doesn’t have 50,000 miles on it and hums like a well fed cat, but my mother worries about it, takes it to the dealer on a regular basis and pays lots of money to fix things that aren’t broken. She only drives to church and bridge club and to Columbus for Thanksgiving with Caroline and Monica and their gay friends.
Sometimes my mother and Caroline are like blurs to me. Cleveland is too. Cleveland is a place I visited on holidays after I was 13. I wouldn’t recognize downtown without the Christmas lights. Most of the time, I was somewhere else. The place I was somewhere else the longest was at my father’s military school in a green, lush valley in the green, lush state of Virginia. I was sent there, as my father had been, to enter puberty and become as well-groomed and respectable of the suburb of Cleveland where my mother lives alone these days.
When I was 13 and some and in my first days at Massanuttin Military Academy in a rich, lush valley of Virginia, my roommate woke me up masturbating. He was Lysander Martin III and was from Buckhannon, West Virginia. He was groaning and his bed was squeaking as only military school beds can. I must have shouted out when I woke up because Lysander knew I was there, listening.
He paused for a moment. “So, what’s wrong?” he said.
“Ah…are you okay?”
“Jesus,” he said, his bed squeaking a little, “I will be soon.”
After he had resumed for a while, I said, “My father told me that would make you crazy….”
Lysander laughed and gasped. “God, I hope so!” he said. A moment later he shuttered and we lay in darkness broken only from a single light outside in the quad. It was late September and extremely hot. Windows in military schools seldom open. Lysander started telling me about his father in near darkness.
“My old man’s a gynecologist,” he said. “He’s looked up every twat in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Whenever I’m home I can hardly look women in the face, realizing where my father’s had his hands. Pap smears and looking up twats—what a life!”
“My father’s a lawyer,” I said, “he represents coal and gas interests. That’s a pretty good job.”
“Jesus, Reed,” Lysander responded, laughing like a tribe on Indians, “are you ever from O-hi-o….”
As things like that go, it was the beginning of an inseparable friendship. Lysander and I grew up together and re-wrote the athletic and academic records of our school. We became running, jumping, studying machines. Lysander was a guard and I was a forward on the basketball team that won 27 consecutive games our sophomore and junior years. We both averaged over 17 points a game. Lysander was the quarter-back and I was the wide-receiver on the football team. Our senior season, before he died, Lysander threw me 13 touchdown passes in eight games and Massanuttin beat Greenbrier for the first time in 20 years. I ran track and he was captain of the tennis team. We studied like mad. Had he lived, Lysander would have graduated first in our class. As it was, I did.
We lived in the same room nine months a year for almost five years. We double-dated proper girls from a near-by private school and wild little girls from the town. We parked with them in the basketball coach’s Buick Electra near the top of Massanuttin Mountain. With the private school girls in their proper blouses and pleated pants, we drank Coke-floats, listened to Bach and talked about J.D. Salinger. With the town girls in their too-tight, sleeveless T-shirts and oh-so-short skirts, we drank illegal beer, went to Dean Martin movies and talked about how fast we could run, how high we could jump. We both lost our virginity the same night in the Electra. I was with a town-y cheerleader and Lysander was with a girl from Greenwich, Connecticut. Or maybe it was the other way around. It doesn’t matter much anymore. It all happened on Massanuttin Mountain.
Everything in that lush valley was named Massanuttin Something or Other. Even the Massanuttin Emporium, a run down, roadside tavern owned by an old crippled woman named Minerva. Minerva had heard of a place in New York City called the Emporium, so—even though she had a vague notion at best of New York City—she called her tavern that.
It was at Minerva’s Emporium that Lysander and I bought our illegal beer. Minerva took a liking to Lysander and gleefully broke the law for him. She also gave us quarters for our dollars so we could by prophylactics from the rusty machine in the Emporium’s bathroom. We bought a lot more than we used, but Minerva always winked at us when we asked for quarters.
“Better safe than sorry, my fine young friends,” she say, cackling out a laugh like a 200 year old witch. “We don’t want no rich boys leaving babies behind here in Massanuttin.”
Minerva knew all the secret ways back onto campus after hours from generations of her favorite cadets. She shared those secrets with us, just the way she told us the curse of Wil’ Thomas’ rock
William Jones Thomas, Minerva told us, was the first white man who ever came to that rich, lush valley of Virginia. He was a scalawag of a fur trader whole stole his partner’s furs, kidnapped a 13 year old Pamunkee Indian girl and headed west.
“When old Wil’ almost topped that mountain,” Minerva’s voice was like an old radio, crackling and wheezing, “he should have kept on going. But nuthin’ would do him but to stop and bed down that little maiden. Lust, my find friends, will undo you in the end. And it was right there, near the top, where the road bends back in on itself, that the Pamunkee braves caught up with them….At that big flat rock, you know the one I mean?”
Of course we knew. We passed it every time we drove the coach’s car up to one of the many secluded dirt roads near the mountain’s top.
“On that very rock,” she went on, “those Injuns slit Wil’ Thomas’ throat and carved out his insides for the birds to eat. Left him there to rot, taking his toes and tongue and fingers and private parts as souvenirs.”
Minerva opened herself a Black Label and took a long, toothless swig. “Then, the next morning, Wil’ Thomas’ partners caught up with him. He was splayed out in parts with significant parts missin’—and the Pamunkees had taken the furs as well as the little girl and Wil’s missing parts. After chocking back the bile from their stomachs, one of them fellows looked at Wil and said, “That’s the biggest mess of nothin’ I’ve ever see’d….
“So, my beloved cadets, that’s how our valley got its name.” Then Minerva burst into a rattling laugh.
Wil’ Thomas’ ghost wandered the valley, according to Minerva, seeking young girls to ravish. “Well”, Lysander told her once, “Reed and I will do our best for him….”
Minerva’s story certainly wasn’t the same tale our student handbook told, though both of them had to do with Pamunkees. Our school’s version talked about an autumn festival and the Pamunkee word for “fairest of valleys”. That same handbook warned cadets in no uncertain terms about the low-life potential of anything or anyone off campus. Lysander and I knew that meant Minerva.
The years in Massanuttin were lush and flew like whip-o-wills, calling our names. Lysander and I ran and jumped and studied hard and lived up to the ghost of Wil’ Thomas as best we could. We were sports heroes, patrons of the Emporium, hot items with both proper and loud girls, and more or less good cadets. We found summer jobs together—once in Cleveland, once in Buckhannon and once at a Jewish camp in New Jersey as co-sport’s directors where we never figured out how to get Rachel and Miriam into our bunks. We applied to all the same colleges and were going to be room-mates at Brown or Stanford or some Midwestern University. Most people, I have come to discover over the years, never have a friendship quite like ours. But we thought nothing about it at the time—our lives, like Massanuttin Valley, we simply lush.
One Thursday night in February 1964, Lysander had coach Dobson’s car keys and a town-girl’s phone number.
“She has a friend,” he told me, “who is very, very bored.”
I had a history test to make up the next morning. The teacher was Mr. Sylvester Lee, who claimed, like every Lee in Virginia, to be one of “those Lees”. Mr. Lee, we all knew, liked to go midnight swimming with shy freshman cadets and give running-jumping seniors a hard time. So I told Lysander I had to hit the books.
We had just turned 18, could buy beer legally in Virginia and thought we knew everything worth knowing. The two of us had affected a stilted way of talking to each other that most of the school tried to imitate. So here is what I said:
“The books, my man, must take a lickin’….”
Lysander shook his head with disappointment. Then he told me what he always told me when we were playing poker with some other seniors and I would agonize over whether to fold or bet.
He said, “Study long and you’ll study wrong….”
He was out the window and down the fire escape as quickly as he dodged a linebacker blitz. I called out to him, “Do ol’ Wil proud!” I don’t know if he heard me.
Given the way things turned out, I might have chosen different ‘last words’ to exchange with the dearest friend I ever had. But you never know how things turn out, until they do.
Later that night, in the midst of one of the sleet storms that tear across the mountain in February, with Mary Moffet, a muscular-legged cheerleader from the local public school beside him, Lysander drove Coach Dobson’s Buick off the road near the top of Massanuttin Mountain and ended their all too brief stay on this earth. The next morning, when they found the car, they also found an unopened pack of Trojans frozen in Lysander’s shirt pocket and a broken six pack of Black Label Beer in the back seat.
Mary Moffet, God bless her, had been thrown through the windshield by the impact. She had died, according to the official report, instantly. Lysander, most likely, lived for a few minutes, crushed by the Buick’s engine, driven into his lap by the very rock where legend has it Wil Thomas’ throat was cut.
I remember that morning as clearly as yesterday. I stood between Col. Bruce, the Commander of the Academy and a Virginia State Policeman named Burl as we watched two tow trucks hoist the Electra back onto the road. The sleet had turned to snow at dawn and the snow had turned back to ice, as it often does in that part of the country, making Massanuttin Mountain into something shining and eerie, almost beautiful. It was white on white on white.
When I got back from the funeral in Buckhannon, Minerva’s Emporium was closed and boarded up. She’d lost her beer license and her will to live as well and had gone to live in a nursing home near Roanoke. Coach Dobson got an unexpected job offer at some school in Indiana and left overnight. Mary Moffet’s family had returned the flowers the Cadet Corps sent and the campus was locked down. All the secret, after-hour ways in and out were history. There was no plaque to Lysander’s memory. He simply returned to dust.
That fall, after a summer sleeping a lot in Cleveland, I went to a Great Midwestern University and became a Great Reader. I tried not to think of Lysander and convinced myself I succeeded at that. Since Lysander wasn’t studying or running anymore, I studied and ran for both of us. I read more books than it seems possible to read. I wrote papers and held opinions. I was president of the Political Science Honorary and the Junior Class. I was on the debating team and the track team. For 11 days, I held the Big Ten record until a skinny kid from Michigan State beat me in a dual meet. We both broke my old record but he shattered it by three steps. Nevertheless, I became, in a word, ‘legend’.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I became the faithful lover of Angela Dawkins, the daughter of the most successful gynecologist in Kenilworth, Illinois. Angela’s father even knew Lysander’s father from Gynecological Conventions. My life seemed tied to people whose father’s did pap smears and looked up twats.
Angela had beautiful, well-defined breasts and breath that smelled of Lark cigarettes and pears. Angela was as active as I was at our Midwestern University. She was on steering committees and conference committees. She was fiction editor of the student magazine. She held opinions. We had plans. She would be the drama critic of the Washington Post and I would be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and a published poet. We planned significant stays on this earth. And all our plans were made feasible by the fact that I was the only track star I’ve ever met with clinically flat feet. Though a war was raging in South-East Asia, I was 4-F forever. So, my opinions about the war were held with a blissful lack of passion. I had early admission at Georgetown Law School. Angela was going to George Washington University for post-graduate study in journalism.
Those years were golden. Each summer I worked for my father’s law firm in Cleveland and Angela was an intern for the Chicago Sun Times. Two weekends a month we met at a motel in Lima, Ohio to share sex and the opinions we were forming. My parents loved Angela more than me and her parents considered me their son. We moved in together at the beginning of our senior years of college. Our parents approved. Even the Episcopal chaplain approved. We were both Anglicans. How could things get better?
At the Great Midwestern University, we became known as the ‘dynamic duo’. And we made plans.
On a breathtaking October day—the Saturday of the Northwestern football game—a day I’ve only experience in the Midwest…a day with an almost too warm sun and almost too chill breeze and endless blue sky—my father died suddenly. With Angela’s help, I handled it well—as I tended to do all things well. Angela and I sat on either side of my mother and Caroline, who was not quite 14, as the Episcopal Bishop of Ohio committed my father to the earth, returning him to dust. He was buried along the Hocking River and the hills were like a landscape painting of solid, Ohio colors.
One of my father’s law partners helped me with the details since my mother was quite a mess. George Josephs was about my father’s age—too young to be dust—and wise for all that. As we were pouring over wills and trusts and death certificates, he leaned back in his chair.
“Reed,” he said, “you’re doing very well in all this.”
I thanked him, nodding.
“The death of a father, Reed,” he said after a long moment or three, “is epic, the thing of legends. It is no inconsequential thing.”
“I know,” I said.
“I just hope you know it will all crash down on you someday,” he added.
“I’m okay, George,” I said, a bit put out that he wasn’t fully impressed with how well I was handling things.
To this day, I regret I called him ‘George’ in that moment. After everything that has happened since, he deserved to be called “Mr. Josephs”.
At the time, I had plans in place. I couldn’t let my father’s untimely death upset all that. George smiled and nodded sadly. “Fine, Reed,” he said.
“George doesn’t understand you,” Angela said when I related the story to her. “How could he understand your qualities…to him, you’re just his partner’s kid.”
Nothing much changed, except my father was dead. Plans unfolded. I studied, wrote and ran endless miles to live into my own legend. If anything, I moved faster. Then one day, a week from the Big Ten track finals, I slipped in the shower and pulled a hamstring. My college track career was over. I wouldn’t be going to the nationals.
“You might be driving too hard,” Angela told me, massaging my leg. “You are so much….”
The day I finished my Senior Thesis—two months earlier than required—a great snow fell in the Midwest. That same day I received a package from my mother—candy bars I could have bought myself, two pairs of winter socks, several section A’s of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a water color of the Hocking River Valley Carolina had painted and a letter my father wrote before he died.
He had left the letter in a safe-deposit box along with insurance policies and stock certificates. On the front of the envelope from his law firm—Daley, Josephs, Marchucci and Washburn—he had written this with a pen: “For T. Reed Daley: four months after my death”. Ironically enough, all that arrived on the fourth anniversary of Lysander’s death.
It was February again and there was ice and snow.
I read the letter and stopped making plans or holding opinions.
Here is what my father’s letter said:
September 22, 1967
Four months ago (the end of May) my doctor told me I’m going to die. He and the consulting doctors tell me, nothing can be done. There is a complicated explanation, but not one I can explain. It is as simple as this—sometime in the next few months, probably on some perfect Midwestern autumn day with a hot sun and cool breeze and endless sky, my heart will simply stop. Nothing can be done.
I’m not even going to tell your mother though I am going to buy her a new car, a car that will outlast me. Only you will know my secret, and you will know it after the fact.
I’m not surprised about this and not especially anxious. I am only 51 and don’t like the idea of dying, but, for some reason I’ve expected it.
You were here all summer, working at the firm, and there must have been a thousand times I thought of taking you to lunch and telling you I was going to die. But I let you get safely back to Iowa and concerned with all your activities before I wrote this. I don’t know why. But I don want you to know, in this very backward way, that I was thinking about you every day we were together during the summer and knowing you would handle my death with the same competence you handle everything. I wanted to talk to you about it, but I didn’t. I just let the time pass. I only wish we had been closer, but there’s no appropriate way for that now.
And I know you will handle everything with George that needs to be handled. Your Mother will be too distressed, I know to go over all the business things.
I just realized I haven’t typed a letter for myself in 25 years. It will seem strange putting it in an envelope and taking it to the post office without having Ruth involved in some way. She’d be horrified to know I was typing my own letter since she’s typed everything for me for so long! It’s funny that things like that are coming to my notice. The certainly of death—though death is always certain—brings things into focus.
I’m remembering how you told me about Lysander’s funeral. You told me how you held Dr. Martin by Lysander’s grave and then went to see the buffalo. I never understood about the buffalo but neglected to ask and now will never know. But I do wish you could hold me by my grave for a while and that you and I could go see a buffalo.
The hills along the Hocking River will be in full color when they bury me. I’ve always liked the fall—that hint of chill in the air.
I hope you’ll be a son and brother when I’m dead. Your mother and Caroline will need your strength and comfort.
I don’t know what else to say, except that I wish we had been closer. I can’t bring myself to call you and tell you all this now. I just can’t. It would be an act of desperation. And, as you probably know too well, I am not a man of desperate acts. If I had been, maybe I wouldn’t be so sad now about not knowing you better.
Ruth just buzzed me. Court calls. I have to convince a jury not to take money from my client over his mistakes and blunders. It’s a life and a living.
By the way, I’ll be fit to the end. I’ll be fine until the last day. Just one day I will die.
What was that buffalo all about?
I love you, Reed. Even now.
After reading my father’s letter being a published poet or Chief Justice or Angela’s husband or father to our 4 children or anything much mattered to me. The next morning I carried my Senior Thesis—a well-researched if deadly boring exposition of a minor point in John Locke’s social contract as it might apply to modern courts of law—to Dr. Stephen Morrison, my advisor. He thanked me for bringing it and told me none of his advisees had ever finished a thesis so early. He also inquired about why I had walked through seven inches of snow in my bedroom slippers and without a coat. I told him I wasn’t sure and then told him about the dream I’d had in the short patch of sleep I’d had overnight. It was a dream about a Voice calling me. Everything was cloudy and milky and sticky in the dream and I couldn’t figure out what the Voice wanted me to do. There was an ancient parchment in the dream, cracked and dusty with age. I was afraid to unroll it, afraid it would be damaged beyond repair. I knew the parchment had a message on it and somehow, in my dream, I knew it was in a language I could not read and the answer to a question I had not asked.
Professor Morrison sat quietly, as still as fallen snow, for a long time. While he pondered, I gazed at the books that line his bookshelves. I tried to read the titles of his books. None of the words made sense. I thought it was because I was so cold and my vision was fogged for a while. After Professor Morrison had given me some tea with a little brandy in it, he called campus security and I was given a ride home in what, for all the world, was a police car.
Back in the apartment Angela and I shared, I discovered I had forgotten how to read. At first it was like losing your car keys or your check book—minor panic soothed by the sure knowledge that things eventually show up. I could make out some letters and name them, but they didn’t seem to spell anything recognizable. I tried writing my name in the fog on the window; however, the R looked Russian and the ‘eed’ didn’t look like anything at all beyond some smudges in the frost.
After hiding out in the apartment for three days, feigning a bad cold, I brought it up.
“Angela,” I said, as calmly as I could, “I’ve forgotten how to read.”
She looked at me the way people sometimes look at miniature poodles, as if they were something other than dogs. I dropped the subject.
Two weeks later, as spring sought vainly to impose itself on the Midwest and I hadn’t left the apartment for 15 days, I brought it up again. I’d told Angela about some of my father’s letter and lied about throwing it away. We’d been through several layers of conversation about the letter and my father having returned to dust. The first layer was when Angela understood.
“I understand, Reed,” she told me over and again, “I truly do.”
Then, for a while, she wished there were something to say. “Oh, Reed,” she would tell me, “if there were something to say to make it better….Well, you know I’d say it.” I did know that.
Finally, it got to be too much—my inactivity and cessation of plans. Words, she told me, in so many words, weren’t enough.
“You have to pull yourself together, Reed. This is a delayed reaction, a mourning time.” She was smoking a Lark. Some came out of her mouth like fog rising from a manhole in the Cleveland winter. And, she went on, death could be dealt with, lived through, conquered. Plans could still be made.
I told her, as best I could, that certain moorings had come out of place, that I needed to drift for a while.
So, we drifted apart.
I slept a lot, cut classes, ate cold meals when I decided to eat. Each time I slept there the Voice in my dreams. Sometimes it was Angela’s voice, sometimes Dr. Morrison’s or my mother’s, most often Lysander or my father. The Voice always called my name. And, like a set of keys lost in an airport, my illiteracy deepened.
Angela never believed I’d forgotten how to read. “Don’t be ridiculous, Reed,” she once said, full of ire, pushing a book into my hands. I dropped the book and the subject of my being illiterate.
By April, Angela took her cosmetics from the bathroom, her clothes from the closet, her pantyhose from the shower curtain rod and her Larks from the kitchen table. She sat me down one day and spoke solemnly.
“Reed, I still love you….But I can’t stay here right now. You have to drift and I have to plan. I really tried to understand what you’re going through. I really tried to say things that would make a difference…you know all that. I just don’t see why….” Then she cried for a while, but not as long as I would have expected.
“You are ‘so much’, Reed,” she said before she left. “So much….”
The morning she left I tried to remember what ANGELA looked like written down. By then I had lost all touch with the written word.
For all that spring and into the summer, I was alone. I stayed mostly in the apartment, eating soup cold from the can and peanut butter sandwiches and tuna and whatever else seemed easy. Mostly I slept. I dreamed of the snow of Buckhannon when Lysander was buried. I dreamed of the colors along the Hocking when my father was buried. I dreamed of Massanuttin Mountain and Cleveland and places I’d never been. I dreamed of rooms stretching out into rooms of some enormous, unknown house. People—some familiar, mostly strange—moved through the rooms like dreams within my dreams. They nodded and their mouths moved, but the only sound I ever heard was of a distant Voice, calling me and calling me. In some of the dreams I was carrying that old, yellowed parchment with a message in a foreign alphabet. Often in my dreams, I sat alone and wept. But I didn’t cry once when I was awake. Not once.
In July, spurred by calls from Angela, my mother and the track coach, Dr. Morrison came to find me. By then I seldom bathed and never cleaned the apartment. My phone was disconnected. I was disconnected myself, living like a hermit, a hobo with an apartment, like someone waiting for the Voice.
“There is nothing to be done,” Professor Morrison told me in the midst of my self-made squalor, “except for you to go see my friend, a certain Brigham Francis, who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. Brigham, I trust, will know what to do.”
It seemed like a fine plan to me. A road trip while waiting for whatever I was waiting on—the Voice, something else….I silently began to pack as soon as he suggested it.
Then he said, as Angela had said, as my mother had said endlessly, as everyone who cared for me had said: “Reed, so much…so much….”
When I die, when my stay on this earth is done and I return to my comfortable dust, I fully expect someone will pack me in zinc and buried in the ground. Hopefully the snow will not be flying nor the colors of the trees rioting when it happens.
And my tombstone, will say:
T. REED DALEY
SO MUCH…SO MUCH….