“That was like being born….” –Meyer T Meyer
Pajamas was Sandy’s cat. None of the other half-dozen cats who lived at the Factory seemed to be attached to anyone in particular. As far as Reed could tell, most of them didn’t have names. But Pajamas had a name and was attached to Sandy.
Pajamas was an eight pound Calico with a nice face—a soft, big-eyed, human-like face—a cat face with a discernable nose. She also had a good disposition—more like a dog than a cat. She didn’t slink around like most cats, as if she was looking for something she didn’t remember losing. And she seldom rubbed against people’s legs. Reed hated having cats rub against his legs. It made him feel like a dandelion when the yellow part is gone and the dandelion feathers are ready to blow away in the next breeze.
Somehow, Pajamas got pregnant. Reed found it odd since Pajamas seemed disinterested in other cats. If she wasn’t simply avoiding them, she was biting them on their necks and sending them away terrified. Reed only knew enough about cats to tell when they were sleeping, dead or pregnant. And Pajamas was definitely pregnant. She looked like she’d swallowed a softball—a softball and a baseball.
“Not long now,” Sandy said one night when she came back to bed after letting Pajamas out. Pajamas would sit on their faces when she wanted out in the night. They got the message. It was very dark, but when Sandy snuggled against Reed, he knew she was smiling.
“The kittens?” he asked.
“Not long, Reed, and you’ll be a grandfather.”
When Pajamas’ time was truly near, he stomach almost drug the floor. And she started acting differently—more cat-like, slinking, jumping at noises, washing a great deal.
“Do you think she’s afraid?” Reed asked Sandy one night after Pajamas sat on his face at 3 a.m. and he let her out. They were wrapped in blankets, covered with sleep’s pollen and cat hairs.
“You mean Pajamas?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You mean afraid of what’s inside her?”
“Something like that….”
Pajamas scratched at the door. She had a perfectly good litter box in Reed and Sandy’s room, but she preferred to visit one of the other half-dozen or so litter boxes scattered around the Factory. Sandy’s job was to keep the litter boxes clean. They were always immaculate. Reed let the cat back in their room. She rubbed against his bare legs, slinked to a corner and washed herself.
“She’s not afraid,” Sandy said, wrapping Reed in the blankets and her arms. “She knows what’s inside her. She is what’s inside her.”
“She looks afraid a lot. You know, all wide-eyed.”
“That’s a look of knowledge,” Sandy said, “a look of giving birth. It is the most awesome ritual if you think about it.”
Wrapped in Sandy’s body, Reed thought about it for a while. He was thinking about it and half-under the sleep dust with tiny multi-colored motes inside his eyes. He was about to drop off into what might have been a Birth Ritual dream, a dream entangled in warm arms, when Pajamas sat on his face. He extricated himself from Sandy and the blankets and let the cat out again.
“She sure acts funny,” he said, leaving the door ajar. He thought he heard Sandy giggle. By the time he crawled into bed, they were both asleep. In Reed’s dream, he was underwater but didn’t have to breathe. A large creature, something like a seal but with no flippers, was turning the pages of a book for him with her nose. He couldn’t read the words, not even in his dream, but there were lots of wonderful pictures to look at that he couldn’t remember the next morning.
The last week B.K.—Before Kitties, as Meyer called the time of Pajama’s gestation—Reed made nests for her. He found some Campbell’s Soup boxes and filled them with rags, newspapers, strips of warm things. He borrowed Sugar’s guitar case and lined it with towels and tee-shirts. He filled a plastic dish pan with carpet samples he found in the basement. Pajamas ignored them all.
Reed even asked Meyer if he could use the Yataghan box for Pajama’s nest. Meyer looked at him as if he had three eyes—his own two and Meyer’s bad one. “You had more sense when you were self-absorbed,” Meyer told him.
Sandy was amused, moving toward annoyed at all the nests in their room. “Jesus, Reed,” she said, tripping over a soup box and stepping in a guitar case, “will you stop this already?”
The next morning, when they were getting dressed, Reed asked, “But where will she have her kittens?” He gave up on understanding cats and left all that to Sandy.
Sandy stopped buttoning her shirt. Her breasts were full and soft pink. Reed smiled at them.
“She’ll decide,” Sandy said. Leave it all to her. You’re such a worrier.”
Reed brushed Sandy’s hair as she sat by the window while they talked about Pajama’s coming kittens. Sandy’s hair was silky. Reed thought of touching it with his tongue, of washing it the way Pajamas washed herself. And though they couldn’t have known it at the time and couldn’t have imagined it so early in the year, it was the Positively Last Day of Winter—it would spit snow some more and be chill at night, but for all intents and purposes, Winter moved on. They shed their coats half-way back from their walk to Harvard Square, and when they got back to the Factory Spring and Pajamas had started.
Reed was saying something about how incredibly warm it had gotten when he and Sandy noticed Pajamas in the corner of their room, licking dampness from the floor.
“Her water!” Sandy said, “Her water’s broken!” She said it like it was a chorus from Handle’s Messiah or a joyful song the spring sea sings.
A tiny purple thing was protruding from the proper orifice of Pajama’s rear. The purple thing was the size of a grape and grew to the size of a plum while Pajamas walked around like a calico plum bush with a ripe plum hanging on her. Reed started getting frightened. It was like seeing the Idiot-boy wander across Mass Ave against traffic. Sandy started laughing.
Pajamas sniffed the soup boxes and the guitar case and then decided to have her kittens in the middle of Reed and Sandy’s bed. Sandy moved carefully to her and, like a cat midwife, started rubbing Pajama’s belly gently.
“I’ll give her some help,” Sandy said, still laughing, “she’s a young cat.”
Reed watched the two of them. After a while, there were a giant, two part pulse beating out a rhythm. Sandy rubbed and Pajama’s opened her mouth wide, like she was trying to swallow an Oldsmobile. She opened her mouth as wide as a cat’s mouth can open, but there was no sound.
“Why is she doing that?” Reed asked, almost hysterical with worry.
“That’s her way of singing,” Sandy said, half-whispering and half-giggling. Sandy sounded like she had eaten a feather pillow and the feathers were tickling her everywhere inside. “She’s singing her kittens to life.”
“But there’s no sound.”
“It’s not a sound song, silly,” Sandy said. She seemed to know. “It’s a silent song. A song with no music and no words, only rhythm. Rhythm and Miracle.
Suddenly, like a rain storm in April, there was a little bag of kitten on the bed between Sandy and Pajamas. Pajamas took a bite of Sandy’s hand.
Sandy pulled her hand away and instinctively sucked on it. She turned toward Reed. There were tears on her face and blood on her lips. “She’s okay now,” Sandy said, half-laughing and half-crying, like a kid too long tickled. “She doesn’t need anymore help.”
Sandy and Reed sat on the floor with their eyes level with the bed to watch Pajamas eat the Saran-wrap off her kitten. The kitten came wrapped in Saran-wrap stuff, like a sandwich in your lunch bag in fifth grade.
Reed said, “I wonder what it tastes like?” He thought saying something might delay his tears a while.
“Like strawberries and cold milk and fresh fish and summer grass. Wonderful! So good!” Sandy was almost singing. Reed was profoundly happy, his tearing eyes even with the bed.
Half-way through the second plum of Saran-wrapped kitten, Meyer came into the room. He must have sensed something was going on. He just sat on the floor with Reed and Sandy and put his eyes level with the bed.
Pajamas gave birth.
She gave birth to three kittens and a kitten head. The head came wrapped in Saran-wrap from inside Pajamas, but she seemed to ignore it. Instead, she collapsed on the bed and let the kittens crawl blindly over her and see her with their mouths.
Meyer took the head away in his handkerchief. It always intrigued Reed that Meyer carried carefully ironed white handkerchiefs, just like old men did. When Meyer came back he brought back a bottle of Brigham’s wine and three delicate wine glasses Reed had never seen before. He knew it was Brigham’s wine because it was good and in a green bottle with a label on it. Sandy took her glass, flipped it with her fingernail and listened to the sound.
“The good crystal,” She said to Meyer, smiling as broadly as a cat giving birth.
“Only the best today,” he answered and poured the wine.
They drank wine and laughed and cried and thought about great music while Pajamas slept, exhausted from her birth ritual, and the kittens mauled her with their mouths and tiny, translucent claws. No one spoke.
By noon, the three of them were feeling the late morning wine and Pajamas had washed her kittens about 200 times each. Then the new mother jumped off the bed and scratched at the door. Sandy had found time between the kitten watching and the wine drinking to write a sign in red pencil on a piece of notebook paper. She hung it on the nail where Wally’s sign had hung. Meyer told Reed it said, STOP, HAVE YOU WASHED YOUR KITTENS?
Meyer let Pajamas out. She went downstairs but came right back. She came up to each of them, staring in their faces and meowing loudly. Her kittens were crawling around the bed, looking for her with their mouths.
Finally, after a lot more meowing, Pajamas bit Meyer on the hand.
“She wants the head,” Sandy, the cat-expert-in-residence, said. “Go get it for her Meyer. She needs to eat it.”
“Jesus, no,” Meyer said, sucking on his hand, “we can’t let her do that.”
“We have to,” Sandy replied, smiling and calm. “She has to eat it to complete the ritual. She has to eat it or her birth-song will have no ending. She must take that un-lived life back inside her so she can be whole again. You have to go get it for her.”
Pajamas kept trying to bite Meyer so he and Reed went downstairs with the cat. Meyer fished the kitten head out of the garbage and laid it on a napkin. He and Reed went back upstairs since they couldn’t stand to see what Pajamas was going to do.
On the stairs, Reed said, “Until the leftovers are gone the meal isn’t complete.”
Meyer stopped on the steps and stared at him. “Jesus, Reed,” he said, “now you’re being sardonic. I hope you’re not just getting well to bear some great sorrow….”
“What ‘great sorrow’?” Reed asked, half-way up the stairs.
Meyer headed up. “You never know,” he said.
Then he said, “That is truly weird,” to Sandy back in the room. She was rubbing the kittens with her finger.
“Some things seem weird at the time,” she answered, “and yet they have to be that way.” She said it like she knew, as if she and Pajamas shared that secret across some bottomless ocean of knowing. She said it solemnly, like a prayer.
Pajamas came back, her ritual complete, her song finished, to give her kittens a meal. The three humans went downstairs and found Sugar and Jerry. Then they found Trotter and Lane, a couple who had been at the Factory for a week or so. They all went outside and sat on the curb to drink some wine. Someone said the sun was shining the way it forgot how to back in October. They talked about the sun for a while. Winter, even so early in the year, seemed far away, wrapped in Saran-wrap, consumed by God. Spring, like the plum of a kitten, like a sudden smile you didn’t realize was waiting on your lips, had come all at once. None of them knew—they couldn’t have known—how intense that strange early spring would be, or how it would turn to darkness.
And had they known, had they been able to leap across the great chasm that separated that last, overly warm day of February from Easter Sunday and peered into the darkness and felt the chill waiting there…even if that had been possible, how could they have done anything besides what they did? New life had come to the Igloo Factory. Frank, Lloyd and Wright had been born. Spring had come insanely early. The ground hog had not seen a hint of his shadow, not a single hair of his body displayed by the sun on the ground. The sun was high and almost hot—soothingly warm after such a winter. What else could they have done but whiled away the afternoon, drinking wine and speaking in reverent whispers, thankful for the sun?
A spring that sudden liked surprises the same way buffalos like praries. Meyer had a surprise for Reed as unexpected as the spring. It was a job.
“A job, big Reed, in one of the libraries of Harvard University, Veritas, Veritas and all that. A place where lots of books need guarding. You will guard them. I used to work there before I was rich and famous. You’ll love it. It’s all arranged.”
“But, Meyer,” Reed said, “I can’t read.”
Meyer smiled. A walrus thinking about a traveling penguin joke. “Of course not, I know that. A temporary inconvenience at best. It’s a job for when you can read again. Percy will give it to you. Percy, you will find, understands.”
Meyer was finding jobs—beyond the expected visits to Holy Ghost—for all kinds of people. He found Sugar a job in the nursery at OCBC—Old Cambridge Baptist Church. Sugar was to take care of little Baptists while the big Baptists went to church. Never mind that Sugar’s theology began and ended with some foggy notion that god was Love: little ‘g’, big ‘L’.
“This is an American Baptist Church,” Meyer told her. “They love vague theology. Harvey Cox goes there for Christ’s sake.”
Never mind that Sugar had not even a foggy notion about who Harvey Cox was, or who Baptists were, for that matter. Jerry offered to come over one Sunday morning when the big Baptists were in church and teach the little Baptists what it feels like to meet Jesus.
Sugar wisely said, “Never mind, Jerry.” Saying that was probably as close to being ironic as Sugar ever would be during her stay on this earth.
Meyer found Lane and Trotter jobs. He found Lane a job in Boston watering flowers.
“Do you know Lane?” Meyer asked Reed.
“Of course I do,” Reed replied, a tad annoyed at how vague and vacant Meyer’s questions could sometimes be. “Lane lives here. We see each other every day. We got drunk on the street the day Pajamas gave birth and spring came. Lane is Trotter’s boyfriend. They’re both 17 going on immortal. They came here from Louisiana to find Happiness.”
Reed thought Meyer winked at him, though it is hard to tell a wink from a blink from someone who wears an eye patch. “I found Lane this great job. I almost took it myself it’s so great. He pushes a push cart with a barrel of water on in. He has a long pole with a little swinging bucket on the end. He waters the flowers on the top of the lamp posts on Charles Street.”
One morning over a breakfast of Marvin Gardens’ cold cinnamon buns, Trotter told Jerry and Reed about Lane’s job.
“Lane adores his job,” Trotter told them. She wiped some raspberry sauce from her lips. Marvin’s cinnamon buns had raspberry sauce drizzled on them. They were extraordinary, like something your grandmother would bake. “He says the flowers stand up and peek over the edges of their pots to thank him for the water. He wears a bandana around his head and purple tennis shoes. Those are two good things to wear to work.”
No one could argue with that, especially not Jerry and Reed.
Trotter’s real name was Eageltrot Louistine Marshall, which was as good a reason as any for leaving Louisiana to come to New England. Trotter may have left Shreveport,” Jerry like to say, “but her accent never will.” Jerry loved to Trotter talk. He asked her how someone would describe ‘being slow’ in Louisiana. “Slow as a hound dog in August,” she told him. That’s how Trotter talked.
Meyer had found Trotter a job as well.
“I’m a majorette,” she said, that same morning at breakfast, explaining her job. It took her about 15 seconds to say ‘I’m’. She said it like this: “ayyyyymmmmm”. Jerry almost fell of his chair with joy.
Trotter was the majorette for a junk band that played in Boston Common. Some days kids on field trips from school would stop and listen. Trotter dressed like a gypsy to be a majorette. She loved her job. Dressing like a gypsy was a good way to dress to go to work.
Meyer found Gunter, one of the Wanderers, a job at Logan International Airport carrying bags for people who were departing on international flights. Reed never understood how Meyer handled that since there must have been unions for baggage carriers and Gunter certainly wasn’t in a union. Gunter was 18 and somehow got to Cambridge from a little town outside of Vienna. No one ever figured out why he had left his homeland and family since he could speak about as much English as a cocker spaniel puppy. Soon after Gunter arrived at the Factory, Meyer bought a one-way ticket to Vienna from Liberty Travel. He made sure that Gunter took it with him every day to work. One day in March, he simply used the ticket and went home. A week later Meyer got a letter from him written on that thin paper Europeans use for letters.
“It says he’s gone home to study Zen and go to cooking school,” Meyer told everyone at a Meeting. He held the thin sheets carefully in his fingers and showed everyone the strange Austrian stamp. Yodel, who read a little German but couldn’t speak it well enough to talk to Gunter, got hold of the letter afterwards. He said it didn’t seem to mention Zen at all, or cooking school. It was mostly about getting along better with his parents and thanking everyone for being kind to him. But there was no arguing with Meyer on that point. Or any point.
Gunter was as inexplicable as the sudden spring. But one thing was for sure, he would have gotten the prize for coming the longest distance to live in the Igloo Factory if living in the Igloo Factory were anything like a class reunion. Which it wasn’t.
The spring was as soft as the down on a jonquil and full of surprises. There were orange mornings and purple evenings and smiling rains with tiny ice teeth in them. And there were sounds far away, from where the ocean was. There were people with long hair and accents and an aging Hungarian juggler who happed by one afternoon. And there were the four red balls he juggled and never dropped. And there was the taste of apricot wine on a windy night. Like that.
One night in mid-April, when I was up late writing all this, I realized it was spring once again. After all these years, there was yet another spring as sudden as the one in 1969. It was remarkable to realize some 20 springs had come and gone since that one back in Cambridge. I often look in my mirror and wonder where those years went. I suppose they went where the swan boats go and the old men who sit in Boston Common. It’s strange to think that the old men who sit there now weren’t much older than I am back then. They grew old while I was turning middle aged. Those years, my youth, have gone where lost puppies go, where the change you thought you had in your pocket goes, where the old sweater your aunt in Michigan gave you for Christmas one year and you can’t find went.
I look in my mirror and see my father’s face. I am several inches taller than he was and not quite so fleshy. And my hair is still long, running counter to the culture of the late 80’s—longer than my father’s ever was. But I am getting nearer to the age he was when his heart exploded and he returned, too soon, to dust. And my face is his.
There are wrinkles in the corners of my eyes and the hint of a second chin where the flesh of my neck has taken on fat. My eyes are a mixture of green and brown that my family always called “hazel” and which all of us—Caroline, Meyer Tee, my father and I shared. My cheeks are smooth though I only shave twice a week. Like my father, I have very little beard or body hair. Meyer Tee, on the other hand, inherited something from Sandy’s gene bank which gave him a dark, thick beard and so much body hair he looks like a sea creature when he comes out of the ocean.
The hair near my temples has not so much ‘grayed’ as it has ‘white-ed’, just like my father’s hair did. I remember my mother referring to him as ‘my chickadee’ because of the white hair on the sides of his head. She has a way of looking at me out the corner of her eye that I know is a signal that she sees how much like my father I look. There is a sadness in her face when she looks at me that way, but a smile always plays around the corners of her mouth.
When I look in my mirror and see my father’s face, I also see the same sadness I note on my mother’s face and the same kind of smile playing around my lips. I don’t know how it happened that I have grown this old this fast. My body is still much like the body of the athlete I once was. There is a perceptible, but small thickening around my waist—too much beer and too little running, I suppose. But my body, young though it might look, doesn’t work as well as it did. I have trouble standing up from low chairs and my ankles hurt a lot and I tweak muscles doing ordinary things. The funny thing is, I don’t remember it happening. It came so gradually, so imperceptibly, with such guile, that I am simply now older, without remembering the process that brought me here.
Just this week, down at the library, Carrie Justice came running in to see me. She glided across the floor with the grace of a swan in brown water. I reached down and gathered her in my arms, lifting her to my face. She had found me in the periodical section where there are three round tables with three chairs around each table. There is room for four chairs at each table, but some head librarian before me decided no more than three people should sit at any one table. There is even a yellowing sign on each of the tables that says, “No more than three at any table”, though I don’t know why. It’s one of those things I could have—probably should have—changed years ago, but simply didn’t, following the line of least resistance.
Anyway, when I picked Carrie Ann up, I felt something pull in my lower back. It was like a hot, tennis ball sized pain. I held her long enough to stumble to one of the chairs and sit down. My face flushed and tears came involuntarily to my eyes. Carrie touched my cheek and said, “Did I hurt you, Reed Daley?”
“No,” I told her, barely able to speak from the pain, “I’m just old.”
“You’re not old,” she said, tweaking my nose, “You can’t be more than 90.”
“No,” I said, “I’m not more than 90.”
She giggled, pulling my ears.
The reason for this self-conscious obsession with my age has to do with the phenomena of ‘time’. Sitting in the wide, round light of Carl Yastrzemski’s 100 watt bulb, thinking and writing about that sudden spring so long ago, I realized that even though I had lots of lunch bags and call slips full of memories, that period couldn’t have lasted long. When was Easter that year? I wondered. So I found my Book of Common Prayer and looked it up.
The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church is a remarkable volume, take it from a librarian. There is a lot of interesting things in it, even for those who don’t believe that when you return to dust, you enter a new and better life. I’m not sure I believe that. But one of the most interesting parts of the BCP, which is what even unfaithful Episcopalians like me call their prayer book, is the section called “Historical Documents of the Church”. That section is squeezed in between the Catechism and the Lectionary on pages 864-885 of the BCP. Those brief 21 pages include things like “The Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ”, which was written at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. It also has the “Wuicunque Vult”, also called “The Creed of St. Athanasius” by those who call it anything. The Athanasian Creed goes on interminably for 57 long, anguished lines and ends by saying, I kid you not, “This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”
After that are the 39 Articles of Religion, some resolutions from meetings in 1886 and 1888 and then the tables for finding Holy Days. That was what I was interested in—finding Holy Days. I wanted to know when Easter was in 1969. And I wasn’t disappointed. Easter 1969 was April 6. The table for Easter Day began in 1900 and ended with the year 2089. Before or after that, you’re on your own I suppose.
That sudden spring of 1969 ended absolutely on Easter Day, April 6. After that was wailing and gnashing of teeth. Pajamas’ kittens were born on the last day of February—February 28, since the table to find Easter Day placed an asterisk beside leap years. 1968 and 1972 were leap years, but not 1969. It wasn’t time to catch up with they sun that year. We weren’t all that far behind the sun yet. In 1972 we’d need an extra day in February to work out that chink in the calendar of Christendom.
None of that explains how early spring seemed to come or how it seemed so long when it really only lasted 37 days. So much happened between February 28 and April 6 it will take me pages and pages to tell it. How could it have been so short? Time must have moved slowly, as if through amber fluid.
If all my life had moved as slowly as that sudden spring, I would be 27 instead of pushing 42. I would be limber and my hair would be dark brown. The swelling around my waist would not be there, my stomach would be as flat as the plains of Kansas and I would wear 29”/38” jeans. And I could lift Carrie Justice over my head and leap from table to table in the periodical room. My ankles wouldn’t hurt. And I wouldn’t look so much like my memory of my father.
Two mysteries leap out at me. How did that spring pass so slowly? And how has everything since then flown by?
The next day, the first day of March, Sandy and Reed watched the kittens all morning. People from the Factory came by and watched for a while, but soon grew bored since the kittens were not much larger than mice and didn’t have their eyes open. If the truth be spoken, they weren’t very interesting yet, except to Sandy and Reed. By afternoon, even Reed found his mind wandering and the high-pitched mewing of the kittens a bit too much like a fingernail on a blackboard. So he and Sandy went to the Brattle Street Cinema and watched a matinee of The Maltese Falcon.
They had both seen The Maltese Falcon a dozen times and so had the other 30 people in the theatre. Everyone was saying the lines out loud—especially Humphrey Bogart’s lines. Everyone, at least all the males there, were working on perfecting their Bogart imitation, so it was hard to hear Bogart himself speak. And as they were leaving, emerging into a sudden spring rain with ice-teeth in it, most of the men were still talking like Bogart. Sandy and the other women grew tired of it after a short time. When Sandy and Reed got back to the Factory, Sandy told him to go talk to Meyer until he lost the accent and she’d go up and check on the kittens.
Sugar was in the kitchen. Reed frowned, as if a truck had just hit him, pretended to be smoking an unfiltered cigarette down to the nub and sid, like there was a bicycle inner tube in his mouth, “What’s happening’, Sweetheart…?”
Sugar rolled her eyes and picked up the book she was reading. “Have you been to the movies? Jerry came in last night doing the same thing.” She got up to leave the kitchen. “And he didn’t say anything remotely like that in the movie.”
He knew Meyer would appreciate his imitation. He swaggered over to Meyer’s door, staying in character and opened the door slowing, in case he was in there with the Fat Man. Instead, Meyer was getting drunk.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” Reed said, suddenly concerned that he wasn’t getting the lines right or they were from different movies.
“Been to Brattle Street, haven’t you?” Meyer said. “Even Yodel’s been. His Peter Lorrie is even worse than yours.”
“That was Bogart,” Reed said.
Meyer sniffed and handed him a Johnny Walker Red bottle full of home-made strawberry wine that tasted like soap.
“This wine tastes like soap.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Meyer said. Then he said, “Old man Wacadoo died.”
“Old man Wacadoo, over at Holy Ghost. I’d go see him sometimes. I didn’t even pretend to be anyone he knew. We just talked. I liked him. He died.”
“I’m sorry,” Reed said, realizing it sounded hollow and dull.
“He was 102 years old and didn’t mind dying. But I’m going to miss him.”
Meyer took a drink of wine. “He made banjos.”
“He started with regular banjos, but that was too easy. He learned to string banjo strings on car parts.”
Reed said nothing because he could think of nothing to say.
“He had one in his room he made from part of a 1955 Chrysler transmission.”
“A Chrysler transmission,” Reed said.
“Not the whole thing, just a part of it, really amazing,” Meyer said, watching the mobile over his head do nothing. There was no breeze in the room. Meyer’s air-conditioner was silent. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown on a Chrysler. Jesus.”
They sat for a while, taking sips of the soapy wine. Reed imagined banjos made from improbable things—old elevators, Penzoil cans, kangaroos, Dentine wrappers, baseball bats.
“What was it?” Reed asked.
“What was what?”
“What made him die?”
“Time,” Meyer said, “history, being 102, the Foreign Legion, the tumor that’s where his stomach used to be.”
Meyer passed the wine. Reed thought of tumors and stomachs, how some things weren’t interchangeable.
“His whole name, get this, Reed, was David Otto Wacadoo. So the little nametag on his door, where they put your initials and last name, said ‘D.O. Wacadoo’.” He laughed hard, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Everyone at Holy Ghost is going to miss that nametag.”
The wine still tasted like soap, but Reed was getting used to it.
“Old Wacadoo shit white for the last month,” Meyer said, solemnly. “All the stuff they gave him for his tumor did that. I’d go in and he’d be sitting there grinning like he just swallowed a flying fish. ‘How’s your shit, Wacadoo?’ I’d say.
“’White’, he’d say, ‘white as hell’.” Then he’d laugh like a whole tribe of drunk Indians. A whole month of white shit. White as hell. White and smelled like first grade. That’s what he’d say, Old Wacadoo would. He’d say, ‘Man’s not much of a man when his shit smells like first grade’. Then he’d laugh until he started coughing.”
Meyer had been sitting on his bed, but he rolled off and landed near Reed. “Like falling off a log,” he said.
He took the wine back and spilled about as much and he drank.
“I never understood that ‘first grade’ part,” he said, looking at the pattern the wine made on his shirt. “What do you imagine that means?”
Reed wasn’t sure, but he said, anyway, “Maybe he meant how the classroom smelled. There’d be chalk and soap and the teacher’s perfume and the bologna in everyone’s lunch bags and the disinfectant the janitor used on the floors. Maybe it was that smell. It’s just a guess.”
Meyer stared at Reed for a long time. Reed might have imagined he was sober from the steadiness of his one-eyed gaze. “Damn,” he said finally, “am I drunk or are you getting well?”
“Well, you are drunk….”
“And you’re getting back to normal, whatever that means. Maybe it’s Sandy’s influence or maybe your time has simply come.” Meyer smiled lovingly at him. “You’re making shit up when you don’t know the answer. When you first came here, you’d say, ‘I don’t know’ to almost everything. Now you’re hazarding guesses about what some old Cajun’s shit smelled like. You know you’re getting normal when you start making stuff like that up. Normal people make up outrageous stuff when they don’t know an answer.”
Reed smiled, feeling only slightly embarrassed. Meyer smiled back until the thoughts of old man Wacadoo came back. Meyer drained the bottle, spilling about half of it down his chin.
“I went to first grade once upon a time,” he said, “before I did other things. But I don’t remember how it smelled.” Then he crawled over toward his closet. “That old Cajun died with a grin on his face. Died thinking about New Orleans and transmissions and Buick bumpers. He was 102 years old and he died smiling about all the banjos he’d made and about his mama’s house on that big assed lake down there,” Meyer had crawled back with more wine.
“Pontchartrain?” Reed asked.
“The lake, I think it’s named Pontchartrain.”
“Where Wacadoo’s house was?”
Reed nodded. “There’s a song about a house in New Orleans,” Reed said. They both had a little more soapy wine. All Reed had eaten that day was the popcorn at the movie, so he was a quick drunk. Otherwise he wouldn’t have remembered Charity Francis’s song.
“The House of the Rising Sun?” Meyer asked.
“No, a house full of pancakes….”
Meyer looked at Reed the way one drunk looks at another. “It was a big damn grin,” he said, “old Wacadoo’s grin.”
“A big damn grin,” Reed echoed, sounding like a drunk Humphrey Bogart and thinking about Wacadoo’s shit—white on white forever.
They passed the new bottle a time or two, no one was keeping count at that point. The new bottle tasted as soapy as the other, but they were used to it by then.
“Big damn grin,” Reed said again. It felt good to say it.
“It’s the rinsing,” Meyer said.
“What?” Reed thought he said. He had spilled a little wine on his shirt and thought he was saying things like “What?”
“I forgot to rinse out these bottles after I washed them,” Meyer told him.
Spring had come early. Reed was getting better every day. Frank, Lloyd and Wright opened their eyes long before Sandy thought they would and became wondrous clowns immediately. Frank, who was the sole female of the small litter and called ‘Francine’ by Yodel, was a calico like her mother. Lloyd was white with three black feet. Wright was as black as midnight. All of them were so manic they almost drove Pajamas crazy. And watching it was as much fun as eating cotton candy while walking on the beach. Reed had never seen Sandy so radiant and alive as she was once the kittens were born. He loved her more each day.
Except for Wacadoo’s death, everything seemed to be on course, rolling downhill, like falling off a log.
But the funny thing about people dying is that sometime it is like people yawning—once it gets started, it is difficult to stop.
Reed walked over to Oz without a map to see Brigham and Monique and Leslie and the kids. He was feeling so good he thought it might be pleasant to hold small, naked bodies and lay on the floor with a big hairy koala bear. But Oz was closed. There was a sign on the front door. Reed, of course, couldn’t read it but he could tell it was written by a child and it was in French. He seldom thought about whether he would learn to read again, but the sign made him imagine it might happen. Recognizing the difference between English he couldn’t read and French he couldn’t read seemed a great leap forward to him. He was excited and happy until he met an old Italian man on the street outside Oz who told him why the day-care was closed.
“Monique’s mama,” the old man said, “she die.”
“They’ve gone to the funeral then?” Reed asked, feeling strangely sad about the death of someone he’d never met.
The old man nodded, “Yes, to France.”
All the way back to the Factory, following the route Brigham had taught him back in July, although he could have gone different ways by then, Reed thought about Brigham and Monique and Charity, wrapped in the folds of unfamiliar clothing, flying across the Atlantic for a sad and solemn ritual. By the time he got back home, he had forgotten all about how happy he’d been to recognize the language of the sign.
He climbed the stairs to his room and found Sandy sitting in a chair by the window, crying. She was holding one of the kittens and crying into it. Lloyd was a furry handkerchief for Sandy’s tears. Reed tried to hug her, but Sandy shook him off and pushed him away. “No,” she said, “not yet.”
Reed sat on the bed and watched Sandy cry. Through the window, down in Boston, looming over the city, was the Prudential Building. Reed wondered if Sandy was in pain or had heard that Monique’s mother died or had lost something of great value. But Sandy, he knew, bore pain stoically, in silence, didn’t know Monique, much less her mother and placed small value on possessions. He even imagined it might have been something he did or said. But he realized that the last weeks had been soft and lovely, full of long walks, laughter, gentle touches and hours watching the kittens grow. Just when he thought Sandy might never stop crying, she looked at him—eyes swollen almost shut, lips large and pouty, almost French, body limp with exhaustion—and said, “Now, Reed. Hold me now.”
Reed knelt by Sandy’s chair as if it were an altar and held her as she sobbed silently, almost choking with sadness. ‘Grief’, he told himself as he held her, ‘this can only be grief’.
After a long while, Sandy put the wet kitten down and, with Reed’s help, crossed the room to the bed. She fell forward on her face and fell almost immediately to sleep. The only word she said before she slept was “Carlton”.
Reed covered her with a blanket, though it was a warm March afternoon. He watched her sleep and marveled at how Pajamas came and curled around her head, licking Sandy’s hair, almost as if she understood.
Reed ran down to Meyer’s room and woke him up. He could tell that Meyer had had entirely too much wine. Reed shook him, impatient with how slowly Meyer woke up. “Sandy,” he said, “What’s wrong with her? What’s happened with Carlton?”
“Oh, God,” Meyer said, sad-drunk, “Carlton, Jesus.” With much difficulty, he rolled off the newspaper he’d been sleeping on and handed it to Reed. “Carlton,” he said, pointing to a picture of a young man in the middle of the page. Then, ignoring Reed’s illiteracy, he went back to sleep.
Reed searched for someone to tell him what the paper said. The Factory seemed deserted except for Sandy and Meyer, as if everyone had fled the sadness and sleepiness. Finally, he found Jerry out back, sitting in the VW bus. Vincent Price was asleep in the second seat.
“Reed,” Jerry said without turning to look at him, “did you hear about Carlton?”
Reed’s growing suspicion became true: he knew that Carlton was dead. Carlton was dead like old man Wacadoo, like Monique’s mother, like everyone that hadn’t woke up that day.
“We thought Carlton was doing so well,” Jerry said. “Newman was as certain as he ever is that Carlton was going to make it. He got well so quickly, he was so smart, so alive. But then, Newman’s not God after all.”
Reed was about to ask Jerry ‘what happened?’ when Jerry begin speaking again, quietly. “He was shot and killed by an off duty policeman while he was running away from a 7-11 in Arlington. He robbed the 7-ll while the policeman was getting bread and milk. He wouldn’t stop running and had a gun of some kind, so the policeman thought, so he shot him. He was back on heroin. He must have needed a fix.”
“Two dollars and 38 cents,” someone said behind them. It was Meyer. He was carrying a tomato juice jar full of wine, but he was drinking a Coke. “Two dollars and 38 cents, Reed. It was the money the policeman had just put on the counter. He just grabbed that and ran. He didn’t even wait for the clerk to open the cash register. It cost his $2.38 to get himself killed. The cop shot him twice while Carlton was running somewhere looking for a $2.38 fix. He must have been half-crazy…all the way crazy…a $1.19 for each bullet in his back.”
“You would have liked Carlton,” Jerry said. “The picture doesn’t do him justice.” The picture in the Washington Post must have been Carlton’s George Washington University ID picture. He had long, dark hair and Clark Kent black glasses. There was a slight smile on his thin face, like some secret knowledge. And there was something in his heavy-lidded eyes, something like a storm chasing away the sun.
Meyer sat on the ground and leaned against the side of the bus. He’d finished his Coke and was starting back on wine. “Carlton,” he kept saying, “Carlton, Carlton, Carlton….”
“The really bad news,” Jerry told Reed, “is that I called Carlton’s parents in Florida and told them some of us would like to come to the funeral, you know, to say our proper good-byes. And Hazel Peck, Carlton’s mother, started screaming at me until someone took the phone from her and hung it up. I called back half-an-hour later, thinking she’d be calmed down or sedated and got her husband, Bruce Peck, who told me Carlton’s death was my fault and Meyer’s fault and Newman’s fault and George Washington University’s fault and most of all, Sandy’s fault. He would have probably told me it was your fault too, Reed, if he’d known your name.”
Jerry was quiet for a while, remembering Bruce Peck’s fault-giving ritual. “And maybe he’s right,” Jerry said, softly, sadly, solemnly.
“What did you say?” Reed asked, politely, trying to find a norm in the whole thing.
“I asked if there was a minister there with them,” Jerry said. “It’s an old clerical ploy—talk with a peer. And Mr. Peck gave the phone to the Rev. Scott Porter, the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Pensacola.” Jerry paused to turn and look at Vincent Price. “The sleep of the righteous,” he said.
“So what did this guy say, this Rev. Scott?”
“Rev. Porter,” Jerry corrected, “Rev. Scott Porter.”
“But what did he say?” Reed was suddenly very angry. He hadn’t thought he was angry before, but he must have been. He was so angry he considered grabbing Jerry by his black clerical shirt and shaking him in the front seat of the VW bus. That angry.
“Jesus, Reed,” Meyer said from the ground, “calm down. Have some de-caf, drink some wine, be cool.”
Reed was so angry and frustrated that he started weeping. It was either that or beating up Jerry, or Meyer, anyone. Jerry got out of the car and took Reed in his arms. Meyer struggled to his feet and hugged them both. Vincent Price woke up and started licking them all their faces, sitting in the driver’s seat, leaning his great black head out of the door.
Reed was both furious and comforted. Vincent Price’s long, slimy tongue snaked its way into Reed’s mouth. In spite of himself, he started giggling. Somewhere in there, he wondered if this was what it meant to return to normal—to be constantly torn by conflicting, stored-up emotions, to have his intellect and his feelings at war, to want to cry and giggle at the same time. All this was being slowly resurrected in him. He wasn’t sure it was worth going back to.
“So what did Rev. Whatsit fucking say?” he cried out, half way between a sob and a laugh. Meyer released him when he spoke. Vincent Price was startled by his tone and stopped licking. Jerry hugged him tighter.
“Big Reed,” Meyer said, as if from a distance, as if reading the words on the first read-through of a new script. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say ‘fuck’ before. And I’m sure I’ve never heard such feeling in your voice before. Jesus, Reed, I bet you could almost read right now.”
Reed slumped in Jerry’s arms and Jerry whispered to him, as if he were whispering a penance or an absolution to his confession. “Rev. Scott Porter told me in respectfully controlled words that in no uncertain terms, that none of us—not me, not Meyer, not Newman, especially not Sandy would be welcomed at Carlton’s funeral. He said we were ‘the cause’ of Carlton’s death. He said we gave Carlton ‘false hope’ when all he needed to do was come home. He said something about hippies, but I didn’t hear all that because I hung up on him.”
All of that was what Jerry whispered in Reed’s ear. And the last few words were whispered with great distinction, very slowly, in a deeper whisper, like this: “And…I…hung…up…on…him….”
Jerry and Meyer helped Reed inside to Meyer’s bed. Jerry went up to sit with Sandy and Meyer turned on the Air-Temp and sat by Reed’s side while Reed cried out his anger and his pain. He cried for Carlton and for old man Wacadoo and Monique’s mother and for his father, buried in the Hocking Valley. He cried for Lysander, making the earth sacred in West Virginia, for Miss Masselman and Virgil Trucks and the Vietnamese fish merchant Pierce had killed over some rotten fish, because Reed somehow knew that was the truth about that story. He cried for the dead. For Boy Daniels, he cried, and for the Call of the Wild. For all the dead.
Reed tried to talk with Sandy. Everyone tried to talk with her. It was as difficult as trying to talk with needles between your teeth. Newman drove down for Rockport in his ancient Jeep to try to talk with her. But all Sandy would do is sit by the window, stare at the Pru and hold the kittens. When she grew tired, she would sleep for a few hours. That went on for three days. Nothing would help.
“Maybe if she could have been at the funeral…,” Newman said, sitting at the kitchen table.
“…That might have helped immeasurably,” Jerry said, completing Newman’s thought. It was a March morning and the two of them were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Reed had never seen either of them smoke before. He was so angry with them for not helping Sandy that he suddenly knew there were two ‘m’s’ side by side, in ‘immeasurably’. He had begun to think if he could maintain his anger and pain, he might be able to read again.
On the fourth day, when he woke up, he heard the shower across the hall running. A few minutes later, Sandy came into their room, naked and glistening. In the morning’s light, she seemed like some miraculous sea-creature.
“Are you feeling better today?” he asked from the bed. As soon as the words were out of Reed’s mouth he knew it was a terrible question. He wished there was some magic spell, some incantation, to call the words back to him and let them die.
“No, Reed,” Sandy said with a calmness that chilled him to the bone, “I’m not the least bit better today. Not at all.”
She sat in the chair by the window and brushed her hair. The Pru was hidden in morning fog and mist. There were rainbows around Sandy’s shoulders.
“I just meant…,” Reed said, trying to undo the already Done, “I just wanted to know if you’re ready to talk?”
“Talk about what?” Sandy’s voice was like the wind off an iceberg, like February in the Artic.
“About Carlton. About what happened. About people dying. About things like that.”
Sandy rose with majestic slowness and began to dress.
Reed was on his back like a beached sea turtle. He said, “There’s not much I can really say….There’s not much anyone can say about death. But it’s…you know…got to be talked through…got to be dealt with.”
Sandy was dressed and crossing to the door, nudging Wright out of her way as she passed. “I think a walk’s in order,” she said. And from her tone of voice, Reed knew she meant to walk alone. So, he nodded, watched Sandy shut the door to keep the kittens in and stayed in bed until he heard the bells of Harvard sounding noon. Then he ate lunch with Sugar and Yodel. They had apples and cheese and Yodel’s pumpernickel bread.
“Many people would avoid pumpernickel with apples,” Yodel told them, “wanting a less hardy bread. But you shouldn’t. It goes nicely with most fruits.”
They ate apples and cheese and pumpernickel and it went nicely. Then Yodel said, as if he’d been waiting for just the moment to say it, “I knew Carlton. I knew him when he was clean and ready for life. He seemed to love Sandy a lot, but he had his own life to straighten up. He left before Sandy came back from Rockport. They never really said good-bye. The only thing I ever heard Sandy say about him was at the first Meeting when she was back from Newman’s clinic. She said that she knew she could make it because Carlton had made it. She said it like she was proud of them both.”
Reed didn’t remember having heard Yodel say so many words, one after another, before. He looked at him and nodded. Yodel smiled like Howdy Doody after saying a lot of words in a row.
“It’s feeling weird around here,” Sugar said with a mouthful of bread and apples. “It’s like something in all of us, in the Factory itself, has died.”
The next couple of days were subdued and quiet in the Factory. People stayed in their rooms like mushrooms or scattered to the streets of Cambridge like tossed dimes. Everyone walked near the walls and tried not to slam doors. The short, unexpected spring days inched by and disappeared. Nothing seemed to help until they discovered the ocean.
Perhaps it was Life, Herself, who called them down to the sea that spring. Perhaps it was the Great Mother of all living things, calling her children home to be comforted. Or perhaps it was that the sea is as wild and unpredictable as the events of human life. The sea is as inscrutable, as fickle as destiny. Perhaps they went to the ocean as a way of diving into the unconscious, the collective Soul, that dark, dreamless sleep that blots out pain.
Or, more likely, it was just one of Meyer’s crazy ideas to hit the beaches in March and dive into the frigid waters. Yelling helped keep them from freezing.
“KI-YEA-WEY-SEY-TEY-HEY!” is what Meyer usually yelled as he plunged into the water. He told various people that he learned the chant from a native of Burma and others that he learned it from a full-blooded Crow Indian. Most people imagined he simply made it up as he ran down the sand and yell it all the way to the surf. He was always the first one in the water. Sometimes, he was the only one who went in. The water that March was so cold it took his breath and he couldn’t yell anymore. In the water he just sputtered and spit and turned the blue of the stamp they use to stamp graded beef.
When he came out, he’d always say the same thing. He’d say, “That was like being born!” Then he’d flop down on the beach like a freezing walrus.
Jerry went in more than anyone besides Meyer. They always wore their clothes into the ocean. Sometimes, when they were shoulder deep in the Atlantic, they’d exchange clothing. Jerry was bigger than Meyer and looked like a sausage in Meyers clothes.
When they came out, Meyer would say, “That was like being born!” and Jerry would just gasp for breath. The two of them would flop on the beach to dry—a walrus in loose clothing and a knockwurst drying in the surprisingly hot March sun of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Sandy never enjoyed the beach trips. She complained of the cold—though the sun was always quite warm—and sat on the sand wrapped in a blanket like a poorly rolled cigar. She never wanted to talk. She’d bring Pajamas and the kittens in a soup box and watch them play in the sand while Reed walked along the water.
Reed seldom went swimming, but he liked to let the water run up and bite his feet and ankles with its salty ice teeth. And he liked to look for rocks. During the ten days or so of visits to the ocean, he collected some favorite rocks.
At Lynn, he found a tan rock as round as a golf ball with an outline on it the color of Meyer’s bad eye. The outline resembled a map of Nevada. At Revere Beach, he found a rock shaped like a pyramid that was salmon pink and a white rock as worn, elongated and flat as a tombstone from one of Boston’s Official Burial Grounds. At Plum Island, where the Atlantic Ocean is fierce and brave, he found a rock exactly the size of a duck’s egg that was the green of a Lowenbrau bottle, the green of a Matuse bottle, the green of a Greenbug, the shimmering, shining, in comparable green of grass…June grass…crabapples and Sugar’s eyes. At Nahant, Reed’s favorite beach, where the ocean is as tame and playful as a Labrador Retriever, he found a gray rock with white, quartz-looking material on its top. It reminded him of a snow covered buffalo he once knew.
His favorite rock of all was the first one he collected, which is the way life sometimes is—the ‘first’ of anything is often wrapped in a web of joy and special-ness that nothing that comes after can live up to. It was solid black, round on one side and flat on the other. It was the black of midnight, of dreamlessness, of a black hole. When it was wet, it shimmered with blackness and there was a tiny vein of gray across its flat bottom. When it was dry, it was the dull black of an old black Ford. It fit perfectly, round side down, in the palm of his hand. When he showed people his rocks, which was tedious but endured by most of the residents of the Factory, he would go and run water on the black rock so you could see it shine and notice the line of gray more clearly.
At Lynn Beach, Sandy started crying. The kittens were playing in the sand, fighting each other with little kitten punches and falling over since they were so small and lacked grown-cat grace. When one fell down, the other two would scratch at it like Luna moths against a screen door. Reed tried to get Sandy to watch them and tried to hold her, but she pulled the blanket up over her head until she looked like a cabbage and cried. She was a mournful cabbage telling Reed to leave her alone.
Meyer and Jerry came running up from the water in each other’s clothes. They left wet paths behind them. The paths led down to the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic Ocean led to Denmark.
“That was like being born!” Meyer said, flopping on the sand, pulling the blanket from off Sandy’s head. He obviously was tired of her crying and frightened by it. She looked at him like he had kicked a small dog or taken a toy from an infant. Jerry didn’t drop on the sand. He came over and took Sandy’s face in his wet, salty hands.
“It’s so dark, Jerry,” she said.
Reed noticed clouds moving in from the direction of Denmark, but it wasn’t dark by any means. The March sun was stronger than it deserved to be.
“The Light never sees the Darkness,” Jerry said. “We take the Light to find the Darkness and find the Darkness gone.”
“What do you use for the Light?” she asked, though she didn’t really seem interested and sounded very tired.
He put his wet arms around her. His arms were like two damp salamis in Meyer’s sleeves.
“It’s in your mind,” he said, “like Krista’s candle.”
“My mind’s gone all black,” she said. Jerry was holding her gently and she was crying.
After a while, Reed went down to the water to look for rocks. A little boy met him there. His cheeks were as fat as tomatoes and almost as red. His hair was orange and curly, like shaved carrots. He could have washed up on the shore from Denmark or, more likely, Ireland. The pockets of his shorts were as fat as his cheeks.
“Hey,” he said.
Reed said, “Hey,” back and they walked together.
“Why’s the lady crying?” the little boy asked.
“I only wish I knew,” Reed answered.
“Are those the lady’s kittens?” The boy’s voice was as clear and high pitched as a wind bell.
“Yes, they are her’s.”
They walked a while. Reed found a rock that looked like a Buick bumper. It was curved and indented on one side like the tiny Buick it belonged to has hit a tree. It was the color of Sugar’s hair. It was a cardboard colored, slightly dented, Buick bumper.
“Guess what?” the boy said.
He patted his pockets like they were pet chickens. “I have rocks.”
The day at Nahant, where the ocean is gently cupped by a semi-circle of beach, Sandy disappeared.
Meyer and Jerry were in the Atlantic. Sugar was up the beach playing her guitar for some children and their nannies. Yodel and Pierce had gone for some beer. Krista and Trotter and Lane had taken Vincent Price back to Cambridge in the VW bug. Reed could account for everybody who had come, except Sandy. Sandy had disappeared.
He took Pajamas and the kittens over to where Sugar was and walked up the sidewalk of Nahant and over a hill. The earth ended after a while and there was nothing but whale-gray rocks and the ocean. And beyond that, Europe.
Sandy was sitting on the very last rock, waiting for moss to grow on her legs. She had a blanket about her to protect her from the unusually warm March sun. She was looking at Europe.
“Hey,” Reed said, “whatja doin’?” It was not a terribly clever thing to ask at a place where the earth ends.
“Looking at Europe,” she said, “and waiting for moss to grow on my legs.” Her voice was as somber as a buoy bell out in the fog.
Reed sat with her for a while, trying to resist saying anything that would bother her.
“What’s wrong?” he finally said, unable to be silent a moment longer. That is usually a bad thing to say to someone who is looking at Europe.
Sandy dropped her head and started crying. At times like that, Reed normally said the worst possible thing to say, something like “don’t cry”. But somehow he managed not to do that. He just knelt with her and held her like Nahant beach holds the ocean. She cried until tears ran down her face in wet paths and fell on the whale-gray rocks. They ran down the rocks to the ocean, but probably not to Europe.
Once they saw the sun rise right out of the Atlantic Ocean. Krista and Jerry and Meyer and Reed and Sugar saw that. So did Vincent Price. Sandy didn’t want to go with hem. She said she was too sleepy and it would be too cold.
They drove up to Plum Island in the early hours of the night. The road is dull at that time, so they smoked a little dope to have something to do. The red point of light traced a path back and forth between them. By the time they got to Plum Island, they were ready for a sunrise.
They drank wine and laid, lined up like soup cans, on the beach. It was as dark as the inside of your watch. Vincent Price was walking around the beach but no one could see him. They covered themselves with sand and blankets and nestled together like mushrooms, like change in your pocket.
The Atlantic hummed like a cat.
When the sun came up out of the ocean, it was like being born. Krista got up and started moving slowing, dancing a mystical dance to the dawn. He dance ended at the water’s edge. Her mystical, nearly perfect form was silhouetted against a huge orange disc that seemed to cover half the sky.
Meyer ran to the water. He leaped in and began to swim toward Denmark. If they all hadn’t been a little stoned and a little drunk, they would have worried about him. As it was, they just laughed and touched each other the way you touch a seashell.
“Meyer is swimming to Demark,” Jerry said.
“God, that’s something,” Sugar said. Her eyes were orange in the dawn. She said she had never been so happy. She said she wished there was a song to sing about it.
Krista made circles in the sand with her fingers. Then she got up and made larger circles with her feet, and larger ones than that. Finally, she drew a huge circle that circled all the other circles and circled Jerry and Sugar and Reed, sitting on blankets, thinking about Meyer half-way to Denmark—and about a song to sing to the dawn.
Meyer came out of the ocean with sea weed around his neck. He paced silently up and down the beach with Vincent Price. The orange dawn grew gray with the fog rolling in from the water and rising from the earth. Meyer and Vincent Price were the shadow guardians of an ocean kingdom.
“God,” Sugar started saying, “God. God. God.” She purred it and meowed it and barked it. She sneezed it and coughed it. She chanted it and prayed it. Then she started singing it.
“God….God….God….God….” Over and over, in a voice as clear as spring water, as pure as frost, as fragile as the veins in a butterfly’s wings.
They all helped her, even Vincent Price, who howled his song to the foggy dawn. Over and over and over….
One day, near the inevitable end of what seemed like endless beach trips, Meyer and Jerry and Reed drove out to Revere to see the ocean. Meyer always put it like that, “To see the ocean,” like they were visiting a friend with the flu.
They sat on a wall that divided the land from its fingernails. “The beach,” Meyer liked to say, “is the earth’s fingernails.”
It was the coldest and windiest day of that mild March, so they just sat on the wall and ate potato chips. There were some Freaks walking around on the beach, coming to see their sick friend. Some of them had hair that caught the wind like kites. Meyer thought their hair looked like wings.
“Freaks could fly,” Meyer said, “if they could flap their hair.”
Nothing much happened. The ocean wheezed like a friend with the flu and spit green stuff up on the sand. The Freaks tossed Frisbees around and the wind carried them far over their heads. The gulls walked in the green stuff and looked for something to eat. A dog or two played tag with the gulls. The dogs seemed to belong to the Freaks.
Then an old woman, about 200, came down the sidewalk pushing a two wheel grocery cart. She had bags full of oatmeal and pop-tarts and cat food and skim milk. A gust of wind blew her over like a bowling pin. Jerry caught her and sat her up straight.
“Pardon me,” she said.
Jerry made the sign of the cross in the air in front of her. “Your sins are forgiven,” he said.
She noticed his clerical collar, crossed herself and giggled. Jerry kissed her hand and pushed her cart for her back to her apartment. She was holding his arm like a girl at a prom as they disappeared.
The time passed. The ocean whispered Meyer a secret.
“The ocean just told me a secret,” he said. He said it calmly, like he was saying “gulls are white” or “potato chips are crunchy.”
He jumped off the wall and started running toward the ocean. Gulls and Freaks and dogs parted before him.
“KI-YEA-HEY-SEY-TEY-WAY!” he yelled, all the way into the water. He dived under a wave. Jerry, who had returned from walking the old woman home, wondered if he were still yelling under the water.
“I don’t think so,” Reed said, “It’s probably very cold and he would drown.”
When Meyer came back he was shivering and his hair was like a thousand albino sea worms.
“That was like being born,” he said.
On the way home to Cambridge, Meyer took what he said was a ‘short cut’ and got hopelessly lost. They ended up driving the VW bug—Reed and Vincent Price in the back seat—into a place that looked like an army camp with lots of red-brick, one story buildings standing in formation. Meyer decided that the only thing to do was to drive uphill.
“Driving uphill is the only thing to do,” he said. “From the summit we’ll be able to see Cambridge and make our plans.”
At the top of the hill, like a shiny penny, they found a forty-foot statue of the Mother of God. Mary was barefooted and standing on a bronze globe about the size of a three room apartment. Her head was down and her arms were out to her sides like she was walking on river rocks or waiting to catch a football.
“That’s the orants position,” Jerry told them, demonstrating with his own arms. But the other two weren’t listening. They just stared at Mary for a while.
“Jesus,” Meyer finally said. Considering, it was not the worse thing to say. I was so good that Jerry decided to say it as well.
“Jesus,” Jerry said.
Below them, smiling up, was Logan Airport. Airplanes the size of ranch houses were taking off and landing with the grace of silver swans. From Mary’s feet, the planes looked like wrens.
Meyer had been right about one thing—they could see Cambridge from the top of the hill. They could also see the Harbor and Boston and Brighton and Somerville and the endless ocean. Meyer claimed he could see Denmark.
“Right over there,” he said, pointing to the pink horizon. “Right where Mary’s looking. Do you see it, big Reed? That’s Denmark.”
Reed said he didn’t see it. He saw something that looked like a Greek tanker, but he knew that wasn’t Denmark. And really, from that distance, he had no way to know if it were a tanker or a cruise ship and no way to know if it were Greek.
All the way back to the Factory, Meyer talked about the statue.
“I’d like to have that,” he said, “just to look at and admire. We could put her in the back yard.”
Jerry thought the back yard was too small.
“We could tear down the house,” Meyer said, “hollow her out and live in her. Can you imagine?”
Reed couldn’t imagine. Jerry said he thought she was already hollow.
“Then all we’d need is a door,” Meyer said, visibly excited, running a red light, and some windows for air conditioners.”
That night Reed heard Meyer talking to someone on the phone he kept calling “Monsignor”. But, happily, nothing ever came of it.
“It’s so damn big,” Sandy said, staring at the ocean from one of the beaches or another. She started crying when she said it. “It’s so goddamn big and we’re so small,” she said, “I feel so small….”
Meyer tried to tell her that we’re all in this thing together. But Sandy wouldn’t listen. She just picked up one of the kittens and cried into it.
Reed would regret until he dies that he doesn’t remember which beach it was where that happened.
Sandy made the arrangements for Long Beach and the vacation. If it wasn’t for her arranging things, not much in my life would get arranged. Or maybe I just handed that part of my life over to her and like lots of people who stay together for 20 years or more, we have become complementary. We complete each other. Sandy arranges and I pack. I cook and Sandy cleans up. Sandy cuts the grass and does the yard and I wash our clothes. I do grocery shopping and Sandy does the checkbook. Sandy finds the radio stations and I drive.
We’ve become symbiotic—I think that’s the word. My friend Howard who teaches psychology at the college was trying to explain what it means to be ‘co-dependant’, which most people agree is a destructive way to have a relationship. We were sitting on our back porch after dinner. I’d cooked fresh trout on the grill, baked potatoes in the coals and made a salad with artichoke hearts, bib lettuce and capers. Nothing in the salad would have been available in the grocery store if it weren’t for the people at the college. There is much to be said about living in an isolated place near a liberal arts college. I’d even baked sour-dough bread from the buzzing yeast and flour starter I keep in our refrigerator. I learned how to do that from one of Yodel’s books. Since Sgt Sam Sunshine was from San Francisco, he baked sour-dough bread and Yodel had put the recipe at the end of one of his dozens of books.
Sandy and Jane, Howard’s wife, the coach of the college’s women’s basketball team, were in the kitchen cleaning up. And Howard was explaining co-dependency to me.
“It sounds a lot like Sandy and me,” I said.
Howard was suddenly defensive. “I don’t think you understand the pathological nature of co-dependency,” he said. “I don’t think it applies to sharing jobs.”
“But we don’t share jobs,” I told him. “We’ve become parts of each other. There are certain areas of life I don’t have a clue about. I depend on Sandy to be ‘me’ in those areas. And she can’t read maps. I am the map reading piece of Sandy. It works for us.”
“But there is a difference between ‘depending on each other’ and being ‘co-dependent’,” Howard said quickly. He’s from New Jersey and talks fast normally, but he was racing then. “In a co-dependent relationship, the partners tray to maintain the status quo. Even if it is bad, they don’t want anything to change. They want the relationship to be stagnant.”
I thought about that for a while. I didn’t want my back porch to change. I didn’t want the woods beyond my back yard to change. And I certainly didn’t want my relationship with Sandy to change. I longed for stagnancy
“Ok, consider this,” Howard said, like he was in the midst of a lecture up at the college and someone asked a question, “What if one of you were a drug addict or one of you were suddenly to become rich, imagine how those facts would change the way you relate to each other….”
The screen door slammed somewhere in what Howard was saying. Sandy and Jane were on the porch. Jane is taller than me. She has man-short blonde hair and is always tan, even in the winter in West Virginia. I find her very seductive. I must admit that I’ve fantasized about sleeping with Jane. But it is only a fantasy because it would complicate my life and upset the delicate balance of stagnancy in my life. I’m too old to want that to happen.
“But Reed is rich,” Sandy said, “He always forgets that. And I am a recovering drug addict.”
Howard and Jane froze in time. I’m not sure which reality struck them as the most astonishing.
“We aren’t rich, Sandy,” I said.
“No, WE aren’t. But YOU are. The last dividend check George sent you was for $89,000 and you sent it back to be re-invested. Jesus, Reed, don’t talk to Howard about ‘what if’ you were rich or ‘what if’ I’m a drug addict. We are.”
The conversation quickly switched to politics. Both Jane and Howard are extremely conservative. Jane liked Pat Robertson, for Christ’s sake, though Howard liked President Bush well enough. I was still mourning over Jimmy Carter and Sandy already supported Jerry Brown in an election too many years away.
Later, when Sandy was in bed, reading a Ruth Rendall book she thought she’d read before, and I was flossing my teeth, I wandered over to the bed.
“Did you see their faces, Reed?” she asked, “Right after they discovered they were in the presence of a millionaire and a heroine addict?” She was giggling more than normal for her. “Not a normal night in the woods of Buckhannon….”
“Do you ever think about what it would be like to sleep with Howard?”
She hid her face under the book and I noticed she was naked under the sheets. “Jesus, no!. I’m not like you, Reed, and your hots for that tall, tan Nazi Jane. Christ, two basketball players….”
“But I would never….”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said, “and fantasies aren’t bad. You don’t want anything to change.”
She put her book on the floor and drew me down. She kissed me long and softly.
“Are we co-dependant?” I asked her after I was beside her on the bed.
“God, I hope so,” she said. Then she said, “Reed, do you have hair in your teeth?”
“Dental floss,” I told her, pulling it from my mouth.
All this happened because I had told Sandy I had pretty much finished writing the ‘easy part’. I told her I was ready to write about Holy Week and everything after that. I promised her to finish the ‘hard part’ before we went to Long Beach. That’s why we had Howard and Jane to dinner though I like Howard more than Sandy does and certainly lust after Jane more than she does. It was a celebration of sorts, though we didn’t tell them it was. And that was why Sandy was in our bed that night. She believed my promise to finish writing before we went to Long Beach.
Long Beach, North Carolina, is nothing like Revere or Lynn or Nahant or Plum Island. For one thing, it is 500 miles further south. And it is on the Gulf Stream. So the water is normally as warm as the air, sometimes warmer. The radio station in Wilmington—where Michael Jordan grew up—always announces the two temperatures together. As if they were co-dependent. “Air 85, water 83”, is how they say it. When the air is 95 and the water is 86, the surf feels a little chilly. But nothing like Plum Island, nothing like that.
The people who go to Long Beach are nothing like the people at the Boston beaches. Most of the people who go to Long Beach are from Tennessee and Kentucky and southern Ohio and West Virginia, along with the Carolina people who can’t afford Myrtle Beach, 50 miles further south. Sandy once described Long Beach to an art teacher at the college from Minnesota as “the hillbilly beach”. Another time, at a cocktail party at a Professor of English’s house, she called it “the Hick Strand”. By that time we’d lived in Buckhannon for eight or nine years and I’d grown to identify with the people there—the town people who go to Long Beach. In fact, it was Mavis and Larry Justice—newly weds themselves back then—who told us about Long Beach. So I was offended by Sandy’s description.
“Why do you say that?” I asked her after the party at Dr. Lester’s house, hesitantly since I didn’t want to have a fight to upset our stagnant relationship.
“You know,” I stammered, “about hicks and Long Beach.”
She grinned at me. Sandy seldom grins. She smiles and laughs a lot, but grinning is reserved for when I mispronounce words or say something totally inappropriate.
“Because it is a ‘hick beach’,” she grinned.
“But that seems….” I started, losing my courage, fearing a disagreement.
“Unkind?” Sandy finished for me.
“Yes,” I said, bolder, “unkind and…and….”
“Yeah, that too!” I told her.
Her grin turned into a laugh. “You just don’t get it, do you, Reed Daley?”
“Listen to yourself,” she said, still laughing, “you just said git whut? You’re a sponge. You soak up whatever is around you. You always fit in. Why does everyone in Buckhannon love you?”
“I didn’t know they did,” I said, lying a little bit.
Sandy shook her head. “You know what I love most about you, Reed?”
That sent her into gales of new laughter. It took a while for her to start talking again. “No,” she said, “though I must admit your body is in pretty good shape and your butt is tight and high.” She smiled seductively. “It’s that either you just don’t ‘get it’, which I don’t believe for a minute, or else you’re so damn polite you pretend you don’t ‘get it’ all the time.”
I had to consider that for a while. I felt myself starting to blush when I realized how thoroughly Sandy knew me. My naiveté is, to some extent, a pose I learned from being illiterate. But it is such a familiar pose that I don’t even realize I’m pretending.
“So, I’m a hick?”
“When in their midst, yes you are. And when the folks up at the college are around, you’re their peer too—a legend from a Big Ten School. You fit in, Reed, that’s your genius. You blend and merge. You are a benign chameleon. I don’t know why. It’s guileless, I know that. You don’t try to manipulate anyone with it. You just want everyone to be comfortable.”
“I’m from the Midwest,” I suggested.
“So let me call Long Beach ‘Appalachia by the sea’ if I want to. I’m just telling the truth.”
Long Beach, North Carolina is, in fact, ‘Appalachia by the sea’. Hicks and hillbillies go there. They drive down from outside Knoxville and Cincinnati, and Paducah and Beckley with their kids and floats they bought at K-Mart since they’re cheaper ‘back home’ than at the beach. They don’t come down to go to dinner, though almost everyone goes to Jones’ for the fried Fisherman’s Platter one night when they’re there. And they don’t come to show off their designer swim suits. Lots of people at Long Beach go into the warm Atlantic current in cut-off jeans and tee-shirts since they tend to get sunburned the first afternoon. They don’t come to go sailing or deep-sea fishing or to try out their surf boards. They don’t come to look for antiques or shop in the trendy shops (there is nothing trendy about Oak Island, nothing….) Some do play golf on the nine hole course but mostly golf is an excuse to drink lots of beer. They don’t come to meet their friends, though they may bring friends with them and will always ask people in the parking lot of the Food Lion who have the same license plate or people at the one Putt-putt who have on a college sweatshirt from their state—“What part of Tennessee (or Kentucky or Ohio or West Virginia) are you folks from, anyway?”
Most people who go to Long Beach on vacation end many of their interrogative sentences with ‘anyway’.
Hicks, Hillbillies, my neighbors, real people.
To get to Long Beach from Buckhannon, you take Route 33 east for 22 miles to Elkins. In Elkins, home of the West Virginia Forest Festival, you have to make your first decision. The easiest, fastest was is to take US 250 south through Huttensville, where there’s a prison, and Bartow, where there’s nothing, and cross the mountains into Virginia, coming out just north of Staunton on Interstate 81. The other way is an hour longer, but well worth the trip. Just stay on 33 east through Seneca Rocks—the most spectacular scenery in all of West Virginia and perhaps the east of the Rockies—and down into Franklin, a little town with the best amateur softball team on the east coast. Somehow, for reasons no one has been able to explain, Franklin’s softball team regularly goes to the national tournament in Kansas City. When Meyer Tee was younger, I used to take him down to watch them play. One summer they had an aging left-fielder with long blond hair, a walrus moustache and an eye patch. I imagined at first that Meyer had escaped from prison and was playing for Franklin. Or that he’d been transferred to Huttensville prison and was playing on some kind of loan-agreement. But the first time I watched him try to run down a fly, I knew it couldn’t be Meyer. There wasn’t enough grace.
Franklin is on the Virginia boarder and Rt. 33 snakes out of there and across the Blue Ridge into Harrisonburg where you pick up I-81. Harrisonburg is only 30 miles or so north of Staunton where you have your second major decision of the trip. You either take I-64 east through Charlottesville and the university Jefferson built, across rolling farmland to Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy and one of the places where I-95 south can be found. A hundred or more miles of I-95, choked with huge trucks and traffic headed to Myrtle Beach and Florida, leads to Benson, North Carolina and I-40 east, a wide, black, lightly traveled strip of road all the way to Wilmington.
The other option out of Staunton is to stay south or I-81, with mountains to the right of you and mountains to your left, through Buena Vista and Natural Bridge, passing the exit to Massanuttin and down to Salem. In Salem, you take US 220 south to Martinsville and the North Carolina border. Everyone in North Carolina drives fast, especially around Durham and Raleigh down to Benson. So the time you lost, you tend to regain and you get to I-40 and Wilmington either way.
After Wilmington, there are no more decisions. You go down 133 to 87 to the Oak Island Bridge to Yaupon Beach and Fort Caswell and Long Beach itself. It’s 37 miles from Wilmington to Long Beach and there’s really only one way in and one way out.
I worry about all this because it is my job to read the map and find the way and drive. Sandy can drive a car. She drives around Buckhannon well enough and from time to time will go to Elkins, to the college there, to teach an art class. But she isn’t the kind you’d want to ride with on an Interstate. She drives as slowly as she moves. Our son, Meyer Tee, told me that once when he overslept and was late for a history test in high school, Sandy drove him to school and hit 40 on a straightaway. We were both amazed.
Sandy is the kind of driver who could have a “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker and meet lots of Christians. So I drive and read the maps and worry about the few decisions you have to make between Buckhannon and Long Beach. Whether or not it is a sign of co-dependence, I’ll leave to Howard to decide. It is simply what works for us.
We’ve gone to Long Beach every summer for 19 years. Meyer Tee was an infant the first summer we went and he’s 20 now. For the first nine summers, we went for two weeks. Then the library board gave me more vacation and we go for three weeks each year. Mavis and Larry told us about it almost as soon as we arrived in Buckhannon.
“You’ve got to go there,” Mavis said, “it’s so nice and the water is ever so warm.”
Sandy was nodding. She liked it already, being from Florida and partial to warm water.
“Cheap as sin, too,” Larry told me, winking. Even then, the people of Buckhannon knew the way to my heart.
Probably the reason I love Long Beach so much is that Sandy and I have been there together in ways we never were at those spring beaches in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Those beaches were beaches from hell—the hell of the pain and brokenness of life.
For Reed, the painful difficulties on the beaches that spring were only the tip of an iceberg. He felt Sandy growing apart, like some gulf was insinuating itself between them. They couldn’t talk and, even at night, they simply clung to each other like two snails that couldn’t find rocks to cling to. Sandy started leaving earlier each morning and coming back later each evening. Whenever Reed asked her where she’d been, she’d just say she was out walking, trying to clear some dust from her mind.
In time, Reed starting thinking he was that dust.
They grew like weeds into strangers.
From the time Carlton died, Sandy had trouble sleeping. She would sit, framed like a picture in the moon-lit window and stare into the night, as if the darkness were her mind. Her damp imprint would be all Reed found in the bed when he reached to hold her. He would see her by the window, Pajamas or one of the kittens in her lap. Sometimes she cried into them. Sometimes she smoked cigarette after cigarette and snubbed them out on the windowsill. The burn marks were like black rocks in brown water.
She grew pale and thin, with dark cups beneath her eyes. Reed didn’t know what to do but worry.
“Are you alright?” he often, too often, found himself asking from the nest of their bed.
She would finally answer, but so softly that Reed couldn’t hear her.
“Sandy…a little louder…,” he would say. And that would be the worst thing he could have said. It usually made her cry. When it didn’t make her cry, she would shout an answer. “I CAN’T SLEEP!” is what she’d shout.
Nothing more would be said.
One day Reed made her go for a walk with him. He wanted to see if they could talk. He mostly wanted her to come back to him. They walked down Broadway. They passed a playground where boys were playing basketball. They passed huge houses that had been broken into apartments. After a long while, Broadway passed behind MIT and turned into Main Street to go across the Longfellow Bridge. They stood on the bridge and Reed tried to talk. It was too difficult and he stopped.
They stood on the bridge and Sandy seemed to look at the Gold Dome of the capitol of the Commonwealth. Then she seemed to watch sailboats on the Charles. Then she seemed to be watching some pigeons and a gull that were walking on the railing of the bridge.
Suddenly, a subway train came out of the ground and roared onto the Boston side of the bridge. The train stopped at Charles Street Station. Some people got off into the sunshine and others got onto the train. The train started again with a jerk, rattled across the bridge and, as if pulled by some malicious gravity, spewing clouds of dust in its wake, disappeared into the earth near where Reed and Sandy were standing.
“That’s the way it feels,” Sandy said, not so much to Reed as to no one in particular. Those were the first words she’d said on the long walk to Longfellow Bridge. “I feel like I’m being sucked into the ground. Down and down. Nothing makes much sense and there’s so much dust. You can hold on and hold on, but before you know it, you’re sucked down.”
“Sandy,” Reed said, “am I the dust?”
“The dust you need to clear away. Am I dragging you under? Am I what’s wrong?”
Sandy closed her eyes and grimaced like something in her hurt. She grabbed Reed’s jacket and buried her face in his chest. She said something he couldn’t understand.
“Pardon?” he said, trying to push her away so he could hear.
She leaned back from him. Her face looked like something akin to death, something that was a close relation of painful oblivion.
“Meyer’s right, you know,” she said, her voice as chill as the breeze off the Charles on that too-early spring day, “you’re getting better. You’ve grown self-centered. You think my pain has something to do with you….”
He looked at her for a long time. He could scarcely recognize her in that cold mask of a face. And he knew she was right. He was emerging from the earth as she was being sucked down. She leaned against him and cried for a while. Then she kissed him softly on the lips and started walking across the bridge. When he moved to follow she held up her hand for him to stop, never looking back.
He watched her all the way across Longfellow Bridge, over the sailboats, passing pigeons and gulls, until she disappeared into Boston.