The Igloo Factory
(A romance of the sixties)
J. G. Bradley
“Elves are no smaller than men,
and walk as men do, in this world,
but with more grace than most,
and are not immortal.”
Cult Murderer Takes Own Life
Two decade old mystery
(2/5/89—Mejol Mays for the Globe)
Yesterday, using an origami noose fashioned from the Ground Hog Day edition of USA Today convicted murderer Meyer T. Meyer hung himself in his cell at an unidentified Massachusetts prison. Freda Gallows, spokesperson for the Commonwealth’s prison system, told reporters that Meyer, 60, was pronounced dead on the scene. With Meyer’s death, one of the most sensational murder cases in Massachusetts history ended without any definitive explanation.
Nearly two decades ago, Meyer was arrested for the Easter murder of Alan Pierce, 28, a much decorated Viet Nam veteran and special agent for the Department of Justice’s drug enforcement division. Both Meyer and Pierce were residents in a hippie commune in Cambridge that was the subject of an on-going drug investigation. Pierce was, at the time of his death, an undercover operative. Though the murder weapon was never recovered, the evidence at the time pointed to Meyer.
The first officer on the scene was former Cambridge Police Sergeant Michael Quinn, now a patient at the Brattle Street Alzheimer’s Respite. At the time of the murder, there were questions regarding the relationship of Sgt. Quinn to the accused. Disciplinary actions against Sgt. Quinn were dropped after his voluntary retirement from the Cambridge Police Force. A Globe reporter contacted Sgt. Quinn’s son, Michael, Jr. who read a prepared statement which said: “To my knowledge only two things matter. First of all Meyer T Meyer did not have a period after his middle initial. Secondly, Mr. Meyer was nothing more or less than a gentle, walrus-like man who coached young men in softball. My father, before the onset on his illness, had nothing but honorable things to say about Mr. Meyer. I will miss him and I know, wherever my father is, he will miss him as well.”
Mr. Quinn, Jr. also produced a letter from Meyer to his father postmarked November 8, 1969 that was to be opened only in the event of Meyer’s death. The contents of that unopened missive were released by the Commonwealth’s Attorney General. The note inside, written in Mr. Meyer’s hand, as verified by handwriting experts in the Attorney General’s office, said: “Reed my lips.”
That posthumous letter is mysteriously connected to what Meyer left, scrawled in his blood, on the wall of his prison cell. That macabre message was, “Promises to Keep”. Investigators are unable to explain the two cryptic clues. Neither may have any meaning to anyone other than the dead man. However, this reporter has been assured that “Reed” is the accurate spelling used in the Quinn letter.
During nearly 20 years of incarceration, Meyer had only two regular visitors other than his lawyers. Brigham Francis, heir to the Francis Wine Import Company, visited Meyer a total of 45 times in 1969-70. An Episcopal priest, The Rev. Gerald I. M. Mann has visited Meyer 344 times since 1969. Mr. Francis, who resides in the Canary Islands, could not be reached for comment. Fr. Mann is the Executive Director of Blood Bonds, a non-profit agency incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that seeks to provide individuals to give support to AIDS patients by creating relationships between the volunteers and those suffering from AIDS.
Fr. Mann was out of town and unavailable for comment. A spokesperson for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts assured the Globe that Fr. Mann is a priest “in good standing” and involved in what the spokesperson described as “vital ministry to those on the edge of society.”
An unidentified spokesperson at Blood Bonds confirmed that Meyer T. Meyer was a friend of Fr. Mann’s. In addition Dr. William Nole, head of Infectious Diseases at Harvard and Chairman of the Board of “Blood Bonds”, told the Globe that, “Jerry Mann is not only a priest, he is a prophet. He saw the AIDS pandemic coming before others did. He is a man of great integrity. I know from him that Meyer T Meyer did not put a period after his initial and that he is was a man of integrity as well. All I can say is this: the only thing I disagree with Fr. Mann about is his wardrobe.”
When asked, in a subsequent phone call, what Dr. Nole might have meant, the Blood Bonds spokesperson said, “Well, Jerry’s taste in clothing runs strongly toward Civil War capes.”
Meyer’s suicide leaves more mysteries than the mystery of Alan’s Pierce’s death. Commonwealth sources, who asked for anonymity, revealed that Mr. Meyer had won a civil suit with the Commonwealth and the city of Cambridge which had resulted in monthly payments of several thousand dollars to Mr. Meyer. Over the last 20 years of his imprisonment, those payments had continued to an account in the Canary Islands. An investment company headed by Charity Francis Inc. has managed those funds. Although statues prohibit access to the details of those funds, a spokesperson for Ms. Francis acknowledged that Mr. Meyer’s estate is valued in excess of $10,000,000 at the closing of the Stock Market on Ground Hog’s Day.
Mr. Meyer’s lawyers and Ms. Francis’ investment company both refused to return calls regarding the details of Mr. Meyer’s will. An anonymous spokesperson for the Commonwealth told the Globe that the monies paid to Mr. Meyer were legal and unrecoverable.
So the mystery deepens. A brutal cult murder remains unexplained. A fortune is available to the unknown beneficiaries of Mr. Meyer’s estate. After two decades the public has no more information than was available at the trial in 1969. Meyer T. Meyer refused to speak during that legal proceeding. In fact, he demanded and received an expert on Morse Code who translated the incoherent messages he tapped out on the witness chair with a yellow pencil.
Lt. Craig N. Rock, remembers the experience and is still confused. “The witness obviously knew Morse Code. But most of what he tapped out was nonsense. I couldn’t understand it. Sometimes he tapped a message about a curse and sometimes he was telling me about a knife. None of it made much sense. I wasn’t much help to the court. The only thing I got for sure was the last message he tapped”, Sgt. Rock told the Globe. “He sent the message ‘the rest is silence,’ and then broke his pencil.”
That final coded message was a harbinger of things to come. Meyer confessed to the murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He spent almost all of his two decades in the prison system in isolation from other prisoners. Few people who encountered Meyer in the past 20 years ever heard him speak. The exception was Mira Kitagawa, the young Japanese woman who taught origami at Meyer’s prison. Ms. Kitagawa told the Globe, though a translator, that Meyer had asked her on several occasions, how strong the folded paper was.
“He asked me if origami was strong enough to lift an Irish Setter,” Ms. Kitagawa said. “He asked me if origami was strong enough to lift an arm chair. And, at our class just a few days ago he asked me if origami could lift an aging white man.” Ms. Kitagawa was silent for an extended time. She wiped tears from her cheeks. “Meyer was good student,” she said in English. “He learn good…”
A priest and a wine merchant. A king’s ransom of an estate. Mysterious messages from beyond the grave. A noose of folded paper. A dead war hero. And nothing yet to tie it all together and make sense of it.
Meyer was cremated and his cremains were, according to the Commonwealth’s spokesperson, to be turned over to Fr. Mann whenever he claimed them.
Now, 20 years later, Meyer’s last message is finally true: the rest is silence.
PROMISES TO KEEP
“Oh, Miss Carrie Justice, if only I could tell you, if only
you could know….”
--T. Reed Daley, Jr.
Sandy had known for almost a week. Sandy is a paper reader, a TV watcher, and an All Things Considered junkie. She knew the very next day that Meyer was dead. And of all the remarkable things about Sandy Killingworth Daley—my wife, my Love, my Rock in All Storms, the Mate of my Soul—the most remarkable thing is her capacity to keep patiently silent when silence and patience are best.
She knew I needed to hear in a particular way—a way that would matter and shake me up and make a difference. If she had told me about Meyer’s death, I would have driven to Morgantown and flown to Boston to claim his remains. I would have brought the ashes of his pale, cold corpse back to Buckhannon and buried him in the quaint Methodist graveyard near the college or in the sprawling Memorial Garden out on the Weston Road.
Looking back, I can remember the evening Sandy heard about Meyer’s suicide. I was in the basement of our tiny house, oiling softball gloves and praying, in the way I pray, for Spring to come and melt the snow that was white on white and turning gray everywhere around us when Sandy came downstairs, looking for quarters. I had been oiling the catcher’s mitt, listening with quiet joy as she cleaned the kitchen—running water, moving pots, shutting cabinets—while the radio provided me with white noise. I remember that she stopped making sounds and must have been standing still for several minutes. A hazy NPR voice droned on, just beyond my range of hearing. Suddenly, a plate fell, shattering across the linoleum like drunken footsteps. There was more muffled All Things Considered programming before the familiar theme music rose. After that, the radio went silent and Sandy came to claim my change.
“Give me your quarters, Reed,” she said, breathless from running down the basement steps. “I have to run to the 7-11.”
I emptied my pockets into my hands. She took quarters, dimes and nickels, leaving me with pocket lint, four pennies and a pink gum eraser I’d carried home from the library. She kissed me lightly on the lips, touched my cheek with the back of her change-clutching hand and said, “be back soon.”
Deep in that night’s February darkness, after I’d put all the softball equipment away, swept up the pieces of plate and had a Coors or four…deep in that night, after Sandy had made silent, dusty love with me…deep in that night, I woke to her gentle, cat-like sobs. I lay in the darkness, fully awake, wondering what the sounds were until I realized Sandy was crying softly in her sleep. I wrapped my arms around her, ladling her in the curves of my body, dropping away to the blackness of sleep within the Darkness of February. And in that funny way sleep has of robbing us of memories, I thought nothing about it until Jerry’s letter came.
Two days after the raid on my change, I was in the 7-11 for a Big Hot with chili and a Clearly Canadian for lunch. I was considering a Butterfinger to round out the meal when Joe Bob Kent asked me if everything was okay up at our place.
“Your phone been out or anything, Reed?” Joe Bob said. “Any troubles? Everything all right?”
Joe Bob is 50 or so, not that much older than me these days. He’s a huge, pasty, balding man who looks a little like a Big Hot frank squeezed into a too-small, red, 7-11 jacket. Joe Bob is his given name, not “Joseph Robert”. Most people in Buckhannon have two names to go by. Our son, Meyer Tee Killingworth-Daley, (namesake of the long-ago friend who brought Sandy and I together) always fit right in. Being called by two names in that part of West Virginia is a high form of intimacy.
“Nope, Joe Bob,” I said. “Phone works and everything’s fine.”
“Glad to hear it,” he answered, ringing me out. “Sandy just seemed a mite upset the other night when she made her phone call. Ran out of change and I had to break a one for her.”
Quarters, pay phones, Sandy’s evening leaving…it all raced through my mind at some level, but I paid no attention to its passing.
“Enjoy your lunch,” Joe Bob said in his best convenience-store-employee Voice. “Want a candy bar to round that out?”
“Not today,” I said, being virtuous. “I’m getting in shape for softball season.” I think I even held my stomach in with great effort and patted it to make my point.
Joe Bob laughed, as all the natives do at foreigners like me. I’d lived in Buckhannon for two decades and been the librarian for the town library for most all of that time, but when I came up in conversation among the natives, they always said, “Reed’s from Cleveland, O-hi-o, you know.” The laugh real Buckhannon folks reserved for foreigners was one low rumble, like thunder across some distant mountain.
“Guard them books good,” Joe Bob said as I left the store, noticing, as I always did that the 6 foot marker on the door to help Joe Bob know how tall the robber had been was just at eye level.
If I hadn’t been thinking of my height, I might have taken that parting phrase as a clue. “Guard them books” could have reminded me of Byerly Library and the books I guarded there. Byerly could have reminded me of Percy and Percy could, by association, have reminded me of Meyer T Meyer. But it didn’t.
I didn’t think anything about any of what Joe Bob said until the letter from Jerry came.
And that night, I didn’t think anything about how Sandy asked me to go out for wood just after our son called. She was listening to young Meyer and cooing soothing noises while I put on my jacket and trudged through the snow to the wood pile. When I came back with an armful of frozen wood, I reminded Sandy I wanted to talk to our son when she was finished. I was so happy to hear his voice that I didn’t think about how broken and thick it sounded or how he didn’t have much to say. I assumed he was tired out from school and parties. I did tell him to “take care of that cold” before it got worse. I remember telling him how winter colds have a way of hanging on.
After I hung up, I noticed there were eight or ten logs—all dry and ready to burn—beside the melting snow from the wood I’d carried in. And I didn’t think anything about that. I continued to avoid the cracks in my brain where everything would connect and make sudden sense. It was February and my brain was on cruise control. I hadn’t come close to putting all the clues together. My mind was as dark and cold and forbidding as February in the mountains.
The next day, Sandy called me at the library to remind me to stop at the Post Office for our mail on my way home. I chalked that call up to my almost legendary forgetfulness. We sometimes go for over a week without mail because I’m day-dreaming as I pass the Post Office.
“Don’t forget, Reed,” Sandy said. “Promise me you won’t forget.”
“I won’t forget,” I told her. “I’ll leave at 3:30, as soon as Peaches gets here. And I won’t forget the mail. You know me.”
“Right,” Sandy said, a bit coldly, it seemed to me, “I know you, Reed.”
Peaches was late, as usual, and it was almost 4 when I turned the corner of our block and remembered the Post Office and Sandy’s call. It was about 12 degrees and spitting hesitant snow in the dark of the February afternoon as I turned around and walked the quarter mile back to the Post Office. I’d show Sandy that I didn’t always forget, I told myself as I opened the door to the government sponsored warmth. The little bell on the door frame of Buckhannon’s Post Office tinkled brightly.
Mavis Justice, Buckhannon’s postmistress for life, glanced up at the sound from someone else’s Newsweek. I waved at her in that shy way I’ve picked up from the natives—one sweep of the hand, as if shooing away gnats from my chin with the back of my hand. “Hey, Mavis,” I said. She waved back the same way and said, “Hey, Reed.”
She took an 8 ½ by 14 inch manila envelope from beneath someone else’s magazine. “Sandy said you’d be comin’ by for this,” she said. “Told me you’d prob’bly be readin’ it here.”
Mavis held the envelope out for me like a Gold Medal or the Nobel Prize. It felt pretty normal to me and I wondered why Sandy thought I’d read it before carrying it home. I wondered that even when I saw the return addressed embossed in the upper left-hand corner: Blood Bonds, 69 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, Mass. Even though Jerry Mann hadn’t written to us for months, I recognized his handwriting in my name and our Buckhannon post office box number. And even then, holding a message from Jerry, working on the tape and clasp that held the envelope closed, I thought nothing of it. All I was thinking about was how thoughtful Sandy had been to make sure I got Jerry’s letter, never once wondering how she could have known he would write, never dreaming there was some connection to all the other things. Clueless.
There was a single page, on Blood Bonds letterhead, from Jerry, written in his odd, recognizable backhand script. Jerry’s note was short.
The time has come, the Walrus said,
To talk of many things….
Read ‘em and weep.
Go home to Sandy. She knows where the boxes are hidden.
Love and Sympathy,
Fr. Jerry +
Besides the note, there were newspaper clippings.
The first article was from Adelaide, Australia, and told how two teenage boys had “disemboweled, bashed and stabbed 64 tame animals” at Adelaide’s zoo. The short article said the magistrate had to “repress his feelings of repulsion” to hand down a sentence of three years in prison to each boy.
The second item was from Gallatin, Tennessee. Hal Warden, a 14 year-old boy, had been granted a divorce from his 17 year-old wife, but was ordered to pay $30 a week in child support. Hal intended to sue for custody of his 6 month-old daughter, Heather Lynn. Heather Lynn Warden, I thought to myself, a name that would be perfect for Buckhannon.
The third clipping was a picture of a circus elephant in a cemetery, fulfilling the last wish of Milo Smith, who wanted Bimbo to lay a wreath on his grave. The late Milo Smith, apparently, loved the circus greatly. This happened, the article told me, in Herkimer, New York. The elephant had a circular flower arrangement on his truck in the picture and all the people in the photo looked rather anxious.
Next there was an article by-lined Garrison, NY about how Anglicans and Roman Catholics had neared an agreement on “the spiritual needs of attaining salvation.” The key words, written in italics, were unity and pain. I was getting more and more confused. Part of my confusion was why such a press release was from Garrison, New York (wherever that is) rather than Canterbury or Rome when I saw the headline of the next article. It said:
Cult Murderer Takes Own Life
Two decade-old mystery endures
One moment I was reading about Meyer and Jerry and Brigham and BLOOD BONDS and the Great Cayman Islands, growing dizzy and disoriented….and the next moment I was sitting on the floor, staring at yellowing pages from the Easter Monday 1969 edition of the Boston Globe with photos of the Igloo Factory and Meyer entering Superior Court….Somewhere in the cracks in my brain, I was making sense of how Sandy had been for the last couple of days, how she had known, always known and kept silent and been patient….Then I was slumped back against the wall of Post Office boxes and Mavis Jarvis was wiping my head with a cold, wet cloth.
In the middle of that muddle, the little bell over the Buckhannon Post Office door tinkled brightly and Carrie, Mavis’ five year old daughter, came gliding into my line of sight. Carrie moved smoothly and silently, as if on wheels. She giggled as she came through that door and I would swear to this day that her giggle was in tune with the bell she sat in motion. The bell’s tone and Carrie’s giggle echoed around in my head as if I was hearing them from some great distance. Somewhere, in one of the innumerable cracks in my brain, I heard another bell from another place and almost remembered the profound importance of bells.
Carrie Justice glided to me, propelled by the distant sounds and an angel with no name. On the floor, leaning against the wall, my face was on the same level as Carrie’s face. When she saw me she gasped, putting her hand in front of her mouth like a heroine in a silent movie. Carrie is not a pretty child. Her lips are large and loose, like her mother’s. Her mouth is never quite closed. Her hands seem large and burdensome, like her father’s hands. Her hair is unruly, too closely cropped. Her eyes are too small for her face and slanted—almost oriental-looking, dark brown, almost black, heavy lidded.
But she was beautiful to me, gliding through space. I noticed that her deeply scarred knees were showing between the tops of her red snow boots and the hem of her little jean skirt. Carrie took my face in her oversized hands and stared at me through her almost-Chinese eyes.
“Oh, Reed Daley,” she said, using my last name as always, so I could have two names like most everyone she knew, “tell me what’s hurting you….”
Carrie Ann was grave and intense in the way children can be. Tears were leaping out of her eyes as children’s tears tend to do. She was like an ugly little angel, holding my face in her hands.
“Where does it hurt?” she asked, leaning near, her clove and lemon smelling breath warming my cheeks.
“O, Carrie,” I tried to say, “O, Miss Carrie Justice, if only I could tell you….If only you could know….”
“Give Reed some space, Carrie Ann,” Mavis was saying, pulling her gently away.
I wanted to tell Mavis that Carrie was giving me space, space to fall into the cracks in my brain and find my pain, but the words wouldn’t come because shadowy memories were pulling me away. I felt my heart was breaking.
The last thing I remembered for a while was the bell over the front door ringing again and knowing intuitively that Sandy was there.
“…I heard this awful report on Public Radio,” Sandy was saying when I came completely to myself. I was in our bed, covered by a big quilt Sandy quilted in the long, snowy winter of 1979. Sandy was sitting on the edge of the bed, answering a question I didn’t remember asking. But since I didn’t remember how I got from the Post Office to our bedroom, it was possible I had asked her a question.
“…It wasn’t Nina Totenberg or Adam or any of the regulars. It was a reporter from WBUR in Boston.” Sandy paused, gazing off into space, watching the smoke from her cigarette. Sandy hadn’t smoked a cigarette for almost 20 years, so I knew I should be quiet and listen.
“The reporter had one of those North End accents,” Sandy said dreamily, watching smoke. “You know,” she said, looking suddenly at me, “a Mack Quinn accent….”
I nodded. O, I knew.
Sandy drew deeply on the cigarette and some ash spilled down her front. She flicked it way expertly before it burned her sweater. Even long-time ex-smokers never forget how to do things like that.
“I listened to her talk about this convicted murderer for a while. Then it hit me that she wasn’t talking about your anonymous stranger. It was Meyer. She was talking about Meyer…. Sandy stared at the half-smoked cigarette for a moment. Her face was Russian Orthodox. She stared at the ash as if she were meditating on an icon of some emaciated Jesus. “I stood absolutely still,” she continued reverently, “and stared at the radio. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe at all. When I heard all those lies she was telling about Meyer—the same old lies we’d heard before and some new ones they’ve just made up….Well, I dropped the plate I was drying and ran down to tell you that Meyer was dead.”
Sandy stopped talking and smoked.
“But you didn’t,” I said softly. Those were the first words I remembered speaking since Carrie Ann Justice floated to me in the post office.
Sandy was distracted from her cigarette by my voice. “What?” she asked, sounding annoyed.
“You didn’t tell me Meyer was dead,” I said, trying to speak louder, more normally.
She looked at me like I’d stepped between her and the icon. She rose from the bed, moving slowly away. Even when she hurries, Sandy moves slowly. She is not a small woman and doesn’t see well, so she’s learned to avoid accidents by not moving too fast. Not a bad lesson for anyone.
She dropped the cigarette’s butt into a Coors’ can on the dresser. I heard a slight hiss. Then she picked up the Marlboro box beside the can and waved it in my direction.
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
“Me neither,” she replied, lighting a new cigarette effortlessly without tearing the match from the book. She bent the match, closed the cover behind it and ignited the flame with a flick of her thumb. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone do that. Lots of people used to do it but I hadn’t seen it for years and years. Not even the good old boys down at the 7-11 did that. They all used pastel colored BIC lighters.
Sandy left the room, trailing smoke behind her. In a few minutes she was back, carrying two vaguely familiar Campbell Soup boxes. At one time they had held 48 cans of Tomato Bisque and Vegetarian Vegetable soup. She dropped them unceremoniously on the bed.
“So you called Jerry from the 7-11?” I asked, fog rising from my memories.
Sandy smiled, her Marlboro dangling from her lips. “All coming together now?” she said, smoke drifting out of her mouth and nose.
She took a deep drag from the cigarette, as if trying to breathe under water, and expelled smoke as she said, “there are the boxes.”
I remembered packing those two soup can boxes I got from a little market on Kirkland Street in Cambridge. I packed them the day Sandy and I left the Igloo Factory for good. I remembered stacking them in the back seat of the VW Bug that we intended to drive to Idaho and ended up driving to West Virginia instead. I stored them lovingly in the attic of our little log house in Buckhannon when we moved in and hadn’t thought of them for 20 years.
“Been a spell, Reed,” Sandy said. Over the decades she had picked up the subtle accent and distinct vocabulary of Buckhannon.
“It’s been quite a while,” I said, sounding like a Midwesterner after all those years.
I stared at the soup boxes for a long time. Then Sandy leaned over to touch my cheek with her finger tips.
“Just like Meyer always said…,” she told me softly.
I knew what came next and could almost picture his bloody scrawl on that far away jail cell wall, could almost picture him swinging from his paper noose. The words he always said might have been the last thing he saw before he died: “promises to keep.”
I’ve never been good at “keeping promises.” It is a character flaw, perhaps, some sort of genetic blip in my makeup, lamentably inherited. I tell Sandy I’ll be home at 6 o’clock and I arrive at 6:15. I faithfully promise Ted Casey Strange, one of the high school softball players I coach, that I’ll let him pitch five innings against Weston, no matter what—and in the fourth inning, with the game still in hand at 7-6, something in me that wants to win more than keep my promise brings me to the pitcher’s mound to take the softball from him and hand it to Brian Morris Brown or Jody Dean Blevins or John Mark Chapman or someone else known by two names. I warn Peaches in all seriousness and with all my authority as Head Librarian that if she misses one more turn at the library or reshelves one more Biography with the Fiction, I’ll just have to let her go. And I never do. Beyond that, I swear to the stars above and the Baby Jesus and all that is holy and good to spend more time with Meyer Tee the next time he’s home from WVU—take him fishing, go for long walks, talk about life. The next thing I know, he’s loading his clean laundry and his books and the food Sandy cooked for him into the ancient VW Bug that carried us here—the car he and Ron Marty Davis down at the Davis EXXON have somehow kept running all these years—and he’s heading out Route 40 toward Morgantown without having been in my exclusive company for more than five minutes.
I’m not good about keeping stupid little promises like not smoking one of Peaches cigarettes in my office with her before leaving for the evening or drinking only 4 Coors’ instead of 6 or flossing my teeth each night before bed. I seldom keep even dumb promises like that.
And if my issue with “keeping promises” isn’t genetic, if my inability to keep promises isn’t chemical, then it must be volitional. I must be a person who intentionally lies and cheats and falls far short of the glory of Fr. Jerry Mann’s God. I much prefer the inherited answer. I much prefer imagining that some enzyme in my blood, some generations-old chemical malfunction beyond my control is to blame. I prefer something like that as my excuse.
But Meyer T Meyer (bless his soul) knew better. He never put a period after the T in the middle of his name and he knew I’d never keep my promise unless he did something dramatic, something like sending me a message from beyond the grave, a reminder written in blood on a jail cell wall.
PROMISES TO KEEP….
Sandy knew better too. She had waited with silent patience for nearly 20 years for me to dig out those soup boxes from my past and sift through them to keep my promise. And she knew that unless she left our bedroom, moved to the basement and left me bereft of love I would never do what I promised so solemnly to do.
The Promise was this: to write a book—a True Book—a book about Meyer T Meyer and the Igloo Factory and all the stuff that happened so long ago which I faithfully recorded on lunch bags and call slips and in the notebooks Marvin left me. Meyer knew I’d need a jump-start from beyond the grave. Sandy knew I’d need a nudge from her.
“By the way, Reed,” she said, snatching a pillow from our bed and gathering sheets and blankets from the closet, “I’ll be back when you’ve kept your promise.”
For the first time since opening Jerry’s letter, I felt fully awake.
“Sandy,” I said, with all the sincerity I could muster from my accumulated stay on this earth, “if you stay, I promise….”
“Reed,” she said, interrupting my promise, looking at me harshly, “eat a bug.”
For the rest of February and most of March, I spent most of my free moments going through the soup boxes. I didn’t fuss with my softball equipment or read the British murder mysteries I love so much. I didn’t carry firewood to the house or cook the inventive “pasta surprises” I usually cooked on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I didn’t watch classic black and white movies each night or the west coast NBA games on ESPN like I used to that time of year. The way I whiled away the winter's end was completely different. I certainly didn’t hold Sandy’s explosive naked body next to mine under several layers of blankets to keep away the cold. I gave up ice fishing—well, the truth be known, I’ve never gone ice fishing, and I certainly didn’t for those months. What I did was this: I went through those damned soup boxes and lived in a 20 year time-warp.
I drank lots of Coors beer and spent time with Carrie Ann Justice, the daughter I’d always prayed I would have. Carrie sat on my lap and I read her The Secret Garden and A Wrinkle in Time and The Magician’s Nephew. Whenever she squirmed, I’d send her downstairs to bring me a beer from the refrigerator and, after giving her a secret sip, we’d read some more. Yet, the time would always come when Mavis or Larry would come to pick Carrie up and Sandy would lead her out of the room, leaving me alone with the soup boxes and all that memory. I would be face to face at those moments with the one promise—in spite of genetics or willfulness—that I am keeping.
Once, just before she glided out of the room to her parents, Carrie held my face in her awkward hands, gazed myopically into my eyes and said, “Reed Dailey, what is in those boxes?”
“Oh,” I told her, rolling my eyes at Sandy by the door, “they are full of promises and memories….”
She twisted up her lips when I told her that. Her large, mountain mouth almost closed, but not quite. She sniffed and twitched and frowned. “Well…,” she said, with that incredible seriousness of five-year olds.
Sandy laughed. “A well is water in a hole,” she said, reaching out to lead Carrie downstairs to her parents.
Another time, when Carrie was leaving, I said to Sandy, “Will you give me a daughter?”
“Hold old are we, Reed?” she asked, coldly.
“Pretty old,” I replied.
“Older than pretty,” she said, picking Carrie up to carry her downstairs.
“Well?” I said as she was turning to go.
Carrie turned in Sandy’s arms to look at me. “Water in a hole,” she said, solemnly.
Sandy and I laughed—a laugh that spun out beyond death, age, enzymes, volition. And Carrie nodded, realizing something beyond what I imagined.
That night I thought Sandy would hand Carrie over to Mavis and come back to me to create a daughter we would name “Carrie”.
No such luck.
I rooted through boxes with memory to endure and promises to keep.
Peaches and Sandy borrowed Larry Justice’s Chevy pick up one day and brought two long unused folding tables from the basement of the library and sat them up in our bedroom. I was a promise-keeping invalid—I couldn’t do much of anything for myself—so Sandy did things for me. I sent her to Farmer’s Business Supply Store three times during the half-day it took me to set up my writing space. Finally she came back with the right pencils—Dixon Ticonderoga #2 and the right kinds of legal pads—bright yellow and 8 ½ by 14 and a ream of typing paper (though I didn’t have a typewriter) of a thick enough bond. I couldn’t decide which side of the table where I was going to write A True Book should hold the paper and where the pencils should be and if I should line them up like so many equally shaped logs or spread them out in a coffee cup, standing and ready. I tried every table lamp we owned before settling on the lamp I found in the bottom of the Tomato Bisque box that Meyer had given me—the lamp where the fixture came out of the head of a sixteen inch statue of Carl Yastrzemski, crouching in his batting stance, waiting for the next pitch. Yaz was holding a bat only a little shorter than one of the Dixon Ticonderoga’s and his ceramic face was set, his muscles straining in anticipation.
Sandy was leaning against the frame of the door to our room, smoking and frowning.
“I’ll need an ash tray,” I said.
“OK,” she said from the door.
“A big one—glass I think –and lots of matches and cigarettes. I’ll need cigarettes.”
“OK,” she repeated.
“In a box….”
“No problem. Cartons of them.”
“A waste can…the one under the sink would do…the one with the pedal that opens the lid.”
Sandy exhaled smoke. “Consider it done,” she said.
“His cap has faded over the years in that box,” I told Sandy. “Yaz’s hat isn’t dark enough blue and the B isn’t as red as it should be. You know the ‘red’ I mean? That really-red ‘red’. The B is almost pink.”
“Maybe we should paint it,” Sandy said, expelling smoke.
“Do you think?”
“Sure,” she said, the cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth, her arms hugging her breasts to herself as if she were holding a small load of laundry. “I’ll go down to Gladys’ Hobby Shop, down the block from the college, and I’ll say to Gladys, ‘we need some Boston Red Sox blue and some real-red red for the R and some brushes, tiny ones with stiff bristles for the R and a bigger one for the cap so we can get Carl Yastrzemski back in shape and Reed can write his book.’ And the third time I go down there through the slush and the freezing rain, I’d probably bring back the right brushes and you could decide how to arrange them and what kind of containers you need me to find for water and if a bath towel or a hand towel would be right for cleaning the brushes after you use them….I think we might just do that, Reed.”
No one ever accused me of being especially astute about sarcasm, but even I could hear something cold and ugly oozing out of the edges of Sandy’s voice, even though she was speaking in what was essentially a monotone.
I looked at the other table—the product of two weeks of sorting—were the notes I’d made while guarding the books at Byerly Library during those months I’d waited for Sandy to be well again so we could go to Idaho and I could write the True Book I’d promised Meyer I’d write.
There were a hundred and forty seven brown paper bags covered inside and out since I’d cut them with the little razor knife I used to open new boxes of books at Byerly. Those bags were what I’d carried my lunch in each day so long ago. Once those bags had been full of cold hot dogs, bagels, potato salad in old cottage cheese containers, green salad in Tupperware, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches on whole-wheat toast, left-over pizza, Dannon yogurt (mostly spiced apple), link sausages wrapped in cold French toast, Vienna sausages in easy open cans, two day old chicken salad on hot-dog buns—whatever I found at the Igloo Factory to bring for lunch. The bags were, of course, empty now, but some stains remained. There were little grease spots obliterating some of the words I had written.
There were almost 400 book search slips from Byerly, each of them covered with my neat printing and laid in piles, like folded linen. And, finally, there were two 150 page spiral notebooks that said HARVARD UNIVERSITY on the front. They also said VERITAS, VERITAS, the motto of Harvard, which means “Truth, Truth”. Marvin Gardens gave me those two notebooks, fresh and new, when he left Cambridge to make a movie. I’d filled them with memories. Just looking at them while trying to avoid Sandy’s myopic, X-ray vision gaze about painting Carl Yastrzemski’s hat, made me remember Marvin.
She must have been looking at them to because when I said, “Do you remember the shows we saw on PBS?” she knew exactly what I was talking about. While she was answering, I put the bottom one on top and the top one on the bottom.
“Marvin’s shows,” she said, sounding tired, though a little gentleness had crept back into her voice when she said Marvin’s name.
“I liked the one about the whales that got lost in the rivers along the Pacific coast and the one about those microscopic animals that were dying in the tidal pools because of pollution.” That’s what I said next. Then I said, “You do remember don’t you?”
“Of course I remember, Reed,” she said, even more tired than before. “I remember everything, remember? I even remember the time Marvin called about Exxon paying him to go to Malaysia….”
Marvin had heard of a primitive tribe, discovered by the 20th century on a South Pacific archipelago, who—once found out—had taken a communal vow of celibacy so the race would die out rather than enter the modern world. He thought it was only appropriate that a Fortune 500 company was paying him to make a film about the end of life as that tribe knew it. “Don’t tell me,” he’d said on the phone, “that there’s no such thing as irony anymore.”
Almost a year later Marvin drove through Buckhannon (which is a story in itself since Buckhannon is not ‘on the way’ to anywhere and hard as hell to get to even if you’re somewhere near it) to tell us after spending nine months with the tribe and shooting a truck load of film, Exxon thanked him very much and took his product. No part of his documentary was ever shown to anyone.
Marvin sat our kitchen table and wept. He had seen the death of irony.
While Sandy and I were remembering Marvin, I took a sheet of typing paper and a pencil and started to draw what I thought would be a cloud, but what turned out to be a terrible likeness of an Irish Setter.
“All this stuff,” I said, mostly to myself, though I hoped Sandy was listening. “All these words and memories…it’s like I don’t remember writing them, like someone else did. And there is no Veritas I can find. The Truth is missing. There are people laughing and people crying and old ladies and priests and little black boys and lots of cats without names. There are crippled ballerinas and mystery writers and basketball players and Vincent Prince. And all those people…all those people. And Meyer most of all.”
“Of course,” Sandy said quietly from the shadows.
“We know what it ‘means’, you and I, Sandy….”
“Yes,” she said in a soft hiss.
“But why would anyone else care?”
The room was growing dark. A light sleet was pecking against the window. I was profoundly sad and wanted Sandy to come and take me in her arms and comfort me. But I knew she wouldn’t. Sandy would keep her promise until I kept mine.
“It doesn’t matter if anyone else cares,” she said in the voice she used for our love making, “so long as you make it True.”
“I think I can do that,” I told her, sweeping my hands over the lunch bags and call slips and spiral notebooks. “I just don’t know where to start….”
“Jesus, Reed,” she said, annoyed in the near darkness, turning to go downstairs. He voice trailed behind her as she started down the stairs. “Begin at the beginning!”
I sat there alone until it was completely dark. Then I pushed the switch in Yaz’s neck and spilled 75 watts of light across the table. Then I did what Sandy said.
I began at the beginning.