“End it with a parade.” –Meyer T Meyer
“The Call of the Wild, he mourned.” –anon. Freak
Winter was the Season-elect just as Richard Nixon was the President-elect. November was brutal, but nobody at the Factory had time to notice. They were too busy going to Holy Ghost. Meyer dressed all the men in dark Republican suits and all the women in sensible shoes and Pat Nixon cloth coats. There was a flurry of visitors to the dying. Meyer called it “the Mission to the GOP”. Jerry called it nonsense.
“I don’t want to dress like a Republican,” he told Meyer at the Meeting to discuss the Mission to the GOP. Jerry was as annoyed and upset as anyone remembered seeing him. “I don’t want to masquerade as someone who vated for Nixon, no matter how noble it seems to you. You didn’t even vote!”
“Meyer didn’t even know there was an election,” Yodel added, smiling like a fool, “how could he have voted?”
“Meyer doesn’t even know what a Republican is,” Sugar interjected, trying to calm Jerry with a pat of her hand, “and he only imagines he knows how they dress.”
“This isn’t about politics,” Krista added, “it’s about compassion.” “Jesus Christ!” Jerry said, looking wildly around the room. “I’m surrounded by Whigs and Know-Nothings! Doesn’t anyone here have a political opinion?”
“Reed used to,” Sandy offered from the back of the room, “but he gave them up along with reading.”
Reed tried to remember his opinions about politics. Since he was the son of a corporate lawyer, the product of a military school and an Episcopalian, he imagined he most likely would have voted for Nixon. So, he kept quiet.
Meyer rattled the mobile above his bed with a hockey stick. That was the sign that discussion was over.
“Here’s the truth, Jerry,” he said, solemnly, “Republicans and Democrats both have to die. There is a what I’ve heard called ‘a window of opportunity’ here. We can visit the staunch Republicans at Holy Ghost and pretend to be members of the Nixon campaign staff dispatched by the great man himself. It might ease their passage into the great beyond, the void, heaven or hell, whatever is after this earth. If that fast-talking little chipmunk from Minnesota had won, we’d be visiting Democrats this week. It’s that simple.”
“So, if we were in Germany after Hitler came to power,” Jerry said sarcastically, “we’d be visiting dying Nazis this week?”
Meyer smiled at Jerry the way the Pope would have smiled at a child who had flawlessly recited the Baltimore catechism. He spoke gently, lovingly. “That’s right, Jerry. You’ve got my drift now. I’m very pleased….And Nazis die too. Whatever else they did or thought in their lives, they deserve a little attention on their way out that secret door.”
In the end, it was Jerry who briefed people before their visits to Holy Ghost. Jerry would tell them key things to mention. “Lower taxes, breaks for business, peace with honor, prayer in the schools, a hard line against communists, no patience with those who attack the American way of life,” he told those in their Republican uniforms as they prepared to troop down to the hospital.
One night during the Mission to the GOP, Reed found Jerry sitting alone in the kitchen drinking what appeared to be his tenth Schlitz. He had lined up the first nine cans in three rows of three on the table and was draining another. Reed sat down beside him. Jerry’s eyes didn’t quite focus and he spoke carefully, straining not to slur his words.
“I visited this old retired major this afternoon. He served in both world wars. Started as a private in the Great War and stayed on, working his way up to Major. He told me about the farm he grew up on in Hanover, New Hampshire and still remembered the names of all the horses and dogs he knew back then….” Jerry looked at Reed as if he had forgotten who he was talking to. “He talked about the ‘boys’ he commanded like they were his children, since he never married except to the Army. A really great old guy. Major Stanley Phelps. Very funny guy—told me jokes. But he was so thrilled that Nixon was elected that it made me a little nauseous. Just as I was leaving he said something like, ‘We’re going to get those pansy-assed draft dodgers now, ain’t we?’ I wanted to strangle him, but then I remembered what Meyer said about even Nazis deserving a good death. So I told him we probably would get them.”
Reed had to wait until Jerry went to the bottomless beer cooler and bring back another Schlitz. Before he opened it, he rearranged his cans on the table into two rows of five.
“Bunch of ‘dead soldiers’,” he said, “just like Major Phelps. He said something else to me as I started to leave. I didn’t hear what he said so I went back to the bed. He took my hand and tried to speak, but I’ll never know his message because he threw an aneurysm at just that moment and died holding my hand.”
Reed remembered Virgil Trucks. “Is that the first person you’ve ever seen die?” he asked softly.
Jerry looked at him, at least he looked over Reed’s left shoulder. It passed for looking at him after 10 ½ beers.
“I’ve seen dozens of people die,” he said, vacantly. “Remember, Reed, I’m a priest. Seeing people die is part of my job description.”
Jerry drained his eleventh Schlitz and tried for a while to form eleven empty cans into some orderly pattern. Finally, he swept all the cans from the table with his arm. They clanged and clattered around the kitchen floor. Jerry was crying.
“Here’s the thing,” he said to Reed through his tears, “until today I would have told you Major Phelps was an asshole, he didn’t have a clue. He never had a thought in his life I agreed with. But I pushed his bell and was giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until a nurse and an orderly pulled me off him. The nurse said, ‘Let him go….’ She was an oriental woman, Thai or maybe Vietnamese. And this big Black orderly was trying to comfort me. ‘Major Phelps is in a better place now,’ he kept saying. And I was crying just like this. Everything about Major Phelps should make me hate him, but here I am, drunk and sloppy and crying about him some more.”
Reed sat in silence while Jerry drunkenly picked up all the cans and put them in the trash. When he finished, he looked around the kitchen like there was something there he needed to find.
“That goddamn Meyer just won’t leave well enough alone,” Jerry said, stumbling toward the stairs.
Reed sat at the table for half-an-hour before he got up, turned out the lights and went to his room. Sandy was already asleep. Reed undressed and fell into bed with her and fell almost instantly into a dreamless sleep. As he slept, artic air pushed out of Canada and mixed with the warmer air over the Bay and the Atlantic to produce the first snow fall of winter. The snow had rainbows in it.
Rainbows were among Reed’s favorite thing. Reed had found rainbows in fountain spray, in insect wings, wrapping Massanuttin Mountain like a crown, on the necks of pigeons, on patches sewn on hip pockets, on posters, arched across the Charles after a rain, in oily puddles, and, late that night, Sandy showed him rainbows in the snow.
Sandy and Reed woke at about three a.m. from a black sleep, heavy-eyed and fat-lipped. They both could sense it was snowing. From the window, frosted with strange ice patterns on the outside, framed like a Christmas card, they watched the snow falling on Broadway. “The snow woke us up, Reed,” Sandy whispered, fogging the window in front of her face. She went to the dresser for a pipe and some grass so they could smoke a little. Reed seldom smoked marijuana because it usually gave him mild paranoia. But this time, it gave him snow rainbows.
Wordless and tingling, feeling like finger-tips all over, they dressed in bear-like clothing and drew hoods around their ears. They went outside to hear the snow. Sandy said she could hear it falling, could hear it touch her face.
They walked and ran and stopped and hugged and kissed and danced. They touched softly, like snow touches. They did their snowy dance in front of the Cambridge City Library. Inside, the books slept: unmoving, unread, with only their awesome murmurs.
A gray dawn came creeping in, all pockets and bursts of light among the flakes. Before Reed’s face, in clouds of breath and dawn’s light, dancing as Sandy danced, lightly in the kissing snow, Reed saw rainbows.
“There are rainbows in the snow!” Reed said. “Rainbows!”
Sandy looked at him with secret knowledge and leaned her head like a deer leans its head. Her eyes were doe-like, true.
“Of course,” she said, laughing, “of course and always….They are always there, waiting for us, always waiting for us to see them.”
The rainbows swirled, spiraled, danced, turned, shifted as the colors blended, merged, became each other. Reed reached out to try to touch them—the rainbows in the wordless, timeless snow.
Sometimes snow can be like music. Like a choir is singing it. Singing it white on white on white. Forever.
That’s the way the snow can get in Boston Common—a whole cantata of snow.
One night in that long winter of 1968-69, Meyer got such a yearning for the snow in Boston Common that he almost ended his stay of this earth. And with him, Reed, Sandy and Sugar would have returned to dust. The VW bug was like a sled and the four of them were sliding to a concert of snow. Coming down ice-covered Joy Street, right beside the Gold Dome of the capitol of the Commonwealth, Meyer ran the car into a snow bank like a softball runs into a mitt—at about 40 miles an hour. After all of them agreed that they were still in the land of the living, though a bit shook up, Meyer explained: “It wouldn’t have stopped otherwise.”
Then he put his mitten-ed hand to his ear. “Listen, you can hear a choir singing a cantata of snow.”
Sugar held Meyer’s hand. Reed held Sandy’s hand. They ran across Beacon Street right in front of a police car. The policemen waved at them and they waved back. Snow does such things to people.
There were many people in Boston Common watching it snow. Some of them were laughing and running and holding hands. Some of them were as solemn as if they were reading the Bible. Some made snowmen and called them Seth and wrapped scarves around their snowy necks. A few people made snow-women, put snow breasts on their chilly chests and called them Sarah. And some, mostly Freaks, rubbed their shoes on the snow, like little kids, and made an ice-slide down one of the gentle hills of Boston Common.
All the fountains and statues in the Common were covered with snow and looked like anything but fountains and statues. They looked like Greek freighters and Oldsmobiles and state maps and things inside a cave. A statue of some governor or another looked like a buffalo covered with snow to Reed.
“That looks like a buffalo I once knew,” Reed said. “He was covered with snow in West Virginia.”
“I never knew a buffalo,” Meyer said, “but I knew a camel once in Egypt. He wasn’t covered with snow, but he was ill-tempered and smelled bad.”
“That kind’a looks like a camel,” Sugar said, pointing to a fountain, “but there’s no smell at all except the smell of falling snow.”
It was snowing as hard as your heart beats when you are really scared, like when you see a child about to fall off something high. Everyone in Boston Common looked like walking Alps with snow on their summits.
They walked through the snow toward Boylston Street and came to a bandstand, covered with snow. Meyer got on it and pretended to be a band. He made horn sounds and drum noises and directed himself. Sugar joined in as the cymbal section. Sandy was the woodwinds and Reed, who could make many sounds, became the strings.
They played a Sousa march with lots of cymbals for Sugar. Then they played “Hail to the Chief” because they all knew it. Some of the other people gathered for a while around the bandstand to listen. But when Meyer insisted on beginning Bach’s “Mass in B minor”, most of the people wandered away. Maybe they didn’t like Bach or maybe they had begun to worry they’d be buried in a snowdrift. So they wandered, Alps looking for Switzerland, all going in different directions.
The four of them struggled through the snow toward the Public Gardens, but Meyer stopped in front of a lot of benches, standing at attention, waiting for a parade to pass. The snow made the benches look like sports cars or power boats or snow covered hippopotami —none of which would have worried about an impending parade.
“This is where the old men sit,” Meyer said. “They sit here and get drunk on port wine to pass out or else they talk about politics or the old country or people they know who are dead.”
Sugar was worried about the old men because she said, “Where do they go when it snows?”
Meyer had started walking again. “The swans?” he asked, “do you mean the swans?”
“No,” Sugar said, sure of what she meant, “the old men.”
Meyer nodded and about a bushel of snow fell of his head and shoulders. “I thought you meant the swans from the Public Gardens.”
“No,” Sugar said, “I meant the old men from the benches.”
“In summer they move like the wind through brown water,” Meyer told her, “with high school boys peddling them.”
“Who?” Someone besides Sugar said, but it was hard to tell who in all that snow.
“The swans,” Meyer said, still pushing through snow on the sidewalk. “They aren’t really swans, they’re boats that look like swans. But they do move silently through the brown water.” Then he said, “Have you ever seen snow like this before Thanksgiving?”
Apparently, no one had. But someone said, “What about the old men, Meyer?” It wasn’t Sugar or Reed. That left Sandy.
Meyer stopped in his tracks. He turned and looked at Sandy like she was a statue covered with snow that looked like the Star of David.
“Meyer,” Reed told him, “you were talking about the old men….”
“You know what I’d like?” Meyer asked, “Really like?”
They all shook their heads and snow fell on their shoulders.
“Some donuts,” Meyer said.
So they slid and sloshed through the snow to a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from the Common. Meyer ordered a dozen. “Mix ‘em up,” to told the donut girl, surprised to find a snowy, skinny walrus ordering donuts in her shop, “And don’t spare the lemon-filled.”
Meyer gave her a twenty dollar bill and told her to keep the change. She smiled wildly at him. She had a nice face—the kind of face you see on girls on buses who seem to be going to visit their grandmothers. She was smiling at a walrus who came out of the blizzard to get some donuts and give her a $17.45 tip.
“A smile like that,” he said, “deserves to know what happens to the old men.”
“What old men?” she asked.
“The ones who sit in the Common and get drunk and read Tolstoy and wait to die. The ones who aren’t there when it snows.”
Everyone waited for him to tell them, even the old woman behind him in line who shouldn’t have been out in such weather, even the Black delivery man and the two stoned Freaks sitting on stools and the two sailors drinking their coffee by the window, looking out at the winter wonderland. They all waited like donuts waiting for the coffee to be perked.
“They go with the swan boats. They go wherever the swan boats go. And they glide like the wind through brown water.”
After several further adventures, one of which involved sliding down the ice-slide the Freaks had made, the four of them finally found the VW. With the help of a policeman, a sailor and a Freak, they pushed it out of the snow bank. Meyer gave them all a donut.
“There go two of the lemon-filled,” he said as they slid out of Boston toward Cambridge, toward home. When they got to the Igloo Factory, they made coffee to keep the donuts company in their stomachs.
“Where do they really go?” Sugar asked when they were all warm, dry and drinking coffee in the kitchen. “You know, the old men….Where, Meyer? Really?” her face was like a shellfish, all wrinkled and serious.
Meyer drank some coffee and ate half a Boston Cream donut before he answered, “They go where old men go.” His voice was as devout as the Koran, as serious as cancer. “They go where donut holes and lost puppies go. Where the words you meant to say and never did go. Where the mates to your socks go. Where hope disappears to. They fall into the same bottomless trap that Truth happens upon. To their tiny, lonely, under-heated single rooms where no one ever visits. That’s where they go. They go to that place.”
Sugar seemed very sad, but she nodded and said she understood. Reed wasn’t at all sure he understood, but he believed Sugar did. And so did Sandy.
Meyer and Sugar went to watch an old horror movie with Marvin Gardens, one Meyer had been looking forward to for a long time. Sandy and Reed went to bed.
“It was beautiful, wasn’t it, Reed?” Sandy whispered in the middle of the night. She had awakened him from a dream about buffalo and snow and donuts. She woke him to tell him, “It was a wonderland, the Common and all, the snow and everything. Even the old men who weren’t there, even the old men who go where lost quarters go.”
Obviously, to Reed, Sandy was someone who had spent her life in Florida, in a place where snow is rare, if ever. Reed had always lived in places where snow was simply part of life: enjoyable for a while and annoying after that. But he didn’t mention any of that. Instead, he said, “It was like a choir singing it.” He said that softly because he was still half-asleep.
“You’re right,” Sandy told him, kissing him on his forehead, “it was just like that.”
In the dark, Reed could feel Sandy smile. Sandy smiling beside him in bed was like a snowy caterpillar walking across his belly, singing, singing like it was a choir, singing it tingly—warm and cold all at once.
Thanksgiving and Christmas brought a shit-load of snow to Cambridge and an avalanche of visits to Holy Ghost. Meyer wasn’t satisfied with only the members of the Factory visiting the dying and would sometimes stop people in Harvard Square and ask them if they’d like to ‘visit themselves’ in the hospital. Most people thought he was as crazy as the dozens of other people who stopped them in Harvard Square—asking for spare change or introducing them to a new religion or wanting their signature to save the whales or the Vietnamese or lesbian caribou in Alaska. Almost everyone in Harvard Square was looking to save something or someone: wetlands, frogs in Brazil, old growth forests in the Pacific north-west, ethnic Kurds, children sold into slavery, the world from Nixon. It was, Reed came to believe, a noble place to be. In Harvard Square you were surrounded by people who believed in salvation in one form or another.
One snowy day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Reed and Sandy were walking through Harvard Square with Sam Houston Barber IV, who had been graduated from Princeton University with an honors degree in Political Science the previous June. Sam Houston was, as one might imagine, from Texas, a tiny town in West Texas with more cattle than people. Sam’s daddy owned most of the cattle in that town and not a few of the people in one way or another. Sam’s daddy wanted him to go to law school at the University of Texas and come how to practice long enough to be elected prosecuting attorney and then judge of the huge, empty county in West Texas where Sam had grown up. That was Sam’s daddy’s dream since he had only finished eighth grade before quitting school to help with the family ranch. It was also Sam’s granddaddy’s dream from his nursing home since he had only finished eighth grade before taking over the family ranch all together. Sam’s great-granddaddy didn’t have any dreams since he’d dropped dead at 38, making it necessary for Sam’s granddaddy to drop out of school and turn a struggling ranch into a ranch with more land than Rhode Island and more cattle than their were people in the whole county. Each of these men was named Sam Houston Barber. Sam’s daddy was called ‘Trey’ because he was the third Sam Houston Barber. Sam’s granddaddy, still kicking in the nursing home but paralyzed on his right side since 1958 from a stoke, was know as ‘Deuce’, since he was Sam Houston Barber, Jr. Sam’s nickname was ‘Kind’, shortened from ‘Four of a Kind’ since he was Sam Houston IV and everyone plays poker is West Texas.
‘Kind’ had shown up at the Factory in October. He’d met Jerry at the Counseling Center since he was trying to figure out how not to go to South East Asia instead of Texas. He thought being in New England made sense because it was so close to Canada. It wasn’t that Kind was opposed to giving his life for something, it’s just he would rather give his life for his cattle and his family and a judgeship in West Texas than for whatever the war in Viet Nam was about giving your life for. Jerry liked Kind and told him about the Factory, so Kind showed up one day.
His ‘initiation ritual’ was short because Meyer needed the Meeting to deal with the increasing activity at Holy Ghost. But when Meyer asked Kind ‘what he made’, the West Texan said, in an accent as open and broad as his home county, “I make people feel good.” Everyone held their collective breath while Meyer considered that as a possible contribution to the Tribe.
“Well,” Meyer finally said, grinning as wide as Texas, “why the hell not? That’s what we’re all about here anyway. And Florence has some people for you to practice on.”
Florence was wrapped in the Union Army Cape. Her clothes were piled neatly on Meyer’s bed. Underneath the cape, she was as naked as a jaybird, whatever that means. Both Kind Barber and Jerry would have said “necked as a jaybird”.
Florence leaned off the bed to hand Kind three or four 4 by 6 cards. The cape fell away, revealing her breasts. Kind took the cards and smiled at her. “I apologize for lookin’, M’am,” he drawled, “and it was a pleasure.”
Florence laughed and hit Meyer on the arm. “He’s right,” she said, “he makes people feel good.”
Kind became a regular at Holy Ghost before the day he and Reed and Sandy were walking across Harvard Square in spitting snow. Jerry had called Kind’s doctor in Texas and discovered Kind had a faint heart murmur that made him 4-F as well as Four-of-a-Kind. Yet, Kind continued to hang around the Factory, visiting the hospital and making people feel good.
Not even Pierce was immune. Kind had given him a pair of cowboy boots because he saw Pierce wearing sneakers in the snow. Pierce polished those boots almost every night. “Damn”, he was heard to say, “that Kind is a good guy.”
Whenever Krista saw Kind, she would take his face in her hands and peer into his eyes. The bell over the sink would quiver and sometimes tinkle. “Kind,” Krista would tell him, “your name does you justice.”
Kind would blush and lower his eyes from Krista’s mystic gaze. “Thank you, M’am,” he would always say, “that’s a pretty thought, almost as pretty as you.”
Each time Kind said the word ‘pretty’, it came out ‘purdy’. Four years in New Jersey and a few months in the Commonwealth hadn’t changed that. A hundred years couldn’t.
And each time he said it, it made Krista feel good.
There was as little guile in Kind as in Sugar. So, when he and Reed and Sandy passed through one of the gates of Harvard Yard and emerged into Harvard Square, Kind tensed up. He wasn’t able to brush by the shaved-head of the Hari Krishna who wanted to sell him a flower. He bought the flower and told the young man his saffron robes were as ‘purdy’ as a Texas sunset. Kind wasn’t able to walk away from the two young women, one in a black robe and the other in a red robe, who wanted to tell him about “The Process”, a religious cult as close to Zoroastrianism as a cult could be. He stopped to listen, ask questions and give them money. He handed out dollar bills like they were free advice to the Freaks—the real ones and the ones from the suburbs, Kind couldn’t tell the difference. He also stopped to be told why he should sign petitions to the U.N. or the President or the Cambridge City Council about left-handed walruses or incursions into Cambodia or affordable housing for dangerous, mouth-breathing morons. And he gave them all money.
By the time Kind caught up with Reed and Sandy at the newsstand kiosk half-way across Mass Ave at the entrance to Harvard Square station, his eyes were wide and his pockets empty.
“Could one of you buy me an ice-cream?” he asked. “I seem to be out of money. I’ll pay you back….”
They both smiled and felt good. Buying Kind an ice-cream cone would give them pleasure.
Just then, a girl about 13, dressed in torn jeans and heavy makeup came up to Kind. She offered to do unimaginable things for him with her body for only $20. At the same time, Saul, the Harpo Marx Freak was asking Kind if he knew where he could find some really good grass and the little dog that belonged to the guy who ran the newsstand started barking at Kind in a pleading way. The dog—a Corgi—had been hit by a trolley on Mass Ave a year or so before. His back legs were paralyzed, so the little man had tied him to a skateboard. The child prostitute, Saul and the handicapped dog were too much for Kind to absorb all at once. He started moving away from them, a look of terror on his face.
“Sorry about the ice-cream,” he called to Sandy and Reed, “I need to go back to Texas now.” He said that just before darting across the road, back toward Harvard Yard. The last glimpse Sandy and Reed had of Kind was as he ran over the Hari Krishna and helped him up. He tried to brush the snow off the young man’s robes before dashing off toward the Igloo Factory.
“Isn’t Kind neat?” Sandy said as they watched him disappear.
“He always makes me feel good,” Reed answered. Then they bought the hooker and the Freak some ice-cream at Brigham’s.
The last thing Sam Houston Barber IV did before flying out of Logan and back to Texas, was visit an old cowboy in the hospital. His name was ‘Buck’ something. Kind and Pierce pretended to be old friends of his from the rodeo circuit. Meyer found Pierce a cowboy hat to wear. Kind had his own.
“Jesus, you should have heard them,” Pierce said that night around the kitchen table, polishing his boots. “That old coot saw right through me, but he and Kind started talking Texan and you would have needed an translator to understand them.”
It was odd for Pierce to talk so much, so everyone at the table was as quiet as cabbages, as attentive as beagles.
Pierce looked up from his boots and smiled. “Kind convinced that old man that he knew his daddy and his nephew. Shit, for all I know, he really did. And he was telling him about delivering a calf in a tornado in 1955 or some such shit, when the old man took his hand and died.”
Everyone was quiet. Pierce spit on the toe of his boot and rubbed like a crazy man.
“What did Kind do when Buck died?” Sugar finally asked.
“What would you expect him to do?” Pierce asked, polishing so hard that no one could see how damp his eyes were. “He closed that old fucker’s eyes, crossed his arms and kissed him on the forehead.”
Pierce raised his head. Reed was shocked to see a tear slip out of Pierce’s right eye and roll down his cheek. “Jesus,” he said, momentarily unashamed of his emotion, “that Kind could make anyone feel good.”
Right after that, Pierce went to his room. Sugar followed him without apology and Meyer gave Sandy and Reed two handfuls of money.
“It was the money I had for Kind’s airplane ticket,” he explained. “I took it from the puzzle box, forgetting Kind has tons of money and didn’t need it. He told me to tell the two of you to give it to people in the Square.”
They promised that they would, and they did.
It was clear Meyer was becoming obsessed by the holidays. His room was full of bags and boxes. The bags were from Jordan Marsh and Filenes’. The boxes were from various catalogs. Florence told Reed Meyer had spent over $7000 buying presents for the people at Holy Ghost. There was something there for every terminally ill patient.
“Being the Angel of Death isn’t enough, apparently,” Florence said, “now he wants to be Father Christmas.” Then, after gazing over the gifts that filled Meyer’s room, she said, “This is going to stretch the costuming.”
“Why are so many people at Holy Ghost dying?” Reed asked her.
She smiled. Florence’s smile was broad and bright and a bit unsettling from someone who knew death so intimately. Reed liked her immensely. When he lay dying, he thought, he hoped someone like Florence would be beside him.
“Death is what we specialize in,” she told him. “Oh, we’re a general hospital and treat lots of people who aren’t dying. But mostly, we’re a hospital for the terminally ill. And we take welfare folks—people who can’t pay their bills. Since some hospitals won’t, those folks sort of gather at Holy Ghost. People dying with no one to pay their bills.”
Reed considered that for a long time while Florence moved presents from one pile to another for reasons he never understood or asked about. The Holy Ghost specialty seemed ultimately sad to him. He asked Florence about that.
She shrugged. “Sadness is relative,” she said, “like everything else. Holy Ghost is like a hospice, though that’s not what our license says. That has its own joys and rewards. And Meyer—all of you—make such a difference. Everyone on the staff is happier now that there are people to visit the patients who have no one who cares.” She bit her lip for a moment. Her teeth were as white as snow and her lips were painted a pale pink. “Dying isn’t all that bad if someone is there with you.” She said that almost wistfully. “You’ve seen it yourself. I see it every day. When I come on duty, I ask the other nurses, ‘who snuck off home when I wasn’t here?’. That’s what I say. We all talk about death now as ‘going home’. I know it’s corny, but it feels right. I don’t know, it just feels right.”
Florence’s face became calm and flat. She looked at Reed and smiled, her eyes full of liquid.
Reed thought some more about death that day—about Lysander and his father and even Ms. Masselman, the first person he visited at Holy Cross. Now he had visited dozens, a bunch of dozens. Reed decided he hated death, the loss and waste of it all, and the pain it brought, the tears. He didn’t think of death as ‘going home’. To him, it was turning off the lights and being scared. That simple. That basic. That primitive.
He looked around Meyer’s room at all the gifts. They were brightly wrapped and piled up like mountains—like the Rockies, the Pyrenees, the Alps. And each day, as people dressed up and carried gifts to dying people, the piles were worn away the way mountains are worn away by eons of erosion into penoplains.
It all went well until Meyer asked Pierce to take some dried, salted cod to Imelio Imbroglio, a 95 year old Italian man. Meyer had arranged with the kitchen at Holy Ghost to cook the fish for Imelio. Meyer had given them a recipe he’d gotten from Mack, the once and future fish butcher. It was a time consuming and complicated recipe, but everyone at Holy Ghost, from the Chief Administrator to the kitchen staff would have done naked back-flips in the snow for Meyer. Since Meyer had insinuated himself at Holy Ghost, there had been almost no staff turnover. Nobody got depressed and left anymore. So a recipe for salted cod was easy to accommodate.
Pierce was okay until Meyer mentioned the fish.
“Oh, no!” he said, “Shit no! I’m not carrying fish to anyone. I don’t do fish.”
Everyone in the room was startled. Meyer was not someone to cross on anything. You only complained once that all the beer was Schlitz and all the soda was Coke. After one lecture delivered with his eye patch turned up to reveal the marble of white, Schlitz and Coke were your drinks of choice. That milky eye and Meyer’s barely controlled rage were enough to convince most anyone of most anything.
And never, never, did you cross Meyer about a visit to Holy Ghost.
Everyone held their breath. Meyer flipped up his eye patch and Florence started massaging his back and whispering in his ear.
“What the fuck does that mean—you don’t do fish?” Meyer edged toward the side of the bed, the side the Yataghan was stored under.
“When I was in ‘Nam,” Pierce said, his voice clear and unafraid, “five of us bought some fish from a little boy. We cooked it over the fire and ate it. We were so hungry we couldn’t think. Three of the guys died. Macon, a big Black dude from Baton Rouge and I vomited for three days, but we lived. That little boy sold us poison fish. A Viet Cong deal. I don’t do seafood.”
To everyone’s surprise, Meyer flipped down his eye patch and leaned back. “Is that true?” he asked Pierce.
“The God’s truth,” Pierce said. Everyone believed him.
Meyer shook his head and said, “Yodel, you have any seafood deal we aren’t aware of?”
Meyer always respected death.
But Meyer had no respect at all, not any, none, for fear.
JoAnn Adams came up out of the file card box for Sandy. It was one of those frenetic nights in December when Meyer was playing Santa Claus to the dying at Holy Ghost. Florence was beside him on the bed, keeping track of the cards, dressed in her nurses uniform since there was no time for sex in such a season. Seven residents of the Factory—Reed, Krista, Yodel, Sandy and three Wanderers on the Earth—were gathered around Meyer’s bed like seedlings around an oak tree, ducklings around their mother, planets around the sun.
“Ah,” Meyer said the way he always did when one of some file card was a perfect match. “JoAnn Adams…This one’s for you, Sandy.”
“Who do I have to be?” Sandy asked, brightening. She loved the game, the masquerade, the ‘make-believe’ of it all.
“Easy part,” Meyer told her, still looking at the card, “you have to be yourself.”
“What do you mean?” Sandy’s voice was no longer quite so bright or excited.
Meyer read from the card: “JoAnn Adams, 19. Pensacola, Florida. According to witnesses, she dropped three tabs of acid and jumped….”
Somewhere in there, Sandy started screaming. “No! No! Not that JoAnn!” she screamed. “Not Jody….Oh God, no!”
“…off the roof of a Leslie College dorm,” Meyer continued, over Sandy’s screams, “where she was a freshman majoring in music. Her insides are scrambled like a breakfast egg. Her brain is dead, according to all the machines, and the family is going to take her off life-support day after tomorrow. Best guess is that she’ll die within minutes….”
Sandy tore away from Reed and ran from the room. He had been trying to hold her, but she was strong and terribly upset and got away.
Reed ran up the stairs to their room and found Sandy on the bed in a fetal position, holding her cat. Reed rushed to her and took her in his arms. Pajamas, the cat, bit him on the hand and ran from the room, meowing loudly. Sandy simply sobbed and gasped.
“What is it, Sandy?” Reed asked. “What is it?”
Between sobs and shutters, she told him that JoAnn—Jody—Adams had been her friend since grade-school, since marbles contests, since forever and before then. And when she ran away from Florida, the last thing Sandy told Jody was that she and Carlton were hitting the road and doing drugs and that it was a great trip.
“Don’t you see, Meyer,” Sandy said, calmed down a bit when Meyer came to find her, “she must have started drugs because I told her it was good. And now she’s dying. I can’t go to see her. I can’t face her. I’m scared….I’m so scared.”
Meyer looked at her like a one-eyed walrus trying to imitate the Sphinx. His voice was harsh and condemning when he said, “do you think I really care about your fear? Do you imagine for a moment that your pitiful fear is of any concern to me? How afraid was JoAnn when she leaped from so far above the pavement? Was she afraid or was she just trying to fly—the way the LSD told her she could? Maybe she was just flying like a bird, a butterfly, a flying fish. Now she’s all scrambled inside and you, my dear Sandy, are going to go and visit her and say goodbye. You are going to look your fear in the face and spit in its eye.”
Sandy and Jody had been cheerleaders together. They had slept over at each other’s houses dozens of times, talking about boys and algebra, boys and clothes they liked, music and boys. They had designed ‘slam books’ together and fell in love with Paul McCartney together. They had even been chosen, the two of them, to go to the UN in New York as guests of the Pensacola Odd Fellows.
“We were on a city bus with these kids from Mississippi and Georgia,” Sandy told Reed in the middle of that sleepless night. “Those kids were acting like fools with the people on the bus, asking them where to get grits and sausage gravy for breakfast, if they knew the words to ‘Dixie’, things like that, using their accents like weapons against the dumb Yankees. Jody and I got off the bus without the chaperones noticing when it stopped in the middle of Manhattan. We were on Third Avenue somewhere, 16 and lost as hell.”
Reed was holding Sandy like something fragile and precious, a bird’s nest or a snowflake. He brushed her hair from her face and his hand came away wet with tears.
“Somehow Jody and I got across that huge city to the UN on foot. We got yelled at by the Odd Fellows and didn’t get in the group picture, but there were so many people in the picture I convinced my mother I was one of them.” Sandy shuttered and shook. “And you know what, Reed?”
“No,” he said softly, “I don’t know what.”
“Kindness got us across Manhattan, good people and kindness.”
Reed went with Sandy to visit Jody/JoAnn at Holy Ghost. She was a beautiful girl, perhaps the most beautiful girl Reed had ever seen. She had high cheek bones and pencil thin eyebrows and long blonde hair. Even immobile in the hospital bed, with tubes running out of her nose and throat, Jody was beautiful.
While Sandy was talking to Jody’s un-listening ears, talking about Junior High School and the nights they’d slept over, Reed was startled and embarrassed because he found this good as dead woman attractive. Then he hated himself for wondering how she had fallen five floors and not damaged her face.
Finally, Sandy stopped talking and just held Jody’s hand and touch her face and sat beside her. Reed hung the little wind chime Meyer had sent as a Christmas gift to the bar that held Jody’s broken legs elevated. He found an old Glamour magazine in the waiting room and waved it toward the wind chime until the seashells and aluminum tubes moved and kissed and dainty, subtle tones emerged.
“She hears it!” Sandy cried from the bedside. “She squeezed my hand. Keep waving, Reed!”
Reed waved the magazine and kept the wind-chime playing for almost half-an-hour, until Mr. and Mrs. Adams came into the room. They were tall, elegant people, too tan to be from the Northeast though their grief made them look more dead than their daughter. Sandy leaped from her chair and started talking madly, apologizing, weeping, nearly dissimilating before everyone’s eyes. Her voice got more and more shrill and her face more and more agonized until Mr. Adams reached for her and held her near. Mrs. Adams joined him and they held Sandy everywhere they could touch her and murmured soft words and sounds to her until she was finally calm.
Reed stood in the corner of the room while the three of them talked—or while Mr. and Mrs. Adams talked to Sandy. From what he heard, they told her Jody hadn’t started taking drugs because of Sandy, Jody hadn’t started taking drugs at all. She had mourned for Sandy and vowed to find her someday. “What a gift to her,” Reed heard Mrs. Adams say, “that she found you now.”
“They weren’t angry with me at all,” Sandy told Reed later, just before she fell asleep. “They told me they had prayed for me. They even wondered now that when Jody decided to come to Boston to college if it was because she thought I might be here somewhere.” Sandy had used all the tears she had in Jody’s room and was leaning against Reed on the edge of their bed. “They were so kind to me, Reed, so good and kind. How can people in that much pain find such kindness within them?”
Reed had no answer for that question. Sandy lied down on their bed and fell asleep. Meyer and Florence came in to kiss her head as she slept and to pull the blanket over her sleeping form.
“That poor child JoAnn,” Florence said, back in Meyer’s room. “Her roommates swore she never did drugs. Just wanted an aspirin for her slight headache and found a bottle of Bayer’s children’s aspirin in another students room. She took three, never knowing they were LSD. And then….”
“Then she flew,” Meyer finished.
Reed told them about how wonderful Mr. and Mrs. Adams were. Mr. Adams shook his hand and Mrs. Adams kissed his cheek before he and Sandy left. “They told me to take care of Sandy,” he said.
“And you should,” both Meyer and Florence said. They laughed and both said ‘bread and butter’ at the same time.
“Kindness and good people can get us through most anything,” Meyer said.
Reed spent the night beside Sandy, not once even dozing off. Just after 10, Florence called to let everyone know the Adams’ had turned off the machines and Jody died in their arms.
Sandy was cried out until she tried to call her mother in Pensacola to tell her about Jody and ask her to go to the funeral. The phone was disconnected.
The last gift of Meyer’s cache was a bottle of aromatic oil for a young African man. Jerry delivered it too late though he sat by the dead man’s bed for a while and sprinkled the oil around the room. The next night he talked with Florence.
“What was wrong with Munumba?” he asked her.
“It’s ‘Mutumba’,” she told him, “names matter to the dead.
“Sorry,” said Jerry, “but why did Mutumba die? He was in his 20’s but he looked like a football with half the air let out. He was like an old man. What killed him?”
“Nobody at the hospital can figure it out,” Florence said, sadly, “it’s a mystery. His body just quit fighting. He died from the common cold.”
Jerry was shaking his head until she spoke again. “He’s not the first—not even the first at Holy Ghost. Word is that there’s lots of research going on about why a healthy person’s immune system would simply shut down. No name for it yet, that I know of. But we’ve had four—two recent immigrants from Africa and two young men from Jamaica….And here’s the killer, we think they all were either bi-sexual or gay.”
Jerry considered all that for a long time. “Someone should do something,” he said.
“Obviously,” she answered, “maybe you can….”
Florence was wrapped in the Union Army Cape. Things had calmed down enough for her to get undressed with Meyer—all the gifts were gone.
“That’s my cape, you know?” Jerry told her.
“It’s a wonderful cape,” she said, smiling. Then she said, “I think it’s Christmas Eve.”
“It is,” Jerry replied, “it’s my job to know.”
Christmas at the Igloo Factory was good for Reed. It was the second Christmas since his fathered died and the first Christmas he’d not spend in Cleveland in his whole life. Had he gone home to Cleveland to be with his mother and Caroline, they would have sat around like moth balls, smelling of death, listening to cars passing in the snow and Bing Crosby carols, watching the tree lights shimmer. Clinging like Strangers. And his mother would have tried heroically not to ask him when he was going to return to real life. She didn’t believe, not for a moment, that Reed was illiterate. She imagined he was a drug addict and knew for certain he should be in therapy instead of living in some commune in Boston. She couldn’t, for the life of her, ever keep it straight that the Igloo Factory was across the Charles from Boston in Cambridge. And she couldn’t have possibly understood that the silent, psychic manatees were healing him better than a Cleveland psychiatrist could.
The truth was, Reed knew, that if he went to Cleveland he might not have the force of will to leave after a week and come back to the Factory. If he took Sandy with him, she would give him the will he needed. But Reed’s mother would silently compare Sandy to Angela and Sandy would come out the loser. Mrs. Daley would find Sandy odd. And Reed couldn’t have endured that.
So he stayed at the Factory and called his mother on Christmas day to wish her a Merry Christmas and tell her he loved her. He talked to Caroline, who sounded lonely, and told her he loved her even though he didn’t know her well enough to love.
“How are you, Reed?” Mrs. Daley said over the hundreds of miles of cable. There were voices faintly in the background, saying Christmas greetings to each other.
“I’m fine,” Reed said.
“But how are you really?” she asked. And even though she almost whispered the question, as if someone where Reed was or someone crackling on the line might overhear her, Reed heard her loud and clear.
“Really fine,” he said. “I got lots of presents. I got the books you and Caroline sent me and a candle with three messages on it I can’t read, a red and yellow scarf, some cookies and bread and currant wine, and….”
“Oh, Reed,” she said. He knew it was coming.
“Are you still smoking Kent cigarettes?” Reed asked, trying to distract her, delay her.
“Reed….” It was very close now.
“I met a man in the Common who smoked Kent cigarettes. He was a nice enough man, about 50….”
“Did you and Caroline get the presents I sent? Oh, you already told me….Well, mother, there are some people here and….”
“Reed…,” her voice was somber and commanding.
“Yes, mother?” Reed relented, giving into a force as irresistible as gravity—a mother’s refrain.
“You are so much….” She said it like a prayer, “so much.” A litany.
“I know,” he said, “everyone says so.”
Thomas Reed Daley
Otherwise, Christmas at the Factory was good for Reed.
Everyone gave him presents.
Sugar gave him a scarf. It was red and yellow and seven feet long. It wrapped around his neck five times. Sugar gave everyone scarves.
Meyer gave him currant wine. He had never made currant wine before and was quite proud of it. Reed thought it tasted like a mixture of prune juice and Dr. Scholl’s Wart Remover. But, being from the Midwest, he was effusive in his thanks. Meyer gave everyone currant wine.
Jerry gave him cookies shaped like Christmas trees and Santa Claus and the Christ Child.
“I found the Christ Child cookie cutter at Jordan Marsh,” Jerry told everyone. They have a whole crèche scene of cookie cutters. They have everything at Jordan Marsh.”
The Christmas trees were iced green. The Santa’s were iced red and white. The Christ Child had no icing. He was a plain sugar cookie.
“It seemed sacrilegious to put icing on Jesus,” Jerry explained.
“Especially since he’s a personal friend,” Meyer commented. Meyer was sampling everyone’s currant wine. He said it was for quality control reasons.
Jerry gave everyone cookies.
Everyone at the Factory gave everyone else what they gave them anyway. It was simply more special at Christmas.
Marvin Gardens cooked Christmas breakfast and even ate it with everyone. He cooked Canadian bacon and French toast and fried apples and oatmeal. He bought lots of orange juice and brewed lots of coffee and, by the time everyone had eaten, it was all gone.
Reed gave everyone their favorite noise. He gave Meyer the sound the phone made when Sandy dialed Cleveland for him. He gave Sugar the sound of the falling Irish Setter from that hot day when he first arrived. He gave Krista the sound of rain falling on the trees in a commune in Kentucky. That was a hard sound to make. Reed gave her a soft rain and a harder rain and a full scale rain storm. They all sounded a lot alike but Krista said she could tell the difference.
When Reed asked Teresa, one of the Wandering Ones, what sound she wanted for Christmas, she told him she’d like the sound of an airplane flying to St. Paul, Minnesota. Krista was a small Black girl, truth known, not much older that John Henry Davidson III. Teresa had run away from home because her father drank too much and her mother tended to sleep around. Teresa told Meyer she was 16, but everyone knew that was a gross exaggeration. Meyer had been trying to send her home every day of the week she’d been at the Igloo Factory. He had the cash for her ticket in a jigsaw puzzle box he kept under his bed, beside the yataghan. The picture on the box showed some rowboats tied to a dock in a large body of water, probably a lake.
“I’ve never been away this long,” Teresa said, though she had run away before. “Maybe if I hear the sound of the plane, I’ll go home. Maybe they’d stay with me at Christmas.”
Reed did the airplane sound as well as he could. He told her it was the sound of a Northeastern Yellow Bird though it could have been another airline altogether.
Meyer was on the phone, making a reservation, while Teresa gave Reed a Good-Bye-Christmas kiss. Meyer handed Jerry the puzzle box and he drove her to Logan Airport.
“Will they stay home with her?” Sugar asked Meyer after Jerry and Teresa left.
“Hell, no,” Pierce said. He was on the floor over near the silent Air-Temp in Meyer’s window. Most everyone had forgotten he was in the room. “Nothing changes….”
Meyer looked profoundly sad, like a walrus in mourning. “Probably not,” he said, taking Sugar’s hand in his own, “Pierce is most likely right. But you and I know that Teresa has now ‘chosen’ her home. It isn’t something that was foist upon her just because she was born there. She’s ‘chosen’ it, and that, if nothing else, makes a difference.”
Everyone was quiet, like at Christmas Mass.
“Here is the sound I want,” Pierce said, his voice full of anger and despair, “make the sound of young men dying in a jungle far away.”
“I can’t make that sound,” Reed said, after a long silence. “I’m truly sorry, Pierce.”
Then Meyer said, “Listen, children, to this sound I will make….” Everyone listened, even Pierce. Meyer sighed deeply, with a little sob at the end of his sigh.
“That is the sound of our pain,” he said, “of all our pain.”
No one said anything after that. One by one they went to their rooms until only Reed and Sandy were sitting with Meyer. He sighed deeply and sobbed a bit, for Pierce, for Teresa, for all of them and for himself.
Earlier, Krista had given Reed a huge candle for Christmas. She molded it in a piece of sewer pipe with seven pounds of wax and, when it was cool, carefully broke the pipe from around it. It was light brown—tan—which she knew to be Reed’s favorite color. It was the color of wet sand, paper bags, Sugar’s hair.
There was writing on the candle.
“There are three messages,” Krista told him. “Three is a magic and wonderful number for messages. One is from Meyer. One is from Sugar and one is from me. I carved them with a scalpel and painted the carving black. No one will tell you what the messages are since we have all agreed that you should wait until you can read again to receive them. They will be messages from the past—which will be exciting. But they may come to you in tragedy and pain. They will soothe you and make you glad you can read again.”
Reed thanked her reverently and carried the candle to his room. He put it in the corner near the window that showed him Boston. Before he took it there, Krista gave him a mystical Christmas kiss. The candle was two and a half feet tall.
And when Reed started reading again, that candle was the second thing he read. First he read all the lies in the Globe about Meyer and Pierce and the Igloo Factory. Then he read the candle. The candle was the only thing that made him glad he was literate again.
Here are the messages on Reed’s candle:
Sugar’s message said, god is Love. God had a lower case ‘g’ and love had an upper case ‘L’, just as Sugar wanted.
Krista’s message was longer. It said:
These are the days when the birds come back,
A very few.
A bird or two,
To take a backward look.
That message was from a poem by Emily Dickinson. Krista liked Emily Dickinson a lot.
Meyer’s message was last. All it said was:
We’re all in this thing together.
Sandy gave Reed a mobile for Christmas. She cut The New York Times Sunday Magazine into various shapes and waxed them to make them stiff. She hung the mobile over their bed on Christmas night.
Sandy blew on the mobile to show Reed how it would rock and spin and spiral. The balance was perfect.
“To most people it’s just a mobile of a newspaper magazine,” she said, “but for you, Reed, it can be a mystery, secrets, the unknown. For you it is yesterday and tomorrow, but not today. Today you can’t read it.”
“You think I’ll read again?” He really wasn’t sure.
“Of course,” Sandy laughed, “of course you will. It’s a way of ordering your life and when you life truly needs order, you’ll know how to read again. You forgot so you could drift free for a while. But someday order will be more important to you than the drifting simplicity you’ve found. You’ll need order, Reed, everyone does.”
“What’s your ‘order’? You don’t seem to live with order.”
“Look at that mobile,” she said, elbowing him in the rib, “can you look at that and say there’s no order in my life?”
He had to admit that the mobile was orderly.
She began to speak after a while, quietly and slowly, with great order. “My order used to be traveling with Carlton and finding a fix. Then it was the order of Newman’s clinic. Now it’s the Factory—and you and making mobiles. A mobile hangs one way and no other, Reed, and it is a great task to find the way it wants to hang. The art of it is finding out what the string and the paper already knows, discovering the order there.”
She was as serious as a famine. When she was serious, her eyes narrowed and her forehead creased like a plowed field. Reed kissed her furrows.
“I love you when you’re serious,” he said.
“And do you love me other ways?”
He thought for a while. “I think I love you all ways.”
“Me too,” she said shyly.
“Then we must be in love….”
“On Christmas night at that,” she said, smiling.
Reed gave her two presents. The first was the sounds from the wind chime they had hung above Jody’s bed. That made her smile with sadness.
The second made her smile with joy. It was the night sounds they shared as they lay in their bed. He did the sirens from Boston, the whisper of passing cars on Broadway, the street-washing machine passing like a gentle monster, the late walkers shuffling their feet on the sidewalk, the sound of the sheets when they moved to touch.
One January day, Meyer and Reed sat in Cambridge Common, watching it snow. Meyer had heard there was going to be a movie crew there. “They’ve been the Square all week,” he told Reed, “giving people a dollar for their signature so they could walk by and be immortalized on film.”
Meyer didn’t want to be in the movie, he just wanted to watch them make it. Life, Meyer thought in one of philosophies, is in large measure like being in a Grade B movie.
“Did I ever tell you about my Philosophy of Life according to the movies?” he asked Reed.
He had, but since nothing much was happening except snow, Reed said no.
“It’s like this—we’re all trapped in a Grade B movie. We’re underpaid, poorly blocked, the script is spotty and no one is sure who the director is.” There is a lot more to that philosophy, but Meyer caught sight of some people who looked like movie makers and didn’t feel like telling the rest.
“I don’t feel like telling the rest,” Meyer said, “I just want to watch them make this movie.” Then he mentioned, off-handedly and casually, that Ali McGraw was supposed to be in the movie. Meyer had a not-too-secret crush on Ali McGraw. That was why they were sitting in the snow in the first place.
So, it snowed. The movie making people were apparently waiting for the snow to lessen up a bit, just standing around. And it didn’t. Freaks covered with snow came by. They talked with Meyer, who they knew, and he gave them change and talked back.
While Meyer talked with the Freaks, Reed watched an old man, about 200 years old, crossing the Common. When he finally got to the statue of Lincoln, the old man leaned against it, breathing in gasps. Reed was afraid the old man might die right there beside the statue of the 16th President of the United States. The statue had red hands and names written all over its base. Some of the names were of men who had died in war, making war sacred. The rest of the names were the names of Freaks who had traveled from all over the country to Cambridge Common to find happiness. The men who died in war had their names carved into the granite of the base of Lincoln’s statue. The names of the Freaks who had come to find happiness were spray-painted in the same red that covered the hands of the 16th President.
Reed was still watching the 200 year-old man, wondering if someone would add his name to either list if he died beside a statue of Lincoln covered with snow. Reed was wondering that when one of the Freaks tried to sell him a newspaper the size of the Grit that was about ‘The Revolution’. At least that’s what the Freak told him. After the Freak told him that, he called Reed ‘brother’.
Reed told the Freak that he was illiterate or else he would surely buy one of the papers and read about ‘The Revolution’.
The Freak stared at Reed as if he had said, “The universe is hollow”, or some equally ridiculous thing.
“Will you buy a paper,” the Freak asked again, “brother?”
“Honest,” Reed said, “I can’t read.”
Meyer had been listening and started laughing so hard he fell off the bench where they were sitting. The snow started covering him where he was sprawled on the ground.
The Freak frowned at Reed and said, with venom, “Then fuck you, brother!”
Meyer stayed on the ground in front of the bench. He said he didn’t mind the snow, which seemed to be letting up a bit. Suddenly, the far end of the Common was a flurry of activity. A large group of people carrying cases and boxes and complicated equipment began to work rapidly, stringing cables and such. Half-a-dozen policemen started roping off part of the Common with bright yellow tape. They were sealing off a large spot where no one had walked through the snow. A woman surrounded by several people came walking down to the Common from the direction of Brattle Street. She had on sun-glasses and lots of coat and, from that distance, could have been Ali McGraw. The dozens of movie people were putting things together like life-sized tinker toys and a sudden crowd of people surrounded the yellow tape.
Back on Reed’s end of the Common, the old man had made his way from Lincoln’s statue to the bench were Reed was sitting. He almost stumbled over Meyer, half-covered in snow. Some kids—10 or 11 years old as best Reed could tell through their jackets—were throwing snowballs at the old man. He cursed them in a language that sounded like a truck running over tin cans. Two other kids, a little older, were leaning against a tree, kissing and holding each other very close. They seemed to be growing out of the tree and out of each other, vines and branches, holding and kissing. They had moved so little that a lot of snow covered them. It looked natural.
A lady with cat-eyed sunglasses and wearing a fur coat was letting her Pekingese relieve himself on another tree. She acted like the dog was doing something else, buying a pretzel or reading a newspaper. Not too far from her, a large Black man was helping two small Black children make a snowman. The Black man wore one of the hats that Reed associated with the Black Panthers—a knitted beret in red and green and black. The children were pulling at the man’s arms, laughing, until he put his hat on the snowman’s head. Reed had never seen a white man—snow or otherwise—wearing one of those hats. The man and the children laughed at the sight.
Not far from the Black Power snowman, a Freak was sitting inside a big wire trashcan with lots of Clark Bar wrappers and Coke cans and God knew what else. The Freak was smoking a huge marijuana cigarette and singing a song he must have been making up as he went along. “Trash, trassssh, trash, traaash,” was all the song said.
In the middle of all this, an idiot boy with his face all pushed in, began to dance.
The idiot boy was a fixture at the Common. He must have been thirty and still would mess his pants and smell to high heaven from time to time. Not even Meyer knew where he came from or where he went at night. Though he couldn’t talk much at all, he would stop people in the Common and talk a blue streak to them, as if he knew the secret of the universe or something new about the French Revolution.
He started dancing and laughing. He danced back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum. And besides the Freak’s trash song, there was no music. Besides the Freak’s song, there was nothing for the idiot boy to dance back and forth to. There was only people making a movie and people making love and old men wheezing and people smoking dope and people throwing snowballs and making snow men for Huey Newton and Pekingese dogs, their coats heavy and sagging like stalactites from the snow, relieving themselves. Only that.
Yet the idiot boy danced.
Back and forth.
“Here is a test,” Meyer said. He was sitting up in the snow, leaning against Reed’s bench. “There are only two questions on the test. The first question has one answer and one only. The second question follows the first and has no answer—unless it’s a trick answer, which doesn’t count. The second question has no answer at all, only utter silence.”
Reed nodded, shaking snow off his head. He knew better than to interrupt Meyer at such a moment.
“Here is the first question,” he said, his voice as even and soft as the taped-off patch of snow, “What are we doing here?”
He looked up at Reed, his face sad and serious. “Do you know the answer, Reed?”
Reed thought it most likely had something to do with ‘being in this thing together’. But he didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “No.”
“We’re all here being in this thing together,” Meyer said. “In fact, we’re probably here to be in this thing together.” He was silent for a while, as if unable to decide which was the ‘one’ answer to the first question on his test.
“And the second question, Reed, the one with only silence on the other side of its asking, do you know what that question is?”
“No”, Reed said. This time he meant it.
“Here is the question,” Meyer said, as if he were reading it from a large, antique book with rich leather binding: “Does it matter?”
The snow began to fall hard again. The movie makers stopped making their movie. The Freak stopped singing his trash song. The idiot boy stopped laughing and shuffled away. Even the hiss of passing cars on Mass Ave stopped for a red light. For a moment, there was no sound. There was only a vibration from the farthest regions of the Universe.
One day, in the dead of winter, Meyer decided to go to Springfield and visit the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was in Springfield, west on the Mass Pike, that James Naismith invented basketball. Basketball, it seemed to Reed, shouldn’t have had to be invented. Basketball should have been there all along, like protoplasm. But James Naismith had invented it all the same and Meyer wanted to see the place, the very place.
“The very place, Reed,” he said, “where it all started. Where he hung those peach baskets in the YMCA and started us all down the long double dribble path to today. There was Wilt the Stilt and Lew Alcindor and Adolph Shayes and Clyde Lovellette and Walt Bellamy. Willis Reed. There was Cousy and Sharman and John Havlicek. My God, where would John Havlicek be without James Naismith? Where, Reed?”
Reed wasn’t sure.
“Selling Chevrolet pickups in Wheeling, West Virginia, listening to country music….The very place, Reed!”
“I’m really tired,” Reed told him. “All this snow exhausts me. Why don’t you get someone else to go with you?”
“Someone else!” Meyer exclaimed, “but, Reed, you’re the athlete of the Factory. You’re the basketball player. You told me you scored 37 points against Greentree Military Academy.”
“Right, Greenbrier. 37 points, Reed! Where would you be with James Naismith? How would you have spent that glorious night if he hadn’t invented basketball? Why would those chubby-calved cheerleaders have craved your scrawny body otherwise? Reed, you’ve got to go.”
Reed thought about it. The memory of those cheerleaders in Massanuttin was changing his mind. He didn’t feel nearly so tired any more.
“Besides,” Meyer said, “everyone else said ‘no’. I’m not too confident driving that far with someone who can’t read road signs.”
Reed drove the VW bug. Vincent Price slept in the back seat. Meyer guided him through Cambridge and told him basketball stories about the great scorers—Chamberlain, Selby, ‘Pistol Pete’ Maravich, Bevo Francis.
“Bevo Francis from little Granada College—turn right here…well, circle back….Bevo was the greatest scorer of them all. The greatest. Left at the next light. He played a slower game with a slower ball. Maravich is a nothing compared to Bevo. He’s a trickster—oh, shit, this the wrong street…a show-boat, a hot-dog….”
Meyer even told Reed about the “Ohio State Play” from the early 60’s.
“Get this,” he said, as excited as a basketball loving, one-eyed, underweight walrus could get, “Larry Siegfreid would throw the ball into Havlicek and just before half-court, Havlicek would give the ball back to Siegfreid and call the play from half-court—HALF-COURT, Reed—by waving his right arm over his head. Then Jerry Lucas would start to move, slowly at first, to the head of the key and then drift down the lane toward the basket. Siegfreid would fake back to Havlicek and then cut right, toward the sidelines. Then he would toss the ball, ever so calmly, toward the basket from 30 feet out. Lucas would explode toward the backboard and be there, already in the air, when the ball was coming down, to catch it and in one motion….” Meyer demonstrated Lucas’ move as best he could in the front seat of a tiny German car—swooping, rising swanlike….”And in a motion as graceful and magical as a swan in brown water, Lucas would lay the ball in the basket the way we’ll be dropping quarters in the baskets on the Mass Pike. Amazing! Amazing!”
Meyer was shaking his head in wonder and admiration, and, in spite of his bad directions and Reed’s illiteracy, they found themselves at a long, gently curving entrance to the Mass Pike. Dozens of people were there, standing in the snow, hitching. Some of them had signs that said “New Haven” or “New York” or “Philly” or “Florida”. At least that’s what Meyer told Reed, just as he told him to stop at ever hitch-hiker so he could explain to them about the big sleeping dog in the backseat and wish them well.
Cars behind them were honking and bleating during Meyer’s explanations of why they had no room. “Big damn dog,” he’d say, “no room. Sorry, man.”
All the hitchers looked in at Vincent Price, smiled, nodded their heads and gave Reed and Meyer a Peace V. Two fingers held up. It was easy, natural.
One girl, barely as big as her sign, had a baby on her back, papoose style. Her sign said, “Sandusky, Ohio.”
“Do you know Krista Saulstein?” Meyer asked her. “She’s Jewish and sees the future. We’ve got a big damn dog in the back seat….”
The girl said she didn’t know Krista, smiled about Vincent Price and flashed a Peace V.
“Damn,” Meyer said on the slow way to the next hitcher, “we should have brought the bus. We’d have room then.”
“But no one is going to Springfield,” Reed offered, though it didn’t matter. Meyer glared at him with is good eye. He was probably glaring as well with his bad eye, but an eye patch covered it and Reed couldn’t tell. “That’s not the fucking point,” is all Meyer said.
The next to last hitcher they stopped to talk to was a solider, in his uniform, with a sign that said, “Viet Nam”. He had two days to get to Georgia to join his regiment and ship off. The soldier had a red face from a bad complexion and the cold. He told them he had never been outside New England except for basic training in Texas and he was leaving a pregnant girlfriend back in Dorchester. He said he was scared because he wanted to be a daddy and didn’t want to die in some rice paddy. Meyer gave him $600 he had in his pocket and told him to fly to Georgia and send the rest of the money to his girlfriend and stay away from dying. When they pulled off, the soldier flashed them a Peace V. It took two fingers. The other three fingers were gripping the money.
At the end of the long line of hitchers, slumped against his backpack, asleep or stoned, was a Freak whose sign said, “Nowhere”.
Meyer grew solemn and said, “There we are, Reed, all of us. We’re the Wandering Ones and there’s nowhere to go.”
Meyer was silent until they were well past Newton.
“I’ll bet his mother has an apple pie face, smells like Clorox and misses him a lot,” he finally said.
Reed couldn’t be sure whether he meant the Freak who was going ‘Nowhere’ or the soldier. It didn’t much matter which.
Reed was getting well every day. The Factory and Sandy’s love were like large sea creatures moving in his heart. His sign, if he could have written one, would have said, “Somewhere Special”.
Reed was well enough to know that Meyer’s fight was gone. The trip to Springfield was off. He took an exit near Boston College and somehow found Commonwealth Avenue. They drove through the chill of the impotent afternoon toward the snows of Cambridge in silence.
Boy Daniels only lived at the Factory for five days. No one, not even Sugar, thought Boy would make it. And he didn’t.
The Igloo Factory has two kinds of residents—the ones who stayed and stayed and the ones who dropped by, like a visit to a maiden aunt they hardly knew. Boy Daniels was one of those and might not have been remembered except for his gentle, sweet way and the call of the wild.
Newman came down from Rockport the first night Boy was at the Factory. Newman came because Meyer called, but Boy Daniels wouldn’t listen to Newman. And if he wouldn’t listen to Newman there wasn’t anyone else who say much to make a difference. Newman offered ‘hope’ and Boy wasn’t buying.
Boy said “no” to Newman’s offers with great calm and no bitterness at all. Newman himself observed that he almost believed Boy Daniels knew exactly what he was saying. But, of course, he didn’t, it was the heroin talking, all full of itself and confident without reason.
“I’ll be just fine, Dr. Newman,” Boy told him. “I’m just keepin’ level, you know what I mean? Like the top of a table is level. That’s where I am. I’m not fallin’ off the edge. But I really appreciate your concern for me….”
Reed was there when Newman asked him, for the last time, “Give me two weeks, Mr. Daniels,” he said, “come up to Rockport with me, you and your dog, and if after just two weeks you want to leave I’ll drive you back myself.”
Boy Daniels looked at Newman the way you look at someone you truly love, and he said “No”, calmly, softly, lovingly, “but I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you care….”
Sugar was there. She was crying. She hated to see people die. “Won’t you just go with Newman for a while,” she begged, “I’ll ride up with you. I’ll take care of your dog. Just give the doctor a chance. Oh, Boy, won’t you just give him a chance?”
And he wouldn’t, though almost anyone in the universe would have given in to Sugar, especially since she asked him so gently, like a brown bird fluttering.
But Boy Daniels said “No” to Sugar, even Sugar, without bitterness. “You’re so sweet, Miss Sugar,” he said, his brown eyes glazed, “but Boy Daniels is alright. You’ll see.” It wasn’t Boy talking, it was the poison.
This is about Boy Daniels and his dog—their too short stay at the Igloo Factory. Those two were among the greatest Wanderers on the Earth that Meyer ever found and the Factory ever welcomed. And if there was a title for this, it would be “The Call of the Wild: He Mourned.”
The ‘call of the wild’ began the day they took Boy Daniels away from the sidewalk in front of the Igloo Factory on Broadway in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The ambulance came and the ambulance people knew he was dead on the spot. Boy and his dog had arrived on a Monday, and this was Friday morning, just after he had injected more poison into his body than even his great heart could bear. He shot up on the steps, which was against the rules, but by then, Boy Daniels and rules, even Meyer’s rules, even the Factory rules, were not in the same space/time continuum. He shot up, walked about seven steps and his heart exploded. He dropped like a rock. The ambulance people remarked about how young and fit Boy Daniels seemed before they put him on a gurney and drove him to Holy Ghost, the nearest hospital, so a doctor would pronounce him dead and sign some papers. It didn’t take a doctor to know, but it was the law. It was also the law that his body would be autopsied for the records of the Commonwealth before Meyer could claim his body and fly it home to Mississippi.
Boy Daniels had come from his Grandma’s home in the Mississippi Delta and, at 17, had ridden his thumb and his boot bottoms all the way to New England, to Cambridge Common, to the Igloo Factory, to the Medical Examiner’s lab. To find happiness, no doubt.
Instead, he found a death as white, cold and pure as the heroin he shot into his veins. That death was as white and cold and pure as the snow that never falls on the Mississippi Delta.
Boy’s dog—that nameless black German Shepherd that traveled every mile with him—started howling when they put Boy in the ambulance and wouldn’t let him come. Five days later, when Meyer claimed Boy’s body and sent Jerry to Mississippi to return Boy’s dust to the rich black earth that bears sweet fruits, the dog was still howling. When Jerry came back, three days later, he was shaken and stayed in his room, reading the Gospel of John over and over and praying for Boy Daniels’ soul, just as Boy’s Grandma had asked him to do. Jerry tried, he really tried. By then, the dog’s voice had given out, but he still held his snout to the heavens and pretended to howl.
There were arguments for months about how long the dog stood there, near the sidewalk in front of the Factory and mourned the passing from this earth of Boy Daniels. It was surely more than a week and probably not the two weeks that all the Freaks who came each day to watch him claimed it was. The first few days, the howl of the dog (who the Freaks named “The Call of the Wild”) could be heard in Harvard Square. Police came to apprehend the dog or else shoot him, but Meyer got on the phone to Mack Quinn and put an end to that. The truth be known, some of the Cambridge Police would come by on their breaks to drink coffee, eat donuts and watch the dog in solemn silence. The Freaks from the Common would sit with the police in a strange Shiva, smoking dope and drinking coffee together.
Nothing could stop it. The people at the Factory and the Freaks put food and water near the dog, but he ignored it. Sometimes people in the neighborhood or passers-by would throw snow balls and rocks at him, but it didn’t work.
“It’s maddening, man,” one of the Freaks told Reed on the third frigid afternoon. “You can’t stand that ‘ooooollll’ for too long. But it draws you, man, you know what I mean?”
Reed didn’t know exactly what the Freak meant since he had to live with it the five or six days until the dog’s voice died. Others might ‘leave’ and be ‘drawn’ back. But Reed had to live with it. He had no where to go.
A week into the ritual, after Call of the Wild’s voice died, the whole thing became legend with the Freaks. They gathered in dozens and twenties to watch the dog. They emptied the Factory’s Schlitz cooler three time and three of them had to go with Florence to the Holy Ghost ER to be checked for frost bite. After 10 days, the dog grew gaunt by doing nothing except standing in a stiff, unnatural position and moaning to the moon, the sun, the clouds, the snow. There was something in the dog’s eyes after a while—they were fish eyes—fixed staring, immobile, unable to follow form and movement that kept bringing people back to watch him. Something in those eyes would have stopped the police from shooting him, even with out Mack Quinn’s interventions. Something in those eyes kept everyone from beating him to be death to end his mourning.
Saul, the little Freak who looked like Harpo Marx with his top hat and swallow tail coat and hockey socks, and Zack, the Freak who sold pretzels from a wagon, never tired of telling the story, even to Reed, who knew it first-hand.
“Boy went to sleep right there, right where that dog is standing. He went to fucking sleep and never woke up—big fucking smile on his face, like it was a great high. They came and took him away and that dog hasn’t eaten or slept or pissed since. He just howls…’Oooooolllll’….”
The combined moan of Saul and Zack didn’t nearly match “The Call of the Wild”. Like a fierce wind through the trees, like a coming storm, like the faraway sound across the ocean that you think is just ringing I your ears, like the sound of blood coursing wildly through your body, like the distant call of a freight train headed somewhere you’ve never been and never will go. Like that: “Ooooooollllll….”
He finally died there, in the yard of the Igloo Factory. His throat had been dead for days before the rest of him caught up. To the end, he kept his snout raised, his eyes fixed and his mouth open as if the “ooooolllll” were still coming out. The last forty-eight hours, none of them—not the Freaks, not even Meyer—could stand the sight of him. The last two days, he mourned alone.
Meyer and Jerry and Reed, two Freaks and Tony DeLuca, an 80 year old neighbor of the Igloo Factory who constantly kept watch on the house from behind his Venetian blinds, dug the dog’s grave. They dug it in spite of the deeply frozen earth, dug out rocks that hadn’t seen the light of day since the American Revolution. It was if the tireless obsession of the great dog had been transferred to his gravediggers. They wrapped the animal’s cooling body in a sheet Meyer brought out from the Factory and covered him gently with chill dirt.
Tony said, pushing a handful of dirt into the grave, “I’ve never trusted you people.”
Meyer laughed. “Why should you?”
“But this damn dog—letting him grieve like that, not letting the police take him away…,” Tony shook his head.
“What else could we have done?” Meyer asked. “Grief needs space and time….”
Tony looked at him for a long time, like he was trying to remember his face completely. “What is this place about?” he finally asked.
“Space and time,” Meyer responded, “and not a little grief….”
Tony hugged all of them, even the Freaks, before stumbling back to his house.
“His wife, Maria, died about a year ago,” Meyer said, to whoever was listening, which was everybody. “She brought Italian pastries and a bottle of Tony’s plum wine when I moved in. I convinced her to give me all his fruit wine recipes. That’s how I learned to do it.”
“You make wine, man?” one of the Freaks said.
Meyer ignored him. “When she knew she was dying she asked me to look out for Tony,” Meyer continued. “I haven’t done much in that regard….But I have given him space and time….”
One of the Freaks, no one ever knew who, scratched an epitaph on the bottom of a Table-Top Pie tin with his pocket knife. It said:
The call of the wild:
Meyer pressed the pie tin on top of the dog’s grave. Then he went into the Factory, came back with a bottle of his wine, and headed toward Tony’s house. Within a week or so, Tony was visiting dying Italians at Holy Ghost.
For about two weeks, Freaks and members of the Factory, bought fresh flowers from the Hari Krishna’s to put on the Call of the Wild’s grave. By spring, the whole thing was mostly forgotten.
“Someday, Reed,” Meyer said, late in the night, only a few days after the burial of the Call of the Wild, during the time when their were still fresh flowers each morning on the grave, “someday, you’ll have to record all this. Write it down.”
“Meyer,” Reed said, “I can’t write.”
“Oh, I know all about your temporary illiteracy,” Meyer told him, passing him some plum wine. “But that’s a passing thing. You may have to write it on grocery bags and cancelled checks, but you’ll be able to do it—you’ll record all this.”
“This…,” Meyer said, his arms wide, his face mellow, terrier-like. “All this….”
“You mean the Factory?”
“Right. And all the people and what happens here—the mood of it all. Mostly the mood. And the shadows and echoes and silences. The interludes. The forgotten conversations and insignificant events. The little things. Moments captured like you see a hummingbird hovering above a red flower out of the corner of your eye. Like that. The whole thing.”
Meyer got out of bed and crossed the room to his closet. He wrapped himself in the Union Army cape. “It’s very cold,” he said.
“Yes,” Reed agreed, because it was true, “it is cold.”
Meyer sat beside him on the floor, draping the cape around both their shoulders, taking the wine and draining it in one long drink. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand like a thousand cowboys in a thousand cowboy movies. He threw the bottle across the room and turned toward Reed, lifting his eye patch. Reed was staring into one sky-blue eye and one eye as white as snow—white on white on white.
“And you must make it True,” Meyer said.
“This book I’m going to write?”
“Precisely. It must be as true as the air under your fingernails and the gaps between your teeth. That True. Really True.”
“Sure,” Reed said, fairly drunk, “True.”
“You need to understand how True I mean,” Meyer said. “I’m not talking about some Midwestern, white man, rich boy, bullshit true. I want True like True. Hard as diamonds, soft as clouds, green as grass, wild as the ocean True. Do you understand?”
Reed said he did, though he didn’t really, not then.
“And one other thing, big Reed, you must end it with a parade.”
“A parade. You know, like a Fellini movie, like a Mexican holiday, like the Rose Bowl….No matter what happens, and terrible things might happen, I just have this feeling, it must end with a parade. A celebration. A ritual. And it must be like a parade that is passing….Always passing….”
The two of them grew sad, melancholy, almost maudlin, talking like that. They talked more and more as winter grew worse and worse. It seemed it would snow forever. White on white on white, out to the darkling river, out to the frigid sea. Forever.
It made them moody.
Every spring, I get a terrible cold. It is like clockwork. Baseball season begins, and I get a cold. It starts in my head. I sneeze for a day or so and blow my nose constantly. I have, Sandy tells me, an obsessive interest in bodily fluids. I am fascinated and amazed by the amount of fluid I blow out of my nose each spring. I’m not sure how the human body works—it is a marvelous contraption—and the most remarkable thing about it is how much mucus it can create, ex nihlio. Like God created the Universe, the body creates mucus in abundance. I have often wondered how much mucus each of us creates in a life time—how many quarts or gallons or liters we blow out our nose and cough up from our lungs. I made the mistake of wondering this out loud to Sandy once. She’s never let me forget it. She calls it my obsession—I consider it honest and natural curiosity.
After a day or two in my head, the mucus takes a journey down my throat, removing my sense of taste to the extent that Thai food tastes like oatmeal, before settling in my lungs and bronchial tubes. There it creates vast amounts of mucus in wondrous colors—colors like the rocks you find on New England beaches, coughed up by the Atlantic. After a day of that, I finally give up and go home to bed.
“Whoo-eee,” Peaches said, walking by the circulation desk as I was adding two teaspoons of mucus to my life-time quota and spitting it into a napkin. She fanned in front of her face, like an old woman shooing away gnats in September. “Take that cold home before you kill me with it. It’s disgusting, Reed.”
So I called Marta Lee Bennett, the alcoholic ex-school teacher who substituted at the library when she was sober enough. It was 10 a.m. and she answered on the second ring instead of the 16th, which was her record.
“Marta Lee,” can you come and fill in for me for a couple of days, I’m sick,” I said into the phone. I knew peaches would doubtless spray the phone with Lysol after I left. I was so congested it took me a while to say the words clearly enough to understand. But I could tell from her saying “What did you say, Reed?” over and over that the Buckhannon Public Library would be in sober hands.
I gathered my tissues and Sudafed and Hall’s Mentholyptus drops and walked home. I was looking forward to two days in bed with no library and no writing to worry about. The faint, early April sun felt good on my face. But when I came into the kitchen, Sandy was sitting at the table crying. She tried to hide it as she often tries to hide the extremes of her feelings, bu;t I had caught her in the act.
“What’s wrong, Sandy?”
“What?” she said, sniffling.
I repeated my question. It came out something like “Whutz wong, Tandy?”
“Are we going to Long Beach this year,” she said, finally understanding me, “last week of August, first two weeks of September, like always?”
“You’re crying over vacation uncertainty?” I said, ironically. However, since my cold kept her from understanding, it was wasted irony. She started crying again. I noticed a stack of lunch bags under the brochures from the Realtor from Oak Island, North Carolina, where we always go for vacation.
“Wat ur doz?” I asked, pointing to the table.
“You mean the brochures?” she asked, all innocent through tears.
“Doe, da utters.”
“I was looking through your stuff and found these,” she said, touching the lunch bags.
“You look through my stuff?” I asked, more surprised than upset. (I’ll spare you all the complications my opening-of-baseball-season cold caused in this conversation—the repetitions, the “What, Reed?” questions, the mucus that talking so much broke up and brought forth.)
“I look sometimes, when I’m here and you’re not.”
“I don’t know. I’m just not sure. Curiosity mostly and a little nostalgia, wondering what you were thinking back then and what you were writing about. Stuff like that.” Her eyes were brimming.
“And what did you find?”
“Something I want you to write just the way you wrote it back then,” she said, “every word the same. It’s part of your life and what went on at the Factory I never knew. It’s you and Meyer and Jerry and Sugar—you four always were ‘the four’, you know. You four talking. And whatever else you do with all your scribbled memory, preserve this for me, just the way you wrote it.”
Sandy seldom makes such clear requests. Whenever she does, I honor them. Her requests are special and precious gifts.
She handed me the paper bags and smiled her best, weak-chin smile. A smile to die for.
“Dank jew,” she said, mocking my cold. “I’ll wake you up in a couple of days.”
I’ve always had a great capacity for sleeping through illness. When I was six or so, before I went to Massanuttin, I had measles and chicken pox at the same time. I slept for three days, only waking to drink water and go to the bathroom, and when I woke up the shades of my windows were drawn and I felt fine. Only one measles scar on the corner of my left eye remains to remind me that ever happened. So I climbed the stairs to my bed room and slept for 36 hours except for water in and water out. Then my cold was over. But before I went to bed, I read what Sandy had been crying about. I dreamed about it over and over. It was like being there again. And it was the perfect place to insert it in this story.
Here is what it said:
It was the winter that made us mellow, like apples too long on the ground, bruised and brown.
We’d sit in Meyer’s room like boxes of matches and guard each other against the world. It ordered our lives. It was ritual for us.
Outside, it would snow—white on white forever.
To pass the time until spring, Jerry tried to learn to play Sugar’s guitar. He could only learn four chords and played them badly, so Sugar would play and sing to us against the world. But nothing helped—not even that. We waxed and mellowed.
We told secrets.
Here is a secret I told. “The only buffalo I ever saw was in Buckhannon, West Virginia. I saw it first with my friend, Lysander. The buffalo seemed as big as a garage and was very hairy. He ate grass and dreamed a buffalo dream about a place where he could be a buffalo instead of a hairy garage. He tried to go to that place once, Lysander told me, but the fire department of Buckhannon, West Virginia hosed him until he went back inside the fence.
“When my friend died, I went to Buckhannon again and watched them make the ground sacred with Lysander. Lysander’s father took me to see the buffalo right after the funeral. I knew people were gathering somewhere to eat sandwiches without crusts on the bread and fruit salad, but all I could think of to say to Dr. Martin was, ‘can we go see the buffalo now?’ and all he could think of to say to me was, ‘Yes, of course’.
“It was snowing and the buffalo was behind his fence being covered with snow yet again. If he had shaken himself, the snow would have fallen off. But he was, I imagined, dreaming his buffalo dream and simply let the snow cover him. Lysander’s father and I hugged each other against the world, watching the buffalo disappear into white.
“That’s all,” I said. “That’s my secret and I don’t even know why it’s been a secret or why I’ve never told it before. But it is a secret I had to tell you.”
Everyone sat very still, like hot chocolate waiting to cool.
Then Sugar told a secret, sipping her cocoa.
“I miss Vachel,” she said. “I know that he told my father where I was and all that, and that he’s stopped looking for his world where he could be. But, you know, I miss him. Sometimes I think about the way his hair fell across his face and he brushed it back with his hand. Just that makes me miss him.”
Sugar lowered her head and played her guitar and sang a song for us, a song Vachel wrote about a world he’d stopped looking for.
We listened like wine bottles with candles burning in our necks, waxing.
Jerry’s secret was about the times he spent with Jesus on the banks of the Potomac River.
“Here’s what I wonder sometimes,” he said, quietly, like he was embarrassed by his wondering, “what if that wasn’t Jesus? What if that was just some guy on disability from the B&O who had spent a lot of time reading up on The War? What if he was a history professor from John’s Hopkins who came to the river on his day off? Or what if I just made him up, imagined him, and he wasn’t there at all? What about that?”
We sat as still as sea shells you found at the beach and brought home to put on a shelf.
“That’s my secret,” Jerry said after we had sat as still as sea shells for a long time. “It haunts me in the night.”
“Secrets will do that,” Meyer said. The he told his secret. It was not so much a secret as a story and not so much a story as a parable. But Meyer called it a secret. And we listened like light bulbs waiting to shine, waiting for moths to come and beat their dusty wings against us.
“When I was in Istanbul,” Meyer whispered, telling his secret, “looking for the ultimate hot, I was befriended by the son of a Sheik. The Sheik had a Sheikdom and seven wives and guards around him with scimitars as long as Guernsey cows.
“The Sheik had many children—dozens—but his favorites were Abdul, my friend, and young daughter named Joch-e-bed, who wanted more than anything to be a ballerina. ‘To dance the ballet’, is how my friend, Abdul, put it. But because of his accent, he said ‘ballot’ rather than ‘ballet’.
“So the Sheik, who was as rich as Texas, sent to Russia for the best ballet teacher in the world. With the Russian, Joch-e-bed studied ballet for nearly three years. She was not yet polished, but the Sheik wanted her to dance at a particular celebration, I don’t remember what. Abdul invite me to come and watch his little half-sister. ‘Joch-e-bed is very beautifulness’, Abdul told me.
“I’d been looking for hots for almost a year. I was 30 years old. I had never seen Joch-e-bed, who was eleven, until that night she danced in public for the first time. She wore a blue ballerina’s outfit and blue ballet slippers. They were the blue of Istanbul’s sky—a blue paled by the sun and bleached by the heat. A soft, shining blue.
“Joch-e-bed danced in a huge hall of the Sheik’s palace. A spotlight the Sheik had bought for the occasion followed her across the floor. These huge Turkish moths, as big as your hand, were bumping against the spotlight, making the light on Joch-e-bed even more wondrous. The room was filled with the scent of mint. She was the loveliest thing I had ever seen, so small and so grave and so dark. Beautifulness in itself. I saw only her. For me, she danced in a perfect circle of light.
“I don’t think I breathed until she finished dancing. Then her English governess, who Abdul called ‘Cat-ter-an’ and her Russian teacher, Olga, rushed to Joch-e-bed and helped her into her braces. Joch-e-bed’s spine was like a capital C, like a scimitar. The best doctors in Europe could not uncurl her. Only ballet freed her from her braces. In a perfect circle of light, she danced away pain.
“I never went back to the palace,” Meyer said, his voice was like smoke. “I never saw Abdul or Joch-e-bed again. I went to my western hotel, got very drunk and sniffed ground pepper up my nose until I thought I was blind. The next day I flew back to Boston and bought the Igloo Factory. I’ve been here ever since.”
That was Meyer’s secret of a story of a parable. He started drinking wine instead of hot chocolate when he finished telling it and ended up with an Istanbul drunk. The rest of us watched like exquisite jade statuettes. We didn’t say anything until Meyer fell asleep.
Over and over in the winter, we did things like that, as if they were a ritual.
It was the wine and the snow that made us mellow…and sad.
This is a sonnet to winter.
It is like a sonnet because it is short. But it is not like a sonnet because it doesn’t rhyme and doesn’t look any more like a sonnet than it looks like a German Shepherd eating hamburgers. Or a yellow school bus full of nuns. Or anything.
I call it a sonnet because sonnets, even happy ones, always seem somber to me. And sad in a way. And longer than they really are.
I think that is because sonnets rhyme in so many places. That makes them seem longer.
Winter in Cambridge rhymes in many places. It is as long as a muddy river or a bad dream. It is as cold as a starving dog with no hamburgers to eat. Or anything. It is as solemn as a bus full of nuns.
And it snows.
And it snows.
The snow is always white,