A PORTRAIT OF
THE ARTIST AS
A YOUNG JEW
by Aaron Seligman
It was on a bright fall afternoon in the year of my retirement from the firm of Seligmann Schwarz & Miller, Attys. that a large package was delivered to my door, which I found that evening contained papers, documents and a mass of varied photographs from the estate of the late William Miller, the father of my partner and close friend Nathan Miller. Along with various financial documents I found a sketch of what Mr Miller must have intended to write as a personal Memoir. But it was incomplete and parts of the history were merely outlined in scraps of paper on the back of receipts and opened envelopes. At first there seemed to be no order to these notes, but when I laid them out on my large desk along with the photos, I saw that there was a shape to the project he was contemplating, which appeared to be something about a notion of personal independence.
The years in my practice at the law had not completely dulled my collegiate interest in literature. I had always thought of myself as becoming a writer, but thought I should find a secure niche in the world before venturing into literature, so I gravitated toward the field of Law without much hesitation. Now having reclaimed my freedom from clients and cases, I find myself still privately aspiring to become a dilettante writer, and the package of Mr Miller's papers gave me an idea in this new direction.
After putting the papers in order, I began to inquire about the community for information about William Miller and the boyhood life he must have led in those years of the early '30's. Combining the notes which I took from my interviews, with the photos which came with the collection, I began to feel myself able to put together a coherent storyline for the early years, as were what Mr Miller seemed to have desired. Neighbors of the Miller family, my aging parents who still lived in that same community, and my own photographs of the older section of the town - - - all these provided me with the raw material from which I felt I could write a book at once biographical and also historical.
I remember reading early James Joyce in college. At the time it seemed a terrible bore, but the shape of that peculiar early Portrait came into my mind again as I contemplated the scraps and pictures which covered my desk and a good part of the carpet over to the wall. It did me good to be working again on a "case" of sorts, now reconstructing the character of a person I hardly knew, and flattering myself with the thought that at long last I was becoming a veritable writer.
Of course some of this book will come from my own imagination. I have taken the liberty of fleshing out the Episodes from Mr. Miller's notes, but that is the way an author does this sort of thing, and I do not feel that I have to apologize for my literary embroidery. Rather than trying to piece the episodes together as a novelistic "story line", I have let them stand on their own, in the belief that episodes make rather than illustrate a story. And then, what is the art of writing but an engagement with the imagination, especially liberating as a long due relief from the details and dry exactitude of a profession like the Law?
Aaron Seligmann, Atty.
January 12, 1926
---- But don't you understand, May, my mother is old and ailing and since it is her last wish before she passes on, to have a grandson named in her husband's honor, don't you think we should consider giving her that choice? Would that be totally unreasonable?
--- I don't think so and I wish you wouldn't bother me with old-fashioned family prejudices like that. My uncle Willi was a fine man and close to me for many years and now that he is gone I would like some memory of him to live on in our family. This is a personal wish, not a matter of ritual doctrine, and I have never liked the name Nathan at all . . . .
--- But, don't you think we could . . . .?
--- No, I don't think and I don't want to talk about it any more. And don't bring your mother around to try to argue and convince me, I am sick of talking with her and you know she is a nasty old woman and took all the money she got when her husband died and went to vacation in England and bought fur coats and spent it all on herself and now that she is old and pathetic she wants to tell us what to do. Why this interest in family now when she ignored you and your sisters all those years? It makes me sick to talk about this, let's drop it and not go into it again.
Sidney Miller drew a deep breath, thought it all over for a few minutes and decided to follow the advice of the bible which was for a man to cleave to his wife disregarding all others, so he set his mind firmly and answered:
--- Yes. It will be William Miller. And I think that will do very nicely.
Ten days after the birth of a ten pound boy child, the doctor said that she should think of leaving the elegant flower-spread room in the maternity ward of the best hospital in the city, and resume her life as wife and mother with her husband at home.
--- Do you think it is really time for that, Doctor, perhaps she should have a few days more rest. Cost is not important but I want her to come home as well rested as possible. If you think she should. . .
The doctor said no. So things were brought together for her departure and in the late afternoon she was clothed and wrapped and wheeled with the boy child well wrapped against the January cold clutched in her arms, to the entrance of the Great Hospital where a great chauffeured limousine was waiting. Sidney smiled sitting beside his wife and child in the rear seat. He told the driver where to go and an hour later they were over a bridge and out of the city. Then he was helping her out of the high car seat and leading her cautiously up the steps to the front door of the house he had built the year before their marriage.
Grandmother came down from her upstairs apartment to help put things away, the boy was snugged into a white crib in a meticulously white room. The door was closed with a sigh or relief. It had all worked out perfectly. Married just shy of a year, they had a spanking new child now asleep in their own house, they sat together in silence on a rose velveteen love seat to contemplate their great good fortune.
Late one night there was something uneasy about the crying from the bedroom, which seemed loud and long. As the anxious mother started toward the bedroom her husband positioned himself akimbo across the doorway and said to let him cry because it was the right of children to cry and not to interfere May with your anxious attention. She was shocked, you mean to let him cry all night, you don't think something might be wrong like choking? I have to go in, Sidney, I have to . . . . . .
--- Choking with a scream like that?
They both laughed and went back to the parlor and soon the loud crying boy went to sleep and thereafter slept through the night. She wondered how her husband had such a sense of children's ways, she asked him about it later and he said he had it from many years of observing the ways of dogs and horses.
Six months later the carriage box of a 1924 Cadillac sedan with its black detailing on a tan body, was being pushed to a start down the alley behind the house by the owner and three neighbor men. The lady in the kitchen window was waving her husband goodbye in the morning sunlight, before looking down to the wicker pram on its spindly wheels perched against the back door of the house. Sunlight through the wicker sunshade fell on a sleeping babyface with closed eyes feeling dry and warm and milky two birds were chirping in a tree nearby he heard and opening eyes looked up to see his mother smiling down from the window above closed his eyes and fell off into another morning nap with dreams of something far distant in another world or perhaps nothing but warmth of sun on his babyblanket and no need to cry out for anything now. All was round and complete with nothing outside the oval of the babycarriage wall, unless a leaf falling and a bird's call as he evencalm lay sleeping. William did not know that life was not to be like this, he had no idea at all.
It was ten months later the boy had somehow climbed out of his crib, was down on the floor and struggling to push something big across the room toward the door. He just knew this had to be pushed and it took a long time to move it the ten feet from the crib to the other side of the room, inch by inch at every push. He felt strong and intent on pushing and at last he knocked it against the door. They heard the bang and opened it and how had he got down so deftly and how had be moved that big chair, and why was he pushing it across the room? They talked as if he didn't hear them but he heard just fine and said his first sentence with exactly the meaning he meant: "Something to eat. . . ."
They were as surprised as if a dog had asked for his dinner, they had no idea at all what was accruing in the growing brain of the little boychild. Settling him in his highchair they watched him fidget with his buttered zwieback as he prepared to taste a bit of it, still unsure if they had heard it right. May went upstairs to tell her mother about the apparition, but she merely nodded her head and said in her age-wise and experienced manner: Well, so what?
Life was comfortable in that slate roof gabled English style row house which Sidney Miller had built in the fervor of the twenties. Grandmother was comfortable in her upstairs apartment with the old furniture they had brought from the city when her husband Samuel (who had broken and regained his hip and was still going daily about his round of friends and associates downtown, well dressed and now walking archly with a cane) died in his ninety third year. The boy was now almost four and would often go upstairs to see his grandmother's grand mahogany Victrola machine and play her old records of opera selections, or the rousing Wacht am Rhein in a between-the-wars innocence, or Cohen-on-the-Telephone with his dry Jewish accent, trying to hire a carpénter to fix the roof, and finally giving up with this newfangled telephone: What the hell, I will have to it myself.
Evenings she would play dominoes with him always managing to lose the game in his favor, while he felt that it was his skill which knocked the dominoes toppling all over each other, this being the aim of the game. Then mother would call to come down for dinner and wash hands and eat and brush teeth and get ready for bed when he could dive down under the blankets and make a little space there all his own where he could conjure up anything like lizards and monsters under the bed, but if he kept his feet up above and hid under the covers, he would be safe enough and could continue alone with his imagining games.
Behind the house was a steep driveway to bring in the car under the house, across the back alley was a ramshackle garage with a few dusty windows through which you could just see spiderwebs and old furniture and some car parts. But outside on the north facing wall was a small bench under a vine covered latticework arbor with lilacs on both sides, where one day a little girl in her flower patterned dress was sitting alone. He came and sat beside her, they were watching sparrows hopping back and forth in the gravel picking up grains, he picked a flower from the side and after considering it carefully he handed it to her and she smiled. They often came back there in months as the springtime progressed, until her family moved away and he found it wasn't nice to sit there alone. But the image of that arbor and the close feeling of being there with someone quiet and thoughtful stayed with him and when in later years he saw an arbor with flowers and lilacs in spring, he remembered that nice feeling as a special memory in a more complicated adult world.
He often went down to the cellar which was dark and dusty from the coal fired boiler, which was sitting like a mummy in a corner wrapped in swaths of plaster on chickenwire to guard the bright fire of luminous coals glaring through the dampers on the black iron door. He did not dare to open and look at the monster eye inside, he thought about it many times from a safe distance. Tied to the furnace was a network of thin wire chains which opened and closed the dampers on a schedule, which he could watch in the late afternoon as the chains tried to revive the dying fire in vain. His father shook the ashes down later and shoveled in pea and nut which was not peas and nuts at all, but why ask and seem stupid. There are reasons for things.
He had an idea that there was something own there behind the stove, not a thing which had fallen down behind nor something the workmen had left behind, but just a something, which he decided to crawl in to see. He entered the narrow space between the coal bin and the plastered wrappings, inching on knees past the wires sticking out to catch his pants, slowly moving past the giant fire guarding monster to the corner at the wall where he could rest from his slow progress for a moment. There were some bricks piled behind the stove which had to be picked up with one hand and passed around to place behind him so he could go on, but when the whole pile was neatly stacked in his rear he could just see the far corner behind the stove to the left. The coal shovel was stored in there so he had to stand it upright to worm past it fraction by inch, pulling his stomach in so he could get by the narrow gorge. There were two very hot pipes going sidewise from the furnace, he had to get on his belly and crawl under these to get out again at the front. His progress was so slow that it seemed he had been in narrow passage for hours, when he recalled the adventure later it seemed it had been a journey without beginning or end, a struggle against a space which was dangerous and unknown.
But he had circumnavigated the fiery monster with cunning and care, and he had come out unharmed from the confining narrow places between, he had made his first perilous journey as he was sitting on the lower stairs landing thinking of the stages of the trip when his mother came down and saw him sitting there covered with dust and ash. In a moment he was transported upstairs to the running water of a hot bathtub, being scrubbed mercilessly and told never to go down there again.
--- What in the world were you thinking, that is a dangerous place, what if the boiler had exploded, what if something caught fire and you were down there all alone. Now you promise me . . . are you listening to me. . . ?
He was not listening because he was retracing the passage past the perils of the mummied monster, the darkness in that corner near the coal bin where the dust had a special musty odor, neither burning coal nor the taint of old mortar from the piled bricks. It was curious and he connected it with the turning of the corner to go behind the stove itself, that dark corner where the one cellar electric light was like a weak star at the far end of a long space. He would go back another time at the hour when the time was right for the chains to go through their dance of opening and closing the four dampers, he would be right under the moving chains listening to their rustling links and the squeaking pulleys, as if in the belly of an ancient boat with the rowers heading out on the nightdark sea toward haven and home. He would take that trip too, and the promise to his mother was not important in face of something valorous and strange like that second journeying, which he could recall step by step many nighttimes under his tight pulled bedclothes in the mysterious dark.
The nurse in the Medical Center Office opened the door into the waiting room, paused a moment with a sheaf of papers and called out questioning: "May Miller next . . . . . Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Miller?" Minutes later Mother was sitting across from a whitecoated doctor, who was explaining it was the birth of the son that was responsible for the tearing of the support muscles in her pelvic floor but that the condition of a prolapsed uterus causing her discomfort, could be corrected by re-attaching certain muscles in a surgical procedure. Two weeks later they were back at the hospital making appointments for surgery and a stay at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where a remote relative assured them their surgeon was of the highest medical reputation with an excellent surgical record. And so mother went to the hospital. It was in those days before the strictures of medical insurance ejected patients as soon as they were ambulatory, so a leisurely stay of two weeks was anticipated.
---Say goodbye to Mommy, Billy, hope she will be feeling better. Bye-bye.
Dad was great, he took his four year old son wherever he went on business, once to see Meyer the lawyer in a cramped office in the upper floor of the Loews Movie Theater building. Then they went to a place near the waterfront where men were regrooving truck tires with a hot iron which sent up a bitter smoke as they turned the wheel. They went to the old part of town where there were stables to visit Dad's aged polo pony now in retirement, a horse which Dad said could turn on a dime from his polo training and in those days a sheer joy to ride. But now he deserved quiet and oats and a cube of red dyed sugar which he lifted off Billy's palm delicately with his thick hairy lips before adding a gentle snort. They played ball on the cracked cement of the schoolyard and the father tried to show his son how a boy climbs a tree, but in vain as he protested angrily and had to be taken down. They had dinner together with grandmother, nobody remembered to talk about washing of hands or brushing of teeth, so Billy continued less aware of his mother's operation than the good fortune of his personal vacation.
After two weeks it was over, Mom was back home and things began to come back to normal as she re-washed the dishes, put the kitchen back together and sent out baskets of clothes to the Chinese laundry. A few days later Billy had something on his mind and at supper he delicately broached his concern:
--- Mommy, you don't look so well. Maybe you should go back to the hospital. . . .
Everybody smiled with understanding at the sly suggestion from the precocious brat, but the core of the situation was real. Billy had a great time with his Dad, but the truth of the situation was that when his attentive and observant Mom returned, his vacation was over!
Now in the August of his fourth year, he had become the proud possessor of a shiny new red tricycle, which his mother said he could ride alone if he was careful not to go too fast and fall off. Behind the house there was a long row of trees which through the heat of summer cast a pleasant shade over the quiet back alleyway.
He had just rolled it out from the garage underneath the house and had left at the dead-end of the alley while he went back to push the garage door shut. He climbed carefully onto the seat of the cycle, looked all around to see the road was perfectly clear, and finally started down to the end for his first ride. There would have been nothing unusual about this afternoon journey, except for the fact that he was riding on the seat but pushing the bike along step by step from the ground. When he reached the end he got off, turned it around and went back in the same pedestrian manner.
On his third afternoon out, Mom spied this unusual locomotion from the kitchen window and called out to him to try the pedals. He nodded that he had heard her but persisted in his own system. When Dad came home he tried to show him the use of the pedals, putting one foot on each pedal and saying GO while he pushed from behind. But one foot slipped off the pedal and they had to go back to the house to find a bandaid.
Mom worried that there might be something wrong with his sense of balance, or the motor controls of his leg muscles, but Dad said he would show him again and it would be all right. But he wouldn't keep his feet on the pedals, and always ended the demonstration by going off down the alleyway in his usual gait.
--- Why don't you make him do it the right way, Sidney? He has to learn to be like the other boys, everyone will make fun of him if they see him going down the sidewalk like this, it looks as if he is very strange. Make him do it the right way, or we will have to take the bicycle away. Try again tomorrow, will you?
--- He knows about he pedals, May, he just doesn't want to use them. Each time I get his feet on them he says "My way. . . my way. . ." and they go down to the ground. No sense making a fuss over it, he has a clear idea in his mind of doing it his own way, and maybe he just doesn't want to go faster with the pedals. Let him do it his own style, what is the difference, and we'll see how it works out.
He had started riding on Monday afternoon and had walked the new bike through the days of the week enjoying his afternoon ride, after a while putting the trike away and closing the garage door carefully, before coming in to wash up and get ready for dinner. It was such a good bike with its bright read paint just like a fire-truck, it had been a good week of afternoon riding he was thinking to himself before going to sleep Friday evening.
Saturday there was a light shower midday and he didn't want to go out that afternoon although it was clearing, because he knew his shoes would get muddy. But Sunday was bright and clear.
---- Look, Sidney, look down the alley will you. He went down to the end and he is coming back now, he is going very fast and he has his feet on the pedals. Did you teach him how to do it that way? Maybe he didn't understand your telling him about the pedals. Did you tell him why he should use the pedals, why didn't you make it perfectly clear?
---- Don't make a fuss about it, just give him a wave from the window and let it go as something completely natural, will you? No, I tried to show him, but he didn't want to do it, he kept saying he would do it his own way, whatever than means. So I figured better to let it go at that. But you see, when he was ready he went for the pedals, I suppose that is just his way of going about things. Not a bad way, thinking for himself at age four. It was a good experiment and we'll see what comes of it later.
It was in the old-fashioned kitchen with the modern Dutch cabinet found in every house in the 'twenties, that he sat hours with his grandmother next to the window looking out on summer afternoons over the garden. Shelling peas from a basket, they ate two for each one dropped into the bowl, while mother smiled and said after all the peas were to eat and might be just as healthy raw. When the peas were gone, they sat there watching the fading light over the concrete fence which divided them from the rich houses on the next avenue, where there were gardens full of lilacs in front of a grand spreading oak. As light failed a certain sense of mystery seemed to please them both, perhaps a feeling of something strange and sad because it was so slow in fading away. For her it was a reminder of the trees in the yard of her childhood home in the old country, where people were always peeping in through the windows thinking it had once been Goethe's home. Sitting in silence in the soft mood of fading day, they watched the light dimming until it was too dark to see, when suddenly the kitchen lights went on and it was time to get ready for dinner.
Afternoons Robert from down the street came over to visit. They set a large roofing slate on the porcelain table which pulled out of the kitchen cabinet and busied themselves rolling shapes out of green plasticene. A mark scratched at the middle of the slate delimited each area, but Billy was aggressive and kept moving the scratch mark over until his mother turned the slate around one day to make things fair. Of course he cautiously moved the scratch over again. Here was human territorial nature described in small.
They played piling up kitchen pots and pans in wintertime and in summer found stones to carry back to the yard to make cairns in the garden, just where mother wanted to put a new transpotted plant. But there was room elsewhere in the neighborhood for architectural experiments and they could go down under the great elm at the end of the back alley and carve out roadways and streets in the compacted earth for an imaginary township. Beyond that was terra ignota across a row of dense grown bushes, behind which you could just see the glint of the glass greenhouses which old Mr. Schwarz had kept for himself in a narrow strip by the fence after selling off the front lots for houses. Of course boys throw stones which break glass and there were formal apologies to the old gentleman who said it was all right because he remembered that he had been a boy too once upon a time very far way.
The maple trees in front of the new houses along the unpaved avenue had been growing for a dozen years by then and it was an autumnal ritual for the families on the street to bring out bamboo rakes and gather heaps of dry leaves to set ablaze with a touch of the match. This was a time for talking with people along the street whom you might otherwise never see. Everyone enjoyed the acrid odor from the smoking leaves, whiffing it gingerly and saying what a good fall smell it was. From time immemorial leaves had always been burned in the streets, nobody had the least thought of bagging them to cart away in a truck, or composting them for the garden the following year. Not yet aware of pulmonary dangers from smoke and fire, people in the small towns were satisfied with the way they had always done things. Watching the fires, they would talk about everything they had on their mind, about jobs and FDR and the NRA and the Depression, and only incidentally about rumblings of trouble in Europe, where it seemed that it still wasn't quite over, over there.
In those years of the Great Depression you could see signs of distress and decay everywhere. Realtors didn't put up sale signs because nobody had money to buy a house, but there were signs for rooms for rent everywhere. Idle boys looking for trouble saw that the lawn signs TO LET had potential for a great joke by adding one letter between the words. He asked his mother why there were so many TOILET signs all over town. She had no idea and seemed annoyed by the impropriety of the question, but it was not until some time later when he saw a boy with a brush and little can of black paint, that he realized what was being done. Joke or not, the to-let signs showed how desperate people were to earn a few dollars a week letting out a room in their house. It would be a slim help against the week's grocery bills.
Across from street from the Millers and a few houses down, was what must have been the main farmhouse when this was all open fields. It was a two story building with two inside chimneys, a slate roof which had been laid by careful design in two shades of slate, with the date 1847 worked into the pattern. There was a wide porch around the front and south as was then common. But the whole house was in sad disrepair, it hadn't been painted for years and what paint there was had worn off the split and weathered clapboards. A former lawn was now overgrown with weeds and brush, there was an accumulation of broken chairs and an icebox without doors on the side porch. The house had been boarded up for some years but it was opened up again so it would not be condemned by the town commission for destruction at the owner's cost.
A desperately poor family was living there. Four scruffy kids who looked only a year or two apart in age. Their mother was never seen outside except when she hung her wash on a line on the porch, while her husband tinkered on and on with an aged Willys-Kinght which coughed once in a while without much hope of starting. When dinner was ready and the kids were called in to wash up and eat, you could hear from their mother's intonations that they were a long way from home.
---- Billy Bob, now you just go get those kids together, and you'all get yourselves into the house now and clean up for dinner, d'you hear me? I got everything hot on the table and I ain't waiting for y'all to come in late like last night.
In a ramshackle house with no job and no money, living in a northern climate as the fall evenings were now coming in cold, they were in a bad way. It was just a question of how long they could hold out until the car got running so they could head on somewhere where the climate was a little more tolerant. One evening the hand cranked engine spluttered more than usual, later it caught and did keep on running. That night after packing their clothes in cardboard boxes, they turned out the lights and went to bed early. They must have quietly stowed their things in the car the next morning before daylight and pushed it in the driveway to get it started rolling down the avenue, because when the neighbors went out to go about their business, it was clear that there was nobody there. The door was left open, everything they couldn't carry was piled up on the porch, the car was gone and there was only one sign that they had been living there. Their old brown dog was hanging limp on the porch with a noose around his neck, the rope fastened to a nail on the eave above the west side of the front porch.
Billy saw it as he started off to school. He came back with tears in his eyes to tell his mother, who went to the doorway to see if it was really true. Bit by bit the neighbors gathered to have a look. How terrible this was, what kind of people would hang their dog as if he were a criminal, a pathetic end to his years of being the children's best friend. After the shock subsided they all said that nobody had ever seen anything like this. People tried to understand why this had happened, what must have been in their mind calling old Spot over to the hanging rope, maybe giving him a crust or a cookie and patting his head goodbye. Did they have feelings or regrets, or was it just something which had to be done, do it and get it over with? Did the children see the hanging or were they told to get in the car and close their eyes until Dad came back from the porch?
May tried to explain it to Billy who was so upset that she said he could stay home from school that morning. She sat down at the kitchen table with her morning coffee to try to think up an explanation for him.
---- You know, they had no money and it would have cost them to go to the vet and have him do an injection and that meant money which they just didn't have. Maybe they didn't want to just abandon the dog, who would be barking and running up and down looking for the family everywhere, or they couldn't face his starving to death in the winter weather. So maybe they had a reason for what they did. After all the dog was about twelve years old which is a normal dog's life and he couldn't have lasted much longer. Everybody gets weak and old and in the end we all have to die, that is part of what life is about, Billy. So maybe there was a reason for them ending his life then rather than . . . . .
She heard a cough and turning her head saw grandma standing in the kitchen doorway and knew that she had heard everything. Grandma was thinking about the stories from the old days about the stetls in Russia, when there was no food for the children and the old people understanding the situation had gone quietly for a long walk in the woods and were not heard of again. She knew her family loved her but she could not help thinking.
---- It is a good thing we are not Eskimos in this family, she said, breaking the long pause. She came into the kitchen and they all hugged with tears in their eyes and ended up laughing at their unexpected show of feelings. Someone went out later with a knife to cut the rope, two men got a couple of shovels and they buried Spot in the far corner of his backyard, pausing a minute after tamping down the earth as if searching for a word suitable for the ceremony of a dead dog's funeral.
Perhaps as the wanderers in the Willy-Knight left the city and headed down the highway toward the open country of the Atlantic states, another scenario may have played itself out. Perhaps they had further thoughts about the death of the dog, as late that first afternoon Billy Bob pulled off onto the shoulder and remarked that soon they would be back in Virginia. They were all quiet and nobody wanted to be the first to say what was on their mind. With a deep sigh, her arms around her children as if trying to protect them from something bad, Jennie Mae said to her husband:
---- You know that was a real bad thing we did up there and it wasn't just what we did with the poor old dog. But the kids know it and they saw the dog hanging there with his feet jerking in the air and that was very bad for them to see. We are going back home where is a lot of that hanging going on, we know it ain't right but we put up with it because we don't know what else to do. I don't want the kids to think that it was all right because it was just a dog. If they get that hanging idea in their heads, they are going to think that it is also all right some other time, because after all it is just a . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A few years later the Miller family got a new model 1928 Cadillac automobile, a large square sedan suitable for the family to go out touring in the countryside. Sundays in springtime were a wonderful time to see the trees sprouting their light-green leaves, or to take a drive to the farmlands where you could get asparagus early and corn later in the summer. But when they were all ready to go out for a Sunday drive, grandma always said:
---- You go on alone, you don't need me with you. I'm too old to go out driving, I can just as well stay at home and read my newspaper, I don't mind your going out by yourselves, now you just all go out by yourself and have a good time, and don't worry about me. I'm all right and I might just take a nap now.
She stood waving to them from the doorway and off they went down the avenue to the country roads. But one exceptionally fine afternoon when the flowers were coming out and the birds were flying everywhere for their usual reasons, Dad decided that grandma had to come along if only because it was such a beautiful day.
---- You really have to come along with us, Grandma, but there is a reason for this.
---- I know you always want me to sit there in the back seat, but I don't want to go. The car is so bumpy on these rough roads, I would rather stay at home and be comfortable.
---- But I have a serious reason to take you along, Grandma. You are right, the car is bumpy on these country roads, but I need your weight in the back to keep it from bouncing. Without that we will be bouncing all over the road, so you just have to come along with us today.
Pulling her flowered kerchief over her head with her shawl around her shoulders and laughing with great amusement she clambered up to the back seat of the touring car and off they all went together to the countryside. Out in the countryside Sidney noticed a sign at a farm which he thought very humorous: FRESH EGGS --- DRIVE IN
---- Sidney, you have such a strange sense of humor. It just means that they have chickens which lay eggs and they sell them here, fresh eggs every day. That's all it means.
---- You never heard that smarty-pants expression, May? "You fresh egg!" ?I guess nobody ever got fresh with you, but that's an expression everybody knows. The sign reads like an invitation for any of you "fresh eggs" driving down the road, you are welcome, you can just drive in here . (All right, so you don't get it, but it is still very funny, he was chuckling to himself.)
It was a long drive that day and everyone was tired by the time they were heading back. Sidney had a good strong voice and loved to sing old songs, so he broke out with an old army ditty:
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
Nobody knew all the words but Grandma Lena remembered that a Lucifer in Germany was a match in the old days, and everybody knew that a fag back then was a cigarette. When they came home she said that it was a very nice ride, she was glad she came along and she had a very good time.
---- But that remark about my being fat and using me to hold down the bouncing car, that was not funny at all. Sidney you are such a . . . . .you are a Fresh Egg.
In the fall of that year Grandmother woke early one morning and got up to go sit in her padded armchair. She was there a while thinking, had put on one shoe and had tied up the lace. The other shoe had dropped at her foot as she leaned back in the chair. She smiled to herself about how good life had been all those years as she quietly closed her eyes to rest.
---- Billy, go up and see if grandma is ready to come down for breakfast, tell her the scrambled eggs are ready. He came down alone with tears in his eyes and they knew right away what had happened. Yes she was almost eighty and it was a good way to go, they all said later.
They were busy with arrangements for the funeral, for the date and the site and the stone. He went walking alone for miles around the town, out to where the bridge went out over the bay to another shore, thinking about the old times when his grandma must have been a little girl living in Germany. It was his first contact with the fact of death and it left him with a shroud of sadness which masked the houses and trees and lawns as he walked past them in his distant, misty solitude. Here was a feeling for which there were no words, a sensation which would come upon him at other times in his life, but always with a remembrance of that first day when someone near had just slipped away.
The Public School, a grim building in now dirty brick poised on a slight rise overlooking a concrete yard with tall wire fencing all around, had been built in the years after the Civil War, in a style more suitable for a fortress or an armory than for a school. It was designed to be solid and impressive, but over time had become just obsolete and depressing. In the concrete paved yard behind the building the students assembled each morning in winter gale or springtime rain. The boys were on one side the girls across, they arranged themselves in rows by grade, standing at an almost military attention as the yard attendant counted off numbers to a proctor who directed file after file through the ominous doorways to the classrooms. * There was no need to give an order for silence because no one would have thought of frivolity or idle talk in this bald concrete yard, which served as a warning that school here was a serious business. It was obvious that they were not there for fun.
Entering the classroom, the students went to their appointed desks, they sat on wood-seat iron chairs screwed to the floor, they opened their desktops placing their folded hands waiting on the rails so as to be mischief free, while Teacher strode around the room looking for unauthorized items in the desk drawers. Attendance was called and noted, the eyes of fifty students were fixed on the blackboard at the front, where the teacher wrote with a squeaky chalk which made the girls squirm, or read lessons aloud pausing to question hastily rising students. This regimen was conceived as a hard business without frills, the essential path to serious learning. A wrongdoer would sit in a front corner for half an hour with a pointed paper cone on his head. Students had to raise a hand to ask permission for the bathroom, one or two fingers to indicate their function. This may have been an administrative precaution designed to avoid loitering , but there was no loitering in the grim asphalt paved halls, because one look at the bathroom with its dirty urinals and musty odor was enough to send a boy back to the classroom as quickly as possible. The girls had a cleaner visit because the teachers were women and they had to go there too.
Reciting the arithmetic tables in droning unison again and again, everyone did learn to add and subtract, with perhaps a bit of hesitation on the less critical multiplication tables, while division was somehow neglected as being nothing more than multiplication done backwards. History was just a list of dates designed solely to be repeated, geography was only names of places to memorize and cough up on demand. The quick learners were left to scribble or draw in their notebooks while the teacher concentrated on those who were slow, a procedure which was thought to be proper educational practice for a democratic country.
Of course there were funny notes slipped from desk to desk. A tough boy might have a metal tube to shoot paper spitballs across the room and one boy in Billy's row idly dipped the braid of the girl in front of him into his inkwell. Punishment was sitting an hour before the office of the Principal Mrs. Van der Zong, a formidably gaunt and elderly lady with a sharp tongue which she used in place of the ruler now forbidden by statute. Her glance was enough to wilt any student's thought of an explanation for his misbehavior on the spot. The school had been like that since time immemorial and nobody proposed or anticipated anything in the way of change.
These were the deep days of the Depression and a sense of deprivation went down even to the kids who quickly felt the loss of what everyone needs, a little pocket money. Billy had a modest dime a week and was learning to parse out his pennies carefully at Mr. and Mrs. Seligmann's * newspaper and candy store on his way to school. These gentle old people were the last generation of the European immigrants who had come over with great expectations, now surprised by the sudden downturn of luck in their newfound land of opportunity. They had known trouble before and were glad be Americans even in hard times. They had the little store and things would soon be getting better, they said. Others had nothing at all and very little to hope for, yes they knew about that too.
They saw some kids slipping things into their pockets before leaving the store, sometimes they would remonstrate in as friendly a manner as they could manage, other times they would let it go remarking that they were just kids without a cent and that was sad enough in itself. Behind glass under the counter were the square BigLittleBooks, but they cost a quarter and stories without pictures didn't seem as interesting as the five cent illustrated comics. He liked the salted pumpkin seeds in a folded paper box for a penny, he found he could go a long way chewing seed by seed and his mother said the seeds had vitamins, although she couldn't see how anyone could roast and salt and package them for that price. But learning about ingenuity was the business of people living on the edge of poverty, they would try anything to bring in a few cents, since the alternative was having absolutely nothing at all.
Mikey O'Leary or his sister Twilah often brought to school some objects surreptitiously wrapped in a handkerchief, which they tried to sell to any student who looked better off as judged by their clothes and especially their shoes. Figuring that Billy Miller was worth a few tries, Mikey showed him with a covert gesture a little glass inkwell, which he said was very valuable with its hinged solid silver cap. Take it home and ask your dad for two bucks for it, willya?
Where it came from was unclear, whether a family present from old times or something lifted from a store, it was anybody's guess. May said it was pretty but she was afraid it was stolen, and it cost too much and so he took it back sadly because he really liked the silver cap hinged on the delicately etched glass body. This was his first occasion to want something he could not afford.
The following week Twilah asked if he wanted to go downtown with her brother and a friend to go to the movies. If he had a quarter Mike could use it to get in, then he would go in and open the back door quietly to let the others in and they could all see two feature pictures and a short, all for free.
---- Thanks Twilah but my Mom won't let me go, she says that movie theater has bedbugs in the seats and is not a clean place. So they went looking for someone else who had the critical quarter for the show.
When the weather changed that fall, snowballs were flying everywhere, some with a stone in the center to give a fellow a good black eye. Going home one day he was just passing the little station perched over a railroad cut with the tracks running down below. With snowball in hand he stood on his toes to peer over the street level concrete fence, he was looking at the tracks where people were waiting for the train just grinding to a stop. He gave the ball a deft throw at the people as they were boarding the train before ducking behind the fence and walking off nonchalantly with his cold hands in his pockets.
The next morning he was summoned to the office of the Principal Mrs. Van der Zong who had phoned his mother to come in as soon as school opened. Confronted by the angry Principal standing beside his confused mother, he couldn't utter a word for surprise and shame. It seemed the snowball had an with unerring selectivity hit Mrs. Van der Zong square on the back of her black fur coat, something that she averred had never happened before in all her many years in the teaching profession.
Hearing this accusation about his evil act done with purposeful intent, he was about to apologize when to his surprise his mother cut in angrily, asking if the Principal had ever been a girl and had she never been hit in the head by a deft snowball from a smart boy who set the whole crowd laughing at her, until she decided to save her dignity by laughing along with them. The Principal in her turn asked if Mrs. Miller had any ideas about bringing up a child in an atmosphere with proper discipline, when the phone on her desk rang, at which moment Mom walked out the office door with her hand on her son's shoulder. It was nice to have a Mom who would speak out and stand up for you, he thought to himself when he got home, but when he told her so, she said with a smile that she found it very easy to talk back to such an especially nasty old lady.
Mother had a sharp sense of what constitutes a proper personal appearance and sent him for a trim every other week to Louie's barbershop opposite the ticket station , telling him to be sure to have Carl do it and not let him put on that perfumed Italian style pomade. This was embarrassing because Louie, who was rotund and full of fun, a great talker with the waiting string of customers, was the boss. Carl the assistant on the other hand was tall and saturnine, with black hair and an aquiline nose, a man of few words who would prefer to gesture a customer to his chair with his scissors, rather than speak. He was the better barber but he had one habit which displeased all the mothers. He would reach automatically for the bottle with the fancy label and squirt on a gush of aromatic pomade to finish up a haircut. The boys thought the pomade was great stuff and heartily approved of Carl.
He did not like the way his mother had him comb his hair with a part on the side just above his right eye. He wanted it combed without a part, which he felt was more manly and he always told Carl to cut it straight-back. So if at the end Carl's hand went for the pomade bottle, he didn't say a word but smiled to himself since he knew this would keep the haircut fixed straight-back for a week. Mom would gasp and say she would have to go with him next time to speak to Carl, but she never did. It was always a bit embarrassing to have to tell Louie, when he said NEXT and motioned him with a genial wave of his hand to his chair, that he would prefer not to. He had his mother's orders, he would say, but also had his preference for the fragrant and sticky pomade.
Most of the boys wore corduroy knickers tied up right under the knee, looping down over calf length socks. Some wore plain cloth pants since their parents felt that corduroy was the garb of the Irish immigrants, unaware of its origin as the corde du roi of the French nobility. But corduroy was warm in winter and had become the pants of preference for most of the boys in cold weather. Mrs. Miller knew city wholesalers who had mountains of men's clothing piled on tables in their third story warehouses, and each fall she went there to get pants for the coming year, remarking to the boy's embarrassment, that they should be long in the leg and loose in the crotch since he was growing so fast. While in the city it was a few blocks to the custom shirt maker who had a wall of colorful cloth rolls in striped patterns which immediately caught the boy's eye, but the man suggested a drab white oxford for the longest wear. Long pants were what he really wanted but they were not worn before age of ten, and he would have liked a garish striped shirt looking like the Italian flag, but he knew that was useless so he kept quiet and endured. Back on the train it was a half hour ride to the station, then home and into a bath before dinner, prefaced as usual by handfuls of horse sized vitamin pills, and at last he was off to bed with his night time imaginations about appearing at school in long pants and a shirt with garish striped colors, before slipping away to sleep in a more congenial nighttime world.
It was in the early months of the second year of school that he got his first experience with one of the least attractive traits of human behavior. He and Danny were good friends at first, both were better dressed than many of the kids from out of work families. Being somehow isolated from the others by this matter of pure chance, they had established a truce-like friendship between themselves, until Danny decided to test the temper of his rival by an occasional blocking of a doorway or a finger poked hard against Billy's chest as a dare to do something about it. He was the smaller boy which made him the more eager to show his strength and he developed a habit of bullying as a matter of daily course.
He told his mother who told his father, who advised not to get into a fight since they would both land up in front of the Principal, who would blame and punish them equally for bad behavior. He knew about bullying from his boyhood in rough neighborhoods and tried to show his son a few boxing stances and defenses, but he didn't get into the spirit of fighting even to defend himself and decided to be quiet and endure. Relatives in the cities of central Europe whose names he would never know were making that same decision to be quiet and endure, even when trucked to the death camps and walking in file into the death chambers. Fighting was not a natural road to follow for those coming from centuries of a peaceful religious tradition.
But when the rough kids from the rough streets saw how easily intimidated Billy was, they took it upon themselves to exploit his defenseless role by having one boy get quietly on his knees behind him while another tripped him over his back. Unwilling to tell his Marine father with war stories and medals and a commendation from General Pershing's hand in the dresser drawer, that he was a coward, he kept silent. Trying to prepare for the day of retaliation, he practiced boxing in front of his bedroom mirror, concentrating on fast left hand jabs which would keep the enemy at a distance, rather than a right hand slug to lay him on the floor. But this was all done as a solo exercise with nowhere to go, it was an imaginary study of the art of self defense which he was practicing solo, until he got his courage up many years later to set things right.
He began to feel strange and isolated, he seemed to himself different from the other boys who attended the school. He heard one of the boy whispering [ jew ] behind his back and even once to his face, just to see if he could get him to fight. He asked him why he said that and what the word meant, but the boy wasn't sure. He said he had just heard a pal of his father saying it about someone over a beer at a volley ball game in their yard, but he didn't know what it meant.
But he knew from his father's nervous talk with friends at the temple that there were still problems with being Jewish and he heard from kids who went to Sunday school at the Catholic church that the priest said that the Jews had killed the Lord Jesus and would be responsible for that unto the last generation. So if that was true about the last generation, he said to himself, that would mean him. Better watch out for trouble and not be surprised if someday he was called upon to explain his role and his responsibility * in the Crucifixion.
One hot July afternoon he was sitting near the front steps of the house in the shadow of a cedar tree which went straight up past the second story windows, thinking of nothing in particular, when the girl from next door came over to talk with him. Patsy was a few year younger, she had blond hair and bright blue eyes and was always asking questions of people as a way to start a conversation. They were sitting there a while, she offered him a drink from her tall glass of lemonade, it was the kind of day when it is better to sit and be silent in the oppressive summer heat, but she was getting impatient and suddenly asked her question:
--- "Do you believe in God?"
He had thought about this before and had once decided to take a chance and say NO, waiting in the back of his mind for a lightening flash or a sign from heaven to correct his answer. But it was quiet, there was no tremor in the streets and the world looked much the same to him, even if he was now a confessed disbeliever.
But this time it was different. He had been snapping off some of the low dead branches of the cedar with a gardening tool, and was suddenly noticing the patterns of the bark which seemed to be overlapping as they went up the trunk of the tree. He didn't want to look up, he just let his eye travel up the interlaced patterns which were curling around the branches as they poked out sideways to get a little sunlight. A cat was cautiously climbing the trunk slipping between the twiggy side branches with some difficulty. He felt transfixed by the bark patterns of the tree. Patsy's question was still ringing in his ears, he knew she was waiting but he didn't want to say anything.
He came back to himself and said to the girl NO. Patsy said she wasn't going to tell her mother what he had said, because she was sure she would disapprove and forbid coming over afternoons after school to talk with him. He nodded as if to say it was OK.
But that strange feeling about the tree stayed with him, he knew it had some other meaning somewhere, perhaps a mystery? But he could not erase that moment of brilliant clarity looking at the tree. He felt that something important was happening or going to happen. Had he discussed this feeling with someone older and wiser the word apparition or even Epiphany might have come up.
He was still thinking to himself. --- I was staring at the tree and I must have lost track of myself, sort of dreaming off about the bark and the branches. For a few minutes I felt it was some sort of mystery, a strange experience I was having, like they talk about in the books of the Old Testament.
--- So that is what it was! HE was going to split the cedar tree if front of the house with his mighty lightning to show me the error of my ways. But it didn't work, he must have fumbled with the firebolt and it misfired or it went off somewhere to surprise someone else. This can happen!
He felt uncomfortable, he went and got the push mower to do the front lawn, but he still felt not quite as ease, so he got some pebbles and went to look for his homemade slingshot.
--- Did you see it lying around, Mom?
--- Yes, I took it earlier. I saw a black cat inching up the trunk, searching for something higher up. She was looking for the nest of a robin which had three eggs just cracked open with one birdie already half out. The cat was almost at the nest when I got the slingshot and a pebble, aimed from the upstairs window and there was a whizz and a snap and the cat fell from the tree and was streaking across the lawn. Never thought your mother was a sharpshooter, did you? I put it back in the cellar with the can of round pebbles.
But he realized that wasn't it at all. He was now into a thoroughly Biblical mood, and suddenly realized that this was the power of MOM (as from the Non-Canonical Book of Judith3), now the matriarch of the New York clan of the tribe of Judah, who was up there at the bedroom window, leaning out in wrath toward the cedar of Lebanon with the slingshot of David in her hand, at that very moment exorcising the evil of the Tempter by casting the cat out of the tree with the lightning-fast stroke of a mightily shot pebble. Perhaps it had been the Lord of the People accosting him earlier sitting on the steps near the tree, now it was the warlike Heroine of the tribe who was exorcising the cat who was the Devil, wielding her power from upstairs as a higher authority.
Mowing the lawn and plunking for a while with the slingshot brought him back to his usual rational self, but he was still thinking of the mystical happenings of the afternoon. He wondered if his neglect of deity were in some way a family trait, since there was little talk about religion at home beyond the high holiday visits to the schule.
Grandmother Lena had told a story about the holidays in Germany when she was a young girl. They had sent her up to the attic to bring down a set of dishes for the Passover service. She was carrying these in a box in her arms stepping carefully as she went down the stairs, when her foot tripped on a loose nail on a tread. Down came Lena dishes and all and although she was not blamed for the broken dishes, there was a personal postscript to the situation. She felt that if she was carrying the dishes for god's service and if she fell while doing a small piece of his business, then there could be nobody watching over her from above, and in her opinion there wasn't really any God at all.
In the coming years she had gone through life at a polite and civil distance from deity, never speaking out of turn about religion or religious people, but never bothering her conscience with what she had firmly figured out, which was that God did not exist. Had a rabbi told her that * [JHWH] in his wisdom had decided to test her faith by letting her fall in what theologians would call The Job Test of Faith, or if a Protestant minister had told her that her fall was to correct a sense of false pride in her role as the elected carrier of the holy service, she would have looked at either of them with a incredulous stare of disbelief, while confirming her original opinion as being correct in the first place.
They were talking late that evening about how fortunate they were having such a good son. He was well ahead of his grade in reading, always interested in quiet and inventive things to keep himself occupied, never in trouble like many of the boys in the neighborhood who were full of unsociable thoughts and on the edge of getting reported to the police. He was polite and took criticism well, mowed the lawn regularly and picked up his room without being asked. And he was even serious about his piano lessons, which he seemed to enjoy although he was much more interested in devising his own impromptus at the keyboard than reading the easy ones of Chopin which he teacher had assigned. He seems so quiet and untroubled at an age when most boys are liable to the wildest kinds of thought and action, we can only congratulate ourselves on our good luck with our well adjusted young son.
--- May, that is the way it seems but I can tell you from my own experience that for boys at the age of ten there is always a lot going on behind the scene, about which we as parents don't have the least idea. They are not miniature adults at all, they act and dress and talk the way we have taught them, they move around in our world easily and naturally, but there is another side which is quite different. If we knew everything that goes on in a boy's mind, we would be surprised and you, May, would probably be fairly well shocked. So I think it is good that the underground part of an adolescent boy's mind remains a closet for which there is a closely locked door. It is right for kids to have a degree of privacy, and it relieves us of the responsibility of worrying about the many things they think, which we could not possibly understand.
--- But Sidney, look at the way he is playing the piano, so serious about the lessons and reading the notes and getting to play accurately, and he is showing a natural talent not only for music but for learning new things. He concentrates well, not only when he is studying but when he is out taking those long walks afternoons. I think he has serious considerations of his life and what it is all about. Don't you agree?
He was not sure he agreed but he felt there was nothing more to say. So he did the right thing when in doubt and said nothing, leaving further thoughts for the next morning.
--- It is nine thirty, yes Mom, I remember about the piano lesson, I'm getting ready will be down in a minute. No I don't want any breakfast, not hungry I know I should eat something but I don't feel like it. Yes I put the money for last week's lesson in my pocket, I'll remember to give it to her I won't for get like last week. OK I got to go now, Mom and I got the Schnabel with her notes for my practice. Why is Mom laughing so much, she says I should be playing the Beethoven sonatas not schnabeling about them, I don't know what she means but she says just get the papers together and get going, She says she'll tell you later when you get back, she is still laughing. That screen door still gets stuck open and the flies get in for their breakfast, Dad said fix it and get a new spring when I go past the hardware store. I'll try to remember, don't I always remember (ha ha. . .) ? OK I am off. Got to mow the lawn again soon that grass keeps trying to get ahead of me, someone says they are developing a new kind of Indian Sword Grass so sharp that it mows itself. In California they just put down concrete and paint it green, not a bad idea but I'd lose my dime a week for mowing, always gotta face that. See if I can kick that stone ahead of me all the way down to the corner, yep bounced it off the post and still got it on the cross street and onto the bridge over the train tracks, a train coming along real slow going to stop at the station, why don't I aim the stone and see if I can hit the last car as it does past. Got it first time, shows I am getting pretty good at this, wonder what the passengers think when they hear a thump on the roof, probably saying some damned kid up there. I'd like to get over the fence and climb down the ladder on the wall and see if there is anything interesting on the tracks, maybe put a penny on the track and see if I can find it later crushed flat and twice as big. I don't think it would throw the train off the track, only one way to find out. Oh well, got to get moving to the piano lesson, sure ruins a Saturday morning when I could be out doing something fun like baseball even if I have to wear glasses and can't see the ball, I keep asking Mom to stop the lessons and let me have some fun with the boys but she says music is very important when you go to college and I say I would rather do the violin because I am nearsighted and could read the notes more easily there, but she says the violin is not an instrument I want you to play, the poor Jewish immigrants on Third Avenue have violin lessons for their kids because they can't afford a piano. And the clarinet it no good either, so its got to be the piano and . . . . . .That car almost got me, boy he sure was going fast and didn't see the light at all, that's what they mean saying look both ways. I found a can to kick and was getting the hang of it, very different from a stone and it goes different directions from that you thought, was fun until an old lady yelled out to me that I was littering the neighborhood and what was my name and she was going to call my mother, but I gave it a kick onto her lawn and walked away, why don't people mind their own business. Over here there are some houses set back from the street, I always like to look around the front of the lawn here, they leave all the branches and leaves as they fall and let them rot down to go back to nature, I like that and there are bugs crawling around in there and the birds are looking for the bugs, much more interesting than a mowed lawn where the lady is picking out the dandelions with a pointed trowel all through the summer, must be her hobby. I wish I hadn't lost that can, I'd like to toss it in there with the leaves and branches, imagine the anger of the lady when she spots it and says who in the world would be throwing an empty can in my woodsy garden, there are some people who have no feeling for nature at all. Oh well, do that next time. The Boulevard is pretty busy with cars and trucks, got to cross that one carefully, always some nasty old feller blows his horn and yells out the window what are you trying to do kid, you want to get yourself killed crossing the street like that, just a big mouth looking for something to complain about. Other side it is quiet, brick apartment houses, I think Mrs. Phillips lives in one of these, I wonder what she is like out of school, they say she has a boy about five she was divorced I wonder why that happened. She is a very nice looking lady, sort of formal but must have been pretty once when a girl, I can still see that. I wonder what she would do if she saw me from the window sometime, would she call down as I was passing and ask me to come up for a lemonade or a coke, that would be nice to sit and talk with her if her son as not there, sort of quiet and private and you never can tell. That would be nice to talk with someone who knew about these things, but OK to just think about it, thinking is free. Now at the corner turn right, I wonder what was in those little shabby storefronts that have paper inside the glass windows so nobody can tell what was there before. Maybe a candy store or some sort of repair shop, interesting to think if there might be some old tools in a box in there if you could get in when it was dark and prowl around with a match. No, Officer, I wasn't really trying to steal anything, I was just curious, my uncle Sam used to have this store and he said that I could. . . . . . Turn left again and down the street to Mrs. Morris' house and the piano lesson, too bad having a lesson on such a nice morning. Just walk along slowly to eat up some more time, stop at the dead tree by the sidewalk where they hung a fancy sign "THE MORRIS" which should probably be Morrises or at least Morris'. The French teacher said it would be chez les morris, much neater. Well, I am here, got to knock and go in and wait for the dumb girl who is always making the same mistakes to finish up her lesson, she shouldn't be playing piano at all, sort of good looking with her thick lips, she would be better with the clarinet.
--- Come in Billy, why don't you warm up at the piano while I answer the phone, I'll be back in a minute. Yes, I forgot you like to be called Bill, I'll try to remember that. . . . . . Now will you open to the Sonata we were working on, and go right ahead play the start of the slow movement, will you, Billy?
--- (She'll never remember, might as well forget about that. It's my mother's fault, she always thinks of me as Billy, probably the same when I am twenty one. But at least she doesn't call me Willi like her uncle, got to be glad for that. )
--- Very nice, er. . . .Bill. . . .you did it with a nice feeling, you have a sensitive touch when you think about it, I liked that very well. But you tend to run the notes together too much, legato is nice but it should not be on every measure, so why don't I remind you what I said before, that each finger should go down and come up right away, like a set of little trip hammers so it can make a clean passage instead of a muddy one. If you think that is a little too bright, you can use the loud pedal with it, softens the sound somewhat at least if you don't overuse it. Why don't you give the passage a try now with that in mind, make it sound like a harpsichord if you know what I mean.
--- (I think she would like me to play like on of those player pianos which are completely mechanical, everything even and in its place, that is the way Mz Mars thinks of music. I'll do it her way for now, but when I get home and do some of my own improvisations in the style of Mozart, I'll do it my own way. In the meantime. . . . . . Yes, Mz Mars, I understand.)
--- One thing more, Billy I mean . . . . .forgive me, we are all creatures of habit! You are playing it very well but your tempo is uneven, so I would like to you to play it again slowly and count out the time. You know how we do it: ONE and TWO and THREE and . . . . It's a wonderful way to get everything even and right, so why don't you practice that first page counting it out like that while I talk to the next student about how she is coming along. I'll be back in a few minutes, just ONE and TWO and THREE and you can do it all by yourself.
The hour was up and after a few words of meaningless conversation about how was school and are you getting good grades now and then he was going down the walk past the MORRIS sign and heading home again past the papered-over-window storefronts and the brick apartment house where he looked up for a wave from a window just out of habit and he was already a block from the Boulevard.
--- That is a nice looking stick, I'll use it for a cane and walk along like one of those gentlemen in the British film, can tuck it under my arm and saunter a bit, stylish Why don't I stop at the avenue where the cars are busy, lean on the stick and make believe I am lame, look across the road hesitating as if trying to find a good place to cross. I'll bet in two minutes people will come up to me and say how awful it is to see such a brave little cripple trying to cross the avenue alone, here take my arm and let me help you along, I'll go slowly and we'll wave to stop the cars while we cross. When we get to the other side I'll throw down the stick and march straight ahead, looking back at them with a big laugh in place of a thankyou. It would be fun, maybe I'll try it some day just to see if it works like that. Wait a minute, if I can find an empty can in that garbage pail by that house, I can kick it along for a while and leave it in that lady's woodsy garden by the sidewalk if she isn't looking. She'll sooner or later spy it, drop her dandelion weeding spade and come over in a rush to nab it and tell her husband later how rundown the neighborhood is getting. Maybe Henry we should think of moving to a better area one of these days. Over the railroad tracks, still thinking of tin cans, maybe that would be better than a rock on the passenger car roof, might bounce few time and make an interesting clatter for them to wonder about, think something is wrong with the train. Should have picked up two cans while at it, oh well can do that next Saturday.
--- Billy, you are back already, did you have a good piano lesson, and did you give her the envelope with the check for the lesson? Oh you forgot, well I should have mailed it to her. I don't know why you couldn't remember that small thing that I asked you, after all you had nothing on your mind while walking from here to there, ambling along with not a thought in your head. Someday you'll realize that your are getting really absentminded, and then it may be too late to change. Bad habits stick with you, I have told you that before.
He said he was very sorry and would be better remembering the next time. She smiled and said probably not. Anyway Saturday morning piano lesson was over and he could practice piano any way he wanted for six days until the lesson the Saturday of the following week.
The boy wondered about that old gentleman who lived in the grand house of Civil War architecture, downstreet where the sidewalks were slate slabs and the ancient trees stood shading the road. While walking the dog he had seen him in military dress riding his horse on the street, and asked his father who he was. He didn't know all the details but he told what he had heard, although he had a suspicion that there might be more to his story than anybody knew.
Colonel Paul Jackson's ancestors had lived there since the British took over the Dutch holdings after the wars of the 1680's. There were once large farmlands owned by his family which had been whittled down over the years, but he had kept for himself a scant acre of land with the house and barn, refusing to sell to the developers who were buying up land in the building boom. There was still a relic appearance of the old style of living on that street where the avenue was curbless and unpaved, and the Colonel lived on just as he had lived since the start of the century, unmindful of Presidents, of politics and even of the last War. He was certainly of a military turn himself, everybody knew him as the Colonel but nobody knew in what branch of the service or even in what war he had been engaged.
His garb in public was mixed. Riding boots generally and in good weather an old style army shirt, usually an officer's hat but sometimes a broad-brimmed field hat like that of the Police. Other times when it was autumn he wore green wood pants of that peculiar fungal color which country people throughout New England prefer, with which he usually wore his old army shirt as if to establish his status as Col. US Army, Retired. The Colonel's military clothes were of a different generation from the last war, clearly not the army issue of 1917, people thought they might have been from some previous military operation. Some thought that Col. Jackson was a fake and even an impostor, titling himself like some antique British gentlemen with military titles for a touch of distinction. But Sidney knew from his bearing and the way he handled his horse that this man had been in military service.
Each morning half an hour after reveille, the Colonel watered and fed his horse, slapped the saddle on his now sagged back pulling the girth strap tight after a good whack on the ribs to check he was not holding his breath. Then mounting his steed and adjusting the scarf around his neck and gripping the reins in both hands thoughtfully as checking length and position, he proceeded at a parade trot past the barn and across the yard, finally turning a sharp right onto the avenue. If he saw someone taking his morning walk on the gray slate sidewalks, he would nod summarily to a man or if a lady be would tip his hat as a token of recognition. But he was intent on proceeding as if there were an important function to attend, where his officers were waiting and counting on him to be present, standing before them to receive their report as the officer in command.
This was no casual ride or early morning exercise. It was a matter of making a formal appearance to show that he was competent as ever and that he was still on duty. When he had reached the parade grounds where the men were lined up in files and ranks, he would nod to the Captain in charge, who would in turn signify that the men were all present and accounted for. He gave a brisk salute in acceptance of the count, looked around at the parade field for a moment before signaling to his horse who understood to trot slowly across the field with the formality of parade gait, before turning a smart left and returning back down the avenue to the gateway of his house. He carefully closed the bar after entering the yard, unsaddled the horse with an order to the fellow who came in to work mornings, to clean him up, water him and set out new forage, after which he went to the house and disappeared until the next morning, when he came out again for his formal duties at review on the parade grounds.
It was said that his wife, who had died early had a niece and it was now this older woman who came daily with food from the market, cooking for him and laying out his mid-day dinner before asking if there was anything more. She never talked about him, it was as if she had been warned that his life and work were a state secret and should not be divulged under any conditions. Asked who he really was, she said of course he was Colonel Jackson, a man who had served his county well and she walked away abruptly saying nothing more.
Throughout those years of the Depression the Colonel continued his morning duties with regularity. His horse was now getting blind and was a little more careful where he stepped, but the rider was still as formal and erect in his bearing as he had been in the years of his wartime service to his country.
As he rode out each day he reviewed in his mind scenes from long ago. It was hot on that first day of July in 1898 at the foot of the San Juan Hill and he could still see two thousand Roughriders of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry gathering on horseback there at the foot of the hill, checking their guns and gear as the officers brought them to attention to get the count of men present as ready for the attack. A superior officer told Captain Jackson to lead the left flank of the charge, going around the side of the hill so as to come up with the main charge as a surprise, to which he nodded Yes Sir!
It went as planned and when they reached the crown of the hill before the fort, the Spanish guard broke rank in headlong flight. Having won the battle the men were shouting with jubilation and singing bits of their army songs, out of tune but in accord with the magnificent national Victory which the newspapers all over the country carried the next day.
At that moment Colonel Teddy came up to him and said:
--- Captain Jackson, you did more than we asked. Half your men lie wounded as you well expected, but you led the attack in the front line yourself and I want to tell you that I am personally proud of you. For this action and in honor of your bravery, I hereby in approved Military Field Ceremony, do knight you and raise you in rank to Colonel in the United States Army. He forthwith tapped him with his cavalry whip on each shoulder, before turning to the ranks of the other heroes of the day who were standing in line at attention.
All this he remembered with a vividness which could not fade over the years. He progressed through life with this brilliant occasion always fresh in his mind. He never thought of speaking about the honors and
the medals which the War Department had ceremonially pinned on his chest, remaining quietly proud in his inner memory that he had been raised in rank by a future President of the United States. That was enough to keep him whole as long as he lived and pursuant to that memory it was now his personal duty to attend daily roll call as was required of a man of his rank and office.
Of course none of this was apparent to people who saw him riding his horse on the avenue in the morning light. He seemed to them just an old gentleman going out on a morning ride for his exercise. People might note that he was the last man to own and ride a horse on that street, as if in protest against the arrival of the new gasoline machines, and he was in fact the last remnant of a generation that respected horses and riding as a way of life. His thoughts were his own, as private and secret as the events of his war, and his military history remained as personal as he wished, a closely kept mystery.
A number of people maintained in later years that they had heard from those present at the time of the Colonel's demise, that a dozen State Department men in dark suits along with four high ranking army officers, had appeared at his house to make arrangements for his funeral and burial in a military cemetery. They had come on orders to gather up his belongings with his medals and signed citations, which would reside in the collections of the Library of Military History in Washington. When their work was done they stood a moment at the gate and just before leaving they turned toward the house and did a smart military salute to his memory. He probably would have preferred to be carried away in a wood coffin on a horse drawn carriage, but they did it in tune with the tenor of the times, in a black Lincoln hearse with tassels waving in the windows all he way to his final resting place. Of course some doubted the veracity of this scene, related many years later at third hand when it had become more a piece of local history than a matter of historical record.
--- Dad, do you think that it could really have been like that? Was that all true or did you make some of that up? He answered that some of it was probably true, but for the rest, he had a suspicion that much of it might have been the way it was told.
When the following week he walked his dog past the open gate, he went into the yard to take a cautious look around. The horse was gone, the windows of the house had been nailed over with wide boards and there was not a trace left of the man who had been living there for all those years.
I am now editing for publication this and other parts.
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