Monday, June 25, 2007

DARK CHILDHOOD as performed and sung

The text, from CITY AND COUNTRY - performed, along with Amy Coleman, June 23, 2007, at Shetler Studios in Manhattan.        

I.

Every Thursday night after the workshop we walk through Times Square. We are jostled by the mostly New Jersey crowds pouring out from The Lion King. Limousine drivers hold up handwritten signs with names. They line the curb.

Limousines that are rented, like for proms, not like limousines that might have
been owned by some of the people who once crowded into Broadway musicals, when musical theater was not just for routine suburbanites and snide late night TV jokes. When a new work by Rogers & Hammerstein was awaited not by Disneyed Jerseyites but by people who also awaited the next new works by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

Those musicals in those Broadway theaters - lights that were so far from
the dark places of my childhood.

All alone, very small, I would play these fast spinning music records in a
low-ceiling Connecticut room ­ a small fireplace, wide floor boards that did not fit =­ heavy, dark antique flower paintings on old glass, backed by cracked black paint and what looked like dirty crumpled tinfoil. Tilting lamps on teetering tables. Old yellow golf tees tucked away in drawers with highball coasters. The death-like smell of crushed Parliaments ­ always smeared with mother's lipstick. Dad's drugstore pipes and his cheap Revelation tobacco. Beside an unhappy sofa stuffed with horse hair.

On the floor a cabinet with shaky loose hinges. On one shelf the fragile 78
r.p.m. records. The other shelf had the record player.

In the daytime I was as alone here as I was late at night with my radio hidden
under the covers in my room in the back of the house. In secret at night, I would listen to the big bands ­ from New York and Chicago ­ and on clear nights country music from Wheeling, West Virginia -­ music that no one in this house knew except me. Alone in the living room in daytime I carefully I lifted out each record of the family's limited music supply and played each one over and over day after day.

One of their records was of "The Beer Barrel Polka." Another a song called
"Little Brown Jug." A set of records in a box called "Songs of the South African Veldt by José Marais and Miranda." Some Bing Crosby Christmas records and some Barbar the Elephant records. I played all of these records over and over. They represented something to me that was not there. Might never be there. Had to be somewhere. I wanted that music. But I did not sing with the records. If I sangand they heard me they would make fun of me. The would kill me.


After many years, one evening my non-identical twin brother Peter - the good twin
- Peter and I, 11 years old now, are in jackets and neckties close up to a big stage in a theater down in New York City. I feel excitement all around me ­expectant chatter ­ the sight and smell of lovely women with bare shoulders, none of whom seem anything like family women. And their escorts, ruddy-faced confident men in new looking suits that would not hold dirty pipe cleaners.

All seats are taken, right up to the boxes and balconies, which look like happy
places though they are not so close to the stage as we are. The stage. The people talking are also looking at a huge, deep red curtain, though nothing has happened yet. And now the lights are going down very gradually. The chatter is trailing off. The deep red curtain is going up to reveal another curtain, a pale one, and spot lights are playing on this one.

And from down in front of us below the stage I see a flash of brass. A tall man
in a long black jacket stands up, raises a stick in the air ­ and it starts ­the music I had sensed all along was way out there somewhere is suddenly here.

I want it to last forever, but the music comes to a climax as the second
curtain goes up, and it is summer in some great place of rolling hills and blue skies and graceful trees = and there's a woman churning butter =­ even more real than what was around our family's New Hampshire summer places. And a man in a cowboy hat walks out on the stage looking strong and then happy, and the music is sounding like the soft summer day, and then it gets strong and the theater is filled with his singing:

There's a bright golden haze on the meadow,

There's a bright golden haze on the meadow,

The corn is as high as an elephant's eye,

And it seems to be climbing clear up the sky.


Oh what a beautiful morning,

Oh what a beautiful day,

I've got a beautiful feeling,

Everything's go
ing my way.



II.

It was as things were getting even worse at that cold little brick boys boarding
school in the New Hampshire lake country, The Holderness School, where so recently I could not pass any of my courses, and where I lived in pain and fear when I did not escape into the North Woods stories of Stephen Meader or the poetry I had found by Keats and Wordsworth. Where in my second year I was as despised as I has been at home in the family. Where they taunted me with the name "Speedy," the school's worst nickname for the school's slowest boy. And my twin was in the school too, and doing just fine. And for me it was all getting worse even now that I had passed my 15th birthday and it was becoming evident that all along I had been fast-witted.

The English teacher supported me. But the music master was like family. He was
angry, and he made me believe, when he turned me down for the glee club, that I should not think ever again of trying to sing. And then the art teacher, a pretty little woman married to a very tall man who taught social studies, said I was probably too literal minded, as evidenced by my debating successes, to ever be an artist. Perhaps that was for my brother Peter. Perhaps I should be a lawyer, and go into government. Then she said that when she heard hear us recite orations we had written for a competition, she thought I was logical, but my brother was poetic. I won, but my brother was better. This was just like home.

Over the years I would write, and sometimes in silence the words would sing!, and I would never be a lawyer, and my brother would wind up doing government work, even with the CIA. So they were wrong about that. But it would not have surprised me if I had learned then that it would be 35 years before I drew again, and a full 50 before I sang.

Not that everything was cold and literal.
One evening I went along in a school van ­ full of farts and punches ­ to a rare informal dance 40 miles away at our sister school, the all-girls St. Mary's-in-the-Mountains. It was not far from the family¹s grandiose formal summer houses which were now shuttered for the winter. But those were cold places even in summer, and St. Mary's, now in this northern winter, is warm. This room where they had the dance, it was all soft colors and gentle lights ­- not at all like our school¹s place for rare social gatherings, almost no color, a cold linoleum floor, harsh lights and black leather chairs.

Now, from one end of this girl-like room at St. Mary¹s we boys burst in from the cold. And we saw at the other end these girls in girl clothes, some with soft sweaters that followed their girl shapes, including, sometimes, actual breasts. It is art and it is poetry and it is music!

But I might have been crossing a dangerous mountain pass to get to that end of the room where the girl¹s were standing, looking unconcerned ­ where this girl was standing. Smiling. Black hair. Chubby, which was okay, actually nice. Big sad eyes that were averted. White teeth. Yes, breasts. Some enchanted evening You may see a stranger You may see a stranger Across a crowded room I muttered something about dancing. She nodded. And I was not here. She said her name was Sandie. I told her mine. But I was thinking we were other people. I was back in the last Broadway theater Peter and I had been to. It was World War II, and I was a suave French planter in the South Pacific. I had spied a shy, appealing army nurse. An American, like Sandie.

And somehow you¹ll know

You'll know even then

That somewhere you¹ll see her

Again, and again.


It was quickly clear that this girl with the averted eyes and the new breasts
knew things I did not know ­ like how to dance without moving your feet ­ things people like us had to learn outside the formal white-glove dancing classes to which parents like ours had sent us on Friday evenings back in Connecticut.

Without conversation now, my outstretched left arm and her outstretched right arm gave way at precisely the same time. Her right hand, which had no glove on it, was now turned and cupped in my left hand against my school blazer shoulder. My right hand was way out of dancing-class position, way down her soft back. Our bodies were together ­ and this ³cheek to cheek² thing I had heard about, me leaning down and she pulling herself up. And the fingers of her left hand, oh God, touched the back of my neck. And as we swayed, her leg went between mine and pressed against me.

And I had a problem for which musical theater was no help ­ for although my
penis was not much more developed than my cracking singing voice, it had to be clear to this non-nurse that this non-Frenchman had an erection.

Some enchanted evening
You will find your true love

You may feel her call you

Across a crowded room
.
Then fly to her side

And make her your own

Or all through you life you

Will dream all alone



III.



There were moments in the New Hampshire boarding school time -­ that time when they used to beat me -­ moments in that time when I had hope -­ as in hope maybe from the discovery of vertical necking at our sister school. Though they beat me. The other boys beat me.

Hope maybe because I was New England¹s champion debater and only 15 years old, Though they beat me. Hope from last summer, so long ago, up in the White Mountains. I was popular there. Everybody liked me. Which was as strange to me as my deep unpopularity here at Holderness, as strange as that I was the unpopular, too-smart boy now, while last year I had been the unpopular, too-slow too-dumb boy. They hated me! It had reached such a point that they held me down, ran a sword blade across my throat, bent my arms back till I thought they¹d snap. They made sure I was always in pain, always in fear, always angry.

But some events were proving that I was not what they thought. And also there was a more mysterious hope:


He don't plant taters, he don't plant cotton,
And them that plants 'em is soon forgotten.

But Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin¹ a-long.



One cold night in what we called the schoolhouse - the school's only non-brick building - its old wooden core an actual old one-room schoolhouse with classrooms added round the big, dusty, central room, the assembly and study hall room where we each had our old iron-mounted ink-stained, rutted desks,

In this chilly and dank fluorescent-lit room -­ Empty now -­ Alone now ­ pushing a push broom -­ twenty-five minutes to ten, which was very late in this prison world where they got you up in the dark and made you turn lights out at ten ­- late in this hollow room, pushing a broom, hearing the voices from the crowded day -­ the day voices of popular athletes whispering they would kill me ­ the day voice of the very gray and disturbing master we called Grim, making more threats. The sound of my own voice in a practice debate,

The robust sounds of young males in unison singing a hymn, which we did each morning before classes began. (I liked the music and wanted to join in, but I had to be very very careful, because I could not sing.)


Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.

Pushing a broom now in this room where, a year earlier, I had been forced to sit each night in compulsory evening study hall, which was only for the retarded, sitting on a seat attached with iron to the desk behind me, skipping the required reading and living without assignment into the official English-class anthology, even though I was stupid, discovering in secret first Kipling and then Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and Conrad and Keats, taking in their words while trying to look like I was doing homework in Algebra , which was taught by the football coach, or world geography, where the text book was in baby talk, or Latin, where even the young bald master lived on the edge of violence. In this room at night alone now, SWEEPING UP, which was my job here ­ each boy had a menial job ­and knowing while I was sweeping with one broom, then pushing with another, knowing we were out of earshot of brick dormitories and brick masters¹ houses. Knowing this, each night I sang. Mostly I sang songs from the new movie I had just seen ­ Showboat. The comforting figure of a man singing about the Mississippi. And then this sad, syrupy smooth actress, Ava Gardner ­ so put down and persecuted, so smooth and unhappy, sweet and lush ­ Half-naked. Here at the school they said I was nothing and they might be right. But I sang this song from the movie.

Ol' man river, that ol' man river
He must know somethin', he don't say nothin'
He just keeps rollin, he keeps on rollin along.

You and me, we sweat and strain,

Body all achin' and rack with pain

Tote that barge, lift that bail

Get a little drunk and you land in jail.


I get weary, and sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'
But Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' ­ A-long.




IV.


I¹m just a poor wayfarin' stranger

A travelin' through, This world of woe

And there's not sickness, no toil, no danger

In that fair land to which I go.


Burl Ives. The Wayfaring Stranger.


Pretty Kitty is singing the Burl Ives songs that are suddenly everywhere -­ even in the dorms, even on the juke box in town at Edgar¹s Diner -­ my music suddenly everywhere -­ not the little novelty songs of prissy Teresa Brewer and posturing Frankie Laine and the too-cute Julius Larosa ­ but songs of love and longing and life and betrayal ­- Sex in "Foggy, Foggy Dew," not "Napolean¹s Retreat" -­ Sadness and hope in "Wayfaring Stranger" and "I Know Where I¹m Going," not "Blueberry Hill" or "Shrimp Boats Are A-comin'''

Kitty is singing now in the back baggage area of our plain maroon Chevrolet sort of station wagon. "Sort of" because it is so plain it has no wood on it. Her skirt is pulled up high on her thighs and her wonderful rounded legs are stretched out and up from where she sits with me in the baggage area, the heals of her bare feet resting on a narrow metal ledge beneath the permanently closed rear window. From this position, she sings Burl Ives!

On top of Old Smokey

All covered with snow
I lost my true lover
From courting too slow.


Kitty and I do not drive yet. Mother and Dad, accompanied by Grandmother
Clark, are taking my twin Peter and me back from New Hampshire from theend-of-the-school-year-weekend. Kitty had been up there for the weekend. She was my date! For courtin¹s a pleasure And parting is brief And a false hearted lover Is worse than a thief. The reason Kitty¹s skirt is pulled up high is that it had gotten wet when she and I strolled off and found a brook while Mother and Dad were having pre-lunch drinks in a parking lot near the Vermont border ­- "It's a crime what they charge for simple high balls in Howard Johnson's" - ­ Mother and Dad always chose to have cheap blended whisky with tepid water in a smoke-filled parked car ­ we could smell it as we got close from our stroll -­ holding hands, stopping to kiss before we were close enough for them to see us =­ back to the sort-of station wagon from a place so foreign from this family scene.

And now we were moving
again ­ Mother and Dad in the front seat furious with each other = in the next seat mother¹s mother, my seemingly helpless southern grandmother, Grandmother Clark, and her favorite, my good-boy twin Peter. Peter is sometimes looking back at us. And Kitty sang in this place where music seemed so unlikely ­ as the car rose and fell with the hills we were traversing ­ singing Burl Ives ­

And the grave will decay you

And turn you to dust

And I chimed in repeating the last words, being funny, she and I thought,
pretending to sing harmony that we knew I could not sing ­"turn you to dust."


Happiness in the air, and also sweet sadness in the air, which went straight to my heart, though everything had changed in my third year of boarding school. They still might not like me but now no one, except once my brother, called me by the sorry nickname Speedy. And it was not just that I had surpassed my brother, the good twin, in most things connected with school. And not just that I filled up the school trophy case with big plastic and brass regional debating trophies -­ each topped by a brass woman holding not some sports thing but a laurel wreath -­ trophies that towered over the tiny sports trophies that were all the school had before I came alone.

I also was involved now all year round with Kitty, bright brown eyes and a kind laugh and a perfect tan and full lips I kissed, and a mind that saw the glory and saw the humor. Maybe a kid, but as good as Ava Gardner and right here. So pretty I could hardly believe it. And I felt guilty. Sandie had already betrayed me with another boy. And then I had betrayed her.

Kitty lived two towns away from us in Connecticut, but we had met the previous
summer at a swimming place up in the White Mountains where our summer gang gathered -­ far from the formal houses of our families -­ and where I was the popular figure I had never been in family or school. "Not one girl in fifty," Kitty sang now "That a poor boy can trust." "Can trust." And we kept on -- "snow," "too slow," "decay you," "to dust."


They'll hug you and kiss you
And tell you more lies

Than cross ties on the railroad
Or stars in the sky.


This moment in the baggage area with Kitty all the more sweet knowing -­ as I knew everywhere in this life of mine -­ that betrayal could never, ever, be far away. Kitty singing. Me pretending to sing ­ and the two of us laughing- ­ down Vermont, across Massachusetts, into Connecticut all the way to the Long Island Sound, and no one else laughed. And for years Mother and Dad and Peter would do snide dinner table imitations of me trying to sing "On Top of Old Smokey." And Mother and Grandmother Clark would say, how strange that Fred, not Peter, should have such a girl.


So come you young maidens

And listen to me
,
Never place you affections
On a green willow tree.

The leaves they will wither,
The roots they will die,
You¹ll all be forsaken

And never know why.



V.


The ash grove how graceful,
How plainly t'is speaking
,
The wind through it playing
Has language for me.


A lifetime later, 1987, I am in a Polish coffee shop on upper Madison. Young
Eve and I come here after our Saturday morning anatomy class at the National Academy. Over kielbasa and pirogies we talk of the latissimus dorsi and the gluteus maximus and of how the pubic symphysis is always at the halfway point, and nipples look outward at angles.

Eve says she has a friend, an older woman, 40 years old, who would be good for me. Funny and bright, like you, she says. This is thoughtful of Eve, for whom I am a divorced older man and on whom I have no designs. But I think 40 is very old. I have never felt so young.

Whenever the light
Through it branches is breaking,

A host of kind faces
Is gazing at me.


I am now, suddenly, a visual artist after three decades as a professional writer. Figure drawing in every art school and just about every private drawing group in the city. With images I am going in and out of dangerous places in the landscape of my past life. Not the ones in my books but rather family places I never entered when I wrote.

My downtown apartment has become an artist¹s studio,
the typewriter put away and nearly forgotten. I am drawing and painting for the first time since boarding school. Painting and drawing and sculpture too.

But I am still a long way from singing, though at 53 I have my first Walkman.

With sounds and images I am traveling in time ­ as if a bungee cord is pulling
me back over wives and girlfriends ­ like Anne and Judy and Bonnie and Vannie and Susi -­ and back over places that had seemed right for me ­ like Rangoon and Beirut and Havana and Managua and Luanda -­ places that were so often literal war zones. And back, too, over family horrors that until recently I had kept from consciousness and so far from memory that miraculously none of the characters in my dangerous-places books, published or unpublished, fiction or nonfiction, none had ever had a childhood.

Pulled way, way back to New Hampshire and before the time I turned away from Kitty ­ and then from art and music and even poetry.

The friends of my childhood,
Again are before me,

Each step wakes a memory,
As freely I roam.


As we talk I am thinking of that first girl Sandie ­and the
Some-Enchanted-Evening time at her boarding school. And now I see her on up on a stage, two weeks afterwards. She¹s in the auditorium of a teachers' college in a joint glee club concert between our two schools. I watched from the back, since I couldn¹t sing.

With soft whispers laiden,
Its leaves rustle ore me

The ash grove, the ash grove,
Alone is my home.


In the Polish coffee shop Eve is saying she can get me in free to a concert this night - ­Tchaikovsky at the nearby 92nd Street Y. Eve lives at the Y in exchange for some jobs she does, like being an usher at lectures and concerts. In the evening I am heading back uptown on the Lexington Avenue subway. Like on all subways I ride in these new and mostly happy days, every face I see, old or young, is a face I want to draw. I am sketching. Then here, somewhere between 23rd and 96th Streets, it is as if I am looking not at these subway rider faces across from me, but at Sandie, deep in the past in old New Hampshire. I put away my sketch book and go inward.

I see her mouth
forming the O in Ash Grove. And right afterwards, with surprising clarity, I can see Kitty too, wearing her special Kitty smile that played through my life and made my family so anxious. And I see myself walking away from Kitty, which is what in another year I did. On top of Old Smokey, all covered with snow.

My lips smile no more

My heart loses its lightness

No dream of the future

My spirit can cheer.


And now in the subway Kitty¹s face is replaced by the faces of other children.
My cousins in that proper, careful-seeming family, so proper some of my elders had somehow acquired British accents. My cousins who were being and would be molested. Deirdre. Or kill themselves, Elka with a with rope, Fitz with a gun. Or die, or be killed, young after saying they wanted to die, Margaret, Paul. Or become the walking dead in the cult of family.

I only would brood on
The past and its brightness,

The dead I have mourned
Are again living here.


When I arrive at the 92nd Street Y, Eve, in a Navy blue blazer, programs cradled
in her arms, bounces down the concert hall aisle to hug me -­ like everyone in the art schools is always hugging. This soft and meaningful present I am in.

Then up in stage light a fearless little long-haired Ukrainian is moving back and forth and up and down around the stage ­ attacking his violin with glee ­ - louder and louder, faster and faster. And underneath Tchiaivovky, I am still in old New Hampshire, and the old glee club song in my head will not go away.

This song I¹d heard from the rear of another darkened auditorium­ me 15 years
old, not quite into the Kitty time. Danger all around. My young life in the balance, my eyes locked on the only person till then who might, maybe, speak aloud of love.

And in my mind are all the parts of memory that I had so long kept at bay. Cousins who keep dying. And their supposed guardians. Our guardians.

From every dark nook
They press forward to meet me,

I lift up my eyes
To the broad leafy dome.

Then others are there,
Looking downward to great me,
The ash grove, the ash grove
Alone is my home.


Eve's blue blazer could of course be the St. Mary¹s blazer Sandie wore for that glee club concert. In that time of hope and love and treason that might or might not lead out of a betrayed childhood.

The ash grove, the ash grove,

Alone is my home.











1 comment:

blind_schoolb said...

I attended boarding school.

http://inblindschool.blogspot.com/