Saturday, May 2, 2009
The Aqua Mustang 80 – PAST PERSON III
I had been confident that I did not need evidence beyond what I was receiving from deep inside myself, but evidence would not hurt, and no one could provide it better than Mrs. Miner, this woman who had appeared out a time in the past when she had been cook and housekeeper, first at White Wings and then at White Pines.
There had never been a clear explanation for why Mrs. Miner left. A version I would hear from my mother was that Auntie Alice had, back then, enticed Mrs. Miner’s then grown son, Raymond Jr., into her bed. That was Mother’s version, but it was not an explanation from the top, for Nana never said a word to us about why Mrs. Miner was gone. And I had nearly given up looking for answers to things that would not be answered – such as why there were cries and scurrying in the night, and why death felt so close so much of the time, and why Mother and Dad were so often angry, and what had been going on in that Pullman drawing room where I knew, when not quite two years old, that my own world would end in horror.
We had not known Mrs. Miner had gone until one year Mother and Dad dropped Peter and me off for another White Pines summer. This was the summer when I was about to turn 15 and Gaga was glassy eyed and speechless from his stroke, wheeled out twice a day from the back of the house, the Boys’ Wing. Wheeled out wearing his old brown tweed peaked hat and wrapped in a steamer blanket by a male nurse whose mouth was twisted in a leer and whose arms were covered with sailors’ tattoos. Gaga living now in the Boys’ Wing with the least likely of all figures to appear at a family summer house in the White Mountains.
Yet the summer rarely did feel like a dark time. For it was also the summer of discovering actual girls. The previous summer I had begun masturbating to virtual girls – especially Darling Jill on page 47 in a dog-eared copy of Erskin Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, which when I left in late August I forgot was in its hiding place, a folded up cot in a corner in the Boys’ Wing. It bothered me that they must have found it when the wing was converted for the stroke-addled version of Gaga. But I was confident that if they found it they would pretend they hadn’t, for sex came into the open no more at White Pines than it was in the staid novels Gaga wrote.
Actually this next summer, with Gaga paralyzed, seemed in memory a light and happy time. Not least because at the end of a 20-minute walk up the long winding driveway and over on Davis Road to White Wings was this amazing, smooth tanned young girl with a puppy face and a budding body – Mickie McKnight. A year ago her parents had come in from Grosse Point and bought White Wings. And now they had brought Mickie and her little brother Donnie with them from Grosse Point to take up summer residence here. They kept the main wing looking exactly as it had when Gaga was alive, right down to the old wallpaper with Chinese pagodas.
It was like a museum, which was the opposite of how they handled the other wing of White Wings, which had been Gaga’s work area before they built White Pines and sometimes afterwards when they summered here for, as usual, unexplained reasons. I had been happily astounded by that Mickie’s parents had done. Here in Gaga’s former work area they had had the old dark wood floor turned into a polished light wood floor, and they had had old wallpaper in that wing ripped out, and the newly bare walls painted a cheerful white. This wing where you had had to tiptoe around so as not to disturb the old man while he was writing, this dark wing that had been kept in silence, had now become an airy place for young people.
Their refurbishing it for Mickie and her little brother Donny did not seem the same thing as the old families’ having areas like the Boys’ Wing, sometimes small separate cottages, for their children. This, it seemed clear, was something new to the mountains. And it seemed to me transformative. At some point most days now Peter and I would walk up to visit Mickie here.
One evening when we came back, sweaty from another long summer day, Nana had come to our room, which this year was a regular guest room in the mains part of the house. She gave us a jar of Mum deodorant and told us what to do with it. Deodorant was needed, she said, now that we were seeing young ladies.
And Mickie was not the only young summer lady coming into her own in the mountains. All our lives we had known the children of old Mrs. Gibbs who were close to our age, and they too were now in puberty. At a swimming hole we went to I gently teased Louisa from Boston, who was stately and tanned, and I also flirted with a pretty, open faced blonde girl, Alice from Baltimore, who had been my favorite in our early days. Louisa and I decided to write each other when we returned to our boarding schools. I was actually in the world – at last!.
On days we did not go up to White Wings we phoned Mickie from the telephone room, which contained a genealogy chart showing our origins, which included our being related to old Mrs. Gibbs and her grandchildren. Above the phone there was a small framed reproduction of a stylized naked woman rising from a clam shell. A naked woman even in this house where sex was not mentioned any more than it has been in Gaga’s careful, celebrated novels.
The phone, like so much else in the White Pines world, seemed to be from another century. It included a polished wooden box attached to the wall above a half desk. It had a crank handle on the side and what looked like a prone bicycle bell on top. You talked into an open cone on the front of the box, and listened with an ear piece that could be hooked to the side. There was no dial. You picked up the ear piece, turned the crank, which rang the bell here and alerted the phone company office, and the Sugar Hill operator would come on. She could get you anyone in Sugar Hill if you just gave the name, no number needed. Nana talked of how the operator kept track of who was having dinner at whose house.
At the start of the conversation Mickie would always say, “How is Mr. Poole?” We had no answers for that since Gaga was hardly part of the world now. We saw him only when the nurse wheeled him out to sit in the sun on the view side of the great house. But after an awkward moment we talked about ourselves and the others our age.
There were these other girls, including the two, Louisa and Alice, on the genealogy chart. And there were two other young girls, kind of pretty already but so young they still had spindly legs, that Nana invited to White Pines for an awkward lunch one day with Peter and me. We and the girls could not figure out what this was supposed to be about. But Mickie! I knew what they was about. A year younger than me but so lush, rounded already and with actual breasts behind an actual bra beneath her tee shirt. I had never in life seen a girl I thought so appealing, not even the gorgeous, precocious blonde girl in our 8th grade class who the previous winter had been exchanging letters with my more confident twin brother.
Up till now Peter had always been the focus of attention. But in this new version of White Wings I managed to place myself at the center. I did card tricks for Mickie, and especially for her younger brother so that she would look on and admire me, whether I fooled her or not. In lonely days in boarding school I had been teaching myself card manipulation from books I ordered from the Johnson-Smith novelty catalog. I could do full waterfalls, just like slick gamblers in the Westerns. With a two-handed pass, I could restore a cut deck, faster than the eye could see, to its previous stacked form. I was also getting good at the much more rare one-handed pass. And I could flip a card around to the back of my hand while making a throwing gesture, giving the illusion that I had made it disappear. I was an expert entertainer in the summer, which seemed as mysterious as why I had been such a shy introvert in the winter.
One evening Mickie’s father was giving us a ride back to White Pines in their station wagon. I was in the back seat, and Peter in the area behind it. In the dark he began, in whispers, pleading with me, which was something new, and I could see he was crying. He was so justifiably upset that I had hogged Mickie’s attention – though it seemed a fair balancing of our accounts in this hard world in which he had seemed so often to have all the attention.