All the little live thin.., p.17
All the Little Live Things, p.17Wallace Stegner
So I ground the coals to my breast in my private dark. I had exiled myself to Curt’s old room on the excuse that I didn’t want to keep Ruth awake, but what I really wanted was Curt’s ghost to myself. It was the worst time of my life. Night after night I went on composing dialogues, revising his life and mine, explaining away estrangement with reasons that I did not fully believe, being wiser in these fictions than I had ever been in fact, putting into clear prose this clash of values and the need for self-discipline, self-respect, clear purpose, all that. I said persuasively everything that at one time or other I had said angrily or hopelessly. And every time, I disgusted myself with my own mouthings, I never persuaded myself that I would have persuaded him. I felt that I couldn’t leave even his ghost alone to be itself as it wanted to be. Why? Because I couldn’t accept him, living or dead, as he had wanted to be. I wanted reconciliation, oh yes, but on my terms, because I couldn’t convince myself that my terms were wrong. I defined myself as bigot without shaking my convictions at all.
Within weeks his living face had begun to fade into a few waxwork expressions: an impish boy (what ever happened to him, where did he go?) caught in motion while he played with a terrier on a wide New Hampshire lawn; a, sandaled beat who leaned his head against a wall and raised his unclean reddish beard in contemplation; the athlete whose composed handsome discontented face burned upward from white satin under the carefully brushed streaked hair.
To the fading or frozen expressions that hid my son’s unreachable privacy I tried to speak my heart, and I had the advantage of endless revisions; but the dead listened no more than the living had. He would have none of my love unless it came unqualified and uncritical and in spite of every provocation—and it is simply uncanny how much of that spirit I detect in Jim Peck, who isn’t of course after my love, but who is certainly trying to corner me without losing any of his own men. It is not a kind of love I am ever likely to be able to give. I don’t think any human being is entitled to it, and anyway I can’t separate love and respect. Curt demanded what I couldn’t give, I insisted on what he wouldn’t accept. Never never never never never.
Trying to explain myself, I told him about my own life, including some shameful episodes, but all that did was revive a lot of unhappinesses that I had lived down and put aside years before, and remind me of old guilts that were not unlike Curt’s. Thinking filled my days with boredom and my nights with self-loathing. Out of my son’s death I plucked the conviction of my own imperfection and failure, and yet I’ could not name the ways I might have taken so as not to fail.
There were times in the office when, faced by some contractual quibble or other, I was drowned in disgust; times when dictating a letter I heard my voice like a twittering of sparrows. By the end of March, Ruth was saying to me, “Joe, you’ve got to take a vacation. You’ve got to get away for a while.”
I could easily enough have justified a trip to Rome or London or Paris. But I would have run into clients in any of those glamorous capitals on any afternoon. I found too that I didn’t want any two-week interim followed by a return to the office. I wanted to wipe the board off clean, not with a dusty eraser but with a kerosened rag, the way we did it every Friday afternoon in Northfield, Minnesota, when my mother was keeping house for a professor at Saint Olaf College and I was briefly a Danish kid, possessed of an unexpected identity between the Swedes who snooted the Norwegians and the Norwegians who scorned the Swedes. A blackboard as clean as Miss Tidemann’s fifth-grade room on a Friday afternoon, a mind emptied of all that could not now be helped, a full retreat of the soul.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ...
Nel mezzo? Quasi alla fine. I was more than sixty, past the age when I should have had to settle ultimate questions. But ultimate questions were the only kind I wanted to ask, such questions as might divert my attention from Curtis, who was past hurt or help, and onto myself, who felt ambiguously but bitterly responsible.
It may have been only Ruth’s insistence on a trip that got me to believing the cure for my unease might lie in a place. I had never had a place of my own, I had spent my life in motion even while I persuaded myself I was domesticated. A housebroke vagrant. Call me Ishmael, but add, Jenny kissed me. I had an alley cat’s appreciation of stability without having a place either of origin or of domicile. We had camped in Manhattan for thirty-seven years, with at least one trip abroad during each of the thirty-seven. When I began to wonder if it might be possible to go back and find where the road forked (Che la diritta via era smarrita!), I couldn’t think where I might go.
If I had had a home town, I would have gone straight back to it on one of those middle-aged pilgrimages to search out the boy I was, the man I started out to be, and I might have half expected to find myself barefooted and with a fishpole, like a Post cover by Norman Rockwell. Young America, freckled and healthy, the finest crop grown in the soil of democratic institutions. But I had been raised on the run by an unfortunate woman whose first husband, my father, shot himself in the barn, and whose second, a drunken railroad man with D.T.’s and periodic paralysis, was finally backed over by a switch engine in the Saint Paul yards. After he died, when I was six, we moved from place to place. My mother, with a thick Danish accent arid no education beyond her twelfth year, had no skill to sell, and no beauty, only her hard hands. She kept other people’s house and tended other people’s children.
We lived in shallow, laborious, temporary ruts, and over their rims she was always seeing some dawn or rainbow, the kind of rainbow that had brought her to the States, only now it was one that always promised something better for me. Generally she waited until the school term was over, and then we were gone to where a letter or a rumor or a chance conversation over coffee had persuaded her she must go—another town, another house, another job, strange faces, strange rooms, strange smells, strange streets to be learned. Sometimes I have felt that I could smell my way backward down my life from stranger’s house to stranger’s house, like a homing dog, by little tokens left on maple or elm or light pole. I would know one place by the smell of crushed mulberries, another by the reek of trying lard, still another by the dampness of laundry hung on a clothes-horse under which I lay hidden and heard the surf of adult voices overhead. There is no plan or continuity or permanence. My first sixteen years of going to and fro in the earth were a passage from vacuum to vacuum.
My teachers thought me gifted; eventually I found my way to a scholarship and a part-time job at the University of Illinois—it really is a land of opportunity and there really is such a thing as disinterested human kindness. Or the intention of kindness, for like many good intentions, the help of my high-school principal had mixed results. I was exploded into books and ideas and the company of people so different from those I had known in my maid’s-room, boardinghouse life that they might have been another species. I was in a constant tremble like an overfilled glass. I discovered that I was bright, and it made me drunk to realize it. And it never occurred to me, though I had worked summers since I was twelve, that instead of blotting up teachers’ attention and devouring books I might be out earning some money to make my mother’s life easier. When we’re young, we take so casually every sacrifice offered by the old. At least I did. Also I know that if it had occurred to me she would never have permitted it for one hour. She would have thought even a year, even a semester, a catastrophic wasting of my talents, though I was only sixteen and could have spared it easily.
I had been a child unnaturally self-contained, I had had to learn early to be seen and not heard. I had hidden myself in corners and window seats and backyards and sheds with books or projects of my own, knowing even at seven or eight that the maid’s child would be suffered, and sometimes sentimentally made over, but not indulged. When college blew up all those inhibitions, I must have been insufferable, the sort of cub who would now set my teeth on edge. Anyone who did not accept the opinions that I had developed within the hour, or read
My mother could find no job in Champaign-Urbana, or pretended she couldn’t. After coming down with me from Elgin, where we had been living, she warmed herself for a day among buildings, stadium, lawns full of students and squirrels, and then she went away again, probably out of pure delicacy because she could see she embarrassed me, and got a job in a boardinghouse in Chicago.
I saw her go with relief. Later I hid her letters from my roommate, because I was ashamed of their lined tablet paper and their penciled, misspelled, mixed Danish and English. Though I thought I loved her, and told myself that I would rescue her and bring her to my mansion as soon as I finished college and had set my life on the track to some star, I would not for all the praise I hoped to win and all the money I expected to make have had it known that my mother was a maid of all work in a rooming house, a servant to clerks and shop-girls.
Not too many of her letters had to be read in haste and hidden in a drawer. In December of my first college year, going down cellar to stoke the furnace, she caught her heel in a rotten step and fell. My only visit back to Chicago was to her funeral.
Luckless and deprived, she lies in a South Side cemetery in an unvisited grave, a clumsy Danish servant girl without one relative besides myself on the American continent. She had married, supported, and buried two weak husbands, and thereafter given herself up to making a life for her son. It all reads like one great cliché. But maybe love and sorrow are always clichés, ambition and selfishness and regret are clichés, death is a cliché. It’s only the literary, hot for novelty, who fear cliché, and I am no longer of that tribe.
I hadn’t thought of my mother ten times in twenty years, but in the bad time after Curt’s death she came every night to join the spirit of my dead son. Between them they drowned my heart and mind, for I had to set her devotion to me, which was the best thing in my life until I met Ruth, against my own unwillingness to accept or forgive Curt. Would she have judged me, no matter how selfish and demoralized I might have become? Would she, in my place, have been able to reconcile herself to a scapegrace and give him the uncritical love that I was half convinced, he had been demanding of me? And if she had, would I have approved? Down in my heart, wouldn’t I have thought her sentimental, and abused her for the love I knew I had not earned?
My two ghosts kept Ruth from getting close to me, and they made me sick for what I had done to people I loved, and what they had done to me. If I forgave Curt, I had to forgive myself. And there were the talents I had got from the great Grab Bag—I had failed to make anything of them, but I couldn’t determine whom or what I had failed, for I couldn’t refer myself to any source, tribe, family, region, nation, tradition, gene pool, or anything else to which the wastage of my life could be called a loss. I grew to hate the thin dispersal of my relatives, my mother in Chicago earth and my son in Bucks County, each alone among strangers. And here was I, random and now childless, making meaningless orbits in the Madison Avenue void.
Lose a dog in the woods, no matter how oscura, and he will follow the back track to the place where he went in. At past sixty, rather deep in the woods, I was lifting my nose from among the mold and mushrooms to sniff at any cold scent that promised to lead me somewhere. But I could find no place that was mine. The crisscrossing trails of my mother’s life had confused all the scents.
In the end, we made, one after the other, the two moves that are possible to Americans and lost dogs. We smelled our way back to the old country and sniffed for a while around Copenhagen and around the little island of Taasinge in the southwestern Baltic where my mother was born. We learned something, perhaps, but that is another story. What matters is that I didn’t smell one thing that was familiar or that meant anything personal; not a person, not an echo, not a whiff from the past. Europe was cut off, no longer anything to me.
So we did the other thing that Americans and lost dogs can do, we quit trying to backtrack and went forward. We turned our backs on everything remembered and came out to make a new beginning in California. It wasn’t a radical act, in a way. It was a habitual one, it conformed to twenty generations of American experience. We would have pooh-poohed the idea that we were living by the Garden myth, but we were, we are. We expected to become less culpable by becoming more withdrawn. We shook dust from our garments and combed bewilderment like twigs from our hair and we abandoned the woods. I am determined not to fight shadows any more, or sit like a nitwitted old woman sorting guilt and blame. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peck and I were unanimous on the subject of harmlessness, at least in theory. I don’t want to harm anybody, I don’t want anybody harming me.
So you see why this Peck exasperates me? He reminds me of things I don’t want to remember. He threatens me, he endangers my peace. If he and Curtis are the future, then I am an irreconcilable past. They leave me nothing, not even the comfort of blindness, because I think I see them very clearly—as clearly as I see my own incapacity to accept them or deal with them.
And, of course, can’t dismiss them either, any more than I can make up my mind to shoo Peck out of my oak tree.
Well, I have been writing you for two hours, trying to say a little more intelligibly some things I said too uncompromisingly the other day. I have come at you like an old weepy barfly, and cornered you, and taken your hand in my damp hand and told you the story of my sad life. I am a continual surprise to myself: I had not thought I was one to spill my guts in this fashion. Usually I am nimbler at ironies and evasive tactics than at the confessional business. Except to me, none of this that I’ve written you is in any way important. But it is personal and it is serious, two things I have always found it troubling to be.
This letter I found recently under a stack of old papers in the study. I had never finished it, signed it, or sent it. But it reminds me that even back in midsummer Marian had begun to force or coax me out of the burrow where I lived with the gophers and the moles and the other creatures of darkness.
If Peck was a threat to peace, what was she?
ONE KIND OF midsummer day here starts gray, with a cool sweat of dew on the leaves, a smell of wetted oat grass, dark wetness in the angles of fences and on the patio screeds. The sky is obscured by the unmoving unmottled ceiling of high fog that will burn away about ten. Once it does, the rest of the day will be warm and even until the evening chill comes on.
But two or three times in a summer we will get up to find the morning cloudless but milky, with a red sun and a vinegarish taint of smog even up here in the hills. The valley is murked out, the near ridges are dim, the far ones gone. If there is any wind, it is a light drift from the inland valleys. The newspapers will speak of inversions, and record a climbing smog count, until, after three or four days of increasing heat and smarting eyes, the built-in air conditioner that lies off the Pacific shore will move inland and hang over the skyline in rolls of cottony fog, blowing us instantly cool again.
The Fourth of July was one of the red-dawn days. When I got up at seven and went out on the terrace the sun was like an orange through Weld’s orchard. The air was sour and still. Between the cinderish bricks of the patio the screeds were warping upward at the ends. Thinking how that brick lawn would radiate heat later, I had a disloyal moment of yearning for the cool grass and broad-leafed shade of rainier climates.
Catarrh had left nothing on the mat. He was not a summer hunter. The first year he had eaten a lot of lizards, but they obviously disagreed with him an
I was congratulating myself that at least, now the adobe had dried like cement, Catarrh’s spring extermination would last. Then I walked around the house and discovered that within the past twenty-four hours a gopher had come boring straight under the walk, leaving collapsing bricks in his wake, and was already throwing up mounds of dirt in the rose garden.
These things make me swear out loud. They’re infallible, they find your weakness like heat-seeking missiles. The walk was my only remaining weakness, for within half a year of completing the patio itself, all laid on sand and with sand swept between the bricks as the landscape plan specified, I had discovered that the system was not made for gopher country, in which it got undermined, or for adobe soil, which in the dry season cracked so wide that all the sand went down to China and the bricks caved after it. I had already taken out the entire patio—nine thousand bricks, a brick at a time—and relaid it section by section on a concrete pad. But I hadn’t yet got around to the walk. Presto, this pest finds it.
It is not easy to trap gophers in the loose earth of a flower bed. The usual result is that they kick your trap full of dirt and pack the hole so tight you can’t pull it out. But I couldn’t leave this vermin loose among the roses; I would have to deal with him after breakfast. So I went inside and plugged in the percolator and made toast and orange juice and grilled a couple of little breakfast steaks and carried the tray into the bedroom, where Ruth was just stretching herself awake. For a woman who rather scorns physical indulgence she takes a suspicious pleasure in the last luxurious half hour of morning sleep. We breakfasted in the bedroom as usual, with Catarrh curled up on the electric blanket, and after breakfast we read aloud in Il Gattopardo for nearly an hour. Ruth insists on these exercises, lest we deteriorate. Only after the Italian lesson did I get out and start for the rose garden with a spading fork and a couple of traps. By then it was already hot.
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