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The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats

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3

I had a long time to think of all this, as Gene and Jamie both slept until two in the afternoon. Jamie woke first and came around the partition, an old bathrobe pulled tightly over his plump stomach. His eyelids were granulated and watery and he needed a shave, but he seemed sure of himself and rather pleased at being where he was. He needed a drink and he got it from the bottle at the side of Gene's bed—a good half tumblerful, which he diluted with tap water and sipped as he looked out over the bay. I saw nothing at all of the jovial Jamie of our trip, looking for the big blonde, only a quiet middle-aged man, contemplating something—what, I did not know.

I cooked eggs and coffee for him over the small kerosene stove, and he gave me the impression, without saying it, that he was very pleased and grateful. I had never before seen him until he'd had a fair start on the days' drinking and I was rather touched. He had another drink after breakfast, took a shower and dressed, coming from behind the partition this time with his thinning hair parted, wearing a clean shirt open at the neck and new khaki trousers.

Was there anything he could do to help, he asked? I had decided not to do anything until after Gene woke up. So Jamie said he was going to take a look around, and after opening his frayed wallet, which appeared to be empty, he went off down the wooden steps. Half an hour later I happened to look out of the window and saw him out in the harbor at the edge of the incoming tide, his khaki pants rolled up above his knees, leaning over to look at something in the muddy sand. . . .

There came an interval of quiet, broken only by the flapping of the shades as the breeze from the sea blew through the rooms. There was nothing to do now but wait for Gene to wake up. I sat there, relaxed, looking at words that he had painted in red and black on the rafters; Before the eye can see it must know blindness. Before the ear can hear it must be deaf to the noise of the world: before the heart can learn to love it must have known the agony of emptiness. . . .

I had read them before but I did not know where. . . . The Upanishads? No, that was not it. I tried hard to remember where the quotation came from, thinking that I would tell Gene that I remembered it. My lover! . . . I looked at the words again and felt that I understood them.

Sitting there, rather lonely and sad, I thought of the past and my very young girlhood. My maternal grandmother, a tall and commanding old lady, had had a rather irregular religious life. Brought up in the faith of the Church of England, one day after her marriage she found a Catholic missal, left behind by a departed Irish servant. Grannie, who, in almost everything except her religious emotions, was a most conventional woman, felt this was an act of God, meant especially for her: she read the book, called on a Jesuit priest, and became a convert. It must have been some time after her marriage, for my mother was then seventeen, and she too became a devout Catholic. Somehow, probably because of the instruction and study considered necessary for their baptism in the Church, they became friends with a group of brilliant Jesuit priests, who visited the house and of whom my mother became very fond.

After many years, and various interesting and startling vicissitudes, Grannie (over sixty by then) was living in London in a club composed of intellectuals and free souls when she discovered Mr. Sinnet's theosophic writings and began to read Mme. Blavatsky. She wrote long letters to my mother in New Jersey, telling of her experiences (mostly mental), among others how she had found the real answer to the mystery of Easter Island and its gigantic statues. She became an ardent theosophist and told my mother about a place in Washington, D.C., where she too, could get books on the subject. . . .

My mother had been interested (though with a more critical mind than dear Grannie, who to her last days read with enthusiasm the novels of Ethel M. Dell) and every month books arrived from the Oriental Esoteric Society, a circulating library in Washington. The only charge being that my mother pay the postage one way. These volumes included everything from the Upanishads to Meyer's Survival of the Human Personality after Death. I believe mother veered off a bit in favor of the survival-after-death idea and what happened then: but I was reading all the books as they came along, including a yoga series which started with Hatha-Yoga, the Science of Health, which she bought and gave me so I could learn how to take care of myself; and by the time I was thirteen I had firmly, and with great feeling, decided I was going to become an Adept.

That summer, after deciding that my destiny was to be an Adept, I went through a discipline which I worked out by myself; for I felt that an important part of all this was that no one must know what was happening. A young girl in a middy blouse and blue serge skirt—that's what we wore in those summer days long ago—took care of the babies, sat in the hammock and watched the yellow jackets building a nest in the eaves of the porch, braided her long hair because it was hot weather, but no one knew the truth. I don't believe that I thought of it much during the daytime—though I do remember that when my aunt Margery came over from Paris with her two children and wore a strange Indian-style garment called a jibbah around the house I felt that a jibbah would be more appropriate for my dedicated life than a middy blouse. . . .

How I thought up this schedule of mine I don't know—but a shabby volume of the Critique of Pure Reason, which I still have, brings much of it back to me. . . . There was a Baptist minister in the village, with a keen and surprising mind—I believe he afterward left the Church. My father sometimes visited him and they would spend the evening talking; the minister was interested in water-color painting and my father, who was doing landscapes at the time, helped him with that. I sometimes went along on these visits and listened to Mr. Clark and his wife, a plain little woman but even more brilliant than her husband, discuss philosophy—a favorite subject of theirs. One night he and Mrs. Clark talked about Kant at great length. I sat there, amazed and enchanted, and, when we left, shyly but with determination (feeling I must read all Kant had to say), I asked if I might borrow the book from which he had read a passage or so.

I could remember my hurt indignation when Mr. and Mrs. Clark both laughed at me, very amused, telling me I could never understand it. How I appeared to them and to my silent father, I don't know, but Mrs. Clark abruptly went into her bedroom and came back with another copy, explaining that she had kept it from her college days and I could keep it as long as I wished. She was sure, she added gently, that it would take me all summer to read.

I started immediately on getting home—up in my bedroom. Alas, I was stunned! But I was hopeful. If only I could take it slowly, and get that a priori fixed firmly in my mind. . . .

This baffling book played a large part in my schedule for becoming an Adept. Perhaps I unconsciously wanted to kill two birds with one stone; read and understand the book—and become an Adept too. . . . Every morning for three months I woke myself at three o'clock in the morning, at first with a tiny battered alarm clock, but after two or three days this was not necessary. I put on a bathrobe, and, sitting at a table by the window, read Emanuel Kant with great concentration. This took an hour, but as the print was very small, and the kerosene lamp gave a poor light, I may have shortened the hour at times and gone on to my next step: this was to practice yoga breathing, during which time my mind was concentrated on my breath. After that I sat at the back window, looked at the stars or dark sky whichever it was that morning, and meditated. I had read a great deal about meditation. Then, two hours having passed, again I read and studied—Light on the Path, one of the yoga books, if I felt sleepy; or Mr. Sinnet's Esoteric Buddhism. I seemed quite easily to understand it all—except Mr. Kant.

By now I was happy and illumined by my secret ritual; allowed myself another period of meditation and prayer. None of us got up very early at the house, so I slept after this, or went for a walk in the garden. Nobody noticed anything, except that I was going to bed early every night—although I sometimes saw my mother look at me rather strangely.

That spring our funny fat fox terrier, Minnie-Mouse-in-the-Hole, had given birth to several puppies. I had become deeply attached to one brown fuzzy little thing who seemed to adore me too. As the fall approached, my puppy caught some infection and became sick. We did everything for the little dog, but he got weaker every day, looking at me so pathetically that I felt my heart breaking at my own helplessness.

At last one night we saw that the puppy was dying—he could no longer walk, or even move, and was barely breathing. My mother told me to stop brooding—to leave him alone to die. I sneaked him upstairs in an old coat and laid him on the floor in my closet. . . .

Before I turned out the lamp I leaned over and touched the puppy. His poor little nose was cold, and he felt lifeless and inert under my hand, and going off to sleep I wished ardently that I was an Adept, instead of just learning to be one. I would then quite easily be able to bring my puppy back to life. . . .

I woke at three o'clock, and as there was no sound from beneath the old coat in the closet I refrained from looking and tried to think of my puppy frisking on the astral plane. Kant seemed unusually difficult, and, though I tried hard to concentrate, instead of the printed words all I could see was the old German, very ugly and quite unhappy as he was pictured on the frontispiece, and I wondered why he had gone to all this trouble when it had not made him look more happy. The windmill was wailing like an uneasy banshee in the wind when I went to sit by the window for my meditation, and I was conscious only of sadness and emptiness. All I could think of was the puppy—how he would give that puppy bark and pretend to be a big dog when, on a windy afternoon, the windmill would start turning like mad and begin pumping water up to the tank.

The chapter from Esoteric Buddhism helped me realize that my puppy was making the rounds of the worlds in some cyclic fashion and next time would be higher in the great spiral. But by the time I was finished with Mr. Sinnet I had weepily convinced myself that my pup should have finished his cycle here first and then gone on. I spent my last period in the sort of prayer that does not petition but sees things as they should be—as they are! I saw my puppy strong and playful; I stroked his head and patted him as he leaped up joyously. . . .

This vision faded after I had held onto it as long as I could; pictures in color of people and places began to float before my eyes, the usual sign that I was going to sleep. Then something made me open my eyes—I heard a sound. I looked—terror and amazement went through me, for there was my pup, out of the closet, not leaping (as in the prayer) but very wobbly. He gazed at me, and I was sure that I saw gratitude in his eyes. He even managed to slowly wag his tail. . . . Why I did not continue my training after this experience, I do not know. Memory is a strange thing, and I do not even remember continuing my morning ritual after this. Perhaps I was afraid of the results.

I hate to say that one other thing came back to me; this is that as the puppy had grown weaker in his illness his fleas had become more numerous and the night before, wrapping him in the old coat, I had sprinkled his head and his poor little overrun stomach with yellow powder that my father kept to get rid of chicken lice, for I wanted him to die in peace. The next morning after taking him to the kitchen and seeing him lap up some milk I announced to the family, in a sort of glorified stupor, that I had brought him back from death by prayer. . . .

My sister Barbara, who had made up her mind to become a lawyer at that time and was reading a book called Ramm on Facts and was accordingly very strong on facts, announced cynically that it was flea powder, not prayer, that had brought him back—she had seen me putting it on the night before! I will have to leave the decision to the veterinarians. . . .

4

I was thinking about this and that I would tell Gene about it someday—it might amuse him—when the bed—our bed—creaked and I turned my head to where Gene lay. But he was motionless. I wished he'd wake up—there was so much to do! So much to talk about. . . . The bed creaked again and this time Gene was sitting up, his feet on the floor. He leaned over and there was the sound of liquor being poured into a glass. He held it in his hand a moment, then his head went back as he drank it. I waited with tense pity. This was the critical moment. Would he rush out and make for the sink, or would it stay down? I waited, not saying a word. Then—he lay back, his head on the pillow, staring at the rafters in the ceiling.

The room was quiet—the cries of sea gulls in the distance, a dog barking monotonously somewhere on Commercial Street, were the only sounds that came through the open windows. . . . Time was held in suspense. At last he sat up again, put his feet on the floor, reached for his bathrobe.

"Aggie?"

"Yes—here I am."

He walked toward me and looked out of the window. His mouth and chin sagged.

"Where's Jim?"

"He went out. He seemed pretty good."

"How do you feel?"

"I feel all right, dear. A little tired, maybe."

"Did Francis leave us some ice?"

"Don't you remember"—I laughed, going over to the icebox—"me trying to get you and Jamie to mix your drinks with ice water last night?"

He smiled ruefully as I lifted the lid of the square box and looked down at the hunk of ice already beginning to melt. With an ice pick I began chipping some loose.

"It would have been a goddamn sight better if we had! That's how the mad don keeps on his feet!"

I put the ice in a glass, and he filled it from the tap (we didn't know about orange juice in those days and he wouldn't have taken it anyway).

He was thinking of the mad don, one of his affectionate terms for Harold de Polo, who had been through many lurid and amusing escapades with him in the past, and he drank the water with a slight reminiscent grin on his face—thinking perhaps that it would be fine if the gay don were here. I could tell that his thoughts at the moment were not absolutely on getting sober, and I was right. He poured another drink, a big one this time, and put the bottle on the table.

"Not much left, eh?"

He felt better now. "No eggs for me yet!" he said. "Did you eat?" I had; he was pleased. He went over and looked at the groceries that John Francis had arranged on the shelf over the sink. It was mostly staples, though there was a jar of bacon and two cans of beans.

"What about a nice fish chowder for tonight—Your kind?"

He was thinking of food, at least. "Wonderful! I'll need salt pork, and—you want to go out and catch the fish?"

"If I get as far as downstairs I'll be doing good. Wonder where Jamie went?"

We had not long to wait. Almost immediately we heard someone on the stairs—and a sound of something being dragged. I went to the hall and saw Jamie, his neat parted hair disarranged and his face flushed, pulling a reluctant dog behind him. He came in, still dragging the animal. Gene's face took on a malicious grin, and he began cursing the dog and Jamie in foul and amusing sailor language.

"You bleedin' bastard! You bring that crummy, decrepit, muck-eating animal into my nice clean flat. Where's he been—the lousy mutt? I don't even remember you gettin' him out of the baggage car!"

Gene didn't remember because after the bottle that he and Jamie drank on the trip down from Boston—well, they weren't remembering anything when they arrived. But I did—and told Gene that dear Mr. Francis, seeing what the situation was when we arrived at his store in a taxi, had offered to tie the dog in his store for the night.

"He caught me just now, coming up here," Jamie explained. "Said he couldn't keep it there any longer. Too full of fleas."

"Too full of fleas" was correct. They could be seen—long black ones crawling across the pinkish skin of the poor animal under his thin white hairs. Gene looked at them, fascinated. Otherwise the dog couldn't have caused John Francis much trouble. He was too weak to walk, his tail hung down like a Spanish whip, he tottered on his weak legs, and there was a look of abject resignation in his eyes. He was mangy, his eyes were watery, and his toenails made long scratches on the wooden floor.

"Holy God!" Gene said. He reached for the bottle. "Here—give him a drink!"

"'His Master's Voice'!" said Jamie—and I saw what he meant. The dog was the type of terrier that was once widely photographed in a phonograph advertisement looking into a horn with his ears cocked—a picture once as famous as the Rheingold Girls are now.

"Two well-known relics of the past—Bowser and I! What ho! A drink, Bowser! To the good old days when women were tarts and men had hair on their chests! You know what I mean?" said Jamie slyly. He took a bowl, put in plenty of milk, and poured in a large dose of whisky, while Gene looked on grinning. He gave it to the dog, who, without a moment's hesitation, lapped the bowl clean while we watched expectantly. He looked up at us, sneezed, and was able to sit firmly on his haunches. There was a quiet moment—evidently he was wondering what was going on inside him. Then, one ear suddenly cocked just like the dog in the picture, he looked at Jamie and gave a weak staccato bark and, walking on very firm legs now, the rope dragging behind him, went over and lay down at his feet.

"We'll have to have one on that!" exclaimed Jamie, and, drawing his feet fastidiously away from the animal, at the same time pulled a pint bottle from his pocket. "Got this down the line—borrowed a dollar from Francis. He told me where I could get it. Had to go to a bootlegger. I didn't know this town was dry."

We all had a drink this time, and then it was decided to put Bowser in an empty flat across the hall. Jamie urged him to take another drink, but Bowser turned his nose away—he wanted to relax—so Jamie picked him up and carried him in, with a bowl of spiked milk in his other hand.

"I put him on the bed," he explained. "The milk shake's on the floor. He'll be able to get a pickup as soon as he's slept it off!"

They had a good time then, he and Gene, talking about the last days at the Garden and the trip up to Provincetown. "You and your blonde!" Gene laughed. "Hell, those dames peeking out were all hopeful—!" But he hadn't thought it funny when it happened.

I had a nice time too; I went down to John Francis' store, bought more milk, salt pork, potatoes and onions and a bottle of cream. Mr. Francis told me he'd send them upstairs to the flat, so I walked down Commercial Street to a wharf where a boat had just come in. It was wonderful being back in Provincetown again. It was May; the air was brilliant and warm and made me feel like dancing or going for a swim. I glanced at Susan Glaspell's house as I went by, but the doors were closed—Susan was probably upstairs working.

I walked across the cracked oystershell and down to the wharf where an old man was selling fish, and, having to choose between codfish and haddock, bought a four-pound haddock, fresh from the water, the eyes shiny, the flesh cold and wet.

That afternoon while Jamie and Gene laughed and talked I cut fat salt pork into dice and very slowly tried it out, so that after half an hour or so the little pieces were a deep, delicate cream color. Meanwhile I cut up the fish, simmering the bones and head in a little water; tying the firm white flesh into a cheesecloth, I put it in the icebox. Two onions were sliced thinly into the pork fat, after I had removed the diced bits, and allowed to brown to a color that matched the fat. When the fishbones and head had simmered down to a savory, seasoned broth I drained it, added the diced pork and the onions, and a cup or so of diced potatoes. Later, when we were ready, I would take the fish from the icebox and finish my chowder. . . .
 

 
 

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