The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats
Gene had put on a clean white undershirt and bathing trunks, and, with his uncombed wavy hair, his broad shoulders and narrow hips, looked very romantic as he began opening up the suitcases. He looked happy too, smiling and laughing as he worked, although his eyes had that abnormally alive look that I know too well. Jamie sat next to the table, near the bottle. . . . Whenever Gene needed it (to keep up to normal, as he said) he would go over and pour himself a drink.
It was a happy day—Gene had not started "tapering off," as he called it, but he had something to do and he was deeply pleased and gay at being once more back in his old flat and in Provincetown.
He arranged his books on a shelf which he had put up the summer before, after sending Jamie down for a hammer to open the box which John Francis had kept for him. He put his underwear and shirts into the rickety bureau drawers, teasing me because I wanted him to wait until I'd put white paper there, coming over to kiss me and look into the pot where I had the chowder. He hung up his suit, carefully creasing the edges of the trousers into the trouser hanger. And that brought on a story which he had to sit down and recall to Jamie, who listened with silent pleasure, though he knew it all too well. . . . Something about how when they were once touring with his father's show, Gene had spent the night with a blonde, left in a cab the next morning to go back to the hotel and, angrily self-conscious anyhow, was irritated when people stared at him as he went through the lobby, only to find, when he started to undress in his room, that he had left his pants behind. Then Jamie told another—how he and Gene had two girls up in their room, and how a contraption that he had carefully rigged up outside over the window to make it look as though it were raining so the girls wouldn't leave failed to work when Jamie pulled the string. I can't remember what happened after that, I was more interested in the contraption.
Gene was going through a locker built under the front window and I noticed that he brought out about fifteen old copies of The Saturday Evening Post and put them under our bed. Then he brought out a tarpaulin; a faded pair of swimming trunks crusted with salt; a small pair of iron dumbbells; some worn-out odd sneakers; an elastic exerciser, which he attached to a bar on the wall; a musty cotton quilt; and then a white quart bottle, etched opaque from the beating of the sand on the dunes where he had found it, as Gene told me later. It had been wrapped in the quilt at the bottom of the locker, beneath the other things.
Gene shook it, then took out the glass-topped cork.
"Tiger Piss!" he cried exultantly. "What ho! Jamie—try some of this!"
"This" was a white, highly potent beverage with a taste so disgusting one had to swallow it quickly with closed eyes. It had to be taken straight, Gene explained, because mixed with anything the taste was so unpalatable, the odor so strange and upsetting, that as one raised the glass to drink, one had to put it down. It was made somewhere in Truro, I think, of what I don't know—potatoes or corn perhaps, although it might have been made of octopus tentacles from its flavor. Whatever it was it was liberally diluted with raw alcohol and must have been kept, before being sold, in kegs which had once held tar.
Jamie sputtered and swore after taking a drink but soon had another, saying the effect was unlike anything he had ever known and that he expected that he would soon be able to growl like a tiger—as well as roar like a lion. One of Jamie's great stunts, as I have mentioned before, was really roaring like a lion. He had a full, deep chest and although in conversation his voice was slightly nasal it had great power and a volume of ferocious sound would come forth that made the air vibrate. . . .
"Tiger Piss" made Gene smolder. He lost some of his gaiety and I saw his lips begin to press together in a cruel line as some dark idea began to gather in the back of his mind. I was forgotten. The chowder (which was delicious, Gene had said when he had tasted it after I had added the fish and cooked it some ten minutes longer) remained in the pot ready to be eaten. I put in the milk and some cream and asked him if he wanted some now. He did not bother to reply. He gazed at the lines on the rafters with a bitter and sardonic eye and then going to the window stood there by himself, looking out at the harbor already paling in the evening light.
It was not the harbor, the distant sea, the now translucent beauty of the passing day to him; it was the backdrop of a drama that went on in his soul—a convenience of God to prove his point.
"I will tear down the curtain of Eternity that God has hung in the sky!" he said somberly. "Vomit all my poison up—on the bread and on the wine!"
He turned back, regarding with malevolence something that we could not see—something in a dark corner of the room where his gaze had concentrated.
"Swallow your poison instead, kid!" Jamie jeered. "The curtain of Eternity has been there a long time and I don't think that you're the one to tear it down. I tried it once—it shattered to pieces like broken glass in my hands."
He picked up the bottle that had been etched by the sands and poured himself a drink.
"The answer is that there is nothing behind the curtain when you do tear it down," Gene said, raising his eyes from the dark corner and gazing with brooding intensity into space. "Life is a farce played by a baboon who feels in his invertebrate bones a vision that, being an ape, he cannot understand. He scratches his fleas absently, with melancholy eyes, and then hangs upside down on the nearest branch and plays with his testicles."
"My trouble is that there is nobody who wants to play with mine!" Jamie said in a nasal whisper.
"But I will find the answer!" Gene drew in a long, deep breath. Jamie, watching him sardonically, hiccupped and poured another drink.
"You'll invent the answer, kid—you'll never find it. You think the answer's in that goddamn play of yours? You got a line that the audience likes, that's all—' Beyond the Horizon'! It don't mean nothin'. There ain't no horizon in the first place—it's an illusion that happens in your eyeball. If it happened in your balls it would be allright—then you could do something about it."
"Let's cut out this talk in front of Agnes!"
"Sorry, kid! Thought Agnes had been around! Remember, my young brother, that I graduated from Fordham University, that great edifice of learning. I was reading Aristotle, my boy, under compulsion necessarily, when you were playing marbles with yourself. You were in the beyond-the-horizon stage then and you're still stuck there. Where'd the beyond-the-horizon idea come from? Think back, kid! I heard it every week when Mama used to drag me to Mass. 'Be a good little boy! Be nice to everybody!'—that's what it all boiled down to, didn't it? So your Robert gets kicked around and never goes to them thar far-distant places, but it's all there waitin' for him—beyond the horizon! 'There'll be pie in the sky by and by'—for your Robert—when he's dead!"
Jamie, I thought indignantly, had read the script of the play when we were at the Garden Hotel—but he didn't know what his brother meant! I put out two plates of chowder and set them on the table. I didn't feel like eating. Gene walked over to the bookcase without answering Jamie. He picked out a book and after looking at a page put it back. He came back to the table and took another drink. "'May wild jackasses desecrate the grave of your grandmother,'" he quoted, apparently apropos of nothing; though I was to know later the next morning where it fitted in. . . . He had lettered it on a sign, with the words "if you disturb me" added, which he had used the year before to hang on his door when he was working.
Jamie's eyes were beginning to glaze and he leaned back in his chair. "'Life's a tragedy—hurrah!'" he quoted mockingly. "That's what you're always saying, ain't it? But you're wrong—life's no tragedy if you got GOLD. Filthy lucre, the spondulics, the old ace in the hole, the stuff that glitters! I've seen through all the glittering that ever went on, and the only real glitter is the glitter of gold. Women?—I've got them doped out! Fame—what has it done for Papa? Education—what's it done for me? Mama gives me twenty-five cents every morning after breakfast for spending money!"
"Gold?" Gene was looking not at but through Jamie. The last drink seemed to have relaxed him somewhat, and though his face still brooded darkly and with a fierce intensity, there was a sort of bitter pleasure in his smile. He was still in some world of his own, but it was focusing into something more tangible.
"You're right—I'd like to have a pile of money—rich like Rockefeller! No damn piddling business . . . I would like to be possessed of an inexhaustible sum of money!" He paused; Jamie and I watched and listened. Again he drew in a deep breath; he went on to draw an imaginary picture of an existence which astonished, and I think almost horrified me because it was so unlike anything that I had thought of him . . .
I cannot use his own words because they have gone from me, as things go that you cannot, for some emotional reason, perhaps, keep in your mind; but the image remains and I have wondered about it, particularly as some years later he said the same thing when he was very sober and in an imaginative and self-revealing mood, perhaps a mood of self-confession. . . . There is a place, an estate, as it were, of great extent (and this must be entirely in my mind, for I am sure if he described it at all, he described it as being of great beauty but I see it, this estate, as being dark, with somber trees). It contained within it everything necessary for his happiness and his comfort, and it was enclosed all around with a great fence, through which no one could enter; and the gates were barred and guarded. But the thing which even now I don't quite understand was that within this province and outside of it too, as though he possessed or dominated the world, he was the wielder of immense and unlimited power: over ideas; over things; over people and their ways of life, not only of his own life, but of all those with whom he came in contact in any way. And all this was a thing of this world; a domain on this earth, where it was he did not say, but not in any foreign or distant country, and not an empire of the spirit. . . . It depended on material things—cars and service and luxury and personal power—some of this he described. I don't remember any specific mention of human beings to whom he was related in this place—a woman, or women, lovers or friends—although there were people there, all of whom must have been in an unusual relationship to him, for over them (and this was very clear) this power of his was complete.
Jamie was gazing into space, getting restless waiting for Gene to finish so that he could get started on some idea of his own. It was evident that he regarded Gene's words as fantasy—not connected with reality. I was silent when Gene finished, watching the fish chowder in the plates wrinkling into a white skin as it grew cold: I got up from where I was sitting, and emptied the plates back into the chowder pot. . . .
Outside, it had grown dark and once again my husband stood at the open window looking out over the flats. He stood there a long time and I wondered what he was thinking about. Jamie groaned and, getting up heavily, went in and lay down on his cot. Gene turned back to the room and spoke to me:
"Get your sweater on . . ."
He went to the closet and took out a white T shirt, pulling it over his head. He held out his hand to me and I took it and we went together down the wooden stairs. We stood silently on the edge of the sand; the wooden pilings were dark shadows near us, the rowboats motionless shapes in the darkness.
"Leave your sneakers here—they'll be all right!"
The wet sand was cool and soft against my feet, between my toes. We went out into the flat, muddy expanse of the harbor, Gene holding my hand and walking a little ahead of me, still silent. He stopped and rolled up his trousers. There was a faint movement of the air, cool and damp against our faces and bare legs. Behind were the lights of the town, and above us we could see the faint light of the stars, swarming on in motionless peace in their great unknown cycle. As we trod the bottom of the harbor it became more soft and oozy, and beneath our feet we felt wet tangled seaweed and little sharp or round things. . . . We stopped, standing there silently, and then we heard an almost noiseless movement going on, a tiny sound of life moving on the emptied floor of the harbor.
"Fiddler crabs!" Gene said. "Don't be afraid—their bite is just a pinch that you can hardly feel."
He put his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close. "My own! Beautiful, adorable, lovely wife of mine!" I laid my head against his chest, full of a strange and deep gratitude. "The fiddler crabs come out of their shells, looking for food—not at the stars! You have never seen the flats in summer, little wife. That's why I wanted to bring you here now. The little crabs—listen!" He paused. "Hear them scuffling. Can you?" His low voice went on as if he were speaking a poem that was deeply felt and without affectation; and to me, close to him, held by his encircling arm, he was the poem, the Word. . . . "They are vulnerable; their soft and unprotected bodies are an easy target for the enemies that God has lined up against them: but they live . . . they, too, are life."
His arm tightened around me.
"Do you know what they do? They find a shell for protection. They insert their tender bodies backward into an empty cockleshell and there they are secure. In the daylight you will see hundreds of the little cockleshells with one fierce little claw emerging. Some of them will be moving, for the fiddlers carry their houses around on their backs, and only when they feel safe, perhaps at night, as now, do they emerge entirely. . . ."
We were alone, small dark figures above the flat expanse which extended around us into nothingness. . . .
"Come on!" he said.
We ran, like birds flying across the flats, hand in hand, toward the distant outside sea. Now water touched our feet, splashed about us as we ran. Gene was laughing. When we stopped, the moving water was above our ankles. The air had more movement, it lifted my hair as he again held me close to him. I could feel his heart pounding hard, like a tired engine. Looking shoreward we could see the light in the windows of our flat. . . .
Jamie was at the table, sprawled out, and on the floor at his feet the white dog was sprawled out too, an empty saucer beside him.
"He's passed out again!" Jamie looked up at us and mumbled as we came in. Gene picked up the poor animal and carried him back to the bed in the next flat. When he returned I could see beads of sweat on his pale face.
"Come on—you get into bed!" he said gently to Jamie, taking him by the arm and leading him behind the partition to the cot. A little later, as we lay motionless side by side in bed, we heard the bedsprings creaking, then his shoes drop to the floor. We heard him throw his clothes across to a chair, and the bed creaking again as he lay down.
In the middle of the night I woke up, wondering what was wrong. Gene lay breathing heavily, his arm under my head. My hair was damp. I was cold, with a strange chill, and lifting the sheet that covered us I could feel that it was wet. The bed beneath us was wet also with a sudden release of the sweat that had come from Gene's body. . . .
This is the first time I had the experience of helping Gene go through the process of recovery from a bout of drinking. When we came up to Provincetown that first time he had been physically low for a few days, "tapering off" on a regulated amount of liquor, but it was not the same thing: he had been "off the wagon," as he called it, for several months then, but he had been going out every day, eating at least one good meal, and there were times during that period when he drank more or drank less. He was going to rehearsals of his plays, seeing people, moving about. Outside of a few occasions (like the party at Christine's, the death of Louis Holladay), he never appeared, at least to me, to be very much under the influence of alcohol, nor did his return to his usual complete abstinence involve too much distress.
During the years that we were married, except for some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence, I do not remember him as being affected by liquor in the usual way. He never raised his voice, he never staggered or walked into things, never "passed out." He never seemed to be what is called drunk, nor did I think of it that way or use that term to myself about him except on the occasions that I have mentioned, and then he appeared more like a madman than anything else—a strange being who was not the real Gene at all.
Rather he seemed to have entered another world where he greatly enjoyed himself for quite a while—until physical sickness and despair at last overcame him. His appearance changed after two or three drinks, his movements were slower than usual, but in some way he became intensified physically—or can I say more physically aware of himself?—thus giving the impression of a dark and increased vitality, and this vitality included a sardonic, (and sometimes boyish) sense of humor.
Most often, with him, a period of drinking would start with what seemed to be an inability to face people as he was: after a few drinks he could face them (or a situation) as a somehow different person. But it seemed that in the country, at Peaked Hill, in Bermuda, or at Brook Farm near Ridgefield, Connecticut, where we lived for three or four years, it was never necessary for him to take a drink when people came to see us or even after they arrived. What I am speaking of seems connected with visits to the city, staying at hotels, going on trips from one place to another. He would never go to the desk and sign the register, but stood unobserved while I attended to it and to getting the rooms; and he would put off taking trips on a train or go about it in some unusual manner. Perhaps in the country, in a house of our own, he was like the fiddler crab, secure within its shell. . . .
Sometimes he did drink in the country but almost always because of people coming there whom he associated with drinking, and who themselves liked to drink—Hart Crane, Louis Wolheim (who later stopped drinking when he fell in love with a fine woman), perhaps Jimmy Light or Harold de Polo—and this would almost always be when he had come to a stopping point in his work, for the two, for him, never went together.
But vice and love are not static; even the physical body goes through psychological changes reacting to environment, or emotion, to food, to cigarettes or drink. As these things occur I will tell about them. Alcoholism is properly considered a sickness now and it is true that Gene's drinking seemed to follow the pattern of a definite type of that sickness. There is much emphasis now on the escape angle or idea. Many people undoubtedly do drink to escape and it becomes a habit that they are not able to overcome—possibly because what they are escaping from is not worth a battle.
But there is another thing to consider, which is that the nervous system in people like Gene (I am speaking of when he was perfectly sober) seems to fail to come up to certain situations—does not, as it were, sufficiently stimulate the personality or the physical being itself. These situations are in the present—a funeral to be attended; a change of environment which will be boring when, instead, it should be enjoyed; the necessity of making a certain impression one way or the other—even the confusion of noise and movement of people, of traffic and crowds, which a less sensitive person would block out. Gene wanted to meet these situations, but there was no adequate response and he felt that a drink or so would give him response. Is that escape? I know that he wanted to meet the situation, not escape from it. It would work, but after the first day, or a certain number of drinks, that same nervous system behaved in such a way that his body became helplessly tortured and unstable without more drink—a sort of shaken, jelly-like protoplasm which stiffened into activity after a hair of the dog that bit it.
So alcohol, most of the time, seemed a needed prop to meet the situation, rather than an escape from it. He felt fine after the first drink. He talked for hours, laughed, and was gay if it was people or a party. If it was a boring trip, he enjoyed putting it off; or, if he took it, having the whole thing take on such a bizarre appearance that he enjoyed that too—if he had a drink. In more important things, alcohol enabled him to do what he wanted to do—not what was expected of him, or was the conventional thing to do.
It occurs to me now, as I write this, that in that empire of his that Gene talked about, where he had power over people and events and things, no situation would ever arise where he would be faced with the need of an adequate response to anything—for all would be under his control. There would never be any need of stimulating his personality or physical being because he would move everything around, himself, like checkers on a board and a situation could never arise that he was not fully organized to meet. . . .
I do not really know the meaning of this personal world vision of his—it may seem later on to be something quite different but it does seem now that this may be a partly adequate explanation.
I slept late myself the next morning and it was Gene, moving restlessly beside me, who woke me up. I lay there for a moment or so, remembering yesterday, and where I was, and last night. The sheets were still wet, no longer cold but tepid with the warmth from our bodies. I reached over and put my hand over my husband's, but there was only a listless response. He was lying on his back, his eyes closed, his cheeks sunken, his face a mask over which stern despair had cast its pallid shadow. His jaws were rigid, and his mouth, set in that heavy holding-back or keeping-in, looked as if it could never be kind or gay again. "Gene!" I said, but he did not answer me.
I moved from my side of the bed and got into my clothes. It was after eleven o'clock and very quiet in the room. I looked behind the partition—Jamie was gone.
Gene got up after a few minutes and without a word to me pulled on his trousers, then the T shirt. He took a comb from his pocket and combed his hair, wetting it first. This somehow upset me because the flat, severe hair lying flat against his skull made him look even more severe—older.
"Do you want some coffee?" I asked, feeling that it was somehow a stupid remark. He shook his head, and I realized then the physical battle that was going on inside him. A spasm twisted his mouth, and he swallowed hard, as if he might be going to be sick.
"Do you know where Jamie put the bottle?"
I had put what was left of the pint of whisky behind the books on the shelf and I went and got it. The "Tiger Piss," thank God, was gone. I shook the bottle that was on Jamie's bureau and found it was empty.
"I put this away, Gene—so there'd be something left."
He took it and held it against the light. It was over a third full. Then he asked me for a glass and carefully measured out a good-sized drink, then looked again at what was left, measuring it with spaced forefinger and thumb. He looked at the clock. He hesitated, then after a moment went to the sink and added a small amount of water to the whisky.
His hand was trembling so badly that I was afraid that he could not get the liquor to his lips without spilling it, and, feeling that I should not be watching him, I went over to the bed which he had just left and stood there, wondering what to do. I could smell, almost feel, the damp sweaty odor of the sheets.
"I wish you'd take those sheets off and fix up the bed, Aggie. I'll lie down and read," Gene said in a low, almost mumbling voice, which sounded as if he were asking for help. I turned back and saw that he was sitting at the table, the glass of whisky and water before him, and quickly, with a sort of half prayer, I pulled the sheets off, only to find that the mattress also was wet. I was baffled; I couldn't turn the mattress myself. I couldn't ask him to help. Probably it was wet right through. I made up my mind, went to the locker and took out the old cotton quilt. I was taking it back to the bed when Gene stopped me.
"Sit down a minute!"
I sat down and he swallowed hard again once or twice and then put out his hand for the drink before him, giving me a trembling smile.
"Everything's going to be all right now. You know that, don't you?"
I nodded. Of course I knew it. I only wished I could do something to help—to make him less shaken and miserable.
"I can't drink any coffee but . . . later maybe some soup?"
"A milk shake—how about that later?"
He hesitated, scowled and picked up the glass. He swallowed the drink, holding himself very still and tense for a moment afterward. I could see his mouth set against the struggle to keep it down.
"No milk shakes—sick of them." He reached out for a cigarette. "You fix up the bed. . . ."
I doubled the quilt and laid it on the mattress and put our worn brown army blankets over that. Two clean pillow cases . . . Gene asked for the other blanket and then he lay down, propping himself up on the pillows. He had taken the pile of Saturday Evening Posts from under the bed and put them on a chair beside him. "I'll read for a while." He put the magazine down for a moment. "Put the bottle out of sight, dear—where Jamie can't get at it."
He hadn't asked where Jamie had gone, nor did I know. He began reading just where he opened the magazine, not bothering to find any particular story. . . .
Later, much later, Jamie came back badly sunburned. He'd been out on the flats again and he lay down on his cot, groaning. . . . Later on, I heard the dog scratching at the door of the other flat and I let him out to go downstairs.
Gene lay in bed reading, looking sick, not wanting to be noticed. Someone came to the door and asked me if the flat next door was for rent and I said I didn't know. I made soup, and Gene said he'd have it later. The sun shifted from the south window and slanted in from the west, across the bed. Gene slept, and after a while I got up and inspected my clothes, and found that unexciting, and I then unpacked the carton of MSS. and letters which I had left at the studio, and wondered where I would keep them. . . . I went down to Francis' store and bought two thick, unlined copybooks, and Mr. Francis told me that there was a bureau in the other flat that I could use if I needed it. When I got back the dog was sitting at the head of the stairs and I opened the door of the other flat and he jumped up on the bed right away.
Gene woke up and read for a while, and then said he'd like the soup, but another drink first. He finished one Saturday Evening Post and began another, and about four o'clock he had another drink and more soup, and read again.
I lay down beside him for a while and read over his shoulder, but it was something about a man selling machinery and I closed my eyes. I could hear the pages turning as Gene smoked a cigarette, and stubbed it out, then took up another. I wanted to be doing something, but I did not know what. . . . There was an emptiness, something was gone. We heard someone coming up the stairs and Gene got panic-stricken. "Say I'm working!" But I did better than that—I didn't want to see anyone either, so I tiptoed to the door and slipped the hook noiselessly into the catch and didn't answer the knocking and after a moment whoever it was went away.
Jamie was sleeping in his pajamas because of the
sunburn. At four o'clock I took the bumpy, wide bus and rode up
Commercial Street to the doctors and got a prescription for a pint
of whisky. Gene didn't sleep that night, sweating again but not so
badly, reading the Post, and taking about four drinks and
more soup. He fell asleep just after it got light, and I got up
about nine o'clock and opened one of the notebooks and began writing
down some ideas I'd had for a story.
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