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The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats

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I was thinking of the sea; in that room in Provincetown there was silence and peace, and I was aware of that sea near which I had lived so long—the sea that was so much a part of my life that I never thought of it when I was away, never longed for it, because it seemed to me to be always there. . . .

I pick up a pencil and words come from somewhere and are put down on the white paper of the copybook; there is joy in doing it.

Old Captain Curtis. . .? (No, it's not him, it's another sea captain.) He cannot let go, in spite of his age, his uselessness. The sight and sound of the sea awake in him a passionate longing for something more tangible. His lost ship on which his thoughts dwell becomes the symbol of all this. . . .

I go on, and then nothing more comes to put down on the paper. Three fishing boats are going out of the harbor, silhouetted against the pale background of water and sky. His boat would have been a whaler, like those that used to sail out of here. Not a coastwise schooner like my old captain's boat. His boat—what will I call her?—has been missing for over a year.

He's so used to his watch that he wakes up every morning at four o'clock and can't sleep. After prowling for a while through the silent house he always winds up by going up to the walk and keeping watch there for the boat that does not return. The lookout room on top of so many of the old houses here in Provincetown that gave me the idea last winter when I saw them. "The Captain's Walk." That's what I'd call my story. . . .

Gene slept all day, and toward evening I saw that he was awake, just lying there with his eyes open. He told me he'd been awake a long time but I didn't quite believe him. He was very morose and sad; it was as if the world had come to an end for him and he saw it stretching off into emptiness. There was a gloom so thick it was almost tangible; I could even feel it settling on my own physical being, like fog. I felt thin and lifeless sitting on the side of the bed, wondering what I could do for him.

"Do you want a drink now, dear?"

He reached out and took my hand. "I want to suffer, I guess. How long did I sleep?" I told him and his eyes showed the beginning of interest. "I didn't even dream. Must have been good for me!"

He looked at his hands, spread out open before him, long, thin, spatulate, with tiny black hairs on the skin of his wrists. I could see that he was sinking again into some acrid yellow fog—part of his brain. He didn't speak for a while.

"I've got to put on more weight this summer. . . ."

I think it made him come together, grow firmer in his flesh, this thought; for he soon said that he'd better try and eat something, but he'd better have a drink first, which he did. While I was fixing something he had one more, enough to enable him to make some calculations on the amount of liquor left. I took him a bowl of chicken soup with an egg beaten up in it, and he asked me what day it was—Wednesday?

"Yes—I think so."

"What time is it now?"

"About five, dear."

He thought about this while he drank his soup. "Where's Jamie?" he said at last.

"He's been very queer all day, awfully quiet. He didn't want to wake you up, either. Glum. Guess he thinks this is an awful place and wonders why we live here."

"Mean he stayed in bed?"

"No, down on the beach most of the time. He took the dog up Commercial Street and had to carry him back!"

"Goddamn dog!" said Gene sourly. "Can you go up to the doc's again? Get a new Post, too, if it's out."

He showed me the bottle. There wasn't much left.

"If I can get through the night with a couple of drinks maybe I can get down on the beach myself tomorrow." He added glumly that it would take two weeks to get the last trace of alcohol out of his system—a doctor told him that. "I'll feel all right, of course, but—you know what I mean. . . ."

He asked if I'd find Jamie and ask him to sit and talk with him while I was gone; and so I left them together, Gene smiling sheepishly at his brother. . . .

On the way uptown in the bus I wondered about Jamie—he must be having as bad or worse a time. I had found him downstairs, sitting on a barrel on the narrow strip of board porch that edged our building, while two steps down, her bare feet in the damp sand, a pleasant, plump, freckled girl of eighteen in a bathing suit was conversing with him about something while Jamie just listened—never a word! I knew that he had no money now, nor any way of getting a drink; he had seemed relieved when I asked him to go up and see Gene. . . .


Gene read again that night, almost until dawn. The doctor had told me to give him a sleeping pill but Gene said wryly that the Saturday Evening Post was his narcotic. I slept beside him, off and on, but I was awake when, about four o'clock, he turned the light off and tried to sleep—and did. I was very tired. I couldn't go to sleep. Not really thinking—but an old rhythm kept going round and round in my mind, an accompaniment to emptiness. No meaning to it that was connected to anything now. . . .

It's raining, wets the garden sod,
Wets the long path where the gangrils trod,
A maist unseemly thing o' God
In mid-July . . .

I listened to it going on; it stopped, and I went to sleep. . . .


Gene ate a little breakfast the next morning and then wanted to go down and sit on the sand, but he wouldn't because there were some people there who might talk to him. He lay down again but couldn't read the Post any more. He asked me what I did yesterday, why I hadn't gone for a swim even if he couldn't? I said I hadn't wanted to, I was trying to write something—that was the greatest way to make the time pass. I suddenly got excited—You'd like it, I think! I got the copybook and he looked at the first page, saw the title, read the few lines, looked puzzled. . . .

"'The Captain's Walk,' you know, where they watch for their boats to come back. This old man, he wants. . . he. . ." I hesitated, not quite knowing how to go on.

"Sounds all right." He closed the book gently. "Listen, little wife . . . I can't think of much now. Will you go over to Susan's and ask her for the Times? If she's working, get the maid to give it to you—she leaves them in the front room."

Gene read the newspaper (which the little Portuguese maid handed to me obligingly) and then started talking about the war news. It surprised me because he hadn't seemed particularly interested before. Provincetown was going to be different this summer, he said gloomily, and for the first time I found out from him that it was now a naval war base. I must have seen a lot of sailors uptown, he said—was I so stupid that I saw them and didn't know what it meant? I explained that I saw them, but I wasn't thinking about them or why they were there, and he laughed and said he guessed that was what he liked about me.

He didn't go down to the beach that day, even after the people left, because by then he was feeling pretty low again, wanting to be quiet and not talk. The false energy of that first spurt of unpacking and arranging could have come back to him only through alcohol, but he would rather suffer now, be bored and melancholy. . . . He exchanged a few pessimistic words with Jamie, who, stoically quiet, also wanted to be alone.

So nothing much was done around the flat: I didn't want to ask him how he wanted to arrange that rather empty, wooden, interesting place. The long day and longer evening and night passed somehow—one of those empty spaces in time when everything is static. I wasn't thinking about anything that day, I was just being there, though I did manage to go into the water when the tide was in and also got a bottle of mange cure from Francis' store and put it on the dog, tying him to a piling below. I opened my copybook and wrote a few more sentences, but the old sea-captain friend of my childhood didn't fit into that lonely lookout on top of so many Provincetown houses; I couldn't make them come together yet, and I was as foggy about it all as Gene was about his Posts (to which he had again resorted), and had to let it go, though one thing was now sure: what went on in the lookout—or even that structure itself—was the story; not the little old blue-eyed sea-captain friend of my childhood.


Gene did not start writing for several days. He slept late; had insomnia; was shaky and depressed for a day or so, and his main interest seemed to be to get back to his swimming. He was a fine swimmer and the first day he went in and I saw him do the crawl I was amazed. He figured out how many strokes he'd swum, did an equal number of the backstroke and said tomorrow he'd show me the racing breast stroke. Then he went back upstairs and exercised with the dumbbells. Jamie took this with some amusement. His form of relaxation and "getting back on the wagon" was eating more than usual and working up some sort of a mild interest in the young girl with whom I had seen him talking. Or rather, let's say, watching with some amazement her working up an interest in him. She came over to the beach every morning and made straight for Jamie, who would be sitting there waiting to see what was going to happen and half-expecting that she wouldn't arrive. . . .

Gene managed to avoid encounters with people. I remember someone came to see us, and Gene, after a cursory greeting, sat with us, reading and never saying a word the entire time. But one morning he got up feeling very much better and after some exercise and eating breakfast he began to do some arranging of the small amount of furniture in our flat. There was a long wooden table, used for typing the summer before, on the side of the partition where Jamie slept. I had been working the last day or so at the table where we ate, putting my writing material into a bureau drawer when I was finished. . . . Jamie was down below on the beach. Somebody came to the door and knocked—then went away. Gene stood there rigid, his hand on his lips, until he heard whoever it was go; then he relaxed and again looked at the table.

I had been trying to work on my sea-captain story when he decided to get the place arranged, expecting that after he'd finished with his dumbbells he'd go down on the beach and join Jamie. He stopped staring at the long table, which seemed to puzzle him, and unpacked a carton from the studio. Papers, MSS., books . . . I watched him, aware of his dilemma, perhaps feeling some irritation myself, wondering again how we would arrange where to put things—where he would work. I was even more aware of the situation because Jamie that morning on greeting us had said jovially, "What ho, kids! For a newly married couple you rattle the bedsprings not at all! I can hear every time you turn over in bed, but that's all!" Well did I know—! And I am sure that somewhere in the back of my mind was a long talk Gene and I had had before our marriage—his very firm ideas and my agreement with them. Now Gene himself, my genius Gene, was wondering how we'd manage. . . .

"Can I help, Gene?" I asked rather aimlessly, because I did not see that there was anything that I could as yet.

"No—go ahead with what you are doing."

I had closed the copybook and put it aside. I didn't want to write now. I saw him take the carbon copy of Beyond from the carton and lay it out in an orderly fashion on the table, after removing some of the things that Jamie had left there. Then he pulled the table out into the room, but the light wasn't good—it was too far from the window.

Somehow I rather resented his not taking me into his confidence about all this. Why didn't he say "How will we manage dear?" or, "Have you any ideas"? (I wonder now why I didn't say something myself.)

Just at this moment we heard the mailman below and Gene went down to see what he had left in the box. When he came back I could see that there had been nothing for him—only a letter for me from the farm. He handed it to me silently, then went and lay down sullenly on the bed. There was a book on the chair next to the bed and he picked it up and opened it. I sat there at the table a moment before opening my letter—I could see that he was not reading.

I went through the letter carefully, and my depression increased. It was not good news. My father wasn't well after coming up from New Jersey and doing all that work on the house there. He wasn't able to get around to his painting. My child had a bad cold and was in bed. William Jones was up to something about the damn note—my mother couldn't figure just what. Did I send him the last payment? I sat there, holding the letter in my hand. Poor darling Teddy! (We had always called my father by his first name.) Why had I asked him to do so much? My poor little kid! And that damned note . . .

I was thinking of all this when Gene put the book (I noticed that he had not turned a page) down angrily, came out and looked at me sitting there.

"Another of those letters from your family? Why don't they leave you alone?"

"Why don't I leave you alone?" I repeated, in a daze and rather vaguely.

"You know what our agreement was—as well as I do!"

I stared at him.

"These letters get you so that you don't even know what you are saying!" he said, with a cruel and antagonistic tightening of his mouth. I still looked at him without saying anything. I didn't believe he even knew what I was thinking about. . . .

"I thought you were going to start making those cuts on Act One today, Gene!"

"I was!"

He glared sourly at me, then at the letter, which I was still holding in my hand, and went over to the table where the script was so neatly laid out. . . .

I put the letter in my copybook and got up. Gene took a chair from the table, and without speaking to me placed it next to the long table and sat down. He began spreading out the script. There were two copies—one bound in brown, the other a typed script from which he had made the final draft to send to Mencken. I went out, down the stairs, and sat staring out at the harbor. No one was in sight—not even Jamie and the dog were around. I was glad. I don't think I could have faced anyone then.

Was this our first quarrel? I didn't even know if it was a quarrel. The long talk Gene and I had about our marriage came back to me. It wasn't exactly one long talk—or, rather, it was a sort of recapitulation, made, or put together, one evening quite seriously (before our marriage) from other talks; from ideas, feeling, wondering about things, about ourselves.


But sitting there alone gazing at the distant edge of the harbor and not seeing it or anything else, I was concerned only with the words that Gene had just thrown at me with such angry emphasis when he spoke of "our agreement." He had spoken in that way because I had received a letter from my mother. I had noticed this attitude of his before—a sort of sullenness when I received letters from anyone in my family, or even from friends . . . as if he were jealous of anyone except himself claiming any part of my interest. But he had never said anything before. I was sure that he said what he did this time, not because of the letter or my apparent depression over it, but because he himself was frustrated—the result, really, of his own breaking of the agreement that he had mentioned.

I suppose I was resentful—the worst of all possible states to be in—because I thought he was being unfair; and along with that there was an even deeper feeling of unhappiness over his being upset about where to work, how to get started, and so on; so, to justify my resentment, which I didn't like at all, I recalled in detail the meaning of the agreement to which he had referred. . . .

It was a rather basic thing about our families and our way of life, and his very definite wish that we could be alone in whatever house or place we should live—except if we sallied forth, as it were, for occasional talks or visits with friends. It was already understood that we were to spend this summer in Provincetown in John Francis' flats; then another summer we would find a shack with kerosene heat and a couple of rooms further out of town, toward Truro, for the "studio," contented as he had been there for the time, was too near civilization to really suit him.

His parents we would see when we went to New York; they were a devoted pair who knew by now that they should not interfere with him: they lived in a hotel in New York in the winter and went to New London in the summertime. About Jamie he just didn't think, so firmly was his brother committed to his own established way of life, his fifteen-dollar-a-week allowance and his constant companionship with the older O'Neills, with whom for a long time it had been understood that he would spend at least a good part of every day. . . .

I had told Gene about the farm and about our old house in Jersey, which I had taken over and which had been more or less empty for a year or so—except for the summer rental. I believe he was pleased at the idea that either one place or the other might be a refuge to which we could retire if necessary. But he was only vaguely interested in my family—they too, should be kept at a distance—for it must be he and I, in a world of our own. As for my little girl, he was sure she was happy with my mother. I knew this was true; and so great was my feeling for Gene, and so preposterous would have been the idea of my poet-genius with a child around that I don't think the idea ever occurred to me. That didn't mean that I didn't think of her; the sonnet that I spoke of writing, one night after walking along the snowy street of Provincetown the winter before, was written to her. . . .

As for having any children of our own, I'm sure we never thought of it. A strange attitude, perhaps, for people getting married, but then Gene was an unusual person, and so perhaps, at that time, was I. . . . No—to be alone with me—that was what he wanted; we had everything—work, love and companionship. Never, never let anything interfere with work or love!

And now (really because of Jamie's being with us, and then only because of space, or room problems) something was stirring up between us, something for which, after his remarks about the letter, the blame was being put on me.

To be truthful it had seemed to be so expedient, so necessary for Jamie's sake that he come to Provincetown with us that I had never given it another thought. If it was what Gene wanted, and satisfied him, it was quite all right with me. I hadn't remembered what the flat was like, although I knew he'd lived and worked there with Terry Carlin. Once on a cold windy day last winter Gene got the key from Mr. Francis and took me up there; but the thought of where to work, keep our things, or even of privacy hadn't bothered me; thinking that Gene would have that (as he used to say) "doped out," I knew that his work—and where to work—was the most important thing. Now, wondering about it, I didn't know just how he'd thought it would work out—maybe that Jamie wouldn't like Provincetown and wouldn't stay. . . .

I walked at last around the Francis' store—about all I could do about anything was to get something for lunch. Gene would probably work out his problem better by being alone for a while. I had two things on my mind—not related, but having some bearing on each other; not only Gene, his writing and so on, but my own problem as outlined in the letter from my mother. I was confused about William Jones and his note, and I realized now that Gene was right in what he had said: this letter and some previous ones had depressed me. What a mixup . . . what tangled threads there already were!


John Francis, benevolent and Buddha-like, simple and kind, silently wrapped the groceries and vegetables that I needed. He seemed to be pondering about something. His intuition, when he did speak, startled me—as it was to do many times in our Provincetown years. He said that it must be very uncomfortable having the three of us in one flat—he didn't see how Gene could work. . . .

The solution, he went on without waiting for a reply, was to take the other flat now before someone else wanted it. He would be willing to wait for the rent, and he would make it less rent, because then we would be taking the whole floor.

I asked him eagerly if I could tell Gene that, and he nodded—he and Gene could talk it over later.

My husband was at the table working on his script when I came up. I put the groceries on the shelf and told him what Mr. Francis said. His aspect, which was still gloomy when I came in, changed at once—he had thought that the price would be too high to even consider! But now—! He finished what he was doing, went downstairs, came back and began moving Jamie's things across to the other flat. He wiped away the dust himself and swept the floor, feeling unexpectedly vigorous—even singing a sea chantey. When Jamie came for lunch he, too, was pleased, and slyly announced that now he could invite his girl friend up for a visit.

I wonder if Gene, wherever he is now, remembers that summer in Francis' flat at all: or if he ever thought of it again after it was over. . . . For some reason it comes less clearly to my mind than other times that we lived together. Perhaps because it was a hiatus between what Gene once called "the old mad studio days" and those wonderful, peaceful creative days at Peaked Hill Bar: or maybe it was because that summer was spent in the town, which was crowded with activities; with something always going on; new or old friends appearing first on the street and then coming up to see us; discussions and arguments centering around the Provincetown Player group; people having trouble with Portuguese maids, or girls getting into trouble with sailors (this would reach us in a roundabout way). There is one image that comes back, almost entirely a visual one, and so unconnected with anything that it's hard to place in time—but I don't think it was that summer. . . . There's a small shack, dark, with pots and pans and rubbish; a man there, young, unshaved; a gallon jug of liquor; my going there, walking through brambles and darkness to see what I could do, for Gene was there; it seems he wanted to leave and either he sent for me, or someone else (possibly Terry) came to get me to go there. We didn't seem to leave, and it comes to me that we stayed all night, talking and wandering in and out to a seaweedy beach, and I, too, drank out of the potent jug that time and tried to glimpse something of the world that the others were seeing.

I find, in looking over certain notes and diaries of mine, that some disturbing, if not exactly dramatic, talks occurred during our occupation of Francis' flat; and I have put them down because, if not significant at the time, they contained the tiny seeds of that change which comes into the lives of everyone. Talks that we had, things Gene told me, attitudes toward life and people, seem important because they are threads woven into the web and woof that later became the tragic pattern of Gene's life.

It was a long summer—longer than I thought at first; in going through old letters I find that we did not leave Provincetown until November of that year. There seems to be a small output of work for that number of months; and knowing how he did work—for that could always be counted on—I've gone back over it, keeping in mind that there were (even as officially recorded) only two one-act plays finished. However, after a week or so in New York that fall when we went down to the old house in Ocean County, he had already done a great deal of writing and hard work on The Straw, and on The Old Davil, or Chris, as he called the play that much later was to become Anna Christie.

That summer he was also looking forward to the coming production of Beyond the Horizon, which was going to be done as soon as possible, in an uptown theater, by John D. Williams, and with that knowledge he had a certain sense of accomplishment and pride . . . so, in one way or another, he was more outgoing with people; more concerned with the practical aspect of the theater; and also becoming more involved in the managerial goings on of the Provincetown Players—with Susan and Jig right across the street, and many other members of the group in Provincetown.

Perhaps it was this preoccupation with outside things, with people and events outside of his writing, my own attempts at adjustment with other affairs and my family during this first summer of our married life, and the fact that we were less alone together than during most of our marriage that make it, (except so far as he and I were concerned) less clear to me in some ways.


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