The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats
It was less than a week after Jamie moved to the other flat that Gene decided to do a short story. He had finished revising Beyond the Horizon and wasn't quite ready to start another long play. In April 1917 he had sold a short story to the Seven Arts magazine, receiving a remarkably fine letter of praise and criticism from Waldo Frank, who was editor of the magazine at that time. After making a few changes that Mr. Frank suggested, he had received a check for fifty dollars, and later sold them In the Zone for the same amount of money.
Now he wanted to write the story of a young Negro gangster, and as he talked to me about the boy who sneaked back to see his old grandmother on her deathbed Gene felt sure that he could better emphasize in short-story form the psychological split in the young Negro.
But the Provincetown Players were anxious for a one-act play to start their season in the fall. And as Gene talked, something else in him began to overcome the psychological aspect of the story. I could see his eyes darken, then become intense; he began to pace the floor as the dramatist in him took over. I have sometimes wondered how Gene's talent would have developed had he not been born, as it were, in the theater.
He got the idea for The Dreamy Kid during a conversation with dark, pock-marked Joe Smith, his old friend at the Hell Hole. I think that was it—as unimportant a thing as Joe merely mentioning someone of that name. Dreamy! I remember Gene speaking that name almost lovingly and then laughing. Negro gangster named Dreamy—so Joe had spoken of him. Why Dreamy?
He did a page or so of the short story, then put it aside—decided it should be a one-act play—and then he began writing the words: CHARACTERS: Mammy Saunders; Abe, her grandson, "The Dreamy Kid . . ."
So now he was working, everything was at last as it should be: the rhythm and creative happiness of our days in the studio were back again. . . .
I woke at dawn the day after he started work and lay there for a while. Gene slept more soundly than usual beside me. His face had repose and strength—today he would start writing The Dreamy Kid, he had talked about it again last night. . . .
I sat up, put my feet on the floor, and bending over kissed him on the forehead, softly so as not to waken him. My love, My sensitive, strange darling! What made you what you are, what were the hidden stigmata that had wounded you, and at times bled with drops of bitterness? But what I saw was the haloed nimbus, not yet really visible, of a great poet, of the creative man.
I picked up my clothes from the chair and went out to where the dawn came with thin streaks of bright gold past the edge of the drawn shade. He would sleep another hour or so, and quietly I got into my clothes and went down the wooden stairs.
It is not easy to describe the ecstasy and joy that just being alive on certain days brings—the effect of light and sun and air, of distance, and of small things nearby. . . . I saw gulls flying and it was as if I had never really known before what a sea gull was. I smelled the odor of pilings, damp from the night, and the odor of the sand over which people had walked and left footprints. I saw the harbor, the distant sea, and there seemed to be a silence behind the glittering water and sky. At my feet little objects caught my eye—tiny shells, bits of wood polished by water; mussels; tangled seaweed. There is a poem by Emily Dickinson that brings back that walk in the early morning:
I taste a liquor never
When landlords turn
the drunken bee
I came back from a solitary and enchanted wandering along the edge of the harbor, past the old wharf building where Gene's plays had first been produced two summers ago—Bound East for Cardiff, Thirst. I thought of how he had come here, a young man with a suitcase full of plays. Thirst—that was the one he played in—he as a half-naked sailor and Louise Bryant as the beautiful dancer dying of thirst on a raft in mid-ocean. Louise . . . I remembered the dilemma of the studio days. Louise had already passed like a ghost into a nonexistent past (though probably some part of me was wondering if I'd ever see her, and if she did look like me!). "Let the dead past bury its dead!" Where, I wondered, did that quotation so often used by Gene, come from?
He was still asleep when I came back to the flat. I pulled up the front window shades and then went and stood for a moment or so looking down at him. . . . We had come through again; we were in Provincetown; we were safe. . . . Without even putting it into words I knew that he had not meant what had happened to happen; he had not wanted it; he had not wanted to drink; and he could not (and it seemed to me then, never could) be blamed.
Gene got up every morning about eight o'clock, ate breakfast, started to work. I cleared off the table, sat down again and began to write too. . . . After Gene was finished working he went across the street to Jig Cook's house, read the headlines, talked to Susan Glaspell, who would be through her work by this time, and brought back the previous day's Times. He'd look at this for a while and then go down to the beach for a swim; sometimes I went with him, sometimes I stayed upstairs and got lunch ready. Jamie was in and out—it was nice having him there.
After lunch Gene would lie down and take a short nap, then go over what he had written that morning, or do some typing—but he did not spend as much time on this as usual, for that summer there was a great deal of excitement going on; navy vessels came in and out of the harbor—submarines were supposed to be off the coast; people came to the beach in the afternoon and talked about the war and all that was going on in the town; as a rule before three or four o'clock we were down there too, walking out over the flats for another swim if the tide was out, lying in the sun. . . . In the evening after supper we read or talked, or sometimes went to see the Cooks or the Hapgoods or some other friends. If Gene was interested in the conversation he talked, or if it bored him he picked up a convenient book or magazine and sat there reading. No one seemed to mind—but I'm ashamed to say I didn't like it, nor did I like it when he did the same thing when people came to see us. It seems to me now that it was a sensible enough thing for him to do.
One other thing I didn't like—and I realize now also how foolish and young-wifeish I was about that. For some reason I got quite upset at his going over to Susan's as soon as he had finished his work and staying there, often much longer than I thought he should, talking to her. . . . I suppose I was jealous, which was absurd—but also it made me feel very much out of things. I believe that these two feelings on my part went up and down like weights on a scale whenever I was really concerned about this matter—which was usually when I was waiting for him to come back! Susan was very attractive, but she was older than Gene and really very much in love with her husband, Jig Cook, which gave her considerable to think about. She was not too strong physically and Jig had built for her, in that little Cape Cod cottage, an elevator with ropes so she would not have to climb the stairs to her room. She talked and thought about her health with some concern—but to women, not to the many men who found her conversation stimulating and helpful. She was a slight and girlish woman who looked attractive even when she was not feeling well; she had a sort of feminine inner spirit, a fire, a sensitiveness that showed in her fine brown eyes and in the way that she used her hands and spoke. She seemed to me an ethereal being, detached and yet passionate. She was so far beyond me in her knowledge and understanding of everything that was going on in the world—economics, the rights of mankind, the theater, writing, people—and she was able to talk of them when necessary with charm and interest, while I, it seemed to me, only managed to stutter mentally when I tried to put anything into words. . . .
But I was jealous of Susan—which I'm sure would surprise her if she were alive today. I was grumpy and quiet when Gene came back with the newspaper after having stayed in that quiet restful house for too long. At last he asked me what was the matter. So I told him and he laughed; grabbed me and lifted me up in the air, hugged me tightly against his chest, and told me I was a plain little damn fool. . . . After that (being a darling then!), we went swimming together as soon as he had finished working, or if he did go over to Susan's he didn't stay so long.
We went over to Jig and Susan's house the evening The Dreamy Kid was finished and he read it aloud. There was enthusiasm for the play; but a little later there seemed to be some doubt about it—whether they did not think it as good as his other short plays, or if there was some difficulty in regard to the Negro cast, I don't remember. I do know that they definitely wanted another play from him with which to open their season on Macdougal Street in the fall.
After that evening Gene took a few days off from work. There were letters to write; typing to be done; notes and ideas about Chris to go over. He and I took long swims and lay longer in the sand in the hot sun. Gene became as dark as a Hawaiian, and I got very tanned too—only, my hair was bleaching out in strange streaks. Sometimes, after a long swim, doing the crawl or the lazy backstroke, we would sit, dripping with salt water, on the sand, and Gene would talk of the South Sea Islands and how we would go there some day and go up the Amazon—he had a yen to go up the Amazon. . . .
Sometimes Jamie sat with us, the dog beside him; or, more often we would see him out on the flats with the same quiet girl, and the dog, looking for fiddler crabs. Someone gave us two tiny kittens, and we kept them upstairs in the flat, with a box of sand in the corner for their toilet. Bowser, when he accompanied Jamie from the other flat was most considerate toward the kittens—it was as if, after being rescued from his sordid canine youth in Boston, he must be kindly toward everything. . . .
After lunch, which we took down to the beach and ate with pleasurable greed from paper plates, we would lie drying ourselves in the hot sun for a while and then Gene and I would go back upstairs to our flat, pull down the shades, and in our half-dry suits, grains of sand here and there on our skin, we would lie down on the bed in the warm darkness. . . .
One afternoon we walked eastward from Francis' store and turned off down a sandy road through scrubby trees and tangled undergrowth to where the sand dunes started, gently rounded under the stretch of low, clinging vegetation from which emerged stumps and crooked dead branches of fallen trees. Gene was taking me to the coast-guard station which Mabel Dodge had discovered and made livable, spending a summer there with her friends. . . . He had spoken about it often, and now we were going to see it. As we walked, holding hands, the dunes appeared to change and move, some long and gentle, others steep and grass-crowned; they existed in a world of their own, quiet, peaceful and detached from everything; we no longer saw the trees and vegetation that edged them on the Provincetown side, nor could we yet hear the sound of the ocean on the outer shore; there was only air and sky, and here and there the long eelgrass which traced circles in the sand about its roots as it was blown restlessly by the wind.
We climbed the last long dune and stood there and saw the old coast-guard station beneath us—the long gray roof with its lookout; two or three other buildings near it; and everywhere sand, piled and blown against the buildings to the very edge of the roofs. We went sliding down the dune, and then walked up the roof of the house to the railed lookout: Gene, laughing, sat down on the wide bench and pulled me down beside him.
"This is the house you and I should have!" he said, looking at the ocean, which stretched out beyond a beach of white sand and seaweed in a great circle to the horizon. "We would live here like sea gulls, two sea gulls coming home at night to our home. . . ." And we slid down the roof to the sand and ran up the beach together, tiny sandpipers scattering in flocks before us and settling down again in the wet sand after we passed. We found a place, dry and hot, behind a dune that was close to the ocean, and undressed, ran down, plunged and splashed through the low breakers, and swam a while beyond them; and then, returning, wet and salty with dripping hair, embraced in ecstasy on the hot sand, beneath the silent sky. . . .
One night, lying in bed with his arm under my head, he told me a secret that had bothered him—a secret fear of impotence. "It has happened at times," he told me, "and I don't know why. I had a fear of it somehow, coming back to this flat. It has nothing to do with physical feeling, but sometimes when that feeling is most intense, I think of that fear, it comes and then it might happen, I don't know why." I did not know why either, for it had never happened that way. What was he afraid of; it was always rather a mystery to me, his saying this; but he did say it, and was worried then for a while. . . .
Then, one morning, there was the sound of gunfire, and after that, panic; for a German submarine was seen in the harbor, or just outside of it, emerging and then disappearing. No one knew where it was going or what it was going to do. There was a panic in the town, a mingled hush and expectancy. Strangely enough, I do not remember our taking it too seriously. Gene did not seem worried or afraid—mainly, it gave him an opportunity to write a long letter to his parents describing the dangers of war.
He seemed, about this time, to be in a reminiscing mood—to want to bring into some sort of focus other things that had occurred in his past that might be of use to him. No longer did he sit at night with Jamie and talk of their lurid days; nor did he seem to be thinking too much of his sailor days; or of old Chris, who lived on a barge with his woman Marty. He had been writing that down and seemed to have come to some sort of block with it; it didn't yet take the form of the play he wanted, and he had put it aside for a while and didn't want to talk about it.
We continued our long walks in the afternoon or early evening. One day, going out to Race Point, not along the road but crossing through little paths and small sandy cliffs, he began telling me of the time he spent in New London working on a newspaper; sitting down on an abandoned rowboat half buried in the sand, he spoke about a girl with whom he had been in love at that time—a beautiful girl and with great charm. . . . It was a real love affair, perhaps his first—and his most orthodox (if that is the word) feeling about a girl. He had wanted to marry her, and as he talked, it seemed to me that he almost thought for a while that he could live and be happy (at least with her) in a conventional life. But she was too frightened of her father, her social position, the future. . . . There had been a crisis of some sort—a demanding on his part, a demanding in return on hers—a misunderstanding; or, more likely, an understanding, for they parted, both of them perhaps hoping that this parting was not permanent. But it had been the ending for them in spite of his seeing her again, and letters between them even after he went to Baker's class in Harvard; and she remained in his memory, beautiful and once deeply cherished, but a symbol of a woman who would not give up all for love. . . .
He showed me her picture when we came back that evening, and some poems he had written to her—some written with romantic feeling, others amusing. He told me about that Christmas when he left his family to go to the tubercular sanatorium. And after supper he began talking about the sanatorium. . . .
We sat near the open window, hearing the waves moving against the pilings below, expecting perhaps to hear gunshots off shore that meant the German submarine had been found; my own mind was half dreamily preoccupied with the face of the girl whose photograph he had just shown me, but he talked in his low, slow voice of the "San," as he called it, intent on recalling it again and sharing it with me. . . . He paused only to get up and bring out some more photographs—which I'd seen before, but without particular interest.
The next morning, after sitting a while at the typewriter copying some notes that he had made, he told me that he had been thinking about the "San" before he went to sleep the night before, and that even while he was at the typewriter it had been in his mind—particularly a girl there whom he had almost forgotten. . . . His face became compassionate—he said it was the goddamnedest thing, what happened when patients had been there a while. People came to see them, the family and friends; then, pretty soon nobody comes, there's very little mail—in fact, he said, they are forgotten. . . .
He had spoken, the night before, of himself at the sanatorium; what he had thought about, what he had read there, and how gradually the conviction had come to him that he wanted to write plays. But now this was put aside—he was thinking only of the girl. . . .
After our swim he was very silent for a while and then he began talking about her again, and even while I was getting something together for lunch and setting the table, he went on talking about her and about his feeling of pity for her. . . . It was this girl who later became one of the leading characters in one of Gene's plays.
I was having my own troubles and keeping quiet about them, for I did not want to worry Gene. He noticed that I was finding excuses to get out of my more or less regular hours of work; the kittens' box had to be filled; I was planning something special for dinner and had to go out to buy what I wanted; or I was just tired and wanted to go down early to the beach and lie in the sun. . .
He asked me, one morning when after he had finished his work he saw that I had been engaged, not in writing, but in assembling together equal amounts of sea bass, codfish, lobster claws, two eels, a small grouper, and a piece of haddock, all of which I had cleaned or washed and put on one end of the table; on the other end I had already laid out a small jar of olive oil, onions, leaks, parsley, tomatoes, garlic and some herbs, including a piece of fennel from the fields—he asked me, after looking at all this with interest, why I was cooking at this time of day?
"I thought you'd like a bouillabaisse!" I said. "It takes time getting the things, not the cooking. I even got some saffron at the drugstore."
"Sounds fine! Had some once in New Orleans. But don't pass the buck, baby, why don't you do all this in the afternoon?"
"I want to be with you then."
"Well—this'll hit the spot! But what about that novelette you were going to write? You got a letter the other day, didn't you, from Young's, or Snappy Stories asking for one?"
My inertia turned to complete emptiness inside me. He had hit the spot—the very sore spot. I didn't want to write the novelette. . . . Bouillabaisse was an excuse—everything was an excuse.
"You know you told me that you thought I should go ahead with the better stuff—" I said, trying to be firm. Gene grinned with tender malice. "So bouillabaisse is better stuff? You're not doing any writing. Seriously, Aggie, you're getting thin! Hutch Hapgood told me someone was saying that you had tuberculosis. Just gossip, of course, among our envious friends! What have you got on your mind?"
"I don't see any reason why I can't do a good story and get money for it—say, from Harper's!"
He picked up a towel. "I'm going down for a swim. I'm stumped on Chris myself right now—been doing the outline this afternoon but it doesn't come right, not yet. I'll go over what you've done on your story, and if you have anything else on your mind, let's hear about that, too!"
I went on fixing the bouillabaisse (which was really a fish stew) after Gene went downstairs; but whereas I'd been absorbed in this before, my mind was now distracted by our talk. Most of the work was done: now all that was left to do was to arrange everything in a large pot, with the piscatory pieces that took the longest to cook on the bottom; add the oil and vegetables and not too large an amount of water and let it stew very gently for a short time. I did it all, except putting it on the stove; I could have gone down to the beach for a while and come up later to start it cooking. . . .
Instead I sat down looking blankly at the table, from which the assortment of fish and food was now removed, and tried (glum as Gene himself could be at times but I'm sure more confused than he ever could be) to arrange in sections (as I had the fish) and tackle separately what was wrong. . . .
Well, what was? How to separate it anyway? Maybe it was all one problem, not several! Let's see . . . that empty feeling about "The Captain's Walk . . ."
That was not quite true; when I was working on it I felt wonderful, though there were, of course, problems about this and that in the story; but even that was fun—so why the empty feeling? Because you know it's not going to sell. . . . No magazine that would be interested in this story uses novelettes. It's almost that already. . . .
What makes the empty feeling is money then, isn't it? Or, damn it, having to think about money! But I did have to think about it—something was always coming up. The taxes, the mortgage interest on the Old House in New Jersey; nasty letters from the tenant, the screens had rotted, mosquitoes were killing them, he had ordered new screens for the entire house, and that used the balance of the rent. I knew perfectly well that at the most all he needed were three or four new screens instead of twenty-seven! A small doctor's bill from Dawn Hill; some mix-up about a telephone there—but on top of all that, and adding up to a complete and baffling confusion in my mind, those goddamn letters about the note for the cows!
(I was getting to swear, in my thoughts at least, like my husband, whose vocabulary was frequently emphasized by the greatest collection of oaths and swear words that I've heard before or since.)
I pulled out the drawer of the table and looked at the collection of envelopes, in more or less illiterate handwriting, that I had hidden away out of sight. I closed the drawer quickly—it was too much! It was a good thing that I had been going for the mail lately. Then I pulled it out again. There was no use evading them. Also there were three letters from my mother which I had put there, but those I didn't bother with now.
The letters about the notes for the cows had been arriving at intervals; I took them out, looked them over again and still could not make any sense out of them. . . .
Buying the cows had seemed a good idea at the time. There were a hundred or more acres of pasture on the farm, and another hundred acres were in hay. The idea was this: one bought some stock—or dry heifers; in the summer they were put out to pasture; in the winter they ate the hay. So the farm itself supported them; there was no milking and very little work connected with it, as the hay was cut on shares and half of it put in the barn—which was three times the size of the house. At the proper time, usually when they were two years old, the heifers were bred to a neighboring bull and when, as they said up there, they "freshened," then one sold them to a neighboring farmer for a good price.
But in the meantime, one had bought them either for cash or on a note—most of the farmers did the latter, and William Jones, cattle dealer par excellence, always kept a number of half-grown heifers for just such transactions; or, if he didn't have them, went out and bought them overnight, driving miles to get them from some run-down farm in the mountains and offering ready cash. . . .
I knew that I'd made the last payment . . . I thought I had made the one before that. But in the moving around Gene and I had done, the receipt could have been lost. Anyhow, now it seemed I owed fifty dollars—and from some of the letters it appeared I owed the entire note, not only to Mr. Jones, but to several other people!
It was at this moment that Gene came up, wet and smiling after his swim. He saw me sitting there disconsolately and, leaning over me, looked at the pile of letters which now I did not try to conceal. . . .
"Can you make these out?" I said, looking at him desperately. I added what I thought was the proper businesslike phrase: "I don't know where I stand!"
He sat down beside me and I saw that he really wanted to help me. I handed him the letters, which were clipped together. He removed the clip and looked through them.
"I can't make head or tail of this," he said at last. "What's it all about? You've been making payments on the note—I know that. Where," he added belligerently, "are the cows?"
"That has nothing to do with it, Gene," I said, rather curtly. "It's the notes—not the cows."
"I should think it had a lot to do with it! Can't you sell the bloody damn cows? And what do you mean—notes? I thought it was a note. How do you handle this thing, anyway?"
"Every month I pay something on my note—what I can; usually twenty-five dollars and interest. Then I make a new note, for the balance, whatever it is, and send that back. Last month I only sent ten dollars, but Mr. Jones said it would be all right to send what I could if I was short." I picked up the first of the letters. Gene read it aloud slowly. I could see he was bored:
Mrs. Agnes Burton O'Neill
Dear Madam: Enclosed find some Blank Notes, and please send renewal as soon as possible, I wish you could get the new note back here by the 20th, but date it the 21st, as I want to try and use it in the bank and you know they don't want any past due paper. Try and make the payment as large as possible as I am very hard up for money. I am just haying, the crops are fair. I see by your letter you are married and wish you many happy days.
Yours truly, William Jones
P.S. The old note is $167.50
"Now," I added hopefully, feeling that I could interest him: "I'll read this! It came from Fred Baker, Grocer, New Milford."
Miss Agnes B. Burton
Mr. William Jones is holding a note against you for $185.50. This note is past due. Mr. Jones is in a bad way and has put this note in my hands for collection and security. If not convenient to pay the whole note, kindly send me a hundred on the principal and you can make a short term note for the balance.
"Now wait a minute! Here's another from Henry Ashlord, Real Estate.
I hold a note against you for $157.00. I also hold one for $135.60, signed Ageness O'Neill. Mr. Jones has made an assignment of his personal property to me . . . I do not just understand the notes, and ask you to write me just what you owe him. He has left the country and I am going to try and settle up his estate, kindly advise if one note is a renewal of the other or if you own them both. Estate of William Jones.
"Now," I said, really trembling as I saw the look of blankness in Gene's eyes: "I wrote Mr. Jones. Here is his reply:
Dear Madam: In reply to your letter I must say the reason i left note with Mr. Baker is that I got mixed up in a wood job this spring and come near loosing everything I had so i had to go crowding everyone that owed me. But you must still send renewal and payment of note to me, as i have to indorse it and make it as large a payment as you can and I will see that Mr. Baker doesn't crowd us. I am sorry I had to make you this trouble but I couldn't help it, but my crops are good this year so as soon as I can turn them I expect to be on a good footing again, hoping you are getting along fine, yours truly William Jones.
Gene took the letter and looked it over: "I thought he'd disappeared? Where's Brookville? Wait a minute—he's got this one dated 1819 . . . he's as crazy as you are!"
"I did what he said," I went on, ignoring this. "Then came this one—you read it!"
Agnes Burton O'Neill Madam: In the matter of the note given by yourself to William Jones and now held by Compton of East Bridge, will you please let me hear from you at once what you intend to do?
"Who the hell is Compton?" Gene yelled, putting the letter down. Then his expression changed: "Where are the old notes—the ones he returned to you?"
"He hasn't returned them, not all of them, not for quite a while anyway. I don't know why he doesn't—he just doesn't."
"NO—he handed them out to his creditors, that's it!" Gene said. "Well he can't get anything from me! God damn it—let them take the cows and stop bothering you."
"They can't, or they would."
"The cows broke through the fence into a tobacco lot on the next farm and ruined all the leaf tobacco. The farmer put them into his tobacco barn and sold them for damages before mother even knew about it . . .!"
"Well," Gene said at last, "just don't do anything about it. See what happens!"
I think the truth was that he didn't know anything
more about it than I did, and, somewhat relieved, I decided to
follow his advice. So, for the present at least, that was off my
mind. However, his mind was now made up—he was going to get
me straightened out about my work also, and I was only too glad to
talk to him about this.
© Copyright 1999-2010 eOneill.com