The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats
18He read what I had done on "The Captain's Walk" with absorbed interest—then told me it was great, but not dramatic enough. It wasn't dramatic dialogue! He didn't seem to hear me when I told him I saw it as a character story, a story of atmosphere and obsession; and without listening to me he began, after we had eaten the bouillabaisse, to visualize it in his own terms of drama. I listened to him eagerly, but it didn't seem to help—it became something else than what I'd intended as he began to elaborate it.
"Do you think I can sell it to one of the magazines?"
"No, it's too long. Why don't you put it aside for a while?" He regarded me thoughtfully. "Or let me work out the action? Why not go ahead with a novelette?"
So I started a novelette—thinking of the money I needed for the note, the farm and other things. But my former attitude toward the girl who wanted this or wanted that wasn't amusing any more. It dragged, and it dragged me down into the depths of inertia with it. Gene noticed this and a couple of days later came in to where I was sitting listlessly before the copybook and handed me a rather frayed, blue-covered manuscript.
"Why don't you do this? Here's a copy of Now I Ask You—something I did quite a while back. It's not my sort of stuff, but it's a damn good idea for a popular success. Take it and use it if you can—it needs something done to it, and you might be able to fix it up. Either a novel, or even a better play than it is now—why not try, anyhow? I've been thinking out an idea for "The Captain's Walk"—only I want to change the title. It would make a damn good short play. . . . What do you think of Where the Cross Is Made?"
I could not get interested at that time in doing anything with Now I Ask You. It should remain a play, of that I felt sure, and Gene agreed. But all this gave me a new impetus—probably in order to escape from both Now I Ask You and "The Captain's Walk"! So I turned to writing about two sisters, one of whom went wrong and one who went right, and the naughty girl got the man they were both after. That was one of the virtues of the pulp magazines—sin sometimes did pay! And I got paid too—two hundred dollars—which made me feel quite rich and quite defiant about that old William and his note. . . .
I was excited about what Gene was doing with my sea captain. He brought in the idea of treasure, of gold, and a map that marked where the treasure was buried, and called it Where the Cross Is Made. Much later on, this short play was elaborated into Gold, which was produced in the summer of 1921 by Mr. Williams. We were in Provincetown then and he was working on another play, and for some reason he wanted me to go down to New York and take his place at rehearsals. What took place then, and the strange (to me at least) goings on prior to this fatal production, made me curse the idea that I had ever handed him my poor little manuscript, that summer of 1918. . . .
As for Jones, from whom I was now waiting to hear—nothing happened. Nor did I hear more from the auctioneer, the tobacco man or Mr. Compton's lawyer—not alas, until much later. At the time, I decided that Gene's advice had after all been quite right. . . .
One stormy afternoon in August, with the wind blowing from the east and the water a blur of spray, Gene stood at the window and gazed out at the rain-swept harbor. Then he picked up a book he had started, and tried to read. After a few moments he put the book down and restlessly went over to the other window and stood there, looking down Commercial Street. I felt his restlessness and it disturbed me and made me restless too, for there was nothing I could do about it. Jamie was in his flat, reading—he had been in a rather taciturn mood for a day or so.
When Gene was bored or frustrated his face changed and sank into a mask of fixed gloom. The very shape of his face would change, his cheeks sagged and his mouth grew heavy and lifeless, and his skin, as if vitality had completely left him, assumed a flaccid and lifeless look. He was bored and frustrated now—this was the second day he had not been able to swim—and when I suggested that we go for a walk in spite of the squally wind, he did not want to consider it.
"In the old days I would get happily blotto on an afternoon like this! Even last summer—but now you are my guilty conscience. Terry understood me, he was always the same. If I was bored it didn't affect him, he didn't get bored and unhappy too. If I felt like a few drinks, he felt like a few drinks too."
"Why do you tell me you don't want to drink then? That you want me to help you not to drink? Get a bottle—I don't care if you have to have it." Gene was silent. "Why don't you go up the street and see Harold de Polo. He'd be only too glad to see you—there's always a drink there," I said angrily.
"No. I don't want to see the don—not now. The kids in the house—even with Harold it's not like the old days." He went to the closet, took out a sweater and pulled it over his head, lit a cigarette and stood again at the window. "I don't want to go anywhere—that's the trouble, I just want to escape from myself."
He came back, picked up the sheets of paper on which he had been working that morning, then put them back on the table. He pulled out a drawer, looked through some scripts and took out an envelope that held some photographs, and sat looking at them in silence.
"How do you like me without a mustache?" he said, with a sudden grin, "Maybe that's what I should do—shave off my mustache this afternoon!"
I stood behind him, my hand on his shoulder, looking at the pictures. "No, I like you better with the mustache!"
He reached out and put his arm around me. "Look at this. That's the burro I had to ride going up the Terla River."
"Maybe you wish you were in Honduras again—is that it?"
"No! That I don't wish! I didn't enjoy myself—it was hell. I was never so bitten up in my life—flies, fleas and mosquitoes—and that was only part of it. Lucky thing I got malaria and had to come home. How about a cup of coffee?"
As I was making it, he roamed around again, then picked up the book. I heard the wicker chair creak as he settled down. But he couldn't get interested, and as he stirred his coffee I saw his eyes get a reminiscent look.
"You've never said much about that trip—it sounds exciting, going for gold, the jungle, all that. What happened, that you don't even talk about it? The only thing you ever told me about it was the story of that horse—remember?"
"I wasn't keen about going in the first place. . . ." He paused, looking back into the past. "Maybe after I got started I did expect something . . . but I'd sooner look for gold on Broadway than in Honduras! What stinking vile food we had! Everything cooked in grease. And tortillas—you'd fill up on them—sort of a soggy, heavy pancake, made of ground corn—no bread of course. I had cramps from the lousy food—that and the damn bugs. . . ."
He took up his cup and rinsed the coffee around in his mouth before he swallowed.
"There were some pretty Spanish towns, the boys and girls walking around in circles in the plaza in the evening, the band playing . . . but we didn't stay there long. As for the natives, they were the lowest, laziest, most ignorant bunch of brainless bipeds that ever polluted a land!"
I saw his wry grimace with some amazement. "I would have thought— I remember reading The Conquest of Peru up in the attic when I was a kid."
"Hooey! I saw them! Someday Fate will get tired of watching those human maggots groping in the dark, and exterminate them!"
I watched him take another sip of coffee and it seemed to me he looked peevish rather than scornful. His words came slowly, with careful emphasis, when he spoke again. "Until God shakes those human lice from its side, Honduras hasn't a chance—it's the Siberia of the tropics!"
He paused, smiling at his phrases, and then went on:
"Only a fellow used to sleeping in a pigpen and eating out of a trough could live there any length of time. Nobody will stay there as long as the yearly revolutions keep up, either."
"Were you in a revolution?" I asked hopefully, remembering the night he had led an imaginary revolution in Sherman Square.
"No. From what I've heard, these South American revolutions are a good example of comic opera. Everybody has a good time, and they go home and sleep it off! So, I've had my little say about the well-known country of Honduras. I felt that way then, and I haven't changed my mind!"
"And no gold?" I said vaguely—in order to say something.
"No gold! There was gold there, but I didn't find any!"
He was looking through the pictures again, a strange and rather brooding expression on his face. I was aware of something—I didn't know what—and this made me ask him a question rather pointedly. I remembered something he had said at the beginning of the conversation.
"Just why did you ever go there, Gene?"
He had been living at the Prince George Hotel with his parents, he told me, going out every night drinking with another fellow. He'd met this girl through his friend Frank—a damn nice girl, very proper and well brought up. She was a friend of the girl that Frank was going around with at the time, and she'd brought Kathleen along with her one night. After that the four of them started going around together. "Frank was quite serious about his girl, and it all seemed pretty mild to me at first. . . ." Gene went on. "I was used to the kind of gals that got lit and involved in crazy adventures. I don't know what she thought of me . . . but she began telling me about her background, which was pretty conventional and which she didn't seem to like particularly. And I began by feeling sorry for her and ended up by falling for her."
Gene paused. There was a faint smile on his lips. "She must have fallen for me too, for after a month or so of going around together—always the four of us—Frank and I suggested we all go over to Jersey City and she and I get married. She agreed, so we got married! It was going to be kept a secret from everybody for a while—which suited me. I knew damn well what the old man would say if he heard of it. She thought her parents wouldn't like it either; they were all ready to marry her off to some young stockbroker who was being very persistent, and I think now one of her reasons for marrying me was to get rid of him."
Gene looked at me, then paused to light a cigarette. "I was scared to death when I realized what I had done. Her parents were away at the time, and after the wedding we all went over to her apartment and celebrated. After Frank and his girt left, I stayed a couple of days—her folks wouldn't be home for a week. It was fun—of course I was nipping away at her father's liquor, and she cooked and tried to get me to eat. We had a great time trying to disguise every evidence of our honeymoon before I left. . . ."
Gene laughed to himself and then went on: "She wanted to ride down to the Prince George with me on the subway and say good-by there before I saw my folks. But I was afraid I might run into them. So I left her at the apartment, and she did put her arms around me at the door and say she hoped we'd have a place of our own soon. I remember it gave me a sort of a chill—I went and got good and drunk before I went back to the Prince George."
"It was a crazy thing to do—we didn't have any money or any plans. I couldn't go to her apartment again; for one thing I was afraid of running into her parents. She didn't want to tell them about the marriage until I was ready to take her out of there. I'd never met them and she thought they wouldn't approve of me. They were a bit on the snobbish side—that was evident!"
Gene paused and gave a rather sheepish smile.
"I probably thought with that big apartment—and it seemed to me that they had plenty of money—that she could just as well stay on there! The truth was that after I'd been married a week or so I practically forgot I was married to her. It seemed a joke, a lark. Frank looked at it that way too—it even seemed to me that was her attitude. She was trying to be a good sport, I suppose. Anyway, when the four of us would all go out together it was just about the same as before."
"Then, I don't know how, her parents got wind of it. I was living at the Prince George with the folks, of course. I came back there late one afternoon after spending the night with Frank at his place—and was Papa in a rage! He'd been waiting for me to come in—pacing the floor! Mama was furious too, mad and upset. I'd never seen them in such a state before. She just sat there and didn't say a word, while Papa did the talking, but I could see how mad she was. . . ."
"Of course they were sore as hell about me getting married without telling them about it. That was one thing they never worried about—me getting married! But it turned out that the ones they were really sore at were her parents. It seemed that when Kathleen was faced with some real evidence she broke down and told them the whole story. And then, without telling her, they went down and paid Papa and Mama an unannounced visit, stating that their daughter was married to their son, and they wanted something done about it right away. If said son had no job and no money, it was up to Papa to get an apartment and support the young couple until said son did get a job! They took the attitude that my old man was a millionaire. Also, that he should be pleased that his son had managed to marry into such a good family as theirs—it seemed that her grandfather was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange—a big hit all this made with Papa! It wound up by their telling him that they were going to bring her to the Prince George and leave her with her new husband—they were closing the apartment and leaving on a trip."
Gene paused and gave an impish grin.
"'You're the one that's going on a trip—and right away!' the old man yelled at me. 'That'll solve everything. And meanwhile you're not going to see that slick adventuress—understand?'
"Papa was all wrong about her of course—there was never a nicer girl than Kathleen. But nothing could convince him that the whole thing was not something cooked up by the parents and their daughter in order to get her off their hands. He wouldn't listen to me at all. Mama was quite as firm. . . . I managed to see Kathleen. She clung round my neck and was more upset than I was at what her parents had done. But she could see their point of view and tried to explain it to me; they felt that she had been badly treated and that things must be straightened out. I got drunk, she went home, and two weeks later I was on a boat to Honduras."
There was a pause. I felt a little dazed by all this, but knew I had to say something. I was going to ask him, not knowing what else to say, how his father managed to arrange the trip so quickly, when he began to explain it:
"I've told you all about Papa's mania for investing in cattle ranches, phony oil wells, gold mines, and so on. Well, it seems that this time Mama had put some of her money in a real deal—a guy named Stevens who'd found good prospects for gold in Honduras; later on it turned out to be quite a good deal for her. The expedition had been arranged, Stevens had gone down with his wife, and plans were being made to start into the jungle; the old man and Mama sent a joint wire to Stevens, and it was arranged that I should join them. And that, my angel, is just how I got to go gold hunting!"
I looked at him silently; he had never told me this about his marriage before. And now he told it so casually—as though it was nothing more than an episode leading up to his trip to Honduras. I laughed; I, too, would be casual if that was the way he wanted it.
"So you were shanghaied!"
"Not exactly—don't remember just how I did feel about it. I took a boat down to join the Stevenses soon after my birthday. I was just twenty-one, remember that! Once I knew that I was going I suppose I romanticized the whole thing—gold, the jungle, the unexplored land."
"What about the girl?"
"They insisted I shouldn't see Kathleen again, and I suppose by then she, too, was pretty much in the hands of her parents. It was already something in the past, to be forgotten. I was sure that neither she nor I knew what we were doing—it was just a youthful escapade that had turned out too seriously. As for the future—any consequences such as divorce, money or anything else—I never thought of it. I guess," he added thoughtfully, "that I just didn't consider myself a married man. I left everything to Papa. He was grim-lipped and said nothing about anything. . . ."
"But what did happen about all that?" I asked, rather faintly. Gene grinned and shook his head and was silent; his whole face was cast in that pensive look of oblivion that came over him whenever he thought of the past.
"Did I ever tell you that story—the time I tried to commit suicide?" he said at last.
"It was probably a year or so later," he said. "I only stayed in Honduras three or four months—I've told you how I got malaria and had to come back home. The old man had the White Sister company on the road and I joined as stage manager. They didn't want me to stay around New York, of course. Never heard a word from Kathleen. It was after that tour with the White Sister company that I shipped to Buenos Aires—eighty-five days at sea—without once sighting land. Maybe Honduras had planted the adventure bug in me after all. . . .
"Then after I shipped back to New York again I stayed at Jimmy the Priest's on the waterfront and, being flat broke, wrote the folks. They wouldn't do anything unless I went up to New London. They gave me the fare and I spent it on booze. . . . Guess they thought that I was crazy by this time."
Gene, although he had done so before, described to me again the atmosphere and the odd characters at Jimmy the Priest's. It was an obsession with him—this place and his memories of it; and often during the years that we were together he spoke of wanting to write a play about it and the men he knew there, but he never did. Perhaps there were too many characters to bring in, nothing that he wanted to leave out . . . until many years later when he wrote The Iceman Cometh and then (to the discomfort of those earlier audiences) leaving nothing and nobody out of the place as he knew it, besides introducing many new characters.
"I really was in bad shape at the time," he went on. "Underweight, a bad cough, and of course blotto whenever I could be, which meant whenever one of the remittance derelicts got a check—we would immediately drink it up! It sure was lousy stuff that Jimmy served. So I again asked the folks for money, putting it so strong that I was sure this time they'd send a check—at least enough to get me to New London where they were going to spend the summer."
Gene shivered, got up and looked out the window at the wind-swept rainy bay, and then came back and suggested that we have some more coffee in a little while. "I didn't know it, but they'd gone away for a couple of weeks, taking Jamie with them. However, I did get a letter—it seemed that Kathleen wanted a divorce. I didn't answer; then I thought it over. I decided to take matters in my own hands. . . ."
A day or so later Gene found himself in a room with a sordid blonde who sat on the edge of the bed and smoked one cigarette after another, while he nervously paced the floor. She finally got up and casually removed most of her clothes—meantime telling him the story of her life—so that by the time a detective came in Gene was as sorry for her as for himself. After that there was nothing for him to do but return to Jimmy the Priest's, feeling utterly sick, degraded and—without a drink. He had a desperate hope that the expected check would be there from his father, but it wasn't. Everyone was broke and sitting around with the jitters, just about as he described it later in a scene in The Iceman Cometh. Gene spent a nickel of the small amount he had left and made a collect call to New London—no answer! Jimmy refused any more drinks to anyone. He was in a bad mood that night and even hinted to Gene that he pay up his room rent or leave the next morning. Gene went up to his dusty dismal room, sat on the cot and brooded. Somehow this whole episode with the prostitute, the connection of all of it with the nice and really innocent Kathleen, whom he now for some reason recalled regretfully and who seemed like himself just another pawn of fate; the rejection of him by his parents (for of this he was sure now) and no Jamie there to talk things over with—all this threw him into a depth of despair from which he could not or did not want to emerge. He had enough change for another drink or so, but he knew from experience that a couple of drinks would not help him. Besides, could he drink in front of the others downstairs while they were suffering—they who had always shared with him?
So, determined to end it all, and no doubt somewhat comforted by the thought of the horrible effect on his parents when they found that their refusal to send more money had caused his death, and also, he said, because he couldn't stand his thoughts any longer, he went out, unseen by the others, and bought a lot of veronal tablets. At that time, according to newspaper stories, this was an often used way of ending one's life. Determined to make a good job of it and never again wake up, he took all the tablets, washed down by a glass of dirty water, put the hook on the inside of the door and passed out without even having time, first, to experience that glimpse of eternity or nothingness which he had expected and was waiting for. . . .
"I must have been there twenty-four hours, maybe longer," Gene told me. "I vaguely remembered coming to, hearing a knocking on the door, then silence. . . . This happened a number of times, but I paid no attention to it. It didn't occur to me that I was alive—after all those pills! At first I probably thought I was still on my way, not dead yet, but getting there. Perhaps I didn't think at all, just felt resentful that the veronal hadn't yet completely put me out and that I could hear the knocks. . . .
"Then a horrible thought came to me—I was dead, of course, and death was nothing but a continuation of life as it had been when one left it! A wheel that turned endlessly round and round back to the same old situation! This was what purgatory was—or was it hell itself? My body was dead, but I was there too. Frozen in a sort of motionless unbearable horror, I went into a stupor, hardly conscious—at least that was an escape from purgatory, or hell, whichever it was. . . . At last—how long I don't know—the knocking came again. This time there were loud bangs and oaths. Someone pushed hard against the door and then the flimsy hook loosened. I sat up. I knew then that I wasn't dead, for my old pals from below were all there, in the room, in the hall outside. They looked worried and excited and all badly in need of a drink and old—, who came in first, held a letter which he waved at me—from my father. He opened it. There was a check for twenty-five dollars."
Gene paused a moment. . . .
"Jimmy deducted the room rent when he cashed it for me—and then drinks were on the house." He shook his head. "Wow! What a celebration."
"But you—you mean you got right up and went down and drank?"
"No—I'm coming to that. I tried to stand up, couldn't make it. They propped me up on the bed and brought me a drink, but that didn't do any good. They told how they'd been trying to get to me for hours—every once in a while somebody'd come up and bang on the door. Then they decided maybe I was dead and they'd break in. Then the major saw the empty pill bottles and I had to tell them what had happened. That's how the celebration began—they celebrated my return to life! The Boer War colonel endorsed the check for me, and they went down to the bar and began to drink. But there was a brotherly love behind it—they had to get rid of their shakes in order to be able to take me to the hospital. Jimmy himself insisted on this. I think he still was afraid that I was going to die at his place. Every half hour or so he'd come up to see how I was feeling. Finally they got me downstairs. Jimmy called Bellevue and found out I'd live because I'd taken an overdose, but I should go over at once and let them look at me. . . . By this time I was feeling a little better, and so the gang had another round to celebrate that! I was able to keep down a drink myself.
"Anyway, to make a long story short, we didn't get going for a couple of hours or more. Jimmy would start to call a taxi, then put it off. At last we made it. The taxi got there, but Jimmy couldn't leave, and I was still rather weak and they thought I shouldn't go without them being along to take care of me. So five of them climbed into the taxi along with me. Jimmy Tomorrow brought a bottle along. We stopped on the way up twice, and the taxi driver had a couple of drinks—he didn't know what it was all about but he thought it was a good joke anyway. . . . Jimmy Tomorrow passed out on the way over, then the general, and when we got there I was the only one sober. Ole Olson and Pete were hardly able to get out of the cab and had to be dragged out forcibly by the taxi driver. It seems"—Gene laughed wickedly—"that he had taken us to the entrance of the alcoholic ward!
"First thing they did was to take away the bottle, which had a couple of drinks left in it. I was still in a sort of daze when I heard the intern telling me he'd take care of them—they'd get the works and be all right in a few days. I found myself alone at the desk. They'd all been taken away protesting incoherently, of course, and I was trying to explain without saying a word. 'Tough job you had!' the intern said politely. The taxi man was grinning; he evidently thought I'd had a rough job too. I got into the taxi and drove back to Jimmy the Priest's and managed to get potted to the gills. We all thought it was the biggest joke in the whole damn world. . . .
"Oh God—those old days. Nobody'd believe it.
Nobody'd understand it. . . ."
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