Friday, April 30, 2010
Two days before returning to Vermont I drove the aqua Mustang out to Long Island, to Oyster Bay where the parents of my old friend Jason Bacon started out. Jason whom I had known since third grade in Weston.
I had a long history with Jason. We overlapped right after college when I was out in Indiana covering McCarthyite politics for United Press and Jason was visiting his father who was out there in exile selling machine tools. Jason then went from Indiana straight to the army while I went first to Cuba hoping to join the Castro rebels. We met again at Ft. Benning where I was starting basic training and he was finishing. Then after the army we shared an apartment for a time on West 13th Street and tried to start a magazine that I hoped would supplant the New Yorker. And soon we moved to seemingly irreconcilable places, me into writing and roaming, he to investment banking.
And now it is 30 years later and to me my life is just beginning, though Jason is in early retirement, with children grown or nearly grown, dividing his time between a townhouse in London and a big log house 25 miles north of where Peter Cooper lives in Rutland.
When I first knew Jason the Bacon’s world had seemed as set in place as my own family's had seemed. Then the older Bacons and Coopers switched places, making Jason’s father Peter Cooper’s stepfather and Peter Cooper’s father Jason’s stepfather. It became a scandalous story of "wife swapping," as written in a newspaper published in the nearby industrial city of Bridgeport.
I wondered if Oyster Bay had ever seemed as safe a family place as had Weston. In generations before ours maybe, but the Coopers and Bacons of my generation, who had no base to supplant it, went there only for funerals. This claustrophobic little rich town where Jason’s father, Peter’s stepfather, had once had so much money.
The occasion now is the funeral of this other Bacon I have known since childhood, Jason’s younger brother Bruce, who has killed himself.
In Connecticut Jason and his parents and his brother Bruce and sister Patsy had lived on a hill in a large stucco house that suddenly went into foreclosure, meaning Jason was taken out of his prep school, Lawrenceville, which was something that would hang over him always. And Bruce, uprooted, went off to set up an original life of his own, studying on scholarship at the Rhode Island School of Design, then becoming an apparently inspirational artist teacher in the city at the School for Visual Arts – which seemed a long way from the life of the Yale men his father meant both of his sons, not just Jason, to be. Patsy married an early boyfriend and moved to Huntington, which had a little I common with the Connecticut place from which she had been uprooted, but none at all with self-consciously aristocratic Oyster Bay.
I drove now though claustrophobic little streets past florists and specialized groceries, and precious little tea rooms and tidy little bars – out to find a big stone Episcopal church. As I drove I felt an intolerable weight from the past, though I had not been in Oyster Bay before.
It was still early when I located the church. From the only car already in the parking lot a woman stood by while a man was hoisting himself into a wheelchair, a laborious journey. I realized I had seen him over the years at parties at Bruce’s studio in the Flat Iron building. Bruce’s old and, probably best friend Arthur. He had been in high school with Bruce in Connecticut, the son of a famous writer-editor who had committed suicide not long after Arthur was crippled by polio. Around the time I was trying to get the writer-editor to contribute a story the magazine I hoped to found. The New Yorker had rejected the story as too violent. It was about a man killing his wife.
The site of Arthur here in the parking lot gave me the feeling that this day I was witnessing an episode in a dynastic story, people assembled at the death of someone important in their world. I drove back into the shopping area for a coffee and I thought of the last time I had seen Jason’s father. It was at a small gathering in Indiana. Peter’s plump, sad, fun-loving mother, the former Doris Cooper now Doris Bacon, said said something I could not hear that Jason’s father did not like. Suddenly he was hitting her right there in front of us, with quick accurate blows to the face, like a Gestapo man in the movies.
And here I was now in the Bacon family’s dynastic seat, a place to which the living Bacons and Coopers returned only for funerals.
I had been accustomed to funerals in my family that were only very lightly attended, but when I got back this place was packed. All sorts of relatives, including Patsy and her sons, and Peter’s graying but still pretty sister Sue, who now lived in Greenwich, but whom I had known when first in New York when she was a sleek young woman living near Gramercy Square Park. It was at a party at her place where, arriving near midnight after a wire service shift, I met my longtime girlfriend Vannie. But mostly it was non-family from the city – Bruce’s friends and fellow artists and maybe 200 loyal students and ex-students. I met his girlfriend the fashion designer, who a confident stylish German lady, and her teenage daughter, who could not stop crying
In front of the alter there was a billowing bower of flowers and coming out of the flowers was a spot lit painting of Bruce’s that seemed to be of a triumphal Roman centurion. Instead of organ music the church’s sound system broadcast a tape of Bruce playing jazz piano. Death and triumph and things real and unreal.
The music stopped for a fleshy minister who had one of those pretentious accents. He opened with a little speech about how fitting it was that Bruce, whom he had never met, should come to rest here, for Bruce was an artist and we have always thought of this as a church that honored art – just look at our stained glass.
When Jason went up to the podium to talk I thought he was likely to say something about the rough childhood they had had. The drunkenness. The betrayal. The sexual convolutions. The expectation of rich lives suddenly shattered. The sudden eviction from the childhood home and the end of the childhood families. And then Peter’s conventional stockbroker father and Jason’s stylish mother taking up with each other publicly, matched by Peter’s funny but sort of sloppy mother and Jason’s tough tight father, all fucking and betraying each other. When I had heard that Bruce killed himself I had thought that given his background it was not surprising. This fit so well with all I had been discovering about myself and my own family, and the stories I had been hearing from ACOA people, many of whom had been suicidal.
My parents had been friends – cocktail parties and dinners – with Jason’s original parents, and to a lesser extent Peter’s too, when these parents had been in their original configurations. I could remember being picked up from the Boy Scouts by Mrs. Bacon, beside whom was the sleeping figure of Mr. Cooper.
But Jason did not say a word about Bruce’s childhood, and not a word about the various parents and stepparents. Jason was full of the same suppressed energy that I now remembered seeing in his father. He boomed out his words. And as he talked his confident anger grew. He began by saying how wonderful it was that there was such a turnout, then without a pause he was saying that what had happened was clear. Bruce’s death was the fault of Bruce’s girlfriend who had been drawing away from Bruce and taking joint property with her. It was because of her, only her, that Jason’s brother Bruce was dead.
Afterwards there was a gathering at the house of some Bacon connection, whether relative or family friend I could not tell. I arrived right at the same time as the minister, who was carrying a liquor store bag and had a big smile on his loose-fitting face, an aging version of a bloated college boy in happy anticipation of getting drunk.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
When I was a kid there was no police force in Weston, and many people drove much loved old cars, like the new old car I was driving now. It felt more like wild country than the carefully tended commuter town it was becoming. There was still a farm in the town, cows milked by hand, belonging to David Coley, who was the uncle of my friend Fred Coley. And we almost had a farm ourselves – my father and mother raising chickens and goats and at one point pigs and ducks too as a way to get around wartime food rationing.
Fred Coley and I and Jason Bacon and sometimes other school friends roamed the woods, even trapped in the woods, while Peter Cooper, who was older, was tooling around down in Westport in cars with broken mufflers. We had encounters with deadly copperheads, and once with a rattlesnake. We fished and swam in a river that was deep and still behind an old waterfall dam that had powered the heavy stone wheels for sharpening axes in a by now long abandoned ax factory. Abandoned sharpening wheels still lay all around in the damp ground near the foot of the waterfall.
Above the dam we swam every day. I once came upon Jason’s barely pubescent sister Patsy skinny dipping there. Many of our fathers commuted into the city every day, but many others were out here in the country, working as builders and road repairers and carpenters and plumbers, and some were poor Scandinavian immigrants who worked in a functioning factory ten miles away that made fences.
Patsy was almost in our circle since, though younger, she was as developed as the girls in our class. On the periphery was Jason’s artist brother Bruce, who had been too young to join us back in the early days, but whom we saw often later in the city when he was a popular functioning artist with a succession of appealing girlfriends. To our envy, he had entered high school just at the point where actual sex with a girlfriend had ceased being an anomaly.
After parking the car I cross the road and walk into my childhood area. The hill with the now long unused water tank is still there in the field up behind the house I grew up in and the smaller one next door that my parents moved to later. A windmill that when I was a child could still be used to pump water up to the tank had been torn down, and anyway an electric motor had taken over its function even before my parents bought the big house. We used to talk with pride of how water came to our house by what we called Gravity Flow, a term that seemed to my brother and me to connect us to pioneer days.
Adjoining the field still was woodland that before my time had been fields for crops and grazing, which was clear from the old crumbling overgrown stone walls that were still there. I walked up to what I thought of as my special place, up behind the houses and below where the windmill had been. It was between two converging crumbling stone walls, right at a small, slow stream that had frogs and salamanders and Jack-in-the-pulpit plants and ragweed and dragon flies and sometimes snakes. What I noticed most this time, but has apparently kept myself from noticing before, was that even now, with summer foliage, you could clearly see from all directions anyone who might be in this spot that I had convinced myself was secret and private.
Mario noticed as we drove around the town that there were no direction signs – as if it were a clever way to confuse an invading enemy. I told him how my parents and their friends so feared that swarthy working class boys would come over from Bridgeport to use our swimming places. I drove now to Sherwood Island, a state park with beaches on the Long Island Sound used by local people, including the high school girls I used to admire from a distance, and also by people who, like Mario and I, drove up from the city. I tried to recapture what it had been like to look at and long for girls in bathing suits before I had had any experience of actual sex with girls.
I was roaming in my past. And I was thinking of Vermont, where Mario would be joining me. And I remembered that sometime after I had gone away and Weston was becoming more costly and rarefied, most of the old New Englanders, including a great many Coleys, had migrated en masse to some unspoiled place in Vermont. I did not think to try to find out where. I did not connect that phenomena with what I might be doing.
But past and present were mixing together fast in other ways. As in my next move, which was to drive out to Long Island for Bruce Bacon’s funeral.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Mario is, nonetheless, an expansive-seeming figure in this new life I have entered. I think of how my brother would make fun of him for being so self-consciously charming. So too my parents. So too my cousin Rob and my late grandmother Nana.
When Mario and I get together for coffee we ourselves make fun of lesser people. People who don’t know how to pronounce European place names like Montpelier, a name that comes up when we talk about Vermont, which it seems Mario too has been eyeing as an especially appealing liberal place. Mario decides that he would like to rent Donna’s Rutland house for two weeks. I call Donna to set it up. She says she will move down to the basement right away.
Sometimes when I get home to my apartment there are calls on my machine from both Mario and Gillian – dramatic new friends of mine in this new life in which so much from my past is being jettisoned. Mario joins me in driving in the Mustang up to Connecticut to look at the non-New Hampshire part of where I grew up. This is the sort of thing people in ACOA often do.
The old car is still so new that I have a cardboard temporary Vermont license set in the back window. I pull up on Lyons Plain Road in a grassy strip by an old stone wall across the street from both the old clapboard family house of my childhood and the modest little one-story house next door, the place to which my parents retreated for 25 years before leaving forever to await death in a boring part of Florida. Just as the Mustang comes to a stop, a black and white police car pulls up behind me. A scraggly little cop in a neatly pressed uniform wants to know what I am doing here. He accepts my explanation grudgingly.
Being arrested is how I plan to describe it to my new friends in the city. And also to my old friend Jason Bacon, now in retirement in Vermont, much of whose childhood, like mine, was in this place. And of course I will tell about it to Peter Cooper who grew in the next town over.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
In the less than two weeks I was back before heading again up to Vermont for the summer I went to meetings and museums, and I took Gillian to dinner at the outdoor places in the Village. When I went to the Met I of course walked in Central Park, whose formality so neatly complemented the New England landscapes in my mind. So too when wandered again though the Brooklyn Botantic Garden beside the Brooklyn Museum. This changing city landscape that complemented the changing landscape of my life. I hardly used the subway. Sometimes I rode my bicycle. More often now I was in the Mustang, getting the knack for driving and finding parking places in the city. One day I drove up the Merritt Parkway with my new ACOA friend Mario to look into another part of my past – Weston, Connecticut. Mario is poor but he looks like a dramatic aristocratic Italian who has aged well. A resonant voice with a hint of Europe in it. Wavy gray hair. All charm. A confident stride. He is only half Italian, the paternal half, but he grew up in Florence, his American mother coming and going, he said, stopping just long enough to tell him he would never amount to anything. And indeed in his accounts it seems like he has never quite had a career, which does not seem to bother him. He deflects questions about what he does by saying, firmly, that his life is his art. I admire such confidence. He tells of how at one point he was living in style with a rich wife in Wilton, Connecticut, which I knew long ago as the extreme of wealthy understated Waspy Connecticut towns that are no place for flamboyant Italians. And once with a rich wife he had a summer house in the Berkshires. Now he is in a quite bare third storey walkup, a tenement even though it is in the West Village rather than the lower East Side. Thin-walled rooms that open onto each other. A shared toilet in a closet in the hallway outside. His life nonetheless has a sparkle to it.
He speaks of a secretive and sexy plump lady full of promise whom he knew in AA and I have seen in ACOA, and whom he had bedded, though now she pretends they do not know each other. This is hurtful, he says.
I visit him in the tenement. He lives there with his latest pretty wife, this one a young and quiet half-Japanese girl who works as a theatrical agent, which is apparently what they live on. Her father, he tells me in confidence, is a steely CIA man. They have a German Shepherd who obeys no dog owner commands. The place is dominated by tall speakers for Mario’s sound system. He talks of how when he was young he met Toscanini. He says he used to pretend that he was a conductor too. He goes through the motions of waving a baton as he describes how he did it. He tells of how he used to play classical music records loud while doing his mock conductor act while in bed with some beautiful woman.
He talks of other past conquests, other past times of living like he was wealthy himself. It is drama and it all sounds plausible. But he also talks of how he is trying to change things by always walking, literally, on the sunny side of the street, and that now instead of Toscanini he plays Doris Day doing movie songs. This is a little like hearing Donna tell of her Jesus dream. He speaks of celebrities he has known like Judy Collins, but it turns out that the connection with Judy Collins is that he has been to AA meeting she attends.
All of which makes me feel the fragility of life.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
I start early on a sunshiny July day, just after the July Fourth weekend, which I spent quietly eating burgers cooked on Peter and Julie’s outdoor grill. I have Judy Collins alternating with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony on the tape deck. Although I have hardly ever been in Vermont – and this trip and the one in the fall were brief in time – it feels like I have known forever these gentle mountains, these picture postcard farms, these old mill towns.
I drive in light morning traffic down Vt. 7 to Manchester and Bennington, and then I am near where Vermont, New York and Massachusetts meet, and I follow signs to the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute. Peter had told me about it. A comprehensive private museum of art through the ages that was put together by a collector couple for whom the museum was named. It is a light, rambling, carefully modern building set back in greenery.
Vermont felt familiar as I was going through it just now and so to does the Clark Institute, where I am in what I know now is my life. Peter Cooper had told me about a painting by a man named Bougerough who could really capture girls. It is quite wonderful, the flesh so real you feel you can touch these perfect nude ladies who seem to be climbing over each other in some perfumed, leafy paradise. And this is the light part, and it is the least of it. There are surprises. There is a late Middle Ages French depiction of a Christ who looks like a sorrowful middle aged mensch. There are painters I first saw just months ago but now seem part of my life, past and present. Around one corner is a Daubigny of greenery and a slow river that so closely captures what I have been feeling since I started breathing country air in the parks.
I am looking at a grouping of Corot’s feathery spring landscapes when I hear two matronly ladies talking behind me, one who apparently lives here and a friend who has arrived with news of the outside. The friend has one of those hopefully upper class voices that are somewhere between the sounds of stuffy British people and the sounds of prissy school marms. She has just been to the display at the Battery, which took place this past weekend. The ships I had seen anchored way out by Staten Island that day I went to hear Jesse Jackson had by now formed a semicircle around the point at the Battery where the poseur Ronald Reagan and his social climbing wife were being honored with fireworks and, though the matron does not get this specific, patriotic songs sung by a herd of Elvis imitators brought in by the Hollywood impresario who put together the event. She had been there for this unintentionally comic Nuremburg-like display marking the return, after cleaning, of the magic Statue of Liberty, and being taken, as commentators kept pointing out, as a display to honor Reagan. She seems to accept it all, much the way Prussian aristocrats accepted the tawdry Hitler regime. It is all so wonderful, so very happy, she says. So inspiring.
But the sun is still out in a cloudless sky and as I exit the museum I can smell grass and pines. I start up the car and I put on Willie Nelson. And I take my time, zigzagging around on secondary roads through places named Lenox and Lee in tidy Massachusetts. I imagine that I am not alone in the car, that someone beside me is handling the tapes, maybe not Gillian but perhaps that California red-head from the meetings or someone like her.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Paved roads give way to dirt. It is Sunday morning, two days before I go back to New York with the aqua Mustang from this reconnaissance trip. The plan is to say some goodbyes in the city, then return to Vermont for the summer.
Right now in Vermont wide shallow rivers become narrow creeks then wide shallow rivers again. Deciduous trees give way to fields that are neatly delineated, each its own shade of green. And beyond the fields are pine woods. And we wind up at this church in seemingly picturesque nowhere. A very small frame church, open for the summer but not a summer people’s place, for it is a Congregational church, which is a denomination for people who live here all the time.
Peter Cooper and I have come out to this tiny church to see in action his close friend of a decade Donna. Julie does not come with us for she gets paid each Sunday to play the piano in a Christian Science church. Although Donna is ripe and robust and tan and well read and funny, there is this to consider: at the end of the summer she will head down to New York and Union Theological Seminary, and in the meanwhile she has a weekly gig at a tiny church way, way off in this obscure dirt-road countryside. The church is set in a graveyard that is still in use. There are grave markers, some of them so old you cannot read them, others much newer so you can easily read the birth and death dates of dead parishioners. On some there are also names and birth dates of family members in this farm area who have not yet died.
Donna is the first woman I have ever met who is studying to be a minister. But then Peter is one of the few people I have known who has wound up being a church-goer, not counting relatives who do it for social reasons. Peter, whom I knew way back in wilder times, himself belongs now to a socially active Rutland Congregational church, a big plain building with no stained glass, and with high balcony seats for the overflow. Its members work on poverty programs, he told me when I went to church with him in the fall.
Like so much else I am seeing, Peter’s church is both near to and distant from family precedents. It is true that on Christmas Eve at Rob’s in Princeton we went to a fake gothic Episcopal church that, along with its too perfect décor and its upper class non-ethnic crypto Catholic-style trappings, was a part of the sanctuary movement, a stated place of refuge for Latino victims of cruel American backed banana republic dictators, victims that the Reaganites want to hunt down. As if any Salvadoran fleeing the death squads would ever think of heading to Princeton. In Princeton I was sure such activism was what the supposedly nice cultured people did for the record without ever getting their hands dirty, while here in Rutland I think that what people do is not only serious, it is not separate from everything else. Maybe not unlike what I saw with black churches in the South in movement times. At least more like black churches than anything known to this family I am out to finally and forever put aside, even if it means figurative murder.
There are maybe 15 people in Donna’s country church, which is so small that with this number it feels quite full. I wonder what these farm people make of Donna. I believe she has a female lover some of the time. I know she is radical politically. And she does the sermon using as a visual aid a very rough crayon color drawing she recently did of a lighthouse.
It is almost impossible for me to look on any lighthouse pictures, for they all seem so clichéd – even those by my almost favorite (after Rembrandt, Constable, Hobbema and Andre del Sarto) artist Edward Hopper, who never goes near clichés. And anyway Donna is no artist. She tells the farmers what everything in her rough drawing symbolizes – the light, the sea, the seagull – like an English teacher telling you what everything in a poem means in such a way that you know there will be only one acceptable answer on the exam. At least this is what I think I should be thinking. And then it dawns on me that this is someone out to uncover what is in the world, that Donna could be a searcher out to live fully, not someone trying to make the world smaller by imposing a safe system on it.
Still, it is not easy to keep an open mind. On the way we rendezvous with Donna at a roadside ice cream stand. There seem to be ice cream stands everywhere in summer Vermont, though I cannot recall ever seeing one across the border in New Hampshire.
I want so much for Vermont to be a place where I am in my element, whatever that element proves to be. And this is seeming more difficult than I had thought. For now, as we eat our ice cream cones at the roadside this very ripe and, I decide, lovely, too, tanned woman is talking about how Jesus came to her in a dream.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
In the early morning we walked from the Greenleaf hut on a steep pathway up through rocks and scrub pine, carrying with us a small mirror. At the summit, under the direction of Dad and Uncle Nick, who had been doing it since they themselves were children, Peter and I tried turning the mirror in ways that maybe it would send flashes of light that could be seen as far away as at White Pines itself. Whether our small mirror worked, the wall mirror Gaga brought through the French doors at a prearranged time certainly did – great flashes of white light from the valley, like some sort of annunciation.
I stop at a Burger King on the strip in Rutland not far from where I found my car. This strip a regular people’s untidy place, not unlike Littleton, not far from tidy picture postcard versions of Vermont, which are not unlike White Mountains summer places. This bouncing, sandy haired, surely underage Burger King girl who serves me a bacon cheeseburger, a girl whose cute face is still a blank slate, flashes a coming-of-age smile that shoots me so far back in time that I can imagine myself going out with her, hay rides maybe, falling in love with her, planning a future with her, just as if I am 15, not 50, 15 and desperately in need of something in my life to transport me out of the trap I feel I am at in my second year, the 4th form year, in at an old-line boarding school. A school where I fight my destiny, which is to be at the bottom of the heap, and in a family in which my twin brother is their pride and I am expected to forever hold my place at the bottom wherever I am. And I am also trapped, as in school and family, in a country fallen under the sway of the swaggering senator Tailgate Gunner Joe McCarthy – whom I know all about now that I am rising in the school by becoming a champion on the debating circuit. McCarthy and the pretentious bully Douglas Macarthur, that ambitious, trigger-happy old general whom reactionaries up here in New Hampshire think should be president instead of Truman.
I can be so angry. Though cutting through family, school and country are Keats and Wordsworth and Thomas Wolfe and the sight and smell of fields and woods, the nostalgic northern birds cries, the fresh water ponds, mud and ice and all, and the northern rivers clear and sometimes foamy beneath old bridges – and Pattie down with girls form her all-girls boarding school, our sister school, for a joint glee club concert at the stolid but humble Plymouth State Teachers’ College – in the summers the Gibbs and Grout girls in the White Mountains, Kitty still someone out of dreams of a glorious future. Am I frozen in that time?
Or in all time? Here in Rutland one of the friends of Peter and Julie I am using as my friends is a cheerful woman who works in Washington for Senator Leahy and swears that 1986 is the year they are going to win the Senate back from the Reagan-dominated Republican party – the Republicans who, long before they became the Reagan party of racists, gave us McCarthy and Macarthur. And next week the hero Daniel Berrigan is going to be at an all-day rally at a small Benedictine place on a hill in central Vermont. Reagan and Berrigan, like in these battles I was fighting when I was 15.
Remembering now, as I drive, Pattie, Kitty, and my debating trophies and the gang that liked me in the summers. And girlfriends down through the years, and a recent wife. And also all the times alone. Like this time driving this entertaining car up and down and around the Vermont hills in lush summertime.
I see girl in a Burger King who is so like what I find in time travel, and this girl looks me in the eye and smiles. And I wonder if any other times were as full of hope as this time. As I drive and listen to music I have missed in this car that is coming to feel like a machine for time travel. Hope based on what? Though I am convinced I am in a second life, much of what I look for is still in haze. The hope maybe flowing from my recent discovery that I am not alone in needing to know what happened in the distant past. What happened and why. Go right into it and find out what is there.
What a year this has been. And also, I am alone so much this summer in the car.
That girl in the Burger King – the same age as Patti and Kitty when I met them, one a girl for the summer and maybe forever, the other a girl briefly for the long winters – all of it a construction so fragile, so on the edge of there being nothing or no one at all.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
There were houses down near the rushing water that seemed to cling to the high river banks in dangerously unstable ways. And it also seemed that the houses like Aunt Betsy’s up above Littleton’s main street could easily teeter and fall down steep hills. And there was mystery everywhere. People living in trailers. Huge, dark, shuttered factories. Bars with pool tables. Even signs in French for non-English speakers across the nearby Canadian border – this place was in spirit so far from the Anglo white summer towns and so close to unknown worlds. Something as appealing as it was somehow illicit.
A forbidden fruit aspect to Littleton – something far out from the confines of our world. It had been exciting as a child to know that Gaga was so plugged into greater worlds that he had a personal relationship with Littleton’s old police chief. This as exciting as his tales of early mountaineers conquering Franconia Notch. If someone in the family wanted a driver’s license, it was known, Gaga could call the police chief and the license would be issued without a test, no questions asked. When the new cinema porn spread to the mountains at the start of the seventies it was the summer movie house in Bethlehem that showed the films of Russ Meyers and other nearly hard core artists, not Littleton itself. But the turn off for Bethlehem was on the way to Littleton. And Bethlehem, with its status as the White Mountains’ resort for Jews, was in itself another aspect of the foreign and the forbidden.
And it was to Littleton that Lenny, wanted on gun and shop-lifting charges, was removed from the city by Aunt Betsy who took the boy, and his sister to this house up behind the movie theater. The good son Rob was at MIT at this point, so he was too refined to sink into Littleton the way Lenny and Lauryn did – Lenny still an outlaw, perhaps the only person ever to be banned forever from the Profile Golf Club for non-racial reasons. He had barricaded himself there with a girl he had captured and forced to come with him. It was at this that led a judge to send him to the army.
Lauryn was the perfect little girl in the city. The perfect picture of a sweet Victorian girl whom everyone said was so lovely. Then she was taken with her brother up to Littleton , which ended her time in a fancy French school and as a budding ballet dancer. And at that point she had begun to shine brightly in ways outside family experence. She had done something no one else in the family had ever done. She had become an extremely popular, cheerleader and more, high school girl.
One of the things for which I had nostalgia though I had never seen it was American high school life. I had gotten a slight sense of it at debating tournaments. And in the movie Peyton Place I had been deeply moved by the pictures of New Hampshire high school life. Direct experience had been limited to ogling town girls in Plymouth when we were there for a basketball game with the local high school. Especially the flirty and smooth, perfect except for thick ankles, unlikely daughter of our physics and chemistry teacher, a man so steely and grim we called him Grim behind his back.
In Connecticut when home from boarding school in the summer I had lusted after high school girls in tight swim suits at Compo Beach. Especially a dark girl named Yvonne, who was the daughter of our maid’s husband and was involved with swarthy Italian boys. And in the summer I had lusted after sultry young Barbara Serafini who sashayed into Sugar Hill village in sun dresses that made her seem to me like a remote movie star. Her family owned property, including a big old house called the Homestead Inn that was at the turnoff up to the Sunset Hill House. It looked like something out of Currier & Ives, though the Homestead Inn was never mentioned as an acceptable place to stay. Was it the Italian family name? I never actually met Barbara. I could figure no way to bridge the divide.
The boarding school girls in summer were as pretty as the high school girls at Compo Beach. Kitty and Mickie were really prettier. Ruthie and Louisa and Alice and Ann too in certain lights. But they were not quite forbidden fruit. The girls at Compo Beach were more like girls to be masturbated over while reading Erskine Caldwell novels – Darling Jill on a sweltering day holding on to Will by tightening her vagina after he had come, or a very young girl nude from the waste up except for a wispy wrap dancing at a deep South whorehouse. Or, for that matter, the pretty rounded French girl in de Maupesant who saves fellow coach travelers by having sexual intercourse with a Prussian officer, though afterwards the people she saves treat her with contempt. Books held a different kind of reality, maybe more real than any other. Maybe like high school girls in skimpy bathing suits.
One summer night when Lauryn was in her last year of high school I was making a rare visit, staying with Aunt Alice because the Farm House was full and by then there were no other Poole houses, I had helped her deal with her drunken boyfriend. He was a very local boy whose father had a heating business. We walked him to his house, less than a quarter mile away. We pushed him to his door. He bounced back. We pushed him to the door two more times, and finally he went in. And then Lauryn and I were outside on a warm night and suddenly she was up against me and we were kissing. And it was almost real, here with the prettiest girl in the Littleton high school, though I had turned 30 and was about to have one last affair in the city and then head off to what I suspected was the ultimate place of sex and beauty, Bangkok. The next day Lauryn said isn’t it funny that you drink a little and you can’t remember anything about the night? I said yes, true. This seemed to me a good way for both of us to get out of this one. So close to incest, this episode, though I told myself it was not technically incest since Lauryn was adopted.
Lenny had been away in the army. I had not given him a thought, though later I was sure he was never out of Lauryn’s mind.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
I wondered that I was so focused on New Hampshire, scene of what had been perfect summers, beauty all around, a gang of kids with whom I was popular, something I could not explain, any more than I could explain why I could pick up an actual baseball bat and hit an actual baseball into the distance when we put together a game of one o’ cat in New Hampshire but at home in Connecticut one of the many reasons I was always the last boy chosen when two captains picked the teams – even when my brother was one of the captains – was that I could never hit a ball anywhere, and was so bad at catching and throwing that they always sent me to the loser’s position, right field, which to them meant right field was not covered.
And in what would have been the high school years if people in that family did not always go to boarding school, that too was in New Hampshire, our boarding school not in the White Mountains but in the more gentle lake country an hour’s drive to the south, where I experienced first love first with a girl named Sandie from our sister school, which actually was in the White Mountains, and who in the winter taught me French kissing in the shadows there. And also in the lake country discovering that girls could like me was not the whole story for it was also where, away from family except for my lurking brother I found I was so far from being retarded, as it sometimes seemed at home, that I was smarter and more charming than the chosen one, my brother.
My penultimate first love. For the next summer I had another first love, this girl Kitty I met at a swimming place near a golf course and with whom I thought I would spend my life.
Nothing like that in Connecticut until vacations at home in Weston when Kitty was at home in Greenwich and what had been there in the White Mountains was back again. But it was night and day, the Connecticut version and New Hampshire. The people in my parent’s generation seeming to have so little that was like the people in the generation before theirs.
Though I did keep thinking it might be better than I realized in Connecticut. A few years later when I was in my mid twenties and home from foreign adventures I had taken up in the city with this girl who oozed fulfilled accessible sex, Janice Marsh, who was married to a friend of mine, and we were linked in trysts from the old Henry Hudson Hotel to Shelter Island to mundane Stuyvesant Town, to, when traveling for what seemed like the inevitable abortion, San Juan in a hotel with gambling in what had been a convent.
And I had had this strange vision that Judy Blood would fit in with my careful Connecticut parents, though all the three of them has in common was drinking that verged on alcoholism. I pictured Judy coming down to breakfast, though my parents were now in a tiny house near their former big house, this one with no upstairs to come down from, the strange picture of her entering the kitchen – saying hello with that intensely seductive smile – while great cooking was in progress – not the cooking actually found there, those hardened scrambled eggs to be washed down with percolator coffee that had had gone intensely bitter and bad almost the moment it was made.
Memories of Connecticut in the deep past when, although I was unpopular, I always had a few close fiends, strangely most of them from the popular group, and I had adventures in woods and on water that placed me where I wanted to be, almost – though all of it overshadowed by what was there far to the north down beneath mountain peaks among those rocky fields in grandiose family compounds that were from a world so rare it was hard to grasp – everything that happened up there in the White Mountains overshadowed anything that could ever happen in Connecticut.
Friday, April 9, 2010
After Carolyn and Thor left we went off to dinner at Littleton’s newest restaurant, the Clam Shell – here in the far north, just below the Canadian border – beneath the highest mountains in the East. On the way Aunt Alice said only half joking that it made her furious how lovely and appealing Lauryn still looked as she crept up on 40. Just the way she looked at 18.
Aunt Alice’s grandson, Lauryn’s son Dan, greeted us at the Clam Shell. He came out sweating from the kitchen, where he had a part time job shucking clams and oysters. He looked less hearty than I remembered from when he and my wife’s son had briefly been friends in the city. Two months ago, I had just learned, he had been thrown out of the White Mountain School for drinking, which sounded like not a bad thing. There was also some silent family style tongue clicking about Lauryn, who had another child by another marriage, her third marriage now, and let her mother take care of Dan.
Dan back in the kitchen, and right at our cramped table one of those family groupings I had been so good at avoiding for so many years – a cousin and an aunt of whom I was suspicious – and right in my face at the table an aquarium tank filled with slimy monsters – a banded water snake, a sort of squid thing, a small cat fish sucking up something nasty at the bottom of the tank. a very slippery striped eel.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
When I got back to the house, Lawrence was there with Maya, and some older, well-traveled, somewhat distant cousins I liked had dropped by on their way to somewhere. Not surprising that relatives I never see would appear. Everyone but me is always dealing with near or distant family in this family I believed I had long ago escaped.
Cousin Carolyn, buxom and vigorous, with whom I think my father had been in love many years back, said just about the most thrilling thing that had happened to her was getting on an airplane in Tokyo some years ago and reading a really funny in-flight magazine article about finding the perfect place write – and then realizing this great article was by her Cousin Fred.
They traveled a lot, Carolyn and her husband Thor who has been – “of all things,” family members said – Carolyn’s ski instructor when she had been on vacation in 1940s Norway. He like her was vigorous and seemed more so as they aged. When they met in Norway she had turned forty and was apparently destined to remain a single career woman. She had revived the fortunes of one branch of the family by making money as an importer of Belgian wool, for which the Belgian government gave her a medal. She so clearly was a needed single person that when she was 40 and stepped out of character it took them time to recover.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, seeing Fred’s piece,” Carolyn was saying again. And Lawrence and his wife and his mother changed the subject fast, and when Carolyn had gone made fun of this older cousin for saying that seeing my piece was so great. Then they asked me to spend time picking up Lawrence’s stepson from camp near far-off Burlington and driving him to Littleton – which sounded like the first of many tasks for which they could use me.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
There was a horse carriage in an old barn behind the old house, with high grass all around it. The carriage was covered with dust and cobwebs. I had no idea why we did not have a horse. The ice man had one. And so did the man who sharpened knives.
We had a black car that looked like most cars. Once someone visited in a small green car that had a fold-out rumble seat in back – the sort of place where I hoped I would one day get to sit while speeding along in the open air.
The house was very dark. In our room where my twin brother Peter and I had
adjoining cribs, the walls had cardboard cut-out figures of Jack Sprat and his wife who would eat no fat and of Jack the Giant Killer and of Little Bo Peep. We had identical enamel bowls with pictures of Old King Cole on them.Even when placed in our cribs Peter and I were usually fighting – except on memorable time when we joined forces to make what they called BMs in our crib and throw the results against the wall.
I was moved to another room, adjoining the room with the cut-out figures. It was because we fought so much. Once Peter hit me with what in memory is an iron pipe. Some clear substance that hardened like glass was put on the wound by a doctor. Once I was hit in the groin so hard my little balls swelled and turned almost black.
The far end of the dark room I was moved to was at the front of the house, which was really exciting, and still dark even with windows to the street.
The New Rochelle trolley cars rolled along outside, bells sometimes ringing – the wires above making singing sounds. And at a certain time a Good Humor truck would come by and it would stop if our nurse Josephine hung a special sign with the letter “G” in a window.
Josephine was very dark and very thin and very old and had very few teeth. She showed us how we could get castor oil down if we held our noses. She had once been the nurse for Dad and his brother and sister. She spoke in a language no one in the house could understand.
At the far end of the room, the end with windows facing the street and trolley line, there was a tall wardrobe with a tall mirror. Through the mirror there were many people always talking, sometimes laughing – people who knew me. At a time in Atlantic City with our grandparents I was surprised and pleased when it turned out that all these people of mine – people no one else could see – were along.
Mother would often get angry. You could tell when it would happen because she wore was a certain gray dress on her angry days. Sometimes she would read aloud about the elephants Barbar and Celeste and the monkey Zephyr. She would read it in French, she said, but tell it to us in English. At the end of the Zephyr book there was picture of a mermaid with bare nipples that made me feel good.
Mother had her gray dress, but no one was so angry as Dad. He came home with the parts of a brand-new lawn mower in a big box. He started to put the parts together but nothing would fit. He waved is arms and spat out harsh words and his face was bright red.
We had a thin black dog named Herbert. He lay in thresholds in different parts of the house and you were told to be very careful because Herbert was an unhappy dog who liked to bite people.
Inside the room I’d been moved to – the room with the mirror people and the sounds of the trolley – it always seemed to be night. Once I saw an owl fly into the room – an owl with ties to the people in the mirror. He landed on the top of a half-open door and stared an me, and I found it comforting.
Once there was laughter in the room. A very pretty, very smooth woman with bright white teeth, large dark but bright eyes, gold and silver bracelets, jolly curly hair – sat in front of the wardrobe laughing and laughing. Mother and Dad had said she was here because she’d been thrown out of her school. That’s what I remember them saying, “thrown out.” She was Dad’s sister. I’d never seen her. Now I was smiling and laughing too – and so were Mother and Dad – on that one day when there seemed to be light not just in the mirror but in the room itself.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
And then I would wonder. As I drove I in this calm green summer place I asked myself, as a prosecutor might, what made me so certain, in thought and rant anyway, that murder was thinkable. Why that? What was to bad about what they did.
It was more than the “bad blood” that occurred to me way back, when my brother was thrown out of the State Department and went work for a Defense Debarment agency that was teaching the Thai army tricks for wiping out the unduly part of the Thai peasantry – which might have been, I told the imaginary prosecutor, even worse than his present job with the CIA, though this recent job was tied to his latest and possibly most dangerous betrayal of me. But when I was in Bangkok I suspected something similar was already going on. What had he told whom about me. Why was I apparently the only American or Australian in Bangkok who had not been approached to report things seen to American intelligence. And who was that ominous little Thai man who a took boat out to my house in Thonburi because, he said, he wanted to know more about the fascinating things I was doing. Writing a paper for school, he said. Had my brother been telling false tales, or true tales he should keep to himself? Telling tales right into the present the way he had done as a child. But do you murder for what a child does?
Back to reconnoiter from Bangkok one summer I talked with an old friend about the pattern in that family I came from. It looks like bad blood, I said. I drank deeply. Those alien words “bad blood” had come from somewhere to my tongue. I wondered what this means for me. Bad blood. Peter fired from the Foreign Service, the job he seemed convinced defined him. My father out of work, unemployable in publishing, where he had done so well with happy books about eccentric families. My Uncle Nick fired form his lifetime traveling work doing something about getting or denying mortgages in Fairfield and Westchester Counties, and now unemployable too, and his wife was having a quite open affair across the street in Scarsdale, and he had sunk into classic alcoholism (like his Uncle John, according to my grandmother, and like my mother, who had come to taping small bottles underneath tables she might go near.
And now as I drove in Vermont, my father and uncle dead, and it did seem I had stopped drinking just in time, though stopping drinking had proved to be the least of it.
But you don’t murder people because they have bad blood, though that can be a factor in the actions of a betrayer, I thought. And you don’t kill them for pomposity. My mother’s take on family blood had just crisscrossed mine when she said that last time I saw her, “You know what separates us from all the rest is good genes.”
I didn’t kill my father for telling anti-Semitic jokes, or my grandfather who tried to explain anti-Semitism even while hanging on to Jewish friends, or my grandmother for saying, in reference to who was allowed to live where in the White Mountains, “It isn’t the Jews we dislike. It’s just the, you know, kikey ones.”
Yes, Peter had told someone I had to be watched, at the least, when I lived in Bangkok, and now I knew that he had so recently been on the other side in the Philippines. I knew it all along. When I was first on the Philippine project I talked of how given my brother’s position he had to know my phone was tapped, and what was being recorded, and that someone smarter than him would be like the clever policeman who makes good use of his tie to a relative in the mob. But you don’t murder someone for not being smart. Maybe.
Was it true that they were domestic war criminals? Margaret’s horrible death. The probable suicide of Paul who fucked his little sister and was in constant trouble with the law for stealing and kidnapping – the reason a judge had ordered him into the Vietnam era military in lieu of prison – and he had turned the army time into a con, never going near Vietnam but buying a Special Forces green beret uniform and sending photos of himself, masquerading as a sort of anti-Communist commando, around to any one he thought needed to see them. Not so very different from what they had done regarding the father he never met – he was adopted they always pointed out – the father had been killed in a drunk flying accident and they decided to claim the man was a hero of the battle of Britain. And don’t forget that Paul had fucked his little sister, my favorite cousin, Deirdre. And maybe this would be enough to justify murder, but I was still in the middle of the case I was building, still trying to meld memory and information and remembered observation into something that explained this sense I had of something else they had done – that it seemed I as on the verge of knowing – what they had really done and what they deserved.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
I was going through these old places in Sugar Hill on my way to Aunt Betsy’s small house up behind the movie theater in the old mill town of Littleton. The place where the previous summer I had withdrawn into depression while people at my mother’s birthday party talked trash in prissy acquired British accents. (And it still seemed a betrayal, their bigotry, on a level with the betrayal just confirmed on my brother’s working via the CIA with people who wanted me dead).
I had been on the phone with Aunt Alice’s son, my Cousin Lawrence, with whom I had spoken while in New York and so knew he would be visiting his mother. I still considered him my friend, he being in the theater and thus closer to my life than any of the others.
So after passing through the old summer places – the restricted old Sunset Hill House Hotel, the family houses, the tiny village of Sugar Hill, the slightly larger village of Franconia, I cut over to Littleton, following the route we used to follow on shopping trips to Littleton, where there was a store called McGoon's where our cook Evelyn could mysteriously tell which were the best melons, and which meat and fish were up to standards, and where there were Crosse and Blackwell canned goods from Boston, and of course a special kind of thick soda cracker, made only in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, that was the only cracker served with the soup course in White Pines, and for that matter in the apartment Nana owned in New York.
Going through deep woods on the way, passing near the town of Bethlehem where the Jews went, I went by a sign at a turnoff for the White Mountain School, which was the current co-ed incarnation of the formerly all girls' boarding St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains, which was right here in family territory. I had even been to a teen swimming party on the campus, which was deserted in the summer. But this was not a part of the official White Mountains. St. Mary’s was from my other life, my own life, that had begun down in the New Hampshire lake country at Holderness, which was a brother school to St. Mary’s, where I first got into serious necking.
From the woods I headed on to a creaky steel bridge over a fast moving rocky river into Littleton. I turned right at the familiar old movie house and went a steep hill, the Mustang sounded strained as it switched itself to a low gear, to Aunt Alice house, which was referred to in the family as a nothing more than a company house, which they all said it was a mistake to buy and not just because it was not a more exclusive place but also because a decaying mill town was no place for an investment. Aunt Alice had told me that when she moved to New Hampshire none of Nana’s old lady friends from the more rarefied towns invited her anywhere. Which did not surprise me, since she was always talked about as the family’s problem, even though she never went anywhere, whether London or Chicago, where there might be relatives without looking them up. Which was Lawrence’s pattern too.
The only one at home when I arrived was Lawrence’s wife Maya, who had a lightness very different from Lawrence’s always carefully rehearsed and slightly sneering form of lightness. Maya had plenty to talk about whenever we met – artistic and political and also mostly silly family matters. Not so very long ago she was dancing with Merce Cunningham, so she no more than me would be a part of the world I was looking into with new eyes now. I doubted if anyone up here except Lawrence, me, and maybe my late grandmother, would ever have heard of Merce Cunningham.
Maya and I went for a drive out the woodsy Easton Road. I told her I had just had this strange memory of my grandmother telling about an important experience she had had years ago while riding with the mailman. This was one of the few times I talked about what I was putting together, the kind of talk Lawrence had told me he did not want to hear. In the mailman story Nana rode with him since she did not have a regular driver's license (and would not get one until she was nearing 80. And even now Aunt Alice did not drive.
My grandmother had told me about the mailman one day at lunch in White pines at the long shiny table where on weekdays at midday there might be only three or four people in a place that by evening could have 12 or 20. She told me that one day long ago when they were way out in countryside the mailman slowed to stop in the course of a heart attack that killed him on the spot. What was she to do? She couldn’t just stay in the car with the dead man. And then, she told me, she saw in the sky the actual words “The U.S. mail must always be protected.”
And since there was almost no traffic, she waited there in the car alone with a corpse for many hours.
What a strange thing, I said now, this story of patriotism and words in the sky – how interesting that patriotism trumped sympathy. I saw the story aroused no apparent suspicion in Maya, who did not anyway seem to be listening. And I was now thinking of something she and Lawence had told me the previous year when I went to see a pretentious version of an opaque Brecht play Lawrence directed at McCarter Theater in Princeton. She told me that when she and Lawrence had been vesting in Littleton that year, his sister Lauryn, the one I really liked, had been there too, and Lauryn had said something about having been raped – in Maya's version raped once – by Lawrence’s younger brother Lenny, the one was had stayed in deep trouble with the law even after they fled New York – sawed off shotguns and kidnapping charges, a stint in the army in lieu of prison, a false identity, and then sudden death on a motorcycle. Things that everyone in this family said never happened in this family.
Maya also talked about how she resented her mother-in-law, my Aunt Alice, giving money and trips to Lauryn’s son Tom, but never to Maya’s son Eric -- and adding something creepy -- that when Aunt Alice spoke of Eric, who had entered puberty and become the darling of pubescent girls, it was as if this now elderly woman were talking about a grown man in whom she was sexually interested.
Back at the house, I went for a walk alone on my aunt’s hilly street’s narrow sidewalk. I breathed deep in the cool mountain air that up here was always so filled with my memories. Then I had a feeling there was someone behind me. I turned. It was Aunt Alice. Aunt Alice was following me, racing after me almost, and she seemed to be looking at me almost as you would look at a lover.
And I was remembering scenes of early childhood, a time when she had been the only one around who could cut through the darkness with gaiety.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Six months back, in February, as the landscape of my life had begun undergoing radical change, there was also literal change in landscapes I had touched. For the first time in years there would be no Duvalier in Port-au-Prince and no Marcos in Manila, places that had figured big in my sometimes effacing and sometimes grandiose image of myself – only six moths back, as if it were all right here right now in this year that held the promise that everything could forever be different.
It was only three years before this when we were underground in Manila, and Aquino was killed, and I was in the last faint surge of my failing marriage – which compounded a increasingly surrealistic picture, for I was married a girl named Anne Ang I had met in Manila at a time I had gone back to Southeast Asia and knew I was merely repeating myself. Still married to Anne three year ago even though the reasons now seemed so far fetched – she looked and sounded so right for the life of romance I had wanted. So unlikely that this could be a repetition of anything. But by the time I was dealing with Aquino and the revolution I was beginning to face the fact that I had become a cliché stock figure, for no matter how hard I tried for something different it was becoming clear that I was just another guy who had married his mother.
No, Anne was not a right-wing Republican and she seemed free of racial bigotry and did not brag about upper class genes, and she rarely drank to excess. Yet we could not stop shouting at each other. It had been a relief when Max and I decided it was obligatory, for the sake of the book, that I go spend time on the West Coast and then take thrilling risks in the Philippines. A relief to get away from my own Philippine household in New York by going to the Philippines. My bride who told me I should never criticize family, that I should tell my mother I loved her and, moreover, I should stop staying bad things about Princeton since everyone knew it was a very good school.
These were things I was thinking of too as I drove around Vermont. As I started on my way back to something I sensed I had once known or approached.
This trip back that necessitated committing murder, figurative at least. I though of how at one of those meeting in the city everyone had shouted and applauded when a girl stood up holding the front page of that day's Daily News, which was about a cheerleader on Long Inland who had just murdered her father, who had been molesting her since she was very small. All of us applauding patricide.
Cleansing murder. Death did not seem far away in this summer of new life. Not my own death. That death seemed farther way then ever. But there were these others….