Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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(While staying with a friend in Raleigh, I mentioned writing about a boy from the North Carolina mountain town of Marietta. “Marietta!” he said, “I once went up there to find a kidnapped girl!”)
I was attending forestry camp in the mountains. There I became friends with a very intelligent and beautiful young girl named Gloria. We often took trips on my bike. One time we visited her family. What a scene! A dark one-room shanty with abandoned cars, appliances, and garbage strewn across the yard. Inside lived her eight brothers and sisters, mother and drunken father. Her great-grandmother also lived there. All I remember is that, when I arrived, she was lying on a cot in the middle of the room watching television. She mustered enough strength to raise up, say, “Sonny, you sure are handsome!”, and fall back down.
Several months after camp closed, I returned to visit Gloria. Her mother told me she’d been kidnapped the day before. She didn’t know how it had happened, but she’d heard three brothers from Marietta were in the area. They were known to cut up and run off with women. She thought their name was Harrison.
I rode to Marietta and asked the sheriff if he knew them. “The Harrisons!” he exclaimed. “Everyone knows ’em. They’re so mean there used to be four, but one of ’em shot the other. We know they’ve done a lot of stuff, but can’t pin anything on ’em.” He said they lived about six miles from town, in a deserted hollow. I asked him to go with me, but he refused. He wasn’t gonna mess with them Harrisons. I said I’d go by myself. He advised against it, but wished me luck and drew a map.
While riding out, the sky opened. I stopped at a country store and asked the owner if he knew of any Harrisons. “Oh no, I ain’t heard of no Harrisons!” he stammered. “Now you better be movin’ on. Don’t come messin’ ’round these parts.”
I parked my bike at a church, and walked the Harrisons’ path back into the hills. I came upon a cinderblock house with tar paper roof. There was no door, and I spotted an old lady sitting on a dirt floor. She was cooking over a wood stove and talking to someone in a side room. I overheard the name “Gloria.” When I approached, the old lady came to the door. “What you want here?” she shouted. To speak to the Harrisons, I told her. “There ain’t no Harrisons livin’ here,” she said. I asked where they took Gloria. “They didn’t take her anywhere,” she protested. Realizing she’d given herself away, she stopped: “Go on, git out of here!” She got her dogs and some tough little kids after me, and I was forced back to the highway. I can’t prove this, but I felt there were rifles aimed right at me.
Soon afterwards, the sheriff raided the house and freed Gloria. She was pregnant, but uninjured. As it turned out, she was in the house when I came, but tied and gagged.
So that’s about all there is to it. It’s funny how you can suddenly find yourself in something like that, isn’t it?
In 1963, during my freshman year at UCLA, my history section leader was Sir John Graham Barkeley Williams. “Will,” as we called him, was raised in London and came to California for graduate studies in American history. He was tall and thin, with red hair. A gangly walk, easy sense of humor, radical in politics and life style. “I was born in red diapers,” he said.
We quickly became friends. Along with a few others, I became part of “Will’s gang.” After seminars, we’d follow him to the Student Union for discussions. He’d confront us at every turn — pounding away at our feeble beliefs. I’d curse and despise, but slowly give ground often returning home to argue Will’s side in disputes with my parents (using his arguments!). I became liberal and, finally radical. “I’m a Marxist,” I boasted one afternoon. “Pfff, you, a Marxist!” he scoffed.
He encouraged us to reject “bourgeois” values. I once mentioned needing exercise. “Fine,” he said, “let’s do some pushups!” We did them right there in the Music Library. He also never answered his phone. I asked him why he didn’t seem worried who was calling. “You just have to practice,” he said.
He visited my home only once. He came with friends. They got into a heated argument with my mother about black uprisings in the ghetto — one even proclaiming he was voting for Goldwater to help destroy the system faster. At one point my mom mentioned she’d been reading James Michener. They burst into hysterics.
Afterwards, I told Will his friends were discourteous. He agreed. I said they could have at least combed their hair. “COMBED THEIR HAIR!” he exclaimed, “Now I’ve heard everything!”
Believing I could never satisfy him, I saw Will less frequently as years passed. The last time was a few days before my graduation. He said he was headed back to England. He’d met some nice people, but was glad to be leaving.
But, last I know, he was herding sheep in Connecticut.
(the following two stories were told by my grandmother)
Your great-grandmother was a tough woman. Born in Lithuania, she moved to New York, Pittsburgh and, finally, Denver. At eleven, having no schooling, she became a maid. She married young, but her husband died early. Having no visible means of support, the state tried to take her three children. But she said she’d support them somehow, and took the kids with her — scrubbing floors and cleaning houses. The neighbors, seeing how hard she worked, chipped in $200 and bought her a cow. Her family would wake at 5 a.m. and deliver milk.
She eventually remarried. By this time your grandpa was working and had saved $70. His new stepfather asked him for it, saying he wanted to paint houses. That was the last they saw of him. He wrote from Kansas City, wishing to return. But they told him not to come back.
Years later we were living in Los Angeles. One day, while sitting on a park bench, your great-grandmother saw him coming towards her. “Sarah!” he cried. “You must have the wrong person, my name is Mary,” she said. “Oh no, I was your husband, and your children were Maxine, Rose, and Harry,” he declared. She insisted he was mistaken. And if he kept bothering her she would call the police.
“Why should I have gotten involved when no good could come of it?” she said afterwards.
In 1918, your grandpa was struggling to recover from influenza. We talked to a man just back from the West Coast, tanned and healthy. Afterwards, Grandpa said, “Let’s move to California!” That was fine with me, so we leased our apartment and made plans to leave Denver. Our relatives were furious, and accused us of deserting them. (Over the years, however, they all came west.)
We set out in a 1914 Dodge. It had isinglass curtains. You could snap them on and keep out the rain, but it would get very cold inside. We took along my nine-year-old brother Sherman, and my two-year-old son Charles. I was also six months pregnant with your mother.
Except for fifty miles of pavement near Albuquerque, there were nothing but dirt roads. A paved highway must be something like heaven, I thought. We often had to ford rivers, and once even hit a cow. It turned our headlights around. We also had our windshield broken by a tractor working on the highway. All along the sides of the road were people whose cars had broken down. They were waiting for spare parts, holding signs, “Can you spare some food? We’re starving!” We stopped and shared what we had, but soon had nothing ourselves.
One night, driving along, Grandpa stopped suddenly. “I think something is funny. The light isn’t reflecting right,” he said. He got out to check and discovered we were on the edge of a cliff! We backed up, but ran into Indians. I was always scared of Indians! But they showed us a road through their reservation, and we ended up in Navajo, Arizona.
We were starved. There was only one restaurant in town. Food was piled high, but the cook wouldn’t feed us because they were just closing. Having no place to stay, a cowboy took pity and lent us his bunk. We all crowded in and slept.
The next day, seeing how tired we were, Grandpa told us to take the train as far as Winslow. We could see Grandpa driving about even with us. “That’s my Daddy!” Charles would shout. When we reached Winslow, finding no one waiting, I began to cry. Grandpa had been given the wrong time and was next door eating. For the rest of the trip Charles told everyone, “I went on a choo-choo, but my mommy cried!”
We broke an axle outside of Victorville. Grandpa got out to search for help. I was afraid we’d lost him again, but he found somebody who towed us into town. There we waited for parts.
Finally, eleven days gone, we were driving through miles of gorgeous orange groves. The air was fresh, and the sky clear. I knew we were approaching Los Angeles.
This past summer, napping on the Los Angeles Public Library lawn, I was approached by a man nearing sixty. His clothing was worn. Unlaced boots, missing teeth, three days growth of gray beard. He handed me two plums and walked away. At the far corner of the lawn I saw him stop to feed breadcrumbs to pigeons from a paper bag.
Having just eaten (and also somewhat curious), I went to return the plums. “Sorry I bothered you,” he said. “I thought you were a guy I see down at the Mission. We usually share food with each other.”
He said he’d been downtown for forty years. Eating in rescue missions or from food thrown out of markets. Sleeping in a different place every night. “I take a walk around midnight,” he said. “The cops don’t bother you once they know you’re not out to cause trouble. But sometimes these young kids walk down the sidewalk in packs and expect you to go in the street. I just go right through ’em. Wouldn’t last long where I came from. They don’t know what this country’s about.” He said he sometimes found work with truckers, helping with deliveries. But some were starting to say he was too old.
He suddenly became very nervous. “I want to be alone, but I’m always with people. Never get a chance to be by myself!” he muttered. He picked up his jacket and departed.
(From a small town in the Carolina mountains, Jeff Talmadge entered the state university in Chapel Hill in 1969. He lived there until shortly before his death in 1974. His story is told by a college friend.)
When I lived in Old East dormitory, we always left our doors open. Across the hall was a guy with long blond hair and a lot of freckles. He would often sit on his bed playing blues guitar. I went and introduced myself, and he said his name was Jeff.
It was a madhouse up there. Fourteen people lived in my room — friends who had flunked out, people off the streets, runaways. Inside was a huge skeleton and a five foot high “Frosty” cup. The words to “El Paso” were written around the room in chalk. I remember going into the bathroom one morning and finding the housing inspector! I was sure it was all over. He asked if that was my room. “Well, better get that chalk off the walls!” he said.
Jeff moved out to Carrboro and, my room being taken over by others, I went to stay with him. We spent a lot of time smoking dope and discussing religion, philosophy and literature. He was an iconoclast — questioning everything. He was writing a lot of poetry and seemed happy — going to school, working at Harold’s restaurant (a gathering place for activists of the sixties), and finally the N.C. Coffee Shop. Dishwashing, busing and waiting tables.
Around fall of 1973, I noticed a change. He was out of school, having a hard time getting work. Living with a woman in the apartment above him, I was preoccupied and didn’t talk to him much. He began withdrawing, refusing invitations to go out. When I’d visit, he’d show me his poems. They dealt with the intergalactic — in not being confined to earth, so humanity wouldn’t pass on with its destruction. He was convinced something was going to happen, and began studying maps of the galaxy. He related this in a nonsensical way to Greek mythology, explaining it as if totally understandable. I think he had hold of an idea and couldn’t deal with it. It reminded me of Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson. The parasites stifle the mind of a man who expels them and tries to rid them from the world. Perhaps Jeff knew something, and they got him because he was dangerous. I still believe that sometimes.
Jeff lived to write material he was satisfied with. He asked a professor at the University to look at his work to see if it was publishable. He either didn’t respond or was negative. Jeff stopped playing guitar, and spent all his time inside the apartment. I think he’d come to a dead end in his writing, and was depressed by it. A few months later, he committed himself to the psychiatric ward. He thought he might kill himself, and talked of death. When he came out, he was obviously losing it. He became paranoid, calling to say things like, “People are driving by yelling my name.” From where he lived, no one could drive near. I didn’t know what to do.
His parents made him move home. They thought his college friends were a bad influence. He cut his hair, was engaged to be married, and planned to enter seminary (he’d always been an ardent atheist).
I didn’t visit him. One person had gone, and said it was uneasy. Jeff wanted to cut his ties to Chapel Hill and begin anew.
Two weeks before his marriage, he went into the basement, put a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger.