This is the third part of Lorenzo Milam’s remarkable autobiography, chronicling the years after he was struck by polio at the age of 18.
In Issue 89 we published excerpts from Part I, and in Issue 91, excerpts from Part II of this unpublished manuscript, which has been turned down by 15 publishers. If another commentary is needed on the state of American publishing, contemplate the living torch of Lorenzo’s writing. The man’s aflame — he burns dark and unforgettable. No weenie roasts around this fire; no sale.
Lorenzo will publish it himself (it will be available this summer from Mho & Mho Works, Box 33135, San Diego, California, 92103.) In a future issue, we’ll print excerpts from the fourth and final part of the book.
Copyright @ 1982 Lorenzo W. Milam
In Isolation, they ripped my body from me, without warning. There was no possible preparation, or forethought. I wake up after the searing jumble of fever as an eighteen-year-old boy in a seventy-five-year-old body.
In Hope Haven, they begin to teach me the price of that loss. I learn the role of being dependent, and being dependent on those who could never love nor cherish me. Sometimes it is your enemy that you must ask to come and roll you over in the night. In this process, one must surrender, or lie all night, unmoved. The body which was young and pliant is now awkward and unlovely: it is a sack-of-wheat with five appendages (arms, legs, head) that flop about when the torso is being raised, lowered, turned, moved, pushed up or pulled down. The body cannot and will not function “normally,” no matter the depth of one’s will, courage, faith, hope, belief, and desire for improvement.
In Warm Springs, they start the process of giving me back to myself again. The form is new and strange, but it is all that is left. I have to teach myself the new moves that are necessary with a new body. The process of standing and moving has to be thought out ahead of time, and the reward is that one can begin to disguise the effort in the commonplace act of sitting down or walking across a lawn. I am learning to “pass,” preparing myself for all conditions of interaction with the world.
After leaving Warm Springs, I will have to learn the next steps on my own. I have no compadres about me to give me the benefit of their learning. I will, alone, have to build physical and emotional resources to deal with the real world.
A week or so, after my return home, I am out on the front lawn of the house, the house I grew up in, in North Florida. I have taken off my shirt — drawn up my pants (but not too far up: the shame of the appearance of my upper legs, bone thin, is too great. No one is to see that part of me).
I have rolled myself out on the lawn in my wheelchair, and let myself down from it, down onto the ground. I am going to give my white body to the sun. It is noon. Perhaps I will be able to tan the bleached skin, back to what it was, back . . . before . . .
I hear something behind me. I turn around, and see my mother standing just inside the door, in the darkness of the living room. She is watching me. I am trapped on my blanket, and she is watching me. I can see the glint of tears in her eyes. She is weeping over me.
“Goddamn,” I think. “Why can’t she leave me alone. Goddamn!” I am nothing to weep over. No man nor woman in the world has the right to hide behind me and weep over me. She’s acting as if I were a corpse. It is as if I died a year ago. And here she is, looking through the fine mesh, at this corpse of a son. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I think, slamming my fist on the foot pedal of the wheelchair. But where? Where can I go? My friends are off at school. Their houses are no better than this one. I can’t go back to the hospital. It’s impossible for me to move into an apartment. I couldn’t cook, wash dishes, get in and out, wash clothes, make my own bed. She has me trapped here, in this cage she calls a home. And she is standing there behind the door (does she think I can’t hear her?) crying over me. And I can’t even get up from the ground, tell her to stop, tell her to leave me fucking alone, leave me alone on the lawn. I hate her.
There are people who are good around cripples, and there are people who are dumb. I learn to avoid the latter. Like the ones who refer to my crutches as “Pogo Sticks.”
Friends come by to see her one day. I meet them, me in my new disguise, disguised as a cripple. We talk of this and that for awhile, and then I go back to my room, to be alone. I prefer to be alone. Alone I am away from their sanctimonious pity, the vile stink of their sympathy.
I can hear them as they are going out the back door, next to my room. “He is so brave,” one of them tells my mother. And I can hear her, a crack in her voice, suppressing her tears. “Isn’t he?” she says. “Good Jesus!” I think. “Why doesn’t she leave me alone? She makes me want to puke. I’ve got to get out of this shithole.”
I go back to visit the radio station where I worked the summer before, before I “got sick.” I meet some of my old friends. One of them is doing a country show on the air. He announces that he’s going to play Hank Williams’ “Elija,” and he says “. . . and we are gonna dedicate it to our good friend Lorenzo here. He’s back now from the hospital. He was hit by polio, but he’s making a wonderful recovery, aren’t you Lorenzo?” “O shit,” I think. “Why do they have to do this to me?” I leave without saying goodbye. “What’s wrong with these people?” I think, furiously.
I go to visit the parents of one of my friends. It takes me almost five minutes to back up the stairs (there’s no railing; I am breathless with the effort, and the everpresent fear of falling). When I come into the living room, I sit down awkwardly on the couch. “O God,” I think. “It’s so low to the floor. I’ll never get out.” My head begins to fill with obstructions. I hardly hear what they are saying. My physical self is obtruding on my mental self. I remember this same house, from . . . back then. I would run up the front stairs, arrive breathless at the living room door, then bound into the kitchen, up the stairs (taking them two at a time) and then into my friend’s room. We would consult a moment or two, laugh and cackle, and then the two of us would thunder down the stairs, through the living room, slapping the wall as we piled out through the screen door, down the front stairs, across the lawn, into the car. Now it takes me five minutes (or is it an hour) to get to the living room. They are hovering on the landing behind me. What are they thinking?
Should we talk about it? How should we handle Before and After. My whole world has been Hospital for the past twelve months. I have been out of their lives, out of their experiences. What is there to say, to do? How should we get into words how it feels, with those new leg-irons, that new body. Should we, or shouldn’t we: simple relationships become complexly bound up in my physical presence in the room, as if I had been turned into some six-foot tarantula. How do you ignore your old friend Lorenzo who is now a huge worm, perched on the couch across from you, ill-at-ease: what to say, how to say it? How do you talk to a tarantula?
Stacy comes in with her five-year-old, and the kid gets on the floor, looks at the place where the metal braces attach to the shoes. “What’s this for,” says the kid, all eyes, and wonder. “What happened to you?” What can they say, what can I say. They laugh nervously, or run over and pick up the kid, try to distract him, get him interested in anything else so he will stop embarrassing us all.
Then they start talking about golf, and I watch them, and I wonder, are they thinking, “He used to play golf. We can remember when Lorenzo was a pretty good golfer. Shouldn’t we shut the hell up about golf?” So I try to change the subject, talk about anything, something, but not swimming or sports, because of the memories.
And then I go to leave, and I try to get up from the low couch, and when I lean against the back of it, it begins to go out from under me. I get scared I am going to fall, so I have to sit down quickly (hoping they didn’t notice) to start all over again. And there I am sitting on the couch, where I don’t want to be, wanting to be somewhere else. I can’t be out of here just by wanting to be out of here. It isn’t like before.
They remember me climbing trees, and chasing around the back yard. They remember when I first started driving, and when I went out on the town with their son and raised hell with him, how we took care of each other, that night when I got so shit-faced drunk I could hardly walk, and he held me in his arms like a baby, until I could come to my senses, and then he led me back to the car, and drove me home. They remember all that. And now I can’t even get up from their goddamn couch. The father asks me if I want some help and I get sort of pissed, and I say “no.” I can feel the anger flaring up in me, but I brutally suppress it, and I say “no, I can do it” and I wonder if I can do it. The floor is so slippery, and the couch so low. I start pushing with all my might against the back of it, trying to swing my body around into the standing position so I can lock my brace, but as I get half-way up, the couch begins to slip out from under me and the father has to run across the room and grab it, and he says, trying to ease my pain, “I have trouble getting off this damn couch all the time myself. I’ve got to do something about it,” and I am panicking, as I can’t get elevated the last inch to lock my brace, and if he tries to help me, he might unbalance me and we would both go over, together, so I twist my body a little bit and I am, at last, standing, panting, my arms aching with the strain of it.
They go down to the car with me, the father standing a little ahead of me on the stairs, his arms out in a half-circle, to catch me if I start to go. “I wish he wouldn’t do that,” I think. His face is drawn, filled with concern, and I think, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” I get to my car, and I can sense them wondering if I’ll ever be the same again (I won’t) or if I’ll ever come back here again (I won’t) and I think of my room, there at home, where I grew up, me alone in my room, with my new body, me and my new twin Broken Body, staying in the room with a big lock on the door, and anyone wants to see me they have to wait until I turn out the light, and they can come in and see me by dim candle light, and if they don’t like that, they can just shove a goddamn note under the door, so they won’t have to see The New Me, so I won’t have to see the fucking ugly putrescent lines of pity in their face, that pukey look of poor-kid in their fucking eyes.
There are people who are good around cripples, and there are people who are dumb. I learn to avoid the latter. Like the ones who refer to my crutches as “Pogo Sticks.” Or the people who spurt ahead of me as we are reaching the door and say, “Here, lemme help ya: looks like you gotta a handful there!” Strangers with concern on their faces, always asking if they can help. “Can I help you, son?” Fuck you.
Then there are the people that know, just know, the best way to my heart is to tell me about a father, a sister, a cousin who got polio, but who “recovered completely.” They were unable to move a single muscle, but because of will, and faith, they are now spending their days water skiing, or dancing. They are too stupid to know what they are doing to me: that is, slamming me in the face for not being a road-runner. I am being held up to negative comparison to hundreds of anonymous patients who are delivered from where I am now by their own strength of will. These people expect me to be pleased with the fuck-you stories of The Total Cure, bulldozing me with my weakness, and by implication, my own inability to overcome my weakness.
These are as moving to me as the Religious Cure stories: totally paralyzed, then the conversion in the tent, and now he is carrying bricks for some construction company. What these people are telling me is that if I would just get down on my knees, if I would just believe. And the other face of this: by my own recalcitrant lack of faith, I am staying willingly in the basket.
The Gods! Tell me about the Gods! They have failed me too. As my body has failed me, so have the Gods. How am I to worship the He who denies me access to the fields and streams and mountains and seas? How can I accept a god who can burn me up before age twenty, and leave me a skeleton of my former self.
The religions that teach fear and trembling — the fundamental religions — have no effect on me. I have my own religion of the fundament, and it grows out of the shit that stopped up inside of me. When they tell me about the fires of sulphur and ceaseless smoke — it means nothing to me. I have seen it already. I was there, I tell you! A god came to me and unleashed several million of his agents into my bloodstream, in my duodenum, in my gangalia, finally invading the cloudy hypnotic mass that rests in the hard white bone of my skull.
Talk to me about perdition and damnation. Damnation! I have been there, I have peered into the pits and smelled the charring flesh of eternity. Eternity is reenacted for me each day as I place leather against skin, metal bone against back and front, moleskin against hand, metal strut against the worn undersides of the arm.
Talk to me about hell fire and brimstone! I see it! I see it each moment. It rides with me at this moment, steel and leather which speaks of eternity in this eternity called life.
I don’t see your gods, man, except for what they are. Demented madmen who unleash the horrors of death on the living, and then expect honor and humility. Jesus Christ! What have you created? What do you want?
These are the people I learn to avoid: ones who are trying to cripple me further, trying to enmesh me in their sentimentality, stick me with their emotional problems, their crappy views of a cripple. I develop withdrawal techniques to deal with people who refuse to accept the fact that I am my own man, and that I will make it in my own way, and my crutches are not some flag for all dough-heads to put their trips on me, but are a badge of my resistance to giving up, and that I am coming out in the world despite them and their ugly views of crips like me.
With all the porcupine prickles I put together to protect me from them, it still can be hard to get beyond them, to move without attracting all the wrong kind of attention. I am going down the stairs. A wen-faced witch from across the way stops on her morning constitutional. “Well,” she says, brassy: “Well, you look like you’re doing all right. You look like you are gonna make it.” “I’ve been making it all this time, you stupid cunt,” I think. “I’ve been making it all this time,” I say.
At the grocery store, I am agonizing over the melons, pinching the avocados, eyeing the vegetable boys. Three children are being pushed in a metal chariot by a pink-hair curler mother. The oldest, finger deep in mouth: “What happened to you?” Head turning. Loud, very loud. “Mother, what happened to him?” Tears burn in eyes. I turn the other way, go the other way, go the other direction. “Nosy little snots like you should be shot,” I shout, to myself. “Shh, shh,” says mother, speeding past the vegetables. “Don’t let me forget the milk” she says loudly, noisy ploy to distract their attention.
“How you doing?” I say to the lip-drooping clerk at My-T-Fine Liquors. “I’m doing all right but you don’t look like you’re doing all right,” he says, pleasantly. “And your ass is another, you dumb fuck,” I think. “Have you got any rot-gut whisky?” I say briskly, turning away. “I should burn this shitting place down,” I think.
“Here let me get that door for you,” says the whey-faced dodderer at Al’s Place Tavern, getting in my way and blocking the swinging door. “What happened to you,” he natters: “Have a ski accident?” “Ski your hole, pecker,” I think pleasantly. “Nothing, nothing” I say, hurrying by him, inadvertantly banging crutch-tip against his hairless shin. “Nothing at all,” I say.
“Looks like you do all right on them sticks, boy,” says the riddle-faced alky in front of the stationery store. I smile at him: tight smile, friendly. “Is there any reason a stupid shit like you should be out here trying to fuck up the minds of poor cripples?” I think. “You might wake up dead,” I think. “What is wrong with me?” I wonder. So much bitterness, so much hate. “I am killing myself with hate,” I think. These stupid cocks aren’t worth it. “What am I doing to myself?” I wonder. Plenty. I am doing plenty to myself. “I should stay at home,” I think. “Why am I going out, exposing myself to this hate, this agony, these fools, with their projected nightmare vision of me as cripple. I should stay in my cave, peer out with luminous eyes, slash at the hands of those who reach out to me, razoring them with my words.”
“Well, my goodness,” says the plump grandmaw at the check-out stand, she of the rimless glasses and the pleasant mouth, the skin so white you’d think it was sewed of magnolia petals. Her breath reeks of denture cream. “What happened to you?” she says brightly. “Looks like you’re having a little trouble getting around.”
“If I got one of them regulation U.S. Army flame throwers, you know, the ones with the five-inch wide nozzles, and I stuck it a foot or so up your ass, and then turned the sucker on, do you think you might jump some?” I think. “Then you’d have some trouble getting around too,” I think.
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing at all. Just a little accident, you know.”
“I know, I know,” she says, smiling. But she doesn’t. Doesn’t have the faintest foggiest fucking idea in the whole Jesus-bitten world. She doesn’t know shit about me. Especially with that flame-thrower lodged in her butt.
My brother is to be married in the fall of 1953. The wedding is to be in New Hampshire. I am to be the best man.
We fly north to New York, then Albany. We drive from Albany to Littleton. This is my first trip since they carted me from Warm Springs, my home.
The ceremony is to take place in a small Catholic church. My brother and I step slowly out of the side door, and walk (he softly, me squeeking) past the two hundred faces. There should be a round of applause: I have now come to the point where I can perform in front of small, select audiences. And I do it rather well. It takes me a bit of a time, but I make it to the center of the action. At the appropriate time I step back with nary a fall.
The reception has been set up on the wide lawn outside the palatial mansion of the bride’s family. There is a tent, a huge tent. Tables, dozens of tables are groaning with every sort of food, punch, champagne. Thousands of people are there. I am dressed in my rented tuxedo, held together with pins. Someone has draped one of my crutches with a bouquet of tiny pink roses.
The brother of the bride is describing to rapt family members a recent ski trip to the White Mountains. I step closer to hear what they are saying. At the same time, he steps backwards to make way for a sandwich tray. He runs into me and I topple over like some fragilely balanced doll, falling backwards on the lawn, falling and twisting, my crutches banging down around me.
There is silence, isn’t there? I think there is a great deal of silence. I can hear an oriole singing somewhere. The music of the orchestra, the imported string orchestra, seems to fade away (is it my imagination?) and a hundred mouths open in a hundred gasps (O my gods). There is a long silence, and I seem to have fallen on some sort of a mound, so that my hips are jutting up to the sky.
I can feel tension in the air. There is a chorus of I’m-so-sorrys and Let’s-help-you-up. I think why don’t I just fucking lie here, on the ground here, and let the goddamn reception go on around me. I don’t give a fuck about all these people. Let them on with their business of drinking and laughing and chatting and talking about their fucking skiing trips. I will just lie here in my grass-stained tuxedo, here on the ground, until the last person has left, and then I will get some of the kitchen help to get me up and I will go up the cog railway up to the top of Mount Washington and fucking push myself off the face of it.
They help me up and brush the grass and leaves off of me, hand me champagne. My hands tremble so that the drink slops out of the glass. I am sorry that I came here to fuck up this nice party, I think. I am sorry that I screwed up this nice party, made everyone so sad at seeing me topple over broken onto the lawn.
I am sorry, I am sorry I have screwed up this happy occasion. I am sorry that I am here. I am sorry that I took all the trouble to come all this distance so that I could fall down and screw up everyone’s head, not the least my own. I am sorry that I am here. I am sorry that I am alive. I am sorry as I can be that I was born, that I grew up, that I lived my life, that I came to this sorry state through no fault of my own.
I am sorry that I had for any single moment thought that I could leave the isolation and darkness of my bedroom, with its comfortable wheelchair and its long dark desk, before which I can sit and stare at my hands, at my long pale white hands, where I can sit in the safety and security of that dark room and stare at my hands.
I am sorry that they brought me here, a thousand uncomfortable miles, to come to this wedding place so that I could stand behind the brother of the bride and go into my spectacular collapsing act which was viewed by hundreds, possibly thousands of gasping guests, honored friends of both families.
In conclusion, I am, I want you to know, sorry for what I have done and what I have done to your day, and most of all, I am sorry for what I have done to myself, this wretched pulsating suppurating wound which is me, this huge box of anguish and hurt inside myself that has, on this day, this fresh and crisp day in October, with the fall of the year so golden and roseate all about us, full of the freshness of the golden decline of the year, has been so painfully cut and twisted open beyond all reason.
Why am I going out, exposing myself to this hate, this agony, these fools, with their projected nightmare vision of me as cripple. I should stay in my cave, peer out with luminous eyes, slash at the hands of those who reach out to me, razoring them with my words.
I have to go to college. I have no choice. I have to raise myself above my body. I have lived for six months in the charity ward of a hospital. I see what happens to the people who are cripples, and who have no education.
I know the especial desperation of an unlearned, untutored, unscholarly cripple in this society. I will, I have to, elevate myself out of that pit.
I must never be forced to work at some mindless job, the jobs made available to cripples out of the soul-bleeding factories of Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul, Little Children of Mercy, Goodwill Industries, Lighthouse for the Blind.
The professional cripple world creates basket cases. For fifty cents or a dollar an hour, the unschooled cripple gets trampled in the exploitation mills run by the charities. In tandem with the cripple-care bureaucrats in government, their charges are forced to work in dusty brick factories, out of sight, in black holes that enrich the managers, and pay for the government employees — but which absolutely blight a crip in mind and in soul.
The charity cripple-keepers, the social workers, the case workers, the government employees have a vested interest in the stumps and broken backs. The spastics and muscular dystrophics and polios and quadriplegics are handed to them in a basket: and they become foundation stones for the temples of charity and government.
I sensed it then, I know it now: I pursued education so diligently in order that I might be set apart, forever, from the foot-dragger with stained pants and rag-top wooden crutches who pulls himself into the Salvation Army camps of the world. It was the purpose of education to set me apart forever from the amputee hunched bent-over in the sun of the downtown street, selling newspapers by showing his body, his face with those furrowed brows, those trembling lips, those hurt-forever eyes, those animal wolf trapped eyes.
I have to go it alone out of the basket world. I don’t do it out of bravery or inner strength, but out of absolute fear and loathing. I have to protect myself from the cripples all around me, who are my mirror image and who, at all times, are falling, puking, muling, slipping, spinning, wheedling, pulling, hanging on, all about me, trying to pull me down with them.
My brothers! I stand apart from you. Fuck you, and your wasted limbs, your blighted breath, your palsy and your lordosis. Fuck you forever! I could care less about your sob stories. I have no interest in your own personal torture. You may be born without a nose, leg amputated at ten, back smashed at twelve, body wasted at twenty-three, foot gangrened at forty-two, brain imploded on its own juices at sixty-nine. I don’t care about you! Fuck you, you and your torn and crabbed limbs.
You are foul, and evil-smelling. Your guts show the dregs of coarse ground meatburgers prepared by all the cripple institutions of the world. Your wimpery eyes drool with the amber of brains softened by years of treatment in hospitals, charity homes, rest-care operations, rehabilitation centers. Your flaccid asses are pimpled and corrugated by your imperfect bowel movements, on imperfect bedpans, in wretchedly kept wards.
Your minds have been crenelated to paste by the therapy, pills, and nostrums dreamed up by the professional “helpers.” Your shoulders are bent under the weight of a dozen nursing home capitalists who get $50 a day to keep you, to feed you and house you and clothe you on pennies. Your eyes are filled with the pity of begging help from doctors and nurses and orderlies and janitors and nurses aides and volunteers. And none of them can really help you: you are hopeless cripples, hopeless — and I want nothing to do with your hopelessness.
We have invented a system to keep you in slavery; a system to keep you bound to your enema bags, chained to your catheters, tied to your walking sticks, locked in your wheelchairs, buried in your aspirators and rocking beds and iron lungs and infusers and clyster solutions and irrigators. This country has devised a system to keep you in the back rooms and closets, off the television screens, out of the newspapers, under the sheets, out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
And I applaud this system. Those of you with your spasms and tics and twitches and snot-drooling, sputum-spilling, saliva-dropping, pus-leaking, piss-smelling, shit-slippery ways have to be kept out of the eyes of the great clean American public. For it is on health and beauty and nobility, the clear eye and the pink cheek that we have built a whole country of such wonder and grace.
I subscribe to the system! You’ll get no loyalty from me, you and your bent limbs, your hopelessly twisted frames. You, with your ass-wrinkled, sad-sacking ways: get thee behind me! Into your institutions, smarmy hotels, puke-smelling, bile-dripping Homes with their smegma-stained walls.
I turn my scorn on you. I have no time for you. It is right and it is proper that we hide the exposed ills that the body can sport: the protrusions, the brown, evil-smelling indiscretions, the moist, slick overflows of the membranes. We could drown in the juices that the eager body produces to survive.
It is proper that you be locked away in the shadows, up the stained stairs, under the come-smeared sheets. You, the ragged droolers of American Society, must be kept beyond the pale so that those who live healthily in this country cannot be dragged down by the vulgar knowledge of our own mortality, the very fragility of our own bodies, the ease with which we can slip into pus and pustules.
Me? I am an eager subscriber to this system. Me: I am only interested in the young and the beautiful and the perfect. Give me only supernal limbs, angular curves of muscle on packed, flat, rippling stomachs.
Me? Give me the twin dimples of healthy lower backs, the sprinkling of blond hair on tan torso and arm, the moving mountains of deltoid on upper shoulder.
Me: I am only interested in consorting with the young, with their sleepy eyes, their arrogant smirks. Give me the child of the shore, whose every limb is baked to dark perfection. And that ease of movement: the movement that belongs to the innocent, the children totally innocent of the abyss that awaits within.
I escape from the snake-thoughts of Cripples by being in love. Daily in love. On the beaches, in the pinball parlors, the movies; at the dirt races, in the parks, at the zoo; in audience at the roller palaces, at the high-school wrestling matches. I follow my children down the long trail of eye-seduction, the snail’s own trail of seduction.
My whole self comes to be optic. My flesh turns to sclerotic tissue. My soul melts into aqueous humor. My brain comes to be vitreous. I see with my fingers, my toes, my skin. Every pore blossoms into cornea; thoughts become iris. I am transformed into the one great Coptic Eye, watching all the children of the earth from high dark castle walls.
I am the single great orb of vision perched at the highest turret. My reason drains as lachrymalia. My children: I see you, run fingers of vision over your every muscle, every part of your selves that burns on my sight.
Lightning ripple of abdomen, strain of tibia, the every thread of latissimus comes seen before me as the sculpture of the brown sun. See: look: see as the child reaches for me (me hovering there the round vision), inches before taut fingers.
I am in love. They move before me on the sands of time and I am in love. The desperately beautiful harmony of motion, the harmony of the human body, perfect, walking perfectly, each step so perfectly stilled by the lumbar and dorsal vertebrae, stones between waves of latissimus and trapezius, lapping against the bone rocks, sweet tide of spinous motion, tides of muscle coming to shore with complex rhythms of its own as foot paces earth, as leg strides continents of the being. Lumbar, sacral, cervical, dorsal facets: obtruding rocks in the oceans of muscle.
I have no time, no time for my brothers. I am in love. I am the Cripple Secret Casanova. I gorge on the shadow mountain of muscles, riding sub-continents beneath the earth’s skin. I am caught: fingers reach out to capture the floating eye, and I am caught with the Greek Passion again. White orbs, baked by suns. We, caught forever on the amber fingers of time.
I am the bird. I am the leathern bird of the shores. I flap heavily from continent to continent. The Cripple Casanova, pumping hell-for-leather with metal winds, creaking, slow; I leave behind the dark sulphur pits, erupt in flights of passion. The Atlantis of Desire rises within me, a Volcano of Cascading Senses. There is no holding it back. See it now as it protrudes from the green-black oceans.
Squamous part of self! The throbbing peninsula stuck out into the ocean of bodies. A stratosphere of self-induced pleasure; the globus comes together, comes together into a sun-licked point of pleasure, the magnifying glass of self comes down to a single smoking point riding over the ant of being and, of a sudden, the mandibles freeze, the hair-thin antennae wave no more, and the creature comes to bend back onto itself, carapace smoking back on itself, biting into the insect pain that comes smoking out of nowhere; then, a final popping, a pulsing stem come from so far away through space magnified onto itself, a single shaft of hot pleasure running down the bricks to crack whole shells of being, crisp red shells of plenty smoking out into the halls of time. And from the tiny beak of this creature, there is a cry of this-is-the-end, this-is-too-much, life-is-too-much, we are finished, done-for, dying, eased, eased out of ourselves; we are eased the lava of imagination burning out of being; muscles freeze against the dark sky of infinity, the billow of clouds glances off the universe above, arrows come down to pierce the roiled waters, black nothing comes turning, turning a planet black shadow turns a black shadow on the inside of itself, and we, the shadows, turn back on ourselves.
There are times, if you will believe me, when I was to have, shall we say, a “normal” love affair. I tried. I tell you doctor, I really tried. I spent more time trying to get my peter on right, my head screwed around to look up skirts and not down pants. I tried, I tell you. And Zooey was there to help me try, weren’t you, my love. Zooey! A beautiful woman for a beautiful (but tortured) male student.
Zooey! You were something out of a book, weren’t you? Out of, say, Henry James. That’s it: you came straight out of Henry James.
Zooey! You know why you loved me? I do. It’s because I never tried to do the old jack-in-the-box with you. Those men from Villanova would take you out, attracted by your patrician ways and your horseback rider thighs, and by the second or third date they would begin to try to stick it to you. The Eternal Curse of One-Eyed Peter. Blind to all other attributes.
But me! Do you realize Zooey that we went out together seventeen times and all I did to you was to read to you from Camus, Kit Marlow, and “Tithonus.” You couldn’t believe it. I know you were asking yourself: “Why doesn’t he try anything?” You thinking that maybe the Crippling Disease took my nuts with it. It did, it did: but not in the way that you suspected.
So as a reward for my perspicacity, and restraint, you give me your heart of blue blood, and invite me out one Sunday to meet the family. At the farm. In Bucks County.
You never tell me, and I neglect to ask, that the Farm was built in 1788. Fourteen rooms. Forty acres; no mules, but lots of horseflesh. I am about to join the upper class.
It is a party, a spring party, a Sunday Spring Party in Bucks County. I like it. I am impressed. All those tall, thin, elegant Philadelphia lawyers, with their tall, thin, elegant Philadelphia lawyer wives, with their thin, elegant hands, and faces, and their elegant jodhpurs. Smelling of leather and talking through their noses at each other.
You must understand, Zooey, if I never told you before, and I am about to tell you now, because you are a literate person, and you will read this, because you read everything, you eat books, as I recall, tear them apart, nuzzle out the warm tender leaves of them, eat the bindings; I must tell you Zooey, why I left you on that Sunday afternoon, in Bucks County, at that beautiful Spring Party at the Farm.
I have it made. Zooey is my entree into Philadelphia society. I am not adverse. Shit, I want to talk through my nose too. I want to smell like leather and get a ten-room white neo-colonial fifteen acre horse-and-dog stream-side manse just outside Paoli.
You understand Zooey. I want to be surrounded by thin Main Line folks who will age so beautifully, their curly white locks, ruddy faces sparkling with robust fox-hunt health. I am not adverse to Aristocracy at all, not in the slightest. I could happily have spent the rest of my days with you, and after graduation from Law School, and a suitable honeymoon in Aix, I would be able to join the family practice.
I could have done that, Zooey, but you don’t know and I am about to tell you, that on that particular Sunday, that Sunday I come out to the family pile in Bucks County, I stand around some, and all those people know each other, but none of them know me, and you have gone off somewhere, and I am surrounded by all this elegance, and I have to take a piss.
My body! My friend! My constant companion! Always letting me know. The whiff of grapeshot across the bow. Whenever I get too high-falutin’. Running up the flag, pulling the cork out of the bilge. The supreme arbiter of my bullshit self. Protecting me from all those fancy-dan ideas, aspirations: me, in Philadelphia Society. Law School. The burgeoning practice with the old-line firm of Tweedle and Dee. Slowly working my way to the top, with you, tennis-court tan you at my side. A cripple of some great promise. A few corporate directorships here and there, a place on the board of the Marin Cricket Club (even though I shan’t be playing much cricket).
And your dad, Marcus (you called him Pops), his Harris Tweed arm around my Harris Tweed shoulder, telling me, “Welcome aboard, son,” and it all started that fine, that memorable Sunday you take me out to The Farm in Bucks County. And it all ends when I have to take a pee.
It befits a fourteen-room farm house in Bucks County built in 1788 in the Colonial mode to have its pisser up on the second floor. It befits a fourteen-room farm house in Bucks County built in 1788 that it should be up twenty-nine stairs, stairs with a high polish, oak stairs of a narrow beam and a very high (almost fifteen inch) rise, with a railing on the wrong side, so that as I address myself to the stairs, backwards, as is my wont, a step at a time, and as I am teetering up there, ’way up there, teetering on Stair Number Twenty-Seven, two from the top, and as I am stopped to catch my breath, teetering there, it befits the situation (and me) that some noodlehead, your arch mother perhaps, has placed athwart the next step a round, Pennsylvania Dutch hand-weave many-speckled round rug, or pad, so that when I, precarious, on my two very thin fragile sticks (keeping me suspended there, breathless, high in the stratosphere) place right foot behind me, and go to shift my weight backwards, that all of a sudden the solid wood is solid wood no more but a very dangerous and highly moveable round Pennsylvania Dutch rug which quickly slips (my unwilling foot on it) all the way over to the edge of the step and then on through the rails of the bannister so that as I go to catch myself, pulling foot forward as far as non-existent muscles will let me, I get foot wedged in bannister, at the very edge of space itself, and if I go forwards, down, crashing down twenty-seven steps, I will take part of the bannister with me, and if I try to go on up, to Stair Number Twenty-Eight, I will have to somehow get my right foot out of the space between the railings, out of the place where it is caught almost at the edge of space. I am stuck.
Below me, just out of view, beyond the turn in the steps, the party goes on. I can hear someone saying “Haw haw haw and he said haw haw go on David tell him about the baby haw haw and he said haw haw haw.” And behind that, counterpoint to that, is a sophisticated voice, somewhat shrill (I believe it is your hollow-cheeked mother, Zooey) at the door, calling out “Chlorine! My God I’m so GLAD to see you. And you brought Pug. Pug, how are you?” And sounds of kisses, sweet aristocratic hollow-cheek kisses.
Zooey: I am stuck at the top of these goddamn dangerous steep slick man-eating stairs. I have to take a pee so bad I can’t see straight. I should call out, I should be able to call out for someone to save me, for God’s sakes, save me from the mountain climb where I am stuck at the very edge of the chasm (if I make one false move, I go over the chasm) and my arms starting to ache, and I want someone to save me, and I can’t call, I can’t call out, it would be so indiscrete, in the Upper Class world, me calling out because I am so full of piss that I am stuck at the top of your Bucks County Farm Steps, and there is no way I can go up nor down, and I am crying inside myself Zooey, crying because there is no respite, nor warning, no protection at all at all against the vengeful angels who come to me, always by surprise, come to me and belch fire into my soul, leave me shaken, ashen, a burnt ant-heap; just to remind me that I am human, and vulnerable; that there is no escape. That I am stuck, and there is no escape.
A Mr. Peabody, of proper leather elbows on grey flannel jacket, comes up the stairs to relieve his own inner plumbing, and finds me there, nested so awkwardly at the top of the steps. A ruddy-faced gentleman, fifty or so, with a proper bristle moustache and an aristocratic way of betraying no surprise, no surprise at all at finding six-foot-three me stuck, my foot almost over the parapet, two rungs from the top of the heap, as it were. His voice booms, friendly (it actually booms: I wish he could be a little bit more discrete at my suspension) CAN I HELP YOU OUT OF THERE SON? LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE STUCK!
The good aristocratic Mr. Peabody, a communications attorney, I believe, is quick to move when he sees a disaster afoot. No lis pendens here. He applies strong-veined hands to my ankle, disengages foot from railings, has me lean on his broad, horsebacky shoulder, and we push and pull, I push and pull, we both panting some, not up but down, easing me down the twenty-seven steps of damnation, down all the way to the bottom, where when, having reached the safe, all-safe bottom landing, he bucks me up, there in Bucks County, with his hands, pats down my Brooks Brothers tweed jacket lapels, asks me, whiskey breath (actually: Scotch breath) ANYTHING ELSE, SON? I so grateful at my big red-faced angel-of-mercy, who comes to this Sysiphus-of-the-Stairs, with my intolerable boodle of self; the man who saves me from becoming a permanent fixture, a living statue, there two steps from the top, in the 1788 Farm House, in Bucks County, owned by the parents of my loving, all too loving Zooey, my innocent, ignorant Zooey.
Out and away from Mr. Peabody, mumbling something about everything being all right, which it isn’t, and without even saying goodbye to Zooey, or her mother, or her father, I slip, if slip can be the proper word, out through the kitchen, surprised black faces at the steamy cauldrons there, out the back, out to my own comfortable slightly dirty Oldsmobile, the white Oldsmobile which you and I, Zooey, called MOBY DICK, because of the white monstrosity of it; and I ease myself out into the narrow road between your farm Zooey, and my safe and comfortable room on campus, Zooey; I leaving without so much as a by-your-leave, or thank-you-for-inviting me, or I-had-a-great-time, none of these courtesies which are true, because I am ashamed Zooey, at my own personal defeat, there near the peak of the mountain, the pass of Thermopylae, where I was defeated, there for the two-thousandth, seven-hundredth, thirty-third time, by that being which should be my friend, Zooey, but which isn’t my goddamn friend, Zooey, but my enemy, Zooey, the enemy that lies within and without, that enemy which defeated me just as I was about to ascend the ladder of success; that sentient being which defeated me even before I could get up the first goddamn rung of the ladder; me, defeated by a body so Spartan, Zooey, so that I would prefer, and I hope you understand now, prefer to adjourn to my own home, that dormitory place called home, where I could for Christ’s sake take a leak without tangling with twenty-seven of the most bitching, slippery, man-killing, cripple-eating, head-busting, bone-smashing, shit-piling stairs ever invented by any fool in this whole high class aristocratic world, Zooey. O Zooey!
Why did I marry ? Why did I, gimp fruitball that I am, run off and get hitched and move to California. The norms of society. Fear of being another Uncle Herb. The thought — preposterous thought — that if I got married, then I could get rid of these awful desires that run me ragged.
School ends, and there is a graduation ceremony. The plan is for the students to walk up the stairs to the platform, receive their diplomas, and walk down again. It is decided that I will not have to mount the stairs, that I will walk up to the platform in my black gown, and the red diploma will be handed down to me.
The school president is sweating profusely. It is very hot. The auditorium is packed. I walk up towards the stage when my name is called. The black gown gets caught in my crutch. I feel myself beginning to topple. There, in front of five hundred people, at the happiest time of my life, am I going to fall over and scandalize the populace? What will my family say? Will my friends pity me? It will be a terrible, dramatic fall.
As I start to go, the adrenalin pours into my body. I shift my fall so that it looks like I am reaching out to the edge of the stage for support, to rest. I stop the fall, pull myself up straight. I have turned a major disaster into a warm and relaxed looking gesture. I am such a good cripple. I am so talented. They should give the cripple’s award for excellence under fire. I should get the Cripple’s Honor of Gold for all I have done for crippledom in America.
A year later, you will find me in Berkeley, California, enrolled in graduate school, married, wife with child. It seems a natural progression from a BA in English at Haverford to a MA in English at Berkeley, with wife enciente to boot.
But it isn’t exactly what I wanted, as we will see later. There were to be several detours, both before and after the vow, which were to signal the future.
One detour takes me to a seedy, seventy-five dollars a month apartment in Philadelphia. The apartment is right next to Highway One. All day and all night, trucks roar to a stop, start up with a roar, fifteen feet from where I am trying to sleep, to work, to think.
I am going to be a poet, a writer. All day I sleep, fourteen, sixteen hours a day. I seldom leave that truckstop apartment. It is very dirty. The noise of the truck exhausts and the squealing brakes blend with my dreams. All night I write poetry that reads like an admixture of Keats, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Matthew Arnold. That is what Bachelors in English do with their time. I have learned my lessons very well. The poetry is dull, but I know it will get better.
Gale comes to see me every weekend. We sleep together every weekend. We are like man and wife on the weekends, in that seedy truckstop apartment, with the yellow beaded lamp encrusted with dust and dirt. My brain. I am fucking with my brain.
One night, Zygote comes to visit. We are fucking, and my seed, the seed of me, the seed of me that comes out of the man of me fights its way up to an egg that has just blossomed and fallen (sweet petal!) from the twin moons of her.
We don’t know it, that day in cold November, with the Peterbilts blatting by outside, but we have just participated in creation and life. In that run-down little room, the venetian blinds so encrusted with five years of dirt, the carpet on the floor worn by endless yellowed feet, the walls streaked with the grey of exhaust: we don’t know it in that apartment with its accumulated dirt and grime, we have participated in the blast of the ages. The seed of the two of us explodes, and attaches itself to the red-sunrise walls of her rich nutrient self. We are to become father and mother, man and wife, but we don’t know it yet. We don’t know the miracle magic of what has happened to us.
Gale and I return to the scene of my death, in Northern Florida, to get married. After a tiny ceremony, and card-table luncheon of lobster Newburg, we head north and west. Our first night is to be spent in Warm Springs, where I will return as an ‘outpatient.’ We arrive after ten at night, and all the doors are locked. The campus is quiet; no one anywhere. The ghosts of past patients haunt every hall, every room of giant Roosevelt Hall. I have developed — as befits my genius — a monster-wonder headache, that threatens to consume my entire cranium. I am blind. I wander about the dark and empty grounds of Warm Springs looking for some relief for my pain. Is there no one here who will assuage my pain? My thinking, feeling, movement are all frozen in concentration on the source of agony from above. They have taken the fists of the gods, and pound them on the doors of my skull. Is there no one to relieve me? I am afraid to go to any of the hall nurses — they will think I am an intruder, call the Warm Springs Police. Finally, I get in the car (grains of rice fall to the dust as I open the door) and go to the Meriwether County Hospital. A nurse of double chins and triple evil thoughts begrudges me a couple of aspirin — after a call to some minor operative at the Foundation. “She sez it’s all right — sez you gobble ’em up like murder.” Later, I slip into the motel, slip into the bed beside my new and now silent-sleeping bride. “This is forever,” I think. I turn over, and the pain of my brain wrangles me and my thoughts until dawn.
Why did I marry? Why did I, gimp fruitball that I am, run off and get hitched and move to California.
The norms of society. Fear of being another Uncle Herb. The thought — that preposterous thought — that if I got married, then I could get rid of these awful desires that run me ragged. The knowledge that I was loved by a beauty queen, who would do anything in the world for me. The desire to try it. The need, in my own non-conforming way, to conform. The brainwashing of twenty-five years of Spencer Tracy movies. The thought that “everyone does it.”
God, I really don’t know. If I did, I would be the wiseman guru of all times, and wouldn’t have to be laboring over this book. I would know, know all truth for all time, and wouldn’t be niggering the pages with these words, trying to see me then in them.
Soon after, we have a child, a girl-child. My daughter: eyes f-my-eyes; hands f-my-hands. The part of me I will never know.
I think of her on the day of her birth, the huge purple-and-green umbilicus attached to such a tiny body. The pose: the child upside-down, the tiny feet caught in the large hands of another man. And then I think of her six years later, when I have gone off in such a different direction from my world in Berkeley: from being a student of English; away from a marriage; away from the house on a hill; the comfort; the middle-class student life.
I don’t realize then how much I have been jolted out of my mind by my body. Relationships, always out of kilter. Out of my mind. Think with my groin. Walk on my hands. Always upside-down, reversed: the turn of self. The woman’s head set so perilously on a man’s body. The moon comes to be sun; the land turns to water; the sea becomes hard, slippery, dangerous; the beach turns to mud, treacherous quicksand.
I come to be the arsey-versey. My tears will water my bottom. There is no foot below, no heaven above. There is no foundation: the rocks have blown up, melted, turned to juice, come to rest in strange patterns.
She, my daughter, grows to be victim of The Reverse Father. The Father who should be Mother. The man who is woman. The little man who wasn’t there. The father who is no further; the father who has turned a woman’s ghost. The queerest little spook you ever did see.
Over the next years I will be gone, a vapor, a dust. I think of her through a series of photographs that come me, black-on-white, some faded, some wispy, some shadowed. A head that turned too soon, as the shutter moved, so that the face my face comes to be blurred. My face, my chin, blurred by too much distance.
The father who is the reversed negative. The reverse, and the negative. In becomes out. Up becomes down. There becomes here. Positive is negative, the polarities turned on themselves.
The reversed father can have no compassion. No father-love, no sense of family, or duty, or right, or wrong. No loyalties (fragile loyalties!) to mother, father, sister, brother, wife, uncle, aunt, nephew, daughter. No feelings of obligation, no lock-chains of family. You cannot tie me down with your blood!
The arsey-versey kid knows no parental affection: no mother, no father, no daughter, no wife, no nothing but self. There is no room in this wasted body for the normal, straight, love. “Abandon ye hope who enter here,” should be the sign they put on this half-being. Abandonment; that’s my middle name.
The only loving memory I have of that whole seedy time is the day I found $388,000. In cash.
There is only one thing comes out of that whole time that strikes me as being worth it. And it is the thing which ultimately buys my freedom.
Shit, I don’t know — maybe the whole thing was worth it, to get these fool ideas out of my head. But the only loving memory I have of that whole seedy time is the day I found $388,000.00. In cash.
Rich people are so strange about money, especially when it comes to their own children. I’m sure it isn’t just me, or my family. I think it’s universal, all-encompassing. Everyone I know who has grown up with rich parents has thought, at one time or another, that they were poor, or that there was “just enough.”
And it’s true! The poor rich are in much worse shape than the rich poor! The indignities to which we subject ourselves.
Here I was at fifteen years of age, having a ball in the street society of the city I grow up in. And my family decides that the public school system is such a waste (I can’t spell or read) that they pack me off and send me to Craven Prep. Four thousand dollars a year so I will be able to read and write and get into Yale.
Talk about indignities. If I were poor, I would be allowed to stay with my street friends. The sufferance of the rich! I am forced to live in the presence of five hundred other blue bloods because of all that income we have, instead of being happy and loose and free.
Money! O you chain! I grow up in this fourteen room house, and to avoid the embarrassment of my poor friends, I have to pretend it’s nothing. Wear hand-me-down clothes, act like I don’t have twenty dollars in my pocket at all times, be embarrassed when the chauffeur comes to pick me up in the family Cadillac at school.
O the poor rich! How am I going to explain to my friends Bruce Cleveland and Scott Ball when the family drags me off to France for the summer. “Yes, we spent a month on the Riviera,” and I have to pretend it’s really not much better than Myrtle Beach or Naples (Fla.). We rich have to be so careful. We have to work so hard not to offend our friends.
The old man is hauling in a hundred thou a year, and we have to work overtime to act like it’s really nothing, nothing at all. One sister goes to Sarah Lawrence, another to Bennington, two brothers to Yale and Harvard — and I have to be so careful not to spill the beans, not to show off, not to act as if it were different or strange.
The poor American rich! If we were living in England, or even Cape Cod, for god’s sake — we could show it off a little. But the rich surrounded by Middle Class Southerners. How cautious we have to be. I don’t want to offend my friends. I don’t want them to be angry with me for being loaded.
In California, I come upon a radio station that is like no other station I have ever known. It is cultured and wise and beautiful. I work for it for a year and a half: in fact, drop my studies at Berkeley to become more a part of this station.
I keep waiting for them to hire me, and they don’t, and one day I think, “I could start a station as good as this. Somewhere else.” Somewhere — like in Washington, D.C. I’ll change the world!
And don’t you know it, incipient fool that I am: that night I leave my wife, my child, my MA program and my life — and fly to Washington. I decide I will go to the source of power so that I can start a magic station that will honestly and beautifully address the problems of the world. I am going to change the very aesthetics of American transmission.
Now don’t start asking me a million dumb questions about chasing after Radio Bigfoot in Washington, D.C. It is a confused and dismal story, and worthy of its own book, bigger than this one, perhaps as big as, say, Crime and Punishment. I file my application, and then wait and wait. And wait!
I know some monkey business is up. Every time I go downtown to the F.C.C., and start asking people about my application, they have to go to the bathroom. My mistake was that I didn’t know the government could be so arbitrary, and undemocratic, and that a fleabrain by the name of John Harrington, head of “Internal Security,” could get my application stuck at the back of his filing cabinet, because of my Politics, even though I told you (and him!) I was a card carrying capitalist. I said to not let me get started on this one. I’ll never stop if you do.
Anyway, I can’t get anything out of the FCC, so I go to my congressman, from my home town in Florida. A cripple, Hon. Chas. Bennett. You can stick it too, Charlie. You are good, really good to your fellow cripples, aren’t you, you cunt?
Anyway, Charlie takes me to lunch. I guess he figures that if he is going to insult me, he should put some food in my belly so I’ll be all filled up when I get the word. Two crips, out on their crutches, for a cruise, together. We go to the dining room of the House of Representatives. We sit knee-to-knee, or rather, brace-to-brace. I have never had lunch with someone so important.
“There are people,” he says, portentously, “who want to destroy the country. There are people who want to use the institutions of the country to wreck the country. These people have different political beliefs, and will use any agency of government or even the freedom of the press to wreck the United States of America. We have to be on the lookout for them.”
“I agree, I agree,” I think. I am very pleased that he is giving me a political lecture. After all, he is a politician, so he should know a great deal about politics. This is much better than college.
“People go to colleges, liberal colleges. They get in the hands of the wrong kinds of professors. These people take advantage of youth’s innocence. They fill their heads with dangerous propaganda, and the young people just can’t handle it. They just haven’t had enough experience in the world, they are overwhelmed.”
“You’re probably right,” I think, nodding my head. “You can’t be too careful nowadays. These kids just can’t handle it.”
He nods his head too. He spoons in some bean soup, and continues:
“We simply have to protect ourselves against these . . . these traitors if you will,” says Charlie The Nodder. “We have to be very careful, because our country, as good as it is, as strong as it is, is also fragile. Some people, would you believe, will take freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, and turn it against the very country that provides it. We can’t be too careful.”
“You are so right,” I think. “And yet,” I think, “in some ways . . . .” (Now’s the right time to tell him about my radio station, the one that I want to put on the air in Washington, where we’ll protect Freedom of Speech by letting everyone on the air. Right-wingers, left-wingers, crackpots, dildoes — the whole panoply. But it’s too late, I don’t have a chance. Charlie is standing up, locking his braces, taking my hand in his and looking me in the eye, being very serious. I feel it is a pregnant moment.)
“The country has to protect itself against those who will harm it. That’s our job.” And he fits crutch to arm, and creaks away, lumping back into the subway, going back to defend the country against the Great Red Peril.
“What the fuck is he talking about?” I wonder. “Where does he get this mish-mash?” I wonder. “Maybe polio has fried his brain, too,” I think. I don’t get his message. I want a radio station, I don’t want a political lecture. Poor me: it isn’t until a year later, one of those 5 AM aha! moments, when I finally get what Charlie the Crip is trying to tell me. The little traitor! Trying to tell his fellow basket case about loyalty. So’s your old man’s ass, Charlie!
Any government that is stupid enough to kill the spirit of people like me: I don’t want anything to do with it. . . . They and their atomic wastes deserve one another.
At one point I figure I need money to build my dream radio station with. And what do you do, when you need money? You go to your bank. I go to my bank, tell them I want a loan. “Do you have any security?” says Mr. Coolidge. “Any what?” I say. “Security,” he says: “Stocks, bonds, municipals, property.” I don’t know. Security? I write home to the family accountant, tell him to send me whatever securities I have lying around.
It arrives in midwinter in a large thick shiny brown pack. Insured and registered. I am all alone at the office, 805 G Street, when it comes in. So heavy. Must have put in lots of scrap paper to protect it.
I always knew there was something there. All the bills got paid, somehow. There was always food on the table, a new car every third or fourth year, nice plates to eat off of, maids and things. But I never imagined, I never imagined!. . . .
Stock certificates. Dear Gussie! So many of them; all carefully imprinted with my name. That’s me: General Motors. General Foods. Eastman Kodak. U.S. Steel. Foremost Dairies. Fifty different certificates. IBM. Xerox. American Cyanamid. Merck Corp. American Home Products. Some with engravings of elaborate machines; nude Grecian figures with staffs; cities and lights from within; engravings of gods and goddesses; machines, complicated line etchings of machines. My god. National Cash Register. Winn-Dixie Grocery. General Mills. Standard Oil. Texaco. I own parts of all these companies: sometimes twenty-five or fifty shares; sometimes a hundred or five hundred; in one case, two thousand. Weyerhauser Lumber. Coca-Cola. Lone Star Cement. Lone Star Gas. Middle South Utilities. American Tel. & Tel. RCA. Washington Water Power. Dear Gussie.
Red certificates, blue certificates, orange, green, yellow. All with delicate scripted writing beautifully engraved, run your fingers along the edges. Long close writing on front and back. The language of the stock market. The language of money. This is what takes up three pages in every newspaper every day: the ups and downs of these pieces of paper. Dow-Jones. Price/Earnings Ratio. Stock Dividends. Ex Dividend. Ex parte. Ex cathedra. Ex poor (me).
Out they come, up in the air, whee! Whee! The raining down of six dozen carefully scripted, carefully engraved papers of me, my money, my wealth. Whee, whee! Up in the air, showering down, the golden showering down, the papers come showering down: Portland Cement, Boeing Aircraft, Piper Aircraft, Prentiss-Hall, San Diego Gas & Electric, Florida Power and Light; General Cement, General Tire, General Dogbone, General Curtis LeMay, General Wealth, wealth is general, wealth is where you find it.
Showering down. I throw them all up in the air and let them rain down the golden leaves of fall all about my head, my body, my chair, my shoes, my feet, my ground? O no, o no.
No: I carefully, o so carefully keep them in their brown envelope. So carefully. Hot-foot it down to the corner. Get a newspaper. Back in the office, open it up to the page I have never studied before. New York Stock Exchange. Jesus, what does this all mean. Open High Low Close. What is 77¼? Is that cents or dollars? What are all these numbers after the name: 2.22ew. Vol 775. What’s going on? What is this code?
Within five hours, I figure my net worth at $387,991. Give or take a few thousand dollars. Dear Jesus Christ. I can start seventeen radio stations with that money.
I haul it over to Riggs National Bank. My bank. The one in which I have kept anywhere from $12 to $300 in my account, depending on what I could beg from home. I get to the desk of Mr. Coolidge. A quiet man, with pencil thin lips, a desk perfectly cold and bare. A prim man. One not given to enthusiastic hellos or good-byes.
I tell Mr. Coolidge that I have decided I would like the loan for $20,000. There is a general silence. His lips thin slightly. His eyes look a little more bored. He plays with a yellow pencil.
He doesn’t know about my baby. Not yet. I haven’t told him about the baby I wear in my shirtfront.
Q. How does a cripple carry papers, important or unimportant?
A. Down his shirt front. Like a baby. Right there, slightly bulging out under the first three buttons of the white Brooks Brothers shirt. Held up by the belt. Me, carrying a $388,000 baby in my fucking shirtfront. Mr. Coolidge doesn’t know yet. The fine razor edge between ignorance and knowledge. The moment before the blossoming of the truth, the knowledge, the insight, the vision, the wonder. I am beside myself with glee.
I must look a sight. My hair: I don’t have time to comb it. The crutches have worn holes in my jacket, in the armpits, so that the frays show out. My pants are a sight, since the brace inevitably wears a hole in the knees. I am not much for laundries, so I wash my own shirts at the Y. The collar is wrinkled, and turned up. I look dishevelled. Just yesterday, a lady tried to shove a dollar in my hand at the corner of Pennsylvania and F Street.
So here is this ratty-looking crip bothering the Vice-President of Riggs National Bank. Taking up his time. Asking for a $20,000 loan. We bank presidents get so bored with people asking us for money. We may be made of money, but we have to protect it.
I am waiting for Mr. Coolidge to be impolite. To get angry. To tell me to take off. To be done with me. But he must sense something. Or maybe he is just born polite. “Lorenzo, you must remember, I said to you a couple of weeks ago that we would need some security in order to make you a loan.” He smiles thinly. “Those are our rules.”
I pause for a moment. I want to play with him some more. After all, I have a $400,000 baby burning in my stomach, just waiting to get out, to be birthed, to come sliding out onto the desk so that we can both look at it, so that we can see what a giant brawling baby has come into the world.
I pause a little, think. “Mr. Coolidge,” I say. “I have never gone back on a debt. I have always paid back my debts.”
“Lorenzo,” he says, patiently, “you have never borrowed from our bank before. As far as I know, you have never borrowed from any bank before. You have no credit. I don’t know what you are worth, I have no idea of your net worth.”
“O baby,” I think: “I’m worth plenty.” Not only in soul and in body, but with this little fetus riding on my tum, my money-gut, ready to ride out in the world, flatten all opposition.
“But would you believe me if I told you that I have always paid my debts,” I say, archly. “I’m no bum, you know. I’m not a dead-beat.”
I am trying to get Mr. Coolidge worked up. Maybe he will get angry at me, slam his fists down on the table, tell me to stop wasting his time. Maybe he will tell me to get out, be done with him, get gone. And then I can rise up in wrath, pull out my baby, riffle the stock certificates under his nose, and say, “See. I would have been a good customer of yours. Spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with you. Borrowed tons, and paid back tons.” I could have shouted at him: “But you are such an inconsiderate little jerk. Judging people by the way they dress, rather than what they are. You are a fool, and you and this goddamn bank should be razed. Fuck you too. . . .” And I would have crutched out the door, leaving him behind in open-mouth amazement, so sorry that he had said all those unkind things to me, trembling in fear of his job, when the word gets out: Coolidge turned Lorenzo down for a $20,000 loan, secured by $388,000 worth of good common stock.
But Mr. Coolidge has all the time in the world. It has been a quiet day, and I am obviously no dummy. He cleans his already trim and pink-white fingernails with a silver pocket knife, and starts on a boring monologue about how he would really like to give loans to all the people that come to him, but the bank has to be careful, there are policies that have developed over the years, and that his hands are really tied, although I might be a very good credit risk, and. . . .
He falls silent, watching me wrestle this fat brown envelope out of my shirt front. It is so goddamn big that it gets caught on one of the buttons, so it looks like I am trying to take off my shirt, and I am getting flustered: here I was striving for a dramatic performance, to come off on cue, and now I can’t get the leading star out of my shirt and onto the delivery table, where it belongs.
When I finally do get it out it slips out of my hand, and certificates go all over the floor everywhere, so that for a moment, Coolidge and I are locked in a shocked silence, sitting on what seems to be a mountain of high quality engravings, and we both scrabble, I seated, he unseated, to scoop them up and get them where they were supposed to go in the first place, on his desk. And finally it is on Mr. Coolidge’s desk, and we look at it for a moment or two, as if I had brought in some dog turds, and delivered them to him, straight from the dog.
But it ain’t no turd. The ugly duckling has been transformed into the great goose. The worm into the multi-colored butterfly. The waif into a beautiful (and rich) princess.
We talk about this and that as Mr. Coolidge fingers the new me. All my talk about radio stations gets transformed. Two weeks ago I was another person in Washington with an idea. Now I am a person with an idea, and the way to make it work. I have been turned around. I have shown a new face. I am a different person. I am a man of means. I am reversed, not one of those want-toes that pound the Washington streets with a dream and nothing else.
I am rich. Me: rich! And Mr. Coolidge takes three companies (Coca-Cola, General Motors, Eastman Kodak), hands me some notes to sign. I sign them, and without even a twitch, $20,000 appears on the balance of my checking account. Some people work at shitty jobs for five years so that they can show $20,000 in their bank account. I write a letter to my accountant, get some paper, exchange it with Mr. Coolidge, and, zip, the money is in my account.
It is a terrible system. You and I agree. It is unjust, unfair, evil, destructive, immoral, outlandish. That I, because I was born in a certain place at a certain time; that I should have the right to those pieces of paper, and have the right to sign them over to Riggs bank and have $20,000 in my account: it is unconscionable. It’s Wrong. It’s contrary to the free spirit of mankind.
But it is fun, and this little cripple is goddamn glad that at the age of twenty-six, finally, after all these years of scrabbling along in life, wondering where I was going to get the next $100, that magically, was handed to me something that I should have had the good sense to ask for all along.
I waited, and that’s ok too. Because I am free. I can’t get a radio station: awful John Harrington at the F.C.C. sees to that. And I can’t buy me a pair of legs anywhere. Those things are in another realm. But I can goddamn well buy my freedom from America: from a silly disgusting revolting government system which denies the flower of freedom of speech and beauty and music to bloom in Washington.
Any government that is stupid enough to kill the spirit of people like me: I don’t want anything to do with it. Up them, and the country too. Leave it to the Harringtons and the Eisenhowers and the James Eastlands and the Charlie Bennetts and all the cripple minds who have so much hate in them for freedom and the innovative and the live that they drive their young geniuses from their land. They and their atomic wastes deserve each other. Me: I’m going to Europe.
My marriage is over. My vision has been corrupted. My schooling is a mess. My love affairs have been disastrous. I have been mocked by the very system that should have encouraged me. Screw them all.
I am rich, and that is all that is important. Money is the ultimate portable. I am taking a hunk of it with me and sailing for Europe. I am to leave America with nothing: no love, no hope, no vision, no chance, no change, no wonder. I am going to Europe as a rich and hopeless immigrant. God save the New World.