Boston Adventure, page 46
On Commonwealth Avenue on fine Sunday mornings, there was an absence of children and of poor people, as if the territory were “restricted” like apartment buildings which will not let space to Jews or the owners of dogs. Down the mall towards the Public Gardens, there strolled the débutantes, airing their doe-eyed cocker spaniels, or laughing with their beaux whose cropped, uncovered heads and Cantabrigian costumes—long tweed coats with leather patches at the elbow, trousers that did not match, bow ties, cinereous summer shoes over the tops of which lazily cascaded woolen socks—were the badges of privileged youth who, having other things to do, did not go to church. A fair-haired, solitary girl in riding clothes, who was exercising a prancing black shepherd, called out a greeting to one of the older generation who kept to the sidewalk. “Good mahning, Mr. Pukins! I heah Billy’s going to Chiner. I think it’s mahvelous!”
Mr. Perkins, lifting his bowler, faced her across the engine of Miss Pride’s car, his white teeth revealed in a smile that agreeably elevated his little mustache. “Good mahning, Susan! We’re having a little dinnah pahty for him next week. You’ve been told to come, haven’t you?”
“Indeed I have!”
They bowed and smiled again and as he replaced his hat, Mr. Perkins added jestingly, “I see you don’t go to church.”
The roar of traffic, commencing to move along again with the green light, drowned out her reply, but I had faith in her and knew she would not make a fool of herself with a serious counter. Probably at Billy Perkins’ farewell party, when his parents made their appearance during cocktails, after which they would leave the “youngsters” to themselves, the sally would be repeated, and Susan would say something like, “I really enjoy church, you know! But Sunday is such a lovely time to exercise my dog!” making her neglect of religion rather endearing as well as temporary for, her gentle, wistful tone implied, she was prepared for the inevitable and would graciously assume her duties towards God as soon as she had settled down either as a matron or as a spinster. And Mr. Perkins, into whose glass was being poured a second cocktail while the girl extended her fingers over her glass to show that she had had enough, would say that he absolutely agreed with her and that when he was her age he probably would not have gone to church either if it had not been compulsory. “Things were so line and rule,” he would say, making the staid girl’s heart flutter at this testimony of her generation’s liberty. “You wouldn’t have had a cocktail, for instance,” he would continue as she gazed proudly into her Martini in which the olive was still an inch from the surface of the liquid.
As one tenacious of sleep in the early morning, I hoarded the moments of the drive along the avenue against the time when we would turn off towards Boylston and then into the Fenway. For to me, as to those whom the Countess derided when she said, “Boston is a very small place,” the city ended precisely at Massachusetts Avenue, and all the rest of it, the cold, uncrowded medical college, the spacious Brookline parkways, the large houses of new materials and derivative architecture, the wide modern drives, did not belong to Boston with its narrow houses and painted doors, and I felt that the expatriates dwelling in Jamaica Plain and Hyde Park and Milton were but wealthier versions of the bourgeois Brunsons. I admired the horseback riders along the bridle paths which bordered Jamaica Pond and the ice-skaters, but did so only because I thought they merely used the resources of these fertile outskirts but returned, at the end of their diversion, to Pinckney or Marlborough or Beacon Street. I felt altogether differently towards such towns as Concord, Lexington, Bedford, Lincoln, and these, together with certain parts of Cambridge and what I called “Boston proper” constituted in my mind “greater Boston” whereas everything in between, even though nearer to the State House, was clearly excluded. I could not revise my map even when I learned that eminent families lived, and had for generations, on Blue Hill Avenue in Milton, in Needham, in Newton.
In an hour’s time, we had reached the country and drove between fog-filled woods. Fresh snow, still scathless, lay between the trees where only a few weeks before the stained leaves had lain; the natural paths, rejuvenated by the graduation of the landscape into winter, crept in their immaculate renascence back into the far blue shadows; and not too long from now they would waver forth in the marine spring. We had not gone more than two or three miles when to our left there rose up the high red walls of my mother’s asylum; covered with woodbine that had caught the snow, they blended with the landscape. Presently they broke for an iron gate guarded by a fat, unpleasant man who let us in and said sardonically, “This way to the booby-hatch, folks.” I had told Miss Pride of the gate-keeper’s manner which no longer offended me but which I thought must horrify the relatives of other inmates, for I believed that Miss Pride, with the flourish of a pen, could have the man removed and a courteous one installed in his place. She did investigate and found that this greeting was only for our car, as Mac and the man had been companions in grammar school, though there was never the slightest sign of recognition on Mac’s misanthropic face.
My mother came into the reception room, like a nun coming from the cloister, in her gray uniform, her eyes observing something beyond me or above my head. I nearly always took her flowers and as she sat down, her head bent to study them, she appeared to be waiting for the roses and the carnations to be given the gift of tongues. Then she lifted them to her ear. “Pretty things,” she would say to them. She would turn towards me her lovely eyes that could see me only as a little child and drawing me to her she whispered so that no one could hear, “Darling, we’re going visiting today. The flowers won’t wilt if we wrap them in a wet newspaper.” Then we rose and walked, arm in arm, down the long, gray hall, followed at some distance by an attendant, and entered the common room where the daffy, harmless women rocked and sang, nodding and smiling, their tender eyes roving private worlds which they sometimes found so amusing they had to laugh out loud. My mother’s fancy-work and mine were brought to us; together we worked for an hour and my mother praised the tailless birds she had taught me how to make. “But, dearie,” she would say, “there’s something wrong with it, I don’t know what. See mine, see how it goes?” And she held up the identical bird, bereft of its tail feathers, embroidered in green and yellow silk.
Sometimes my mother’s affection (she would suddenly drop her work to kiss me) spread like an epidemic through the room and the demented creatures who that day had no visitors shouted and cooed and goggled their eyes and beckoned me with rapidly wagging fingers. One mild and motherly woman with white hair and dimpled cheeks would hold up a pink candy box that rattled when she shook it. “I’ll show you what’s inside, Ellen, if you’ll just come to Granny,” and when I shook my head, smiling politely, she would take a man’s white handkerchief out of her bosom and cry a little and blow her nose. Once an attendant let her come sit beside us to show us her treasure, fifteen gallstones of varied sizes and shapes. My mother was charmed. “That’s a fine one!” she cried as she picked one up, but the old lady snatched it out of her hand. “No you don’t, my good woman,” she said sharply. “Do you think they grow on trees?”
Most of the others had neither fancy-work nor gallstones to keep them occupied, and so they merely sat about, batting their eyes, grinning and purring like happy cats. The malcontents, arms crossed on their breasts, sat apart, muttering motley diatribes: “I called the police. No, couldn’t make it, too busy they said. Busy, yes, no doubt of that, I said, busy taking the bread out of poor people’s mouths, that’s what you’re busy doing. Called the newspaper. No, didn’t handle such matters. Why not, I said. Do you mean to stand by and watch the people of your community suffer because dentists’ brothers are politicians? Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am. Don’t yes, ma’am, no, ma’am, me, I told them and hung up. It is a crying shame that you can’t carry x-rays of your teeth in your pocketbook without gangsters, hired by dentists’ brothers, following to steal them or substitute the real ones with other people’s teeth or dog’s teeth,
My mother no longer felt that she was victimized, for much had been deleted from her memory: if she ever spoke of a place other than the asylum garden or of the room we sat in, it was of Luibka’s house or the officers’ tavern, but not of Chichester. She did not forget me, although, because her sense of time had gone, she thought I was eight or nine years old, and the six days when she did not see me were like the six hours when formerly I had been at school; nor did she forget the cold, but she would rub my hands between hers in the old way and complain with sorrowful resignation that “they” put snow in the stoves instead of wood. “They” were unreal shadows, harmless, stupid, servile ghosts who required a good deal of pampering; because she did not wish to offend them, she always spoke in whispers. “A new one came this morning just after you left, darling,” she would say, “and left the door wide open so the snow came in. That’s why it’s so cold.”
She talked very little. For the most part we worked at our birds in silence. And so long as I was there, with the living proof before my eyes that she was not aware of her surroundings, I was not depressed but was even comforted by the soothing, aimless motion of my fingers as they plied the embroidery needle. I would wonder, watching her serene face, if I would ever achieve the degree of her beauty, for, if I still looked upon Miss Pride as my model for character, I was no longer deluded by that old hallucination in which I saw her as a beautiful person, and, at least on Sunday, I was as ambitious to look like my mother as on all the other days I was to be like Miss Pride. Unfortunately, I had a variable face so that my mirror showed me a different person half a dozen times a day, for I had inherited some features from both my parents and each set of genes struggled for pre-eminence: my hair was black like hers but my eyes were blue like his, and though my mouth was a facsimile of hers, its pure outlines were corrupted when I smiled and showed my father’s crooked teeth.
Gliding, these hours, in brainless daydreams, fashioned from anonymous places and times, I would sometimes hear, like an echo, a voice of a familiar timbre. Like the person who, awakened by a scream, deduces from the cold sweat on his forehead and the trembling of his arms that the sound has come from his own throat, so I, recognizing the voice as my own, thought I had spoken. But in a moment, the words, which my nerves had retained though my mind had not yet comprehended them, were repeated: “Poor little blue cold hands,” and I knew that it was my mother who had spoken, not I. Conversely, when I was not with her, when, for example, I was at the Countess’ on Friday and everyone was chattering loudly, I was thinking of something far removed from the conversation of which I was a part and I heard my mother speaking; yet when the words returned they formed the banal, effortless answer to someone who had asked me if I had ever been to Ipswich.
The hours in the bright common room were like those a solitary traveler spends in a strange railway station, after a sleepless night, so that his weary eyes impose a glaze on colors; half-dozing, he wakes suddenly, thinking he has been asleep for an hour and sees that the old woman on the bench across from him who had taken out her handkerchief when he went to sleep has now begun to blow her nose, and that the man who sweeps up the burnt-out cigarettes on the floor has progressed at the most two feet. He sleeps again and wakes to see the old woman returning her handkerchief to her pocketbook, the cleaning man twelve inches farther along. Or they were like those moments when, succumbing to ether, the conscious mind suddenly revives, rises like the bobbing head of a drowning man, and hears the end of the sentence the anesthetist had begun as he attached the cone. The boredom of the traveler and the horror of the patient are unendurable when memory makes them so and pessimism complains that they may happen again. I never failed to dread Sundays nor to be distressed as we left the asylum, but at the time I was with my mother, I had no feelings save sensuous ones and nothing from the outer world accompanied me here. On the contrary, when shame or jealousy or despair had dogged me like a shadow all the way to Wolfburg, the moment the door to the common room was opened to us, I was beholden to no one and to nothing.
Each time, my mother was allowed to sit in the car for a little while before I left. An attendant sat in front with Mac, glancing often at us in the mirror over the wind shield. The meeting of my eyes with his trained ones, keen as a surgeon’s (the medical effect was enhanced by the mirror in which he studied me, like the mirror of a nose specialist), produced in me a self-consciousness that warmed my cheeks and dried my tongue, and I blushed when I made some reply to my mother, although the glass was closed between us and my voice was inaudible to the men in front. What disturbed me—and marked the end of the hypnotic state that had enabled me to endure the visit—was that those watchful eyes included me as well as my mother in their vigilance. When my mother had been led away after a final sighing embrace from which it would have taken me hours to disentangle myself if I had been alone, and Mac had started down the drive, the embarrassment became a vague, irrational fear which was then followed, as the dénouement to Ivan’s fits had been a coma, by a benumbing, anarchical depression which possessed me until finally, late that night, back in my room on Pinckney Street, I fell asleep.
It had never been so great a solace as it was today to sit in my accustomed place beside my mother in the unchanged common room, having no need to make explanations to anyone, not even to myself. Gradually the aspirin tablets which I had begged from a nurse (I had not liked to ask Mac to stop at a drug-store for Miss Pride’s prescription for me) began to take effect and my nausea and headache were replaced by a sweet, feverish sleepiness. I had brought my mother some apples as well as the customary flowers, and their clean, wholesome smell was drawn from their satiny hide by the excessive warmth of the room. The last time, she had asked me to bring them. “Bring me some red apples, darling,” she had said. “I know how smooth they are.” But today when I opened the paper bag for her to see them, she had said, “What are these?” “Apples,” I had replied, “You asked for them.” She had put the bag on the floor and every now and again glanced at it. After a while she had said, “Sonie, tomorrow see if you can find me some apples. Bring me some little yellow apples. I’ve forgotten how they taste.”
My mother was not well. For some Sundays past she had had a cold in the head and now today I saw that it had settled in her chest. She coughed considerably and her breath sometimes came with difficulty. An attendant had whispered to me that I must leave sooner than I usually did, for she had been in bed in the infirmary for several days, though she had been allowed to get up for a few hours each afternoon. Never talkative these days, she was more disinclined than ever to conversation, and we worked for a long time in silence. The lulling, soporific warmth, the wordless muttering of the woman persecuted by dentists’ brothers, the odor of the apples, and the steady stitching of the birds so satisfied me as an opiate that I proposed to myself, with the seriousness that makes a dream of a five-inch man or a German-speaking dog or an encounter with a camel seem useful or irritating but not in the least strange, that I spend the next three weeks in this well-heated and peaceable place.
When I had finished inventing plausible lies for Miss Pride about where I should be and had imagined myself installed with a few books and my phonograph in one of the cells, something in the room, a voice or a falling object or the rattling of the gallstones, awakened me and I suddenly laughed. My mother looked up from her work and said, “You have caught my cold!” And when I assured her that I had not, she said, “But you just coughed. I heard you.” She beckoned to an attendant who was sitting near-by reading the Sunday comic strips avariciously and without the slightest amusement and when he came she said, “Do you know where they keep the cough syrup? Sonie cou