Ill take you there, p.1

I'll Take You There, page 1


I'll Take You There

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I'll Take You There

  I'll Take You There

  Joyce Carol Oates

  * * *


  I. The Penitent

  II. The Negro-Lover

  III. The Way Out

  * * *

  Also by Joyce Carol Oates


  With Shuddering Fall (1964) • A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) • Expensive People (1968) • Them (1969) • Wonderland (1971) • Do With Me What You Will (1973) • The Assassins (1975) • Childwold (1976) • Son of the Morning (1978) • Unholy Loves (1979) • Bellefleur (1980) • Angel of Light (1981) • A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) • Mysteries of Wmterthurn (1984) • Solstice (1985) • Marya A Life (1986) 'You Must Remember This (1987) • American Appetites (1989) • Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990) • Black Water (1992) • Foxfire Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993) • What I Lived For (1994) • Zombie (1995) • We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) • Man Crazy (1997) • My Heart Laid Bare (1998) • Broke Heart Blues (1999) • Blonde (2000) • Middle Age A Romance (2001)


  Lives of the Twins (1987) • Soul/Mate (1989) • Nemesis (1990) • Snake Eyes (1992) • You Can't Catch Me (1995) • Double Delight (1997) • Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon (1999) • The Barrens (2001)


  By the North Gate (1963) • Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966) • The Wheel of Love (1970) • Marriages and Infidelities (1972) • The Goddess and Other Women (1974) • The Poisoned Kiss (1975) • Crossing the Border (1976) • Night Side (1977) • A Sentimental Education (1980) • Last Days (1984) • Raven's Wing (1986) • The Assignation (1988) • Heat and Other Stories (1991) • Where Is Here• (1992) • Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories (1993) • Haunted Tales of the Grotesque (1994) ' Will You Always Love Me? (1996) • The Collector of Hearts New Tales of the Grotesque (1998) • Faithless Tales of Transgression (2001)


  The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1976) • I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990) • The Rise of Life on Earth (1991) • First Love A Gothic Tale (1996)


  Anonymous Sins (1969) • Love and Its Derangements (1970) • Angel Fire (1973) • The Fabulous Beasts (1975) • Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (1978) ' Invisible Woman New and Selected Poems, 1970-1982 (1982) • The Time Traveler (1989) • Tenderness (1996)


  Miracle Play (1974) • Three Plays (1980) • Twelve Plays (1991) • I Stand Before You Naked (1991) • In Darkest America (Tone Clusters and The Eclipse) (1991) • The Perfectionist and Other Plays (1995) • New Plays(1998)


  The Edge of Impossibility Tragic Forms in Literature (1972) • New Heaven, New Earth The Visionary Experience in Literature (1974) • Contraries (1981) • The Profane Art Essays and Reviews (1983) • On Boxing (1987) • (Woman) Writer Occasions and Opportunities (1988) • George Bellows American Artist (1995) • Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going Essays, Reviews, and Prose (1999)


  Come Meet Muffin! (1998)


  Big Mouth & Ugly Girl

  * * *

  I'll Take You There



  Quotations from Spinoza's Ethics are taken from the translation by W. H. White and A. H. Stirling. Quotations from Nietzsche are taken from translations by Walter Kaufmann.

  Excerpts from this novel have appeared, in different forms, in Fiction, 1997; Conjunctions, 1997; and TriQuarterly, 1998.

  I'll Take You There. Copyright © 2002 by The Ontario Review.

  All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.


  Designed by Claire Vaccaro

  ISBN 0-06 050317-0

  * * *

  To Gloria Vanderbilt

  * * *

  A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.

  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

  * * *


  The Penitent


  Every substance is necessarily infinite.

  Spinoza, Ethics

  In those days in the early Sixties we were not women yet but girls. This was, without irony, perceived as our advantage.

  I am thinking of the house on a prominent hill of a hilly and wind-ravaged university campus in upstate New York in which I lived for five wretched months when I was nineteen years old, unraveling among strangers like one of my cheap orlon sweaters. I am thinking of how in this house there were forbidden areas and forbidden acts pertaining to these areas. Some had to do with the sacred rituals of Kappa Gamma Pi (these very words a sacred utterance, once you were initiated into their meaning) and some had to do with the sorority's British-born housemother, Mrs. Agnes Thayer.

  They would claim that I destroyed Mrs. Thayer. Pushed her over the edge which makes me think of an actual cliff, a precipice, and Mrs. Thayer falling by some ghostly action of my flailing arms. Yet others would claim that Mrs. Thayer destroyed me.

  The Kappa Gamma Pi house! The address was 91 University Place, Syracuse, New York. It was a massive cube of three floors in that long-ago architectural style known as neo-Classic; made of heavy dusky-pink-pewter limestone like ancient treasure hauled from the depths of the sea. Oh, if you could see it! If you could see it with my eyes. The looming ivy-covered facade and in the perpetual Syracuse wind the individual ivy leaves shivering and rippling like thought Insatiable questions. Why? why? why? The lofty portico and four till graceful white columns of the kind called Doric, smooth and featureless as telephone poles. The house was located at the far, northern end of University Place, a quarter-mile from Erie Hall, the granite administration building that was the oldest building on the university campus University Place itself was a wide boulevard with parkland as a median, slowly dying yet still elegant elms. Walking from the Kappa house to the university campus on the worst winter mornings was like climbing the side of a mountain, the incline was so steep in places, sidewalks icy and treacherous so you were better off trudging across the brittle grass of lawns instead. Returning, mostly downhill, was less of a physical effort but could be treacherous, too. A half-block from the northern end of University Place the earth shifted as if in a cruel whim and there was a final steep hill to be climbed, an upward-jutting spit of land, at the top of which was the stately Kappa house with, above its portico, these mysterious symbols—The Kappa Gamma Pi house, unlike most of the local fraternity and sorority houses, had a history. It was, in fact, "historic": it hadn't been constructed for the mere utilitarian purpose of being a Greek residence, but had once been a millionaire's home, a mansion, built in 1841 (as a plaque proudly noted) by a prominent Syracuse clockworks manufacturer and deeded to the newborn local chapter of the national sorority Kappa Gamma Pi at the death of an elderly-widow alumna in 1938. Her name sacred in our memories as Kappa alums would solemnly instruct us but her name has vanished from my memory, it's only the house I recall.

  Before I was initiated into Kappa Gamma Pi in the second semester of my freshman year at the university, I would often walk far out of my way to pass the house from below; I was a pledge by this time, yet not a "sister"; I drifted lovesick and yearning gazing up at the somber, ivy-covered facade, at the tall white columns in my imagination so many more than four columns, five, six, ten columns! The floating letters filled me with wonder, awe. For I did not yet know what they meant. Will I be a Kappa? I thought. I—I!—will be a Kappa. It didn't seem possible, yet it had to be possible, for how otherwise would I continue? I was p
ossessed by the wayward passion of one to whom passion is unknown; denied, and thwarted; if falling in love had been a game, the object of the game would have been, to me, to resist; as in chess, you might sacrifice pawns in the service of your queen; your queen was your truest self, your virgin-self, inviolable; never would you give away your queen! And so I was one whose immune system had become defenseless before the assault of a virulent micro-organism invader. My eyes, misted with emotion, purposefully failed to take in the patina of grime on the limestone walls and on the columns, or the just perceptibly rotting, mossy slates of the roof, which, iridescent when wet, in rare, blinding sunshine, were so beautiful. Nor did I see the rust-tinctured network like veins or fossil trails imprinted in the limestone by English ivy that was dying in places, had been dying for years, and was withering away. There were more than twenty Greek houses on or near University Place, and Kappa Gamma Pi was neither the largest nor the most attractive. You could argue that it was the most dour, possibly even the ugliest of the houses, but, to me, such qualities suggested aristocratic hauteur, authority. To live in such a mansion and to be an initiate, a sister of Kappa Gamma Pi, would be, I knew, to be transformed.

  I wondered if, at initiation, I would be given a secret Kappa name.

  I didn't believe in fairy tales or in those ridiculous romances beginning Once upon a time. A fairy tale of a kind had prevailed at my birth and during my infancy but it had been a cruel, crude fairy tale in which the newborn baby isn't blessed but cursed. Yet I believed in Kappa Gamma Pi without question. I believed that such transformations were not only possible, but common. I believed that such transformations were not only possible, but inevitable. Not I, not I exactly, but another girl with my name and face, a girl initiate—an active—would one day soon live in that house; with tremulous pride she would wear the Kappa pin, gleaming ebony with gold letters and a tiny gold chain above her left breast, where all the privileged sorority girls wore their sacred pins, in the proverbial region of the heart.

  The Way In. Climbing to the house on wedges of stone that looked aged, ancient. Stone that had begun to crack, crumble; stone worn smooth by many feet, over many years. If the steps were icy or there was a wind (in all but the stale, stagnant air of summer, there was always a wind) you might take hold of the old, ornate, not entirely steady wrought iron railing. This hill, above the city-owned sidewalk, was so steep that there couldn't have been a lawn in the conventional sense, no grass to be mowed, only a craggy outcropping of granite, in the interstices of which grew dwarf shrubs and hardy ferns of the dark, bitter-green variety and Rosa rugosa in bright splotches of color; such a formidable fronting on the street was characteristic of most of the properties at the northern end of University Place, and may have assured the outsider's sense of their dignity, inaccessibility, and high worth. From the top of the steps (I'd counted them many times: eighteen) you might pause breathless to look back, to contemplate the view behind you, which was startling as a scene in an old woodcut: there was gothic dark-granite Erie Hall floating atop its hill, a higher hill than the Kappa hill, its bell gleaming (in memory, at least) in a perpetual fading yet golden-sepia, hauntingly beautiful light.

  So often, the Syracuse sky "was overcast and glowering, as if with withheld secrets, passions. Clouds were never two-dimensional like painted scenery but massed, massive, bulging, tumescent, pocked and pitted and creviced and boiling, rarely white, rarely of a single hue, but infinitely varied shades of gray, dark-gray, powder-gray, bruise-gray, iron-gray, purple-gray, shot with a mysteriously advancing, and abruptly fading, sunlight. Rain was falling, or had recently fallen leaving everything slick, wet, shining, washed-clean; sullen, punished-looking; or gleaming with optimism, hope. Unless it was snow imminent—"Oh God, smell it? Like iron filings. That's snow."

  The large, stately front door of the Kappa house was made of oak with an iron knocker; there was a doorbell that, when rung, emitted delicate, melodic chimes deep in the interior of the house. This "feminine" doorbell contrasted with the heavy masculine architecture and may have suggested something of the atmosphere within that was sly, subversive. The downstairs public rooms (as they were grandly called) were impressively formal, dark, high-ceilinged and gloomy even with their filigree gold-gilt French wallpaper; the heavy old furniture was "Victorian antiques." A legacy the local chapter of the Kappa alums assured us solemnly of priceless things, irreplaceable. Take care! We were made to feel like overgrown blundering children in a sacred space.

  Yet it was sacred, I suppose. In its way. In its time. Who could resist the tasteful glitter of crystal chandeliers, dust-encrusted by day perhaps but, by night, iridescent and sparkling; the lavish carpets—"heirloom Oriental antiques"—vividly colored, jewel-like in certain areas if, in other, more trodden areas, worn thin as much-used woollen blankets. In several downstairs rooms there were imposing marble fireplaces like altars (rarely used, as it turned out, since they smoked badly); everywhere were filigree-framed mirrors with singed-looking glass that enhanced the plainest face if you tiptoed to stare into them, like Alice approaching the Looking-Glass World; these mirrors seemed to double, even treble, the proportions of the somber rooms as in a dream of fanatic clarity that leaves the dreamer exhausted and strangely demoralized, as if emptied of personality. Confused by these mirrors in my first visits to the house (during second-semester sorority rush week) I staggered away from the Kappas with a misleading sense of the house's grandeur, as if I'd been in a cathedral.

  In a corner of the stately living room, near an oil portrait of the house's first owner, was a Steinway grand piano of dark, dully gleaming mahogany, with stained ivory keys, several of which stuck; it was a beautiful piano, but somehow melancholy, exuding a dark, rich odor, that quickened my heart to know the piano's secrets, to be able to play. Unfortunately the Kappa housemother had declared the piano off-limits even to those two or three skilled pianists among the Kappas, except for a single hour following dinner and Sunday afternoon between the arbitrary hours of 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. when the more aggressive Kappas banged out old favorites like "Chopsticks" and "Begin the Beguine."

  Several times when I found myself alone in the living room, I dared to sit at the Steinway grand and fitted my shy fingers to the keys; gently I depressed the keys, calling up a faint, quavering, undersea sound deep inside the piano. (The piano was always kept closed, lid shut like a coffin.) I knew very little of pianos; I'd tried to play in imitation of a friend who took lessons, when I was twelve; I'd grown up with my grandparents who were farm people, German immigrants, with no time for music, still less classical music. Yet the fact of the piano in the Kappa living room was a consolation. As if in some way it were a sign of home. Even if I couldn't play it, and would not have been allowed to play it in any case. Still the piano exists. As the world-in-itself—I'd begun, in my sophomore year, to study Immanuel Kant—exists, unattached to us. The physical solidity seemed to argue for a reality beyond my own; more valuable than the fleeting, always unsatisfying moment through which I, a sophomore, a lonely girl amid a clamor of "sisters," was passing. For what was my mood except reluctance to return upstairs to the crowded smoky third-floor room to which I'd been assigned because my roommate, who chain-smoked Chesterfields and lived in a giddy clutter of clothes, nail polish (and nail polish remover that smelled virulent as a chemical defoliant), tubes of greasy lipstick, makeup in jars, and mimeographed course outlines from her education courses, would be there, and other Kappas would be lounging in the doorway or sprawled across my bed, exhaling smoke with the luxurious abandon of girls away from adult scrutiny, tapping ashes in the vague direction of a communal ashtray with a plastic hula girl at its center. Reluctant to return upstairs because to my dismay I was finding myself as isolated as I'd been before I had become a sister—an "active"—of Kappa Gamma Pi with no recourse except to conclude You! It's your own fault. You, always dissatisfied.

  This was my curse. I would bear it through my life. As if a wicked troll had baptized me, in
infancy, as my mother wasted away to Death, unknowing; a flick of the troll's fingers, poisonous water splashed onto my forehead. I baptize thee in the name of ceaseless yearning, ceaseless seeking and ceaseless dissatisfaction. Amen!

  Once when I'd sat at the piano too long, lost in a reverie, depressing keys with both hands in near-inaudible chords that reverberated like ghost music heard at a distance, the harsh overhead lights of the living room were suddenly switched on (it was a late afternoon in November, dark as midnight outside) and there stood our housemother Mrs. Thayer staring at me from beneath the dramatic arch of the doorway. She had a regal figure and a powdered face that glowed pinkly moist and meaty as a canned ham; her expression was one of hauteur tinged with disbelief. "You! Is it—Mary Alice? What are you doing here? Have I not explained—and explained—that our piano is to be kept shut? Otherwise it will be clogged with dust, it will go out of tune, an expensive and irreplaceable musical instrument, an antique, a Sternway, an irreplaceable Sternway, for goodness's sake, you gurls! Have you no memory? Have you no mind? Have to be told, told, told! Again, again, again! "As if a spring had been tripped in her brain, Mrs. Thayer began to scold; this was her preferred way of scolding, in a bright, crisp, corrosive British accent. Like gas jets her close-set blue eyes flashed; she drew her tightly girdled, fattish little figure to its full height of perhaps five feet three inches, and regarded me for a long devastating moment. This was the look, the Brit glare, for which our housemother was famous. Girls belonging to rival sororities knew of Kappa's Mrs. Thayer; boys dating Kappas came away with accounts of her, shaking their heads in reluctant admiration. I cringed before the woman's contempt like a guilty child, my face burning, stammering, "Mrs. Thayer, I'm s-sorry. I actually wasn't—" Mrs. Thayer interrupted impatiently, loftily, for this too was a pet annoyance of hers, the way in which American gurls will apologize yet in the same breath try to deny that for which they are apologizing— "No excuses, please! I have heard, heard, heard these excuses all, already!" Airily Mrs. Thayer laughed to show she wasn't angry, of course; such trifles couldn't make her angry; she who'd survived what she spoke of proudly as the London Blitz. Except of course she was bemused, amused—"Oh, you American gurls." It was a dramatic gesture of Mrs. Thayer's to switch off the light to leave me in a gloomy darkness alleviated only by the hall light, to turn adroitly on her heel and stride away.

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