Bright flows the river, p.3

Bright Flows the River, page 3

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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However, as a physical diagnostician he was very capable, and had he not married his Maria he would have evolved into being a pleasant and venal man, full of sin and sympathy, and irreverent and compassionate.

  He glanced furtively at his watch. They had been sitting here for half an hour and the psychiatrists had confined themselves almost exclusively to irrelevant chatter. That they were carefully exploring each other for odious orthodoxies and a plateau on which they could congenially meet, he did not know.

  Now James wore a ruminating expression. He lit a long cigar, then frowned at it. Dr. Parkinson ostentatiously coughed. Dr. Grassner produced a pipe. Dr. Parkinson scraped back his chair a pace or two. The two psychiatrists stared at the fire for long moments. Then James said, “Of course, psychiatry is the irrational science of irrational behavior. Nietzsche once wrote, I believe, that if a man despises himself he still has great esteem for the despiser within himself. We psychiatrists preach that for mental health we must love ourselves, which is possible only for the stupid. Jerry was never stupid, except for the stupidity of youth. Would you say, Doctor, that Jerry despises himself?”

  “Certainly. He is an intelligent man, from all I have heard. Now he has come to grips with what he despises. At least, that is my fumbling opinion. I did not know him before. When did you see him last, Doctor?”

  “Call me James, please. I saw him, though not his wife, fifteen years ago. Strange.” Dr. Meyer stared intently at the fire. “I just remembered. I thought him greatly matured. I was wrong. He was the same Jerry I always knew, but kept in a self-made jail. Of course, he was older. He seemed abstracted at times, but he had the young way of throwing his head back and shaking it, like a colt tossing its mane or, to use a battered metaphor, a war-horse who hears a distant drum. But he was no longer eager and voluble in speaking. It was as if he was guarding something, probably some fragile aspect of himself, which he was afraid of shattering. It was that constraint which made me believe he had matured from the wild youth he had been, all vaulting with ambition and dreams.” James paused, pursing up his full lips and slightly shaking his head. He scratched the gray-red curls on the back of his thick neck. “He showed me photographs of his wife and children. Like all children, they were pudding-faced and uninteresting. I can’t fancy why American parents adore them so much. But the English proletariat does that, too. It’s as if they found no significance in their porridge lives but their children, and no importance. Sad, that. Middle-aged peasant juveniles worshipping immature juveniles, all one smirking family of dumpling-heads. Well. His wife seemed to be very pretty in the picture, though she was half hidden by the obese bodies of her children and was clutching their shoulders tightly with her hands, like a mummy monkey. Saw just one half-face of her. No character, I thought. I did notice that she had the usual gleaming American teeth, evidence of a good dentist, or toothpaste. Sorry.”

  Emil Grassner laughed. “Oh, Lucy Jerald’s a wonderful woman. She never has anything to say, and says it constantly. A flaccid woman, except when it comes to her children, then she has the usual American woman’s syndrome of getting all emotional over her offspring. You know, the quivery voice and the gulping throat muscles. She doesn’t get very emotional over Guy. Deep down, she’s extraordinarily shallow, like most women. She probably has as much concern as she can muster for Guy. But she is incapable of knowing the terribleness of what he is enduring. I know it is terrible, but what is destroying him I don’t know. I am hoping you will help me find out.”

  “Thank you—Emil. As I said, I am only Jerry’s friend, not his physician. Mrs. Jerald mentioned his muteness. Pathological or psychotic?”

  “Neither, I think. I believe he is perfectly capable of speaking, if he wanted to. He doesn’t want to. Why? I don’t know. He’s crouching over something which he is controlling, because if he stops controlling it, it will shake up his life, and he’s not ready for that, or not willing, or is afraid. Of course, that’s only my opinion as of now. He did say one word to me, over a month ago. ‘Death, death.’ I asked him what he meant, and he stood up and walked away. I’ve mentioned this to him many times but he only looks at the floor between his knees, as if he hadn’t heard me. But he hears all right. Nothing physically impaired.”

  Dr. Parkinson intervened. “He had a small stroke, the result of the—the accident.” His dry voice lifted to shrillness. “Aphasia.” The two psychiatrists looked at him, but he went on, doggedly: “He still has extreme hypertension, 240 over 110. He could have a major stroke or a coronary occlusion at any time.”

  James spoke to him soothingly. “And all the treatment he is receiving here, all the sedatives, et cetera, don’t bring the pressure down?”

  “No.”

  “Then his mind and his emotions are going full speed ahead,” said Dr. Grassner, nodding. “He isn’t communicating with others, but, by God, he certainly is communicating with himself! And the conversation is getting more frenetic every day. The hypertension is functional, organic. No sign of atherosclerosis.”

  “Just what medication is he receiving?” asked James.

  “Well, as he’s not psychotic, I am, at present, using a conservative approach. I don’t see any signs of the typical anxiety neurosis. Small doses of sodium amobarbitol; using it with caution, of course; haven’t attempted any deep probing as yet; I feel it’s too dangerous. Tranquilizers, in small doses. As you know, James, sometimes drugs ally themselves with the neurosis, and that’s disastrous. A psychoneurosis is a hell of a thing to try to treat, for every man’s neurosis is unique. Not the usual frank signs of mental disease. Again, in my opinion, Guy is as sane as you and I—and possibly saner. At least he is confronting whatever is tearing his life apart, something which men generally avoid.”

  “Any danger of his attempting suicide again?”

  “No. He’s carefully watched all the time, but unobtrusively. I think he’s decided that suicide is cowardly and he’d better face up to things and make up his mind. Whatever he decides will be all for the best, though possibly devastating for others, if not for himself. In short, he’s dueling, and is both fierce adversaries. Which one will win I don’t know and probably never will know. He will, however.”

  What nonsense, thought Henry Parkinson. A simple case of a mild stroke, and continuing hypertension, but psychiatrists turn the most ordinary things into egos and superegos and conversions and phobias and libidos and the unconscious, and God knows what other drivel. What they all need is to be born again, and turn their lives over to Jesus, and clean out the toilets in their own minds. They’re all septic tanks. Did anyone ever see a superego or a libido or a phobia? No. And what you can’t feel or smell or touch or hear or see doesn’t exist, except religion, yes, and the soul. When I suggested a sodium-free diet for Guy, and bland nourishing food, and a quiet atmosphere, and the regular treatment for hypertension, Dr. Grassner grinned at me! Well, when Guy has a cerebral accident or a coronary, perhaps he’ll agree with me, when it’s too late.

  Dr. Grassner said, “Did Guy, in his younger days, ever seem to have a latent rigidity of character?”

  “No,” said James. Then he lifted his hand. “Odd. I just remembered. A little incident, which never repeated itself. He was a corporal then, just before we were mustered out. It was reported that one of our men had raped a young Italian girl. Yes, really rape, not the contrived sort. And Jerry almost beat the chap to death, with his fists. Perhaps he deserved it, yes. But Jerry seemed to take it personally. No, he had no sisters, and of course he wasn’t married at the time. I never saw him in such a rage before or since. And he never explained the excessive emotion, nor would he talk about it.”

  “Did he ever talk about his early life, James?”

  “Yes, but only occasionally. His father, he said, owned a very large but poor farm outside this city. His parents had separated. His mother had a miserable rooming house for the sawmill workers in Cranston. I understand she was a bit of a Tartar, though he seemed fond of her enough. But he was very fond of hi
s father, whom he described as a hellion. An old devil, and such, foul-mouthed and intransigent and a ne’er-do-well, and an ‘old soak.’ Jerry spent his summers with his father; it appeared he enjoyed that, and helped his father about the farm. What they both made, he said, just was enough to pay the taxes—”

  Dr. Parkinson broke in, leaning forward stiffly in his chair. “That nine hundred acres of worthless farmland became the most valuable piece of property near Cranston! When Guy inherited it, it was said it wasn’t worth a dollar an acre. He sold part of it when he inherited it, three years after he came home from the war, and then decided to develop the rest of it, with partners. I don’t know why, but he got the banks here, and in Philadelphia, to lend him outrageous sums of money. I’ve got to admit,” he admitted with reluctance, “that Guy had a keen head for business and knew the way the city was growing, which is more than can be said of the rest of us. I remember. I was almost as young as Guy at the time.”

  The two other men looked at him with deep interest, and he pulled his chair closer to them, almost preening. “That land now has apartments on it, and expensive houses, five first-class motels near the edge, on the way to Philadelphia, office buildings—everything. A town in itself, they say. Supermarkets, department stores—everything. And very well arranged, I must admit. Nothing cheap or sleazy. I’ll say that for Guy.”

  He looked at them proudly. “Then he bought adjacent land, as much as he could, and built another community. But that was before the farmland development was complete, otherwise he couldn’t have bought it as cheap as he did. A real fox, when it came to business. He brought the best architects in, from Pittsburgh. The first town, or village, is called Jeraldsville, the other River View. It’s on the river, you know.”

  He had the complete concentration of the two men now, that Jew and that headshrinker from Philadelphia. “And while all that building was going on Guy went to work part time in our main bank, just as a teller, and all that money beginning to come in! Now he’s president of that bank, and chairman of the other. The first one—Lucy’s father was president of it, and it was on the edge of failure. Too much money lent to too many lazy farmers out in the country, and a bad investment in an office building in Cranston, among other things. Well, there had been the Depression, and we were just coming out of it, and the war had ended, and Guy is very shrewd, though where he got the business sense I don’t know. His mother was just a poor hard-working boardinghouse keeper, and his father—I knew old Jerald. If the Chief of Police hadn’t been a good friend of his he’d have been jailed a dozen times. Drunk and disorderly, driving while intoxicated—he had a very old car which was always falling apart. We used to wonder where he found the money to buy whiskey; he was a scandal. For a long time he had a slut living with him in the broken-down farmhouse; Guy used to call her Aunt Sal. I remember that. They would all get drunk together, after Guy came home. They weren’t considered a very nice family, you know? I’d hear all about it in the summer, when I was home from medical school in Pittsburgh.” He hesitated. “I heard that the old Chief of Police himself, when off duty, used to riot and drink with them in the old house. Disgraceful.”

  For a man only in your middle years you’re damned prissy, thought Dr. Grassner, amused. James was also amused. He once knew these old farmers in England, reckless, enjoying their lives mightily, sturdily unregenerate, reckless, rollicking, drunken, and in love with living and with women. Too bad grim Socialism has eradicated their sort; they gave vivid color to the landscape. It’s strange that no one as yet has equated Socialism with evangelism, or Puritanism. Anything to take joy out of life and reduce all men to a dun and dreary condition of labor and hopelessness and monotony! Nothing strange or lively or unorthodox allowed, nothing sporty or vehement, no danger, no excitement, no raising hell or dancing under the stars, no laughter or authentic music, or gaiety. Everything reduced to the lowest possible level, and regimented, under commissars, though they, in England, call themselves public servants. All working for the public weal or something equally lifeless, squalid and loaded with punitive taxes against those who dare to aspire, to dream, to invent, to work, to create. In other words, to be fully men. A welfare jail is just a jail when you come down to it, except that the guardians are even more grisly than the regular jailers; and far more ruthless and full of envious hate. I think I’ll emigrate, if Emma is willing, with all her Swiss francs and German marks. Clever old girl. Wish I’d taken her advice years ago. Well, I have that land in Canada and I’ve done well in private practice and there is still some of the old estate left. Yes, I think I’ll emigrate. Where are you now, you merry men of England?

  The day was definitely dark now and the wind was becoming tumultuous among the wild trees. The fire rustled. Glasses had been refilled for the two psychiatrists, but not for Dr. Parkinson, who had nobly refused and had looked at the two other men with covert reproach. They had not noticed this gesture of righteousness and self-congratulation.

  “When may I see Jerry?” asked James.

  “Tomorrow. And alone, too. I’ll keep out of sight,” said Emil. “Do you think he will recognize you?”

  “Yes. Well. I’ve put on some weight, I must admit, and I’ve lost most of my hair in the past fifteen years, but I think he will know me. Thank you.”

  They stood up, and Emil asked, “Where are you staying, James?”

  “At the Cranston Hotel, and very comfortable, too.”

  “I am staying at the Old House, an ancient German establishment, and cozy and warm and homelike. Why don’t you join me there? We have plenty to discuss.”

  James agreed to move. He was a very affable man in appearance, if one did not observe those very sentient eyes and the cleft lines about his mouth.

  Dr. Parkinson said with much stiffness, “Guy was agitated this morning, one of his nurses reported. He hadn’t slept during the night.”

  “But not too much barbitol,” said Dr. Grassner. “Better let him fight things out for himself.”

  Dr. Parkinson was angry. They had treated him as if he were a medical student and not too intelligent at that. Now his resentment turned against Guy, and he wondered how such a lovely lady as Lucy Jerald could have married such an oaf.

  3

  That night James called his mistress in London and said, “Old girl, I must remain in America a little longer than I anticipated—”

  Emma interrupted in her strong and lively voice, “How old is she, what does she look like, and is she after your money?”

  James laughed. “I just thought of a certain lady, the wife of a very ill friend of mine. She is vague, about your age, love, and has pots of cash, and is a damned fool into the bargain. I can’t imagine her—”

  Emma interrupted again, “Let’s not be coarse, love. We’re not in bed. Are you getting her into the loony bin?”

  “She is not intelligent enough to be insane, dear. It does require a certain amount of brains to go around the bend, you know. Cretins never go mad. They’re too aware of reality, and too in love with themselves. The lady is a cretin. It’s her husband in whom I am interested. I told you about old Jerry a long time ago and mentioned I would see him sometime while I was in America. He, poor chap, is in a very expensive loony bin, from which I propose to rescue him.”

  “Old Faithful,” commented Emma. “Do your bit, love, and come home soon.”

  “Emma, I intend to emigrate. Are you infatuated enough with me to come to America, later, or Canada, or Australia or New Zealand, or perhaps Andorra, or possibly the moon?”

  Emma answered with cheer. “They probably have the pure-in-hearts and the true believers—passionately avid for cash they never earned themselves—all over now. Remember that very old stanza:

  “To share your wealth the liberal’s willing.

  He’ll tax your pennies and keep his shilling.”

  “Yes. Well, the vermin are everywhere. Candidly, I think the whole world is now dotty.”

  Emma gave an elaborate sigh. “Except
you, love, except you, and perhaps myself. I’ll go anywhere with you, as you know.”

  “I’ll even make an honest woman of you, Emma.”

  “God forbid!” said Emma with fervor. “So far the vermin haven’t taxed sin.”

  “They will, love, they will. You can bank on that.”

  James found the elderly German hotel, the Old House, exceedingly comfortable, with very little glass and no chrome or neon or vinyl, and with good fireplaces all pleasantly roaring. He and Dr. Grassner had a most euphoric breakfast in the morning, and James filled himself with thick big sausages, ham; pancakes and syrup and eggs and hot muffins and scrapple and large cups of coffee yellow with cream. He felt quite benevolent towards the world when he emerged with Emil into the cold damp air and the harsh wind. The sky was whitish and dull and Emil said, “It feels like snow. Button up.”

  The trees were lean black skeletons against that white sky, and the gutters were filled with oak leaves the color of blood and there was a smell of grit and dust swirling about. The aspect of the street was deserted and barren and James felt quite at home. When the two psychiatrists entered Emil’s big car James said, “I like your car. Not one of those minis where a man can’t stretch his legs. Are governments trying to reduce us to pygmies again?”

  “Without doubt,” said Emil. “In every way, James, in every way. You mentioned emigrating last night. Don’t come here. Our politicians imitate England constantly, and the more punitive the taxes, the more enthusiastic they are about them. If England begins to tax bowel movements, as sure as God Washington will begin to tax them here, too. There’s no refuge in the world any longer, no escape from bureaucrats.”

  James gloomily stared at the street and the traffic. “It’s very peculiar, but it’s always the minority which creates bloody revolutions and tyranny. The majority never seem to revolt against the minority despots, and murderers. Look at Russia: The Russian people never voted the communists in. They just imposed themselves on the people. They’re so bloodthirsty, vindictive and ruthless and greedy. I wonder why we, the majority, don’t serve them up their own brand of death.”

 
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