Bright flows the river, p.8

Bright Flows the River, page 8

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  Sal looked down lovingly at Tom. She pinched his cheek. The air seemed to vibrate about her, an energy of being. She went into the house and brought back two nondescript glasses and two bottles of icy beer. She poured the beer with gusto, blew off the foam, and handed the glasses to the two men. She sighed ecstatically. “What a beautiful day,” she said. But all days were beautiful to Sal.

  For a moment Guy was envious of his father, who lived as he wished to live, unburdened by duty and righteousness, and who had Sal. Then he became conscious that she was looking at him, a little less light on her face, and her beaming eyes were darkening with what he uneasily suspected was pity. “I got black-eye peas and sauerkraut and spare ribs for dinner,” she said. “And cherry pie.”

  “You’ll make me fat, Sal,” said Tom. “And everything you cook is full of fat, thank God.”

  “I half promised Ma I’d go back for dinner,” said Guy.

  “The hell with Ma,” said Tom genially. “She counts crusts. Sal, call Mrs. Jerald and say Jerry ain’t going back for dinner tonight. She’ll save the dinner for tomorrow, and be thankful.” He grinned at Sal. “And stay in the house. I’m giving this boy of mine some advice, which he don’t like, it seems.”

  Sal rose promptly, again pinched Tom’s cheek, and ran back into the house, singing some questionable song in a loud but not unmelodious voice. Tom shook his head, smiling. “I sure was lucky when I met Sal,” he said. “The Chief of Police’s coming tonight, with his girl friend. We’ll have a party.”

  Guy sipped his excellent cold beer. Tom never refused to spend money on comforts. He said to Guy, ‘You’ve been back two weeks. Found any girl yet? If not, Sal will find one for you.”

  He became curious when he saw his son’s face becoming bleak. He waited. Guy looked into his glass and said in a pent voice, “There was a girl in Germany, in Berlin. Marlene, seventeen years old. She—we let the Russians take over the city. Eisenhower’s orders. Marlene—she died in the subway, with hundreds of other women, young and old, and even children, when the Russians found them. They raped the women to death; little girls and grandmothers, too.”

  Tom studied his son’s averted face with compassion. He said, “I read something about that, on a back page in the newspapers. Just an item. The women and the children are always the real victims in a war, Jerry. I’m sorry. And wasn’t there something about Operation Keelhaul, too?”

  “Yes. Millions of men and women and children from East Europe, running away from the Communists. Eisenhower, at the point of bayonets, had his soldiers force them into cattle cars and sent them back, and they mostly died. They—they even tore the women and children out of the churches; they were clutching the altars and begging for mercy—some they bayoneted.”

  “I heard,” said Tom, and now there was hatred in his shrill voice.

  “But I saw,” said Guy, and his lips had whitened. “There were other things, too. Our flyers bombed the little Italian coastline towns and villages, and they had only old men and women and children in them. And there was Dresden, in the closing days of the war, an open city. The women and children and nuns were out in the streets, celebrating the beginning of Lent. Our noble flyers dropped napalm on them, burning thousands to death.”

  “I know. I heard,” said Tom. “God damn. Wars. Once it was man to man. Now the innocent are the sufferers. The world’s getting worse every day, seems. I’m glad I’m not a day younger. The atom bomb. You can be damned sure when nations invent a new weapon they’re going to use it, sooner or later. America’s got that on her conscience, the only country to use that bomb. But she won’t be the last, and you can bet on that. You know something, Jerry? This world is full of hate and murder now. I’m a student of history; in fact, I taught ancient and medieval history when I was a stupid instructor and then a professor. Full of horrors. But none so bad as what has happened recently, and what will happen in the future. Sure, there used to be pogroms in Russia. But never was there any attempt, before, to wipe out a whole people as Hitler’s attempt to wipe out the Jews, the Gypsies, the Ukranians, the Poles, and others. The whole goddamn world is now a slaughterhouse. And every country is just gathering its breath to do worse.

  “That’s why I tell you, now, to live your own life. Live the life of others, and you’ll be a victim, too. At least, if you live for yourself you’ll have had a taste of what life’s really about—before you die. That’s all you have, your life. There’s nothing else.”

  He waited, but Guy was silent, his face still more averted. Tom said, “Look, I have a little money. And there’s the G. I. Bill. And there’s always part-time work, son. If you want to study medicine, do it. It’ll be rough, but what the hell. When wasn’t real life tough?”

  “But what about Ma? I really owe her something.”

  Tom sighed. “All right. I’ll screw up a little money for her, even though she’s thrifty and probably has more than I have.” Again he waited, but Guy said nothing, and again Tom sighed. He repeated, “Your life. That’s all there is. There isn’t anything else.” He pointed about him with his pipe. “You think this farm is a wasteland? No, it ain’t. But the whole damn world is, now.”

  What in God’s name? thought James Meyer, who had been watching his friend acutely, and had seen the terrible flashes of thought on Guy’s face, and the anguish. What is he thinking about? What is he feeling now? It is something, I’ll swear to that. Memory? Of what?

  “Jerry?” he said, in a low tone.

  That suffering head lifted itself again and it was more like a skull than ever, and wild. Then it dropped and the dull wooden mask of pain covered Guy’s face and he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. A deep sigh, as if of mortality, came from him.

  Still, there had been something. James waited. The wind hissed at the windows. The artificial fire brightened the dusky room.

  I reached him, thought James. But how? Can it be done again? I can only try.

  He stood up. “I’ll be back soon, old mate,” he said to that shut face and those shut eyes. There was no response. James left the room and summoned the nurse.

  “I am joining Dr. Grassner,” he said. “I’ll be back, later.”

  Slowly and thoughtfully, he walked down the hall and called Emil.

  5

  “So,” said James Meyer to Emil Grassner, “he did recognize me, he did hear what I said. He came alive, and with vivid suffering, after I said something that reached him, but damned if I quite know what it was. It may be it was when I mentioned ‘despair and fury.’ I don’t know. But I hope you agree with me that we must push this thing faster and faster, before he has time to sink down into that morass in his mind again.”

  “I do agree with you,” said Emil. “So get on with it this afternoon. I feel very relieved. We never had that response from him before.”

  They were sitting in the sanitarium’s very well-appointed dining room for the staff, and the lunch had been excellent. It had begun to snow, the patient wet flakes falling silently and clustering together on the windows and on the sills. The sky had darkened considerably, but the wind had fallen.

  “I wish I knew what it was that stirred him so,” said James. “He’s got to face something in his mind. I’d like to know what it is. I can only fumble.”

  Emil poured them both another glass of wine. “Just keep on fumbling the way you did this morning,” said Emil. James frowned, trying to think, and rubbed the fringe of red-gray hair at the base of his skull. He shook his head, sighing.

  “It’s worse than I suspected,” he said. “He has a dying look. He’s got to resolve something or he will surely die. God help him.”

  “You will meet his children this weekend,” said Emil. “Perhaps they can help you. I don’t know. They couldn’t help me. They aren’t too bright, by the way. Simple sort of creatures, like their mother, but not quite so stupid.”

  Dr. Parkinson came hurriedly into the dining room, glancing around. He saw the two psychiatrists and pushed his way betwe
en tables to them. He looked at them both with hostility.

  “I’ve just seen Guy,” he said. “What has happened to him? He’s very agitated, worse than ever before. He’s even groaning, and wringing his hands. He needs a heavy sedative, at once.”

  “No!” exclaimed Emil. “Under no circumstances. He’s come alive, if only a little. He’s got to come alive, or he’ll die.”

  They did not invite him to join them. He gave James a glance of pure if feeble hatred. James smiled under his nose, but Emil stared at Dr. Parkinson formidably. The latter shook his head with resignation and walked away. He went immediately to the nearest telephone and called Lucy Jerald. Her negative and colorless voice held no alarm when she asked about the condition of her husband.

  “I’m afraid,” said Dr. Parkinson. “Look, Lucy, it’s that—that—English psychiatrist, if he’s English at all. I suggest you give orders immediately that Guy is not to have visitors except the family. That—Englishman—claiming to be Guy’s friend—he’s doing him great harm.”

  “But—” There was a short silence as Lucy tried to gather her thoughts together. “Dr. Meyer isn’t treating Guy. Dr. Grassner is. Why don’t you ask him to do what is necessary, at my request?”

  “Lucy,” said Dr. Parkinson. “Dr. Grassner is a well-known psychiatrist. He’s had books published. I can’t give him orders. I’m just your family physician. He doesn’t want me around at all—Dr. Grassner. I’m not even treating Guy at the present time. Grassner lets me stay around, because I am the family physician and a friend. That’s all. You’re the only one who can do anything.”

  “Well.” There was a pause. “Dr. Meyer did come to see Guy. He didn’t impress me much. He looks very poor and shabby to me. Not in the least a gentleman. But he did come to see Guy, for old times’ sake, though what on earth Guy could ever see—I just don’t know. The children will be here Saturday. We’ll all come to the sanitarium for a consultation and see what’s best to do.” Her uninterest astounded the poor doctor. She added, “We’re having an early snow, aren’t we? Do you think we should bring Guy a heavy robe?”

  Dr. Parkinson came very close to screaming an obscenity, then he hung up abruptly.

  In the meantime James had returned to Guy’s suite. Guy’s nurse informed him that Mr. Jerald “hadn’t eaten one single bite of his nice lunch, and it was chicken à la king, with sherry, too, and a delicious mushroom soup and an apple tart.”

  “I hope you didn’t let it go to waste,” said James, twinkling.

  “Well, no.” The nurse giggled childishly. She patted her round belly. “I was raised never to waste food. It’s a sin.”

  She took her dismissal from the scene with pleasure and James closed the door and looked at Guy. Guy was seated again near the window in the big wing chair. He was exactly as James had left him over an hour ago, totally immobile and endless leagues away in his mind. James sat near the fire and automatically raised the legs of his trousers to the slight heat, as he always did in London. He thought. Now, he said to himself, it is I, the psychiatrist, who must try “free association,” as I did this morning. But what were the magic words which could arouse that desperately ill man?

  He could see the snow, falling heavier now, so that it was a thinly gleaming and trembling curtain at the window. The fire, and the snow, reminded him of the large dark and cluttered house of his father, with fires bounding on every hearth in every room, and a promise of Christmas—or was it Chanukah—in the air? He chuckled to himself. He had had a lovely childhood, with his noisy and vehement father, and his Chanukah sovereigns, and his serene and smiling aristocratic mother with her Christmas trees, and lilting carols and many gifts. The best of two worlds, thought James. Perhaps we should have had a Moslem member of the family, too. He thought of his many trips to Egypt, and his visits to the mosques and the stunned faces of the worshippers. He said, aloud, “In the Egyptian language the word for death and life is the same word. No distinction. Very wise, that. Very subtle. Life and death—the two great mysteries. We should go mad if we dwelt on the mystery too long. So we invent banal phrases to explain both. If nobody died, what would the parsons do for a living? They are trained to explain the inexplicable, so they use dogma and cant which soothe but clarify nothing. The more the mystery is elucidated, the more impenetrable it becomes.”

  Had he heard the faint sound of movement in the room? He looked at Guy through the corner of his eyes. Guy’s posture had not changed, nor his shut face and half-closed eyes. Yet James felt that something almost inaudible had stirred.

  “Banality,” said James, “is the real opiate of the people. But without banality, how could we endure living? Forced to gaze into the fixed face of the Eternal, we should truly perish. The Beatific Vision is not for mortal eyes—if there is such a Vision. So let, us be placid and forget both life and death and live for the instant hour, in all its coziness—that is, when it is cozy. Never question. That’s the real mortal sin. But—it is sin that makes man superior to the other animals. And it’s sin that makes man a thinking reed, slender and vulnerable though he is. Sin, I am afraid, is the mother of wisdom. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was their expulsion from bondage, the bondage of a sweet but meaningless dream, the bondage of nonthought. They say God is all-Prescience. So He knew that His two human creatures would commit the sin of seeking freedom even before He created them. Freedom is the very breath of existence. Without the ‘sin’ of freedom, there would be no philosophers, no art, no science, no cities, no marketplaces, no gaiety, no joyful naughtiness, no explorations, no music, no excitements, no sudden songs in the morning, no laughter at midnight, no spicy dishes, no wine, and, of course, no wars and no books. Perhaps sin, in its deepest meanings, is truth. At any rate, it does have a bad effect on myths.”

  He glanced at Guy again and a thrill like electricity ran through him. For Guy’s eyes had opened and he was staring before him. James could see the dilated eyes, the whites glimmering in the dimness. He was almost afraid to breathe. He sat very still, and waited.

  “Don’t you tell the kid that goddamn myth of old Brownlow going to heaven yesterday!” said Tom Jerald in a voice unusually irate for him. “We don’t know where he is. Maybe he’s as dead as a dog; maybe he’s joined the second law of thermodynamics or something. You could be honest for once, Mary. You could have said, ‘I don’t know.’ For, damn it, you don’t know. Nobody does. I’m not going to have you or anybody else stuff this kid with fairy tales, just so his soul, or whatever, won’t be forced to ask questions or share in the noble misery of human conjecture. Better to be wretched and desperate than to feel nothing at all, and comfort yourself with nonsense.”

  It was an early April day in 1928. The spring had come grudgingly. The distant foothills still showed eroded mounds of snow, and the mountains beyond flashed with whiteness. The buds of the trees were still stiff and as cold as iron, though the land was greening warily here and there, and the river, in the approaching evening, was a vein of fire in the wet dark earth. The sky had become a blue translucence, and there was a vast unseen throbbing of expectation which could be felt by both flesh and spirit. There sounded a flutter of eager black wings across one window, and suddenly a robin sang, its voice a pure and thrilling resonance in the great stillness, at once melancholy and piercingly tender. A faint smudge of rose like a scarf concealed the lowering sun, and above it a young star began to scintillate.

  Tom paused, looking through the window, and he was all-listening and all-seeing, and suddenly there was reverence on that dry and Panlike face, a bemusement, the intimation of a young smile. He said, with a gesture, “That’s what it’s all about—out there. Life coming out of death, but not the way they tell it in pulpits. The Resurrection has a greater meaning than the clergy ever knew, a greater significance, a greater joy.” He paused. “And that’s what I want the kid to understand someday. I want him to know that Christ’s message is out there, and not in some dark church with stained-glass windows
. Christ is not a cold dead lily. He’s a vital rose.”

  “You’ll never get over being a Catholic,” said Mary, Tom’s wife. Tom sighed with exasperation.

  “A heathen,” said Mary.

  Tom’s fingers moved as if counting beads. “The Joyful Mysteries,” he said. “All joy is a mystery. That which isn’t worth knowing or understanding.”

  The big brick kitchen was warm from the heat of the wood stove. The wooden walls gleamed with the endless coats of shellac Mary had painted on them, and the wooden ceiling gleamed. The linoleum on the floor might have lost most of its pattern but it shone also. The stove was black with polished steel trimmings, and some of the lids were glowing. The two windows were framed in white scrim curtains with fringes. There were buckets of water from the well standing on a scrubbed counter, and a pot of soup was simmering, the warm air alive with the odor of onions and beef and tomatoes and cabbage. A cat drowsed on a windowsill; from somewhere came the lonely and echoing bark of a dog. The cattle in the old barn answered, and a duck on the still half-frozen pond added to the chorus.

  Little Guy sat in the wooden armchair near the other window. He had been listening intently, and Tom knew this, though Mary always insisted that he was too young to “know,” too “innocent.” But Tom did not believe children were stupid and vapid, and had no comprehension. He remembered the long thoughts of his own childhood, the vast and amorphous thoughts that engulfed both mind and body, and the spirit as well. In adults, thought was restricted, set in a pattern, set in a frame of iron references that could be equally absurd and imprisoning, meretricious and without validity. Shut in from knowledge in the narrow stockade of banality, of what was accepted. Tom believed there was only one Frame of Reference, and that was the Unknowable, the Concept without words. He had tried for years to impart this to Mary, and she had only looked at him with superior amusement and had only said, “I don’t think you know yourself what you are talking about.” To which he had replied with satire, “Who does?”

 

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