Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chapter One

(Note--first chapter in yet-another attempt at a novel....)

She didn’t waste much time starting in on me, today.

“You ain’t Hank,” she said. “Where is he? Why ain’t he here? And where’s Fred.”

“Now Mary Ann,” I told her, “remember what I told you yesterday? I’m Paddy, and I’ll be taking care of you, this morning. And I don’t know who Frank--or Fred--is. Anyway, they’re not here. It’s just you and me. You had your breakfast?”

“I ain’t eatin’,” she said, “I’m fasting, as the Blessed Virgin commanded me. Ain’t it Friday? The second Friday of Advent?”

I told her--I don’t know anything about that convent stuff. Sure, they sent me to a Catholic school, and that’s probably why when it came time to getting rid of the baby, they sent me off to the orphanage. Or the home for unwed mothers. You know, The Seven Sorrows of our Sorrowful Mother Home for Unwanted Children.  

“You’re shitting me,” said Ed, my boyfriend, I guess. “That’s what they call the place you’re going to? Wow….”

We were sitting on bean bag chairs at the pad on Mifflin Street he shared with an ever shifting group of people. Early on, I had tried to figure out whose place it really was, but that wasn’t cool. The place didn’t belong to anyone, though of course it did. It belonged to a pig: the son of a pig who had inherited the place from his pig father, and who did nothing all day except tell his receptionist which calls he would pick up. Prospective renters--fine. Current renters, who only called when their apartments were flooding, or the building’s furnace had exploded--they were put on hold.

“Private property is a capitalist construct, and therefore a lie,” said Ed to me, in the days when I tried to figure out who was who. “You want to know who rents this place so that you can accord him a specific role: the role of father, provider, alpha male of the space we all inhabit. But we reject all that. You have as much right to be here, to use the space--hell, to own the space--as whoever it was who put his name down on the lease a couple of years ago. Maybe it was Pete? Anyway, it was before I got here….”

That was the point of the pad: it was a free space where anyone could enter, sit down, smoke a joint, rap with brothers, make new friends, bang a few chicks, and bed down. It was a communal place, with no rules. People ate when they wanted to eat, and if another cat came when you were cooking, well, it was cool to share the food you were making. It went with the vibes of the place: everything flowed, people came and went, and the chick you were banging one day would turn up in your best friend’s bed the next.

Oh--sorry. Nobody had a bed, and nobody had a bedroom. Why should they, when anyway who knew who was going to be sleeping where on any given night? There were cats who drifted here and there for years, it seemed, staying no more than a week or two--max--in one place. Then it was time to hitchhike to San Francisco, or go and detassel corn in summer, or go surfing in the Baja Peninsula in winter. Or maybe they OD’d, or maybe they gave up and went to law school, or maybe their mom got sick, and they had to go home. Anyway, sometimes they were there. Sometimes they weren’t. The Pad was always there for people who needed to crash, or who wanted to stay for a while.

Which is what we were doing, I guess. Ed was older than me, from Long Island, and he had chosen the University of Wisconsin-Madison because his cousin had gone there. It took Ed a little time to get used to Madison, he told me. I mean, what kind of place had only one deli? And what kind of deli was it, anyway? Sure--it had lox and bagels, but what did everybody order when they went there? Some monstrosity called the Grilled Pound Cake Hot Fudge Sundae. The deli, you see, was also an ice cream parlor, which made Ed snort.

“It’s a hick town, but it’s cool,” said Ed. He was getting--off and on--his Masters in political science. When I met him, he was in the “off” phase, since his favorite professor wasn’t teaching that semester. Or maybe Ed didn’t have the funds. Or maybe he had been stoned the day of registration, which on “spring” semester actually took place on some unimaginably cold January day. (The spring did come, but only after several awful months--it was a Wisconsin thing.) Anyway, it didn’t matter whether Ed was in school or not, since education and degrees were also just constructs to allow for the political and economic distribution of goods and capital. In fact, the working class had the more valid claim to be considered educated, since their role as outsiders / infiltrators allowed for them to be more highly attuned to the classist dicta that unwittingly and non volitionally governed relations between economic strata, and those living within them, and straddling them.

At least, that’s what I think he said. We were sitting in the living room of the house on Mifflin Street. At least, it should have been the living room, though there were a few mattresses on the floor, and the couch had ended up last summer on the porch, where it should have been ok. But somehow, it had got wet, and then it had gotten mold, and that would have been OK, since mold was good and most of the time the pot smell covered up the mold. But anyway, the couch had never made it back into the living room, so the bean bag chairs had to make do.

It was a new world to me. I was sixteen, though I looked older and told everybody I was eighteen. I was going to Edgewood High School, on the city’s near west side. It was a good- sized school on an oversized property: it had been the country estate of a governor of Wisconsin, who gave up the property to the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters in the 1880’s. The sisters lived in some crazy tower above the school: they would creep down, occasionally, to teach some class or attend some activity or just remember, maybe, a time when they actually had something useful to do. But most of them could barely walk, so they had to stop, at every landing of the stairs, and and rest for a bit. Did it ever occur to the younger sisters who ran the place to buy their elders an elevator? Or maybe move them to some first floor? Nah--but they did put chairs on the landings, and then icons of extraneous or unwanted saints, and then real candles and fake flowers. So the ancient nuns lived above us, as we studied our Western History or English Literature. The nuns dozed in their dotage, the students dozed through their adolescence, and everything was as it should be. My mother had gone there, before her marriage; my grandmother had gone there as well, before her marriage.

Did you hear the word “marriage?”

It wasn’t a word, it was the final destination--as the flight attendants like to say--of the particular journey called Edgewood High School. We knew what was in store for us, or thought we did. We would go from Queen of Peace Elementary to Edgewood Junior and Senior High Schools. We would attend mass during the week, and always on Sunday. Confession. Communion. Youth retreats. Friday night movies, and yes--it was often the Bells of St. Mary’s. Then--and this was the tricky part--a choice might be contemplated. For those girls who wanted only to be teachers or nurses, Edgewood had its own college, and perfectly good it was. But what if a girl wanted to study molecular biology, or Mandarin Chinese? Then--perilously--the state university, with its pinko professors, was the only choice. Parents had to hope that the sedative effects of Catholic school lasted through the university years, or at least until a nice Catholic boy--in law or medical school--came by to woo and wed. Then, another generation of Catholic boys and girls would be on its way, and they would be sitting in the chairs of Queen of Peace or Edgewood where their parents had sat, and most of their old teachers would still be there, or at least shunted up to the crazy attic, from which they might creep down. The Bells of St. Mary might be replaced by some more adventurous affair--the Sound of Music, perhaps. And so it would go on just as old Governor Washburn had planned it, when he had given the land to the sisters so that they, not he, could swat the mosquitoes in the winter and shovel through snow drifts in the winter.  Yes, the governor would move on, move even further and farther from his native Maine. He would found a flour mill in Minnesota, after having given up on the Wisconsin Mining Company. The mill would become General Mills, and his old estate would become a dormitory, and the nuns would be given the lands and the power to rap knuckles, play old and uplifting movies, and inculcate the young until they could be graduated.

The students in their desks, the nuns in their tower, the governor who had made it all possible now in his grave but also in his frame, since his portrait was given a choice place of ignorance, or ignoral, or…. What do you call it, that central spot in the building’s lobby where the founder’s bust or portrait is placed so that he can be unseen and unnoticed by all the people rushing past? At any rate, there he was, Cadwallader C. Washburn--a portly figure who peered in profile into the future for the photographer, all those many years ago.

Well, the future had long since faded into the past, and even the nun who had to dust the frame of the picture didn’t see the old governor. That governor who had looked to a future, which had settled down comfortably and given him and his now-dead children nice full pockets. The governor’s other progeney--General Mills--in turn, had given me breakfast, in the form of my Cheerios. And so I used to look at Washburn, as he looked forward confidently into the past. Even his grandchildren must now be dead, I thought, and nobody but a few old nuns knew the truth about Washburn’s past, as opposed to his past / future. Because Washburn, for all the logs he had cut down down and all the flour he had milled--as well as being as colonel in the Civil War and congressman and governor--had a secret. He was an epileptic, and his wife turned bad after their second daughter was born. And so a lot of the log and the flour money went back east, to the sanitarium where Washburn’s mad wife was confined.

Beats me why, but I used to think a lot about Washburn, when I was up there at the Seven Sorrows of our Sorrowful Mother Home for Unwed Mothers. I’d be up there late at night, because who can sleep when the baby is kicking and you have to go to the bathroom every twenty minutes and it’s snowing outside and the trees are groaning in the wind? Funny, I didn’t think about Ed, the father of my child, if that’s what he was. And I didn’t think of my old classmates, who were now well on the way to becoming wives or librarians. And of course I had barely even heard of the old bat who would make my life hell in the next six months.

No, I didn’t even think of the baby I was bearing, since that was going to go too. There were good Catholic parents waiting for my child, and they would take him or her and love it more than I could, and what future could I give it, after all? So late in the night, when I couldn’t sleep, I used to remember that old portrait of the governor. Washburn, who had succeeded so well at success, and failed so badly in life. If life means coming home to your wife and children, eating a good dinner, and smoking a pipe in your library after your meal.

Who cared for Washburn’s girls, after their mother had been shut away in the madhouse? And who would care for my child, after I left the home? And I--wasn’t I as loony as the governor’s wife? I was in, after all, Necedah, Wisconsin. I was months away from giving birth, and half a year from meeting Mary Ann van Hoof, who swore like a truck driver and called me a slut and wept because the Virgin Mary had visited her--years before I was born--and now visited no more.

“You ain’t Hank,” she said to me, that first day.

No, I wasn’t.

I wasn’t much of anything, really. I was as ephemeral as a falling leaf from an old tree in the grounds of the asylum that the governor of Wisconsin tries to forget, as he stares out into the widowed future in his portrait. I had been through Edgewood and Ed, pot and pregnancy, Mifflin Street and now Necedah. I had been a girl, and then briefly a mother, and was now a madwoman, just as mad as the governor’s wife. She was gone, as were her two daughters. I was gone too, as was my son, and all I had left to do was take care of an old lady, as nasty and crude as any I had met. The old lady who saw the Virgin Mary.

“You ain’t Hank,” she told me, that first day.


I wasn’t anything at all.