Issue 4, Winter 1953
“For eighteen years, Jack Wilson,” she was saying for the third time, “your father took pictures for my family, and we were never dissatisfied. I’m sure if he were back here now—if be weren’t in the hospital—”
“No, Mrs. Porter,” said Jack inappropriately. Oh my god, no, Mrs. Porter. My father will never be back: haven’t you heard about death, about winding sheets and embalming? Haven’t you heard the grey legend that when one is sick one either gets better or worse? One cannot remain diseased to the same extent for seven months.
“I mean, just look at these,” she complained, shuffling the photographs before his face. “Do I look anything like them?”
Nodding, he stared past Mrs. Porter, past the pictures shaking in her hand, past the smoky-grey waiting room with worn modern furniture and potted floor plants, through the single soot-measled window, through the rain. It was a straight stiff meaningless autumn rain: rain that brings depression without reason, nostalgia without memory, as though appealing to a long forgotten hatred of dismal weather. When all the lights have been switched off in the studio. Jack recalled’ and the door to the waiting room has been closed, a silver strangeness glows from the red velvet posing benches lined against the walls. Often, when he was much younger and had some problem to think out by himself, he would steal the key to the shop from his father’s overcoat while the family sat at dinner, and later, when they had gone to bed, he would leave the house (ignoring his mother’s calls from behind her bedroom door) and hurry down the nightdim streets to the studio where he would lock himself in to stare peacefully at the silver glow along the walls. He thought of doing this now as he watched Mrs. Porter’s hands jerking before the dead face of her fox collar.
“You can’t really expect me to take these. Jack, can you? I mean, you know, your father would—”
“No.“ he said thinly. “I guess not. We’ll try taking them again. “Walking to the back wall. Jack slid the pictures through the darkroom slot, pausing a moment to stare into the mirror above the slot. He avoided the reflection of his eyes for fear he might not find them open, and instead gazed at the curve of his jaw and then at his straight thin hair, now a deep brown because of the damp weather. Behind him he could see Mrs. Porter adjusting her hat.
“I’ve got some marvelous ideas,” she said, the hatpin stabbed between her teeth. “And I’ve absolutely got to send some to Bobby. He’s in California now and he doesn’t have a single—”
“But I’m afraid we won’t be able to take them today,Mrs. Porter. I’ll have to be leaving soon. Will Saturday be all right for you? At eleven?”
“Oh, sure, that’s fine, Jack. I suppose you’re seeing your dad this afternoon? Don’t forget to tell him we hope he’ll be back soon. I’ve been meaning to send him something, but you know how those things are. You keep putting them off...”
“Yes, I know,” said Jack, although in fact he did not know,for in spite of his distasteful avoidance of major issues, he was always aware of superficial obligations: small boxes of expensive sweets for house visits to friends; quilted, perfumed,maudlin greeting cards for every occasion; and even, although they had been married ten years, ridiculous little trinkets for Janice on half-, and sometimes quarter-year anniversaries.Superstitiously he felt that rigid observance of small duties destroyed, or at least postponed, the coming of great occasions when he might be forced into an experience larger than chocolates or bric-a-brac and never described in the four rhyming lines of a greeting card.
Swinging her black coat together Mrs. Porter hooked the fox’s tail into its lip, then lit a cigarette and dropped the match upon the pot of one of the floor plants as she walked through the waiting room. When she was gone. Jack sank to a posing bench, closed his eyes and listened—bis ear against the wall— to the faint, distant splash of rain upon the building. Tell him, she had said, we hope he’ll be back soon. Tell him we hope he will unsay a word, uneat a meal, undo what’s done and irrevocable; tell him to undie his death and come back to live under the lightproof curtain behind the camera. When will he die? Why doesn’t he die? How many more months would his face continue to shrink like a rusted reluctant carnation, yielding gradually, clinging to its original form to the limits of possibility? How many more months would his body continue to vanish in that huge chartreuse room with private toilet and private nurses where he waited impatiently not to die. Everyone else in the family—Martha, Conrad, Paul, the uncles and aunts —all of them wanted him to die. Death would be merciful, they said, and recommended it like cough syrup.
His father’s illness had meant little to Jack until the old man was forced to leave the store permanently and the entire business fell to him. He knew the routine, of course: the conventional poses, the put-your-head-this-way-not-that-way, the prices to ask, and the words to say. But before this his father had been in complete charge, and his departure seemed to seal Jack’s final exit, an exit he knew he would never have used but whose existence was his single impossible hope, at once thrilling and frightening. For Jack had never intended to be a photographer; it had all happened so gradually like birth or war or puberty that he felt he had been steadily and powerlessly pushed into it. At sixteen he had gone to the Store on Saturdays; at seventeen he worked Tuesday and Thursday afternoons; and when he had graduated from high school he had begun to work full time. There was no process of consideration behind it; it was merely the most natural, the most obvious, step to take: the step that most resembled the step before. Changes must be made gradually, he knew, in order to gather the courage to accept them: a woman’s belly swells for half-a-year before a child is born; the breath of war warms us long before the tongues of flame lash out; and there are the imperceptible hairs, the phlegmatic juices, that arrive before maturity. Actually Jack had meant to go on to college but there had been so many things: his mother’s death, marriages in the family, and then, just before the war, Janice had come along, and then, well then... He had become so imbedded in the business that it was impossible to withdraw, like a fish-hook speared deeply into the flesh so that there is less discomfort in leaving it in than in trying to remove it.
Once, however, he had attempted to tear the fishhook out. He had tried to take a step which was neither the most natural nor the most obvious. It happened when he had begun working with his father and had become bored with days so similar that one was any other and all of them the same one. Although he did not talk about his boredom, it was obvious, having settled into the structure of his face. His sister Martha, a plain fat girl who was much older than Jack, had suggested painting as a hobby; she mentioned it at dinner every evening for two weeks, sometimes assisted by other members of the family, so that at last their father went to a department store and bought the large size Artist’s Kit plus two books on landscape painting. Surrounded by equipment. Jack began to paint—indifferently at first, but after a while with strange enthusiasm. It was as though a magic lens had been placed over his eyes: everything took on new forms, new dimensions, new colors faraway from the fiat grey-white black of the camera. If a model moved, if a tree shook suddenly in the wind, if a head trembled with unseen emotion, it did not mean a ruined plate or a blurred image: it meant something deep and inward. He attended art courses regularly and, after a year, he realized how seriously he was taking his hobby, and lie knew that he wanted to hurry away from his father’s photography shop to paint. He had saved a thousand dollars "which, in 1938, seemed endless, and so he planned to take a room somewhere in the city where he could spend each day painting and build a life round this work. It was now several months since his family had come to take pleasure in Jack’s pictures only when company came; the rest of the time their interest was limited to wondering if the paints were not making the boy a little nervous.
When Jack told them of his plans to leave, they rumbled with surprise, then subsided into two-days’ silence. It was Martha who began to talk. “Bohemianism,“ she said irrelevantly, “ended in the twenties. Jack. You can’t walk out on a responsible life today. You just can’t.” The rest agreed, presenting sound and rational arguments—and looking to their father whose worried muteness was obviously a sign of his displeasure with Jack. Nevertheless the boy found a room in the East Seventies and gave the landlord a deposit. On the night before he was to have left, the sedentary fear of sudden change turned to panic and he ran to the telephone in the empty living room, closing the door securely behind him, to call his friend Harvey.
“Harvey,” he had said. “Tell me I’m doing the right thing. Tell me I’m right.”
Now Harvey was a solemn boy who had admired Jack’s paintings and had always encouraged him, but that evening he said: “I don’t know. These kind of things are always up to the person who does them. No one can tell you if you’re right.”
“I’m scared, Harvey. I don’t know.”
And then Harvey said the most terrible thing of all: “I guess it’s because it’s changing things. Everything will be different.”
“For Christ’s sake, nothing will be different, “Jack shouted defensively. “I’m not moving that far. It’s only twenty minutes from home. Everything will be just the same.”
“All right, boy. Maybe you’re right, but it just seems to me like everything will be changed.”
And in the end Jack did not leave: he lost his deposit, he lost his desire to move, and, aided by Martha, he eventually even lost his interest in painting. To placate his feelings he did two things: he anonymously sent the disappointed landlord a box of cheap cigars, and he never spoke to his friend Harvey again. Now and then Jack would drive by the old Victorian brownstone with fenced windows and ornate ledges, and sometimes he would see a young man with a bag of laundry slung over his shoulder or a portfolio under his arm and he would wonder. But now it was too late for anything hut kissing Janice when he got home from work and raising Freddie and growing slowly, gradually, into middle age. Too late. Realizing the time he slipped into his coat, dumped a brown fedora at the back of his head, and ran through the street, wrinkling his collar together against the rain, until be reached the blue Ford.
Inside the cold airless car be lit a cigarette and the windows fogged slowly as if coated thinly with wax. The street was deserted and, except for the traffic light which blinked with half-minute precision, one would have thought it was never used. Down the wet shining walk a black and white tomcat, fat and circular as an image of Buddha, sat in a doorway plumply preening himself. When Jack started the motor, the tom looked up, his eyes yellow-green and transparent like tinted cellophane as though you could see through them into his head. He rose and humped himself, then rubbed his back against the wall he sat down again.
Driving up the street. Jack turned left on Fifth, Avenue. The rain was beginning to ease and all along the street women stretched thin veiny hands from store-fronts to test the rain; two old women, cheeks cracked and plaster-white as if from years of face powder, linked arms and walked a stringy poodle in front of Jack’s car, ignoring the traffic light. At the corner of Fifty-sixth Street behind a mass of skittering, round-shouldered pedestrians Jack saw the antique shop where he had bought the map, a print of a fourteenth century English map of the world done on rough cream-colored paper, cracked and singed round the edges to create the illusion of authenticity. He had bought it two years before when Freddie was only five because he thought the boy might enjoy the brightly colored figures scattered here and there along the sides. The map was a detailed drawing of the known world, hut to the west in the unchartered Atlantic where America was yet to be discovered were clusters of steel-tongued serpents leaning over the legend Here Be Dragons, and in the north lay a nest of brooding chimeras under which was printed Here Be Several Kindes of Serpents.
Jack suddenly pictured a black-robed cartographer standing over his medieval drawing-board and labeling the unknown as fearful, as the most fearful, as probable death at the hands of the indescribably grotesque. And what would be more terrifying than death in the fourteenth century, or death today, or even next year? And the black-robed cartographer knew this; he knew that death, the most violent of all changes, was the final prohibitor. He understood that death —as old as life, peopled with the living, the once living, and the not yet living—was new for each man: a sea voyage into the land of dragons which each man fears and yet, at last, each man embarks upon. “Where will grandpa go when he dies.’?” Freddie had asked one hot September night as they lingered late in the garden behind the house, for already he knew one simply did not vanish. And Jack had answered, enraged by heat and mosquitoes and the calm with which Janice slept in the beach chair, “He will go to the place of serpents and dragons.” And the boy had begun to cry until Jack, vaguely aware of an error, whispered formulas of comfort to make Freddie disbelieve what he himself felt was the truth.
The hospital stood opposite the mud-soft hills of the park and the warped trees from which still hung a few saggy autumn leaves. The rain had been suspended into a thick cotton like fog that folded round him miserably, gluing his clothes his flesh. In the building be showed his pass and hurried to the elevator, riding to the seventh floor where he was immediately aware of the smell—the dull powdery odor, ubiquitous as fog: on the white steel chairs, on the silly chartreuse walls, tacked up on the doors beside the room numbers, and even. Jack realized pressing Ms lips tightly together, on his tongue. There was no way for him to describe it nor even to recall it once he had left the hospital, but he had come to think of it poetically as the chartreuse smell of death.
The door to Ms father’s room was open but the old man did not see him for he was turned, one hand clutching the sheet, the other the bed post, to the window.
“Hello,” said Jack, sinking to a wicker chair beside the bed.
“Oh,” the old man sighed. “It’s you.” Slowly and with great effort he turned to face his son. In the four days Jack had not seen him his jaundice had deepened, rusted, as though someone had come regularly to beat him.
“Did Janice call?” Jack asked. “She said she was going to.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. They took the phone away because I couldn’t stand the noise.”
“That’s too bad,” said Jack and blushed.
“Yes, it’s too bad,” the old man smiled. “How’s Fred-die?”
“Oh, he’s fine. God, you’d never recognize him. He must have grown almost a foot since—”
“I’d like to see him.”
“Maybe I can bring him over on Saturday and you can look at him through the window.”
Putting his hand to his face the old man said quickly, “No! He wouldn’t like to see me like this. Better let him stay home and play.”
They were quiet as he turned back to the window; Jack’s eyes followed him, then stopped, unblinking, to stare at the back of Ms father’s head: the hair was thin and shockingly stiff with a greenish cast like the dead and brittle weeds of a winter garden.
“Are things all right at the store?” his father asked without looking at him.
“Don’t worry: everything’s fine. I had a little trouble today with that old bag Mrs. Porter. She didn’t like the shots I took of her.”
“I know how she is. You’ve always got to fix them up first so they don’t look like her. Then she’s happy.” He turned suddenly, his eyes sharp on Jack. “What happened to those pictures you sent to Life?
Life. The word was strange, anomalous, a fairy tale word that did not belong in a dead man’s vocabulary.
“I told you they sent them back days ago,” said Jack quietly.
“I knew they would,” the old man whispered with disgust. “You should have tried to do something with them. They would have been wonderful pictures if you sharpened the foreground a little.”
“Look, Dad, it was your idea to send them out, not mine. They were just pictures to amuse Freddie. I’m no good with fancy shots—just family stuff and babies, ordinary things.”
“You wanted to be an artist once, “he said, closing his eyes to indicate he was in pain. The noise gave him pains; light gave him pains; silence and darkness gave him pains; everything churned and picked the intestinal filth of his disease. My old wan is a dirty old man, the childhood rhyme sang uncontrollably through Jack’s head. My old man is a dirty old man.
Stretching a yellow arm his father caught the corner of the sheet and wrinkled it into his palm. He holds the sheet. Jack thought, because it is here and now and familiar and he is afraid of being transported to death, of slipping onto a ship into the water and sailing away to the unknown, the unheard from: and if he cannot take life along with him to death, he would take some emblem of it—a bed post or the sheet.
“I feel chilly,” the old man complained, pulling the sheet above his shoulders.
Jack sat quietly, without moving, without talking, hardly blinking his eyelids until four o’clock.
After Freddie had been put to bed and Janice had gone into the kitchen to finish the supper dislies. Jack lay down on the long angle armed sofa. The blinds were still up and the puffy blue fog, luminous from the floor-lamp beside the window, sailed tenderly against the pane.
“I called the doctor today. Jack,” shouted Janice from the kitchen.
Her cry surprised him and he turned slowly on his side, closed his eyes, and felt a shock shiver through his belly as if suddenly, while lying on the sofa, he had become his father. A grim picture of the old man, withered and alone in the chartreuse darkness of the hospital room, moved drearily through his mind.
“I said, I called the doctor today, Jack,” she repeated, untying her florid plastic apron as she came into the living room.
“Oh? What was wrong?”
“I called about your father.”
“What did he say?”
“Four or five weeks—maybe less. They can never be sure. I wish they could do something for him.”
Walking to the mirror above the fireplace she laced her fingers rapidly through the ends of her hair and then smoothed it back at her temples. She found Jack’s eyes in the mirror and smiled, rounding her lips, until finally he chuckled; then she flopped comically to the hassock beside the sofa.
“Hello, sweet,” she said and touched his forehead. Reaching into his pocket she slid out the package of cigarettes and ht one. Jack became aware of waiting for her to offer it to him: she did, but he shook his head. It was a ritual—a familiar, endless, comfortable ritual that made everything all right.
“And we can go away somewhere,” she was saying.
“Afterwards: when it’s over. We can take Freddie out of school for a couple of weeks and just fly away somewhere.”
“Yes" he said. “That would be nice.”
Janice stood up.
“For Christ’s sake,” he snapped. “Where you going now?”
“Up to Freddie’s room. I want to see if he’s all right.”
“Of course he’s all right. He’s probably asleep. Sit down!" he said, lifting himself from the sofa. “I’ll go.”
Starting up the stairs, he heard Janice switch the radio on, and he hurried to the room, turning the doorknob quietly. The room was completely dark except for the red darkroom bulb socketed in the wall, a small bulb whose dull magenta glow illuminated itself and part of the wall immediately round it, but nothing else. It was kept there only because Freddie had got used to it and would not let them remove it. Jack closed the door and listened to his son’s steady breathing, then walked to the light. The map was tacked up beside it and Jack placed his band along the singed edge. And the world, with the shadow of his fingers trembling across it, was red and impossible, more weird, more frightening, than it had ever been, as if textured of fire and hell. He placed bis thumb upon England, the center of this medieval world, and traced a path, an imaginary voyage, through the molten Atlantic, over the nest of chimeras, among the clusters of serpents: and finally he anchored his finger beside the bulb. Quickly he switched the light off and turned to face the bed. The bed clothes rustled and the mattress puffed and, although he could see nothing in the darkness, he knew the boy was awake, frightened from sleep by the absence of light.
“Wh-who’s there?” Freddie mumbled. “Is that you, Mommy?... Daddy?”
Leaning quietly against the wall. Jack listened to his son’s whimpering.
“Who is it?” the boy cried.
Look said Jack, the word hanging soundlessly from his lips. Look and see who it is, Freddie. There is nothing to be afraid of for there is only darkness, and darkness is thin and comprehensible: you have only to look and you will see through it. And it is harmless, after all, in spite of everything I’ve said, for there are no dragons here—and strangely it is only your father.
“Please, who is it?” The boy wept quietly, choked with fear, and made an oddly mature sound of distress exactly like a mourner.
Suddenly he screamed, “Mommy! Daddy! Come up!”
Jack leaned forward and again there was the scream: “Mommy!”
“All right, Freddie, all right,” said Jack sitting down close beside him on the bed.
“Oh, Daddy. It was you.” He began to cry easily with obvious relief. Jack stroked his hair back softly.
“Why didn’t you answer me. Daddy?”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“I was scared. I felt so scared.”
“There was nothing to be afraid of.” Reaching into his pocket he drew out a coin and pressed it into the child’s hand.
“Are you better now, Freddie? Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep?”
“Yes—only why is the light off?”
“I don’t know.”
“Please put it on. Daddy.”
Walking again to the wall, Jack switched the bulb on: the map bloomed red and grotesque like a nightmare-flower.
“There,” said Jack as he opened the door. “The light’s on and there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Downstairs the radio sang a quiet ballad, and Jack walked to the window and stared out at the blue fog.
“Everything all right, dear?” asked Janice.
“Yes,” he said without looking at her. “He was asleep. I told you he would be asleep.”