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Eight years since I’ve seen my parents’ graves, and if I haven’t visited it’s a safe bet that neither has anyone else. Maybe a few of the curious, assuming that anyone is still curious about such things. Not a week goes by that I don’t think of them there, under their shared granite slab. They died a day apart, my mother the one day and my father the next, so one stone seemed appropriate and more cost-effective. Not that I paid. I just mean that it must have seemed more appropriate and cost-effective to the man who did pay for the pretty pink rock and the engraving and had them buried side by side. They’re within reach, but they never touch. How so like the world of the living.

You don’t entirely appreciate how alone you are until you’ve lost your parents.

In the beginning, we piled stones on graves to stop wild animals from digging up the remains of our loved ones. I suppose those rough mounds served as markers as well, but the principal reason we piled them so high and wide was because we didn’t want to come back to find our parents’ bones strewn around like any other animal’s. Nowadays, with coffins and fancy fenced-off graveyards in the middle of the city, you don’t have to worry about anything eating your dead parents. We’ve almost completely run out of things to worry about. I’m kidding. I wouldn’t even mention it, but down east here, people tend not to know when you’re kidding.

My mother’s father was a baker, and he was not a kind man. That was about all she ever said about him. There was an empty place in my mother that couldn’t be filled up with any amount of love or nastiness, and I was always pretty sure it had something to do with her father, but there was no way of getting at what he might have done to her. It was like she spent her whole life hiding from him, always glancing over her shoulder. One time, when I tried to get more out of her (I was probably seven or eight years old), she told me he was like the giant that Jack meets at the top of the beanstalk. I guess my father was Jack. He met her at a meeting in a Denver basement in 1964. She was seventeen years old and he was over forty. It was the monthly gathering of the Secret Society, an anti-communist cell operating in Denver. She had been hired to dance and take off her clothes for them. (She told me this when I was sixteen, after she’d pulled out my bottom drawer and found a magazine full of young women who had taken off their clothes. She said I could keep the magazine, but I couldn’t stand the thought of her knowing it was there, so I burned it.) The Secret Society didn’t pay her much to take off her clothes. The man who hired her, a friend of her father, said it was for the cause of freedom.

The morning after the last performance of her dancing career, she was heading north in my father’s pickup truck. He was the most exciting man she’d ever met, a war hero from an exotic northern kingdom. Queendom. He’d lost his arm fighting the Nazis, and she was escaping with him from the giant and from Denver and from the United States of America, and she would never be unhappy again.

Nine months later I was born.

I’m only twenty-nine years old. People generally think I’m older. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’ve suffered more than most in twenty-nine years, and that’s made me act or appear older than I am. Don’t get me wrong: there’s no pride in my claim of suffering. Mostly I suffer from shame, and there’s not much percentage in being proud of your shame. I’m a janitor here at an elementary school in Toronto, Canada, and I’m also a bit of a philosopher. The thing that marks me most is my unusual relationship with God. I’ve killed for Him, and He, in turn, has killed for me. That, I believe, is an unusual relationship.

I like being a janitor because it’s plain and simple, one of those jobs that’s never noticed unless it’s left undone or not done well enough. When somebody compliments me on my work, it’s most often because she wants to feel good about herself for noticing. I’d just as soon not be noticed. The highest compliment is when they forget you exist. If they can’t see right through you, you’re not using the right window cleaner. This afternoon, for instance, I happened to be emptying the trash barrel in the corner of the schoolyard when I heard the voice of this lawyer’s son, a boy I have not gained a good opinion of. I turned to see that he had another kid cornered.

“Give me the ball, you little faggot.”

These kids were both in grade four, the same grade as Caroline. There’s no way he’d have let a teacher hear him say that, but he didn’t take any notice of the janitor. I was of no more consequence than a rat rooting around the garbage. Less, in fact. A rat is far more deserving of attention than a janitor. And if the cornered kid hadn’t been a friend of Caroline’s, I’d never have got myself involved. I watch out for Caroline and her friends. Caroline is my daughter.

“I said, give it here, you faggot. Why don’t you go play with your girlfriends? Maybe they’ve got a Barbie doll for you.”

Caroline’s friend has more backbone in him than little Mussolini expected, and he shook his head and wouldn’t give up the ball. Didn’t say a word, though, and you could see he was pretty scared.

“Give it here, faggot!”

“Watch your mouth,” I said.

The lawyer’s kid spun around to look at me. Caroline’s friend was gaping at me too, but he looked just as scared as before I stuck my nose in, like he thought I was on his case for not watching what he wasn’t saying. For a second there, they were equal: two scared little boys.

“I don’t like to hear that kind of talk,” I said.

By this time the lawyer’s kid had realized I was only the janitor. “Mind your own fucking business, freakoid.” He turned back to Caroline’s friend. “If you don’t give me the fucking ball –”

I picked him up by his shirt collar at the scruff of his neck, as if he were a kitten, and turned him around to face me. “I told you, I don’t like to hear people talking that way.”

He started wriggling, and for a second I thought he was going to take a swing at me, even though I had him by the back of the neck. The laying on of the hands wasn’t what made him drop his fists. It was my eyes. He could see something in my eyes that made him hang still and pee his pants. He could see me wondering whether God wanted him dead. Caroline’s friend saw too, and he ran.

I set the boy down and walked away.

Caroline’s friend went right to the teacher in the playground and told her. I’m not sure which teacher, because I’d gone down to hide under the stairs in my room with the red door. Had a coffee. What could be safer than drinking coffee in a room under the stairs behind a red door? A knock came, and I opened up to see that the principal herself had come for a visit. She looked me over for signs of chaos and depravity.

“How are you, Jonathan?”

“Fine. Just having a coffee. Would you like a coffee?”

“One of the students said you were involved in an altercation in the playground.”

I knew I should not have lifted him off the ground. Less than three months on the job. They could get rid of me for less.

“Just now? Oh. Yeah. A couple of boys arguing and I told them to stop. Hope I didn’t scare them.”

She studied me and I looked at the floor.

“Did you touch him, Jonathan?”

“Touch? No. I don’t think so. No.”

“What happened?”

“The one called the other a name.”

“What name?”

“I don’t remember.”

“It’s better if I know what name.”

I looked around to make sure no one else was listening. “Faggot.”

“You see, Jonathan, that’s important. There’s a strict policy against that kind of thing. But you have to come to me immediately. And you’d better not have touched him. We’ve had to deal with his father before. You’d better tell me the complete truth about what happened so that I know what I’m dealing with here.”

I shrugged and then, because it was obvious she wasn’t buying, I added, “Just dealing with garbage.”

I smiled and she shook her head, not appreciating the humour of a janitor dealing with garbage.

“I need to know, Jonathan,” she said. “I need to know exactly what happened.”

“Never touched him,” I said. “I told him to watch his mouth, and the kid he was tormenting ran away, so I left.”

She looked me in the eye and I forced myself not to look away.

“That’s strange,” she said. “The boy you helped was under the impression there was some kind of physical intervention involved.”

“That is strange,” I said. “Maybe he wished it were so.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“It certainly makes for a better story.”

She studied me some more and waited. She has eyes so blue that even in the basement they make you remember the sky.

“I like this job,” I said. “I wouldn’t do anything that would mean I could lose it.”

Caroline looks like her mother. Like her mother and like my mother. It’s hard to put a finger on the particular resemblances. My mother’s eyes and mouth, for sure. Her mother’s nose and chin and cheekbones. The resemblance goes beyond the face, though, right into her tiny skeleton: the way she stands on her left leg and curls her right foot behind her left ankle. Her mother used to do that too.

Caroline’s mother, Gloria Irvine, was only seven when I first met her in Mrs. Field’s grade two classroom. That was far from Toronto, in Broken Head, Saskatchewan, a place Caroline has no conception of, I’m sure, though that’s where she was conceived. Not so strange really: out of squeamishness, we all tend to avoid a conception of our conception. But my mother wouldn’t allow me the luxury.

“It was Calgary, Eisenhower.” My name was Dwight then, but my mother usually called me Eisenhower or some other silly made-up name. It was a game she liked: she’d call me Eisenhower and she’d ask me how I got a name like Eisenhower and I’d tell her it wasn’t my name. “That dingy little bachelor apartment your father had there. A furnished room, and we slept on the pullout couch. Galley kitchen, with the table tucked into the L of the main room. Bathroom and showers down the hall. There was that couch you were made on and a desk in the corner.”

I was nine, Caroline’s exact age, when my mother told me this story. We were on the farm near Broken Head where I grew up, sitting in the dark kitchen (the west windows had been smashed in a hailstorm and Dad had boarded them over and left them that way) with the bright red walls. Vermilion, she called them. Her favourite colour. She kept pointing to the couch in the living room as if it were the very one she was talking about. I remember her bright red lipstick. Her lips were the same shape as Caroline’s.

“You happened in that apartment on that couch, and I remember the exact moment. I’ll never forget that orgasm. I was seventeen and it was my first and I’ve never had one like that since. He must’ve drunk just the right amount that day: not enough to make him useless; just enough to slow him down. It was like he flicked a switch I never knew was in me. It was like the top of my head come off. It blew me apart, and the sperm that was you had nothing between it and the egg.”

She ran her fingers through my hair. You mustn’t underestimate my mother, even though she dropped out of school to run away with my father. She was smart, and she wanted to make sure I knew things. She’d already long ago explained to me what an orgasm was. I’d asked her where babies came from, and she’d outlined the mechanics and started piling on vocabulary. Penis. Vagina. Copulation. Ejaculation. Reproduction. That was years before, and she was gradually layering on the details.

“That’s what an orgasm’s for in a woman. They’ve got an obvious purpose in a man. In a woman it’s not so obvious, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not purely for pleasure. Scientists have done studies, and they’ve found that a woman is much more likely to have a baby if she has an orgasm. It opens her up so wide. Not surprising. Unfortunately, Eisenhower, nothing’s ever purely for pleasure.”

I’ve spent most of my life imagining the scientists doing those studies. But I never became a scientist.

The principal did stay for coffee, even though she always tells me I make terrible coffee. She sat on an orange plastic chair, legs crossed at the knees, holding her chin in a professional way. Choppy came in smelling of the smoke he’d had in the alley and found her sitting on his chair, and even though he said he was just as happy turning over a pail and sitting on that, all of a sudden she had to go. When she was gone, Choppy sat where she’d been sitting, cleaning his fingernails with a jackknife and flashing me dark smiles.

“She wants you, boy. Why don’t you give it to her right down here in our cozy little room? Just hang a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on the door and I’ll leave you be.”

“She’s a married woman, Choppy.”

“What difference does that make? She’s bored with the husband. You saw him at Breakfast with Santa: any woman’d be bored. He’s gone a little thick around the middle and a little thin around the top. Gives her a bit of a thrill fantasizing about doing it with the caretaker, I’ll bet.”

“You’re the one fantasizing, Choppy.”

“I’m only thinking of you, boy. Going around day after day with that hangdog expression on your face. You make me want to cry. Anyone can see that all you need’s a little loving. The principal can sure see it, and she’s more than ready to give it to you.”

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, Choppy. Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

He picked his nose and eyed what he’d discovered. “The Bible’s got its place, maybe, but it’s not much good for getting your dick wet, is it? We’d better be getting back to work.” He stood up on his tiptoes and stretched his arms up to the ceiling.

“You remind me a bit of my father, Choppy.”

“Is that so? Well, Johnny my boy, you are more like a son to me than my own son, that bastard. You are indeed. And I’m sure your old man’s a fine, upstanding specimen of humanity.”

“Was,” I said. “He passed away.”

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry to hear that.”

I shrugged. “We were never that close.”

Caroline and I are closer in age than my father was to my mother. Mom was only eighteen and Jacob Froese was forty-two when I was born. It’s pronounced Froze, which is why I chose that name for myself. I call myself Jonathan Froze: I have all the official identification so that nobody will ever know Dwight Froese and Jonathan Froze ever occupied the same body.

Jacob Froese lost his left arm somewhere in Belgium. My mother told me that, and at first I wondered if we might ever go over there to look for it. I don’t know if it was a grenade or a shell or a very large bullet. He never talked about it. I watched him shred targets to test a new weapon he’d made, and I saw him kill a gopher a hundred yards away with a .22, but he never said much about the war. This once, I must have been eight, in the middle of supper he stopped chewing his steak and looked me in the eye and said, “At boot camp, there was this sign above the barracks door: Kill the Enemy.” Then he looked towards the window as if he’d been interrupted by a magpie shrieking out there and started chewing again.

Another time, they were screaming at each other and Mom’s nose was bleeding, and he grabbed me by the arm as he was marching out the door and shook me hard and said, “She was mine until you come along!”

He should have had a new prosthesis by the time I was a kid, but somebody or something warned him that the government would use monitoring equipment in the newfangled prosthetic to keep track of his movements, so he made do with the old one, making repairs of his own when anything went wrong. He was handy. He made guns in our basement on a metal lathe. I liked to watch him work, liked the smell of hot oil and smoking steel as I peered through the spaces between the basement stairs, the single light bulb dangling down on a wire above him glinting off the narrow ribbon of metal that lifted off as the cutter licked slowly down the length of the shaft. Periodically, to cool the cutter, he would squeeze a drop of oil from the can he held in his good hand. There was a big red button on the lathe that he pushed when he was finished, and when he pushed it, the lathe always stopped. I’d sneak down when his back was to me, but as the shaft slowed he’d turn and take off his safety glasses and stare through the darkness under the stairs straight into my eyes, and he’d say, “Red means stop.”

Unlike my mother, he wasn’t much of a talker, but this one time when he was drunk – more often than not, he was drunk – he told a very strange story.

“We were living in this fleabag apartment in Calgary, and I got this letter from a lawyer,” he said. My ears perked up because I knew he was talking about the apartment with the pullout couch my mother had told me about. He was telling the story to a friend of his named Chandler who was a gun dealer and bought the guns he made. I was hiding in the pots cupboard beside the fridge. Listening. There wasn’t any good reason to hide. I hadn’t done anything to piss him off that day, but if he’d found me he would’ve been mad enough to take his belt to me. I was only hiding because I knew he’d make me go out to the shop and sort bolts if he saw me. I guess I was also keen on hearing what he and Chandler talked about when they talked.

“Letter from this lawyer said my dad dropped dead of a heart attack and left me half a section of land. Didn’t know what to think: leaving me land when I had every reason to believe I’d been decently disowned. I was a bit suspicious. Greeks bearing gifts and all that.”

Chandler laughed. “Your dad weren’t no Greek: he was a damn Mennonite.”

“Mennonite preacher. So I couldn’t figure why he’d leave land to the boy he’d shunned. Hadn’t said more than two sentences to anyone in the family since the day I stole the horse and rode to Broken Head to join the army.”

“Oh, right. You Mennonites didn’t believe in going over there to kill other Krauts, did you?”

“Nothing to do with Krauts. Didn’t believe in killing the man who was holding the gun to their heads. Pacifists. Turn the other cheek and let him blow your brains to the far side of never mind.”

“But you were cut from a different cloth. Right, Jake? So you joined up. You want another splash?”

Chandler’d brought the whiskey they were sharing, and Dad must have nodded, because I heard him push back his chair and go to the fridge for more ice.

“So they shunned me. Not that I gave a damn. But I was sure thrown for a loop when I got that letter from the lawyer. Jumped in the truck and drove the six hours here to have a look at the place before I sold. Had no intention of keeping it. No desire to live here.”

“What changed your mind?”

Dad’s chair scraped back into place at the table, and I heard him strike a match to light a smoke. “Well, I came and took a look around. Walked through the pasture. Went for a swim in the creek. Skinny-dipping, like I remembered doing when I was a kid. Left my arm lying there on the bank. When I got out, I lay down on the ground stark naked and closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, my dad was standing over me, looking down into my eyes. He asked if I liked it.”

“What? Liked it? What are you saying? Who asked?”

“My dad.”

“I thought you said he was dead.”

“Yeah. But there he was, looking down at me, and he asked me if I liked the place, and I said I thought he was dead. ‘I’m not your father,’ he said to me. ‘I come to you in his form because my real form would strike you stone blind.’”

“Uh- huh?” Chandler said.

“‘Is that so?’ I said to him. ‘Who are you, then? Elvis Presley?’”

Chandler thought that was funny.

“He spat on the ground right beside my head where I’m lying there, just the way my dad would have done. Then you know what he said?”

“What did he say, Jake?”

“He said, ‘I am Yahweh.’”

“He’s who?”

“Yahweh. God. That’s God’s original name. He’s had a few, you know?”

“Really?” Chandler said. “Why does He keep changing it?”

“Dunno. Too many bad cheques. So I’m looking at his spit dripping down from a blade of the prairie wool, and I’m thinking, Is that really God’s spit? And so you know what I said to him?”

“What did you say to him?”

“Prove it.”

“Prove what?”

“I told him to prove he was God.”

Chandler coughed before he spoke. “You did? And what’d he do?”

“Well, he stepped on his own spit, right beside my head, so the toe of his boot was practically in my eye, and I’m staring at this scuff on the toe of his boot that’s shaped like a butterfly and I’m wondering if it’s going to turn into a real butterfly and flutter away, and then he said, ‘I’m not here to make miracles for you, Jacob Froese. I’m here to warn you that the son who’ll be born to you in three months will one day kill you.’”

I sat up straight and bumped my head against the top of the cupboard. Neither Dad nor Chandler spoke for a long time. I held my breath.

“Did you hear that?” Dad finally asked.

“Yeah, I heard. Eva was pregnant,” Chandler said. “That was Dwight he meant would kill ya?”

My name back then was Dwight. Not Jonathan. Not Eisenhower.

“That must have been who he meant,” Dad said. “That’s who was born three months later. ‘Your son who’s growing in that young prostitute,’ is what he said.”

“Dwight? He told you Dwight was going to kill you?”

“Yeah. And I stood up and asked him if that was his proof he was God. ‘That’s your proof you’re Yahweh?’ I said. But as I was standing, he was growing, so he was still looking down at me from way up above. He was smiling. I don’t remember my father ever smiling. His yellow teeth were showing. ‘If you want to take my warning as a miracle you can, but that’s the only miracle I’m giving you,’ he said.”

“Dwight?” Chandler said again.

“And I said to him, ‘You were always clucking on about God, but you were never before honest enough to admit you thought you were him.’”

“He said that Dwight was going to kill you?”

“And he said, ‘I’ve given you my warning, but you’re such a faithless fool, you won’t know it’s true until you’re dead.’ And he turned and walked away. I watched him for five whole minutes until he’d climbed out of the valley and disappeared over the horizon.”

Inside the dark of that cupboard, I saw God disappearing.

“Jesus, that’s one hell of a bad dream,” Chandler said. “But how did that dream make you decide to stay here?”

“Who says it was a dream? I was awake. It wasn’t a dream.” Chandler started coughing again, and then he started to laugh.

“Come on, Jake. You think it was real? You don’t really think it was real.”

“I don’t think. I know it was real. I was awake.”

Chandler’s laugh got a little more nervous. “So you moved here with Eva and had the kid and raised him? I don’t get it, Jake. Why would you do that if you thought it was real? If God told you the kid was going to kill you, why didn’t you flush him down the toilet the first chance you got? And why would knowing that make you move here? You said you didn’t even want to live here in the first place.”

I could hear Dad drumming the fingers of his good hand on the table.

“I’m not scared of God. I don’t even believe in God. That’s why I moved us here. How else was I gonna prove to him that I don’t believe in him?”

There was this long moment of silence where you could hear the birds singing outside, and then Chandler laughed so hard that after a while he started coughing again and it took him a long time to stop.

“Whatever you say, Jake. Whatever you say.”

I talked to Caroline’s nanny with the pierced nose out by the garbage bin after school today. Pretty young to be looking after her, but she seems nice enough. Not sure what Caroline’s mother’s thinking, putting her life in the hands of someone so young. Black hair, dark complexion. I thought she was Mexican, but apparently not. She told me Caroline had lost her red toque and wondered if she’d left it in the playground and if Choppy or I or one of the teachers might have picked it up and put it somewhere. I went into the school and looked through all the lost and found boxes, sifting mounds of smelly boots and shoes and coats and hats and dirty lunch kits. Couldn’t find it. What I did find was a sunhat I remembered her wearing the day I first saw her in September and a few days after that. I thought about taking that out to the nanny, but realized it wouldn’t be wise. I went and hung the sunhat on her hook in her empty classroom and went out and told her nanny I couldn’t find a red toque.

“Oh, fuck,” she said. She saw me flinch. “Excuse my French. Her mother always gets on my case when she loses something. She’s constantly losing her hats, and I’m constantly getting blamed. As if there was anything I could do about it. She doesn’t like wearing them, but her mother insists on jamming them on her head every morning as she’s going out the door. And then she tosses them off anywhere and I’m supposed to keep track of them and I’m the one who gets blamed when she loses them.”

“Maybe it’ll turn up. Her mother must be . . .” I didn’t know where to go with that, and she was standing there looking at me. “I guess I’ll have to make allowances for your French, considering you’re not even French,” I said.

“I am,” she said, without so much as a blink. “Nez Perce.” She gave a little tug to the ring in her nose.

I shrugged and scratched at a sudden itch on my own nose before I got embarrassed and dropped my hand.

“I have no idea what I am, really,” she said. “I was raised by foster parents. My mother was some variety of Indian, but she gave me up. After I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I always wanted to be Nez Perce. You heard of them?”

“Don’t believe I have,” I lied.

“They were this tribe from the west coast of the U.S. who had their land taken away and fought the cavalry halfway across the continent trying to join up with Sitting Bull in Canada to help overthrow the white invaders. But eventually the cavalry slaughtered most of them and they had to surrender. So I always wanted to be Nez Perce, even though my white foster parents were very good to me. Actually, Caroline’s parents are good to me too. I get paid better than any of these other nannies. But I still complain. I’m such an ungrateful little dirtbag.”

I shrugged and scratched my nose again. “I thought you were Mexican,” I said.

She looked at me like I was a bit of an idiot. “Shows what you know.”

She smiled a smile that showed me her crooked white teeth and walked away.

I took the Queen streetcar home after work, as usual. Home is a room above a barbershop on Queen East that I imagine isn’t much different from the apartment where I was conceived. I sleep on a pullout couch. The bathroom’s not in the hallway, though. There’s this desk I’m writing at in the corner by the kitchen. I have a computer they were throwing out at the school.

Caroline’s my daughter, and I wish I could be a real father to her. But I can’t even tell her who I am or how I feel about her because if I did they’d fire me and I couldn’t be close to her anymore. I’ve already missed too many years to allow that to happen again. I want to leave this account of myself so that she can read it someday when she’s old enough. I want her to know the truth about where and whom she comes from. There’s too much that her mother and her family wouldn’t want her to know. I’m afraid that otherwise she’ll never even know I existed.

I guess I’ll begin by telling about the day I killed her grandfather.

After I’d done it, I drove straight to Broken Head to tell the police. Past stubble fields bleached white by herbicide. No tillage. Poison and fertilizer instead of leaving the land fallow, the higher purpose supposedly to avoid disturbing the earth so it wouldn’t blow away, the real goal to squeeze a crop out of the soil every single year.

At the rural detachment of the RCMP, I pulled into the parking lot, walked inside and told the man behind the window that I had another death to report. Two officers came to question me, but all I’d tell them was that my father was dead. After taking me to the hospital, where a doctor looked at my ear and a nurse bandaged it, the police asked me to direct them back to where they’d find his body, and I did that well enough, though I had a feeling he’d be gone when we got there. He wasn’t. The flies were already at the blood and mess. I was glad that the day before I’d taken my mother straight to the hospital.

Even though I believed he’d killed her, I no longer felt the least bit of pleasure in his look of surprise.

Instead of arresting me, they asked me if I’d be willing to see a psychiatrist, and I said that I would. The psychiatrist asked me many questions about my mother and father and how they’d both died, and I told him everything I knew. He had me admitted to the psychiatric wing of the Broken Head Union Hospital. The police did not charge me immediately, as they said they needed to complete their investigation. These men were friendlier than they’d ever been before. It was because I’d killed my father. They didn’t like my father. I didn’t tell them anything about the duel because, when one of them asked me about the duelling pistols, another told me it might be better for me to talk to my lawyer before I answered, as if they didn’t want to hear what I might have to say. It was as though in the killing I had become my father, telling the story he’d told me just before I killed him, the story about how he’d been trained to kill over there in Europe – trained to seek out the movement of a man from a great distance and draw his crosshairs on that stranger’s chest or head and pull the trigger. And the policemen looked at my father’s body, with the bullet hole through the forehead and out the back of the head, and they nodded and said they understood. They showed more mercy to me than I had shown to him, my own father.

In the hospital, I had my own soap-green-walled room with a barred window. There were fluorescent lights and a single metal chair for visitors and a washroom by the door and my own personal officer outside to make sure I did not try to escape. It was very hot, and a pretty nurse put a fan in the room that blew a breeze at me. There was a woman next door who talked constantly, and so loudly, even when she was alone, that sometimes I wondered if she was speaking to me.

“Time to be a-goin’ home now. Frank’s waiting for me. Get his supper ready. Better be goin’. You’ve ben so nice. I like the soup. Good soup. Very good soup. Wonderful soup. I like the carrots too. Frank doesn’t like carrots, but I’ve always liked ’em, ever since I was little. Used to steal the carrots from Mom’s garden. And the peas. Nothing better than fresh peas right out of the pod. Oh, Mom was mad when she caught me. She paddled my bottom, she did. I really should get home. She’ll be very mad. Or, I mean, Frank will. Mom’s dead now. I know she’s dead now. I know that. I know my mother’s dead. I know that for sure.”

My ears rang. My father’s bullet had taken a large piece of the left one. The remains were bandaged so that when I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror I saw a veteran of some simple, perfect war. I believed Dad had killed my mother, and I had avenged her death and discovered that vengeance would not return her. She was gone and everything about her was gone, and no matter how much I expected her to walk through the door and take me in her arms, she would not be coming back. Sometimes the nurses came and gave me pills, which I took, and asked me questions nurses ask, like “Have you had a bowel movement today?”

The pills didn’t help the ringing in my ears, which was beginning to drive me insane. It wasn’t a long drive. I wished that, instead of going to the police, I’d got another of my father’s guns and put it in my mouth and pulled the trigger. How stupid to have given up that chance. Sometimes I imagined getting up and getting dressed and walking out of the room and past the guard and all the way to the farm and finding a suitable tool and finishing the job properly. I didn’t want to be locked up and forced to live out the rest of my miserable life.

Other times I wondered if it might not be so bad in jail. This hospital room with the barred window was not so good, but maybe I could learn to be happy in a cage, like those animals you see in the zoo that are watered and fed and care for nothing. I’d have plenty of time for reading Dostoevsky. The thought of the other prisoners worried me, but could it be any worse than high school?

Please try to understand. I believed my father was evil. I believed he’d killed my mother. I wouldn’t have killed him otherwise. I wouldn’t have left him lying there for the flies. Though flies are beautiful in their way: the iridescence of their wings. Like feathers and silk. And oil and gasoline. As a janitor, I’m not supposed to have any place in my heart for flies, but I can’t deny their beauty.

A man not all that much older than me who called himself my lawyer came to my room, shook my hand and sat down in the metal chair, with his briefcase resting on his knees. He said it was good to see me again. I didn’t admit that I had no recollection of ever having seen him before. He started asking me strange questions: “Are you sure that five minutes passed between when he shot you and when you shot him? Couldn’t you have been mistaken? Maybe it just seemed that long. Time seems to slow down at times like that.”

I gave him a long, steady look that made him squirm. “How would you have any idea what time does at times like that? It was five minutes. But how did you know it was five minutes?” I asked, and he looked at me through his Coke-bottle lenses.

“You told me,” he said. “You told me the whole story. I hope you didn’t say that to the police. Are you sure you didn’t tell the police?”

He had painfully combed hair and a smattering of acne on his forehead. When I didn’t answer, he looked even more worried. He wasn’t quite able to look me in the eye.

“The thing is, I have unfortunate news,” he continued. “Your mother’s death has been ruled an accident.” He looked out the window at the elm tree growing across the street before switching his gaze to the floor. There were bars on the window to make sure I didn’t jump out. Not just me: every person who’d ever been in that room had wanted to jump out that window. Even my lawyer wanted to jump out that window. “According to the autopsy report, she must have been standing on the bank of the river and fallen backwards and hit her head on a rock and drowned.”

“Creek,” I corrected him.

My lawyer cranked his eyebrows a notch higher.

“Fell into the creek,” I said.

He nodded. “Fell into the creek and hit her head and drowned.”

“What report?”

My lawyer opened his briefcase, as if to check his notes for the answer. “The autopsy report.”

“And how would they know what happened? Were they there?”

He handed me a few sheets of paper clipped together. “Here’s the report. You can read it over yourself, and you’ll see how they reached their conclusions. It’ll complicate things. But in the end, it doesn’t change the fact that you had good reason to believe your father had murdered your mother. That’s very important. And your injury is also very important. He tried to kill you.” My lawyer pointed to the bandage on my ear to show me what he meant.

I looked at the cover of the report. It was written by Dr. Andrew Irvine. I knew who he was. Everyone in Broken Head knew who he was. The father of a girl I had been in love with for many years and who mostly did not know I existed. The father of Caroline’s mother, Gloria Irvine.

“I want to talk to him,” I said. “I want to talk to Dr. Andrew Irvine.”

My lawyer looked puzzled. He smiled and nodded and stammered that he didn’t think that was possible.

“Of course it’s possible. Why wouldn’t it be possible?”

He shrugged his shoulders in a way that made me want to crush him into the floor and sweep him away. My lawyer had an unfortunate talent for making people want to crush him.

“Go and tell him I want to talk to him,” I said.

“He’s likely to be a witness for the prosecution. Professionally, he can’t . . .”

“Go and tell him. He must work here somewhere. Wherever they keep the bodies. In the basement?”

My lawyer said he’d speak to him. He closed his briefcase and shook my hand again, all the time looking at the food tray beside my table in a way that made me wonder if he was hungry. To be hungry for that congealed mess, he’d have to be a very hungry man. I suspect he was only trying to avoid my eyes. He said he’d see me again soon and hurried away.

That evening the door opened and Dr. Andrew Irvine walked in and sat down in the chair where my lawyer had sat. He didn’t speak. I was lying on my side, facing the door, but the light was out, so he might have thought I was sleeping. He wore a sleek black suit and a very sad expression. I even wondered if he might begin to cry. He sat looking at the fan in the corner panning slowly back and forth. From the next room, we could hear the woman talking, and Irvine tilted his head to listen.

“Emily, you’re a fool. Don’t know what to say to ya. I’d just as soon you was dead. We go on and on like this and nothing changes. Remember that dog? Daddy gave him to me for Christmas and he disappeared. Never knew what happened. Fell through the ice, maybe. That’s what Daddy thought, ’cause the last time he saw him he was chopping a hole in the ice for the cows to drink from. But it could have been coyotes too. They like eating dogs. They’ll eat anything. They’re hungry beasts.”

While we were listening, I raised myself on my elbow and looked Irvine in the eye.

“Hello, Dwight,” he said. “Andrew Irvine.”

He stood and offered his hand, and I pulled myself to a sitting position. It was a hand made for holding scalpels, with long fingers and soft skin. Nothing like Dad’s hand.

“My father killed her,” I said.


“You’ve made a mistake,” I said. “My father killed my mother.”

Irvine sighed and nodded as though considering what I’d said. “You don’t need to worry about the arrangements. I’ve handled things for both your mother and father. There’s a plot for them in Memorial Park, and they’ll share the same headstone. It’s not a large stone, but it’s very tasteful. I hope it’s okay I did that?”

Dr. Andrew Irvine was well known in Broken Head for his causes and general philanthropy. His donations and acts of grace and brotherhood. What I mean is, he was a churchgoing man and famous for his Christian charity. I was flooded with a terrible shame that I had not even considered my parents’ final arrangements.

“My father wanted to be burned,” I said. “He told me that. He didn’t tell me much, but he once asked to be burned. They shouldn’t be buried together. He killed her.”

The woman next door interrupted. “A pretty little dog. Black and white.”

Irvine looked away from me, listening to her voice.

“She’s talking to herself,” I told him. “She’s all alone.”

“Yes,” Irvine nodded. He lowered himself once more into the metal chair. “I understand how you feel right now, but I think that in time you’ll be glad they’re together. Your father didn’t kill your mother. It was an accident. I hope you’ll forgive me for making the arrangements without consulting you first. Of course, if your father expressed other wishes – if you want it done differently, there’s still time. The funeral, as they’ve told you, will be tomorrow. You’ll want to be there.”

No one had told me, or if they had I didn’t remember.

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to be there. My mother’s gone. It doesn’t matter where she’s buried. Even with him. But you’re wrong. He killed her. That’s the important thing. I want that straightened out.”

“That’s not what you told the police when you brought her body here. That’s not how it appears.”

“I didn’t want the police to arrest him. I wanted him for myself. I’m telling you, my father killed her.”

He put his hand over his mouth before he let it drop to his lap. “I understand your insistence, but I also think you need to know it isn’t true.”

“What makes you so sure it was an accident?”

He studied me through the gloom of the room, the fan ruffling his hair as it pivoted in his direction.

“I shouldn’t tell you this. I’m not supposed to be talking to you at all. Do you understand that?” I nodded, though I didn’t understand. He looked towards the door and leaned forward and whispered, “The contusion was caused by a stationary blow: her head hit the object and not the other way around. She wasn’t struck. There’s no sign of a struggle. There was only one other sign of trauma, which was to her right leg. It indicates that she stepped into a hole, fell backwards into the creek and struck her head on a stone. A badger hole. I went out with the police, and we searched upstream from where you found her, and we found the hole and the stone with traces of her blood on it. The stone was below a steep embankment, and it was just big enough that the tip was above the surface of the water, and there were traces of her blood. I took samples. And her lungs indicate that she was unconscious when she drowned.” He looked away. “She fell and hit her head and drowned. Your father had nothing to do with it. I’m sorry.”

I stared at him until he crossed his legs.

“Did you see something?” he asked.

“How do you know my father didn’t push her?”

He gave me a long look and cleared his throat before speaking. “You saw your father do this?”

“I heard him threaten her many times. I know he did it.”

“Did your father tell you he killed her?”

“No. He didn’t tell me anything. He never told me anything.”

He sighed and nodded. “Your mother fell. Her death was an accident. You should be at their funerals tomorrow.”

He closed his mouth and stared at the floor, and I became all too aware of the ringing in my ear.

“An accident,” I said. “Could have happened to anyone.”

He held his silence for another moment, looking at me strangely – looking as if he were a little afraid of me. “Yes. It was an act of God.” He reached up and rubbed one of his temples with his fingertips.

“God? God? And where does that leave me?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I had to kill my father to avenge my mother’s death. If she died by an act of God, where does that leave me?”

“Avenge? I see. I’m sorry. I’m not sure. I can’t answer that. I accept that you did what you did because you believed your father was guilty. But it was not for you to judge or seek vengeance. And I can’t tell a judge or jury that your father was guilty. Maybe he was guilty of other things, but not of your mother’s death. I suppose you mean legally? Where does that leave you legally? I really don’t . . . I can’t say your father was guilty. I know that he wasn’t.”

Abruptly, I swung my legs over the side of the bed. He flinched, and the police officer was immediately on his feet and standing in the doorway.

“You say it was an act of God. So where does that leave me?”

Irvine turned to the police officer and nodded, and the police officer looked me sternly in the eye and disappeared from sight. Irvine stood and closed the door. “As I said, I’m not a lawyer. But I do think perhaps we should find you a better lawyer. I’m already looking into that.”

“What does a lawyer have to do with it? Where does it leave me with God?”

Again his nod, as if he were expecting all along for me to say just this. “You could pray.”

“Pray? You tell me God killed my mother. Why would I want to pray to Him?”

He stopped nodding. “You’re on the wrong path,” he said. “God doesn’t murder. It isn’t for us to understand the acts of God. And certainly it’s not for us to judge them. That’s pride. Not that I don’t understand what you’re feeling. I’m a proud man too, and sometimes it feels to me that God isn’t just. I have the same kind of thoughts myself every single day. Believe me. But you have to accept that there are reasons beyond our understanding for God’s actions. You should be there with your parents tomorrow. If you can’t pray, would you allow me to pray for you?”

“No. He killed my mother. God killed my mother.”

He looked away, and I wanted him to meet my eyes, but he wouldn’t.

“My father’s death was an act of God too. Did you know that? Before I was even born, God came to my father and told him I’d kill him. I had no choice. God set me up to kill my father.”

Irvine coughed and looked up at the ceiling. “You should be at the funeral,” he said.

“No,” I said. “How can I?”

“Just ask the Lord’s forgiveness and go.”

“Not until He asks for my forgiveness.”

“He already has. He died for you and was born again.”

I pulled myself up straight again to look him in the eye. “Good. Then tell God I don’t forgive Him. How could I possibly pray to such a disgusting . . . “”

His eyes shamed me enough that I did not finish the sentence. He shook his head. “I’ll have that lawyer come to see you as soon as possible.”

He pulled himself to his feet, nodded once and walked out the door without looking back. The fan swivelled to watch him go.

On that day, I was forced to consider the possibility that my father had not killed my mother. I didn’t want to believe it, but Dr. Andrew Irvine poured some small drop of faith into my ear. God pointed His finger at me and stuck it through my heart. I thought of my father once telling me I was special in some way, and I saw that this was what he had foreseen. He knew I had been chosen. He’d done his best to refuse to believe in God, but what good had it done him?

I slept all the next day. They didn’t wake me for the funeral. Nobody but Irvine really wanted me there anyway. How could I go and let everyone watch me make a spectacle of myself saying goodbye to the father I’d killed? I told myself that they were parting together and heading in opposite directions: my mother to heaven and my father to hell.

Very likely there wouldn’t have been many to watch me if I had gone. My parents were likely almost alone as they were lowered into the ground. Who would have gone to be there with them? Those whose duty it was to be there: a minister, one or two representatives from the funeral home. And maybe Irvine.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Walt Whitman's Secret

Walt Whitman's Secret

A Novel
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I never saw the man whose spirit-child I became when he didn’t actively appear to be dying. He was a person who, for all the emphasis he placed on vigor and robust manliness, started his decline early and continued on the downward path during all the time I sat with him and listened and asked him to teach me. His descent into death was especially rapid during his final three and a half years, when I was preserving a record of his conversation. What I am about to say might seem cold-hearted to anyone else who might read these lines, but I know that you, dear Flora, will comprehend my message with the perfect and honest clarity for which you are known. The simple fact is that W was growing thinner and more feeble at the same rate as my manuscript of his table-talk (bed-talk might be a better term) got thicker, meatier and stronger— as though all things in the Universe were suddenly in balance.
I was not yet fifteen years of age when my father, Maurice Traubel, a lithographer and engraver with his own little shop, told me that a famous poet, a great man, had come to live in Camden and that we should be proud to have him in our city. My mother, Katherine, a native of Philadelphia across the river, had renounced the Christianity in which she had been reared, then married a Jew who himself had repudiated Judaism some time earlier. For Father had no special affection for the ways of the Hebrews back in Frankfurt or here in America. “Why should I be permitted to do one day the same acts I am then forbidden on another?” he would say. “I see no rational sense in it, and I reject it.” He did not wish to be considered a German in the new land any more than he had wished to be thought of as a Jew in the old one. This attitude became part of my inheritance from him, though I was of course not considered a Jew because Mother wasn’t one. Unlike most people, I recognize the revision of one’s personal history as the necessary removal of an obstacle that cannot be overcome by other means. The longer I live, and as you know, I am approaching the end of the process, the more I discover how much I have resembled my father even while I was struggling to become like W instead.
The idea of a famous American poet, the most American one of all, as many said, right in our midst filled Father with admiration, for he never lost that love of art and learning that is supposed to be a traditional and some say almost mandatory part of Jewish life. In that spirit, he took me with him to pay our respects at the house at 322 Stevens Street. This was the home of George Whitman, W’s younger brother by ten years, the one who had fought in the war of secession and suffered a wound, and who now earned his living manufacturing pipe.
W, who was to become the other half of my life, was seated in the parlor, wearing a comfortable suit of clothes. His shirt was open at the throat. His vest had rolled lapels, and an inexpensive watch chain, with no fob, stretched across one side. He had a sensitive mouth and a generous portion of nose, and his hair had retreated most of the way back, giving him a forehead like a cupola on some large public building. His white beard, though wispy in spots, was also long and fully shaped, obscuring the exact outline of the face beneath. He had the habit of combing his whiskers with his fingers as he spoke. His complexion was slightly pink, like a certain type of sea-shell, suggesting a level of health that in fact he could no longer claim to possess. He seemed impossibly old to me then, an antediluvian figure, some ancient god speaking with the authority of long and everlasting experience. In truth, he was fifty-four. Now that I myself am not much older than that, I understand all too well how illness can cause one to fade so quickly and prematurely, though his ill-health differed from my own. My own disease is knowable; it can be circumscribed. His could not be understood or even defined, not until the post-mortem examination that I attended almost two decades later.
Father asked W how he was faring.
“Middling, middling,” he said, without real conviction and certainly without the sincere optimism he was to project in later times, worse times. “The left leg’s gimpy.” He stretched it out straight, then bent over and patted it once, treating it like a faithful dog. “The arm, not so bad.” His speech was clear, unaffected by the episode that had taken place in his brain. It was one of those strong voices but was nonetheless soft and well modulated, rather than rough or raucous. He told Father that he was inclined to dizziness now whenever he rose, however slowly, though the problem was less acute when getting to his feet from a seated posture than from either a prone or a supine one. “The blood settles in pools,” he said, “like petroleum collecting in the Earth.” The words are exact, though of course they were uttered a number of years before I began to write down everything he said to me. Well, almost everything.
Looking back, I know he enjoyed our visit, the first of so many, because my family had come from Europe. W was infatuated with the idea of people forsaking the Old World with its timeless animosities and systems of tribute and packing up for America where they could fill their lungs with oxygen and make their own way without assistance or impediment. That Father respected the rôle of the writer was another attribute in the eyes of W, for he felt that he was an outcast among the literary personages of his own country, as on the evidence he often had been and to a certain extent continued to be. The fact that Father was a part of the printing trades also counted for a great deal. To W, writing and printing were two ends of the same stick, a connection not to be broken but rather to be celebrated. Most of all, he enjoyed having visitors. It seemed to me, in what is called the egoism of youth, that he was especially welcoming to me right from the beginning.
When I quit school, he said to me, “You have wisdom far beyond your few years to have done so,” adding: “I was a schoolmaster myself once upon a time, on Long Island, and I know the deleterious effects of school upon young noggins.” Soon afterward, when I told him that I was learning how to set type, he smiled warmly, knowing that I was aware how he himself had helped set up the first edition of Leaves after he had amputated his own formal education. Soon I was work ing in the job shop of the Camden Evening Visitor and indeed had become its foreman, promoted to the position when I was only sixteen (though I confess that the Visitor was hardly a big enterprise nor commercial printing its largest component by any means, to say nothing of the fact that the wages were not enough to have lured a married man).
W often remembered autobiographical details divorced from their place in the sequence of living. Perhaps he had been this way even before the stroke of Seventy-three, I don’t know. Only in later years did I feel that I had a full command of what he had done and where he had been at particular times and of just generally how everything fitted together. At first I was aided in this process by The Good Gray Poet, which his friend O’Connor wrote in 1866, the year after the war, to protest W’s dismissal from his clerkship at the Interior Department in Washington for having promoted immorality in the immortal Leaves. Ultimately, though, the knowledge, the understanding, the knowing, came to me slowly, grew inside me as I spent so many hours, days and weeks— years almost, if one were to string together all the time continuously— listening to him talk. W was by way of being a professional talker. I, by contrast, was his own professional listener.
When he was living on Stevens, I would make a point of stopping by after work, especially on warm sunny days that I knew might find him sitting on the front stoop. Then we would talk about books on and on. I was of the tender age at which we self-educators have a dire thirst for reading, one that cannot be entirely slaked except perhaps by decrepit maturity. I was happy to take in literary chat, which he could spool out hour upon hour, pleased to have his opinions regarded with such enthusiasm. For as I was not merely becoming self-educated but self-radicalized as well, my ears received with some satisfaction much of what he had to say. Unfortunately, I kept not even a simple diary in those early days, yet I recall a good many of his revelations and pronouncements, for they showed me that we were (or so I thought at the time) members of the same political congregation.
He said, for instance: “The persons who are interested in poetry alone, estranged from most other forms of useful expression, cannot explain why Homer and Virgil are as much different as they are alike. They can’t see how the one man was moved to song while the other set out, with utmost calculation, determined to sing, the feelings of the heart be damned.” Such utterances were part of W’s more general dislike of the literary professors and literary professionals, a subject that could, paradoxically, occasionally drive his pronouncements somewhat beyond the limits of what he actually knew to be true. I once heard him say that he hated polite literature the same way Generals Grant and Sherman had hated warfare: because it was Hell. But the metaphor he chose required some clarification. So he launched into a kind of oral post-scriptum. “Unlike Grant, I am not a West Pointer,” he explained. “That is, not the literary equivalent of a West Pointer. I have received no commission for I am not of the officer class, nor could I ever have become so. I have risen through the ranks to whatever small position I now possess (or possesses me).”
He said more than once that he favored books that were small enough for workingmen to tuck into their pockets (though this was not a principle of book manufacture he adhered to with respect to the immortal Leaves). Lately I have been remembering one of his bookthoughts in particular. It is his observation that as people get older, they can no longer stomach Shelley’s romantic idealism, but nod in agreement with that poet’s dislike of biography and history, knowing now that he was correct in thinking such books a bunch of bunkum.
He always said that I brightened his day. I see now, as I did not at the time, the extent to which the first crippling event in his brain, back in Washington, had harrowed his spirits. His mother was ill as well, and was living with his brother George and his wife in Camden. Her death, only four or five months after W’s medical misadventure, might easily have propelled another such sensitive person into a deep crater of gloom. He was sorely tested all right, but he did not stumble into the darkness. It was at this time, finding himself first lame and then motherless, that he gave up Washington and moved in with George and his family, occupying his mother’s former room. He was careful to leave everything just as she had last seen it. He slept in the bed in which she had died, under the same bed linens. These events were playing themselves out around the time of our first meeting. But other than noting his halting step, I knew little about his physical state, and not one whit about his emotional one.
Strange to say, it was as a result of another death in the always troubled and tragic Whitman family that our friendship achieved its next plateau. One of his nephews had died, Walter by name, called so not after his uncle but rather his grandfather. He was under one year in age. Such a tiny coffin to be sealed up in the ground that way, a thought that came back to me, twenty years ago now, when Anne’s and my second child, born the year after our Gertrude whom you know, succumbed to the scarlet fever, months shy of his fifth birthday.
W didn’t look especially frail at Walter’s graveside service, though he walked with difficulty, like a ship listing slightly to port. I stood behind him in the small knot of mourners. He removed his old sloucher and held it in front of him with both hands as they also gripped the handle of his cane. He was in the same clothes he always seemed to be wearing. His bald head, which I had not seen from that perspective before, was like an old globe from which the continents had been erased. The service over, I expressed my condolences. Despite the melancholic nature of the event, he seemed, as usual, gladdened to see me.
“Horace, my boy, you must tell me how you’ve been keeping.” His shoulders were stooped and his gait hindered, awkward and a bit unsteady, but his eyes were full of vitality. “I am having a rough passage these past few months, these past few years in fact. News of your doings would well right the balance.”
I had no news to convey other than that I was leaving the Visitor to go to work with Father. He understood what I would gain by such a move as well as what I would be losing.
“I never regretted the time I spent on the papers,” he said. “The best training there can be for a writer, in my view. Teaches you concision and sharpness. I had an excellent sit on the Eagle.” He was referring to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle,which he conducted in the late forties. “You learn not to waste words, or ideas either. Everything gets used up properly, like the wood in a stove that’s drawing well. It produces heat and leaves pure ash, no cinders, no clinkers, but only stuff that can have other uses later.”
In time, I would come to understand that he parted company with the proprietors of the Eagle in an editorial difference of opinion, having turned the paper into a Free-Soil organ, fighting against the spread of slavery in the West as the territories acquired statehood. Yet later still I learned that during these early years of my acquaintance with him, he was at hazard with his former friend O’Connor over the matter of rights for the freed male Negroes. W did not feel they were yet ready to enjoy the electoral franchise. The issue was complicated to an extent young people to-day, and especially perhaps all you Canadians and those in the other places where slavery had a far shorter history, cannot warrant. Even I, simply by reason of being his junior by four decades, could not always locate the cognitive bridgework I needed to understand how the nation’s heart had been turned topsy-turvy. W was known to have once supported the theory that the black race would disappear eventually as a result of Evolution. As difficult as it may be for us to grasp, this view was regarded in its day as progressive by certain of the white intelligentsia. Nonetheless, I came to the view that W was more of a champion of the Negroes in theory than in actual practice.
When he quit the Eagle, W put out a little paper of his own in Brooklyn, then at the theater one evening, for W was an avid admirer of plays and especially of the opera, he met the proprietor of a New Orleans sheet, the Daily Crescent, and went down there to work along with his younger brother Jeff, though he did not remain too long there either. He was too sympathetic to abolitionism for Southern tastes, as in the North he was often too compliant with the slavery scourge to suit any but those who were ultraists on the subject. “Be radical,” I used to hear him say, “but not too radical.”
We differed as much as I dared. Often in the years ahead, I would attempt to nudge him toward Socialist Revolution, but he would have none of it. He used to say that he loved agitation but not agitators. He refused to hear strong unvarnished opinions that were at hazard with his own. He ever denied that the love of the People in his poems was connected to the political side of life. “But how can you have the one without the other?” I would ask. He would not answer directly. When confronted with a difficult rhetorical challenge, he would retreat into poetry, or the poetry of his conversation at least.
In any case, he had seen slavery with his own eyes along the Mississippi, he said, and I had not. When Socialism triumphs, I would remind him, whites and Negroes shall be as one, without distinction between the one and the other. I could convince him of nothing. He would alter the course of the conversation in a most easy natural way. “The Creole women of New Orleans!” he said to me on one occasion. “How they can make a young man’s mercury rise in the tube!” He sometimes told inquisitive literary admirers, especially those from outside the United States, that he had fathered six children out of wedlock in his time. I was correct in scarcely being able to believe this true.
Leaving the funeral service for little Walter, we talked as we walked, with me keeping my stride deliberately short so that our steps would be in harmony. I left him at the spot where Fifth and Stevens intersect, where he said he would get the horse-car. Riding the cars always had been a favorite diversion of his, but now it was a sad necessity as well.
Later that day, I had to cross over to Philadelphia. Coming back, I saw W on one of the hard benches of the ferry, resting his clasped hands on the handle of his cane, enjoying the river air and the other passengers’ evident health and abundant liveliness. W was even fonder of ferries than he was of the horse-cars, and could rhapsodize about locomotives as well. He said that each ferry had its own distinct personality and that his favorites were the Wenonah and the Beverly, though as a lifelong Camdenite I could see no difference between them at all and now cannot remember which one we were aboard. What I recall, rather, is an elderly Negro flower-seller who had evidently been unsuccessful in the city and was returning with visible dejection to the Jersey side with her stock of unsold blooms. I bought them all, for they were offered at distressed prices, and presented the entire bouquet to W. As I did so, I thought that I was probably being forward, and would be seen by him and anyone who was watching as a silly young man; but W pronounced himself delighted, and the worry fell from my countenance. He bade me sit with him as we chugged across the Delaware. We talked until interrupted by the sudden cessation of forward momentum and the reassuring clicks of the ratchet wheel as it swung the landing stage up flush with the deck and the passengers began to form a line, eager to return to their homes.
As we hobbled through Camden with our backs to the river, W suddenly said, “Spring emancipates me.” He certainly always seemed or acted much younger in Spring than he had in the Autumn and Winter months preceding, as though the clock were running backward temporarily; but this may be true for all of us, especially those who are not entirely well. At such times W enjoyed watching games of baseball. He and I would sit on the unforgiving seats and become part of the crowd. “It is fitting and inevitable that our national game should have taken root during the war,” he said. “It was played by the boys of both armies, you know. Another of those little proofs that the fight was not between two different peoples, as some charged in the excesses and weariness of the moment, but between siblings who had loved one another once and would do so again.” He saw the essential democracy of the game of course, and watched attentively as the players bantered among themselves and every so often emitted little bursts of motion, and emotion. “To be out in the open air, in the free open air with the breeze on your skin, watching young comrades enjoying manly pursuits, is second only to being such a young comradely fellow yourself once more.” He said this with enthusiasm and without remorse at the passing of time, though everything in its way reminded him of the past. At one ball game he returned to the connection, one that existed in his own mind at least, between the game and the war. “When I look out upon such vigor and virtue,” he said, “I’m reminded of all the boys in Washington back then.” During the war, he meant. Uniquely so for a poet of his day, he made the war and its immediate aftermath the central experience of his life and his later writings.
Of course, Flora, you, like all good members of the Whitman Fellowship, both on this continent and abroad, know the outlines of how the war years came to define him, internally and publicly. But as legend tends to abrade the subtleties, permit me to recapitulate what took place.
George Whitman, a stolid and conventional fellow, devoid of politics and parsimonious with words, had joined a Brooklyn regiment in the first flush of wartime zeal, and after the slaughter at Fredericksburg was listed in the papers as among the wounded. W gave up his life in New York to go to Washington in search of him, know ing that the wounded were sent to the capital for treatment whenever possible. As it happened, George had only a slight wound to one ear. W remained in the city, however, eking out a spare living as a government clerk and copyist while volunteering in the hospitals—visiting “my boys” as he called them, bringing them sweets and small necessities, writ ing letters for the illiterate ones and those who had lost their hands, reading letters to those who did not know how to read to begin with or had been blinded in battle— cheering them, listening to them, giving them his affection, trying to make their young lives a bit less miserable, taking only their regard in return. Apart from the immortal Leaves, this was the most meaningful work of his life: such is what I sensed he believed. Who are we to contradict him?
To someone such as myself, born just as the pot of politics was about to boil over as war, such stories were remote yet compelling. It was hard to credit that such things actually took place when I was conscious on Earth, that such momentous events and such tumult were coming to pass as I pursued my childish games, oblivious to them (though I do remember the blue stream of soldiers flowing down the streets of Camden).
As you might suppose was almost inevitable given the attacks on Leaves and its author by moralizers and other censorious public men, W was as notorious in Camden as he was in the wider universe, and for all the same reasons. Had he not written, and then kept expanding, what so many considered an immoral book? The stories of his dismissal from small positions in government offices had brought his name before those who otherwise would never have opened Leaves and would not have comprehended a word of it had they done so. For every person who boasted of making his acquaintance, there appeared to be thousands who spoke of him in dire Christian whispers. My parents’ neighbors, including some who were no doubt well-meaning, though most were malicious gossips, insisted on calling Mother’s attention to my friendship with such a “lecherous old man.” To her credit, Mother was alarmed only to the extent she thought was expected of her. Father, predictably, reacted in a similar fashion, and I, thus reassured on this point, privately enjoyed my association with W in a new and additional way.
When I reported some of these conversations to W, couching them in the least accusatory language of course, he replied with what I thought was practiced and perhaps not totally sincere sadness. “I am a prophet without honor in my own land, or indeed in any other.” In truth, this was hardly the case. Later, as we began to spend ever more time together once he moved into his own place at last and I came by almost every evening to check on him, I got to know about the large following of admirers he had on the European continent and in England— and of course in Canada, England’s loyal puppet. They appeared, many of them, to find in Leaves the qualities admired by readers here in America but also those that enraged petty officials and set the tongues of women to wagging over board fences in the back lanes of such places as Camden, New Jersey. Certain English adherents, brothers in the literary arts, were especially persistent in quizzing W about what they perceived as the real meaning of the many references, particularly of course in the “Calamus” section of Leaves, to adhesiveness between men. W always ignored or denied their suggestions.
In a way, I understand the frustrations they must have felt, because for my part, remember, I was never able to get him to own up to being the Socialist he obviously was in Leaves and other works and indeed in some of his actions as well. As he did not read German, W might be forgiven his unfamiliarity with certain texts, though translations of the major ones were available freely. Nor could I get him to discuss the English Socialist writers. He and I talked about books constantly, but the two subjects, politics and writing, never inclined toward becoming one, as I wished. He would tell me of his abiding affection for Emerson, who had done so much to ensure his early success. He talked of Tennyson and of his American opposite numbers whose faces are on the wall of every American schoolroom. But I could never get him to entertain the merits of the great William Morris or Edward Bellamy. Ruskin, being a strict moralist as well as a Socialist and, I admit, a stupefying writer of prose, was out of the question. So too was our own Socialist press here in America. It was as though the fiery abolitionist of the exciting antebellum days had lost his appetite for political theories after the exhaustion of the war itself, which had broken his health as surely as it had done that of soldiers invalided out with some camp fever of whose effects they would never be fully shed.
In short, whenever I would read the immortal Leaves, I saw the soul of a Socialist. W, however, would not admit the truth of my perception but only would gainsay it, almost vehemently at times, just as he did the inferences of those literary dandies in England and other places who, in reading the magnificent poems, perceived a philosophical connection to the ancient Hellenic civilization. In time, I came to believe that he was keeping a crucial secret from the world. My theory was correct, but I long misunderstood just what the secret was.
You know the rest of the story as well. How, after he had gone through periods of rising sap and ones of falling leaves, he settled into Mickle Street early in Eighty-four, preparing for his long slow descent. He bought the place for $1,750, the amount of his royalties from recent years plus a five-hundred-dollar loan from his publisher friend George Childs, one of the people who always seemed to turn up at crucial moments to help him through crises (as when he came to the rescue W’s first day in Washington when someone picked the newcomer’s pocket). And of course you know how, two years later, I determined to preserve W’s conversation for posterity— and his papers as well. You see the results in the first three fat volumes of With Walt Whitman in Camden, the only ones for which I have thus far managed, with difficulty, to find publishers. I began accumulating an enormous mass of material: scraps of manuscript and copy, discarded proof sheets, letters and postals he had received, and drafts and sometimes even duplicate fair copies of some that he sent. In the years when he was bedfast and I served as his legs as well as his eyes and ears, I added greatly to the purely literary part of this devoir as I dashed about on our printing and publishing errands, preparing his works in prose as well as verse and overseeing manufacture of the books themselves.
Along with money gifts from admirers and friends, W lived, modestly but never in want, by the sales of his books and his contributions to the newspapers and magazines. He took delight in filling orders for single copies that arrived in the morning mail, wrapping and addressing them for me to take to the post office. “I am like the smith at his forge,” he said. At other times he used the metaphor of the mechanic, the house builder (which he once had been, briefly and long ago) or the small freeholder.
When I went on with my own life’s work, I fancied that I knew more about W than anyone else living except the man himself, but some of the most important pieces of understanding came to me only when he was on the very verge of death. If I could, I would make adjustments to the first three published volumes, but of course I do not have the privilege that W enjoyed of tinkering with and refining books once they had appeared, so great was the difficulty of getting them published in the first place. Even if I could do so, I no longer have the life-energy for such a task. It is all I can do to set down these reminiscences for you to read once I am gone.
Some of the notes and documents I collected and recollections I pried out of others increased my understanding only after I had reflected upon them more deeply. I had sorted through them to make the works you have there on your bookshelf. For example, when I saw W at his little nephew’s funeral, I failed to comprehend that this was only the latest blow of many, what the French call a coup. It was as though it epitomized his relations with his family, which were all about love and loss. To be sure, it helped to show me, as I cogitated on the subject over time, how he must have felt to be living in Camden. To me, it is home and always has been. I have traveled the world in Camden, and have been happy to do so. W was of Mannahatta, as he called it, believing this to have been the usage favored by the original Red Indians there. From the farmland of Long Island as a youth and from the unceasing commerce of Brooklyn when he was a young man, he looked westward to Mannahatta, finally sojourning there with the unspoken intention to remain forever, until the war took him to Washington, with its government offices full of stifled air and its improvised hospitals reeking of horror and the aftermath of horror. He suggested to me many times that the lights of the capital were extinguished forever when President Lincoln was killed. His own began to dim thereafter. And when, later, the man who tended to the needs of the sick became one of the sick himself, he was initially drawn to Philadelphia, a stuffy place as he first believed and later knew it to be, and then just across the river to the family he was reluctant to let know him thoroughly but perhaps felt that he should do so now, given the circumstances— yet could not, not quite.
So the shrinking of his world is what brought him to Camden, a trick of fate for which I am so grateful, as I do not know what purpose I would have discovered in life unassisted by his ready example—that is, other than the cause of Socialist Revolution. Just as once, back in Brooklyn, his great heart had ached for Mannahatta to the west, visible on even the wettest, foulest day and attainable by the simplest ride on the ferry, so it was once more, down here. Philadelphia, on the western bank, is in similar relation to Camden on the eastern, two hemispheres, you might say, linked by ferries waddling back and forth like ducks both day and night. The difference was that Philadelphia was no Mannahatta. The view did not inspire his imagination; it merely reminded him of youth and health, both gone. Sometimes he spoke of the period immediately before Mickle Street as his Indian Summer, and I am glad he had one last warm spell before the Winter of his life began to blow. But we know that Indian Summer is an aberration. There is something artificial about it. It teases us with its tragic impermanence.
Old Philadelphia, believing itself to be the world’s example of dignified commerce and exemplary probity in all matters, has twice held the world’s complete attention: in 1776 of course, and again in 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition, a period when W and I saw a good bit of each other. I guess that you would have been a young schoolgirl then and might not recall that Seventy-six was a presidential election year as well, the time of the great Tilden and Blaine controversy. I responded acutely to such matters, because I was now the Philadelphia correspondent of one of the Boston papers, earning a bit from my strings even at space rates. W, of course, was losing interest in elections as proofs of the democratic spectacle. I could not convince him to participate actively, much less take a glance at the writ ings of such people as Charles Bradlaugh, the Socialist parliamentarian over in England. He did read the papers, all of them in fact, and would sometimes respond to faraway events in poetry, as with his poem about the death of Custer (who did not seem much of a hero to me, but I demurred). I suppose he sometimes must have felt himself to be a bit like Custer, for only a short time had elapsed since he had once again been surrounded by hostile critics and publicists intent on massacring his poems. So in Seventy-six he whooped right back at them and rushed out a new edition (the sixth) of the immortal Leaves. He also published a combined work of poetry together with prose pieces, most of which had been in type before but were reappearing in different clothing. The new stock of Leaves was printed for him at the job office of the Camden New Republic. He attended at its birth there, careful to engage and reward the midwifery of the pressman, the binder and even the printer’s devil. These were courtesies I later had to observe on his behalf.
The controversy about the supposed indecency of Leaves seems only to have flared up again with the so-called Centennial Edition but did much to enlarge interest in his work, especially in England, where many literary fellows defended him with public praise or wrote to him privately in support as they subscribed to the books. I say “fellows,” but there was at least one formidable woman amongst them: Missus Gilchrist. She was determined to immigrate to our shores so she could become W’s friend in person rather than by post. I think W was as much alarmed as flattered at the prospect of a woman crossing the ocean for his favor. She took passage anyway, bringing along her husband and two children and staying for about three years, setting up a sequence of households that W would visit, sometimes for months. In the fullness of time, the son became an artist and returned to America on his own, once painting a picture of W and his mother having tea together. The daughter, however, disliked W from the outset, believing he was a publicity-seeker, deluded by vanity. The aversion was mutual.
When I say that I eventually came to understand a part of W not visible to the generality of acquaintances, either on the page or in the flesh, I take into account the complex nature of some of his friendships, for W was an enthusiastic and considerate friend to those whose lives he took it upon himself to share and help protect. For example, Mister and Missus Stafford tenanted a farm south of the city. W enjoyed their company and especially that of their young son Harry, whom he took under his wing and sometimes called his honorary nephew. W believed the country air at the Staffords’ beneficial to his health, as was evidently the case, though when his real-life nieces (the daughters of his brother Jeff ) visited and he took them to the Exposition, he had to borrow a new device: a wheelingchair, as people called it then. Later we needed to acquire one of his own. It had a wicker seat. At first he could propel himself by slowly spinning its two big wheels in such a manner as to strengthen his by then sunken chest. Later he required the assistance of pushers, including former patients in the soldiers’ hospitals, the Stafford boy  (who always wore a gold ring W had given him), a sequence of paid nurses and of course yours truly. The various parts I played in his life made me realize eventually that I must leave off lithographic work and find some sensible and unfulfilling position that would be regular as to wages and hours and thus, by its very rigidity, allow me the freedom to carry out my real job in life, one that carried no lofty title, or any title at all, and was made up of assisting the great man in any way that might arise.

From the Hardcover edition.

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