Flight into Snow
That word flight . . . I wonder about that word, and why I used it. It came to me, and it sounded and looked all right, and seemed to express something I felt about this trip to Provincetown. But, considering it, there seemed to be something wrong about it, and I found that there was an implication of running away, or escaping. That was not true in any sense, and I was puzzled, as one finds in writing that the spontaneous word or sentence, coming without conscious thought, is often the right or true one.
Thinking about it, and how we both felt at the time, I realized that the word itself, "flight" had another meaning; the flight that has purpose—such as birds make in migration, or the sea gulls winging against the wind and sleet, beating their wings to get back to shore. So, let it stay. We were human beings and could not fly. Although sometimes I thought, as I saw Gene watching the sea gulls, that he envied them their oneness with the wind, and their freedom.
We arrived at the little Provincetown station, weary, and yet, when the train finally did stop, excited. The trip in those days (though one could also make it via Boston) was from New York to Fall River on the old Fall River Line, where one waited for the slow train that seemed to stop at every station on the Cape. It seems to me that Gene must have written to John Francis, his landlord of the previous summer—it was Mr. Francis who met us at the train.
He was a big, kindly man, and I recall his look of chagrin and embarrassment when he saw that I was with Gene. But this changed to relief after he had inspected me, though for a moment he seemed lost in thought, as if deciding what to do. He was too tactful—particularly in dealing with artists and writers—to say to Gene, "I thought you would be alone." He got us and our bags into his small car, Gene in front, and in a couple of minutes we were at the studio apartments, which I believe some cousin of his had put up the previous year to accommodate artists at a reasonable price, many of whom used to go to the town's one hotel, which now had on the veranda the famous sign, "Dogs and Artists Not Allowed!"
"Here, Gene," said John Francis, inserting a key and opening the door. "It's just what you want!" He went for the bags while Gene and I looked around the room. It was not large—perhaps sixteen feet square, with windows high on the north side, and none beside the door, giving privacy. There was a couch covered with an Indian blanket beneath the windows, a small kerosene stove for cooking, a tiny sink, and wood stove, a long deal table.
"I can put up shelves for books," said John Francis, returning. "And—look!" He glanced upward, and we saw a balcony with solid railings that one reached by a narrow flight of steps at the end of the room.
"Comfortable bed up there, and so on. Here's where you work—down here." Then, looking embarrassed at having made a suggestion, he added shyly, "unless you like to work there and sleep here on the couch. It don't make no difference to me."
"It's wonderful, Mr. Francis." Gene's dark eyes were glowing. In spite of the strain of the trip, he looked happier than I'd ever seen him look. He unbuckled a strap, opened one of the two valises filled with books. I noticed that John Francis had not brought my bag in.
He said: "There's a place exactly like this next door—except the couch cover's different, and no cookstove. I could get one—but maybe she'd like to cook in here. Won't be no offers to rent till spring, so I'll let you have both for the price of one. Or," he added philosophically, "maybe you'd rather move the stove in there. Then you won't be disturbed at your work by no cooking odors." He beamed—innocent, childlike and wise. . . . "I just as soon not have to buy another stove right now."
Gene put a match to the papers and kindling in the little stove and added some of the wood piled neatly on the floor beside it. Mr. Francis showed me the adjoining studio and put my bag on the floor. "That Gene is a wonderful fellow—a real genius. I never seen anybody work like he does—when he's working." I, too, was included in John Francis' aura of kindness. I have a feeling that he regarded us as sort of babes in the wood. . .
Perhaps in spite of everything we were—who knows? Anyway, John Francis took care of us; he left to bring back a box of groceries and some meat, after inquiring gently of me what to get. He filled a five-gallon kerosene tin and brought that back too, and then tactfully said he'd see us later. When he closed the door behind him we looked at each other and then Gene came over and put his arms around me. We felt new and innocent—childlike, with all that fresh happiness of an exciting adventure that children have. . . . Outside, the snow had begun to fall; we saw the large flakes falling silently on the window, and we clung together, but not like the babes in the wood to be covered gently by the snow, and never awaken.
"Come on, cookie—cook!" Gene said, laughing. "How about a prune omelet—how's that for an idea?" And he began unpacking the groceries and arranging them on the shelves over the stove. . . .
We never moved the cookstove into the other studio. Gene's hours for work, once he started, were so regular and his absorption in it so deep that, propped up on the bed in the balcony, a writing board on his knees, he never heard or noticed what went on below him; he liked to come down the narrow wooden stairs when he had put down the last line of his morning's work in that small, firm handwriting, sometimes with the last written sheet in his hand, and talk to me about what he had done, while I fixed the lunch. The typewriter we did move over, and as I recall it, most of his clothes were in my studio too, although when later on he began typing on his script he moved the typewriter back, and, borrowing a secondhand card table from John Francis, worked in the lower room.
The snow fell silently all that first afternoon and night. Once in a while we would open the door and look outside at the small houses of Provincetown, half hidden by a blanket of white snow, and breathe in the mingled odor of fresh dampness and the water smell of the harbor, which we could not see now, but which Gene told me, his arm around my shoulder, was just beyond another street. There was a subdued excitement and love in his face as he spoke of it, and he said he would take me to see it as soon as it stopped snowing. I think his only regret was that our place was not right on the bay, on the other side of Commercial Street, where he could hear the waves lapping at night when the tide came in.
But the snow did not stop; it piled silently against the door, and only a pale and translucent light came through the north window, and the little stove needed few logs, so warmly and with such quiet was the snow covering us and the town.
John Francis came by about six o'clock, and we heard him shoveling away the snow from the door and path before we heard his gentle knock. Gene got up and turned on the light. We had fallen asleep on the narrow couch, his arm around me and my head on his shoulder, watching the wet flakes build a ledge against the window, tired out from the long trip on the train, and for a moment I did not know where I was. . . . John Francis brought us extra blankets, and a shovel, and a Boston newspaper—at which we never even looked, not even the next day. He stayed a moment, worried because he was afraid Gene had wanted to go out and couldn't, and said he himself had a bad time getting down Commercial Street, the snow was so high there. He left us after asking again if we had everything we needed, and if we would be all right. After he'd gone, Gene stretched his arms high and throwing back his head gave a loud cry of joy that startled me.
"God!" he said. "My God—how wonderful to be here!" I was to get to know that cry well—that shout of mingled triumph and relief, because when at last a play or work of his was finished, always during all those years when he wrote so many, right up to the finishing of Strange Interlude, that sound would announce his satisfaction and joy. . . .
Let's cook, cookie. . . . Let's eat. . . . What we had came out of cans, and he opened them and set two places at the table, and then, solemnly, he took a large drink from the pint he had brought along on the trip, making a face as he did so. That and one other pint, which I think he got somewhere in town, was the last of the drinking. He spaced these drinks meticulously, and considering the four or five months he had spent in the Village, not eating too much, it seems remarkable that within two or three days this man was no longer shaky, or ill in the morning from the effects of the quart or more he must have been drinking each day. Nor, when that pint or so was gone, did the thought of another drink enter his head. . . .
The next day after breakfast he finished arranging his papers, his work, and unpacked the big carton full of books that John Francis had held for him at the store. I, too, did the same thing, and then we began the joyous adventure of deciding what we had to buy—typewriting paper, yellow sheets too, carbon paper—black. Erasers, ink—oh, all of it! And he, it seems, must have at least a dozen number 1 yellow pencils—and a pencil sharpener, the kind you put on the wall. He thought that he had left one among his books and papers in the box at Francis', but it wasn't there, and after we were married and moved into Francis' Flats he found it on the wall, where he had left it the summer before. . . .
We made out a list, and then Gene looked over the groceries on the shelf and put down some ideas for more things we might get in that line too.
"We better get some cans of soup—plenty of soup now, for me. Then—in a couple of days we'll really have some good fish—oh! Right out of the briny!"
He couldn't get the door open, so completely were we snowed in. So we heated water and poured it on the snow, getting an opening for the shovel. The sun was out, but the snow had stopped falling, and before long we heard a snowplow coming along the street. . . .
There is a saying that a happy country has no history. . . . This period of our first few weeks in Provincetown does not now bring me many incidents or happenings to tell about. I recall as in a dream, the long main street of the town—and icebergs. Yes, if no one believes it—I have found some old photographs, showing them edging up along the main street, having floated in from the harbor.
It was a long walk from where we were to John Francis' store, but it seems to me we took it nearly every day. On one side was the harbor and the icebergs, and the smell of the sea and fish and salt hay, little houses or wharves and beyond them the spars of boats; and beneath our feet the pavement was rigid with ice, and great old trees creaked and moaned as we went along. . . . Gene wore some sort of a combination woolen muffler and cap that came almost to his nose, and coming back with a bag of groceries and the paper we would hold onto each other to keep from slipping.
I remember, too, walking alone along the street one night, with the moonlight lying over everything, and in my mind composing a sonnet—about something far away. . . . I remember walking back one evening from the nearby part of town with Gene, and he hesitating and halting in his talk, and saying there was one thing he wanted to tell me about, or something he should explain to me, that would make everything perfectly complete between us, or add to his pleasure, but I can't remember what this was, only that he was very halting and hesitant and unsure. . . . I don't remember any worries or troubles or anything that interfered in any way with the work that was going on in that small place. I suppose I was getting to know a different Gene and loving him more than I had in New York, and he seemed every day and all the time to love and care for me more and more, and I know he wrote a most enthusiastic letter about me to his father and mother in New York; for he read it to me, after spending an afternoon writing it, and I was completely taken aback at his description to them, of this wonderful girl-creature whom he wanted them, before too long, to meet.
I, too, wrote to my family; but as I recall it, everything was all right everywhere and there was nothing to take us out of this co-operation of work and living.
Gene had worked out more completely his outline for Beyond the Horizon, even making little drawings and plans for the sets, and was now writing the play, walking in the afternoon, and either reading or working (preparing the next day's work) in the evening. We went to bed about eleven and got up early so that after breakfast he was at work by nine or nine-thirty; and after doing a few little things around, probably deluding myself that I was keeping things tidy, I'd get to work too, writing on something or other.
This thing of "work" was truly co-operative; and I don't think there was a single flaw or holdup in it anywhere. Gene thought that what I was writing was too good for pulps—and wanted me to do something else. But the big and important thing to me then was Gene and his work; and although I had in mind, and started working on a piece called "The Philosopher's Night," I was really entirely absorbed in and held by Gene's play. . . . He discussed it, made changes sometimes, and read to me every day what he had written.
I wish I could remember now what books he was reading in the evenings, but I don't. Nietzsche, Strindberg—he kept these always with him, discussed them and quoted from them. . . . But I mean what other, newer books?
We got a periodical called The Freeman; perhaps even then we subscribed to the Manchester Guardian, which we enjoyed for several years.
I don't think at this period he read quite as much in the evenings as he did later on. Usually, besides the books to which he was devoted, he read in connection with his plays, either the one he was doing, or one he had in mind.
We had a lot to talk about, but it was not until later (that summer) that he really began to talk about his past. . . .
I have a photograph of Gene and myself, taken outside the door of our place. It must have been one of those fine warm days that come sometimes in the Provincetown winter, for he is wearing a sweat shirt, and I, my hair blown about, am seated on the step in the sun. He looks happy and contented, and I think he must have put on some weight; but even this snapshot does not show his charm and unusual good looks. His great dark eyes were unusually expressive, and I had never seen or touched such beautiful hair. . . .
It seems to me that I must have been finishing some novelette or other, or maybe got a check from one of the saucy pulps before I left. I remember at that time Gene's income consisted of fifteen dollars a week, sent by his father.
But money does not seem to enter into any of my memories of this time, neither lack, nor thought of it at all. . . . Except when, unexpectedly, In the Zone went into vaudeville and our intense excitement at the unheard-of wealth of fifty dollars a week. I don't remember if this was before or after our marriage.
I must have counted on selling—or did sell, let's say—a novelette every month or so. . . . I do remember wishing I could spend all my own writing time on "The Philosopher's Night" and I'm ashamed to say now that I just don't remember if I typed any of Gene's manuscripts for him. I probably didn't, as I have a feeling he was better at typing than I was. . . .
It was about a week after we moved into the studios that there was one abrupt knock on the door, and then silence—as if to say, if you're busy or occupied at something interesting, don't bother. . . . However, we weren't; and I think the young man who stood there when I undid the chain latch knew this, so convenient a moment had he chosen to present himself. When he introduced himself as our neighbor in the end studio, we understood this, and Gene and I laughed about it later . . . for the partitions were very thin, and I am sure, although this was the first time we had really seen him, he knew as much about us as we knew about him. He was tall and thin and brightly colored, like a Frans Hals. His nose was a bit red from the cold, and he seemed rather meager of flesh inside the large overcoat which he pulled about himself. Just at that time—though we didn't know that about him—I don't think he was getting quite enough to eat, although he was always more than generous to the little Portuguese boys that ran errands for him. He came in and we had a lot of fun talking to him—he was witty and amusing and regaled us with some wonderful local gossip.
It was he who, a year or so later, painted a large portrait of the two of us, during a Provincetown winter, with Agnes sitting on a sort of gilt sofa, and Gene standing morosely behind it.
Lytton, for that was his classic first name, was very tactful, and, though we did not see him too often, we always smiled understandingly when we passed him on the street or ran into him making purchases in John Darrell's drugstore. So when he suggested that we meet a very pretty and bright-looking lady, with charming blond-gray hair and a gay, kind little face, we agreed. We had seen them together several times. At least, that I think is how we met Alice Woods Ullman, who later was to be the solitary witness at our wedding. . . . Lytton told me afterward that one reason she wanted to meet us was that she felt she at least could and would do something about our getting married; giggling, Lytton told me privately (I think he was always a little in awe of Gene) that he had already confided to her the gist of some conversations he had overheard through the wall. "I heard Gene talking about you getting married, but nothing seemed to happen! And Alice was so interested—he felt you were meant for one another!"
This was true, and I think one reason we delayed was that it seemed so complicated when we were so busy. Gene longed now to get married, but I think he may have dreaded the sort of detail and personal exposure that it would put him through; probably having to take a pen and write something when his hand always shook, and having to utter yes or no, or answer a lot of questions. Or, perhaps—which is likely—it was that he—or we—were embarrassed at trying to find out how, in that town, to go about it.
However, Alice Woods was, like Lytton, most tactful, and we were soon dropping in for tea at her charming small house and more or less confiding in her. She was, I think, at that time writing a novel of her own. She had been married to a famous painter, lived in Paris a long time, had two boys away at school, and had lived a most interesting and vivid life, after being brought up strictly as the daughter of a well-known and conservative judge. She gave us the warmest and most disinterested friendship, and we in no way felt that she intruded on our privacy.
Our privacy was broken at this time by a most unexpected visitor from New York. Actually we both enjoyed it, as it did not interfere with Gene's work at all, and I was interested and somehow touched. I still can't imagine how she happened to come to Provincetown in the dead of winter—and alone at that.
I can almost see her now—poor pretty, fragile Lottie O'Neill. Where is she now, I wonder? What idea or impulse made her leave the warm and chaotic nest of her small ever-welcoming bedroom in New York, and take that long and lonely trip to the land of fish and icebergs.
She only stayed a few days, stopping at the Atlantic House in a state of constant concern over "bugs" and "flies" and dirty towels, or Portuguese men peeping over her transom at night (though there were no Portuguese peepers, and the reason for the famous sign about dogs and artists was because dogs had fleas, and artists soiled the towels by using them as paint rags). I do not want to give the impression that Lottie was an agitated or concerned person—she wasn't at all. She was in a sort of detached, even mysterious, vacuum all the time.
She was not only pretty, she was lovely, like a bell made of glass which gave off a tinkling sound when you touched it. She told us about the imaginary bugs and peeping Portuguese in the most detached manner, as though they were minutiae which had filled the nights of someone else, not herself. She walked down an icy, wet, snowbound street in a pair of pale alligator French-heeled shoes to knock at our door, wearing a tiny hat, draped with a dotted veil, which tilted up with expensive art to emphasize the charming line of her retroussé nose, and a thin jacket of faded fur.
Lottie was always poor, in fact at times quite starving; once Gene and I had gone to her room near the Brevoort to find her cooking a hot dog in a small frying pan over a can of Sterno, although some friend or other had left not long before and there was still the disorder of love in the room. We had gone there trying to find the Harold de Polos, and although Gene had known her for perhaps a couple of winters, it was through Harold that I met her one afternoon at the Brevoort. I had not been able to make her out at first, and remember Gene had smiled rather ironically at my questions, but one afternoon I happened to run into her in Washington Square, and she calmly told me a story of her attempts to live in this (to her) somehow alien world that surprised me and touched me with pity. At that time she had been infatuated with Harold de Polo, seeing in him perhaps something she had never seen in anyone before—and even, as Harold's wife told me later—moving in with them when she was broke. . .
But she seemed to have some money with her when she came to Provincetown, and she brought us an elaborate box of chocolates tied with a wide lavender ribbon with a flat bow. "Aggie," she said. "You can use that for your hair." She told us she had paid twenty-five dollars for the saucy tricorn hat at Tappe's—and then didn't have enough left to get a coat. She liked to talk about clothes, but not inordinately; she was always willing to stop and listen when anyone else talked, which I think Gene liked about her, because so many people thought when he paused or hesitated that he had come to the end of a sentence, and would go on with their own talk.
Lottie had a certain special feeling about Gene, caused by the fact that her name too was O'Neill, which in her mind seemed to almost make them members of the same family, brother and sister even, or at least bound together in some special way: for she had no family of her own, not a soul in the world that she knew of, though at one time she sentimentally invented an old Irish mother—for Gene's benefit—and a truck-driving father. But these were transient phantoms and soon disappeared into the spaceless opalescence of her mind. I think Lottie was born of a young witch under a toadstool one night (who knows where) and grew up evading leprechauns and watching the fairies dance in a ring, so that her own head was filled with moonlight which never quite left her.
I think that it was Lottie who took the picture of me and Gene outside our door. She approved very much of our being together, but taking me aside one afternoon while Gene was working, she gave me some advice—which she seemed to think very necessary. I should brush my hair up, not down: take better care of my fingernails even if I did use the typewriter, because my hands were pretty and men loved nice hands, but most important (she had watched me and looked at me very carefully, even when I was in New York, and especially that night when we came looking for Harold), I had a habit of keeping my mouth partly open—my lips parted—and I must get over that. It gave me, she said, a sort of look—just what sort of look I'm not sure, but probably foolish or too absent-minded, or too expectant: I think that was what she was trying to imply, or get across to me without going too far.
I was astonished, but very grateful for this advice, for there was no doubt she was very earnest and had my interest at heart. I examined myself carefully in the mirror at the first opportunity, side-face as well as front, and came to the conclusion that she was right, and from then on I remembered this. . . .
Lottie left as quickly as she had come, because she said the bugs and the towels and the Portuguese were too much for her. But I believe it was the icebergs and the wind and the lonely street at night. We took her to the station and put her on the train, looking so slender and young and immaculate, with her soft pointed mouth and skin without a blemish or a line—and very little make-up, for she always liked to look a little pale, because it made her more interesting. . . .
I cannot get over the shock I had when one night
later that same year I went in to see her at the Lafayette Hotel,
where she had, temporarily, a small room and she asked me how old I
thought she was. She told me that she was forty. I thought of Lottie
being in her early twenties. I couldn't believe her and stared in
amazement, for forty seemed very old to me then—I think in those
years, too, it was a more advanced age than it is now.
© Copyright 1999-2010 eOneill.com