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The Past Comes Back to Francis' Flats

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1

I will never forget that first morning when I stood at the window of our flat over John Francis' store in Provincetown and saw the dawn breaking over the harbor. From behind an open partition came the sound of voices, speaking at longer intervals. Gene and his brother Jamie had been talking all night, Jamie stretched out on a cot, Gene in a chair beside him—and a bottle on the bureau. I had gone to bed at midnight, leaving the two of them alone. It had seemed to me whenever I woke that Jamie was doing most of the talking, and it was his strong voice telling a story and laughing that had awakened me again at dawn. . . .

During the night there had been the noisy lapping of waves as they broke against the pilings and small boats below. Now there was only silence from the harbor, pierced by the excited cries of sea gulls in the distance, and I had gone to the window, wondering what had happened. I had forgotten about the great rise and fall of the tide at Provincetown. The harbor and outer sea were spread before me. Since my childhood, the sea, the tidal rivers and bays, the sledgy outposts of Barnegat had been part of my life, but never before had I seen anything like this. Below stretched the whole muddy bottom of the harbor, brown and glistening in the early morning: far out, the turbulent sea was rushing back into the harbor, whitecapped, becoming a gentle streak of pale blue water as it came inside. Half a mile or more out a man was digging in the mud, putting something in a basket.

Jamie laughed again; then I heard Gene's voice, low and monotonous, going on where his brother left off. . . . There was a long silence. Gene appeared at the end of the partition, his hair ruffled, his eyes flaring with that faraway look, a half-empty bottle in his hand. He wore his bathrobe, tied with a cord around his waist, and his feet were bare.

"I'm going to get some sleep!" he said. "What are you doing up?"

"The tide—I'm watching it come in. Look, Gene!"

He leaned over me, his hand on the window sill, steadying himself as he looked out over the muddy flats to the distant whitecaps. Then he straightened, took a long swallow and went over to the bed. It creaked as he sat down, putting the bottle on the floor beside him. "Get me a glass, dear, will you?" he said, and rolled over on his back, his arm covering his eyes. I put a glass beside the bottle, then, looking around, saw the couch cover and quietly hung it on two nails conveniently placed in the frame of the window next to the bed, darkening that part of the room. After a moment he took his arm from his face and rolled over on his side. He was silent—then he began to breathe heavily. After looking once more at the harbor, on which the sunlight now glittered, making flakes and pools of gold, I lay down beside him. Thank God it was all over! I would get some sleep and wake later in the morning, feeling refreshed, and do all the things I wanted to do around the place.

2

We had stayed in New York a week longer than we had expected, and the last week, or it may have been ten days, had been an extraordinary time and, when it was going on, a pretty awful time! But afterward it seemed funny, and Gene himself grinned over it, and told it as quite a joke—particularly on me. We had gone down for the rehearsals of The Rope, which the Provincetown Players had decided to produce at the end of April. We stayed at the Garden Hotel, on Twenty-seventh Street across from Madison Square Garden, where, in an apartment above, Stanford White had entertained beautiful Evelyn Thaw. The Garden Hotel was small, rather dingy and dark, and all I remember of the entrance floor was a small lobby and to the right a bar. There was no elevator—one climbed narrow stairs to the rooms above. We had one of the larger rooms—a double bed, and possibly a bath. Jamie for a year or more had occupied a hall bedroom on the same floor, going from there every day to see his parents at the Prince George Hotel nearby. They had left a few weeks previously and Jamie spent most of his time with us.

Everything had gone very well: Gene attended rehearsals; saw the opening of The Rope and several people he had to see, and took the finished script of Beyond the Horizon to George Tyler (I believe it was), a great friend of his father's, who wanted to read it. I had gone down to New Jersey to see my father, who was staying alone at the house there and had fortunately managed to rent the house to a summer tenant. We decided to let the creaky old windmill stay as it was but to put in electric lights and a new bathtub, and I went back to the Garden Hotel to find Gene still sober (not having taken one drink since he arrived in New York) and terribly glad to see me. He told me that I must not leave him again—not even for two days—but when I explained that we were going to get three hundred dollars for the summer rental, he had agreed that it was a good trip.

We had planned to leave for Provincetown the next day, and Jamie was coming with us. I went up to Grand Central Station, bought the tickets and made reservations for the next night, for we had decided to take the train to Boston and change there for the Cape. The next morning everything was packed; we had lunch at a small restaurant; Jamie had a couple of highballs and didn't eat much; Gene seemed happy enough—but I noticed that he was more nervous then usual. He hardly spoke to me at all. We went back to the hotel and sat in our room—Jamie had left us in the lobby, "what-hoing" his way into the bar for one more "hooker," as he called them. Gene looked handsome, I thought, more suave than usual, his hair brushed back, a new suit of gray gabardine—and, yes, a tie, a dark red, conservative tie. He sat looking out the window, smoothing a gray hat which he and Jamie had picked out the day before. I never liked Gene in a hat: it shaded his expressive eyes, hid his soft hair, and made his face look too small—emphasizing his mouth, which for some reason looked sullen whenever he wore a hat. But I could see that he cherished the new hat—and that made me happy. I wondered if I looked as well as he did. I had bought myself a new suit (navy blue pongee), a pair of blue shoes, a new bag and white gloves. Gene, watching the entrance to Madison Square Garden across the street, made a glum remark about wishing that the six-day bike races were on now—he'd stay down and see them with Jamie. He and Jamie . . . Rather depressed, I said something vaguely about our coming trip—it should be much more comfortable going on the train, we could sleep all night, have breakfast in Boston, and the train trip down the Cape was much better than that from Fall River. Then—how wonderful to get back there at last!

Only the night before, we had been talking about it. Gene had written John Francis to move our things from the studio to the same flat above the store that he had occupied the previous summer, to put in an order of groceries—and to be sure that the kerosene stove was full! I remembered how meticulous he had been writing the letter.

But my remarks only seemed to deepen the gloom in Gene's face. Was it because he had not heard anything definite from Williams about the production of Beyond the Horizon, I wondered? I didn't have a chance to ask him about this because Jamie entered, having had not one "hooker" but four or five, I imagined, from the deepened color in his face and his cheery, leering eye. He produced two pints of Old Taylor and announced with sarcasm that one of them was a gift for Gene—"on the house!" The hotel didn't want to lose the patronage of the promising young playwright and his sweet little wife, that was the reason for the gift! He opened one bottle and took a drink and asked Gene to put the other in his suitcase. Gene did this, still gloomy, without a word, and Jamie, seeing the situation, went off to his own room to take a nap. He told me to be sure and wake him in time for the train. . . .

Gene thought he'd lie down too, and I watched him carefully arrange his head on the pillow so as not to disturb his hair or rumple his shirt. We had three hours before the train left. I began to think it was foolish to have packed so early in the day and have this period of bored waiting—but Gene had insisted on doing it that way. He had started packing and getting ready even before we had breakfast. Now he asked me if I would do him a favor—hand him The Saturday Evening Post? I did, and then suggested that I better go and get the last copy, and a couple more magazines from the drugstore. I had meant to get aspirin too—I'd forgotten that. Also, there were a couple of telephone calls I should make—I couldn't phone there, as we had no telephone in the room, and I didn't like going into the bar.

Gene thought this a good idea and, putting down the Post, asked me if I would call Fitzie for him at the Provincetown Players. He wanted me to deliver a message about giving someone some tickets. . . . I left with trepidation, never giving a thought to the subject of drinking but wondering if I had done something to offend him—or didn't he like the way I looked in my suit? Gene was quite critical about my appearance, particularly when other people were around—and Jamie, of course, thought I should dress in a much more dashing style. I wondered about Jamie as I went downstairs, and said a little prayer that he would sleep now until we were ready to leave—sleep it off, was the expression I had learned to apply to such times.

I bought the aspirin, the magazines, and some candy, made my two calls, and then called Eleanor Fitzgerald at the Provincetown Players. Fitzie was a warm and generous person and talked to me for a longer time than I expected, telling me how good I was for Gene, what a change there was in him since he was married. She also told me that Louise had been in the night before—not to tell Gene this, but she had been rather peevish when she found that he was not there. She was most dramatic-looking, Fitzie said, laughing over the phone. She wore some sort of a red, embroidered Russian jacket and high black boots. "But she doesn't hold a candle to you," Fitzie added warmly, "and Gene knows it. . . ."

I decided to tell Gene about it anyway when I got back to the hotel. I knew it didn't make any difference to him any more, and it would be something to talk about. Then I suddenly remembered that I had not answered my father's telegram received the day before. He had telegraphed me that he could get the house wired for electricity and a new bathtub for the sum of one hundred and thirty dollars—a hundred for the wiring with outlets and thirty for installing the tub. I should send a telegram now, telling him to go ahead before it was too late. This took up some time. . . . But I did not hurry—it would be easier for Gene to take a nap while I was out. . .

After I got back to the hotel and climbed the three flights of stairs, holding my packages and the magazines, I paused at the top step, getting my breath. Down the hall I saw that the door of our room was ajar. I could hear someone talking—it was not Jamie, but Gene, and as I came nearer the door, my spirits sank. I recognized the tone of that voice and knew what it meant. . . . He was going on firmly, slowly and with a sarcastic undertone, about something. I stood outside of the door a moment, listening. He was talking about trouping and trips, and his experiences when he was traveling as assistant stage manager with the White Sister company. I had heard these stories before. Then Jamie laughed. There was a silence inside—and I heard the gurgling of liquor being poured from a bottle. . . .

We didn't leave that day, so I went up to Grand Central and changed the tickets to the next night. Although the two of them sat up and drank and discussed the past until three o'clock in the morning, Gene did go to bed then, dismissing Jamie and telling me that he'd be all right tomorrow. There was no liquor left, and, feeling quite good, he firmly declined Jamie's offer to get a bottle from the night porter for a pickup the next day.

The next morning, still packed, with Gene's suit only slightly mussed, his new hat on the table and his leather portfolio on the table beside it, we woke up around noon. Jamie had not yet knocked at our door, and Gene lay in bed, staring gloomily through the dusty lace curtains. Among other unpleasant things, he was thinking of the long wait we would have in the Boston station before the train pulled out for the Cape, for he mentioned it to me almost as if it were a personal imposition upon him and his work—a dirty trick of the damned railroads! He got up, brushed his teeth, and, looking at himself in the mirror over the washbasin, picked up the safety razor. His hand was shaking badly.

"I'll have to shave. . . . Listen angel-face, you go down to the bar and get them to mix me a milk shake with a shot of brandy."

I hesitated a moment. I had never been in the bar below, and going alone into a bar seemed something I could not face. I saw him watching me, waiting for my decision. Obviously he shouldn't go down himself—he wasn't dressed and he looked bad.

"I'll have to have something before I can shave. . . ." I went down, stood inside and saw men silhouetted against the light from the front window as they sat at the bar. What should I do? The barkeeper was at the far end, talking to someone. I moved to the bar and stood waiting, rather panic-stricken. At least if I did not sit down, these men wouldn't think I'd come in to be picked up, have someone buy me a drink. Several of them did stare at me—and I felt that in a moment some remark would be made, when the barkeeper saw me. "Hello, Mrs. O'Neill!" he said pleasantly. "Anything I can do for you?" I tried to pull myself together, and as I assumed a nonchalant voice to make my request, his pock-marked Irish face softened and he gave me an understanding smile.

"Please—a milk shake with brandy—and charge it to Mr. O'Neill."

"Milk shake and brandy for Gene, eh?" he said. "What's wrong with him this morning—getting to be a sissy? How's Jim?" And after he put the milk shake on a small tray he added, "Leaving today, I hear—sorry to see you go, Mrs. O'Neill!"

I carried the tray upstairs, wondering how he had recognized me; but I learned later that everyone in that hotel knew everything that was going on. . . . Gene drank the milk shake gratefully, shaved, felt better and began to wonder how Jamie was feeling. And at his request I knocked at Jamie's door but he was asleep.

Gene sat on the bed, his arm around me, and talked about how wonderful it was going to be that summer at Francis' Flats. He had an idea now for a new long play—he would tell me about it later. We put back the few things we had taken out of the bag and locked it so we would be ready, even though there were several hours before the train left.

Gene became silent. He looked over the papers in his portfolio vaguely, and I suggested that we go across the street for breakfast. He picked up The Saturday Evening Post, looked through it and said if I did not mind going down again and bringing him up another milk shake he'd feel better and then we'd go out and eat. . . .

"Don't wake Jamie," he said. "He'll get potted immediately. He better sleep it off—we'll get him later." Then he stopped, and I waited. "Bring me an eggnog this time—two eggs and a double shot of brandy, dear."

A double shot of brandy! But with two eggs. That would make it all right. He would be getting some nourishment. I went down and got what he wanted—he was right, he knew what he was doing. . . .

He did know. He just didn't have the courage to ask me to get a milk shake with double brandy. I'm sure he didn't want the eggs at all.

I really thought that he would be all right that day. It never occurred to me that we would again not make the train. I knew how nervous he must be from what happened the night before. I was happy with what seemed to be his firm resolve to get back to Provincetown. He had looked over his script. He was thinking of work. . . .

Was it in my hands to stop him—could I have helped him? A few years later he would sometimes turn on me and say with desperate resentment—why didn't I help him? Could I have helped him then and not carried double brandy eggnogs up three flights of stairs when I knew his weakness? I felt that he did need what he asked for; that he would eat afterward and that night we would take the trip that he dreaded and yet must take in order to get back to that which was most important to him—his work. What I did not know then was that after one drink the cycle must be fulfilled. I did help him at last, many years later—but in a way that he or I would never have thought possible.

Before Gene had finished the eggnog Jamie arrived, bringing with him a bottle of Old Taylor, much amused that he had been able to get it on credit downstairs by saying that his brother would pay for it.

I went across the street and had coffee alone. Gene refused to go with me; when I left the room they were talking and starting to feel happy. Gene had not taken a drink from Jamie's bottle but he was certainly feeling very amiable. . . . I returned and found Gene laughing and gazing at himself in the mirror over the mantel. I looked at the table—there were two glasses next to the bottle. . . .

From then on, my anxiety and bewilderment increased, because Gene wasn't thinking about leaving for Provincetown at all. When I spoke about it he didn't seem to know just what I was talking about, or didn't appear to hear me. The afternoon went by and I suggested that we take a taxi—even a bottle if necessary—and at least get to the station and sit in the waiting room; or go to the bar at Grand Central. He paused, looked at me with his eyes vacantly amused and said: "Don't get so worried—there's lots of time! Tomorrow's another day! What are you worrying about?" Jamie said nothing—he was leaving everything in the lap of the gods.

So again I went up and changed the tickets—of course we'd make it tomorrow! But we didn't. Gene didn't even ask for a milk shake the next day. Jamie had left a partly filled bottle in the room. . . .

This went on for over a week. There was some variety to it, to be sure—after the fifth trip to Grand Central I said that we should not get tickets until we were sure of going. . . . Then Gene pulled himself together at once and said—we'd get the train next day.

Gene did not leave the room at all, but Jamie would wander out and sometimes not return for quite a while. He ate in the restaurant down the street: but if I could get Gene to eat even the one meal a day which I had the waiter bring up from the restaurant, I was lucky. At last he refused anything but soup. By this time he was so nervous and shaken in the morning that it didn't seem possible he would get through the day. But after managing to keep down one drink, and then several more, he would be doing an imitation of his father in King Lear, or ribaldly going back to his sailor days.

I had soon realized that my anxiety and fear were not going to help anything—in fact were making things worse, even my relationship with Gene. So I made the best of things, even to the point of making private bets with myself as to how long this would go on. I got over feeling ashamed when I faced the man at the ticket office and had to tell him once again that I wanted to change the tickets for the next day.

My husband did not want anyone at the Provincetown Playhouse to know that he was still in New York. They thought that we had left. But he managed to contact, through Jamie, an old circus friend, Jack Croak, who came over from Times Square, where he had a job luring the public to buy tickets on the sight-seeing bus that went down to Chinatown. He had been a famous barker in the freak shows at one time. I listened to fantastic tales of circus lore, of bird men and women, of hermaphrodites and women who either weighed five hundred pounds or were almost small enough to put in a man's pocket. . . . One night a little colored man came up—shabbily dressed, but with great dignity. Joe, I think his name was, but I'm not sure; he was boss of a Negro underworld near the Village, and he told Gene much about people he already knew. His tales were startling—but Jamie was bored and went to visit a friend of his own while Gene and I listened.

"Spanish Willy," a fascinatingly quiet bootlegger friend of Gene's from downtown, came up with two very polite lady friends, bringing liquor that cost less and was better than what was to be had at the hotel. But most of the time we were alone—the three of us—and I would lie on the bed, sometimes going off to sleep but more often listening to the tales that the two brothers told. . . .

Gene finally got fed up, as he put it. He was "fed up and had to get out!" The eggnog diet this time solved the problem: for Gene by now was not able to keep anything else on his stomach. For two days I took up not one or two milk shakes or eggnogs but one every two or three hours—and one for the first thing in the morning: Gene now resolved to get to Provincetown at all costs—said he would not drink any liquor unless it was diluted with milk.

The morning before we left, he tried to shave—he had a four days' beard. But he was unable to hold the razor firmly enough to pass it over his face and gave up, trembling with annoyance. Jamie ventured an idea. I should shave him; or, he added, Gene should take two big straight shots and then he could make it.

Gene was firm—he wasn't going to do that. I had an inspiration. Without their noticing, I ran downstairs and asked the barkeeper (who by now was a good friend and seemed to sympathize with and get much amusement from the farce that had been going on upstairs) if we could possibly get a barber to come up to our room and give Gene a haircut and shave. He went to the telephone and told me a good man would be over in half an hour.

I said nothing when I went back, but began picking up the contents of our bags, which by this time were hanging in the closet or pretty much scattered over the place. When there was a knock on the door and I let in the barber Gene looked frightened—but (with a wicked glance at me) allowed himself to be shaved. The haircut, however, he bluntly refused—he had changed his mind about that, he mumbled to the barber, handing him the price of both haircut and shave—along with a big tip. He didn't need a haircut, that was true: but I'd been afraid the barber wouldn't come just for a shave. I had started something—for after this, Gene, who hated barbershops, always had a barber come in to cut his hair. I think he got to enjoy it being done this way—and if he felt he couldn't afford it he'd let his hair grow until he could.

At last we got into a taxi and up to Grand Central Station, Gene quiet and very self-conscious, Jamie full of the spirit of fun. While we waited for the train to be announced he disappeared. Gene and I were going to leave without him when he suddenly appeared, drunker than ever, at the train gate.

When we got on the train the porter was making up the berths. Gene sat nervously, trying to read a newspaper, while I for the first time was able to relax—pleased at the thought of a good night's sleep. . . .

Everything was quiet, the lights were down and the train was rushing through the darkness when suddenly a stentorian and familiar voice boomed through the sleeping car. Jamie, staggering from side to side, came down the aisle, clearing his throat with leering relish and announcing that he was looking for a big blonde with a bad breath. . . .

A porter stopped him—or tried to. But the truth about Jamie was that there was some quality about him or his ribald humor that never annoyed people. The porter grinned in sympathy as he tried to lead him away and Jamie's remarks were so funny and uttered in such a droll and peculiar voice that soon most of the green curtains were pulled aside, and before long all the occupants of the berths were laughing or smiling.

This happened three or four times during the night. Even the passengers began to get irritated: when we at last got off the train in the Boston station Jamie was still looking for a big blonde. . . .

By this time Gene was in a bad state of nerves and very sore at everything and everyone—particularly at the railroad for not making better connections. When Jamie went to get a Morning Telegraph at the newsstand Gene told him stubbornly he must come back right away. I was completely exhausted, trying to hang on without collapsing, but now followed a nerve-racking two hours, waiting for Jamie, looking for him, going into the street and into nearby bars and restaurants and even thinking of calling up the police—for Jamie did not have his ticket, and no money as far as we knew. Five minutes before train time he appeared, strolling slowly toward us, leading a weak flea-bitten white dog on a string, and with a loud "what-ho comrades" announced that he was taking the dog to Provincetown.

This was too much. . . . Gene scowled angrily, but he was never one to raise his voice in public, which was the only way Jamie might have listened to him, for he seemed even more under the influence of liquor than when he left us. Where he got it, or the dog, we never really knew.

We started to get on the train, Gene first, with me following, when Jamie was stopped by the conductor, who asked what he was doing with that dog. An argument then followed, Jamie giving all sorts of reasons why he should take the dog. He and the conductor were still arguing outside, and a couple of minutes later the train slowly began to move. Again no Jamie . . . the conductor said nothing as he punched our tickets, merely glared at us. Half an hour later, when we were well out of Boston, Jamie appeared at the other end of the car and strolled up to our seats. He seemed very pleased with himself.

"Bowser is in the baggage car," he informed us, swaying back and forth as he held to the back of our seats. "And the boys from Brooklyn are coming over the bridge!" That phrase was a favorite expression of the two brothers. It meant the heebie-jeebies, or, as they say nowadays, pink elephants—in other words, what happened and what they saw when liquor was gone and the d.t.s seemed just around the corner.

"The boys from Brooklyn will be coming over the bridge before the night's over!" Gene muttered, looking pale and sick. But Jamie only laughed. "What d'you know, kid? I got me a bottle—from a big blonde with a bad breath!
 

 
 

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