Turn Back the
It must have been in the late autumn because winter came before long and with it one of the coldest nights in many years. It was cold even then walking back late that night to the hotel where I had taken a room. The dark young man whom I had just met had on a thin suit and no overcoat, and I remember thinking that he must be very cold standing so long in front of the hotel talking to me. It never occurred to me then that we would be married by the following spring. . . .
I had left the farm behind, the little house on the hill overlooking the valley of the Housatonic and the blazing red and yellow hills of autumn. As the slow milk train wound along the river toward the city to which I was returning, stopping at each depot to take on the tall silver-colored cans of milk, I felt a certain nostalgia for the low dark hills and the stony fields, for the old barns where soon the manure from the cows would be frozen solid in the morning and the woodpile icy until it thawed in the sun, for the winter days which would soon be here and chunks of wood roaring in the kitchen stove. It was a yearning of the flesh perhaps for a beauty that I had known, a remembrance of the senses—of how the smell of snow was, and wood smoke, and the cold cow barn in the early morning and the cows rising to their feet as one came in; the touch of so many things, the feel of changing nature and of morning, noon and late evening, as one went in and out and felt the air against one's face and skin, the sound of branches splitting beneath their enameled coating of ice, and the drip-drip of water from the porch roof and the eaves of the house as the sun came up, and the sound of silence on the hills and in the long valley below.
It was not thought—because I did not think, nor consciously recall anything, but felt it; although as the train waited and the tall galvanized cans of milk were heard clattering in the boxcar, I did wonder if they could possibly send a can of milk every other day down to the depot. Thinking that, my fingers curled into the milkers' rhythmic grip and I remembered the rough warm feel of the cows' tits and the sound of milk swirling in a long stream into the pail. I closed my eyes as the train creaked and clattered along its three-hour journey. Winter in New York . . .
Well, I hoped doubtfully that my family would be happy on the farm and at the same time I had a feeling that the farm was no longer mine. . . . Something had happened to me, or to them, or between us; what, I didn't know, although I roused myself definitely to say to myself again that I was going back in the spring—the early spring! I had to go to New York for their sake and mine, to make more money, and I would return! I would return before that, if possible. . . .
But I did not return—not until many years later when for a few hours one summer I went back and walked again across the stony fields and looked down into the long valley and, with the permission of the aging strangers who owned it, went through the old house. The maple bough still guarded the window of the bedroom that had once been mine, but everything else had changed. Even the old town near which the farm lay was gone; there was no trace of it, not a house or a store or a tree nor a sign of the long main street where the village had focused its daily life, so that I felt like a ghost, and wondered what had happened and if I had only dreamed my past life. . . .
I had found the farm by following the river road, known so well so long ago when I took the cans of milk down to the depot. That road was unchanged except that one came upon it from a great cement bridge built across the Housatonic. But I found the town on my way back, a ghost town of disintegrating houses, forgotten, empty, without grass or living trees, for the sun never came there, silent except for the sound of the river flowing over the rocky channel stones under the bridge beneath whose great span the entire village lay, dead and forgotten.
I did not know, looking out at the passing hills that morning, that I would not return in the spring to the budding maples and the sugar sap boiling in the long iron trough; nor that a colder wind stung with salt spray and the smell of fish and sea and old rope, a midnight moon shining on icebergs, would be part of my life before the winter was over. Or that the sound of old trees in winter would not be ever again against the silence of the hills but against the low distant monotone of the ocean.
I had some money, about a hundred dollars maybe, and I took a small room at the Hotel Brevoort. Beautiful Mary Pyne, who had temporarily left her wild, kind, tramp poet, Harry Kemp, and who was living in the village in order to continue her long daily conversations with Hutchins Hapgood, had told me this was the best thing to do, and very cheap. She and Harry had spent the previous summer on the farm, taking sunbaths in the nude, at least so Harry boldly told us when they returned from their long walks. She and Hutch Hapgood were both interested in a new group, the Provincetown Players, and she told me something of Hutch, whom I had never met, and of the Provincetown Player group of whom I had never heard. The person I wanted to see was Christine, whom I had met and admired when she was running a small restaurant on some street whose name I do not now remember. But I have the impression, before this, of Christine serving meals in a basement, where the glory of her hair, skin, body, and spirit, and the no less warming and wise sound of her laughter was the magnet that drew to her tables less vital and more frustrated souls. . . .
However I was now directed to Macdougal Street, upstairs, number 139, and I went up two or three flights and entered a large, bare room, and at that hour, four in the afternoon, with very little light coming in through the two long dusty windows that faced on the street. There was no sign of life and, expecting to see Christine, I felt a lowering of my spirits. I wondered if I had come to the right place. Then, seeing an open door, I went through it and entered another room, square, around which were arranged tables and chairs. These were laid out with salt and pepper and sugar bowls—Christine's, obviously. A large clock in a wooden frame, hanging over an imitation marble mantel, ticked loudly—the only sound in the room—and I listened wondering, and then went to a door opening into the kitchen from which came the sound of heavy and spasmodic breathing.
A man was sitting at a table against the wall, reading a newspaper spread out before him, or at least staring at it. He looked up after a moment and then looked back at the paper.
"Is this Christine's?"
"Sure!" he said, not noticing me again until I brought his attention back by asking where she was, or when she would be here. It seemed urgent at the moment that I find Christine. Already two days had passed since I arrived in New York. "You can't tell!" he said. He was a large man with a great deal of magnetism which seemed to end in nothing as it came to you, just as his large hazel eyes, full of kindness and inquiry, ended in a blank stare. "She's out—evading me! She thinks I'm going after her. When she's been all the places she thinks I won't be at, and had a few beers, she'll probably be back here."
He got up, looked into some pots simmering on the stove, folded up the newspaper, and, taking a dog-eared book without a cover from his back pants pocket, sat down and began studying it, sounding each word over to himself as he read.
I left and sat on a bench in the nearby park, feeling very lonely and blue as the evening descended over the city. It was getting colder and at last I got up, unable to stand the chilly wind, and went back to my little room. I lay on the narrow bed, hearing the sounds of the city outside, and perhaps wondering what was going to happen to me. On a small table my typewriter stood with a half-typed sheet of paper in it. Looking at it I was unable to move; although all that was necessary was to add another, the finishing paragraph and the words The End. That was not bad. Finished, there would be a good chance of a check in two weeks from one of the pulp magazines. Not a large check, but it kept things going. But what kept me in a stupor on the bed was that The End was not the end. . . . Once this last page was removed from the typewriter another would have to be inserted with its black carbon paper, name and address in the upper left-hand corner, number of words in the right. Then the thing turned down one third of a page to the left of center. New title—what? She Never Knew Why fourteen thousand words. A novelette. A hundred and fifty dollars—and it was not even started. "She Never Knew Why." She never knew why what? And why not? I only knew that she had dark languishing hair, faint eyes—faint from pain or from too much sex? Or was she a blonde with hair like tabasco sauce and eyes like wine? Either way it was the body beautiful, very scantily clad, lying in bed probably, with silk sheets, with an eider-down puff fallen to the floor, and the bed of sin on which she had sold herself. She is waiting—for what? The telephone to ring? Or a knock on the door? Or perhaps this time instead of waiting she is thinking. But could she think? Is that why she never knew why?
That was why I wanted desperately to see Christine. The year before, she had told me of a place where she had worked for a while because she was tired of running a restaurant. I do not remember now at what she worked, unless it was a small factory of some sort, but the hours appealed to me; there were different shifts, the one she had was from two o'clock until six or seven. No experience required. . . . Some sort of place where one sat with other girls and occupied oneself with a monotonous job, doing it over and over, requiring, once one had learned it, no more than the constant surface attention of one's mind. And there was, also, as she told me about it, a strange, barren spirit among the girls, something that in some way, at some time, people should know about.
I looked at the telephone, which never rang because no one who might call me knew where I was, and then called the number that I had taken from the wall telephone in the restaurant. It was after seven o'clock now, but for a while there was no answer. Then the receiver was taken off the hook at the other end and a bedlam of noise, voices, and a clatter of dishes came over the wire, and it took a moment before I was able to convey my message. At last I got Christine, told her I was in town and wanted to see her and have a long talk, and that I had been over that afternoon and seen the man who was sitting in the kitchen. That, she told me, laughing, was her new husband. They had been married since last I saw her.
"He's trying to reform me. But, dear, isn't he handsome?"
I told her that he was, then she said she was still worried about him. But she seemed to take it very lightly, and after pausing a moment she suggested that instead of coming over now when she would be too busy to do much talking, I meet her that night about ten-thirty when she would be free. I asked her where and she said immediately at the Hell Hole. She seemed to think I would know where it was: but she had to explain to me that it was on the comer of Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue.
"It's the back room, dearie, of the Golden Swan. Everybody knows it."
I was quite excited at the idea of going to meet her in a place with such a name. Later on I learned that certain of a gang of tough hoodlums known as the Hudson Dusters often appeared there late at night or, rather, early in the morning. It was frequented also by a certain rather sinister girl with whose name Charles Demuth, the painter, was oddly infatuated, who consorted with one or perhaps all of the Dusters and whom we, or I at least, never saw; it was told that she came to a bad end in some way reminiscent of the girl in the "Frankie and Johnny" song.
When I opened the side door of the small and rather dingy saloon on Fourth Street it was a little before ten-thirty and Christine had not arrived. The place was rather dimly lighted and the walls, upon which a few nondescript pictures hung, receded into darkness. I seated myself at a table against the wall from which I could look into the bar and see what was happening there. It seemed, through the swinging door that separated the two rooms, even less interesting than where I was sitting, and I pondered as I had done outside on the street on the reason for the name of the place. No one came to take my order, for which I was glad enough as having gone this far I preferred to wait for Christine without having to order a drink.
The place smelled of beer and stale tobacco smoke. I took off my woolen gloves and my hat, which for some reason annoyed me, and smoothed back my hair. I found a cigarette in my bag and lit it. I thought of the old brown coat lined with lamb's wool which I had worn on the farm, and in the pockets of which I always found a package of cigarettes, usually left there by my mother, and I wondered if there was any reason for Christine asking me to meet her here at this hour instead of going to the restaurant to pick her up. I felt a little uneasy being in the back room of a bar, not being used to it, but I knew I should not mind, what with me writing about those girls lying beneath their eider-down puffs who never knew why and neither did I. . . .
Then I noticed that a man was staring at me from where he sat in a far corner of the room. He was so close to the stained darkness of the wall and so motionless that I had not seen him. He was dark and was wearing a seaman's sweater under his jacket. There was something startling in his gaze, something at the same time both sad and cruel. I longed for Christine, for I felt that here was something that I did not understand. His somber expression gave me the feeling that he had once known me somewhere. There was a poignant and expressive silence in the back room. I began to get uneasy, wondering if Christine was coming after all. She might have forgotten, and I thought that very soon I would leave if she did not come. This was not caused by the man looking at me. There was evident in him, to me sitting there, a reticence or shyness that was very noticeable, as if he wanted to absorb himself into the background of the room, become unnoticeable among the room's dark shadows, betrayed only by those dark and unhappy eyes. Then the door opened and the man that I had seen that afternoon stood there looking about with a benign but very determined air.
"Where's Christine?" he cried, seeing me. I did not know what to say and merely looked at him, astonished. He looked around and saw the dark man in the far corner. "All right, Gene—you here? Tell her I'm going to leave her—that's all!" And pulling his great buff-colored coat (which I found out later had been purchased by Christine, as a gift in keeping with his character) close about him he left, slamming the door. The barkeeper came in, hearing the noise, said something to the man in the corner and asked me if I wanted anything. I shook my head and he paid no more attention to me but wiped off a table or two and then turned on another light. At that moment Christine came in, and there was a moment of excitement while she embraced me, holding me tight, her Danish laughter gurgling, the barkeeper watching us. A comedy began, the center of which was Christine. Who can forget her? I don't remember what she wore or how she looked except that she was tall and voluptuous, with the ugliest face ever seen on a woman—forgive me saying that, dear!—and the most gorgeous, the most wonderful pile of red-gold hair, too heavy and too alive to stay properly on her head, always wanting to slip down to one side or the other. She, it seemed, knew Louis was after her now, when before she had been after him. She told us about it—the barkeeper, me, and the young man in the corner. Me and my job were forgotten—the main thing was that she was there. Soon Louis was forgotten too. Existence was in the moment and living was now and her husband didn't exist, not being there. Somehow the dark man was with us, and I saw that he was young and very interested in a silent way, speaking in a low and sometimes indistinct voice, that his suit looked as if he might have slept in it for a night or so and that his hands trembled a little. Christine ordered beer and then she said:
"Gene, tell me, is Jamie coming?"
I don't remember what Gene said, or I said or she said, except that when she said to me "This is Gene O'Neill" the name was a very pleasant sound to me, some impression just in the sound of it, though I had never heard it before so far as I remembered. Some names are like that and when they are, almost always something happens about that person. . . . And all the time I felt his dark eyes looking at me and I was wondering more and more. . . . But pretty soon anyway Jamie came in, but not before Christine had an opportunity to explain something to me. Gene O'Neill had gone into the bar for a few moments to see someone there and during his short absence she told me that Gene was waiting here for his brother because he was completely broke and Jamie was going to give him some money. It seemed that their father, James O'Neill, the famed actor, gave each of his sons an allowance of fifteen dollars a week and Gene had run out of his and Jamie still had some left. Gene had told her about it that afternoon and Christine explained, laughing, that was why she had had me meet her here. She loved her husband, he was really just the man for her, but she was fond of Jamie too, and he was such a relief after those leonine embraces! He makes love to every woman he meets, look out, darling, God, what a character! He's obscene too, but you don't mind. . . .
Jamie came in and saw the three of us sitting at a table where Christine, who had the restaurant money in her big flat pocketbook, was buying drinks. I can't say that he swaggered in, though that word does occur to me, nor that he staggered, even though, as he was fond of saying, he was polluted, or on the way to where he wanted to go. He just appeared. He stood at the door, which he forgot to close behind him, not exactly unsteady but being careful of every movement, his face beaming through a sort of haze, a face so ordinary in some ways, so unlike his brother's, that it gave me a queer shock that first time, the face that had helped him make a success in The Traveling Salesman because it was just that, it gave exactly the idea of the traveling man, the "drummer." He was wearing a suit of loud black and white checks, a bowler, and a topcoat was over one arm. His collar was rather tight against his reddish neck, there was a small carnation in his buttonhole, and his tie was carefully tied. So what one noticed was his general natty appearance and the pleasure that he expressed at having at last arrived and seeing us there, for his gaze included me, indeed he almost seemed to single me out. . . .
But above all, perhaps, one noticed the quality of his voice when he spoke. It has been said of his father, James O'Neill, that he had the finest speaking voice on the American stage, and this voice was given to Jamie, too. It was penetrating—not big or deep, though he could make it that way. I remember now Gene once telling me with great amusement how when they were both on tour with his father Jamie, whenever bored, would take a taxi to the zoo of whatever city they were playing, stand in front of the lion's cage, and infuriate the lions and amuse the bystanders by roaring louder and better than the biggest lion.
"What ho!" Jamie said—his famous expression. "Late? Yes!" and here he quoted a line from Shakespeare which didn't quite seem to fit the situation, and then he added, moving carefully toward Christine, "I got lost in the subway, looking for a big blonde with a bad breath!"—leering a bit as he said it.
Yes, he leered but it was a kindly leer, with some sort of a Punch and Judy show behind it; yes, his smile was like the smile of Punch, with the lips pressed together and some secret behind it that he wasn't telling anybody. The dimples in Christine's face deepened and she became quite lovely, so gay, so warm. She led him on, it was a game of wits between them, a perfect contrast to her husband. His dark brother listened and watched her dimpling and gaiety as Jamie praised her hair, her eyelashes (she didn't have any that could be seen), her bosom, her teeth—which were perfect and which he said looked as if they could tear a man to pieces; and then he turned with a look at me, and asked his brother where he had found this beauty—more beautiful, he assured him, than anyone he had seen for a long time, a wild Irish rose, the one that would tear out a man's heart and make him cry out in his sleep with longing for her, and why hadn't he seen her first? That was his bad luck; for whenever his brother, drunk or sober, set his eyes on a girl there was no getting her to look at anyone else, and he looked at me sadly and took the wilted carnation from his buttonhole and handed it to me, but I don't think he even saw me.
We all laughed. It was something like watching the wrestlers in the arena put on their harlequinade of sound and facial expression which amuses but does not deceive, and yet somehow Jamie made us believe what he said when he said it. Then something strange happened again to me. . . . I saw that Gene didn't like the looks that his brother was giving me, or perhaps it was that he did not like my obvious enjoyment of the flattery which for quite a time I had not been hearing.
He and Jamie went out to the bar to talk together; Jamie may have given him the money and they had a couple of drinks. I asked Christine about the job I had been thinking about and she said the place had closed down. Now, why didn't I—? Then she stopped and ordered another drink for herself. I could see then that it was more important to her to talk about the two men and to my surprise she talked most about Gene. Didn't I like him? I said I didn't make him out, and she said, "Well, he's fallen for you, darling, I can see that. He's quite indifferent to girls—or rather he's ironic about their glances and their advances and that's as far as it goes. Although I think he'd miss it if it wasn't happening. He has a sorrow which isn't a secret, and Jim"—she called him that now—"has a secret which he won't allow to become a sorrow. Not yet. Not until next year."
"Why next year?"
She picked up her drink and looked across at me. If anyone told Christine anything in confidence she never repeated it.
"So—what do you think of Gene?"
"He's—strange, isn't he?"
"That's his genius! He's not drunk enough to really talk though. You should hear him when he does." Then she added thoughtfully, "He hardly ever talks when he's sober."
I asked her what Gene did and she said that he wrote plays.
"I thought you'd heard of him. Mary Pyne and Hutch—" she began; but I explained to her that I wasn't interested in the theater and hadn't paid much attention when Mary was talking about the new group.
"He has a play uptown, done by the Washington Square Players—In the Zone" she said, "beside two they are going to do down here!" I was about to say that he looked more like a poet to me, but she had lost interest and, going to the swinging door, called in to them to join us.
I had intended to leave early, but instead I sat at the table, where we were now all together again, fascinated by Christine and the loquacious Jamie, and touched by the sudden engaging and warm smile that now more frequently appeared on Gene's face. But he soon became more silent; nor did he look at me as much as he had. I felt myself drawn toward him and I was aware of a curious and yet simple sensation—I must and I would see a lot of this man. Just why, I didn't know: it had never happened to me before. I remember that I also was very silent during the last of this evening.
At last we got up, and Jamie, as I remember it, wanted his brother to go uptown with him, but Gene shook his head. So we walked along Fourth Street together and Jamie took Christine down Macdougal Street, imitating, as they went off, the roar of a lion in order to warn the husband, should he be around, while the dark and silent brother walked across the deserted Washington Square beside me. I had been amused by the evening, particularly by Jamie and by the lion's reverberating roar, and felt quite gay and happy and young. But Gene said nothing until we reached the steps in front of the Brevoort and I put out my hand to say good night. Then he began to talk. I wish I could remember what he said but I can't. I don't think I quite knew—even then. He was sad, and when he looked away from me his eyes were dramatic. He had his hands in his pocket and he obviously felt cold. I began to worry about him and said I must go upstairs. But he kept me there a moment longer, his dark eyes looking at me directly now. His voice was low but very sure. "I want to spend every night of my life from now on with you," he said. "I mean this. Every night of my life."
I don't think I realized until I got upstairs to my room what a singular thing it was for him to say. I had not replied, or even smiled, which might have shown I just considered it a new way of paying me a compliment. We both just stood there silently and stupidly for a moment, and then I said, well, good night, or something like that and went into the hotel.
I closed the door behind me, looking at the typewriter and the
narrow bed; then, still somewhat bewildered, I went to the window
and pulled the shade aside a little to look down to the street below
where we had been standing. I had a feeling that he might still be
standing there as he was when I left him. But he was gone, and
although I stood there for a while, looking down the street at the
trees in the park I saw no sign of him. . . .
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