EXCERPTS FROM AN AMERICAN MEMORY
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.......... My grandfather was a man who went through his life without grace of imagination.
Stolid, purposeful, sternly comforting as he may have seemed on the outside,
the wind blew through my grandfather’s bones.
..........He kept an office on the mezzanine level of the theater, a small room
with a single high window like a turret window in a castle. The room was
large enough to hold a desk and chair, a filing cabinet, a small old-fashioned
sofa. Two shelves over the desk held bound ledgers; below them, on a smaller
shelf, stood six glasses, a quart of whiskey, and a pitcher of water.
Tucked in one corner was a low iron safe squatting on four feathered talons,
each clutching beneath it a dull iron ball. In this small room, in the
middle of the mornings, my grandfather wrote checks, balanced his ledgers,
wrote out book orders for films: cartoons, romances, musical comedies,
always accompanied by newsreels that showed the progress of battles on
the far sides of the earth.
.......... When he was inside his office, the door would stand open; a shaft of light
from his desk lamp would fall across the red carpeting of the mezzanine
where the staircase turned up toward the darkness of the balcony seats.
In the auditorium, two cleaning ladies would vacuum between the rows of
seats, their machines attached to long black cords plugged in under the
skirt of the stage. They would sweep up spilled popcorn, pieces of candy,
crumpled wrappers of various kinds. Under the seats they would find lost
coins, dropped scarves, gloves, handkerchiefs, sometimes wallets or valued
personal objects, necklaces, trinkets, jeweled rings, sometimes dollar
..........There is a memory that stays with me in which it seems always to be February
or March, the months of chill gray light, and in which the time seems
always to be the same vacant, slow hour of midmorning. Outdoors, the snow
is turning to slush; it falls in wet clumps from the black branches of
trees, and, in the streets, the tires of cars leave deep ruts in the slush,
which then fill with icy water. In this memory there is a cold buffeting
wind, heavy and strong with a cutting dampness, under a sky that is low
Reprinted with permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
..........Inside the theater, I feel aimless and confined, burdened with empty time.
I embark upon a circular pattern, which compulsively I trace over and
over. I climb up the stairway past my grandfather’s open door, then
continue along the muffled carpeting up into the chill emptiness of the
balcony. I cross through the darkness of the balcony; descend the opposite
staircase; move through the wan gray daylight of the main lobby; then
re-ascend silently past my grandfather’s open door. I make this
identical journey six, eight, perhaps ten or a dozen times, running as
quickly as I am able without breaking my silence or alerting my grandfather,
traveling circles through the darkness of the hollow old theater.
..........When I am exhausted, I climb to the top row of the balcony and find my
way into a center seat, beneath the square holes cut into the wall of
the projectionist’s booth. The auditorium is dark, illuminated only
by the dim glow of the exit signs over the doors. Waiting for my breath
to calm, I gaze down through this great volume of historical emptiness,
able to see only vaguely the pale image of the screen standing behind
its thin translucent curtain. As my wild heartbeat slowly quiets, silence
closes in around me. I am enclosed inside a vast dark space free of sound,
of motion, perhaps even of time. I wait. I seem to sense only a great
silence. Then at last I begin to ear the sounds of the wind from outdoors.
There is a dull buffet against the wooden roof. From somewhere backstage
comes a subdued, hesitant moan. Then the wind gets caught under a roofboard,
or tries to come in at a barred doorway, and I hear a high rising whistle,
a small voice thin with unspeakable weariness, a sound that comes from
the far distance of the dead past, palely wavering, tenuous, as frail
as a thread.
..........Although she presented with some success an outward impression of stylish
self-confidence, social independence, and a certain bohemian disdain for
the less significant aspects of moral conformity, she was not a rebellious
creature. More to the truth, she was a woman whose life was governed by
fear as much as it ever could be by the apparent independence of her temperament.
The many fears she possessed were both small and great, rooted predominantly
in her childhood, and wide ranging in their variety. She feared disorder,
violence of any kind (the result, perhaps, of her parents’ excessive
fighting when she was young), and the callousness of feeling that permitted
or caused abuse of weakness by strength. She feared all forms of personal
danger and the physical suffering (more in others than in herself, and
more in children than in adults) that comes from injury to the flesh.
She feared horses and to a lesser extent all large domesticated animals
(especially if horned or hooved), unleashed dogs unless well known to
her, and, in suspicion of their carrying diseases that might turn them
vicious and poisonous, squirrels, skunks, foxes, all rodents, and bats.
She feared lakes, ponds, and rivers, or any places, including bathtubs,
where death by drowning could occur. She feared automobiles, cliffs, heights,
ladders, airplanes, and high speeds. She feared the silent and lethal
powers of electricity, and she feared pieces of exposed machinery in which
any part of the body or clothing might be caught. She feared ice skates,
sled runners, roller skates, and bicycles, broken glass, knives, ice picks,
the lids of tin cans, household astringents and acids, communicable diseases,
and all the kinds of poisoning conveyable through tainted, infected, or
contaminated food. In dread of choking, she was frightened of the effect,
especially on children, of popcorn, peanuts, hard candy, the pits of small
fruits, olives, and fish bones. She feared pencils and sharp sticks, barbed
wire, slingshots, metal shavings, and all materials of potential hazard
to the eyes. More abstractly, she feared the coming of war and the disharmony
of nations. She feared high winds, lightning, burglars, trespassers, and
loud or sharp noises. From early childhood she had been afraid of brandished
weapons, but in particular she was frightened of firearms and guns. When
she became married (in the year 1933), she married for love, but also
FROM “SIX” (1947-1951)
..........September 20th, 1947. My father
draws the car slowly to a stop on the shoulder of the gravel road. He
leans forward to set the handbrake, then turns off the engine. Through
the rolled-down windows of the car, we gaze at the farmhouse where it
stands silently behind the deep, flat apron of its front lawn.
..........It is made of white clapboard, and it is in need of paint. Two upstairs
gables face the road, and the tall sash windows set into them gaze back
at us without recognition. The windows are curtainless. Behind them is
the flat, empty darkness of an uninhabited house.
..........Atop the house is a brick chimney. On the front is a low porch with square
wooden posts supporting its slanted roof. From the limb of a tree on the
front lawn hangs a swing made of a single rope and a rubber tire. Under
the swing, the grass of the lawn is worn into a shallow oval basin of
..........In the front seat of the car, my father lights a cigarette. I catch the
scent of the freshly lighted tobacco. My father exhales. The smoke hits
the windshield, then spreads out against the glass.
..........From the lowering sun in the west, long shadows of tree trunks fall in
silent bands across the tracks of the driveway as they disappear around
to the back of the empty farmhouse.
..........(In winter, the old house labored frequently under the ponderous blows
of a north wind. At night, when I could feel the wall beside my bed shuddering
under its force, I would listen in fear to the screaming and cavernous
sounds of the rising storm. In the morning, looking out from the window
of my upstairs room, I would see thickly veiled air churning and swept
with bright whiteness. Deep drifts of snow, whirled and dropped by the
wind, would be slowly filling up the sheltered center of the farmyard.
Smooth inclines of snow mounted the sides of the unpainted wooden sheds,
obscured all but the tops of their doorways, covered their windows, sometimes
reached to their sagging rooftops.
..........Sometimes we were snowbound for days at a time. After the passing of the
storm, the air calmed slowly and the temperature dropped below zero. Under
a black sky flung across with bright stars, the nights were frozen into
an immaculate emptiness of poised, hushed silence. The farmhouse shrank
in the still, arctic cold, settling into itself after the fierceness of
the wind like an old tooth settling back into its socket. Lying awake
in the vast silence, I would sometimes hear the sharp rifle-crack of a
freezing tree limb, a single echoless report from somewhere outside in
the blue and shadowed darkness.)
FROM “TWELVE” (1971-1975)
..........A woman goes mad early one morning. She screams in rage, shouts with a
coarse abusiveness, begins throwing her possessions from a window of the
building that neighbors ours. The window is on the tenth floor; perhaps
it is her dining room, or kitchen. The woman’s words are not always
distinct, her shouts distorted by the deceiving acoustics of the high
surrounding walls of other buildings.
..........From the window of our own kitchen I can see the things as she throws
them out. A broom appears, sailing in a graceful arc like a spear, and
falls ten flights to the courtyard between wings of the building. It bounces
once, then lies still as death on the courtyard cement. It is followed
by a dust mop, a three-legged stool, and then a box of soap flakes that,
twirling, leaves a corkscrew trail in the air as it falls.
..........My wife comes up behind me, having been awakened also by the echoing rises
and falls of the screaming voice. It is autumn. The sky is blue, and steady
morning sunlight floods the side of the building from which the objects
are coming. A piece of bright red clothing flutters down with a forlorn,
exhausted gaiety. It is followed by coffee cups, one after , then dinner
plates. A tray of silverware appears in the air, turns lazily, empties
out bright knives and forks that seem to hang weightlessly for a moment,
then glint briefly in the sunlight as they fall. These objects land loudly
on the cement below. As they do so, windows begin to open. Heads stick
..........Standing behind me, my wife grips my arm tightly. Then she turns away,
goes directly to the telephone, dials the police. There is a pause. Then
my wife says into the receiver, “A woman has gone mad. Someone has
to help her.”
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