Friday, May 22, 2009

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The First Tale (The Mad Woman Across the Street)

As a child I lived in a small Iowa town, population 400, named Newhall, in honor—evidently—of its largest structure. My father began his career there as the basketball coach, was quickly promoted to the principal of the school, and within a year or two of our arrival, became the Superintendent of Schools.

In small towns everyone is strange, since everyone knows everyone so well but not, evidently, enough. It’s that space between knowing and not knowing which is at the heart of events in such towns. And there are so many events, ultimately, that you realize very quickly that not knowing people is what knowing people is all about. Living in a town where you know nearly everyone around you, you quickly comprehend that no one can ever be known very well. So confusion sets in, and in that confusion you try to explain to yourself what is the difference between knowing someone and not. Perhaps you can fill that gap between not knowing and wanting to with what you imagine is really there to be known. And that is at the heart of gossip, at first a friendly act and, later—when the not knowing persists—an act of malice for not being able to know about one so close. This is always how love and desire quickly turn into fear and hate.

The lady across the street was a very nice woman, an elderly woman living in what seemed to my childish eyes a mansion—in reality just a two-storey house. When my parents needed a babysitter on those two or three nights a year they determined to celebrate the fact that they were a married couple still in love, it was she to whom they turned. And it was Mrs. Heffner to whom we awoke, accordingly, when my mother—so our sitter proclaimed—had gone to the hospital to pick up my new baby sister. I knew better, that my mother had gone to “have” my sister—even if I didn’t know what “having” meant—so I kept quiet about the old woman’s mistake. Besides my brother was too young to know anything!

In all the years we knew her, my parents expressed an opinion of her life only twice. The first time was the morning her brother, with whom she lived, came out of the house and sat under the tree in the front yard on a Sunday morning dressed only in his pajamas. He often sat upon her porch, gently rocking in the swing, so I found nothing at all out of the ordinary in his pleasure. I knew, however, that, had I attempted to find such enjoyment in our front yard, my parents would have made me dress for the occasion. “Why doesn’t she do something about him?” my mother asked of no one in particular.

Occasionally Mrs. Heffner was visited by her sister, but nothing was ever said about this sibling, even though she was far stranger, to my way of thinking, than Mrs. Heffner’s brother. One time when I was playing about the “mansion,” Mrs. Heffner invited me in for lemonade. The moment I took a sip, her sister began to shout: “Where’s that damn bread man? Why hasn’t he come? Where has he gotten to, I wonder? That lazy ass.”

I had never heard anyone swear at a bread man; I had never heard anyone swear. Just as importantly, I had never seen a bread man and never known one to visit our town. What was a bread man? I wondered. Upon my asking my parents, they explained that a bread man was a man who used to deliver bread. “But nowadays we buy bread in the grocery store,” my mother consolingly spoke. “Mrs. Heffner’s sister is a not a well woman,” she added. “She lives in an institution.”

“Oh,” I responded. For I knew what that meant. My grandfather’s daughter by his first marriage had lived in an institution too.

“They should send her brother there as well,” my father chimed in.

“Poor Mrs. Heffner,” my mother ended their talk.

As I have reported, Mrs. Heffner herself was very nice, so different from the man next door to her, who often shouted at us children when we passed his place and one time killed a giant black snake, the body of which he displayed for weeks in his front yard. No one would go near his house.

Indeed, “nice-ness” is an important commodity in small towns, as it stands for everything from “minding your own business” to being kind and generous to your neighbors, the second representing the behavior of the Gertsons, the childless couple next door to our house.

One day they told me they were planning to mix some cement, so I should come by and play in the sand before they used it up.

A few days previous I had been so bored I had complained to my mother, who, as she hung clothes upon the back yard line, suggested that I begin collecting shells. Collecting shells! How ridiculous, I thought to myself. “Where would I get shells!” I wailed to my mother. Suddenly she bent down and brought up a small snail shell, one of the most beautiful shells I have to this day seen in my life! “Here,” she said. “Your first shell.” I have never received a greater gift.

In the sand beside the Gertson’s garage I found numerous shells, marvelous seashells: a Strombus Sinuatus, a White Spindle, a Perry’s Triton, a Rams Murex. What were they doing there? This sand must be from the sea, I responded upon the incredible discovery. “No, just from a river bank,” Mr. Gertson said. When I showed Mrs. Gertson all the shells I had uncovered, she pinched herself in disbelief.

To this day, I still can’t fathom the extraordinary kindness of these neighbors, who obviously had brought in sand and filled it with the imported treasures just for my delight. I kept this sacred collection, along with others sent to me by my uncle in California, in a box that one day simply disappeared, never to be seen again. I used to suspect my brother was behind its disappearance; knowing him as I do today, I cannot imagine his involvement, unless he gave the shells as a surrogate gift—like the Gertsons had given me—to his younger friends.

The Gertsons were the first people in town to buy a television set, and invited my brother and me to witness its inauguration. After Mr. Gertson fiddled for what seemed like forever with the rabbit ears, they plugged the huge behemoth into the wall, and an image magically appeared: it was Liberace! How awful, I remember feeling, television was. Even then I recognized that his great displays of piano bravura were the ultimate of kitsch—even if I didn’t have a word for it.

The first day of school was a snowy one. Winter bore down hard upon this small Iowa village in September that year. I didn’t want to go to school—two long blocks away from our house—but my mother literally pushed me out the door. I went and turned back. “The wind blew me home,” I announced.

“You go on now,” she laughed. Evidently she called my father to report my obstinateness; the man was understandably irritated by her call—having spent his entire morning attempting to reassign buses stuck in the snow drifts along the backcountry roads. That day must have been behind my parents’ determination that I would never miss a day of class.

Indeed, for most of my life lived in the confines of educational institutions, I was a near-perfect student. I liked school well enough, save that the teachers, who—given the fact that father had employed them—went out of their way to make sure that I was treated just like everyone else. They never called on me when I raised my hand. When in music hour each week one student was selected to sing a special chorus, I was overlooked. For grades I received B’s only, never a coveted A. Their fairness outraged my inborn sense of justice.

I hated recess, for then the school bully controlled my life. Jimmy Good pushed and pulled, spouting every mean thing his little mind conjured up until I was nearly in tears. Children, it is clear, do not have a sense of irony, for no one ever thought his last name inappropriate. I tried to ignore him, but everywhere I turned on the playground there he was to threaten my existence. Often times, I just hid near the door. But even there I wasn’t entirely safe. One or another teacher was always attempting to push me back into the other children’s games.

News spreads quickly in small towns; no need for newspapers or television sets. The news that day was awful: Jimmy Good had been hit by a car downtown, three blocks from our house. The reporter of this news must have been quite graphic, for, although I did not witness the event, I can remember to this moment the image of Jimmy sprawled upon the street, a box of broken eggs beside him, where they had spilled from his grocery sack.

Now it was safe to go out to play. But by that time I had learned to live inside my imagination and was awkward in group games. I was almost relieved when Jimmy came hobbling back. Besides, I was no longer afraid. And Jimmy, as everybody knew, had now learned what fear felt like. I began my long retreat from the world where everybody knew or wanted to know everything about everyone into a world where no one could know anything about anyone—a retreat into my head, where for ten years or more I hid out.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2003

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