WHERE WERE YOU when Kennedy was killed?
It is destined to become the most famous question of the last decades of the twentieth century, but Leo Green can’t answer it to anyone’s satisfaction, let alone his own. He is already dead to himself by the time the President’s open limousine makes its way from Love Field into Dallas . . .
He is nineteen years old, a sophomore at Colonial College, one of those small elite New England men’s schools that would go co-ed at the end of the sixties, and he has no idea what is happening to him. The truth is, he’s in the depths of a severe depression—a term he’s always associated with United States history, economics, and the stock market crash of 1929. Yet no one applies that term to his case, nor does he ever think of applying it to himself. A “nervous breakdown” is what one had in those days, but he’s never known anyone who’s had one, except for an old friend of the family who owns a local garage and had so many cars to work on that he became unable to pump gas or even check a customer’s oil. Leo can pump gas, if he has to, or check the oil on his father’s old Chevy. The problem is his mind. It is hamstrung, stuck in the past, even as he functions in the present like an automaton. His past has become his present, his present his past. He can no longer concentrate or put two thoughts together or remember anything he’s read or said. He spends his days watching himself watch himself. And now it’s November and he is paralyzed by an all-consuming, hyper self-consciousness that overcomes him the instant he wakes in the morning and leaves him only when he manages to escape into sleep.
On the day the President flies to Dallas Leo Green doesn’t shower or shave—he hasn’t shaved in weeks—although unshaven students are not at all unusual at elite New England men’s schools in the early sixties. But his crew cut has grown out and he looks ragged, unkempt. He hasn’t laundered or ironed his khakis. And the button-down collars on his wash-and-wear shirts remain unbuttoned. His eyes are hollow and underscored with purple. He looks haunted and avoids all mirrors or any dark campus window that might give him back his own reflection. He avoids his roommate as well (Chad, from California), keeping to his own bedroom off their shared living room in Porter Hall. When choosing socks from his dresser drawer finally proves impossible—Leo just sits there, staring at the tangled pile of mismatched socks until he hears Chad’s alarm go off (he’s been sitting there, in fact, since long before daybreak, the campus quiet and black)—he abandons socks entirely, like the wise-ass prep school guys who just wear penny loafers.
This devastating condition, whatever it is, begins in late September, which seems eons ago, when Leo changes his major from general studies to pre-med and back again. It’s a simple move—a matter of getting his adviser to sign a drop form after that same adviser has signed an add form—after a few long labs in organic chemistry convince him that he’s made a mistake. He could never master algorithms (or is it logarithms?) in high school, but assumes that the higher purpose of pursuing a medical career will do it for him now, enabling him to handle the math necessary for organic chemistry. But it doesn’t—hadn’t—although he tries only for a few weeks before fleeing to his adviser in a panic. And then a certain subtle sadness falls over him, settling into his head like a bad idea, like an inkblot that then metastasizes into a creature with black tentacles, encasing his brain and gradually strangling it, leaving him in metaphysical despair. Since late September he is just going through the motions, pretending to be a normal sophomore, while spending every waking moment in a meticulous review of his nineteen years. He is reliving remembered scenes one by one, from his earliest reminiscences to the eternally tormented present, hoping unsuccessfully for a clue to—what? To the cause of his anguish, his mental derangement, to whatever can put an end to it. Including suicide. He’s already chosen the place and the method and marked his calendar for this weekend.
It is Friday, November 22, 1963, and from 1:00-1:50 P.M. Eastern Standard Time Leo’s general studies literature course meets on the second floor of Founders Hall, a veritable brownstone fortress on the eastern ledge of campus, overlooking downtown. The tables are arranged seminar-fashion in a large block letter O. As the professor takes his seat at the head of the formation, nearest the door, Leo slumps into a chair directly opposite. A tall window at his back offers a view of an American flag fluttering high above a local bank. A dozen students occupy the other chairs. The professor peruses the room as if taking attendance then turns to his text and his notes. It is 1:01. Leo is there but not there—there in body but drowning in darkness. The agony of his anxiety is greater than any physical pain he’s ever known, worse than the blood poisoning he contracted from climbing the ropes in his Toryford High School gym class:
Reach as high as you can and grip the rope with both hands. Loop it over your left foot and step on it with your right. Now pull yourself up—again and again. And
don’t look down!
At the top, where the fat rope hangs from the horizontal bar among the metal rafters, he can peek out the windows below the ceiling. Glimpse blue sky beyond. Glimpse the flagpole in front of the school, the American flag snapping in the breeze.
First one down gets an A for the day!
But in his haste to descend he abrades his left leg. A sliver of hemp embeds itself in the raw skin where his calves hug the rope. A few days later—in Latin—it suddenly feels as if his leg is lined below the knee with a long shard of glass. After class he hikes up his pants in the boys’ room and finds a red streak along his calf, like the stripe on the shorts of his basketball uniform. He tries to walk but the hot pain is excruciating. He hobbles to the nurse’s office, is made to lie on the cot. By the time his father arrives the leg is swollen to the knee. It is lanced in the Emergency Room at Bridgeport Hospital before its poison can rise to his heart.
The organ that beats but no longer feels.
(The doctor looks relieved. This could have killed you, son.)
* * *
Why should changing his major, then changing his mind, precipitate a crisis? He traces it to the first awkward awareness of himself in space and time:
He is in the back yard, watching the Sputnik make its way across the sky. The stars are still out, the October dawn chilly and gray. And suddenly he sees himself as if from that satellite, the very first self-portrait of himself in the universe—puny and cold, in pajamas and bathrobe, his bare feet wet with dew. His slippers are on the back porch. He doesn’t want to get them soaked in the grass, for he is already awash in puberty, a prerequisite for melancholia.
Do they see it? his father says loudly. Do they see it? He is speaking for the benefit of the neighbors, who are looking skyward in the wrong direction. His father always plays to available audiences, much to Leo’s chagrin and embarrassment. It’s 359 miles away, he continues. That’s 577 kilometers. He’s the engineer now, self-taught, then night school, determined that his three sons, huddled about him with their gazes trained above, will do better. As the article he cuts from the newspaper and posts in the kitchen proclaims: TO EARN MORE YOU MUST LEARN MORE.
But Leo isn’t listening. Miles or kilometers, they might as well be light-years, frozen as he is by the self image provoked by this winking, blinking satellite the Russians have launched, shocking the world. His eyes are tearing against the cold. But why bother? He is watching himself from an infinitely colder immensity. And it sinks him in sadness.
Time for breakfast, his mother says, herding them inside. You’ll be late for school! Sputnik or no, her brood comes first. She’s standing on the top step of the small cement back porch, holding the storm door open. And so they hurry back into the bright and warm kitchen.
The Russians are Communists, Leo’s older brother says. Isn’t that right, Dad? Lenny is two years older than Leo and toes the family party line.
You bet they are, his father replies. Behind the Iron Curtain.
Iron Curtain? It’s a term Leo doesn’t understand. He takes it literally, imagining a chainmail version of the Swiss-dot curtains in his bedroom separating foreign countries overseas. The concept is somehow connected to a strange float permanently parked by the side of the road at the north end of town—a flatbed wagon with a graveyard of white crosses on a green rug, sporting a red banner warning of Communism, with a clenched fist and hammer-and-sickle. Every year on Memorial Day Old Man Nemergut hitches that float to his tractor for the parade down Toryford’s Main Street. One year, marching with the Cub Scouts, Leo follows right behind it, carrying the American flag at the head of his unit. He can almost reach out and touch those white crosses. After the parade he asks his father about the float, but his father dismisses Old Man Nemergut as a kook.
Dad, Leo asks now quietly, sliding into the breakfast nook opposite Lenny and sleepy-eyed Larry, what d’ ya think Mr. Nemergut would say about the Sputnik?
He feels a burning need to know. The Sputnik, by causing him to stare into outer space, reduces him to a cosmic dust mote. He is studying the solar system in junior high. He makes models out of wire coat hangers and balls of different sizes—ping pong balls, tennis balls, Wiffle balls—to show the distance of the planets from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. Earth comes third. And now the Sputnik’s whirling round it. And the Sputnik frightens him. The Sputnik is Russian and the Russians are Communists. In school they have to do drills in which he crouches under his desk and holds his hands over his head. And on television there are ads showing windows exploding and drapes billowing and red arrows spreading across a map of Europe, and—
Leo, his mother says. Leo!
What? His fork is poised mid-air.
But it is his father who answers: Eat your scrambled eggs.
* * *
“Well, men, as you learned from the text’s preface to the Romantic Period, in the 1800s England is changing from an agricultural society to an industrial society, and many people—certainly those with poetic sensibilities—are finding that events are transpiring too rapidly for the adaptive powers of the human psyche . . .”
Leo is staring into space. At the Sputnik. The what? The human sigh key. Yes. That’s exactly what he’s looking for. The sigh key. The key to that deep unconscious breath that’s so expressive of sadness. What—where—is the sigh key? He grimaces in an instinctive reflex of self-deprecation. But for the moment it connects him to the class. He reaches into the pocket of his khakis for a pen, but he hasn’t brought one. No textbook, no notebook, either. But it doesn’t matter, because he’s suddenly certain that the sigh key begins earlier than the Sputnik, causing this disposition from outer space, this penchant for emotional turmoil, this psychological ambush visited upon him for changing his major and then changing it back. This sudden sense of overwhelming sadness that has brought him to the edge of an abyss.
The sigh key is not the Sputnik. It’s earlier than that. It’s Miss America. He’s convinced now that it has to do with the Miss America pageant. His family watched it every year when he was in elementary school. It becomes an annual family event, just like the Fourth of July, a consolation at the end of summer—right around Labor Day—as Lenny and Leo and Larry get ready to return to school, two grades apart. They gather around the flickering black-and-white television screen in the living room and everybody picks a contestant to root for. Leo always chooses Miss Connecticut, the home state favorite, regardless of the other 47 contestants. But Lenny is more selective—Miss Idaho! he says, and Larry says, Where’s Idaho? The contestants parade in their ball gowns, the names of their states emblazoned on bright sashes, left to right, shoulder to waist. Leo’s mother oohs and ahs at their shiny, bouncing hair, something her own hair never does, despite all the containers of Breck in the bathroom closet. His father hopes every year that one of the pretty contestants in the talent segment will play the banjo, the instrument he strums in blackface each winter in the Toryford minstrel show, the town’s surefire fundraiser.
Leo is awed by the glitz and glamour of the Miss America pageant, by the secret love he harbors in his heart for Miss Connecticut. When she speaks in the interview segment, her voice transports him. He wishes he could be one of the orphans to whom she plans to dedicate her life. And when Bert Parks croons his song after the announcement is made—Therrrrrre she is, Miss Amerrrrica!—and the winner walks along the runway with tears streaming down her face, even if it isn’t Miss Connecticut, Leo feels his heart will burst. His scalp shivers. He chokes back his tears so Lenny won’t make fun of him. He knows Miss Connecticut is older than he is, but it is the emotion of the moment that ravishes him.
He sighs, turning his head to wipe his eyes, so Lenny won’t see him and laugh. He is wondering if Nancy Kane, across the street, is watching the Miss America pageant too. If she will one day compete for Miss America. Nancy is in the eighth grade. She is Richard Kane’s older sister. She wears her dark hair like Buster Brown in the shoe ads on television. Her brother Richard is two years older than Lenny and therefore four years older than Leo. Nancy seems old enough to be Leo’s mother. When Leo is in Kindergarten she plays his mother in the annual Christmas tableau at school—Nancy sits in a rocking chair before the fireplace, Leo sits in his pajamas on her lap. His Kindergarten teacher, Miss Bassett, strips him to his underwear to dress him for the part—right in front of the class! After which he dreams that he is caught naked in the coatroom.
One afternoon Richard Kane shows Leo his sister’s room. Nancy is out. His mother is in the kitchen, his father at work. This is where she puts on her make-up, Richard says. They are standing before the mirror on Nancy’s vanity. And this is her powder-puff. He takes the lid from a small round jar. He lifts the soft bag within and pretends to dab his cheeks. Then he gets an idea. Come on! he cries. Leo follows him downstairs to the kitchen. Richard’s mother is now out on the back porch, hanging laundry from their clothesline. Richard motions for Leo to be quiet. He reaches into a cabinet and grabs a bag of marshmallows. They powder their cheeks with the marshmallows. Then they hide in the bushes out front to surprise Nancy when she returns. Richard’s mother is more amused than Nancy, who screams at Richard for invading her room.
On another afternoon they find a dead bird and Richard presides at its funeral. He puts the bird in a shoebox. Then he digs a hole, deposits the box, and tells Leo to be quiet. He says a few words in a serious tone. He covers the box with dirt. That’s all Leo remembers about Richard because the Kanes move away that very summer. But one day a few years later Leo’s mother informs them that Richard is dead. His speeding car strikes a telephone pole. He is as dead as the bird in that shoebox. (As dead as Leo feels now.) He is just sixteen years old. Which means that Nancy is at least twenty. Old enough to vie for Miss America.
* * *
“Your introduction, men, also delineates the elements of Romanticism. And for your next paper—due next Wednesday before Thanksgiving break—you will explore those elements in a poem of your own choosing from the text. The first element, of course, is a love of nature, which is easy enough to discern, since so many of the poems focus on a solitary figure in a landscape. There’s always a lone individual in a natural setting, and that person’s often an outcast, or a rebel of sorts, someone in tune with—and infused by—a kaleidoscope of emotion . . . ”
Leo is in the office of Mrs. Ogilvie, the Housekeeper at Bridgeport Hospital. He is interviewing for a summer job in a kaleidoscope of emotion. It is the spring of his junior year at Toryford High School and he needs to save money for college. As the newspaper article his father cuts out and posts in the kitchen proclaims: TO EARN MORE YOU MUST LEARN MORE.
Mrs. Ogilvie is a short woman in her sixties. She dresses all in white like a nurse but wears no nurse’s cap. Her small mouth is a perfect oval of bright red lipstick. Her eyes are piercing and dark. Leo stands tall before her, hands clasped behind his back.
Yes, Lionel, we have an opening for a—
I’m called Leo.
As in Leo the lion?
Yes—my favorite kid’s book. Actually, my older brother should’ve been named Lionel, after my father and grandfather. Then he could have been called Leo, instead.
Mrs. Ogilvie seems curious, intrigued. And why is that?
His name’s Leonard. L-e-o . . .
My father named him after Major General Leonard Wood—Dad was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood when he was in the Army during the war, but he never had to go overseas. Which is probably why Lenny and I—and our younger brother Larry—were born in the first place. Most of my Dad’s unit never returned.
And why am I rattling on like this, for Chrissakes, Leo is wondering. (He is infused by a kaleidoscope of emotion.) This is a job interview! But he feels a need to explain, because he absolutely hates his name. How many people do you know by the name of Lionel? He is thankful for his nickname. Nevertheless, every year at the beginning of school, all the way back to Kindergarten, he shudders when the teacher calls the roll, because as soon as she gets to the G’s and says Lionel Green, the class erupts and the mockery begins: Lionel! Lionel! The only Lionel he’s ever heard of is Lionel Hampton, the black jazz artist who plays the vibraphone. (It’s a good thing he’s on the basketball team and not in the band.) Fort Leonard Wood is responsible for his very existence as well as his name. And his father won’t ever let him or his brothers forget it—all because his father knew how to type. How many times have they heard the story? After basic training the C.O. says: Can anyone here handle a typewriter? His father raises his hand, is sent to an office, and is plunked down behind a desk for the duration of the war. Ensuring the next generation of Greens—and Lenny’s first name. It is Lenny who gives Leo his nickname.
Leo pauses. Mrs. Ogilvie says, Leonard Wood was a doctor, you know.
No, Leo says. I—I didn’t. I just know that he helped Teddy Roosevelt recruit the Rough Riders. My Dad told us about that.
Mrs. Ogilvie smiles. Leonard Wood won the Medal of Honor. He was to be Roosevelt’s political heir. But he lost the Republican nomination to Warren Harding, on the tenth ballot. And for the record, young man, I think Lionel is a very nice name.
But Leo doesn’t. Come to think of it (right now, in Founders Hall, on Friday, November 22, 1963, 1:09 P.M. EST), it might be the sigh key he’s looking for—the source of his all-encompassing, hypersensitive paralysis. The source of his sadness.
I was about to say, Mrs. Ogilvie continues, we have an opening for a wall-washer. She likes something about this handsome young man, the way he stands at attention, his eagerness to explain. If it’s still open when school lets out in June—and if you’re still interested—the job will be yours.
I’ll be back, Leo says. You can count on it. In fact, I was here once before. In the ER, just last year. I almost lost my li—leg.
Well, then, Mrs. Ogilvie concludes with a twinkle in her eye. We can consider you experienced.
* * *
He returns to Bridgeport Hospital in June, right after school lets out, and immediately learns why the job of wall-washer is still open—Housekeeping is the lowest of all departments in the hospital, and wall-washing is the lowest job in Housekeeping. But it’s his—his very first job, the gateway to his future, whatever that might entail—six days a week, eight hours a day, a dollar and five cents an hour.
Mrs. O, as she is called (the very block-letter configuration of the classroom tables in Founders Hall), shows him how to punch the time clock. Then she sends him to the laundry for a uniform—a brown khaki shirt with long sleeves and a pair of brown khaki pants with wide cuffs. The uniform is folded flat and starched as stiff as cardboard. It’s to be exchanged for a fresh one each Monday and Thursday, just when it’s comfortable enough to work in.
Then he is sent to the foreman, Mr. Steve. Mr. Steve is a recent immigrant or refugee from behind the Iron Curtain. His long last name hardly contains a single vowel. He is a thin, anxious man with thick-framed black glasses offset by a tidy white mustache. In what he calls the old country Mr. Steve was a lawyer, but the difficulty of learning English at an advanced age—he is much older than Mrs. O—keeps him from practicing law in America. When Mr. Steve began working at the hospital—as Leo learns from Mrs. O—he was twice his present weight. A heart attack, plus the strain of supervising the men of the Housekeeping Department, has reduced him to a nervous wisp. (Can changing one’s country cause a nervous breakdown? Is changing professions like changing one’s major?)
Mr. Steve prefaces all announcements, orders, or small talk with a quick Ahem, ahem . . . This verbal tic sounds like throat clearing. He wears brown khaki, as do all the male housekeepers (the women Housekeepers wear drab gray), but his pace is triple that of anyone’s—except Leo’s. Leo keeps right up. Mr. Steve escorts him down the long corridors and steep flights of stairs to the men’s locker room, a cramped area in the very bowels of the old hospital. Leo is still growing (he is on the basketball team) and has to duck beneath the heavily bandaged pipes.
As Leo is assigned one of the battered green lockers Mr. Steve somehow discovers that he is studying Latin in high school. Arma virumque cano, Mr. Steve recites proudly, lifting his eyes to the ceiling as if Virgil is listening. Leo responds with sophomoric lines from Caesar: Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes. Latin, Mr. Steve explains, is the language of the legal profession. It is the language of the medical profession. Maybe Leo will be a lawyer one day. Or a medical doctor.
The dingy locker room has benches like the locker room at Toryford High. There are half a dozen barroom-style chairs at a round wooden table in the corner. Leo puts on his uniform while the locker room fills with the Housekeeping crew—Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and a contingent of short, sullen, broad-faced men he is soon calling the Mushka-Pushka Men. For that is what their strange language sounds like: Mushka-Pushka! Mushka-Pushka! It is 9:15 A.M. Time for a coffee break. (It is 1:15 P.M. in Founders Hall.)
The Mushka-Pushka Men occupy the round wooden table in the corner. From their circle comes just one word that Leo understands. It rises heatedly from the circle of cigarette smoke during every coffee break: CommuNEEST! CommunNEEST! The Mushka-Pushka Men—Mr. Steve speaks their language—come from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland. But Leo’s geography is weak. His interest in history is even weaker. (He thinks of the Iron Curtain and Old Man Nemergut’s float. He thinks of that banner with the fist and hammer-and-sickle.) Mr. Steve is standing at the door. He taps his finger on his wristwatch. Ahem, ahem . . . Gentlemen. Coffee break is over. The locker room empties—more slowly than it ever fills—and Leo waits behind for Mr. Steve. Mr. Steve is always last one to exit. Leo has been on the job since 7:00 A.M. and has yet to lift a finger. He must work and earn money for college.
He must see the elements of Romanticism at work.
* * *
“And to help you get the hang of it, men—recognizing those elements for your paper—I want to devote the remainder of class to looking carefully at one of the Keats’ poems assigned for today, the one called La Belle Dame Sans Merci. That’s French. It means the beautiful merciless—or pitiless, if you will—woman.”
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Leo is alone and pale, slouching in his seat. He is in a dim, windowless corner of the hospital basement. Rows and rows of Venetian blinds are suspended from the ceiling. Mr. Steve neatly rolls back his sleeves, draws a pail of hot water from the tap at the sink, and adds liquid detergent like a waiter pouring wine. He shows Leo how to wash the blinds, dampening the rag just so, careful not to get the drawstrings wet, making sure to clean the slats on both sides. When he returns at noon Leo is done—has been standing around, in fact, for an hour, watching the Venetian blinds dry. Mr. Steve seems confused by his efficiency, as if the task should take all day. Now he has to find something else for him to do. But what about wall-washing? Leo is confused. He is supposed to be a wall-washer. As they return to the locker room for lunch—Leo has to be shown the way, he is still disoriented by the subterranean maze—Mr. Steve says he will see Mrs. O about what he should to do next.
Leo takes his lunch upstairs. It becomes a habit. The cigarette smoke in the locker room burns his eyes. The street-wise Negroes frighten him. The Spanish of the Puerto Ricans is as annoying as the chatter of the Mushka-Pushka Men. He assumes any laughter is at his own expense. He trots his brown bag (two peanut butter sandwiches, one apple) to the cafeteria. The room is as big and bright as the Toryford High gymnasium. A hundred or more diamond-shaped tables hum with the conversation of the staff. The nurses are all in white except for the rims of their caps. The colored rims identify the place of their training. Chatty technicians wear long white lab coats. Operating Room personnel wear loose-fitting green coveralls. The silver-haired volunteers are in pink pinafores. Their young counterparts, as pretty as cheerleaders, are in candy stripes. The doctors—haughty and harried—wear green surgical garb or, on most days, Madras sport coats, bright pants, narrow ties.
At a far table Mrs. O is in animated dialogue with a nurse twice her size. Leo is the only one in the cafeteria wearing brown khaki. But Mr. Steve comes through the line, catches his eye, and joins him at his table.
Ahem, ahem . . . Green.
Mr. Steve picks nervously at his lunch. He talks about his wife, Bronislava. Leo imagines her as a short, square woman with a babushka and dust mop. She is seriously ill. Mr. Steve talks of his coming day off. He plans to spend it alone at Beardsley Park. Beardsley Park is large expanse of grass and trees near the hospital (at Beardsley Park Mr. Steve will be a solitary figure in a natural landscape). Before the allotted half-hour of lunchtime is over, Mr. Steve abruptly stands and excuses himself. He empties his tray and hurries off. He has to rouse the men from the locker room at exactly 12:30 P.M. (It is the same moment—Dallas time—that the Kennedy limousine is entering Dealey Plaza, while Leo slumps in his class in Founders Hall.)
* * *
“So what is wrong with our knight-at-arms?” the professor wants to know. “Why is he alone? Why is he pale? Why is he loitering? Why has the sedge withered along the lake? Why are no birds singing?”
On his way out of the cafeteria, Mr. Steve stops for a brief word with Mrs. O. Later that afternoon Leo is relieved of Venetian blind duty. He follows Mr. Steve out a rear door of the hospital and across the narrow parking lot to a row of boxlike gray duplexes. This is the housing for the resident doctors and their families. Several units are empty, awaiting new tenants. Leo is to clean them in the meanwhile.
This is more like it, he tells himself. There is room to move—kitchens and hallways, bedrooms and baths, windows to open to let in fresh air. Mr. Steve issues him a scrub brush, pail, sponge, and detergent and demonstrates how to do the walls. He is not to touch the floors. The Mushka-Pushka Men will do the floors. Leo is a specialist, a wall-washer.
When Mr. Steve leaves, Leo’s brief excitement turns to sadness. These duplex apartments are filthy—grease on the ceilings, stains on the walls. And this is where the doctors live! Bridgeport Hospital is a teaching hospital. But it is nothing like Massachusetts General and similar institutions. It can attract only foreign doctors for its residents and staff. They come from Latin America, India, Turkey. They are the educated elite of their respective homelands. But if these empty apartments bear accurate witness, they bring the squalor of their homelands with them.
Leo is sent next to clean the dormitory of the unmarried male interns. They live in a barracks-like arrangement beneath the hospital roof. They are unshaven young men of all colors (Leo himself is unshaved). They lay about on narrow cots, their thick textbooks propped before them. Small electric fans riffle the hot air. Not many of the interns are American. It saddens Leo to see how they live. He is earning money for his own education and the last thing he would ever want to be is a doctor. Who could endure such a life? He wonders what his future will bring? He must wait and see. He can hear his mother singing in the kitchen. It’s her favorite song: Que Sera, Sera. So: scrub, scrub, scrub.
Leo finishes the duplexes and the dormitory and returns his scrub brush to Mr. Steve. Its bristles are worn to the nub. Mr. Steve shows it to Mrs. O and Mrs. O shakes her head and smiles sadly. It’s as if there is something Leo really doesn’t understand. It’s the same sad smile that crosses her face during his first day on the job, when he answers her initial question: Well, Lio—Leo—did you make all A’s?
Yes I did. (With a tacit qualification: After dropping calculus.)
Leo doesn’t understand why the men of Housekeeping (the men of the world?) hardly work at all. They prefer to spend their days hiding in broom closets and toilet stalls, listening for the click of Mr. Steve’s heels. He discovers that time passes quickly when he is busy, so he stands there like a soldier awaiting his next order (like his father at Fort Leonard Wood).
The following week Mrs. O herself takes him into an old, high-ceilinged ward that has been out of service for years. She removes the padlock from the heavy swinging doors and ceremoniously pushes her way through. This, she announces in a rare moment of drama, is going to be the new ICU!
Intensive Care Unit. Even with the initials translated, Leo can’t imagine anything in that ward except a flophouse for the homeless. Long and yellowed shades are drawn on the tall narrow windows. Cobwebs lace overhead pipes like camouflage netting. U-shaped rusty rails arch from the walls. The checkerboard tile once held iron-railed beds. At the far end of the ward a rickety scaffold rises all the way to the ceiling:
Reach as high as you can and grip the rope with both hands. Loop it over your left foot and step on it with your right. Now pull yourself up—again and again. And don’t look down!
The abandoned ward is the cause of the vacancy that Leo is filling in the Housekeeping Department. The former wall-washer flatly refused to work there. But Mrs. O—as if to prevent Leo’s own defection—suddenly announces that she is going to hire a second wall-washer to help him. They are to have at the ward. And once they finish, the painters and plumbers will follow. Mrs. O says it is a job that will take the rest of the summer. Any questions?
* * *
“These questions, men, can’t be answered in the first stanza of the poem. But we have a hint, don’t we, in the title—a beautiful woman is somehow involved. The knight-at-arms is loitering, lingering, where no birds sing. In other words, the birds have gone, which happens in the fall. And autumn, of course, is the time of year that the sedge grass withers on the lake.“
The lake. Leo remembers the lake—Lake Zoar in Southbury. He spends the first three years of his life there, before they move to Toryford on the coast of Long Island Sound. They make the move so his father can be closer to his job at the General Electric Company in Bridgeport.
Leo is scrambling up a ladder behind Lenny at the lake. He can’t be more than three years old. The ladder rises into a cloudless blue sky. It is propped at a steep angle against the side of a one-car garage his father is building. The garage is beside a small Cape Cod house he also built. Leo’s father and Grandpa Green are on the peaked roof of that garage. They are tacking down tarpaper. Bang-bang-bang— their hammers echo across the lake. The surrounding hills are filled with tall white pines that Leo’s father planted when he was a kid. When a country acre in that part of Connecticut cost but a dollar.
Lenny gains the top rung of the ladder and crawls up the bare plywood roof. Leo is afraid to follow. What on earth are you doing up there? his mother shouts from below. She is holding an infant in her arms, her third child—another son, Larry—their new baby brother. Leo looks down but it’s a mistake. All he can see is the top of his mother’s head. The bird’s eye view gives him vertigo. Hold on! his father cries. His father crawls across the plywood roof to the ladder and carries him down. While high on the peak, Lenny hugs his knees and laughs.
There are no playmates at the lake except for Lenny. But somehow Leo is invited to a birthday party. Leo’s mother sends him dressed as a girl. She puts him in a yellow dress with a matching bow in his hair. It is the fashion in those days to dress little boys as little girls, regardless of what Freud might say (Leo’s classes include An Introduction to Psychology), regardless of the emotional residue. Leo’s mother wants a little girl and is disappointed when Leo is born. She is disappointed once again when Larry follows. Is that why Leo is dressed as a girl? Or is it simply the fashion? He doesn’t remember whose birthday it is or who the other children might be. He only remembers his embarrassment and hot tears of shame—and his humiliation as he flees the party in his yellow dress and yellow bow. He runs home, where Lenny laughs and laughs.
It is his first emotional scar. He’s certain of that. But is this where the sigh key begins—there at the lake? What does it have to do with changing his major from general studies to pre-med and changing it back again? Why must it mean suicide?
They live in a horseshoe-shaped valley at the lake. It is not at all pastoral. It is no place for Romantic poets. It is never green or lush but ragged with crabgrass and scrubby weeds. His mother says it’s out in the sticks. We live out in the sticks, boys! His mother hates it there. She was born in Bridgeport and hates the country. White Birch Lane, the lone street where they live, is a narrow strip of worn asphalt. It slopes downhill from their house for a hundred yards to a dead end. If Leo can only follow Lenny up the ladder to the roof of the garage, the neighborhood will spread out below him like a town in a fable (like the college town spreads out below the ledge at Founders Hall).
Their house sits at the top of White Birch Lane. Grandpa Green’s screened-in summer cottage squats next door. It is the Green family’s escape—until Leo’s father builds a house right next door when he gets out of the Army. He wants to live by the lake forever. But Leo’s mother is a city girl. She says the commute to the GE in Bridgeport is too difficult in winter for Leo’s father. And the local schools are bad. (TO EARN MORE YOU MUST LEARN MORE.)
Around the corner is the cove. It is about forty yards wide and eighty yards long. The woods grow right to its edge. (The woods grow right to its sedge.) There is a narrow dock at the end of a footpath. Leo loves to bounce up and down on the slatted boards of the dock. He loves the buoyant barrels beneath. He wishes they had a boat, but they can’t afford one. The rotting hull in the weeds beside the barn-like boathouse belongs to a skiff once owned by Grandpa Green.
To the left of the dock is a stretch of sandy beach. There is just enough room for a blanket. Leo’s father brings him and Lenny here, with a huge black inner tube and a length of white clothesline. They take turns floating on that tube in the middle of the cove. They flail their arms and kick their legs. The tube’s sharp nozzle sticks them in the ribs. Their father ties the rope to a skinny birch on the bank. If Leo sits still enough when it’s his turn, the rope will begin to sink. But he can never relax. He is afraid his father will wander from his post. He is forever checking the rope. He watches its white, wavy descent beneath the surface. The clothesline is an umbilical cord, the cove is a womb (Leo’s class list includes An Introduction to Psychology). He clings to the rope steadfastly. He is not ready for the wide dark lake beyond.
Let alone a beautiful merciless—or pitiless—woman.
* * *
At 1:40 P.M. Eastern Standard Time there is a hasty knock at the classroom door. The professor is called into the hall. When he returns moments later he looks like a ghost. “Men,” he says, “our President has just been shot in Dallas. I—under the circumstances I don’t see how we can continue.” He grabs his things and rushes off.
The students are stunned. They stagger to their feet—all but Leo—and stare at one another in disbelief. “Jesus Christ,” one mutters. Two or three start for the door. The door stands wide open. “We need a TV,” another says. “Who’s got a TV?”
“There’s one in Anders Hall,” somebody says. “Second floor, room 208. Johnny Bigelow—he runs cross-country with me. He won’t mind.”
The remainder of the class hurries out. Leo pushes back his chair and stands slowly. Turning, he faces the tall window behind him and stares at the town below. It is a sky-blue day beyond. It is bright and clear and his reflection does not appear in the window. The large American flag is waving above the bank. It is the flag he carries in the Memorial Day parade behind Old Man Nemergut’s float. It is the flag he sees from the top of the rope in gym class, snapping in the breeze in front of T.H.S. The professor’s sudden announcement brings him from the lake to Founders Hall.
A surge of adrenalin leaves him smiling broadly. He feels ecstatic, exhilarated. His facial muscles, unused to smiling, feel strange, as if his cheeks have cracked. For an instant the sadness that surrounds him is universal. It seems that his suffering has a purpose. It is but a precursor to all-out chaos, to total pandemonium. It is a harbinger of the Apocalypse. It is Armageddon.
He is not alone. Everyone will die with him this weekend . . .
* * *
The chapel bell tolls twice.
It is 2:00 P.M., Eastern Standard Time.
A few minutes later the bank’s flag drops to half-mast.
Leo shivers with shameless joy.