Larry Kearney

 

from POWER & MISERY

Mary Heslin is my new English teacher. Miss Heslin. Sheís teaching an honors English class and a bunch of us have been thrown into it as freshmen. When she walks into the room in front of us, I catch my breath. Sheís entirely self-possessed and lovely and walks from the hip, womanly, long-legged, and her hair is a sweet honey color and her hips are wide and her eyes just huge. I can hear the Irish in her voice and I know her parents were born there. Her face is delicate, clear and rose-tinged with soft rose mouth. Sheís much of the Christmas tree and the life of the mind and the unbearable sweetness. And the attentiveness of big womanly eyes like a bright disturbance in the air, in my head ó of possible life to be lived. In this huge industrial block of passageways, there she is and Iím home, sort of. I have a place here every day at a certain time ó all I have to do is make her happy.

Iíve been saved by a woman again, and oh, my mother hates it, hates her. Before theyíve even met she can read how it is with me and hates her. My father had hoped for some response to the world of engineering, and science in general, but here I am back again in the vagaries of fiction, poetry looming behind like the end of any chance at a real manís life.

Cooperís in my class (Arthur), an owlish kid with a set face and very smart eyes, and Potegal (Michael), exuberant and enthusiastically squinty, smart too, and Reiman (Jeff), sardonic, and Abravenel (Eliot), hip before his time, and Lederman (Perry), fragile but lasting, and Prever (Phil), dreamy and savage and lost, and Ornstein (Bob), shambly and unexpected, and Parenti and Rasala and Kleiman and Luba and Golub and God knows who.

Weíve all been set aside in Miss Heslinís world and itís something familiar, something Iím used to, and feels a lot more like 185 than McKinley, a good thing, and we all, I think, watch her move across the room, back and forth in front of us, with a kind of surprise, that she could be so young and look like that and have taken us aside for the whole four years. Weíre going to get close and know it. Thereís no way out.

She chain smokes with long, elegant fingers. She wears stockings and high heels and simple, straight-down, stiff skirts and white blouses that are a bit little-girlish, like her mother dressed her. ďI knew a Jack Heslin,Ē my father says, ďsee if her fatherís name was Jack.Ē My mother says nothing.

I couldnít ask something like that. I can barely speak to her at all though I can feel her like a cool hand on my forehead when she looks at me, when she considers me.

The head of the department is Mr. Cahill, a big shambling Irishman with nicotine-stained fingers, Parkinsonís disease and terrible breath. He loves Mary to death and gives her what she needs, in this case four years with the same kids every day and carte blanche to do what she wants.

The first year is nothing and she struggles trying to stay inside the curriculum when her mind wanders much like ours (sheís seven years older). But just before we quit for the summer she seems satisfied, like sheís just won a concession, and tells us weíre each going to have to read the second edition of the Norton The American Tradition in Literature, cover-to-cover, and we better be ready when we get back. From Governor Bradford to Hawthorne to James T. Farrell (remember? remember him?) to Eliot, Hemingway, Stevens . . .

Green is the night
Green kindled and appareled.

She orders the books for us and theyíre fat. Weíre proud of how fat they are and how far set apart we are and how weíre assumed to be capable. I think so. I think thatís how most of us feel.

I take it home and show it off. Iíll impress my father, my mother doesnít much care. Of course Iíll read it, a little bit every day, all eleven hundred pages. Of course I will. For her Iíll do anything. Of course.

It is she who walks among astronomers.

But itís summer and Iím thirteen and in love with Carol and sheís everywhere, every morning around in front or back in the alley or up on the fifth floor in the other wing of the building. Out in the twilight when we sit on the stoop next door, when itís too dim to be in the back alley.

The transistor radio is a new thing. Suddenly there are radios you can put in your pocket, tinny, terrible sounding things that bring in the twilight shows, before Alan Freed - Peter Tripp, like that - and we listen attentively, evaluating the music.

Johnny uses Ďcuteí too much. he thinks cute is good. He likes the Lennon Sisters on the Welk show too, which is kind of odd because heís a big, offhand-strong guy who keeps his Winstonís rolled in his t-shirt sleeve. A Catholic kid. Who knows?

[Iím not a Catholic kid, am I? I donít know. Iíve been baptised by my aunt. And now thereís suddenly Mary Heslin and sheís Catholic to a fine, aesthetic degree, sexuality all mixed up with purity and white blouses and her supple waist, God, donít think that way.]

The Lennon Sisters are hell to me, but In the Still of the Night is fine, and You're a Thousand Miles Away. Sarah Vaughan has a hit with Poor Butterfly, and that's heaven.

We sit and we talk in the twilight with the music going on behind, sometimes stopping for it, and what we talk about are the Mysteries, deep and bloody in their unspoken presence.

We don't talk about our parents, ever. We don't talk about politics. Religion is confined to what Father Connelly said to Johnny in the gym. I know we talk about the mysteries because there we are forever in the twilight, looking into it and holding the rhythm, all around the edges of the pit.

Johnny and Tony talk.

I respond, mostly.

Carol's quick, and bright in her speech.

Paul's a little younger and just interjects.

Kenny always says the wrong thing and never gets the rhythm right, the offhand declarative diminuendo.

Eddie's nuts but manages sometimes to fit himself to the sentences.

Down on the next stoop is Joanie with Downs syndrome, a rolled-up newspaper and a surprisingly sharp tongue. She yells at us sometimes, out of nowhere, like the call of a parrot next to your ear in a pet store.

We talk about baseball, sometimes, in season (no football, no basketball). We talk about music all the time. We talk about movies. We talk about the neighborhood. We talk about the building and who's gonna move, who's crazy and who's dying. And how to make it hot for the Swain sisters. And how to live in the twilight. And what's on the tv, later.

We talk to make the rhythm that keeps us in the world. There are rhythms that just roll if everybody's sharp, relaxed and easy -- inside them we're whole -- long random thoughts and the light going down slowly.

There are jokes told, all rotten. There are memories of kids who are gone - Cynthia, Beryl. There are whispers about Bobby and what's wrong with him, and how he was born in a Japanese prison camp. There are moral questions. Could you really go to hell for all the things they say you'll go to hell for? Theyíre for the Catholics. There are sex questions, unasked because everyone has to pretend to already know.

We all want to be whole in the rhythm and it doesn't matter if I'm separating and my head is somewhere else and I think about books and dark things because so do the others ó think about their own strangenesses and deep things (under the rhythm the still places) ó and the things I think about are no better. Just different, just stuck-up.

Not even that, not really, not much at all. I remember an afternoon when I'm so seized by a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov that I read it out loud to Carol and Paul and they listen politely, maybe even like it. Weíre under a blanket in a cold back stairwell. I'm not a snob, I'm an enthusiast, and I hear the rhythms plainly and honor them.

[I'm an innocent spy and deep in my head are the things my mother has put there secretly and my father's trusting eyes. I've been a double agent for years.]

There's Lawrence at the Fleetwood, inside, with my mother and father, there's Larry at the Fleetwood, outside, with the other kids, and there's Kearney at Tech. The three barely touch. The vocabularies are different.

Tech is offhand, rapid-fire information back and forth ó 'fucking,' as rhythmic springboard Ė and the occasional lapse into meaning when it's possible in that special safe air that comes around sometimes, seldom.

'Here, here's something of mine but don't fucking break it.'

The Fleetwood is scaled back with less theorizing and mental aggression ó our places have all been assumed already. We donít swear as much and when we do itís more attached to the situation than it is in Tech. Current events and the existence or non-existence of God donít figure in. We know each other very well indeed. We know the boundaries.

And home? At home I canít think what we talk about. Walking through the halls of Tech, I canít remember how we talk. Itís all in code. When an easy passage comes ó some offhand talk about politics or a movie or a book or my fatherís early life ó Iím grateful and almost happy. When the tension is down on the rooms, itís hell. There could be balled lightning playing at the windows.

[Where I sat so long looking at the street that itís a chunk of my being, head against glass, the light changing and the pigeons whirling dark then light, the different sides of their flying bodies.]

The one thing shared by all three worlds is their utter lack of spoken honesty, though of the three the world of the stoop comes closest.

In Tech itís not even an issue ó be honest about what?

In the Fleetwood the world is a matter of understood boundaries ó we all share the griefs of the secret insides of our apartments, and we all know it. Grief isnít for discussion. Grief is the stuff of the family.

At home itís not even possible to think about. Say how I feel? Would my father say how he feels? Of course he wouldnít. My motherís feelings are flung into the dark corners like balled-up clothing, but we never talk about them. When she does, thereís no coherence and theyíre never mentioned again. Anything can happen and never be mentioned again.

[Except by the darkening colors in the air and the overpowering sense of twilight.]

My feelings arenít even discussed in my head. My feelings are something I have to keep from embarrassing me. My feelings could kill me. My feelings are the stuff of sunken valleys in the brain with a monomaniacal light on, way back in the trees. My rage is the wind at end of the world (the wind at the villageís outskirts). If someone asked me how I felt, for real, I wouldnít know what to say. I couldnít even write it down. I have a lot to learn and no breathable air in my head.

[Terrible and deathly and choking so the head gets no air and the eyes grow flat, not the feelings killing but the other way around. Not the feelings killing but the drag of the mass of the rage and grief youíve got stored from your chest to your forehead sucking emptily at you so you have to find fake isolation and fake sleep and fake medication and fake talk and fake love and the killing (you think) of the pain leaves you nothing so you die in misery ó inside, outside, all around.]

And over all everything like a billowing air is the pull of the womanly and the dream of the warm penetration ó lost mind, lost pain.

[ďto bruise themselves an exit from themselves,Ē The Ship of Death says of apples falling to the ground and Iím stunned in a good place, it sinks in me and itís mine. A piece of me changes slightly and something new has risen in my head and it isnít the poem I read and it isnít (I find out quickly) something to imitate. Itís just something alive and it offers endlessly. It was a thin book with gold letters and it was just there on the shelf in the library, lost among the novels, and I picked it up because of the name, The Ship of Death, and it never left again, nor the orange light on the oak shelves of books when I picked it. Itís how Iíll spend the first half of my life ó bruising myself an exit from myself. The problem will be that I donít understand yet that the apple falls by itself, without will, and lands on the grass in the nature of things.]

Something is gone. I look at the other kids and theyíre moving away. Not that we were intimate, or spoke to each other about important things, but that I could look around me in a classroom, or in the back alley, and see them with theyíre own hauntings and pains and things to hide. Iíd always been able to see, and go out to, but now Iím curling up with a mystery, with mysteries, and the others are getting to be outside and unknown and Iím not much interested in even speculating unless the misery is so intense and overpowering that I poke at it lightly and turn away, horrified.

I am who I was but Iím not. I need to write my name on things. I need to look around for an interesting signature. McKinley was just a halfway place where I learned to throw the fish-eye, and slip by, but Tech is the place where they donít care how cold you can look theyíre going to give you a name anyway.

[On a very hot day in Manhattan Iím walking from the Donnell Library to the subway and I imagine unexpectedly that Iíve written my name in hot brass across the face of the next building down. Itís a good feeling, I can see the brass. Itís a bad feeling, Iím embarrassed, and I stand in front of the Metropole for a while to get my head into another place but itís Charlie Shavers in high register and it grates, so I walk on disconsolately.]

The American Tradition in Literature. I donít even know what that means ó still donít. The Human Tradition in Literature might mean something (not much, redundant), but Iím barely American, barely a citizen, all my attitudes and spellings from Ireland and Scotland. Even what I picked up at 185 was largely from Europe. There couldnít have been more than ten kids or so in my classes whose parents werenít born on the other side. Stevenson and Dickens are my writers.

The music makes me pretty much American . . .

[my father used to listen with me to Gene Autry because he liked him but after the record Donít Bite the Hand that Feeds You was released he rethought it. He has a lot of trouble that way ó he takes me to see The Quiet Man, and we both love it, but he knows about Wayne and McLaughlin and right wind politics and it leaves a slight bad taste in his mouth. The Irish do that a lot to him.]

. . . and the movies, but even in those Iíve been steeped in my motherís music ó Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn ó and by my father in the J. Arthur Rank stuff, the movies with the big gong in the shadows and the soft voices. Black Narcissus, Mine Own Executioner, Tales of Hoffmann, A Matter of Life and Death, Quartet, The Red Shoes, The Rocking Horse Winner, The Lavender Hill Mob, Jamaica Inn, The Small Back Room, The River.

The River where the little boy disappears early on. Itís a mystery to me ó I know heís dead because I watch them carry the little coffin down the grassy hill Ė but how could the boy die before the end of the movie? There was nothing to let me know ahead of time. Usually at the Dyker on Saturday nights there are hints, and you can tell when someoneís going to die. But here the snake just bites him and heís gone ó heís bringing the snake his food because heís fascinated, and sort of loves it, and it bites him and heís dead. Doesnít seem right. It haunts. Iíve seen it alone with my father, seven or so, uneasy that weíre sitting there watching the funeral of a little boy who worshipped a cobra.

But he wasnít like me at all, was he? He was willful out in the open.

I fold the kid up in my head with the blue dancer in the twilight gleam of gold and the beautiful woman.

Pretty much American is the best I can do. My loyalties are largely, generally British. I donít know yet about the English in Ireland, just bits and pieces. The Black and Tans come up sometimes, the Troubles, my fatherís odd passports that I look at when I open the desk, ritually, every six months or so.

I have a reasonable political education for a thirteen year old. My father can spot an ex-Nazi at a hundred yards, and heís usually right. I watched the Army-McCarthy Hearings and I suffered in the night as Eisenhower beat Stevenson and I hate John Foster Dulles and anytime I hear ďThe Amurrican People,Ē I know just whatís going on.

In this sense, Tech is just the place for me. There may be fewer kids with foreign-born parents, but there are a lot more with left wing parents ó a lot more.

Bay Ridge was the only district in Brooklyn that never went for Roosevelt.

I think power is the answer, of course. So do we all. If we had power, weíd be happy. My view is slightly off kilter because I donít really think Iíll ever have any. Or maybe I think I will but feel I wonít, something, so Iím already looking with a slightly cold eye. Not cold enough to keep me from dreaming of top-of-the-world, but there, and dreaming its own dreams.

Mr. Feeney has power but he doesnít know what to do with it. He believes in it, and he tries to use it, but nothing ever comes out right for him and somehow we all know heís weak in that way a classroom of thirteen year olds can just know things about a teacher, and use them to push him, brutally.

All the power in 7S2 is really ours, and we use it just like the world does.

Feeney is a big, flat-faced Irishman with a rough voice. He teaches mechanical drawing and tries to look strong and intimidating, but thereís just something there, and nobody buys it. Worse than that. They mock it ingeniously, hilariously, till the man is virtually insane.

Dallio is his nemesis, malignly inspired and suave, handsome, swept-back dark hair and chosen clothes and thin silver flex-belt with buckle at the side. I have one of those too, but it doesnít look the same and never will.

Dallio and Feeney meet somewhere in the air and the play begins and weíre all along for the ride, knowingly, knowing exactly whatís going on and choosing to join in.

ďI used to spar with Philadelphia Jack OíBrien,Ē Feeney tells us pointlessly, comically, floundering. And later heíll open the 7th floor window and say ďCome on, Iíll take you on one at a time. Youíll get me sooner or later but some of you are going out the window.Ē

Itís the only time, I think, Iíve ever been involved in mob violence. I canít think of any other. Itís not like me, and I hate it, but the class breaks the monotony of the day and itís all so bloody funny, so anarchic, and Feeney is such a failed bully (every bully youíve ever seen made vulnerable).

[I compulsively and unwillingly think about where people came from and see them in other times, other places. I feel a sharp pain when Feeney comes up in my mind as a little boy faking it, trying to be someone he thinks he has to be. Thereís no volition or conscious virtue in how I think or see ó itís just there, and it hurts ó I hurt for Feeney. What a life. I need to get less fragile. I look around the room for the others who feel like me, but Iím not sure anymore, not sure I can recognize them. None of us have pasts. None of us have parents. All of us work the rhythms and the catch-phrases. All of us go along as best we can. The ones who canít get brutalized ó Lederman, the hapless Boylecky, the fat and squirmy Hillman. Iím hiding in plain sight. I can do that. I have the distant eyes and the fake self-absorption.]

ďBloomís got the plague!Ē Dallio screams and half of the class runs screaming to the back of the room to claw at the wall and try to climb over each other, screaming, ďBloomís got the plague, the plague!Ē I donít. It isnít my kind of scene. It isnít self-contained at all, and Iíd be scared to.

Feeney has turned from the blackboard and heís watching silently and doesnít even try to make himself heard just waits. I think maybe heís learning but he isnít really, heís just getting tired.

He comes in the door and goes to his desk and there are jigsawed pieces of a photograph on his desk and he stands there, putting the pieces together with one finger till itís clear, an eight-by-ten, hard-core, black and white print. He opens his desk drawer and sweeps it in.

[I would have liked to see it, the photograph, but never had the chance.]

Dallio, I hear, has called him at home in the middle of the night. I donít like that. Feeney has a family and he probably feels like anyone else.

Dallio makes a fake bomb out of red-painted toilet paper tubes and copper wire and leaves it in the waste paper basket next to Feeneyís desk. When Bloom walks by he kicks it over and the bomb rolls out and ďBomb!Ē he screams, ďitís a bomb!Ē and the class goes scrambling again to the back of the room as Dallio crawls down an aisle, grabs the bomb and pulls the wires off and everyone cheers from the back. ďDallio saved us! Feeney was chickenshit but Dallio saved us!Ē

Why doesnít he kick Dallio out of his class? Tech isnít a liberal school, if they donít like the way you are, they bounce you out (ďLook to your left and your right. Only one of you is going to make it through,Ē they say first day).

God knows There are plenty of kids want to get in. But Feeney doesnít kick him out and thereís a sense in the room that something old and terrifying is going on, a dance of death.

Days go by that are just days in a classroom, and Feeney makes his plodding rounds with his indelible red wax pencil, marking drawings he doesnít like so that theyíll have to be done over. He just doesnít know. Heís locked in.

The humming begins one winter morning. Every time he turns to the blackboard, the room becomes a solid hum. Everyoneís in on this one. It stops dead when he turns back to us. My seat is right by the blackboard and the third time he turns around he looks quickly at the row and picks the most harmless looking, me, comes to me in two big strides and pulls me from my seat to throw me against the blackboard. Iím pretty good. I just straighten up and look at him and he says ďStay there till after class.Ē

So I stand there and Iím getting smirks and support and when Feeney turns to the blackboard again the humming goes off and now heís stuck, heís already made his move, and has to just ignore it.

After class he keeps me there and wants to know why I was humming. Heís had me spotted as someone whose heart isnít in it, and now he wants to make me his. In the open classroom doorway, Larry Klein is leaning against the frame and snapping a Garrison belt. Feeney can see him over my shoulder.

ďI donít know,Ē I say, and he says ďWell donít let it happen again,Ē then, ďYou seem a decent sort. Maybe you could help me out here.Ē

ďUh . . .Ē

And heís failed again, so miserably that Iím embarrassed to be in the room and when I leave Klein is smirking at Feeney and I smile a little at Klein, back to Feeney, and off we go down the hall.

ďWhat a fucking schmuck,Ē Klein says and I have to agree though I feel like Iím faking it and wish I had the power not to. Feeney is a schmuck.

[So am I, so am I.]

And what has this to do with the light and deepness of Mary Heslinís room?

Not much, except in the contrast. She doesnít ask for anything and uses her power with little effort, mostly to plant things to mark out the edges of the road.

Sheís so young and intense. Itís a breathless room and sometimes she comes close to places sheís afraid to be because she knows they can come back on her, from parents, from the structure, and I see her backing off, backing down. Weíre complicit, she lets us know. I watch her open-mouthed and when she looks at me Iím stricken and absolutely amazed because I can see her seeing me. She sees me and she doesnít seem to care that Iím just this scared kid with a smattering of information and a head full of words to no purpose, the fake kid who copied the poem, the traitor kid who leaves his father in the dark, the terrified kid whose motherís going to take him to some fucking goddamn miserable cocksucking piece of shit Jersey apartment where heíll curl up and die in a pot of Campbellís vegetable soup on a rotten fucking broken dirty stove.

She sees me, I think, and takes me in as I am and the sweetness is frightening.

Iím not sure about the others, how they feel. I know theyíre all on edge and jumpy and expectant. Some canít handle it Ė ďHeslinís a carpenterís dream. Flat, smooth and square.Ē ó but the bravado goes nowhere at all. Because above all weíre in a special place, and they know it. And she is too, young and intense and finding her way and making a fool of herself, sometimes, and touching us oddly.

Weíre involved with her in a venture.

Weíre part of something interesting, and occasionally lovely. It would take a rare dead heart to actually resent her as a teacher, and I canít remember anyone who did.

Then thereís Mr. Starfield who teaches Industrial Processes (argh) and is reasonably funny in the same ways with the same words, probably, that heís been funny for years.

And Mr. Wolfson who teaches history and seems genuinely involved, genuinely worked-up.

And Mr. Sachs who teaches Physics and who left a job at Westinghouse Research to teach because he thought it was the good thing to do and now comes in to class to tell us about who he was, and how theyíve got him on bathroom patrol, looking for smokers.

And Miss Greenfield who teaches chemistry and has no identifying marks, I canít remember; and Mr. Kobel in machine shop who phrases interestingly so that a six-inch, one inch square of cold rolled isnít just going to be turned to a three quarter cylinder but Ďwants to beí three quarters; and Mr. Sklar who teaches Math and treats me quite well considering how hopeless I am, what a hopeless, lazy fuck-up I am, without even the decency to pretend to be interested.

Thereís Somebody in gym, who knows? Some of us learn early that if you go upstairs to the track that runs around the wall, you can run it a couple of times them disappear back into one of the corners and read, or talk. Every once in a while one of us will get up and run a lap, just for the hell of it. Every once in a while they have tests on the various physical skills and I do wretchedly. What else is new?

When Boylecky goes up the rope, Horton tries to set fire to the end. It doesnít work, but the smoke goes up and Boylecky comes down fast.

In the flat recessed corner of the track, Horton reads The Naked and the Dead. Luba is reading The Amboy Dukes. Weíre all poised and waiting.

Weíre going to get stamped, Lost or Found. Thereíll be a little hiss, a little smoke, and off weíll go.

Iím working the angles as well as a scared impostor can and when I get off the subway in the afternoon, I turn back to look at the woman half under the water on the billboard.

When I go up into the sunlight, thereís the Fleetwood. When there is no sunlight, just the metallic air, my heart sinks in front of its massiveness. Carolís inside and she could be mine if I could bring myself to touch her.

ĎGodí, I think, ĎIíve been in here for thirteen years. Iíve got to get out of here.í

I have read Moby Dick. I have done that. Oddly enough, talking about books up on the track, I never mention it. Itís the wrong kind of book ó no fucking, no clues.

My ideal, I guess, would be to find a Moby Dick with sex in it. Melville describing the woman on the bed and how her legs might be ó outlined whiteness and substance, whiteness and half-conscious opening, sweetness and restlessness. What would that be like?

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time,; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment , be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; ó even so did the young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us . . .

[This, of course, is not what I remember, or ever did. This is what was there, and what I remembered (remember) is an endless space of pale, blue-green vaulting below and the huge shapes moving through it, real and unreal at the same time, true, beating hearts in suspended shapes and their flowing in the emptiness and distance ó this is what rose up, where the words made a space.]

What would anything be like? I donít know, though I feel like Iím involved in a motionless struggle, and that something will come, sooner or later.

Iím not really a child anymore though I am ridiculously young.

And the real strength and beauty of my childís attention is disappearing slowly into a soup of imagined sex and imagined power and real disguise.

I want, and I canít see, and the soup is bubbling and churning around me.

The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Six Fits.

For sure.

I engage with the Snark, every night after dark
in a dreamy delirious fight ,
I serve it with greens in those shadowy scenes,
And I use it for striking a light.