Calais, France, May 18, 1968 (AP) — Low tide yesterday uncovered a plane, presumably of World War II, with the remains of the pilot still at the controls. Its origin could not be determined immediately.
I am standing in the window of the tower at an artist’s colony in upstate New York, and I am looking down at the fountain behind the mansion because I can think of nothing to write today. That’s why I’m here, I’m supposed to be writing.
The man is walking toward the fountain, and the sky is blue. He stops at the wall and looks at the sculpture of two nude nymphs and a satyr that lies against the woods under the mountain.
In his pressed white jacket the man leaves the fountain, and the sky is still blue. The man stops beneath me on the lawn. He is waiting. The wall stops as well and surrounds the white sculpture of two nude nymphs and the satyr who lie beside the woods under the mountain. In the other rooms of the mansion people are writing things, and in the studios on the grounds artists are painting and sculptors are sculpting.
No one is left to look at the fountain, and the sky is less blue. One nymph stands and yawns in the white sculpture of two nudes and a smiling satyr lying beside the woods under the mountain. The first nymph stretches her arms above the fountain, and now the sky is clouding. The other trails her fingers in the green hue of the pool where the nymphs and satyr lie beside the woods beneath the mountain.
Above, I stand in the tower window watching. I should be sitting before my laptop tapping on the keys, listening to the patter of words falling onto the virtual page, but the mist of the water in the fountain is a curtain, and the sky is clouding.
The man in the jacket returns to the sculpture where the two nude nymphs and the satyr lie still beside the woods beneath the mountain. The mist of the water is a curtain, and the sky is cloudy. Now a girl trails her fingers in the aquamarine of the pool where the nymphs and the satyr lie beside the woods by the still mountain, where the man stands looking at the sculpture and at the girl as I stand watching rather than writing in the tower window.
I was driving on the eastern outskirts of Dresden, Maine, coming from Wiscasset, when I saw a sign I'd not seen before that read, "ABE NAKI TRADING POST." Because I love a good trade I stopped and went in where I saw a man standing at the counter. I walked up to him and asked, "Are you Abraham?"
"Abraham?" He replied with a quizzical look in his eyes.
"Aren't you? I assumed it was short for 'Abraham.' Aren't you Mr. Naki?"
"Mr. Naki! Are you a wise guy or something?"
I was nonplussed. "Me? Why do you say that? You look sort of Japanese to me, at least Asian of some kind. Isn't 'Naki' a Japanese name?"
A change came over him, especially his eyes. "Get the fuck out of my store," he said as he came around the corner of the counter. He picked up a hatchet as he came toward me.
I backed away. "What did I do?"
"Do?" He asked. "Do? You're too stupid to DO anything except misread 'Abenaki,' the name of my tribe, for some Japanese guy named 'Abe Naki.'" As I dived into my car he said, "New York plates! I should'a known," and he kicked my fender as I sped away.
The new issue, No. 14, Fall 2015, of the periodical Trinacria, edited by Joseph Salemi, is just out with my poem titled, “The Old Comedienne” and, as a bonus, a review by the editor of The Hero Enkidu: An Epic by Lewis Turco, New York: Bordighera Press (www.BordigheraPress.org ), VIA Folios 107, 2015, 101 pp. ISBN 978-1-59954-098-6, trade paperback. Here is the last paragraph:
“Taken as a whole, The Hero Enkidu is an amazing and admirable accomplishment by a poet whose record of achievement is indisputable, and which is now capped by this vigorous modern re-imagination of an ancient myth. It is exactly the kind of tour de force that we would expect from a master craftsman such as Lewis Turco.” – Joseph Salemi.
Almost all my life I have known that my last name, Turco, in Italian means what it says: “Turk.” It dates, I understand, from the period of the Arab rule of Sicily from the ninth to the tenth centuries, and it is not an uncommon name in Sicily where my father was born. Since there was no such place as Turkey at the time, the word simply means “Arab” or “Moor”; moreover, according to Halbert’s1, a Turco family coat of arms can be found in Rietstap Armorial General, and the shield is described as “Silver with a Turk, facing front, dressed in a blue tunic and red pantaloons; wearing a red turban on his head, holding in his right hand a silver scroll, and in his left hand a silver scimitar trimmed gold. Family mottos are believed to have originated as battle cries in medieval times, but a motto was not recorded with the Turco coat of arms.”
However, I am something of a cynic, and I have long believed in an adage that would serve well for any family’s motto: “It is the wise child that knows its father.” Since everyone has trampled over Sicily since time began, including Sicils, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, French, Vikings, Normans, Danes, English, and so on ad infinitum, many of them raping and pillaging as they wandered across the countryside, I assumed that somewhere along the line there must have been a break in the chain and that my name might as easily have been Smith or Jones as Turco. So when it became possible, I decided to have my DNA tested to see where I really came from.
In 2006 I participated in the National Geographic Human Genome Project2 and discovered that my blood confirms what my name asserts: I am paternally a Turk through and through! Males are traced genetically through the Y-DNA marker which is passed down unchanged from father to son over generations; women are traced through their mothers’ mitochondrial DNA which is passed from mother to daughter, also unchanged. Of course every now and then, at great intervals, both Y-DNA and MT-DNA do take on characteristics that differentiate them from other evolutionary lines, and these mutated lines can be traced.
So far as can be discerned with the data currently at hand, it turns out that my father’s branch of the Turco family is part of a group of people about which little is known. My Y-chromosome results identify us as members of haplogroup G, “a lineage defined,” my National Geographic report stated, “by a genetic marker called M201” which had its origin some 60,000 years ago with an ancient Y-chromosome marker called M168.
According to Spencer Wells3 there was a single male who lived perhaps 75,000-100,000 years ago whose mutated Y-chromosome is carried by every male currently alive. Although scientists call this person “Genetic Adam,” or “Eurasian Adam,” in fact he was not likely the first fully human male, but none of the other males alive at the time have passed down to posterity their particular genetic markers. Adam’s line is the only one to have survived and proliferated.
A descendant of Adam identified by a mutation called “M94” was an inhabitant of the East African savannahs 75,000 years ago, and it was he who was the progenitor of most modern males because he was the founder of all haplogroups from B through R (haplogroup A did not leave Africa in ancient times). A later mutation on this male line called “M168” 60,000 years in the past is believed to have lived in an area that includes what is now Ethiopia in Africa, and he is the founder of haplogroups C through R.
To the north of Africa, according to Spencer, an ice age was developing and drying up Africa’s ecology to the extent that at least two groups that were descended from M168 migrated from Africa. The first group left around 60,000 years ago, and they are believed to have gone east following the southern coast of Asia populating southeast Asia, Australia, southern China, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. A few appear to have been reunited with their by-then-distant kinsmen in North America about 10,000 years ago. A second wave of M168 emigrants from Africa traveled to the east and the north from the area of what is now the Sahara through Egypt and the Middle East.
A mutant marker on the M168 line called “M89” inhabited what became Mesopotamia and is now Iraq perhaps 45,000 years ago. As the founder of haplogroup F, this male was the ancestor of all the members of haplogroups G through R which include almost all Middle Eastern, European, Asian, and native American males. Several groups of M89 males traveled in various directions to a variety of places, but the founder of haplogroup G appears to have lived around 30,000 years ago in the area of the Indus Valley in what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Up to around 10,000 years ago the members of haplogroups G through J were hunter-gatherers, but those people who lived in what is known as the “Fertile Crescent” developed agriculture, and “settled civilization” became possible — not only possible, but established, and disseminated far and wide. Populations expanded, farming and farmers followed the pioneers along the shores and through the islands of the Mediterranean, into the lands now called Turkey (since the early 20th century), the Balkans, and the Caucasus. The Indo-European language and its offshoots were soon to be found in northern India — including the Indus Valley — the Middle East, and Europe.
The Indus Valley civilization was the largest of the four great early civilizations including Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, South Asia, and China, but it is the one that is least known and understood because, unlikely as it may seem, it was discovered only in the 1920’s! How it was possible for modern mankind to live unwittingly among the ruins of this Indus civilization in one of the most populous regions of the Earth is confounding, but so they did, and still do. Archaeological researches are in their infancy there, and very little is known of the early tongues of the Indus because few language-bearing artifacts, most of them square stone seals with indecipherable symbols and animal motifs, have been found. So far, for lack of a Rosetta Stone, none of those scripts can be read, but we can recognize the animals, in particular the mythical unicorn, the bull, the rhinoceros, and the elephant. However, some of the major Indus cities have been identified and explored to a certain degree.
The first, Harappa, discovered in the western part of South Asia during the early 19th century, flourished from about 2600 to 1700 BCE. Its inhabitants built with bricks of the same size as were found in other Indus cities such as Mohenjo Daro and Dholavira. Harappa had well laid-out wide streets, public and private water supplies and distribution-drainage systems. Remnants of this Indus civilization exist in the south from the former Bombay in India to the Himalayas and Afghanistan in the north, and in the east from beyond New Delhi in Uttar Pradesh to Baluchistan, Pakistan, in the west, adjacent to the border of Iran.
Since there is evidence that trade existed between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization, some of those members of haplogroup G living in its western portion must have gravitated toward the major centers of the Middle East. The westernmost Harappan site is Sutkagen Dor, located on the border of Pakistan and Iran on what once was, apparently, a navigable inlet of the Sea of Arabia and thus part of the trade route to Mesopotamia — in particular the fishing trade — between 3500 and 1700 BCE. This is the route, or one similar to it, that the early Turcos must have taken on their way to Sicily.
Gazing at a map of the world, one sees that a straight line drawn between the Indus River and a spot just below Sicily in what is now Tunisia, the ancient site of Carthage (not that our forebears followed anything like a straight line) crosses Iran (once Persia), Iraq (once Mesopotamia), Arabia, Jordan / Syria, Egypt, and Libya. Other modern countries in the area between the Indus and Tunisia are Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and Israel / Palestine.
Family Tree DNA is the name of the Internet organization that administers the DNA results of those people who have been tested and agreed to have their results publicly posted. Subgroups of FTDNA include organizations that follow individual haplogroups, including the Haplogroup G web group. There are other specialty groups including the Turk Name group, and the Sicily Project, to all three of which I belong. Peter Christy, administrator of the Haplogroup G organization, in an e-mail message dated October 27, 2006, wrote me, “Our haplogroup is seeking members from the Middle East and adjacent areas, but with little success. There are a number of ‘high profile’ members of the Saudi royal family, as well as a claimant to the throne of Iraq, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, that are members of Haplogroup G. Perhaps by your efforts to publicize our haplogroup in Saudi Aramco World, [to the editors of which I wrote a letter on October 25, 2006, to which, as of February 8, 2007, I have not had a response] readers familiar with that part of the world may come to realize that they are a significant source of additional members.
“We have been attempting to contact those who have already been tested, but with little success. Bill Van Hemert has been using modal matching to profiles of known members of our haplogroup to find candidates who are registered at Ysearch. As you might expect, few of our emails even get through to the intended recipients and even fewer respond. All we have is some tantalizing clues left by a long list of potential Haplogroup G members with names that start ‘Al-‘ e.g., Al-Blais, Al-Bukhary, Al-Khalili, Al-Kureishi, Al-Qureshi, Al-Rikabi, Al-Ruwaili, Al-Sada, Al-Saman, Al-Shaibani, Al-Suwaidi and Al-Wazzan!” There is evidence that members of the haplogroup once served as members of the Persian cavalry.
The history of the swift spread of Islam is amazing. Muhammad was born in the Arabian city of Mecca circa 570 CE. Around 610 he experienced a revelatory vision, began to write what became the Koran, and in 613 he began to preach publicly. He left Mecca and settled in Medina in 622, and he died in 632 CE. Only sixty-five years later Islamic Arabs, many of them Moors — a mixture of Arabs and Berbers — lived in North Africa and occupied what was left of Carthage which had been destroyed in classical times and was again destroyed in 698. Today it is a wealthy suburb of Tunis.
In the ninth century CE, around 820, the Tunisian Arabs began to set up trading posts in Sicily. Incredibly, they were soon invited by Euphemius, a Byzantine general, to invade the island, and on June 13, 827, they did so from the town of Sousse, 120 km south of Carthage, with ten thousand infantry and seven hundred cavalry. According to Sandra Benjamin, “Although the invaders originated in many parts of the Muslim empire (including Spain), most of the men were Berbers (from the North African coast) and Arabs (from farther east).” Seventy-five years later, on August 1, 902, the Arabs captured Tauromenium, the Byzantine capital and the last unconquered Sicilian city. All the inhabitants were slain and the city burned to the ground.5
Surnames began to be used only about 1000 years ago, so the surname “Turco” dates from about 1000 CE, the eleventh century or 100 years after the Arab conquest of Sicily, that is to say about the same time as the Norman conquest of both England and Sicily. Sicily was the earlier to be conquered, by the brothers Hauteville, Robert the elder and Roger the younger who did most of the fighting, conquering Massena in 1061.
The Hautevilles’ success is said to have inspired both the envy and ambition of their countryman William the Conqueror who invaded and subjugated England in 1066. Although he never ruled there, he pretended to the kingship of Sicily as well. It was William who ordered the Domesday Boke of England to be written in 1086, and it was in this statistical survey that surnames were first assigned to every family. Something similar during this period was occurring throughout Europe, including Sicily.
Michael Maddi who administers the FTDNA Sicily Project, in an e-mail message dated October 27, 2006, wrote me, “Have you noticed that out of 81 yDNA results in the Sicily Project, 10 are in the G haplogroup? That’s about 12%. This has been the biggest surprise to me so far in our Sicily Project results. My guess, based on my previous reading, was that we would have maybe 5%.
“I have always wondered what the Arab contribution is to Sicily’s genetic pool. It’s hard to figure out how many people of Arab ancestry remained in Sicily after the crackdown by Frederick II on Muslims about 1230. (Frederick actually had good relations with Muslim rulers and spoke Arabic and appreciated the scientific knowledge promoted by Muslim scholars. It was the Vatican which demanded that he expel Muslims from Sicily.) One book I read recently [see Benjamin, op. cit.] said that 1/3 of Sicily’s population was ethnically Arab when the Normans defeated the Muslim rulers around 1075. The town where my paternal grandparents were born, Mezzojuso, was founded by the Muslim rulers in the 10th century. It remained a majority Muslim town until about 1220, when Muslim rebellions in western Sicily and the subsequent crackdown led to many Muslims fleeing their towns for mountain refuges.
“I think our [haplogroup] G results, if they continue to stay above 10%, indicate that there is significant Arab deep ancestry in Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans.”
The branch of the Turco family to which I belong has long resided in Riesi, a village in south-central Sicily. The closest city of any size is Licata, on the south coast. Although I know for a fact that a number of my relatives still live in the area, at the end of 2006 I was the only person worldwide with the surname Turco who has been identified through DNA analysis as belonging to haplogroup G2. (My son and my brother and his sons may be presumed to be members in this country.)
According to Halberts (op. cit.) “Census records available disclose the fact that there are approximately 450 heads of households in the United States with the old and distinguished Turco name. The United States Census Bureau estimates that there are approximately 3.2 persons per household in America today which yields an approximate total of 1440 people in the United States carrying the Turco name. Although the figure seems relatively low, it does not signify the many important contributions that individuals bearing the Turco name have made to history.”
In fact, although I am not so far as I know related to any of them, a survey of recent volumes of R. R. Bowker’s Books in Print yields a seemingly disproportionate number of Turcos who are authors: Richard P. Turco is a science writer who has collaborated with Carl Sagan; Peggy Turco is a nature writer; Marco Turco writes travel books; Christopher Turco (not the Christopher who is my son, a musician) pens science fiction; Laura Lo Turco has written on the pyramids of Egypt; Ronald, on crime; Lorenzo Del Turco is an art historian; Vincent J. Turco publishes in the field of medicine; Douglas is a sports writer; Alfred is a scholar of English literature; Emanuele, diplomacy; Frank, food; Antonio, chemistry; Michael P., the Everglades; Page Turco is a media writer and performer; Salvatore J. is a nutritionist, and Mario Turco, a music historian. One recollects that the Moor on the Turco crest in his left hand wields a saber, but in his right he flourishes a scroll!
Apparently, none of these people has ever had his or her DNA tested. However, analysis shows that a person with a different surname, Frank Ricchiazzi of Laguna Beach, California, is rather closely related to my people although all of his family is from Montalbano, a suburb of Messina in the northeast corner of the island, and Santa Maria. (Is there a connection between this family name and the Arabic name Al-Rikabi mentioned above?) On December 11, 2006, he wrote in an e-mail message, “Clearly, our DNA shows a lineage going into the Indus region many centuries ago.
“Right now, I’m trying to find the time when my lineage first came to Montalbano. I have traced each grandparent to approximately 1500, but there does not appear to be any way to go beyond that date because I have exhausted the furthest points of the church records and the Rivelli in Palermo.
“My thought is that sometime in the late 1400’s, there may be some information from the Kingdom of Two Sicilies that had a notation of a [member of my family] given some land in the Montalbano area. That of course means trying to locate some records from that Kingdom.
“One thing that you and I and others who do this research can say: Every day brings a new finding or another piece to the puzzles of who we are. Thank you for sharing your information.”
My first name, “Lewis,” is also a family name in both my paternal and maternal lines; it was originally a Middle English version of the French masculine “Louis,” of Franco-Germanic origin, derived from the German “Ludwig,” “hlōd” (fame) and “wīg” (war): “famous warrior.” The French “Louis” (pronounced lu-EE) was a common name among royalty and the nobility, dating from the 8th century King Louis I, son of Charlemagne. Louis XVI, last in the line of that name, was executed in 1793 during the French Revolution. The name was imported to Great Britain after the Norman Conquest in 1066; its spelling was often Anglicized as “Lewis.”
Various versions of the name include my father’s first name, “Luigi” (Italian — he had no middle name), “Aloysius” (Provençal), “Luis” (Spanish), and “Ludvig” (a “v” instead of the German “w,” Scandinavian). Pet or short forms of the name are Lou, Lew, Louie, Lewie, and Geno (Italian). In 2009 “Louis” was the 4th most popular boy’s name in France. The British prefer the spelling Lewis, but Americans usually opt for the French spelling. “Lewis” is currently the second most popular name in Scotland, the 27th most popular in the UK, and the 30th most popular in Northern Ireland. Lewis is also a popular name in Australia and New Zealand.
My middle name is “Putnam” (Lewis Putnam Turco) which was my mother’s maiden name (May Laura Putnam), and my namesake, “Lewis Putnam” (b.1763) was the second son of my triple-great grandfather Asa Putnam (1743-1795}. An earlier member of the family was George Puttenham (1529-1590), author of the first book on poetics and prosody in the English language, The Arte of English Poesy (1589).
Traditionally, Weird (Fortune) seems to smile on men named “Lewis” and is augmented by optimism and good-nature. Lewis has a quick wit, a cerebral mind, and is usually persuasive. The bearer of this name traditionally is believed to love the excitement of life and can easily adapt to all situations. A natural adventurer, Lewis thrives on the new and unexpected and prefers to be in constant motion. It makes him feel alive. Lewis will stir up some action if there's not enough around. Naturally rebellious, Lewis has no fear and never resists change. Traveling and new experiences feed his soul; he is social, attracts friends with ease — people enjoy being around Lewis’s humor and energy.
1”Turco Coat of Arms, Historiography,” Bath, Ohio: Halberts, n.d.
2National Geographic Human Genome Project, on-line at www.NationalGeographic.com.
3Wells, Spencer, The Journey of Man—A Genetic Odyssey, New York: Random House, 2004.
4 Indus River Valley civilization, etc., on-line at www.harappa.com/har/indus-saraswati.html
5Benjamin, Sandra, Sicily, Three Thousand Years of Human History, Hanover: Steerforth Press, 2006.
They had been making these trips ever since their children had disappeared. Now, almost ten years later, they were on the road once more, driving through yet another little town they had never before seen. It was spring, the sun was warm. The pain had diminished over time until it was a dreary ache, but it was there, always. Every now and again it would put out a blossom of poison and then fade. It was the same for both of them.
"Look," Janet said, reaching over and touching Howard's hand as it rested on the steering wheel. She pointed through the windshield at a billboard.
"THE MUSEUM OF ORDINARY PEOPLE," Howard read aloud, "Five Miles Ahead on Route 12A." He blinked and frowned. His eyelids appeared to be paper thin, and the skin on his forehead not much thicker. One had the impression that the iris shone through, or the bone, but it was an illusion. His was a common sort of face.
So was Janet's. Both of them were beginning to gray, Howard more than his wife, but they were still on the farther edge of young adulthood. If they appeared to be older than they were, no doubt that was owing to their situation.
"Let's stop when we get there," Janet said. "We can take the time." She frowned also and covered her eyes briefly with her long fingers, then she smoothed her dress which was blue and wrinkling under the seat belt.
Howard braked suddenly and leaned across his wife to peer out the right window. "What is it?" Janet looked too — a boy and girl were playing in the front yard of a house with a moderate-sized lawn. He appeared to be about eleven and she, seven or so.
Janet sighed. "It can't be, Howard. You know that." She shook her head. "They're too young. When are you going to realize that?"
"Sorry," he said, sitting up straight and easing down on the accelerator. "Good thing there was nobody behind us." He glanced into the rear-view mirror as they moved slowly forward down the street of anonymous houses.
"They'd be ten years older," she said. "Billy would be a junior in college and Beth would be just out of high school."
"My mind knows that," Howard said, "but my guts don't."
They drove in silence for a few minutes, remembering the day the children hadn't come home from school.
There had been nothing unusual about it. All four of them had gotten up at seven in the morning, dressed, and had breakfast. "What are you going to do today?" Howard had asked the table at large.
Billy had shrugged and his pompadour had fallen down across his eyes. "Nothing much," he said, reaching for the butter. "We're having a spelling test is all."
"I think you need a haircut," Howard said to his son. "How about you?" He sent a droll wink in his daughter's direction and she giggled.
"Eat your cereal, Beth," Janet said. "You're just moving it around with your spoon. Don't you like it?"
"You put too much sugar in it."
"Okay, give it to me." Janet took the bowl over to the sink, poured some of the milk out of the cornflakes, which were beginning to look a little soggy, and added some fresh from the bottle on the counter.
"Okay, mom's fixed it," Howard said. Now eat it up and let's go."
Beth began to scoop the cereal into her mouth. Billy got up and grabbed his backpack. "See you!" he yelled.
"Wait for your sister!" Janet said.
"Wait for me!" Beth squealed, grabbing her lunch box.
"Whoa!" Howard called as the front door slammed.
It opened again, briefly. "Bye!" Billy called and slammed it again.
And that was the last time anyone had ever seen either of the children.
"There's another one," Janet said, pointing ahead through the windshield.
THE MUSEUM OF ORDINARY PEOPLE, read the sign, Three Miles Ahead. Largest Wax Museum in the Midwest.
"How many do you suppose there are?" Janet asked.
"Not all that many, I wouldn't think." Howard had to bend to look as they passed.
They Move! They talk! The Experience of a Lifetime! Don't
A red light stopped them. "We need gas," Howard said.
"There's a place," Janet pointed again — it was a Seven-Eleven station up a half-block.
The light turned green and Howard pulled in and stopped at the pumps. "Fill it, please," he said to the attendant and got out of the car to stretch.
"Nice day," the attendant said as he unscrewed the gas cap and inserted the nozzle.
"Really nice." Howard put his hands on his hips and arched his back. The sun was warm on his face. "What's the name of this town?"
"Midville. Not from around here?" The pump hummed.
"Not so far away — a hundred miles or so. Lived here long?"
"All my life — twenty-one years." The tank was full, and the attendant rattled the nozzle against the rim and recapped it.
Howard reached into his pocket for his wallet, pulled out a bill and handed it over. His fingers hesitated, then he flipped to a picture of the children. He showed it to the young man. "Ever seen these two kids? They might have shown up in town when you were, oh, about eleven years old."
The attendant peered at the faces smiling out of the photograph. He hesitated, then he shook his head. "Can't say as I have," he said. He gave Howard a look as though he were going to ask a question but had decided against it.
Howard nodded. "Well, thanks." He took his change and put his wallet away. As he opened the door to get back into the car he said, "By the way, how's this Museum of Ordinary People up the road? Ever been there?"
"Oh, sure." The attendant turned to look up the street. "But not lately. Everybody's been there once, I guess. If you haven't, you ought to try it. It's good for a laugh." He nodded and turned to go back into the station. "Have a nice ride," he said.
Janet and Howard got back into the car and re-entered traffic. They were quiet for a few minutes. The trees along the curb were turning green quickly — it seemed almost as though spring had accelerated as they'd driven, but no doubt that was because the season was further along this far to the south. And then, as the houses began to grow sparser, the front yards to grow larger, and the trees to thicken, suddenly it was countryside and there were fields and few houses except at considerable distances.
Janet reached down and turned on the radio. She searched for a while and found a station they liked. For a few minutes they listened to golden oldies. And then they saw it. "There it is," Janet said.
Howard slowed down. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"Why not?" she said.
"'Admission $5.00,'" Howard said.
"Oh, I guess we can afford ten dollars, can't we?" Janet looked at her husband. "And it's not as though we're in a hurry," she added quietly, almost under her breath.
He smiled and nodded. "Sure we can." He pulled into the small parking lot and they sat in their seats for a moment or two listening to one of the old songs, then Howard turned off the motor.
When the children hadn't shown up by suppertime Janet and Howard had really begun to worry. They phoned around to the homes of schoolmates and friends and discovered that Beth and Billy hadn't been to school at all that day. The police had been notified then, and soon it was apparent that the kids had never even made it to their busses. They'd simply vanished between the house and the bus stop a block away.
The police canvassed the neighborhood, but no one remembered seeing the boy and girl in particular. Kids walking the streets in the morning were such a common sight that, even when someone thought he might have glimpsed the missing children, he wasn't sure it had been that particular day.
When at last Howard had been able to stop pacing or running to the door or driving around in the car peering out the windows into the shadows gathering and thickening among the houses of his neighbors, he joined his wife sitting next to the phone with a haunted stare in her eyes and a handkerchief in her fist. They had sat there like that all night long, waiting, jumping when the phone rang or the doorbell sounded, slumping when it turned out that there was no news. As the search went on neighbors and friends came and went with food and consolation, with assurances that Beth and Billy would turn up, that all would turn out well, that there would be a reasonable explanation for what had happened.
But they had been wrong, and a strange sort of emptiness began to occupy Janet and Howard from that point onward. The rooms of their dwelling filled with a silence that cried out for quick movement and loud music. A veil of anxiety settled itself between the parents and their home — nothing seemed to be real, to be solid or stable, not even their marriage, although they drew closer together after an initial repulsion, like magnets reversed, for each wanted at first to blame the other for what had happened. Common sense had prevailed, however; they saw that nothing could have been done to prevent the loss of Billy and Beth, for it could not have been foreseen.
When at last the police had no leads left to follow, when the story faded from the back pages of the newspapers, when even a private investigator could offer no more hope, on the weekends and on their vacations Howard and Janet would drive in any direction, show their pictures, ask their questions.
"Are we going in?" Janet asked.
Howard roused himself and shivered a little. "Oh, sure, hon," he said and got out. By the time he'd walked around the car Janet had gotten out herself and stood waiting. Together, they walked to the door of the museum and went in.
It was a large old Victorian house. Just inside the door, in a wide hallway, there stood an oak table where an old woman sat selling tickets. "Welcome to the Museum of Ordinary People," she said nodding mechanically and leaning forward. "That will be five dollars apiece." Howard gave her the money. She opened a drawer in the table, deposited it inside, and handed him two tickets. "Please take a brochure," she said in her odd monotone. "It will explain the museum. Please walk straight ahead." She sat back, blinked her eyes slowly, and said no more.
As they walked down the corridor toward the first door Janet leaned close to Howard and whispered, "Doesn't she remind you of someone?"
Howard paused, glanced over his shoulder, frowned, and said, "You're right, but I can't think who."
"Let's look at the brochure," Janet said.
The museum of ordinary people is a unique exhibit, it began, in that there is nothing extraordinary about it except its premise. Here the visitor will find the people he knows saying the things he would expect them to say. The waxwork figures are completely lifelike, even to their movements, for they are animated by extremely sophisticated electronic components which are capable of smoothly imitating natural muscle action. The recorded voices are those of real people responding to real situations and dialogue. Please enter and enjoy yourself in an imitation of the real world that is so convincing as to be astonishing. If the exhibit is successful, it will make reality seem fresh and new — it will give you a new perspective on your own life.
Howard looked at Janet with eyebrows arched high on his papery forehead. She stared back at him, the phantom of a smile playing across her mouth. "Well," he said, "let's give it a try. I'm willing to be amazed."
"It sounds like fun."
He opened the door and they entered.
"Well, hello there!" said a woman on the other side. "It's real nice to see you, hon," she said. She had on a waitress' uniform; there was a pencil stuck behind her ear and a sales pad slipped through her belt. "Geez, when was the last time you was in here? Musta been a long time."
"We've never been here before," Janet said. "We didn't realize this was a restaurant too."
"Oh, never mind, just let me tell ya what's good today. The soup's good — minestrone they call it, but it's just vegetable soup. And then our specials..."
"Thanks," Howard said, "But we're not hungry. We'll just look at the rest of the exhibits." He smiled politely, his hand gentle but firm on Janet's back as they moved past.
"...are liver 'n onions with bacon, chicken fried steak...." and then she stopped talking and stood still, facing toward the door.
"Look, Howard," Janet said nodding toward a beam of light through which they had stepped. "She's one of the wax figures."
"We tripped an electric eye," Howard said sticking his finger into the ray. "Unbelievable."
"Well, sir," an elderly male voice said behind them, "that was back in 'sixty-six as I recall, and I never caught a better fish since." They turned quickly and saw the replica of a dock with a boathouse where an old man sat leaning forward in his rocking chair whittling a piece of wood. "Sure would like to run into a fighter like that big-mouth again." He nodded and chuckled.
"Straight out of my childhood," Howard said. "That looks just like the boatkeeper at Huntington Lake."
Janet laughed uneasily. "I feel like telling you to be quiet because he'll hear you," she said. "They really are lifelike." She walked on.
"Sorry, folks," the policeman said. He stood with his hands behind him and shook his head. "There's been an accident down this street and you'll have to keep clear. The fire department's laying down some foam over the spilled gasoline." He pointed with his nightstick. "It's not much farther if you go that way."
"Thank you, officer," Janet said before she could catch herself.
Howard grinned. "Probably the accident's in the living room," he said. Janet laughed and flushed.
They lost track of time. Every room held a crowd of ordinary people who spoke to them, offered advice, asked directions, complained — like the fat woman on the mock-up of a bus who said, "Oh, my feet ache. I been on my tootsies all day long, and now I gotta go home and make supper for my old man. Will he appreciate it? Oh, no," she said shaking her head, making her chins wiggle and her red hair with the brown roots jounce, "he'll just sit there after supper with a beer watching Monday Night Football while I do the dishes." She snorted. "Boy, I could do with a beer myself, come to think of it."
And there was the journalist sitting at his word-processor typing a story. "Fred Foyle," he said, turning around as they entered his office. "What can I do for you?" He had a thin face and a shock of pale hair that fell down over his eye. "Want ads? That's over there at the classified desk," he said pointing. "Can't help you." He turned back to his screen. Janet and Howard heard him sigh. "Obits!" he snorted. "This week I'm on obits. Next week I'll be on garden parties." He hunched forward and began to type, still mumbling.
"I'm starting to get hungry," Howard said. They were standing in an upstairs hallway looking out a bay window over the countryside. The sun was beginning to settle into the fields and appearing redder as it did so. There was a wind, too, that could be seen but not heard, riffling through the few trees visible in the landscape.
"That was a lot of fun," Janet said. "It was like walking through a whole town full of people that you feel you know."
"I wonder who got the idea for such a museum." Howard mused a moment and then said, "well, I guess that's about it. What say we hunt up some food and then head home?" A gust of wind rattled the window behind them as they turned toward the stairway. "Too bad that waitress downstairs isn't real."
"Oh, look," Janet said, "there's a doorway we missed." She walked across the carpet and paused with her hand on the knob of a door that looked out of place in the old Victorian building. Out of place but familiar, like almost everything else in the Museum of Ordinary People.
"Never mind it," Howard said. "I've seen enough, haven't you?"
"Oh, let's just have a peek," Janet replied, and before her husband could reply she turned the knob and pulled open the door. The house exhaled as they stood looking between the jambs.
"It's the attic stairway," Howard said peering upward into the gloom over Janet's shoulder.
She put her foot on the first stair. "Shall we go up?" she asked even as she shifted her weight forward. "There may be more exhibits."
"There doesn't seem to be a light switch." But he followed her. In a moment they were standing at the top of the flight listening to the hum of a wasp on the ceiling and the sound of a lawnmower in the hands of a distant neighbor. They stood quietly for a few moments peering into the shadows. They could make out a clothes rack filled with outmoded fashions, trunks and boxes. There was a film of dust lying upon everything.
A god's-eye stood raveling colored yarn beneath the narrow garret window. A girl's ballerina slipper lay beside it. A box of toys contained Pinocchio with a rubber nose. Winter lay preserved in a carton of Christmas tree ornaments, but the musty odors of summer sweltered in the nooks and cracks between objects. An umbrella waited for the sound of rain to come drumming over the roof.
"It's late," Howard said. "I'm hungry." He smiled. "I've had enough, haven't you?"
Janet hesitated, then she smiled back at him and let her hand fold into his, but before they could turn and descend the stairs out of the dim place where time lay in keeping, they heard the door close behind them.
William H. Shurr of the University of Tennessee has been mining Dickinson's letters for nuggets overlooked by other Dickinson scholars, even Thomas H. Johnson whose The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, contains what the ordinary reader might have thought were all of Dickinson's poems, including those to be found originally in her letters. Evidently Shurr believes he hit paydirt in Dickinson's inexhaustible vein, for in September of 1993 he published his New Poemsof Emily Dickinson, in which he claimed to have discovered "Nearly 500 short epigrams and longer lyrics excavated from Dickinson's correspondence but not previously presented in poetic form. — 'Most of all, these poems continue Dickinson's remarkable experiments in extending the boundaries of poetry and human sensibility,'" as it was reported in the EDIS Bulletin.
Nearly simultaneously a review titled "Emily Warmed Over" by Gary Lee Stonum appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Professor Stonum wrote that these "New Poems [are] Anything but New." He continued, "The 'New Poems of Emily Dickinson,' sad to say, are not new, not often poems, and not even quite Emily Dickinson's. To produce this volume William Shurr has mined Dickinson's published letters, sometimes finding gems and sometimes fool's gold, but only rarely extracting anything Dickinson herself would have owned as one of her poems."
The book had a casual inception, according to Anita Manning, who wrote, "On a whim, Shurr set out some passages" from Dickinson's letters "as poems....” Evidently, according to information supplied on the title page of his book and elsewhere therein, Shurr's chief excavators were a graduate student, Anna Dunlap, and Shurr's daughter, Emily Grey Shurr, who did the exhumation under the editor's direction.
"The discovery is 'an exciting, innovative and important advance in Dickinson studies,' wrote Dickinson scholar Emory Elliott of the University of California, Riverside, on the book jacket. He called Shurr's work 'a major advance in our knowledge of Dickinson as poet and person.'"
"These poems use her [Dickinson's] preferred hymn or ballad meters and unusual rhymes," Shurr averred not only in his book and in the Bulletin, but in many of the media, including newspapers, television and radio. However, what struck this reader most strongly was the fact that "these poems" did not use rhymes — unusual or not — at all. Perhaps graduate students may be excused for being unaware of the various definitions of prosodics and verse forms, but one expects editors and scholars to know them.
Pertinent standard definitions (from my The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, third edition) are as follows:
BALLAD: Universal in the Western world. Folk ballads are written in podic prosody, literary ballads in accentual-syllabics. The BALLAD STANZA is [rhymed] a4 b3 c4 b3. [The superscripts indicate line lengths.] For related forms see COMMON MEASURE (95-97).
Emily Dickinson did not write ballads, which are medium-length lyric narratives, nor did she write in the accentual folk ballad measure called "podic prosody"; thus, "ballad meters" is the wrong term — there is a clear difference between a "meter" and a "stanza." The correct term is common measure stanzas, which Dickinson found in the hymnals of Amherst and used as her models:
COMMON MEASURE: Accentual-syllabic. Rhymed. A QUATRAIN STANZA written in iambics.... The rhyme scheme is abcb. The first and third lines consist of four iambic feet; the second and fourth lines, of three iambic feet (119). HYMNAL STANZA is the same, except that it rhymes abab [ibid.].
Common measure and hymnal stanza must rhyme. Since the "poems" under discussion here do not rhyme, and only the most optimistic scansion would show that they were purposely written in iambic meters, they are not cast in Emily Dickinson's standard common measure and hymnal stanza patterns. Here is an example, "One of Shurr's favorites among the new poems," according to Manning:
A Letter always seemed to me
for is it not the Mind alone,
without corporeal friend?
If "lines" one and two seem to set up a couplet rhyme pattern, then the reader's expectation is that lines three and four will do the same. Their complete failure to do so has the effect of anticlimax, undercutting not only the chime of the poem, but our expectation of what a Dickinson poem should accomplish. Taking these lines out of their context in this way, as though they were a finished quatrain, destroys the effect that they had in the letters and tends to trivialize the rest of Dickinson's verse oeuvre.
If it is true that Emily Dickinson never consciously wrote an unrhymed poem in her life, it follows that the passages in New Poemsof Emily Dickinson cannot possibly be said to be "new" poems by the Amherst poet under any of the circumstances its editor has discussed. Although she did sometimes use the same lines in both letters and poems, unless she used lines from the former in the latter, Dickinson clearly meant them as prose passages, and prose passages they remain, despite an editor's having "lineated" them according to phrasal patterns. People since the twentieth century have been calling line-phrased prose "free verse" (a contradiction in terms — “verse” is “metered language, “prose” is unmetered language; thus, “verse” cannot be “free”), but we know what Emily Dickinson thought of Whitman's prose poems.
These concerns of mine were embodied in a letter I wrote to Dr. Shurr on 8 August 1993, after he and I had attended the 1993 meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts, of the Emily Dickinson International Society. Dr. Shurr replied with a letter justifying his book. It was difficult to know where to begin to correct his errors, but I decided to start with this quotation from his response: "It is almost a cliché in Dickinson studies for nearly a century now to call this unit ['the two-line unit that alternates iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter'] ballad meter, or hymn meter, or more usually fourteeners."
If it is cliché it is also erroneous and another proof of something I have long bemoaned: Most scholars and critics of American literature know nothing whatever about prosodics and are quite disdainful of those who do. No doubt it is the "intuitive" Emerson/Whitman influence; as Dana Gioia has pointed out in a recent essay:
"Today prosody is a neglected subject.
"Few literary critics know more than the rudiments of metrics, and, in the aftermath of the free-verse revolution, even many poets have never studied versification. The last century, however, considered prosody an essential part of literary education" (93). "Surely one reason for the drop in Longfellow's reputation has been the decline of interest among both scholars and poets in formal prosody."
That does not, however, excuse the ignorance, nor ought one to condone its continuance.
First, that "two-line unit" is not a "unit." Many of the "poems" Shurr has identified are two lines long, what he calls "fourteener epigrams." However, fourteeners are not used singly, and Dickinson never intended that they should be; fourteeners are always paired with another line — either another fourteener, or an Alexandrine line to form a couplet of Poulter's measure (see pp. 226-227 of The Book of Forms). There is a caesura after iambic foot four of each fourteener, and the line has long been broken at that point to form two lines (small x = an unstressed, unrhymed syllable; capital X = a stressed, unrhymed syllable; capital A, B, C — any syllable other than x = a stressed, line-ending syllable that may rhyme):
xX xX xX xX · xX xX xX, i.e.,
xX xX xX xX ·
xX xX xX
If this were all, Shurr might have a case for his "fourteener epigram," but another fourteener is required to complete the unit, which is a couplet unit:
xX xX xX xA
xX xX xB
xX xX xX xC
xX xX xB
This quatrain is called common measure, (not "ballad meter" unless it is written in podic prosody), and when Dickinson used it as a poem or stanza form, she rhymed it as tradition required.
Shurr cited poem "J. 497" from the Johnson collection to prove that Dickinson sometimes did not rhyme her poems:
He strained my faith —
Did he find it supple?
Shook my strong trust —
Did it then — yield?
Hurled my belief —
But — did he shatter — it?
Racked — with suspense —
Not a nerve failed!
Wrung me — with Anguish —
But I never doubted him —
'Tho' for what wrong
He did never say —
Stabbed — while I sued
His sweet forgiveness —
Jesus — it's your little "John"!
Dont you know — me?
It is true that, as Johnson has printed this poem, it does not rhyme. However, the poem first appeared as no. 608 in the section titled "Poems Incomplete or Unfinished" of Bolts of Melody. In that incarnation it was printed thus:
He strained my faith — did he find it supple?
Shook my strong trust — did it then yield?
Hurled my belief — but did he shatter it?
Racked with suspense, not a nerve failed!
Wrung me with Anguish — must be I deserved it,
Though for what wrong he did never say,
Stabbed — while I sued his sweet forgiveness.
Jesus — it's your little "John"! Why me slay?"
This version certainly rhymes or, to be accurate, the first stanza consonates (off-rhymes) and the second true-rhymes. It took me less than five minutes to find this version in my personal library. To be sure, it would take me a bit longer to discover why there are differences in the versions — for instance, in the second version, "must be I deserved it" instead of "But I never doubted him — " in the "Wrung me with Anguish" line, or "Why me slay?" instead of "Don't you know — me?" in the last line.
According to Mrs. Todd, editor of Dickinson's 1931 Letters, "In her early twenties Emily began to conclude her letters with a poem, but as part of the text, written as prose, as if half hoping that the correspondent might not detect its presence. — Later, poems, as such, were not only part of the text; sometimes a poem constituted the entire letter." (455) Morever, she would often use the same "poem" in more than one letter; a note in Bolts says, "In Mrs. Todd's copy the last two words [of the last line] are inverted." (304) Some scholars have argued, however, that none of Dickinson's "prose" pieces ought to be counted a "poem" unless it appears in one of the "fascicles," the little ribbon-bound manuscript chapbooks that were found among the poet's effects after her death, and I tend to agree with this view.
For these, and many other reasons, the "poems" of Emily Dickinson are extremely problematic. Staying with the example Shurr chose, for instance, one might point out that, as he has given it, the poem not only does not rhyme externally, it also does not exhibit iambic meters. Here is an accurate scansion of the first "quatrain" in Johnson's version:
The only iambs are to be found in "line" one, which is iambic dimeter. Line two has no normative foot but consists of one anapest and an amphibrach. Line three has a trochee and a spondee. Line four is what a classical metrist would call a pyrrhic and a spondee, what Harvey Gross calls "a double iamb," and what J. R. R. Tolkien calls a "long rise" when he is discussing accentual (podic) prosody.
Nor is the "quatrain" written in podic prosody, for if it were written out as two lines of Anglo-Saxon prosody (which is the basis for podic prosody, TBoF, pp. 26-32), accentually it would look like this (the dot indicates the caesura in the center of the stich):
xX xX · xxX xXx
Xx Xx´ · xxXX
Stich two has five stresses, three in the first hemistich, where two would be required. In other words, this "stanza" is not written in verse, which is "metered language"; it is written in prose, "unmetered language." All that Johnson did was to break Dickinson's prose up into lines according to phrasing, what some have called "lineation" and what I call "line-phrasing." (I direct the reader's attention to the chapter titled "Whitman and I" in my book The Public Poet, where I go into this matter in some detail.)
Either one must maintain that Emily Dickinson sometimes wrote prose poems, or that this was not intended by Dickinson as a poem to begin with. If the Todd ("T. 608") version comes to light, one may suspect that Dickinson never arrived at a version of the poem that she thought of as complete, for it exists in a short-line (J. 497) and at least two long-line versions. Though the latter may show tendencies toward regular meter, the rhythms are quite rough and it is clear why the editors considered the poem to be unfinished.
Here is my numeration of the various feet in this "poem": iambs, 14 (counting the double iamb); trochees, 11; anapests, 2; spondees, 4; amphibrachs, 3. If iambs predominate, barely, over trochees, this piece is far from regular metrically, either as an iambic poem or as a podic poem (although it is actually more regular accentually than it is accentual-syllabically, for the number of stressed syllables ranges only between four and five accents).
These are the sorts of things I meant when I called Shurr's scansions "creative." That Johnson's were as creative does not speak well for his understanding of what it is that poets do. There is no excuse for scholars and critics of American literature to ignore the prosodic practice of the poets themselves, yet they seem to be willing to be ignorant and to excuse that ignorance by citing other scholars' ignorance. In my opinion the whole of Dickinson's "poetic" oeuvre needs to be gone over again prosodically to determine what she intended to preserve as verse poems and what she meant to leave as prose. Dickinson knew when she wanted her words to appear as finished verses, and she knew when she intended to leave them as parts of letters.
Works cited in “Iron Pyrites in the Dickinson Mine.”
Emory Elliott, book blurb on the jacket of Shurr, New Poems by Emily Dickinson, q.v.
Dana Gioia, "Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, Jay Parini, ed., New York, NY: Columbia U. P., 1993.
Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. P., 1963.
Anita Manning, signed news item, USA Today, June 23, 1993.
William H. Shurr, editor, New Poems of Emily Dickinson, Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina P., 1993.
——, August 1993 reply to Lewis Turco's letter, q.v.
Gary Lee Stonum, "Emily Warmed Over," Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer, September 5th, 1993.
Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin, Georgiana Strickland, ed., 5:1, May/June 1993.
Mabel Loomis Todd, ed., Letters of Emily Dickinson, New and Enlarged Edition, New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1931.
——, and Millicent Todd Bingham, eds., Bolts of Melody, New Poems of Emily Dickinson, New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1945.
Lewis Turco, Letter to Dr. William H. Shurr, 8 August 1993; printed as a review in The Hollins Critic, xxx:1, Dec. 1993, pp. 12-13.
——, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Hanover, NH: U. P. of New England, 2000.
——, The Public Poet, Ashland, OH: Ashland Poetry P., 1991.
Bottom row: Sandra Kettelhut, Georgia Bradley, Frederick Flatow, Pierre Bennerup; second row: Unknown, Philip Ashton, Judith Nott, Arthur Von Au; third row: Bobby Robins, Dorothy Pearson, Paul Wiese; top row: Lewis Turco, Marie Delemarre, Dorcas Kimball.
PIERRE OF SUNNY BORDER
It was a Halloween party at Pierre's home in Kensington in the fall of 1950 that gave me the material for my first great literary success. I had gotten to know Pierre when he and his family lived on South Vine Street in Meriden, Connecticut. He attended Meriden High School during our sophomore year, 1949-50, but even then his father owned the Sunny Border Nursery a few miles down the Chamberlain Highway, which is where Pierre and his family moved before our junior year.
During the intervening summer, however, I got to know the nursery well, for I sometimes worked there with Pierre and Bent, a narrow immigrant Dane who was one of two or three full-time employees. I recall Bent as a simple, silent man whose unvarying lunch, on those steaming hot days in the barn and the fields, was a Hershey Bar sandwich.
Pierre's father was a Dane as well, but his mother was a full-blooded French woman. I liked them both. The father struck me as being the epitome of Danishness: slender, not talkative, but not unapproachable, either. He had blue eyes and light brown hair; he was intelligent and efficient. The mother, on the other hand, was sweet and excitable. She spoke in a rapid, heavily-accented English, and she seemed always in a flutter over something or other.
Lillian, Pierre's sister, was two or three years older than we and she was ravishingly beautiful, I thought. She turned me into a bashful and awkward preadolescent whenever she appeared, a feature of her presence that filled me with chagrin.
Pierre and I used to go out into the dark fields in the simmering evenings and play juvenile games like hide-and-seek. Another thing we liked to do was to sneak up on the cars of petting teen-agers parked along the dirt road that skirted the nursery. One dark night we slunk through the fringe of woods to within a few yards of such a car, close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation of the couple who occupied the front seat. The girl was saying, "What are you doing? Leave my buttons alone. Stop it!"
The boy replied, "Button, button, who's got the button?"
She kept protesting, but not very seriously, and he kept repeating his phrase until Pierre and I couldn't stand it anymore. My hand was resting on a large stone, so I lifted it, arose, heaved it and shouted, "Button, button, who's got the friggin' button?" The stone went crashing through the trees and so did Pierre and I, in the opposite direction, snirtling and giggling.
I was to turn sixteen on the second of May of 1950, and I had determined to buy a car, a 1940 Chevrolet, from one of my older co-workers at Kresge's Five and Ten Cent Store, where I had spent part of the school year as busboy at the fountain. I had been saving my money, and, in order to eke out these sums to reach the $350.00 I needed, I had decided to sell my tropical fish and equipment which stood on tables in the sunporch of the parsonage where I lived with my minister father and missionary mother.
I shared the room with my father, who had a private sanctum behind some bookcases there. I would sometimes spend an evening dreaming into the murky light seeping out of the thick glass of a tank full of angel fish or gouramis, the night outdoors lapping at the windows like dark water. To passers-by perhaps I looked like an aquarian myself. I could hear my father nearby working on the sermons he would deliver on Sunday in the pulpit of the white-clapboarded First Italian Baptist Church that stood next door. A green, glass-shaded lamp on one of the bookcases dropped its liquid glow onto his head and mine, though we couldn't see each other. The light seemed filtered through decaying vegetation. Later, when I left home, I would dream of that room.
In the dream I would be seated before the aquaria. It would be night. The fish would be swimming in their dark waters, and as I watched, they would swim up into the air of the room and maneuver about me. There was no boundary between surface and fathom. I would look into the largest aquarium, trace the leaves of the rust-colored sword plant to its root, and there I would see my father's skull half-buried in the gravel, the stalk of the plant growing out of his eyesocket. It wasn't a pleasant dream, nor was it a nightmare. The emotions I felt were those of nostalgia and ruefulness, of some sort of vague longing and regret. Still, I didn't enjoy the dream's recurrence, and at last I exorcised it unwittingly by writing a poem about it.
To prepare for my purchasing the car Pierre would sometimes let me practice driving the stick-shift truck that belonged to the nursery. I remember our sitting on the front seat the first time, Pierre beside me, and his telling me, "Now, shift into low, and let out the clutch at the same time that you press down on the accelerator." The resulting series of lurches and bumps tossed the truck along the dirt road and our bodies into the air of the cab and from side to side.
"Slow! Slow! Let it out slow!" Pierre yelled, gasping. At last we came to rest. Eventually, after many hazards were passed, I learned how to shift.
My birthday came; another friend, Curt, the baritone in our high school barbershop quartet, The Sportlanders, let me borrow his mother's car to take the road test in — I don't recall why the Chevy wasn't available that day. Curt's car was a '46 Ford with lots more oomph than mine had. The moment I slid in to take the examination was actually the first time I'd been behind the car's wheel, and its responses were so much greater than expected that I had to apologize to the driving inspector and explain why I was roaring backward into my parallel-parking slot and burning rubber when I took off. To my amazement, and to Curt's, I passed the test on first try. That same week I bought the Chevy, the only automobile my family had while I lived at home, and I was born into freedom even though the engine burned nearly as much oil as it did gas.
It must have been that same summer of 1950 when Pierre and his family moved permanently out to Kensington from Meriden, but that didn't sever the ties he had with his friends. By no means. He was around almost as much after the move as he had been before it, for he owned a car as well. There were many, many days when I traveled to Kensington, alone or with a load of Fantaseers — our high school "science-fiction reading club," or Pierre came to Meriden. Pierre was one of the original Fantaseers which, with its women's auxiliary, the Reesatnafs, made up the famous Fantatnafs. It was the Fantatnafs who filled the Sunny Border Nurseries barn that Halloween.
Paul hung on the rafters and made noises like a monkey while he scratched under his arms. I tasted black coffee with sugar for the first time that night, drinking it with fresh doughnuts made by Pierre's mother, and became an addict. We sang songs and bobbed for apples, swilled cider, played games, ate candy, and raised Hob.
Halloween was on a Tuesday that year, so the next day was a school day. I spent it writhing in bed, however, for I had the most tremendous bellyache. "You ate too much candy last night," my mother said. "Let me give you an enema." It was her standard cure for stomach troubles.
"It's not an ordinary stomach ache," I said. "Please, take me to the doctor." It was an amazing thing for me to request, but for some reason she'd have no part of it. I'd merely overeaten.
On the other hand, I'd have no part of an enema. By mid-afternoon my father was beginning to think that perhaps I had something more than merely a gut gripe after all. At last he helped me out to a taxi. I was nearly doubled in half.
When the doctor saw me he prodded me a bit on the right side and I groaned in anguish. He looked at my father and said, "Acute appendicitis. He'll have to be operated on immediately." I can recollect the look of astonishment and anger — at my mother, probably — in Daddy's eyes. And so I was rushed off to the hospital.
When I came out of the anesthetic I was sicker than when I'd gone under it. I vomited green bile, and with every heave my new stitches strained and an agony of excruciating pain bloomed in my abdomen, but at long last things calmed down and I no longer wished to die.
In those days one had to remain in hospital for a week after an appendectomy, and one wasn't allowed to walk for two or three days, so I was given a wheelchair. At once I was a traffic menace to my floor. I sailed down the halls at a great rate, turning in and out of doors, around corners, visiting everyone, nearly knocking a doctor down on one occasion, but he stepped aside at the last moment as I rounded a bend and cried, "Whoa! Sorry." No one seemed to get angry with me. I asked all the young nurses to marry me.
My chastened mother came to visit every day with my rueful father. The Fantaseers and the Reesatnafs came to see me after school. Eventually I was allowed to go home. When I got back to class I discovered that Doc Michele, our junior-year English teacher, had given the class an assignment to write an essay on a personal experience. I had plenty of material, so I sat down at my father's old Underwood Standard typewriter in the sunporch behind the bookcases, and I hunted-and-pecked off a piece I titled "Appendix Excitis."
Life went on. I commissioned Pierre, an artist whose medium, in those days, was oils, to paint me a scene of horror, the details of which I specified, for I was nothing if not addicted to tales of terror and the supernatural as well as science fiction. I recall that one feature of the painting was a disgusting pool of slime out of which a clawed arm was reaching toward the corpse of a hanged man that dangled above the tarn. I hung it on the wall of my bedroom and was thoroughly delighted with it. My mother hated it and threatened all kinds of destruction, which I didn't take seriously. She wouldn't dare touch anything of mine.
At least, she wouldn't while I was at home, but time passed and I graduated from high school. Pierre did as well, from Kensington High, and he attended Princeton where he became an English major which surprised me, for I thought he had some talent as an artist. I am writing this in September of 1991, and yesterday I had a request from a publisher to send some family photographs to use as illustrations in a forthcoming collection of my poems. I found one picture, from the early 1960s, not that I wanted to send but to contemplate. It is of my dear old friend and mentor, the late Loring Williams. He is sitting on a couch in our apartment in Cleveland. My two-year-old daughter Melora is standing next to him on the couch. Her mouth is open — she is talking, he is listening. Above his head, hanging on the wall, I notice today, are two pictures. One is a stylized picture of "Blue Dogs" by the tenor in the Sportlanders, Tony, who went to Pratt institute and became an advertising executive. The other is a roofscape in sunlit white by Pierre. I haven't seen that picture in years, but I'm sure we still have it hidden away somewhere, and I still like it.
One day a decade or so earlier I had come back from the Navy on leave or liberty, and I noticed that Pierre's depiction of the hanging man was missing from its wonted space on my wall. I asked my mother what had happened to it, and she replied that she'd carried out her threat and thrown it away. At first I couldn't believe she'd done so, and I searched through the house, but I never found it. I know it was a stupid painting, but I would like to have it, and I never forgave my mother for the only act of censorship she ever carried out against her son's taste in art or literature.
Pierre worked for several years in New York and then when his father died he came back to Connecticut and took over the nursery. He is still there, so far as I know, but we've not seen each other or had contact with one another for a quarter-century. My wife Jean and I seldom get back to Meriden anymore, but one of those times many years ago I heard, perhaps from my brother Gene who followed my tracks into the hallowed halls of Meriden High which now no longer exists, that for years Doc Michele read "Appendix Excitis" to her English classes. It was, I understand, the only essay by a former student that she ever read to any of them. She never told me she was doing it, but I must say I couldn't have been more pleased when I heard what she'd been up to, for I respected her immensely. I wish I still owned a copy of that ancient paper, but I must not have made a carbon as I usually did. I'd really like to see what all the excitement was about. And I wish I still had Pierre’s genre painting.
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.