By David Massey
In all times Eadwine has known the loneliness of a Frankenstein’s monster, without father, mother, or natural ties, and little wonder is it that the most long-ago of his Germanic selves–earth-walker, wave-wanderer–spoke thus: “He who has felt it knows how cruel a companion is sorrow to him who has no beloved protectors. The path of exile attends him, not twisted gold–frozen are the thoughts in his heart-case, no joy of earth.”
Oh yes, and therefore I cannot think why my heart’s thought should not grow dark when through this world I consider all the life of men. Each day this middle-earth fails and falls. And especially, perhaps, the soul’s hoard-case breaks and gives up its treasure to marauders of the spirit when the thought of a child without strong arms to shelter it invades with heart-hurting images. For such a child there is none among the living to whom he dares clearly speak his mind. Downcast he crosses over the woven waves of time, winter-sad, yearning for a home. . . .
He was five, and more in love than he was to be for many years. The little blonde had two swings in her garage. Because from the first exchanged words magic had settled on them, she wanted Russell to swing with her. He pushed her into motion, then she him; then they swung at the same time, a pair of soaring bodies. This was more important than play; it was exultation, like flight in his sleep, or the chasing of fireflies on the dulcet afternoon that entered his most joyful dreaming. Ugly as a dragon, then, came Randy.
“I wannuh play.”
“You can’t,” she said.
“No, you can’t! It’s my swing, it’s my yard. Go home!”
“You can’t make me.”
“Yes, I can. I’ll tell my mama.”
Randy went. But came another day, and she came running across the intervening yard to Russell’s house. Russell saw her through the window and hurried out to meet her, heart leaping.
“Come swing,” she commanded.
“I’m comin’, too.” Randy stepped quickly from his side of the duplex, belligerent, determined.
“No, you’re not. I don’t want you.”
Mother said it happened too fast, she had no idea Randy would think of such a thing; he did it before she could stop him. Not so, Russell. He knew as Randy snatched the knife from the shelf what would happen, but he could not move as Randy bolted forward, arm driving in a brutish arc. For years in Russell’s dreams, suspension between will and act was like waiting for the knife to strike his little blond friend as she stalked haughtily down those steps.
Russell did not see his little girlfriend again. She was not much hurt, but her father and mother found a house far from this violent neighborhood.
In these present times, when the crude world and sad body gainsaid his eight-year-old longings, he did not have a true love. He rode the school bus to and fro, a rack of visions aching in a chariot of steel. The visions were a subtle pain, for the person his mind saw rescuing an incomparable girl was greater, finer, grander than he; it was himself as he hoped to be in a future when he had been transformed by–by he knew not what.
But he had dreams. Awake, asleep, dreaming always. His nights were a separate life, resumed when once his eyelids closed, just as their opening brought back the day. Behind shuttered eyes he knew joy, ecstasy, guilt, anxiety, terror, relief; he knew unexplained dread and fell upon riches. He could float in air; fly; he could happen into a world of softest beauty where the muted brilliance of the sky hung like a coronet over whispering twilight.
He did not know whence came the people of his dreams, especially the girls and women. A myriad of faces he had no memory of seeing in the waking world visited him once he entered this second being. Often he knew the persons of these dreams far more intimately than he knew anyone while awake, even his parents and sisters, and yet he was meeting them for the first time, as far as he knew, behind the fringed lids of sleep. He likewise met in sleep the familiar people, his mother, daddy, sisters, cousins, neighbors, teachers; he met the Nazis and Black Hand and Mafia, malevolent snakes, deformed monsters of death.
And he met an angel. The angel said he would take care of Russell. The angel was tough and wore a pair of boxing gloves, which he kept tapping together; but he definitely was an angel because he was good and was surrounded by a glow that filled Russell’s dream. Russell awoke from his dream wondering if he really had an angel.
He did not have to be told why his angel would want to take care of him.
Surely there had been a time, an hour, when Russell had idealized his daddy–believed him great among men. In fleeting moments he still did so. Daddy could talk, O Lordy how he could talk! He knew some big words and launched them forth at the supper table for twenty minutes together. He was full of theories about the world, and sometimes his notions came out at breakfast, too. Also, he made whatnots and bookcases and, with great toil, could fix the pump or pull long pipes out of the ground so a man sent by Mr. Johnson could deepen the well. He could whistle a special way that he had learned from a movie; he did his whistle when he came home from work each evening, to let his family know he was walking up out front. In days gone by, Russell and his sisters would hear the three notes and run joyfully to meet Daddy in the yard.
But: You’re no kind of man, people just run all over you! When Mother lit into Daddy, she always won by the things she said and the names she did not quite call him. He could not take up for himself, she said. He was the sole shield between his family and a grasping, mean, and heartless world, but the shield was weak. Then Daddy’s voice rose to a high, wounded falsetto, and he jumped and hollered. Nobody listened to him, he said. He got no respect in his own household because his wife undermined his authority. “Nothing I say counts for anything, even to the children!” he cried. Then he went out into the yard and found work to atone for being powerless. “I know, Eloise, I’m a damned dog that shouldn’t be allowed to live,” he cried as he rushed out the door. Working in the yard, he talked to the air: “Just a damned dog, and I don’t deserve to live.”
As Daddy did jobs around the house, Russell sensed the helplessness that his father tried to bury in this endless work and felt it flow into himself as he considered what his father must never know. When Daddy was away at the warehouse, Mother said they would never have anything as long as they had to depend on Daddy. She said she wished she was married to somebody who was rich, she wished she was married to a man!
Ever present in Russell’s mind were two incidents that occurred shortly after Randy and his parents and brother moved into the other side of the duplex. The Tillman children came heralded by neighbors as mean boys who would beat Russell up every day. They had hardly been in the house a week when Randy hit, pushed, and kicked Russell. When Russell told his mother, she called him a little coward. “Don’t let him run all over you!” she said, and, snatching Russell by the hair, pushed him against the wall and slapped him with both hands, saying, “You’re bigger than he is! You can beat him if you’ll just fight!” Daddy stood palely by, clasping his hands behind his back. Mother grabbed his hair again and knocked his head against the wall. “You fight him or I’m going to beat the hound out of you!” she yelled. She grasped his ears and twisted them. Her eyes were red, tearful, face dark with anger, voice high and breaking.
Russell promised to fight Randy, forcing himself not to resist her blows. He did not want Daddy to interfere because an unbearable thing might happen: Mother might say to Daddy what she said when he was at the warehouse. I wish I was married to a man!
Next time Randy wanted to fight, Russell hurt him. “Mr. Matthews, Mr. Matthews,” Randy cried. “Russell kicked me! Russell kicked me!” Daddy came out to the porch. Russell could see Randy’s father, Landrum Tillman, a lanky barroom tough whom all the young men in the neighborhood looked up to because he was a hard-drinking hellion, behind the screen door, leaning darkly against the doorsill, saying nothing as he watched the Matthews door, at a right angle to his. “Come in this house, Russell,” Daddy said. “Come in right now.”
As Russell came up the steps, Daddy took off his belt. Russell could tell Daddy knew Tillman was behind him, just two long strides away. By Daddy’s crestfallen bearing, Russell knew his beating of yesterday was fresh in his father’s mind: Russell had been told to fight! Yet Daddy doubled the belt in his hands, awkwardly, and Russell sensed shame in his father’s features and thick voice as he said, “I think what you need is a good whipping, Russell.”
He went into the living room. Daddy held him by the left wrist to beat him with the belt. Russell moved in a circle, as if trying to escape the blows, crying, “Ouch! Ouch! I won’t do it again! Ouch!”–so Tillman could hear him. The blows were soft and humiliated. Russell could feel the butchered pride of his father in the striking, for the gratitude in the weak face said louder than words that Daddy knew his five-year-old son was rescuing him from having to fight this violent neighbor with a chip on his shoulder.
A serpent crept into Russell’s life. Daddy was tarnished, Mother an infidel: she had defaced images. Russell believed himself a coward in the mold of his father (“like father, like son,” people said). As his life became more densely surrounded with violent neighbors, he became ever more convinced of his cowardice.
How be a hero, like knights of old?
And how choose? These women, they of the fragrance and talking bodies, they who were always there, these women were fearsome creatures who roamed with their wild words through sacred arbors and shattered all that they found and had founded.
Therefore, downcast he crossed the frozen waves of time, winter-sad, yearning for a home. And the wave wanderer saw that his redemption lay in habitude, accustoming of himself to himself, so that even misery was a sweet and wonderful thing to close himself in with; and it lay in the power of imagination to convey survival to the affects; and in the circumambient return to the same ground of pain without cease until all pain was analyzed and absorbed. Ah God, and something else: good is he who keeps his pledge, nor must ever a boy utter too quickly the passion of his breast. For the truth was that since the little girl so long ago, there had never been anyone but Buck’s mom who drew from him a note of real love, unless he counted Gina or his sisters. Mother wanted Russell to want Gina, but when he considered this, it did not feel right. They looked alike, he and Gina, and this chance, as well as their close friendship, made them more like brother and sister than lovers.
What were lovers? What did they do?
Russell was not sure what kind of emotion had been started by his friend’s mother’s laughter when Buck and the diminutive Dixie Vinings sat in a neighbor’s porch swing holding hands. If he could have any wish in the whole world, he would swap mothers with his friend. Buck’s mom was a tall and shapely brunette of quiet, cool assertiveness; her aura wrapped all things in certitude. Yet a hero, an earth wanderer, was above all a boy of honor, and there was no honor in desiring a friend’s mother; therefore, Russell could not wish his wish, or think it, or do more than barely know it existed before driving it away into the hinterlands of his feelings.
Of all Russell’s friends, Buck was the steadiest. He could be counted on, just like Buck’s mom. Yet Buck liked to have things his own way, and he could not be counted on not to make rules that tied Russell’s hands. It was this that had come between the two boys, so that now Russell stayed indoors nursing his latest wounds and moping. Thus it was that he came to be turning the beautiful blue bowl in his hands at the table where his family ate all their meals.
Several times he had sat turning the bowl in this way. In its patterns and the light glancing off it, he seemed to see shapes: people, things, places, all having something to do with himself. As he turned it now, he saw the angel of his dream. From the flashing light of the bowl the angel smiled at him and stretched its arms wide to receive him. Then the champion angel was gone from the bowl and from this hour.
“Mother! Mother!” Russell cried. “I saw an angel!” But she was working. Her eyes, for she was taken off guard, flickered in the way of a cow’s tail swatting at flies, then were surface only; had Russell been tiny enough, he could almost have slid down the curve of her eyeball without her noticing, because she had too much hard work to do. Russell saw it would be better not to disturb Mother with his angel. Besides, after a moment’s thought, he did not want to share his angel. The gloved angel was his secret, his alone. He knew what his mother must not know: why the angel had appeared to him twice.
Buck would not stop hitting, that was the problem. He wouldn’t stop hitting. It was a dirty trick that Buck pulled.
Where boxing was concerned, Russell was the scourge of the neighborhood among boys his own age. The hard blows he delivered with his right hand were the reason other boys avoided putting the gloves on with him. Invariably, he would knock the other boy down or draw blood with hard right crosses. The other boys did not like to concede that Russell was beating them with his blows, so they fell back on other excuses: “You’re a good ducker, Russell. You’re good at making people miss, Russell.” Such things. And these things were true. Russell was more skilled; especially, his timing was good: he knew when to throw his hard rights. He would catch the other boy moving forward, an instant before the boy was going to throw a right of his own; the timing made his own blows hurt and weakened the blows landed by the other boy. Now all the boys his age in the neighborhood avoided boxing matches with Russell. But Buck had tricked him. Buck owned boxing gloves. And Buck had said, “Come over to my house and let’s box.” But when they put on the gloves, Buck said, “Let’s don’t hit hard. We’re just practicing.”
“Okay.” And Russell proceeded to pull his punches. Not so, Buck. Buck pressed forward throwing lots and lots of body blows, and he was not pulling his punches. As the contest continued, Russell honoring their compact, Buck not, Russell was forced to back up. After a long time, Russell said, “It’s been three minutes. The round is over.”
“No, it’s not,” Buck said, and he continued to land thumping blows on Russell’s body. The minutes slid by, and Buck refused to stop. Gradually, Buck forced Russell all the way across the front yard to the side of the house. By this time, Russell’s arms were heavy from the pounding he had taken in the body; he could not lift them. Buck backed Russell against the house and flailed away.
“Stop,” Russell said. “The round is over. It was over a long time ago.”
“No. It hasn’t been three minutes.” And Buck kept pounding Russell.
Finally, Russell said, “Stop hitting or I’m never coming over here again. I said stop hitting.”
Buck finally stopped hitting. He helped Russell get his gloves off. Russell was angrier with Buck than he had ever been before. “I’m going home and I’m not coming back,” he yelled. “And don’t bother to come to my house. I won’t talk to you.”
That was three days ago. Since then, Russell had dreamed about his angel and seen him in the blue bowl. Something was going to happen, he knew it.
And it did, and it caused the wave-wanderer many a lonely year, for he was not ready to win maiden heart and he lost his best friend.
There was a magazine to which Russell’s parents subscribed which came in the mail every weekend. This week’s issue of the magazine had a story in it about a boxer, an old pro being challenged by a young upstart. The old pro thought surely he would lose the fight, but the grapevine said differently: the old pro would keep his title. He did not understand the talk he was hearing, but went to work preparing to give the newcomer the fight of his life. He grew his hair long; he let his beard grow out; he got in the best shape of which he was capable. When the fight came, he used tactics the young fighter had not seen. He darted inside and hit his opponent several hard, quick blows to the body, then tied him up and rubbed his long hair in the young fighter’s face; he used his stubbly beard the same way. He used a stew of tactics to harass the younger fighter and make him feel he was taking a horrible beating. Then, to his surprise, in the ninth round he hit his opponent with a right cross (not a hard one), and the young fighter went down and stayed on the canvass.
The old pro had won (the author said) because his challenger lacked heart.
Be it noted that the tale of Eadwine is a story within a story, always, in his every avatar. His life as Russell Matthews was no different. Russell read the story of the old pro. All the tactics of the old pro were chiseled into his mind as into hard granite. He remembered his angel, tapping those gloves as if to say, “I’m ready. Have at it.”
So when Buck showed up on Monday wanting to play, Russell was not surprised.
“The only way I’ll play with you is to box you,” he said. “And you have to bring the gloves to my front yard. We’ll box here. I won’t go to your yard.”
Russell did not have a beard, but he did have long hair, and he knew how to use all the tricks of the old pro. As the fight progressed, Buck turned bewildered and dismayed. He did not know what to do and grew confused to distraction. Finally, he cried, “Stop! Stop! It tickles.” His face was drawn and desperate. Russell had his revenge. The two boys took off the gloves and Buck went home, crestfallen and sad.
Sadder still was the moment a week later when Buck stood at the edge of Russell’s yard trying to get his attention. Russell was playing with Gina, the girl his mother wanted him to choose as his fair maiden. Gina was crucial to Russell, for she was his closest girlfriend. On his first day of school, when he was six, his shoe came untied and he did not know how to fix it back. Gina, who lived next door and was a year older, showed him, knelt on the ground, tied up his shoe. As he stood in the stillness that was Gina tying his shoelace, with nothing in the wide world to fear as long as she was with him, he came briefly again into the ecstasy that had gone away with his true love, the little girl in the swing; and into the aegis of the overarching presence, these women who always seemed to have the secret, whatever it was.
Now he wrenched his mind away from the game he and Gina were playing to hear what Buck was saying.
“We’re moving,” Buck said. “We’re going today.” He looked disconsolate. Russell felt in himself a lurching toward loss. He did not answer his friend Buck. There was nothing to say. But as Buck stood there, looking disheartened, there appeared in the sky behind Buck the lineaments of the blue bowl that Russell had turned in his hands, and in the gigantic bowl stood his bright angel, looking tough and good and patting his gloves together as if to say, “Come what may. . . .” The angel smiled; and as it did, Russell knew himself; knew he no longer needed Gina, or anyone in the whole world, really. I am the Old Pro, he thought. I am the Old Pro.
The angel vanished from the sky. Buck turned sadly and wended his way home, his home no more, but someone else’s. Russell stood in the loss and knew it would be all right. He turned and looked at Gina. She had not seen the angel, he could see that. The angel was his secret.
Behind his eyelids, closed for sleep, there could be women or girls, face on lovely face, some he had beheld, some morning-new. Or he gazed wonderingly from disembodied height in first witness of many waters–rivers, bays, oceans (oh, is not care perpetual in him who many and often times must send his weary heart over the woven waves?)–or might go down into the underwater itself, fearing to be a drowned boy or a fish; or was overwhelmed by horrifying images from the dim swamps of his soul; and in no case could he control which pictures flooded his mind, or pull himself awake to bar them before he spiraled into sleep. The images shaped his dreams.
Tonight he dreamed of his angel. He was far underwater when before him, vision resolving all doubt, appeared his angel of the beautiful glow; and the angel seemed to be in the ocean and sky simultaneously, an angel of all elements, all chance, all change. The angel never relaxed his toughness, but he looked upon Russell with compassion that touched all time and distance.
Russell awoke to wonder. It was still dark. For a while he watched the shadows, growing accustomed to their masses. When they changed in the blink of an eye to white open corners and plain closet door, he knew he had survived the night.
He felt he should be sad because his friend was gone. Yet he went to breakfast with a quiet joy. And it was a morning of magic, the kind that only Daddy could make when he was feeling right. Daddy was expansive and hilarious, and soon they were all laughing so hard they could barely keep their seats at the table. Finally, they stopped laughing and calm settled over breakfast. Russell sat quite still, apart, far and far apart; yet in no pain. He looked around at his family and was reconciled; indeed, annealed, burnt to courage, and reconciled.
About the Author
David Massey has a Masters Degree in English Literature After 1660 from the University of South Carolina but has not had the advantage of an MFA program. He did, however, take classes under George Garrett (Death of the Fox, The Succession) and James Dickey (Deliverance, Alnilam) while at the university. He began writing with resolve about ten years ago, admittedly a late start, but he feels he has made significant progress over the past two years. He recently got his first acceptance, for a short piece of flash fiction.