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I'm Dying Laughing
By Christina Stead, R. G. Geering
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 The Estate of Christina Stead
All rights reserved.
HOW IT BEGAN. 1935
The last cable was off, the green lane between ship and dock widened. Emily kept calling and waving to the three below, Ben, a press photographer, her brother Arnold and his wife Betty. Arnold was twenty-three, two years younger than herself; Betty was twenty-four. Arnold was a dark fleshy man, sensual, self-confident, he fooled around, had never finished high school. From Seattle he came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while. He now was working on a relief project for the WPA and earning about a hundred dollars a month. Betty was a teacher, soon to have a child. She was a big, fair girl, bolder than Arnold. She had already had a child by Arnold, when they were going together, had gone to Ireland to some relatives to have it. Arnold had never seen it, but Emily regularly gave them money for it. It was a boy four years old and named Leonard.
This couple badly wanted to go to Europe. They had argued it out with Emily in their rathole in Bleecker Street. They wanted to open an arts service somewhere around Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. Betty's idea was to go to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Florence and Prague to collect new notions and curios, Wiener Werkstätte, art objects, Käthe Kollwitz dolls, Raymond Duncan batiks, to sell in their store and by catalogue throughout the United States.
'In the Depression?' Emily objected.
'All the artists are working for the Government; on projects. They're spreading art through the Union. Every village has its theatre in a barn; they're getting to see there's art in Bowery bums and the old-time oil paintings in Wild West saloons. The Depression is good for art. Besides, the Depression is not so deep now.'
Their idea was that Emily was to back them and sustain them till the business made money. If they ran out of cash in Europe, Emily would send it; that is, if she stayed in New York at her job; and then there was Lennie. Betty would visit her son while abroad. He lived with Betty's old nurse outside Belfast. Emily could wait for Europe till next year; but she observed that already, in their plans, were yearly visits to Europe, to see what was new.
Emily had several times offered to bring Lennie to the States. Why couldn't she have a photograph of the bambino at least, in return for her support? But no, Betty's old nurse was a superstitious old darling. She did not believe in photographs.
'But I love Lennie,' cried Emily, 'I want to hold him in my arms. I feel as if he's partly mine.'
She could not even get his address.
'It would never do. It would so frighten Mary-Martha, the old darling. She would not understand a stranger writing.'
Emily longed for him. She even shouted at Betty.
'Are you going to plant the next one in Scotland? Maybe with Lindbergh's dear old nurse, or Lizzie Borden's dear old servant?'
This and her longing to see Europe strengthened her: she refused to buy their tickets. Next year.
'But then we'll have the child.'
She at once saw they might leave the new child with her. She rejoiced.
'If I'm lucky, kids, and sell articles on "Europe Today—Another Bonehead Abroad" to the Toonerville Times and the Wabash Weekly, I'll be able to send you and keep the kid with a nurse. But I've got to have the material first.'
'Couldn't you write it up here—read the foreign press?' said Arnold.
Emily rolled back on their divan, laughing, 'Gee whittaker, what crust! I go now, you go later.'
They gave a farewell party and were now seeing her off.
'I'm glad they haven't brought their luggage with them,' she said to her colleague, Ben Boakes, the press photographer; 'and even now, I'm not convinced. Heigh-ho, you know the famous Hollywood crack, "May you be the richest of your family! Get to Hollywood and wait for the swarm to settle on you." That's my fate. Fifty years hence, Ben, I'll be struggling for a byline, Irish Lennie will be fifty-four and spending my pittance in the dramshop and they'll be where they are today, feeding from flybitten cans in a Village one-room pleasance. Read your fate in the cloudy crystal, with Emily Wilkes.'
Now, at the rail, she grinned, pointed to the roses on her arm, shouted, nodded, wiped her eyes, with big gestures, so that they could see.
'Hooray, hooray, I made it!'
She turned to the lean, dark man standing beside her, a middle-aged man, her height, dressed as a workman. She saw his smile, and said, 'Sigh, blissful sigh! Until they unhooked that damn rope, I didn't know if they weren't going to crawl up the rope, first prize the greasy pig. Me.'
He looked quickly at her, laughed wider, and said in a low, hesitating voice, 'Who are they?'
'Family, family! No other explanation necessary. I've got the kind of family with gluey toes like that night-animal with big eyes. I'm Big Sis, who works even at the bottom of the Depression. Why should my loved ones work? Nay, nay. They're good kids. I'm not mean and sour. I'm just so darn glad to get away.'
'Going to Paris?'
'Yes. You're a New Yorker, I can tell,' said she.
'I'm West Coast. I was born in Tacoma. But I've worked in Portland, St Louis, Kansas City and a little while in Chicago. I thought I'd settle there. I fell for a smiler with a paper-knife on the news desk. Lucky for me, he said no. Lucky for me I was booted out.'
'Lost your job?'
'You ought to be right. But fact is, I won a prize in journalism, that brought me to New York, and here I am a rolling stone looking for moss.'
He was a journalist also; he was a daily columnist on the Labor Daily, a workers' paper published in New York. She knew it, a four-page paper.
'Do you really have a workers' circulation or is it for the intellectual reds in WPA? A daily labour paper is a luxury for workers. They don't want to be peculiar people: they like to have the paper other people have.'
They discussed it. She asked if he was going to Europe for reportage, to Russia perhaps?
'I-uh-h'm,' he murmured with a seductive wrinkling grin sideways on his thin Mayan face. Mayan? Or Micronesian? What? One of those dark, flask-shaped faces sprinkled throughout male humanity. He said, looking at her bouquet.
'Nice pink roses. Girls like roses.'
In another minute or so, he saluted her, hand to cap, took himself off, ambling brokenly, hands dangling, his face sad and graven, like a prehistoric vase. She noticed his down-at-heel shoes, his old jacket.
Many had gone below, some were scanning the dull shores, trying to feel farewell. She looked down at the three tugs, in her mind scribbling a story. There was a tall, strong boy leaning against the wheelhouse of the nearest tug, smoking, not even lifting his eyes to the dangerous steel monster overhanging him, and that could easily crush him and the sturdy little tug. She threw her roses at him—they hit the water and were sucked in. She said to the woman next to her,
'Typical! Drown my roses like a pup. Probably the only bouquet I'll ever get.'
The woman, middle-sized, plump with an oatmeal-coloured skin and big, dark eyes, looked at Emily and turned away. Emily burst into chatter. The woman turned back. Her dark hair was bobbed. She wore a white flannel blouse with a high neck, a grey and white tie and a black skirt. Then, with surprising gentleness, the woman said,
'I'll take a walk, I think.'
People had moved up on her left. Emily glanced at them. Two burly businessmen in new, tailored suits were talking about a bargain property in Queens, the owner about to go bankrupt. Depression stories, she said to herself, looking about. Suddenly she laughed and exclaimed, 'See that! I've been here twenty-four years and forty-one days, that is, I was born here, and I never saw her before. And now I'm turning my back on her.'
They were passing the Statue of Liberty. The men paused and the nearer one turned his head slightly. Emily was fleshy, rosy, wearing a silk dress, tawny background with a big, fruity pattern. He took his elbow off the rail, and their glances slid all over her, fine stockings, small fat feet in purple slippers. She gave them a glance and cheerily said, 'I won a prize in high school for writing about her. La sforza del destino. Ah, me! I know everything there is to know about that dame. She's French, their idea of the wheat-fed goddess. Her nose is Greek, four feet six inches long; but her waist, oh, her waist, is thirty-five feet round. Mrs Midwest America herself; can you see her in a mother hubbard?'
She became hilarious. The men glanced at each other.
She went on, 'You know, there are 200,000 pounds of copper sheeting in her?'
The men at once turned to the statue.
'And her mouth, like mine, is three feet wide!'
The men stared silently, but the statue was left behind. Then they began again, to each other, 'You know Ross and McKinley? They went down four years ago, January of 1931. Ross is still around, has a little business, junk store, on Second Avenue. McKinley is on relief, living in a flophouse in Harlem. He owed—'
They turned and strolled forward.
She said to herself, 'Oh, well, everyone's got a lot on their minds, I guess; the days of the locust.'
She went below for her white spring jacket. She was in a two-berth cabin and there was her sharer, sitting on the bed with whisky in a tooth-glass. It was the dark woman with the bobbed hair, from the deck. There was a gilded steamer basket standing on the shelf near Emily's bunk.
Emily said, 'Help yourself. It's from the office. What's your name? Mine's Emily Wilkes.'
The woman coughed and looked at her darkly.
'Well, if we're cabin-mates, I'd better know your moniker,' Emily said.
Now the woman said in her soft voice with the Irish intonation of old New York, 'Mrs Browne, Mrs Walter Browne, the Browne spelled with an e.'
'Is this your first trip to Europe, Mrs Browne?'
The woman finished her drink and washed out the glass. No answer.
'H'm, well, excuse me. My first trip, except to Staten Island, Arbutus Beach, to study the spot marked X; and once, when I took the ferry from Seattle to Port Angeles on a stormy day of strike, my life in my hands.'
On the way up, she thought, 'Good company, I see! Talkative; verbal diarrhea. They probably figured me out and put me in with Signora Sphinx, so I can learn to be refahned before I get to Europe.'
Warm now, though there was a fresh breeze, she walked round the deck.
Aft, lounging on a grey-painted locker, was a large man, shirt open to the waist, showing his long, sparsely hairy body. He was fair, a big face with large, open blue eyes, the eyes of a child. This big man saw her, smiled, began shaking with laughter. 'Who is that?' She knew him. She walked all round the deck and came back. He was there, but looking tired, his cheeks creased and fallen. His muscular arms burst out of the short sleeves; he had a big putty nose. 'I know him!' Five years before—a troublesome student in Seattle, shouting with students at a long table in the canteen, putting them all down, roaring with argument, sitting by himself, moody, dirty, drunk and with his books before him. As she trotted past, he looked at her purple slippers. 'He does remember! He remembers that after moving to his table, called the Circus, attracted by the circus, I started asking sappy questions. I got the attention of one Bellamy Dark, a "mediocre academic drudge" he said. Modest lad, thought I; and did not know it was an informed analysis. I went after this drudge, named Woodworm and deserted this one named Fireball. It was a chit's cowardice. I figured I couldn't rope in Fireball, I guess. Well—B. Dark is one of the reasons I'm going to Europe; to wipe out the shame. And lo, here is Fireball! Is it a reward, is it Fate? I wish I knew. Forget it girl. You're sure to lose.' She was always making mistakes—she had an impulsive nature.
'Hi! You're from Seattle,' she said.
'Yup. Just been there to see my father-in-law.'
'What's your name? I remember you. You fought fist-fights with three of the faculty; two for Sacco and Vanzetti, one for Karl Marx. Then you left.'
'I got a job as a stevedore. Then I became a sailor.'
'That was a big general fist-fight that Sacco-Vanzetti event. Even I at last knocked on doors for the shoemaker and the fishman versus the United States. Even Mussolini, to get down to the dregs, was obliged to tell Italy and the world, "I did everything humanly possible to save Sacco and Vanzetti." It was our first international trial. I mean Judge Thayer tried them, another word for the bum's rush, in this instance, and then the world tried us. The first but not the last, no doubt. Dreadful. Why was it? Why do we do it? They burned the American flag in Tokyo and Johannesburg. Thomas Mann and John Galsworthy and other worthies said, "Sacco and Vanzetti are our blood brothers." If there's one thing we know, it's how to get the banner headlines.
'The USA was in the usual red scare; people being rounded up and deported. In the 1790s it was the French who were the dangerous reds we had to round up and expel,' said he.
'Why are we such scaredy-cats?'
'Come and have a drink,' he said, pushing himself up. She remembered more about him now. Most of the girls had avoided him, though he was a magnificent animal; because he roared, went on benders, didn't shave, didn't dance and would come towering in, full of drink, smiling strangely, separate, threatening, ready to smash-hit, or shout rough laughter, or topple. Drunk or sober, he argued and fought. He was going to London for his Ph.D.
'Why London? Plenty of Ph.Ds. at home.'
'I like it where it's tougher. And I've got to talk to someone.'
He did not tell her then. His father-in-law was paying the minimum sum for the trip. His wife, Sue, who was at home in Seattle at present, studying for her MA, still believed he could make a good professor: but if not, they'd separate and she'd teach. When he said this, he grinned like a good-humoured lion.
She told him the home facts. Her father was a small inventor and manufacturer. He made boilers, stoves, ovens, heaters. He had invented a few things, especially noted the Wilkes Boiler. She had brought her brother Arnold from Seattle to New York, unemployed, to get a job she had found for him.
'What did he do?' She hesitated.
'He was on ... WPA.'
She laughed, 'I hope it's good. He was in a small PR agency. He helped the other hucksters stuff the holes of reputations with flannel. You know, Imperial Caesar, alas, poor Yorick. Ugh, I hate and fear the name. I always felt I was poor Yorick. I am always concealing from myself that I am poor Yorick. Besides, Hamlet was poor Yorick. Clown at court; what future but a naked skull?'
He snarled, 'Who knows who's Hamlet? Hamlet's anyone. He's all moods, any moods. He's a wind-and-water adolescent. It's a phase of youth I don't like. I was through it by fifteen. I was a Catholic, a choirboy. Then I changed.'
She heeded the belligerent tone and said hastily, 'My father remarried and I was mostly brought up by my granny, at least ideologically. She was a battling old lady who subscribed to the Clarion and heard Elizabeth Gurley Flynn when she first went out west. I got all my history of the West from her and I've always had an abject, cringing admiration for the Wobblies. They admitted life was really tough: you can't flatter it.'
'Faugh yourself. Grandma loved a Wob, that kept her straight, though I guess she was straight. I saw him at last; "my dear Tom", she called him, "my dear young man." He was a tall, straight man, seventy, no stoop, long head, bushy black hair, footballer's neck and shoulders, with big slow feet, just like Lincoln, glasses on his small blue eyes, big shapely hands, and a wonderful laugh, like all the glasses in a glass-blower's ringing downscale. He was masculine, ugly, you might say; yet I somehow thought he must look like his mother. He said he looked like his father. "I'm the only one of the boys that does," he said: "my mother had a faithful weekend visitor." That floored me for a while. Grandma loved him all her life. Ah, me. Living Man, she called him: or Deep River. I don't know why.'
'Deep River is the Ohio. It's a freedom song for the Negroes.'
Emily said, 'I bet secretly I'm looking for one like him. Girlish first impressions.'
The man looked restless, surly. She said, 'What's your name? I've forgotten.'
It was Jean-Marie McRoy, a mixture, French-Canadian, Scots, and yes, part Russian.
'You look Russian. When I saw you lolling on that box, I said to myself, "He's resting from running up the Potemkin Staircase." Or was it down?'
He liked that. He said his rich father-in-law, a lumber man, didn't think much of him.
'He says I have no imagination, no personality. That means I don't make money and don't want to. Sue thinks so too, my wife. She's stuck by me so far. She likes me, but she wants me to shine on campus, the big popular man: heads turn when I come in, sush-sush murmur, bald heads and spectacles shine with approval, they clap—the bear with the heart of a mouse. To hell with it. I tried it. I try anything. I got drunk and ducked—'
Excerpted from I'm Dying Laughing by Christina Stead, R. G. Geering. Copyright © 1986 The Estate of Christina Stead. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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