|Issue 3:1 | Non-Fiction | Patricia L. Sutherland|
Patricia L. Sutherland
Once Omar Khayyam wrote that he thought, at least according to Fitzgerald’s translation, the saddest words of tongue or pen were “it might have been.” I disagree. I think that instead of “might have been” the question is really who is there when life does not matter any more. I think much more about the “who” as I get older. When my life does not matter to me any more, who will be there? Do I achieve that state of mind at a certain age? Does it come when I realize that there is no one who cares for me more than what I can do for them, or enough to make me first in their life? I guess at that point in time, I will not really care. As I age, I think about my aloneness more than I once did. My career chose me, not the other way around, and it dictated the terms of my personal life. I have spent most of my existence living though an unreal world I created on a stage rather then the world surrounding me.
When did my not really living my own life begin? Not a hard question to answer for me because I can remember the “when.” It was in the second grade. I used to lie in front of an RCA console radio and create in my mind the pictures of the jungle where the apes found a small-orphaned baby who later became Tarzan. I still feel the small town deep summer pre-air-conditioned humidity. I remember the trickles of sweat sliding down my spine, dripping down the sides of my waist as I lay, propped on my elbows, on a hardwood floor, polished by me. The wax smell and the sound the sock-covered brick made as I passed it over and over that varnished floor mingled with the static sound I generated from adjusting the dial. Every Saturday morning brought a narrator’s deep mellow tones, pronouncing words I had only read before. His deep baritone blended and wove description with mysterious sounds to come out of that brown mesh speaker. I could barely stand the weekly wait for that moment of mental escape to begin. Words carried on wires, pole to pole, for all I knew, straight from another continent. I never willingly missed a broadcast. I can hear that wavering, half human yell Tarzan gave when, swinging through the trees, he came to someone’s rescue. Sometimes, it was one of his animal friends, at other times, a naïve city visitor who needed saving from his own ignorance. Years afterward I learned Tarzan’s special yell was a combination of sounds created by a special effects crew. I would try to recreate that haunting sound as I played in my personal “jungle” of trees surrounding my house. I took pride in my ability to produce a very close imitation. Early practice in projecting, I guess. A skinny, scratched-up kid in pigtails running, swinging from tree to tree, yodeling a fake ape yell must have given many laughs to farmers in the fields around our five acres of woods.
Most days I escaped an airless house to swing from thick grape vines, growing like tentacles from old weathered trees in our woods, to pretend that I was the hero. Large uncut trees and scarred sturdy trunks vine-anchored to leaf black soil provided my jungle fantasy rides. The longest vines grew in an isolated hollow, which held a gigantic gnome of a black walnut tree. The earth there was damp and dank smelling. Years of fallen and rotting walnut hulls turned my bare feet into stained black soles. Walnut stain is hard to remove and always revealed to my mother where I had been. My father had killed several copperhead snakes on our property, and my mother always envisioned snakes in the vines that grew and hung for twisted, interlocked miles over that hollow. A tug to test the vine’s grip in the high branches and then I could soar and swing, kicking against trees to keep my momentum until I finally jumped and hopped to a landing on the other side. Amazing scenarios played in my mind as I crouched, ducked, leaped and grabbed an unsuspecting vine and swung with fearless joy over huge blackberry briar-filled dead limb piles, dark gulches and jagged piles of moss-laden rocks. A hastily checked wild grape vine often dumped me in mid-swing, smashing my made-up life to a bloody and scratched pulp. Moreover, I had to come up with a story to tell my mother why I was the portrait of a Tide before-picture. I feel sure Tarzan never smacked his forehead into a tree to create an inner planetary flash of stars.
We were isolated from other homes then, living on an unpaved road, which dead-ended slightly past our brick house. My father moved here to take a job as a supervisor of the local electric power company. The intent, as I understood it, was for him not to travel so much. Apparently, it did not work. Most of my memories were of his being gone, usually three months at a time. My mother, sister, and I were alone on a five-acre “gentleman’s farm” with no car (at least for all intents and purposes) to go to town. We were in the middle of working farms, complete with mules, barns, and corn and tobacco fields. My mother did not have a driver’s license. No one drove the car but my father. We had to take a taxi to the nearby town once a week to buy groceries. I could stand, scared to death to go down the steep steps, on our high back porch, and look down at a green Chevrolet, always locked, in the sweltering sun, unused. In the summer, the season always in my memory, the sun bounced and radiated from the dark green roof and hood in a wavy aura, a distorted impenetrable curtain between me and a physical escape from my isolation. I was the only girl my age in the entire area.
The coolest place inside during the summer was just inside the basement door, which was located about twenty feet from the front chrome grill of that stifling car. The damp sand next to the water tank became my first stage. I created worlds next to that sweating tank, complete with towns, roads, and people, complicated plots, dialogue and sound effects. Entering the world of the theatre seems a natural progression. I learned early that the only thing I could depend on for company was my imagination. Only now do I realize that my mother longed for the same escape.
There were two radios in that house with the endless hardwood floors. My mother seemed always in the kitchen. She even read her books sitting at the kitchen table. When it grew too hot outside even to imagine, I lay under the dining room table and read with my mother’s radio playing; music and voices, a background to our reading. One of her favorite shows was the Arthur Godfrey Hour. Most days I would block out the sound of the tinny voices as I escaped to the land of Ivanhoe and Arthur, Merlin and sorcery. I still remember the first time the sounds from that little crème colored box with dials penetrated my world of words. It was a strange clicking sound, rhythmic, but still a clicking noise. I did not know what it was but it kept me from turning my pages. I finally asked my mother what that sound was. She said, “Tap-dancing.” No pictures in my mind, nothing I could see or even guess from reading came to me, but it didn’t matter. My curiosity was so intense that I was on that floor in the dining room every day waiting to hear that tap dancer. In my mind I understood the idea of a dancer, but I couldn’t find the Morse code visual translation from sound to image. There was something in that irregular tapping beat that stirred my soul. It was years before I really “saw” a tap dancer live, in person, clicking toes, heels, arms and legs moving in time, producing a familiar and mysterious, combination of rhythms. Best of all, I saw him on a stage, in a theatre, and he was famous.
Now I sit, alone, in the back of an empty auditorium, the “house” in theatre idiom, looking at a stage, a platform by which I have experienced an artificial life for too many years. A life which as a woman in a male-dominated career path has not always been easy. It is a frighteningly fascinating thing to live life in an imaginary world on a stage, especially so to be the creator of that world. Where did I first hear the words to describe it? I believe it was my first drama professor who paraphrased Coleridge to say that theatre could not exist without the “willing suspension of disbelief.” To a seventeen-year-old college freshman, these were profound words. After all my childhood years living in a world of words and fantasy, suspension of disbelief was already my way of life. It was my open sesame into what had been a private part of my mind, a part controlled by curtains, lights, and props.
It is my ritual, about two hours before curtain rise, to sit in the back of the empty house, look at the stage, set and props ready, shadows and quiet surrounding me, and reflect. The curtain is closed before the audience arrives, so they first see the set as I, the director, intend. I intend an initial visual impact forged from color, lights, sound, actors, all controlled for effect. But before anyone else arrives, not even the stage crew, I need to sit and to think of how my production evolved from words on a page into vibrant life. A play does not live until there is an audience. My greatest fear has always been to give a play where no one shows up.
I did not start out wanting to live vicariously. I guess I was just a lonely kid. I think it is probably a Freudian thing that my first memory as a four-year-old child was the day that my sister was brought home from the hospital. I recall that I was more interested in playing a policeman, complete with blue sweater and some complicated arrangement of belts, one across my waist and another diagonally across my chest, than I was in seeing some strange baby in a basket. I do have etched in my brain, a picture of an ambulance’s stopping in front of my grandmother’s house and my father’s carrying a basket with blankets in it up the steps, past my porch swing chariot and into the house.
Could this memory be real? I am not sure now if delivery by ambulance to the mother’s home actually happened. Surely, I did not imagine it. For some reason we did live with my grandmother at that time. I do know that the hospital where we were both born was up the hill and just a few blocks away from my grandmother’s house. According to the historical marker that I later discovered, the hill had been the site of a fort. The hospital under a new name is still there. On both sides are vacant lots, old homes now chopped into cheap rental units, and the ruin of my grandmother’s house, a textbook example of urban poverty. I drive with locked car doors down the street I once walked with bare feet. Granny’s front porch no longer exists. The shattered sidewalk displays shiny slivers of brown beer bottles, splintered and discarded shipping skids, and bent tufts of black city grass.
Granny had the best, porch swing ever for summer dreaming. The whole world would pass by everyday on her street. The air always smelled of soot from coal stoves and trains. The nearby train yard caused everything to rumble and vibrate. Once my cousin and I decided we wanted to watch a train pass under the 17th Street Bridge. We were curious to see actual flames down the smoke stack. We could hear the hissing and clanging when the train added cars from the old knitting mill a block over and knew that if we ran, we could make it to the viaduct to stand on the bridge just as the dragon breath engine passed underneath our vibrating feet. We pounded bare footed across the street, down the sidewalk, turned left and gasping for breath, made it in time. Putting our weight into our arms, we pulled up high enough to lean on our elbows, black feet dangling, directly over the track where the engine came chugging and roaring right toward us. A coal-burning engine spewed hot, dirty, choking coal-breath smoke straight up into our unwary noses and face and hair and clothing. I thought I was going to die from sooty suffocation before I could run far enough to find air to fill my lungs.
The best thing of all about living at my granny’s house was that everything interesting was within walking distance. I could travel, bare feet tough enough to stand the grainy cracked sidewalk, to the end of the block, make a left turn, go up the hill two blocks, carefully look both ways before crossing the street, and find the Forrest Avenue Grocery.
A jangling bell rang when I pushed against the rusty yellow Nehi Orange crossbar to open the heavy screen door. I entered a dark unknown world. I guess the owners thought turning on electric lights would make it hotter or something. I never went beyond the refrigerated drink box just to the right front side of the door. For all I knew, a troll could have lived in the dim back of the store. Sunlight never seemed to penetrate past the front, making the shadows, saggy shelves, and unknown odors scary. In the lighted front were banana Popsicles and small bottles of cold Cokes. It meant I was a big girl to be trusted to carry empty green glass bottles back to the store, turn them in, get new Cokes, and retrace my steps back down the hill. For 27 cents, plus the bottle deposit, I could get four cokes and one Popsicle. I would give the three pennies in change plus one Coke to my mother, her one addiction. She put the other three bottles in the ancient upright icebox in the kitchen. Granny never drank what she called “pop,” that newfangled creation.
It really was a big metal box for ice, the ancestor of a refrigerator. The whole process fascinated me. The iceman came by the house every day, and on the days my grandmother put out one of the white placards, black numbered to indicate how many pounds, he would stop. He wore a white undershirt and a muddy looking apron. The man hurled a translucent block held by metal pinchers onto his shoulder and carried the melting hunk directly into our house without knocking. He then deposited it with a crunchy thump in the top of the icebox. The metal insides were a mottled gray with a moist metallic aroma. I was under a strict edict not to play with the ice pick, but I gravitated to it just the same. Granny said the ice melted faster the more you opened the door and breathed in the cool air from a new block. Sometimes, feeling extra brave, I quickly grabbed the forbidden ice pick that was chipped and not really that sharp and chipped off a small piece to crunch in my mouth.
The front porch swing was my ride into a state of not-really-thereness. My cold numbed tongue savoring the melting ice, one leg tucked under me, and one dirty bare foot pushing against the rough gray porch planks, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and The Hardy Boys. The more exciting the plot, the faster the swing went. When my leg grew numb, I shifted sides and found a new, cooler push-spot.
I drove down my Granny’s old street a few months ago. It was difficult to find the space where my summer swing once was. Old soot black dirt is now only the shameful grime of deep poverty. Granny’s abandoned house is a derelict on the wrong side of the tracks. Thomas Wolfe was right, “You can’t go home again.”
At least when one stage set is “struck,” another great theatrical idiom; a brand new, albeit temporary, world is not far away. Every flat, platform, or plank can become another room, another color, another illusionary world for a few hours. From a back row seat, what is held together by masking tape and small nails appears sturdy, majestic even. And players whose moves choreograph lines and whose cadences reach even the back rows create a life, create my life.