By R. A. Shipley
There is nothing anywhere in all of this to suggest that it actually happened. I don’t know anymore. Certainly, it is a part of what we call memory. The images are there and can be called forth at will. These are people I knew: they are off, many of them, somewhere in their own little worlds. Our worlds have parted. There is no longer an overlap between what my world tends to be and what they must perceive as their own. They are real. I wonder, even now, if they exist.
It’s hard to remember. It’s hazy. Like the flats in west Cleveland on a humid morning.
It was in the summer. There is an image of sun and of heat. Wade Park was in full bloom; ducks placidly cruising about. Gulls off the lake providing a show of aerial acrobatics. Sun on the glass roof of the art museum and the spray from the fountain: prismatic light falling to the ground. Somewhere there is a postcard. It is a postcard image.
I led a dual life that summer. There were the few classes that needed tending to; the struggle for respect in the world of academics that had spilled over into time that should have been reserved for more important things. The dull drone of a voice far‑off; a chalkboard‑bound voice, concerned with chalkboard issues, wanting chalkboard responses.
There was the equally dull job. The factory. To the west, past the flats and the haze. Certain things come through. The flame atop the stacks and the smell of the foundries; the heat of molten steel. Sounds are the clearest. Electric train cars straining around the bend while a whistle frees the afternoon shift and calls on the midnight crew. The rustle of newspapers held before tired faces and read by the flickering florescent lights as the train made its way east. My own breathing, freer than during the last eight hours.
Often as I climbed the stairs to the Berea station, Lynn would meet me and we would ride together to the security of that island known as University Circle. She would ride west in silence, and more often than not, we would ride back east in the same silence, content to let the noises of the city speak for us.
Between my roles as student and job‑holder, I was determined to begin the Great American Novel. It was to be the song of a city. It was to be the essence of this new mode of man’s society. I kept my notebook with me always ‑ the diligent author. Evenings, between classes, I prowled back and forth through the city, peering behind garbage cans for the bit of ‘color’ which would enliven a page, cause a knowing nod of agreement. At night ‑ laid my fattening notes on the shelf and gazed at the ceiling before trying to sleep, reading the reviews.
I had no time for her when I met Lynn amidst this undertaking. As someone trying to be someone, she was what I wanted to avoid. (Literature abounds with struggling artists; they’ve lost their appeal.) She was only striking when excited ‑ I met her in Wade Park, jubilant over a squirrel that had eaten out of her hand. I noticed only her bright, bluish eyes that were too large for her face. Later I noticed the grayish flecks.
Wade intrigued me: an island surrounding a small body of water. Two universities and all those people who felt that they were so important to the advancement of human kind; a library, an art museum, an orchestra hall ‑ all grouped around Wade Pond ‑ and all that surrounded by the life which people led from day to day in the city that created that life. Surrounded, but not a part of. And Lynn. Amidst the life apart, trying to be apart. And me. In and out, from one to the other. Trying to decide which was real; which was necessary.
She saw me watching her and frowned. Her hands folded and fell to her lap, and she stared coldly across the pond.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and turned to leave.
“Because I’ve intruded on your moment, I suppose.”
“Do you do that often to people?”
“We all do. At least I think about it.”
“Stay,” she said, patting the ground beside her. “Talk to me.”
She tried to study painting at Reserve. She liked to paint. It didn’t matter that she did not follow what she was taught. She didn’t study to follow ‑ only to find out what there was to be followed. All this in several minutes.
I told her about life outside this place we were in, basking in the late afternoon sun, watching the shadows from beautifully manicured trees playing over the water. Across the city where people spoke with accents that were not put on and sweated for bread on the table, not art, not science, just a living. Where a second car meant more than just status; it meant not walking twelve blocks to the bus every morning and every night. She nodded. At least for her these were real people. They existed. But for her they were no different than the people walking their various pets around the perimeter of the park, talking in erudite tones, seeing only what they wanted to see ‑ only what made them feel special. It was an argument we would have many times.
People for Lynn were just people. They had no basic differences. They were only interested in different things. No matter how often I tried to convince her that something was missing here on this island, she would only smile and shake her head. These people had different interests was all she would say. That’s all she’d admit.
“What is it?” What’s missing here? What makes you so sure there is a difference?”
I could not answer. I only knew, then. All the words were the wrong ones.
Sometimes we would ride from one end of the Rapid line to the other ‑ from Westpark to Windemere, changing trains, sitting quietly, pointing out with a gesture of the head an auto worker nodding beneath his cap. We seldom spoke on these rides; they were often depressing. I found them mandatory. Lynn never complained.
After two months of this I knew her no better than on that first day. She had no poetic or romantic “elusive” qualities. Lynn was only withdrawn. There was one soggy day (nearly every day it rained that summer) when I tried to visit her in the attic apartment she had taken in Little Italy. Over the smell of herbs and Italian cooking I could catch light whiffs of oils as I climbed that third set of stairs. She never answered a knock; I simply pushed the door with its peeling‑green paint open.
They were both there. The artist and the canvas; one hanging loosely in its frame, the other limp in sympathy. If she looked up ‑ I don’t remember ‑ I don’t think so; she kept dabbing black paint at her big toe and humming softly. I stayed for hours with her. She never spoke. Hummed, stretched out at the window seat with its one cushion, dabbed paint at her feet, but never spoke.
The sink was cluttered with dishes and scraps of TV dinners and there was no ice. I poured some scotch from the tea kettle where she kept it into a hopelessly stained coffee mug and tried to close the windows where the rain was splashing in. There were no latches and the draft opened them as quickly as I closed them. I had no more time to spare and had to tell her so. She only shrugged. As I left she began to cry, and when I stood on the darkened sidewalk below she stood in the window and tore the half‑finished canvas into narrow strips and let them float down to me in the rain. She had been a month on the painting and it was to have been a gift to me.
I began to walk for the sake of walking. Smells are sharp in the Italian section. Food smells coming from the crowded apartment buildings and the warm, sweet smell of fresh bread from “Presti’s.” The rain kept the odors close to the ground as I made my way from Lynn’s with a soggy strip of canvas in my hand.
Over and over I had to ask myself, “Why?” Why is there so much meaningless garbage in our minds when there is so much that must be done in the world? I kept turning the canvas over and over in my hand. Over and Over. Why? Cities regularly set out their refuse for neatly uniformed and anonymous people to collect and take away to places reserved for such things. Why must we deal with it day to day, over and over, one to another?
Lynn’s need to be something special ‑ someone singled out ‑ seemed so contrary to her quiet, almost shy nature. At first I thought I could only break through at times. And then I discovered that her entire withdrawn nature was an invitation to gratify her greatest desire ‑ the desire to be singled out ‑ not from normal obscurity, but from the total oblivion she reserved for herself daily. A real triumph. And it almost always worked.
This little scene: no one could deny her sense of the dramatic. Walking through the brown water standing on the sidewalks and seeping into my worn‑out soles, I kept wishing that I had a camera to record the scene I had just left. A dramatic tome played to an audience of one. Garbage. Where did it take us? I put the strip in my pocket and walked.
I remember distinctly wanting to be alone without being alone. I must have walked for several hours before deciding on the “Brick” as a place of refuge. There at the tiny tables among the college beer drinkers I felt alone ‑ but totally alienated. The sense of being in complete control of my thoughts was overcome by a sense of blatant obviousness. My mind stood out from itself and pointed an accusing finger inward, warning of an obvious cliché ‑ the image of the sullen recluse. I could not waste time on such games. There was far too much to be done. Struggling against this mental guardian was useless. It wielded an iron hand and no amount of alcohol could ward it off. I surrendered graciously; we exchanged polite nods, and I went off in search of my apartment.
The two room walk‑up on Murray Hill was hardly adequate for one, and I shared it with Mike Dennis, an engineering student at the time. We divided the larger of the two rooms with some books and shelves, and we each had enough space to sleep and study. The other room served as kitchen and dining room. Bath across the hall, shared with another apartment. Dennis was out when I arrived and threw myself on the mattress in the corner. His stereo was on, as usual; jazz from a local station. My head began to generate slow spirals and the sound of the rain on the pavement below began to slip away.
Like a grade “B” movie, the telephone began to trickle through to my consciousness. Outside the rain had stopped. Cars sped through the wet streets three floors below. Again. Perhaps it would simply stop. Half rolling, half pushing, I made my way from the floor level mattress. The phone on the kitchen counter signaled again. My toe caught the door jamb and I cursed.
“You’d better get down here,” came an excited voice. I shook my head trying to clear the haze. “Berown? Berown, what’s the matter with you? I said you’d better get down here.” Dennis.
“Dennis? Where are you? What’s the matter?”
“I’m at the Olive Tree, of course. It’s Lynn. I think you’d better come talk to her.”
“What time is it?” My watch hadn’t worked in a month and I couldn’t see the alarm on my desk.
“Look, Berown, will you get down here! I think Lynn is going to try to commit suicide!” Dennis almost whispered the last two words.
“How do you know that?” Dennis had a way of making small things look much bigger than they actually were. He was a master of exaggeration and it was usually not of the subtle variety.
“She’s been talking about it all night. Berown, please. I think this is for real.”
“People don’t talk about suicide if they are going to do it ‑ they just do it. OK. I’ll come down. It’ll take me ten minutes to get there. Can you keep her alive that long?”
“That’s not funny. Look, I know that you think I’m blowing this all out of proportion, but I don’t think that I am. Just get down here.”
The phone began that annoying buzz preceded by a sharp click.
I remember very clearly how badly my toe hurt. There was a bit of blood at the edge of the nail. I splashed some water on my face at the kitchen sink and wiped it off with a damp and aromatic dish rag. Lynn had never mentioned anything about suicide before. It made no sense. Her unhappiness was mostly created out of a need to be recognized. It wasn’t true unhappiness at all ‑ just a game played to get the attention of those around her. If she was talking suicide, it was because there were people like Dennis who were willing to listen and believe. I made my way toward the Reserve campus and the tiny coffee house that a few of us had built several years earlier when I spent my regular school time in the area. Originally, the Olive Tree was simply an abandoned coach house with a few tables and a single espresso machine. But it filled a need and soon we were obliged to build an addition to the coach house complete with a small stage and a kitchen. Dennis always helped man it on Friday nights. I should have known where he was.
Euclid Ave was crowded with cars. The orchestra concert had let out only minutes before I reached the intersection. There were horns and the smell of exhaust. The blue fumes filled the air, creating another haze to overcome.
I think that even then I was more angry at the inconvenience than concerned that Dennis might accidently be correct in his impressions. I had made the midnight trek to Lynn’s several times after calls from her. Pleas for company; calls for help more designed to see if I would come than to get me there. I always went. So much garbage, but I always went. Why not stay at the apartment and call? Why these elaborate designs to get me out? She knew the mutual need. The refuse kicking around in all our minds is so much easier to ignore when someone else can be claimed for calling it forth.
The Tree was nearly empty. The big, double coach house doors were open and a few tables had been set out in the driveway. Dennis was sitting at one of the small booths in the new wing. I settled in beside him and waved for some coffee.
“Where is she?”
“She’s gone,” Dennis said, shrugging.
“You mean I walked all the way down here and she’s not even here?”
“I couldn’t keep her. I thought she’d stay if I told her you were on the way, but that only seemed to make her want to leave that much faster.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No. She left a message for you.”
The coffee arrived. I remember easily that it was at this point that the coffee arrived. I took several sips before I asked to see the message.
“She didn’t write anything. She just told me to tell you that you were right.”
“Right? Right about what?”
“She made me repeat it. She said that I should tell you that you were right. ‘There is a difference. At least they know why they do things; why they go on.’ Those were her words. What does it mean, Berown?”
I finished the coffee in a gulp.
“She didn’t say where she was going?”
“No. She just ran out. I tried to stop her.”
It took ten minutes even at a run to get to her apartment. By the top of the stairs I had no breath left. The air rushed in and out noisily as I tore the envelope from the door. Leaning against the peeling frame, I tried to read by the light of the hall lamp one floor below. When I left I let the note slip from my hand to the stairs and never thought that there would be a time when I would wish for that simple scrap of paper instead of the memory of it with me.
I made my way to the Rapid station as the rain once again began to fall. On a bench there I waited until dawn broke over the dormitories and then made my way back to my mattress. On the ceiling, looking up, I could see the small patch of light thrown through the window from the street below. There I could read the few words Lynn had written in that small, cramped style of hers.
“Whatever happens, it’s not your fault. I’m going out to ride and think. Maybe somewhere between Westpark and Windemere there is an answer I haven’t seen. Those people you always talk about ‑ I don’t think they’re too different from us. But they know what they are doing and they know why they are doing it. They may not like it, but they know why. Most people know why, Berown; I have to find out.”
The words formed and reformed in the small patch until the morning light obliterated it completely.
I slept until nearly noon and then made my way back to her apartment. The day was warm and clear, and the humidity made the streets close in on either side. If Lynn had returned, there was no way to know. On the table there were paint brushes with their handles broken, their bristles torn out. Tubes of paint were piled in the overflowing waste container. Pages from books, torn out at the spine and then ripped in two were strewn about. On the make‑shift easel by the window stood a canvas, hastily sketched in with bold strokes, that was a near‑duplicate of the one she had torn up and tossed to me in the street. But this one was distorted, ominous.
The sky, previously brilliant, was shrouded with brooding clouds. The squirrel which had reached toward her outstretched hand seemed far too large and had eyes which were blood‑red and fearsome. Lynn’s face was contorted into a snarl rather than the pleasant smile she had managed to capture from the original experience in her first painting. And Wade Park ‑ that island of peace in the middle of the city ‑ was now a grotesque snarl of undergrowth, twisted trees, and terrible foliage. The museum of art was missing altogether, and in its place stood a huge monolithic block, dominating the scene, casting a shadow across the whole foreground.
I sat before this remnant of her most recent state of mind and began to see what I could not see before. I had always thought that Lynn sought attention in her own quiet way ‑ that she needed the approval of others to keep her going. In this sense I was never able to feel completely at ease with her. It was this preoccupation with the opinions of others and her need for them that I always thought such a waste. But here before this canvas I began to see of the first time that it was not so much the approval of others that Lynn was seeking. There in the shadow of that huge black shape was the real Lynn that I had missed. Not someone depending on others and drawing her life vicariously from them, but the Lynn who in the strong light stood in shadow ‑ and cast no shadow herself. The Lynn who wanted approval most from herself.
I don’t think that I loved her in the romantic sense of the word. We were each other’s confessors. Somehow there was more to that than “love.” But in that we had both been failures. I neither heard what she was actually saying, nor do I think she ever heard me. It was such a waste. So much garbage. And no neat, uniformed little men ever came by to take it away. It lives with me.
Three weeks later there was no sign of her. The small wrinkled man explained to me, half in Italian, half in English, that he must notify the police. He must rent the apartment. He could not afford to have an empty apartment. With the help of the Olive Tree regulars, I paid a month’s rent. We filed a missing person’s report. I had no idea where to search for her. Once I asked her where her parents lived. “They don’t,” she said.
I tried to tell her that I was sorry… to say something to fill the empty quiet that always follows such a statement. I don’t remember just what I said.
“People are always sorry,” she said. “It’s futile. They’re futile. Don’t be futile too.”
She went on with what she was doing, and I never asked about her past again.
At the beginning of August the rent gave out. There was no sense in renewing it. Dennis and I packed up what we could find and cleared the apartment while the little man shook his head back and forth and kept repeating what a nice girl she had been. The police said nothing. It was raining when we tried to put everything into Dennis’ MG.
In September I quit my job and packed my books and notes to go back to the little college where I now spent my winters. I left Lynn’s things in the little closet by the john. When King was killed the following April and the riots in Hough started, Dennis moved out. The painting I took with me. It hung in my room until I could no longer stand to look at it and put it in the dorm storage. Someone’s trunk fell through it later that year, rending the black monolith in two and separating Lynn from the squirrel. There was no way to repair it, and when I left college behind, I left the remains of it as well.
My notes filled several bound volumes. Those I took with me. I never mentioned Lynn in them; never strayed from my idea that it was the city which would be the material from which my great novel would be forged. Those notes I still have. Occasionally I read through them. Meaningless. Stark. Empty. Perhaps the real city; perhaps the real me recording. I seldom think of them now.
But the people. I don’t know anymore. Certainly it is a part of what we call memory. The images are there and can be called forth at will. These are people I know. I see their faces at times when I have no desire to see their faces. Lynn, her face pressed against the pane of glass separating her from the speeding landscape on the other side. Dennis, sipping coffee and gesturing expansively across the new wing. Others. They are off, many of them, in their own little worlds. Our worlds have parted. Lynn, our worlds have parted. But you were real. I wonder, even now, if you exist.
R. A. Shipley was once a teacher at the middle, high school and university levels, a lighting and set designer, writer, and wood sculptor. Since his retirement he has become a local curmudgeon whose current essays can be found at https://curmudgeonslair.com .