On Memorial Day in 1967
Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass., in just under five hours. With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul, whom Daniel carried in a sling chair strapped to his shoulders like a pack. The day was hot and overcast with the threat of rain, and the early morning traffic was wondering—I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going.
This is a Thinline felt tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79C made in U.S.A. by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing Room. Books for browsing are on the shelves. I sit at a table with a floor lamp at my shoulder. Outside this paneled room with its book-lined alcoves is the Periodical Room. The Periodical Room is filled with newspapers on sticks, magazines from round the world, and the droppings of learned societies. Down the hall is the Main Reading Room and the entrance to the stacks. On the floors above are the special collections of the various school libraries including the Library School Library. Downstairs there is even a branch of the Public Library. I feel encouraged to go on.
Daniel, a tall young man of twenty-five, wore his curly hair long. Steel-rimmed spectacles and a full mustache, brown, like his hair, made him look if not older than he was then more self-possessed and opinionated. Let’s face it, he looked cool, deliberately cool. In fact nothing about his appearance was accidental. If he’d lived in the nineteen thirties and came on this way he would be a young commie. A cafeteria commie. He was dressed in a blue prison jacket and dungarees. His Brooklyn-born wife was nineteen, with long straight natural blond hair worn this day in braids. She came to his shoulder. She wore flower bellbottoms and a khaki rain poncho and carried a small bag with things for the baby. As a matter of principle she liked to talk to strangers and make them unafraid, and although Daniel hadn’t wanted her to come along, he was glad he relented. The rides came quickly. She talked for him while he stared out the window. Cars, he noticed, were very big and wide and soft. The people who drove them were not fearful but patronizing. They were inquisitive and obviously entertained to be driving these young American kids who probably smoked marijuana even though they had a baby.
At about one o’clock they were let off at Route 9 in Worcester, a mile or so from their destination. They were looking up a long steep hill. At the crest of the hill, too far away to see, were the gates of Worcester State Hospital. Daniel had never been here but his father’s directions were precise. Daniel’s father was a law professor at Boston College forty miles to the east.
He didn’t like my marrying Phyllis, neither did my mother, but of course they wouldn’t say anything. Enlightened liberals are like that. Phyllis, a freshman dropout, has nothing for them. Liberals are like that too. They confuse character with education. They don’t believe we’ll live to be beautiful old people with strength in one another. Perhaps they sniff the strong erotic content of my marriage and find it distasteful. Phyllis is the kind of awkward girl with heavy thighs and heavy tits and slim lovely face whose ancestral mothers must have been bred in harems. The kind of unathletic helpless breeder to appeal to caliphs. The kind of sand dune that was made to be kicked around. Perhaps they are afraid I kick her around.
Daniel considered taking a city bus to the top of the hill but the traffic was bumper to bumper and they could almost outpace it by walking. With Phyllis beside him, her hand lightly on his arm, and with his thumbs hooked under the chest straps of the baby rig, he trudged up the hill. The road was jammed in both directions, and a blue haze of exhaust drifted through the heavy air. Daniel imagined it curling around his ankles, his waist, and finally his throat. A stone wall ran beside them separating the sidewalk from the hospital grounds. On the downhill side of the street were gas stations, dry cleaning drive-ins, car washes, package stores, pizza parlors. American flags were everywhere.
As they approached the top of the hill, they saw a stone kiosk in which a number of people waited for the bus. A bus arrived. It discharged its passengers, closed its doors with a hiss, and disappeared over the crest of the hill. Not one of the people waiting at the bus stop had attempted to board. One woman wore a sweater that was too small, a long loose skirt, white sweat socks and house slippers. One man was in his undershirt. Another man wore shoes with the toes cut out, a soiled blue serge jacket and brown pants. There was something wrong with these people. They made faces. A mouth smiled at nothing, and unsmiled, smiled and unsmiled. A head shook in vehement denial. Most of them carried brown paper bags rolled tight against their stomachs. They seemed to hold their life in those bags. Daniel took Phyllis’ arm. As they reached the bus stop the weird people dispersed and flowed around them like pigeons scuttling out of their way, flowing around them and reforming behind them, stirring restlessly in the kiosk in the wake of their passing. Except for one man. One man, the one in the undershirt, ran ahead of them, looking back over his shoulder as they turned into the hospital grounds. He ran ahead of them waving his arm windmill fashion, as if trying to rid himself of the rolled up paper bag locked in his fist. Beyond him, down the tree-lined road (the fumy air clearing in the trees) was the turreted yellow-brick state hospital at Worcester, a public facility for the mentally ill.
SO THAT’S WHERE THEY’RE GOING!
From the Dartmouth Bible: “Daniel, a Beacon of Faith in a Time of Persecution. Few books of the Old Testament have been so full of enigmas as the Book of Daniel. Though it contains some of the most familiar stories of the Bible, nine of its twelve chapters record weird dreams and visions which have baffled readers for centuries.”
The way to start may be the night before, Memorial Day Eve, when the phone rang. With Daniel and his child bride at sex in their 115th Street den. The music of the Stones pounds the air like the amplified pulse of my erection. And I have finally got her on all fours, hanging there from her youth and shame, her fallen blond hair over her eyes, tears sliding like lovebeads down the long blond hairs of her straight hair. The phone is about to ring. The thing about Phyllis is that when she’s stoned all her inhibitions come out. She gets all tight and vulnerable and our lovemaking degrades her. Phyllis grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn, and her flower life is adopted, it is a principle. Her love of peace is a principle, her long hair, her love for me—all principles. Political decisions. She smokes dope on principle and that’s where I have her. All her instinctive unprincipled beliefs rise to the surface and her knees lock together. She becomes a sex martyr. I think that’s why I married her. So the phone is winding up to ring and here is soft Phyllis from Brooklyn suffering yet another penetration and her tormentor Daniel gently squeezing handfuls of soft ass while he probes her virtue, her motherhood, her vacuum, her vincibles, her vat, her butter tub, and explores the small geography of those distant island ranges, that geology of gland formations, Stalinites and Trotskyites, the Stalinites grow down from the top, the Trotskyites up from the bottom, or is it the other way around—and when we cannot be many moments from a very cruel come that is when the phone rings. It is the phone ringing. The phone. I believe it is the phone.
But how would I get this scene to record Phyllis’ adenoidal prettiness, her sharp nose and fair skin and light Polish eyes. Or her overassumption of life, a characteristic of teenage girls of high school culture. How would it connote the debts all husbands pay for their excesses. Already stirring in this marriage not two years old were the forms of my fearful kindness coming out like magic watercolor under her rubbing. And if the first glimpse people have of me is this, how do I establish sympathy? If I want to show disaster striking at a moment that brings least credit to me, why not begin with the stacks, Daniel roaming through the stacks, searching, too late, for a thesis.
Copyright © 2010 by E. L. Doctorow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.