Commentary Magazine


The Saga of Great Men A Story

To look great, to act great, is to be great.

H. Fussiner, painter

A. The Primitives

Among the fur cutters was one cutter who possessed a leonine head, sported a large snout, expanded a bull chest. This animal of a man they called Leib Bear, Lion Bear. His supervisors felt there was an unusual being in their midst and, though he had done nothing of special note, he was one to be watched.

The ladies in the union also watched him. He was already unfaithful to his wife, which was unusual in the fur cutters union.

It so happened it was the time of the Depression. The fur cutters had built their housing project and the WPA Art Center located itself nearby. Leib Bear began taking painting lessons in the night classes. Soon the vitality and competitiveness of the man appeared in his art. His memories were more vivid than those of his co-cutters, his depictions more dramatic. In his scenes from the old country he equalled the prose of Sholem Aleichem. In the folk tales of his canvases, blood and wolves abounded.

Came time for the WPA Adult Evening Class Exhibition, Leib Bear entered not a single canvas but a series: The Wedding, The Sleigh Trip, Followed by Wolves, Throwing Guests to the Wolves, The Survivor, who was the bridegroom, now canine himself.

The Sunday Times reviewed the show, comparing Leib Bear’s work to The Rake’s Progress, as a rich literary series depicted visually. The fur cutters read the review. They also recognized themselves in the paintings, with especially good spots for the supervisors. The Bridegroom-Wolf was a surly worker, a wife beater, and it served him right.

Leib Bear’s success was an honor for his union as well as for himself. The union relieved him of all fur-cutting duties and appointed him Painter Laureate. Within the month Leib Bear left his wife and baby son to move two apartment buildings over, from H to J, where he could have his own studio. His wife still brought up a jar full of borscht or chicken soup with farfel, and left the jar outside of his apartment door, not to disturb the work.

Others beside the faithful wife found their way to the fifth floor walk-up of the project apartment. A reporter and photographer visited him there, recording his philosophy on art and photographing the shtetl scenes of stumpy peasants or Leib Bear’s ambitious fur cutters’ working scenes.

Leib Bear was also photographed at his table, one hand on the oil cloth, the other fitting into a cut-glass of tea. A piece of sugar sparkled in his mouth. The light came in harshly from the window, but something else had also come in. Just inside the window, pecking unnoticed on leftover coffee cake, was a pigeon.

Leib Bear was annoyed to share the newspaper portrait with the pigeon. He wrote a complaining letter to the Times: “Man vs. Bird. Which is more important, I ask you?—the painting or the viewer, the man or his pet, the artist or the accidental pigeon? Why then give them equal importance by putting both the painting and the viewer into one snapshot or by putting an artist and that migrant bird into another?”

Perhaps the publicity stimulated the invitations for touring exhibitions, but it was also the time of the discovery of Americana, Horace Pippin, Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, and the city primitive.

Yet, as things pass, the Depression ended. And, gradually, interest in the career of the Fur Cutter diminished, for styles were changing. No longer were oratorios on American towns commissioned from composers, and musicals about peace, like Johnny Johnson, had little audience. Leib Bear was still a hero to those of the housing project and to his union, but no more reviews appeared, no four-column cuts.

The children of the project were growing up. Among them was one young student, blue-eyed, light-haired, whose blonde mother was one of the attractive middle-aged ladies of the union.

This student always greeted Leib Bear respectfully and inquired after his work. One afternoon when the student took off his cap to Leib Bear, the painter asked, “Do you want to see the work of a great man?”

Five flights up Leib Bear opened the door and said, “Isn’t that something? Say that isn’t something.”

“That’s really something,” said the boy.

Leib Bear hosted the afternoon. He offered a choice of a glass tea or chicken soup which he heated from the jar. They talked.

“A sense of reality is inborn,” proclaimed the painter. “When we receive too much training then reality dissipates. It becomes surreal.” That was, for Leib Bear, the greatest harm which could befall art. It was what someone with his peasants skinny and celestial, someone named Chagall, had come to.

“If you make people earthy, they stick to the earth,” said Leib Bear. “But give them too much soul, too much of the spiritual, and they float right to the top of the canvas.”

The student was enchanted. Each day he climbed the stairs to speak with Leib Bear or to study the scrapbooks. A great man has a right to speak of himself, although Leib Bear would always ask, “How is your dumpling mother?”

Leib Bear did have contact with the widowed mother. He now supervised the adult art classes, and the mother had signed up for painting. Leib Bear took an interest in her progress, and told the student, “Last night she did something. For the first time.”

That night, May 12th, 1943, the mother would always remember, she looked at her canvas and yelled, “I made the kitchenl It’s just the kitchen!”

In June, on the 27th, the woman won the Blue Ribbon Prize for the student show. Her Sabbath Table was the award winner.

The student climbed the five flights to Papa Leib Bear, only to find the door closed. After a while Leib Bear opened it a crack.

“Well,” he asked, “and what do you think of your mother’s work?”

“I like your work,” said the student carefully, “but my mother’s good too.”

Leib Bear closed the door and never spake they again.

Lives of adversaries cross. Leib Bear and the woman were asked to exhibit in a two-painter show. Leib Bear refused to show with a beginner, so the mother held her exhibition alone. From that show she was invited to exhibit at a 57th Street gallery.

The Herald Tribune headed its review, “Scenes of Russia.” There was praise for the sculptural effects, for the unspoiled vigor and intensity of the woman. This was in contrast to Papa Leib Bear, said the reviewer, whose work had become slicker and more commercial. Snow in Central Park was reproduced in four columns. The mother wore the review inside her brassiere and took the terms seriously. She decided that if she were sculptural, she would go into sculpture. She began to embrace every object for its solid shape. The son took a snapshot of her going into the country and embracing a cow.

Before he was even a man, the son was drafted into the army in World War II. The mother continued to exhibit and the son, in basic training, received her press clippings.

On one letter she postscripted, “Leib Bear gave up his studio-apartment to move back with his wife and son. He is giving the son material for a book on the father’s philosophy of art. ‘Write my biography now,’ he tells the boy, ‘While I’m still here to correct it.’”

The woman’s son at an Air Force base in damp England folds the letter and wonders. When the Nazis are defeated, what will await him at the Project? Will he once again climb stairs to a studio-apartment, this time to discuss philosophy of art with his mother? Will he be writing her biography? The son continues to have Bonds deducted from his pay and sent to his mother, but he discontinues correspondence.

“Life is too continuous,” he decides.

The mother, active in her career, makes Bond speeches before Senior Citizens, gives painting demonstrations at the YMHA, and is somewhat relieved that she need no longer spend time in correspondence, transliterating with difficulty into those hard English words.

When they do meet again the son has signed up at the Art Students League for classes. He concentrates on portraits, for which he wins top prize in the League show, portraits of people from the Project, the old fur cutters, his mother and Leib Bear.

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B. The Violinist

Summers there lived in the town of Grey Hills a musician who taught winters at Juilliard, Curtis, the University of California (at Santa Barbara), and, one year, at Tokyo University.

When the musician played a solo violin concert or performed duets with Sascha Jacobson, Joseph Fuchs, or Michael Rabin, the little log cabin of Klaver String School was full, the stuffed moose head mounted on the back wall nosed the audience, the perspiration from the brows of the performers fell on the shoes of those in the front row.

During intermission there was a great writhing of folding chairs as the audience pushed them aside to get to the side walls for a view of the private-public life of the violinist who had founded this String School. There were browning photos of the old Klaver Quartet, moustaches all. There were autographed photographs from boyish Menuhin and Stern. The audience was invited to the wedding photo of the Klavers, Marvin standing next to the chair where his seated wife billowed with veil, train, bouquet, and yardage of brocaded satin.

There were personal tributes, documents, letters. Franklin Delano Roosevelt thanked Marvin Klaver for concertizing for Bonds. Bess Meyerson, in a recent letter, thanked the Maestro for performing at a peace rally. Such documents were intermixed with reproductions of paintings depicting the world of art: Delacroix’s full figure of angular Paganini, Delacroix’s boldly brushed head of Chopin (the painter was also a music critic). There was Degas’s photographic painting of woodwind players in the orchestra pit, Picasso’s Blind Guitarist, Brahms at the Piano (gross Brahms at the delicate instrument), Robert Henri’s casual group of sweatered musicians.

The audience would look at the pictures of Madame Klaver resting on a summer deck chair or in an ornate straw chair, while Marvin stood beside her in white flannel pants, navy jacket, and foulard. They never were photographed standing, for Madame was two heads taller than the Maestro. As was Bess Meyerson, bending way over, while Marvin Klaver is standing on tiptoes to kiss her at the aforementioned rally. Marvin Klaver is also standing next to Jack Benny, both holding their violins and smiling after raising funds for an orchestra pension plan.

Marvin Klaver was a great man and a lucky man. It was said of him that if he lost his Stradivarius, an even more valuable instrument would be returned to him. When he aged, there was no brittleness but a mellower tone. He did not become obscure; if anything, somewhat notorious. There he is on the wall talking to Dick Cavett on the occasion of his new violin concerto for the opening of the UN. He is in tuxedo, even on that talk program.

Friends joked that when Marvin Klaver called his stockbroker in New York City from Grey Hills the stock was always selling at a premium. Where string students generally fell off in interest, applications to Klaver Hall were more than could be accommodated. If scholarship money was lacking everywhere, friends and patrons of Klaver saw to it that there were always Black, American Indian, and Oriental students studying at Grey Hills for the summer.

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The opening and closing concerts were great occasions. Klaver performed at each opening, and performed again at the end of the season, with the entire string student body. Each concert he would begin by bowing and dedicating the performance, “To My Lovely Wife.”

If people asked, “Do you have children?” he would bring out quarter-size violins that he carved in his spare time.

Not only was Marvin something of a character, but there are many stories told of his wife, known for the way she smoothed all things relating to her husband—his hair, his concert life, his correspondence with the world.

One summer-story circulating among the students some time ago told of how Marvin Klaver and his wife Wilma went walking through the woods of Grey Hills. An eccentric old man who owned the woods came out of his house with a shotgun.

“Stop there!” said the old man. “You’re trespassing. Furthermore—”

“One moment,” said Wilma.

She opened the carpet bag which she always carried with her and pulled out of it a camp stool, setting it up for Marvin so he could be comfortable during the bawling-out.

The old man backed away from them and told townspeople: “How can you raise cain with a man whose wife has just opened up a chair for him?”

Another time her husband had trouble getting the body shop in Grey Hills to fix his VW. Wilma marched in imperiously and, with her clipped German accent, told the mechanics, “My husband is a top executive with the Volkswagen. He must have his car within the two hours.” The mechanics rushed to repair it, confused because they had always known Mr. Klaver as a summer resident who had the music school. But maybe he ran Volkswagen on the side.

Wilma was a gardener, turning the hill behind their white summer house into what Marvin called “a plantation” of cucumbers, great zucchini, moonsized tomatoes, huge sunflowers. Wilma hated the small and delicate, scorning pansies and petunias for stalks, bushes, orchards.

She would load the VW with her vegetables and flowers and present them to needy looking people, like the Penobscot Bay Indian family who lived in a tar-paper shack on the road to Grey Hills, to lobstermen shopping at the lobster co-op, also presenting sunflowers to their tired wives waiting for them in the car. She handed out tomatoes to skinny string students who strolled in suits and white shirts through the town, even on the sunny days, always formally attired.

Time passed at Grey Hills and those soft photos of Wilma in her straw hat, or Wilma carrying an armful of sunflowers, faded. New young string groups came to Klaver Hall to perform. The Cleveland String Quartet played Bartok marvelously. The St. Claire Quartet from Detroit played Haydn and Mozart. The Tokyo String Quartet played Beethoven as if Beethoven were Mozart. The movements of the quartet were as delicate as some ornamental Japanese vegetable, or like spread mushrooms, rose of radish, dwarf tree of broccoli. (“Japanese Beethoven,” said the Down East music critic, who came each week for the concerts.)

Stocky Marvin Klaver thinned around the neck and in his hair. He was still the great man of strings, with his outsized chin, but he was quieter and stooped some. It was noted that Wilma had not been down to the school. No one was invited to the Klaver home, and Marvin was abrupt with old friends who came up to Grey Hills from New York to lend their presence to Opening Concert.

The townspeople noted that the Klaver garden had fallen to weed. A woman would be brought in from New York for the summer season, ordering the groceries, re-adding the bill, and tipping the delivery boy.

It was a quiet life until last summer. Then Marvin Klaver began giving special instruction to a serious young violinist from Kyoto. They could be seen taking walks in the woods, but were undisturbed, for the old woodsman had passed away. He would dine with her in his study at Klaver Hall, both of them the same height, she slender with rich black hair, velvety eyes, and stems of legs under the miniskirt. She was the Japanese perfect miniature, the opposite of the sunflower.

This past summer the students of Klaver Strings were introduced to Toshiko and the baby, who had the outsized chin of his father, the marvelous black hair of his mother, and blue eyes with an epicanthus fold. He was lovely and lively, climbing up and down the stairs of the Hall during classes, practice, and concerts. The students shared baby-sitting so that Toshiko could continue with her lessons.

At the Opening and Closing concerts of this past season, Marvin Klaver dedicated the concerts, “To My Lovely Wife,” while straw hats and sunflowers from the wall paid tribute to him. During the last concert of this season the baby tumbled on the stairs. He could be heard crying during Marvin’s violin solo. The Maestro ignored the cries and the ticket-takers rushed out, bouncing the little boy, shh-shhing him. Toshiko, playing in the orchestra, could not rise, though her eyes skidded from the sheet music.

When the concert ended, Marvin Klaver looked up, bowed, signaled the orchestra to bow, and took Toshiko by the hand for a special bow.

“To My Wives,” he said. “My Lovely Wives.”

The back door, leading from Klaver’s study, had been left open once the concert began. Beside it was a wheelchair with a terribly emaciated woman under a sunhat. The German housekeeper, carrying a carpet bag, was seated on a folding chair. Marvin and Toshiko came through the back door, with Marvin carrying the baby. Toshiko released the brake of the wheelchair and pushed it uphill to the white house. The bones of the woman in the chair moved slowly to the baby, patted its bottom, reached further to smooth Marvin’s hair and to straighten the foulard. It turned the other way jerkily, a timepiece offbeat, to thank Toshiko, as the group of them ended the season.

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C. The Secret Artist

There was a man who. for charm and appearance, could not be faulted When he entered a gathering, he always departed with the most beautiful woman on his arm. When he was not in attendance at an affair, he was the person quoted. At art exhibitions of his students or of his contemporaries, catalogues were dedicated to Karl Kline, the inceptor of the work, the stylist who had most effect upon their careers.

Like Duchamp, Karl was historically important. He could be seen in art films made by the 8th Street Group and the Beat People. There is Karl in disguise as a Keystone Cop bopping Larry Rivers and David Amram on their heads. His forewords to catalogues, art reviews, and articles were published in Jahrbücher by his friends, printed on costly paper with hand-set type, limited in edition, and sent to the influential of the art world. All this in a slight man with clear hazel eyes and a rich speaking voice.

It was difficult not to be protective of him, he who was so generous in criticism and praise of the work of others, he whom men found to be a careful listener. Karl never imposed and yet was imposing.

One was always startled to learn that there had never been a public exhibition of the work of Karl Kline. Sources even differed about his work, elements of Abstract Expressionism, Magic Realism, or Pop being attributed to him.

He made it clear why he would not exhibit. Arts asked to come to his studio, but Karl said, “The artist who publicizes himself, ostracizes himself.” Several galleries offered him exhibits sight-unseen, on the basis of his reputation, but Karl would reply, “I do not care to exhibit. Exhibitionism is fetishism.”

The Museum of Modern Art sent someone in their publications department to interview him. Kline told the assistant editor, “To acknowledge a style is to deny all others. To allow classification is to forbid change.”

Yet those who cared for him were ambitious on his behalf. Wherever he lectured or summered. mail would follow urging him, at last, to allow a one-man show.

He would be baking his own anadama bread in Vermont, making fish chowder and a casserole of zucchini creole, when the mail would arrive: from a glassblower now teaching at the Central School of Design in London, who had been a former student of Karl’s. The glassblower had arranged a show for Karl at the ICA in London, for it was Karl to whom he owed his success, Karl urging the boy into glassblowing while it was still a new field. If he were a guest lecturer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, a Haifa jeweler would have her letter forwarded to him, telling him that she had arranged a show at the Bezalel in Jerusalem, all this from a woman Karl had met at a symposium in Manhattan five years earlier, and with whom he had had a long, careful correspondence. At the University of Albuquerque, where he was writing an article on American Indian sophistication for Arts International, Karl would be phoned by the State Department, for the Salon de Mai in Paris wished his suggestions in the selection of three invited American artists. In Bennington, jurying their annual art fair, he would be cabled by the British Printmakers Council, asking him to jury for them.

Some said Karl could not sustain relations except by long distance. That is not true. Ask the women who summered with him in Marlboro. His touch was light, his demands lighter still. And he was always civil, always available in Vermont or in his apartment in Manhattan.

In the winter evenings in New York, friends felt free to drop in. Karl would set down his book to greet them, a Sherlock Holmes he was reading aloud to a nephew, the I Ching, with which he was casting his fortune, The Soncino Edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorot that a young rabbi was explicating for him, the Japanese Country Cookbook which he had ordered from Tokyo and was trying out with a young Japanese girl living in his apartment.

It was Andy whom Karl’s friends phoned when she came back, two summers in a row, from a month with Karl in Marlboro.

“What was Karl doing?” they asked.

“Being private or being public,” said Andy.

She would divulge nothing, and no one questioned further, from the authority of her good New England stock, her crisp manner, and the notice her pottery was getting at America House.

But Andy had mixed loyalties, those to her host’s reticence and to the recognition due him as a long-time painter. Invited for the coming summer, she allowed his friends to prevail upon her. Only Andy could pull it off, for she knew Karl’s style, thoughtful play and playful work. She was that way herself, potting for pleasure but selling well at the same time. She worked out a technically difficult series of bowls, yet each bowl in the series was fun. She did begging bowls for people she thought needed humility, and loving bowls for people she loved. She made, and sold, as a gimmick, hating spoons with ragged edges to cut the tongue or with a hole in the center for weight-watchers.

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Lovely Andy, twenty-five, and Karl, fifty, jived that summer. They plotted their fun. Once they appeared in their usual seats at the Marlboro Chamber Group with body and face paint in brilliant reds and pale yellows. They sat primly and nakedly through the concert. Once they shopped at the IGA, wearing letter sweaters, carrying a megaphone, and singing, from opposite ends of the supermarket, the names and prices of the canned goods to each other. They leapt into the town’s lily pond, wearing old coats they had purchased at an auction. They staged a rock festival at Karl’s farm, with the classical Marlboro musicians, and Karl improvised a strobe light out of an electric potter’s wheel and an aluminum tubing with holes for the turning spotlight.

During these weeks Andy planned Karl’s debut. She phoned the critics in New York and Karl’s friends in other fields—analysts, architects, botanists—to tell them to be at Karl’s barn, a particular Sunday in August, for cocktails and dinner.

The summons was obeyed. Up came the periodicals, even the craft magazines like Craft Horizons or the small magazine Pictures on Exhibit, whose subscription list the publisher knew by heart. They came, driving, busing, emplaning.

Andy told Karl she had invited friends from New York for the summer solstice, people he enjoyed, such as Barbara Rose, Dore Ashton, Jack Canaday, Hilton Kramer. She phoned the Marlboro Lobster Pond to arrange for steamed clams and steamed lobsters. She sent people on a hunt for firecrackers and some wound up in Canada purchasing them. Andy silk-screened paper place-mats and napkins in decorative motifs and weighted them under rocks against the wind, on the lawn picnic tables.

The people showed, Karl’s friends and students who saw the notice for the exhibit posted at his art school.

“What is this?” Karl laughed.

“Unveiling,” said Andy.

“Of your work?” asked Karl.

“No,” said Andy. “Of yours.”

Karl filled glasses with Sangria until the punch bowl was empty, then backed into the house for refills. It was a lawn of noise, people picking wildflowers and finding jars to put them into, arranging the Queen Anne’s lace, brown-eyed Susans, the wild roses, people tasting savory and thyme from Andy’s herb garden, smelling dill, squeezing mint leaves on their fingers.

A firecracker is set off.

“Who did that?” calls Andy.

The children who were brought up for the party run around with sparklers. It is still too light to see the sparklers, and the smaller kids burn their fingers grabbing at the tips.

A large boom, and a larger one yet.

“Too early,” calls Andy. “Please wait everyone until dark!”

Many small cracklings and shootings, several large boomings. A sound like bombing. The barn begins to smoke.

One of the firecrackers has landed on the roof, whose wooden shingles burn. The fire falls into the barn on that old worn wooden floor. There is no phone to call the Fire Department. Several drive into town to tell them personally. The engines come, including a new one for which Karl had helped to raise money at an early summer benefit.

The barn is burning itself down. The guests watch in a large grouping a distance off. Parents hold onto children as walls cave and a pitchfork falls through a wall, the tines bent with the heat.

The house, a bit off, does not catch. The volunteer firemen hose down the remains of the barn, first wetting the dry field around it.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t wintah,” says one of them, the butcher at the IGA. “In wintah there was a fire at the hadwah stoh and it was fierce weathah, sixteen below, and the hose froze. You’re lucky it’s summah.”

The guests do not leave immediately. You cannot just leave a man after his barn and work have burned.

They stay and partake of steamed clams dipped into fluted paper cups of butter. They crack the lobsters with nutcrackers and pull the meat out with picks that the Lobster Pond has provided.

The men of the Fire Department stay around and have a bite to eat. Only one person leaves early, not waiting for dinner, coffee, or the fresh-baked blueberry pies. It is Andy.

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D. The Ascensionist

There lived in the fishing village of Granitesville a young Jew who was set apart. His family had nought to do with the fishing, the sardine factory, or the granite quarry but they supplied, to the hunters who came in the fall for the deer season, yellow slicker tops and pants, heavy woolen shirts and thermal underwear. His family sold, to the wives of the fishermen, linoleum that cracked when it was unrolled, so long had it stood like chimney stacks at the back of the store. His family also sold buttons left from the 1930′s; dusty greeting cards; cards of sewing snaps advertised by helmeted ladies indeed snapping to attention; toys, not charmingly old-fashioned, but 1950′s plush dolls with plush stumps of arms and legs, perhaps a soldier with a plastic face, somewhat dented, with plastic helmet and chin strap.

The mother, overly made-up, the father, always in jacket and loud voice, the nervous, shy uncle, all three were in that store, so that a customer had no escape.

From the living quarters above the store, the son would watch customers leaving the store with dresses once blue, now a faded purplish grey, or with school clothes for the children that came to their calves, and had little cotton bows above the puckered bosom and little pockets under the high waist.

The family was fixated in time, the time when the father was a Wanamaker traveling salesman, and they still carried the same merchandise.

When the boy was not doing homework, his family called him downstairs to learn the trade. He was to invite ladies into the “Dressing Room” to change, although that private dressing room was the opened door of a chifforobe with a clothesline attached, over which hung a thirty-year-old unsold spread, and through whose door-crack the boy could see those hefty ladies changing.

On Saturday night when the Opera House showed Doris Day in With Six You Get Eggrolls or James Brown in Tick Tick Tick or the war film Tora! Tora! Total (Blacks and Japanese were equally rare and, therefore, it was all exotic movie fare), the son would hear his schoolmates roaming Main before the 8 P.M. show, calling, laughing, and phoning friends from the paybooth near the post office. Or he would see them parking in his parents’ parking lot, near the pier, necking by moonlight, he peering at them as he did at the ladies who thought they were safe behind the chifforobe door.

The boy was not invited to the holiday parties, for he was not of those holidays. Nor was he invited to the weddings of his schoolmates who had just graduated from the high school, for they did not like to think of his being in their Advent church.

When he went swimming in the lily pond, the young girls from the sardine factory, who swam with pink plastic curlers in their hair (curlers purchased from Freestone’s), giggled as he waded out in the water, and he would duck quickly in that shallow pond to cover his hairy legs.

“You’ll inherit the business,” his parents assured him while his uncle looked worried. “You’ll carry on the family tradition—from peddler to proprietor.”

The father would tell young Freestone again how he had been a salesman for the Manhattan Wanamaker’s, until it burned down.

It is a Jewish custom for children to ask the questions, not for parents to question children, so it was that no one asked young Freestone what he wanted from his life.

When he was little he wanted to blow up balloons, rub them on his hair, and stick them around the store. Usually, though, the Freestone balloons were rotted from sitting so long in their cardboard containers. Pictures of sausage-curled girls with bows on their heads large as cherub’s wings, with freckles above the nose, ballooning fat cheeks, crocheted collars around their cardboard gingham dresses, became pulpy while the balloons spoiled.

What else did Freestone enjoy? He went through the rocket stage, while his schoolmates were out on the fishing boats with their fathers. Young Freestone would shoot beyond them. One Sunday, during Advent Services, Freestone shot off a rocket on the green before the church, but something was wrong with the take-off mechanism. The rocket prepared energetically off with huffing and almost chicken-like flappings, but then fell over limply.

On the Fourth of July, in the middle of the tourist season, Freestone set off a fireworks display in his parking lot. He built up mounds of dirt into a volcano, around a toweling tube, into which he had inserted chemicals. The chemical spewed in blues and blinding whites, and it was an amazing display. It even began to drizzle some after the fireworks, as if the elements had been reached and disturbed. But no one saw it, for the older townspeople were at the American Legion dance hall, and the young ones were at the Opera House, which had a patriotic John Wayne Indian-killing film.

There were a few influences in his life, but tourists from outside came in to buy disrespectfully, getting armsful of faded dresses, World War II khaki woolen army pants, old buttons-but buying them all for the wrong reasons. They did not need them, none of it did they need. Yet Freestone read their bumper stickers, the word license-plates from New Hampshire and Vermont that said Goats and Craft or Climb. He read Balloons Rise Above It, but the people of the car had just walked around the store silently and then evaporated.

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One of the locals whom Freestone enjoyed Was Mr. Sales, surveyor. He came into Freestone’s for his BVD’s and winter longies, a friendly fellow, especially to the islanders, although he was busy surveying land for the Boston folks, who were buying up what was left of Granitesville.

“Get busy,” he urged young Freestone. “Marry, have progeny. If the Boston folk buy land, pay taxes, they get the vote. Soon they’ll outvote us. Then we’ll have a Boston mayor, a Boston surveyor, and a Boston clothier to take this place over.”

He would pass the time of day with Freestone senior and his brother then chat a bit with the young son.

“Learn your friends,” said Mr. Sales. “A stranger is not a friend!”

Young Freestone Was silent. It was not proper to tell a customer his private affairs, that he had no friends, that, more likely, had among these young lobstermen and sardine factory girls, enemies.

Not so the father.

“What friends?” asked senior Freestone. “He’s so popular he sits home seven days a week.”

“I’ve got some friends that’d appeal to you,” Mr. Sales told the boy and invited him to his home, past the second large hill on the road out of town, down the dirt toad to the right, and onto the cove.

There one Saturday (“Come any day but the Lord’s Day,” Mr. Sales had said, but he did not mean Freestone’s Lord) young Freestone surveyed the cove with Mr. Sales. Mr. Sales had come by for him, for he wanted help in marking out the running feet of his shorefront property.

“Ossie!” suddenly Mr. Sales called, cupping his hands up at an osprey that flew past.

The bird circled, beeping at Mr. Sales.

“Isn’t that cunning?” asked Mr. Sales. “I saved him from an eagle once. His eye was red and hanging out, and his wings so tore he couldn’t lift himself off the ground. Look now, the eye growed back, the wing covered over. But he remembers me, just won’t come into my hands anymore.”

Other friends Freestone left, or saw leavings of them. There was the black bowel movement of the foxes who ate berries in the woods.

Mr. Sales said, “I got color film of them folks. They as tame as chickens, come right up to my front door, eat hamburger out of my hand. But the hunting season was extended—fox pelts is bringing more money—and my friends walk right up to the hunters to get shot. Ain’t gonna make pets of them no more.”

All along the shore Mr. Sales had something to show Freestone. He pointed out the bushes of slightly sour cranberries, or the seaweed that he used as compost for his garden, the seedy huckleberries that he froze and just poured into a pie shell to bake any time of the year, or the long chive-like greens, goose-tongue.

All winter Freestone visited Mr. Sales, bringing his harmonica to play along with Mr. Sales’s banjo or listening to Mr. Sales practice his electric organ with buttons that, when pressed, became a drum, a flute, a rock beat—all with Mr. Sales’s favorites, “Home Sweet Home,” “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” “Climb Upon My Knee, Sonny Boy.”

During these visits, the young boy would tell Mr. Sales about the depths of his depression.

“Ascend, my boy,” said Mr. Sales, who began to play, “Ascend My Lord with Me.” “Rise above it,” said Mr. Sales, “Don’t let them pull you down.”

He played, with snare-drum button accompaniment, “I’m pulled down to my grave but I’m lifted to my Lord.”

“Soar,” said Mr. Sales. This time, with flute accompaniment, he played, “Farewell, Amelia Earhart, you’re in a country I never knew. Farewell, Amelia Earheart, you’re in heaven so blue.”

From material gathered at a surplus store in the county seat, from catalogues and rocket equipment, young Freestone began to build himself a giant balloon, a propane gas, gorgeously expanding flame of a flower of a balloon. He had a gorgeous flower pattern of crimson and yellow petals that bloomed in the air. Freestone tested it on Mr. Sales’s land, sending forth first a trial balloon.

“My Lord,” said Mr. Sales, “A real trial balloon trial balloon.”

When the balloon soared smoothly, Freestone, in the wicker basket, would shoot less propane into the balloon, would work the chords and descend not far from his designated spot.

_____________

 

Labor Day arrived. The leaves turned early. One strange tree in front of the laundromat was always half-red, half-green by the beginning of September. The County Fair always occurred then, in the county seat. The Freestones went up to the county seat for a kosher butcher shop once in a while and for a small synagogue there shared by both Jews and Unitarians.

“Once enough trading men were up here,” Mr. Freestone said, “to support the whole synagogue by themselves. Enough Yankee peddlers and we had this place without having to share. What is shared is spoiled. They get the spoils of our labors.”

Young Freestone had told the County Fair officials about his ascension. Mr. Sales was with him as a witness and signed an affidavit that he had seen several genuine ascensions.

It was about the sixth hour, and there was the beginning of darkness over the fair until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened and the buildings and temple of his forefathers were rent in twain.

Mr. Sales helped Freestone blow up the balloon, chasing away children who would poke through the nylon with sticks. He engaged Freestone’s former classmates in helping to get the balloon off the ground, to lift as the hot air pumped in. At first the balloon lumbered on the ground, an animal under the coverings, serpentine, lumping, gallumping, then catching a bit and rising and falling, swaying to one side and succumbing.

The young men helped lift while Sales intoned, “Father into thy hands we commend this sport. For this is a righteous man.”

Now all the people gathered from sheep-herding and from oxen-pulling, from the 4-H displays, from quilting and canning. The people gathered from the girlie show, leaving the announcer to shout after them: “Come and Watch/Clutch your Crotch.” They left the rides, except for the puffy-faced thirteen-year-old girl standing near the chesty young man at the ferris wheel. And all the people came together and beheld.

Freestone’s parents, hearing his name over the loudspeaker, came running from the charity booth which they annually managed, to hear the announcer introducing Mr. Sales, “of great local fame,” who would entertain them on the organ. Mr. Sales played and music swelled over the loudspeaker as dusk fell.

Thus did Freestone ascend, carried up even to the heavens.

“Oh my God!” cried Mrs. Freestone.

The sardine girls, still in curlers, prayed most earnestly.

“And where did you see it? At your county fair,” said the loudspeaker.

Like Prometheus stealing the fire, Freestone flew in the crimson balloon with yellow scallops, his propane torch shooting into the balloon as it sailed over the fairground and past the county seat.

No one on that side of Cadillac Hill saw the flames from the torch that ate at the nylon. A lady, unable to attend the Fair that day, heard him screaming as the balloon caught in the trees, as fire flew up upon impact, heard him screaming as he fell, rushed into the field with her husband, the husband holding a sheet, called the fire department as soon as he was wrapped.

Said the lady, “I heard him screaming while the fire caught his hair.”

There were second-degree burns over the face, down the long sideburns, over the thin moustache he was trying to grow, on the hair of his arms, his bit of chest hair.

Mr. Sales visited regularly, making that long ride between his cove and the county seat. The Freestones visited their son every other day, leaving the uncle, not entirely trustworthy, to mind the store. When the roads and the bridge to the mainland iced, Mr. Sales found it too difficult to come. The Freestones went only on Sundays, knowing their son, in the county hospital, was in good hands.

_____________

 

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