Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

flowers-in-stone-1939(1)_jpg!HalfHD

                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for creative types, thus our tolerance of “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I only peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a dirt buster handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Four fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, an old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new votives. A box of matches was in a coffee can along with two ripe bananas. I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire hazards but I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath the crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen the flickering glow from the sidewalk. I backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

103713-M

Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a wooly bear caterpillar between us.

woolly111-300x197

I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

1730_Stoopendaal_Map_of_the_World - low

Finding Favor

apf4-03422r

(Photo credit: The University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf4-03422-xml, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

It was the result of a challenge that I ended up in an unattractive dress seated in a claustrophobic tent for four hours. It was for the good of the school, Bentley College. They held a fair every first week of school, a way to get our last little kicks as well as fund more Student Union activities. Soon classes would doom us to hard work and chronic weariness. The newbies came as well, just sprung from their bucolic hometowns, ready to jump into the world of hand-picked Bentley students. Lucky them, luckier us since we knew the ropes. So it was a welcoming party by default.

Nate and Erica got me to volunteer after she told him about my palm reading sessions last spring. The part she left out was that I conducted them reluctantly. Instead, she wove a tale of how effortlessly I read the landscapes of students’ palms. She insisted I mentioned things they noted were correct. The seekers came to my room surreptitiously and demanded I reveal future outcomes–whether they would fail or pass a mid-term or if some boy was the bona fide one and only. I was an excellent guesser, a tad intuitive at my best. It was nothing to get excited about.

It was bothersome at the least, and embarrassing at worst. I had heretofore been known as a budding intellectual. I wanted to become a research psychologist. Now the word was that I was a fortune-teller. I should have squelched the talk, as mother would have disowned me. My father–well, he would find it unthinkable and therefore untrue.

Nate didn’t know about my palmistry avocation because guys had no interest in that sort of thing. They lived in their own worlds. For Nick, that meant his main pleasure, after making Dean’s List, was gambling. Poker to be exact, nothing better than that. He was good, that we all knew as word travels fast when a boy on the verge of manhood has the money to drive a car that takes your breath away. It was the most attractive thing about him, although I suspect it was his father’s loaner. Nate didn’t talk to me much the first two years so when he challenged me to dress up and tell fortunes at the Fall Revels I promptly declined. Then Erica and he concocted this scheme of betting on whether I would or not. The money: fifty dollars donated to the Union, fifty to the winner. It worked. I relented to get them out of my hair. Erica is a moderate friend of a dear friend so I could manage to do this once. Nate, simply an irritant. He later bet me I wouldn’t make one hundred the whole night, at two dollars a palm reading.

The night was cooling off, fortunately for all. I shifted in my chair, waiting for people to line up. Moths flew around the candle light first then several had been shepherded my way and I said the right things, remained ambiguous enough to thrill them, and saw good tidings in the distance. More dropped in to say hi and get “the inside info.” It was going well, after all.

I recalled enough from reading  Madame Palantine’s Handbook of Palms and Fortunes to indicate the tracings on the hand and their professed significance. It had been left on the train my family took to Yellowstone the summer before twelfth grade. It fascinated me. I have a good memory, you could say unusually so, and after I read it twice I had the details.

Anyway, it was easy. People want to believe things. They want to hear their hopes given a vote of probability. They have secrets they won’t tell to most people, but if put them in a dimly lit tent with a person seated with confidence, create a hint of mystery, and they give themselves away somehow. It’s my foreignness, I think. I have an accent courtesy of having lived in Croatia the first half of my life. If I let it slip it adds interest and it attached itself to my predictions.

I was entertained; so were the customers. But by eleven o’clock I was tired, I wanted an iced cold drink with my friends. When a straggler sat down, I said nothing. I may have sighed but so did she. I was startled. She had hooded hazel eyes that must have informed the whole world of heartbreak. They were brimming with quiet, painful things. I took her hands in mine. They rested like baby birds sleeping, twitchiness enclosed in elegance. I felt her sadness pierce my center. Boldness swept over me.

“Your aunt, she has left,” I said.

She leaned closer.

“I’m so sorry she died. What do you want of me?”

This girl filled the tent with an invisible net of aching. I saw her hands, how narrow of palm, how tapered the fingertips, the many fine, long lines that mapped her skin. She was fragile yet there was a survival instinct that gave strength. I could feel her taking my measure. September’s piquant air was inhaled as though it cleared her mind.

She gave me a crooked smile. One eye let go a tear.

“Aunt Sari back.”

“Of course you do. But do you want the house she left? On the riverbank?”

She swiped at her wet cheeks. “How can I know? I haven’t gotten to that point! I just came to college to get away from the family!” Her voice was now a considerable force. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know, well, I was just sitting here and you came in and then I realized your aunt–”

She drew back and stood to leave. Not so much angry as just done. I was, as well. We entered the velvety night and gazed at the crowd. People were restive, milling about, chattering away, the night having bestowed good cheer on all. I felt stunned. In fact I wondered if she would run off and complain and if I should make amends when she turned to me and gave me a little shake of the shoulders.

“Well, then, I’m Favor Wexler. I haven’t a clue about what you just did but it marks the start of an interesting year.”

“I’m Celia,” I laughed–why not? “I’m not really into this, I just… well, I prefer to be known as a serious student of human nature.”

“Really? Good job,” she said and managed to almost smile.

We threaded our way through the clumped groups of students. As I walked up to Erica and Nate I held my hand out to him.

“Pay up!”

He raised an eyebrow at me, but he beamed as his glance slid over to Favor. He got out his wallet. I made a prediction right then and there.