A chest of gold. A hairy chest filled with gold
on the beach. Ireland has the Catholics
Germany has the Jews America has the Negro
and Darling, I have you. Flash on
Blazing Star. Those dreams are not of
excellence. Boys in tubs. Light and
shade. Late in life. He kissed me
like a mouse nibbling cheese without
setting off the trap. To be discovered
by circumstance. C.P.W. I’ve been
lording over a hot slave all night.
The history of the high heel. Shoptalk
on Olympus. “The happy bird sings.
The unhappy bird dies,” Maria Callas.
With all my heart I still love the
man I killed.
Among the things I’ve lost is a photobooth photo of my mother and a friend, both aged about fourteen wearing “Dark Victory” beanies. “Dark Victory” is the movie where Bettie Davis orders, “One prognosis negative.” In the scene she is wearing the beanie, one assumes to cover the shaved head from her failed brain tumor operation. The fashion caught on madly; Seventh Ave. jumped in with both feet, and even in Auburn Maine–about as far as it was then possible to get from Hollywood and still be in the USA–the same year as the movie’s release–bingo: a strip of paper with two little girls immortalized in a life-and-death struggle with their brain surgeon.
But I didn’t lose the photograph of my paternal grandfather in a straw boater and white suit leading a parade in 1915, because my sister has it, along with all the other 19th century photos, the miniatures and documents, documents that outline Napoleon Ricard’s political, business, and personal life. I’ve made her promise not to let anyone, not even the “Standard Times” “borrow” the photographs of old New Bedford. The pictures of me from Warhol days went off in one of her loans to a friend who left town. But stuck there in modern and horrible New Bedford my sister itches for whatever fragment of celebrity she can eke from her grandfather’s brilliant and forgotten career, to make up for the indelible and still remembered blot of my father.
The newspaper has a Sunday page called “New Bedford as it Was.” To be eligible a photo must be of a site that no longer exists and considering the urban ‘renewal’ of the sixties, that includes almost everything.
I was long gratified that the corner of Coggeshall Street and King’s Highway was still in possession of the old factory that once housed Ricard and Caron Coal. This put the old photo of it out of the running for “as it was.”
The photo is not large–a carte de visite format–a “4 x “6 card bevelled and gilt-edged. Unfaded, the image is hard to reconcile with the current state of things. The low building is built up against the embankment of a rail spur that forms a trestle over Coggeshall Street on the right. Over the entire building is a long narrow sign bearing the legend Ricard and Caron Coal. Caron was my grandmother’s maiden name. I guess he married well—so well that his brother married her sister.
It’s a staged shot, like the other “success” pictures in the big art nouveau cracker tin that now houses them.
A train is stopped above the building. A coal car is tipped on its side where two tiny men are guiding with shovels the coal cascading into a huge funnel that leads into the bowels of R & C Coal. In front is a horse drawn wagon full of coal: the entire enterprise in one shot. Whether there are any people in the foreground—grandpa etc. I just don’t remember. It is undated—but it looks like something out of a silent movie—between 1895-1909 I’d guess.
This old photograph was always safe from my sister’s explorations into vicarious fame until two years ago when the building burned down and formally entered the echoing halls of “New Bedford as it Was”. I wouldn’t mind having it reproduced but I know the paper would somehow “lose” it and my sister would look at me with innocent trusting, blue eyes and tell me “they lost it” and “it wasn’t my fault”, the same way she said “She borrowed it and left town,” as if she were somehow unconnected between the “borrow” and the “lost.”
Why should I care? It’s annoying; but I do. Once an editor wrote a bio-blurb for the fly-leaf of one of my books and said that my “origins” were “obscure” and I could hear the voice of my recently dead at 98 year old Aunt
Annina who once said to me “You’re from good stock.”
The reason my namesake grandfather (my middle name, you’re laughing, is Napoleon) is leading a parade is, to me impressive. The year was 1915 and my hawkish grandfather, the alderman of New Bedford’s ward 6, was trying to force an isolationist and pacifist city into the Great War. This was a year before anyone else dared to publicly advocate such an unpopular stand and yet he was re-elected well into the depression.
Napoleon Ricard was one of New Bedford’s Forty Theives. Not very original; but since when is a provincial newspaper expected to be original? But the public loved him.
The parade is high on Mount Pleasant sheet about a block from where they would rip out a swath of city for a highway so that tourists on their way to Cape Cod could more conveniently bypass New Bedford and its “Historical District” they were simultaneously creating at massive expense. The parade is one block past Sacred Heart Home where, at 96, he would die.
It was always family lore that grandpa’s stand on European politics was the reason for the assassination attempt that dispatched a cohort of city policemen to guard his family. Could be. But it was the upshot of police protection that was of more lasting moment to my sister and me. My grandmother’s version was that the cops taught my father to gamble. My father’s version had him organizing friendly games of chance to amuse the kind bored men and divest them of their municipal pay-envelopes. My father was twelve. I believe his side of the story. In any event, it provided him with ready-made protection when he opened Del’s Hideaway, his first illegal gambling joint, nothing hidden about it, in the roaring twenties.
But I do believe my grandmother who was not a four-flusher addicted to adding zeros and commas to her stories like Dad was, when she says that by the time of the Crash he’d gambled away $250,000 of her money. “Good stock.” This is not “obscure.”
I never lived in New Bedford. I grew up across the river in Acushnet. Our parish was Saint Francis. But I had discovered something that kept me crossing back every Sunday: Saint Kasimir’s, the Polish Church, a tiny gray wooden chapel.
It was important to get there early. Always the last to arrive—did they hold up the mass for them—were five sisters. I will call them the Polish sisters. They would enter in order of age, with the eldest first. Always beautifully dressed with short gloves that held little white prayer books they were like the fairy tale where each one is more beautiful than the next down to the youngest, my age, with a thick platinum blonde braid. With eyes cast down, they would head for their own pew in front.
The Polish sisters lived in a mammoth gray Queen Anne style house surrounded by a lawn studded with copper beech trees. The several acres surrounded by stonewalls on the avenue also contained a stable smack in the middle of ward six. A white horse would flick its blond tail as it nibbled the violets on the lawn. All this on a street with barber shops and drug stores and groceries. It was all as incongruous as…a white horse.
The father was in politics. As I was growing up I would see “Vote for” billboards with his name around town. The church was a street away from their stone wall—so I guess he’d had it built practically in his yard.
One day I was telling my aunt Annina about the Polish sisters. I told her that they never wore the same thing twice and Auntie laughed that decent worldly laugh of hers. She liked anything to do with money: she was wise that way. My Aunt never went to that church, rather to her own parish much farther away. Then I told her that it was peculiar because I’d been going to the Polish Church for some months now and I could not get the longest one to look at me even though I could tell that she wanted to. I was eleven.
My aunt’s expression changed. She looked hard at me and then left the room, returning with a silver framed studio photo. I’d seen the same one in my father’s album; an 8 x 10 head shot of a beautiful woman in a black cloche hat and black scoop necked dress. The only difference is that ours had “All my love, Sugar” written on it in white ink.
“Do you know who this is?”
“It was your father’s first wife. You can’t see the beautiful blonde hair under the hat. It’s a very good hat. She was the sister of those girls’ mother. She was Polish. They were the two most beautiful girls in the city.”
“But what happened to her?”
Then auntie said something I know she’d been wanting to say for many years, the kind of bomb she had a nice cool way of dropping:
“Your father killed her.”
Of course I wasn’t shocked. I’d lived with him for eleven years—so I asked almost rhetorically, “How do you know?”
Now the punch line.
“There were handprints around her neck in the coffin. And you know why nothing happened to your father?”
But grandpa’s days had long run out.
My grandmother, it follows, was a political hostess and in her salad days much more than the old woman in a white upsweep hairdo in a black dress with white organdy collar who took care of my endlessly rocking grandfather. That I knew. In fact she’d been–in a solid bourgeois way–a hellion. She’d had a lover and it broke my grandfather’s heart, they say. They also say that she went to a cousin’s graduation ceremony drunk.
But first of all she was a political hostess and always gave a big party on New Year’s Day. This tradition went on well into my time in a reduced, just family, way. She’d give the kids, me, sweet Jewish wine in little crystal tumblers.
One New Year’s Day she turned to my grandfather and told him to go down to the cellar for more champagne. This was an important party—they wanted to run him for mayor. He didn’t want to run; but she did. He went out for wine and didn’t return. An hour later my uncle found him in the attic: looking for champagne in a steamer trunk.
My grandfather, the legend goes, had the first successful brain tumor operation in america, but from what I saw it was a qualified success. Occasionally I would sit on his lap and he’d remember things that happened long ago, before politics, before my grandmother, far back. And he’d take out his old railroad watch and listen to the repeater, wondering how long until New Year’s.
After my grandfather’s medical success my father made a dynastic bid for office. In that album was a give-away blotter—a blotter on the business side but turn it over and there was an ad: an oval portrait of my young and still good looking father with the legend: Ricard—Counselor at large
My father—at large. Good stock.
June 26th Bridge Hampton
Walking along the beach road at sunset with the, to me, heart-breaking foliage—beach plums, bayberry, ineffably pink dog roses that fall apart if you try to pick them, etc.. We were four grownups and a 6 year old, I turned to Jaqueline:
“If I were Kai’s age I’d dash right into that underbrush. I wasn’t allergic to poison ivy and so could make myself alone in any woods.”
Indeed, when I was little I had no friends outside the woods, where I was thoroughly at home. I knew where the bird’s-foot violets were and when; walk on a ways where, always with an abrupt halt, the heart-stopping Lady Slipper in its shaft of light on the oak leafed floor. And wild strawberries on the Fourth of July in Maine—where I saw a black-masked warbler beneath tall, yellow, moccasin-orchids. Yes, always wild strawberries.
I was fortunate that some of the best woods were in my family, as it were. Crossing Main St. to Aunt Laurette’s and through her yard with its elm tree where the pristine sack of a Baltimore Oriole’s nest over hung her morning-room window out the rhubarb sided track, past the shed where Claribelle the goat was tethered, then around the back of the old Ashley estate (paved with lilies of the Valley in season) and into the Saw Mill’s woods.
The Saw Mill’s woods began abruptly with a leather green pavement of Winter green, then I was in the woods. The path immediately darkened with an audible hush. Nature took over and, if you were looking and listening, put on quite a show. The birds stepped up a few rungs in quality, their songs distinct and quotable.
The first event as you entered was an eroded cliff on the right glamourosly scaled to a not-yet-grown person, the oak on its crest overhanging the yellow earth where its roots threw themselves out. The sun and the ground had a routine worked out whereby a beam piercing the leaves would spotlight a wild flower on its own shelf on the cliff face—one plant per sun-beam. The flat-faced heavenly Bird’s foot violet with its little orange cone in the very center—one plant and the only one I ever saw. And Turks-head Lilies. Tall, thin, hodding and orange or sometimes, yellow.
Don’t think I was fully accepted. As much as I wanted the birds to make me ball gowns and mice surround me for a chat, I would sometimes be dive-bombed by birds and chided relentlessly from branch to branch by one squirrel in particular. And I would always fall for the wounded bird trick where the bird with a broken wind would flop around, just out of reach, until I couldn’t remember where the pantomime had started, and then knowing I’d been led far enough away she’d fly off and leave me ignorant of where on the ground her nest lay and I was deeper in the forest.
Then the woods opened up. To the left was the Saw Mill river (the headwater of the Acushnet River eponymous to the real whaler Melville shipped out on that was the model for the Pequod of “Moby Dick”). To the right a sloping glade and directly in front and abandoned 18th century cranberry log and beyond that the grey-black horizontal of a pine forest that formed the self-declared boundary of my woods.
Throughout the years I spent in the Saw Mill Woods I never saw a single person. My sense of privacy and safety were complete. There were no surprises greater than a toad underfoot or a quail’s clumsy thrashing into, but never quite making it into, the sky.
There were no unpleasant surprises, so that when I tell you that, here, I would sometimes turn right and sit on the moss and daisy upholstered fieldlet, and stare at the Pines across the bog or eat the wild strawberries growing within arms reach. My sense of solitary belonging was complete.
Around my eleventh birthday, that year, later in the summer, when the pines had taken their dominion over the trees, on a white and muggy day I lay on the daisy covered ground. I was only wearing a bathing suit, as usual–no shirt or shoes. I was golden brown from the sun and the baby hair on my arms and legs was golden. My head covered in whitish bland hair raw cut but with a platinum cowlick over my left eyebrow dark like its mate over double fringed??? black eyelashes surrounding eyes the color of a wild blueberry cut in half.
It was early in the white day, the sun at my left hand. I lay back, my hands tucked under my head. My knees bent up my heels against the back of my thighs–let’s put a juicy blade of grass in my mouth–strawberries were finished.
I looked up at the white sky. Suddenly the sun was declining on my right hand. The whiteness had possessed me. I got up. My shorts were, I could see, quite far away. Eight or nine hours of my life had disappeared. Many year later trying to recapture what happened in that split second that took all day. I remembered the light descending and collecting around me. Whether that’s a real memory or something else–I haven’t a clue.
I was sixteen and living in Boston, working as an artist’s model, don’t laugh, it supported me. I lived on Beacon Hill but had friends at Coffee Corner near Mass and Huntington Avenues. I’d walked down Newberry Street and was on the Mass Ave overpass near Jane Garnell’s at Fenway studios where I passed a very beautiful young man carrying his schoolbooks walking in the opposite direction toward the bridge to Cambridge. Something he’d heavily over-marked in the cover of one of his schoolbooks–the outside one, caught my eye. I swivelled on my heels, ran a bit, caught up with him and said, “Where you an ecstatic child?”
We stood there facing each other: the traffic and the pulse of a city dying away and he told me that, Yes, he’d been an ecstatic child. I don’t remember where I was exactly going or where, ostensibly, he was off to but previous plans were set aside. “Come with me,” he said. I guess he was eighteen or nineteen.
We went to his room. Boston at that time was honey combed with rooms. There were beautiful teenagers in rooms everywhere. The rent got paid, the educations were completed, and the sea was guilty.
We sat across from each other at a small table. This was a business meeting not a date and was not prolonged unnecessarily. I don’t remember saying good-bye–there was no further rendezvouz contemplated or suggested, I never asked or found out his name, and what he told me ran something like this.
At the age of twelve God began raping him. It was horrible. God would violate him forcefully would ravish him violently and repeatedly. To be singled out like that is hopeless for a child–there is truly no one to turn to. I was the only person he’d ever told. We were both crying.
Realizing the futility of his situation and combining ingenuity with intrepidity at eleven o’clock mass during the benediction this beautiful twelve year old boy walked up to the altar sail as the priest’s back was turned to the congregation, kneeling and with bowed heads, my ecstatic friend hanged on the marble altar rail and in a loud voice in the hushed church demanded now screaming that God keep his evil hands off of him and leave him alone. I suppose, come now to think of it, he humiliated god enough so that as a result the ecstatics ceased. You can all write for yourselves here the movie of what went on in the church and at home after this–if he told me, I don’t remember. But if my memory of childhood has any insight at all, I’d say, not much. The righteousness in this little boy’s anger and the tone of his voice must surely have warned everyone who heard that this was an event outside their experience and to act as if it didn’t happen: In fact collective ‘oublie’ probably set in.
I suppose we said good by. I know I left his room because I am not there now. But we had had the same experience, somehow. He had had his suffering and I had had a hole in time. Recognizing him re-affirmed the event for me. The words had first jumped out of my mouth when he passed by a symbol scratched in graphite unconsciously onto the cover of a school–book had leapt out at me and told me that what I had experienced was ecstasy in a deeply incised double-cross.
A freshly built hummingbirds’ nest is the most exquisite thing in nature. The one I saw was either new built or refurbished; I know, because there was one egg in it the next day and two the day after that.
The size of half a butter-nut (with the husk still on) it was placed in the fork of a branch conveniently at eye-level. It’s impossible to stress how small and well camouflaged the nest is and, but for the fact that it nearly blinded me, I never would have seen it—not even staring right at it. Unfortunately I didn’t really, to be honest, examine the outside at all—I take it for granted that it was made out of lichen because I read that somewhere. Like the branch it sat in it was gray, slightly mottled and a little rougher than the bark of the tree.
But the interior was exquisite to a degree that mooted other considerations—besides of course the procurement of a pair of shears the next day to bring it back with me, as, no doubt, the possession of a hummingbird’s nest is a desire that needs no apology. It was empty: It must be abandoned. Well, it was brand-new as the eggs that appeared on a daily basis proved and I left the island before they hatched.
There is a gray color unique to eighteenth century Venetian brocades. The floss is not so perfectly spun as Chinese silk and so it has a slight grain that catches and breaks up the light. It is the palest silver and almost metallic but soft, very soft. The contrast between the coarse outside and the glossy inside of the nest was striking. The extraordinary perfection of the satin interior provoked the question that most pleases a weaver—“How in the world did you ever do that?” How indeed.
So I’ll tell you what it seemed to me. Since weaving is traditionally an occupation of the distaff side—I’m sure it is so in birds and that it was the female who wove the nest’s satin duvet out of spider webs. I can’t imagine another fiber. Since spiders weave with alternate smooth and sticky threads a hummingbird with any skill at all will quickly size-up this opportunity to the advantage of her own weaving. Each infinitely fine thread was laid down parallel to the next like a float weave, producing a shimmering silver satin. As tiny as it was—enough to cover the bowl of a cream soup spoon—the nest seemed to account for a prodigious amount of intelligent labor as well as a span of time. The equivalent would be a human being genetically hard-wired to produce a Gobelin tapestry.
The next day there was an egg. It was tiny. Now, was it as small as a bean, a pea, or a pinkie’s fingernail—I honestly can’t say, but it was small. I was disappointed to realize that I could no longer take the nest. It truly hadn’t occurred to me that it might, in fact, be occupied.
The next day there was a second egg.
The third day I finally saw her.
When I was a little boy on the dunes at Crane Beach in Ipswich Mass. I once came upon a flicker on a rotted tree-stump. It didn’t fly away. The flicker is one of the most vividly colored of the woodpeckers and a brilliant thing to see close-up—and one rarely does. I was standing right over this beautiful large bird and it was not flying away so of course it must be hurt—I suppose I wanted it to be hurt to give me an excuse for picking it up. I put both hands around it, gently, and gently pulled upwards. It didn’t budge. It’s afraid, I thought. I’ll tug a little harder. I realized that if I pull any harder I’ll tear it to shreds before it lets go, when I had another thought at the same time and so dropped it. It was on its nest, of course, in a rotted log that in another week would be so completely covered in poison ivy that it would be invisible and so the bird had no instinct to fly away. The better policy was to freeze.
The hummingbird’s better policy was to freeze. I got this close and she didn’t budge. It was the drab topped female but even a male only sparkles from a certain angle and not when looking down at it. It was thrilling to witness one of the great camouflage stunts in nature. This bird is endlessly fascinating.
As small as she was, the nest was smaller and she was nearly folded in two and deeply immured. I knew that I’d tear her body from her legs before she’d let go if I tried to pull her out. Just the tip of her rump protruded and her tail feathers were folded into a point. Her head and long beak made a perfect mirror for her tail. One could not tell head from tail.
The mirror effect was stunning. She stood a perfect 50-50 chance of a predator attacking the wrong end, if she were ever spotted. Stillness was her trump.
I left the island the next day, sad to leave her and the orchids. The house was called Punto Aloe because of all the huge sulphur sapped Aloe Vera that populated the back yard. The Flamboyan trees were in “scarlet bloom’ their trunks and branches festooned with large orchid plants.
Each plant had at least one long efflorescence covered in buds all ready to burst into bloom the day after I left. For some reason I conceived of them as vanilla orchids but in truth they could have been anything. Certain vanilla flowers don’t completely open, so they must have some special pollinator equipped for the job.
It only today, twenty years later, occurred to me that the timing couldn’t be a coincidence: the ready to hatch eggs—the ready to bloom orchids.
How brilliant, and territorial, my hummingbird. Little to me; but in the rough and tumble world of hummingbirds she was a veritable Donald Trump—the best house on the island—and all the orchids you can eat.
May 18, 2003