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Authors: William Humphrey

September Song

BOOK: September Song
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September Song

Stories

William Humphrey

To my wife

CONTENTS

A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

The Farmer's Daughter

A Labor of Love

The Apple of Discord

A Weekend in the Country

September Song

Mortal Enemies

The Dead Languages

The Parishioner

Last Words

An Eye for an Eye

A Tomb for the Living

Buck Fever

Ties of Blood

Auntie

Vissi d'Arte

Virgin and Child

Dead Weight

Be It Ever So Humble

A Heart in Hiding

A Biography of William Humphrey

A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

W
AS IT JUST THAT
,
BEING YOUNG
, new to her job, and an aspiring writer herself, she was in awe of an old one who had recently published, to some little long-overdue acclaim, his twelfth book? Was that what made her ill-at-ease? She had driven all the way up from the city to interview him, they had had drinks, lunch, and she had yet to ask him a question. It was as though he were interviewing her.

Not that there was much to tell about himself. Most of his 64 years had been spent at a desk, much of that time staring at a blank sheet of paper. How many writers' lives were colorful? Villon. Byron. Rimbaud. Poets. They left wide margins. The novelist, said Auden, must become the whole of boredom. Asked why he did not write an autobiography, Thomas Hardy replied that he was not much interested in himself. As for him, he had never bothered answering inquiries from
Who's Who
. List the titles of his books, and his tale was told.

But he was prepared now to help his reluctant young interviewer with the information that he was born in Sulphur Flats, Texas, in 1924. Had attended the local schools until his father's death in 1937 when his mother and he moved to Dallas. There he finished public school and then enrolled on a scholarship at Southern Methodist University. In 1945 he came to New York where he met and married his wife. Published his first story in 1949, his first book in—

Then he knew what this reporter was here for and why she was hesitant at her assignment. His twelve books had earned him an obituary in her newspaper—on a back page, of course—and his age made it urgent to get the facts on file. Here was Death in the guise of a young woman.

The little black box with its tape cassette used by today's Recording Angel posed a challenge. His wife listened in blank-faced amazement as he began the story of his life with:

“My mother having died in giving birth to me, her only child, I was brought up by a black mammy. Do not picture a Dilsey or an Aunt Jemima. Mammy was just fifteen years older than I. My bereaved father had to have a wet-nurse for his motherless child and Mammy's pappy, a Holy-Roller minister, had kicked her out of the house when she showed signs of becoming a single parent. I never knew Mammy's pappy but he had a decisive influence on me. It is to her resentment of his treatment of her that I owe my having been brought up in a godless household, for which I have always thanked whatever powers there be. As I required constant attention, she moved in with us. Of course she went in and out the back door, and it goes without saying that she ‘mistered' my father, still, her living in the house with a single man, and with her tarnished reputation, must have raised eyebrows in our little old southern town. But whatever gossip it may have caused was not repeated to my father's face because of his well-known prowess with a gun, about which more later. It did mean that I grew up sheltered. We never had company in the house. It was perhaps the beginning of my lifelong sense of alienation.

“At one flowing breast Mammy nursed me and at the other her Josh. So, although he and I later went our separate ways, we started life side by side. Until I was six years old and my education began, I thought Mammy was my mother. All reminders of my own had been removed from sight so as to prevent any questions and spare me the knowledge of my congenital parricide. I could see of course that there was a disparity in color between Josh and me but I thought he was Mammy's black boy and I her white one. Because he resembled her more than I did, I deferred to him and he took advantage of that to lord it over me.

“My first day of school was a turning point in my life. My being taken to one and Josh to another opened my eyes to the difference between us. My teachers were scandalized by my dialect and asked where I had learned to talk like that. If you think I've got an accent now you ought to have heard me recite my bedtime prayers, taught to me by Mammy not out of piety but out of superstition: ‘Now Ah lays me down to sleep / Prays de Lawd mah soul to keep.' My teachers made me feel peculiar, which is to say inferior, and that made me question my upbringing. My life had not been so secluded that I had never seen white mothers but I had never seen them in such numbers as came to fetch their children when school let out that day—and waiting for me was Mammy. My white hand and her black one holding it as she led me home had never looked so mismatched.

“‘Mammy,' said I in a flash of divination over my Graham crackers and milk, ‘you're not my mother.'

“‘Nevah said I wuz!' she rejoined indignantly.

“Wouldn't have you as a gift, was my reading of that.

“Remember the sad old song ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.' Well, just imagine what it's like to lose in one moment both of yours. It may have been then and there that my métier was decided for me. You've heard no doubt of that modern literary theme ‘The Quest for the Father.' Mine was for the mother. ‘The Anna Fisher Obsession' it's called. I couldn't look at a white woman of child-bearing age without wondering whether … And wondering what I had done to make her disown me.

“Mammy knew the truth kept from me about my unfortunate origin, but she knew better than to tell white folks what they did not want to hear about themselves. Only one person could clue me in my search.

“So that I might look upon myself as an accident rather than as a born criminal worthy of hounding by the Furies, it was necessary that I be precociously initiated into the facts of life.

“‘So you see, son,' said my father in concluding his anatomy lesson, ‘it was not your fault.' But his look of profound pity for me was like the mark of Cain upon my brow.

“Top that up for you, Miss?

“Separate but equal, we called our segregated school system. Everybody now knows that was a sham. I learned it earlier than most. My teachers were old maids—forbidden by law to marry. This left them free to turn all their attentions upon their pupils. Their attentions, I say, not their affections. For the next seven years I was sent home each afternoon staggering under the load of my homework. One hundred complex compound sentences to diagram. One hundred problems of long division to solve. My studies stunted my growth. I blame many of my afflictions and my disappointments in life on my unathletic childhood. Meanwhile Josh was out on his skates or his scooter or my bicycle. If you think he spared me the contrast between his freedom and my bondage, then you don't know kids, black or white. Imagine if you can what it was like to be a little overworked, motherless, guilt-ridden boy trying to memorize the poem assigned to him to be recited at morning assembly while a handball was being bounced against the side of the wood frame house.”

“I'm going to need another tape,” said the reporter.

You're going to need more than one, young lady, he said to himself. For inspiration—or desperation—or were they one and the same?—was upon him. “Is it not the sound the great wings make as Death swoops past that moves the soul to art?” Who wrote that? He did. And he was young then. He poured himself another drink. The reporter covered her glass with her hand.

“To say that my killing my mother as my first act in life benefited me in any way may sound callous, but surely it spared me the pangs of the Oedipus complex, and in my case that was to be the one ray of light. ‘Oedipus complex?' a friend of mine whose mother was unattractive once said to me. ‘I just took a second look.' Well, I never got a first look. Not so much as a snapshot. I was not jealous of my father. On the contrary, once aware of my awful guilt I felt beholden to him for having deprived him of his young and fertile wife. He might tell me it was not my fault, but I blamed myself all the same. It was just like me to come into the world ass-first and right-side-up instead of head-first and upside-down like every normal person. And though the dear man never gave me any reason to feel that he resented me, I felt myself to be a constant reminder to him of his loss and loneliness. He was obliged to support and to cherish the very agent of his bereavement. I was his albatross. He never remarried, and I blamed myself for that too. I made him undesirable as a husband. I bore him no ill will. Before the bar of eternal justice I can truthfully swear that I did not intend to kill my father.

“Freshen that for you, young lady? Sure? Well, I'm not driving.

“Ad Tupperwine: that is a name that may not be familiar to you. No.
Sic transit gloria mundi
. Ad Tupperwine was to the semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle what Rubenstein was to the keyboard, Babe Ruth to the bat. The greatest trick-shot artist of them all. Though in fairness to myself I must say he never took the risks I took.

“No, Ad Tupperwine is not remembered as is Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley, but he was of that ilk. He toured the country with his road show generating publicity and sales for one of the arms manufacturers. After his visit to some cowtown the hardware store sold out of guns and ammunition. It was his visit to Sulphur Flats that prompted my father to take to the road in emulation of Ad Tupperwine when his business failed.

BOOK: September Song
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