Tuesday, February 22, 2011
CLUTTER: a novella
In 2001, when I was first fooling around with "serious" writing, I wrote a novella based on the Collyer brothers, New York City's famous hoarding recluses. Of course, their story is common New York lore. So it came as no surprise to me that in the years following someone wrote a play about the brothers called Clutter, and recently E.L. Doctorow wrote a novel called Homer and Langley. This work has be chosen for next year's freshmen reading book (i.e., all Cornell freshmen read it). So, here is my contribution to Collyer brother legend. It departs significantly from their story: there is the London Blitz, Gigantism, miscegenation, dips into loopy and not very serious post-modern moments of whimsey, and sundry depatures from narrative norms. But all the while, it keeps its sense of proportion, which I hope you appreciate and enjoy
"All men by nature love the senses irrespective of their utility, and predominantly above the rest, the sense of sight.”
- Aristotle, The Metaphysics, Book One.
One may as well begin here:
When I came home from the war outside had become inside and inside had become outside. Emptiness had become clutter and clutter had become emptiness.
What went wrong, you would be justified to ask? The fault, it seems, was a mistake in apprehension. It was all so easily avoidable, but situations careened out of control; what should have been tidy became unkempt. What should have remained broad funneled into something narrow. The problem was not psychological, as many believed, but metaphysical; the problem was strictly taxonomic: it was about borders; it was about particulars and universals, matter and form, actuality and potentiality, being and becoming, change and the changeless. The problem was about what makes a thing a thing and what makes nothing nothing.
One may as well begin here.
“Why, they are twins Mrs. Vandemark!”
“What makes you think so, Mrs. Cavendish?”
“Well,” Mrs. Cavendish held us up for mutual inspection, one child perched in each of her plump arms. She screwed her face up with what was for her, no doubt, extraordinary concentration, “for all the usual reasons, I suppose.” Her eyes scanned from me to Homer and Homer to me rapidly, surveying possible features in common: casting a critical glance at eye color, hair texture, the comparative shape of our dumpling shaped neo-natal skulls. “Why,” she continued, “I would believe they are twins from the very fact that that Homer and Langley share the same nose!” As she said this, Mrs. Cavendish pointed her face to each of us, indicating which child was Homer and which was me.
“Mrs. Cavendish,” Mother beamed naturally, “that is Langley and that is Homer.”
“Oh, goodness gracious,” Mrs. Cavendish chuckled, as she handed me to mother. She kept Homer suspended on her wide hip like a grocery store parcel. “That just clinches it for me! They’re identical twins. Clyde, come over here and look at Mrs. Vandemark’s twins!”
Clyde Cavendish, who operated a newsstand down the street from our brownstone residence, was bundling up parcels of periodicals that had been delivered at the corner. He sauntered over to us and stood behind his portly wife. He clucked critically at her useless enthusiasms.
“Good morning, Mrs. Vandemark.” My Mother nodded in response. “What is the fresh fuss, Harriet?”
“Well,” she exhaled mightily, “you never told me that Mrs. Vandemark had twins?”
“I was just telling your wife, Mr. Cavendish…” Mother began but Mr. Cavendish interrupted her.
“Why Harriet, you silly bean, Homer was born a full year and a half after Langley.”
“Two years,” Mother corrected.
“Two years. There! I have to mind the stand, now. You mind your observations, Harriet. Good day, Mrs. Vandemark.” Clyde turned heel and with newspapers in his outstretched arms and returned the half block to his stand. Mrs. Cavendish’s face puckered.
“My husband can be such a prune sometimes,” was all Mrs. Cavendish managed to say. She held Homer up to her face, her features softening under the diffused stare of my baby brother. She made nonsensical noises and cooed only inches away from his fat baby face.
“I suppose,” she said, snapping back to an adult tone of voice, “I can see a difference in the eyes. Little Homer’s eyes don’t focus as well as Langley’s. So I suppose that shows that Langley is older.” Her disappointment was evident.
Mrs. Cavendish handed Homer back to Mother, who dutifully placed us both in the dual perambulator she and Father had recently purchased. She tucked me in first, wrapping a blue blanket that smelled mildly of peppermint and talcum powder around my baby torso; she then tucked Homer in the other chamber of the bicameral stroller, swaddling him in a yellow blanket. Pulling down the wind hood of the stroller about halfway to shelter us from the cool, early spring breeze, Mother wished Mrs. Cavendish a pleasant day, and resumed our stroll down Broadway.
As we rounded a corner near our brownstone, a city crew was preparing to fell an oak tree. Our block, at that bucolic time, was a pleasant, little trafficked side street, sheltered on both sides by mighty arboreal giants, their overhanging limbs forming a pleasant lattice of branches over the street, peppering the avenue with a broken field of green-lemon yellow light and deeper patches of dark forest green shade, all set in motion by a slight breeze, setting the street world in a flutter, a flurry of rustling, a changing, riotous checkerboard pattern of shifting lights and darks.
“Well look Homer, Langley, those men are taking that tree down.” Mother exclaimed, briefly stopping the perambulator at the curb.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, its probably diseased,” she answered simply.
Several burly men in rolled up shirt sleeves and rough canvas work pants were affixing a massive metal ring, that really looked like an over-sized caliper, around the broad trunk of the oak and using that as a steady platform, running a metal ladder up the height of the monster to the first of the arm of thick cross branches.
My body, on that Edenic day, was in a drowsy, pleasant, supine posture. The workmen, with burly, bulging forearms, were manipulating the gleaming ring as one particularly adept worker climbed to the crown of the tree with a saw. Mother swung the perambulator around, away from the scene of amputation, and closed the hood of the carriage, its black, thin, material stretched taut across the two lateral metal bars, like black crepe bunting around a coffin, and I dug deep in, hidden. And I should have remained hidden. But instead of shrinking from the world I grew outlandishly, quite literally large. Since that day, it seemed, the task of hiding myself become implausibly difficult. Somehow, someway, gigantism became my unalterable fate. Kicking my feet in the hidden pocket of the baby carriage, blind to the world around me, hiding on that day seemed all too real a possibility.
On that fine early spring day, nothing seemed amiss. The world was perfectly centered and poised like tiny bubbles of air in the liquid of a carpenter’s plain. The street, to my toddler’s malleable mind, the perfect escarpment for eternity to dwell. But in the midst of harmony I could hear the pleasant hiss of a metal saw cutting its jagged teeth through the dry, old growth wood.