Grappling With Carson McCullers: 100 Years
BY Sarah Schulman ON July 20, 2017
This essay, and the short fiction with which it ends, was presented at the Carson McCullers Centenary in Rome on July 16, 2017.
It was a green and crazy summer.
Carson McCullers is one of those singular artists who inspires us over time, and yet is impossible to imitate. Much of the worst of American literature has been created by multi-generations of inadequate Hemingway impersonators. But no one tries to imitate McCullers. One of the many things about her that I try to understand is why, unlike Elvis, she is impossible to imitate and how at the same time she is able to influence us.
Lets start with the opening words of Member of The Wedding: It was a green and crazy summer… On a superficial reading it might remind us of “It was a dark and stormy night” but actually the phrase works in very unusual ways. Dark and Stormy are both on the same plain. We are separate from the night: looking out at it from inside a shelter, or we are surrounded on the deck of a ship, but dark and stormy are evoking the same state of experience. On the other hand green and crazy are two entirely different spheres of perception, because green is a visual and crazy is interior: a state of mind, an evaluation as well as a feeling. So, Carson manages, within the frame of seven simple, almost minimalist, words, to evoke multi-dimensions of interiority and exteriority: emotion and perception. In this way, she is a master of the American thought sentence. And that is why we cannot imitate her.
So, how is it that she influences us?
I was re-reading the beautiful anthology that Carlos Dews edited for the Library of America, and went back to her short story “Court In The West Eighties” – written in 1935 at the age of 18, when she left her Columbus, Georgia home to study writing at Columbia University. This was her second pilgrimage to New York Earlier she had come to Julliard to study classical piano, but something happened and she ended up giving all her money to a prostitute and had to return. This time, more familiar with the ways of the City, she looks out her apartment window at the neighbors on the other side of the courtyard, who she will never meet or know. Particularly, interesting is one man, with red hair, who has a drink at the window after work. She, the narrator, is reading Karl Marx, and that enhances her understanding of the people with whom she shares this quiet knowledge.
“I felt that this man across from me understood the cellist and everyone else in the court as well. I had a feeling that nothing would surprise him and that he understood more than most people.”
I had a feeling says this young woman for whom thoughts, ideas, and insights would always be feelings.
Most of the story involves descriptions of her feelings about her neighbors until suddenly, a very surprising thing occurs. The narrator tells us, her readers, that she thought about sharing this information by letter with a friend back home but that the description would be “too hard” to write. Wait a minute! Didn’t she already write it to us? Isn’t that what we have been reading, her description? And then it sinks in. She does not consider us to be readers, she does not consider us to be separate human beings, suddenly it becomes clear that the reader is in fact part of her, and is living inside her mind. That the page is actually her feeling, and we are in her consciousness, and the story becomes more intimate than even a whisper on a pillow.
This is what influences us: McCullers’ vulnerability, the total openness, the invitation to know all that she has to know. This is what makes us inspired.
It certainly worked for me.
In 1999 I had a workshop of a new play called “The Child” (that later became a novel) and I mentioned to the young lead actress, Angelina Phillips,
“You know, you look like Carson McCullers.”
And she said: “Who’s that?”
I went home that night and took out my well worn copy of Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography and looked at that classic Louise Dahl photograph of the young woman celebrated debut novelist in a man’s shirt, and there began my now, two decade long commitment to working on and thinking about her literature, her complexities, and the mechanisms of her unique gift.
As I read through her writings, and other people’s work about her, I started to have my own experiences of Carson, and to formulate my own relationship. The more I read, the more questions presented themselves. At the forefront was the supreme mystery of how in the hell this 23 year old white woman who had grown up in segregated Georgia was able to create complex scenes between different kinds of Black people, with different sensibilities and points of view. I read Black novelist Richard Wright’s review in The New Republic of her first novel, the 1940 Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. He wrote:
“To me the most impressive aspect of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”
How did she do this? How was she able to inhabit, so accurately, people whose position and experience was so far from her own? After all, the art of being a novelist is rooted in the basic recognition that other people are real. To represent how other people experience and understand their own lives is our job, whether or not we wish they understood themselves differently. I had to investigate her with more depth in order to even start to understand her accomplishment of relationship to difference. And so the journey to discovery began.
Carson lived at the artists’ colony, Yaddo from 1941-43 where she finished Member of The Wedding, which is dedicated to Yaddo’s very tolerant director, Elizabeth Ames. I had been to Yaddo in the 90’s, and wrote my 1998 novel, SHIMMER, in the very same baby blue, cherub filled tower studio where Truman Capote had written “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” But once I began to study Carson, subsequent residencies were viewed through another lens. Legend has it that Carson, Truman, and Newton Arvin – who would later be destroyed and fired by Smith College for receiving homoerotic muscle magazines in the mail – sat at one end of the long dining table, drinking too much and acting queer, while the disapproving Katherine Anne Porter, and her sidekick Eudora Welty, sat at the more clique-ish side table on the other end of the room.
I can attest that to this day, the snobbier and more clique-ish artists do control that smaller table. I once tried to sit there, next to the novelist Y, but the novelist X demurred “I’m sorry, this seat is taken.” But when the esteemed Harvard poetry critic Helen Vendler entered, X called out “Helen, would you care to join us?” Vendler, assessing the situation, declined, and took her place at the big table, next to the older Black poet Michael Harper.
But the legend continues that Carson was…what was it that she felt for Katherine Anne Porter? To say she was “in love” would be reductive shorthand. The absolute first and most emphasized rule for residents at Yaddo is that it is entirely and totally forbidden to visit someone’s studio unannounced. No one is allowed to just “drop-in.” We are there to work, and we are there to be protected in our labor. If the story is true, the fact that- despite these constraints- Carson went to Porter’s live-in studio, and knocked on the door uninvited, repeatedly, and that when Porter shouted, “Go away!” Carson replied, “But Miss Porter, I love you so.” And then made clopping sounds with her feet with diminishing strength to give the illusion that she was walking down the hall, when actually she was still standing right there, in that forbidden spot, waiting for Miss Porter to open the door in relief only to find Carson draped across her threshold.
Now, I assure you that anyone committing such a forbidden act at Yaddo would be sent home immediately, and if they did it in 2017 they would probably be charged with stalking and sexual harassment. But Elizabeth Ames simply had the good sense to look away. And what did Carson want from Miss Porter, who was as famous in her day as Toni Morrison is in ours? I doubt that it was sex. As far as I know, (and certainly more may now be known about Carson’s sexual experiences since the notes of Carson’s psychiatrist Dr. Mary Mercer have been released,) but from my knowledge she never had a full sexual relationship with anyone but her husband Reeves, to whom she was married twice: once for love and once for loneliness.
No, aside from the strong possibility that Carson may have been drunk, since she started every morning at Yaddo by drinking sherry, I imagine Carson wanted more than sex, I imagine that she wanted to talk. She wanted the connection, and if Porter has just given her some recognition, some acknowledgement all would have been well, but it was the withholding that provoked the anxiety, and throughout Carson’s life, it was the acknowledgement that provided the relief.
So, my return to Yaddo in the midst of my McCullers research was through a different door. I remember sitting on the porch, outside the common room, where I had sat many times before, looking out over the grounds, and suddenly noticing that in my direct line of vision was..A Tree…A Rock… and there was… A Cloud, and wondering if she had herself seen the same configuration when deciding on that title for her short story that teaches us how to love a woman, that loving a woman is an almost impossible task, so difficult that we have to practice with natural objects and work our way up.
At Yaddo I met two older artists who had known Carson – the minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt, who I met when she was in her eighties, had been married to the editor of Time Magazine, and their typewriter was implicated in the Alger Hiss case. But at one point they hosted a party for Carson in their Washington DC home, and Anne recalled that Carson attended in a kimono, and then sat in the corner and sulked the whole evening.
That kimono was more notorious than Anne realized, as it shows up again and again in various remembrances. I also had the pleasure of meeting Tobias Schneebaum at Yaddo. He was an elderly gay writer whose notoriety came from having lived many years with Cannibals, one of whom was his lover. He told me that when he was a young man, he had been the secretary of Isabel Bolton, a well-known New York novelist, who I believe was a lesbian. And she had wanted to meet this new sensation, the author of Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and invited the younger Mrs. McCullers to lunch. However, Schneebaum told me, Carson showed up with four drunken sailors and the afternoon was ruined.
My take away from these conversations was two-fold. People who knew Carson, who at that point had been dead for over thirty years, talked about her as if they had seen her yesterday. She was very alive for them, she retained a memorable quality of singularity that was enjoyable to recall. And at the same time, most of the stories were outrageous. I have never met anyone who said “Oh, Carson McCullers, she was so kind. She was so caring and understanding and nice.” No, the stories were always outlandish.
I discussed this with another Carson lover, the late Dan Griffin, who I used to meet for lunch every six months or so for a couple of years, and we would sit for an hour and talk about Carson. It was Dan who told me that despite all the women she loved and wanted access to, Carson had only ever once claimed to have had sex with one of them. Dan said that she told Tennessee Williams that she had slept with celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee when they lived in the same collective house with Auden and Spender and Richard Wright on Middagh Street in Brooklyn. But Dan felt it wasn’t true, because she never bragged about this to anyone else, including her gay cousin Jordan Massey. “I mean,” Dan said. “If I was roommates with Tom Cruise, I probably would have lied and said I’d slept with him too.” One thing that Dan and I firmly agreed on was that the people who love Carson, love to talk about her, in part because she is unknowable. She is unique.
The more I came to understand her, the more I wanted to understand, and this desire has lead to multiple artistic iterations of grappling with her dimensions. The first work I created out of this passion was a play, CARSON McCULLERS, I subtitled it “Historically Inaccurate” because I didn’t want to be bothered with critics quibbling with details. This was an over-estimation of critics, as we shall see. The play was workshopped at the Sundance Theater Lab in 2000, starring Angelina Phillips as Carson and Bill Camp as Reeves, directed by the playwright Craig Lucas. The workshop situation at Sundance was such that productions shared casts, and because I was sharing with Asian American playwright Naomi Izuka, a young Japanese-Canadian actress named Michi Barall, was cast to play Julie Harris.
The play was originally conceived as an exploration of how McCullers transformed her own life into her work. For example, Vinnie Copeland Jackson, played by Rosalind Coleman, was the young Black woman who did housework for Carson’s parents Lamar and Marguerite Smith, when Carson was still known by her female name, Lula. I was interested in how her relationship with Vinnie Copeland Jackson became transformed into Frankie’s relationship with Bereniece Sadie Brown in Member of the Wedding.
So my play opens with a kitchen scene in the Smith household in Columbus Georgia, where Vinny’s date comes too early to pick her up after work to go to the segregated movie theater. In my play, young Lula is attracted to the secret world of Black people when they are not busy taking care of whites, and she wants to know the intimacies of Vinny’s life, which Vinny retains for herself. Young Lula responds, as I believe Carson would have, by offering her own intimacy, trying to close the gap of resistance that she does not understand as a resistance to white supremacy. The intimacy that she offers, is one that Carson herself later offered to Truman Capote when she told him “I believe I was born a boy.” “I am a boy,” Lula tells Vinny.
But Vinny couldn’t care less. In Act Two we see an older infirm Carson, on a cane after a serious stroke, in rehearsal for a play she has written – a facsimile of the theatrical adaptation of Member of the Wedding, in which we watch her transform Vinnie’s indifference into the deep intimate relationship with Bereniece that young Carson had wished for all along. This gave Rosalyn Coleman the opportunity to transition from playing Vinny to playing Ethel Waters, the Black film and stage star, who appeared as Bereniece in both the Broadway adaptation and the subsequent film. And in this way the play also traced Waters’ life from her time as an out and outlandish lesbian, to her finale as a devout Christian touring with Billy Graham. It became an epic a play about queerness, race and how Carson made art out of her life.
One of the many interesting things that happened during this workshop was that Craig and I discovered that Michi Barall was perfect as Julie Harris. She had all the necessary qualities, the boyishness, the hopeful determination, and the sweetness. And the two Artistic advisors in residence at Sundance agreed. The late Zelda Fichandler, who founded Washington DC’s Arena Stage on the principle of inter-racial casting, was also the director of the NYU Tisch School of Drama where both Angelina Philips and Michi Barall had been trained. Zelda took off her cat-eye glasses with a dramatic swoop of authority, and said simply
“The best actor should have the role.”
Marion McClinton, the Black director who brought many of August Wilson’s plays to premiere on and off- Broadway during Wilson’s lifetime, simply added
“Michi is fierce.”
In 2002 Playwrights Horizons’s artistic director Tim Sanford, and Literary Manager Sonya Sobieski decided to do the play’s world premiere, and Marion agreed to be the director. We all decided together that no one should be denied a role because of their race, and Michi was cast to play Julie Harris, a decision very much in keeping with a contemporary updated version of Carson’s commitments to transgressing the color line.
Now, in the American Theater, and expressly the case in 2002, Black directors did not direct White plays. Very few casts were mixed race at all, and there was a distinct divide between white and black theater. With Marion as the director, and actress Jenny Bacon in the lead role of Carson, the production was innovative by 2002 Off-Broadway institutional standards on a number of levels, primarily that the production reflected the unity of Marion and my points of view, so as a result, every moment in the play was presented from a Black and/or lesbian point of view. The lighting design was created to equally illuminate all skin tones. The costumes, by Toni-Leslie James, were designed to work for every complexion. When Marion directed the opening kitchen scene, it was staged from Vinny’s Point of View, not Carson’s. In a scene in a segregated movie theater, Michi, doubling as a judgmental Columbus, Georgia church lady, walked through the Whites Only entrance, while Vinnie had to take “Colored.” It should not have been that difficult for the critics to understand, that the Asian actress was playing the role of a white person, but it overwhelmed. One called the decision “Communist Chinese.”
It is important to note that in 2002, when this production opened, every theater critic in New York was a white male, except for Linda Winer from Newsday, and she was not assigned to my play. At that time, it was very rare for there to be a play, or even a scene in a play, where two women are alone together onstage who were not related and were not love rivals. I know it sounds bizarre, but with the exception of a Maggie Smith vehicle called Lettice and Lovage by Peter Schafer, and Mary Stuart, women were not allowed to speak to each other and be important to each other alone on stage.
This has had radically negative consequences for women playwrights, and also meant that since male critics had never been in a conversation among women (who were not related and were not love rivals) where no men were present, and additionally, had never seen such a scene represented in their thousands of nights at the theater, they didn’t know why they felt so uncomfortable when it occurred in our play. I had a scene where the adult Carson, now wearing men’s clothes, as she did, is waiting in the dressing room for her housemate, Gypsy Rose Lee, played by Anne Torsiglieri, to come offstage from one of her strip-tease shows for an upscale Manahattan audience. Gypsy enters the dressing room in her G-string, and she and Carson discuss the fact that Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe were in the audience that night, as Gypsy casually changes out of her G-string and into her normal street clothing.
The male critics were confused. A number of them accused me of falsely claiming that Gypsy and Carson were lovers. I guess they had never seen two women flirt with each other before, and I guess they did not know that women — straight, gay, bi, trans, and everything else — flirt with each other all the time. It was so foreign, and so unknown, that they decided it was terrible, in that way that cultural gatekeepers often confuse familiarity with quality, and if something is breaking new ground, it is wrong.
And I think they were also unsettled by the fact that, at this point in Carson’s life, she was wearing men’s suits. This was long before Transparent, before Caitlyn Jenner, before heinous bathroom laws made it onto the Right Wing’s official agenda. It simply was impossible to imagine that an American icon, like Carson McCullers, who wrote books that were associated with Regional Southern novels for high school girls, could have been anything on the continuum of what we now call “Trans.” But the more I looked into her work and her life, the more this was becoming apparent. Not only had she dropped the female Lula, and taken her mother’s maiden name Carson, like Kit Carson, but she’d named a number of her boyish girl protagonists with men’s names like Frankie and Mick. And they dreamed of marrying other girls and marrying couples, and traveling around the world with them, and they identified with Black people, and Mutes, and Jews, and gay Filipinos and dwarfs.
In fact, I was coming to realize a potential answer to one of the great mysteries of McCullers’ writing. I began to understand, Carson had a male identity, and if she lived today I believe she would be on the continuum of what we call “trans.” Yet she lived in a time where such an identity was simply not fully articulated in a way in which it could be accessible as a possible option to even consider. She chased women with every ounce of energy she could muster, and yet she seemed to have no interest in actually sleeping with them. Her tormented husband Reeves, seems to have had an inarticulated sexuality as well. Even though he had heterosexual relations with a number of women, he also had a relationship with the composer David Diamond, with whom he lived for at least a year in between marriages to Carson.
For both of them, these ambiguities were masked and further confused by fatal alcoholism that they could not shake. They did try Alcoholics Anonymous, which failed, and even tried moving to France with the plan to use the opportunity to switch to beer and wine, but Reeves ended up drinking a bottle of brandy a day, and committing suicide. They both also came from families with high suicide rates, and may have both had some kind of genetic depression that the alcohol may have been trying to medicate. I believe that if she lived today, Carson would have been trans, on anti-depressants and in a regular 12-Step meeting. And in this way we can imagine that she and Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote, all of whom died, like Carson, in their fifties from alcoholism and addiction-enhanced illnesses, might have lived to 90 with 35 more years of productive literary output. I came to understand that Carson did not know what she was, because – in part- of her addiction, and in part because what she was, was just not available. Only because of her tremendous and singular gifts, was she able to use this lack of place to stand, as a way to empathize and inhabit people whose outsider experiences resonated with her own. And my play made this very unusual claim very clearly.
Unfortunately I also made this claim very clearly, in an interview with the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, in anticipation of the play’s premiere. I said that I thought that Carson was trans, that many people described her personally as a “nightmare” and I discussed the profound lack of work by women and people of color in the American Theatre by uttering the line: “In New York City you can see a bad play by a white man every night of the week.” Which, by the way, is still true. In that era some people took these views to be attacks, because there was no extant analysis encouraging us to realize that, as I underline in the title of my recent book, “Conflict Is Not Abuse.”
Sadly, the estate, at that time still managed by Robert Lanz, was so angered by the implications of my comments about Carson’s gender that they boycotted the opening night of the play, and left a row of empty seats in the center orchestra. The uniformly white and male corps of theater critics took offense at all of it: The lesbian and Black perspective, the woman in a suit saying she was born a boy, the Asian playing a white icon, the non-lesbian women casually flirting when no men were present. And so most of the horrible reviews, all written by white males, managed to include the line: “Schulman says you can see a bad play by a white man every night of the week, well now you can see a bad play by a white woman.” There was just no existing context in which to accurately experience our play, our production, or Carson removed from her regional high school lit context, or me and my perspective, on a person who herself, did not have a place to stand.
In fact, our beloved Carlos Dewes, founding director of The Carson McCullers Center, called me from his then southern US home, panicked. “Rex Reed hated it!” he cried. And I tried to explain to him “That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.” Because I already knew that critics are behind and artists are ahead. But Marion and August Wilson were strong in their support. “They don’t want you and Marion working together,” August said, illuminating how rare the Black director/white author alliance was at that time. And Marion told me, as clear as day “I’m Black, you’re lesbian. Ain’t none of them critics Black or lesbian. We are working at a level where we don’t have critical voice.”
I spent the next ten years continuing to deepen my knowledge of Carson, and wrote a film, a biopic screenplay called Lonely Hunter, that moved to a more complex analysis of how her transness influenced the insight of her characterizations. I also was more interested in her relationship with Reeves, and how I started to see her maleness, as part of a homoerotic sexuality between the two of them, in the cloud of their addictions.
Ten years after the play, my film was optioned by a southern white female director, who seemed to see it as autobiographical to herself, despite her complete lack of similarity. I know that some artists are narcissists and that is the name of the game. This woman had been previously accused of racism in one of her earlier works and she was very nervous about the racial content of my film.
But things really fell apart when she decided that the theme of Carson’s queerness was an insurmountable obstacle to getting the kind of star that she wanted for the lead. After being turned down by Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan, she called me and said that she had done a rewrite of the script, in which the character of Ethel Waters was reduced from an equal partner to a minor supporter, and Carson’s transness was entirely removed. “Maybe she wasn’t trans,” the woman said. “I mean lots of women wear pants. Maybe she was just a feminist.”
Suddenly LONELY HUNTER was a heterosexual love story about two white people. I trembled. I could not allow Carson McCullers to be closeted and whitewashed as a simple-minded business gesture. And more importantly, after a full career of writing openly queer and anti-racist books and plays, myself, I could not let my work be closeted. I tried to call the producer who would not take my calls, not answer my email and simply shut me out. Some years later she finally wrote me that she didn’t want to discuss the whitewashing because I seemed “panicked.” Which was an appropriate reaction to what was taking place. I had to sabotage the process in order to stop this terrible historical wrong from happening, and to punish me the director kept the rights for three more years, out of malice.
Finally the rights were returned to me, and I have been able to update the script to the full queerness, and full racial and gender transgression that made up Carson’s life and work.
And then…finally…came Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent, and suddenly everyone in America seemed to recognize that yes, even famous people can be trans. And I wrote a piece for the most mainstream of venues, The New Yorker, about Carson, her race politics, her open-heart, her wound, her interior riches, her exterior conflicts, and her deep thought feelings that carry her singular language. And today, after 17 years of grappling, I am working in an entirely transformed cultural framework to try to bring LONELY HUNTER to the screen.
But in the meantime, let us return to the theme of Influence. Obviously, Carson has me in her grasp. I am not Southern, I am not trans, and I am not an alcoholic. What ultimately attracts me to her embrace is, of all things, her word order. I am, after all, a novelist. And I would like to share with you a chapter from a novel I am writing now, this chapter was entirely influence by those seven simple words with which I began this address: It was a green and crazy summer.
And this story is called:
New York City, 1967
Urban children roam and that is their privilege. It’s a city of pigeons, laundry and freedom where even the youngest are free. They take subways alone from the age of eight with cardboard passes issued by the Board of Ed. This is the guaranteed free ride and they all take it for granted. By the time the girl was twelve, she had been everywhere on a whim. World’s Fair Park in Flushing, okay that’s typical, but also Van Cortland to ride the ponies. She’d been to the wild Boardwalk by the taming sea and run into the Atlantic Ocean in her underpants. She’d gone to the Elgin movie theater to see Gone With the Wind and smelled the grass the other kids were smoking. It wouldn’t be fair to say that she was always solo, occasionally a lonely sidekick – a strange, interesting kid who no one else cared about and the two of them would discuss and look.
This current pal was Gary. Fat boys made the best friends, because they were desperate and had become learned in the cruel ways of the popular others. In fact, Anita and Gary met crying over not being invited to the important kids’ party. The pain was a lens of recognition, and the honesty became a vow.
“I promise to help you,” Anita swore.
“I promise to help you.”
And then, as friends must do, they talked through all the reasons, the mis-steps, the better ways to live, and discovered together a desire to reconcile with those meanies. Extend a hand, and work together.
“Have our own party?” Anita proposed. “Then once we invite them, they will invite us back.”
It was a grand scheme. The two friends spent an afternoon writing on napkins, and creating little drawings of flowers, daisies. They put these hand-made invitations into the lockers of their classmates and started making plans.
You are Invited to a Party
Tuesday, After School: 3:30 at Gary’s House.
Refreshments Will Be Served
On the appointed day, the two went off to Gary’s place down the block, and walked up the three flights to his apartment. The father, a tall fierce red-bearded man, was a painter, and had set up in the entry room as his studio. It was awkward for the rest of the family, but that was the home to two large essential windows. Opening the front door meant stepping onto newspapers and facing the father-giant perched long upon an impossibly high stool with a rickety wooden easel before him, looking way down below in annoyance. Next was a kitchen where a long-haired sad woman in a peasant dress made some kind of food when she wasn’t dreaming of another world, sitting quietly ready to burst. Behind that, the parents’ mattress lay on the floor surrounded by some items that were unrecognizable to Anita like little drums, notebooks, books of poetry, ashtrays, peculiar toy-like grown-up possessions and sketches taped to the walls. Behind that was Gary’s room. Impeccably clean. He kept his own towels and washed them with his own clothes at the Laundromat, because he knew how he wanted them to be. The only uncluttered moment in his life.
Gary went into the bottom drawer of his bureau and took out his greatest possession, a Monopoly set his grandmother had sent him for Christmas. It was sparkling clean. Some nights he woke up and dusted off the cards, staring at Boardwalk and Park Place. Dreaming of Get Out Of Jail Free.
“How many do you think will come?”
“Well,” Anita was the mastermind here, so she had to produce answers. “We invited Jeff, Nina, Scottie R, Scottie S, Robin, Tiana, Julia, Steve, Pablo. With us that makes eleven.”
They looked around the tiny dark room. Four people could fit in there if nobody moved.
“We will be four,” Anita decided. She started counting out the money for four players, in neat stacks of green twenties and pink fives.
Then Gary opened the bag of groceries they had snuck in past his parents. A loaf of Wonder Bread. His parents forbade this, and Anita’s parents ate rye bread. But they’d both decided, by carefully observing lunches, that the popular kids ate Wonder Bread and that’s what they needed to serve. He took out a package of napkins, and a pound of bologna from Teddy the butcher on University Place. Anita had gone to him since she was born and he always gave kids a free piece of bologna. It was sweet and comforting, the way it came off the slicer and melted in her mouth. The bologna was her recommendation, and thought it a good choice. Then Gary produced a jar of mayonnaise. This was another mystery food to Anita. She grew up with mustard, and there seemed to be two separate kinds of people: the mayonaissers and the mustardites. Gary cracked open the jar, took out a clean knife he had prepared, and started spreading it on the Wonder Bread, adding three slices of bologna. These sandwiches would be the treats for the Monopoly players. They would shake the dice with one hand, and take a bite from the other while gleefully rolling on the floor chattering about houses and hotels.
Anita watched him quietly and then the two friends prepared to wait. After a while they stopped talking about what was going to happen at the party and started discussing Gary’s fish. He had a new minnow. Then he discussed cleaning, while Anita looked out the window. Then she sat silently, and the two filled the space only with waiting. They were both readers, so mercifully, somehow by agreement; they both pulled out the cellophane covered library editions each one always carried. Crinkling was the sound books made. Gary read Harriet The Spy, and Anita was on her second tour of A Member of The Wedding. Gary rolled onto his back, worn striped shirt riding short above his belly. Anita leaned on her elbows and swallowed the pages. Both of the protagonists of these novels were boyish girls, with great minds and a deep sorrowful loneliness. And soon Gary and Anita were discussing that fact, and imagining the adventure of belonging. Gary picked up his sandwich.
“No one is coming,” he said. Then he began to eat.
Anita looked into the air. Would it always be like this? How do you get other people to care?
Gary turned on the radio.
Yummy, yummy, yummy I’ve got love in my tummy/And I feel like I’m loving you.
“That,” said the disc jockey, “was the new hit single from The Ohio Express. “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.”
“Can I have your sandwich?”
“OK.” She didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
“What’s Ohio?” Gary said.
“It’s a state.’
“And in today’s news, writer Carson McCullers, author of Member of The Wedding, was admitted to New York Hospital after having suffered another stroke. “
“What’s a stroke?” Gary asked.
“It’s like a heart attack.”
Anita had a reassuring quality to her assumption of authority. It didn’t really matter if she knew exactly what a stroke was. What mattered was that she knew it could be lethal or worse, produce what was called in whispers “a vegetable,” and in that way it resembled heart attacks, cancer and being hit by a car. Or jumping off of buildings like her cousin had done just a few months before.
Lying together on the floor, each holding their books about wayward girls, the knowledge that no one cared about them enough to come to a party was redundant. Like bringing wet to the river.
“Now we know.”
“Know what?” Gary’s teeth sunk into the pasty bread.
“That no one is ever going to invite us to any parties.”
Gary looked stunned. Failure had not been a consideration.
“No,” he cried. “How do we make it different?” He wept. His sadness was an open gulf of pain. All his life he would cry cumulatively. But this was ahead of him. And he would die of AIDS.
The burden was Anita’s. She had to solve the problem for them both. The problem of being unloved and unwanted. It surged through her, this responsibility. Her teeth slapped like they did when the IRT lurched and she clutched the leather straps on the subway car, colliding with a kindly crumpeted nun, whose hair was hidden from view.
“Where is New York Hospital?” Gary asked.
His mother appeared at this point.
“What are you eating?”
“Garryyyy,” she whined, like he had soiled himself and was just too old for that. She looked sad too and then seized their contraband. Gary both protested and cried, while Anita was hushed by the larger dilemma the mystery of sadness itself. Neither of the children attempted to explain the scenario, why they had gone to such lengths to create bad sandwiches, why the Monopoly money was set out in four separate piles when there were only two players. They were mum. Sharing the calamity that had befallen them that day would have been futile. The mother would not have understood. Mothers always predicted change that never came. They were talking to themselves. She would discount their claims, their recognition that of all the children in the world, they were the objects of exclusion forever. That when their classmates grew up and had weddings, neither Gary nor Anita would be invited. And when there were cocktail parties, they would still be standing outside.
Anita walked out as the early evening’s gray started to descend. She didn’t want to go home. There would be no one to talk to. Her father’s disappointment, a wall of silence. Her exhausted mother putting bland food on the table. The yelling. Sometimes Anita wished that her father would look her in the eye and say something kind. But it never happened. When he did say friendly things, he was always looking away. Like he was scared, or shy. When he was angry, he would put his face close to hers but there was still some kind of glaze. She felt like a thing. They didn’t hold the same interests, that was clear. Daddy liked being at his job and people there thought he was very important. He hated being home because it just was not that same way. Home was supposed to be better than work, but in her father’s case it was not. And he hated that. It was wrong, and the culprit was clearly herself.
She started walking uptown instead, as she had done many times before. Crossing streets was a New York pastime, and walking blocks in the grey, when the sky met the concrete, was a way of life. She crossed Fourteenth Street where the bag ladies sold salted pretzels from a basket, and went through the no-man’s land of discount shops and empty office buildings. When you walk, you are alone. She knew that couples would go for a walk as a kind of date. But then they would end up at the bar of the Cattleman restaurant to have the free fried chicken, and she was too young to go to a bar. When Anita thought of her future, she thought of driving a red sports car, a Convertible. Of wearing a bikini and playing volleyball on the beach. She thought of having a boyfriend who was bland and blonde and looked like no one she had ever actually seen in real life.
It had been an hour now. Everyone was walking in the grey. It was the normal way to live. You go to work and then you walk. That’s what life is like. Sometimes, people stopped at coffee shops and ate the bowl full of free pickles placed on each table. Then they’d have a rice pudding and coffee or hot chocolate. That was regular life.
She stopped at a phone booth and dropped her dime. Canal 8-0151.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I am going to be late.”
“What are you doing?”
“My school is at the museum.”
She walked into the lobby of the hospital. It was grey and somewhat dank. Worried faces on overdressed bodies paraded the hallways. The wooden walls had photographs of men shaking hands.
“Carson McCullers please.”
The nurse was young. She seemed to be from another place, like the middle of America, where skin was naturally rubbed pink and girls put blue on their eyes.
“How do you spell that?”
“M-c-c-u-l-l-e-r-s.” It was an unusual name, not like Luigi or John.
“Are you a family member?”
Stepping out onto the 6th floor, Anita passed the rooms, almost all with doors slightly ajar. One was packed with a raucous family. Three generations. They had brought their own food and were telling jokes and laughing. Another held an orthodox Jew, with a long yellowed beard. He was lost. Whoever was in the bed didn’t have much to say. His hands were opened in prayer.
“What do you want from me?”
The next room had a young white man. He sat in his gown in his chair smoking, looking out the window. He saw Anita and looked into her eyes, just the way she wished her father would. He was the loneliest man she had ever seen. He was so lonely that he didn’t even wave. He couldn’t try anymore. He had to sit there and listen to the families and the lovers and the people cracking jokes trying to make someone else feel good. Then she realized, that someday Anita too would be in a hospital. Who would be sleeping in the chair by her side? She had better learn now how to tolerate loneliness, so that later, when she needed to, she’d know how. She had to get to a place where other human beings would be unbearable. She’d be better off without them. That was the only way to go, it seemed. She’d better be prepared to lie in that bed. She’d have to learn how to dream. Or smoke.
Room 6k was painted a pale sea foam green, the color of their gym suits at school. Anita walked in quietly, moving gently towards a lone tiny figure, barely a bump under the sheet in the bed. Death was alive in the finished body before her, face transparent, her teeth protruding, hands clawed, her eyes glazed, staring at nothing and then adjusting as that nothing opened its heart to an unknown young girl, brown hair in a ponytail, wearing a shirtdress, tights and penny loafers. Carrying a book. A grim little girl, a sad girl, a smart little brown-haired Anita. A Jew. The old woman smiled, someone was there!
“Excuse me,” the shy, bold child said frightened of her own daring. “Are you Carson McCullers?”
“Yes.” The voice was gravelly, hoarse, used, disappointed, broken.
Anita had not planned what she was going to say.
“Mrs. McCullers, I love you.”
“I read Member of The Wedding and it changed my life.”
“I love you too,” Carson said, slowly. She could not lift her head.
“Even the first line is amazing,” Anita said. She lifted the book. Opened it. She knew the line by heart, but reading it gave an extra layer of feeling. “It happened that
green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.”
“You see.” Anita explained, and Carson looked her right in the eye with kindness, that listening kind of understanding that the young girl craved. Carson gave her forgiveness for having barged in. She gave Anita a silent compassion and the recognition that there was something special in her that required rules to be overlooked. “It’s the word crazy that tips it.” Anita explained, comfortable. Finally, in with her own kind. “Anyone can say that it was a green summer, but to say that it was a green and crazy summer… Well, the whole world opens up and becomes filled with those dark, sad feelings of girls being alone, being too bright for their time and no one loves them.”
“Thank you so much, “ Carson said. “I am very tired now. I want to go to sleep. Will you read to me?”
Anita sat down in the big chair next to the bed. It was so wide it would have held the fat man from 11th Street, and her feet did not touch the ground. She started reading from the end.
“The world was now so far away that Frances could no longer think of it. She could not see the earth as in the old days, crackled and loose and turning a thousand miles an hour, the earth was enormous and still and flat. Between herself and all the
places there was a space like an enormous canyon she could not hope to bridge or cross.”
Anita understood her feelings in the process of speaking. That’s what writers do, isn’t it. The discovery is in the writing. How had Member of The Wedding changed her life? It made her want to be a writer. That was it, after all, what brought Anita to this bedside. To become…a writer.
She would be a writer and sit behind a desk in a grey flannel skirt suit, cigarette burning in the glass ashtray. She would be famous and she would be loved. She would see what no one else would see and everyone would be glad about it. They would want to know. Normal people get invited to parties, just because they are there. But Anita would have to be special. Those were the facts and she had to face them.