6: a separating or dividing into parts for detailed examination
WHERE WERE YOU when Kennedy was killed?
It is destined to become the most famous question of the last decades of the twentieth century, but Leo Green can’t answer it to anyone’s satisfaction, let alone his own. He is already dead to himself by the time the President’s open limousine makes its way from Love Field into Dallas . . .
He is nineteen years old, a sophomore at Colonial College, one of those small elite New England men’s schools that would go co-ed at the end of the sixties, and he has no idea what is happening to him. The truth is, he’s in the depths of a debilitating depression—a term he’s always associated with United States history, economics, and the stock market crash of 1929. Yet no one applies that term to his case, nor does he ever think of applying it to himself. A “nervous breakdown” is what one had in those days, but he’s never known anyone who’s had one, except for an old friend of the family who owns a local garage and had so many cars to work on that he became unable to pump gas or even check a customer’s oil. Leo can pump gas, if he has to, or check the oil on his father’s old Chevy. The problem is his mind. It is hamstrung, stuck in the past, even as he functions like an automaton in the present. His past has become his present, his present his past. He can no longer concentrate or put two thoughts together or remember anything he’s read or said. He spends his days watching himself watch himself. And now it’s November and he is paralyzed by an all-consuming, hyper self-consciousness that overcomes him the instant he wakes in the morning and leaves him only when he manages to escape into sleep.
On the day the President flies to Dallas Leo Green doesn’t shower or shave—he hasn’t shaved in weeks—although unshaven students are not at all unusual at elite New England men’s schools in the early sixties. But his crew cut has grown out and he looks ragged, unkempt. He hasn’t laundered or ironed his khakis. And the button-down collars on his wash-and-wear shirts remain unbuttoned. His eyes are hollow and underscored with purple. He looks haunted and avoids all mirrors or any dark campus window that might give him back his own reflection. He avoids his roommate as well (Chad, from California), keeping to his own bedroom off their shared living room in Porter Hall. When choosing socks from his dresser drawer finally proves impossible—he just sits there, staring at the tangled pile of mismatched socks until he hears Chad’s alarm go off (he’s been sitting there, in fact, since long before daybreak, the campus quiet and black)—he abandons socks entirely, like the wise-ass prep school guys who just wear penny loafers.
This devastating condition, whatever it is, begins in late September, which seems eons ago, when Leo changes his major from general studies to pre-med and back again. It’s a simple move—a matter of getting his adviser to sign a drop form after that same adviser has signed an add form—after a few long labs in organic chemistry convince him that he’s made a mistake. He could never master algorithms (or is it logarithms?) in high school, but assumes that the higher purpose of pursuing a medical career will do it for him now, enabling him to handle the math necessary for organic chemistry. But it doesn’t—hadn’t—although he tries only for a few weeks before fleeing to his adviser in a panic. And then a certain subtle sadness falls over him, settling into his head like a bad idea, like an inkblot that metastasizes into a creature with black tentacles, encasing his brain and gradually strangling it, leaving him in metaphysical despair. Since late September he is just going through the motions, pretending to be a normal sophomore, while spending every waking moment in a meticulous review of his nineteen years. He is reliving remembered scenes one by one, from his earliest reminiscences to the eternally tormented present, hoping unsuccessfully for a clue to—what? To the cause of his anguish, his mental derangement, to whatever can put an end to it. Including suicide. He’s already chosen the place and the method and marked his calendar for this weekend.
It is Friday, November 22, 1963, and from 1:00-1:50 P.M. Eastern Standard Time Leo’s general studies literature course meets on the second floor of Founders Hall, a veritable brownstone fortress on the eastern ledge of campus, overlooking downtown. The tables are arranged seminar-fashion in a large block letter O. As the professor takes his seat at the head of the formation, nearest the door, Leo slumps into a chair directly opposite. A tall window at his back offers a view of an American flag fluttering high above a local bank. A dozen students occupy the other chairs. The professor peruses the room as if taking attendance then turns to his text and his notes. It is 1:01. Leo is there but not there—there in body but drowning in darkness. The agony of his anxiety is greater than any physical pain he’s ever known, worse than the blood poisoning he contracts from climbing the ropes in his Toryford High School gym class:
Reach as high as you can and grip the rope with both hands. Loop it over your left foot and step on it with your right. Now pull yourself up—again and again. And
don’t look down!
At the top, where the fat rope hangs from the horizontal bar among the metal
rafters, he can peek out the windows below the ceiling. Glimpse blue sky beyond.
Glimpse the flagpole in front of the school, the American flag snapping in the breeze.
First one down gets an A for the day!
But in his haste to descend he abrades his left leg. A sliver of hemp embeds itself in the raw skin where his calves hug the rope. A few days later—in Latin—it suddenly feels as if his leg is lined below the knee with a long shard of glass. After class he hikes up his pants in the boys’ room and finds a red streak along his calf, like the stripe on the shorts of his basketball uniform. He tries to walk but the hot pain is excruciating. He hobbles to the nurse’s office, is made to lie on the cot. By the time his father arrives the leg is swollen to the knee. It is lanced in the Emergency Room at Bridgeport Hospital before its poison can rise to his heart.
The organ that beats but no longer feels.
(The doctor looks relieved. This could have killed you, son.)
Why should changing his major, then changing his mind, precipitate a crisis? He traces it to the first awkward awareness of himself in space and time:
He is in the back yard, watching the Sputnik make its way across the sky. The
stars are still out, the October dawn chilly and gray. And suddenly he sees himself as if from that satellite, the very first self-portrait of himself in the universe—puny and cold, in pajamas and bathrobe, his bare feet wet with dew. His slippers are on the back porch. He doesn’t want to get them soaked in the grass, for he is already awash in puberty, a prerequisite for melancholia.
Do they see it? his father says loudly. Do they see it? He is speaking for the
benefit of the neighbors, who are looking skyward in the wrong direction. His father
always plays to available audiences, much to Leo’s chagrin and embarrassment. It’s 359 miles away, he continues. That’s 577 kilometers. He’s the engineer now, self-taught, then night school, determined that his three sons, huddled about him with their gazes trained above, will do better. As the article he cuts from the newspaper and posts in the kitchen proclaims: TO EARN MORE YOU MUST LEARN MORE.
But Leo isn’t listening. Miles or kilometers, they might as well be light-years,
frozen as he is by the self image provoked by this winking, blinking satellite the Russians have launched, shocking the world. His eyes are tearing against the cold. But why bother? He is watching himself from an infinitely colder immensity. And it sinks him in sadness.
Time for breakfast, his mother says, herding them inside. You’ll be late for
school! Sputnik or no, her brood comes first. She’s standing on the top step of the small cement back porch, holding the storm door open. And so they hurry back into the warm and waiting kitchen.
The Russians are Communists, Leo’s older brother says. Isn’t that right, Dad? Lenny is two years older than Leo and toes the family party line.
You bet they are, his father replies. Behind the Iron Curtain.
Iron Curtain? It’s a term Leo doesn’t understand. He takes it literally, imagining a chainmail version of the Swiss-dot curtains in his bedroom separating foreign countries overseas. The concept is somehow connected to a strange float permanently parked by the side of the road at the north end of town—a flatbed wagon with a graveyard of white crosses on a green rug, sporting a red banner warning of Communism, with a clenched fist and hammer-and-sickle. Every year on Memorial Day Old Man Nemergut hitches that float to his tractor for the parade down Toryford’s Main Street. One year, marching with the Cub Scouts, Leo follows right behind it, carrying the American flag at the head of his unit. He can almost reach out and touch those white crosses. After the parade he asks his father about the float, but his father dismisses Old Man Nemergut as a kook.
Dad, Leo asks now quietly, sliding into the breakfast nook opposite Lenny and sleepy-eyed Larry, what d’ ya think Mr. Nemergut would say about the Sputnik?
He feels a burning need to know. The Sputnik, by causing him to stare into outer space, reduces him to a cosmic dust mote. He is studying the solar system in junior high. He makes a model out of wire coat hangers and balls of different sizes—ping pong balls, tennis balls, Whiffle balls—to show the distance of the planets from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. Earth comes third. And now the Sputnik’s whirling round it. And the Sputnik frightens him. The Sputnik is Russian and the Russians are Communists. In school they have to do drills in which he crouches under his desk and holds his hands over his head. And on television there are ads showing windows exploding and drapes billowing and red arrows spreading across a map of Europe, and—
Leo, his mother says. Leo!
What? His fork is poised mid-air.
But it is his father who answers: Eat your scrambled eggs.
“Well, men, as you learned from your text’s preface to the Romantic Period, in the 1800s England is changing from an agricultural society to an industrial society, and many people—certainly those with poetic sensibilities—are finding that events are
transpiring too rapidly for the adaptive powers of the human psyche . . .”
Leo is staring into space. At the Sputnik. The what? The human sigh key. Yes. That’s exactly what he’s looking for. The sigh key. The key to that deep unconscious breath that’s so expressive of sadness. What—where—is the sigh key? He grimaces in an instinctive reflex of self-deprecation. But for the moment it connects him to the class. He reaches into the pocket of his khakis for a pen, but he hasn’t brought one. No textbook, no notebook, either. But it doesn’t matter, because he’s suddenly certain that the sigh key begins earlier than the Sputnik, causing this disposition from outer space, this penchant for emotional turmoil, this psychological ambush visited upon him for changing his major and then changing it back—this sudden sense of overwhelming sadness that has brought him to the edge of an abyss.
The sigh key is not the Sputnik. It’s earlier than that. It’s Miss America. He’s convinced now that it has to do with the Miss America pageant. His family watches it every year when he’s in elementary school. It becomes an annual family event, just like the Fourth of July, a consolation at the end of summer—right around Labor Day—as Lenny and Leo and Larry get ready to return to school, two grades apart. They gather around the flickering black-and-white television screen in the living room and everybody picks a contestant to root for. Leo always choses Miss Connecticut, the home state favorite, regardless of the other 47 contestants. Lenny is more selective—Miss Idaho! he says, and Larry says, Where’s Idaho? The contestants parade in their ball gowns, the names of their states emblazoned on bright sashes, left to right, shoulder to waist. Leo’s mother oohs and ahs at their shiny, bouncing hair, something her own hair never does, despite all the containers of Breck in the bathroom closet. His father hopes every year that one of the pretty contestants in the talent segment will play the banjo, the instrument he strums in blackface each winter in the Toryford minstrel show, the town’s surefire fundraiser.
Leo is awed by the glitz and glamour of the Miss America pageant, by the secret love he harbors in his heart for Miss Connecticut. When she speaks in the interview segment of the competition, her voice transports him. He wishes he could be one of the orphans to whom she plans to dedicate her life. And when Bert Parks croons his famous song after the announcement is made—Therrrrrre she is, Miss Amerrrrica!—and the winner walks along the runway with tears streaming down her face, even if it isn’t Miss Connecticut, Leo feels his heart will burst. His scalp shivers. He chokes back his tears so Lenny won’t make fun of him. He knows Miss Connecticut is older than he is, but it is the emotion of the moment that ravishes him.
He sighs, turning his head to wipe his eyes, so Lenny won’t see him and laugh. He is wondering if Nancy Kane, across the street, is watching the Miss America pageant too. If she will one day compete for Miss America. Nancy is in the eighth grade. She is Richard Kane’s older sister. She wears her dark hair like Buster Brown in the shoe ads on television. Her brother Richard is two years older than Lenny and therefore four years older than Leo. Nancy seems old enough to be Leo’s mother. When Leo goes to Kindergarten she plays his mother in the annual Christmas tableau at school. Nancy sits in a rocking chair before the fireplace, Leo in his pajamas on her lap. His Kindergarten teacher, Miss Bassett, strips him to his underwear to dress him for the part—right in front of the class! After which he dreams that he is caught naked in the coatroom.
One afternoon Richard Kane shows Leo his sister’s room. Nancy is out, his
mother is in the kitchen, his father at work. This is where she puts on her make-up, Richard says. They are standing before the mirror on Nancy’s vanity. And this is her powder-puff. He takes the lid from a small round jar. He lifts the soft bag within and pretends to dab his cheeks. Then he gets an idea. Come on! he cries. Leo follows him downstairs to the kitchen. Richard’s mother is now out on the back porch, hanging laundry from their clothesline. Richard motions for Leo to be quiet. He reaches into a cabinet and grabs a bag of marshmallows. They powder their cheeks with the marshmallows. Then they hide in the bushes out front to surprise Nancy when she returns. Richard’s mother is more amused than Nancy, who screams at Richard for invading her room.
On another afternoon they find a dead bird and Richard presides at its funeral. He puts the bird in a shoebox. Then he digs a hole, deposits the box, and tells Leo to be quiet. He says a few words in a serious tone. He covers the box with dirt. That’s all Leo remembers about Richard because the Kanes move away that very summer. But one day a few years later Leo’s mother informs them that Richard is dead. His speeding car strikes a telephone pole. He is as dead as the bird in that shoebox. (As dead as Leo feels now.) He is just sixteen years old. Which means that Nancy is at least twenty now. Old enough to vie for Miss America. But is he too young for a romantic relationship?
“Your introduction, men, also delineates the elements of Romanticism. And for your next paper—due next Wednesday before Thanksgiving break—you will explore those elements in a poem of your own choosing from the text. The first element, of course, is a love of nature, which is easy enough to discern, since so many of the poems focus on a solitary figure in a landscape. There’s always a lone individual in a natural setting, and that person’s often an outcast, or a rebel of sorts, someone in tune with—and infused by—a kaleidoscope of emotion . . . ”
Leo is in the office of Mrs. Ogilvie, the Housekeeper at Bridgeport Hospital. He is interviewing for a summer job in a kaleidoscope of emotion. It is the spring of his junior year at Toryford High School and he needs to save money for college. As the newspaper article his father cuts out and posts in the kitchen proclaims: TO EARN MORE YOU MUST LEARN MORE.
Mrs. Ogilvie is a short woman in her sixties. She dresses all in white like a nurse but wears no nurse’s cap. Her small mouth is a perfect oval of bright red lipstick. Her eyes are piercing and dark. Leo stands tall before her, hands clasped behind his back.
Yes, Lionel, we have an opening for a—
I’m called Leo.
As in Leo the lion?
Yes—my favorite kid’s book. Actually, my older brother should’ve been named Lionel, after my father and grandfather. Then he would have been called Leo instead.
Mrs. Ogilvie seems curious, intrigued. And why is that?
His name’s Leonard. L-e-o . . .
My father named him after Major General Leonard Wood. Dad was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood when he was in the Army during the war, but he never had to go overseas. Which is probably why Lenny and I—and our younger brother Larry—were born in the first place. Most of Dad’s unit never returned.
And why am I rattling on like this, for Chrissakes, Leo is wondering. (He is infused by a kaleidoscope of emotion.) This is a job interview! But he feels a need to explain, because he absolutely hates his name. How many people do you know by the name of Lionel? He is thankful for his nickname. Nevertheless, every year at the beginning of school, all the way back to Kindergarten, he shudders when the teacher calls the roll, because as soon as she gets to the G’s and says Lionel Green, the class erupts and the mockery begins: Lionel! Lionel! The only Lionel he’s ever heard of is Lionel Hampton, the black jazz artist who plays the vibraphone. (It’s a good thing he’s on the basketball team and not in the band.) Fort Leonard Wood is responsible for his very existence as well as his name. And his father won’t ever let him or his brothers forget it—all because his father knows how to type. How many times have they heard the story? After basic training the C.O. says: Can anyone here handle a typewriter? His father raises his hand, is sent to an office, and plunks down behind a desk for the duration of the war, ensuring the next generation of Greens—and Lenny’s first name. It is Lenny who gives Leo his nickname.
Leo pauses. Mrs. Ogilvie says, Leonard Wood was a doctor, you know.
No, Leo says. I- I didn't. I just know that he helped Teddy Roosevelt recruit the Rough Riders. My Dad told us about that.
Mrs. Ogilvie smiles. Leonard Wood won the Medal of Honor. He was to be
Roosevelt’s political heir. But he lost the Republican nomination to Warren Harding, on the tenth ballot. And for the record, young man, I think Lionel is a very nice name.
But Leo doesn’t. Come to think of it (right now, in Founders Hall, on Friday,
November 22, 1963, 1:09 P.M. EST), it might be the sigh key he’s looking for—the
source of his all-encompassing, hypersensitive paralysis. The source of his sadness.
I was about to say, Mrs. Ogilvie continues, we have an opening for a wall-washer. She likes something about this handsome young man, the way he stands at attention, his eagerness to explain. If it’s still open when school lets out in June—and if you’re still interested—the job will be yours.
I’ll be back, Leo says. You can count on it. In fact, I was here once before. In
the ER, just last year. I almost lost my li—leg.
Well, then, Mrs. Ogilvie concludes with a twinkle in her eye. We can consider you experienced.