Mister Micawber

A Life

 

I:  Bloomingdale

I remember the chickens. I remember the vast dingy whiteness of the birds in the run, and the white feathers fluttering on tufts of grass, adhering to wads of chicken manure, and flapping on the chicken wire. White feathers also, adhering to clots of blood, around the stump where Father occasionally beheaded one for dinner. Our chicken farm. The smell of uric acid, of wet feathers in a galvanized tub of boiling water, of mash, of mouldering straw.

Out from this vague reticulated whiteness across the dun of the rectangular hen yard: a gradual greening, a slow purification, where the chickens could no longer stray and peck and scratch, past the vegetable garden where vast rhubarb leaves lowered, and forgotten asparagus adorned with tiny metallic green bimaculated beetles feathered into the sky; past the apple orchard, through the raspberry patch, one row red and the other black but both sharp and grasping, and on down the path, as the weeds thickened and thrived, to the wide flat green cornfields, rising and darkening through the summer, where, in the far corners that the tractor could not plow and so remained in burdock and goldenrod and thistle, a brace of pheasant always raised their young.

Five hundred Leghorn layers. A couple of cockerels. A dozen little brown Banties, god knows why – maybe just to relieve the pallor. Along the side of the chicken house, a dozen hutches that sometimes housed meat rabbits. Some ducks for awhile, a gaggle of geese another time – still mostly white or grey, except for the old muscovy that never died and was never eaten, with his green head and ugly red wattles.

And sunshine, always sunshine, throughout the long hot summers, full of bugs, and the long cold winters, with the snow plowed up onto the shoulder so that passing traffic was only heard, not seen. It glared on the white feather drifts, it glared on the white snowdrifts, it shone and shone as we sledded and skated and made corn caves and ate green apples and captured hapless fireflies and fed the chickens and the rabbits and the calico cats and the succession of dogs that broke Mother's heart as they were struck one by one by passing traffic.

I cannot find a memory of the house inside. I suppose there was a kitchen, a living room, bedrooms. Where were they? Only cheap holograms remain. Mother I always see outdoors, in the chicken house tucking glass eggs under the setting hens, or loading egg cartons into the back of the woody for delivery, or hanging laundry out along the single long line that led from the corner of the house out to the great old weeping willow that dangled its roots into the septic tank for sustenance and where the starlings screeched and nested.

Father appears only as a cameo, with his axe and a frantic hen. In Chicago every day, he was selling vitamins to Purina. From the office to Purina to the chicken farm to the chickens, around they went, a helix of health through my youth, hurrying me along, oblivious to the past it was creating.

Hurrying me through the three successive rooms, one-two-three, of the schoolhouse, perched on a hill where the wind blew. Horned larks on the baseball field rise for recess and redescend at its end. Easter eggs in the tall grass, and who found the golden one? Growing, growing. The two Sandras, short sandy Sandra Timmins and her lanky namesake Sandra Smith – at nine they tried to kiss me but I played coy till the chase palled, though I still wished to be caught, feinting like a puppy hankering to play, long after they had wandered off to tea sets and four-leaf clovers: first intimation of my ignorance of women.


2:  Early Schooling

I cried piteously when I was taken to school for the first time. In a three-room country schoolhouse in a tiny village, where all twelve of my new classmates were familiar playmates, I sat and sniffled in loneliness, and the tears trickled down and down.

The second day, I found a sudden zest for schooling, and began with a will and a great burst of newborn personality, emerging like a papilionid from its pupal case into a multifaceted matriculation as class wit, clown and pet, as if from an overnight epiphany of this first tangible step toward adulthood and its business of antic distraction. Or perhaps as if fleeing some unarticulated horror.

The first day's tears, so promptly forgotten the day after, are what remain today, after all else, through sixty years of living, has been scraped raw and away: the undermost layer of my palimpsest, the longing for what would be no more though all the Universe unwind, when I left my mother's lap, awoke, and began this long deceitful road to nowhere.

First grade, third grade, fourth, fifth, sixthseventheighthnintenelvtwelve passing like clouds in a brisk airstream. Only the broad circling seasons remain – head-high winter snowdrifts, drifting elm leaves in the days of elms – their intensity has ensured their survival when synapses shrivel. Had I grown up in Florida I would have remembered nothing at all.

Let me concentrate. No, only disembodied images: a kilt, a water pistol, a butterfly net, a spelling ribbon. Nothing worth the telling, nothing worth the remembering. Nothing that brings a rush of old emotion rekindled as more recent memories do. Growing frantically, theotropic, I did not glance behind.


3:  Route 66

It is not even on the road maps anymore.

Fragments of the ancient paths of civilization – the Silk Road, the Appalachian Trail – remain as mute testimony to their long gone travellers, but Route 66, the old Pontiac Trail, which was paved as recently as the 1920s, has already disintegrated. Once, it eased its way out of Chicago down toward Springfield and on to southern Illinois before picking up speed, bearing west and heading across half a continent to California – from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean in one fell swoop – but it now survives only in disarticulated segments, like a serpent macheted by aborigines, and scattered cast brass markers reading 'Historic Route 66' inform the idle curious that here or there lies an isolated arc of what was once an artery of regional unity and interstate commerce between the Cattle Butcher and the Cattle. I finally reached Santa Monica, that western end of the road, in the 1980s, but the first 130 miles of it I traversed a hundred times as I grew up and it grew old.

Half a dozen times a year, weekends and Christmases and summer holidays, Father, amid shouting and confusion, loaded up the 1949 Chevy station wagon and we headed off from suburban Chicago for Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. With Father at the wheel, we two boys in back, already bickering about some damn thing, and Mom shotgun with the sandwich bag and thermos in her lap, the old woody picked up the Joliet Road south of Lyons, turned right and headed south. The Chicago suburbs, drab and dirty industrial areas and postwar tract houses, slowly petered out, until about Plainfield we hit Corn Country, and never left it again. Flat, green, unending, rolling across the broad anonymous farmland, we passed through our litany of tiny towns, modest waymarkers, rural pearls in the necklace of Route 66 – Gardner and Dwight, Odell and Pontiac, Chenoa and Lexington, and at last Towanda, the last village before our destination. Trivial names, they will remain nevertheless embedded in my memory until the very last neurons atrophy and expire. One-gas-station, one-tavern towns, Father needed one of each of these somewhere along the way, and it didn't really matter where, though we usually stopped in Pontiac, the halfway point. The rest of us needed clean washrooms more than once, but seldom got them: the driver was hell-bent for leather. Meanwhile, the boys in the back fought, played highway games – Roadsign Alphabet, Buzz – and waited impatiently for the next set of Burma-Shave signs:


She eyed
His beard
And said
No dice
The wedding's off
I'll COOK the rice

Burma-Shave


Substitutes
Can do
More harm
Than
City fellers
On the farm

Burma-Shave

 

Two grandparents' houses awaited us, one in Bloomington, one in Normal. The twin cities, now officially Bloomington-Normal, are host to Illinois State University in Normal and the national headquarters of State Farm Insurance in Bloomington. Grandfather Harper in Normal, professor of history at ISU and Grandfather Fuller, vice-president of State Farm in Bloomington: two more tales to tell, but that is another Unit.