by Robert St. John Gray (1952–1952)
You were so anxious to leave the womb, your last refuge. Eight months of preparation, you felt, was sufficient. You’d been promised to your sister for her seventh birthday, three weeks hence. But you had no intention of fulfilling someone’s doll fantasy. And you were sick of nicotine and alcohol streaming through your veins.
You imagined a small silent voice intoning: Out there is jazz; in here is smoke, a crowded theatre. To stay is to suffer the slow boil…
So you kicked and squirmed—froggy you!—broke the waters and slithered out. It seemed so easy. A droplet riding a wave, propelled toward a glistening shore…
Not like you had a choice, but you failed to anticipate the world you plunged into, a bigger version of the body you left behind; the source of its toxic smoke, chaos of sounds, tight tension.
Blinding light, cold air, rough hands pulling… Snip! For a moment there is shock, fear… even, might I say, a first taste of indignant anger, as the cord is cut from the center of your being. Then—Wham!—comes the doctor’s hand on your little red bottom. Whack! Slap!
You screamed, as our mother would say, like the dickens. They calmed you down with a little suckie, your first and only.
Next, the stinging silver drops in the eyes… No pain, no gain, get it?
More injuries followed these insults. The coup de grâce, a hot slash to slice off the end of your lightning rod—snubbed in the bud, like a chick beak trimmed for the poultry farm (read: the slaughterhouse). A parting jab from a needle, to seal the deal.
Yell all you want, thrash with your buttery limbs, it’ll get you nowhere. At age six they’ll have to call in reinforcements to hold you down. Say bye to Mommy, is the message you hear with each assault. They’ve got you now.
Breathe… breathe again… it hurts.
You knew your rights to complain, and exercised them to the hilt. But you were not to expect that spongy breast again: it was just a taste, one you would have to do your best to forget. It was off to the incubator for you… the repurposed fish tank for rude little brats who had to learn how to wait their turn.
* * *
You’re on your own, now. The circle of love broken, you will learn the principles of autonomous throughput: manufactured nourishment, the anal sphincter, your own thoughts to kill.
Cry a little, they won’t hear. And these other crybabies around you, such entitlement. You will refrain.
If this is the way of the world, you comprehend, you will have to make your own way in it: to find your own home; to peel back the layers of the self; to find out who you are.
What else is life for? They say there are dragons of death just beyond the gates; winds of fate to blow your gains away; a trail of broken hearts, your own included. And just when you think it’s all peachy, watch out.
Looking out for number one, you’ll follow the sun.
You’ll get used to moving on. You’ll change hats, coonskin to fireman to soldier, emulating those you look up to. In the meantime, don’t despair…
Breathing, still breathing, after all your hoarse cries, take comfort in the intuition that you will continue.
As with every waystation on the road, you’ll blow this pop stand soon enough.
* * *
Mother awaits, in the pea-green visitor’s room; her aching breasts still bound, drying up. You’re in your glass box behind antiseptic walls, squirming your legs, sensing her proximity. She barely registers the magazine on her lap, the Atlantic of July, 1950. Its stories convey either retrospectives of the last big war (“The Torpedoes that Failed”) or anxieties of the one to come (“H-Bomb: Too Damn Close”).
Mid-month, mid-year, mid-century: the watershed where you begin; the divide between a past that isn’t yours, and an onrushing present history. This wave will carry you beyond the heavy seas of our parents’ generation, over the boiling reefs of Bikini Atoll—with the great god H-Bomb casting its long and awful shadow across the waters—on a quest for some more tranquil, provisionally safer harbor. And while Mom and Dad will always seem to be looking over their shoulders, haunted by what lies behind, you will find the freedom to move faster, go farther.
In hometown Baltimore, you ride in the back of the old Packard with dusty upholstery cruising past brick rowhouses with backyard clotheslines block upon block, smokestacks fuming over the steelyards, dogs barking and electric streetcars rattling and air conditioners humming, faces beaming toward their next appointments past storefronts stocked with synthetic goods of every description.
In the postwar fifties, America moves on from “a chicken in every pot” to a TV in every living room; a washing machine, dryer and automatic dishwasher in every home; a car or two, and maybe even a boat, in every garage; a busy lawn mower roaring over the uniform grass. These are the first fixations of every housewife, of the corporate-happy husbands who pay the bills, and of the gleeful four children, two boys and two girls, who dive under the gaudy Christmas tree and tear open the wrappings from a cornucopia of presents preselected from the Sears catalog.
Yet the shine on each year’s holiday gifts wears thin. Batteries run out, plastic parts break, and novelty gives way to boredom. Enter fresh desire for coming attractions, piqued in larger doses by persistent ads through the dozen daily hours of TV and radio programming, on billboards lining the concrete highways, in newspapers and magazines delivered to every door. The cycle of your discontent is set in motion.
* * *
Beyond the flatlands and foothills of the Eastern states, the comfort of the family station wagon, you will blaze your own path to the storied West, with its real mountains to climb, nature’s streams to quench your thirst. Your gypsy ways will guide you to find roots deeper than your era, deeper than the twentieth century, deeper even than civilization. To taste fresh animal flesh and blood; to sink fingers and toes into the soil.
After forty-five addresses, you will still make rare visits back to Baltimore, where the folks have settled in a smoke-stale apartment across the street from Artie Donovan’s liquor store. There our mother will muse to your wife, “Goodness, sometimes I have to wonder, is this really my child? Where did this guy come from, anyway?”
But I get ahead of myself. Anyway it’s your story to tell, bro. I’ll see you on the other side.