Gradient

Summer's End

          Green Mountain blackberries freshly picked in August provide the makings of a pie more highly prized by many folks around Saint Albans than a hogshead of pure Vermont maple syrup. The trick is to obtain a batch ripened to the full before that occasional early frost kills them, one week can make all the difference between a delectable feast and a ruined summer. It is evident from the crescive chill in the afternoon winds that Francis Griffin’s Great Aunt Pilsey dispatched him for the vaunted berries on a propitious Saturday morning.

          Before arriving in Saint Albans a week ago for the funeral of his great uncle, after whom he was named, Francis had lived all his nineteen years in the high rise apartment dwelling at 884 Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Like most New Yorkers living in the seemingly interminable row of Riverside high-rises, Francis is more provincial than other Americans, even the Green Mountaineers who are his own age—a fact that this New Yorker, like most, is oblivious to.

          Pilsey had made blackberry pies in August for her husband Francis every year for the thirty years that they had lived in Saint Albans, and now that he is gone she would certainly have had no heart for baking were it not for the company of young Francis, who, after due consideration in a family council last weekend, accepted an amicable arrangement that thenceforward he should stay with his Aunt Pilsey, especially to help her get through the winter, and then next year, after he has established residency, he would attend the state university in Vermont.

          Having delivered the baskets of blackberries to his aunt, now busy in the kitchen rolling out dough for crusts, Francis has used the pretext of getting out of Pilsey’s way to wander about town. His excuse was to visit the downtown bookstore. His affection for Pilsey was genuine enough, and the opportunity to attend college in Vermont was certainly incentive enough, but no one in his family suspected his ulterior motive for readily acquiescing to the plan that he remain in Saint Albans after his relatives departed for their several journeys homeward.

          Francis aspires to be a writer. It remains a mystery how this came to be for a boy whose Manhattan playgrounds have ever been the concrete parks scattered throughout the brick and mortar jungle adjacent to the Hudson River, a jungle congested with motorized metal beasts and human vermin. The sky-less world of his youth produces no dearth of crabby sharks, clever shysters, common hustlers, dopers, panhandlers, streetwalkers, and every other type of ne’er-do-well; as well as the usual measure of hard-working, mostly honest, low-life’s and urban dreamers. To be sure, some have aspired to join the noble ranks of poets and artists, but as yet, none of note, known to Francis, has accomplished so much as a cheesy paperback or third-rate gallery opening.

          When Francis graduated from the Bronx School of Science, the Griffin family was put on notice that one of their own stood a chance to advance through the college doors recently opened in America to members of their race, especially the lower orders in it; it does not matter to them what degree Francis might seek, nor could they guess what secret bucolic dreams motivate his love affair with books. No one save Francis knows that for him living in the Green Mountains brings him a giant step closer to the world of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Frost—to the land of dreams and fantasy whither his soul has long yearned to venture.

          Unbeknownst to anyone in Manhattan Francis submitted back in the spring a short story of his, his only one to date, to The New Yorker. Undoubtedly such temerity in a literary juvenile would have been greeted by his Riverside Drive peers and associates with dismissive silence or even ridicule. Francis himself expected nothing more than an unceremonious rejection, but convinced by the hard-edged ethics of the streets where he roamed he was committed to paying his dues, to taking some “licks of ye olde black snake,” as his Uncle Francis was wont to say about the business of work and living. And now, distanced from the fierce New York streets, Francis believes it an opportune time for him freely to explore the mansuete world of poetry. For a long time he has known that his life furnishes him with stories to tell, but amidst the hurly burly of his city life he held his most tender feelings at bay because he thought them too deep and fragile to be plumbed and rendered into the mellifluous meters of poetry.

          The Book Den is a typical Vermont cottage industry, a store operated from the back of a white clapboard house owned by a retired schoolteacher, a venerable Saint Albans matron named Edith Baldwin. She greets Francis with the same friendliness with which she welcomes every visitor to her home. Francis buys one book, The Poetical Works of William Henry Drummond, copyrighted in Canada in 1926. Somewhere he read once that the measure of a poet’s greatness is his ability to enter and faithfully recreate places and lives remote from his own. To Francis’s way of thinking the frayed and yellowed volume of Dr. Drummond’s poetry recommends the poet as a voice from another time, and the sounds of Canada celebrated therein have for this Manhattanite the romantic charm of an unspoiled world, those tractless areas that subliminal memory recalls.

          With Dr. Drummond’s book of poems tucked under his arm, Francis soon enters Bernardinelli’s Eatery, the oldest restaurant in Saint Albans and the one most frequented by both native Vermonters and the many transplanted Canadians who own probably half of the dairy farms surrounding the town.

          From an execrable silence come over Bernardinelli’s Eatery when Francis enters one might suspect the place is unexpectedly visited by a miscreant ravenant from Colonial times. At the wraparound counter up front sit young Jean Louis Hertout, a callous mountain ruffian his friends call Louie, and his notoriously sanguinary boon companions, all of whose supercilious eyes are glaring disapprovingly at Francis. From various tables peer about a dozen pairs of eyes, some merely disconcerted, some merely intensely curious, none welcoming.

          Betty Tudor, the waitress behind the counter, is positively livid, she rolls her eyes to express outrage at the nerve of “a nigger” to come into an establishment where, as far as she is concerned, only decent white folks are welcome. She, like everyone else in Saint Albans, has known for years that a colored couple lived downtown, but they had always had the decency to stay in the closet, so to speak: the only public place they were known to socialize was the Methodist church where they belonged, which was alright with Betty and most other folks in town who are Catholics or Episcopalians like Betty.  In the face of Francis’s perceived effrontery Betty abruptly turns her back to him and ostentatiously lavishes her attentions on her sometimes boyfriend Louie Hertout, who accommodates her by fondling her derriere like it is a loaded pistol.

          Since the War Between the States no prudent colored man in America would fail to divine the meaning and severity of the situation Francis now faces; it is the unmistakable “Nigger Beware” symbolized by many prominently displayed Confederate flags. The malleable Negro retreats, the uppity one resists. Upon surveying the eyes in the room, a defiant Francis decides to seat himself at a corner table next to the big window facing the street, and despite Betty’s pointed rejection he settles in, sans food, and occupies himself in reading his newly purchased book.

          Presently, the smattering of regulars in Bernardinelli’s ignore Francis Griffin and return to their quiet Saturday afternoon repast, but not the passel of young bucks at the counter within whom the ferment and asperity of youthful bigotry is working headily. Instinctively they turn to their host, Joey Bernardinelli who is working the register as well as occasionally waiting tables: You’re not going to let that nigger sit there, are you Joey? demands Remy, the shortest in stature by much but unarguably the one with the biggest mouth. Being the proprietor of his own fledgling construction company, Remy fancies himself an up-and-coming member of the Vermont gentry, or will be if he can get his company bonded and then secure the contract for the new Saint Albans water treatment plant; that is, if Hertout’s granddaddy, the Congressman, can get Congress to approve the budget with the necessary grant money in it. In the election of 1964 it was Remy who founded the Young Americans for Freedom and commandeered the others to join in supporting Goldwater by relentlessly assailing them with the slogan In your heart you know he’s right!

          Joey Bernardinelli is a Republican mainly because his father is not and his older brothers are Democrats. He runs with Hertout because they each have Corvettes and fathers from “the old country,” and it enables him to escape his family’s obsession with the family business. His father does not understand his youngest son’s aversion for business, especially since Joey doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do. It doesn’t occur to him that Joey resents it that his father pays him at age twenty-two what he paid him at seventeen, or that Joey thinks that baby brothers get no respect from any quarter in the family. Joey complains to Remy: You know my dad, he’s got no politics, he’d sell his soup to anybody who’s got the money to pay. Truth is, Joey Bernardinelli is no more a politician than his father, Goldwater had made sense to him merely because Remy and the others were so gungho.

          If Joey won’t do nothing, urges Larry Sackett, then the rest of us sure as hell ain’t goin’ to sit still for none of this here nigger’s attitude shit, right Remy?  Of the four men now gathered at the register Larry Sackett is the only one whose father does not own one hundred acres of Vermont land. His father is a machinist at the dairy owned by Louie Hertout’s family. Larry, with no car of his own, drives his father’s new International Harvester pick-up truck, and he works for Remy’s construction company, serving as sometimes carpenter, henchman, and all-around lackey. His hatred of colored people is both genuine and obligatory, sort of like Remy’s only less political and more visceral.

          Similar to an officially dispatched work crew Remy, Sackett, and Louie Hertout in the lead set out to menace and eject Francis Griffin. They get only a few steps when they stop in their tracks, their intent stymied by the supervening entrance of Edith Baldwin accompanied by the universally admired raven-haired village beauty, one Suzanne Bissonnette. The combination of these two ladies is enough to make torpid the most hot-headed or hellish enterprise of Green Mountain boys. Edith Baldwin taught ninth grade English to the whole assembled crew. All of Saint Albans, even Hertout’s Congressman grandfather, regard Edith Baldwin as a paragon of virtue and symbol of rectitude.  Moreover, not only is Suzanne Bissonnette the smartest English major Edith has ever sent to Bennington College, and not only is she the daughter of the best known surgeon in town and the granddaughter of the doctor who delivered the infants Louie, Remy, Sackett, Bernardinelli, and Betty Tudor, she happens also to be the unresponsive polestar of the romantic affections of practically every Green Mountain boy under thirty in Saint Albans, including most especially Louie Hertout.

         

          As Edith and Suzanne seat themselves at the table in the corner opposite the one where Francis sits, Edith calls out to Joey, Joseph, is Anthony out back this afternoon? He answers, Yes, Mis’ Baldwin.  Italian wedding. Edith says, Two bowls, please Betty.  And some pumpernickel.

          The presence of Suzanne always drives Betty into a baseless snit, for she regards Suzanne as a rival coquette too snooty to regard Betty as serious competition for Louie’s attention. But Betty will not dare risk a slight to Edith Baldwin, so without even an “harumpf” she exits to the kitchen to fetch Edith’s order. Remy and Sackett withdraw sheepishly to their former places near the register, while Louie advances to the ladies and proffers a tentative greeting: Mis’ Baldwin.  Mis’ Bissonnette, hope to see you at the Grange Hall dance tonight.

          Suzanne is not enough of a country coquette to tease Louie, or any other suitor, with ambiguous sparking banter, so once again she meets Louie’s overtures with unvarnished rejection: No, Mister Hertout, you will not, I have other plans. A dejected Louie turns away and rejoins his friends who pretend not to have noticed the rebuff of the one they deem to be the master of their Green Mountain revelries.

         

          In two weeks Suzanne is scheduled to return to Bennington for her last year of college. Working weekends for Edith Baldwin this summer of 1966 has been a labor of love. Edith needs the help more than Suzanne needs the money, but money pales in comparison to the compensation Suzanne has enjoyed from perusing Edith’s collection of books and taking lunch with Edith at Bernardinelli’s on Saturdays. And little does she know that today will turn out to be the heyday of her undergraduate years. During lunch Suzanne does not notice Francis who sits behind her reading silently. Edith, however, notices the young man with his head buried in Dr. Drummond’s poetry, presumably having finished his meal.

          While she is waiting at the register as Edith pays their bill, Suzanne looks at Francis for the first time and their eyes meet. So penetrating is their perfervid gazing, so inenarrable is the mutual delight kindled within their breasts, it is no wonder that everyone in the restaurant takes note of what is happening. In that moment the throbbing longing that is pure love springs to life within Suzanne and Francis; the palpable ache of desire which radiates from them creates a momentary tableaux of them and the witnesses observing them. Who is that? Suzanne whispers to the silence. Edith, herself a striking beauty in her youth once thunderstruck by unanticipated love at first sight, immediately recognizes this phenomenon and understands the irresistible obligations imposed by the situation.  Come, she says, let me introduce you. And she leads Suzanne over to Francis Griffin’s table.

          When they have approached near enough for conversation Edith speaks to Francis: Hello again, Mister Griffin, I see you have started in on Doctor Drummond’s poetry, I hope you are enjoying it.  Hesitantly, Francis turns his gaze away from Suzanne towards Edith to respond: Yes m’am, it’s pretty good. Edith continues: Mister Griffin, may I introduce Suzanne Bissonnette. She’s working for me this summer, and like you she’s very fond of poetry.  Suzanne, may I present Mister Francis Griffin of Manhattan, he is the nephew of the late Francis Griffin of Saint Albans. Francis starts to stand up, but Suzanne restrains him: No, no! No need to rise, we are just leaving. To Francis Edith says further: Suzanne is an English major at Bennington College.  And to Suzanne she adds: Mister Griffin plans to go to college here in Vermont next year. My guess is that he will probably be an English major himself.

          Not wanting the encounter to end too quickly Suzanne asks: And so, have you read anything you like especially? Why yes, Francis replies, I was just reading one poem that struck me . . .  Reading the situation expertly, Edith interrupts: See here, Suzanne, I’ll just run along and wait for you back at the store. Good day, Mister Griffin. Without waiting for a response Edith summarily departs.

          Suzanne and Francis, enraptured with one another, pay no attention to Edith’s departure. You were saying? Suzanne continues. May I sit down? Francis utters an eager Please. Suzanne pulls a chair from the table and sits on the edge of her seat.  Evidently, like moths drawn to a flame, the young couple are devoting themselves to the mysterious thermodynamics of ethereal passions.

          Well, continues Francis, there is this verse I like: ‘So line up and try us/Whoever would deny us/The freedom of our birthright/And they’ll find us like a wall--/For we are Canadian—Canadian forever/Canadian forever—Canadian over all.’  It’s called ‘Canadian Forever’ and I like it!

          Again Francis and Suzanne, for an inordinately long interval, gaze silently into each other’s eyes and find themselves tumbling weightlessly head over heels into what feels like infinite space. For that attenuated moment their utter fixation on one another occludes the shafts of putrescent looks sallying forth against them from unclean eyes observing them.

          Unleashed by the benison of white heat they feel inside, the two liberated souls coalesce like the stress of a song. Breathlessly Suzanne intones her new friend’s name: Francis . . . Francis . . .; likewise Francis responds, Suzanne . . . .  Another long interval ensues before Suzanne, flushed though now awakened to her public environment, continues in a confidential manner: Have you read D. H. Lawrence? His poetry? He is really special. Though I don’t actually write poetry myself. Do you write poetry? Francis blushes, and says I want to.  Enthusiastically Suzanne suggests: Then you must read D. H. Lawrence. Tell you what, walk me to my car around the corner and I’ll let you borrow my copy of his poems. I’ve been carrying his Collected Poems around with me lately. Anticipating that Francis will demur, she encourages him with an urgent Please, I want you to.

          Francis is so spellbound by Suzanne’s dazzling obsidian-like eyes that he obeys her like an automaton and rises with her to leave, both of them oblivious to their own hammering hearts and to the gloom-woven ambience then dominating Bernardinelli’s Eatery.

          During their brief walk Suzanne and Francis agree on a plan that will serve their mutual interests: Francis will keep the book until next Saturday when he will bring it to The Book Den at Suzanne’s quitting time, after which they might get a bite to eat (in Francis’s mind, somewhere other than Bernardinelli’s). When they arrive at her car, Suzanne writes her phone number in the book and gives the book to Francis. Again they linger unashamedly fondling each other with their eyes. Finally, Suzanne says: There is a poem on page 605 that I hope you will like as much as I do, it’s entitled ‘True Love at Last.’  At that, she slips away into The Book Den, and Francis walks aimlessly back in the direction from whence they came.

          Whether it be the leonine spirit of such a one as Louie Hertout who regards conquest as the highest expression of the mythology of his manhood, or the lycanthropic insanity of a rabid overseer like the diminutive Remy, or the inveterate propensity for mockery and viciousness in the ursine breast of Larry Sackett, the consequences of their impassioned individual or collaborative endeavors will ever be preternatural evil. Enraged by a perceived insult to the superiority of the white male, they leave behind the more pacific Joey to his cash register duties and proceed in a huff to Sackett’s truck and remove the twelve gauge from the rack, and now all girt in arms and hell-bent on “satisfaction” they reconnoitre downtown for their detested colored prey.

          If the bastard’s on my side, hand me the shotgun, says the driver.

          Sitting between Sackett and Remy, Louie leans forward to open the glove-box where Sackett’s father keeps his ammunition. I’ll hold the shells, he says. He takes two shells from the box. Fucking nigger’s got his fucking nerve!

          Stroking the barrel of the shotgun like he is masturbating it, Remy, tight-lipped and red-hot, mutters: Fucking nigger bastards all go ape-shit when they get around a good-looking white bitch.  Fucking nigger bastard. Give me two of them shells.

         

          Sackett bangs on the steering wheel with his fist and shouts: Did you see how that black ass pickaninny looked at her?
 

          Louie responds: I ain’t going to let no nigger get away with this shit. I’ll kill the fucking bastard!

          Remy looks Louie in the eye: And you ought to slap that bitch around!  

          Louie and Remy respond in a chorus: Fucking eh!

          In short order Remy spies Francis up ahead on his side of the street near the entrance to Bernardinelli’s Eatery. There he is, pull over! Sackett wheels the lumbering behemoth of a truck to a screeching halt up on the curb nearby Francis, forcing Francis to leap aside for safety.

          You want to go for a ride, nigger? Remy calls out to Francis who can see that Remy is clutching an upright twelve gauge.

          Louie leans past Remy and yells out the window: So you like white girls, is that it nigger?  Well, you can kiss your black ass goodbye.

          Instinctively Francis begins to back-pedal.  Remy points the shotgun directly at Francis who, seeing the weapon pointed at his head, whirls and starts running away. Sackett crawls up through the driver’s side window and stretching his torso above the cab shouts after Francis: Don’t let us catch your black ass downtown after dark, you fucking nigger bastard!

          Francis does not tell his Aunt Pilsey about the events of the day. All she knows is that her nephew had a big appetite when he arrived home late that Saturday afternoon; he would eat half a blackberry pie before going to bed. Despite his rude inauguration into the ways of the Green Mountain boys, it is his encounter with Suzanne Bissonnette that most occupies his thoughts during the coming week. 

          To be sure, he immersed himself that next week in the poetry of D. H. Lawrence and quarried from thence sources for dreams and inferential constructions of new realities. The poems, particularly the one that Suzanne had recommended, changed him into another man. Whereupon his vision became clearer; the Cimmerian black that was theretofore the seeming color of his tomorrows brightened into that fulsome hope implicit in the rays of the rising sun. As improbable, indeed miraculous, as it might seem, Francis and Suzanne were in love, and during the coming week Francis felt his soul sanctified by the knowledge of this as though it had passed through a refiner’s fire. In the end, even the threats of the Green Mountain boys could not dissuade Francis from going to meet Suzanne at The Book Den on the next Saturday.

          He figured the cover of night might in fact provide some protection for him when the time came for him to walk the half mile or so from his Aunt’s house to the bookstore. Once there, he figured he could rely on the security of Suzanne’s car for their transport. He did consider taking along his late uncle’s .45 automatic pistol, which he had seen amongst his uncle’s WWII memorabilia in the basement of the Griffin home, but then on Saturday morning he read some more of Lawrence’s poems and concluded that such a consideration ill-suited a true servant of life.

          And then after the mail came Francis was elevated to a mood that obliterated his fears and buoyed his heart into celebration and awe. There came in the mail a letter from The New Yorker. His submission was accepted for publication! Francis was now giddy, his metamorphosis was complete: he was now a man whose soul was soaring fetterless on the unfluctuant winds of love and the unreturning tides of creative aspirations.

          And so, Francis walked downtown thinking only of Suzanne.

          No matter how chary of his well-being his guardian angels may have intended to be that Saturday, at the same hour that Francis stepped off his Aunt Pilsey’s porch the unholy trio of Sackett, Hertout, and Remy happened to be cruising downtown in Sackett’s truck, newly bedizzened with bellicose decals and a Confederate flag. When they descried the dark-skinned figure moving alone through the gloaming, they pursued him a-purpose.

         

          While some few brave souls like Harry T. Moore, Medgar Evers, and Emmett Till have become icons in history and the national conscience, unnumbered others, like Francis Griffin, failed on a day to arrive at their intended appointments leaving only some few true lovers to cherish their memories.

Published by The Plentitudes.  April 2021.