One of Lawrence Durrell’s endearing but confusing little literary tricks was inventing a character who was a personification of a part of himself and then putting things in his mouth that he, Durrell, could not say straightforwardly -- most strikingly, criticisms of Durrell which no one else could make because they wouldn’t even know about them. You might call them “crimes of consciousness” like knowing better than what one portrays, or being far more ambiguously opinioned about what one pretends to believe, or failing to say something that really OUGHT to be said -- not because of being stupid, but because of being afraid.
So I’m going to try this to see if I can make it work for myself. My character is an old woman named Scribble: overweight, thinning hair, cat-dominated and cat-hairy, living in a small village for her own reasons which may or may not include frank poverty. Seemingly isolated and friendless, she doesn’t hang out in the local cafe. Let’s address her directly.
“Scribble,” I say to her as she sits in an ancient armchair once belonging to her mother and incompletely slip-covered because she loses interest in all sewing projects about ninety-per-cent of the way through. “Scribble, why don’t you go hang around at the local small cafe? You know that would be one way to make friends and maybe even snag a boyfriend! Others have done it. Why not you?”
Scribble looks at me as though I’d gone mad. “I can only quote my mother,” she says. “When I asked her why she didn’t romance some gentleman in the declining years of her widowhood, some cultured man who would escort her to the symphony and buy her lovely meals.”
Of course, I noted privately, there is no symphony here that isn’t two hours’ drive away -- at least in Scribble’s failing old pickup. The meals would be nice were she not Diabetes II and all that.
Scribble went on, “My mother’s reply was that she refused to take care of some old man through his declining years, denying herself to keep the peace.”
I reflected. It seemed to me that our mother claimed quite often than she was “denying herself,” but what exactly was she denying? What was it she wanted and didn’t get?
“Some things are entirely private and secret,” she said. Hmmm. Surely she didn’t mean sex. It must have something to do with her ego. But this is supposed to be about Scribble and me. So what things do we keep entirely private and secret?
Scribble looks sly. “Of course, if I tell, it won’t be entirely private and secret anymore, would it?” I deduce that it MUST have something to do with sex. Or perhaps not. Maybe it was about reading, that most private and secret of pleasures. Maybe her finest moments of intercourse were reading books out loud to her husband when he was nearly blind. Especially the books that had characters with various voices that could be imitated, voices with foreign accents and so on. Maybe some of her finest moments of acting were lying nude flat on her back in bed, reading out loud to her lover from a book about frontier savagery while he laughed and chortled beside her, making the animals also in the bed turn over and sigh. Was it morning with light streaming in the window (which meant it had to be the weekend with no shop help coming for directions) or was it night with that ugly red-shaded wrought iron lamp perched on a TV tray for lack of a proper bedside table? Later she bought an unfinished small chest in the style of a military campaigner of the 19th century, a box with inset handles on the drawers. When she finished it, it was lovely. She should have taken it with her when he divorced her, but by then it seemed to really BELONG there, to be part of the room.
Were the sheets plain white or flowered? In sets or unmatched? Scribble thinks unmatched in flower patterns. I know they must have come from the Browning Mercantile his family -- all but him -- owned because one simply didn’t buy from any other place. I suddenly realize that I never bought ANY sheets in all the time I was there. My own bed was single.
Scribble says, “It was his mother who bought bedding. She bought an electric sheet which the young pet fox chewed straight across, electric wires and all. That was the end of it, of course.” Scribble did buy one thing: a lavendar corduroy bedspread to match the Ace Powell painting of Bob on the buffalo roundup that hung at the foot of the bed where they could look at it before sleeping. Ace was always one to make lovely gestures like that. Scribble notes that as Bob became more important and successful, he moved the painting away and spoke of Ace much less. He was becoming a snob then. Not endearing.
I wonder if that was really it. I wonder whether instead he was grieving, both for Ace and the roundup. He often hid his grief. That was HIS private and secret life that he never shared with anyone else, not even lovers, not even his mother. Because to live in the West in the middle of the Twentieth Century was to see a beloved world eroded and disappearing.
“Scribble, how many REAL Indians did you get to know?”
“You mean, the old people who were born before the buffalo disappeared?”
“Well, of course. What other Indians are there? THOSE are what we care about. Those magnificent weathered faces.”
“Very short-sighted and naive of you, I must say. There are ALL kinds of Indians, an infinite variety. Why can’t you realize that? Is it that you just don’t want to?”
“Well, that’s the way Bob was, too. And even Jimmy Welch.”
“You mean the novelist? Aren’t you speaking of him disrepectfully to call him Jimmy? Doesn’t that diminish his importance? Aren’t you pretending familiarity just because it makes you sound more superior, as though you could order him around?”
Scribble laughs drily. “You and your theories. I’m not even talking about the same James Welch. There were three, you know. You’re talking about number three, who went by James Welch, Jr. I’m talking about his father, technically James Welch, Sr., who was actually James Welch, Jr. himself, because HIS father came from the Carolinas and was largely Cherokee. THIS Jimmy Welch I’m talking about had a Blackfeet mother and was born on the Blackfeet rez, therefore was enrolled in that tribe. The one you’re talking about grew up on his mother’s reservation over by Havre but was enrolled here because of his father.”
“Oh, Scribble, you explain everything far too much. You were just going to tell me what this particular Jimmy said.”
Scribble sighs. “Yes. Some things are untold because I keep them private and some are because no one wants to hear them.” She sips from her mug, which is made by Laurel and has enough gold on it that it can’t be put in a microwave, but which has abstract profiles of Indians on it and therefore pleases Scribble who has a kind of “thing” about buying a new mug and a new bar of special soap when she goes someplace. But now she’s had this mug for a decade, since she moved back here and never leaves. The soap, of course, is long gone. But no one wants to hear all this.
“Jimmy Welch, who was in Bob’s class so was born in 1914, said that in his childhood in winter the old men would put on their capotes and walk down the board sidewalks together. Everyone would draw back and make room for them because they had such respect. And the men walked with enormous dignity.”
“So, Scribble, what year would these men have been born?”
Scribble is not good at math. But she calculates that if these were old men when Jimmy and Bob were maybe eight or ten, which would be 1924, then the old men -- if they were eighty -- would have been born in 1844. The prairie treaties were mostly signed in about 1850, so they really WERE warriors by the time they hit adolescence in 1860. But would eighty-year-old men be able to stride down the sidewalk? If they were tough enough to survive eighty years like those years -- well, the Twenties of this century must have been easy. But unreal.
Scribble laughs bitterly. “Well, of course, the next generation of old men was starved to death by the US Government, who put them on reservations and then failed to feed them.”
I don’t want to hear about it. “More coffee, Scribble?”
"Only if it's fresh and hot. No sugar."