"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 27, 2012

Growing Up On Commonwealth Avenue

There may have been a reason behind Barky Hampstead’s stubbornness, but we never found out what it was.  He kept pissing on Mrs. Helander’s petunias and swearing it was the cat even though she yelled at him every time she saw the perky little blossoms brown and droopy from his urine.  “Now, Barky”, she would threaten, out on the front lawn in her smock, apron, and mules, yelling across two neighbors’ yards at him.  “Don’t you dare do that again, or I’ll tell your parents”.

“But I didn’t do it”, said Barky. “It was the cat”. So Mrs. Helander crossed the two yards and banged at the screen door of the porch.  Barky’s mother, dressed to kill by comparison to the dowdy Mrs. Helander – tailored suit, silk stockings, high heels, and stylish hat – opened the door.  “Why Mrs. Helander”, she said, “What on earth is the matter?”

“It’s your…your….”., Mrs. Helander spluttered, ready to spit out “vile…uncontrolled…nasty….intemperate” but settled simply on “your son”, this being a very quiet corner of New Brighton, Connecticut in 1948 where bad adjectives stayed indoors.  As much as she hated Barky’s mother – more because she was his mother than anything she had done herself (bringing this wild wretch into the world was a sin in itself, an original sin on Commonwealth Avenue) – she could only be polite.

Mrs. Helander loved birds and watched lovingly as a robin nested in the mountain laurel outside her kitchen window.  “Look at the lovely little blue eggs”, she cooed, for a moment forgetting the hellion at her side.  The next day the eggs were gone, and she found what was left of them, gooey and drying on the basement window, shards and fragments of the eggshells littering the window well where toads, hopping in the same petunia patch that Barky had watered, had fallen down the three feet to their doom, and where their bones were littered.

Mrs. Helander, a good Catholic nearly choked with rage as she sat in church behind the Hampsteads and watched evil Barky, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer, walk solemnly up the aisle to the communion rail. “No confession can cleanse that boy of his sins”, she hissed to Mr. Helander, who was nodding off.  “He has the devil in him, and only an exorcism can cure him; and maybe not even that”.

The Hampsteads became an obsession of Frieda Helander, especially Barky’s mother who left the house two times a week looking like the cover of Collier’s, all gussied up, putting on airs, sashaying down the walk to her Desoto, a car that they certainly couldn’t afford, not on a shoe salesman’s salary.  “Bleeding that poor man to death”, Frieda thought, “and for what?”.  She had plenty of ideas such as steamy assignations at the Burritt Hotel.

“You always look so lovely, Mrs. Hampstead”, she said one summery day.  “I wish I had your sense of style”.  She smiled, but her insides were all grimace.  The smile felt stretched and false, the tilt of her head a bit too perky, and it took every ounce of self-control to keep her from yelling and spitting at her like at Hester Prynne – adulteress, fornicator, seed of Beelzebub.

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Helander.  It’s nothing really, just something cool but stylish for a warm afternoon”.

“Why that bitch”, Frieda thought.  “Right out of Gone With The Wind.  ‘Something cool but stylish’ indeed.

“I’m going to play bridge.  Do you play bridge, Mrs. Helander?  If so, you might like to join our little group.”

“Of course I don’t play bridge, you presumptuous twit”, she thought to herself, “And neither do you!”; but instead demurred, thanking her for her interest, searching for a quick repartee, something insinuatingly nasty but not too obvious, but failing dryly, mumbling something about biscuits and Harry, her husband.

“Well, then”, said Mrs. Hampstead, “I’ll be running along.  Oh…before I forget, could I ask you a small favor?  Keep an eye out for Barkley.  He’ll be fine, I’m sure.  He’s up in his room reading comics, and I’ll be back before you know it”.

The scythe of the Grim Reaper had just come a little bit closer to this corner of New Brighton.  The skies had noticeably darkened.  Frieda looked up at Barky’s window, opened halfway.  A light breeze blew across the honeysuckle bushes by the back fence and carried a sweet perfume over her, ruffled the curtains, and softly entered his room. “How could such a beautiful expression of God’s grace end up in that vile demon’s den?”, she wondered.  She was a very religious person, but felt tested every day by the Hampsteads.

Laura Hampstead did, in fact, have steamy assignations every Tuesday and Thursday, but not at the Burritt.  She drove the five miles to the Berlin farmhouse of her lover, a very youngish retired doctor who managed an apple orchard off of Route 72.  His family had money, so at 50 he got divorced and decided to pack in the house calls and rounds at New Brighton General Hospital, and do what he had always wanted to do – grow things.  He bought the orchard from a Polish family who could not keep up the payments.  The orchard, cows, and chickens could not cover the mortgage and pay for the essentials.

The doctor had fixed the place up, turned it into a rustic Currier & Ives print.  It was so quaint and perfectly New England that you could almost see the sleighs, the horses, and the hounds.  Except that it was located in the Connecticut equivalent of Crackerland – a rural, run down, poor corner of the state where old goats and broken roofs were the rule; and upscale, seasoned wood-and-maple, hearth-warmed, houses appointed with Goddard and Townsend 18th Century cabinets were the exception.

Laura Hampstead was Dr. Moore’s tart.  She was dimwitted and slow, except in bed.  She was much younger than he, and her youthful and boundless sexual energy kept him young.  He couldn’t believe his good fortune – his reputation in the community was unimpeachable since he was a scion of one of the First Families of New Brighton, the ones with second homes on the Vineyard, large but tasteful residences on the Park, and memberships at Harthaven Country Club.  As a doctor – a working professional contrasted to the genteel no-need-to-work First Families – he had a universally untarnished reputation; and what’s more this double-whammy of a pedigree insulated him from the usual gossip.  “So what if Dr. Moore has a tart visit him every Tuesday and Thursday”, the First Families said.  “He deserves it”.

Mrs. Barkley was of course not a tart.  She was simply sexually charged, and the thought of her shoe salesman husband, coming home smelling of feet and leather, was enough to make her retch.  Even at her most needy, she had to bring herself off, turning to the wall away from her snoring husband, curled in a fetal position, exciting herself until, despite her effort, bucked and moaned when she came.  Her husband, opening an eye, pulling himself awake after feeling the rocking and shaking of the mattress, never guessed what she was doing and only spluttered something incoherent about chicken or Florsheims.

It wasn’t long before Laura Barkley came on to the good doctor.  She had gone to him just before he retired, and loved his strong hands on her as he palpated her abdomen, or rubbed her neck, trying to diagnose what he thought had to be psychosomatic ailments of the beautiful Laura Hampstead.  The ailments were not psychosomatic in the true sense of the word, but they were inventions to get his hands on her in as many different parts of her body as possible.  Since he was a good and responsible professional, he dismissed any thought of sexual overtures, but since he was divorced and ready to start a new life, he gave in, saw her complaints as what they were, and invited her to his newly-renovated farmhouse. 

Their sex was heroic.  Dr. Moore had no idea that this is what sex was all about.  Although his wife was nowhere near as stagnant and unresponsive as Laura’s husband, sex with her was almost as perfunctory; and, unlike Laura he remained a good sexual spouse until not long before their separation.  ‘Money hath its privileges’, he knew, and he could change wives like Henry VIII just because he was tired of them. 

Dr. Moore and Laura Hampstead were simply acrobatic in their lovemaking.  She was insatiable, coming three, four, even five times, each loudly and ecstatically.  It was good, the doctor thought, that they were way out in the country, for her screams and howls got the dogs barking in the next farmyard a quarter of a mile away. 

Meanwhile, back on Commonwealth Avenue, Mrs. Helander waited with fear and anxiety for Barkley Hampstead to get tired reading Captain Marvel, and to come out into the summery afternoon.  Every day it was something different.  One Tuesday he and an equally vile friend blew up Mrs. Fox’s trash can with explosive fireworks that he had saved from the Fourth of July.  They were the kind that went off underwater, so he sneaked around the side of Mrs. Fox’s house, filled the old zinc trash can full of water, dropped in three XXX Ashcans, and scurried behind the hedge between the two properties to watch.

In about ten seconds, there was a massive explosion, a great, thudding boom as the water in the trash can expanded, burst its seams, and blasted up and onto Mrs. Fox’s porch.  All scraggly-looking and dressed only in a ratty bathrobe, Mrs. Fox, yanked awake from her afternoon nap by the explosion, threw open the upstairs window and hollered, “Goddam you, Barkley Hampstead.  Goddam you!”.  But she, like Mrs. Helander could do nothing.  Mrs. Hampstead, if she was not off fucking her doctor, was at the beauty parlor or actually playing bridge; and Mr. Hampstead was so tired and dispirited by his horrible job of fitting New Brighton matrons with ugly shoes, that he simply didn’t give a shit about his son

Another day, Mrs. Helander heard the anguished cries of the Potters’ cat which Barky Hampstead and his vile band were chasing with a hoe, hacking away at it as it scrambled over the rose garden, under the privet hedge, and up the oak tree.  It was so badly mutilated that Mr. Potter had to take it to the Animal Hospital where, Mrs. Helander supposed, it was disposed of because she never saw it again. 

Barky loved rock fights, and he taunted the neighborhood kids to engage him.  They went up to the new road that was being built behind his house, squared off, and fired.  Barky practiced his throwing every day, knew exactly the size, heft, and feel of the best rocks – the ones that would fly most true and do the most damage.  One Sunday morning in church, Mrs. Helander noticed Billy Henninger with a great big, egg-sized, tumorous-looking bump on his forehead.  It was all purple and yellowish, with red streaks.  Dr. Moore had had to sew up split scalps and the ragged cuts which Barky, alternating between the round, symmetrical rocks for raising welts and the jagged, slimmer kinds that curved and slashed, inflicted on cheeks, arms, and heads.

In short, my little corner of New Brighton, so bland and conservative on the outside, was nothing more than the usual, predictable mess of rumor, lies, innuendo, sexual doings, indifferent husbands, and irremediably bad kids. The saga of Barky, his parents, Mrs. Helander and the rest eventually came to a close.  Barky got hauled off by the New Brighton police.  There were no progressive social service agencies in those days to ‘understand the needs of troubled youth’; and Barky got locked up in reform school.  His parents did not protest.

The torrid affair between the doctor and Mrs. Hampstead ended, as most do; and when he got tired of his tart and sent her packing, he found another lover.  So did she, but when the comatose Mr. Hampstead finally realized what was going on, they moved to another state, leaving Barky to finish his sentence in Meriden. 

By the time of this dénouement, Mrs. Helander was too old to care; but she did appreciate being able to walk into her back yard, smell the lilacs, honeysuckle, and roses without the menace of Barky Hampstead.  The neighborhood changed – new residents, some additions to the older houses.  It became more uniform and predictable.  Fewer Barkies and more serious college-bound students. 

I once told my son about the rock fights with Barky Hampstead.  “You actually had rock fights?”, he asked, incredulous but with admiration.  “Yes”, I said. “But that was a long time ago.”  

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