Authors: Scott Spencer
Tags: #ebook, #book
I confessed it was me who’d started the fire while I was in the Jackson Park Hospital. (The Butterfields were being treated in the same hospital but I shared my room with strangers.) I told the first people I saw the next morning, which means that in the ambulance, the emergency room, and all through the night, while I drifted in and out of consciousness, I concealed that central fact. But when “I woke the next morning to find my parents sitting in folding chairs—Rose with her legs crossed and her fingers drumming on her patent leather purse, and Arthur with his large head bowed and needlepoint drops of perspiration in the bands of scalp that divided his thinning hair—I cleared my throat and said, “I started the fire.”
They both sat up and looked at each other, and then Rose leaned forward, pursing her small full lips and shaking her head. “Shut up,” she whispered, and she glanced with conspiratorial panic at my two sleeping roommates. But I wasn’t about to leave myself open to the horrors of detection and from that moment began a process of confession, defense, and punishment that was to dominate my life for years.
My father is what people call a “left-wing lawyer.” By 1967, both he and Rose had been separated from the Communist Party for fifteen years, but he was still a left-wing lawyer—meaning that he would never defend a rich man against a poor man and he didn’t charge his clients fancy fees. Arthur aged faster than he should have from the long hours he put in at work. He often stayed in his office until midnight and once—this was a story Rose liked to tell about him—the lightbulb in his desk lamp popped and went black and Arthur continued to sit there in his feeble, whinnying swivel chair writing down on his long yellow legal pad an inspired line of inquiry he wanted to pursue in an accident case. He was afraid that if he got up to switch on the overhead light, he might lose the rhythm. The next day, checking over his notes—now if this were a joke, they’d have been nonsense or illegible, but the three pages of blindly transcribed ideas were perfectly readable and absolutely essential to the case. It wasn’t something as bloodless as addiction to work that made Arthur put his whole heart into every case: Arthur truly longed to defend the weak against the strong. He wanted this more than money, more than glory, more than comfort. Sometimes his passion to save his clients destroyed him in court. He often grew angry and his voice would crack like an adolescent’s if he sensed a case slipping away from him.
Arthur wanted to handle my case, just as a surgeon would need to perform a vital operation on a loved one. But this was clearly out of the question: with the charge of arson and reckless endangerment wrapped around me like a hideous ceremonial robe, I certainly needed someone more plausible to plead my defense than my own father. Arthur had done his share of favors, and when it became clear that the full complexity of wrongdoing was to be mine to untangle, two of his friends stepped forward and offered to take my case for free—Ted Bowen, whom I’d known all my life, and Martin Samuelson, who was treated by my parents as a transcendent hero of intelligence and nerve, a dialectician
a man who could quote Engels with the same lyrical brilliance as he could cite Hugo Black and whom my parents, in a holdover from their Party days, considered more important than they themselves, so that his interest in my case was greeted with stunned gratitude.
Briefly, the sequence of events was this. I was arrested in the hospital and placed, without hearing, in a juvenile detention center on the West Side. There was a great deal of haggling between the police, the district attorney’s office, and my lawyers over what my legal status was: the question was if I would stand trial as an adult or be treated as a juvenile offender. I was seventeen and Martin Samuelson—this was his major effort; he soon wearied of the case and he especially grew tired of me—was successful in defining me as a juvenile so my fate would be decided not before a jury but in judge’s chambers. By now, I was out of the juvenile detention center and undergoing a marathon sequence of psychological examinations—they seemed to be a mixture of Scholastic Aptitude Tests and the kind of baffling, embarrassing questions a cornball pervert might ask a child in a schoolyard. I gave my impressions of inkblots, added columns of three-digit numbers, identified pictures of Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy, and answered True or False to questions like: “I feel I go to the bathroom more than other people.” I went through this process of psychological testing twice, the first time at the hands of a court-appointed psychologist. Then Ted Bowen arranged that I’d be retested by a private psychologist. This was Dr. White, a gentle old man with conjunctivitis. (Dr. White was the first doctor I’d ever been to who wasn’t a personal and political friend of my parents: the Party created its share of internists and dentists but few psychiatrists.)
All the while, I was in my parents’ custody. It was the autumn I was to begin college. A few months before, I’d been accepted by the University of California, but since Jade was still in high school and bound to stay in Chicago, I had switched my choice to Roosevelt University, which was hardly a place to study astronomy but
in downtown Chicago. It didn’t matter any longer; I wasn’t going anywhere. I was told by the police, the psychologists, the lawyers, and my parents that I wasn’t under any circumstances to even try to make contact with Jade or any of the other Butterfields. At the outset, this wasn’t a difficult rule to follow. I was incapable of even imagining what it would have been to see them after what had happened. I had no illusions of their sudden compassion or their willingness to see through the act I’d committed to the innocent, lovesick spirit that had triggered it. I could not stop hoping that Jade would contact me, but she didn’t, even though it would not have been that complicated to do so.
One day I forced myself to walk past the house in which I’d lived so deliriously and which I’d set on fire nearly causing the death of five people. The police had tied a cord from one iron porch banister to the other and from the center of the rope hung a printed sign warning people to keep away. Astonishingly, the house still stood and aside from the broken windows seemed unchanged—except it was no longer brown and white but a deep fuzzy black. The porch was gone, the wizard-cap peak of the attic was half collapsed, but other than that the Butterfields’ was structurally intact. At first, it was a relief to see this, as if it might help me begin to fill the immense emptiness that I’d created within myself that August night. But that relief was more wished for than felt, just as the wish to see a departed lover will trick you into seeing her on the street. In fact, it was a thousand times more painful that the house still stood—for it stood not as a reprieve from absolute loss but as an accusation. I was, I knew then, a member of a vast network of condemned men and women: romance had taken a wrong turn within me and led me into mayhem. I was no better than dialers of anonymous phone calls, hounders, berserk pests, ear severers, committers of flamboyant, accusatory suicides, hirers of private detectives, or a medieval king ready to deploy an army of ten thousand souls in order to gain the favor of a distant maiden—and when the fields are scorched and the bodies lie in heaps beneath the sun, the king will clutch his breast and say: I did it all for love. The relief was gone and I stared at the house and wept—though I hardly knew I was weeping because I’d done little else but weep since the day after the fire, as I suppose anybody in their right mind would.
Of course, the question of whether or not I
in my right mind was central to my fate. Though my lawyers, like my parents, viewed psychiatry as a kind of high-priced astrology, their dedication to my cause led them to discuss my circumstances as if I was totally victimized by the irrational navigation of my unconscious.
My mother, however, whether out of guilt or rancor, wanted my defense based on the fact that the Butterfields were strange people and as such deserved to have terrible things happen to them. As Rose’s theory went, the Butterfields could no sooner hold me responsible for what had happened that night than a host who makes a guest falling-down drunk can hold that person responsible for a piece of broken china. The Butterfieldian
had been my downfall, according to Rose. This included Jade’s prescription for Enovid, and the fact that when I began spending nights in that house it was decided that Jade wasn’t getting her sleep and (in an appallingly democratic family meeting) this was solved by getting us a double bed, a used bed from the Salvation Army which we sprayed for bugs and drenched in Chanel No. 5, a bed with rollers on its legs and that moved from the east wall to the west when we made love. Rose would have given anything to prove that the Butterfields were “on dope” the night of the fire, but I never said a word about it.
My mother was prepared to subpoena half of Hyde Park to testify against the Butterfields. I tried to mock her out of this idea but I think I knew even then that there were hundreds of people who found Hugh and Ann unsavory. Ann herself told me this. Once, taking a casual stab at ordering her unraveling life through religion, Ann attended services at a nearby Unitarian church. Though the adults in the congregation were strangers to her, she said she could feel their eyes on her when she entered and heard them whispering about her. “Distinctly,” said Ann, “I heard them distinctly. I’m not the sort who imagines things like that. There’s no profit in my believing such a thing. But I heard it quite clearly.” I told her she must have been stoned or having a reaction to Unitarianism and the foolishness of religion (I was the household’s official radical, so I could say such things). But Ann was probably right; even though she didn’t know those Unitarians, they knew her and they
judging her. They were the parents of kids who’d used the Butterfield house as a hangout, who’d run away from home and slept on the Butterfields’ couch or in the back yard, or who had learned how to smoke and say
at the Butterfields’. Or perhaps they were the neighbors who had seen the lights blazing in that lovely house, burning through the summer nights and mellowing into the dawn—to this day I cannot see electric light easing into the fresh day without feeling I am standing in front of the Butterfields’, gliding home after making love. And when Mrs. Who- Ha came collecting for the March of Dimes and saw Ann flat on her back listening to Tibetan ritual music, with a big square candle burning in the middle of the day—oh boy, did that get around. Everything did. The fact that Hugh and Ann had gone to Ivy League schools and had come from what we call “good families,” carried, as it turned out, a lot more weight with me, the son of lifelong Communists, than it did with anyone else. I thought that Hugh and Ann’s inherent respectability, their lean bodies and strong bones, their straight teeth, straight hair, and the incurably upper-class
of their voices would protect them from a lot more unwholesome gossip than it did. In fact, though they had very little money, their “breeding” may have left the Butterfields open to an unkinder scrutiny than they might ordinarily have had to endure.
It’s a measure, I think, of “my side’s” moral disarray that Rose’s suggestions were taken seriously. I don’t know why, but my parents and the lawyers still seemed to hold the hope that I’d be judged innocent. Not only did I refuse to testify that the Butterfields were the immoral, freebooting scum my mother described them as (“Immature, subjective jackasses—even the children are immature”) but I didn’t have any desire to be judged innocent. I don’t mean to make myself sound more calculating and self-possessed than I was (it had been a month of sweating and weeping; there were teethmarks at the top of my bedsheet and a drawerful of unsendable letters), but I
to be punished. I knew the fire was accidental but it was not as accidental as it should have been, and I wanted some agency outside of all of us to intervene and take over the job of making me suffer for what had happened. I thought my fate in the hands of the police and the courts would drain some of the vividness from the hatred the Butterfields held toward me. With someone else to punish me, someone else to say I was bad and unfit to live with decent people, then Jade and the rest could allow themselves to drift toward the other side, my side, to stop punishing me in their hearts.
So I would not say that the Butterfields were on acid that night and I would not volunteer anecdotes about the far-flung Butterfieldian lifestyle. Ted Bowen, a lawyer very much like my father, with his sturdy amber teeth, peppermint breath, and the one long uninterrupted eyebrow growing from temple to temple, arranged for a private meeting with me. He took me to a working-class cafeteria on 53rd Street and, in a long speech that was both tender and formal, informed me of the consequences of a guilty verdict. He described juvenile detention and the humiliations I might suffer. “These are guys from the bottom of the heap, David. Simple socialist theory will tell you what that does to a person. They have nothing, they believe in nothing, and they’ll kill you for a half of a cigarette.” Then he leaned forward and gave me one of those I-wouldn’t-be-telling-you- this-if-I-didn’t-think-you-could-take-it looks. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about homosexuality.…” And with that his voice trailed off and his eyes looked so sad and so astoundingly serious that out of sheer nervousness I smiled.
When I thought of how I’d set fire to those newspapers on the Butterfields’ porch, it seemed fair (that is, not cowardly, not evasive) to say that I wasn’t in my right mind. And the root of this temporary insanity? Clearly, it was my love for Jade—a love blocked and turned frantic by my banishment from the Butterfields’ house. Love, that is to say love thwarted, severed me from my senses. The fire was not mischief, not hatred, not some crazy act of revenge.
From the time I learned to love Jade and was drawn into the life of the Butterfield house, straight through to the wait for my case to come before the judge, there was nothing in my life that wasn’t alive with meaning, that wasn’t capable of suggesting weird and hidden significances, that didn’t carry with it the undertaste of what for lack of anything better to call it I’ll call The Infinite. If being in love is to be suddenly united with the most unruly, the most outrageously alive part of yourself, this state of piercing consciousness did not subside in me, as I’ve learned it does in others, after a time. If my mind could have made a sound, it would have burst a row of wineglasses. I saw coincidences everywhere; meanings darted and danced like overheated molecules. Everything was terrifyingly complex; everything was terrifyingly simple. Nothing went unnoticed and everything carried with it a kind of drama. This agony, this delight did not recede when Hugh told me it would be best if I kept away from Jade for a month, nor did it quiet down after the fire and the weeks I spent in limbo—not knowing what was going to be done with me and, above all, not being able to see her. But the actual decision by Judge Rogers slipped by the perpetual watchfulness of my overstimulated consciousness. I had no idea that a ruling was near, and the whole affair was suddenly (“I guess we were lucky,” said Rose) decided behind my back—a deal between Ted Bowen, the district attorney, and Rogers.