Authors: James Jones
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Art, #Typography
The Merry Month of May
To E. C. Braun-Munk,
for absolutely no reason at all.
And to Addie von Herder, the
Baroness, who taught me all I
know about Europeans.
Oy vay, Addie!
ELL, IT’S ALL OVER.
The Odéon has fallen! And today, which is June 16th, a Sunday, the police on orders of the Government entered and took over the Sorbonne on some unclear and garbled pretext about some man who was wounded by a knife. There was some rioting this afternoon, but the police handled it fairly easily. So that is it. And I sit here at my window on the river in the crepuscular light of that peculiar gray-blue Paris twilight which is so beautiful and like no other light anywhere on earth, and I wonder, What now? The sky is heavy and low tonight and this evening for the first time from the end of the Boulevard St.-Germain and the Pont Sully the tear gas reached us here on the almost sacrosanct Île St.-Louis. I finger my pen as I look out from my writing desk, and wonder if it is even worth it: the trying to put it down. M. Pompidou said, I remember, that “nothing in France would ever be the same again.” Well, he was certainly right in regard to the Harry Gallaghers and their family.
I am a failed poet, a failed novelist; quite probably I can be, and am, considered quite rightly to be a drop-out of a husband; why should I try? Even the desire isn’t there any more. — And yet I feel I owe it to them. The Gallaghers. Only God knows what will happen to them now. And probably only I, of all the world, know what happened to them then—in the merry month of May. Most of all, I guess, I owe it to Louisa. Poor, dear, darling, straight-laced, mixed-up Louisa.
I first met the Harry Gallaghers back in fifty-eight, ten years ago. I had just decided to stay on in Paris, and was going about the founding of my Review,
The Two Islands Review.
Failed poet, failed novelist, recently divorced, but still a man of an unquenchable literary bent, I felt there was the room in Paris for a newer English-language review.
The Paris Review
of then, despite its excellent “Art of Fiction” interviews, and the excellence of George’s intentions, was fading away from the high standard it had declared itself dedicated to diffuse. I felt I could fill that gap. And, I did not look forward to returning to New York where although we had parted amicably enough, I would surely be forced by circumstances to see too much of my rich ex-wife at literary parties.
I went around to see Harry Gallagher and some others to see if they would consent to become among my backers. I had met Harry, and knew that he had money: an income; one a great deal larger than my own. I also knew that Harry—though professionally a screenwriter—had always stood up for the arts. I thought he might be willing to put a little money into a new review with the intellectual and artistic standards I intended to give mine. I was right.
Of course, it was the Prince Shirakhan who was the real “angel”. But if it were not for Harry and several other of my richer friends who put money in it first, the Review might never have come to exist anyhow. Without them, I might never have gotten the Prince.
I had already taken a flat on the lovely old Île St.-Louis. I found Harry was practically a next-door neighbor, living at the extreme and very chic downriver tip of the Quai de Bourbon; while I like a peasant only lived—though on the sunny side, it is true—at the corner of the Quai d’Orléans and the rue le Regrattier.
Why I, Jonathan James Hartley III, should have become the number-one friend of the Gallagher family I don’t know. We did not even run in the same circles in Paris. My social contacts were mostly literary. The Gallaghers ran mainly with the much wealthier and much more glamorous film crowd. That I—the reclusive, possibly austere, literary man—should become best friend of the Gallagher family has always struck me as strange enough: as if the paucity of their choice showed itself here more than anywhere.
Tall, bald, lean, Harry was a very intense man, with a long hatchet-face and tense narrow eyes, which carried a wry look about them that seemed more to be imposed on them from without than to come naturally from within. I don’t think he ever had any real sense of humor, as I do, for example.
At any rate, that is what I became: the best family friend. Their son Hill was just nine at that time. I became his special counselor and his confidant. Not that Hill needed one. And when their daughter McKenna was born in 1960, I was named her Godfather, and McKenna grew up to the ripe old age of eight holding me by one hand, so to speak. Hill was 11 when she was born.
I remember that I thought of them then, all of them, that they were
perfect happy-American-family: the one one hears about, and sees so often in the ad photos in
and in all the commercial magazines, but which one so rarely meets in life. Certainly there was absolutely nothing to indicate there might be deeper darker strains to their lives they might be hiding. And I am normally sensitive about people. I really did think of them as that perfect American family.
Now Hill is 19—now, on June 16th, 1968—and I don’t know where he is, and have not seen him since ten days ago, when in a numbed despondent panic he left Paris, he said, for good.
Poor Hill. When you know young people from the age of nine, much of the glamor and awesomeness of their young arrival at young adulthood, as well as its significance, are lost on you, worn away by simple proximity.
I think Hill was deeply affected by the birth of his baby sister McKenna in 1960. The experts all say that kids, especially only children, are always profoundly upset by the coming of another child to displace them as the center. But if Hill was, he never confided this to me. I remember he spent the several days of Louisa’s accouchement at the American Hospital staying with me in my apartment. Louisa was old-fashioned about things like that. But Hill took it all right in stride, if somewhat morosely. He said nothing to me about it then, at 11, except once. Sitting on the arm of my one big fauteuil at the window, he turned from watching the river and the barges moving on it, found me with his eyes, and, looking straight into my own, said enigmatically, “I know where babies come from. And how they got there. Don’t think I don’t.” I was sure he did. Confused and embarrassed, I chose not to pick up this 11-year-old gauntlet at the time.
I used to take him fishing. At that time, at age 11, it was down under the bridge on the Island. We would sit under the big trees on the big uneven cobbles of the lower-level walk that runs beneath the Pont Louis-Philippe and Pont Marie almost around the Island, where the picturesque old Parisian duffers spend the years of their retirement with long bamboo poles and nylon leaders, snatching panfish even in the worst rainy winter weather. Later on, when he was older, I took him out of town up the Marne, where we fished for perch and trout from a rowboat along the banks and between the grassy tree-studded little islands, in scenery that made you think of nothing so much as the nineteenth-century Impressionist landscapes of a Monet or a Sisley—a nineteenth-century landscape unchanged and, in France, rural France, hopefully perhaps unchanging forever.
I remember it was just such a warm sunny cloud-dappled spring day, in just such a nineteenth-century Monet setting on the Marne, that he brought up to me for the second time his sister and her birth and her life. He was 15 at this time and McKenna four. There was no question how much he loved her. There was no question how much we all loved her, the bright little thing, so perspicacious, with her dancing eyes and ready smile and her ardent curiosity about everything, like an un-sedate kitten’s. She had wanted to come with us, and had cried when Hill refused her on the grounds that she was too little and would be a liability and get in the way. She would not be a lia-blility, she said. I’m sure she didn’t know what it meant. On the river he had just back-rowed us in toward a grassy overhang held together amongst the parklike fields by the root systems of three giant oaks. “What do you think of the kid?”
“She’s a dollbaby isn’t she? Smart as a whip.” He did not look at me, and got his line out. “But they’re spoiling her already. She’s got to learn there’re going to be some hard knocks out there for her in the big selfish world when she gets there, and how to survive them. She can’t have her way all the time forever. I hated to do what I did, but I had to do it. She’s got to learn.”
I interpreted. He was apologizing, in case I had indicted him privately for cruelty, for what he had done.
“She’s got to learn,” he said again.
“I suppose so.”
Hill reeled in his hook and made a big thing about inspecting his bait, which did not need it at all. He tossed it back out. “I don’t like the way they’re handling her. They’re spoiling her rotten.”
“Well, I guess it’s pretty hard not to spoil McKenna,” I said.
“Oh, sure. But with them it’s something else. They give her everything she asks for, and half the time they anticipate, and give it to her before she even asks. They never should have had her.”
“What do you mean!” He had made me angry. I was shocked at him. I guess I loved my Goddaughter right then more than I had ever loved anything, as only a man can who has never had a child of his own and regrets it. And I suppose, now, that there was more guilt in my anger than I was willing to admit then, because I knew that Hill in one way was right.
“They should never have had a child at their age,” he went right on, not noticing my reaction. “They haven’t got the resiliency, the spiritual and psychological flexibility. They’re much too old to have a child her age.”
“Now, wait a minute!” I said.
“Then, there is a second thing. Why, they were about to break up, when she came along. And she sort of brought them back together. At least on the surface. Didn’t you know that?”
“No. I certainly did not,” I said, hollowly. I hoped he wouldn’t notice the tone.
With that adolescent insouciance? I could have saved my worry. “Oh, sure,” he said. “If they hadn’t had McKenna, they’d be divorced by now. I thought everybody knew that. And so now they treat her like she was some kind of a special, God-given event—a
event!—that came to them from heaven. And go on pretending they’re happy together. And meantime they’re ruining the kid.”
“Well, I think they
happy together. In fact, I know they are,” I said. “And I’m glad for
glad for them, and glad even for myself, that McKenna did come along and bring them back together. We’re all certainly a lot better off.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I think we’d all be better off if they’d divorced. Certainly it would be a lot more honest. I think she should have left him. If she’d had the guts.
“I love the folks, you know? Really love them, the poor sods. But they’re awful hypocrites, you know. Acting so lovey-dovey all the time. When I know better. I wonder what they say when they’re alone?
“And they’re teaching poor McKenna all that monogamistic-love crud. Teaching her she must keep her legs together. She mustn’t run around without pants on. Teaching her she mustn’t spread her legs on the couch and show her butterfly without pants on.”
“Good heavens! You wouldn’t want them not to teach her that, would you?” “Butterfly” was a direct translation from the Italian
a euphemism for the female organ Harry had picked up working down in Rome, and which had become a family word since McKenna.
He didn’t answer me. “Teach her all that crud about saving it, keeping it like gold. Romantic love. Saving herself all for one man who will love her always and only her forever and ever. Keeping herself for one great love that will last all her life. Monogamistic crap.”
“Hill, I doubt very much if your parents are yet teaching little McKenna to save herself for monogamistic love,” I said.
“But that’ll be the next step on the agenda,” he said. “Believe me it will. And all of it hypocritical lies.”
We fished for a while.
“Maybe they don’t want her to get hurt,” I said finally, fiddling with my reel. I felt inadequate.
“Hurt! How’s she going to get hurt if she doesn’t fall in love with them? And all that crud?”
“Hill, have you ever slept with a girl?”
He looked up and grinned. “No. No, but I’m working on it.” Fifteen-year-old confidence! I guess I never had it, even at 15. Then his face sobered. “But we talk a lot more about it openly, boys and girls, than you people did. At school and at parties. Don’t think I haven’t had chances. I’m saving my first one for a girl who’ll appreciate it and enjoy it like I will, without all that falling in love crap and monogamy crud. A girl with my sensitivity and sensibilities. Certainly I won’t rush off and marry the first girl I get a good piece of ass off of. Like all you folks did. And I won’t take on a girl who expects that. And I hope McKenna won’t—with a boy—either. But then we don’t have as many monogamy-oriented kids like that in our generation the way you did.”