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The Alleyway Not Taken
WASN’T BORN on the night the Nevsky mansion burned, but if, on a September
night, when the weather cools suddenly and the haze of summer drops as
dew onto autumn’s lawns, leaving the night air clearer than it has been
for months, so that the moon illuminates my insomniac hours like a searchlight,
with a brilliance quite unlike the phosphorescent softness of summer moonlight,
I happen to see sweet autumn clematis growing on a wall, I am reminded
of the stories I’ve heard about the night the mansion burned and of other
nights, certain wonderful autumn nights when I was a boy, nights when I
scaled the walls of the Glynns’ stone house and slipped into bed with Margot
and Martha, those scented nights I spent abed with twins.
to the god of happy
accidents, it seems that every September there is a moonlit
night when I do happen to see sweet autumn clematis growing on a
wall, and so every year the memories return to me—the stone house, the
welcoming Glynns, the clematis, the wall, the rope ladder, the narrow window,
the plump comforter, the tutorial twins.
recall those nights now with a certain sadness. In part, it is the
sadness I find implicit in any memory,
a yearning for my younger self and the fresh flavors of his new sensations,
and in part it is a kind of mourning for the distinctions that die with
the passage of time, for in my memory now those silvery nights have begun
to run together, to touch at the edges and adhere to one another like pancakes
too close on a griddle. A novelty has a brief life, and only one, with
no possibility of resurrection, so I would have been wise to take notes
to preserve each night as a distinct memory, and I would have taken notes
if I had realized that I would never, after those nights had ended, quite
manage to bring each and every one of them back. I suppose I never will,
but on the pages that follow I’ve done the best I can.
there is a certain sadness here, but sadness doesn’t dominate these reminiscences.
Pleasure does. It is sexual pleasure, of course, but sexual pleasure amplified
and augmented by the thrill of adventure, for the pleasure of recalling
the Glynns begins with the recollection of my daring route into Margot
and Martha’s bedroom.
a freedom fighter or a cat burglar in a shadowy movie, I would dart to
a dark corner of the Glynns’ garden, where the overhanging trees blocked
the moonlight. I would scale the garden wall and crouch atop it, where
I could look down into the garden courtyard and into the kitchen at the
back of the house, then clamber along the wall until it ended just below
Margot and Martha’s window. There, in the dangerous moonlight, I—
a minute. The moon can’t always have been shining. It waxes and wanes,
after all, and in Babbington in the fall many nights are foggy, nights
of mystery and mishap, when things don’t seem to be what we suppose them
to be, and nothing seems to happen as we expect it will. There must have
been some nights like that, nights of wrong turns, chance encounters, and
hidden dangers, when I bumped into the Glynns’ suspicious dog on my way
to climb the wall, alarmed the household by blundering into their trash
cans, or tossed pebbles against the wrong window, but I don’t recall them. (My
is made of recollection,
in the dangerous moonlight, I would have to wait—warily, pressed against
the wall—until the girls dropped the ladder they had made. I would remind
myself that I couldn’t toss pebbles at their window or call to them, or
whistle, because the next window over was their parents’. I had to wait.
was one of the things they taught me.
at last the window swung open and they let the ladder down, I climbed up
and out of the chilly night and tumbled into a fairy land, a shadowy landscape
of rumpled sheets and pubescent skin.
me try to paint for you a picture of that enchanting Glynnscape. Imagine
their bed, an improvised four-poster that the romantic and resourceful
sisters had created by pushing their child-size twin beds together and
screwing tall poles to the corners. Across the tops of the poles they had
lashed wooden slats, and from the slats they had hung gauze. Gauze curtained
the windows, too, and panels of it hung from the ceiling wherever the girls
had felt that a hanging panel of gauze was called for. Their room was never
lit by a lamp, only by the stars and the moon. The dim light and the gauze
softened the effect of the stone walls, which might otherwise have suggested
a castle keep or a dungeon, and the gauze, like an artificial fog, made
everything in the room seem soft and vague, not quite what it really was.
It must have been the gauzy fog that kept me so blissfully mystified for
all the time I was in the twins’ stone-walled seraglio.
first time I climbed into their room, I didn’t notice the way they had
decorated it, though I felt its effect, as I was meant to. I didn’t appreciate
the fact that everything in the room, from all that gauze down to the tiny
leather-bound volume of Persian poems and the moonlight, like a firefly’s
seductive flicker, all these decorative effects were for me, to attract
me, to seduce me. They worked. I went willingly into the arms
of those little enchantresses, and I have never had occasion to regret
girls, how I loved you, how I love you, both. There are times in
the night, usually a crisp fall night, of course, when I remember each
of you in your turn, and both of you together, and curse my memory for
not being good enough to bring you right back to me, slip you into bed
beside me, twine your limber arms and legs about me—and so on. I
can imagine you reading these words, and I think I can almost hear you
dalliance with the Glynns: I know exactly when it began. It was the night
we went to the movies—
a minute, indulgent
reader. A wave of uncertainty has swept over me. Do I know
exactly when it began? I’m not so sure.
this uncertainty comes over me, I have to admit that I’ve brought it on
myself. I’m no longer sure what I know about my past and what I’ve
made up. Imagine, please, a child staring out a window, bored, on
a rainy day when there are no distracting friends to lift him out of his
own thoughts. Without thinking, he has picked up two tiny bits of
modeling clay, one blue, one yellow. While he stands watching the
rain and musing, he has been absentmindedly manipulating the bits of clay,
rolling them together between his fingers, until now he has a single lump
about the size of a
which he continues rolling for the simple sensual pleasure of it.
Well, there you are. I began with bits of memory and imagination,
but I’ve been manipulating the two for so long now that, like the bored
child’s lump of clay, what began as two colors—the factual and the fictional—has
become a single lump, blended in swirly confusion, which I go on massaging
for the pleasure of it.
me a brief aside on the subject of composition, recollection, introspection,
and the effect of each on the others. One of the hazards—and pleasures—of
my backward rambles is the discovery in my memory of turnings that I didn’t
take when I stumbled along the road of life the first time around.
I find on my revisits—my retours—byways and doorways and pathways
and alleys that I not only didn’t travel the first time around but hardly
noticed at the time. Now, however, these alternative pathways often
seem so intriguing that I can’t resist exploring them.
give you an example, I close my eyes now, with the Glynns on my mind, intending
to recover the memory of that nighttime visit to the Babbington Theater,
and the movie—a movie intended for grown-ups, never for children—that the
three of us saw together, a movie that (forgive me, but there’s no other
way to put this) changed my life. Walking, in memory, along Main
Street, or along my memory of Main Street, I’ve reached a point just a
few doors down from the Babbington Theater, where I expect to be able to
read the name of that important movie on the marquee (the overhanging marquee,
sheltering the sidewalk in front of the theater, where rain seems always
to be falling, dripping from the edge of the marquee, while people wait
beneath it, on line for tickets, with their shoulders hunched and their
collars turned up). The fog of forgetfulness still obscures the marquee.
I can’t see the title of the film. I’ll have to get a little closer—
wait. What’s this? On my right, I discover, to my surprise,
an alleyway, a narrow corridor that leads from the sidewalk to the point
of this experiment—which is not a place but a fact, the fact that I don’t
know where that alley leads. I must have seen the entrance to that
alley often, passed it many times when I went to the movies, but I barely
noticed it, and I never explored it.
now, as I retrace my steps, as I write these words, upstairs in Small’s
Hotel, in the quiet predawn hours of November 22, 1991 (a damp morning,
after a nighttime snowfall, the white margin of my island and its dark
fringe of grasses standing out crisp and sharp against the gray sky and
gray bay, and Babbington, across the bay, an abstraction, a stack of black
and white rectangles), and again on January 16, March 11, March 25, April
15, and November 18, 1992, and on September 30 and October 1, 1993, and
on May 13, December 6, and December 12, 1994, when I return to these words
to read them and revise them, I see, from the corner of my mind’s eye,
that formerly unnoticed turning, the alleyway not taken, and now I know
where it leads, at least in the abstract. It leads to possibilities.
say to myself, “Why let those possibilities slip by twice? Why not
turn aside from Main Street this time and take a look?”
not? The more often I revisit my past, the more often I take the
opportunity to poke around in some of the corners I ignored the first time.
This tendency to explore, to divagate, means that I sometimes take a long
time to get where I intended to go. Even now, when I have willed
myself to pass the alley by and go on to the theater and see the movie
that I think began my dalliance with the Glynn twins, I find that, against
my will, I want to stop and explore that alleyway, at the time so peripheral,
but now suddenly so central, once so unattractive, now such a magnet, once
mute, now beckoning and insistent, tugging at my sleeve when I try to walk
by, whispering to me, “Hey, kid. Come here a minute. Come on, take a look
I say warily. “You mean me?”
of course I mean you. Who do you think I mean? Come here. Take a walk down
I take a cautious peek into the darkness. “Yes,” I admit, “But why would
I want to walk down an alley?”
I’m here. Because you don’t know anything about me. Because you passed
me by years ago, walked right by.”
I—I don’t have time. I’ve got an agenda. I’ve got a plan.
Look. Look at all these notes, all these papers. I’ve got a
lot of stories to tell. So many stories, and—well—so little time.
Right now, for example, I’ve got to get to the movies. I can’t take
the time to—I can’t—well—maybe—”
there I go, into an alley I had meant to ignore.
late-blooming curiosity of mine has important consequences for me, for
my work, and for you:
So: it all began (which is to say it must have begun) when we went to the
movies together, one autumn night. It would have been a night late
in September or early October of the year I began the eighth grade, so
I would have been a few weeks away from twelve. Yes. I was
still eleven and the Glynn girls were almost thirteen. In the pages
that follow, I have elasticized the autumn, so that its gentle weather
stretches right on through the winter.
account of my life is unfolding at a slower pace than my life itself.
When I first began my personal history, I imagined that at some point I
would bring the story of my past up to my life in the present, and a day
would come—namely, my sixtieth birthday, as I had it planned—when I wouldn’t
be writing reminiscences anymore. My story would have brought Albertine
and me to Small’s Hotel, and I would shift to a running account of life
here, writing something closer to a journal than a history, an easier task
for my later years. I expected that I would stop telling my story,
for the most part, and instead tell the stories of people who stayed at
Small’s, combined with meditations on the relationship between life in
an old hotel and the plumbing in an old hotel. I even thought that
I would finally get around to writing that big book about clams, and so
on. Now, however, after having put years into the effort, I can see
that it isn’t likely to happen that way. I now think that in my doddering
years I will still be—in the clam bed of my mind, where my imagination
lies with my memory and sires countless offspring—a bumbling youth.
2. I fear that I make a poor guide for you, in two respects.
||A. I seem likely to get you lost along the way, to lead you somewhere
whence you’ll never find your way home. I imagine you, as you follow
along, looking back over your shoulder, ignoring my patter, wearing a worried
look, looking a bit distrait. I don’t blame you. I know
what you’re wondering, because I sometimes wonder the same thing: will
the narrative thread that I unreel as we ramble along allow us to find
our way back? The thread seems too thin to hold up for the length
of the journey, too hard to spot in the thickets, too difficult to follow
along a path that seems to be haphazard, and it’s already snarled and tangled,
impossible to unravel. Should you have taken the precaution of dropping
bread crumbs behind you as you went along? Probably.
B. I seem unlikely to deliver the sights promised in the four-color
brochure. For example, I seem to have forgotten about the movie—
that first movie that Margot and Martha and I saw together, the one that
played so important a part in our juvenile affair. Well, I may seem
to have forgotten it, but I haven’t. The movie certainly was important,
and it’s time I got around to discussing it, so I’m going to say that it
all began with our going to the movies one night, and leave it at that,
and stay out of that alley if I can.
of the movie itself, the one that the girls and I saw together on the night
that started it all? I am convinced that there must have been one
movie in particular that sparked it, one movie that the three of us particularly
wanted to see, but, try as I might, I can't make out the title on the marquee.
It might be Love in the Shadows or The Shadow of Love or
Shadows or Shadowy Lovers or something like that. As you
read on, you’ll find that I’ve fused the love-story with another movie
that I saw at about that time. (You may imagine me rolling another
couple of pieces of blue and yellow clay into a pea-sized lump of green
in my other hand.) I remember the second movie well. It was
about war, but not about valor and camaraderie, the stuff of the “war movies”
I watched with my pals on Saturdays; this one was about death and suffering,
oppression and privation, the kind of stuff that drove me from the mainland
of life to Small’s Island and a life of wishful thinking. When I
put the two movies together, I came up with the travesty that you will
see shortly—a movie in which three lovers manage to get themselves into
a number of entanglements of legs and arms quite shocking for the time,
while skittering from one dark hiding place to another, fleeing the killjoy
kops of an unnamed fascist dictatorship. This movie—but that’s another
story, and it will be told in just a few pages, as soon as I’ve finished
these preliminaries. (The phrase “but that’s another story” is such
a tantalizing one, with its assertion that there is another story,
its invitation to imagine such a story. I’ve used it liberally
throughout this book.)
just recovered another memory of that first night I spent with the twins.
The movie is over—was it Love's Fleeting Shadow? Margot and Martha
and I are walking through nighttime Babbington. I see now that the
girls are wearing identical sailor suits, with middy blouses, short blue
skirts, white sneakers, white socks, and sailor hats, as if it were still
summer. (Do they have sweaters? They don't seem to. Come
into my arms, girls; you’re shivering.) These outfits are too bright.
They clash with the film that I’ve arranged for us to see, so we’re going
to have to change them. Imagine Margot and Martha in slinky leotards,
please, black, and add short black silk skirts, the kind called “wrap skirts”
that tie around the waist and flip open now and then as the girls walk
along beside me. And, in the style of the time, sheer scarves tied
at their necks. Red scarves. And berets? Black berets?
Why not? Berets. Yes. That’s it.
few confessions and announcements, and then we can get on with the story
have to confess that I misunderstood and underestimated the girls’ parents,
Andy and Rosetta Glynn, in those days. Only much later did I realize
that the vague, huge, sweeping, apparently abstract curves of Andy Glynn’s
paintings added up to the same Glynnscape that so enchanted me, and not
until even later than that did I realize that the enchanting Glynnscape
was the backdrop and inspiration for a slim volume with a long title, An
Invitation to You, Girls, to Make Much of the Day, a Day, These Days, Every
Day, which was the book of poems in the Persian style that I spotted
on the girls’ bedside table the first night I spent with them, and I did
not realize then that their mother was the “translator” of those poems—in
truth their author.
have omitted from the story most of the lying, guile, and bamboozling that
I sank to in order to keep my parents from knowing that I was spending
my nights in such bliss, in such a haven of art and hotbed of sin.
I wove a tale more tangled than this preface and story put together.
I had a little talent for deception, and I put it to a shameful use.
Self-serving narrator that I am, I’ve left most of that out.
I were still working in the novella form, this short book would have had
three parts: “Abed with Twins,” “Driven to Abstraction,” and “In Your Own
Words.” For quite a while during the writing of
the book, I thought that I would call it War (Life, Love, Dust)
and Peas, and I was tempted at times to call it The Night the Fine
Arts Theater Burned, but as I wrote I found that the strongest of all
my motives for writing the book was the desire to commemorate two things:
the coziness I felt in the company of the Glynns and a discovery I made
in Andy Glynn’s studio that—here’s that phrase again—changed my life forever.
So I settled on the present title.
more thing: in the interest of accuracy, I must tell you that Margot and
Martha are not actually twins. They did resemble each other so closely
that people mistook them for twins, they often passed themselves off as
twins, and early in my reconstruction of my personal history I referred
to them as twins (in “Do Clams Bite?”) to avoid seeming to prefer one over
the other, and now, after years of writing my life, I’ve fallen into the
habit of thinking of them as twins. When they visit, I can hardly
tell them apart.
|(If you are about
your reading of At Home
with the Glynns here,
urge you to read the
they are integral parts
of the work. —Mark