Gregory T. Burgess ~ A Gallery of Influences

A Gallery of Influences: Recollections of Childhood
Excerpted from The RF Handbook: The Definitive Guide on How to Become a Romantic Figure



Whereas the aver­age per­son has count­less pics of mom – mom as back­drop to a pout­ing infant, mom as prop girl light­ing a birth­day can­dle, mom as tech­ni­cian for a band of piña­ta-teers – the RF has but one pho­to­graph of Mama:  a crin­kled sepia print set behind smoky glass with­in a tar­nished pais­ley frame.  Surrounded by a halo, she sits on a knob in the grass, dis­dain­ing to hold a para­sol laid at her feet.  She leans for­ward in a floun­cy white dress that seems rather meant for reclin­ing.  Her long dark tress­es defer to the defi­ance of high cheeks, a raised chin.  The lips only verge upon smil­ing; the eyes blaze with an inten­si­ty that must have star­tled the pho­tog­ra­ph­er.  Feast on this pho­to­graph and drink, not from mem­o­ry, but from imag­i­na­tion, for this, alas, is the per­son who died while giv­ing you life, or just as good, who gave you up when you were six months old and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Throughout your child­hood, you were told nev­er to think about her, and yet you heard her virtues, her intel­li­gence, and her beau­ty con­stant­ly extolled.  Or, you have been told on one hand that she nev­er exist­ed and on the oth­er hand that you have a tem­per and mis­chie­vous dis­po­si­tion just like hers.

Mama, about whom you know noth­ing, is ever in your thoughts.  At home, her pho­to­graph fol­lows you from room to room, now propped on the dress­er, now on the wash­stand, now on your bac­carat table.   When you trav­el, it finds a secure spot, at the bot­tom of your gun­ny sack, in the secret com­part­ment of your attaché case, or taped to your chest or insert­ed up your rec­tum.  Whatever the place, what­ev­er the cir­cum­stance, whether you’ve been hobo­ing on a freight train, dogsled­ding over a polar ice cap, on a 10-day acid trip, or lib­er­at­ing a coun­try from its colo­nial oppres­sors, before you retire at night, the pho­to­graph leaves its rest­ing place for a few moments, clutched in your trem­bling hands.



No pho­tos exist of Pap, unless you count the one that hangs above the cash reg­is­ter at Quincy’s Bar and Grill: Pap is the slumped fig­ure three over from the left.  Your mem­o­ries of the griz­zled phan­tom:  those late after­noons when he would come stum­bling out onto the street, and you’d be walk­ing by: “Hey, I know that kid there.  That scum’s one of mine.”  Or the Sunday evenings he’d arrive at Aunt Myrtle’s, his two-day stub­ble glis­ten­ing with cologne.  His only words to you, after your guardian refused to lend him mon­ey: “How about the kid?  Bet the kid there has some.”

Pap might have been an RF him­self had he an aspi­ra­tion.  A pen­ny-ante card­play­er, a two-bit pool play­er, his great­est ambi­tion was to win at the num­bers.  His two redeem­ing qual­i­ties: he was sel­dom around to beat you and, as you learned much lat­er, he was not your real father.


The Honorable Durhard Marsh

Your real father, though you were not advised of that fact until you were an adult and the esteemed judge was long deceased.  Noted for his dis­in­ter­est­ed­ness, impar­tial­i­ty, and inde­pen­dence, secret­ly he squirmed with guilt for exer­cis­ing such qual­i­ties with regards to his “de fac­to ille­git­i­mate child, how­ev­er it may have been pre­sumed de jure to have been legit­i­mate.”  After years of dis­pens­ing jus­tice, includ­ing issu­ing the sev­er­al decrees that sealed your fate, he shocked his house with a deathbed con­fes­sion of his “crime of pas­sion” and ordered some­one to “find the child, at all costs” and to pro­cure a pen and paper so he could include you in his will.   The nec­es­sary imple­ments were only pro­duced after it was assured the judge was dead, and you were tracked down out of spite by the house­keep­er, after a search of many years, only after the woman learned that her bequests under the will were far small­er than she had expected.


Aunt Myrtle

Aunt Myrtle’s great­est mis­for­tune was to be charged with the care of her sister’s child.  A woman of strict Protestant val­ues, she did her best to instill you with the notion that your depraved soul would be con­signed for­ev­er to the fires of hell.  At the same time, in keep­ing with those val­ues, she did her best to mit­i­gate the pains of future tor­tures, by laden­ing you with as many present ones as she could devise.  To rec­on­cile you to God’s just wrath and your inex­orable des­tiny, she made you wash the floors, do the dish­es, clean the win­dows, chop the fire­wood, and scrub the hearth, inter­minably.  The only respite from this soul-cleans­ing was her pun­ish­ment for slack­ing your duties: a fortnight’s soli­tary con­fine­ment to the dark, ver­min-rid­den cellar.

In lat­er years, long after you had run away, Aunt Myrtle would mel­low and be strick­en with regret over her ill-treat­ment of you.  Once you made your for­tune, you treat­ed her kind­ly and show­ered her with mate­r­i­al wealth: a mod­ern house with all the lat­est labor-sav­ing appli­ances and a fin­ished base­ment.  After all, she was a moth­er to you for the first six or sev­en years of your life.


Uncle Bernard

Not until he helped you escape from your last impris­on­ment in the cel­lar did you know that Uncle Bernard was even aware of your exis­tence.  Prior to that you saw him do lit­tle else all day but rub rosin on his vio­lin bow while hum­ming an air that, for all the rosin rubbed, should have even­tu­al­ly been played, but nev­er was.  He talked inces­sant­ly of past con­cert tours, nam­ing the city and reper­toire of each engage­ment, dis­cours­ing at length on the man­ner of each per­for­mance, prais­ing its high points, crit­i­ciz­ing its weak­ness­es.  Aunt Myrtle tol­er­at­ed his pres­ence like a bro­ken clock, a use­less item that nev­er­the­less filled an emp­ty space.

He did have a few stu­dents, how­ev­er, who came to the house when Aunt Myrtle was at church.  They were invari­ably mis­er­able per­form­ers, who sawed reck­less­ly at their abused instru­ments while Bernard paced back and forth, hum­ming the piece as loud as could be hummed.  The per­for­mance over, Bernard would inevitably exclaim, “Excellent.  That’s exact­ly how it should be played,” and send the flat­tered stu­dents home.

His assis­tance in your escape was total­ly unex­pect­ed.  Confined to the cel­lar for the tenth time that year and sec­ond fort­night in a row, you sat glum­ly in the dark when sud­den­ly the sweet­est music descend­ed faint­ly from over­heard.  The cel­lar door opened, and you heard the only words Bernard ever spoke to you: “Quick, the evil sor­cer­ess has been dri­ven away.  Run free, my child.  Run free like the notes from Paganini’s bow.”


Sylvanus, the Carnival Master

This mer­ry man pro­vid­ed you with your first meal after a week of star­va­tion: a buck­et of horse’s oats.  Immediately assess­ing your tal­ents, he set you out on your first career, which he lav­ish­ly praised as a lifetime’s occu­pa­tion: round­ing up the fren­zied chick­en bod­ies at the geek show.  Chasing after the behead­ed birds and hav­ing the fill of all the oats you could eat was la dolce vita.  For the first time in your life, you were hap­py, and you had this man to thank.

But the mer­ry man had to resort to odd ways to make him­self mer­ry.  One night he invit­ed you to sleep in his wag­on, and you saw a sight there that made bleed­ing chick­ens run­ning around with their heads cut off seem whole­some. You had run away one time before.  This sec­ond time would not be the last.


Athanasius, the Geek

Though not­ed for his out­bursts of uncon­trol­lable anger, this sim­ple soul treat­ed you with kind­ness and respect.  A man of lit­tle speech, he offered you charred chick­en from the spit to sup­ple­ment your diet, a ges­ture you grate­ful­ly acknowl­edged while toss­ing the offer­ings behind your back when the man’s head was turned.  Athanasius was well known nev­er to brook a refusal of his generosity.

The wild man’s suc­cess­ful career met a snag when the car­ni­val ran foul of a mur­der and all eyes turned accus­ing­ly to the per­son eas­i­est to blame.  The near mute could poor­ly argue on his own behalf, and as the mob closed in upon him, the car­ni­val grounds broke out in a fire as the fright­ened man sought to escape.  He was cor­nered, when you offered to the enflamed crowd irrefutable proof (the com­pli­cat­ed details of which can­not be described here but which have inspired sev­er­al series of detec­tive nov­els) that Athanasius could not have been the mur­der­er.  Later when you decid­ed to leave the car­ni­val, your for­ev­er grate­ful friend bid farewell through a mist of ster­torous sobs.


Mr. Tick and Mr. Tock

Word of your res­cue of Athanasius pre­ced­ed you into town, so you had some­thing more than sheer des­per­a­tion to rec­om­mend you when you respond­ed to an “Employment – Inquire Within” sign on the gray façade of Tick, Tock Nut & Bolt.  “That of thread inspec­tor is the most impor­tant posi­tion we offer,” said Mr. Tock.  “Yes,” agreed Mr. Tick, “a flaw in the thread is fatal to the bolt, or nut, as the case may be.”  “But,” Mr. Tock said, hes­i­tant­ly, “can we entrust the posi­tion to some­one of so lit­tle expe­ri­ence?”  “That,” Mr. Tick replied, “is pre­cise­ly the ques­tion most incum­bent upon us to ask.”  “The child,” Mr. Tock ven­tured, “has acquired some­what of a rep­u­ta­tion for scruti­ny, I under­stand.”  “Yes,” Mr. Tick con­firmed, “that is quite the rep­u­ta­tion that has come to our under­stat­ing.”  “And scruti­ny,” Mr. Tock said, “is the sin­gu­lar req­ui­site of thread inspec­tion, is it not?”  “Most assured­ly, it is,” agreed Mr. Tick.

The firm paid you a wage, enough to secure you a repast of stale bread at meal times.  As for room, since the posi­tion called for 20 hours of work a day, 7 days a week, you mere­ly nod­ded off at shift’s end at your place in the inspec­tion line, head buried in the inven­to­ry of goods to be scru­ti­nized.  “There,” Mr. Tick would remark, approv­ing­ly, “is a child with a future.  “Yes,” Mr. Tock would agree, “a child with a most def­i­nite future.”


The Weasel Nose Gang

One route of your dai­ly walk to the bak­ery dock took you by the scrap yard, through an under­pass near the train yards, the den of this band of ras­cal­ly waifs.  Your greasy work uni­form, hunched shoul­ders, and bleary eyes inspired them to the height of mock­ery.  Insulted, shoved, punched, you had no recourse but to impress the gang with wit­ty retorts and a per­se­ver­ant pos­ture; in short, you soon became Weasel Nose leader and took roy­al­ly to the low road of break­ing win­dows, teas­ing crip­ples, and stand­ing in the street.  Feasting now sole­ly on stolen beer, soda, and can­dy, for the first time in years you were not bur­dened with a reg­u­lar bowl movement.

Among your under­lings, there was Snorts, the surest shot with a brick; Carmella, who could breathe a cig­a­rette down in one drag; Barnacle, who could stuff more store items under his shirt than most stores had items; Ten Ton, famed for sit­ting on stray cats; Pustule, the deftest at wrig­gling out of the hands of shop­keep­ers; Dead End, not­ed for not being able to do any­thing but get in the way; and M‑80, the gang’s pyro expert and gen­er­al sci­en­tif­ic advisor.

Unfortunately, the good life of home­less­ness came to an abrupt halt.  The gang had decid­ed to under­take one of its most dar­ing exploits: steal­ing mean Old Man Warren’s crutch­es.  As leader, you were com­mit­ted to car­ry­ing out this adven­ture sin­gle-hand­ed­ly.  Dodging the foul darts of the old man’s tobac­co spit­tle and incur­ring sev­er­al bro­ken ribs from the jabs of his crutch­es, you at last made away with the misanthrope’s sticks only to be spot­ted by a police­man who had just dined and was ready for a lit­tle exer­cise, if not quite the work­out he received.


Mr. and Mrs. Goodfeeling
and The School of Social Progress

Alumni them­selves of this most illus­tri­ous school for prob­lem par­ent­less chil­dren, these two social sci­en­tists nev­er let you for­get that they were tak­ing great pains to treat you far bet­ter than they had ever been treat­ed when the school was sim­ply a deten­tion cen­ter for orphans.  The first act of their benef­i­cence, derived from assid­u­ous study of mod­ern psy­chol­o­gy, was to shack­le each of your legs to a ball and chain “to help you appre­ci­ate the infir­mi­ties of the elder­ly.”  Their sec­ond act was to fit you with a muz­zle and restrict you to a diet of bran to get you mov­ing reg­u­lar­ly again and “thus give struc­ture and order to your life,” which struc­ture and order unfor­tu­nate­ly always came upon you a lit­tle too sud­den­ly for you to be very struc­tured and order­ly about it.

The fruit of their enlight­ened poli­cies was to turn you into a cow­er­ing idiot, a reac­tion which the Goodfeelings were at a loss to explain, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing your “obvi­ous­ly inher­ent lead­er­ship abil­i­ties and social affa­bil­i­ty.”  They tried to draw you out of your shell by giv­ing you encour­age­ment: “Sure, life has tri­als and tribu­la­tions, but that is how we grow.”  At one point they even unmuz­zled you and gave you per­mis­sion to raid the grain bin, but, mys­te­ri­ous­ly to them, your spir­its remained unraised.

Despite your social back­ward­ness (or regres­sion, as they termed it), the Goodfeelings con­sid­ered you their most prized and promis­ing pupil and made over­tures to you about your one day tak­ing their place: “Rest assured, some­day you will make reform of mis­guid­ed youths an even more pro­gres­sive undertaking.”


Dr. Aaron Therpy

This emi­nent physi­cian and phil­an­thropist took time from his impor­tant cas­es and wide­ly acclaimed research to make char­i­ta­ble calls to the Goodfeeling insti­tu­tion, which hap­pened to be on the way to the doctor’s favorite polo field.  Although you had expe­ri­enced peri­od­ic heart pal­pi­ta­tions all your life, Dr. Therpy was the first per­son to sub­mit your ail­ment to close clin­i­cal obser­va­tion.  “Yes, parox­ys­mal tachy­car­dia,” he explained to the Goodfeelings.  “Nothing seri­ous.  Brought on by nerves.  Nothing that a lit­tle vig­or­ous exer­cise can’t cure.  By the way, the grounds here would make an excel­lent polo field.  Have you ever thought about con­vert­ing them?”

Unwittingly, the doc­tor played a major role in help­ing you escape from the insti­tu­tion when on one vis­it he was called upon to treat you for what appeared to be a minor faint­ing spell.  “Ah, I’m afraid this is rather seri­ous.  Ventricular tachy­car­dia, fol­lowed by car­diac arrest.  Yes, I’m afraid this is quite seri­ous.  The poor child is dead.  Most unfor­tu­nate too.  Very eas­i­ly treat­able, you know.  Yes, quite eas­i­ly treat­able.  Well, might as well remove the muz­zle and shack­les.  The child is at peace.”


Tom, the Grave Digger

General groundskeep­er and, when occa­sion demand­ed, grave dig­ger for the School of Social Progress, this man took over where Dr. Therpy left off and com­plet­ed your escape from the insti­tu­tion.  Although he nev­er informed the Goodfeelings of his actions, he was fond of bruit­ing his sto­ry about the tav­erns in town.

I could ha’e sworn I heard a breath­in’ comin’ from the cas­ket, like a mur­murin’ of the wind, it was.  But I could­na say noth­in’ to a soul, what with every­body lookin’ so seri­ous and so inten­tion­al with them placin’ that cas­ket in the ground, and what with I knowin’ about the Goodfeelings and knowin’ about how they would­na take too kind­ly to any­thing too irreg­u­lar or improp­er­ter­i­tous.  And I had been there too when His Dr. Therpy pro­claimed the child dead.  What with him knowin’ bet­ter than any­one else when dead is dead and gone is gone, what was I to think but how I’d gone mad?

But when the preach­er was fin­ished with him say­ing a last prayer for the child and the Goodfeelings were fin­ished with them giv­ing their last words and last looks, I tar­ried like about get­tin’ to my work til every­one was down o’er the hill and could­na see what I had made up in my mind what I was goin’ to do, to see if I warn’t out of my mind or what I was.  And when I could see that the preach­er was gone and the Goodfeelings gone too, I said a prayer to God ask­ing His for­give­ness and declar­in’ that He could do with my igno­rant soul whate’er His Great Will saw fit, and jumpin’ down onto the cof­fin with a lit­tle pryin’ with my shov­el in a minute it was opened.  And Great God in His mer­cy if what I did see did­na dri­ve me mad if I warn’t already.  There was that child smilin’ as if lyin’ amongst the angels but with a breath astir­rin’ like a child that was just there born.  And I picked up the lit­tle head and put some water in the mouth and there was a chokin’ and a sput­terin’ and the eyes Great God if they did­na open.   And I looked about me, looked about me, I did, and I said to the child I said, ‘if what you’re about doin’ ain’t an embar­rass­ment to Dr. Therpy and the Goodfeelings for sure.  Child, if you ain’t dead which you sure don’t look it, you can­na stay here no more at the School but you bet­ter start arun­nin’ and find anoth­er place to live, which no one knows the bet­ter you is livin’ there.’  And the child looked con­fused, and I turned my back and crossed my arms til I could hear the grass­es swishin’ on the hill, and then I turned around and cov­ered that cof­fin with dirt faster than I ever cov­ered a cof­fin afore.”


Madame Ronceray

Your lov­ing pro­tec­tor and the per­son clos­est to the mama you nev­er knew, who bathed you with­out try­ing to cleanse you of sin, who taught you to read and write with­out rap­ping your knuck­les, who clothed and fed you with­out con­di­tion, except for the one lit­tle thing that impart­ed bliss upon her long-jad­ed exis­tence.  Surfeited with lux­u­ry, tired of life, she had been a clois­tered tyrant in her busy house, a whim­si­cal rule and implaca­ble will all that could assuage her bore­dom, until you came along, like a jew­el that had nev­er before been worn, a per­fume that had nev­er before been smelled, a dress whose opu­lent skirt had nev­er before been lift­ed.  Her staff noticed the soft­en­ing of her tem­pera­ment and longed to wit­ness the cause first-hand, but jeal­ous of her bliss and fear­ful of the ennui that only you could keep at bay, she guard­ed you care­ful­ly, not by seques­ter­ing you but by parad­ing you before soci­ety, tak­ing you to salons, the opera, the the­atre, and intro­duc­ing you to all the impor­tant per­sons who patron­ized her thriv­ing establishment.

Under her tute­lage you grew learned; under her guardian­ship you grew flab­by and even­tu­al­ly (admit­ted­ly it took a long time) sus­cep­ti­ble to the very bore­dom you were called upon to dis­pel.  But by that time, your opin­ions were ful­ly formed, your wit was sharp­ened, your pas­sions were expand­ing and your genius was appar­ent, and you real­ized that Mama Ronceray could nev­er replace you real mama in your heart.  The night you took your leave of her bed for­ev­er, not with­out a tear in your eye, you knew deep down you were an RF and had all the appli­ca­tion forms for the RAT filled out and in the mail.


Gregory T. Burgess has pub­lished short works in the Journal of Experimental Fiction, neotrope, gestal­ten, and New World Writing and has self-pub­lished sev­er­al longer works which are described at his web­site,  He is a musi­cian as well as a writer and lives and works in rur­al Pennsylvania.