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’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.
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.”
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, www.gregoryburgess.com. He is a musician as well as a writer and lives and works in rural Pennsylvania.