16 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

On the corner of Black and Kinross, beneath a sky the colour of hard clay, a tree stood with skeletal limbs outstretched. Its trunk bent, leaning away from the shambling homeless and turned up factory owners in polished boots, well cut slate suits. A terminal sun silhouetted their creeping black bodies against a broken brick wall. A tattered man sat in the gutter, snivelling on a sleeve the colour of dried mucus, stray hand feeling the jutted spine of a yellow cat. The cat smelt inside the man’s pocket and yowled; the man muttered something profane. A half-gutted fish flopped out onto the street. The man began to pull at the fish, but the cat dug its paw into the man’s hand and hissed. Slowly, the man pulled his hand back, and then quickly balled it into a fist. He punched the cat squarely on the side of its pinched, starved face, and the cat tumbled into the dust, narrowly avoiding a car that did not stop or even slow down.

Amidst this grotesquery, Clyde looked out from the dirty glass, lip jutting, hands clenching and unclenching in time with the feeble beating of his heart. His eyes fell on the flailing tree; it had already lost all its leaves and it was barely September. It was a sapling; his nights spent beneath the great ash trees stood at the bottom of the shabby brick lean-to that his father called home, curled into his snoring older sister, had informed his view of this. Clyde wondered how long this tree had lived on the corner of Black and Kinross; whether it was still alive, whether it still felt alive. Cars honked angrily as a commotion blew up outside of a butcher’s.

He felt a warm, sweaty clap on his shoulder and turned to face his father, who was busy brushing at his moustache. His nose twitched a little and he sniffed before meticulously running his hands slowly through his thinning hair, forming a skewed side parting. He smoothed it down, but this only had the effect of combing more hair over the less bald part of his scalp, so that it looked as though all of his hair grew on one side of his head. Patting at it with satisfaction, he nodded and looked expectantly at Clyde. Clyde’s lip twitched into half a smile, so that it resembled that leer he caught himself practicing more and more often when he thought of the city women his mother so denounced.

‘You look like a gentleman, Father.’
‘I am well aware of how and to what ends I present myself, my son.’
There was a pause. Clyde’s father’s hair flapped a little in the hot air streaming through from the kitchen. Clyde suppressed his furious sense of shame. Deluded self-righteous prig, he thought to himself as his father set Clyde’s sister on her feet and thrust a digit into her still-dreaming face. Clyde’s mother emerged from the bathroom, and again Clyde fought his urges with his seemingly bottomless reserve of self-disgust and hatred. His father returned to him, and again caught that strange mix of embarrassment and delight flickering on his son’s face. He stood stock still and looked at his father.
‘Asa. Asa,’ called Clyde’s mother. His father turned and raised an eyebrow.
‘Come here dear, the men are leaving their factories. We can reach them now.’ She frowned and, reaching up, patted at her husband’s hair, readdressing the prominent bald spot Asa had so conspicuously missed. ‘Let’s go the sapling. Esta likes to stand beneath it, and it will provide a little shade should the rain fall.’

Asa nodded in decision. ‘A good idea. Clyde! Clyde,’ he repeated as his son stood watching a man shine a timepiece with a laced neckerchief. He walked over quickly and spoke into his ear. ‘My boy, that man trades in gold and secrets. He is neither worth your time nor the inquisitive nature we thank Him for bestowing upon you.’
Clyde had grown up with two fathers; he had come to the conclusion quickly that an ever-present Father who nonetheless showed no apparent interest in him or his family’s struggles was a paradox only an idiot would indulge in. He turned back to his father and smiled quickly. ‘What shall we sing, Father?’ His father smiled broadly and patted Clyde on the back. ‘I thought we would begin with Just as I am. What do you think? Would you like to sing something else?’
Clyde shook his head. ‘No Father. Just as I am is a song men of all persuasions can listen to. I shall be happy to sing it.’
Asa beamed and looked to his wife, fussing over Esta who clutched her organ to her breast. Clyde saw the piercing look of sadness flicker over his sister’s face, and felt wrenching sadness in his heart. ‘Just as I am, Elvira my dear,’ he called out. His wife looked up, startled. ‘Of course I do Asa. I’m troubled you would even ask.’ Asa’s face stopped moving as his train of thought derailed itself, and he stood motionless for a moment with his mouth hanging open. Clyde watched the man with the timepiece resume his walk up the high street. Asa recollected his thoughts and led the family out of the dirty food hall, empty except for a pocked and smoking waiter and a fat yellowish man tending two black pieces of meat on a hissing grill.

As the family crossed the street, Clyde began to envision them in his mind’s eye from atop the factory across from the pitiful sapling, watching his fool of a father march the four children into position before taking up his place alongside his mother. The street was now quickly filling up with browbeaten men who dabbed incessantly at their greased foreheads and wiped filthy hands on filthier pants. Clyde’s mother quickly handed round the battered hymn books to the children, and directed them to the correct pages. Although Clyde could feel the book in his hands, he had the strangest sensation that he was touching the thing through another boy’s body; he was merely a presence inside a hunk of sullied flesh.
With a slow, agonising start, he began to realise he could not see from his own eyes, and he became more and more uncomfortable as he watched himself from atop the factory turn the pages of the book, feeling the book but not seeing it. He scrabbled frantically and then felt his mother touch his shoulder. He saw her repeat the action from his bird’s eye view, and he felt his body relax. He began to worry frantically and desperately tried to see the scene in front of his body as he thought it would look. Yet the more he tried, the more effort he expelled, the further away he felt from returning to himself, and the more alone he felt on top of the factory. The split was agonising; almost physically painful. He could feel something inside his body, something he did not ever want to let go of, but something that seemed to want to inexorably pull away from his desperate grasp. He was terrified his family would not notice.
And they did not.
His sister began to play; the children began to sing, his parents, both bolt upright and his father’s chin raised slightly, so that it almost looked like he was watching Clyde, writhing with fear, on top of his factory.
The family opened their mouths as the organ rang out.

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed on me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

A few people stood and watched the wretched crew now, and Clyde felt an inkling of something like gratitude as the men congregated in front of the family with their backs turned to him. But gratitude to whom? For what? He watched his singing body; his mother’s hands draped lovingly over his shoulders down onto his chest, and felt that awful shame drop into his gut. But now his heart raced, and his fingers trembled.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

His father stood, the words booming out long and guttural, in his deep Bostonian drawl. His hands were folded in front of him, and Clyde saw how he tried to make eye contact with some of the members of his audience. All of them turned away.

Just as I am, tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Some of the men below began to form small groups, evidently recognizing one another, and eventually turned away from Clyde’s family to engage in conversation. He watched two men quickly nod and point at his mother and sister Esta, and then they fell about cackling, like birds fighting over a carcass. Clyde’s lips and cheeks burned with fury, but not all of it was directed at the men.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind--
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find--
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Clyde suddenly caught sight of the man with timepiece again. He had just left a baker’s shop and was now clutching a small brown waxed bag. His route to his waiting vehicle took him straight past Clyde and his bedraggled family. He did not stop. He paused as two swarthy workmen parted to let the man through, and he walked to his car where his chauffeur waited. He got in, and the engine started, a powerful rumbling noise that belched a thick cloud of bluish smoke into the darkening sky. The audience began to take their leave.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

One man remained in the falling darkness as his father led them to the finale. The organ stopped dead. Esta got up off her knees. The two young girls huddled against the sapling; Clyde knew now that it was dead. He realised he could no longer feel his mother’s hands on his heart. He looked away as his father began his call to the evening sky and empty streets.


Alun said...

Jeez...I'll have to put aside some time for this!

John Everyman said...

Hah, yeah I got quite into this one. I did some cursory research into the book and it is sort of fascinating actually, Clyde's aspirations and motivations are really open to interpretation, as is his overall persona. I chose him to make him an overtly unpleasant and pathetic sort of figure, but I was quite pleased with how his 'dilemma' came out during the singing of the hymn. Anyway that was definitely fun! I'd like to do that again.