Thursday, August 5, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.1 (Henry James)


The Europeans
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
James, Henry
The Europeans

I don't have a clue where I bought this. Not even a guess. The used sticker on the spine suggests it may have been at the UB bookstore, but I think I bought a total of three books there during graduate school. Or maybe it was somewhere else. I am trying to remember if I actually read this novel or if I bought it on the cheap with the intention to read it later. Hard to say.

We left off yesterday in the midst of my description of the house in Vienna. I believe we were standing in the foyer on the burnt orange porcelain tile floor, about to take the half-flight of stairs up to the second floor. The stairs, you may recall, were covered in orange shag carpet, and rose to a landing surrounded on three sides by white doors. Near the top of the stairs on the right the first door led to a linen closest.

Immediately adjacent to the closet, facing the front of the house, a door led to a bedroom with two windows, which belonged to my middle brother, Chris. I don't remember how it was decorated. A twin bed dominated the space. I would often hide underneath it while he brushed his teeth, waiting until he had shut off the light and started to doze off before leaping out from under the bed to scare him. He'd usually return the favor the next night.

Perpendicularly adjacent to that door, another door led to my bedroom. Two windows faced the front yard. Next to the door was the clothes closet with its two siding doors and just beyond that, tucked into the corner, my little writing desk. It was made of dark wood and had been built especially to fit into a corner. Pens and notebooks could be stored in its one large drawer. A small bookcase with two shelves rested on the surface of the desk with its back against the wall.

I can remember seeing my copy of Captains Courageous on the shelf, an illustration of a storm-tossed little boat on the blue cover, waiting for me to read it, which I tried to do several times, but never did. I can also remember carving my name into the desk with a pocket knife.

I rearranged my room fairly often. My bed moved several times, but the desk stayed where it was -- there was only one corner it could fit into because of the location of the windows and doors. For a time it sat against the same wall as the desk. Later I pushed it against the opposite wall. I had a painting of a sad clown on that wall throughout my childhood. I still get sad thinking about it. There's something very Dorian Gray about my relationship with that clown.

For a time during high school, I put the bed near the window so that I could lean out and smoke cigarettes in the middle of the night. I also hung one of those black-light posters of the grim reaper over my bed. One day, I came home from school to discover it had been removed. One of my mother's friends had been over during the day to play bridge or something and remarked that it was like I had Satan himself hanging over my bed. End of story.

Images of old merchant ships adorned the wallpaper, which was red and white and blue. I remember there were names like "Old Ironsides" and unfamiliar words like "frigate" that I used to stare at and wonder about. I don't think I looked them up until much later. The text of the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes did not come with the wallpaper:

Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

It must have been bicentennial wallpaper or something. It was 1976, after all.

Next to my room there was another door, which at one time led to a bedroom for my youngest brother. Later, when I moved to a room on the lower floor and my brother moved into my room, my parents knocked out the wall and extended the master bedroom into this one. I remember only that it was the smallest of the children's rooms and that it had one window that faced the house next door.

For some reason I just remembered a scene that occurred in that room when my mother found a couple of dirty photos my very young brother had hidden under the mattress. I remember getting a good grilling, but my innocence prevailed and eventually blame was directed firmly and accurately at the 12 year-old neighbor across the street, who had "loaned" my brother the offending material.

Next to that room another door led to the master bedroom, which faced the back of the house. It was a large room that became much larger when my parents expanded. A large, very heavy wooden wardrobe stood guard at the left wall near the door. On the wall facing the back of the house, a large double bed lay between two windows. It was flanked on both sides by heavy wooden end tables. My parents later traded the bed in for a water bed. A large, heavy, wooden vanity dresser with a huge mirror occupied the wall to the right of the bed. I remember my parents had a wax candle reproductions of Dürer's praying hands on a middle shelf, above a box in which she stored her jewelry.

Just past the wardrobe to the left another doorway lead through a dressing area with two large clothes closets that met in the corner. Another door to the left opened into the master bathroom.

I remember taking my father's shoeshine kit out of the closet along with all of his shoes and shining them for a quarter a pair. On "Mad Men" the other night, Don Draper took out a wooden shoeshine kit that was identical to my father's, which made me a feel little sad.

The last door on the landing, perpendicular and adjacent to my parents, opened to another small bathroom. I shared this with my two brothers. I don't remember the decor of the bathroom at all.

The landing itself was covered in the same orange shag. An iron railing kept us from easily falling down the stairs that led to the lower level. Several times a week my mother would make us all sit in a circle on the landing and pray before we went to bed. I remember the only time I did anything more than mouth the words was when my two-week old hamster had died of a cold after I'd forgotten to cover his cage. I felt very guilty.

from The Europeans

A narrow grave-yard in the heart of a bustling, indifferent city, seen from the windows of a gloomy-looking inn, is at no time an object of enlivening suggestion; and the spectacle is not at its best when the mouldy tombstones and funereal umbrage have received the ineffectual refreshment of a dull, moist snow-fall. If, while the air is thickened by this frosty drizzle, the calendar should happen to indicate that the blessed vernal season is already six weeks old, it will be admitted that no depressing influence is absent from the scene.

I love Henry James.

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