Friday, August 6, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.2 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Portrait of a Lady

Purchased at East Village Books in the spring or summer of 1997. I haven't read this since, but I would put it down as one of my all time favorite novels. I think I may have even gotten a little misty-eyed at the end. I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened.


Yesterday's portion of the tour of my childhood home concluded on the landing at the top of the stair, where we stood poised to step down again to the burnt orange porcelain tile floor of the foyer. Let's try it, shall we? It's about eight steps down, then a one hundred-eighty degree turn and another eight steps down into the family room.

To the right at the foot of the stair a door leads to the basement and on the wall to the right, another door reveals a large bedroom at the front of the house. Straight ahead the room opens into a family room. On the immediate left there's a door to a bathroom. If we follow that wall toward the back of the house, another door opens to a laundry room. On the rear wall a sliding glass door reveals the a concrete patio to the back yard. (I forgot to mention the other day that in the dining room, another sliding door led to a raised porch, which my parents eventually tore down and re-constricted as a screened-in back porch.) There's a small window next to the sliding glass door.

Orange shag carpet once again dominates the scene. The walls may be wood-panelled. I might be confusing this with the wood-panelling in the basement or the wood-panelling at some other house we lived in. Returning to the foot of the stair, facing forward into the room, we see the TV and bookcases filling the righthand wall. One large cabinet houses the television (and later a VCR). It is flanked on both sides by bookcases.

I can remember a copy of the complete 1978 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, off white and chocolate brown leather covers, gold embossed lettering.

On the far wall a brick fireplace rises up to a chimney. My father converted this into a wood-burning stove. He had read somewhere that such a stove could heat the whole house and save a lot of money. My father loved few things more than saving a few pennies.

I hated that wood burning stove. It became my job to operate it, which meant carrying to wood in from a pile in the back yard, starting a fire, then maintaining it throughout the evening without burning through too much wood. At night, before bed, I had to lower the fire enough that it would burn slowly through the night, creating the illusion that it heated the whole house, which it did not, especially not the part we slept in one story above.

I was very impatient with processes as a lad. I was always trying to find ways to get the fire started more quickly so I could move on to doing something else, like watching TV. I sometimes used lighter fluid to start fires more quickly. Once, when my parents were out, I couldn't find any lighter fluid so I used gasoline instead. I poured it from a can in the garage into a little drinking glass and carried it down to the stove. After lighting the kindling, I flung the gasoline into the stove, igniting with a slight booming sound a great ball of fire that, I soon realized, had spread to the glass in my hand.

I ran with the flaming object into the bathroom and threw it in the toilet, where it smashed and ignited with another boom into another ball of fire, which quickly consumed the soft-cushioned vinyl toilet seat and melted it to the porcelain. Luckily, I remembered something about using baking soda for grease fires, so I ran upstairs and found a box and poured it over the flaming bowl. Thankfully, the fire didn't spread.

I don't remember most of the furniture, but I do remember the couch. Three wide cushions long, with arms, its woven brown and off-white plaid bulk spread almost the entire width of the room. For many years it served as a divider of sorts. My mother left the space between the back of the couch and the sliding door open so she could fold and iron laundry.

I don't remember much about the laundry room, other than it was against the back of the house and was the size of a small bedroom.

My memory of the bathroom contains yellow and flowers, but I can't remember it very clearly.

The bedroom I mentioned earlier was originally my father's study. He had a large green desk made of heavy wood. I think it had been a physician's desk purchased secondhand. I remember it had a writing shelf that slid out like a drawer, with a chart bearing color images of different types of prescription capsules adhered to its surface. I think I just figured that out right now. It always puzzled me as a child.

The room faced the front of the house, and was half buried in the ground. You could climb out one of the four windows and be anywhere from six inces to two feet from the ground (the earth rose up an incline from left to right).

I moved down there as a teenager to get some privacy. My father had had a phone line installed when it was his study, so I got to have my own phone as a teen, which was something of a miracle. The easy access it provided to the outside world through the windows allowed me to skirt the draconian curfews my parents laid down. I'd come home at 11 PM, say hello, go downstairs to bed, wait half an hour, then climb out the window to rejoin my friends, who were often waiting in a car a block or so away. It was also handy for smoking, which I'd sneak out to do in the middle of the night.

When I'd had a bedroom on the second floor, I had to lean out to smoke and the smell often wafted back into the room. My solution at the time was to climb out the second floor window and balance myself by my toes on a piece of the siding I'd bent out just enough to stand on, then close the window in front of me and light up, holding myself by the sill to the front of the house. I am still amazed that no one ever called the police to say they'd seen a burglar attempting to climb through the second floor window.

My parents eventually allowed me to smoke outside. When they did, I'd just step out the sliding glass door for a cigarette on the back patio. There was something gloriously lonely about all that, like I was a man of the world who just needed some time to smoke and look at the stars and think about the future.

from The Portrait of a Lady

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you
partake of the tea or not--some people of course never do,--the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one's enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.

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