To steady himself, he would stare up at the domed ceiling with its mural of stars, its painted zodiac. That way, he wasn’t as bothered by the crowd that pressed around him; the hiss and din of thousands of young voices could be the blood in his own ears. The rushing of water, a current he was able to tread.
By Leah Erickson
But when he brought his gaze down again, what he saw was strange and overwhelming. Grand Central was packed with youth, mostly teenaged girls. It was like a sea of hectic young faces. Some were wearing die-cut masks. Masks of a tin man. A scarecrow. A lion. And most often, of her. The girl who was the biggest star they had ever known. The girl who would arrive, here, at this station, along with Mickey Rooney.
There was a hunger in this crowd. It felt like heat rising. People were sweating and fainting, and here he was roped in with them all, Henry and his mother.
Henry turned to look at his mother. He wanted to ask her, Why are we here? What is the point? I’m thirteen years old, old enough to decide I don’t want to be here.
But his mother was gazing out over the crowd, lips parted, and there was something so wide-open in her look, vulnerable and expectant, that he decided to say nothing after all.
“It reminds me of when Valentino died,” she murmured in his ear. “We stormed the funeral parlor. We banged and yelled. They had to let us in. I was there. I kissed the coffin. I smelled the incense. Sometimes I have to tell myself, I was really there.” She looks into Henry’s eyes, smiles mistily, than asks, “Or was I?” He doesn’t know if this is a question expecting an answer, or the other kind.
They had run from the Doctor, for good this time. They had taken the train from upstate that morning. Sitting on that train in the periwinkle dawn, Henry wondered if it was he that finally spurred this trip. Because there had been a moment two days before that felt full of significance. It was when he had showed his mother the ghost bird.
As he was doing his homework in his bedroom, there was a thump at his window above his desk. It was a robin. It had struck the window then fell to the ground, dead. He looked at the glass to see a bird’s imprint. The dying afternoon sun shown through the window, illuminating what looked like a winged ghost. One could see each individual fiber of the wing and tail feathers. He called to his mother to come see, thinking she would find it remarkable.
But the print on the window made her sad. The bird looked like it was still flying. And there was so much life and death in the thing, that a tear rolled from her eye. His mother, usually ebullient, was strangely silent, lost in thought. Now in retrospect, on the shuddering train with its dusty velvet seats, with the hills and trees and houses speeding by, he knows that that was the deciding moment, the moment that set forward this motion. It made him anxious. But also happy.
It was from gatherings and crowds that she drew her strength. She loved all concerts, plays, and dance halls. But it was the movies that made her almost dizzy with pleasure. She would always take Henry’s hand as the red curtains opened. And as the lights went down, it felt as though they were beginning a descent. Down, as if in an elevator. Into another world, but one that was shared with every stranger that surrounded them.
“That’s what makes it so special,” his mother said. “To know everyone is feeling what you’re feeling. Then you truly know that you are not alone in the world.”
“Well, I think it’s a lot of foolishness,” the Doctor would say. “Don’t you know there’s a gathering storm out there? Germany has annexed Austria. And who knows what is next. But gas mask factories are being erected as we speak. Now is not the time for frivolous things.”
But fantasy was said to be the new concept. And Technicolor was the new technology. The movies were just becoming more and more amazing. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had thrilled them. Henry could still see the gorgeous colors of it flickering on his wet retinas when he went to sleep. But The Wizard of Oz would be an experience sure to top any film that they had ever seen.
His mother would often fight with the Doctor behind closed doors. Though they had been married eight years, things were becoming more tumultuous. When the Doctor thought that she was becoming overexcited, he would often give her a syringe injection. This made her quiet and blank. It was like she was at the far end of a long tunnel, and Henry could not get at her. It made him hate the Doctor.
That was why he smiled on the train, thinking of the new life they would have. Even if they lived in a boardinghouse, like they had in the old days. Even if they were alone and poor, at least now he felt free.
“Are you doing OK, son?” she asked him. “It’s so hot in here…are you hungry? I have some chocolate.” Her red lipstick was beginning to fade from the centers of her lips. She looked tired. But infused with purpose. She was wearing her dress of blue floral voile, the one whose plastic buttons looked like blackberries. The hat she wore was tiny, perched high up on her crown. Blue felt with a puffy little veil. She was a small woman, but larger than life. She loomed hugely in his dreams, big as a Macy’s balloon, like they had seen in the parade once.
“No, Ma. I’m fine.”
She leaned close to him, and rested her head on his shoulder. He was already three inches taller than she. She sighed, and put an arm around him. “You’ve always been my best friend.” They gazed together at the crowd, until his mother murmured in his ear:
“Henry, do you see that girl? Right there. The one in the sailor blouse?”
He did. A girl a little older than he. But buxom. Black hair curled and set. Dark eyes. She was dancing a little hopping dance, from foot to foot. She held a music program in her hands. Sweat was spreading across the back of the sailor blouse. But still she shuffled and hopped, and she was singing a silent tune to herself.
“I know what that girl is thinking. I know what she’s feeling.”
“How could you know such a thing, Ma?”
“It’s more that I can feel her spirit. The spirit of a thousand girls who want to act out. Who want to bust this world wide open! This is a moment. A real moment. Don’t you feel it? I mean, really?”
“Ma.” He couldn’t feel it, didn’t want to feel it, he didn’t like to have things forced on him like rich food. But the girl in the sailor blouse stirred him in a different way. He imagined pushing his body against hers, up against her cushiony chest. The way she would feel and smell… No girl had let him touch her yet. But soon, maybe soon.
When his father died in a mining accident, Henry was only three. They had never been well off, but he and his mother were then close to destitute. She worked the Woolworths counter by day, while he stayed behind at the boardinghouse with the owner, Mrs. Osmond. But afternoons when his mother came home, she would cover him with kisses. They delighted in each other, they were charged with tenderness. When they cuddled and whispered their private jokes, it was as though they were the only ones who existed in the whole world. And the world was only as large as the circle of light, that rosy glow, from the pink hurricane lamp that lighted their room.
It all changed when his mother became sick, and had to go to the sanitarium for the cure. Mrs. Osmond told him that his mother was ill, coughing blood, and no one could see her. Henry, who was always a good and quiet little boy, became wild, a feral animal. He clawed the pillows, struck the furniture, peeled and tore at the vine-patterned wallpaper. He scratched at his own face and arms. But still, he could not get at her.
When his mother returned six weeks later, looking calm and radiant, she brought with her a man, a pink skinned, delicate man with thinning blonde hair. After his mother gathered him up and hugged him tight, she said, “This is the man who saved me, dear heart. He saved my life. And now we are married.”
The man’s eyes were blue, and looked permanently startled. He bent down slowly to Henry’s level. Slowly, he extended the arm, which held something wrapped in silver tissue. Henry accepted it, looked at it for a few moments, then tore off the wrapping. It was a tin zeppelin.
Henry was beginning to feel not well. It was a feeling he sometimes got recently when he was around crowds. His heart would begin beating fast and loud. His head would swim, as though his brain was not getting enough oxygen. The crowd of teenagers was pressing in on him, and he felt as though he might scream or run or pass out. He would never tell this to his mother.
A few paces away, against the wall, was a tall thin man with a violin case. Henry took notice of him for the first time. He didn’t know if he had been there all along, or suddenly just appeared. He wore a raggedy suit, but there was something foreign and aristocratic about him. He took out the violin, leaving the case open at his feet. His light brown hair fell down over his eyes as he rosined his bow and played a few seesawing chords to warm up.
“Wow. I wonder why he’s playing here. No one will pay him any attention. There’s just too much else going on,” said his mother.
The man began to play. The song was something lighthearted and joyful. A few heads looked towards the musician, but after a moment they turned away again. Henry closed his eyes. If he had to describe the music, he would call it green. Green, pastoral music. It made him think of springtime, and the damp woods he liked to explore in back of their large house. Scampering animals and tiny shoots and buds. It helped him forget the dirty train station, the sooty air, and how complicated his life was beginning to feel.
“I know our hotel room is pretty vile,” his mother said, dabbing at her face with a handkerchief. “My god. When I saw that slanted floor and the stained ceiling…when I saw that peach pit left on the sink, swarming with fruit flies! Ha ha! I said to myself, Vera, what have you got yourself and the boy into! I almost wanted to cry at how hard and ugly things might be. But then I thought, don’t let go of hope. We can find a small place, one that’s clean. Maybe I can find a nice desk job. You’ll start school. I…I can sign you up for lessons. Piano. Or whatever you want…”
He nodded. The familiar words of reassurance. They just didn’t interest him. No matter how persuasively she tried to paint a vision of the future, he just couldn’t see it. She lived in the future and the past, while he was trapped forever in the present moment.
But the music—the music was speaking to him the way words couldn’t. The man was playing another song now, one that felt more serious. There was something large and yearning in it. It made his insides feel huge and immense. The music was building onto itself, like steps. Steps he could climb, one by one. And then he would be high above all the madness.
One thing his mother said was right. No one was listening to the violinist, though he was rocking on his toes with passion now, and the music was loud, and it was beautiful, and it was unlike anything he had ever heard. But he may well have been a ghost. What a bunch of dopes, he thought. Roped in like sheep in their stupid masks, clutching their stupid posters and sheet music and movie magazines. Blind and deaf to anything but their own hysteria. Dopes.
He stood a bit apart from his mother, and looked at her askance, trying to see her as a stranger. Her blue dress and that hopeful red lipstick. The little puffed hat. What used to charm him when he was small now made him irritated. And in his irritation, a memory bubbled up into his brain. A memory from when he was four years old, one that he had never spoken of to anyone:
They told him his mother was gone, that she had TB and needed to live at the hospital. He was left behind, with Mrs. Osmond, in the dusty boardinghouse. When sent to his room to nap, he cried and kicked things. He peeled the wallpaper away from the wall in shreds. That red on red wallpaper, the color of the insides of his eyelids. He used to love to look at it and find the repeat patterns of thorns and vines and blossoms. But now he’s tearing it all away. Chunks of plaster began to come away, too, and the plaster dust was swirling in a streak of sun that escaped the drawn curtain. He dug at the little hole with his fingers, then gouged it with a fountain pen, until it went straight through the entire wall.
He could see into the room next door, one that was occupied by another border. He’d never seen inside that room, the door was always shut, so he peeked through the hole. But it was no stranger in that room. It was his mother.
As in the movies that they watched, the scene that he spied was in black and white. It was his happy mother, making up her face at a dressing table. Then she rose. She was wearing a long, swirling dressing gown. Somewhere, music began to play. It was a snappy number with lots of horns. It was like one of the musical comedies they loved. She danced around the room, light as air, swaying and swirling with great high kicks. Then she began to sing a song, a song about bright days and new beginnings…
So everything they’d told him was a lie. She was never in the hospital. She was never ill, never close to dying. She was just on the other side of that wall the whole time. His mother was right there, happy and fulfilled without him. The star of her own movie. And all he could do was watch from the little chink in the drywall.
It was all impossible, he knew. But it was true. And it made him feel helpless and angry. But perhaps what was worst was still to come. That was black and white. Now the world of imagination was being filmed in Technicolor. Bright, glimmering, and color drenched. Now things could become more real than real.
With panic starting to grip him, he turned to his mother and said brusquely, “I want to leave. Now.”
“What do you mean? The train didn’t get here yet! We’ve already waited here for so long and gone to the trouble. I want to see Judy Garland get off that train. And so do you!”
“You don’t know what I want. I hate this place.”
“Henry,” she said quietly, coming close enough so that their noses nearly touched. Her eyes were shot through with little red veins. “I know what you’re doing. And I won’t take it.”
“You’re blaming me. You’re hating me. For all that’s happened these last few years.”
“No, I just…”
“Henry, my intentions have been nothing but good. When I met him, I was a widow, alone with a little boy. I didn’t know what to do. I felt it was an ugly, depressing life we were leading, and I couldn’t find a way out. Then I met the doctor. He spoke three languages. He’s been in the Great War. I first met him in a fever dream, I was fading away, I didn’t know if he was real or even if I was real. He was just this pair of fierce blue eyes peering from a fog. Watching me. Creating me. Those eyes were watching me back into existence. I almost died…”
“You did not!”
She slapped him sharply and neatly on the cheek.
“Listen, you. I’m sorry. I should have gotten us out earlier. Sometimes you just don’t realize how bad things are becoming. He was shooting me with dope.”
“Ma, please stop.”
“I have been buried alive for years. I let you suffer, and there’s no excuse for that. But you know what? We’re out now. We have a little hotel room. I will get a job. We will have a life. But for right now, I don’t want to hear it.” She straightened up and stood tall, not looking at him. “We will see the train. And tonight we will be at the Loews Theater. And tomorrow, who knows.”
He can tell he’s killed a little bit of her happiness. She’s got that look, that turned-inward look, the one she had when she saw the ghost bird imprinted on the windowpane.
“Do you still hear violin music?” she asks, “or is it me?”
The thing about the Doctor was, even though he watched you keenly and with great interest, you never knew what was going through his mind. This left Henry feeling queer. The doctor was affable and friendly when he was at work. He had a university job, where he taught young men to be doctors. He had a classroom with a real skeleton. He took Henry sometimes to walk through those university halls. He introduced him to his students as “my son.” When at home, he was more reserved, and he liked to read the latest medical journals while drinking tea. Sometimes he had a bad cough, from breathing mustard gas as a young man.
But none of the little bits added up to a person, one who could know and be known. He could be kind and thoughtful on his good days. But he never showed anger. Not truly. Just a scary blank coldness. When his young wife would become angry or upset about anything, he gave her a shot in the arm. And when Henry got in a fight, or did poorly in school, or rebelled in any way, the Doctor locked him in the closet.
In the closet was nothing but blackness, and the sound of a large ticking clock. “You are to stay here and concentrate on nothing but that clock,” the Doctor said. “That ticking you hear is the passing of time. You must learn to be a conscious boy, and not waste your time. Time moves but one way. Linear. It is a straight march from birth to death. Learn it. It is what’s real. It is absolute. And it is nonnegotiable. If there is one thing I learned from the Great War, it is that.”
And so it was this way, his mother in her bedroom, Henry in the closet. In the closet for hours. Tick tock tick tock. It could feel like a whole day. At first he would be frenzied with fear and terror, as he had always suffered from claustrophobia. But after a while, a different feeling came over him. The blackness began to expand. And expand.
His stepfather was wrong. The darkness contained all kinds of things. Silent fireworks, showers of sparks. Fabulous animals, mermaids. Human faces. Sometimes he thought he saw the face of his father, the coal miner. He had a black smudged face, and looked off into the distance in a mournful and disappointed kind of way.
Oh yes, the Doctor was wrong…
“Hey! Did you hear what they’re saying? The train is almost here!” His mother’s spirits lifted anew. “Oh, I can’t wait. I need the ladies' room. We’ll get out of the heat and rest a while before the movie tonight. The movie, after all, is the point of all this.”
She smiled, patted his cheek, and smoothed his hair. They were quiet for a while, and just watched the crowd. There were other boys here and there. But the girls were more interesting to look at. All were wearing wide, knee length skirts, some with starched petticoats that swayed to and fro. Many had white collars. The collars were stiff and school girlish or ruffled and frothy. Some were very young, and stood with their mothers, as Henry did. And some looked beautiful and grown up.
All together this way the girls looked almost like trick mirror reflections of each other. They could be one girl, evolving from young girlhood to adolescence, then finally, to grown adulthood. It seemed that it was more than a train of movie stars they waited for. They were waiting for life itself to arrive, to sweep them up into everything that was important and dramatic and beautiful.
Henry felt a blossoming in himself at that moment. He felt that a connection had been made between what was interior, that dark closet of himself, and the exterior: what was shared with others. Being one with the group. In that moment, he felt dizzy and exhilarated, and understood for once why his mother loved these events, these large crowds.
This moment was broken only when Henry felt a jostle to the side. Someone was pushing through, someone whose eyes looked out through the holes of a Tin Man mask. It was just so…strange. And once again Henry felt the weight of all these bodies, stealing his breath.
The violin music still dipped and sailed. Henry was impressed by its complexity all over again. It felt as though only he alone could appreciate it. He felt in his pocket for the money his mother had given him, in case they were separated. He had several dollar bills and some coins. He felt righteous in that moment. He would put money into that violin case.
Feeling those coins in his hand, he pressed through, in the direction of the music. He stood tall, feeling proud, and kept one eye on his mother to see if she was watching. He wanted her to see him do this. But she was not looking.
Henry made it through to the musician. He dropped a quarter into the case, which was lined with worn red velvet. Then he looked into the eyes of the violinist, who he had thought was very young, but up close was older than he expected. Lines ringed his hooded eyes, even though the hair was full and floppy. The musician smiled a knowing smile, gave a nod, but did not break his song. Henry smiled back, but it was an uncertain smile. He had just noticed what looked like shrapnel wounds splashed against one side of the musician’s face. A veteran?
Suddenly, there was an uproar that rippled through the crowd, up and out. The mass of people began to move as one, a deafening wave. He could just make out the words, “They are here! Their train! It’s here!”
Henry made eye contact with the musician once more. (The eyes did look haunted…) He had stopped playing at last, and he mouthed something to Henry, and it sounded like: She is a beauty, no? What could that mean? His mother? The music? The young actress? Before he had time to think about it, he felt himself pulled, crushed, carried forward by the crowd.
He turned back to look for his mother; he could feel the distance growing between them. And he was afraid. Like a much younger boy, he cried out, “Ma! Where are you? Ma! Don’t leave me!” An image in his head of those snaking vines of the wallpaper, dust swirling in a sunbeam. Clawing at the plaster. Then for some reason his stepfather’s words rung in his head: Gas mask factories are being erected as we speak.
At last he saw her, she was being pushed along as well. Like a woman bather caught by the surf. But the look on her face was transformed and blissful. No longer in black and white, as she had been in her secret room. Now her colors were vivid. She was saturated in artificial hues. Technicolor was more real than real. So real it burned.
Before the mass of people swamped his sight altogether, Henry was just able to make out who he thought must be the famous actors. Mickey Rooney was just a small slight boy, shielding his face. Judy Garland was being held, as though on a crucifix, between two policemen. A look of utter astonishment and fear was on her face.