Sighs, echoing laughter, and half-remembered faces that belong to all-forgotten names gather in the pooling shadows of Corson Street; the ghosts gaze at Holly More as he walks alone in search of a hundred-year-old man. No matter how much money Charleston pours into the “revitalization” of the Corson district, its ghosts remain stubborn and continue to luxuriate in the riches of the poverty into which they had been born, thus lived, and brought home from their graves.
An ageless weeping-willow—gnarled and endowed with a sleepy wisdom by the salty winds that constantly assail it off Philo Bay—has changed little since Holly was a boy. Although Holly knows nothing of its origin, he is certain that the willow is an unplanned tree, whose critical seed blew in from the bay and took hold in the soil—so determined to live, that not even two nearby house fires or three major earthquakes could dissuade its fractal-reach into the sky. Nowadays the willow’s neighbors include a dealer in silk flowers and a tidy, albeit anal-retentive, mortician.
A verse takes shape in Holly’s mind:
From not weepy willow contrive my wreath;
Lay plastic greens and berries on thine door.
Show your sentimental, shallow-most grief;
Never display love extant beyond before.
“Eleven notes on the last,” Holly whispers. Eleven is an unlucky number. It seldom carries its own weight.
A young couple exits a retro-clothing shop. They are wholesome and attractive and move easily in the light gravity of youth. Their radiance is bulletproof, and is even enhanced by the raw October weather.
As brown is to orange, fresh faces are to cable-knit. Holly sighs. There might have been something in that line, but it’s already gone.
“I still hate the way that debate went last night,” the man said to the woman. “All that yelling. And we’re supposed to give one of them Lincoln’s old job?”
The young woman smiles sweetly, too briefly, at Holly, when the couple passes him by. “Right?” he hears her say. “It was all ‘You’re the antichrist!’ and ‘Oh yeah? Well, you’re the bigger, scarier antichrist!’”
They can take turns being the antichrist, Holly thinks. If you’ve seen one candidate debate, pretty lady, you’ve seen them all. Maybe what we need is a good old fashioned dictator, like Stalin—that way everyone will know who the antichrist is without guesswork.
The mournful, ululate warning bell of an unseen shipyard tram interrupts his thoughts. Holly pauses on the sidewalk and absently draws his jacket collar up to his chin. He has heard this sound all his life, and he always associates it with Beth, Harry and Saint Frances; three faces too near to his heart to ever be seen as ghosts.
Charleston wouldn’t exist without the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. “Green” peace-and-love-types often spy irony in a hand of the American killing machine causing life to flourish; but that sort of thing doesn’t hold up well when you consider what Darwin had to say on the subject.
Alas, big items such as war and peace do not interest Holly. He’d rather have the latter, but he thinks that a serious alteration in the natural ways of humankind will have to happen before the former becomes unnecessary.
Wholesome hippies seek geek antichrist;
The meek need not apply.
(Unless you are meek)
Holly likes this, except for the twenty-five notes. Twenty-five is unlucky. It stacks like money.
As a poet, Holly More is constantly on the lookout for an honest hundred-year -old man. He must be honest unto himself only. He must be clear and complete and yet neither relate nor compare to no other being or memory, even in paradox.
Holly’s lifelong friend, Bethlehem, knows about this quest. When they were children on Corson Street during the sixties and seventies, the hundred-year-old man was their by-word for interesting situations and objects one or the other had discovered in the alley that ran between Corson and Wycoff Avenue. On the Wycoff side of the alley stood a row of large turn-of-the-century houses that had been divided into apartments for the poor and working-class. Holly and his troubled mother had lived on the top floor of one of the tenements, while Beth and her fun-loving, widowed mother, “Harry,” had rented rooms in the basement. With Harry, you always got Saint Frances.
The alley still runs along between Corson and Wycoff—and although the old houses had succumbed to the wrecking ball twenty years back, the unreachable poor and those who live from paycheck to paycheck still inhabit the Wycoff side. But nowadays they do so in a monotonous row of low-income duplexes. It’s the same old story: plastic sheathed windows, shoes flung up over the lines, ignorant wanna-bee gangstas on the make, and unplanned kids everywhere.
Although Corson Street begins near the foot of Torqwamni Hill, follows the curve of Philo Bay, and eventually merges with the highway that leads out of Charleston, for Holly and Beth it actually began at The Temple of the Dow Lady Emporium and ended at the White Pig Tavern. In between lay Elmo’s Adult Books; Clarke’s Drugs; various dives; two or three Mom and Pop’s; possibly the only Masonic Temple on earth made entirely out of wood; a busy pawnbroker, and the A&P—at which Holly’s mother often got her cigarettes on the strength of a note she’d send along with her son. Not surprisingly to Holly, the Dow, Pig, Charleston Loans, and Elmo’s continue to do business to this day. These places, along with the alley, are the heaviest with ghosts.
Holly cuts through a vacant lot choked with grabby, feral blackberry brambles and hibernating Scotch broom to access the alley. He recalls how the hundred-year-old man got started in 1967:
“Wanna see a hunnert-year-old man?” Holly says.
Beth rolls her incredibly large kewpie-doll eyes and says, “Don’t talk like PWT.” At eight, Beth is a year older than Holly, and she’s already doing high school course work because her IQ shook out close to that of Tesla. She considers it her duty to keep her “boyfriend” from speaking like a poor white trash brush picker.
“Awright, then say ‘Mother may I’ and spell cup.” Holly has recently learned this witticism in second grade. He uses it plenty.
Beth shakes her head. Some things are just plain hopeless.
According to Beth, the only trouble with the hundred-year-old man was that there was one. Almost certainly in his eighties, he was knowingly referred to as “the Jew” by the landlady, Mrs. Wells: “Come Monday they squeeze every dime ‘til Liberty screams—it’s their christless way of doin’ business.”
Unlike everyone else, Holly found the hundred-year-old man interesting to observe. The fellow had a huge hook-nose, a corona of wispy white hair that splayed out from beneath a red beret, and was as hunched over as a fairy tale wizard. He’d beat about a cane with one hand and carried a perfectly filthy shopping bag in the other—and no matter how warm the day, he was never seen in any less than three sweaters. Looking back, the unlucky sneer that Mrs. Wells had laid in Jew depresses Holly. Although she could be quick with “Jew,” “colored” or “dago,” she had also been a kind woman who had never turned anyone out on account of what they were—except for hippies—Mrs. Wells had hell’s own fury toward hippies; she had lost a brother on Omaha Beach.
Although Beth had been unimpressed by Holly’s discovery, the phrase “hundred-year-old man” (in reference to an interesting discovery) somehow stuck to the kids’ private idiom and has remained active for half a century. During the sixties, hundred-year-old men would turn up everywhere in the alley. Once, it was a dead cat that the kids did their best to bury in the stony, switch-grass root-infested soil of the lot behind Elmo’s. At the “funeral,” Holly read something from the Bible that he had gotten from the lady who ran Good News—for quoting Holy Scripture seemed like the thing to do. Another time they stood in the shadows mystified by the sight of an obviously drunken young woman dancing with an imaginary partner at her window. Her blouse and bra had been equally imaginary. For months afterward Holly’s eyes would suddenly glaze over with memory, and Beth would goddam well know that he was thinking about “boobies.”
She seldom steps her best,
‘til she’s got it off her chest.
“That’s not good enough to be dirty,” Holly mutters. Then he spies a lost ghost wandering from shadow to shadow. It’s bad luck to be afraid of a ghost. Nor is it polite to stare. The thing to do is jump the first solid, unrelated thought that seeing the ghost summons in your mind—the one that comes right after, “Jesus, Christ, I think I see a ghost,” that is. It’s what lost ghosts do best; they resurrect misplaced hundred-year-old men.
Holly tags along with the ghost (yet he keeps a respectful distance) on its way up the alley toward the White Pig Tavern. Who are you? A junkie who nodded -off one time too many behind the Pig? A raincoat boy oozing his way out Elmo’s backdoor before heading home to be the man of the house—a bed-stain your wife didn’t understand? Did you catch the free peep-show the dancing lady starred in? Holly doesn’t worry about offending the ghost with his thoughts, for even lost ghosts know only the truth.
It doesn’t matter to Holly that the ghost is his own moving reflection passing across broken windows and over the surfaces of mud puddles. Nor is this to be considered madness. If anything, Holly is too well tuned to reality; to the degree that he must constantly escape it to protect his soul. Alcohol used to provide a safe haven, but it had turned on him as any self-respecting demon must. It had become evident within the bleak passages that had lain between debaucheries that he had stopped pulling his own weight, and thus had become unlucky. Even though Beth is wealthy and has yet to wholly drop the fantasy of a patron/artist relationship, Holly knew that he was a kept man mostly owing to Beth’s loyalty and inability to turn her back on a loved one. Holly quit drinking a couple of years back, and he now has a job—well, sort of. He’s the night custodian at the Temple of the Dow Lady, which is about the best a fifty-six-year-old notorious town drunk, womanizer, ex-actor, and fifty-cent poet—who does things such as not speaking on Thursdays because he’s got it in his head that Thursday is the day of the week in which people who talk too much talk most—can hope for.
The lost ghost sees both home and a hundred-year-old man. It follows a trail of shattered glass to a rise of cracked stone steps that lead to an elevated, weedy vacant lot. Holly climbs the steps and stops on the third. Three is a hit or miss number; you can never tell what it is up to.
Peter prayed to Jesus:
“Lord, I meant no harm;
For I got it straight from Judas,
‘Third time’s the charm.’”
Beth has a stunning memory. Although genius cannot be taught, she believes that there are certain doorways in the mind that anybody may enter and recover the past with clarity. “It all exists as it had been,” she has said time after time. “The brain’s like cloud storage. And I’m willing to wager that even your pickled egg of a temporal lobe still contains something—although I’m fairly certain that your overall brain is now as smooth and hard and small as a shoehorn. You shouldn’t have drunk away your crinkles, Sir Hollyhock—they’re what cause us to think.”
Although Holly knows that he is as likely to recreate the past the way Beth sees it as he is to begin thinking in logarithms, he does have his own genius for the recollection of emotional memory. Beth can take him back to a long gone afternoon and describe details down to the tilt of a miss-pulled window shade, and he believes her. (That’s the thing about dear Bethlehem—she cannot tell a lie because she has never needed to learn how to do so.) But he has a knack for sniffing his way back through time, following the long trail left behind by a certain feeling all the way back to that feeling’s lucky moment. He had awoken this afternoon with a quality that is best described as earned trust nibbling at his thoughts. Instinctively, he went to Corson Street and the alley to find the moment when the feeling had been pure. And in his jumping from here-to-there, then-back-here-after-another-there thinking process, he examines this hundred-year-old man.
This is an important third step. Mom died on this step—not on the sofa where I had found her; she finally passed in my mind and heart when Beth, Harry and Saint Frances spoke the truth to me until it stuck for keeps. It’s a hell of a thing to look into a face that knows that nobody gives a damn anymore. You see it in stray cats, mostly. And in the eyes of mothers who’d rather be dead than hear the voices any longer. Do demons still have plenty to say after the host has died? Maybe they linger and hoot on the lawn in the predawn darkness like party-goers who can’t quite get it through their heads that the host is dead.
Then the hundred-year-old man comes to Holly, as he knew it would. It’s a dirty trick to play on a memory, this pretending to be lost in unfocused dreams, all the while casting a line along the periphery for what is actually being sought. If you want to attract a squirrel, feed a crow.
Although his mother’s death when he was sixteen is something Holly thinks about at least ten times a day, it, as it goes with his thoughts on war and peace, is too vast to be made sense of. It’s the little things that live large, they build up unto themselves and, in time, compare to nothing, not even in the context of paradox. And when the timid yet persistent small image comes to his head, his deeply furrowed brow smoothens and he turns to face Holman House even though all there really is to see is an apathetic, slouchy cottonwood, which clings to the last of its leaves like that tree outside the sick window in the O. Henry story. Even though the image is clear in meaning, Holly’s imagination fills in the details:
“You’re old enough to do this for a lady without being told how,” Fran says holding out a delicate gold chain that holds a crucifix. Fran and Harry are busy getting ready to go out for the evening. The process is a religious rite of sorts, and takes no less than two hours to perform.
Harry glances up from a small mirror, which she only uses to add mascara to her already long lashes and gazes at Holly, a playful grin darts along her lips. “How old are you, kid?” she asks.
“A year younger than me,” Beth chimes in. “Just like Pooh-bear and Christopher Robin.”
“I dunno, Frannie,” Harry says, still grinning. ”That boy looks like a born boob-snoop if I’ve ever seen one.”
Holly and Beth exchange knowing glances.
“Just because you date goose-necked guys doesn’t mean that I suffer from the same weakness, Harriet,” Fran says. “Come here, my little gentleman. Once you’ve mastered this skill, the ladies will crumble at your feet.”
“They’ll do it faster if you drop a twenty dollar bill,” says Harry.
“Never mind her,” Fran says. She hands Holly the necklace and sits in a kitchen chair. Then she holds her long blond hair up and aside to expose the back of her neck to him. “Loop it under my chin and fasten the clasp; don’t let your eyes wander over and down.”
“’Over and down,’” Holly says. Even at seven, he had known what that had meant. He has sympathy for men who had grown up in histories written by men. Holly met his father just once. It had been at a bar, and the only thing he took from that meeting was the desire not to repeat it. That set up had been awkward as hell; it was as much a hundred-year old man as ordering a pizza. Not surprisingly, the women in his life had no hand in arranging that terrible little comedy.
The mournful ululate wail of the still unseen shipyard tram reaches his thoughts once more. And the spell is broken, and the lot and the stairs become what they have been for decades, ruins given over to bramble and broom and neglect.
No verse comes from the memory; nothing will do, and any attempt would be unlucky. Holly almost pushes for such anyway, for he thinks that a posy ought to be tossed at this grave. But he finally thinks better of it. It would be the same as sneaking a peek over and down.
Banner Image: View of the U.S. Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington (USA), in September 1924. Two battleships are visible, a Colorado-class ship, left, and a Tennessee-class ship. Six flush-deck destroyers are also identifaiable.
By U.S. Department of the Navy. Thirteenth Naval District. Office of the Commandant. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons