As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
This First Proof contains The Portrait, an excerpt from The River Queen.
“You know,” my father began, “The river is different up here than it is in Hannibal.” I’d taken him out to breakfast at Heinemenn’s in Whitefish Bay in Wisconsin. My father loved breakfast and I was glad to have him alone. My mother was jealous of the attention he always received. It made her angry when we’d sit and talk to him and she believed, perhaps rightly so, that we were ignoring her.
But as my father liked to say, you couldn’t get a word in “edgewise” if she was around. That morning my father was all dressed up in a brown camel coat, brown fedora, tweed jacket and silk tie. He was cold even though it was spring. At that time in his life, he was always cold.
We both ordered scrambled eggs, hash browns, crisp, and wheat toast. He was living dangerously and asked for a glass of fresh squeezed juice. “I’m going to be 103 years old,” he told the waitress and she almost fell on the floor.
“I’m going to squeeze that orange juice myself,” she said and she went to pay special attention to our order. I was asking him about the river. It didn’t take much prodding. He started talking to me about Hannibal. “In Hannibal you can see across it. Up north here there’s all these islands. You don’t even know where the other side is. You know I lived in Hannibal, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, I know.” He told me about living in Hannibal a dozen times. In fact he’s told all of his stories dozens of times and it seemed as if he’d reached the end of the line with no more to tell. I braced myself for a rerun.
“Well, I lived in Hannibal. Right next to the house Mark Twain lived in. He’d been dead, oh, ten years when I lived there and I don’t think he’d been back to Hannibal in twenty, but they still remembered him. You know why they called him Mark Twain, right …”
“It’s the pilot’s cry when they’re marking the depths …”
“That’s right. His real name was Samuel Clemens.” Of course I knew all of this. I knew that Samuel Clemens tried out many pseudonyms before he landed on the one that became his signature. “See if you listen, you learn. Anyway his house wasn’t any bigger than four booths in this restaurant.”
“It must be a museum now,” I said.
“Well, I don’t know how more than one person at a time could go through it. It wasn’t bigger than your upstairs bathroom. Anyway I worked in retail. Ladies garments.”
“You mean like dresses, blouses? I actually didn’t know my father worked in ladies garments.”
“Shoes, slips, bras. The whole thing.”
“What year was that, Dad?”
“Oh, it was 1921 or 1922. No, it must have been later because that spring, just before I moved to Hannibal, our downstairs neighbor murdered her husband. My parents were very good friends with him. You know, he took her on a cruise, then came home and he’s shaving one morning and she blows his head off.”
“That’s awful,” I said, shocked.
“Seems he brought his mistress along on the cruise as well. She was in the next stateroom.” My father gave a wave of his hand. “That kind of thing happened all the time.”
“It did?” I asked, amazed. I wanted to know more about the downstairs neighbor and his mistress and the wife who blew him away, but our eggs came and my father was on another trajectory. He poked at his hash browns. “I wanted them crisp.”
“Shall we send them back?”
He gave a wave of his hand. “Naw, it’s all right.” But I could tell he was disappointed. He took a few bites of his eggs and the hash browns. “Not so bad. But I like them crisp.” Then he took a sip of juice. “Now that’s good juice. Here, have some.” He pushed the glass my way. “Where was I? Let’s see, I was 23 years old. So it was later. It was 1925. Anyway I worked for Klein’s Department store and one day Mr. Klein came in. He came all the way from New York. They were a chain of retail stores. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Kleins.”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Kleins.
“Anyway Mr. Klein came in. He was bald as a bat. At that time I had a full head of hair, you know. In 1925 I had hair as thick as yours. So Mr. Klein comes in and the first thing he does is yank on my hair. He says how’d you get a head of hair like that. How come I’m rich and bald and you work for me and haven’t got a pot to piss in and you’ve got a head of hair like that. Mr. Klein liked to joke around, though I only met him once or twice in the year I lived in Hannibal. Anyway I had hair then, in 1925, but by the time I was 33, ten years later, all my hair was gone. You know that, right. You’ve got the portrait.”
“You know, the picture. We called them portraits then. That’s because you went to a studio and sat for them. It wasn’t a painting, but we called them portraits. That picture of me. There were only three copies made and one of them is hanging in your house. On your gallery wall.”
The waitress came by with her manager to make sure everything was all right. “Your eggs are getting cold,” she said. “Shall I heat them up for you?”
“Naw, I’m just talking,” my father replied in his most polite voice.
“He’s 102 years old,” she told her boss.
“You must be kidding,” the boss said, shaking my father’s hand. “What’s your secret?”
“Nothing in excess,” my father said, admonishing them both.
I was watching their little exchange, trying to envision this portrait of my father. I have a whole wall of pictures. Ancestors and new arrivals. Those gangster-like shots of my father from the 1920s. My husband’s family. Our daughter floating on a raft. Then I see it. In a dark suit, pinstriped shirt, his hands folded across one another, a soft smile on his face. He’s holding something in his hand—a pipe, I think. Something he doesn’t smoke. I’ve had this picture for many years. I’ve probably walked by it ten thousand times, but I’ve never given it much thought.
“So I never told you about this portrait, did I?”
I shook my head, nibbling on my now cold toast. “It was from 1935 and I was working on the Chicago Board of Trade. In the summer weekends we’d go out to Union Pier and there was this girl from Memphis. But her family summered in Chicago. They had a house on Lake Michigan and we became friendly. She was from the Bloch family. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Blochs from Memphis.”
I nodded, though I never had.
“A very rich girl. Anyway I dated this Bloch girl a few times one summer, but then the summer was over and she was going back to Memphis.”
“Were you still in Hannibal?”
My father waved his hand in the air. “No, you aren’t paying attention. I told you. I was in Chicago. At the Board of Trade. Hannibal was a long time ago. This is about the portrait.”
I wasn’t exactly paying attention. I thought he was telling me a river story, but now his tale has taken a bend, a turn I hadn’t expected to Union Pier and a girl from Memphis I’d never heard him mention before.
“Anyway this girl, the Bloch girl, her father committed suicide in 1929. She was a pretty girl. She had red hair like a fire and very green eyes. She reminded me of a party. She was bright and pretty. I liked her and I suppose I felt badly for her because of what had happened in her life. So when she was going back to Memphis I asked her if, when the holidays rolled around, if she’d like a gift from me. If there wasn’t something I could send her so she would remember me. And she said that she would like a portrait of me. That was all. She just wanted a portrait of me. Now there was this very famous portrait photographer in Chicago, his name was Seymour. He did all kinds of photographs and he was very expensive. So I went over to Seymour’s studio one day …”
I wasn’t completely following the story now about how my father and his brother went over to Seymour’s studio. I was thinking about the neighbor whose wife blew him away and the rich girl whose father killed himself and who wanted a picture of my father to remember him by.
“What happened to her father?”
“Well,” my father said, taking a bite of his eggs. “That’s an interesting story. You see, this man, her father, Mr. Bloch, he had a grocery store in Memphis. He was quite successful, but he heard that there was a new kind of grocery store starting up in Minneapolis. A grocery store where employees didn’t wait on you. Instead you served yourself. So he told one of his employees that he wanted him to go up to Minneapolis and find out just what kind of new grocery store was being started up in Minneapolis. So the employee went up and said he’d be back in a week or two. Well, a week went by, two, four, six weeks. That employee never came back.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. They never found him.” My father gave me an impatient look. “This isn’t a story about the employee who disappeared.” My father made a little explosion sign with his fingers. “It’s about the portrait. But since you asked, I’m telling you about Mr. Bloch.”
I nod. “Okay.”
“So Mr. Bloch sends another employee up to find the one who never came home. His name was Clarence Saunders and he told Mr. Bloch that in Minneapolis the grocery stores were changing and someone had an idea called self-service. He told Mr. Bloch all about how the customers never had to wait for the next clerk but could take the items off the shelves themselves. Butter, rice, beans. They just reached up and took it and put it into a cart. Saved a lot of time. Well, Saunders explained this to Mr. Bloch and they opened a store together. It was called the Piggly Wiggly and it was the first supermarket. Ever heard of that?”
I said I have and my father seemed pleased. “Well,” he said, “at least you know something.”
“But what about her father?” This story, like so many of my father’s, begins on the river, then meanders away much as the river sidewinds, leaves its bed, only to come back to itself downstream.
“If you listen, I’ll tell you. You keep interrupting me. I’m losing the thread. God, it’s freezing in here.” He pulled his coat around his thin, frail body. “Anyway they did very well with the Piggly Wiggly until 1929 and the market crashed. The two men lost everything and Mr. Bloch who had a 250,000 dollar life insurance policy jumped out of a window so his family could have the money. He didn’t want his family to have to start over. That’s when they changed the laws about life insurance policies and suicide. In 1929. And that’s how his daughter became rich.”
He paused to take another bite. “Good eggs,” he said, “but they’re ice cold. Anyway all this girl wanted was a picture of me. I would’ve sent her a gold bracelet if she’d asked, but that’s not what she wanted. She wanted a portrait. So I went over to Mr. Seymour’s one day. And there was a doctor there. A famous Chicago doctor. I don’t remember his name. But he was having his picture taken. Mr. Seymour was taking it like this and like that. My father bends and dodges, showing me how Mr. Seymour was taking pictures. Anyway the doctor recognized me and he says to Mr. Seymour, oh you have to take that man’s picture because he’s a famous man. He’s on the Board of Trade. You’ve got to take his picture. “Well, while I was waiting for Mr. Seymour to take my picture, I was chatting with his girl and I asked her how much it would cost me to have three pictures taken and she said oh three pictures that would be 15 dollars. Well, that sounded okay to me so I told him to go ahead and take my picture. So Mr. Seymour, he smoothes down my hair and hands me a pipe. I never smoked a pipe, but I’m holding it in the portrait. He takes my picture for 15, 20 minutes, then I leave. About a week later he sends me the proofs and I pick out the one picture.”
“The one that’s hanging on my wall.”
“That’s right. So anyway I order three copies of the picture and send him the 15 dollars and a few days later Mr. Seymour calls me up. He’s yelling and screaming. What’s this 15 dollars. These pictures cost more like a hundred and fifty dollars. Anyway Mr. Seymour goes on blah blah blah, but I tell him talk to your girl. She told me 15 dollars and 15 dollars it is. So eventually he agreed and that’s how I got the portrait for $15 instead of $150.”
“What happened to the pictures?”
“Well, you have one, that’s the one I kept. My mother had one. And the girl had one.”
“And what about the one the girl had?”
“Oh, she probably tore it up. I don’t know.” He took the last bite of his breakfast. He’d cleaned his plate. “I never heard from her again. I wasn’t going to marry her anyway. I was a confirmed bachelor then. I shoulda stayed that way. Believe me.” He tapped my hand. “Of course, I wouldn’t have had you.” My father shook his head. “I wish I could remember her first name. I think I broke her heart.”
Mary Morris’s The River Queen will be published by Henry Holt in April. She is also the author of Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Acts of God, Revenge, and Angels and Aliens. When she is not traveling or writing, Morris—the winner of the Rome Prize in Literature—teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.