Chapter 1

A Novel
by Peter Anastas



Frank Crow was an enigmatic guy. He spent most of his time hunched over the bridge table in a corner of the TD house living room. That is, when he wasn't trying to drag anyone who'd listen into a discussion of existential theology. Frank had an uneven crew cut that made the back of his head look like a coxcomb. His plastic rimmed glasses were too small for his narrow face, while the thickness of their circular lenses seemed to force his pale blue eyes closer together, giving him an invariable expression of quizzical concentration.

Frank chain smoked Camels. Sometimes he'd have two or three lighted simultaneously around the lip of an overflowing ashtray. When he was involved in heavy bidding, ashes dropped at random or flew about him. As a consequence, his rumpled blue Oxford cloth shirts were peppered with cigarette burns, the holes multiplying over time. Like the rest of us, Frank wore sloppy chinos. But instead of the usual dirty white tennis shoes or spit-shined loafers, which were de rigueur among the brothers, he favored a pair of battered black Navy dress shoes he'd swiped from the PX at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. At one point the soles were so worn the brothers took to calling him "Adlai."

Nevertheless, everyone seemed to tolerate Frank. Maybe they only feigned interest when he went on about Berdyaev and Christian mysticism. In a house full of men who scarcely cracked a textbook, let alone read a newspaper or even Time magazine, I'm sure many found it odd to see Frank with the latest paperback translations of Sartre or Camus. He had a habit of locking himself in the bathroom to read. Just as often, he'd leave one of his books behind on the floor, where the dampness of countless showers soon reduced it to a limp bundle of mildewed pages.

I suspect that Frank's pre-theological status granted him a certain immunity from the insults the rest of us got for being discovered with books at all, never mind daring to engage in talk beyond the obligatory subjects of exams and "nookie." Whatever the reason, I always found Frank at the bridge table just before lunch, smoking and laying out his cards; and after dinner, when he was the first to return to that round oak refuge, he never lacked for partners. Aside from cigarettes and his apparent addiction to bridge, Frank always seemed to lead an ascetic life.

He was a year ahead of me in college. We weren't close at first, although any discussion with Frank was revealing. He knew what he was talking about--and that went beyond existentialism, which I'd been attracted to since my freshman year. He was born in a Chicago suburb, into a family of Unitarian ministers; and he grew up in South Portland, where his father led a congregation for many years. With Frank's interest in religion and his major in philosophy, we expected that he would go into the ministry himself. When he disappeared with the rest of the senior class the year before, I assumed he'd be attending Harvard Divinity School. But I was wrong.

Frank turned up again at the beginning of first semester of my senior year. He hadn't graduated after all. In fact, what kept him from receiving his degree was a lack of credits in physical education. Although the Dean had warned him about the deficit, Frank still hadn't shown his face at the gym. Now he was back to get his degree, he announced; he'd returned to Brunswick to make up two idiotic hours of "cal" a week. Naturally, we figured he'd spend the rest of his time at the bridge table, regaling a captive audience with one of his marathon accounts of Marcel's "creative fidelity."

But the Frank who appeared after that summer was a transformed person. Outwardly, he had the same pointed nose that stuck out below those fingerprinted lenses like the proboscis of some house pest. And his voice was just as squeaky, an odd cross between a Maine coast nasal twang and a Henry Aldrich crack, as he reached for the upper registers in his habitual enthusiasm. In fact, it was precisely that excitement in which he seemed different. He still played bridge at the house, though he now lived off campus in a little room over Lucy's Cash Market on Page Street, where we bought our beer after the other stores had closed. Instead of Kierkegaard, Frank was now talking about revolution. His new hero was Fidel Castro. Before Frank's return Castro had only been a name to us, with a face of course--the grizzled beard and the jungle fatigues--but still not an authentic presence.

Frank changed all that. I remember the first time I laid eyes on him after his return. I was drinking coffee in the big front window of Clayton's Food Shop, diagonally across Maine Street from the campus. St. Pierre, my former roommate, was at the table, along with Bob Mendel, who lived with him in the Zeta house. Bill Mueller was with us, too. Except for Bill, who was a junior, the rest of us would be graduating the following June. I'm not sure if it was the unstated fact of that event, or merely our resistance to returning to the classroom after summer vacation, but everyone seemed withdrawn.

Suddenly I saw a short, skinny guy bundled up in a red and black lumber jacket, even though it was a warm afternoon in mid-September. He was heading toward the coffee shop, a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. It was Frank. One minute he was squinting through the steamy window at us, and the next he was at the table talking a blue streak about Castro and the techniques of insurgency.

I never did discover what sparked Frank's interest in the Cuban Revolution, but during those few weeks he remained on campus I learned a lot about what preoccupied him. He took to visiting me on Federal Street. Frank knew I liked to read late at night after returning from my job at the library. He would come up to the second floor room, in a wing of the large, white 19th century faculty house where I lived, and tap softly on the door. I always knew it was Frank from the shuffle of his footsteps and the acrid smell of his cigarette smoke.

We talked a lot there, especially since I'd left the TD house at the end of my junior year to become an Independent. Night after night Frank outlined his theories of political action. He gave me Arturo Barea's memoir of the Spanish Civil War. And with great cogency he explained Camus' vision of l'homme revolte', based in part upon the French writer's involvement in partisan activities and his editorship of the underground paper Combat. Frank spoke with passion and authority about translating existential theory into direct action.

"It's time to put away the books," he would often declare. "We've got to change the world and sweep away oppression. It's imperative that we open up the space for people to remake themselves."

My only experience of politics had been as a member of Students for Stevenson during the l956 presidential campaign. I was drawn to Stevenson because I couldn't abide the spectacle of Eisenhower and Nixon. I adored Stevenson's speeches, especially since I'd learned that he wrote most of them himself. But after I had a few doors slammed in my face while canvassing for Stevenson in Brunswick and Topsham ("Don't expect me to vote for that bald-headed pinko!" one otherwise gentle-looking old lady screamed at me); and after only sixteen of us had voted for the Democratic ticket in a student mock election, I was so discouraged at the thought of another four years of soporific Ikeism that I returned to my books and my daydreaming.

Frank never tried to convert us to his way of thinking, though. He'd merely share what was on his mind if he happened to meet us between classes at the coffee shop or over at the student union late at night. Yet it was clear to me that Frank meant business when he talked about trying to sneak into Cuba. None of us considered that fighting with Castro might entail killing people. Naively, perhaps, we thought about it as an opportunity to change Cuba from a dictatorship of thugs and grafters into a democratic society. But Frank wasn't sanguine about that possibility. He'd read his Malraux and he knew that political change often had to come from the barrel of a gun.

All during the rest of September and into October Frank seemed obsessed with escaping to Cuba. He planned to travel to Mexico, hoping to find a way to sneak onto the island from there. He'd been to Mexico before and he spoke some Spanish, which he learned at St. Paul's. Mostly he'd show me revolutionary literature that got into the country through France. He seemed aware of everything that was going on in Cuba, especially where the significant action was taking place. Then he left. He didn't complete his credits in "cal." He didn't wait to graduate. One day in mid-October Frank simply disappeared.

* * *

There was a big picture of Fidel Castro entering Havana on the front page of that morning's Boston Globe.

"Do you think that bastard really made it?" St. Pierre was lighting up another Lucky from the butt he held in his small dark fingers.

"If he did, you can bet your ass we'll hear about it," I said.

"Imagine watching the news," he said. "Suddenly you catch a glimpse of Frank sitting on the tailgate of some truck with a bunch of guerrillas--or driving a Jeep!"

"With that crazy crewcut," Mueller interjected, "and a shit-eating grin on his face."

Mendel was quiet as usual. A black curl bisected his forehead. His sharp blue eyes followed our conversation, darting from one speaker to another.

"Hold on," he broke in. "You guys think it's some kind of movie. If he made it down there, if he actually got through to Castro in the Sierra Maestra, do you think for one minute they'd be silly enough to give him a gun?"

"Frank's a good shot," I said.

"Hunting's not warfare," Mendel replied dismissively. "Besides, with his eyesight he couldn't even pass a draft board physical."

"Fuck the American army!" Mueller shouted. "Pretty soon they'll be going in against Castro."

"I can see it now," St. Pierre said. "The president comes on TV with a stern look on that baby face of his: 'We have to intervene because the Cuban Revolution is threatening our national security--"'

"Security, my ass," said Mueller, doing a bongo roll on the edge of the Formica table top. "It's cutting off the gambling take. Next thing you know they'll be nationalizing the sugar industry."

It was the first day of the new semester. We were sitting in the window of Clayton's Food Shop. Ten o'clock classes had let out and you could see everyone's breath on the cold air. Calls and shouts came to us through the plate glass, partially fogged with moisture. They seemed to echo off the old stone buildings in the gray light. It had snowed again the night before, and now it was hard packed on Maine Street, with drifts still white along the sidewalks.

Only four of us remained from a group of six friends. Frank was gone. And just before Christmas Roonie Reardon, a Korean War vet on the GI bill, had blown a hole the size of a melon in the living room wall of the TD house with his .357 Magnum pistol. For that indulgence, he'd been expelled, leaving St. Pierre, myself, Mendel and Mueller.

We sat around three sides of the table, elbows jammed in among saucers and textbooks. The big bay window in front of the luncheonette jutted out over the sidewalk. From our vantage point you could see the entrance to Fairfield's Book Shop next door to the right of us, and King's Barber Shop and the Parkview Cleaners and Laundromat down the street on the left. Directly across the street was the white facade of the First Parish Church. On the other side of the Bath Road, which was perpendicular to Maine Street, was the entrance to the campus, where the Franklin Robinson Memorial gate hung perpetually open on two granite pillars. A brick walk began there and led to Massachusetts Hall, which housed the administrative offices. Spread out beyond that around the "quad" were the classroom buildings, the chapel, the library, the art museum and the dorms.

"I told my parents I wasn't going to medical school."

St. Pierre lit up another Lucky, jabbing the previous butt out in his cup. The cup and saucer rattled against the table top. His hand shook against the cup as he tried to fit it back into the saucer. That set the cup to rattling again and some more of the gray-colored coffee spilled into the well of the saucer.

"Fuck it," he said, pushing both cup and saucer away. With a crumpled paper napkin he dabbed at the circle of moisture in front of him.

"It was pandemonium. My father cracked the kitchen table with his fist and my little sister went screaming into her room. The message was clear--I'd disappointed them again."

"We had the same argument all over," he continued, leaning his chair back against the window frame. "I told them that I wasn't cut out to be a doctor, that I wanted to go to New York to study acting."

"'But you've just completed three and half years of pre-med,' my father bellowed. 'What do you mean you're not cut out?"'

"'I'm passing by the skin of my teeth,' I said. And when I tried to explain the whole thing had been a lie, that I never really wanted to go to medical school, and that I'd only started applying to please them--to go along with my uncle who was the family success story--it was like adding insult to injury."

"But the worst part of it," he said, and his coal black eyes sought mine--"the worst was my father looking at me with unbelievable contempt. 'Go to New York,' he said, 'you'll end up nothing but a queer."'

St. Pierre dropped his cigarette into the last of the cold coffee. He pushed the cup and saucer even farther away from him.

"That's what happens," Mueller said, smoothing his goatee down under his chin. "You try to come clean with them and it blows up in your face. Just don't tell your family anything. Do what Frank did."

St. Pierre shook his head.

"It doesn't work. They start reminding you who's paying the bills."

"So what?" Mueller said. "Don't you remember the letter I got from my father when he tried to convince me to shave? He threatened to stop my allowance if I didn't get rid of the beard. I said, 'Great, I'll drop out and hitchhike to San Francisco. See what the neighbors think of that.' The next thing you know my mother's on the phone begging me to stay in school."

"I hate that kind of blackmail," I said.

"Yeah, but whose parents live without duplicity?" Mendel said.

"I can't take it anymore," St. Pierre yelled. "I can't be the way they want me to be!"

"You were gung-ho about applying to med school," Mendel insisted. "Don't deny it."

"It's meaningless to me now. All I want to do is act. I think I've discovered my true vocation."

While they talked, I drifted away. Frank was on my mind. The photograph in the Globe had brought back the poignancy of our midnight talks that past fall, Frank's nonstop theorizing about existential action. I wondered if he'd actually made it into Cuba. He hadn't said anything about writing to us. I didn't expect he'd be able to get a letter out of a country engaged in civil war, even if he wanted to communicate. But the fall seemed years behind me. With the snow on the ground and my last semester ahead of me, it felt like another time.

Now I was haunted by endings. Returning to Brunswick the previous night on the train out of Boston, I experienced a new pressure. As I sat over a beer in the stifling clubcar, platforms of deserted railroad stations stacked with wet newspapers flying past me in the newly fallen snow, I imagined myself away from it all and wanting it back before I'd even lost it. I felt the loss even more acutely as I trudged through the snow from the station up to my cold room.

"Where will I go?" I asked myself in the purple dark of the mercury vapor lamps. "Who will I be?"

I knew the answer to the first question; I suspected that the answer to the second depended upon what happened to me at my next destination.

"Come by tonight and listen to some Bartok." Mendel leaned over the table as he pulled his sweater back on. "I've found the most extraordinary recordings of the first four quartets!"

Mueller bummed a Lucky off St. Pierre and slipped out. I lingered, sensing that Henri wanted to talk some more.

"Your folks will get over it," I said.

"Jason, it was hell. Only you could know that. My father will probably never speak to me again. All he's talked about for four years at the fire station is me going to medical school like my uncle did, a poor French Canadian boy making good. Now I've dashed his dreams. How can he tell those guys his son wants to be an actor in New York City?"

"Listen, if we've learned anything at all from Frank it's that we're free to choose, condemned to, even."

St. Pierre only shook his head.

"They probably won't come to see me graduate."

"They'll be here," I said. "Wait and see."

St. Pierre grabbed my sleeve as I got up to leave.

"Tell me the truth, Jason. Do you think I'm effeminate?"

"Don't be silly!"

"No, really, tell me because something happened to me just before we left for Christmas break. It was right after we did Streetcar and I was walking back to the house one Sunday morning with the Times under my arm. As I passed Winthrop Hall someone yelled, 'Faggot!' out the window. I knew it was intended for me because the campus was deserted. I stood there and I shouted back, 'Show your face, you fucking asshole!' But no one did, and I felt like an idiot standing there all by myself."

"Henri, forget about it. You and I are misfits."

"But I played football! What more do they want?"

"Abject conformity," I said.

"It's driving me crazy, Jason. I don't know if I can hang on until June."

"Six months, a year from now, this will all seem like a bad dream. You'll be in New York, I'll be in Europe."

I wanted to put my arm around St. Pierre as we both gathered up our books. I felt an enormous kinship with him, a closeness born of nearly four years of friendship. Instead, we walked back to the campus in uneasy silence, the snow lying all around us in frozen drifts.

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Back Shore Press / Gloucester, MA 01930
Copyright 2005; 275 pp.