Memories of Charles Olson

[Part 2]



he dreary winter of 39-40 wore into a cold drizzly March that saw Bostons east wind at its blustery best. One damp foggy night Connie and I were walking home along St. Stephen Street where our apartment was located. It was an interesting city street that paralleled Huntington Avenue where at that time the Boston Opera House was located, just a few blocks from Symphony Hall. Across from our apartment building were attractive turn-of-the-century brick bow-front houses that had been converted to rooming houses accommodating members of the ballet and opera companies as well as musicians. As Connie and I walked along the street in the chill darkness, we saw a shadowy figure some distance in front of us. He seemed to be very tall, yet bent forward as he clutched a scarf that appeared to be covering his head and held together at the throat. His overcoat was long and flapped around his legs.

I think thats Charles Olson, I said to Connie.

We followed, picking up our steps a bit, but before we could catch up he turned and entered one of the rooming houses. We debated whether to knock at the door and inquire for a Mr. Olson, but decided not to. We werent really sure the man was Olson.

The story has significance only because we learned later that the man was indeed Olson and that he happened to be in that rooming house because he had a small part in a ballet. He was a member of the chorus and carried a spear!

When we told Olson several months later of the chilly March evening and the tall stranger ahead of us, he laughed and said it was indeed he and that he was cold and lonesome that night. God, I would have loved to have had a cup of tea with someone that night, he said. He told us he had signed up with the Ballet Russe because he wanted the experience of meeting ballet personnel and of knowing life backstage.

Charlie, we found out later, returned to New York after his brief Boston visit with the ballet. I dont know how long he remained with the company or if he was still a member of the company in New York, but by spring he was back in New England and again dividing his time between Boston, where he visited friends, and Gloucester, the city that was always home to him.

In July I had a surprise. A letter to me from Olson! I had again almost forgotten the strange man, the friend of my friend. I hadnt seen him since late 1939 and, save for the brief glimpse of a man I thought might be him in March, I had not thought of him. The letter turned out to be a very proper invitation. He wrote saying that he recalled the pleasant evening we had spent with Doris and Ed Dahlberg, and that he had visited with them in New York. He wondered if I might come up to Gloucester for the Fourth of July week-end and visit with him and his mother.

I was amused by the invitation. I sensed, correctly as it turned out, that Charles was searching for a woman, for an affair, a relationship as it would be called today. I was certain I did not want to be his woman, although I liked him and found him interesting. I was also certain that my sister Connie would not want to be the woman, for she had made it very clear that she wanted a man with money as well as brains. And she was then semi-engaged to a young man who had just been sent to South America on business for his company. It was understood that they would be married later in the year.

I read the letter aloud and said I couldnt go for I had a date for the holiday. Connie said, Id like to go. I have nothing to do for the week-end and it would be nice to take a train to Gloucester.

Mother had heard me read the letter with no comment. But when she heard Connies reaction she immediately forbade Connie to go. Mother had never forbidden us anything in quite that way before. Her face was stern, yet the eyes were almost panic-stricken. I couldnt understand.

Mom, you dont have to worry. Charles mother will be there, she has other roomers, and really Charles is a gentleman.

But mother was relentless. She did not want her daughter to go, basing her fears entirely on instinct.

Connie took the train to Gloucester. She returned by train Tuesday morning in time to report for work.

That night she seemed thoughtful at dinner, had not much to say about Gloucester other than it was beautiful. She limited her account of the weekend to a description of the 1929 Ford model A roadster in which Charles met her at the station. She said there were no floorboards in the little car, and she had to sit with her feet drawn up as she watched the ground flying by beneath her. The brakes were also questionable, she said, and there were many hazardous turns along the back roads that Charles chose as a route from the railroad to his cottage. All the while Charles was talking and laughing as he pointed out various landmarks. That Ford was one of several cars that Charles owned, all of them in a state of neglect. As long as the engine would turn over and the tires remained on the wheels he cared nothing for the rest.

As the next few weeks passed we heard no more of Charles, but the family was aware of the letters that arrived almost daily from Gloucester.

In August a family friend gave us the use of a small cottage in Barnstable on the north side of Cape Cod. There were three bedrooms plus a long living room and a tiny kitchen. The setting was rural, the house being nestled under a small grove of locust trees. A white sand beach could be reached through a woodsy lane at the edge of the locust grove.

We settled in for a two-week vacation. Within two days family and friends descended on us. Uncle Edmund and Aunt Eleanor, newly married, plus Gertrude, an old friend of mothers. Uncle and aunt stayed overnight and Gertrude became a daily visitor. Mother and I and the girls wondered what sort of a vacation this would be. We hadnt expected company, and here we had overnight guests who indicated they might stay on for a few days. Little did we know that a third guest would soon arrive.

The day after uncle and aunt arrived Connie received a letter from Charles. As she read it a slow smile turned into a laugh as she said, Youll never guess — Olsons coming here today! This is going to be good, I thought. The vacation now would really sparkle, given the cast of strong characters each with opposing viewpoints.

At one oclock that day Connie left for the half-mile walk to the railroad station where she would meet Charles. Uncle and aunt settled themselves under the locust trees, and soon Gertrude arrived. Uncle was a proper Bostonian and considered himself a successful businessman. Gertrude was married to a wealthy Boston stock broker. Mother, Barbara and I sat listening to the conversation, secretly wondering how the meeting with Olson would go.

Soon we saw two figures coming towards us along the narrow beach road. The chattering guests fell silent as they viewed the slender girl walking hand-in-hand with what seemed to be a giant. She carried a small portable typewriter in her free hand. He carried a large suitcase and a coat over his left arm. They turned into the locust grove.

Mother, this is Charles Olson.

Connie proceeded with the introductions, carrying it off very well I thought. Charles acknowledged every greeting with animation, then held his arms out wide.

What a lovely place. It is glorious. Look at that grove of trees! I shall put my typewriter over there. What a place to write!

The guests seemed stunned. Write? Under the locust trees? What kind of person was this?

Uncle stood. Have a drink, Charlie?

Indeed Charlie would. He pulled a small portable table to a selected spot under the locusts, placed his typewriter on it and returned to the group.

Drinks were mixed and brought outside. Connie sat quietly ignoring her drink. Charles polished his off and had a second. The conversation became animated. Charles, on his best behavior, was drawing Edmund out on business matters. He seemed interested in Eds wheeling and dealing.. Ed swelled as he recounted several real estate transactions, all of which made him a lot of money. Charles was pouring on the charm. Poor Ed had no idea that Charles was storing up fuel for his attacks on businessmen as spoilers.

A little of Charles low esteem for the modern marketplace came through as he took over the dinner table conversation that night. His language was proper but his darts at the business world were sly enough to make Ed and the sophisticated Gertrude suspect that a pinko was in their midst.

Both of them took mother aside and warned her to watch out for that guy. Uncle said Charles was no fit companion for her daughter. He asked how in hell Connie had met him. When he found out I was responsible for the meeting, he said, How could you bring a fakir like that into your family? He shook his head in disgust.

I was not overly fond of my uncle, and his opinions did not influence me to any great degree. I told him that Charles was an interesting person, a poet and a scholar, and that I was proud to know him. Privately I wondered just what Olsons intentions were.

Uncle and aunt and Gertrude left after dinner and we did not see them again that week. Their disapproval of Connies new beau was obvious.

Mother showed Charles to one of the bedrooms. He had made it clear that he intended to be an overnight guest. Mother was cordial but reserved. However, the next few days proved to be pleasant and we all enjoyed the fine weather.

Charles would take off with Connie every morning, his long legs loping down the lane to the beach. Sometimes Barbara and I would join them; less frequently mother came along. We had picnics and lobster boils. We went clamming and we lolled under the locust trees in the evening. Charles spent every afternoon writing in the grove, but he didnt discuss his work.

One day, in sweeping out Charless room, mother found a package of condoms. She was shocked. Now she had a reason for asking Charles to leave. Until then she had no idea how long Charles planned to stay, and Connie had remained silent when the question was brought up. Mother confronted Charles with the evidence.

He was plainly embarrassed, and apologized profusely for the ugly intrusion into our family life. He assured her that he had not seduced her daughter, but it was plain that the intent was there. Mother did not have to ask him to leave. He voluntarily packed up his belongings and left the house immediately.

Connie was at the beach. When she returned, Charles was gone. Mother showed her the evidence, and Connie, white-faced, turned from her and ran up the road after Charles. The train for Boston had not yet arrived. What went on between the two of them as they sat in the station waiting room I dont know. But farewells were said and assurances of further meetings made.

When we returned home to Boston there were letters from Charles. Soon Connie announced she would be going to Gloucester for the week-end.

The atmosphere in our household became strained. Mother was upset and grim. She and Connie had many closeted sessions discussing Charles, but none the less Connie left for Gloucester.

She refused to see her old friends. She dismissed the suitor who planned to ask her to set a wedding date upon his return from South America, and our sisterly relationship cooled mostly because she was either writing to Charles or in Gloucester with him. She seemed oblivious to family matters.

One evening after work, late in September, I received a telephone call from Connie. She needed some clothes, she said, and asked me to pack a bag for her and bring it to the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square. She said she and Charles would be in the hotel dining room and I would find my way there with no trouble.

I packed the bag and took the subway to Kenmore Square. Entering the dining room I saw Connie and Charles at the far end. She waved to me and I crossed the room. As I reached the table I noted Charless strange garb. He wore an overcoat over which a blanket was draped. A scarf was wound around his head and another lay across his knees. He was trembling and having difficulty raising a cup of hot tea to his mouth.

Hes got a chill, poor dear, said Connie.

She seemed completely unaware of his bizarre appearance, for the day was quite warm. I recalled Charless illness when Doris and I called on him. I also recalled his quick recovery. I was to find out that Charles could be knocked out very easily by colds or flu. He could also be terribly ill one day and perfectly fine the next.

I joined the two, downing a cup of tea as I wondered what was happening. They carried on a sort of baby-talk conversation, she commiserating with him and he snuffling and noisily slurping his tea. I left them there when I realized they intended to stay at the hotel for the week-end. I had to return home to mother with the tale. This time there was definitely no Mary to chaperone the two, nothing to put a respectable face on the affair.


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