Memories of Charles Olson

[Part 3]



harles evidently recovered from his cold or grippe or whatever was the trouble, and the next thing we knew he was in New York City. Soon Connie announced that she would be seeing Charles in New York for the coming weekend. And that was the beginning of their life together. All winter long Connie was either returning from a week-end in New York or packing for another. Charles sent the money for her train fare. He had an editorial job, but I cant recall where; probably I never knew. He also had received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation for Call Me Ishmael.

Mother became resigned to Connies new lifestyle. She did not approve, but she knew she could do nothing about it. Also she did not want to alienate her daughter.

Charles was back in New England frequently in the spring of 1941. Occasionally he would visit Gloucester. Sometimes he would stay with friends associated with the writing of Call Me Ishmael. Frequently he would invite himself to stay with us. His casual week-end visits were to become very annoying to mother, Barbara and me. It was two decades before the sexual revolution and that meant Charles slept alone while at our apartment. The only possible arrangement for his accommodation in our small apartment was to give him the convertible sofa in the living room, which then became his bedroom until three oclock in the afternoon. The room was off limits to the family until then.

In June I had a one-week vacation. Charles coincidentally had to be in Boston that week on business, and he made our apartment his headquarters. He slept till noon, breakfasted for two hours or more, then went off to various business appointments, meeting Connie for dinner.

Charles enjoyed being waited on. Because I was the only one home, it was left to me to prepare his meal that seemed to be a combination of breakfast, lunch and cocktail hour. I liked to cook, and he and I had long brunches with lots of food, endless cups of coffee and perhaps a whiskey or two for Charles. However, by four in the afternoon I would be exhausted with talk and ready to just get out and enjoy some fresh air and a walk in the park. After three days of that routine I was relieved to hear that he was going back to New York.

He left at the end of the week, but soon was back in Boston and dropped in for the week-end. I thought, This has got to stop. Mother was upset. Barbara and I were angry at the loss of our living room. We had callers too! Explaining Charless constant presence was beginning to be embarrassing.

A visit from Doris solved the problem. She had come for a visit with her parents and called on us. It happened to be Friday night and I knew Olson was in town. I persuaded Doris to stay for the night and not return to her parents home. She agreed, after hearing what was happening to our home life because of Olsons visits.

She and I had dinner in a restaurant and, bringing a bottle of wine home, we settled in the living room to talk. Soon we decided it would be a good idea to open the convertible sofa. We got into nightgowns, propped some pillows on the bed, climbed in and continued our chat, pouring a glass of wine now and then as we giggled in anticipation of Charless arrival.

Around one oclock in the morning a key turned in the lock and in walked Connie and Charles. They seemed stunned when they saw the two occupants of the living room sofa. But Connie, seemingly unconcerned, then greeted Doris politely and said a pleasant good night as she turned to her room. Charles was left standing at the door of the living room. I pretended to be very sleepy.

Oh, Charles, Im sorry but there seems to be no room for you tonight. I hope its not too late to find something else.

Oh, of course, of course, he said.

I expected him to leave and go across the street to the rooming house. But he didnt. He carefully placed his coat on the floor of the entrance hallway. Then he came back to the living room.

Have you got an extra blanket, Jane?

Somewhat shocked I wordlessly located a blanket and a pillow for him and climbed back into the sofa bed.

The next morning Doris and I donned a cheerful air as we arose at eight and noisily began preparing breakfast. We coolly climbed over and around Charles as he lay stretched out on the hall floor taking up most of the space between the kitchen and the bathroom. Finally, the traffic began to bother him and he arose, wrapping the blanket and the coat around himself. We expected that he would retire to the bathroom and dress and then, hopefully, leave. But he merely grunted as he looked around the room, gathered his wraps ever more tightly and staggered into the living room where he promptly fell asleep on the same sofa Doris and I had just left.

That was Charless last week-end with us. Whether he got the hint that he was overcrowding us, or whether he was ready for Gloucester for the rest of the summer I dont know. Soon Connie was making the weekly trek to Gloucester for Saturday and Sunday, returning to work Monday morning.

Connie became ill some time in the month of August. She took several days off from work and did not go to Gloucester for the week-end. Charles called several times but Connie refused to talk to him. She also refused his invitation to Gloucester for the second week-end.

Charles then asked for me, and said he would like to see me, and would Barbara and I come up to Gloucester. I thought the invitation strange. I knew something had come between the two lovers but I could not imagine what. Things at home were tense. Connie and I had no more long philosophical discussions; there were no evening excursions to the movies or to the Pops Concerts. Mother had retreated into almost complete silence. So it seemed a good idea to take off for Gloucester for two days.

Charles met Barbara and me at the station and drove us in the floorless Ford through Gloucester on a wild ride that covered the entire town. The car careened around corners, straightened out and, muffler gone, roared along all the side roads until we finally came to a stop at Stage Fort Park. Charles refused to be serious. He did not discuss his tiff with Connie, saying only that she would get over it. I couldnt help wondering why he wanted to see me.

Mary gave us a good dinner. Later we strolled on the beach. Saturday was a perfect day, and Barbara and I enjoyed a full day in the sun. That night Charles took the two of us on a walking tour of Gloucester. We made the rounds of all the bars along the wharves. At one we met a captain of a fishing boat and, fascinated, we listened to him describe life at sea. He joked with Charles, both of them recalling Charlies stint on the high seas when he joined the fishing fleet for a summer.

Barbara and I had never been on a fishing boat, so it was with great pleasure that we accepted the captains invitation to board his vessel that was moored in the harbor. He rowed the three of us out and we boarded the gently rocking boat, Charles hauling us up the side as we clumsily attempted the shift from small rowboat to deck. We stood for a few moments as Charles pointed out harbor landmarks. The moon was brilliant and the air still and warm. The captain and Charles smiled as we remarked on the beauty of the harbor, the stillness of the night. The only sound was the slapping of wavelets against the gently rocking fishing fleet, turning with the changing tide.

Suddenly Barbara and I had the same thought — why not dive off the boat for a swim? The water looked so inviting.

Go ahead, said Charles. No reason why you cant.

Barbara and I removed our shoes and stockings, then our dresses. Jeans or shorts were not worn in the evening in 1941. Standing in our slips and underwear we took positions on the rail of the boat, and dove into the water. We returned to the surface sputtering and covered with oil! Our hair was matted with the stuff, our silk slips slimy with black grease.

Charles and the captain stood by the rail looking down on us and laughing with great glee. Considerably sobered, Barbara and I were pulled up on the deck. I realized what fools we had made of ourselves. We were laughing and crying at the same time. How, we wondered, could we get cleaned up for the train ride back to town? We were rowed to shore by a chortling Charles. He interrupted his nasty laugh to lecture us on the ways of the sea. He called us a couple of landlubbers. Did we not know that harbor waters were always covered with an oil slick? His lecture was not well taken. We were angry that he had made such fools of us. We also realized we had been very naive in drinking along with Charles at all those bars.

Mary gave Charles a dressing-down the next morning. She told him he was incorrigible to lead two nice young ladies into the wickedness of a seaport in the middle of the night. Also I think she was shocked at the actions of her two guests in jumping partially clad into the middle of Gloucester Harbor.

The next day, Sunday, Charles appeared very sober. He drove us in silence to the train. His hilarity had disappeared with the drink of the night before. Now he was serious and remote. We returned home with still no inkling of what the trouble was between him and Connie.

Soon after that week-end I began seeing a young man, Melvin Atherton, and within a few months we would marry. My mind was no longer centered on my sister and her affair, and it was suddenly fun to go dancing and take long Saturday drives through the countryside. I told Mel about Charles and his frequent visits and occupation of our living room. On hearing this Mel said, If that guy is bothering you and your mother, Ill go up and kick him out right now. I had to laugh at the idea of 150 pound Mel kicking Olson out of any place. Although Mel was a respectable five feet eleven inches tall, Olson would tower over him. Later, Mel and Charles would become very good friends and would have long discussions about machinery and the relationship of man and the machine.

On Labor Day week-end of 1941 Mel and I traveled to Maine to visit friends. Returning, mother greeted us at the door, tears in her eyes and a wet handkerchief in her hand. She told us that Connie was gone for good. She had left a half hour ago with Charles and at that moment the two were on the New York boat that was due to sail within the hour.

She had said her goodbyes. I hadnt. Mel and I rushed off down the apartment stairs, into the car and immediately set off for the pier. We managed to board the boat in time to see Connie and Charles. I was somewhat disconcerted to find Connie lolling in an upper berth calmly eating ice cream from a half-pint container. Charles was sitting on a small stool reading a newspaper. He rose when he saw us, was cordial, and seemed to be more like his animated self. He was meeting Mel for the first time. The two men shook hands and politely discussed the charm of the old New York steamship line and its superiority over air or train travel. In the meantime Connie continued eating her ice cream. When the warning whistle of departure sounded she leaned over to kiss me goodbye as I stood on the rail of the lower berth. Ill write, she said.

Mel and I returned to the apartment. I felt let down, but there was also a sense of relief.

Well, we can return to normal, I remarked to mother.

She did not reply at once. We both knew that Connie would never be a part of our family again, that she was as good as married to Charles, that a way of life had changed. But there was something more that was bothering mother.

I hope she will be all right. Shes pregnant and Charles wants her to have an abortion.

There, it was out. The cause of the tension, the silence, the lack of communication, the rift between the two lovers that caused Charles to turn to me and Barbara for company when Connie refused to see him. I then realized that he did not want to be alone and that, to him, seeing Connies two sisters was a way of keeping in touch with her.

In 1941 abortion was a word never mentioned. I sat stunned. Mel was silent. The three of us sat wordlessly. I wondered about Charless and Connies philosophy. She had talked of marriage as all young girls do. She loved children, had always peeked into baby carriages as she passed them on the street. I did not speak of my thoughts to mother. There seemed at that moment nothing but a heavy sadness upon us and the knowledge that we had to wait until we heard from Connie before we would know more.


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