(An excerpt from a “true” novel about poet Vachel Lindsay, “Into the Beautiful New”)
He walked through his city, his Springfield, visiting with the ones who still lived. In Washington Park, at Watt Brothers Drugs, in the lobby of the Leland he would scrawl a few lines. Springfield had become his office now; his home was too noisy. His children, much as he loved them, wouldn’t leave him alone; Elizabeth wouldn’t discipline them and would get angry at him if he did. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t sit. So he wandered. He walked miles. He talked to strangers and friends, some living, some dead. He sat for hours on the steps of Lincoln’s Tomb, watching the tourists, engaging them in debate. Sometimes he would walk outside the city and eat lunch beneath the oaks and talk to the farmers in the cafes. He’d write about them all, he told himself, but by the time the day was over, he’d collected a few lines, a few words. Sometimes as he was walking he’d see the ghosts among the living. The ghosts were like the others—just more transparent. If the ghost was a pretty woman, he would touch his hat. He tried not to give himself away, to show the living who he saw, but politeness was such a habit. If he was one of the ghostly dead, he would be able to speak with these spirits, free to wander with them among the trees of laughing bells. Such free places would never be created on earth, he had finally come to understand.
If he concentrated, he could make the spirits go away. The doctor told him that they were merely a symptom of his epilepsy, that he could overcome this disease through focus. Just now, he willed a sad woman who once sold her body (he’d known her in his anti-liquor preaching days) to fizzle into dots. Why she had come back, he didn’t know. Then a gambler in his crooked hat was gone; also the barber on the curb with his scissors, the one who had hung from the tree, gone. Once this happened, he saw that he was practically alone on the street. He didn’t like being alone.
Hard times had left their mark on the town: houses unpainted, shingles prying loose from rooftops; bottles and wrappers scattered in grass. The crudest popular music jarred from windows; funny that they still called him the jazz poet when he’d come to hate the flaunting fakery of the “Jazz Age,” its advertising and glitz and cheap jokes and easy cash. Well, now they were all paying the price for their excess: The money was gone.
In the evening, when he got home, he’d hear how hard Elizabeth had worked that day, typing for cash while corralling the children. The guilt-weight changed nothing; the next day would be the same.
His work lately had been to study hieroglyphics, taking notes for a book about Egyptian symbol writing and movie images. He deciphered one new symbol a day; hours would pass and he would know this only by the noisy men heading home from work. Springfield was a five o’clock city, a government town that scurried during daylight hours and committed crimes at night. Once freed from his studies, he allowed himself to go to movie shows. That’s what he’d be doing today. First, though, he had to call his agent. He’d put it off all week and now Elizabeth knew, so he headed to the pay phone near the Capitol. Maybe he could convince Armstrong to book him on only a few good paying performance dates instead of the thirty that he kept pushing on him. The thought of the road, which had once held such anticipation, now made his hands shake. When he no longer looked out the train windows on his travels; he read books and slept through blazing headaches and tried to forget the nauseating sway of the cars.
He dialed and was met by the agent’s money bark, and they argued—the money was less for each performance and instead of playing halls he had to dance for the damned women’s clubs—his expenses out of pocket. By the time the balance was settled, there’d be little left to live on.
“I’d make more by writing a new book,” Vachel told Armstrong, knowing that this argument would hold no weight with his wife or his agent, who wanted his immediate cut. But he had to say it, to get it on the record, though they all knew there was no money in poetry-writing and that his novel had flopped. But without new books, and good ones, he was worse than a relic; he was a performing dog leaping through vaudeville hoops.
By the time the call was over, Vachel found himself with twenty performances ahead of him. His father used to go out in his carriage at night to deliver babies, waking again at dawn to go to the clinic. Vachel wished his work was as heroic, but chanting “The Congo” for the millionth time to the millionth old lady was doing nothing good. But that was the way it was for everyone. Anyway, it was easier to perform than to write, knowing that his family depended on the success of every word he put on the page. Every word he now wrote clanged with bells and tooted with trolley horns and slunk like black cats because he knew these were the poems he could perform the best. His head seemed to get noisier when all he wanted was silence. No visitors alive, no visitors dead.
Only movies kept their charm. Earlier, he’d made a date to be with the endearing actress Clara Bow. Each time he visited her she was more beguiling, a heavenly flower with tendrils wrapping around his feet. She smiled and sang and when she cried, her tears threatened to drown the theater. She asked him for nothing but adoration. He would be with her, and then he would meet his old friends to see another show.
He may not have had money, but he did have people who he had known since he was a child. Business done, he was now off to meet Miss Susan Wilcox and Abby Graham for a gangster movie—Miss Wilcox had insisted on catching “that Mr. Cagney they’re all talking about.” They’d gone to movies for years, him and his old high school teacher, to whatever shows managed to make it to Springfield. He loved talking movies with Miss Wilcox, one of the few people he knew who really understood the significance of the new art. Most people turned up their noses, but he and Susan Wilcox saw that all words would someday be played out as pictures, and that hieroglyphic was the new language. He and his teacher often disagreed, but that made it all the more fun.
Abby had only recently started going with them. Since she was a kid she would sit a few rows behind him at the movies; he used to be pals with her older brother. And when she became a teacher, she still huddled behind with her friends. She sometimes came to a little book club to which Vachel belonged; they dubbed it a literary advancement circle, although it had its share of gossip and speculation along with its study of fine writing. They discussed designs for a better Springfield and the ways that the town had never lived up to its promise. To such reforming end they donated to libraries, supported the movement toward a public and safe water system, discussed the need for a truancy law and occasionally even talked about books. Miss Wilcox was the group leader, holding the meetings at her home, and Vachel was of course the spokesman, and Abby, Louise, Clarissa, Rabbi Weinstein, and some others came religiously and then spread the word.
Abby was one of the most energetic of their circle. She encouraged her students to distribute leaflets and hold bake sales to fund books for the poor. Though a bit too big in the bones for Vachel’s taste, sometimes when her hair was curled she was almost pretty and Vachel knew that she still had eyes for him, which of course he found pleasing, if disconcerting.
She had taken to joining him and Miss Wilcox on their cinematic adventures. She was like a sister, perhaps. Like a sister, of course.
As he got closer to the theater, he could make out Abby coming toward him. She waved, her brown hair nearly hidden beneath her cloche hat, hips swaying in a skirt that rested barely below the knee. Her legs were rather shapely, something he tried not to notice when he was sitting beside her but could indulge in from far away. Her breasts were ample—almost too large, in the way of women who were a bit overfed—but all in all, Abby was handsome and imposing and had a confident stride. He had no idea what Abby still saw in him over the course of the years. He nearly felt sorry for her and encouraged her to marry—though maybe he hadn’t been doing that so often lately.
When she reached him she grabbed his arm briefly in a way both intimate and restrained. It was consoling and he couldn’t keep himself from squeezing her hand. “I’m sorry, Vachel, but so many students showed up at the last minute that Susan couldn’t turn them away. She may not be able to come at all.”
It was the second time that week. Were Abby and Miss Wilcox in cahoots? It was no secret that Miss Wilcox disliked his wife; the whole circle of teachers had decided she was a spoiled snob attracted by his fame. He knew this because one evening, when Elizabeth had taken the children to visit her father, Vachel and four of the teachers had gone to Maldaner’s for dinner and imbibed too much brandy. Vachel had known these straight shooting ladies for most of his life, and they weren’t ones to mince words. As for Abby, she had maintained an unusual silence as Vachel defended his wife’s good qualities and praised her abilities as a mother. None of them had looked particularly convinced, especially after Vachel confessed that Elizabeth and her father were pressing him to “have a long hospital stay at a rest home” to manage his epilepsy.
“That’s institutionalization!” Miss Wilcox said, rising half out of her armchair.
“What?!” the ladies yelped, “oh no!” with significant looks passed among all. “That’s ridiculous!” “Yes, you’re an odd bird but what’s new about that?” Vachel had found their response very satisfying and relayed it directly to his wife. And so it was within reason to guess that Miss Wilcox would conspire to have to Abby rescue Vachel from his wife, as Abby could manage him at least as well as she could organize a class of ninth graders.
“We’ll have a fine time without her,” Vachel now said, and nodded at the ticket taker, an old crab with the odd name of Rafer, who simply nodded. Vachel shuffled through his pockets for the money to pay for the both of them, while saying to Abby, “Now you’re sure this movie isn’t too violent for you—it’s gangsters, there’s shooting and drinking and—”
Abby laughed. “My uncle’s a bootlegger, remember?”
Rafer the Ticket Taker kept no expression; he was used to Vachel showing up at the movies with an assortment of people. Once he had brought the black man who helped with the yard work, sitting with him in the Negro balcony. Another time he appeared with a laid-off miner from Gillespie who credited Vachel with getting him off the sauce years before. He’d come with old family acquaintances and he’d come with strangers. He tried, though, not to show up with young single women. Not that he cared what people thought; he did care what Elizabeth would say if she found out.
The smell of the popcorn was seductive, but he held himself back to save on change, and Abby understood and made a beeline for the theater, chattering all the way about a stubborn child in her class. Did she smell a bit like cloves?—that wouldn’t be like her, yet he could swear he smelled cloves and even a hint of lavender. His wife wore lavender when they were first married, but now she only dabbed it on for guests.
Abby went on. “—And that terrible boy Andy Clavin kept belitting poor Jeremiah outside on the school grounds and I was afraid that Andy would bring in his henchmen so I went on out and smacked that bully right on the ear.”
“My Lord,” said Vachel. “I wouldn’t want to cross you.”
“Yes, I would grab your ear, too,” said Abby, reaching up and giving his earlobe a tug.
“Spitfire,” he said, flushing, and they walked into the dark theater. The cartoon had already begun—Felix the Cat, from last year—daisies leaping across the horizon.
“April Maze,” he said to Abby, “—that’s the name of this one. Watch the cloud turn into a lion—now he’s being chased by frankfurters—”
“Hush.” Abby settled herself into her seat. “My goodness, Felix is practically talking now!”
“Talkies are everywhere.” Vachel kept his eyes toward the screen. “The bear! I love the bear!”
“Those little cats, they’re like your kids,” whispered Abby, “jumping all over everything—”
“Oh and poor Felix gets his at the end, just like me,” and they sat while papa Felix and the little cat children had their picnic rained on, food stolen (all to a tune of “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”), until finally Felix received a special basket directly by the stork— “Uh oh,” Vachel and Abby said, simultaneously, laughing, and Felix said, “Hey, that’s mine!” in his new talkie voice and Vachel said, “Don’t take it! You’ll be sorry!” as more and more cat children leapt from the basket. “Hahaha,” said Vachel, slapping his thigh, “hahahaha,” while Abby giggled.
The screen went blank. Then a crackle, then the credits “Universal Newsreels,” then, “Simla, India—Gandhi trudges six miles on foot!”—Then—Abby gasped. “Is it really his voice? Is that Gandhi?” And I found, upon inquiry, that they did not know who ruled my soul—they simply said, some God willed it. Then, the announcer: Only a lady jockey’d let herself be weighed in public! and the all-girl jockeys ran their horses around the track as Abby clapped and Vachel admired the strong shapeliness of the winning rider. Then a crowd paraded in front of the Capitol with signs—Red hot banners reflect the attitudes of the Red Hot Reds. With a couple of tear gas bombs all present and accounted for—
“What are they protesting?” whispered Abby.
“I’m glad I have a job,” said Abby.
Vachel had no reply to that, as he didn’t.
Then cut to the words “Only in Italy” and the film flashed upon thousands of young men doing calisthenics. The few people in the theater, including Abby, laughed, but Vachel was so disturbed by the clip that he couldn’t look at it again (he’d seen it several times before). Mussolini was so interested he couldn’t keep his eyes off the boys, the announcer sneered. In Italy they all want to be Mussolini—here in America they’ll all thinking about whether they want to be firemen when they grow up! It’s coordination—the group over the individual, all parts moving together like a great machine. “Amazing,” said Abby. “I wish my students would do that.” Then another quick flash and They’re the pick of the colony! I hear beauty’s only skin deep! With these dusky bathing belles from Darktown! Vachel was immersed in what he knew was coming next—the woman examined from her shoes up her legs to her breasts which showed clearly, nipples and all, through her suit. “No!” Abby gasped, putting her hands over her eyes. Vachel smiled.
What a glorious wasteful spectacle. He wished he owned a camera; he wished he was young and owned a camera; he imagined himself shooting at the breadlines, at actresses, he wished he had become that eye, he wished he’d taken that job writing for D.W. Griffith when he had the chance, after he wrote the film book, that was the time to move on; there was no starting out anymore, he just wasn’t in vogue, though he still wrote movie reviews and still got letters from directors and photogs and all kinds of people but he didn’t have the gumption.
Vachel! She, Abby, shook his sleeve. “Vachel, look, isn’t this amazing?” The short had finally started; it was the only thing that still stayed silent. Sound made the movies too real. That damned blackface idiot Al Jolson, he did it. Lines were better left to imagination; the actress’ voices never matched the melodies he heard in his head. And now he couldn’t get those musical voices back.
And so perhaps Abby’s voice didn’t bother him as much as it once did. He used to want the tinkling of bells; now he knew that a woman’s soft voice could quickly turn whiny, wheedling, and abrasive. Best to take it as it came, as long as it didn’t change.
“Vachel? Are you looking?” Abby seemed concerned. She thought he was having a fit maybe, what the doctors called his fugue states. A fugue, as when one part of the score was consumed by the other parts. “Just thinking,” he reassured her, patting her arm.
On screen the Bronx flew past in black and white: papers disappeared beneath the sweeper’s broom, a baby swayed in a carriage over which its mother’s shadow floated; girls with dirty white shoes jumped double dutch, worn skirts swaying above their calves; boys wrestled in the dust; and over it all a peculiar jazz, just a pencil line of jazz really. This was the sixth time he had seen this little film just that week; he preferred it to the hard-bitten gangster who’d appear in the feature; they called it a cityscape, one where all the shops were closing, the fruit was rotting, it was all hard times. Abby watched raptly; she’d never been out of Illinois, and likely never would. She had rarely even gone to Chicago, instead visiting St. Louis, as so many from downstate Illinois did, finding it a more elegant and manageable city than the burly Windy one. Chicago wasn’t a place for women, or so they said in Springfield, with its gangsters and whores and political elbows. And New York was completely out of the question, a place of mythic horrors and impossible dreams that would destroy anyone’s expectations. Abby smiled as if she were seeing magic in the tough filth of those streets. Dice rolled across the screen. Papers fluttered from a rooftop, down past the tenement stairs where, from the street, the papers turned into birds.
And then it was over.
It was time for the real tale of the real city, or so they said: The Public Enemy. 1909, the streets of Chicago. Beer, the old devil, poured from taps, there to corrupt the immigrant worker—wasn’t that what Vachel used to say? The tough bad boy Tom Powers, outshone by his perfect brother, beaten by his policeman father, breaking the heart of his good hardworking mother, grows up to be a crook for the mob. Vachel had the movie memorized. He imagined himself as Cagney, cocky and breaking the rules. When Tom Powers’ buddy was shot by a rival gang, Abby gasped and turned her head, which Vachel found charming.
“He is adorable, though, for being such a bad sort,” whispered Abby.
“Why do you girls always like the bad ones?”
Abby just shrugged and smiled, which annoyed Vachel no end, as it had for pretty much his entire life. She said, “We’d rather have a man in a tilted hat than a bouquet of flowers any day.”
This Vachel liked, as he always wore a hat.
“I saw Cagney in Chicago,” he said, “in a show there, he was a dancer—very light on his feet, he was dancing with his wife—”
“Shh.” Abby put fingers to her lips and gazed intently at the screen.
Tom Powers said to his proper brother: I suppose you want me to go to night school and read poems.
Vachel laughed—brayed, more like it.
“They don’t know how terrible you poets really are,” said Abby.
But then Tom Powers got mean. The liquor, the wanton women, the killing. I wish you was a wishin well. So I could tie a bucket to you and sink ya. And smash went the grapefruit, right into the floozy’s face.
How he’d wished for the nerve to do that. That would shut Elizabeth up. Like the table he’d shoved at her one morning; he should have picked it up, thrown it across the room, and walked out the door, never to return. Out to take over the world and get that bodacious Jean Harlow with her pug face and melon breasts and funny Brooklyn accent.
Gee, she’s a honey, says Tom’s friend. I could go for her myself.
Finally, Tom killed Putty Nose. But he’s a rat, a snitch, and that’s what happens to rats. And so went the downhill slide to Hell, until Tom, bound and gagged, fell like an ironing board when Ma opened the door. Abby’s hand gripped Vachel’s arm.
Abby was a strong woman, but compassionate; her eyes teared, as Vachel’s did the first three times he’d seen it. But Abby didn’t cry. She just looked like someone had punched her in the stomach. “Poor Tommy. He deserved it.”
“Tommy’s Al Capone’s guy,” said Vachel. Everyone knew the movie was about real Chicago gangsters. That’s what Abby and Vachel talked about after the movie, as they had coffee and a bite at Maldaner’s. For just a moment, looking at Abby’s plain sincere face, Vachel wished that Elizabeth had gone to the movie with him. But she had been too busy, said there was no money for a date, said she didn’t want to see that rot.
Abby was telling him about a student of hers who had moved to Chicago and now ran rum. Everyone knew people who broke the liquor law, from running booze to going to the clubs. Everyone knew about the mobs siphoning the liquor into gas trucks—even Vachel drank now, at home with his wife—almost everybody did, because rotgut made you want to drink more, because there was something exciting about defying the law. Vachel was ashamed that he’d ever had a hand in helping his mother to pass the ban. That promise of a safer better world had failed, like most all else.
“So realistic,” said Abby, her grey eyes level to his. “So much death. We don’t respect the living anymore.”
Vachel sat back and looked at Abby, seeing her as if through a camera. She responded to everything. She was an independent sort, unlike his wife who had always fallen back on Daddy. This had been Elizabeth’s charm, at first; she was sweet and she leaned on him in a way that made him feel strong. Abby, though, had no father; when he was killed in the War she helped her mother raise the younger siblings. This added a hint of tragedy to her story.
As Vachel’s mother used to say, “An independent woman can run the world.”
Elizabeth, his poor wife, had taken one big independent step: she’d run off with a man more than twice her age, a man she’d known no more than a month, a man without a real job, a famous poet. Elizabeth considered herself a poet, too. She hoped he’d help her to publish her lyrics, and he tried, even now, but no one would accept her book. And she didn’t have much time now to write, anyway. Her life was contained in the house, in this town of Springfield that was far from her parents and far from friends and that seemed to conspire against her. She found, when she came here with him, that he was generally considered the local crackpot. Feted in England, awarded top prizes, he could have won a thousand more honors and still Springfield would shrug. Would Abby have handled it better than Elizabeth?
Without a doubt. Yes.
Abby was telling tales now about her Uncle Len, the rumrunner. How he loaded liquor from stills in the small towns and hauled it in barrels up to Chicago. How the mob ran like Shell Oil, a worker to a boss to a boss to a boss, extending everywhere. “Do you think my uncle could be killed? Like Tommy in the movie?”
“Oh no,” said Vachel, ordering her more coffee. “I’m sure he’s not nearly important enough.” Vachel switched subjects and told her about how sound movies were made. He’d heard and read lots of stories of Hollywood people, and pretty soon he had her laughing, and even had the waiter, Jim Lebo, listening. But after a time, when he paused to catch his breath, Abby said, “Vachel, it’s getting late. Elizabeth is going to be upset.”
Vachel waved his hand, swatting her away. “She’s probably still talking to my brother-in-law. She always is—”
“You don’t want to get yourself in trouble.” Abby knew him pretty well. She was steady and firm while his wife was like liquid, slipping through his hands.
“She doesn’t care what I do as long as I tour.” But he knew as he said this that he was being unfair and he wouldn’t meet Abby’s gaze, knowing that she was about to admonish him. “Okay, all right.” He picked through his pockets and left what he knew to be Maldaner’s price for coffee and a tip and he escorted Abby out into the evening light. He walked with her until she reached her house, where she still lived with her mother; he said goodbye, and kissed her hand, trying hard not to look in her eyes; he quickly turned on his heel and kept going. He tried to find the old feel, the one where he would daydream about the girl about the city about the twilight, but it wasn’t there. Now he had to face the noise. He had to keep his feet on the ground. He couldn’t mention Abby at all. Even the ghosts had gone in for the night.