A Book of Loners

 

 Loners, says the dictionary, persons who prefer not to associate with others

 But who are persons, and who are others?

 I prefer to think of loners not in the fashionable psychological sense, the Stephen Dedalus people who are just too intelligent and profound to be part of what passes for daily life. Nor the Unabombers nor the Hollywood writers nor the surrealists who want vaguely to blow up the world while they go on collecting six-digit salaries. Nor the hermit saints in the desert, who always had God to keep them company, and, when He was busy elsewhere, the women showing off their elastic vaginas and the saber-toothed bats.. Not the psychopaths who come out of their caves periodically to murder abortionists or bureaucrats or Shiites and then go back to fill the empty hours with visions of disemboweled virgins running loose in paradise.. .

 I see loners rather as people not unlike you and me, except that while we are always being diverted into different paths and forming embarrassing passionate relationships with different people who drift somehow into our lives, they follow a road which destiny (heredity, an unhappy childhood, a chance encounter, a chance blow on the head) has marked out straight in front of them, always the same, always their own.

 They may fit in to society, make a good living, have families. They may be good companions, convivial drinkers, they may be the life of the party.

 I have known, and here recall, a group of such loners, persons whose lives happened to have intersected mine, through the chance dispersion of events and final causes, and who lived alone. Alone in various senses, since some of them (all of them for at least the first years of their existence) lived in families. One I would know chiefly through family stories I overheard in my childhood, one of them I never laid eyes on though he technically became my father-in-law four years after his death, one I met twice in London, one I would see every day in Paris for months at a time for over a quarter of a century. It is uncertain that any one of them would have gotten on particularly well with any one of the others if their paths had chanced to cross.

 That is why I draw their paths together here.

 

 

 

 

 

I. Uncle Mike

 

 All I knew about my uncle Mike when I was little was that he lived hundreds of miles away, far in the north in Canada, and that he had fought in something called the Boer War.

 It was only when I was half grown up that I was allowed to listen to the family gossip that would enable me to fill in some more details. He had been born some time around1880, perhaps in Lithuania. This is a guess on my part, based on the fact that the grimy old scratched-over passport I once saw in his home gave his birthplace as Lincolnshire. {Dating back, I suppose to some friend in some headquarters or consulate who told him, Let’s change the spelling a little, old boy, and they won’t be asking so many nosy questions.) Wherever it was really, it must have been within the Pale of Settlement in which Jews were permitted to live in the Russian Empire, and his early life was characteristic of the time and place. His father was a peddler, fawning on the street, a tyrant in his home..His mother bore seven children, of whom the oldest, my auntie Esther, was sent off as soon as she reached puberty to America, to Boston because some distant cousin was already settled there, and she got some kind of menial job till she could send over enough money to pay for a ticket for the next oldest sister, and then there was enough money to pay for a third, and so on down to the line, and then the little boys followed, and finally the parents with their baby son, my father.

 This was not at all the family Mike would have chosen for himself, especially his father who with his messy clothes, his eggstained beard, his total refusal to learn more than a dozen words of whiny English, must have seemed a concentration of everything his son did not want to need or to know, everything he wanted to get away from, as far as he could, as fast as he could..

 But he was a good honest hard-working uncomplaining boy, he came home every night for dinner as he grew up in the South End of Boston in one of the cold–water tenements of the period, and by the turn of the century he might pass for a typical American boy, stocky and sturdy, with keen eyes and a ready smile and reddish hair and pink cheeks, alert and ambitious, always with his dukes up. He had been through high school, through a variety of part-time jobs, he knew his way around the streets of Boston, he was easy to get on with. And he was respectful to his parents, he said yes to all the advice they gave him, and he kept strictly to himself the knowledge that he had to get away, get away as far as possible (one of his sisters would later make it to Chicago, one of his brothers to Toledo Ohio). But he was not impulsive, he wanted to make his plans in an orderly way. He was cut out to make his way in the world, he did not know which way but he knew that with enough determination and pluck he would quietly follow it wherever it led, follow it alone of need be, straight, unwavering, to whatever end Fate had prepared for him..

 And then one evening Fate flapped her wings noisily in a way he had not expected, not imagined. He came home for dinner in the usual way, he handed over the money he had made in the day to his father, he washed and he sat down among all his sisters and brothers to the usual mumbling of ritual demands on God, the usual squawking and squealing and gossiping, and then his parents called for order and announced that they had good news, important news for their dear little Mike.

 He was not used to being called dear little anything, he was not that little, but he dutifully put down his soup-spoon and looked at the parental faces, wreathed in such smiles as he had rarely if ever seen before. Tomorrow morning, they told him, there will come into Boston Harbor a great ship, a ship from over the sea, and on this ship there will be, guess who, you’ll never guess in a million years: Mike’s Bride.

 He blinked, he didn’t catch the word.

 Your Bride, your Bride, they told him. Your Intended. Such a lovely girl, they had seen pictures of her. Such a good family. Her grandfather a jeweler in Grodno. It had been a long and difficult match to make, but they had found a reliable matchmaker and now it was done, signed and sealed. The girl a real beauty. And intelligent, she could speak three languages. And her grandfather was a very distinguished man, well known in Grodno and in many other towns besides. Mike had been a good obedient hard-working son, and this was his reward. It was the doing of God, the Holy One, Blessed be He. Let us all give thanks to God...

 They were all chattering by now, and cheering and banging on the table. And Mike sat at his place, his accustomed friendly smile fixed on his friendly face, he was known as a good-humored boy, A teacher at school had taught him the phrase, Keep smiling, and he thought it was the best advice he had ever been given. It had got him through many a hard time on the streets. He sat at his usual place, with the usual chicken-soup in front of him, and he smiled as the universe disintegrated around him.

 They said things might be a little crowded at first, when the dear little thing moved in, It will be a little more crowded for the rest of us, but the young couple will have a room of their own, at least at the start. In the meanwhile we must all work harder, make more money so we can have a reception, a really grand wedding reception, with music. It will be the talk of Compton Street.

 He smiled and kissed every one good-night, and went to bed beside his little brothers, and would never breathe a word about what was storming through his head all that night.

 The next morning he put on a clean shirt and a clean jacket, and a collar and tie, and together with the whole family, all of them likewise in their best clothes, he walked solemnly through the streets crowded with peddlers and bustling housewives and holy men and children playing hopscotch, down to the harbor and the long pier where the ship bearing his Intended was due.

 And there it was, being nudged in by its tugboats, and there were whistles and a cheering crowd on the pier, and on the decks of the ship masses of immigrants of all shapes and sizes, peering down to look for a familiar face in the promised land, and on the pier every one was waving and cheering back. “And there she is, the darling,” said Mike’s mother, pointing to a particular face among the crowd packed in at the railing which was coming closer and closer to the pier.. There was his Intended, in all her old-world village finery, waving a colored handkerchief which was the agreed-upon signal and smiling and looking just as pretty and as un-American as any girl possibly could, and Mike was in despair.

 But he was a cool-headed observant boy, and one thing he had observed in all the push and cheering was that there was another ship further out on the other side of the long pier, and it was preparing to leave, he could hear the usual whistles and see and hear the usual crowd on the decks and the usual crowd on the pier wishing a good voyage. He calculated the distance, calculated his chances, and he bounded through his family and whatever other people were around them, and he ran, he ran, he ran faster than any possible pursuer, straight down the pier. They were just starting to pull in the gangplank, and he leaped on to it, and since he was respectably dressed every one assumed he was a late-arriving passenger, and helping hands reached out to hoist him aboard, and no one stopped him as he ran through the corridors and staircases of the ship looking for a place to hide. He methodically tried every door handle he came across till one of them opened on some kind of half-empty closet with piles of sheets in it and he huddled there, listening to the whistles, and the throb of the engines, and the steady clop of the waves.. He did not budge for ten (twenty? he counted them second by second, but he may have dozed off despite himself) hours till he was sure they had dropped their pilot and were far outside of the territorial waters of the United States andthere was no chance of the ship turning back to deliver him up to justice, then he came out and marched down the corridors and the staircases till he found someone who looked like a ship’s officer, and he stepped up to him manfully and confessed that he was a stowaway, and he was sorry about any inconvenience he might have caused the ship’s owners, and he offered to work his way over to wherever they were going. The officer, who was at first tempted to give him the beating he deserved, stopped to calculate that he had in front of him an extra pair of willing hands aboard at no cost, he did some very quick paper work, and Mike was soon doing dirty work down below. 

 He fitted in well with his shipmates. It was from them that he learned that the ship was headed for Cape Town. He had learned geography in English High School, he knew this was in Africa, a place he associated vaguely with bananas and coconuts.

 It was a long voyage, he worked hard and kept smiling, and his officers were so pleased with him that they offered him a modest wage for the voyage back. But he was not going back to Boston. He went ashore with a rollicking band of his shipmates, and no one stopped him, and he was alone on a street of a city that did not look that different from Boston, though he could hardly understand a word the people were saying as he walked among them, with no identity papers or money in his pockets, no friends, no change of underwear, nothing to count on but his nineteen-year-old heart. Fortune favors the bold, as another of his teachers had told him. He heard bugles and drums and headed toward them, he came to a booth with men in uniform bustling around it, and one of them was a recruiting sergeant who was happy to give him a shilling for signing up in the armed forces of the Queen-Empress Victoria. For the Boer War had begun that very day, and Her Majesty had urgent need of stout-hearted men..

 Mike served in Her Majesty’s forces for all the years the Boer War lasted. He saw his share of fighting, made his share of good friends, came out with the usual bag of old soldiers’ tales. There was the time when they were deep in the veldt, and he had a horrible toothache. His corporal claimed to have had a year’s training in a dental school, and while the rest of the squad sat on Mike to keep him quiet, he awkwardly chipped and dug away with hand-made tools while distant cannons roared and shook the ground till he could finally hold up a tooth in triumph and wipe off the blood, and then give it a puzzled stare and say, “What do you know. It’s the wrong tooth.”

 Mike would always insist that nothing really memorable had happened to him in the war. He did his duty honorably and efficiently. When the war was over he received an honorable discharge and, like all the men in his regiment, a handsomely wrapped chocolate bar as a personal present from the Queen-Empress. Almost immediately, he landed a job as traveling salesman for the White Horse Whisky people, riding a white horse endless miles over the veldt, his saddlebags stuffed with sample bottles of their product. There were long lonely days, but he knew how to take care of himself and his horse, he was tough and personable, he knew how to talk to lonely farmers, and he sold lots of whisky.

 Like so many other ambitious young men who had served the Queen-Empress, he branched out into gold-mining and into diamond-mining. Later, he went to Canada to join a gold rush there. He fought with Princess Patricia’s Regiment in France in the first World War. He later became a traveling salesman for the Toledo Blade Company, selling knives and cleavers and scales and other butchers’ supplies over some tens of thousands of square miles of the Canadian north...

 

 I had hardly ever laid eyes on him. He had popped into Boston on lightning visits once or twice when I was a little boy. Since he was rumored to be rich, I was encouraged to write letters to him, but on principle or from sheer laziness I never did. However, when I came back to Boston from Paris in 1941 with a French wife who knew nothing of America except what she had seen in the movies, I thought she should get a more varied view of her new continent than cramped city streets and I took a train with her to North Bay, Ontario..

 Mike, now retired, lived in an isolated modestly furnished little house with an elderly devoted and rather melancholy Scottish couple who served simple meals and kept the place immaculate. They were always dusting the decorations on the walls, various certificates and citations from the British Army and a huge scroll from the Toledo Blade people attesting to the exploits of their favorite salesman, who had covered more square miles of territory and sold more cleavers than any one else in their long history. But the central decoration was propped up on the mantelpiece over the fireplace in the living room, hard as a rock after all its years there, it was Queen Victoria’s chocolate bar.

 My uncle turned out to be a cheerful rugged little man, adapting as easily to the leisure of old age as he had to the bustle of war and gold-mining in his youth. We spent pleasant afternoons inspecting the countryside, which was as depressing a countryside as I had ever seen, a countryside where man had vied with nature to provide ever more gloomy visions of emptiness and desolation, We chatted cheerfully as we made our way through heaps of rusted machinery from abandoned mines scattered on rocky hillsides among stunted bushes. He liked to make passing references to the out-of-the-way places where his life had taken him, the Transvaal and the Yukon, Vimy Ridge, he liked to talk about the unusual people he had met, but he was not really interested in talking about himself. I would like to have known if he had ever laid eyes again on his Intended, who, I was told, had done very well for herself in Boston and married a rich merchant, but her name never passed his lips, any more than those of the women with whom he must have had more or less tumultuous affairs on three continents. There was a rumor in the family that at some point his heart had been broken somewhere, but he gave no indication of bearing any great burden of sadness. He managed to be bravely cheerful, even in that black spring of 1941 when he assured me that there was no doubt about it, the English people would never give in, the English people would win the war.

 He spoke sparingly, not so much of his own life as of the odd and mean and wonderful people he had run into over his life.

 In South Africa he had struck up a friendship with a man named Barney Barnato, a minor entrepreneur or adventurer or camp-follower prowling the diamond country. hoping to siphon off some drops from the river of riches flowing into the pockets of the DeBeers. The work in the mines was performed by proud Zulu warriors now reduced to working back-breaking hours for almost non-existent wages. They were of course kept under very close watch while they were in the mines, but Barney figured out a way to foil their guardians. He made friends with the more enterprising among the miners, he promised them pleasures they could not afford. He coached them in methods of distracting the guards’ attention at strategic moments, such as when they spied random tiny pieces of rock sparkling at their feet. They would then quickly flip the rocks into their mouths and swallow them. At night he would lead his friends off to a small meadow he had rented in the vicinity, with huge vats of beer placed strategically within it. After a few hours of explosive joy, when they were ready to stagger off to their sleeping quarters, he would spike the beer with a strong laxative. Later he would come creeping through the field in the darkness, feeling his way through the foulness for those sharp little stones which on a good night could add up to a substantial piece of property. The DeBeers people eventually caught on to his stratagem, but by that time he was a millionaire and able to make more millions in somewhat less illegitimate ways. He became in fact, or so it was believed by his old chums, the richest man in the world. He lived in palaces, he funded the biggest charitable enterprise in the United Kingdom, he sailed the seven seas on what was described as the world’s most luxurious yacht. “But he never could sleep well at night,” said Uncle Mike, “he could never forget how it all started, he could never get that smell out of his brain. That is why he jumped into the South Atlantic one dark night, off the deck of that yacht, and they never found his body.”

 All his stories had that touch of cold fatality which marks stories you hear in cold places, in the Alps, in the Arctic. He told a story I would later hear in a slightly different form from Robert Flaherty the film-maker: about this foul-mouthed vagrant, a petty criminal from the East End of London, and one day he stopped to listen to a street preacher and discovered God and changed his ways and spoke with the tongue of angels. He did good works on the docks and then as his goodness grew he became a missionary and went to speak pure Gospel-talk to heathens and to sinners everywhere. He came to the Far North and the day he arrived there he ran out into the pure whiteness of it waving his arms and shouting “Nature! Nature! The handiwork of God!” He ran out into the trackless snow, and they tried to shout warnings at him, but he ran on and fell into a hole in the ice, so deep that by the time they hauled him out all his extremities were frozen solid and they had to be cut off, without anaesthetics of course. When they started slicing away at his balls he sang hymns and prayed at the top of his voice, but as slice followed slice his voice became shrill and coarsely grating, and with his last breaths he was howling out all the obscenities and blasphemies of the East End docks.

 There was no moral to the story, that is the way the world is. 

 Uncle Mike would not let me leave without a few words of avuncular advice. He said: "Bobby, never be a gold miner, you’ll make more money selling matches to gold miners."

 His last words as he saw us off on the train to Boston were;

 "Bobby, keep smiling."

 

 I imagine he kept smiling to the end. At all events, he went on his own way, as he always had, taking the favors and reverses of fortune as they came. He followed no star, he only walked ahead down the road which had been marked out for him.

 In his last years, sick and solitary, he moved to Toronto, to live in a boarding-house and spend most of his daylight hours at the Stock Exchange. After his death a bevy of nephews and cousins descended on Toronto and spent increasingly frustrating days searching his papers, following every possible lead to see if there was anything left of the fortune which they had been prospectively dividing up for years. But no, he had cashed in everything he had, and it had all gone to the last cent into the maw of the stock exchange. The only thing left untouched was a small insurance policy he had taken out for my benefit when I was very little because I was the last survivor bearing the family name. It was a pitiful sum even by that day’s standards, but it turned out to be exactly enough to pay off that French wife who had sworn that she would see me in hell before she signed any divorce paper.

 I never knew if there was some kind of memorial notice in the Toronto papers. But I did receive some time later a letter from a young man who had spent some time in that boarding house. “You can never know what your uncle meant to us,” he wrote. “He made us all want to live.”

 
©2004 Robert Wernick .