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Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction
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Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
ONE night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny, was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ-free room I shared with my eldest brother, Seymour. I was fifteen, Seymour was seventeen. Along about two in the morning, the new roommate’s crying wakened me. I lay in a still, neutral position for a few minutes, listening to the racket, till I heard, or felt, Seymour stir in the bed next to mine. In those days, we kept a flashlight on the night table between us, for emergencies that, as far as I remember, never arose. Seymour turned it on and got out of bed. “The bottle’s on the stove, Mother said,” I told him. “I gave it to her a little while ago,” Seymour said. “She isn’t hungry.” He went over in the dark to the bookcase and beamed the flashlight slowly back and forth along the stacks. I sat up in bed. “What are you going to do?” I said. “I thought maybe I’d read something to her,” Seymour said, and took down a book. “She’s ten months old, for God’s sake,” I said. “I know,” Seymour said. “They have ears. They can hear.”
The story Seymour read to Franny that night, by flashlight, was a favorite of his, a Taoist tale. To this day, Franny swears that she remembers Seymour reading it to her:
Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: “You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?” Po Lo replied: “A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse—one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks—is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him.”
Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. “It is now in Shach’iu,” he added. “What kind of a horse is it?” asked the Duke. “Oh, it is a dun-colored mare,” was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. “That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?” Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.”
When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.
I’ve reproduced the tale here not just because I invariably go out of my way to recommend a good prose pacifier to parents or older brothers of ten-month-old babies but for quite another reason. What directly follows is an account of a wedding day in 1942. It is, in my opinion, a self-contained account, with a beginning and an end, and a mortality, all its own. Yet, because I’m in possession of the fact, I feel I must mention that the bridegroom is now, in 1955, no longer living. He committed suicide in 1948, while he was on vacation in Florida with his wife.… Undoubtedly, though, what I’m really getting at is this: Since the bridegroom’s permanent retirement from the scene, I haven’t been able to think of anybody whom I’d care to send out to look for horses in his stead.
In late May of 1942, the progeny—seven in number—of Les and Bessie (Gallagher) Glass, retired Pantages Circuit vaudevillians, were flung, extravagantly speaking, all over the United States. I, for one, the second-eldest, was in the post hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia, with pleurisy—a little keepsake of thirteen weeks’ infantry basic training. The twins, Walt and Waker, had been split up a whole year earlier. Waker was in a conscientious objectors’ camp in Maryland, and Walt was somewhere in the Pacific—or on his way there—with a field-artillery unit. (We’ve never been altogether sure where Walt was at that specific time. He was never a great letter writer, and very little personal information—almost none—reached us after his death. He was killed in an unspeakably absurd G.I. accident in late autumn of 1945, in Japan.) My eldest sister, Boo Boo, who comes, chronologically, between the twins and me, was an ensign in the Waves, stationed, off and on, at a naval base in Brooklyn. All that spring and summer, she occupied the small apartment in New York that my brother Seymour and I had all but technically given up after our induction. The two youngest children in the family, Zooey (male) and Franny (female), were with our parents in Los Angeles, where my father was hustling talent for a motion-picture studio. Zooey was thirteen, and Franny was eight. They were both appearing every week on a children’s radio quiz program called, with perhaps typically pungent Coast-to-Coast irony, “It’s a Wise Child.” At one time or another, I might well bring in here—or, rather, in one year or another—all the children in our family have been weekly hired “guests” on “It’s a Wise Child.” Seymour and I were the first to appear on the show, back in 1927, at the respective ages of ten and eight, in the days when the program “emanated” from one of the convention rooms of the old Murray Hill Hotel. All seven of us, from Seymour through Franny, appeared on the show under pseudonyms. Which may sound highly anomalous, considering that we’re the children of vaudevillians, a sect not usually antipathetic to publicity, but my mother had once read a magazine article on the little crosses professional children are obliged to bear—their estrangement from normal, presumably desirable society—and she took an iron stand on the issue, and never, never wavered. (This is not the time at all to go into the question of whether most, or all, “professional” children ought to be outlawed, pitied, or unsentimentally executed as disturbers of the peace. For the moment, I’ll only pass along that our combined income on “It’s a Wise Child” has sent six of us through college, and is now sending the seventh.)
Our eldest brother, Seymour—with whom I’m all but exclusively concerned here—was a corporal in what, in 1942, was still called the Air Corps. He was stationed at a B-17 base in California, where, I believe, he was an acting company clerk. I might add, not quite parenthetically, that he was by far the least prolific letter writer in the family. I don’t think I’ve had five letters from him in my life.
On the morning of either May 22nd or 3rd (no one in my family has ever dated a letter), a letter from my sister Boo Boo was placed on the foot of my cot in the post hospital at Fort Benning while my diaphragm was being strapped with adhesive tape (a usual medical procedure with pleurisy patients, presumably guaranteed to prevent them from coughing themselves to pieces). When the ordeal was over, I read Boo Boo’s letter. I still have it, and it follows here verbatim:
I’m in a terrible rush to pack, so this will be short but penetrating. Admiral Behind-pincher has decided that he must fly to parts unknown for the war effort and has also decided to take his secretary with him if I behave myself. I’m just sick about it. Seymour aside, it means Quonset huts in freezing air bases and boyish passes from our fighting men and those horrible paper things to get sick in on the plane. The point is, Seymour is getting married—yes, married, so please pay attention. I can’t be there. I may be gone for anywhere from six weeks to two months on this trip. I’ve met the girl. She’s a zero in my opinion but terrific-looking. I don’t actually know that she’s a zero. I mean she hardly said two words the night I met her. Just sat and smiled and smoked, so it isn’t fair to say. I don’t know anything about the romance itself at all, except that they apparently met when Seymour was stationed at Monmouth last winter. The mother is the end—a finger in all the arts, and sees a good Jungian man twice a week (she asked me twice, the night I met her, if I’d ever been analyzed). She told me she just wishes Seymour would relate to more people. In the same breath, said she just loves him, though, etc., etc., and that she used to listen to him religiously all the years he was on the air. That’s all I know except that you’ve got to get to the wedding. I’ll never forgive you if you don’t. I mean it. Mother and Daddy can’t get here from the Coast. Franny has the measles, for one thing. Incidentally, did you hear her last week? She went on at beautiful length about how she used to fly all around the apartment when she was four and no one was home. The new announcer is worse than Grant—if possible, even worse than Sullivan in the old days. He said she surely just dreamt that she was able to fly. The baby stood her ground like an angel. She said she knew she was able to fly because when she came down she always had dust on her fingers from touching the light bulbs. I long to see her. You, too. Anyhow, you’ve got to get to the wedding. Go A.W.O.L. if you have to, but please go. It’s at three o’clock, June 4th. Very non-sectarian and Emancipated, at her grandmother’s house on 63rd. Some judge is marrying them. I don’t know the number of the house, but it’s exactly two doors down from where Carl and Amy used to live in luxury. I’m going to wire Walt, but I think he’s been shipped out already. Please get there, Buddy. He weighs about as much as a cat and he has that ecstatic look on his face that you can’t talk to. Maybe it’s going to be perfectly all right, but I hate 1942. I think I’ll hate 1942 till I die, just on general principles. All my love and see you when I get back.
A couple of days after the letter arrived, I was discharged from the hospital, in the custody, so to speak, of about three yards of adhesive tape around my ribs. Then began a very strenuous week’s campaign to get permission to attend the wedding. I was finally able to do it by laboriously ingratiating myself with my company commander, a bookish man by his own confession, whose favorite author, as luck had it, happened to be my favorite author—L. Manning Vines. Or Hinds. Despite this spiritual bond between us, the most I could wangle out of him was a three-day pass, which would, at best, give me just enough time to travel by train to New York, see the wedding, bolt a dinner somewhere, and then return damply to Georgia.
All sit-up coaches on trains in 1942 were only nominally ventilated, as I remember, abounded with M.P.s, and smelled of orange juice, milk, and rye whiskey. I spent the night coughing and reading a copy of Ace Comics that someone was kind enough to lend me. When the train pulled into New York—at ten after two on the afternoon of the wedding—I was coughed out, generally exhausted, perspiring, unpressed, and my adhesive tape was itching hellishly. New York itself was indescribably hot. I had no time to go to my apartment first, so I left my luggage, which consisted of a rather oppressive-looking little canvas zipper bag, in one of those steel boxes at Penn Station. To make things still more provocative, as I was wandering around in the garment district trying to find an empty cab, a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps, whom I’d apparently overlooked saluting, crossing Seventh Avenue, suddenly took out a fountain pen and wrote down my name, serial number, and address while a number of civilians looked interestedly on.
I was limp when I finally got into a cab. I gave the driver directions that would take me at least as far as “Carl and Amy’s” old house. As soon as we arrived in that block, however, it was very simple. One just followed the crowd. There was even a canvas canopy. A moment later, I entered an enormous old brownstone and was met by a very handsome, lavender-haired woman, who asked me whether I was a friend of the bride or the groom. I said the groom. “Oh,” she said, “well, we’re just bunching everybody up together.” She laughed rather immoderately, and showed me to what seemed to be the last vacant folding chair in a very crowded outsize room. I have a thirteen-year-old blackout in my mind with regard to the over-all physical details of the room. Beyond the fact that it was jam-packed and stifling hot, I can remember only two things: that there was an organ playing almost directly behind me, and that the woman in the seat directly at my right turned to me and enthusiastically stage-whispered, “I’m Helen Silsburn!” From the location of our seats, I gathered that she was not the bride’s mother, but, to play it safe, I smiled and nodded gregariously, and was about to say who I was, but she put a decorous finger to her lips, and we both faced front. It was then, roughly, three o’clock. I closed my eyes and waited, a trifle guardedly, for the organist to quit the incidental music and plunge into “Lohengrin.”
I haven’t a very clear idea of how the next hour and a quarter passed, aside from the cardinal fact that there was no plunging into “Lohengrin.” I remember a little dispersed band of unfamiliar faces that surreptitiously turned around, now and then, to see who was coughing. And I remember that the woman at my right addressed me once again, in the same rather festive whisper. “There must be some delay,” she said. “Have you ever seen Judge Ranker? He has the face of a saint.” And I remember the organ music veering peculiarly, almost desperately, at one point, from Bach to early Rodgers and Hart. On the whole, though, I’m afraid, I passed the time paying little sympathetic hospital calls on myself for being obliged to suppress my coughing spells. I had a sustained, cowardly notion, the entire time I was in the room, that I was about to hemorrhage, or, at the very least, fracture a rib, despite the corset of adhesive tape I was wearing.
At twenty minutes past four—or, to put it another, blunter way, an hour and twenty minutes past what seemed to be all reasonable hope—the unmarried bride, her head down, a parent stationed on either side of her, was helped out of the building and conducted, fragilely, down a long flight of stone steps to the sidewalk. She was then deposited—almost hand over hand, it seemed—into the first of the sleek black hired cars that were waiting, double-parked, at the curb. It was an excessively graphic moment—a tabloid moment—and, as tabloid moments go, it had its full complement of eyewitnesses, for the wedding guests (myself among them) had already begun to pour out of the building, however decorously, in alert, not to say goggle-eyed, droves. If there was any even faintly lenitive aspect to the spectacle, the weather itself was responsible for it. The June sun was so hot and so glaring, of such multi-flashbulb-like mediacy, that the image of the bride, as she made her almost invalided way down the stone steps, tended to blur where blurring mattered most.
Once the bridal car was at least physically removed from the scene, the tension on the sidewalk—especially around the mouth of the canvas canopy, at the curb, where I, for one, was loitering—deteriorated into what, had the building been a church, and had it been a Sunday, might have been taken for fairly normal congregation-dispersing confusion. Then, very suddenly, the emphasized word came—reportedly from the bride’s Uncle Al—that the wedding guests were to use the cars standing at the curb; that is, reception or no reception, change of plans or no change of plans. If the reaction in my vicinity was any criterion, the offer was generally received as a kind of beau geste. It didn’t quite go without saying, however, that the cars were to be “used” only after a formidable-looking platoon of people—referred to as the bride’s “immediate family”—had taken what transportation they needed to quit the scene. And, after a somewhat mysterious and bottleneck-like delay (during which I remained peculiarly riveted to the spot), the “immediate family” did indeed begin to make its exodus, as many as six or seven persons to a car, or as few as three or four. The number, I gathered, depended upon the age, demeanor, and hip spread of the first occupants in possession.
Suddenly, at someone’s parting—but markedly crisp—suggestion, I found myself stationed at the curb, directly at the mouth of the canvas canopy, attending to helping people into cars.
How I had been singled out to fill this post deserves some small speculation. So far as I know, the unidentified, middle-aged man of action who had picked me for the job hadn’t a glimmer of a notion that I was the bridegroom’s brother. Therefore, it seems logical that I was singled out for other, far less poetic reasons. The year was 1942. I was twenty-three, and newly drafted into the Army. It strikes me that it was solely my age, my uniform, and the unmistakably serviceable, olive-drab aura about me that had left no doubt concerning my eligibility to fill in as doorman.
I was not only twenty-three but a conspicuously retarded twenty-three. I remember loading people into cars without any degree of competence whatever. On the contrary, I went about it with a certain disingenuous, cadetlike semblance of single-mindedness, of adherence to duty. After a few minutes, in fact, I became all too aware that I was catering to the needs of a predominantly older, shorter, fleshier generation, and my performance as an arm taker and door closer took on an even more thoroughly bogus puissance. I began to conduct myself like an exceptionally adroit, wholly engaging young giant with a cough.
But the heat of the afternoon was, to say the least, oppressive, and the compensations of my office must have seemed to me increasingly tokenless. Abruptly, though the crowd of “immediate family” seemed scarcely to have begun to thin out, I myself lunged into one of the freshly loaded cars, just as it started to draw away from the curb. In doing it, I hit my head a very audible (perhaps retributive) crack on the roof. One of the occupants of the car was none other than my whispering acquaintance, Helen Silsburn, and she started to offer me her unqualified sympathy. The crack had evidently resounded throughout the car. But at twenty-three I was the sort of young man who responds to all public injury of his person, short of a fractured skull, by giving out a hollow, subnormal-sounding laugh.
The car moved west, directly, as it were, into the open furnace of the late-afternoon sky. It continued west for two blocks, till it reached Madison Avenue, and then it right-angled sharply north. I felt as though we were all being saved from being caught up by the sun’s terrible flue only by the anonymous driver’s enormous alertness and skill.
The first four or five blocks north on Madison, conversation in the car was chiefly limited to remarks like “Am I giving you enough room?” and “I’ve never been so hot in my entire life.” The one who had never been so hot in her entire life was, as I’d learned from a certain amount of eavesdropping at the curb, the bride’s Matron of Honor. She was a hefty girl of about twenty-four or -five, in a pink satin dress, with a circlet of artificial forget-me-nots in her hair. There was a distinctly athletic ethos about her, as if, a year or two earlier, she might have majored in physical education in college. In her lap she was holding a bouquet of gardenias rather as though it were a deflated volleyball. She was seated in the back of the car, hip-pressed between her husband and a tiny elderly man in a top hat and cutaway, who was holding an unlighted clear-Havana cigar. Mrs. Silsburn and I—our respective inside knees unribaldly touching—occupied the jump seats. Twice, without any excuse whatever, out of sheer approval, I glanced around at the tiny elderly man. When I’d originally loaded the car and held the door open for him, I’d had a passing impulse to pick him up bodily and insert him gently through the open window. He was tininess itself, surely being not more than four nine or ten and without being either a midget or a dwarf. In the car, he sat staring very severely straight ahead of him. On my second look around at him, I noticed that he had what very much appeared to be an old gravy stain on the lapel of his cutaway. I also noticed that his silk hat cleared the roof of the car by a good four or five inches.… But for the most part, those first few minutes in the car, I was still mainly concerned with my own state of health. Besides having pleurisy and a bruised head, I had a hypochondriac’s notion that I was getting a strep throat. I sat surreptitiously curling back my tongue and exploring the suspected ailing part. I was staring, as I remember, directly in front of me, at the back of the driver’s neck, which was a relief map of boil scars, when suddenly my jump-seat mate addressed me: “I didn’t get a chance to ask you inside. How’s that darling mother of yours? Aren’t you Dickie Briganza?”
My tongue, at the time of the question, was curled back exploratively as far as the soft palate. I disentangled it, swallowed, and turned to her. She was fifty, or thereabouts, fashionably and tastefully dressed. She was wearing a very heavy pancake makeup. I answered no—that I wasn’t.
She narrowed her eyes a trifle at me and said I looked exactly like Celia Briganza’s boy. Around the mouth. I tried to show by my expression that it was a mistake anybody could make. Then I went on staring at the back of the driver’s neck. The car was silent. I glanced out of the window, for a change of scene.
“How do you like the Army?” Mrs. Silsburn asked. Abruptly, conversationally.
I had a brief coughing spell at that particular instant. When it was over, I turned to her with all available alacrity and said I’d made a lot of buddies. It was a little difficult for me to swivel in her direction, what with the encasement of adhesive tape around my diaphragm.
She nodded. “I think you’re all just wonderful,” she said, somewhat ambiguously. “Are you a friend of the bride’s or the groom’s?” she then asked, delicately getting down to brass tacks.
“Well, actually, I’m not exactly a friend of—”
“You’d better not say you’re a friend of the groom,” the Matron of Honor interrupted me, from the back of the car. “I’d like to get my hands on him for about two minutes. Just two minutes, that’s all.”
- "No American writer will ever have a more alert ear, a more attentive eye, or a more ardent heart than Salinger's."—Adam Gopnik, New Yorker
- "Salinger's final confrontation with all the strains of his earlier fiction: sentimentality, depression, Eastern philosophy, isolation, and the guilt of being happy."—Chris Wilson, Slate
- "We mustn't be blind to what Salinger has accomplished by virtue of his overabundant love...The Glass stories retain an extraordinary interest and appeal."—John Romano, New York Times
- "Oddly, the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years. I can't say why, though. Not, at least, outside the casino proper of my fiction."—J. D. Salinger
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Back Bay Books