A Bit of Fred’s Story

I found this a while ago and posted the letter that was attached to this story, but failed to share the story itself, an error remedied here. By the way the letter concluded with: When you’re sitting down, with coffee & cigarette, anything seems possible.


From his mother’s house in Salisbury, Fred called his brother in Greensborough.

“Doug? Can you come down this weekend?”

He waited, breathing inside the plastic mask.

“Doug? You there?”

“I’m here.” A long pause.  “What are you asking?  What I think you are? I’m not sure I can handle this.”

Fred sits in the living room on the sofa. In front of him the coffee table is filled to the point of clutter. A reproduction of Canova’s Paolina Borghese as Venus. David’s Madame Recamier. An alabaster copy of the Venus de Milo he bought in Athens. Ezra Pound´s Personae. The poems of Merwin. A CD of Horowitz playing Mussorsgky. A bottle of Chivas Regal. Half a pack of Marlboros.

On the wall at his back, reproductions by Braque, Picasso, Miro, Utrillo. A photo of him at Cape Sounion in Greece, the wind mussing his hair. Beside him a beauty from Missouri trying to keep her own hair from covering her face.

He lifted the mask away again and spoke into the phone.

“This is no life, Doug.” He replaced the mask and took a deep pull into his lungs.

“I told you I won’t help you.”

“No worry. Just come.”  Heavy breathing, he thought of Darth Vader.  “I want to see you.”

“All right,” Doug said with resignation. “But I won’t help you. I won’t do anything.”

“I don´t want you to.”

“You want anything from up here?”

“The scotch is almost gone.”

“Chivas, right? I´ll drop by the ABC.  But I can’t get away until Saturday afternoon.  The kids are coming for spring break.  I have to at least say hello.”

“Give them hugs for me.”

“I will if Kate lets me get close.  She’s pissed off at the moment.  I’ll tell you about it.


When you first met Fred, you might think he was just another sweet southr’n boy, a transplant from North Carolina like so many who left poverty in the hills for the higher salaries  of New York  Curly hair with sideburns, a lilt in the voice, a gentlemanly way in the faculty room. The women folk took to him like flies to honey.

There was a deep cleft in his chin. He had surprisingly small teeth in that tight but engaging smile. But then you might notice the scare on his temple, a tiny scimitar curving up and out of sight into those tight curls, and want to ask how come. Or if you looked at the knuckles of his big hands curled around the coffee mug you would see that they had been skint and  cicatrized and and you wondered why and how.

He dressed himself neatly, slim slacks, sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows, a narrow knitted tie. Black loafers with tassels, ribbed wool socks. He arrived in his green MG at the school parking lot with the top down, even in winter unless it was raining or snowing, the heater on full blast, WQXR on the radio.


When I joined the faculty, up from West Virginia by way of Florida, we recognized our beginnings and soon bosomed up as buddies. He was maybe ten years older, so about forty.

He liked the fact that I had studied music.

“I’m jealous.  You actually met Kilenyi? Had master classes with Dohnanyi?”

“One master class. I was never such a good pianist.  That’s why I switched to English lit.”

He was writing poetry and liked it that I was finishing a set of sonnets for Mari, who would soon be my wife, if I had my way.

In a word, we were getting along fine, and I felt I was bonding for the first time since university.  Most teachers,and, let’s face it, most men are simply not interested in music, poetry, novels.

When eventually he met Mari, he thought she was lovely.

“And she is a painter?  Hang on to this one,” he said.  “She’s a jewel.”


I asked him about the scars.

He jiggled the ice in his glass and took a sip of whiskey.

“Different places. Most when I was an MP. In Tokyo.”

Over time I heard some of his life.

“Those kids came boiling out of the cave like flaming bats out of hell.” What I had seen in movies, he had lived.

“I was lucky.  Some of my buddies were stationed in Nagasaki.  They got sick, some of them. Tokyo was OK, except for the brawling sailors.”

Sitting in the Blue Venice restaurant in Freeport he told me:

“The GI Bill got me Columbia and Mark van Doren.  Almost made the war worth it.”


At the time he was working on the school nurse.  I got the feeling he had explored most of the other bachelorettes over the several years he had worked there.  He was coming up on a sabbatical, which gives you an idea of how long he had prowled those halls.


We both taught English, across the hall from each other. I had a couple of remedial eighth grade classes, and by way of compensation, one advanced ninth grade bunch, a dozen bright youngsters up from Fred’s eighth grade advanced English, composition and literature. He was an inspirational teacher and  students benefited from his passion for the classics – from Homer through Hemingway. He managed to cover the recommended state curriculum and a lot more than that.


In one of those ironies fate keeps in store for us, just when Fred reached the age of early retirement, his mother fell ill. How could he know she would take so long to let go? In the meantime he had lost one lung, and the other was infected.

I can’t play tennis anymore, he wrote,” I told Robert, a friend from when we all three taught on Long Island.

“But he still smokes!” our mutual friend Robert said. “It’s insane.” He threw his hands in the air.

“Are you really going to do this, Fred?”

“What do you think?  This is definitely no life.

I’ve had enough.”

“How are you going to do it?  I don’t want to get into trouble.  I have to think of my family.  What would they do if I go into trouble.”

“Don’t worry.  You will just be keeping me company, that’s all.”

“You’re not going to ask me to inject that insulin?”

“No.  Get it out of the fridge and put it in the garbage bin in the street.  I won’t need it.”

Doug did that.  In the street the wind was moving the leaves of the elm trees.  No one else moved.  The sidewalks were empty.  It was supper time.  Lights were on up and down the street. In Maud’s house next door, the lights were on in the kitchen.  She was probably making something for Fred to eat, if he still ate anything.

Back in the living room, Doug sat down in the wing back chair. Fred had lit another Marlboro.  He took three short puffs before he started coughing and put the mask back on.

One day you’re going blow yourself up. Oxygen burns you know.”


“Tell me about Kate,” Fred said inside the mask. “Is she going to be a poet?”

“I think so.  The little magazines love her.  She has a first slim volume ready to publish.”

“I always hoped so.  Such a bright girl.”  His chest heaved with the effort of breathing and talking. 


Robert had settled in Florence, Italy on a small pension from the States years ago. Fred’s intention was to join him in exile, not living together, but sharing the many friends they both had in common.


The neighborhoods feeding into the school were mixed, but there were plenty of professional parents with university training.  One boy was a remarkable painter at fifteen years old. Another was a pianist already playing Chopin etudes. Rona was her name, the blossoming pianist.

Rona had a ferocious crush on Fred. Ten years later, after she had finished high school and college, she looked him up and seduced him.

He was that kind of guy.  You might call him a womanizer, but the fact is women just couldn’t resist trying him out.  They flocked around him like pigeons around the guy on the park bench with the popcorn.  He didn’t have to do anything, just be there.


Once he had been married.  But when he returned from the Marines, his mother filled him in on what the wife had be up to while he was in Japan. For two years Fred followed the itinerant labor legions, south to north, east to west, following the harvests.  Finally his wife filed for divorce and married his best friend from high school.


After that he remained a bachelor most of his life. He attended Columbia on the GI Bill.  Mark van Doren was one of his idols from then on.

Oh, he fell in love more than once. But he was twice shy.  But then his great love decided he was never going to marry her, and threw him over. She was an Italian-American named Chickie.

It was at this point in the file that the story ended and Fred’s letter began. Whether Patrick merged two dissimilar items into one file (fredletter.odt dated 5 Dec 2015) or there were meant to be attached, I don’t know.

Here’s one last curious little coincidence. Fred idolized Mark van Doren. In 2006 I won the Mark van Doren poetry prize for a short collection of works.