A Rose in the Blue Room

I hope you don’t mind my asking all these questions, I but I always took an interest in my son’s friends and in his writing career. He always thought highly of you as an editor of much prestige, and I’m sure he was right to do so.

I always say, the only thing that makes a poet different from the rest of us is his insight and understanding, don’t you agree?

Oh, our son made mistakes, no one could gainsay you that. He had bad luck with his first wife, for instance. I told him she was not the right girl for any son of mine, but he was head over heels in love with her at the time. Of course he was the player of the year at State and they did make a lovely couple, her being the Homecoming Queen and all. But you could see she was just a gold-digger.

And of course she knew that our family is a highly respected one here in Fayette, going back to the Civil War. And I’m sure Jack told you he is descended from Kit Carson on my side of the family.

Daddy’s family, before the war––the First World War, you understand, as recent as that––owned acreage that is now in the heart of downtown. But Daddy always did like his drink, and little by little he sold off his entire heritage. He wasn’t fit for working, the way he was brought up, though there has not been a King in public office for three generations now. Daddy always believed in keeping our image what it should be. He always devoted his time to charity and the VFW and insisted I maintain my situation in the DAR, ‘No matter how many damned bills there are to pay!’ He always said.

Jack’s bride pretended to be totally ignorant of our modest net worth. She let these lovely relics of silver from grander days in our families dazzle her into thinking we were rich. You didn’t know Jack had been married? Well, I’m not surprised. It was shameless the way she carried on while he was serving his country in the Marines. I told him so, though not till he returned home. I could not bear to think of him off in a foreign country, lonely and possibly in danger of his life, hearing the rumors going around about his wife. They had only been together six months when he volunteered to fight.

I have thanked my lucky stars a thousand times that it was all over before he got there. They had just bombed Nagasaki when his company arrived in Japan. To this day, he won’t talk about it, but you can see it. Such a sensitive boy should not have been subjected to such a horror. Not that he was a panty-waist by any means. He was an MP, and you know what that means.

As I was saying, it tore his heart out when I felt behooved to tell him about her shabby behavior.

Daddy thinks to this day I was wrong to do that. It’s true that Jack left that very night and we did not see him for seven years, though he sent me a poem every Christmas. Daddy even set one of them to music. We must remember to ask him to sing it when he comes home. He has such a lovely tenor voice.  I hope this terrible news is not too much for Daddy. He always felt he failed somehow to win Jack’s honest love. I try to assure him it’s only natural for the oldest son to be over-weeningly attached to his mother.

Those seven years?  Jack surely has recounted those adventures to you. Harvesting crops, following the weather. Like so many artists, Jack has suffered the torment of dis-satisfaction in his life, the wanderlust that gave Jack London his wonderful books, the closeness to the land and the common people which gave us Frost and Sandburg and Steinbeck. Daddy and I so hoped he would make use of that time of despair in his work.

To this day I blame it on that woman. He simply left his destiny to the winds of fate until at last she divorced him. Typical of her stripe, and characteristic of Jack’s gentlemanly nature, she gave as grounds desertion and non-support, and he would not publicize her infamy by counter-suing on grounds of infidelity. Though heaven knows any number of respected young men in Fayette would have stepped forward to witness her shame to the world.

For they all loved Jack here in Fayette. No one has forgotten the honors he helped bring Cherokee College when he led the football team to victory after victory. You must see his articles on sports, which his brother reprinted in the newspaper. You knew that Dave was the editor of our local newspaper? Between you and I, he was always a bit jealous of Jack. I say so even they’re both by me born into this world, and I never played favorites. But Dave insisted on raising a family with that social worker he married.

If that’s not a tragedy in this family? The way she did Dave in? He was writing plays. In the great tradition of Tennessee Williams and Westcott, who displayed our faded Southern grandeur to posterity?  Even my boy Jack grudgingly admitted that his kid brother, as he liked to call him, had a budding talent with words.

I can’t claim the credit for their gifts any more than Daddy can. It’s true that before Daddy came into my mother’s house and literally swept me off my feet fifty-two years ago in August, I had been the only Southern Belle of the Ball on the Dean’s List in the history of Catawba College. I  had  felt a calling to teach, and chose our town, not because it was obviously a place to meet your more refined people, with sense of propriety and that gift of grace so sadly lacking in the modern world, the gift of gracious living.  No. I chose Fayette because I felt there was a need here, there was so much ignorance among the common people, who only needed the encouragement of we more fortunate ones who are educated, don’t you agree?

But here I am chattering away and you haven’t told me a thing. I know you want to tell me how bravely my son faced his time to go. Like so many men of a heroic nature, Jack was a superb stoic. Not to slight Dave. One must admire a man who performs his duty to his children, though his wife has made his life a shambles.

You know Dave won the Randall Award? And was playwright in residence at the University of Virginia? In the late fifties?

He had met his wife a year before when he–unknown to his family, or  we would not have  permitted it, down-at-heels as our fortunes may have become–as I say, they met when he was on Welfare down at Macon, Georgia. He lost his job with the Macon Herald, and made a valiant effort to support himself by his preferred craft. Recounting the inanities of the ladies’ Garden Club or the Chamber of Commerce had never appealed to him. It was Dave’s misfortune to miss the glory and fear of war, his age putting him between the necessity of the Second War and the folly of Korea.

Kate was the social worker who had to visit his rented room and verify that he was entitled to receive the bounty of the State. She was shrewd enough to recognize a man with talent and to latch on to him. If Dave had done his mother the honor of introducing  his bride-to-be, I could have told him she would drain him of all creative energies.

That was – my, my – nearly twelve years ago. Time has nearly passed us by, hasn’t it? Since then he has lost sight of his own destiny. He still assures me that the responsibility on his shoulders does not prevent his pursuing his art. And he did have a one-act play produced at a midwestern university, which I am afraid did him little good as far as fame and fortune goes.

Just last Sunday we were sampling Kate’s cooking, poor thing. There was too much vinegar in the potato salad. But he poured  Kool-aid into my jelly glass – can you imagine such a thing?  After growing up with fine silver and antebellum crystal?

Jack’s wife made off with most of that in the divorce settlement, I’m afraid, though you’ll notice that is bone China in your hand? Isn’t it a pity that we have lost the love of beauty in our time? When they make stainless steel flatware? 

I always wondered why Kate’s family did not pass on some of their Sheratons or Spode. But I suppose you can’t blame them. They too sensed that the marriage would never last.

Do please forgive me for going on so. I so want to hear all you have to tell me.

Well. In another search for the vernacular in which he hoped to write his own Great American Novel, as he put it, a monument to the richness of the American people, Jack signed up, for a lucrative amount, to write releases for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wintered with them in Vero Beach, Florida. But while he kept his employers satisfied, his creations were excursions into the mythology of our nation that he sees in football and baseball. Everyone has read Ring Lardner by now, and even our new ethnic voice, Malamud?

Here are some of the articles Jack wrote when he was doing journalism. When Dave  reluctantly put them in his paper with a by-line – he thought it smacked of nepotism  to publish his own brother’s work – he turned sour grapes and in a moment of forgetting himself, he accused his brother of writing, not journalism, but ‘phony publicity’, I  think he  termed it.

I say sour grapes, because this was after Jack’s divorce, and Jack had vindicated his poor marks at Cherokee by attending Yale where he was a protegé of Dave Brustein.  Of the New York Times? The drama critic?

But I’m boring you here in the “kitchen of sunshine and smiles” as Jack was forever calling it in his letters. Come with me into the shade of the rose arbor.

Do you know that every day without fail, in winter from my tiny greenhouse, I place a rose in the Blue Room? I am not ashamed to be sentimental. When he returned from the Far East, that first and on1y morning he awoke  under this roof before beginning his long search for himself, I brought him coffee with a favorite rose on his tray. He had chosen the blue room as a boy because it looked over the rose garden. “I shall always see this room with a rose,” I recall him saying. Remind me to show you his room before you go.

I know it belies our tradition of Southern hospitality not to ask you to stay, but Daddy is  not at all well. The smallest change in routine seems to set him off. He suffers terribly sometimes, poor man, with his breathing and his heart. I tell him to leave off the cigars down at the Lodge–he’s a Knight of Pythias, you know. But of course he won’t listen to me now, any more than he ever did, talk as I might, till I was blue in the face, about will power and self-reliance and the Golden Mean.

Not that any of our menfolk have been intemperate, which is more than many of the quality of our neck of the woods can say.

That girl Hope, for instance. I’m sure you must have met on one of her innumerable trips to New York. A “hussy photographer” is what my husband called her, and from a fine family, too. I know just how embarrassed those good people must be.

She called the trips business, but between you and me and the lantern post, she made advances to my son. Not that I wouldn’t have been delighted to have him marry a local girl and settle down close to home. But I remember his reaction to the rumors of his wife. It would have been terrible for him to have married that photographer only to find out that she was once the kept woman of the Grand Dragon? The Ku Klux Klan?

You Northerners are so surprised by the Klan. At least in the South we label our prejudice, easing the resentment between the races. Don’t you honestly agree, it’s better to have it out in the open?  Even so hateful a notion as white supremacy?  Africa has yet to produce a man of importance equal to even Booker T. Washington, though he was a diminutive figure among the intellectual giants of our land. Mind you, I’m not one of those I see at the DAR who think the nigras should be shipped back to the Dark Continent. Think of how their labor developed the resources of our fertile land. Besides, Dr. Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer gave their lives to the salvation of those people, and here God put them right at the very doors of our Christianity. Jack always mentioned their contribution to our only indigenous music. Jazz and gospel are rightly revered inventions of our young country, but I declare I cannot listen to either, they seem to rant and rave so. I prefer the peace and tranquillity of my own quiet belief that God has a Plan, which is Perfect, if we could but see our role in his Divine Universe.

Oh dear, never speak of religion or politics. Jack’s only condescension to the artificial restraints to society. He sometimes gave me a turn with his flagrant disregard for public opinion, but he always forced you to laugh at his escapades.  Daddy himself, though he would grumble over the speeding tickets and garage bills, relished Jack’s explanatory orations. He had a way of pin-pointing the foibles of our acquaintances? Turning their tragic flaws into high comedy?

My tongue will go a mile a minute until I see a cow on the freeway, Daddy says.

You say he did not suffer, and that was kind of the Lord. Perhaps the balance turned from that moment. Jack surely bore the cross of his life well. An eternity without pain? Wouldn’t that be a just reward for anguish here below?  You know he was close to death once before?  You were with him, I believe? A scorpion, in Priene, near Miletus? I must show you the poem he made from that.

I don’t mean to pry or take advantage. But Jack always led me to believe you were one of the best editors in the small world of belle lettres. He would think it shameless of me to impose on a friend, so I won’t press you with his letters and poems, which I have kept over the years. But I could not ever forgive myself if I did not let you read at least one or two of his best lyrics. He was always shy of revealing his private soul, but I just know he would want a mind as insightful as yours to give him that brief respite against oblivion. For these are poems you will never forget. When you yourself go to your Maker, the name of Jack King shall disappear from the earth. Daddy and I will have long since taken our rest, and no one else will pay him the slightest mind.

I do go on so! Let me make some jasmine tea while you sit at his desk. You’ll find the poems under the rose. I opened the shutters. Aren’t we lucky? The light will be at its best for the next hour in the blue room.

You can find your way? First left at the top of the stairs? By the Greek bust Jack sent me from Athens?