Here is a story by my old friend Naton Leslie, short story writer, essayist, poet, teacher & mad antiques collector extraordinaire. He lives down the road from me in Ballston Spa and teaches at Sienna College. This story is from his collection Marconi’s Dream which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize. I wrote a blurb for the book. It went like this:
Naton Leslie’s passionately detailed prose wrings meaning from the lives of Americans passed over by the go-go economics of the last thirty years, the working poor of the rust belt and the old upstate New York mill towns gone to seed. His characters are desperately trying to find love and dignity in the wreckage of a society where the old verities—honesty, hard work, fair dealing— don’t count for much any more.
The rather splendid photo above is reproduced here courtesy of Jennifer May who just published a book of author photos River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers.
I’ve always been fascinated with depression-era stories, as they always contain a certain pathos and desperation. Sometimes I they think enter the realm of mythos as well; the story of being served up your own pet rabbit on a dinner plate has been told to me by a number of people, and nearly always the same way: the somber faces of the parents; the silent dinner as everyone digs in and devours Thumper etc. While my father also told this story, as reported in the following piece, he had other, more singular tales to tell.
My father always laid claim to a Dickensian childhood, to hear him tell it. And he did, often, whenever some little triumph or tragedy entered our pale, inflated lives. When he delivered newspapers, long before breakfast, he’d pick apples along the way to keep from truly expiring from hunger. He had been close to death many times—but this is not about death.
This is about the movies. My father swept the movie theater floor for the change he’d find, and for a free ticket to the next show. Then he’d see Flash Gordon, the news from The War, Roosevelt relaxed in his seat, shaking hands with other men my father called great, or, if he was lucky, white-hatted men who finally gunned down their black-hatted foes—simple justice, simple myth-making when there was a real enemy, when there was a right and a wrong, a drunk and sober, a dirty and clean, a hungry and full, a happy and sad. On this he was adamant. His days were times of extremes, delineated like black and white film, not muddy and imperfect and phony, with our life-like living color. It was damned shame, he’d say, the way things turned out.
But my father is telling this story, mind you, not me. I’m not part of this story, or maybe simply a witness, an ear. I don’t even have to tell this story because you already know it. Your parents had their own snow drifts to navigate when they walked, often barefoot or at least bareheaded (come-on, you’d say) to school, their own pet rabbits slaughtered and served up on their own depression plates—that’s another story he told, too, and I’m sure he didn’t make it up because it’s happened to so many other people.
One time, at the Orpheum theater (a great name, I always thought, for the location of my father’s own Stygian stables), he was finished sweeping up the candy wrappers and popcorn, and the manager offered him a ticket to a show, but not to the next movie the next night because Gene Autry would be making a personal appearance, before the opening of a new feature film—even the big stars did that kind of stuff back then, he said. They weren’t primadonnas, like now. Well, my father would say, the theater owner knew he’d have no trouble filling the house with paying customers and didn’t want to waste a seat on him. He was sorry.
My father, the poor waif who swept up after the paying customers, was a great fan of all cowboys, especially those like Roy Rogers, but he tried to hide his disappointment as he left, walking home in tennis shoes that were both left feet because he’d bought them himself from the second-hand store because he’d needed them and there was a war, you know, and rationing. He tried to hold his chin up anyway, because he was strong, even back then. So he walked home, in the snow, I’m sure there was snow; there was always snow when you had to walk back then, and he left footprints that looked like they were made by someone you’d call Hopalong Cassidy, who was my father’s hero, though Cassidy had both left and right boots. He got home early so he could do his chores, for which he never received so much as a thanks, let alone a nickel, and then he’d go to bed early so he could deliver the paper the next day. It was Sunday, and the papers were extra heavy. A real burden.
But the manager had a soft heart, a common ailment back then, along with a stiff upper lip, tight fists and something my father simply called “backbone,” though I never knew if it meant you couldn’t sit down or stand up. The next day my father showed up after the show to sweep, but this time he was wearing a toy six-gun, a genuine Wyatt Earp, pearl-handled, hog-legged gun my father often described, his only toy as far as I could tell, which he bought with the sweat of his brow, I tell you. Nothing was given to him, not like children today, he’d say. But how I wanted that cap gun, all metal and nearly real.
But this is not about me. This is my father’s story. There he was, doing his job, when he heard a voice call out his name, and the owner walked down the aisle with another man, and as sure as you’re born it was Gary Cooper, tall and silent, my father’s favorite cowboy, asking him if he’d like to get a drink down at the soda fountain when he finished his work. This was better than seeing him before the movie. This was my father as a boy and his hero, Roy Rogers, walking down the street, the two of them, with everybody watching as they sat at the counter and had a fountain Coke and a hamburger too, and he usually didn’t get meat more than once a week—just my father and Jimmy Stewart or someone, I can’t remember who, but I know he was proud, and there was no snow, and he was wearing his six gun and everyone was finally envious of him. When the story ended we knew we’d never feel as proud as he did that afternoon. And we knew he spoke the truth.