My Life in Exile
Hugh Roth is the younger son of Henry Roth, author of “Call It Sleep” and “Mercy of a Rude Stream.” Growing up, Hugh worked on his father’s waterfowl farm in Augusta, Maine, in the 1950s. After some decades in and around New York, he now lives on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Rockland, Maine. This is an excerpt from his memoir, “Egg Time in Augusta,” which will be published by Polar Bear & Company in 2015. The memoir attempts to describe the straitened circumstances of those years, and the difficult emotional reality of growing up with very gifted, if displaced, parents.
I think it was the clock, the electric clock that sat all those years in the kitchen on that little painted shelf, the clock with the squat, mean-looking face (too small to tell you the time at a glance), and with its cord threaded down through a hole, the extra gathered underneath in a neat bow, the clock with its dusty plastic case in some faded, nondescript pastel, its faint grinding noise when everything else was still, and its array of knurled knobs standing out from the back which demanded touching and turning and which reached down into the clock’s dark innards, the clock that ticked off the minutes and the hours and the days and the years and watched a succession of difficult and embarrassing and improbable events, and never said anything. And because it hunkered down and pretended to be busy, to concentrate on what it was doing while maintaining the faint smile of myopia and friendship, and to look out the window a lot, at what I can’t imagine — at the tops of some alders off in the distance? — because of these reasons it has been left to me to tell the story.
I have also tried for years to avoid telling it — amused myself in a number of interesting ways, learned whole careers and then tossed them aside, disappeared off one side of the screen like some tiresome video game character and reappeared on the other, anticipating new horizons. They were always the same. I never knew how to locate those embedded symbols of magical power. I occasionally resorted to desperate and unpopular reimagings, only to discover, finally, that which I always knew without knowing: I am that story, and that through all these new paths and giddy transformations, I have been merely sitting on a shelf displaying the time with the alarm set forever at 5:15.
Oh, I had some knowledge of the clock. At each juncture in this road of years I opened the clock and patiently took apart the — no, the details are not important — I’m sure you know all you want to about armatures and escape wheels and torus-shaped coils of copper wire bound in a crisscrossed fashion like a Roman fasces. The triumphant reassembling of the clock — it always started (I’m a fairly careful worker) — held great promise. The more effort, however, I put into reaching that promise, the more difficult it became to continue, until finally, like the years when I used to walk by the clock and try to read the time, I abandoned the effort.
Several years ago the clock stopped. I hadn’t looked at it in several weeks — who understands these things? — just tired, I suppose, or worn out waiting for someone to listen. And no, I hadn’t had it apart in a long time! When did it stop, you might ask, seeking to ascribe some special significance to the time. No. Unlike for Miss Havisham, the time is of no particular significance — and I couldn’t give you an answer anyway because when I bother to look at it at all, the time is always different. Never knowing what time it is creates a lack of clarity — events and feelings and perspectives and roles percolate up through the karst of everyday life. The sinkholes of the world are large. I am my parents and my children: Like the four-faced creatures on the corners of Ezekiel’s chariot, I look in all directions.
The great failing of these creatures is that they never look down, so for them our suffering and loss remains invisible, or an abstraction. Unless you look down, you will never gain empathy. They will learn it one day, but, like Lear, they will pay a terrible price. As Brünhilde says in her final indictment: “Look down, oh you mighty gods, and behold your eternal guilt!”
That is why I talk to myself so much, why I ask so many questions: There is so much explaining to do. For this I must ask your indulgence. I see back to the beginning, back through all those years, as if through a very long tunnel, at first as apparently empty as a silo in June. Yet look! Stacked like poker chips of hazy air are those years, each one different, yet that difference is as difficult to explain as the differences in the layers of a cake when they are all vanilla. Such clarity is useful, even remarkable, but such clarity comes at a price: The stages of my life do not exhibit the usual boundaries, the demarcations of surprise and wonder, nor the milestones crossed and left behind, milestones sonorously reviewed at public demonstrations of faith and continuity and informed with great meaning toward which all the listeners strain, but whose significance eludes them.
Later, in more private conversations, the listeners will fall back on the steadier ground of abstraction — or maybe the concrete — it’s so much easier to talk about a new outboard motor than the meaning of life, to stay in close at some level of detail rather than out there, where generalizations form and edgy skepticism lies in wait. The most comfortable comments are the ones with their own inherent contradictions, or those resting unsteadily on landfills of decomposing assumptions: “I wish I could get Johnny to read more.” One can only murmur in sympathetic agreement.
But, enough of milestones. Again, I ask your indulgence. I am like an emotionally-driven maggot, debriding the suppurating edges of a loosening scab whose patient construction has been the work of a lifetime, and whose attachment, at this point, can only be maintained by busying myself with what the world expects. By the time you finish reading this, it will have fallen off. I want it never to heal. The questions I ask myself are an encouragement, a kind of agreement that the work is worthwhile, or to help me remember what I don’t want to remember, or to give over something that is mine in some unshareable way. I also ask you to keep in mind that the penalty for telling you this story is death.
We moved to Augusta in late August 1949. My father, a writer not writing and just marking time, worked as an attendant at the Augusta State Hospital. My mother, a pianist without a piano, had gotten a job teaching in the one-room school house in Chelsea, a neighboring town. Our Model A Ford was, until we demolished it, parked in a rickety, unpainted shed standing between the house and the barn; running water was a pump in the kitchen; a big chicken coop sat out by the road; the back of the house had several small structures of unknown function stuck to it like parasites. Despite its shortcomings, it was a big improvement from our two previous houses in Maine, especially from the more pathetic one in West Washington.
There was more, I’m sure, but I was little — at 6, only some stuff sticks. My brother has found a cleaner, possibly even better way of handling those years. He remembers nothing.
Daddy was 5 feet 8 inches tall with a big chest, wire-rimmed glasses, bad teeth, psoriasis and bursitis. He cut into his leg with a hatchet working in the woods the first winter in Maine, and it never fully healed. The injury is not surprising: The snow between your gloves and the handle act like icy ball bearings, and worse, he was using it left-handed. I cringe at the thought of him floundering in hip-deep snow holding the south end of a two-man chain saw. What with the resistance of the snow, and the hidden limbs and vines waiting to catch your boots, and the high-cut stumps with their frost-hardened edges that will gouge your flesh, with these lurking beneath the surface, simply attempting to move is among the most demoralizing activities you can imagine. I have worked in the winter woods in Maine; we, at least, had snowshoes, and a truck with a heater. I remember he had one tie, wool challis, green. I look for wool challis ties in stores: They never have them.
Mommy was 5 feet 10 inches, square shoulders, big hands, 145 pounds, no curves, straight hair — some shade of brown — worn simply; a painful hip since her late 20s, an ulcer that wouldn’t heal, bad varicose veins, poor circulation in her legs. She bought men’s tie shoes from Sears for her wide feet. Her striking, youthful elegance had faded. My brother Jeremy, almost 8, thin, a couple of inches taller than me, goofy looking, ears sticking out a bit. Distant, disdainful; he held his body in a hunched stiffness — you can still see this in photos 25 years later. He entered the third grade at Williams School on Bangor Street in Augusta. We called him Jeb. I was 6, and considered chubby mostly because of my big face. Overly sensitive, somewhat more social, and silly, the silliness covering a multitude of other problems — and happy to fail at just about everything.
And if I could not fail at it, I lost interest and tossed it down.
I entered the first grade at this same school. Both of us had amblyopia, Jeremy particularly, a condition guaranteed to make you look a bit odd, and to sink any hopes you might have of playing sports, since you have no depth perception.
Winter shrank our already small house by making the unheated rooms useful only for storage. The two bedrooms upstairs remained as we found them, their spareness unrelieved by decoration, and their utility signaling that rest and sleep were merely something to get done with so you could move on with the business of life. The floor was of boards, slightly cupped, and these edges telegraphed their presence through the linoleum, which was eventually softened with some sisal runners. There was one light — at the top of the stairs: My parents found their way using a flashlight. Otherwise not a picture, not a curtain. For the entire floor: two closets and a clothes rack. On cold mornings, a heavy frost coated the inside of our window, despite the wood-framed storm windows, whose installation and removal were part of the ritual of fall and spring. We kept the door at the top of the stairs closed in the winter to keep the heat downstairs. Early in the morning, the kitchen was the only warm room, the furnace having died down during the night. Everyone dressed in the kitchen. I took a deep breath, bolted out of bed, grabbed my clothes and flew down the stairs. The house was really warm only once in the winter: the February it burnt down.
The living room — so we called it — had two armchairs and one settee, all made out of bent cedar. It was actually patio furniture, but we never mentioned that fact, so no one knew. My mother made pads out of blue corduroy for the bottoms and the backs so the chairs’ ribs didn’t poke you. The settee had a couple of throw pillows, and was for company, thin company. Two 14-year-old boys fit nicely. Today that furniture sits on a porch in Bangor, Maine; it looks to be the proper size for a tree house. Book shelves, L-shaped, occupied one corner. On the wall was a copy of the famous picture of Brahms at the piano with his cigar-stained beard, only it was just part of the original: The rest had been cut off to fit the frame. We eventually got a hi-fi so the settee had to be moved. The hi-fi was made for those decorators who wanted to keep its real use a secret: 80% furniture, 20% electronics. Here also were the stairs up to the bedrooms.
The last heated room, off the living room, was the “den,” primarily a place for my father to work at his desk. On the weekends it was a place to set up a card table for a game or a tea party. Along one wall we hung the artwork we brought home from school. Various cases, shelves and chests of drawers stood against the wall, contents mysterious or off limits. In the corner was a built-in breakfront. Fancy dishes above, tablecloths and such below. You knew we were pulling out all the entertainment stops when my mother went there to get things. Also in this room was the door to the cellar, a dank, dark space with stone walls, a gravel floor, and a low, sometimes painfully low, ceiling.
During the winter we lived in these three rooms. They originally surrounded a large pantry, which we soon converted into a bathroom.
On the other side of the living room, facing the road, was the front parlor. We called it the “library”; in it were a desk and my mother’s music cabinet, and eventually, her piano. In the other direction, behind the kitchen, was an ell-shaped hallway at the end of which was the privy. And finally, beyond the ell and the back door, was an enclosed space that had no floor, and which was originally used to store coal or firewood. It was a scary place, so dark that it was easy to imagine stepping over the threshold of its entrance door, and, finding no floor, flopping face down into the raw dirt, 4 feet below. The house was a symphony of forced utility, low ceilings, and linoleum. Years later my parents let some relatives use the house for the summer. They took the seats out of their Volkswagen bus so they would have something comfortable to sit on. Upholstery had arrived, but a bit too late. At the end of August, it drove away.
Upstairs, my brother and I slept on army cots. One of the walls of our bedroom was against the roof, causing it to slope sharply to the floor. Toward that side of the room, a short section of cast iron vent pipe passed through to the roof from the bathroom. The window at the far end faced the southbound traffic on the road. I often lay awake at night watching the headlights create boxes of light against the far wall. The car came closer, the box grew brighter. Coming down the gentle slope toward the brook, the box dimmed slowly and started to close as the angle from the headlights sharpened. The light went from a box to a collapsing parallelogram; moving up at ever increasing speed, it crossed onto the sloping ceiling, losing all hope of definition. The car sped by; the light shrunk to nothingness as it flew toward the window.
The car rushed up the hill toward town. I was alone, abandoned.
One day a car will stop and someone with kindly authority, seeing my unbearable unhappiness and the wretched living conditions, will take me away to a happier home, with kind and accessible parents. Who could not want me? I am very nice, and I want to help around the place — I just don’t want to be watched. My new father will help me stop wetting the bed, help me dress better, be less silly, do better in school, and stand between me and my new mother with a firm goodwill. We will go on vacations. Friends will come over and play and be happy and eat lots of snacks.
And I will be less invisible. Somewhere a screen door slaps spasmodically. The wind of the past is like the wind of the prairie: endless and absent-minded and negligent. And the unruly crew of tumbleweeds with which it scours the ground: they start and stop and start again, and run out and run in like sanderlings before an inrushing wave. A light bulb swings, its flat and uninterested light briefly relieves the dark, but never illuminates. A gate creaks, and again the wind urges along its scattered flock: hither and thither they go, these flocks of tumbleweeds, which insistent and pitiless memory changes into small, savage, coils of concertina wire, and they roll over my naked and inconsequential body and at last I can properly pay for all those failures — the failure of the hay bales, the failure of the tied-together string, and the failure of the circumcised triangle.
My parents’ bedroom had no door, no lights, no heat (it had a register through the floor, but it opened into the library, itself usually unheated), and only the meanest of closets, the back of which was against the roof of the house, and shared its abrupt angle; one knelt and pushed aside a sour-smelling curtain. A couple of chests of drawers, an old white wastebasket, into which my mother would throw heavily-bloodied tampons. Why should they fix the place up? They, kind of like Church Hill Road, were just on the way somewhere. It was a life in exile.