Scarlet Letters

New England town

Okay, it was not a smart thing to do. But in private we all do dumb things, and Patrick had thought of himself as being in a private place when he did it. And it wouldn’t have been such a big thing, if his thing hadn’t been that big. The battle was over whether Patrick could stay or not.

I first saw the photo downloaded on my lawyer’s computer. He had turned the screen so that I could see it more clearly. Reflected on the screen was an office window behind me through which the bright aluminum light of an April afternoon was caught in the just budding limbs of an early maple tree. I didn’t want to be there. My lawyer was not one of my favorite people, but there were only two attorneys in town, and the other one was worse. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, phone calls—I’m sure an EEG scan would show that they all activate the same avoidance area of my brain. If you believe in that stuff. Anyway, I was thinking about where I’d parked the car and if I was going to be charged for this visit, after all, he had called me in. Should I charge him?

I knew Patrick only passingly, professionally. I had hired him a couple of times to take  black and white photos of historic sites I was working on. He did good work. It wasn’t much of a challenge. There was no one else available this side of Augusta. For some reason my lawyer, Leonard (I’ve given everyone different names, by the way), thought I knew him better. My visit with Leonard was redeemed in part by my being able to tell him that I couldn’t help him out at all and that I knew nothing about it.

As long as I’d come all the way to town, I did some shopping. In a few short months the narrow streets of our little village would be jammed with the Winnebagos and speed-boat-hauling SUVs of the summer invaders, but spring belonged just to us locals as the sun crept higher every day above the forest and spirits lightened as the days lengthened. The first clutches of pale pubescent high school girls, who had shed their puffy winter clothes to show bare heads and arms and perfect small twin melons beneath their skin tight jeans, were already out. The hardware store had shiny new barbeque grills for sale lined up on the sidewalk out front.

On the ride home, the dead brown fields of the Chadwick place were filled with a big commute of grazing Canada Geese, looking like a thousand identical clones of a single ur-bird. Did any other species display the variety of us humans? I wanted nothing to do with the Patrick affair, as I had heard it referred to in the village, but I had to admit that I could not get the photo I’d seen on Leonard’s screen out of my mind. Patrick—and it was unmistakably Patrick—naked and alone on his back in bed, smiling at the camera, on the wall behind his head a New England Patriots banner. The camera was at the foot of the bed, propped up on something. It was a time-delayed self-snapshot for sure. His legs were spread apart so that his erect and, yes, immense erection was the focal point of the photo. It was a big prick, but what stuck in my mind were the details of the room around him—the Patriots banner, the single bed, the ox blood colored wall, the scatter of personal things on the bedside table, the way bright sunlight lit the scene from an unseen window, that compliant smile.

The town paper came out only once a week, and even then in the off-season it had trouble finding enough local news and ads to fill its twenty-four tabloid-sized pages. Every Wednesday it was delivered free with my mail. It made good fire-starter, so I was happy to get it, though I rarely read more than the front-page headlines— “Water District Commission Election Challenged”—and the letters to the editor. There were no comics. About once a month I’d submit a column about local history, but I rarely read even that. That Wednesday’s edition had two letters to the editor about the Patrick thing, though they were couched in suppositionals about morality and religion and community standards and never mentioned Patrick by name. His family name went all the way back to the Indian wars. There was a village street named after one of his forefathers, none of whom anyone remembered fondly. The letter writers had used pen names, seeking imperfect anonymity.

The letters pissed me off. For me, self-righteousness is an enemy battle flag, especially self-protecting anonymous self-righteousness. I guess I can be a bit self-righteous about that. As far as I was concerned, if Patrick wanted to post his prick on the Internet, it was none of my business or theirs. It wasn’t like they had to look at it. I mean, there are more penises on the worldwide web these days than there are trees in the forest, and it wasn’t like he was doing anything with it but showing it off. My bet was that the obloquy had something to do with Patrick’s last name, which, therefore, made it of some historical interest.

Both of the letter writers—and I had a pretty good idea who they were from the lengths of their sentences and the words they used and misused—mentioned community standards and family values, which I thought pretty rich, knowing as I did the intimate history of both the community and their families, whose standards and values had always been generally indictable. Some of these bitter, subtle family feuds had been brewing for centuries on the back of the anecdotal stove. Patrick’s indiscretion had sucked him into history, and history—even its most recent accretions—was my jurisdiction. So I wrote and signed a letter to the editor in response—just about the right to privacy—and stuck it in my mail box with the flag up, up on the county road, as I headed out to see if the snow had melted back enough from a site up on the Nisquidnook that I needed to measure and get a better GPS read on. The archaeologist’s numbers seemed wrong.

I was gone for a week. The old Wrangler’s differential went out, and I had to wait there in moose country for replacement parts. None of the summer tourist places were open yet. I had to talk an old lady into letting me stay in one of her closed-up motel cabins down by the river. The Nisquidnook was in flood with melt-off, and for five days I lived inside the sound of running, crashing water. I half hated having to leave.

I know why I have an answering machine—business—but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The day after I got back, I checked the machine and saw that I had seven new messages, but I didn’t listen to them. The few important business messages I’d missed while I was away were waiting for me in my email. Why is it I find the written word more comforting than the human voice? Maybe it is simply that with email and postal mail I know before I open the message whom it is from, while with the phone it is always a surprise, and in my experience the bad phone surprises outpace the good by approximately twenty to one. Or is it just a sister manifestation to my ingrained avoidance of the new that had led me into history?

That afternoon the weather decided to take spring away. The wind changed to the northwest, and the clouds got low and fast. By nightfall the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. I decided to lay a fire in my Hearthstone wood stove. I had tossed most of my mail into the fire-starter box, including that Wednesday’s newspaper. As I started to crumple it up, I stopped to read the front-page headlines, then turned to the letters to the editor page. There was my short letter with the bold-face header “A Right to Privacy?” Below it was a response from one of the previous, but still anonymous, letter writers, with the bold-face header “A Right to Perversity?” I set that page aside and got the fire started.

A good historian has no business being part of the story he tells. He should be faceless, safe in his invisibility. That is history’s impersonal beauty: it happened without you. It is like nature that way, beyond your control. The letter writer referred to me sarcastically as “the professor” and “the good professor.” By signing my name to my letter, I had opened myself up to ad-hominem attack. He never addressed the narrow constitutional point I’d raised about minding your own fucking business. But he also made an assertion about the photograph that I had been unaware of—that Patrick had emailed the photo to a young woman, much younger than himself, a college coed from a local family, who was the one who had then broadcast it widely on the Internet. It would seem to have been an unwelcome Valentine’s Day card. The letter writer also intimated that some sort of legal action—either civil or criminal—was being considered by the girl’s family—which explained Leonard the lawyer calling me in—and that “the professor” was, obviously, on the side of godless perversion.

When I’d come back to the village after my parents died, I’d sold their big house on the green—it was the funeral parlor now—and moved out into the woods partly because, familyless, I had no need for a huge family house and partly to escape the lacey web of gossip that held the village together. ‘The professor’ would not be a participant observer. I would be the new-world version of the old-world shaman, belonging to the village only by living on the outside edge of it, looking in at a place that was already history for me. That role, the distance, had suited me well. I had no idea, no reason even to shape an idea, about how the village viewed me. Now, the slur, the implied slander of being ‘the professor’ struck home. When I was a kid growing up in the village, my mates and I would ride our bikes out to old Mr. Wolston’s unpainted place in the woods and stare at it from the dirt road, wondering what weird things the mysterious old man inside was up to. He had no wife or kids, and when he rarely came into the village he just went about his business, not speaking with anyone he didn’t have to. He had no first name; he was just old Mr. Wolston—a title more than a name, like ‘the professor.’

The Algonquin was the sole saloon in town, nothing fancy, but on Friday and Saturday nights they had a live band, and people would come in from around the county. I wasn’t a stranger there. Every so often I’d go in to listen to the music and watch the crowd from a side table, drink a pint of Guinness. The next night was a Saturday, and I decided I would pay The Algonquin a visit, hear some music. It would be good for me to get back among people. It was spring after all. By the time I got there the place was almost full. The band had a fiddler and they played some old bluegrass covers. It was good dance music and people danced. There was even a guy in a wheelchair dancing. Feeling invisible, I watched the crowd—everyone trying to be both themselves and be acceptable to everybody else. There were couples for whom this was clearly just foreplay. No one noticed me. Nobody spoke to me, until I was leaving. There was a small crowd of smokers standing around in the cold on the sidewalk outside. I heard someone say, “Yeah, that’s him,” and a young man stepped in front of me.

“You’re that history guy, right? The professor?”

I am not used to being accosted. I said nothing.

“Listen, you tell your buddy Patrick that Maryann is my cousin, and if he ever comes close to her, man, he is my piece of meat. You got that?”

This was all going a bit too far. I stupidly asked a question with an obvious answer. “Who is Maryann?”

“Don’t give me that. You’re just a couple of perverts, as far as I’m concerned. We got no use for you.”

A girl’s voice from the crowd said, “Come on, Tad, leave the old faggot alone.”

I pushed past him and continued on up the street to where I had parked. Town manners had changed since my day. No respect for your elders any more. “The old faggot.” I had to laugh. I considered doing a couple of little prancing gay steps, just in case they were still watching me, but I thought better of it.

Because the essence of history is its objectivity, my personal history is unstudiable. It consists only of those things that have happened to me that I choose to remember or cannot forget, arranged and narrated by a highly unreliable source. I have yet to read a truly honest and accurate autobiography. “The old faggot.” And sexuality. People were always looking for sex to explain things, when, really, its rank in the honor roll of historic causality was way down there below food, water, borders, money, hatred, and the male ego. Admittedly, the male ego sometimes expressed itself in rapine, but that was a subset of power, not sex. “The old faggot” explained it all to them—dismissible. I couldn’t see how Patrick’s e-flashing a snap of his member to a coed named Maryann made him a co-faggot, but that sort of fine logic wasn’t the point. They knew nothing about my sexuality, or, more accurately, my lack of it—my history. Yet the young man felt he could threaten me with it. I had gotten around to listening to the messages on my answering machine before erasing them. They were all about my letter to the editor, and five of the callers had made negative assumptions about me based upon something other than fact. Only one caller was threatening, though.

A few days later, Patrick stopped by. He had called first, so it wasn’t a surprise. Patrick was leaving. He wasn’t sure where to. Down to New York to stay with friends, then probably out to the coast for a while. Movement was good, I told him. He could leave all this behind. I gave him some names and numbers of people who might have some work for him. He thanked me for my letter of support in the paper and apologized if it had brought me any trouble. “You know, she asked me for that photograph,” he said. “She told me it was for a project she was doing on penis envy, but I knew I should never have sent it.”

I don’t know if that was true or not. I had the feeling Patrick might have been trying to rewrite a piece of his own history as he headed out of town. Or perhaps Maryann actually had conducted a successful social experiment about penis envy, which had recruited every adult male in town, including me, as unwitting Orwellian guinea pigs.





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