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Lawrence

Henry Roth
p. 13-24

Notes de la rédaction

The following story, “Lawrence,” is a previously unpublished piece by Henry Roth, which until now has existed only in manuscript form, held at the American Jewish Historical Society’s collection of Roth’s papers in New York City. The story was apparently originally drafted in 1947-48 (as the date at the beginning suggests). Roth revisited the story in the 1980s and 1990s when he was writing the “Maine Sampler,” a lengthy manuscript covering his years in rural Maine. Characteristically, Roth decided at this point to incorporate “Lawrence” into the longer narrative. It was at this point that the final section of the story (after the separating asterisks) was added. Both versions of “Lawrence” – the original 1940s typescript and the 1990s reworking – are held in the Roth archive. The following draws on the later, expanded, version, with a very few minor emendations.
The editor is very grateful to Lawrence I. Fox of the Henry Roth Literary Estate for permission to publish this story.

Texte intégral

1November, 1947
The first time that I met Lawrence Hannon was not due to chance, but instead to mischance. I had ordered and paid for a trio of Muscovy ducks from a place at the other end of Maine; and a few days later, I had been phoned by the railroad express company in Thorndike, some thirty miles distant from our home in Center Montville, that the ducks had arrived. Since I had no car, that meant I would have to get someone with a car to drive me there and fetch them. I had secured the services of Frank Livingston. Lately from Boston, Frank now lived in the farmhouse just below me on the gravel road, and still owned the old LaSalle in which he and his family had migrated here. Sure, he would drive me to Thorndike for a couple of bucks. But a light-headed man, lush in promise and meager in performance, he had gone down the hill to Lawrence's place, had stayed too long palavering - over a quart of beer perhaps - and by the time he was ready to drive up the hill again, the snow which had begun to fall - and in time developed into a blockading blizzard - already lay thick upon the road. Frank's tires were bald.  He skidded, and went off the road.
I left the house, and walked down the hill to find out what was causing the delay. Had we set out when we agreed, we would have been back by now. I found Livingston swearing at his car in a ditch. Instead of his helping me, I now had to go find help for him. At his urging that I go get Lawrence to bring his team, I went to Lawrence's house, and since he wasn't at home, I told his mother, Mrs. Hannon, about the plight Frank was in. Lawrence was at Gene Perry's, and she would call him. Then I plodded uphill again to where Frank was stranded. I tried to extend a little comfort, to assure him help was on the way, though I fervently wished the so-and-so in hell.
The wind was blowing, gusts whipping up the snow into swirling clouds stinging our faces. We heard someone calling. As if out of a cavern in the environing snow, Lawrence appeared, driving his big white team. Trailing along with him was aging Gene Perry.
I had thought, from hearing Gene mention him before, that Lawrence was an older man than the one I now saw. But this was a way they had out here of giving a person his mature attributes, or speaking of someone as if he were already a seasoned, responsible individual. I had been quite misled previously by the way Gene had spoken of Lawrence's younger brother, Mike, as though the lad were a grown man and had full authority in deciding serious matters like lending harness and other farm equipment, or deciding when he would come help his older brother 'yard in' the firewood. And yet when I saw Mike, he was just a spindly youngster in grade school. And now Lawrence:
I saw a rather young man, perhaps twenty-five, face raw in the wind, sturdily built, but nothing exceptional, scantily clad against the snowy gale, and driving a team of white horses. Only less white than the driven snow, magnificently thewed woods' horses, they must each have weighed eighteen hundred pounds or more. Like Percherons or Clydesdales in size and gait, great-breasted, great-thighed, they paced ponderously, slowly into view.
"Think you can get her out?" Livingston asked in his half-whining, half-wiseguy manner, shivered - and then let loose with another pack of empty oaths against the offending automobile. The car had not only slid into the ditch. It had in fact deepened the ditch with the rut it had made for itself, or Livingston had made for it, by spinning the rear wheels canted sideways in the muddied snow. That, combined with the uncommon depth of the ditch at that point in the road, made the pull that would have to be exerted on the vehicle seem to go almost straight up, rather than outward.
And then I became acquainted with Lawrence's never-failing optimism, his cheerful confidence: "Oh, we'll get her out, goddamn 'er." And he laughed.
It was always that way, the way of the Yankee, the New Englander: "We'll get 'er, goddamn 'er," or "We'll do it, by Gawd." And he would laugh. And always he succeeded, or so it seemed. Was it recklessness, was it valid self-confidence?
It was only a matter of minutes for him to hitch the strong logging chain around the front axle of the car, and then attach the hook at the other end to the massive ring the horses trailed. He stood to the right side of them, and with the end of the reins, lashed out. There was nothing vicious about the act; it was the only way he could transmit his human will to brute intelligence. The team sprang forward; the car leaped out of its ruts, out of the ditch - and stood upright on the snowy road.
"We got 'er, goddamn 'er," said Lawrence.
I saw him again thereafter on a number of occasions. But for some reason, I never seemed to recognize him, to identify him clearly. I had seen him so briefly the first time, been distracted by Livingston, by the magnificent team, by the realization that the trio of ducks I had bought and paid for were languishing in a railroad station in a place called Thorndike. I always had to ask Gene, if he was with me at the time, "Is that him? Which one is Lawrence?" He worked then, as he does now, for Bill Yeaton, the owner of a large, open-air saw mill which had been newly set up alongside the road. Yeaton had bought several hundred acres of timberland, and was having the trees cut down, and sawing them up into boards. He himself worked, feeding logs to the formidable, gleaming disk of the spinning circular saw. He was not what he seemed: a bluff, middle-aging, stocky sawyer in blue dungarees and denim work jacket. He intended to study astronomy as soon as he got enough money to retire, he told me - to my surprise. The stars fascinated him. He owned a large telescope. His mind evidently strayed to other things beside lumbering. I once stood at his side, when he yelled, "Ass hole," and pulled his hand away from the whirling saw blade just as it cut through two of the fingers of his leather glove. At another time, I ordered a wagon load of birch slabs from him. Birch slabs, when sawed up made good firewood, hot firewood, not as lasting as other hardwoods, but far better than softwood slabs, which could be had for the hauling away, but creosoted the chimney. He forgot to bill me, and at the end of the month I had to remind him, most unwillingly.
At all events, Yeaton had three or four men working for him, and one of them was Lawrence. He drove his team through the woods, and brought the felled trees to the improvised mill. Still, when he mingled with the others, I couldn't single him out, so I would always ask Gene, if he was with me: "Which one is Lawrence?"
And then came the next real meeting:
It was a Saturday afternoon in the spring of the year. Lawrence and I had both ordered fertilizer from Carleton Banks at Liberty, and we were going to drive out there and back with Lawrence's team. He had groomed them especially for the occasion. Glowing white, their tails tied with ribbons into fancy knots, they looked like proud, legendary steeds as we drove into the town of Liberty, drove sitting on the autotruck chassis that he had adapted to haul logs on. It struck me that the combination of vehicle and traction represented an indefinable fusion of the modern with the traditional, of a world departing with a world arriving. Lawrence himself seemed to embody just that kind of fusion. Perhaps he drank so much because that was his only way of coping with an inner strain, one that he felt, felt but could never verbalize. So I speculated. Meanwhile the people in the town, people on the sidewalk, stopped and gazed. They all knew Lawrence. They knew his team. Still, they stopped and gazed, their attention drawn by the sound of thudding hooves on the asphalt, and held by the sight of the pair of immense cloud-white chargers.
By the time we got to where the fertilizer was kept, he had already brought out a quart of beer. We drank. Another bottle was produced out of the box on which we sat, and that bottle too was emptied. We loaded the bags of fertilizer aboard. By now we had quite a bun on. He kept swilling the stuff, far beyond my capacity, swilling beer all the way home, urging me to do the same, and even though I couldn't hope to keep up with him, I became thoroughly drunk. We were both drunk. When we got to my place, which we drove to first, I noticed the displeased look on M's face, but was too soused to take it seriously. We then drove downhill to his place. Before we finished unloading his dozen bags of fertilizer, I began to puke.
It was just before dusk. I staggered home. M had watched me out of the window as I lurched from one side of the road to the other, climbing the hill. And when I entered the house, she minced no words to express her displeasure. She thought my behavior was disgraceful, humiliating to her in the extreme, that her husband should be seen in public reeling drunkenly up the road. Still stern and uncompromising, she served our boys and me our supper of scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes and dandelion greens, goat-milk for them, and coffee for me. They were subdued by their mother's severity, and as for me, I became sober almost instantly. The thought of her possible estrangement, the first time in our lives, dispelled the effects of alcohol, even before the coffee did. I asked her forgiveness. Never would I do that again, I promised. And I never did.

2Sometime between then and the haying season, Lawrence had gotten hurt. He had fallen between his horses. I had noticed at the time when he drove his team into the barn with the load of fertilizer aboard the autotruck, that he wouldn't let his brother Mike help him unhitch the horses; drunk or not, Lawrence had to do it himself. Apparently that was the rule: No one but he touched his horses. And now, having returned alone from Liberty of a Saturday afternoon, and drunk again, no one came out of the house to see what happened to him when he drove into the barn. He had fallen between the two heavy animals. They stood there patiently, never moving from their place, until finally one of them had evidently stamped a foot against a gadfly, and trampled the edge of his hand. Closing the wound required fourteen stitches.
"He'll git killed by them hosses some day," said Gene tersely. "Sure'n hell. He'll git killed. Drinks too much."
Fortunately Mrs. Hannon had come out to hang up some wash, and caught a glimpse of her son lying between his team on the floor of the barn. She and her son Mike had dragged Lawrence out from under. Otherwise who knew what would have happened to him. He might very well have been seriously, perhaps fatally, injured. I didn't go see him then, but that incident of him falling between the two ponderous beasts seemed symbolic of something, though I couldn't tell what. The pair of huge, white docile animals that were the sole object of his affection, unwittingly destroying their master.
Perhaps I didn't get around to seeing Lawrence, because he recovered so rapidly. In a week's time I heard from Gene that Lawrence was up and working in the woods again. The man's recuperative powers were remarkable.
Came the end of August, haying time. Gene and I were stuck. Gene was very poor. The house he and his wife Elsie lived in, the second house down the hill below Livingston's, had long since lost every vestige of paint: the clapboards were weathered almost lavender. The interior carried out the promise of the exterior. Inside, all was stark and bleak. Not a scrap of floor covering in the kitchen. Nothing on the walls except a few snapshots of Elsie's daughter. She was an illegitimate child, Gene told me, born to Elsie before he married her, which made him seem like an altruistic sort of person in my eyes, although I'm sure poor Elsie paid for her youthful indiscretion all the rest of her life. Good-hearted man though I knew Gene to be, he treated his wife almost like a slave; while I was there, he threw a piece of bread on the floor - in a pique over something - which she silently retrieved. A gaunt woman with a solemn visage and sad, dark eyes, life had apparently not entirely crushed her wit and her sense of humor. We were cutting 'pulp wood' together, Gene and I, on a piece of property I thought was inside my property line, although Littlefield, whose house was between Livingston's and Gene's, thought the land was 'on him'. Still, he raised no further objection, and Gene and I cut twelve cords, all this with bow saw and cross-cut. And the buyer for the pulp mill paid all of $12 a cord for it! Twelve bucks each for a volume of pulp wood measuring 128 cubic feet. And you know, the wood had to be stacked so that the rounds of the wood hugged close together - not, as the saying was, so that a cat could go through, and a dog after her - but compact. I told the buyer, a tall man in a fine suit, I told him in no uncertain terms: Never again!... But it was so quiet, peaceful and restoring working in the woods with their scent of pine and cedar, felling a tree, limbing it out, sawing it up into four-foot lengths - I'll have to talk about that experience in some other book, or in some other world, perhaps the next one.
Anyway, to return to the thread of humor I perceived in forlorn, gaunt Elsie: Gene had invited me for lunch at his house. It consisted of crisply rendered salt pork, bread and butter, home churned and strong, fresh squash and coffee. Gene was a sinewy man in his early sixties, not ruggedly built, toothless: he chewed food with his 'goomies'. All of his garments were patched. He held up his faded blanket-lined jacket that had a fresh rip in it and remarked, "I guess it's jest about used up."
Elsie, with hollow voice, but with a snap of light in her sad, dark eyes, rejoined: "It was throwed away three years ago." Her remark seemed to brighten up the cheerless, penurious kitchen.
Gene was poor. He had no hay rack, no wagon, no mowing machine, nothing. But he did have a horse and a cow. We had agreed that he would cut the hay on my two neglected meadows; I would help pitch it, and we would go halves on the yield. Ludicrous is the only way I can term what happened. We borrowed the mowing machine from Wally Curtis, the town pauper. It was, or rather it had, only a three-foot cut. And we were going to borrow Lawrence's hay rack. At any rate, after we came and got Curtis's mowing machine, which had been left out in the weather all year, and we tried it out, it wouldn't work. It wouldn't cut. The teeth were serrated with abuse. Not only was the mower dull, but we had to go into the woods and cut two hornbeam saplings for shafts, which in Maine were called fills (hence the term 'backing and filling'). We were lucky we didn't use the rusty, old rig, because before very long, here came Curtis himself, wanting it back - and the nerve of the guy, trying to blame us for breaking one of the main gears. We had to calm him down, and demonstrate that it was not broken. And while we were jawing about it, just as we convinced Curtis that the gear was intact, word came from Ory Morse, riding by on his wagon, that Lawrence was hurt, badly hurt this time. He had gotten drunk, and driven his farm tractor, an improvised affair, recklessly over the road, and the thing had overturned, pinning him beneath. Why he wasn't killed no one knew. The machine had thrown him when it overturned, and one of the deeply-treaded rear wheels landed on his back, the motor still running and the wheel still turning, burning him severely. The whole weight of the rear wheel was on him, spinning and burning his flesh.
"Drunk again," said Gene.  "Same old story."
"But this time it's his tractor," I remarked.
"Got to be one 'r t'other'll kill him," Gene asserted.
He was lying prone in bed when I went down to see him. He was wearing only his pajama pants, his muscular arms and shoulders naked, freckled, his back a mass of bandages. His mother stood by patiently, resignedly, left the room and returned, while we talked about the accident. He had "cut the tractor too sharp," and it turned over on him. Of course, it wasn't necessary for him to tell me he had been drunk. The whole weight of the tractor had rested on his back. "How in hell could you bear it?" I asked.
"Well," and then he flashed me that never-failing grin, "it was beginning to get a mite heavy."
"I should think so."
"Livingston and Mike come running, when Ma called them, and they tried to lift the tractor, but they couldn't. They had to jack her up to get me out."
"And you were under the machine all that time?"
"I wasn't nowhere else." He grinned again.
He was in pain. But what a splendid will, what fortitude; they shamed anything I possessed. I couldn't help but feel a sense of sorrow at such a reckless expenditure of human vitality.
"Is that why the bandages are on your back?"
"No." He tried to shift position, winced. Movement evidently intensified the pain. "No, the wheel kept a'spinnin', and burned me."
"It didn't stop right away?"
"No. Kept a'spinnin'."
I shook my head. "It's a wonder you weren't killed."
"I reckon 'tis." He turned his face on the pillow: Drawn features, blue eyes looking up at me sideways, sunburnt hair, thick and matted, tawny as a Toggenburg buck goat's.
"Anything I can do?"
"No. I guess I'll get over it."
Moralizing, prating, would be of little or no use; they wouldn't do any good. It would seem as if any man in his right mind would give up drinking entirely after such a mishap. But drinking, I reflected, wasn't something that an individual like Lawrence could take or leave. It was his sole form of release from internal strains and stresses, perhaps immense strains and stresses, the cause, the magnitude of which another person could only conjecture.
"Lawrence, I came to ask you, though maybe I shouldn't, when you're in this shape, but I have to. I'm stuck. Gene and I are stuck. We've got no farm equipment.  You know that. No mowing machine, no hay rack, or anything. We can't get the hay in. We tried to use Curtis's mower. But you know the guy. He left it out all winter, and it wouldn't cut." I didn't want to go into personalities any further: how the machine reflected the man.
"Three foot cut, ain't it?" Lawrence concentrated by an effort of will.
"Yes."
"You'll be a long time with that."
"Yes, and we couldn't even cut with it. He's taking it back. I wonder if you'd care to make this arrangement: You're laid up. You can't use your machinery. Would you care to have Gene, and with me helping him, cut mine, and share it three ways. I've got four goats, you know, for milk for the boys. I need only about four tons."
He was silent, in the traditionally deliberate New England way. "I'm about out of hay," he said.
"You are?"
"Oh, I'll get enough hay. There's two or three places I can cut. I've got about three tons over to Searsmont, but I can't get it."
"Anything Gene and I could do?"
"Oh, no." He was silent again. He had made no reply to my proposal. I could only be guided by a general acquaintance with New England custom: If no answer was forthcoming soon, I would have to leave. The man was in too much pain for me to stay longer. His mother was anxiously hovering near.
"Doctor been coming to see you?" I prepared to go.
"He's supposed to be here now," Mrs. Hannon interposed.
"Yes, he's been coming every day," said Lawrence.
"Who is he?"
"Dr. Bailey from Liberty."
"I guess I'd better push off. You need rest."
"Oh, no. It's good to talk to somebody. Forget the damned thing for awhile."
"Well..." I hesitated.
"Yes, you can have the mowing machine," Lawrence said suddenly. "It's a good un. It's got a five foot cut. You tell Gene to come down and get it. We'll rig up the rack so he can use it with his horse."
"What do you mean?" I was elated, but I felt like a grave robber, a wretch taking advantage of a badly injured man.
"I've been pulling it with a tractor."
"All right. I'll tell him. We'll divide up the hay in thirds."
"Anyway you want. It don't make any odds. But I'm about out o' hay. I'll ask Mike to help you bunch it."
"Oh, great."
"The sickle-bar needs sharpening. I've got a machine to sharpen her with."
"I can help with that. I've been grinding tools for five years. If I can help with anything else without getting in the way I'd like to." I arose to go, smiled down at him apologetically. "I'm no hand at this."
"Oh, that's all right. We'll get her in, goddamn 'er."
"We?" I smiled uncertainly. "How long did the doctor say you were going to be laid up?"
"Two weeks. But I'll be up before then." He winced trying to roll a little on his side.
"Please take it easy, Lawrence. Get well. That's the main thing.  Goodbye, Mrs. Hannon."
I took my leave - just as the doctor's car drew up.


***

3That was all I wrote at the time, my first sortie into the domain of letters after six or eight years doing other things. What follows is all rather dreamlike, as I sit here recalling that haying season of more than forty years ago, dreamlike, separated into discrete scenes, imbued with summery warmth, languid in retrospect, though not languid in the actual performance. The reassuring click of functioning sickle-bar mingles with the hiss of shorn grass, shorn grass with the scent of summer in it, proverbial scent of mown hay. It was good to have experienced at least once, lying on top of the huge, top-heavy hay rack, as I did, beside Gene and Mike while the wagon wheels beneath the lumbering load rolled up the hill, shedding wisps of hay to mark the hay rack's passage. Well, Fiona, since you and I are to collaborate in this retrieval and reconstruction of things past, some of them a good many years in the past, I might as well tell you that Gene and I hadn't been working for more than five days, when who should appear, with his bandages billowing up the back of his shirt, but Lawrence, driving his tractor, with Mike aboard.
Alone, Gene and I, with our limited forces, and my very limited facility with a pitch-fork, would have been all the rest of the summer, and perhaps even till the snow flew, getting in the hay. But here came Lawrence, riding the tractor. I had performed one service that would make the mowing machine much more efficient. It was the only service I was really capable of performing: Grinding metal. I knew, I think, as much about grinding as anyone in Maine, having done it in machine shops for the past five years, having done it, I might add, for so many years that I thought I was through with writing... Well, with Gene turning the crank, I had ground the shark-toothed sickle-bar to a razor edge. "You sure got her ready to go," said Lawrence when he looked at the sickle-bar. "Never seen it done that slick before."
M came to the door and said, "Hello." My two young boys, Jay and Herb, came out of the house to watch. Lawrence told Gene to unhitch the horse, and he and Mike would adapt the tow-bar so the tractor would pull the mower.
"What the hell has got you out of bed?" I demanded. "Don't you hurt?"
"Oh, some. But I'll be all right. I'm on the mend."
"Don't get me wrong, Lawrence. I'm happy to see you here.  But -"
"Gene was over to see me last night. Told me how poorly you were doin'."
"Still, another few days wouldn't matter."
He flashed his invincible grin. "He said you had a full barrel and more o'hard cider down your cellar."
"Well, yes, but I don't know. I tasted it. The second is just about as sour as the first." I had borrowed Gene's horse a year ago, and gotten two barrels of my wormy apples pressed at the cider mill. In a short while, the cider had become too sour in either barrel for M and me to enjoy it.
"Don't matter if it's a little sour," said Lawrence. "It's hard cider."
"It's hard cider, I guess, but it's too sour for me."
"'T ain't for me. Mind if I try some?"
"Sure. I've got a spigot in both barrels. I'll go in the house and get a glass."
"No need to. I brought a jug along." He produced a glass gallon jug from the side of the driver's seat of the tractor, then he went down the stone steps of the cellar bulkhead. The sound of liquid trickling into the empty jug came up out of the darkness... Lawrence climbed up the stairs into daylight that gleamed warmly on the glass jug full of brown cider. "We'll git that goddamn hay in for you in no time."
"We?" I asked again. He had emphasized the word, we, so strongly that I felt confused.
"I'll send Mike down the hill after a couple o' men. That hay'll be ready to make winnrows outa, if the weather holds. I'll git all the help I need - for yourn. And for mine too in Searsmont."
"Boy, that's great," I said.
He and Mike and Gene completed the transfer of tow bars. And then, pulling the as yet motionless sickle-bar past the part we had already mowed, Lawrence drove the tractor over the bumpy field downhill.
"Daddy, Daddy!" the two kids cried excitedly. "He's cutting it."
"Yeah, I see." I turned to Gene: "What does he mean: Get all the help he needs? I can't pay for help."
"Hain't no need to either. A barrel o' hard cider is wuth more'n a barrel o' gold this time o' year."
"Is that what he meant?"
"Shore as hell."
"Jesus, am I gonna be responsible for another accident?"
"The horses or the tractor's bound to kill him, one or t'other."
"Then what'd you tell him about the cider for?"
Gene's mouth opened in a toothless grin. "Gotta git the hay in."
"But the guy's still got bandages on his back. Another couple of days won't matter."
Gene jerked his head in negation. "You never know about the weather," he said.
It may sound anti-climactic: But never would I know again so successful a haying season. Before we were done, we had two of Lawrence's fellow workers at the saw-mill pitching hay, all of them stewed to the gills on my sour hard cider. No one received so much as a scratch. And such benign weather! A flawless sky, lambent azure. "Hey, that's a he-bunch," Lawrence commended one of his mates lifting a pitchfork-full that all but bent the long handle. All of them guffawed. And to me: "I told you we'd get her in, goddamn 'er."
I am loath to end.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Henry Roth, « Lawrence », Journal of the Short Story in English, 44 | 2005, 13-24.

Référence électronique

Henry Roth, « Lawrence », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 44 | Spring 2005, mis en ligne le 05 août 2008, consulté le 16 août 2017. URL : http://jsse.revues.org/423

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Henry Roth

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