Carson McCullers, a Reminiscence by Stuart Sherman

Photos by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper’s Bazaaar, October 1940.

From Bomb Magazine, Fall 1990 — “Carson McCullers, a Reminiscence by Stuart Sherman,” was prepared in 2000 with Stuart’s direct involvement for web publication here.

Stuart Sherman (1945–2001) was a writer, visual artist, and theater/film/videomaker. He was a 1990 Guggenheim Fellow. He is greatly missed. Learn more about Stuart Sherman.

It was a bus that took me to Carson, and it was a bus that took me away. And what sort of bus was this? Just an average Rockland County oversized vehicular transport – two pairs of wheels in front, two pairs of wheels behind, and how many pairs of wheels in between I don’t recall, if, indeed, I ever really knew.

Going up on the bus I wore sunglasses whose lenses were the color of roses (this is true, believe me!) and six months later, coming back, in the same seat, on the same bus, I wore no glasses at all (this is true, believe me!).

The bus’ windows, by the way, were tinted dark green.

Often, in the midst of anything (yours or hers), catching abruptness by surprise, her sleeping right arm (a stringless stick-thin extremity) starts to wake and begins to rise, mesmerically controlled by a dreaming mistress. Risen and ordered to halt, the arm obeys, but spontaneously turns the palm of its hand flat out, parallel to your flattened face, and to the flat wall behind you and to the outside view pressed flat to the outside wall. Then the hand’s fingers stretch themselves into a skin-tight, skin-colored glove. Luxuriating in the glove’s sheer protection, the hand safely opens wide in sheer amazement: at anything (yours or hers).

The mask, adjudged to be Tragic, pretended – as masks of course will – to accept judgement stoically, furtively consoling itself by introducing into its mouth-like aperture drop after drop of that physician-forbidden but God-approved libation, “Old Grand Dad: borne to lip-like lips in no common cup or glass, but by means of a silver goblet, a veritable chalice, whose imperious inscribed monogram, “C.McC.,” legitimized its function, dictated its use.

No surprise, then – to physician-as-God or God-as-physician – that on sunless days and moonless nights the grimace of Tragedy would gradually transform itself – by a simple inversionary process – into the grin of Comedy. (On all ordinarily illumined days and nights, one was kindly requested to divert one’s eyes to the averted eyes of Old Grand Dad himself, “Old Grand Dad,” indeed!)

“I like to be read to.” Preferably the same books and stories, her favorites since forever: Anna Karenina, The Red and the Black, The Possessed, Gone With the Wind, [sic], Tonio Kröger, Chekhov’s “The Privy Councilor,” Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Joyce’s “The Dead.” She leaves the room as I read – but I pretend not to notice. After all, if she feels like transporting herself all the way to St. Petersburg and throwing herself in front of an oncoming train alongside Anna (Mrs. Vershinin), or getting her knuckles stepped on as she clambers up the rungs of the social ladder under the heels of Julien Sorel – that’s her business. So long as she’s back in time for Ida’s service of the midday meal (otherwise I’d be accused of kidnapping and alienation of affection), I’ll say nary a word save those printed ones I continue to read aloud.

But sometimes the books I read – at her request – are new to her: Memories of A Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy (which she respects but doesn’t like, hinting at similar feelings towards the author), Everything That Rises Must Converge (she cries openly at the end of one of the stories, but then declares that O’Connor has all of Faulkner’s faults and none of his virtues), The Years With Ross (she compares herself to Harold Ross, saying, “He’s like me – stupid but a genius.”)

New books or old, read to or reading, Carson lives in, by, of, and for words, words in books. There is no time when, upon entering her room, I do not see her with a book in her hands. If she is asleep there is a book lying open near her pillow. If she is awake and reading (and if she’s awake, she is reading), she hands me the book and asks to be read to.

“Escape and transcendence,” “escape and transcendence,” these thoughts disguised as words, these words disguised as thoughts, invade my consciousness, and I struggle to cast them out, disgusted by my own small mindedness and limited vocabulary. (I’ve read too much.)

I watch as Carson McCullers blows her nose, and I think, “That is how a great writer blows her nose. If I can learn to blow my nose like that, then, I, too, can become a great writer.”

I listen to Carson as she sings the jingle from the Greyhound radio ad: “Go Greyhound, and leave the driving to us.” And I think, “If I can learn to sing the Greyhound jingle like Carson, then, I, too…” etc.

I try to blow my nose like Carson, sing the Greyhound jingle like Carson, sit on the screened-in back porch like Carson, but it’s no use. Despite diligent and prolonged effort, I do not become a great writer. Finally, I convince myself that these attempts are futile and I abandon them.

But even now– even today, at this very moment – I nervously wonder: Did I give up too soon? If I’d kept on practicing, would I have become a great writer? Who knows? Who knows?

I hear her voice as I write this. I hear her saying the words I have just written, but in her voice, with its Southern accent – intimate, conspiratorial – an accent which I always expect her to relinquish, as an actress would once off-stage. (But Carson was no actress. She spoke that way for real, “dahlin”.) The sentence I wrote remains transparent through her saying of the sentence, but the words I hear her say and the words I wrote have different associations. I wrote “I,” and she says my “I,” but the way she says it makes me think of a car whose windows glide up and down at the touch of a button, whereas when I wrote “I,” I was thinking of a tree in New Jersey growing tall beside a fence next to a golf course. She had the awesome power to alter what you said simply by saying it herself.

Her very large eyes never closed, never blinked, never moved. Identical images of fire were printed onto the pupils (flame-tips singeing retinas, charring corneas). When her head moved, her eyes remained staring at whatever they had been staring at before her head moved. And what was it those very large eyes had been staring at, never stopped staring at? Whatever it was was right in front of her (right in front of me if I’d been able to see it). But right in front of her was only a window with curtains drawn. Was she, then, staring continually, continually staring, only at the curtains? Certainly, she continually stared in their direction, but only, I thought, as a ballerina stares at a fixed point while spinning in place, to orient herself, so as to spin faster without losing balance.

In mid-stare Carson, asked a simple question, takes a long time to respond, then answers, dazed and out of breath, as if the question has stopped her mid-spin.

Her sudden stopping has a dire consequence: the window curtains catch fire (from the fire-images printed on the pupils of her eyes) and threaten to ignite the room.

Oh, if only I’d never asked my: simple question, “What are you staring at?”

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He (“Tenn,” short for Tennessee, as in: “Tennessee Williams”) is trapped in his seat, weighed down by a plate of smoked ham (plus fixin’s) that has been lowered onto his none too steady knees. Nevertheless, he manages to cut himself an irregularly-shaped piece of ham (thinking he needs must cut himself many more such pieces, then dispatch all the fixin’s, before the plate, emptied, will be lifted from his knees, freeing him to leave, although, truth be told, he doesn’t want to go, he just wants the plate removed). And so, having cut off an irregularly-shaped piece of ham and having pierced it determinedly with his fork, he begins to raise the fork, with its irregularly-shaped piece of ham securely speared, to his already fully-opened mouth. Fork halfway to his expectant orifice, he hears Carson (who, as usual, is staring straight ahead, at the self-incinerating curtains) announce: “Oh, Tenn, they’re gonna saw off my leg!”

Tenn’s reaction? Perfect (unlike the minimal support his knees give the nearly unbalanced plate on top of them): Keeping his ham-bearing fork aloft, in mid-ascent, keeping his mouth as it is, fully open, he says nothing, makes no verbal response, and continues silent – with ham remaining where it is, in mid-air, mouth remaining as it is, fully open – for longer than any of us in the room dare to believe, long enough for an audience to repair to the lobby to buy refreshments, have a smoke and a chat, come back into the theater and resume play-watching, confident that nothing new transpired in their absence. Fools! They’ve cheated themselves out of a spectacular theatrical moment, a genuine “coup de theatre”: Tennessee Williams, having deliberately struck himself dumb and motionless, has let the irregularly-shaped piece of fresh-cut ham grow cold!

Ham grown cold, appetite must be served! He completes the fork’s preordained passage from plate to mouth and pops the irregularly-shaped piece of ham between his open jaws, which now, at last, clamp shut. Masticating noisily, manufacturing drool, which he does not – not immediately, but only eventually, an apparent afterthought – sop up with a – (horrors!) and at such a moment, on such an occasion – paper napkin!

Carson is deeply appreciative of, and honored by, Tenn’s (“Tenn” being short for Tennessee, as in “Tennessee Williams”) performance ‘fast’, but she can’t decide whether to applaud or cry. Then, realizing that one of her hands (like all the rest of the same half of her body) is paralyzed, she chooses to cry.

Everyday she wrote, but not manually. She made up sentences in the presence of a secretary, and the secretary copied those sentences onto paper. On some days sentences came hard and there were only a few of them after several hours’ effort. But the effort was always made and some sentences were always produced.

That year – the last year of her life – she was working on two books: her memoirs and a study of people who had “triumphed over adversity” (the pleasure she took in the employment of this cliche – and in others like it – was, I think, rooted in her understanding of cliches as things-in-the-world – no different than any other “givens”: apples, whiskey, pocketbooks. As such, they were to be respected and used).

The memoirs were tentatively titled Illuminations and Night Glare and the study, In Spite Of (the latter’s prospective roster included Helen Keller and Arthur Rimbaud).

When I think of Carson as writer, when I think of Carson in the act of writing or (as she was ultimately compelled to do by illness and physical incapacity) speaking for transcription, I am now – as I was then – stunned into giving only the merest factual account of the process as I observed it. As a subject it is not now, nor was it then, forbidden to me, either for purposes of contemplation or inquiry, but I refrain (have always refrained) from allowing myself anything but the briefest account of verifiable facts as they pertain to Carson in the act of creation. My reasons for doing and having done so constitute a mystery I am prone to fondle endlessly, but only when alone, unseen, and unsuspected.

Exit Tennessee, enter Julie (Harris), but reincarnated (with an inappropriateness so nearly perfect that Carson and I can barely collect enough breath between us to give it its risible due) as Blanche du Bois, but also “du Nyack,” as her appearance in this part was manifesting itself right there in town, just a few blocks away from the house where the two of us now waited – at 2 minutes to tea-time – for the arrival – 20 years on – of “Frankie” (reMEMBER OF THE WEDDING?)

At the exact conclusion of twice 60 seconds’ passing, came a knock, followed by an entrance: Julie/Frankie/Blanche, with a surprise companion: Robert (Forster)/Stanley (Kowalski)/The Soldier (for, yes – Blessed be the name of irony – her co-star had just finished playing this selfsame role in John Huston’s film version of Carson’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” and Julie – further irony, added blessings – in the selfsame film, had played the role of The Major’s Wife, Alison).

9 of us in crowded tableau: Carson and I, Julie/Frankie/Blanche/Alison, Robert/Stanley/The Soldier, conversing in echoes. Echoes conversing with echoes, echoing echoes, until – together, in perfect unison – all the echoes break on the shores of reMEMBERance and one voice only leads us in silent song: Miss Ethel Waters/ Berenice Sadie Brown (Julie’s one-time co-star, Frankie’s Eternal Mother) delivering – right on cue – her patented, show-stopping rendition of – what else? – “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” [The Curtain Falls. Prolonged Applause. End of Act II, reMEMBER OF THE WEDDING, reMEMBER OF THE WEDDING.]

Afterwards, long, long afterwards (actually, only minutes later), Miss Waters’ then current appearances with the Reverend Billy Graham’s “Worldwide Religious Crusade” were alluded to in terms less than respectful toward Miss Waters, the Reverend, or, indeed, their “Boss,” Ethel’s “Imaginary Friend,” as Carson referred to Him with the not-so-innocent giggle of an unbaptized 4-year-old 49-year-old (her ages that year). Strangely, of all the words spoken that day, only those 2 soubriquets – “Boss”/”Imaginary friend” – born of wit’s inverted sympathy – bore no echo, bore no echo.

“Dear Mr. President,” I wrote (on gray stationery under her engraved-in-purple name and address), as Carson paused to consider what she/I should write next.

What next, indeed! She found herself in the uniquely awkward position of having to refuse a Presidential invitation to the White House, an invitation which ought never to have been extended, for didn’t the President know – and if not, shouldn’t he have been told – that Mrs. McCullers was and had been bedridden for more years than he had been in office, and was unable to socialize with neighbors, let alone visit a president in another state.

But the invitation had come and needed to be answered, declined, with regret, obviously, but, not so obviously, with a postscriptum offering praise and encouragement.

Praise? Encouragement? To the War-monger? The man whose very belly was scarred with the outline of a country needlessly attacked by men needlessly attacking?

Yes, praise. Yes, encouragement. Because… because… Because why, Carson?

“Because – Oh, I know that a lot of folks don’t like him because of The War, and all, but he reminds me of…” Her voice breaks, her eyes mist… “My Daddy.”

Thus “because” was explained, the invitation declined and, in due course, her regrets acknowledged. And whenever, in the future, the President’s name was mentioned, in disparagement or otherwise, Carson would just smile and proudly announce that there had been an exchange of letters between her and the Commander-in-Chief; that, in fact, the two of them were “in correspondence.”

(When I least expected it, she confided this: Once, when she was a little girl, walking home from school, a group of boys – “young toughs” – had ambushed her, and demanded she say the word “fuck.” “But I don’t even know what it means,” she pleaded. They told her that it didn’t matter, she should say it anyway, say “fuck.” So she did. She said “fuck.” But she didn’t know what it meant. ).

Ireland and her recent stay there as honored guest of John Huston at his baronial Galway estate had been an exceptional experience for Carson (and, one assumes, for Huston, as well). True, as I’ve noted, her life was mostly confined to a single bed in a single room, and travel away was categorically inadvisable. Hence, her forced absence at the President’s banquet table. But what even a President could not accomplish, John Huston had, and he’d done it with style – jetting her over to old Eire, wheelchair and all, then lavishing her with every imaginable form of hospitality, luxury, care (including medical), entertainment. But, best of all, they’d hit it off, genuinely, and, as it turned out, lastingly.

They discovered they shared the same likes and dislikes, found the same jokes funny, the same sad stories sad. In other words (hers, not mine), they’d become “drinking buddies.” But they were sober pals, too. Afterwards, when Carson was back in Nyack, and Huston was wherever his travels took him, they called each other regularly, at least once a week, and their conversations were alternately grave and boisterous.

Huston was her friend, she was his friend, and they valued the bond. When, eventually, Carson told him of her impending amputation, and asked if he would come visit her in the hospital after the operation, he proclaimed (in a voice that boomed itself from the other side of the globe, far exceeding AT&T’s poor power to assist or restrain), “I’ll be there: BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER.” This pledge, eloquent of friendship, Carson often repeated aloud, as if quoting a favorite line from a favorite poem.

For Huston’s birthday she asked me to buy him a gift she knew (from personal observation) he’d like: an Irish plaid waistcoat.

“Get the largest size they have,” she instructed. “The largest!”

When I returned with my choice, she approved it – style, cut, material. Then she asked. “But did you get the largest?”

I assured her I had.

Lifting Carson out of her bed and into her wheelchair (to take her for a “spin” around the house, all three rooms of it, the other floors and even the basement having been rented out to boarders in exchange for much-needed additional income) provided her, however passively, with the only exercise she ever got (except for massage).

The short journey from bed to chair was perilous. Certain parts of certain bones were extremely susceptible to pain – instant, consciousness-blanching pain – and a bruise acquired through a clumsily-maneuvered bed-to-chair transfer could take weeks to clear.

She weighed so little at this time that I was always surprised by the strength of her bony fingers clamping onto my shoulder blades, like talons locking onto branches.

Sometimes, even after I’d settled her safely, painlessly, in her chair, her fingers continued to press into my flesh, their bones seeking mine for support, continuous, everlasting support. I let those bony fingers, those fingery bones, press, dig, clutch, for I, too, needed exercise, even if only passively, through massage, bones seeking bones.

Carson never inquired about one’s past experience, future plans, present circumstances, and seldom spoke about her own life. To be alone with Carson was to be alone with oneself, with one’s ‘story,’ as she was alone with hers. (And there were some indeed who preferred not to be alone with Carson for that very reason – visitors – even old friends – who insisted, with a desperate glance in my direction, that I remain in the room while they visited so as not to be left alone with her, alone with themselves.)

But I was glad to be alone with myself in her company as, in my company, she was glad to be alone with herself. No pretense was made to intimacy and for this very reason, one day, quite suddenly, intimacy appeared between us, like an uninvited guest whose presence is nonetheless entirely welcome. And because this guest, intimacy, was not only a stranger but a mute, we invented its story together: the story of its past, present, and future. And if parts of this story resembled the story of my life, and other parts resembled the story of hers, what matter? Plagiarism is a fact of life, of lives, we – the three of us – agreed, nodding our heads, nodding our heads to sleep.

copyright © 1990 by Stuart Sherman

Begun 1997 / Revised September 28, 2020

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