THE ENVELOPE turned up while I was looking through a packet of covers I had saved from the stamp collecting days of my youth to see if any of them might interest my sixteen-year-old son who had recently started to collect stamps.
Most of the covers were from ships and submarines of the middle 1930’s and were brittle and discolored. I had not known, or had ignored, that one should use high quality rag bond for permanent covers. For most of them were envelopes I had sent to ships to obtain their cancellations. I wondered if any of them were worth anything now but decided they probably were not. Somehow it’s the stamps and covers you do not have that increase so dramatically in price.
How many USS Stickleback’s ago was this one anyway? And the USS Arizona! “Well, we know where that one is,” I said aloud.
The next envelope in the stack had a Susan B. Anthony stamp on it and was addressed in very ornately looped letters: “Mr. Jeremy Stempel, P. O. Box 616, Manchester, Kentucky.” It was clearly postmarked: “Middlesboro, Ky. 10:30 AM, Jun 3, 1937.” In the upper left corner, instead of a name or a return address, there was in the same fancy script a tiny “McP.”
“McPherson,” I said, “Aetna McPherson. Well, well, well, well. How many years since that name has crossed my mind?” I opened the envelope but it was empty. “Oh,” I thought, “I wish it had the letter in it. This may well have been the last one. What would it be like to read one of her letters now?”
After considering a moment, I thought it’d probably sound so stupid to me now that I couldn’t believe how serious it had been. In thinking over the incident, I could now remember a great many details but very little about the actual content of the letters. Yet that meant I had remembered the unimportant part and forgotten the very crux of the affair. “Dozens of letters at least,” I thought. “And I can’t remember what was said. Did I bury the memory in self-defense? I wonder.”
Even allowing for the intricacies and confusions of sixteen-year-olds, it had been a strange relationship with a curious and puzzling ending. In the ensuing years, I had thought back on it without ever coming to much of an understanding and had long ago ceased to think of it at all.
The McPherson family had moved to Manchester, probably in 1932 or 1933, into a house about a block from where I lived with my grandmother. I had quickly become unpopular with them because I got along very badly with the son who was two years younger than I. I was always being accused by Mrs. McPherson of picking on him. I considered him a tattle-tale and a cry-baby. He was always begging me to play “keeps” with him, and then when I would win a few of his marbles, he would start crying and threatening to tell his mother on me. We were all forbidden, on the basis that it was gambling, to play marbles for keeps at school and at home; so naturally it was our favorite pastime, and we played it in a wide variety of forms.
Finally, one day I got so angry at him that I hit him over the head with his bag of several hundred marbles. It didn’t do much damage to his head, but the bag split open and marbles went everywhere. He went bawling to his mother, and I was thenceforth and forever forbidden by Mrs. McPherson to enter their yard on any occasion whatsoever. I can well remember detouring into the street to avoid their stretch of sidewalk. Had I known that the sidewalk belonged to the city, I would, of course, have insisted on my right to use it. Though I must say, children’s rights did not much impress adults in those days.
In spite, or maybe because, of this, I became friendly with their daughter Aetna, who was exactly to the month, my age. But at eleven or twelve, boys are just boys, and girls are almost women. No one looking at Aetna at that time could have had any doubt that she was going to be a devastatingly beautiful woman. Blonde, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned with a sprinkling of interesting freckles, she was already attracting the attention of the high school boys. She never pretended that I was of any romantic interest; in fact, only movie stars could begin to measure up to her standards, but she liked to talk to me about books she was reading and all kinds of other things.
She was the only girl I ever heard of who liked Tom Swift books, and we shared an admiration for the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. My grandmother had a set of his books that must have contained hundreds of his stories and novels that I’ve never heard of since. She also shared my passion for detective stories, and we had gone through a number of volumes of 101 Detective Tales that occupied a three-foot shelf in our school library.
I was so overwhelmed by her that I would have gladly thrown myself, not merely my cloak, in the mud for her to walk over. But she was always kind and considerate to me in private and in public, where her regard for me induced, to my pleasure, considerable envy among my less fortunate compatriots.
She did like to impress me with her advanced knowledge and one day told me “the facts of life,” as they were called in those days, as far as she knew them. I was grateful for this because sex education was then a first-class puzzle to be pieced together as best you could and hope to God you were right.
Even the dire warnings were a puzzle. Obviously, “self-abuse” was extremely harmful; you could tell that from the name. But what was it exactly, and how could you avoid it if no one would tell you clearly what it was? Unfortunately, there was no Portnoy’s Complaint in those days. I had to laugh a few years ago when I read on the dust jacket of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask the question: “Just what do homosexuals do?” for that had been a baffling puzzle to me. I knew that “queers” were very dangerous but that was all. When I finally met a self-professed homosexual, I asked him, but he just got huffy because he thought I was taunting him.
It is hard to learn the facts about anything if you must never show, for reasons of caste, that you don’t know all about it already.
After the McPhersons had been living on my street for about a year, Mr. McPherson was shot and killed. He and the two Rollins boys had been surprised at their still by revenue men. Usually when caught, moonshiners surrendered meekly and served their short sentences without rancor as if they were some kind of a tax the government imposed on them, but the Rollins boys were known to be a little crazy, and they had attempted to shoot it out with the revenue men. The only person shot in the gun battle was unarmed Mr. McPherson.
There had been no sign of social pressure against the McPhersons before his death, though his profession was generally known; but now his family began to feel the disapproval of their neighbors and townspeople. It was as if the society could not stomach a failed bootlegger.
From the time her father was killed, my friendship with Aetna deteriorated. She still spoke friendly enough when we met, but we no longer had any real conversations. We had spent many hours sitting in the swing in my grandmother’s yard where we could talk without being overheard. She now avoided such talks, and hampered as I was by my continuing prohibition against going to her house, our friendship languished.
After school was out I went away on a visit for two weeks and came back to find the McPherson’s house empty. I was told that Mrs. McPherson had married a man from Mercer, a town some fifteen miles away, and the family had moved there to live. I had not even had a chance to say goodbye to Aetna.
Children are accustomed to changes taking place without any control over them. Their friends move away, their parents change houses, and they, themselves, are uprooted and moved to strange places. In time I forgot about Aetna.
In the fall of 1936 I received the first envelope with the “McP” in the upper left corner. It was a letter from Aetna. She was in Middlesboro School for Girls which was a boarding school for girls unwanted at home or girls whose parents felt they were no longer in control. If you were parents with sufficient funds and had a “wild” son, you sent him to Poindexter Military School. If you had a “wild” daughter, you sent her to Middlesboro School for Girls. Later I learned that I had a cousin at Middlesboro at that same time. I guess there may have been cases where one of these schools helped a boy or girl, but usually it was merely a holding action for a later explosion that may have been the more violent for being so long contained.
Anyway her letter merely said she was in the school and hinted that she’d had some difficulty with her stepfather. She knew no one in the whole school she said and needed a friend to write to and would I please correspond with her so she’d have some contact with the “outside.” I remember the P.S. on her letter. “They may call this a school, but they don’t fool any of us girls; we all know it’s really a jail,” it said.
I was very happy to get her letter. I was doing none too well, myself. My grandmother had died and I was now living with my mother. The depression was now fully felt in the rural towns as well as in the cities, and we had poor housing, few clothes, and never quite enough food. Also my face had turned into a loathsome looking garden of blackheads and pimples that got worse and worse in spite of my eating all the Fleischman’s yeast I could get my hands on.
On top of all this, I had lost my former easy manner with girls, and now, right when I needed confidence and poise, had turned into a shy, awkward, blundering misfit both physically and mentally. Girls no longer seemed to belong to the same species or to talk the same language. I felt more despondent than I ever had in my life.
With both of us starting from such low points, I guess it is not surprising that the letters flew back and forth, and that more and more we were exchanging real confidences. I don’t know how to describe it except in a book I read recently called I Ain’t Much, Baby – but I’m All I’ve Got, such confidences are called by the author Jess Lair, “telling what’s in your deepest heart.” Lonely people from time immemorial have kept diaries in which they confess what’s in their deepest hearts, but that’s not to be compared with telling it to another person who you know will never laugh at you, censure you, or shame you.
In thinking of it afterward, I concluded that such a sharing could have happened only by correspondence between people who did not see each other. Teenagers, or maybe anyagers, could never develop and maintain such a relationship in person. And probably it could not be maintained very long by any method.
In June I received a letter, maybe the very one belonging to the present envelope, asking if I could attend the functions on school closing day. They were having an outdoor musical program with tea served afterward in the garden. Each girl was permitted to have guests, and her parents, who might have come, had moved to Indianapolis and claimed they could not afford the trip. I thought I sensed, although she did not say so, that for some reason she needed badly to have someone there. Although I was broke and had no prospects of getting any money for the 125-mile trip, I promised to come.
By the time the day had arrived, I had managed to accumulate about fifty cents. I packed a thin blanket in a small bag and early in the morning started hitchhiking to Middlesboro. My luck was so good that I arrived at about noon. A man at the bus station let me leave my bag behind the counter, and after eating a hamburger, I went to the city library to while away the hours until four o’clock.
At ten minutes to four, I walked through the entrance gate of the school grounds. The school building had been a private mansion with spacious grounds surrounded by a four-foot high stone wall. On this bright June day, the huge white house, the long curved walks, the immense old trees, and the expanse of neatly cut grass made an impression of such beauty and opulence that I stopped short just inside the gate. After a minute I saw that some fifty yards off to my right there was a crowd of thirty or forty girls forming a mass of blinding white.
As I stood there, one white-dressed girl separated from the group and came down the walk toward me. It had been years since I had seen her. All the promise of beauty in the twelve-year-old girl had been splendidly fulfilled. At my present age, I would not want to claim that the most entrancing sight in the world is a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl or even that mature women are not far more beautiful, but if the viewer is a sixteen-year-old boy, I can guarantee that nothing even comes in second.
I think I must have stood paralyzed in place until she came up to me. Not until I turned to watch my bride come down the aisle many years later did I feel so overwhelmed and so nervous about a girl walking toward me. The school did not allow the girls to use any makeup, and its absence accentuated the fresh natural sheen of her skin and revealed the few intriguing freckles that she certainly would have mistakenly hidden if she had been able. The white “party” dress with blue sash that each girl wore suited her fair skin, golden hair, and deep-blue eyes.
The afternoon passed in a haze of unreality. We remained, throughout the musical program and the tea party, on a basis of strained formality. All our talk was stilted and artificial, and by six o’clock when she walked with me to the gate, I was in despair at the thought that complete strangers would have been easier with each other than we had been. Clearly it would have been better if I had not come.
We said our goodbyes as formally as departing ambassadors. Just before I meant to turn away, I said, “Sorry, I had to wear these,” indicating my unprepossessing sweater and trousers which, in truth, had been well below the standards of most of the visitors.
“Oh, Jeremy,” she said, “that doesn’t matter. No girl ever had a more handsome, more wonderful escort.”
I stood stunned. No one had ever said such a thing to me. For a moment, pimples and all, I believed it.
“If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have had nobody,” she said. “I would never have lived through this year without you, and I will love you forever and ever.” In one swift series of motions, she kissed me, turned, and ran back up the walk.
About a year later, my cousin who was in the school also, told me she had seen me that day. “But you had eyes only for Aetna,” she said. “She bragged about you all the time. All the other girls had parents and other family as guests; but not her, she had a boyfriend. And she was an awful liar; she said you stayed in a hotel in Middlesboro. You didn’t, did you?”
“Yes,” I lied. “Of course. I stayed at the Middlesboro House.” Actually I had slept in a field, wrapped in my blanket and had, in fact, never stayed in a hotel in my life. I couldn’t see what a hotel had to do with it, but I was not about to give my cousin an advantage over Aetna, even in view of what had happened by then.
After returning home, I replayed, in my mind, Aetna’s parting words over and over. As some of the euphoria induced by them wore off, I gradually realized I had a problem. I was without doubt in love with Aetna, and more incredibly, she had said she was in love with me. But I was sixteen years old. Sixteen and had just finished the tenth grade. So what to do? At this age the boy-girl game was meant to be played with the outcome continually unresolved – you didn’t expect to win or to lose – if such thoughts entered your mind at all.
I was smart enough to know that such a relationship as ours could not stand still, could not be frozen. We had gone too fast, the letter writing had tricked us. So what next? Marriage? At sixteen? With a million things I wanted to do before marrying? Not to mention such things as where would we live, and what would we eat? Millions of grown men were out of work. How could I hope to get a job. It was impossible. Such panicky thoughts raged back and forth, day after day.
I had not heard from Aetna since my visit to her school. I guessed that she was probably at her new home in Indianapolis. I didn’t even know her address there. Along about the middle of July, I began wondering about her silence.
One day in the early afternoon, I was sitting on a bench in front of the poolroom taking the sun with two older poolroom loafers, Pete Danver, and a guy, Bill Warder, who had recently moved to Manchester. George Smathers rode by in his grocery delivery van and waved and yelled as he passed.
“Boy, oh, boy,” said Bill, “you should have seen ‘ol Georgie last night. Him and some gal were neckin’ up a storm right in Van’s Roadhouse.”
“What girl?” asked Pete.
“I never saw her before, but she’s a really good lookin’ blonde kid. Visitin’ Bertha Rollins, I heard.” He went on to speculate in detail on what they must have done in private if they’d carry on that way in public.
I had no doubt at all who it was. Like a frantic metronome beat, the message in my skull said, “It’s her, it’s her, it’s her, it’s her.”
“Oh God, why George,” I thought. He was an ignorant lout of nineteen who had quit school to drive a grocery truck, a womanizer who bragged before the poolroom audience of his conquests. The thought of it brought the bitter taste of bile and a queasy feeling of nausea.
There was a small park two blocks from the Rollins house from which the house could be seen. I knew that it was highly likely that Bertha and Aetna would go to the post office in mid-afternoon for the mail, every family sent someone, and that seemed to offer the best chance to intercept Aetna with the minimum observers present.
After about an hour of waiting, I saw the two girls leave the house and start walking toward town and toward me. I timed my leaving the park so I would meet them in the middle of the block.
I was so nervous that I felt I was walking in jerks as if manipulated by puppet strings. My mouth was dry. I felt flushed and feverish. My brain was numb. Somehow, I managed to walk the half block. Bertha spoke to me so naturally that I knew she knew nothing about Aetna and me.
Aetna had stopped and was looking at me calmly while I searched her eyes for some sign of recognition. Finally I blurted out, “I’d like to see you tonight.”
“I’m sorry,” she said formally, “I’m busy tonight.”
“Well, then, how about tomorrow night?”
“I’m going home to Indianapolis in the morning,” she said. There was nothing in her features or in her voice to indicate that we were anything but casual acquaintances.
By this time I was in an inferno of anger, shame, bafflement, and above all, ego-shriveling rejection. I walked on past them with all these emotions raging through my mind. Just as I came to the next cross street, I thought, “Well, you solved your problem all right, didn’t you?” Suddenly the thought struck me: “What if she was trying to do just that?”
I turned quickly and saw that Aetna and Bertha were still standing where I’d left them and were watching me, but as soon as I looked back, Aetna turned away and they walked toward town. I stood watching them. Under all my embarrassment, my shame, my anger, my crushing hurt of rejection, I felt, and was ashamed of it, a sense of relief. The girls turned a corner; Aetna never looked back.
I never saw her again, and I never heard one thing of her beyond that moment.
For a moment I sat at my desk apparently looking at the envelope but actually looking backward at one of the branch points of my life. There were so many where a binary decision had been made by me or by others with or without my knowledge. What if…?
“Dad,” said my son as he came into the study, “did you find any good ones?”
“Well, maybe these.” I handed him the stack of submarine and ship covers.
He looked at the envelope in my left hand. “Susan B. Anthony? That’s hardly a rare cover, is it?”
“When I received this letter, I was exactly your age.”
“Oh, yeah.” He tried to pretend interest, but it was clear he didn’t believe I’d ever been sixteen. Oh, numerically, maybe, but not his age.
To be fair about it, I could not believe, looking at his apparently untroubled face, that he’d been my sixteen.
Hand set in 10- and 12-point Deepdene leaded 2 points. Display type is Craw Modern. Initial is a gift from Jim Walczak. Inks are Van Son Delft Blue, 40904 Black, and Red Pepper. (You’d think if Harold Segal could print a whole journal without a hyphen I’d be able to do a colophon.) Text paper is Warren’s Olde Style, Subs. 60. Cover stock is unknown, but nice. Published by Jake Warner and 460 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, MD 20770.