A short story by Nigel Jarrett
In the fall of 1969, a writer called Pat Weston retired as a script editor at the Wisconsin Review and bought a farm in New England. The Review was a famous and influential literary magazine, which was forced to close in the late 1980s for economic reasons. Weston had earned modest fame as an essayist, and continued writing intermittently up to his death in 1983. In a newspaper article published when the Review was in decline, Norman Mailer said it was superior to the New Yorker and possibly the best magazine of its kind ever to have appeared in the United States. Mailer's reputation for controversy may have prevented the magazine from taking advantage of his endorsement. Its circulation did increase briefly, despite, or because of, the commotion which Mailer's remarks ignited in the readers' letters column of the newspaper and elsewhere, not least in the New Yorker itself, which maintained a dignified editorial silence.
Weston's farm in Randolph, Vermont, was really a hobbyist's smallholding, though it was surrounded by a fair acreage, mostly dense woodland. The property was paid for not by Weston's earnings, which were as small as his literary reputation, but by a legacy left to his wife, Mitzi, by her parents, who belonged to a family of brewers. Although never mentioned anywhere formally, least of all in the Review itself, the timing of Weston's retirement at fifty-four was unexpected. Few realised that Mitzi was mentally unstable, almost childlike in her innocence, and that Weston had finished at the magazine in order to look after her in peaceful surroundings – 'on an island of calm', as he described the Vermont property. She had been a Weissman Girl (the noun tragically ironic of what was to come), a dancer in Variety, and insisted on being known by her maiden name of Willingdon. Had Weston been more well-known, the subject of a biography perhaps, these domestic matters would have been made public. Old man Willingdon, self-educated and an enthusiastic reader, once urged his son-in-law to write an autobiography; but Weston was not keen and the idea was dropped. There were chickens, ducks and geese on the farm, a few goats, and a horse that Mitzi rode in a paddock and through the woods when she was feeling up to it; she had learned to ride as a child in Spokane, Washington. The couple also had a dog, a Golden Labrador, called Tom Mix. It was Tom Mix that 'did for her', Weston said afterwards, the expression perhaps illustrating his complex feelings about Mitzi's illness, their relationship, and the selfless, unacknowledged ministrations that may have blighted his progress. Some attributed Mitzi's bouts of sickness to what they saw as her husband's lack of ambition: her father, a success in everything he accomplished commercially, certainly spoke before he died of the couple's 'parts not quite making a whole'. I know this because I have read the letter in which it is written, albeit as a passing comment.
In the 1990s, you could almost make up a subject for a college dissertation and it would be accepted. As long as a paper was written that could enhance the university's reputation and attract further endowments, you had a free hand. In fact, I also applied with no real expectation to Willingdon Inc., the international brewery firm, for a grant towards my thesis, mentioning of course that Weston's wife was a Willingdon. After answering a few preliminary questions, I received a cheque for one thousand dollars, with a half-hearted suggestion that at some time I might consider writing a biography of old man Willingdon or a history of the firm his grandfather started in 1879. I began work on my paper, Patrick Murray Weston: The Scriptural Provenance of Style, almost straightaway.
It was a year or two before I made the journey to Higher Frankfort, the Weston farm at the foot of the Appalachians. I saw no point in visiting at the start, being content with Weston's descriptions of its almost Arcadian delights and the creative work he managed to complete there, both literary and agricultural. He makes no mention of Mitzi's condition, except to say that she is not feeling well or that she is taking a rest or that she is going through the childhood photos of her riding other horses and frolicking with other dogs. I got the impression that while Mitzi was resting, perhaps lengthily under the influence of prescribed drugs, Weston did most of his later writing. It was among the resulting papers and letters, given by Weston to Benny Danziger, an old Review colleague and friend, for safe-keeping, that I discovered the essay Burying Tom Mix. (The journey to visit Benny in Madison, Wisconsin - he refused at first to talk for long on the phone - and my riotous weekends there, sometimes at his place on Lake Michigan, made quite a dent in the Willingdon cash and will be described some other time.) Benny liked the essay too, and what he told me about it throws some light on those superannuated days at Higher Frankfort. I taped everything he said. Benny was a dead ringer for Danny de Vito and wore garish floral ties, even in the heat.
'You know, I think Pat was afraid that Mitzi was suicidal,' he said. 'It was a Scott Fitzgerald-Zelda thing. She'd never tried anything, but you only top yourself once and there doesn't have to be a history of failed attempts. Naturally, on a farm as remote as theirs, death was pretty much all around.'
He described a series of circles with his forefinger extended and pointing downwards and his arm held aloft, as if tracing the flight path of a buzzard. He looked like a disreputable god, a Bacchus.
'Then, of course, there's the stock,' he continued. 'Mitzi wanted the poultry for their eggs, not their meat. The fox took some, leaving Mitzi screaming her head off, like a little kid. Now and then, there'd be gunshots in the distance, echoing about the hills. I don't believe Pat had thought it out. Depressives have a low threshold where anything minatory is concerned. You feel down, you feel vulnerable, unable to defend yourself. There'd been a murder on a neighbouring farm, neighbouring being twenty miles away. There are nutters everywhere; they can get to most places these days, carrying their crazy with them. It goes without saying that Higher Frankfort had its own bundle of crazy.'
He looked at me blankly, like someone re-visiting an old conclusion that he might have got wrong, or some situation that may have turned out differently had he acted in another way.
'Anywise, that six-shootin' Tom Mix upped and died like we are all going to. Except the Mitzis of this world gotta believe in eternity, time to get better. The way Pat told me, she was so upset it was as if she blamed the darned dog for its own demise when all it had done was run out of time, not even explored half that Elysian meadow. Tom Mix - what a name!' (Benny, no mean writer himself, talked as he typed. But at the Review, he'd been responsible, with Weston, for sharpening and influencing the work of regular contributors, who came, in Benny's words, to resemble 'mustangs in a corral', as individual as they could make them but presenting themselves to the world as unmistakeably 'Revvies', which is what the magazine's stable of writers have always been known.)
Burying Tom Mix makes no reference to Mitzi's distress and otherwise reads convincingly like the way it happened, its imaginative kite flight reined in and let out by almost deadpan reportage, at turns strolling and hurrying. A child might read it and take those first steps into the dolorous land of the adult. It tells the tale yet it deepens what's told.
Here is the gist of it, in my own words, the only part of this whole story one can show rather than tell:
Tom Mix took sick one day, not rousing himself as usual. He won't eat. They try him with bread soaked in warm milk. No, sir. The vet comes, tearing up the trail in his four-by-four like a madman. Diagnosis: kidney failure due to old age. Prognosis: death within a week, sooner with the needle. Mitzi objects, asks for time, despite the double call-out fee. More milk-soaked bread turning cold. Vet re-appears. Mitzi stays in the bedroom. Big hypo, Weston comments, but it isn't; it's the size an addict shoots with. The slow death-dealing administration. Then the stethoscope, silent as an unplugged radio. The vet gives Weston a listen - well, the fees are high. The walk to the woods with Tom Mix in a wheelbarrow and a spade across the handles. Mitzi standing behind beyond the fence, out in the wild, arms tightly folded, her sobbing obviously the jolts he can see, looking back, thinking (according to Benny) that's how they treated them in the old primitive days, not that long ago, with electric shocks. Then the burial deep in the woods, a long time, and later a second burial: Tom Mix’s rubber bone, spiked dog-collar and leash, their location precisely recorded: behind the third of three young trees, 'the ash triumvirate' they can see from the kitchen window.
And that's virtually it, except for a coda about the presence of an absence, eventually occluded by new concerns (and old, pressing ones, Benny says, but not admitted by Weston). It's not his best work - in fact, it tries and just fails to shake off sentimentality - but it's of the later kind that gets beyond itself to escape that which cannot be said. Among the 'Revvies' this is an identifiable characteristic, which I describe in my thesis as 'the secreted self'.
'I'd be happy with that,' Benny told me. 'I think we attracted a certain type. Maybe they recognised each other; you know, by reading the magazine and sending us their stuff. When there was too much going on, Pat and I rollered it so that you guessed rightly that there was something behind the words. In a lot of contemporary shite there's nothing. We didn't want them to spell it out, make it obvious. There's virtue in holding back as long as you have something to hold back. It's where resonance comes from, the bigger theme.'
Three years after my paper's publication, I learned from Benny that the present owners of Higher Frankfort had sold up to a farming conglomerate. Weston had died and Mitzi was back with her family or in hospital, an ageing 'bi-polar' showing the first signs of senility and surrounded by framed pictures of her as a youngster. Benny was eighty-nine and immortal, still very bright. He liked the thesis, in which he was mentioned many times and quoted at length.
'You ought to go up there,' he said. 'Use the rest of your Willingdon bucks in the interest of closure.' So I did, though the grant had been long over-spent. I sent a copy of the thesis to the brewery but had no reply.
I drove north-west out of Boston and headed for Randolph via Fitchburg and Bellows Falls. Although Higher Frankfort wasn't all that far from the main highway, on arrival I appreciated its island remoteness, the ocean of landscape around it, the woodland marking regions of ancient oceanic depth. You couldn't hear any traffic. The farm track had begun to grow over, its ruts as well as its central greenery sprouting wild rye and rape-seed, remnants of an old crop rotation nearby. There'd been some felling of trees on the far side of what had been Weston land. When the track finally opened out on to the meadow I saw in the distance what remained of the farm building. The roof had fallen in. Driving closer with difficulty, I could see that a fence had been erected around the property and Danger signs planted. Someone had sorted the implements left behind and cast the unwanted ones aside, among them a shovel with a broken handle. I got out of the car, picked up the shovel and, looking around, lifted the fence wire with it and advanced towards the house. Through broken-glass windows I found the kitchen, still with its old fittings. In the parlour, someone had placed two barrels around a circle of bricks and lit a fire, now spreading ash. Two empty beer cans rolled in the wind against a ball of greasy aluminium foil. I thought of Benny's nutters and their baggage of 'crazy'. But these squatters had passed through. Outside and with my back to the kitchen I looked at the view, Weston's peaceful setting, and immediately saw the three ash trees, quite distinct, as if deliberately planted in a row, their leaves gently fluttering. I walked towards them over rich pasture soon to be ploughed, or to be left fallow indefinitely as part of some bigger, far-reaching plan beyond the turning-year timetable of a smallholder, a keeper of geese. The three trees were standing sentinel at the entrance of the wood, the undergrowth behind them bare in the shadows.I scuffed the ground. It was stony. There was no sign of a grave, no marker. I heard a farm vehicle, a tractor or something, approaching. I walked to the car and left the place to its secrets.
I'd booked into a Howard Johnson for the night. As I drove there, I knew I was not far from literary country of much greater renown than Pat Weston, Benny Danziger and their 'Revvies'. This was where Melville wrote Moby Dick and Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter: this is where, as neighbours, they hailed each other and communicated ecstatically in language as rich as New Hampshire loam; language that Weston and Danziger would have 'rollered', allowing the unsaid to inflate almost to bursting point in the background, like air in a tyre. After Pat Weston's death, Benny began doing some research of his own, which is how he had come by that put-down letter from Mitzi's father. Had old Willingdon been comparing his flawed daughter and his unambitious but reputable son-in-law with his own material success? I thought that night of how sad it was, as far as a publisher was concerned, that Weston probably didn't merit a biography and that the story of him and Mitzi in their troubled retirement would never gain currency. Perhaps it was just as well. I couldn't believe that Burying Tom Mix wasn't utterly true; at the same time, I wanted to believe that it may have been a superb fiction designed to draw attention to a bigger truth, the unsaid tragedy of their lives up there at the foot of those blue hills. I hadn't found anything on my dig. Then I thought, well, maybe I'd come across the bones of Tom Mix after all but hadn't seen the dust, the microscopic white splinters already merged with the soil and indistinguishable from it, like a copy of an old issue of the Wisconsin Review, read, ditched, pulped and living a new life in fulfilment of some Buddhist prophecy.
I keep in touch with Benny. He’s contracted Type 2 diabetes and is on a diet. We talk about what to do with the Weston papers, such as they are in their two bulging box-files. They include over one hundred letters. Weston obviously shared a lot of private stuff with Benny that I don’t know about. But of late, I’m feeling that my interest in Weston has driven a thin wedge between them. It’s not so much that Benny thinks he’s of equal interest (Benny was more editor than writer), but that they’ve both declined to the same level through lack of interest and the prospect of posterity’s neglect. When I told him I’d be more than pleased to leave Burying Tom Mix as a legacy, he revised his opinion about it, saying it was a load of romantic tosh. He could leave the papers with a relative, I suppose; not that he’d talked about one who might be interested. And, in any case, why hadn’t Weston himself done just that instead of trusting his friend? I can see Benny dumping them when the end’s in sight, when they have ceased to be any use to him in the same way that Mailer’s encomium had been forgotten by the great man himself once the reason for it and that diatribe against the New Yorker had become insignificant.
On the day he rang to tell me he was diabetic, Benny said, 'You can have it if you want. I’m eighty-nine, for Chrissake. It’s no fucking use to me.'
I declined. But I made a tentative pitch for the Weston papers. Any day now, I expect him to tell me to come and collect. That’s if he isn’t really immortal.
I’ve found out little else about Miss Mitzi Willingdon. Approaches to both families yielded nothing. Clearly they had agreed to shield her memory from prying people like me. And who could blame them? I don’t think they were trying to save themselves embarrassment; they were just determined to maintain Mitzi’s privacy beyond her death. In any case, I’m not that interested and I believe Pat Weston’s talent and temperament to have been the limiting factors in his achievement more than his wife’s illness. As Danny told me, Pat was the sort who would have regarded the unsung heroic as an essential part of his make-up. I wasn’t so sure; but it was a matter for someone else, not me. The Weissman Girls and Maitre Weissman himself, very much ‘bottom of the bill’, are barely discernible in the history of show-business. That caved-in building at Higher Frankfort was symbolic of something more than the extent of a man’s literary career or a woman’s incapacity to inspire or enhance it with her own bright history. I just wish I’d taken a photograph of the scene. I wish I’d taken a bloody camera with me. Because there’ll be no next time. Up at Randolph something had gone forever and was now irretrievable.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the author of Funderland, a much-acclaimed first collection of stories published by Parthian. He is a former newspaper reporter. His second collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? will appear next year from Cultured Llama. He lives in Monmouthshire.