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 Chapter 19

Mental and Physical Health

At this point in our American adventure, I was becoming, not only steward and major-domo, but one who had a secondary role in assessing and ameliorating the mental health of the group members. In that position, I noticed that the timing of Brenda's depression was just about two weeks after that of Maria. The latter, on August 1, had definitely passed her low point. She was speaking a little with us, more with Biff and his sister, and normally with everyone else.

Brenda, at that time, was still declining. I was particularly afraid of some sort of crisis which would, as the Americans say, "institutionalize" her. One could almost see the progress of the disease in Brenda's face. There were many ups and downs, but one who was with her constantly could take the average. It was, to a surprising extent, unaffected by events. It reminded me of a fever which is controlled only in the short run by medication, and which rises to a new high each night. I was thankful that Brenda was in Pettigrew's care, and that I wasn't the one primarily responsible.

There was a day in early August on which Brenda didn't emerge from her room. We were used to that, but, in my own state of heightened concern, I called Pettigrew around noon. He wasn't disturbed and replied,

"That's part of her normal pattern, isn't it? I think she has an appointment with me this afternoon. Let me check on that."

He was back on the phone a minute later.

"Yes. It's at three. If you're around about then, and you can see she's not coming over, you might give me a ring."

I had the strong impression that he intended to take advantage of an open hour to duck out to the doughnut shop.

The rising heat, overcoming the shade of the great trees on the lawn, drifted slowly into the house. The advent of August in Cincinnati had convinced us that we were in a tropical climate. We therefore began wearing around the house the sorts of quaint costumes characteristic of British colonialists in Kenya or Trincomalee. I had short trousers of a military cut, and Jane said she would redouble her efforts to find me a white pith helmet. However, as we sat down to a cold lunch with one place unoccupied, no amount of badinage could overcome the underlying tension.

We finished lunch about one, and then took tea in the shade of the veranda. Maria, her social sense still intact, spoke of many things. She reminded me of a Boy Scout who has been taught to whistle cheerfully when danger closes in. None of us needed to be told what would happen if whatever held Brenda together snapped. There was money enough so that she would never be confined in a dreadful state institution, but everyone knows that private institutions merely put a more pleasant face on the same reality, particularly during visiting hours. I, knowing my part, chirrupped along with Maria about the bees, the birds, and the flowers. We were obviously driving Jane, and perhaps Ralph, to distraction, but that was part of the point.

Maria's apparent love of nature in all its local manifestations was cast in some doubt by her persistent attempts to fend off the large orange tomcat from the neighboring house. The animal actually wished to get up into her lap, whereas Maria wished it to stay a good ten feet away. She also didn't wish to be seen being impolite to the cat. She consequently made gestures which she hoped would have an opposite meaning for us and for the cat. It was when the cat was about to spring into her lap that Brenda stepped out of the house and said,

"I'll save you, Maria."

She then picked up the cat and dropped it off the veranda.

The relief in our group could hardly have been concealed. I asked Brenda if she would like some lunch, but she declined. She was a little subdued and absent, but she sat and had tea with us. She then spoke to Maria.

"I was talking with Mr. Hotchkiss at the college yesterday, and he has a job for you if you're interested."

Brenda explained the job. The new classrooms were either finished or on the way. They had only a rough notion of how many students to expect, but a tentative list of classes had been drawn up. What remained was to make up a schedule and assign classes to rooms. Brenda concluded,

"It's not an easy thing to do, and, once you're done, there'll have to be constant changes. But it's a real job, and you'd be paid."

Maria was as pleased as I had ever seen her. She wanted to start immediately, and had questions about the rooms and classes. Neither Brenda nor Ralph could tell her much except that they hoped that there would be enough room for the classes.

The next day, all of us went off to our appointed tasks at the college. I believed, and was later confirmed in the belief, that Brenda had turned the corner. While she never told me explicitly what she and Pettigrew had discussed the day before, I could imagine his weaving together the strands of her life and convincing her, on several levels, that it was safe to move forward. She was certainly a dynamo of energy that day as she and Jane went through the concrete shells of buildings, fantasized the interiors, and gave orders. Ralph and I worked on course materials, and Maria joined Lefty in his office.

It was a good thing for Maria to work for someone outside the family. I suspected that the idea had originated with Pettigrew, and had been given shape by Brenda.

Lefty was a quick and sure judge of talent. He was also lazy enough to take full advantage of someone who was happy to do a great deal of work for very little money. As Maria solved problem after problem with her quick wits, he took to bringing her ice cream and candy from the little snack bar at which he was not, of course, charged.

A couple of times, when I wandered into the president's office, I found Lefty visibly relaxed with his feet on his large desk while Maria was working too intently to notice me at her smaller desk by the window. Later on, when I was alone with Brenda, I remarked, apropos of both Lefty and Pettigrew,

"Some of the smartest men I know have a real talent for making things easy for themselves."

Brenda gave me that funny smile of hers, in itself a sign of her returning sanity, and replied,

"They're both older men, Thomas. I think it may be necessary to bang one's head on the wall for a few decades before coming to appreciate a few simple truths."

Ralph, of course, was a young man. He was busily engaged, not in making things easier for himself, but in finding people to teach mathematics and science. As he mentioned to me,

"There are many civilized and cultivated people around Cincinnati who can, after a little practice, do a pretty decent job of teaching literature or history. We can get along with part-timers quite well there. But those are the people who've forgotten all the math and science they ever knew. My best bet seems to be to hunt up retired engineers."

That, in itself, wasn't such an easy task. Most such men had been put to work during the war. Some were now exhausted, and refused to leave their rose beds. Others had gotten the yen to be productive. They were now working harder than they ever had, and didn't have time to teach. Ralph nevertheless found one who had a little time to spare, a perfect bear of a man named Homerton.

Ten years my senior, but in indecently vigorous health, Homerton grasped my hand and thumped my back in a way which made me feel old and tired. The plan was for him to come over two nights a week to teach calculus to all those students who impressed Ralph favorably in his elementary mathematics course. It seemed to me that they would need, not only mathematical acumen, but strong spiritual resources to withstand Homerton as he bellowed optimistically about derivatives and points of inflection.

When it came time to leave, Ralph suggested that I accompany Homerton and himself to the YMCA for what he described as a "little gentle exercise." It appeared that he and Homerton had met at the Y, and that the true basis of their friendship consisted, not so much in mathematics, but in some sort of grunting and groaning.

The YMCA was a large but dirty brick building near the downtown area. In the days of my youth and poverty I had taken rooms in YMCAs, or at least slept in bunks therein. My experience was that, sooner or later, I would encounter a rosy-faced gentleman who carried a Bible and addressed me as "brother." I needn't have carried that concern into this building.

The lobby, thick with cigarette smoke, was at least half filled with dispirited gray-skinned men who stooped and gave way to hacking coughs. While, at first glance, they looked like the inmates of a geriatric prison, closer inspection revealed that many were younger than myself. They were defeated, not because their bodies had degenerated, or not just because of that, but because they were degenerates. I looked to Ralph for some explanation. He murmured soothingly,

"It's the residential programme."

A man who almost never uses a euphemism can be quite funny when he does. Someone else might have said, with a good deal of truth,

"They let bums and derelicts live here free."

Another person, seeking neutrality and objectivity, might have said simply,

"These are the residents."

However, the Y, as an institution, evidently didn't want to accept in a simple straight-forward way that these regrettable persons lived there. It had to be clear that their presence was part of a charitable enterprise, that they had a "programme" for housing them until they were "re- habilitated." I later heard another man, a more direct one, say,

"You can't re-habilitate those people. They were never habilitated in the first place."

But those weren't the words of the Y. Possibly they weren't Christian words. It was a significant measure of Ralph's involvement with the Y, and his loyalty to it, that he subscribed to an illusion he could never have invented on his own.

Homerton, gym bag in his huge paw, led the way across that lobby as if its inhabitants had been so many wraiths. Ralph and I followed on the spit of land Homerton created as the sea parted for him. Our course was shaped straight for some double swinging doors with a small diamond-shaped window let into each. Above the doors, in the sort of red metal letters that can be bought individually and nailed to the wall, was the herald, "Physical Department." This, I felt with some foreboding, was no euphemism.

Inside those doors, a man sat in a steel cage with a horizontal opening and a counter in front of it. He was a saturnine and melancholic young man, as befitted one who lived in a cage. He nevertheless smiled eerily as he greeted Ralph and Homerton. I had no kit, but the man in the cage kept producing objects from the recesses of his lair. I was soon outfitted with sneakers, shorts, and, oddly enough, a cap with the word "smile" on it. This last touch was probably intended humorously, but I let them have their fun.

Having been given keys to our lockers, we moved to a door marked "BMC." Ralph answered my silent question, explaining that he and Homerton were members of the "Business Men's Club", and that they were taking me in on a free one- day pass.

The men on the other side of that door were like no businessmen I had ever seen. The first to whom I was introduced, a large half-dressed muscleman, very nearly broke my hand. He acknowledged my greeting by saying,

"God bless you, Thomas."

Almost at the same time, he called to a departing businessman,

"May you rest in peace."

These comments were of the sort I might have expected in a Y, except that they were obviously ironic, and were accompanied by a broad smile. Homerton said to me, in one of his bellows,

"Joe's the happiest man I know."

Joe, still smiling, acknowledged that this statement was probably true. He then drifted off, shouting to me in an encouraging way,

"I hope you live at least til tomorrow."

No sooner had Joe disappeared than a man named Nickerson came up. He, only about six feet, was shorter than the others, but he was extremely wide and well developed. He looked like a homicidal maniac, but he, too, grinned broadly. I did wonder briefly whather everyone smiled because they saw the label on my cap. I finally decided, however, that it wasn't that. The institution simply attracted people who did smile, and then had little messages for people like myself, who looked as if they might not.

It turned out that Nickerson was Ralph's special wrestling partner. I would sooner have wrestled with a panther, but, in an attempt to make myself inconspicuous, I produced on my face as wide a smile as those of the others. The circumstances were, I thought, entirely bizarre.

Feeling somewhat ridiculous, I proceeded with the others to the basement, a region of pipes, gray mats that looked like dirty mattresses, and great weights suspended in improbable positions. Seeing a stationary bicycle, I seized on it with relief. Having ridden a bicycle most of my time in England, I am both competent and confident on one. I soon had this one spinning along rapidly on its somewhat drab course. At any rate, my position turned out to be an excellent and inconspicuous one from which to watch events.

Ralph and Homerton did various exercises with bars loaded with weights. Sometimes they lay with their backs on benches and pushed them up. At other times they stood or squatted and raised the bar high, as if celebrating some victory. I was surprised by the vast amount of weight they flung about, and was rather alarmed when it looked as if it might come down to crush them.

In addition to the heavy weights in the middle of the large room, there were some lighter ones in the corner near me. They were being used by a couple of older men, and I was considering joining them. Just then, a third man came up, also smiling. He said to one of the older men,

"They tell me you've got cancer, Ray."

"Yeah. It's of the penis, that is, the prick. They tell me I've got five years. That's okay, that's enough for me."

No one seemed to find this an occasion for sympathy or condolences. In fact, another bystander shouted over,

"Ya want sympathy, look in the dictionary between shit and symposium."

It was then to my very great surprise that Ralph, having heard, called over,

"What happens after five years? Does it drop off?"

This question was greeted with laughter from all directions. The man, Ray, didn't seem discomfited. He replied,

"It might as well for all I've been using it."

I pedalled quietly, wondering if this were a typical male environment.

The next phase took place several stories up on the track. Homerton told me,

"Sometimes we run outside on the streets, but it's hot today. The indoor track's shaded, and there are big fans to cool it."

The track was an oval balcony, banked steeply at the turns, which was suspended over the basketball floor. It was twenty six circuits to the mile, and a little schedule attached to the rail indicated that, this being a Thursday, we should run in a counter-clockwise direction. There were already a couple of men doing so, their feet thumping heavily on the boards.

Ralph and Homerton set off, running surprisingly lightly for their bulk. I hadn't run more than a few steps for many years, but I rushed out with vigor. The first lap went quite well. It was rather fun to go around the corners rapidly, leaning in sharply against the banking. I rather imagined myself as a racing driver at the Indianapolis Speedway. In the event, I was speeding excessively. I did pass Homerton, but, as I came down off the bank, my legs felt rather peculiar, as did my stomach. I felt now as if I were a prize- fighter who had just absorbed a number of solid blows to the mid-section. I ended up draped, not across the ropes, but on the railing at the lower edge of the track. After being helped back on my legs, it was suggested that I walk briskly, but not run.

We next returned to the basement, this time to a special room with punching bags. One, so-called 'speed bag', was being bounced off an overhead wooden disk at a rate, and with a force, that made it sound as if we were in a shooting gallery. Ralph produced special gloves out of his bag, not the balloon-like boxing gloves I had often seen, but small tight bag gloves. Adorned with these, I attacked a heavy bag, hardly making it move. Homerton demonstrated, giving the bag a smart whack with only a short stroke. The bag swung out, and then thumped me on its return. Not to be deterred, I pretended that it was a personal enemy and flailed away. Ralph and Homerton shouted encouragingly,

"You've got him on the ropes!"

"Just another minute!"

"He's cut over the eye!"

Others came over to watch, and the volume of shouts increased. In a final frenzy of fanaticism I did make the bag move, partly by butting it with my head. Then, as I drew back my right for the coup de grace, the bag swung back and knocked me ignominiously on to my bottom. As I sat recovering my breath, my cap askew, someone shouted,

"He's knocked you down! Show him he can't do that!"

Another man then began to count. I had merely rolled over on to my hands and knees by the count of ten.

Having furnished so much amusement for all present, I straightened my cap and retired to watch the others. Each man was, I felt sure, acting out his own fantasy. He didn't need people shouting around him to see his opponent, cut and reeling, but still dangerous. Ralph moved quickly back and forth, always ducking his head behind his hands as he punched. The punches were explosive and savage, the heavy bag fairly jumping as it clanked the chains by which it was suspended. I wondered how much of this hostility was occasioned by Jane's peculiar attitudes toward sexual matters.

The last stage of the workout commenced when Nickerson came down to wrestle with Ralph. While Homerton moved over to the speed bag, I found another stationary bicycle. There, at any rate, I could put up a reasonably good show.

Ralph and Nickerson started off in a way that seemed fairly ordinary. I had seen wrestling matches at my university, one of my friends having been on the team, and I knew that real wrestling isn't spectacular. Neither of the contestants looked terribly skilled, but there was no lack of energy and enthusiasm. They whacked heads together several times, fell heavily, and struggled mightily. It would have been dangerous to have been anywhere near them. It was only after a few minutes that I realized that they were trying, not to pin each other, but to strangle one another.

The bout ended some time later, fortunately without any conclusive outcome. Both Ralph and Nickerson were laughing as I approached and asked them what they were trying to do. Ralph replied,

"It's not exactly wrestling. We try for submission holds, armlocks or chokes."

I acted as if that were an explanation, and then remembered that Ralph had played football with Arnold Buckmaster in London. It seemed that he would always spend a certain proportion of his time with brutes.

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