My grandparents’ apartment in Ravenswood was always gloomy. But during the late 1940s it had one bright spot of color: Arizona Highways magazine. This was and is a slick publication with a lot of arty photographs of southwestern landscapes; my grandmother Mary kept a stack of them fanned out on the parlor table. Mary didn’t actually like it much, and my grandfather Clarence never read it (or anything else); it was a gift subscription from Mary’s widowed mother in Tucson. Mary put it on display to impress guests.
But sometimes my mother, Dorothy, her oldest daughter, would sneak into the parlor on lonely afternoons and flip through the back issues. Dorothy was enchanted by the mysterious images of Petrified Forest and Sunset Crater and Painted Desert. They seemed as distant as the moons of Mars.
Dorothy was a shy and unadventurous girl. She was painfully unassertive, easily intimidated, a backbencher in school, a wallflower at dances, ignored by sales clerks and waitresses. She once told me that the most mortifying moment of her life came when she was nine years old, at a movie theater on Western Avenue, during a showing of The Wizard of Oz: it was when the Wicked Witch wrote SURRENDER DOROTHY on the skies above the Emerald City.
But she had a secret hunger to get out. And when she was 21, after putting in two years at a local community college, she made her move: she amazed and impressed her parents with the announcement that she wanted to attend Arizona State University.
She left Chicago at the end of the summer of 1951. Her parents paid for an airline ticket: it was the first time she had ever flown. By the time the plane landed she was in love with the southwestern landscape; a few weeks after her arrival in Tempe she was happier than she’d ever been in her life. Thousands of miles away from anyone she knew, she finally came out of her shell. ASU had a reputation even then as a party school, and it wasn’t long before she had joined a sorority, dyed her hair blond, and started going to dances.
One autumn evening during her second year at school, she and her sorority sisters went to a chaperoned dance at the local air force base. The base was in the desert outside of town–it was an immense military city built during World War II and reactivated to train pilots for Korea. A new rec hall had been spiffed up for the occasion: towering vases of gladioli stood in the corners like sentries, and long folding tables bore phalanxes of diminutive Coke bottles, each with its own carefully bent paper straw.
The band wore dress uniforms and played bland, genial swing, while a girl in a dazzling white frock stood at the microphone and did her best Rosemary Clooney. The cadets were buffed, scrubbed, and excruciatingly polite. They danced with decorous precision; they held the girls firmly by the hand and pressed gently at the small of the back as though each was a fragile statue. Midway through the evening, Dorothy was approached by a cadet who said he was asking for a dance on behalf of somebody else–this way, he explained, she could refuse without embarrassment to either party. She asked who was really asking, and he pointed out a cadet on the other side of the room. He was short and muscular, with a broad pug face, crew-cut black hair, and (as it proved) a courtly manner and an Okie drawl. That was Henry Lee Sandlin.
He was charming. He was witty. He was elaborately solicitous of her opinions. He talked casually and dismissively about his own hardscrabble life: his childhood in the dust bowl as one of eight children raised by a widowed mother; his escape from a small town via a scholarship to a state university and enlistment in the air force. He’d always loved flying, he told her, but immediately added that he had no intention of being a professional pilot; once he was back from Korea he was going to strike out on his own to make his fortune.
During a lull in the dancing they went outside. It was a luminous evening: the sky was brilliant coral, the undulating hills were lavender, and the lights of the base were shimmering constellations of blue and white and rose. Henry told Dorothy that he’d worked on a ranch when he was a teenager; he said teasingly that she probably never thought she’d dance with a cowboy. She replied that she thought cowboys were roughhousers with no manners. Not true, he answered; what about Roy Rogers and Gene Autry?
And then, in a sweet tenor, he began crooning “Happy Trails to You.” That was how my parents met.
When my great-uncle Eugene at last came back to his home in Edwardsville from the war, everybody made a point of telling him how good he looked. They’d all heard he’d been in the hospital with malaria–and everybody knew that malaria took a lot out of you. Eugene had always been tall, gaunt, fidgety, sunken cheeked, and silent; now he was a lot more so. He said nothing whatever about what had happened to him, and if anybody tried to press him he stalked out of the room. Nor did he make any comment about how his sister Hilda had married his old nemesis Marty–nor even about how the two of them had taken over his attic refuge. Instead, he immediately set to work on a home-improvement project. He walled off part of the kitchen to make a new bedroom for himself, and he installed a heavy door that he could lock from the inside.
He went to work again at the refinery. His old job had been guaranteed to him as a veteran, but the company probably would have hired him anyway, no matter how shaky he looked. The end of the war hadn’t reduced the demand for petroleum and petroleum-derived products, as had been expected; sales were accelerating almost exponentially. The refinery had full crews round the clock; it had undergone one major expansion since the war and was already so far beyond design capacity that they were planning the next. They needed every warm body they could find, and Eugene fit the bill.
He volunteered for any task that kept him away from people. His main job was routine maintenance–checking and tweaking the countless generators and relays and circuit breakers, the hundreds of miles of overburdened wiring woven around the company grounds. He often worked the graveyard shift. Hour after hour he’d drive a company pickup truck along the cinder roads by the outer fences. He went out to the complex of pumps by the main highway, where the tanker trucks were lined up; he went to the station by the levee, where the barges gathered on the floodlit river; and at last he went to the new radio-controlled pipeline system that was sending a ceaseless river of refined oil out east toward the Ohio River valley. In the dead hours after midnight he did a slow sweep through the tank farm. This was where the oceans of crude oil coming in from the fields of Kansas and Oklahoma and Texas were stored. The immense round tanks were laid out in neat rows like a new suburban subdivision. Usually Eugene was the only human being walking its streets.
At home he retreated into a deeper solitude. He never went out. He hated movies, he refused to eat at restaurants, and he never showed the slightest interest in women. He couldn’t even be coaxed into having dinner at a neighbor’s house–“We’ve got plenty of food at home,” he’d say. He also gave up his hunting trips–his old companions August and Frank had died, and besides, after the war he couldn’t bear to hold a gun any longer. (He still kept hunting dogs, though, and he built them elaborate houses in the backyard.) The only person he ever confided in was his brother-in-law Cecil, who sometimes visited from his farm in Bourbonnais. Long afterward, Cecil said that Eugene never once spoke about the war, but that when he got upset you could just tell his mind was going straight back to some secret hell he’d found there. Nobody else ever got close enough to Eugene to confirm that. “After he got out of the hospital,” Dorothy says, “he never talked to any of us again.”
His only enthusiasm was gardening. He’d taken it up in the hospital at the advice of one of his doctors; he’d passed his last few months there tending the flower beds along the hospital walkways and around the parking lot. Once he got home he started reading seed catalogs and ordering all manner of exotic bulbs, which he tended with obsessive care. Each year he appropriated more and more of the yard, and gradually he built up a tangled, complicated, fantastical labyrinth of flower beds and stakes and trellises that only he could follow. Day after day, even in the hottest weather, he withdrew into its sunlit depths, where he worked for hours in absolute silence.
He became something of a legend himself–the gaunt old recluse with his mysterious comings and goings. One of his neighbors told me this story: she happened to have been standing by the back fence of his house on a summer evening as a freight train trundled past. A figure jumped down from the caboose and sauntered along the alley. It wasn’t until the figure passed her by that she recognized Eugene. He didn’t say a word. He smiled, held a finger to his lips, then turned in through the back gate and vanished into the house.
In those days Eugene’s mother, Agnes, had her life arranged exactly the way she wanted it. Almost nothing about her house had changed since she’d become a widow more than 20 years before: the overstuffed armchairs and blackened-mahogany headboards, the sun-faded floral wallpaper and fossilized lace doilies–they were all exactly as they’d been in her husband Bosh’s time. She still sat each day in her rocking chair in the bay window. Eugene had planted African violets right outside, and their tendrils wound around her view like an illuminated border.
Sometimes she laughed or sang to herself, or carried on long conversations with someone unseen. When people heard her they said, “She’s talking to Bosh.”
She doted on Eugene and refused to admit there was anything wrong with him. She was just as indulgent toward her oldest son, Clarence, who visited once a year from Chicago and liked to make fun of the house for how primitive it was. One time he arrived with a gift for the outhouse, an ornately carved sign he’d made that read “Johnny’s Place.” Agnes hated indecent jokes–but in deference to her son’s sense of humor she insisted on nailing it to the outhouse door, and it stayed there for years.
The only thorn in her side was her son-in-law Marty. Years had passed, and he still made no sign of moving out. He brought home a steady paycheck from the refinery, but he paid no rent and kicked in for the daily expenses only at rare intervals and with a great show of reluctant magnanimity. His main contribution to the household was a set of flatware he said he’d stolen during the war from an admiral’s mess–it was made of steel and was stamped USN. He never did any chores. He said that was women’s work, and besides, he was getting too old and creaky. He expected Hilda, Helen, and Agnes to wait on him–though only Hilda obliged. He installed himself in one of the easy chairs in the parlor, despite the intense disapproval of Helen, who thought the parlor should be reserved for guests. But Agnes tolerated his presence there. She took it as a tacit admission that he really was a guest and not a permanent resident–and besides, it served as a quarantine for his cheap, foul cigars.
During Agnes’s last years she found another nemesis: the new minister at her church. She’d loved the old hotheaded minister; his replacement was a drooping, soft-spoken, and perpetually troubled young man who condemned no one and kept hinting that his flock should examine the society of Edwardsville for signs of creeping social injustice. Agnes had never heard such nonsense, and desperate for that old hellfire she began reading the Bible for herself. She was particularly drawn to Revelation. As she balefully regarded Marty’s comings and goings, she found it soothing to talk about the skies peeling back to reveal the fury of the Lamb, on the Lord’s Day when all the secrets of the human heart would stand revealed.
Agnes died in the spring of 1954. She was the first of the Sehnerts to die in a hospital and the last to be buried in Edwardsville’s ancient, crowded Catholic cemetery–there was just room for her beside Bosh, amid the jostle of beseeching angels and grinning cherubs. Once she was gone, her children tore up the house. They walled off a corner of the kitchen next to Eugene’s room and had a proper bathroom put in, with a toilet, a sink, and a shower. They put faucets with running water in the kitchen sink. They had trenches dug across the front yard to connect the plumbing to the water supply and the sewer system. They installed a phone on the kitchen wall and another in the dining room. They replaced the coal furnace with a gas furnace. They knocked down the outhouse and put up a garage. They brought home a television and put it beside the enormous old radio in the parlor, and in the evenings they watched it through the doorway as they sat at the dining room table.
Helen finally unbent a little. She rid the master bedroom of Agnes’s possessions and took the big old bed entirely for herself. She brought home her movie magazines and displayed them brazenly on the dining room sideboard. She had her hair done at a beauty parlor downtown. She began taking vacations away from home, sometimes traveling with a church group, sometimes taking bus tours with her friend Irene, who lived across the train tracks on First Avenue. And at the age of 44, she took driving lessons and bought herself a car.
Chicago’s Municipal Airport, where Clarence worked, had been renamed Midway, after the famous naval victory, and by the 1950s Midway had become a global byword for confusion, overcrowding, and misdirection. It was the busiest airport in the world, and the mail room had swelled into a spilling empire of overwork that left Clarence exhausted and frazzled at the end of each shift. Then, too, he’d developed a racking cough, which he blamed on the new jet exhausts rather than his cigarette habit. So once his children were all off to college, Clarence retired. He sold the old brownstone in Ravenswood, bought a sleek Gulfstream trailer, and went on the road.
For several years he and Mary circled the country in lazily unwinding spirals. They stayed at trailer parks and motor courts, campgrounds and tourist attractions and national parks. They rented summer cabins in Door County overlooking Lake Michigan and spent winters exploring the Florida Keys, parking their trailer on any of the countless deserted beaches and staying weeks there undisturbed. Wherever they went, Clarence kept to a comfortable routine: he got up each day before sunrise and set out on his own, hiking or hunting or boating or fishing, and he wouldn’t come back until sunset.
Mary was left behind at the campsite, restless and bored. As a kind of self-preservation she took up painting. She went about it with her usual practicality: she bought a string of how-to books and carefully followed their lessons. At each stop she’d get out her easel and busy herself with small, rigorously proportioned studies of mountains and lakes and forested bays and quaint roadside diners and mast-bristling, bird-swarming quays. At first she gave the paintings away, but soon she thought well enough of them to start selling them. She set up displays alongside the Gulfstream at trailer courts and tourist sites and did a brisk business everywhere they went.
On some of their travels they were joined by a new companion: Helen. She would take a bus from Edwardsville to a nearby town (she was afraid to drive long distances by herself), and Clarence would pick her up and bring her to their campsite. After he went tromping off in the morning, the two women would pass the day beneath the shade of the trailer canopy. Helen was good company because she was thoroughly uninterested in nature and didn’t need conversation; she was content to read her magazines while Mary painted.
One time Helen was in a confiding mood and told Mary a secret from her past: the story about her brief flirtation before the war, and about the oath she’d sworn to Agnes to never marry. If she’d been looking for sympathy, she’d picked the wrong person. Mary was incredulous; she briskly told Helen to find some good, steady, reliable, dull man to settle down with–and pronto. That made Helen laugh. There were no men for her, she’d say. If there ever had been any they’d died in the war, and now she was too old. But then she got a sly, secretive look on her face. She said there was someone she liked, but that was her business and nobody would ever guess who it was.
Edwardsville’s first shopping center was built on Troy Road just south of Second Avenue. It was an immense lagoon of asphalt surrounding an archipelago of shiny new storefronts: a shoe store, a haberdasher, a small appliance store, a store selling ladies’ handbags. The anchor store was an enormous supermarket stocked with the latest frozen dinners and canned vegetables and plastic-wrapped meats. Nobody in town had ever seen anything like it, and it immediately drove all the corner groceries in the neighborhood out of business.
Outside the supermarket doors was a corral of shopping carts, and next to it were a couple of benches. That was where the old crowd of regulars from Wehrle’s grocery gathered on weekend afternoons. Just about the whole town filed past them sooner or later, to receive their unsparing judgment. Marty cast himself as a kind of unofficial concierge: every time the sliding doors puffed open and a woman emerged, he’d immediately hop up and offer to carry her bags. As he bustled with her out into the parking lot he’d pay courtly compliments, or tell off-color jokes, or hint at lurid gossip about a neighbor–anything to provoke a blush and an unstated invitation to continue. As they paused before the open car trunk, grocery bags dangling precariously, he’d make a cryptic reference to his own sad situation, and if he got the slightest encouragement he’d launch into the whole story. That was how the whole town learned about his unhappy marriage.
According to Marty it was simple. Hilda had been all gung ho to get married, but the truth was that she didn’t like sex. So what was he to do? He was a normal man with normal needs. Did anybody appreciate what kind of strength he needed to continue on in this impossible situation? He declared that there were times when he wanted to walk down the train tracks into the woods and blow his brains out.
He repeated his story, in one version or another, to almost every woman he met. Eventually, one rainy Saturday afternoon when he was stuck at home, he told it to Helen. They were alone in the house at the time, and after he got to the part about suicide he grabbed her and tried to kiss her. She slapped him and struggled free. He laughed as though it was just a joke. Helen was left so enraged that a few days later she broke down and talked to Hilda about it. Or she tried to. Almost as soon as she started, Hilda cut her off and said she didn’t need to hear any more. She already knew what Marty was like.
Next week: One Last Parade.
Previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.