|Texts from If Night Is Falling
| Memoir by John Taylor
Et par ailleurs toutes les choses revêtaient en même temps que leur voile de
douceur une étrange ambiguïté. En même temps qu’elles projetaient des
images nettes et parfois ironiques, elles étaient toutes prêtes à se changer
(“In addition, all things donned their gentle veils at the same time as a strange
ambiguity. Even as they gave forth clear-cut and occasionally ironic images of
themselves, they were readying to become ashes.”)
— Jean Follain, Canisy
The steep slope
. . . leading down to the Urbandale Avenue sidewalk from our kindergarten
playground. We ran down the slope too fast for comfort, rolled over like barrels
all the way to the bottom, or somersaulted down. All the time giggling. We
trekked up it when arriving in the morning.
On the way to kindergarten, I would dirty my hands not far from there,
making mudballs near an untended faucet and throwing them at trees. Miss
Goad noted this on my first report card: Johnny’s hands are unclean when he
comes to school. My mother was furious, not at me, but rather at Miss Goad.
Her anger lasted for years.
Yet my hands really were dirty and I must have confessed everything. Must
I remember Miss Goad not wanting me to read aloud (when I already
could read, or at least thought I could).
I remember finishing last in a class race. (I was still convalescing.)
I remember a large light-green room with big windows and a very high
The next year, I changed schools, not because Miss Goad would have
remained my teacher, but rather because Riley had only a kindergarten and a
first grade. There was little sense in continuing. At Byron Rice, my first-grade
teacher was Miss Hamilton.
We remember so little from the ages of four, five, six. Years later,
without really looking over at Riley, I would often ride past it on my bike, on
my way to Whitey’s Barbershop or simply on some long solitary exploration—
down 54th Street, for example (then right on Sheridan, back to Urbandale
Avenue via 56th). But one day I stopped. I looked. Riley was gone. The
vacant lot now covered with high weeds was no longer (or perhaps had never
been) a hill.
They were fourth-generation
. . . direct descendants of a famous Wild West sheriff-outlaw (the two
professions often coincided). The family lived in a white clapboard house on
what was then the southwestern edge of town. The two brothers—the elder
of whom bore his great-grandfather’s exact name followed by a IV—were the
children of a friend of a friend of my mother’s.
My mother and I had been invited for a long sunny afternoon, along with
my mother’s friend and her six-year-old boy. We picked them up on our long
trip across town. When we arrived, the boy hopped out of the back of the car,
ran to the screen door, yanked it open, dashed upstairs with an aplomb that
made me think that he had often played there. The mother and her two sons
greeted us on the front porch. The other boy was called back down. Soon the
four of us were sent around the house to play in the backyard.
Compared to ours, the sheriff-outlaw’s backyard was longer and wider,
but especially different in other ways. It was like a field. The grass had grown
higher; the blades were broader, rougher; the entire lawn was weedier. Would
I meet the famous gunman on this prairie? Was he perhaps working in that old
tool shack that needed a coat of paint? (But hadn’t he been gunned down, in
that book that I had checked out of the library?) I was nervous about these
doubts, and about the prestige of the brothers’ family name. The brothers
asked me to serve the volleyball. The ball arched over the net, into the luminous
blue of the sky.
Later we hunted for shed bullsnake skins amidst the stubble of a
neighboring cornfield. We found one that was over three feet long. I hoped that
I could keep it, but it was the other boy who had spotted it first. In the bedroom
that the brothers shared, several others were pinned to the wall.
The violets that my mother
. . . would plant near the front steps did not always sprout back up again
every spring, perhaps because of winters when the temperature fell to twenty
below zero, more probably because she could not resist picking the delicate
purple flowers—almost as soon as she had planted a new bunch—and make
a small bouquet.
She would place the bouquet in a tiny porcelain flask reserved for this
annual occasion. The flask would remain on the kitchen table until the violets
wilted—so quickly. Violets are your grandfather’s favorite flower, she
The gentle curve
. . . of the at least mile-long Urbandale Avenue intrigued me; that is, in
comparison to the rectilinear grid-like arrangement of nearly all the other streets.
Urbandale Avenue formed one border of my territory, defined as well by
44th Street, 49th Street, Hickman Road. Crossing any of these streets by foot
or bike was forbidden. But would I be breaking my mother’s rule if I rode my
bike down, not across, Urbandale Avenue? This question remained unanswered
as I sped down the slight curve between 44th and 49th, keeping near the outer
curb because even back then the avenue was rather busy.
The very day
. . . school let out, Paul and I decided to build a tree house.
But where in the neighborhood could one be built? We had a pin oak out
back that was still too short. Our elms had trunks too thick to climb, branches
too high to reach. The river birch out front had slender, brittle branches.
We gave up.
We climbed the Cellinis’ maple tree across the street, sat for a long while
on a branch hidden high up in the leaves.
I knew only Angie
. . . (Angelo), as far as Spanish speakers went. He was the Cuban cobbler
who repaired our shoes. He had fled his homeland, so I vaguely understood.
Yet Angie always spoke English in his shop on Beaver Avenue, even when
he was mentioning something to his wife (who would polish our shoes diligently
once her husband had re-sewn or re-soled them). Of course, as he was chatting
with my father, strange sounds would punctuate the broken English.
The shop smelled pungently of shoe polish and old leather, as do all cobbler
shops. But at the time, I associated this smell only with Angie’s.
Suddenly—I was six, in the first grade at Byron Rice—an educational
experiment took place. Spanish lessons were broadcast to us every day
from the loudspeaker located just above our classroom door. We repeated
words in unison: mañana, buenos días, hasta la vista, and the like, but at
that age you make rapid progress.
It was the liveliest part of the day.
We would sing Mexican songs, too.
And soon Miss Hamilton let us have a Mexican party, with sombreros
and—suspended from the ceiling—a papier-mâché donkey stuffed with candy.
We beat on it with sticks. It burst open like a thundershower.
Then for no reason that I can remember, the lessons ended.
It was a makeshift envelope
. . . with a 45’ Beatles record inside. I Wanna Hold Your Hand,
I had placed a sheet of cardboard on each side of the record, then folded
a large sheet of light-blue construction paper around the record and the
cardboard protection. Thickly scotch-taped this more or less square envelope
wherever it was necessary. Written in dark-blue ink a first name, a street number,
a street name, the initials of the city (D. M.). That was all you needed back then.
I wound string around the envelope twice, then twice up and down (at a right
angle to the first direction), and finally tied the string in several square knots. I
used a five-cent stamp, featuring Dante Alighieri. (I’m cheating by turning to
the 1965 page in my old stamp album.)
The following is true: I bought the record at George’s Super Valu with
my allowance, wrapped it up more or less as I have described above, kept it
hidden in the upper left-hand corner of my bedroom closet, then a few days
later I rode my bicycle to the Beaverdale Post Office, bought a stamp (perhaps
the dark-blue and red Statue of Liberty?), felt increasingly embarrassed as I
licked the stamp and placed it on the envelope, hesitated, felt even more
embarrassed when I finally handed it to the enormous man who worked behind
the counter. He examined the address, smiled to himself (his double chin
perfectly immobile) and, without a word, turned and dropped the envelope into
a large gunnysack propped open behind him.
That wiffle-ball golf game
. . . on the grounds of a mansion on Fleur Drive—pronounced not as in
French, but rather “Floo-er.” My acquaintance had invited me to a party
otherwise attended by at least a dozen of his high-school buddies. The eighteen
holes had been staked out neatly with tiny red flags. Doglegs, mock sand traps,
water hazards—the course wound around the house, into and out of a stand of
oak, with a finish on the front lawn near the porch with its two white columns.
Around each hole there was a circle or oval of grass mowed very short: the green.
Later, after the funmaking (during which I played seriously, silently, not
knowing any of the other players), we were led into the mansion through the
servants’ entrance. I found myself on a landing from which narrow stairs
spiraled down into a basement (or perhaps a vast wine cellar), while wider
stairs spiraled upwards. We ascended. We were soon guided past closed
doors, through dark-paneled carpeted hallways whose ceiling spotlights
illuminated old, rather small, oil paintings. A few portraits hung there—I
lingered—but above all there were landscapes from the European Romantic
period: lush pastures, grazing sheep, gentle waterfalls, ancient ruins, Greco-
Roman deities relaxing alongside streams. Why do I think now that one of
those paintings was by Corot? My mother had told me about the father’s
fabulous collection, which she herself had never seen.
Refreshments were served.
Though I forget what happened then, and how the party ended, and how
I left (whether my mother picked me up or whether I drove home in our blue
Impala), I do remember that my acquaintance’s family name matched that of
a hero of legends and epic poems. A courageous hero, who rode off on an
endless quest. And I remember that, a few months after that ultimately not
unpleasant wiffle-ball golf game, my acquaintance’s father—the art collector,
who was not present at the party—committed suicide.
There were cobwebs
. . . between the rusted paint cans that stood on a back corner shelf of
the garage. Ten or twelve summers earlier, we had given two thick coats
of brown paint to the backyard picket fence. My father and I had begun on
Nana’s side, early in the morning (the privet hedge must not yet have been
planted); then we continued, after lunch, with the stretch on Ruth and Ernie’s
side. Picket after picket: the four sides of each picket, the triangular point,
as well as the long narrow cross boards which ran parallel to the ground and
to which the pickets were nailed. Paint the heads of those nails, my father
had reminded me.
I watched brown paint dripping off my brush, falling onto the blades of
I was sweating, mopped my forehead with the back of my paint-spotted
sleeve. (I would see my face later, in the bathroom mirror.) A line of black
ants, one trapped in the goo, the others now avoiding him, left their comrade
Later Bud, Nancy’s father, appeared with his transistor radio. Like the
day before, he helped us finish the back fence, which divided their lawn from
ours. The last goddamned pickets, he announced, laughing. Yes, the work
would soon be over, as the sun went down on a Sunday in mid-July.
Do you want me to save these cans? I yelled from inside the garage.
My father was standing on the driveway. No, he shouted back. Yet as if he
had a doubt, he looked in at me again, at the rusted paint cans aligned on the
shelf, near a ray of dim light coming through the dusty garage window. No, go
ahead, throw them out, he finally replied, making a gesture of riddance with the
back of his hand. We were soon going to move into another house, another
John Taylor has lived in France since 1977. He is the author of four collections
of stories and short prose: The Presence of Things Past (Story Line Press,
1992), Mysteries of the Body and the Mind (Story Line Press, 1998), The
World As It Is (Cedar Hill, 1998), and Some Sort of Joy (Cedar Hill, 2000).
His latest book is The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos Books, 2004), a
collection of prose and poetry based on the famous tapestries in the Château of
Angers. He is also the author of Paths to Contemporary French Literature
(Transaction, 2004; 2007), a two-volume collection of his essays on numerous
French poets and writers. As a critic of French and, more generally, European
literature, Taylor is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement,
Context, The Antioch Review (in which he writes the “Poetry Today” column),
The Yale Review, Chelsea, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and other
On the texts from If Night Is Falling:
One early morning in September, 2003, I awoke with the impression that
I had just described, while dreaming, a hummingbird hovering over a
blossom in the backyard of our first family home in Des Moines, on 48th
Street. When I opened my eyes, the words were out there in front of me,
as it were, and no longer merely in my mind; they seemed attainable,
repeatable, for an instant; they vanished. I struggled to remember them,
especially the first sentence, and was left with this fragmentary and
rather alembicated beginning of a question, which was also a sort of
conclusion: “Whose words were they that. . . ?”
During the next several weeks, I would often similarly awake with more
or less written dreams involving common scenes from my childhood in
the 1950s and a few from the next decade. (I should add that I have
lived in France since 1977.) These dreams, or at least what I could
remember of them upon awakening, what I could preserve of their prose,
were otherwise mostly incomplete or truncated narratives, without
eventful beginnings or endings, or both. They were sketches of
happenstances or—more often—summaries of routines that had
forever disappeared, yet they were always articulated into two, three,
four, five, or even more sentences. When jotting them down on a piece
of scratch paper that I was soon keeping near my bed, and later revising
them slightly, I would try to refrain from adding other details that I
could also recall from my past—details, however reliable or verifiable,
that remained outside the boundaries of the dreams. Slowly but surely
a book of short prose emerged from these strange, ever brief,
homecomings at dawn. The dreams stopped occurring in late November
or early December.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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Valley Review are retained
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