Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Charlie the Writer

As I mentioned before, his contemporaries (by which I guess I mean me and a small circle of friends) figured Charlie Horman would be one of the great novelists of our generation. He had shown lots of early promise.  Tragically, as it turned out, his life was cut short at age 31. With Joyce Horman's permission, I may in the future post links here to a sample of his writings (letters, poems, stories, articles, film scripts) which have survived. [Quite a few of Charlie's poems are scattered throughout the earlier posts on this blog from a couple of years ago.]

For now, here's a piece entitled Night (which our mutual friend Bob Gates brought my attention to recently) by the not-quite-15-year-old Charlie. It was published in the Exeter literary magazine, The Pendulum, in April 1957:

CLICK . . . click . . . click—clear, almost metallic--the footsteps ring out through the orange glow of a city night. Already the haze of eight hours' waste material, pumped from factories and homes, smoke-stacks and incinerators, is beginning to dissipate, revealing through the spider-web framework of the el the cold glare of stars. A slight breeze whips my open coat around and starts small whirlpools of dust, cinders, and scraps of paper on the sidewalk, while a street-light sets off shadows, which grey and merge with the surrounding darkness. I pause before a gigantic four-leaf-clover sign, swaying from an iron rod—"The Irish Shamrock Bar." The smell of scotch and beer mingles with that of old sawdust and other subtler odors. The inside is a more-or-less accurate reproduction of an old Irish pub with its oak tables and booths and green decorations. An old man is bent over the bar — a massive, coarse overcoat wrapped around him — a battered hat pulled well down on his grizzled head. He mumbles something gently, and the bar-tender walks over to the corner and cranks an old machine, which begins some vaguely familiar ballad. The el crashes by outside.

On the next block I begin the cross-over to Lexington. Night makes the glass invisible; and so, the brownstones look as though they have been gutted by fire. Occasionally what light there is picks out the jagged edge of a shattered pane. Alleys yawn wide between the buildings—their rusty iron gates giving way to the ramshackle wooden fences of the back yards. A cat screeches somewhere behind one of the brownstones. Down the street a boy moves out of the shadow -- his leather jacket zipped up to his chin, his boots scuffing slowly against the pavement. The distant glow of a street-lamp flashes on something above his right hand —slowly, evenly he is swinging a chain. He's in darkness again, and only the steady scuffing tells me he's still there — still coming. He ambles into the light again, heading directly towards me — then passes. Sudden gusts pick up the litter paper from the street, stir it, and whisk it up past the second story in great whirling columns.

Night becomes day in a dazzling play of neon lights on 86th Street. Six movies flash their current shows — the waiting lines shifting, melting, turning different colors under the brilliant displays. People fill the night. Coming from such emptiness, I feel detached, as though it were a dream. I come up to Woolworth's and go in; for me there is nothing as wonderful as a "5 & 10." I can walk up and down the counters for hours without buying anything. Now it is almost empty — they are about to close. Shining toys stand stacked in trays; cookies are piled in bushel baskets; rugs, pictures, records, books stand out from the jumbled maze of wares. A cute girl in a yellow sweater is walking up the aisle. She goes to Brearley — I've seen her before at some dances, although I don't know her
name. She brushes against me, flushes, and walks faster. Shortly after, the janitor tells me to "get the hell out."

I'm fast becoming depressed by the purposeless walking. On the corner a girl in her late teens sidles up to me in the darkness, then turns away when she sees how young I am. I feel sort of blurry, almost sick; so I turn into a pizza place and find some of my friends from school already there. They re-order, and I join them. We leave together; and, as we walk down the street, honky-tonk bursts from the open door of a cafe; and a murmur of conversation, broken by peals of laughter, drifts up from a basement night club. One boy suggests we go to his house and run some records. A few cokes, a few 33's, a lot of talk — and the party's over. We decide to walk downtown, dropping boys as we go.

Leaving the warmth of the street-light, I turn alone into the shadows of the side street. With the usual good-natured slaps and the passing of weeds, my friends shuffle on. Only the swelling and dying of the little, red pinpricks of light and the larger glow of a pipe shows me where they are. As the footsteps recede, one voice drones on, interrupted only by intermittent bursts of laughter -- finally even that is lost in the night. The darkness still holds its own, but there's a crystal quality in the air -- an expectancy of dawn. This is the breaking point — the no-man's land between night and day. The city is like a deserted theatre. The stage is set for the next performance; and, although the people are gone, the debris remains with an old vino sprawled on the steps of a tenement. My mind no longer finds it easy to sink back into memories of the night. Reality breaks over me. Even the cold is somehow different — deader. The silence becomes oppressive. As I stand there, the shadows reach out — depress me. With a wrench I break the stillness and step forward to fill the vacuum. My footsteps click emptily on the stone pathway leading home.

What is adventure but the split-second of anticipation before something happens. That momentary clutch can be more harrowing or enjoyable than the event itself, and often that anticipation is so strong that when the adventure comes it already seems commonplace. Adventures are exercises of the imagination. The quickening of your pulse when an unknown boy comes out of darkness swinging a chain, or a girl you know vaguely brushes against you as she walks by; or you stand on a deserted corner at four o'clock in the morning, the only person awake in a sleeping city — this in itself is adventure.

[Copyright Joyce Horman}

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