Court Street

The mood of the Court Street trees is heavy with the homes, some of which can be seen from below, staring north‑ ward from the bluff out of tired windows.  Among their lawns, shaded by their trees and their pasts, these houses do not wholly despair, but they have reason to.  Their doors seem closed, their windows empty and still, and they appear to meditate upon longer, more intricate and more pathetic pasts than any of them could possibly have accumulated.  The vital‑ ity of these houses, compounded of memory and discontent, is inconsiderable when compared with their resignation. Even though it would not be statistically accurate, you must think of all the houses in Court Street in terms of high‑ceilinged rooms with the shades drawn in late afternoon in summer, or with the shades up but the windows closed in a windy, moonlit night in winter.  And you must be alone in the room and in the house.  It makes no difference anymore who lives in these houses, or what they do; they cannot change this nature, which has been accepted and expressed by the trees of Court Street.

‑‑Walter VanTilburg Clark, The City of Trembling Leaves

That’s Court Street in Reno, Nevada, according to Walter VanTilburg Clark. Court Street starts at Virginia, by the courthouse and runs west a half mile at most. You have seen the Washoe County courthouse. It is in The Misfits and in Desert Hearts. If other movies have been filmed in and around Reno, it is probably in them too. Court street is about a block south of the river. It runs west across Arlington and runs into California, which continues westward along the rim of the bench above the Truckee River.

Court Street figures large in The City of Trembling Leaves. The City of Trembling Leaves is Clark’s least known novel. He is modestly famous for The Oxbow Incident, The Track of the Cat, and short stories like “The Portable Phonograph” and “Hook.” The City of Trembling Leaves is nothing like them. They are another story for another time.

Books have a way of not staying between their covers. Our experience informs our reading. Our reading informs our experience. And sometimes, the most important thing about a book is what remains long after the reading is done. For example, only one scene of Tale of Two Cities persists in my memory after over 45 years.  Virtually all narrative incidents are forgotten. It is a warm summer night in — I think — Dr. Manette’s apartment. The lamps have not been lit; those in the room are sitting there in the dark. Pedestrians pass under the window, their footsteps clearly audible in the quiet.  It begins to rain, first a few drops, then harder. The wind comes up and the curtains blow in the wind. The passers-by can be heard to pick up the pace, now hurrying toward their destinations to get out of the rain. And then there is only the sound of the rain in the empty street. Perhaps if I were to re-read the book or that scene at least, I would discover it is nothing like that. That is not the point. Whether I remember it accurately or not, that is the picture in my head.

I don’t remember much of what actually happens in The City of Trembling Leaves. Much of the narrative has receded leaving disconnected scenes, like islands, like the pinnacles that rise out of Pyramid Lake. And a similar thing has happened to Reno as it recedes into the past. Any sense of the flow of time is lost, and only scenes remain, images, foreshortened in time as if seen through a long lens.

The passage above is an example. I see it vividly, but not as a scene in the book. In fact, I see it as two different pictures. In one, I am in the living room of the Bartlett house on Court Street, and I can call up either season. The room is remembered. But I do not believe I was ever in that room alone; certainly I never actually saw what I picture. The picture is not a memory, but parts of it are from memory. The other picture is of the living room of the apartment on Ralston, the other side of the river, the other side of Arlington, a year later after I had read The City of Trembling Leaves. In this picture, it is a bright, windy afternoon in early spring.

With the help of my Reno city map I have found 232 Court Street.  I park Dr. Modesto, my green ’54 Chevy, across the street and look at the Room to Let classified once more to be sure that  this is indeed the place.  It is after dark.  The porch light is on, but otherwise the house looks dark.  As near as I can tell, the house is a large Queen Anne, with peaks, gables, turrets, and verandas, all in need of paint.  It is south of the river just at the edge of downtown in a neighborhood that is going commercial.   The Arlington Towers, a high‑rise apartment building, is a block to the north, just off the bench.  Directly across the street are other large old  houses, once some of Reno’s prestige addresses.   After all, Court Street figures large in The City of Trembling Leaves (which I have not yet read).  But next door is a building of law offices, and a block to the east is the Red Carpet Motor Inn with its huge revolving neon sign on the roof.

The place doesn’t look very prosperous, or very awake either.  But it is really not so late, the porch light is on, and now there seem to be other lights on too, dim and behind blinds.  So, news­ paper in hand, I cross the street, step up on the curb beside the  stone hitching post, cross the sidewalk, and…something changes.   Oh, it’s still Reno, September, l963.  There’s still that damned neon topknot on the high-rise bank building.  There’s still the traffic roaring by on Arlington Street a block to the west.  But as soon as I am in the yard, everything is different ‑‑ older and somehow removed.  The place has about it a look, to steal a line from Truman Capote, that is not ordinary.  This is an impression that will not diminish during  the next four years that I will live here off and on, but that  will often prove disorienting, giving all experience a feeling of  unreality.  Sounds like The Twilight Zone doesn’t it?  That’s just how it feels.  Welcome.

I am facing a massive oak door that frames a thick pane of  bevelled plate glass.  I push the button and the doorbell grinds  somewhere deep in the house.  I wait, ring again, wait again, and  am about to leave.  And now here comes someone through the dimly  lit front hall and through the entry vestibule.  She opens the  door a few inches and stands in shadow.  “Yes?”

“You have a room for rent?”

“Yes.  Sixty dollars.  Can you pay that?”

“Private bath?”


“May I see it?”

The landlady opens the door wider and now I can see her clearly in the porchlight. She is of less than medium height, but that may owe to her stooped posture.  She is none too steady on her feet. Her hair is nearly white, coarse, straw‑like, unkempt.   Her face is full of lines and sags. The fingers of her right hand are stained yellow.  Her lipstick is applied heavily and almost  congruent with her mouth.  Her blouse and slacks must have been very expensive when they were in style in the forties, but are now the worse for wear.  Her voice is deep and husky and sounds like whisky.

“Are you from the university?”

“I’m a TA in the English department.”

“Do you know Bob Gorrell?”

“My advisor.”

“You look like a little professor.  Well, come in.  Don’t stand there.  You’re keeping me from my game.”

The vestibule is lit by clear glass bulb with a filament that glows dull orange.  The ceiling fixture in the stair hall holds a single low‑watt bulb.  The house smells not dirty, but of age and long closure ‑‑ dust, plaster, wool, tobacco smoke, garlic. The landlady grows more talkative, her tongue well‑oiled.  She wants to know about me, where I am from, who is still at the university.  This last I don’t know; I’m new and the term is still beginning.   As I answer politely but noncommitally, put a little on my guard by her rapid shift from abruptness to garrulousness, and as she chats on about rooms and renters and Reno ‑‑ always who and what was ‑‑ I look about the hall and into the rooms that open off it.  There is a small bath or half bath under the stairs. Just past the stairs, a door opens into the dining room.  I can see one end of a massive oak trestle table piled high with bundles of paper bound with string and with ribbon, piled so high that some of the bun­dles have rolled off onto the floor.  Directly across the hall, at the very front of the house, through wide pocket doors is an office.  The room is large, but it is completely dominated by the largest oak desk I have ever seen.  It must be at least six feet square.  It sits in the middle of the room, a swivel chair behind it so that its owner would be facing anyone who entered.  Except for a blotter and a brass lamp, the desk is completely bare, not so much as a memo pad.  “That’s The Judge’s desk and his office.”

Two doors open into the living room, one from the end of the hall, and one from The Judge’s office.  Through that door I can  see an overstuffed chair in front of a darkened television.   Across the chair’s arms, in a pool of light from a floor lamp, the only light burning in that room, is a lap board  with a solitaire  game in progress upon it.  Beside the chair, on a stand, are a half‑empty fifth of Jim Beam and a water tumbler.

“I guess you’ll do.  The room is on the second floor at the back of the house.” The stairs rise in darkness, turning twice.   Miss Bartlett wobbles slightly as she leads the way.  The upstairs hall runs the length of the house past several closed doors and a narrow back stair that plunges steeply into total darkness.  Elec­tricity is a precious commodity here; that or the occupants find light lethal.

The room is enormous, perhaps sixteen by twenty feet.  It seems to comprise an entire back wing of the house.  The smell here is of dust and the day’s heat, old wood scorched for twenty  thousand days by the sun.  There are an iron bed, an age‑cracked leather rocker with ottoman, a desk, smaller than The Judge’s but substantial, and a wicker loveseat.  The bath is in two install­ments: a half‑bath that gives new meaning to “water closet” and a white sheet­metal shower stall in a corner of the bedroom.  The floor sags alarmingly toward the back of the house, the bed sags  alarmingly in the middle, and the plaster sags most alarmingly of  all on either side of a great crack that runs the width of the  ceiling.

This room is a disaster.  It’s not The Twilight Zone, it’s The Addams Family.  Perhaps I should move in with Bill Lutz after all.  He seems a pleasant fellow, a kindred midwesterner with a spacious newly remodeled basement that would cost no more than this.  And yet, as I look out the small casement window on the  east wall and see the Red Carpet sign revolving suspended in the  night sky, downtown Reno and the University and Bill Lutz, for  that matter, seem remote and unreal.

“…I said do you cook?”

“Well, I…”  This is awkward.  I had planned to sneak in a hot‑plate.

“I have a hotplate you may use.  But you must promise to keep it hidden.  We wouldn’t want the fire marshal to see it if he should visit, would we?” Her face folds and squinches in a  conspiratorial wink.

“I think you’ll like it here.  We’ll get along famously.  I suppose you have books?”

“A back seat full.”

“Well, tomorrow I will show you where there are bricks and boards in the basement.  You can make shelves.  It’s been so long since we’ve had a real scholar in this room.  Robert Caples used  this room for a studio just after he left home.  I can tell you’ve never heard of him, have you?  He’s Lawrence Black in The City of  Trembling Leaves. Those are mostly real people in that book.   Someday I’ll tell you who’s who. (She never did.) You know Walter Clark used to sit at the table on the terrace and write when he was a student at the University.  Professor Clark and The Judge were best friends. You might like to sit there and study in nice weather.  I’ll help you find the chair tomorrow.  I’ll like to look out the window and see a scholar on the terrace.”

I am looking at a great splotchy spider of scorched wallpaper radiating on all directions from the wall outlet.  This room is a disaster.  It is The Twilight Zone.  It is The Addams Family.  It is grade B Hammer Films.  Miss Bartlett seems a strange lady.  It could be a real mistake to get involved with such a place.

“Will you take a check on my home bank?”

It is six AM the following day.  I am not ready to be awakened.  In fact, I have not slept long.  Moving in, bringing load after load of luggage and books up the back stairs took until well after midnight.  I am awakened by a sharp hammering on my door.  Before I can respond, it is flung open.  There stands a swarthy little man, his face all mouth and great black eyes.  He wears a white terry robe and a white shower cap.  Over his arm is draped a white towel and in his hand is a white bar of soap.   “Good morning! Good morning! I take my shower now.  Just stay as you are. You shan’t bother me.”  He showers long and loudly, singing some ditty in an unknown tongue.  I try to think of some­ thing witty or devastating to say: “Leave some hot water in the  faucet, willya?” Or, “Get the f___ out of my room, A______!” But anything I can think of to say seems hopelessly flat, weak, ineffectual in the face of these circumstances.

Presently, the water goes off and he steps forth to dry.  And  what is the socially acceptable way to respond to a naked Hindu in  one’s room?  Make small talk?  Ignore him?  Stare at him intently so that he will become uncomfortable and go away?  I stare at the  ceiling and ignore him until he leaves.  “Ta‑ta, old chap, see you tomorrow!” I am still pondering this turn of events when there is another sharp rap and the door is flung open by another little  man, swarthier, scrawnier, and more outlandish than the first.”Nevertheless, hello!”

“Now look, this is my room!”

“Quite alright, we don’t mind.”

I ignore him too, and by‑and‑by he goes away.

Later that morning, I confront Miss Bartlett. She is sitting in the overstuffed chair, a fresh game of solitaire on the lapboard.  Her cigarette is clamped between her extended index and middle  fingers as she uses her thumb and remaining fingers to lift and  turn cards.  The whiskey bottle and glass are gone, replaced by a mug of vile coffee and a Danish, lightly nibbled at one corner.

“Miss Bartlett, I have a problem with my room.  I need a key  for it, today.’

She turns her head slowly, carefully.  “Oh, what’s the  matter?You just tell me all about it now.”

And I do.

“That was Mahdu and Gamel.  They live on the third floor.  They are just so charming.”


“But that was rude of them.  There hasn’t been anyone in your room for some time and they have had the use of the shower.  I’ll find you a key.”

The next morning, the door is locked.  M and G pound long and violently.  They stamp on the floor. They beseech. They imprecate.   I harden my heart against them and do not let them in.  The following day they do the same.  And then no more.  By the end of the week, they have moved out.  I have read that a devout Hindu  will not bathe in standing water, considering it unclean.  I feel a little bad.  This house doesn’t look very prosperous.  I suspect that roomers are both necessary and few.

Sometimes this house can be a little bit frightening.  My guests comment on the rear entrance.  I park at the back of the house just off the alley.  The back door opens into a large store­ room that is the downstairs counterpart of my room, which opens into the kitchen, which gives access to the back stairs.  The back room is very cluttered, the kitchen scarcely less so, and the back  stairs are narrow and steep, without a handrail.  At night all this is seldom lit.  The light switches are not ready to hand by the doorways, so I do not bother with them;  I traverse the two  rooms and the stairs in total darkness.  Miss Bartlett prefers that my guests come to the back door in the evening. When the doorbell disturbs her television, her solitaire, her tippling, her reveries, she is often annoyed and surly.  So I have scrounged a  solution  out of the basement: a chain of elephant bells which I  have secured to the casing of the east window with a spring; a  length of weighted cord to hang down to the stoop, and I have my  own doorbell.  So, when I have company, I can lean out my window to see who rings.  Then I go down and lead my guest up through the darkness.  “It’s so creepy!  Aren’t you scared groping around in the dark?”  Not really.  I do wonder, though, that I have never had to grope in the dark here.  From the very first night, my feet have known the way through these labarynthine spaces.

But I do have a problem with the front hall downstairs.  If I have been out on foot, or if I come in after midnight so that the back door is bolted and chained, I quietly let myself in the front door with my key.  As I start up the stairs, I feel The Judge watching me.  I know what he looks like from the Caples pencil  portrait that hangs in the living room above Miss Bartlett’s chair  ‑‑ a sixtyish, plumpish man in a stiff black suit, bald on the  pate but with a luxuriant white fringe hanging in loose curls over  his collar.  He sits in the swivel chair behind his great desk. He is in his shirtleeves tonight and wears a string tie.  The brass lamp pools light on a litter of folders and loose papers.  His finger marks a place in a book.  He stares at me intently.  No, that’s absurd of course; The Judge has been dead for fifteen years.  But I must always look to be sure he is not there.

I am sitting in the leather rocker reading late on an October night.  The wind rises. It has insinuated itself into the house  through a thousand cracks between shrunken boards.  My door rattles and window shashes bang in their casings.   It is raining somewhere not far out of town.  Even with the house closed, I can smell sage.  Now a light spit of rain and with it the smell of freshly wet dust.  The wind honks bumptuously under the eaves.   The old house groans like a thing reminded of time.  The lights dim ‑‑ or the room expands, the walls drawing back and becoming tenuous.  The city has gone away in this wild wind and sagebrush  is right up to the porch.  I see the Red Carpet Inn’s revolving sign out the window and it is comforting.  The wind pulls the house against its moorings in time, and only the neon holds this moment to Now.  The wind honks bumptuously under the eaves, announcing itself with another spit of rain.

Two small casement windows face the east, one in the bath room and one above the wicker loveseat.  Both look down into the walled and gated parking lot of the office building next door.  I often make note of what is parked there, for the lawyers and their clients drive some swanky and interesting cars:  a Jaguar, a Corvette, a couple of Mercedes, an Alvis.  On Saturdays the cars are few, usually the Jag, maybe one or two others, and on Sunday the lot is empty.  This morning, the gates are closed and chained as usual for a Sunday, but there is one car.  A black Cord 810.  Long coffin‑nose.  Horizontal grille bars grinning all the way back to the cowl.  Clamshell fenders with pop‑up headlights folded down smooth. “Suicide” doors.  Sloping hind quarters with squinty little rear windows. It is the real item.  Not a replica. Not a look‑alike Graham or Hupp.  A Cord.  A car that was desirable and expensive in the 30’s, that is priceless now.

It sits there all week.  The days aren’t so bad; all the other cars soften its impact, but at night it’s almost eerie.  It really doesn’t belong there; it’s alien to 1963, an anachronism, a fugitive from a museum.  But there it sits under the area light, in possession of the parking lot.  An intruder from the past that has pre‑empted the present.  It is as if a little bit of the skewed reality of this place has spread next door.

On Saturday morning its hood is up.  It is being worked on by a man in white coveralls.  I waste no time getting over there. I have found that some people who own or work on classic and exotic cars are unfriendly and snooty, as if smudges of my Chevy‑ness  might rub off on their treasure.  But my apprehensions are ground­ less; the mechanic seems flattered by my interest and gives me a grand tour of the car.  He points out many non‑standard features that make it unique among Cords. “There’s nothing seriously wrong with it.  I drove it over last week to look after some property.   The water pump went out. Normally that’s no problem, except that you don’t find them at the local parts store, so I just pulled it into my parking lot here where it would be safe.  This car has over 150,000 miles on it.  Looks pretty good doesn’t it.  We still drive it every day, too, but keep it in the garage when its not in use.  You see, we kept the last one and had it set up just the way we wanted it.”  I’m not sure that I’m hearing this correctly.  In the next hour he tells me everything I ever wanted to know about Cords plus I lot that I never would have known to ask.  Finally it is time for me to go to the library, time for him to get back to work on his car.  Before I leave, I introduce myself.  He introduces himself: Charlie Cord.  On my way out the gate I look for the first time at the bronze plaque beside the front door of the building.  The Cord Professional Building.

That evening, I tell Miss Bartlett who I met.  But I don’t anticipate her reaction.  “Little Charlie?  Little Charlie was next door and didn’t even stop by?  Oh, shame on him!”  Charlie is indeed the son of Errett Lobban Cord, whose company made the cars  that bear his name.  It seems that when the company failed, E.L. saw the end coming in time to feather his own nest.  He came to Nevada, bought a ranch, played cattle baron, was elected to  several terms in the legislature.  It was during this period that he and The Judge became friends.  “Charlie was years younger than Monty or I, just a boy, but he was such a dear. I haven’t seen him or any of his family for years.  It really bothers me that he was  right in town and didn’t call.”  I haven’t the heart to tell Miss Bartlett that Little Charlie is often in town.

One Sunday afternoon I realize that I have never sat at the white table on the terrace.  Miss Bartlett brought one of the matching chairs up from the basement weeks ago.  It is all metal, very substantial and very heavy.  Getting it up the stairs must have been quite a struggle for someone not young, not strong, not, I suspect, in good health.  And so I feel that I must use the table at least once.  Not to would be a slight.  I go out with a set of freshman compositions, my pipe, a bottle of Carlsberg, and I settle down for a couple of hours of concerted paper grading.   It is a brilliant Indian summer afternoon, hot in the sun and chill in the shade.  The sky is a deep blue. Most of the leaves are down, but those that remain are still in full color.  In this light all colors are saturated ‑‑ Kodachrome light ‑‑ and the moment itself seems somehow saturated with experience.  This terrace in the side yard is not an ordinary place.  It is very quiet today. There are no traffic noises. The yard is overgrown, se­cluded, sylvan.  But there is an intensity here that is not conducive to study.  Shrubs and vines that have had their own way too long have overtaken the cracked birdbath and the bent sundial;   years of unmowed grass and unraked leaves have built a thick mat that nearly covers a toppled Holy Family.  There are quail in this yard.  I look straight up into a great cottonwood.  Leaves, as they fall, seem to come straight toward my face and then veer to one side. It is an illusion, of course.  Did Clark, in his student days, notice the same thing?  Of a sudden it is nearly dark.  The air has gone cold with the failure of the day.  I have sat here nearly five hours and graded no papers and drunk no beer.  Time has slipped, has been discontinuous.  There is a singularity in this place.  There are a few more sunny Sundays before the rains come, but I do not spend them on the terrace.

None of this, however, quite conveys how the Bartlett house really works.  So far we have, so to speak, seen a series of snapshots in an album, pasted to the pages, fixed in the memory in the order of occurence.  That is the way we perceive our lives, our place in time:  on this page is the family reunion following  the birthday on the previous page and preceding the Christmas on  the following page. And the times before our time are other albums, the pictures black‑and‑white, faded and cracked.  That was then; this is now. Very straightforward.  But here it’s not so simple.  It’s more like the pictures live in a box in the attic, all jumbled together, daguerrotype rubbing against polaroid.   Reach in to pull something out, and you can never be quite sure what will come up, past or present, actuality or illusion, what odd combination or juxtaposition.  This, I think, is what there is about the Bartlett house that is not ordinary. It is not the age or the disrepair. It is not the gothic trappings that my friends  joke about, for there are, after all, no apparitions that clank  their chains up and down the black well of the back stairs, no  skeleton in the closet,  no mad‑woman in the attic, no Norman  Bates lurking on the other side of the shower curtain. It is not even the considerable eccentricities of the landlady and her sister.  To fully explain how this house feels, I would need a set of tenses not in the English language.

Miss Bartlett spends her days sorting out the past, tying it up with strings and ribbons, readying it for market.  She has con­tracted to sell her father’s papers to the Archives Department of the University of Nevada library.   It is eleven o’clock of a winter morning.  I have no classes until afternoon and I read late  last night so now I stop to talk on my way out, making a late and              leisurely departure.  By now Miss Bartlett has forsaken her chair and cards and is standing at the dining room table. The breakfast roll is still little more than half‑eaten, but the wracking  morning cough has subsided, her hand is steady, she does not move  her head with such great care.  Her clothes look slept in, her hair is uncombed, but she is cheerful.  An hour or two ago she would have been testy and best avoided.  The table, which must be at least ten feet long is covered over most of its length with stacks of papers and papers being sorted into stacks.  At the far end is a pile of folders and bundles.  There seems to be a bit of everything ‑‑ letters, memos, ledger pages, clippings, photo­ graphs. On the top of each stack is a note pad.  All of the chairs  ‑‑ ponderous, straight‑backed leather‑covered affairs‑‑ have been  shoved well back.  At her feet is a cardboard box that smells powerfully of cellar.  She reaches into the box and withdraws a bundle of envelopes.  She spreads them out in a clear spot, opens each in turn, peruses its contents, re‑stuffs it, assigns it to a stack, and writes in the notepad on top of the stack.  As she works, she talks: the sale of the papers is a coup resulting from years of negotiation; those people wanted them donated.  The house too is for sale.  $125,000.  A ridiculous price for the house, but the lot is a  prime development property. The table and chairs were purchased from a Spanish monastery when the family toured  Europe.

At length the envelopes are inspected, sorted, catalogued.   Miss Bartlett brings forth a handful of very old photographs.  I comment on one of a very large brown bungalow in the craftsman  style.  “That was our house in Tonopah.  Father practiced law there.  The practice was lucrative and he bought stock in one of the mines at just the right time.  He designed the whole house and oversaw every detail of the construction himself.  It had the most fantastic fireplace that covered one whole wall of the living room.  It was made of local rocks that still had all the moss and lichen on them.  Father insisted that none of that be disturbed in handling or laying them.  That proved to be a mistake, though.   The moss was full of scorpion eggs that hatched in the warm indoors.  There were swarms of scorpions all over the house.  We were all sick from the stings.  Finally it was just impossible and Father put us all on the train for a month holiday in San Fran­cisco while he had the house fumigated.  We didn’t live there long.  Father was appointed Federal Judge and we moved to Reno and bought this house.”

“Always big houses.  Were there a lot of you?”

“Five.   A brother who is an attorney in New York, myself, then Monty, who lives here sometimes.  You’ve met her.  Then a sister who died, then a sister who is a nun.  None of us were ever very close, I’m afraid.”

Late that afternoon, Miss Bartlett is still at work, by now on another box.  It seems strange that all the work is done on this table, none on The Judge’s big desk.  It remains bare except for the occasional completed folder which is laid there briefly, as if for inspection, before final boxing.  Now brilliant winter sun blasts through the west‑facing front doors that open onto the  terrace.  Once again, there is a glass of whiskey at her elbow.

But within minutes, the sun has dipped behind the house next door.  At once the room is cold and dreary.  Work is over for the day.   Back to the TV and the cards.   And so it is that the past is sold piece by piece to support the present.  The house has always struck me as sparsely furnished.  Now I see gaps where surely pieces of furniture once sat, the most precious pieces, long since  sold.  I suspect The Judge (did his fortunes decline with the mines of Tonopah?) left his daughters this splendid house … and little else. Hence, roomers like myself.  And someday the house itself must be sold and will go beneath the wrecker’s ball.

It is the Friday evening before Christmas.  I am sitting in the living room with Dorothy and Monty, nibbling fruitcake and sipping Vermouth. There is a fire in the fireplace, rare, but this is a festive season.  Dorothy sits in her chair, cards and lap­ board not in evidence; I on the sofa facing the fire; Monty on a hassock at the hearth.  Monty has come back to Reno, some weeks earlier with the first snow.  One morning a l948 Packard conver­tible sits beside Dr. Modesto in the nook off the alley.  Like the house, it does not look prosperous.  The top, rotted to use­lessness, is permanently down.   Paint, worn to the primer by years of polishing has been let go dead.  The seats are covered with a heavy cotton canvas; no doubt the original upholstery is as  rotten as the top.  Monty calls the car Swan, for its hood ornament.  Swan is heaped with inches of snow, far more than the light dusting on the ground and the wheel wells are packed full of frozen slush.  “They told me in Auburn that the highway would be closed over the summit until morning.  I had no money for a room or for meals.  There was nothing to do but keep going, so I went around the roadblock on a side road.  You can’t know how cold it was up there in the summit and it was utterly impossible to see.   The snow was deep but not beaten slick; that saved me.”

I picture Monty, a tiny woman who must look through Swan’s  steering wheel, evading the police and crossing Donner Summit in a  Sierra blizzard, feeling her way foot‑by‑foot in that immense ruin  of a car as the road switchbacks its way down a sheer rock face  into the blackness of the canyon.  Monty, who is a poet, looks the poet, acts the poet in her smocks of heavy cotton duck and her Isadora scarves.  This time, Monty has returned from The Institute in California.  I assume the Huntington Hartford Institute for writers and artists, but she never says for sure.  Monty stays a few days and moves out.  I think she is renting an alley cabin a few blocks away, for I see Swan parked there.  Then shortly before Christmas, she moves back to 232 to stay, this time without Swan,  which has been sold.

The sisters quarrel often and shrilly.  I can never hear the matter in my room with the door closed, but I can hear reproach and recrimination and defense in their voices.  I avoid them both  at such times, for it is easy to be struck by a stray volley of  invective.  But tonight there is truce.  And tonight, with the fire and the wine and talk of other days, time becomes equivocal,  as it often does in this house.  It is December 22, 1963, but it is also a December evening in 1929. Monty has just come down the stairs, coated and hatted.  She sets her suitcase down in the middle of the living room.  The Judge comes out of his office.

“Where are you going?”

“New York.”

“New York?”

“To write.”  (To act, to dance, to escape this little place  and see big things and do big things. My things.)

“You meant it.”

“The car is full of gas.  My bag is packed.  I’m going. Now.”


“All the way.”

The Judges pale face has gone pasty. His soft features are slack. Nineteenth century gentility has just taken a cruching kick to the ribs and crawls whimpering into a shadowy corner.  I see Monty pick up her bag and resolutely follow her chin out the front door and down the snowy walk.  She stows the bag in the rumble seat of the yellow Model A roadster that was her graduation present that spring. And drives off.  And that is that.

The picture is so present that I wonder if that is the way it  really was.  Perhaps not. Probably not.  I don’t know. That is a part of the story that neither Monty nor Dorothy has ever told;  oddly, they never tell anything really personal about The Judge.  And yet I see that little yellow speck of a car headed east  across Nevada on a highway that is scarcely graded, let alone  paved. A yellow speck in a monochrome immensity, on a ribbon of gravel down a great darkling valley under lowering clouds that rest heavy with snow on the tops of the black mountains.   (Tomorrow I will head east on that same road, in that same lowering weather).  Thirty four years later, Monty returns, from     the other direction, in snow, still driving alone.  There is an implausible symmetry here.  I feel claustrophobic.  The furniture may be sparse, but there is too much else crammed into these dusty  rooms.

It is five thirty on the morning that the last term‑paper of spring semester is due. Within a week, I will move out of this house and go back to South Dakota for the summer. I have sat up all night on a hard chair, typing.  I hear birds and realize that it is already light.  There is a moment when the light levels outdoors and in are the same, and at this moment, I have the  feeling that the walls have grown  transparent, that the  house is wavering and fading away around me.  I look out the west‑facing casement window.  Just past the house next door, I have a glimpse of snowy Mt. Rose as it catches the first sun.  The moun­tains too have been up all night.  How do they keep from crying out in this fresh light?  Between the last paragraph and the bibliography, I chuck a fresh paper in the typewriter and write a poem to the moment.

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