Beyond the Western
Maye Tuong was part Chinese, had three brothers and one sister, all married and moved out, and she lived with her mother and father across the Saugus River, at the upper end where a small wooden bridge spanned the water. Her mother was the Chinese parent, not the father, Henry Tuong, who was, as far as I knew, an old Lynn boy from way back who brought his wife home from one of his wars as a Marine. Shanghai rang a bell but I was never sure of where. I did know some other things about Maye, fact or fiction as you’ll have it, which had settled into my mind because she was extremely shapely for one thing; and she never had a date, at least I never saw her with a fellow.
One time in the past, I heard, she’d been embarrassed at the beach when someone spotted a patch of thick, black hair on her backside, just below her waistline. A small patch it was, but a patch out of place. A few tough and pointed wisecracks were tossed off at that time and Maye was never seen at the beach again, never seen in a bathing suit again. I was one of those who never saw Maye at the beach or in a bathing suit. I never saw that thick, black out-of-place patch either, but had thought about it, I’m willing to bet, on a daily occurrence, perhaps hourly if you’re aware of the routine. Maye, on this night when the story really began, was 28 years old, or thereabouts, having unsettled some of my recent and late night thoughts, the older woman kind that haunt and capture and beset the young mind; let me teach you a thing or two, young man, you naughty boy, you.
Oh, I could glory in the opportunities coming my way.
Now, on this night, not far from the historical Iron Master’s House of the First Iron Works in America, I heard people talking in the darkness beside a parked car, a girl’s voice and a man’s voice, more than whispers, but exclusive all the while. When the talk ended the car drove off, the engine still purring. The girl began to walk away. From the first sound of her heels on the street pavement, I knew who she was. A short thirty feet later she turned off the street and walked down the path toward the river, toward her parents’ house with one window upstairs. Her heels clicked again on the narrow wooden bridge spanning the Saugus River only thirty feet wide at that point, the old Scott’s Mill and the dam locks sitting close by.
Maye Tuong was twice as old as me. I was a fourteen-year old freshman in high school and she had been catching my eye for almost a year. I didn’t really know why that was happening, though the exploration was enjoyable, at times exciting, blood flow at early expression. When she walked, which was just about every place she went in town, her hips made me think about boats hitched to a slack rope at the tide change, where the river and the ocean met three miles downstream. I did not yet have a name for that rhythm but it carried a music making impressions without sound. In close association a near-hum sat by my ear, calling for measurement, for some act of completion or satisfaction. In a pale green dress she wore at least once a week, if not twice, her backside shivered subtly and shook itself with each step. An awakening excitement accompanied those seemingly menial tremors. And I was ready to swear, in secret of course, that Maye was the one woman I knew of who could ride the night wind like a butterfly with scent. Private belief told me I was the only one beholden to these observations, as if they existed only for me and, justly, because of me.
Quickly I rehashed all I’d just seen, and heard; and made judgments, bringing in to play all that I knew. The big sedan, the first time I observed it in my end of town, had been idling in the thick darkness beneath a tunnel of elm trees all at spring bloom and hurrying for summer. The engine purr came to me when I was about 100 feet away, the sound subtle, almost secretive, providing no identity at all: I could not tell the make of it… not Chevie tappets, not a Ford whine, not a Pontiac universal or noisy drive shaft. At the side of the road it was parked, partly on the unpaved sidewalk, where a post and rail fence sat for more than three hundred feet along a steep embankment falling away to the river, and the overgrown site of the First Iron Works in America; marsh grass, saw grass, reeds taller than fences, a few acres of cat’o’nines, all hiding the old histories. Lately, though, for the first time ever, strangers had been crawling around the place, all over the slag pile where for years we had played and mined the glassy black chunks of slag, and in and out of the Ironmaster’s House still standing, the one Henry Ford almost bought and shipped to Dearborn, Michigan, and stepping off plotting paces on the slope toward the river. There had been talk of the whole site being recovered from time, possibly being reconstructed. Some of the men, we heard, were from Harvard College, others from big business. There was talk of a lot of money on hand, most of it coming from major steel companies with deep-seated interests in the iron industry.
As a fourteen year older I always walked home in the dark from Saugus Center, perhaps no more than a half mile, but a walk whose history crowded me with images. That walk took me past the town hall and the library, a couple of churches, an odd lot of houses, past the site of America’s first successful iron works, circa 1636, and through dark passages under old elms the blight had not yet touched. One of the houses was the old McCullough house still sporting inside Indian shutters at the kitchen windows, and the old boathouse dancehall out behind that had collapsed one night, sending the piano sliding across the floor where it lay rotting still. Another structure was the rebuilt parson’s house where the parson’s depraved son burned alive one night a half century earlier. The darkness along a goodly stretch of that road was conclusive, shutting out any and all lights from the Center, from the other few houses along the way, from the edge of civilization, and shutting out even a piece of a moon coming over the top of Vinegar Hill. Now and then, near the end of my walk along the river’s edge, always toward midnight, I’d see, or hear ahead of me or behind me, her heels clicking, Maye Tuong coming home from work at the telephone company. Maye always walked, being athletic and too poor to have a car, and always alone, never having a boyfriend that I had ever seen or heard about.
She carried mystery on the air.
This night the big car had stopped, two people talked lightly, Maye and whoever, and then they went on their ways. A week later I saw the same thing, only this time I knew who the car belonged to, the big Cadillac with a hood long as the canal at Salter’s Mill and generally as quiet as the stars sitting over my shoulder on many nights. The owner of the vehicle was Harvey Upham, a heavyweight in town. He owned two stores, served on one town governing board or another for 20 or more years, had a pretty talented and athletic son, and a wife who was crippled and bed-ridden. She had been that way for at least a dozen years. Harvey was in his mid-forties, pretty good looking, and had tons of energy. And nobody ever said anything bad about him, what with the way he took care of his wife, went to all the practices and games his son played in, was an all-round damn nice guy who did a bunch of all-round damn nice things for the town. If people wondered about his night life, I never heard a word, though now I had a few odd thoughts playing around in my mind; created by these casual conversations, under the elms, against the fence, in the dark.
Of course, those were the days when I began my own expeditions and explorations, probably starting the day that Ginnie Dumont straddled a log in the woods when we were coming back from a dip in the pond and I saw her white underpants as clear as I’d ever imagined. A short time later, when she managed to squirm around, with minor abandon I figured, I saw what they had been hiding, her own little garden of growth and dark as clouds. I am afraid I was off and running that day, and Maye Tuong and Harvey Upham slid away from my consciousness; though every few days I did see his car moving around town and managed to see her memorable walk on a few occasions as she went about her business. The moves of her aft end could stop traffic, you could almost see her flesh rippling under cover, and her scent was unmistakable. Oh, Maye, oh may I, Maye?
One day, in late August, when I was on the football team and we were practicing at the stadium, Harvey Upham sat in the bleachers, as always, with a couple of other pals who were town businessmen, watching pre-season practice from the stands. Harvey’s son Rex was a pretty good running back and used to light up every scrimmage. I would see Harvey stand and shake his fist in the air over a good run. His pals, the two Ryeman brothers who ran a car agency, did the same thing, all hooting and hollering as though they were at a real game. They were the only men I knew who did not have to report to work every day at a job, having the wherewithal to be wherever they wanted.
On one of those early scrimmage days, way off in the corner of the field, practically out of sight of everybody else, I caught a quick glimpse of Maye Tuong. She had been standing beside a tree at the far corner of the field, the most distant point, and her dress was perfect camouflage. She had stepped away from the tree and bent over to pick up something. I recognized her pale green dress, the one she often wore. In one near dream she had slipped out of it in a slice of guile I had never seen, but not once showing me her backside and the legendary curse. At practice this day she did look nice in pale green, surrounded by leaves, at the edge of the pond, at the far end of the field, practically on the next planet. Of course, she couldn’t have seen much from that distance, but to me it came more as a statement of support, or curiosity. One or the other I’d guessed. Hey, Harvey, I know what else holds your interest.
That scene sparked my imagination again, about Harvey and Maye saying hello in the dark. It was always in the same dark stretch of road, with only one house at one end of that patch of night and nothing but railing on the other side, and then the steep drop down to reeds and wetlands of the river’s edge where peepers, in romantic weather, held choir practice, along with frogs of all sizes and ranges. Even though I saw the same scene a couple of more times, their simple hello in the dark, nothing much else happened. But I was thinking about such things all the time, having lately told a girl named Ethel she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my whole entire life.
All this time, of course, there was talk about Mrs. Upham’s condition. At the news store you’d hear how poorly she was doing, how some friends began to measure time for her, and a few casual comments about how Harvey had to be so damn strong because any other man would be driven to madness. I let a little of that sink into me, but not all of it. There was Ginnie Dumont’s pants getting whiter and fainter and finally disappearing one day, before or after Ethel I am not sure, and the thought that Maye Tuong’s dark and thick patch of black hair, misplaced as it was, had a classic sense of mystery about it. There were nights I could swear it was visible to me if I closed my eyes. I’d see it move. See it stretch. See it wink at me, the way such things wink, day and night, morn and eve, every few seconds it seemed. And in a grasp at eternal attention it had an aroma that could incite the most horrific senses ever to be exaggerated.
Maye, all that time, came up from the river house on her way to work at the telephone office more than a mile away. In bad weather, once in a while, she’d get a ride from one of the neighbors. For one stretch of four winter months, another operator sat waiting at the top of the river road to give Maye a ride to work. Then, in the first days of spring, Maye was walking again. Perhaps her driver had moved or been married, but I never saw her again. In that time Ethel moved on and so did Ginnie Dumont, the way people pass in and out of our lives. The one constant was Maye Tuong and her mysterious patch of black hair, slightly displaced; she came and went in dreams, came and went at day’s beginning and at day’s end, and her trek downhill to the river’s edge, and the little house where she lived with her parents, a girl of poor fortune and great promise. Great promise. I couldn’t stop dreaming about her.
One night, coming back from the Center, crickets and peepers filling me with high romance, the air sweeping me with new bud aromas and other scents, grass and leaves alive and all green, Harvey and Maye were talking. Their voices were soft and hushed at first and I was padding soft as an Indian. When I stopped in my tracks, I heard Harvey say, “If I could Maye, I’d pull you around town in a rickshaw, like in China, like in Shanghai or Taiwan, or any of those other places I’ve heard about. I’d take you to dinner at the Golden Buddha or Kowloon Island, but I can’t. I’d run up and down the streets of the town pulling you behind me. I’d shout out your name. I’d shout out, ‘Here’s Maye Tuong, a great lady.’ I’d love to do that, to show you off. You’ve saved my life. You deserve it, but I can’t. There’s…. ”
A brick suddenly hit me; I didn’t want to hear any more. It all came down on me. The unequivocal and demanding ministrations for his wife. It was the way my elderly uncle had made silent demands on one whole section of the family for close to nine months of painful dying and undeniable loss of an element important to him that he could not talk about. I had seen something in his eyes that he wouldn’t or couldn’t let go of, or it wouldn’t let go of him. It was a whack right on the side of the head, one of my grandfather’s infamous one deserving goldang upside of the head, and on my heart in the same jolt. I started back toward the Center, hearing only the peepers kissing the night and the crickets holding up their end of all things lovely. The night enveloped Maye and Harvey, and me. It was close to midnight when I got home, and the road loomed empty the whole way.
And so it was all that summer and fall, at least two nights a week, Harvey would pick Maye up in total darkness and drop her off a few hours later at the same spot, so she could walk down the path to home. She’d cross the small footbridge, her heels clicking on the wooden span, move silently along the other side through a small grass field where once the moon on top of Vinegar Hill lit her up. She’d get home to the little cape. Soon, the light would go on in the upstairs window facing the river, she’d shower, towel off, go to bed, the light a final sign as it went out. Once I thought I saw the patch of darkness at her backside. I thought it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen; it had me mesmerized. One night, peepers and croakers working me over, my head full of visions, with a small breeze like a new lover, potable and delicious and full of caresses, I swiped a pal’s dory, and rowed easily down river. In the small bend of the river nearest to Maye’s house, reeds and cat’o’nines standing behind me all at attention, I slipped the anchor over the side in silence, and was closer than ever to the dream, to Maye Tuong, to the dark patch. It had never lost its grip on me.
But I had minded my own business once and walked away, and now it had gotten hold of me again. I was captivated. Be degrees it worked on me, filling every night with new visions, creating others, making demands. It was frontal assault from the backside.
One night, just before midnight, Maye off with Harvey to wherever, I hung around the bridge. A faint fall coolness touched the air, a pleasantness on the skin. It carried contemplation. Above, on the road, the car stopped, merged totally with darkness. I heard the door close, heard Maye’s heels for a few steps, and then knew she was on the gravel path down to the river. I coughed to let her know I was at the bridge.
She wasn’t so dumb, I guess. “What are you doing, here, Tom? Still watching me? I know you’ve never said anything and I appreciate that. You can guess where we go and what we do. He needs me every once in a while, and for god’s sake, I need him too. I never told him how you’ve been around. I could see you some nights. I bet my eyes are as good as yours.”
I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t want to play games. “I keep dreaming about you,” I said.
“The older woman thing, I’ll bet. Well, it’s your turn tonight. This will be your one and only night, and never again. Never sneak around again, not around me. He would die if he thought anyone knew. Now come over here, if you will, out of the way.”
She had me by the hand and ushered me off the bridge and into a copse of trees at the river’s edge. She kissed me. Her tongue was in my mouth. Immediately I was on fire. My tongue was in her mouth, my fiery tongue, tasting, being tasted back. My hands moved, and she made them move more.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?”
“Yes, I do. I keep dreaming about you.”
She pulled my head down to her breast. She slid my mouth down over one nipple. “Do all the things he does for himself, but do these things for me. Make me beautiful all over, all beautiful, all over. Do it because you want to and not because you need to. Make me lovely, Tommy. Make me lovely all over.”
“I want to see all of you,” I said.
She almost knocked me over when she replied, “You want to see my back, don’t you? He said that too, but it took him a long time to say it.”
Maye spun around and was out of her dress in seconds, standing, almost modeling, in her bra and underpants. I was wishing for the moon so I could see her, and then I was glad it was not shining down on us. I was in the dark, with an older woman, a twice-as older woman. There was no fire, but I felt the fire, all the tongues of it. There was no moon; there should have been, but I didn’t even hear the peepers or the crickets or any of that mind-blowing music, that heart orchestration always on my fringes, absorbing hours of my life for complete seconds at a time. But a buzzing was pursuing me from my insides, floating in me, grabbing all the edges, demanding attention, saying names, bringing images, sorting all the parts of her anatomy, saying our angels were off sleeping someplace. She kissed me again. Oh, Maye, you may. Her breath licked at me; sweet fire, sweet taste of something new, then an awareness of newness, a saline edge, the spring marsh alive… brackish, reed grass like razor blades, horseshoe crabs with their spikes at Rumney Marsh, salt coming home from the sea, summer wind in the reeds all night long beside Baker Hill. I could have dived into the mouth of her body. It was hot and lovely and had a scent that tantalized me, one that I had never known. Not a Ginnie taste. Not an Ethel taste. Alive, it was, and after me the whole way! I was sure I was going to lose my breath, that my heart would stop. Would Ginnie ever be like this? Could she? Ethel?
Maye guided my hands again, as I was limp and afraid to move them. She put one of my hands on her back and the other one in front. I was frozen stiff. My heart was pounding. Oh, that patch at her back was thick and lustrous, yet as imaginably fine as some golden flax, as if it had been spun out of a fairy tale, some princess or a naughty Goldilocks thing come to rest with me, but dry and oh so soft and caressing my fingers. And rising on the air the whole world of newness. It came out of that everlasting dream world of fancy and daring and sat in the small of her back just above her buttocks. I was totally disoriented for a few seconds, wondering where I was, what side was up, if Harvey was lost here also. Then, driven by another motor, another propulsion on its own, mindless, madness perhaps or hunger, my other hand was suddenly inside her underpants, in that other patch, not as fine but slightly wiry and damp and liquid and the rich moistness beginning to run down my hand and its essence assailing me, a whole onslaught underway. She moved against my docile hand, again and again, and finally said the most magic words a boy could ever hear, “Take my underpants off, Tommy, take them off and throw them in the river.”
The command was dark and without fear, without thought of refusal, and her voice was husky and absorbing and boggled my own thinking. I swore that if I could see, I would see some message in her eyes, as if it had been written just for me, yet was composed of words of my own making. My bell was ringing.
Some specific knowledge was looking for root at the back of my head. I felt it tingle in my fingers, move up my arms to further reception. It said I had crossed a wide barrier,
that I was on the other side of forever. I was different. In a matter of these few minutes I was different, and I knew it. I would never be the same again. A new dynamic, at a new beachhead, had come into place. It was raw and eager, had a breath of its own, and would follow me everywhere from that very moment.
Maye continued, with her hands, with her words. “This is your night. I have watched you watching me. I liked it, all of it, you in the darkness and me in a kind of light, me being watched. Perhaps from the first I knew you were there, at an edge of darkness. And I know everything that’s been said about me, every word down at the pool room, in the locker room at the field, at recess at school. But for now, do all the things I tell you. Just like I tell you. Oh, yes, just like that…make me beautiful again…just for one night…oh, yes, just for this night… beautiful all over…beautiful again…I am nothing but a dreamy child again… we are children again and I will dream of you tonight and tomorrow night, but we can never be together again. Oh, yes, like that. Oh, yes. You know it all now, don’t you? And all that other stuff. He thinks he loves me. He’s so unhappy, like I was unhappy. He’s a tortured man who can cry the hours away, or let them get away from him. Oh, he is such a man when he doesn’t cry. And he wants to show me off, but he can’t. It will never happen, I know. I will be banished forever to this kind of darkness. I must have been born for it.”
Mystery was rushing through her, making demands, gathering words and visions, as if owning her for the time being. “Throw my underpants out far enough so they will ride off in the current, so they’ll go right down the river. Our night is here and they will be gone on the current. They will go to sea. Maybe they’ll ride forever, and you can think of that for always, where the touch of your hand has gone, from here and out to sea, but we’ll be done here tonight. Never come near me again. Go your way and I’ll go mine. For the gift of this night, all I ask is just that. That you go on past this. He will, in time, go his way too.”
She never once said his name. Maye never once said “Harvey,” never once said what he was capable of, what he liked, what made a difference with him. In that way she was true blue.
I came out of this buzzing sound that had inhabited me and she was walking across the bridge. I heard her heels click for perhaps thirty steps and she was in the path heading across the field. The tossed, wet underpants were gone down river, I assumed. I dressed feverishly, lost one sock, threw the second one away onto the water, walked up the path. The peepers had come back from the whole length of the river, and the crickets from a hundred fields, and a slight zephyr of air brought her back to my senses so that I could taste her again. I thought of Ginnie and Ethel again. There was a difference, but it would narrow. Somehow, some way, it would narrow, and become.
We won our first three football games. I got into one of them late in the fourth quarter. Harvey’s son Rex had exploded for five touchdown in the three games. I could spot Harvey and his pals in the stands. I kept thinking about him and Maye, wondering how that was going on.
In the middle of the next week, Harvey Upham fell down carrying his wife down the stairs. They said he died of a severe and massive heart attack. His wife was back to her bed. Their son’s teammates all went to the wake and the funeral. Rex didn’t play the following game. We lost by a touchdown. When he came back we won four more in a row, and lost the last game. Rex was an All-Star on all the local papers and was promised a scholarship at Boston College. The season was over and I was wandering again.
I came up from the Center well after eleven o’clock one night three weeks after Thanksgiving. The darkness was still there along Central Street. There were few lights about, and no moon. Earlier, on the way out to visit Ethel, I had seen a dozen men writing with pens on a variety of notepads, each man fully suited, some with felt hats, walking across every inch of the Iron Works site. People said plans were made, that the reconstruction was about to begin. History was being reworked.
I was almost up to the path that leads down to the river, when I heard the engine of Harvey Upham’s big sedan. A single car door slammed shut in its usual coding, and the engine slipped into gear. I knew that Maye Tuong was being carried off again to wherever, this time by Harvey’s son Rex, my teammate. I wondered if Rex had ever been brought along in the back seat on those other rides.
But Ethel made me think about something else, before I thought one last time about Chinatown and Shanghai and Maye Tuong riding around Saugus Center in a rickshaw and my end of the river squeezing itself onto another page of history.