You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

10. Jack at Morn

At seven twenty-eight Mr. Frederic Jack awoke and began to come alive with all his might. He sat up and yawned strongly, stretching his arms and at the same time bending his slumber-swollen face into the plump muscle-hammock of his right shoulder, a movement coy and cuddlesome. “Eee-a-a-a-ach!” He stretched deliciously out of thick, rubbery sleep, and for a moment he sat heavily upright rubbing at his eyes with the clenched backs of his fingers. Then he flung off the covers with one determined motion and swung to the floor. His toes groped blindly in soft grey carpet stuff, smooth as felt, for his heelless slippers of red Russian leather. These found and slipped into, he padded noiselessly across the carpet to the window and stood, yawning and stretching again, as he looked out with sleepy satisfaction at a fine, crisp morning. Instantly he knew that it was October 17th, 1929, and the day of the party. Mr. Jack liked parties. Nine floors below him the cross street lay gulched in steep morning shadow, bluish, barren, cleanly ready for the day. A truck roared past with a solid rattling heaviness. An ash-can was banged on the pavement with an abrupt slamming racket. Upon the pavement a little figure of a man, foreshortened from above and covered by its drab cone of grey, bobbed swiftly along, turned the corner into Park Avenue, and was gone, heading southward towards work.

Below Mr. Frederick Jack the cross street was a narrow bluish lane between sheer cliffs of solid masonry, but to the west the morning sunlight, golden, young, immensely strong and delicate, cut with sculptured sharpness at the walls of towering buildings. It shone with an unearthly rose-golden glow upon the upper tiers and summits of soaring structures whose lower depths were still sunk in shadow. It rested without violence or heat upon retreating pyramids of steel and stone, fumed at their peaks with fading wisps of smoke. It was reflected with dazzling brilliance from the panes of innumerable lofty windows, and it made the wall surfaces of harsh white-yellow brick look soft and warm, the colour of rose petals.

Among the man-made peaks that stood silhouetted against the sky in this early sun were great hotels and clubs and office buildings bare of life. Mr. Jack could look straight into high office suites ready for their work: the morning light shaped patterns out of pale-hued desks and swivel-chairs of maple, and it burnished flimsy partition woods and thick glazed doors. The offices stood silent, empty, sterile, but they also seemed to have a kind of lonely expectation of the life that soon would well up swiftly from the streets to fill and use them. In the eerie light, with the cross street still bare of traffic and the office buildings empty, suddenly it seemed to Mr. Jack as if all life had been driven or extinguished from the city and as if those soaring obelisks were all that remained of a civilization that had been fabulous and legendary.

With a shrug of impatience he shook off the moment’s aberration and peered down into the street again. It was empty as before, but already along Park Avenue the bright-hued cabs were drilling past the intersection like beetles in flight, most of them headed downtown in the direction of Grand Central Station. And everywhere, through that shining, living light, he could sense the slow-mounting roar of another furious day beginning. He stood there by his window, a man-mite poised high in the air upon a shelf of masonry, the miracle of God, a plump atom of triumphant man’s flesh, founded upon a rock of luxury at the centre of the earth’s densest web — but it was as the Prince of Atoms that he stood there and surveyed the scene, for he had bought the privileges of space, silence, light, and steel-walled security out of chaos with the ransom of an emperor, and he exulted in the price he paid for them. This grain of living dust had seen the countless insane accidents of shape and movement that daily passed the little window of his eye, but he felt no doubt or fear. He was not appalled.

Another man, looking out upon the city in its early-morning nakedness, might have thought its forms inhuman, monstrous, and Assyrian in their insolence. But not Mr. Frederick Jack. Indeed, if all those towers had been the monuments of his own special triumph, his pride and confidence and sense of ownership could hardly have been greater than they were. “My city,” he thought. “Mine.” It filled his heart with certitude and joy because he had learned, like many other men, to see, to marvel, to accept, and not to ask disturbing questions. In that arrogant boast of steel and stone he saw a permanence surviving every danger, an answer, crushing and conclusive, to every doubt.

He liked what was solid, rich, and spacious, made to last. He liked the feeling of security and power that great buildings gave him. He liked especially the thick walls and floors of this apartment house. The boards neither creaked nor sagged when he walked across them; they were as solid as if they had been hewn in one single block from the heart of a gigantic oak. All this, he felt, was as it should be.

He was a man who liked order in everything. The rising tide of traffic which now began to stream below him in the streets was therefore pleasing to him. Even in the thrust and jostle of the crowd his soul rejoiced, for he saw order everywhere. It was order that made the millions swarm at morning to their work in little cells, and swarm again at evening from their work to other little cells. It was an order as inevitable as the seasons, and in it Mr. Jack read the same harmony and permanence which he saw in the entire visible universe round him.

Mr. Jack turned and glanced about his room. It was a spacious chamber, twenty feet each way and twelve feet high, and in these noble proportions was written quietly a message of luxurious wellbeing and assurance. In the exact centre of the wall that faced the door stood his bed, a chaste four-poster of the Revolutionary period, and beside it a little table holding a small clock, a few books, and a lamp. In the centre of another wall was an antique chest of drawers, and tastefully arranged about the room were a gate-legged table, with a row of books and the latest magazines upon it, two fine old Windsor chairs, and a comfortable, well-padded east chair. Several charming French prints hung on the walls. On the floor was a thick and heavy carpet of dull grey. These were all the furnishings. The total effect was one of modest and almost austere simplicity, subtly combined with a sense of spaciousness, wealth, and power.

The owner of this room read its message with pleasure, and turned once more to the open window. With fingers pressed against his swelling breast, he breathed in a deep draught of the fresh, living air of morning. It was laden with the thrilling compost of the city, a fragrance delicately blended of many things. There was, strangely, the smell of earth, moist and somehow flowerful, tinged faintly with the salt reek of tidal waters and the fresh river smell, rank and a little rotten, and spiced among these odours was the sultry aroma of strong boiling coffee. This incense-laden air carried a tonic threat of conflict and of danger, and a leaping, winelike prophecy of power, wealth, and love. Mr. Jack breathed in this vital ether slowly, with heady joy, sensing again the unknown menace and delight it always brought to him.

All at once a trembling, faint and instant, passed in the earth below him. He paused, frowning, and an old unquiet feeling to which he could not give a name stirred in his heart. He did not like things to shake and tremble. When he had first come here to live and had awaked at morning thinking he felt a slight vibration in the massive walls around him, a tremor so brief and distant that he could not be certain of it, he had asked a few questions of the doorman who stood at the Park Avenue entrance of the building. The man told him that the great apartment house had been built across two depths of railway tunnels, and that all Mr. Jack had felt was the vibration that came from the passing of a train deep in the bowels of the earth. The man assured him that it was all quite safe, that the very trembling in the walls, in fact, was just another proof of safety.

Still, Mr. Jack did not like it. The news disturbed him vaguely. He would have liked it better if the building had been anchored upon the solid rock. So now, as he felt the slight tremor in the walls once more, he paused, frowned, and waited till it stopped. Then he smiled.

“Great trains pass under me,” he thought. “Morning, bright morning, and still they come — all the boys who have dreamed dreams in the little towns. They come for ever to the city. Yes, even now they pass below me, wild with joy, mad with hope, drunk with their thoughts of victory. For what? For what? Glory, huge profits, and a girl! All of them come looking for the same magic wand. Power. Power. Power.”

Thoroughly awake now, Mr. Jack closed the window and moved briskly across his chamber to the bathroom.’ He liked lavish plumbing, thick with creamy porcelain and polished silver fixtures. For a moment he stood before the deep wash-basin with bared lips, looking at himself in the mirror, and regarding with considerable satisfaction the health and soundness of his strong front teeth. Then he brushed them earnestly with stiff, hard bristles and two inches of firm, thick paste, turning his head from side to side round the brush and glaring at his image in the glass until he foamed agreeably at the mouth with a lather that tasted of fresh mint. This done, he spat it out and let running water wash it down the drain, and then he rinsed his mouth and throat with gently biting antiseptic.

He liked the tidy, crowded array of lotions, cream, unguents, bottles, tubes, jars, brushes, and shaving implements that covered the shelf of thick blue glass above the basin. He lathered his face heavily with a large silver-handled shaving-brush, rubbing the lather in with firm finger-tips, brushing and stroking till his jaws were covered with a smooth, thick layer of warm shaving cream. Then he took the razor in his hand and opened it. He used a straight razor, and he always kept it in excellent condition. At the crucial moment, just before the first long downward stroke, he flourished slightly forward with his plump arms and shoulders, raising the glittering blade aloft in one firm hand, his legs widened stockily, crouching gently at the knees, his lathered face craned carefully to one side and upwards, and his eyes rolled towards the ceiling, as if he were getting braced and ready beneath a heavy burden. Then, holding one cheek delicately between two arched fingers, he advanced deliberately upon it with the gleaming blade. He grunted gently, with satisfaction, at the termination of the stroke. The blade had mown smoothly, leaving a perfect swath of pink, clean flesh across his face from cheek to jowl. He exulted in the slight tug and rasping pull of wiry stubble against the deadly sharpness of the razor, and in the relentless sweep and triumph of the steel.

And while he shaved Mr. Jack occupied his mind with pleasant thoughts of all the good things in his life.

He thought about his clothes. Elegant in dress, always excellently correct, he wore fresh garments every day. No cotton touched him. He bought underclothes of the finest silk, and he had more than forty suits from London. Every morning he examined his wardrobe studiously, choosing with care and with a good eye for harmony the shoes, socks, shirt, and necktie he would wear, and before he selected a suit he was sometimes lost in thought for several minutes. He loved to open wide the door of his great closet and see his suits hanging there in rows in all their groomed and regimented elegance. He liked the strong, clean smell of honest cloth, and in those forty several shapes and colours he saw as many pleasing reflections and variations of his own character. They filled him, as did everything about him, with a sense of morning confidence, joy, and vigour.

For breakfast he would have orange juice, two leghorn eggs, soft boiled, two slices of crisp, thin toast, and tasty little segments of pink Praguer ham, which looked so pretty on fresh parsley sprigs. And he would have coffee, strong coffee, cup after cup of it. So fortified, he would face the world with cheerful strength, ready for whatever chance the day might bring him.

The smell of earth which he had caught in the air this morning was good, and the remembrance of it laid a soothing unction on his soul. Although city-bred, Mr. Jack was as sensitive to the charms of Mother Earth as any man alive. He liked the cultivated forms of nature — the swarded lawns of great estates, gay regiments of brilliant garden flowers, and rich masses of clumped shrubbery. All these things delighted him. The call of the simple life had grown stronger every year, and he had built a big country house in Westchester County.

He liked the more expensive forms of sport. He would frequently go out in the country to play golf, and he loved bright sunlight on the rich velvet of the greens and the new-mown smell of fairways. And afterwards, when he had stood below the bracing drive of the shower and had felt the sweat of competition wash cleanly from his well-set form, he liked to loaf upon the cool veranda of the club and talk about his score, joke and laugh, pay or collect his bets, and drink good Scotch with other men of note. And he liked to watch his country’s flag flap languidly upon the tall white pole because it looked so pretty there.

Mr. Jack also liked the ruder and more natural forms of beauty. He liked to see tall grasses billowing on a hillside, and he liked old shaded roads that wound away to quietness from driven glares of speed and concrete. He was touched by the cosmic sadness of leafy orange, gold, and russet brown in mid-October, and he had seen the evening light upon the old red of a mill and felt deep stillness in his heart (“all — could anyone believe it? — within thirty miles of New York City”). On those occasions the life of the metropolis had seemed very far away. And often he had paused to pluck a flower or stand beside a brook in thought. But after sighing with regret as, among such scenes, he thought of the haste and folly of man’s life, Mr. Jack always came back to the city. For life was real, and life was earnest, and Mr. Jack was a business man.

He was a business man, so of course he liked to gamble. What is business but a gamble? Will prices go up or down? Will Congress do this or that? Will there be war in some far corner of the earth, and a shortage of some essential raw material? What will the ladies wear next year — big hats or little ones, long dresses or short? You make your guess and back it with your money, and if you don’t guess right often enough you don’t remain a business man. So Mr. Jack liked to gamble, and he gambled like the business man he was. He gambled every day upon the price of stocks. And at night he often gambled at his club. It was no piker’s game he played. He never turned a hair about a thousand dollars. Large sums did not appal him. He was not frightened by Amount and Number. That is why he liked great crowds. That is why the beetling cliffs of immense and cruel architectures lapped his soul in strong security. When he saw a ninety-storey building he was not one to fall down grovelling in the dust, and beat a maddened brain with fists, and cry out: “Woe! 0 woe is me!” No. Every cloud-lost spire of masonry was a talisman of power, a monument to the everlasting empire of American business. It made him feel good. For that empire was his faith, his fortune, and his life. He had a fixed place in it.

Yet his neck was not stiff, nor his eye hard. Neither was he very proud. For he had seen the men who lean upon their sills at evening, and those who swarm from rat holes in the ground, and often he had wondered what their lives were like.

Mr. Jack finished shaving and rinsed his glowing face, first with hot water, then with cold. He dried it with a fresh towel, and he rubbed it carefully with a fragrant, gently stinging lotion. This done, he stood for a moment, satisfied, regarding his image, softly caressing the velvet texture of dose-shaved, ruddy cheeks with stroking fingertips. Then he turned briskly away, ready for his bath.

He liked the morning plunge in his great sunken tub, the sensual warmth of sudsy water, and the sharp, aromatic cleanness of the bath salts. He had an eye for aesthetic values, too, and he liked to loll back in the tub and watch the dance of water spangles in their magic shift and play upon the creamy ceiling. Most of all, he liked to come up pink and dripping, streaked liberally with tarry-scented soap, and then he loved the stinging drive and shock of needled spray, the sense of hardihood and bracing conflict, and he liked the glow of abundant health as he stepped forth, draining down upon a thick cork mat, and vigorously rubbed himself dry in the folds of a big, crashy bath towel.

All this he now anticipated eagerly as he let fall with a full thud the heavy silver-headed waste-pipe stopper. He turned the hot-water tap on as far as it would go, and watched a moment as the tumbling water began smokily to fill the tub with its thick boiling gurgle. Then, scuffing the slippers from his feet, he rapidly stripped off his silk pyjamas. He felt with pride the firm-swelling flexor muscle of his upper arm, and observed with keen satisfaction the reflection in the mirror of his plump, well-conditioned body. He was well-moulded and solid-looking, with hardly a trace of unwholesome fat upon him — a little undulance, perhaps, across the kidneys, a mere suggestion of a bay about the waist, but not enough to cause concern, and far less than he had seen on many men twenty years his junior. Content, deep and glowing, filled him. He turned the water off and tested it with a finger, which he jerked back with an exclamation of hurt surprise. In his self-absorption he had forgotten the cold water, so now he turned it on and waited while it seethed with tiny milky bubbles and sent waves of trembling light across the hot blue surface of his bath. At last he tried it with a cautious toe and found it tempered to his liking. He shut the water off.

And now, stepping back a pace or two, he gripped the warm tiling of the floor with his bare toes, straightened up with military smartness, drew in a deep breath, and vigorously began his morning exercises. With stiffened legs he bent strongly towards the floor, grunting as his groping finger-tips just grazed the tiling. Then he swung into punctual rhythms, counting: “One! — Two! — Three! — Four!” as his body moved. And all the time while his arms beat their regular strokes through the air, his thoughts continued to amble down the pleasant groove that his life had worn for them.

To-night was the great party, and he liked the brilliant gaiety of such gatherings. He was a wise man, too, who knew the world and the city well, and, although kind, he was not one to miss the fun of a little harmless byplay, the verbal thrust and parry of the clever ones, or the baiting of young innocents by those who were wily at the game. Something of the sort could usually be counted on when all kinds of people were brought together at these affairs. It gave a spice and zest to things. Some yokel, say, fresh from the rural districts, all hands and legs and awkwardness, hooked and wriggling on a cruel and cunning word — a woman’s, preferably, because women were so swift and deft in matters of this nature. But there were men as well whose skill was great — pampered lap-dogs of rich houses, or feisty, nimble-witted little she-men whose mincing tongues were always good for one or two shrewd thrusts of poison in a hayseed’s hide. There was something in the face of a fresh-baited country boy as it darkened to a slow, smouldering glow of shame, surprise, and anger and sought with clumsy and inept words to retort upon the wasp which had stung it and winged away — something so touching — that Mr. Jack, when he saw it, felt a sense of almost paternal tenderness for the hapless victim, a delightful sense of youth and innocence in himself. It was almost as if he were revisiting his own youth.

But enough was enough. Mr. Jack was neither a cruel nor an immoderate man. He liked the gay glitter of the night, the thrill and fever of high stakes, and the swift excitements of new pleasures. He liked the theatre and saw all the best plays, and the better, smarter, wittier revues — the ones with sharp, satiric lines, good dancing, and Gershwin music. He liked the shows his wife designed because she designed them, he was proud of her, and he enjoyed those evenings of ripe culture at the Guild. He also went to prize-fights in his evening clothes, and once when he came home he had the red blood of a champion on the white boiled bosom of his shirt. Few men could say as much.

He liked the social swim, and the presence of the better sort of actors, artists, writers, and wealthy, cultivated Jews round his table. He had a kind heart and a loyal nature. His purse was open to a friend in need. He kept a lavish table and a royal cellar, and his family was the apple of his eye.

But he also liked the long velvet backs of lovely women, and the flash of jewellery about their necks. He liked women to be seductive, bright with gold and diamonds to set off the brilliance of their evening gowns. He liked women cut to fashion, with firm breasts, long necks, slender legs, flat hips, and unsuspected depth and undulance. He liked their faces pale, their hair of bronze-gold wire, their red mouths thin, a little cruel, their eyes long, slanting, cat-grey, and lidded carefully. He liked a frosted cocktail shaker in a lady’s hands, and he liked a voice hoarse-husky, city-wise, a trifle weary, ironic, faintly insolent, that said:

“Well! What happened to you, darling? I thought that You would never get here.”

He liked all the things that men are fond of. All of them he had enjoyed himself, each in its proper time and place, and he expected everyone to act as well as he. But ripeness with Mr. Jack was everything, and he always knew the time to stop. His ancient and Hebraic spirit was tempered with a classic sense of moderation. He prized the virtue of decorum highly. He knew the value of the middle way.

He was not a man to wear his heart upon his overcoat, nor risk his life on every corner, nor throw himself away upon a word, nor spend his strength on the impulse of a moment’s wild belief. This was such madness as the Gentiles knew. But, this side idolatry and madness he would go as far for friendship’s sake as any man. He would go with a friend up to the very edge of ruin and defeat, and he would even try to hold him back. But once he saw a man was mad, and not to be persuaded by calm judgment, he was done with him. He would leave him where he was, although regretfully. Are matters helped if the whole crew drowns together with a single drunken sailor? He thought not. He could put a world of sincere meaning in the three words: “What a pity!”

Yes, Mr. Frederick Tack was kind and temperate. He had found life pleasant, and had won from it the secret of wise living. And the secret of wise living was founded in a graceful compromise, a tolerant acceptance. If a man wanted to live in this world without getting his pockets picked, he had better learn how to use his eyes and ears on what was going on around him. But if he wanted to live in this world without getting hit over the head, and without all the useless pain, grief, terror, and bitterness that mortify human flesh, he had also better learn how not to use his eyes and ears. This may sound difficult, but it had not been so for Mr. Jack. Perhaps some great inheritance of suffering, the long, dark ordeal of his race, had left him, as a precious distillation, this gift of balanced understanding. At any rate, he had not learned it, because it could not be taught: he had been born with it.

Therefore, he was not a man to rip the sheets in darkness or beat his knuckles raw against a wall. He would not madden furiously in the envenomed passages of night, nor would he ever be carried smashed and bloody from the stews. A woman’s ways were no doubt hard to bear, but love’s bitter mystery had broken no bones for Mr. Jack, and, so far as he was concerned, it could not murder sleep the way an injudicious wiener schitzel could, or that young Gentile fool, drunk again, probably, ringing the telephone at one a.m. to ask to speak to Esther.

Mr. Jack’s brow was darkened as he thought of it. He muttered wordlessly. If fools are fools, let them be fools where their folly will not injure or impede the slumbers of a serious man.

Yes, Men could rob, lie, murder, swindle, trick, and cheat — the whole world knew as much. And women — well, they were women, and there was no help for that. Mr. Jack had also known something of the pain and folly that twist the indignant soul of youth — it was too bad, of course, too bad. But regardless of all this, the day was day and men must work, the night was night and men must sleep, and it was, he felt, intolerable——

“One!”

Red of face, he bent stiffly, with a grunt, until his fingers grazed the rich cream tiling of the bathroom floor.

intolerable!——

“Two!”

He straightened sharply, his hands at his sides.

that a man with serious work to do——

“Three!”

His arms shot up to full stretching height above his head, and came swiftly down again until he held clenched fists against his breast.

should be pulled out of his bed in the middle of the night by a crazy young fool!——

“Four!”

His closed fists shot outwards in a strong driving movement, and came back to his sides again.

It was intolerable, and, by God, be had half a mind to tell her so!

His exercises ended, Mr. Jack stepped carefully into the luxurious sunken tub and settled his body slowly in its crystal-blue depths. A sigh, long, lingering, full of pleasure, expired upon his lips.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30