William Gaddis: A Previously Unpublished Memoir

By Marilyn Parke WeirOctober 16, 2013

William Gaddis: A Previously Unpublished Memoir

The Letters of William Gaddis by William Gaddis
J R by William Gaddis

Photo: note from William Gaddis to Marlyn Parke Weir 

A remembrance by a childhood friend. Full introduction here

BILL GADDIS was my brother’s best friend of all time. When he first me him, Bill was rather undersized and scrawny — I secretly thought he resembled Freddie Bartholomew — fortunately for the sake of my own hide I kept this thought strictly to myself. Perhaps they drew together because of a mutual shyness — the type of person who is sufficient unto himself and forces himself to participate in things that draw attention but actually not relishing the spotlight at all. Being undersized and a new pupil to public school, Bill was immediately at a disadvantage — and the fact that he was intellectual by nature would have been enough alone to make him “different” and thus put him in for some little persecution. Henry had gone to school with the group since early grades and had already established himself as one of the crowd. Not so with Bill. As I have said, Bill was intellectual, and he was also creative — Henry was not an intellectual but he was intelligent and, I’ve always felt, had the sensitivity of an artist to some degree. He wasn’t creative in a true artistic sense, but he could “do” things — and I believe that both he and Bill recognized things in each other that they admired. For one thing, Henry could swing a mean punch — Bill could not, but had great need of such a capability. Bill could think of funny things to do and say, whereas Henry didn’t attract much attention with his savoir faire and wit. So they complemented each other remarkably well. When Bill was menaced by a bully, Henry was there to menace right back — when girls were around, Bill could be the gay sophisticated wit and Henry profited by just being with him. But the girls came later — first came the early years of adolescent foolery, or perhaps I should say folly.

Bill lived some miles away from school and his mother, like my father, commuted. Not old enough to drive a car yet, and wanting to stay with the crowd he soon became a part of our family for the simple need of having a place to eat and sleep if he happened to miss the last bus home, which he frequently seemed to do. Occasionally Henry would go to his house instead, which was presided over by a grandmother most of the time, very similar to our resident grandmother — so each boy felt at home in each other’s homes. Bill’s grandmother deplored boys’ irresponsibility and slovenliness just as Henry’s grandmother did. And it did neither of them any good. Once Henry got so disgusted with his grandmother for putting his riding boots and clothes away in the closet where they belong, and where he always forgot to look for them, that he took the best idea he had to cure her — he nailed the boots to the floor of his room and poor grandma about ruined her back sooping down suddenly to pick them up and falling flat on her face practically. But he got the point across. Don’t know if Bill ever cured his grandmother though. Anway, Mother and Daddy soon became a second father and mother to Bill and had yet yet to meet any of Bill’s family. But they soon met his mother, and under rather, for the boys, trying conditions.

It all began with Mr. Christie. He was a new haberdasher in town who had a vision of becoming the Brooks Bros. of Farmingdale I guess — he had a store completely renovated even to the extent of having C-H-R-I-S-T-I-E sunk in the tiles of the recessed front walk of the store. Everyone noticed this first of all when the store was first being fixed up and for some reason Bill and Henry felt great annoyance for such blatant conceit. Then they saw the man himself — a small, preening, strutting man who seemed to promote not the haberdashery he was selling so much as he was promoting himself, J.I. Christie! Perhaps they had presumed to browse in his shop and, noting their lack of years and means, he gave them a swift brush-off to fawn on someone else in the shop at the same time. Anyway, they didn’t like the man. Also, they were lukewarm about a fellow schoolmate who had managed to get a parttime job clerking in the store and consequently managed to wear suits, bought a discount of course, to school while they wore slacks, shirts and sweater and seemed like kids instead of men of the world. For a few weeks they stewed about Mr. C. and then saw their opportunity to have a little fun for themselves at Mr. C.’s expense.

The first the family heard about their project was when the policeman came to the house and asked Daddy if Bill and Henry were at home and would they and Daddy accompany him downtown. Bill, naturally, was with us that night and he and Henry all but went into shock — so did Daddy. Alec [the name of the policeman], who had known us for years, reassured Daddy that the boys weren’t being arrested or anything but that someone had made a complaint and he was investigating it. So, Henry and Bill reluctantly accompanied Daddy and Alec down to Mr. Christie’s store. They were gone for what seemed hours and Mother was getting more on edge and upset with every minute. Finally, Daddy and the boys came home and the boys slunk up to Henry’s room and Daddy, looking very grim, went to the telephone and called Bill’s mother over for dinner the following evening, and she accpeted. She and my parents became firm and lasting friends from that night onwards, and Henry and Bill got a taste of Daddy’s strap too.

Here is what happened. Mr. Christie, unable to leave to chance the possibility of someone noticing his name on the pavement, or himself standing in the doorway of the fancy store beaming at every passerby, decided that mass advertising was THE THING. So he rented a huge billboard, just outside of town in a potato filed on the Hempstead turnpike, our most important highway. This wasn’t extraordinary, even in those days, but although the sign mentioned Christie’s Men’s Shop in fairly large letters, its main attraction seemed to be a tremendous portrait of Christie himself — it fairly jumped out at you. Bill and Henry couldn’t help but see the sign and, admittedly prejudiced, they felt J.I. Christie was a blot on the countryside and something should be done about it. So they did it. They painted glasses, mustache, cigar, etc. on the sign one dark night and the first thing the next day people began to stroll past Christie in his doorway with a more than ordinary interest in him. Finally someone mentioned something about his new sign and he oozed with good will until he was told that the picture really didn’t seem to resemble him at all. What was this? Of course the sign picture looked like him — he’d selected the photograph for it himself and so on. There was nothing to do but ride out to see for himself and when he did come back he was in a towering rage — this a feat in itself for he was a small man. He went to the police and demanded they find the culprits who defaced his expensive sign — you’d almost think they’d defaced him. He made such a fuss that the police were forced to investigate the case of what seemed to them, merely a bit of high school hi-jinks and really not deserving of life sentence or the chair. But Christie was mad — he was going to sue — the sign was fast accelerating upwards in value — the madder he got, the more expensive the sign was. To calm him down and thus get rid of him, Alec promised to apprehend the culprits at once. It didn’t take him long — the first thing he did was go to Smiles’ 5&10 and ask if any boys had bought any black paint — yes, 3 boys or so had been in the other day. And she knew them very well. That’s how easy it is to sleuth in a small town. He drove out to the sign and talked to a man living in a nearby house — yes he had a large ladder and some boys did borrow it the other night although he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. So Alec told him — the man was delighted and allowed as how he’d had to fight an urge to do the same thing when the sign first went up. So Alec had the goods on the boys.

When he took them down to confront Mr. G., the man was both exhilarated with the success of the police investigation and the thought of revenge. It must have been an awful bit of suspense for him wondering if the guilty ones were boys who had no money to draw on to reimubrse him for damages and he must have really felt warm and secure when Daddy arrived with his son and Bill for here was a man of distinction (Daddy always looked the epitome of success) who could well afford the price of restoration of his portrait. He pounced on Daddy at once — raging about irresponsible boys defacing works of art and such, he demanded restitution at once, and it was a good healthy demand. Now Daddy didn’t for a minute condone what the boys had done but he felt the whole thing was out of hand and told Mr. C. in no uncertain terms that he would pay to have the sign restored with a rather pointed suggestion that most people who have portraits hang them in the privacy of their homes where they are in no danger of being defaced nor do they foist them on the suffering public in quite so blatant a fashion. He was in fact, quite sharp with Mr. C. because he felt that the whole thing was ridiculous from the start and I suspect Mr. C. had the audacity to try to interest Daddy in a suit on the rack.

Alec, the friendly policeman, most likely was the one who spread the whole story around town and public feeling was aroused to the extent that Mr. C. had tough going trying to salvage his sad reputation — for after all, everyone said, boys will be boys. Daddy felt this way too but he also felt that the boys in question had to learn the hard way to accept responsibility for their misdeeds so each spent several months paying him back for the money paid out to Mr. C.

Maybe this is why both boys got jobs in grovery stores. Henry had been earning a dollar a day at the stables, exercising polo ponies and cleaning out their stalls, currying them, etc. I told you about the boot episode and I forgot to mention that Mother was becoming somewhat concerned about the distinct barnyard odor of Henry’s room. Perhaps she urged him to seek another sort of job, one with a little more monetary reward and a little less pungency. At any rate, he soon had a paying job with one drawback and one advantage. The advantage was that he would be able to drive the delivery truck every other day. This was a tremendous step in his life — it wasn’t the tips that drew him — it was the thought of having that delivery truck truck to drive all day. What boy could ask for more? The only drawback was that he was forced to wear an apron! Fortunately for Cinque’s Market the carrot over his nose was the chance to drive — it was worth the apron and heaven help anyone who laughed about it. He was extremely thin at this stage and his employers were the opposite extreme with the result that Henry’s aprons were wrapped around him two-and-a-half times and still large. One of Mother’s friends called her in near-hysteria one day for she had strolled past the store and saw Henry standing in the doorway (this was the day someone else got to drive the truck) and, being in a funny draft, he looked as fat through the middle as Mrs. Cinque because the air caught in the apron — all this with a reed-like neck and thin face above it were so comical that Helen couldn’t help getting hysterical. Mother probably told her about the evening Henry allowed as how the Catholic priest’s wife was really very nice — she’d given a ten cent tip! He really though the housekeeper was the wife of the priest. But she was nice. And Mother found she was having to split her grocery orders between Gilson’s and Cinque’s that summer. But she didn’t give any ten cent tips.

As I said, both boys had jobs in the grocery line that summer. Bills’ was slightly different from Henry’s — he worked primarily on weekends instead of during the week. Henry, after working at Cinque’s all week, would often go over and lend Bill a hand. Bill worked for Farmer Bill! 

Many years ago when you drove out in the country you’d see a little stand here and there proclaiming “Beefsteak Tomatoes” or “Fresh Picked Corn” and so on. Then when cars became very common, someone got the bright idea of having chains of roadside stands — Farmer Bill was the owner of one of these chains. And Bill was one of his clerks. Bill and Henry were both quite dapper dressers and here was Bill looking as bucolic as any farmer and at the same time being as shrewd as any down-out Yankee. Bill would wear faded overalls, dirty old shoes and a big, floppy straw hat and speak in an assumed hick accent. For these stands were for city people on the most part — we knew too much about Farmer Hill’s practices to ever purchase anything from him — and Bill reasoned that if he didn’t go all out in his act as a farmer, it would disappoint his customers. F.B. gave Bill instructions on just how to foist yesterday’s corn off on unsuspecting customers, when country people knew that corn had to be eaten the same it was picked and could spot tired corn a mile off; he taught him how to display tomatoes just the right way to hid the bad spots; in fact he taught him everything he could and Bill figured out a few more ways to cheat the unsuspecting city people short of short-changing and long-weighing them. Bill did so well in F.B.’s eyes, that he was soon promoted manager of one of his stands and that not only gave Bill a feeling of enormous pride, but also almost gave him ulcers for part of his responsibility was to take home the day’s take and he began to think about robbery and other unnerving thoughts. So every Sunday night Henry would drive over to help Bill around closing time and be a sort of bodyguard. Henry probably enjoyed this, feeling as if he were really toting a gun to protect the bankroll, but I doubt if Bill enjoyed it at all. So Henry would bring hiim home to our house Sunday night and Bill would heave a sigh of relief and hand the take over to Daddy for safekeeping after counting it — and the sum was usually considerable. Dad would solemnly give Bill a receipt and Bill would manage to get a good night’s sleep. At least the first time this happened he got a good night’s sleep, no doubt imagining Daddy had a wall-safe or something to lock the money in. But Monday morning when he sought Dad out to get the money to hand in to Farmer Bill at his office he undoubtedly was horribly shocked to learn that all Daddy had done was to put it in the sugar bowl in the china closet!

Then the boys became seriously interested in girls and managed to get themselves in more scrapes. Bill had an old jalopy by then — this after having a terrible time learning how to drive and swearing that he’d never be able to drive over 10 miles an hour without fear of instant death on the road. As soon as he had his license in hand he began to drive like a demon and could outdo anyone else in crashing Fords. He would ride around town in the jalopy with an old extra steering wheel on top of the attached one, see Carole walking down the street, lift up the extra whell and wave it saying “Hi Carole,” and thinking all the while how clever he was — Carole would shriek as the car would inadvertently bump into whatever happened to be in its path. But this was fun. This was a trying time for me — if either boy had to pick me up at school after a late gym class I was told in no uncertain terms that my place was in the back seat — the front seat was reserved for interesting girls, not sisters! And they always managed to take me the long way home that went over all the thank-you-maams just for fun — fun for them, not me.

Then came high school graduation and class day when Bill smuggled a couple of crates of pigeons up to the third floor and let them loose at the opportune moment. They just happened to gather in the skylight and everyone was madly washing their hair and clothes out in the washroom and the teachers were declaring that F’dale High’s loss was Harvard and Hofstra’s gain thank God!

So Bill went on to Harvard and glory, became president of the Lampoon and later wrote a book that sold for $8.50 a copy (he’d rather have one that didn’t sell at $8.50 than a bestseller at $2.95 he said) and Henry went to Hofstra and then the Air Force. But friends forever. 


Gaddis ms

 Typescript courtesy Ted Gioia.


LARB Contributor

A childhood friend of William Gaddis.


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