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t h e   s a l o n

essayist Valentine Michael Smith


When I was nineteen, and fresh out of a mental hospital, some Quaker friends I had met while on leave without permission helped me to rent a furnished room in a large university town in Michigan. After six years of incarceration, I still had no real familiarity with being a "social" person. I had no experience with girls, less at living alone, and had real difficulty with interactions.

The Quakers helped me find a job, as a waiter at a local country club. I began living in a house with a young Quaker couple, Patrick and Jenny, a black ex-con para-legal named Art and his young white girlfriend Judy, and a couple of other students, dark-haired and quiet women, whom I never saw. Patrick and Jenny were hardly ever around either, but they were a pleasant contrast to the always sullen Art, and the diminutive Judy, quiet as a mouse most of the time.

Housing in the town remained difficult to find, as is the case in many university towns. My friends had found me a furnished room on the first floor in a big old rambling brownstone house that technically was called an "apartment house," cut up into six apartments or rooms. Each floor had an apartment and a room. My room, the largest of the three furnished rooms in the house, had 10 foot ceilings, no kitchen and no bathroom - a bed, two closets, an enormous picture window facing to the west (so I could see my beloved sunsets!), and greenish walls with peeling paint near the ceiling. The room felt gargantuan even though it was a "single room."

Patrick and Jenny had the only apartment on the second floor, while Art and Judy had the third floor apartment. Two stairwells ran up the front and the back of the house, with the front stairs opening into a vestibule and the back stairs opened into the kitchen, located in the back of the house on the first floor.

All of us that lived there were quite young, except for Art. I was 19, everyone else was in their early twenties, while Judy seemed real young, under 18, I had heard. Art at 43 felt and acted ancient to the rest of us. I didn't know much else about any of the people that lived there. Everybody seemed to go to school but Art, who worked in some lawyer's office, and Judy, who didn't appear to do anything but hang out at the house. Art and Judy were also the first inter-racial couple I had ever dealt with up close, though a couple of the kids in the asylum with me had been from mixed parentings. These two were not the happiest couple I'd ever seen.

Most of the people who lived in the house were gone during the day, and pretty busy socially most nights. Art worked all day, and I worked evenings until midnight or 1 in the morning. Like a lot of night workers, I'd stay up after I got off work, and sleep in the afternoons. Judy just hung around the house, often perching in the vast wood-dominated group kitchen we all shared. The cabinets were light oak, the ceiling was beamed with dark stained wood, the walls were some kind of oak panelling, the counters were all polished cherry wood. It seemed almost like an alcoved forest in that room, with its looming 12 foot ceiling, always enshrouded in shadows and flickering pockets of light near the ceiling depending on the time of day.

Patrick and Jenny were lost in each other, and spent more time in Oberlin, Ohio than at home, planning for a wedding a few months off. Once in a while, they were around, a bright and cheerful contrast to Art, who rarely could muster being civil to the other people in the house. Art growled rather than talked, came off as totally inhospitable, hostile to white people generally, and young white men specifically. I displayed a basically lonely personality, shy despite an outgoing nature when asked to display knowledge. Gradually I drifted in a careful conversational interaction with Judy, usually sitting at the squared off picnic-style maple table that took up one third of the kitchen. Carefullly, because Art offered a rabidly jealous stance to anyone who talked to Judy, often threatening violence to no one in particular, but occasionally quite specifically Patrick or myself, for imagined "messin'" with "my woman" charges that he never made clear.

Too often, I would hear Art and Judy arguing down the stairs in the evenings, bitter and acrimonious exchanges that usually ended with him cuffing or belting her hard enough for the sounds to be audible to those of us in the kitchen. I stayed very shy with her for that reason and because the hospital experience had really excluded social interaction with girls and women. I had no knowledge of girls or women to speak of. A little part of me understood without being told of Art's incredible jealousy about Judy, so I was leary of her. I tended to be gunshy of too deep an interaction because I really did not want to brawl with Art, a distinct possibility.

At first, I paid only scant attention to her, because she clearly lived with Art, and he loudly made sure everyone in the house was aware of that. He offered to the world a very dominating person, 5'3", dark chocolate in color, with a seemingly permanent scowl set in his face. Scarred hands, and a large scar above his right eyebrow made it clear that Art had scrapped with people in the past at close quarters. I recognized that kind of scar, I had inflicted a few in the years I had been locked away, and I carried more than one myself. I stayed very careful around him, the people in the house told vague tales of his violence, and I wanted no part of him or his pushy attitude, looking for a fight.

Judy appeared a comely girl, with dark wavy hair and lots of it, a pale face, deep green eyes, a slender, small-breasted body, maybe 5'2" and 120 ounds. with a lithe, silent way of stalking in and out of rooms. She often encouraged small chit-chat despite Art, and usually when he worked. Slowly we got to know each other better.

Judy sat with me one fog-shrouded, grey Friday in our slightly dark kitchen, huskily telling me that Art had beaten her again, showing me bruises along her arms and shoulders, and a purplish mark along the side of her petite, pale jaw. At a loss for words, I knocked over my coffee in the violence of my reaction. Embarassed, I then got one of my dish towels and cleaned off the oilcloth tablecloth, staring at the checks on the cloth rather than look at Judy, not knowing what to say.

I had four sisters at home, but I had not been around them for almost six years, and women made me nervous. Judy's confession also made me nervous, and not just because of the madly protective Art, but because I liked her, and found myself physically attracted to her. I did not exactly know what to do, so I blurted out, "Would you like to go home? I'm making pretty good money at the restaurant, and would be glad to buy you a ticket," knowing she didn't have much money. She said, No, I couldn't do that!" and sat for a long time staring out the window at the big oak tree in the yard, silent, a brooding presence vibrantly distant. Finally, she almost whispered, "Let me think about it."

We talked more and more after that afternoon, however, always chastely sitting on the red enameled wooden chairs ringing the table that were a part of the huge old kitchen ringed with cupboards on all the walls filled with seven people's dishes and food. Everything in that kitchen was large, including many of the dramas played out there, though I missed many of them because of the verbal violence they generated.

I learned a lot about Judy, about her feelings and herself, of her aspirations, and a little about her family. I found out she had parents down Kalamazoo way and a sister in a convent in Indiana, and that she continued being unhappy with Art because of the beatings. "Art takes me for granted, just a cute piece of ass that he can bully," she said bitterly one day. Judy continued to state that she wanted more out of life than being a black ex-con's "girlfriend." She hated that word, she said, because she felt she had been a woman since she was sixteen, when she first took up with Art. Now she had been with him almost three years, had grown sick of his brutality, and indifference to her as a person.

The brief experience I had with the Quakers had fired me up with a sense of "good deeding," especially after they had helped me ease my way out of the institutions. One day, listening to Judy once more express her rage about how Art demeaned her and physically hurt her, I again offered to pay Judy's way home if she would go home to her folks.

I felt it small expiation for the many people I had pounded while a "violent inmate" in the nearby "looney bin," some whom were going to be crippled for the rest of their days to one degree or another. While locked up, I had been extraordinarily violent, not hesitating to use fists or furniture to injure anyone I perceived as an enemy. I felt a need to atone for all that hurt I had meted out, and I definitely behaved like a sucker for a pretty face. Judy's anguish and plight touched my hard-bitten and usually indifferent character, making me realize that people had helped me get out of my morass. I was going through a phase, trying to make myself a better guy than I had been, but I kept being a little starry-eyed and deluded about it too.

My offer occasioned a week of debates over coffee that spring while she sorted out her fears of Art coming to hurt her. "He's real mean," she almost whispered one day a few days after I had said I could help, "I've seen him go after people in bars with a knife he's got that's REAL sharp, and quite long! I know he'll call my Mom looking for me, he knows the number. Mom won't tell him nothin', but it'll worry her, him calling. Art will kick the shit out me if I come back here, maybe even come after me - though my Dad would kill him if he showed up there." She said, in a cruel tone, "Dad don't like niggers, and he ain't prejudiced! He likes some black guys, he only hates shiftless guys who whine about Whitey or are on welfare, his best drinking buddy is a black guy from the Ford plant where he works, but he's never liked Art. Dad met him a couple of times, and they didn't hit it off very well, not that Art gets on with very many people."

She grabbed my heartstrings hard. I had been a physically abused child and young teenager, and here was Judy, girl/woman, semi-trapped in a victim/persecutor game of high pain to her - her situation wrenched me to the core, and made me want all the more to help her get away from Art. I had wanted to escape my misery many, many times, in the end the only rescuer I found had been myself. It seemed to me that Judy deserved a better break than that.

I realized that I loved her a great deal, in a schmaltzy, non-sexual way, so much that I had become willing to send her away rather than know she took beatings from a male bully. I said, "Well, I can handle the son-of-a-bitch, he ain't so tough." She argued with me, telling me I had misjudged Art, but she finally agreed to a train ticket, faster than the bus. She begged me to move out, live somewhere else. She said, "Art is going to try to kill you, you know." I told her, "I don't think so, I'll give him a hell of a fight if he tries." She cried then, but agreed to meet me at the train station the next morning, and went off to her apartment.

I put Judy on the train in the morning, kissing her goodbye, saying to her, "Good luck, write me once in a while," trying to smile, and feel like I had really done the right thing. She turned sad eyes up to me, whispered, "I will, and hopped on the train. She had gone, with my heart breaking that I had gotten her to go. That night, I came home from work at 12:30 in the morning, and went upstairs to wash up before going down, sitting in the kitchen to read my latest book and cooking and eating my dinner. I trudged up the stairs, and it appeared the house was quiet. I didn't hear anyone in the kitchen below the bathroom, nor did it sound like anyone else was home. This was on the weekend, so I knew Patrick and Jenny were down at Oberlin, had no idea where everybody else had gotten to.

I stood at the sink, and all of a sudden, bam! I felt the sharpest pain in the side of my head as I tumbled to the floor, and rolled over just in time to be hit again, in the cheekbone, which I heard audibly crack as the blow fell. I blinked, and there was Art, dark brown face grim as he swung again with what appeared to be a sap. It seemed so incongrous to me, this little guy in a suit whacking on me with such a vicious weapon, a thing I had seen many times in the hands of my policeman step-father. He had caught me completely by surprise, and knocked the fight right out of me in an instant. I couldn't get to my feet to take a solid swing at him, though I kept struggling to get my footing as I flopped around, trying to wriggle away from the hail of hits Art delivered with both sap and fist.

Blow after blow rained on my head and face. I could not get up to take a swing at the guy! Blood began flowing from cuts cross the eye, the lips, and from a slash across my throat from a long slender knife he held in his other hand that luckily missed the carotid vein. I could not get to my feet, though I kept trying to, struggling hard, but failing to get up and away from the the blows that were coming so fast and furiously. My emotions rose to a fierce burning desire almost animalistic in nature to do my best to kill this SOB kicking the crap out of me.

Art's drubbing and slashing of me had as a sidebar a running spewing of swearing and cursing, as he grunted heavily with the effort he was expending in injuring me, about my "messing around with his woman." I kept trying to swing back, which only encouraged more violence. Finally, he had mashed my face so badly, I couldn't tell him what he wanted to know most - the location of Judy.

I couldn't tell him, responding with defiant, hurt to the bone, silence. Then the powerfully built man, shorter but heavier than I, went berserk and began kicking me in the ribs, outraged that I wouldn't say anything. I momentarily passed out, and fell over on my side. I came to again when he began kicking me more in the head and face. I cried out in awful, excruciating pain as he booted me a few more times, and then he vanished from my blood-filled sight, threatening me more in blood-curdling terms. He popped out the door and vanished, while I lay in a pool of blood from my head and face, groaning and whimpering in complete pain.

I must have passed out two or three times. I still could not stand up, and it felt as though the fingers on one hand were broken, so I could not even sit up very well. No one was home, I had tried to holler for help, and no one answered. I cried and fussed, literally crawling down the hall, on my elbows and knees, with my head and chest on fire with pain. I struggled down the two flights of stairs, fumbling hard to even open the heavy oaken front door, falling down on the front stoop after I got out the door. I lay on the cool concrete for a real long time, feeling blood oozing out of several wounds at once, but also the coolness eased a portion of the tremedous hurt all the cuts, bruises and breaks were causing.

My keys had gotten lost, my jacket was torn, I was totally befuddled as to what to do. I was in a daze, operating on instinct rather than any real knowingness of what I was doing. Blood was everywhere. My chest, ribs and face were on fire. Somehow, I finally managed to stand up again. I had no idea what I looked like, and could have cared less. Pain was the only thing that registered at all, and a primal, burning need or instinct to get help.

I stumbled next door, after two more tumbles on the walkway between the houses, lurching through a line of bushes between the houses, falling down again, then collapsing noisily on the neighbor's front porch. I crawled to the door and began weakly pounding. A young woman answered the door, and screamed real loudly when she saw me laying in blood on her porch. The emotional force of her scream was the last straw. I crumpled into unconsciousness. I came back to life in a brightly lit room, with a familiar face looking at me. Amazingly, my cousin the doctor swam into view staring at me with pity in his eyes. I couldn't quite believe I was seeing Tom's face, and I was disorientated. "How did he get here?" I thought.

He spoke, and it sounded like a foghorn, incredibly loud, and very painful. "Mike," he says," you are a mess! You've got three broken ribs, your jaw is cracked in four places - we had to wire part of it in place - both your cheekbones and nose are fractured, your skull has been fractured a couple times over, you must have a half dozen nasty cuts, none serious, thank God, though the one on your throat is going to leave a scar for quite some time. Whoever did this broke all the fingers on your left hand, and two on your right. What in the hell happened to you?" I succinctly, hoarsely, told him the story of Art and the sap. Then he told me I'd have to stay a few days, and I barely argued about it.

I lay in the emergency room while Tom tried for almost an hour to persuade me that whoever had done this violence to me should be gotten off the streets. He finally convinced me that perhaps I should swear out a complaint against Art. When I agreed, he stepped over to the wall, grabbed a phone and called the police, quicking telling them in a low voice what had jhappened to me. "Sure, he'll sign a complaint," he said, and then hung up. "They're on their way," he told me. I nodded. Shortly thereafter, as he continued cleaning and stitching my wounds, two burly figures joined us. I once more told the story of Judy and Art to the two cops, casual-sounding middle-aged detectives in suits and crewcuts, who had me sign a paper requesting a warrent for Art's arrest for assault.

The officers told me Art was a two-time felon, and that this business - a felony - would put Art away for life under the Michigan habitual criminals law. They warned me that Art would probably fight hard to avoid going back to prison, and that I would have to be alert, as Art had a history of violent retaliations against witnesses and people who complained about him. As he was a para-legal, and had connections in the prosecutor's office despite being a felon. They told me that he would soon know where I was staying. When I got out the hospital a few days after Art's furious battering, the cops put me up in a hotel across the street from the main police station in town, and again warned me to keep my eyes open, as they did not have the manpower to guard me from Art.

The court date was five weeks away. In four weeks, thugs tried to knife me at my new job at the library, slicing up my shoulder. Two friends were beaten up, others were threatened. I received daily threats at work on the phone, demanding that I withdraw my complainmt against Art. I had to quit my job. The last straw for me came when two of Art's friends threw me down a flight of stairs in the hotel I was staying at, re-breaking my ribs again. I finally got the message.

Leaving everything behind, I lit out hitch-hiking for California three days before the court date, and stayed away from Michigan for fifteen months, irritating my Quaker friends for having to straighten out my affairs, which were quite tangled. They mostly were upset about all the medical bills. I had left a note saying to send all of the bills to Art's law firm where he worked. My feeling had been that his bosses ought to pay because he had been such an asshole to me. clowns figure it out. But, I wanted revenge. I felt Art deserved some kind of punishment. This son-of-a-bitch had hurt me bad, and walked from getting his just deserts by using intimidation and more violence.

Unbeknownst to anyone else I knew, I came back to Michigan. I did some checking around. Art had been fired from his old job. He lived in a different house. I decided to get even in a shitty way because I knew if I tried to mete out what he had to me, I'd end up paying worse than him. I subscribed to all kinds of magazines using various variations of his name. I called the cops, making threats and saying I was Art. I applied for loans in a half dozen places, using his name. I called his boss, his landlord, told them horrible things about Art. I called the city inpectors out on him. I got his dog taken to the pound. I spent two weeks in town, moving from motel to motel, causing a literal shitstorm of trouble to befall Art, without ever once directly confronting him.

This indirect, non-confrontational "punishment" was all I could do. Though I had remained in a white hot rage about him for the fifteen months I had lived elsewhere, exacting the revenge finally grew tiring. If I seen Art, I probably would have tried to kill him with my bare hands, if that's all that had been available. I never laid eyes on Judy, my apartment or the things in it, the other folks who lived there, or Art, ever again. I left Michigan behind, going off to live in Idaho.

I did talk to Judy's sister the nun once, a couple of years after that. She told me Judy had gone on to LPN school and expected to graduate soon. She said she felt sorry that I had been half-killed rescuing her sister, but that she felt that I stood "high in God's grace" for doing what I had on Judy's behalf. For a few minutes, one day, long after the intial wellspring of events and emotions, I had a warm glow - I had done a right thing for somebody! The cost was high, for both Art and me, but I had few regrets. I rarely think of Art these days, but occasionally I wonder, does he think of me?

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