A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
There are moments when the elixir of life rises to such overbrimming splendor that the soul spills over. – Henry Miller, Sexus
Fortune’s path is the reeling of a madman. – Euripides, The Trojan Women
Today on the Classic Cars website, I saw an ad for a fully restored 1965 GMC pickup with a hard-shell camper hood, and I thought of Henry and how he must have looked when he was new, long before Julie and I made riotous love in the bed in back. I called, but the truck was already sold.
When I was 16, Dad paid $400 for a beater to haul gravel, dirt, rose bushes and azaleas for his large garden in our backyard where my brother Ken and I worked as indentured servants. I remember being up to my knees in muck one afternoon and seeing my gorgeous blonde sister Beth climb on the back of a cool guy’s Harley and roar off, and I wondered what exciting adventures awaited her. I was older than Beth, but still naive in a way she never was, and that afternoon I envied her because she’d finished her chores and was free to have fun. Little did any of us know that even then she was in serious trouble. In those days, I thought that how I felt was the single most important thing in life, and the possibility of dying was a fairy tale invented by adults to scare children. Since Dad needed the pickup only on Saturday mornings, the rest of the week it became my vehicle. I named it Henry, after Henry Miller whose Tropic of Cancer held me in thrall.
Miller’s bad boy narrator – a thief, a fornicator, an artist and a nihilist — had moved to Paris to be alone, ponder his despair in seclusion, needing to walk through the sunshine and paving stones of the Left Bank without companions or conversation, face to face with himself, only the music of his heart for company. Of course, this romantic notion of life seems like utter hogwash to me now, fifty years later, but for a 16-year-old autistic boy on the outskirts of Houston with no one to talk to except the characters in books, the life of a brilliant vagabond living by his wits in Paris sounded like heaven. Having no discernible personality of my own, I adopted his. The Artist. Now all I had to do was to find my medium. I tried painting but wasn’t very good at it. The poems I wrote didn’t impress even my mother. My music teacher hinted that I may be tone deaf. And when I danced, I looked — as one cruel boy pointed out – like “a spastic robot.” Aspiring to be an artist when you have no obvious talent is disheartening.
I finally found my niche backstage in school plays. Technical Director was my title, but everybody called me Tech Guy. My obsession with learning obscure details and my tendency to stand to the side and let others speak for me paid off, and I became the one who made sure the perfect cone of amber light always embraced the perfect form of Helen of Troy — aka Julie K. of my math class and the prettiest girl in the whole damn school. I began to pursue Helen/Julie with a persistence that only people on the spectrum are capable of. I wooed her, finding my voice as a poet, writing poems late at night (the razzmatazz of her toes), memorized the poems, then when we were alone (in the ampersand of the moonlit dance), I said the verse to her casually, in conversation, as if I’d just thought of the lines.
It worked! She fell in love with me, and I was joyously, drunkenly, serenely in love with her. No longer like a book on a shelf unread, my best impulses squelched, with her I became Henry Miller, restless artist, wanderer who’d finally found the edge of the world and jumped off. No longer a lost boy, no longer a ridiculous lonely soul, I was now a man with a purpose: Tech Guy bringing light to The Trojan Women by Euripides, the greatest anti-war play ever written. Although, as Mr. Cook our teacher explained, the play took only second prize at the Dionysian festival, losing to a tragedy by Xenocles, an execrable poet. Aristophanes mused that the jury who chose Xenocles over Euripides had to have been either bribed or stupid. My adolescent sense of justice fumed at the idea that Euripides, who now had surpassed even Henry Miller himself as The Greatest Poet Who Ever Lived, would be upstaged by a no-talent pretender who fixed a contest twenty-six hundred years ago.
Euripides’ play opens outside the fallen walls of the sacked city where the noble women of Troy grieve their sons and husbands and wait to be taken away as slaves. Queen Hecuba awakens in shadows that I, Tech Guy, create, and she curses Helen as the cause of their misery. Menelaus, a weak officious man and the husband of Helen, enters stage left bathed in a sickly yellow light; with him is the Greek herald Talthybius, a decent sensitive man caught up in a world of depravity and grief, the only man in the play with any virtue. Menelaus pays him no heed, having come to Troy only to avenge his honor. Helen enters, pleading for her life, claiming she’s the victim of a curse, but Hecuba scorns her excuse, as does Menelaus, and Helen is led off as a slave. At the end of the play, the bloody body of Hecuba’s small grandson Astyanax is brought out on a shield, having been thrown from the castle walls by the Greeks who feared he’d seek revenge someday if allowed to live. With flames rising from the ruins of Troy, Hecuba makes a last attempt to kill herself but is restrained and taken with the other women to the ships of their captors.
Our high school rendition brought a standing ovation after every performance. Audiences roared with tears in their eyes. And damnit, we deserved it. The performance was great. Patti J., the 17-year-old junior who played Hecuba, somehow found the despair of a ruined grandmother in her soul, and my lovely Julie played Helen as a woman who knew how to seduce men. Her Helen was perfectly balanced between vixen and gamine, evoking embarrassed desire in every man and suspicious rage in every woman. And I was proud of my work, especially the flickering flames of Troy on the back curtain, created by passing red and yellow gels over the Fresnel lamp. Our play swept the local competitions leading to the state championship in Austin where we won, like Euripides, second place, losing to a faddish modernist piece no one reads anymore.
After high school our troupe went our separate directions. Patti went to Yale and eventually became a successful playwright. My brother Ken inherited Henry and drove him hard until the drive shaft fell off. My sister Beth went to live with her cool Harley guy, hiding the arrangement from our parents. Julie and I went to different colleges and found other loves.
Two years later when I was visiting Houston during winter break, I had lunch with Julie, and she caught me up with the strange turns her life had taken since high school. She said she’d experienced a mental breakdown in college and spent time in a psychiatric hospital where she fell in love with one of the orderlies. When she was released, she went to live with him. He’d lost his job at the hospital after the affair with Julie was discovered, and they quickly became desperate for money, so he introduced her to a friend, a bellboy at a four-star hotel who turned her out to service the guests. She was sexy and beautiful and very popular with the male guests at the hotel, so she got top dollar for her efforts, but of course most of the money went to her two pimps. After a few months, she began to take stock of her life and felt ashamed of what she was doing. When she told her boyfriend she wanted to quit, he demanded she continue. They needed the money, he said. They argued and – here the details get a little murky — she shot him with his own pistol. The DA charged Julie with 2nd degree murder. At the trial she pleaded self-defense, and the jury acquitted her. As she told me this, I remembered how brilliantly she’d played Helen years before, and I wondered if she drew on that role as she testified in court.
At the time I talked with her, Julie was working for the law firm that had defended her, on her knees every day giving blow jobs to the attorneys to pay off her debt. I was twenty years old and wanted to be a hero, save her from the slave ship, so to speak, but of course I had no money and no power. I didn’t dare ask my father for money to save my former girlfriend from prostitution. I carried the weight of my guilt, wondering about my role in her tragedy. As her first seducer, was I culpable? She and I parted, promising to stay in touch, but we didn’t. A few months later, my mother ran into Julie downtown and, not knowing her story, encouraged me to call her. But after everything Julie had told me, I couldn’t bear the thought of being with her. Selfishly, I blamed her for destroying my innocence, as if I were the victim, not her. Then, a year after our lunch, I heard from a mutual friend that Julie had told the head of the law firm to go to hell, threatened to report him to the bar, and moved to Colorado. My heart leapt with joy. At least one woman had escaped the slave ship.
It’s been almost fifty years since I last saw Julie. Thinking of the long-ago past, as I often do these days, I recently searched for her on the internet. I found the obituary of her father, survived by his daughter Julie who’d taken a different last name and now lived in a suburb of Dallas. Facebook led me to a picture of a beautiful young woman, a perfect ringer for my own Helen of Troy, standing in a backyard with two small children. She was exactly as I remembered Julie but a little older, perhaps early thirties. So, this beautiful young woman must be Julie’s daughter, I realized, and these two children must be Julie’s grandchildren. Then I saw a picture of an attractive older woman. Divorced and serene, she seemed genuinely happy. She was still beautiful — no longer Helen, but Hecuba. Her daughter and grandchildren spoke affectionately of her. I considered contacting her, but what would I say? Remember the good old days? I thought it best to let her enjoy her well-earned serenity without being reminded of what was probably the worst period of her life.
I hope Julie recovered from the horror and humiliation of what men did to her although I believe we can never completely shed our pasts. When I think of a beautiful girl enslaved to men and money, I think of my sister Beth who was trapped in the same way. She was forced into prostitution when she was still in high school, kidnapped, kept in a cage for days at a time, and gang-raped repeatedly. Twenty years later, she shot herself in a bathroom in Llano, Texas. On a bad day, the image I have of Julie and Beth is that of the Trojan women waiting to be loaded on the ships like livestock, and a great void opens in me and I feel I’m falling into the black space of guilt and self-loathing. Am I Menelaus, unaware of my entitlement and concerned only with empty honor? Or perhaps I’m Talthybius, the last good man standing helplessly on the shore shaking my head while my comrades take turns with the women? The slaves in the dark hold of the ship cannot climb out or go back to where things went wrong. There’s no light, no voice of comfort, just chaos and darkness where they have to find their own peace without the kindness of others.
As for me, I did make it to Paris. When I was 21, I wandered the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank, broke and alert, in perpetual expectancy, at last staying loyal to the lonely words, the spontaneous longing, the ecstatic moment Julie helped me find. And now fifty years later, it’s good to be just plain happy, and every now and then something beyond happiness, something like bliss in the golden light of the Seine.
Michael Simms is the founding editor of Vox Populi. His latest book is American Ash, a collection of poems published by Ragged Sky Press.
Note: Although this essay is nonfiction, names and details of some of the people have been changed to protect their identities.
Copyright 2021 Michael Simms