Samizdat in America
Louise was a writer who had constantly to struggle not to write. In this she was the opposite of her well-known counterpart who is so inhibited by nameless fears and doubts that he cannot put pen to paper or even hold a pen in his hand without experiencing instant malaise of a vague and indefinable kind.
Louise, on the contrary, could not approach a surface of any kind without immediately producing her pen and commencing to scrawl.
Naturally, this made it difficult for the people she lived with.
Her mother might wake up in the morning and go to wash her face. On the bathroom mirror she would read: “When Tillie died, everyone in the house was relieved. Tillie had been their least favorite child, and it was a great stroke of luck that God had removed her before they themselves were forced to murder.”
Her father, rising to shut the window on the rainstorm at daybreak, might read on the rattling pane: “When Tillie decided to take her own life, she was certain it was the most constructive course of action open to her. Do it, do it, do it, was the steady message of her pulse. This was not a reference to sexual matters.”
When her brother went to turn on the TV, like as not he would discover smeared across the screen with yellow magic marker: “Tillie’s exit from this world was not as painful as one might think to those who remained behind to mourn her: it was as though a two-dimensional image had been shattered and disappeared.”
It was clear from these messages that Louise was obsessed with someone named Tillie, who in turn was obsessed with the unbearable nature of her life. And that what made it particularly unbearable was a feeling that the bosom of her family was not so capacious as to include her.
It did not occur to her that she might eliminate the others and so come to occupy their space unchallenged.
The reason it did not was that, although she had never seen “Hamlet,” she knew about ghosts and respected their power.
But these were Tillie’s convictions, not Louise’s.
Louise was more complex. She did not wish to remove herself from the world or change her place in it. She was, in fact, content with her lot. If someone had suggested that self-extinction was on her mind, she would have scoffed. She could list on her fingers the many things she had to live for. First of all she was young, and everyone agreed that youth was a pearl beyond price, especially those who had lost it. Secondly, she was pretty; excepting for freckles and hair that had a tendency to “emote,” her looks were up there with the best of them, short of the professional categories.
Thirdly, there were her brains: she did well in school, and had a reputation for being smart, and although her family did not give bonuses for good grades, the school did. Fourthly. well, there was little more that any girl could ask for besides looks and brains and a lifetime to prove them in.
It was as mystifying to her as it was to anyone that she had developed the impulse that operated in her like a tic: her painful compulsion to carry a pencil and write on walls, floors, and, with the aid of a ladder, ceilings; table tops, doors and windowsills; or, with a magic marker, on tile, wood, glass, plastic, vinyl, and,
in the case of the telephone table, marble.
As might be expected, Louise’s parents were in a dither about her. They had never suspected that in their adolescent daughter they nurtured a writer; or that this writer would be possessed of such single minded purpose; or that the burden of her writing would reflect badly, as they saw it, on themselves. It was very very disturbing.
At its outset, the extent of the disease – for it did not seem that Tillie and her feelings bid fair for publication, royalties, movie contracts or prizes, and an absorbing need to write can not reasonably be called healthy under circumstances other than
these – went undetected. Louise was with her parents and brother at the beach celebrating her thirteenth birthday. A storm was coming up and the family packed the remains of their picnic and hurried to the shelter of their car. When they arrived they realized that their daughter was not with them. Horace Jr. was sent back to look for her and discovered his sister, in the gathering darkness, dragging a foot through the wet sand: “Tillie says no and no and no…” he read, pronouncing the words out loud as he had been taught in his second-grade reading class. “Why,” he asked, “why does Tillie say no?”
But Louise just looked at him as if he had asked a stupid question, and turning upwind, took his hand and walked to the car with him. On the drive back home, her brother would not let it go: “Why does Tillie say no?” he repeated, and when he was met with silence, persisted: “Why does Tillie say no, Lou-lou?” (This was what he preferred to call his sister, for reasons known only to himself.)
“Who is Tillie?” asked Louise’s mother.
“Yes, who is Tillie?” asked her father.
“Tillie says no,” her brother intoned. “Why doesn’t Tillie say yes?”
Louise bent forward and traced something on the windshield.
By this time the windshield had fogged up and the words stood out clearly on the glass.
“Tillie takes a vacation,” read her mother, like her younger brother pronouncing the words out loud, although she had left second grade behind. “Louise, has the cat got your tongue?”
“What?” said Louise. “Oh, it was nice at the beach. I wish we could have stayed longer.”
“So do I,” said her brother.”I didn’t even get to finish my sandcastle.”
“You can finish it next year,” said her mother. This was their last day at the seashore before they returned to the suburb where they lived.
“Next year it will be gone,” objected Horace Jr.
“Well, I hope you had insurance,” said his father, and laughed as though this was funny. Her mother laughed too, not because she thought it was funny, but because her husband was an insurance agent, and she thought she owed it to his paycheck.
“Who would give insurance on a house built of sand?” asked Louise pointedly.
“The sandman,” said her brother. And this put everyone in good sorts because it seemed harmless and apt.
Later that night, Louise’s brother made up a song:
The sandman is coming
But Tillie says no.
The sandman is coming but Tillie can’t go
Who can say no to the sandman?
Only a creep!
He seemed very pleased with this song. His mother said, “I don’t know what it means, but that child is precocious.”
The next day went normally, but the following day brought a fresh outbreak of alarming symptoms. When she went to cook supper, Big Louise (this was the way Louise’s mother was referred to, to distinguish her from her daughter, although the latter had already outstripped her mother by several inches), between thoughts of asparagus and broccoli, was arrested by an obtrusive statement on the refrigerator door: “Love will not rescue Tillie.” She wiped it off automatically and decided on carrots. At the cutting board she was drawn up short again: “Will Tillie survive?” was written across the board in small letters succeeded by a big question mark. It took a good deal of Ajax to wash off the ink, and the cutting board never looked the same again.
That night at dinner, after grace had been said, Big Louise banged her knife and fork together for attention: “I have something to say,” she announced solemnly. “Whoever Tillie is, I’ve had enough of her. I want no more. Is that understood?” These enigmatic words were followed by a piercing glare at her daughter.
“Who is Tillie?” asked Horace Sr.
“Who is Tillie?” asked Louise.
“Has Tillie come back from vacation?” asked Horace Jr.
“I’ll say no more,” said Big Louise. “She knows what I’m talking about, and discussion will get us nowhere. If Louise is agreeable, I’ll let this pass and we’ll pretend it never happened. But no more Tillie.”
This line turned out to be as ineffectual as King Canute’s efforts to stay the tide. At the door Horace Sr. was welcomed home the next day by “Tillie lives here in misery and oppression.” Horace Jr. was dismayed to find his new bookbag was earmarked like a designer’s product: “Help Tillie help Tillie help Tillie help… ” went round and round it like a long snake biting its tail. The absence of punctuation made it difficult for him to know whether someone named Tillie was asking for help or someone was asking for help from someone named Tillie. Big Louise, on the other hand, found no ambiguity in the message blocked out on her bureau top: “Tillie will not give up her only weapon.”
A conference was called. Horace Jr. shrugged his nine-year-old shoulders and said, “It’s bigger than I am.” Horace Sr. drank three scotches and said, “Everyone in this house is nuts.” Big Louise sat stony faced and muttered over and over, “I won’t have it.”
When Louise asked, “Won’t have what, Mother?” she slapped her daughters’s face. Louise was shocked and hurt. Her mother had never done such a thing before. She said, “I don’t know what all the excitement is about,” and went upstairs to sulk. There was no dinner. Horace Jr. made himself a sandwich. Horace Sr. went out on a binge. Big Louise wrapped herself in a comforter with a hot water bottle and ate three slices of chocolate cake dropping the crumbs in the pages of a historical romance.
The next day brought no abatement: “Who walks on me walks on Tillie,” proclaimed the doormat. “Worse than redhot irons is the torment of Tillie,” announced the ironing board. “For Tillie the way is down and down again,” echoed the cellar stairs. The mixture in styles of Biblical hyperbole with oriental restraint went unnoticed. A second conference was called, to which Louise was not admitted. “We will freeze her out,” decided Big Louise. “No one in this family shall talk to her under pain of – ” she faltered, searching for an appropriate threat short of death.
“Under pain of not being talked to,” supplied Horace Jr. But then what happens if I talk to her and then you don’t talk to me, and then Daddy talks to her and you don’t talk to him, and all of us talk to each other and nobody talks to you. Then you’ll be the one who gets frozen out.”
“Very logical,” murmured Horace Sr.
“Completely preposterous,” ruled Big Louise. “Whose side are you on, anyhow?”
“Do we have to take sides?” asked Horace Jr.
“This situation is not of my making,” replied Big Louise. “The battle lines are drawn.”
It was after this policy had been implemented that messages began to take on the dire tone of extremity already noted. Tillie was not merely unhappy; she was mortally unhappy. The struggle she was engaged in had become a matter of life and death.
The effect on Louise was as severe as the effect on Tillie. She felt unjustly punished, counting herself, as she did, not entirely responsible for Tillie and her depredations. In this she was partly sincere and partly self-deceptive, it is hard to say more of which. Could she help it, she reasoned, if she were the chosen vessel through which Tillie’s disquiet must perforce flow? The medium, as it were, through whose ghostly manipulations Tillie presented her face of grief to the world? For once she had delivered herself of a message, she did not remember that it had gnawed at her entrails like an animal at the bars of his cage. It seemed to have no part of her at all. And Louise had no more bargained on becoming a prisoner of silence than she had ever hoped to express any sentiment more objectionable than “What pleasant weather we are having” or “Have a nice day.”
But Tillie judged otherwise. Her tone became not only more urgent, her delivery not only more intense; the field of her activity widened. A bright and cloudless day dawned to discover a once immaculate clapboard house coated with graffiti from foundation to eaves:”Tillie quakes within these walls.” The letters looped and spiraled with an abandon of decorative verve that belied the chaste austerity of the syntax. The neighbors on either side opened their windows and gasped: “Vandals!” they said. “Vandals have infiltrated the neighborhood.”
It as at this juncture that an expert was called in, together with a house painter.
The expert was a small, slight man of insipid appearance with a carefully tended mustache. He carried a briefcase which he sat on the coffee table before him, squeezing his legs between it and the couch. While the situation was explained to him, he riffled through its contents, consulting charts and graphs and statistical tables. At last he gathered the papers together and stuffed them back in the briefcase, snapping the lock with a forceful click. “Harrumph!” he said, explosively. And then, after an expectant silence, “This case appears to be unique.”
“What do you recommend?” asked Big Louise, and, without waiting for an answer, continued, “Something must be done.”
“Well,” said the expert, “you could always send her away.”
“Where to?” asked Horace Sr.
“Boarding school?” suggested the expert.
“Oh,” said Big Louise and Horace Sr. simultaneously. It could have meant What a good idea, or it could have meant What a bad idea.
“The alternative,” the expert continued, “is to do nothing. In some cases, nature cures what man cannot.”
“But this behavior is unnatural,” protested Big Louise. “How can nature cure what is not nature?”
“It is not unnatural to write,” averred the expert. “People have done it since alphabets were invented.”
“But not on the furniture!” exclaimed Big Louise.
“On clay, on stone, on bark, on brass,” the expert insisted. “On whatever is handy. In this house the furniture is handy. Consider,” he added, pointing to the Queen Ann wingchair stationed near the door. “That chair is four times as old as you are and will probably outlive your grandchildren. Why not write on it?”
“Why not indeed?” murmured Horace Sr. rolling his eyes.
“If you could combine all likely surfaces into one, she might write messages to her heart’s content. For example, if she had access to the sky….”
“Let’s be realistic here, ” objected Horace Sr.
“Yes, yes of course. I only meant to point out that you have two options: A: eliminate her impulse to convey written messages or B: eliminate the technical requirements for doing so. In case A, there are again two alternatives: A-l: what the West calls “therapy,” and A-2 what the East calls “reeducation, also known as brainwashing.” Neither is surefire. Both are costly: A-1 in a material sense, A-2 in a moral sense. Option B is equally vexed: short of cutting off her hands, I do not see how you can alter the technical requirements for writing – “
At this juncture Horace Jr., who had been playing unobserved in a corner, piped up: “If you cut off Lou-lou’s hands, she might learn to write with her feet, like the paraplegics who paint Christmas cards with their toes.”
“Absolutely not,” said Big Louise. “Cutting off hands is barbaric. They may do it in Islamic countries to punish thieves, but they do not do it in twentieth century America. Not in this family, they don’t. No, sir. “
“Clearly the child needs to express herself,” continued the expert. “Maybe you could dissuade her from writing in favor of painting…”
“And have sunsets on my furniture! No thank you. Let’s not
make the situation worse than it is!” exclaimed Big Louise.
“Yes, of course I see your point. Now then, where was I?” asked the expert, momentarily having lost track of his main line of thought.
Horace Jr. piped up again: “The technical requirements for writing… “
“Ah yes. Thank you, young man. As I was saying, I do not see how you can alter the technical requirements for writing. It will always require a tool to write with. It will always require a surface to write on. I am afraid you are left with an insoluble problem.”
“You mean it’s hopeless,” said Big Louise.
“Nothing is hopeless,” returned the expert.
“We’ve brought you in to consult and all you can tell us is that it’s an insoluble problem?” said Horace Sr. in disbelief.
I’m sorry,” said the expert. “Your daughter has turned into a writing machine. It is a disease for which there is no standard or homeopathic cure.”
“And judging the interview to have come to a close, he collected his briefcase and headed for the door, pausing only on the stoop to add: “You’ll get my bill in the mail.”
“We are just where we were,” sighed Big Louise as she turned back in the hall.
“My pockets are not bottomless,” muttered Horace Sr. darkly.
“What is a homeopathic cure?” asked Horace Jr.
“A hair of the dog that bit you,” said his father.
“A system of medical practice that treats a disease by minute doses of a remedy that would in healthy persons produce symptoms similar to those of the disease treated,” said the house painter, looming at the open window. “Sorry, folks. I couldn’t help overhearing.”
Louise, who could have helped overhearing, turned away from the keyhole with a new feeling of gratitude to her mother for having so decisively rejected the notion of cutting off her hands. She didn’t really believe it was a serious option, but all the same it thrilled her in a small way to hear her mother defending the humane principles of the Enlightenment. Good for her! she thought. The expert was right: Nothing is hopeless.
In succeeding days there was a diminishment not in the number – the messages continued to proliferate – but in the desperation of Tillie’s communications. Gone were the allusions to suicide, death and mortal terror. Instead, Tillie, as though she had accepted the burden of her fate and resolved to shoulder it with fortitude, evinced a new spirit of pride and self-assertion. “Tillie walks again,” read one such message. “Tillie may take three giant-steps,” declared another. “Tillie, like the cheese,” ran a third, introducing an unaccustomed metaphor, “stands alone.”
Then, mysteriously, a new wrinkle was introduced. Other messages appeared, messages derived from another source, a source named Squat. These messages all started the same way: “Squat says.”
“Squat says Tillie shut up!” was the first to be noticed. It was written with lipstick on the hall mirror. “Squat says Tillie take a powder!” was the next, crayoned on the downstairs bathroom door.
“Squat says Tillie go fish!” was written in toothpaste around the toilet bowl. Big Louise appreciated this touch. The writing would efface itself without her intervention. She was weary of her posture of defense: Her squadrons of cleanser and battalions of detergent were easily replaced and would never mutiny. But their general was human, the enemy implacable, and despite all the cheerful admonitions of Procter & Gamble that DIRT SHALL BE VANQUISHED! demoralization had set in.
Meanwhile, war raged on a second front. Squat and Tillie exchanged taunts and insults with fierce abandon: Tillie abominates Squat. Squat says ho ho ho. Tillie will get Squat. Squat says no way. Creep! Bully! Loudmouth! Jerk! Skunk! Weasel! It is notable that by this time it was impossible to tell whether a message had been delivered by Squat or Tillie: each had stopped declaring himself for the benefit of third parties. The struggle had become intramural.
“Whose side are you on?” Horace Jr. asked his father.
“I thought you didn’t like to take sides,” his father replied.
“That was different,” said Horace Jr. not bothering to explain how. “This is fun.”
“I’m a peaceable man,” said Horace Sr., not altogether truthfully. “I’m moving to a hotel.”
“You can’t leave me,” protested his wife. “How can I cope with this alone?”
“You’re not alone,” said Horace Jr. “I’m here. I’ll help you.”
“Remember what the expert said?
“He said a lot of things.”
“About Louise’s disease; about turning into a writing machine,” said Horace Jr. “And that word …. homo-something.”
“Where did you hear that?” interjected Horace Sr. aggressively.
“It’s the word the house painter explained what it was.”
“Oh. Homeopathic,” said his mother.
“That’s it. Well here’s my idea… ” And he leaned toward his mother who leaned toward him, and whispered something at some length into her ear.
“Hmmmmmmmmmm,” said his mother. “I see. Why not try it? I know you’re precocious.”
When her father had left the house, Louise had serious misgivings.
The last thing she wanted was to break up her family. She looked at her hands,and cursed them. She looked at her heart and shuddered. “I don’t know what to do,” she said to herself. “I can’t sleep. Because it must be me. I know it is me. But I’m not Tillie. I’ve never heard of Tillie. And who Squat is is beyond me. And I never dreamed of saying such nasty spiteful things as she says.”
And again: “It’s not what I want. It’s not what I want. What I want is for everyone to live harmoniously together.”
In the morning Louise got up and crept into the bathroom. “Truce,” she read on the tiles. “Truce,” she read on the enamel. “Truce,” she read on the marbled windowpane. She washed her hands and feet and went down to breakfast.
“Hello, Lou-lou,” said Horace Jr.
Louise was thrilled. It was the first time anyone had addressed her in a week.
“What pleasant weather we are having,” she said brightly.
“Pleasant weather!” exclaimed Big Louise. “You’re mad. It’s raining.”
Louise looked out the window. It was indeed raining. “Of course,” she said. “What I meant was, what pleasant weather we would be having if it wasn’t raining.” Then she turned to her bowl of cornflakes and concentrated on that.
“School starts day after tomorrow,” said Horace Jr.
“Are you ready?” asked Big Louise of her daughter.
I guess so,” said Louise.
“I can’t wait. said her mother. “Maybe you’ll stop treating this house like a blackboard.”
Louise burst out crying and ran upstairs to her room.
In the evening there were more messages: “Tillie will parley.” “Squat says OK.” They appeared on opposing sides of the hallway. Horace Sr. called from his hotel and asked if there had been any change in the status quo. Big Louise said no but she was hopeful.
The morning dawned and seemed to bear out her hope: The marriage of Tillie and Squat was announced in Gothic lettering on the fan window over the front door.
At breakfast there was an unusual amount of conversation.
“A marriage,” sighed Big Louise. “Isn’t that wonderful? Tillie and Squat are getting married.”
“What will you give them for a wedding present?” asked Horace Jr.
“Why give them anything?” asked Louise.
“Because they are friends of the family,” said her mother.
“Oh,” said Louise. “I didn’t know that.”
“I wonder where they’ll go on their honeymoon,” Horace Jr. continued. “Jamaica? Nova Scotia?”
“Jamaica’s too hot,” opined Big Louise. “Nova Scotia’s too cold. They’ll probably go somewhere with a temperate climate, like Long Island.”
“So what is the wedding present?” asked Louise.
“It’s a surprise,” said her mother. “I’ve left it in the linen closet.”
“Why? Is it a comforter?”
“No,” said Big Louise. “You know that’s where I always store things.”
“How will they find it there?” asked Louise, more interested in the subject than she realized. “Are you going to put up arrows:
This way to your wedding present?”
“Very funny,” said Big Louise. “If you think they won’t find it, why don’t you take it and put it wherever you think they will. In fact,” she added as an afterthought, “if you think they won’t like it, why not keep it for yourself.”
“How do I know what these two people will like or not like?”
“Oh, fudge,” said Horace Jr. “Lou-lou, you’re a pain.”
This effectively shut up Louise. Nevertheless, she went to the linen closet, retrieved the wedding present, and took it to her room, where she put it on her desk.
This happened during the night, in a state of semi-trance. She was in fact sleepwalking. When she woke up in the morning and saw what was on her desk, she wondered briefly how it had got there, and then remembered she had dreamed she had found something interesting in the linen closet. That seemed to her rather odd, but she accepted it without question, and with a profound sense of resignation. When she returned from school later that day she immediately went to her room and did not reemerge until dinner.
“Did you have a nice day at school?” asked Big Louise, passing the succotash.
“Partly,” said Louise shortly.
“Well, I had a nice day at home,” said her mother, neglecting to enquire which part. “I didn’t do a single bit of cleaning. And I have good news: Your father is coming back. “That is,” she continued significantly, “he’s promised to come back if I have another nice day tomorrow.”
“Here’s to a nice day tomorrow,” said Horace Jr., lifting his glass of milk.
“Precious,” said big Louise, and fairly melted.
Horace Sr. returned. Tillie and Squat were heard from only once more, briefly, in a telegram: “Thanks. Stop. One writing machine deserves another. Stop. Communication fluent and painless. Stop. Nice days forever after.”
Louise’s attitude toward writing – insofar as Tillie’s depredations could, as her mother insisted to the end, indeed be traced to her own will and consent, underwent a radical change. No longer was her public limited to the immediate family. It had expanded. And with the increase in size of her potential audience, came a change in her type of communication. Gone were the short aggressive declaratory statements. Gone was the direct hostility, the dire predictions, the outrageous self-pity; gone was the underlying current of blackmail: love me or be sorry: in short, all of the things that had defined Tillie as a thoroughly unpleasant author with no recourse but to impose herself on her limited public by unfair means were now subsumed in the character of a young girl attempting her first forays into the world of imaginative literature. The first example of her new orientation was the story she had spent the week writing after her discovery of the typewriter on her desk.
Once upon a time there was a witch who was so wicked that she turned everything and everyone she didn’t like into words; and with these words she built herself a house in the forest in which she lived quite comfortably.
When Louise had finished the story, she handed it in to her English teacher. Her English teacher said it didn’t make sense: that Hansel and Gretel could not nourish themselves on words, even magic ones,
and if they destroyed the witch, as they did, and all the words turned back into the realities they represented, then there wasn’t much point in having words in the first place. RETHINK she wrote in large red letters across the bottom of the manuscript. Louise might have objected that Hansel and Gretel were themselves words, and in church she had heard God was a word too; so the words must have come first; not to mention that the world of things and objects which always threatens to escape the senses through habit or inattention, is restored through the imagination when it is recreated in words; but she wasn’t sophisticated enough to make any these arguments, and instead started to write another story.
Horace Jr., who had listened to the expert very carefully, resolved to find a way to combine all surfaces into one so that people could write on a window like the sky. It is not certain whether it was he or someone else who was responsible for the invention of the microchip and with it, the computer screen. It may have been that he merely designed the Windows Logo, a nationless flag waving in a windless anodyne blue. But he too was definitely a child of his time.