Searching for William Manchester – By Robert Meade

Eileen Katherine O’Brien decided finally to go to Wesleyan University, not because it was far enough from home that she would have to board but because there she could begin searching for William Manchester.

William Manchester was Eileen’s father’s favorite author. Manchester had nineteen books in print, various editions of eleven separate titles. He wrote biographies and was most famous for being the Kennedy family’s unofficial historian. Michael O’Brien taught English at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, a comfortable Boston neighborhood, and had read all of Manchester’s books. He bought them as paperbacks, whenever possible, and kept them in a shipping flat whose boards he had taken apart and nailed back together into a bookcase.

The O’Brien children were taught by example to respect these books. Eileen could recall the first time she opened one of them, impressed by the whisper of its brown pages and the peppery smell of dust, only to put it back before her unworthiness grew into panic.

Three pictures of William Manchester adorned the O’Brien home. The first two were creased newspaper clippings thumb tacked over the desk in the attic room Eileen’s father used as a study. The third was large and framed, and hung in the living room just over the television. Eileen could never watch a program without feeling that she was being stared at by the black-and-white portrait of William Manchester. His gray eyes seemed to say, “I know your secret.”

Eileen knew that her father had met William Manchester during a writer’s workshop at Wesleyan the summer Eileen turned seven. Eileen knew this the same way she knew her name, without thinking and with unerring certainty, for the account of this meeting between the famous writer and the English teacher was the one star in her father’s galaxy of ideas that outshone any of his other stories. Manchester was charming and encouraging, and immediately upon the conclusion of their brief encounter Mr. O’Brien vowed that of all men it would be he who would write the biography of Mr. William Manchester.

Eileen also knew that her father’s vocation as biographer came and went like a bad lover. Long periods of inactivity were interrupted by spurts of researching and outlining the life and times of William Manchester. Eileen knew this not simply because she had witnessed her father ascend and descend the attic stairs, his grimace a hybrid of guilt and determination, but also because at the end, when she had to clean out her father’s desk because her mother could not, all she found besides a locked filing cabinet were five shoe boxes filled with note cards and fifteen pages of manuscript cross-hatched with her father’s corrections.

Two weeks after the funeral, Eileen sat up watching family videos after her mother had gone to bed. She didn’t need to see her father’s face. Nothing could erase from her mind his gray-white, receding hairline and broad forehead, the arching eyebrows, gray eyes wrinkled at the corners, the long nose and Irish cheeks, the wide grin and almost-double chin. She needed instead to understand her father’s dedication to William Manchester, something her mother and brothers could explain only with shrugs and thousand-yard stares. The mystery nagged her. She felt disrespectful in her ignorance, as though the shadow of William Manchester were following her, whispering dryly, taunting her to say just who her father really was.

Her father wouldn’t be in many of the videos because he was usually the one taking them. That did not matter. What she was looking for could not be found in the surface of things, no more than a picture of English roses could yield their dusty, cinnamon scent. Eileen might solve part of her father’s mystery, she thought, by looking at what he chose to record, at what he thought important enough to rescue from the abyss of time.

She found what she already knew. Her father was a family man devoted to his wife and five children. He haunted garage sales looking for models of knights because that was the mascot at school. He liked potato salad and playing horseshoes, and was bad at basketball. He encouraged competition and was especially fond of recording his only daughter smacking the cover off a softball. He never missed any of his children’s rites of passage, and faithfully videotaped their communions, confirmations, graduations, and weddings. It seemed almost a sacrilege that no one had taped his funeral.

Dawn seeped in around the bay window shade, tinting the living room ceiling, and Eileen had found nothing in the videos to explain her father’s preoccupation with William Manchester. The books didn’t help either. She read snippets of Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur and all of his account of the Kennedy presidency, but she found nothing in either work to help her understand why an English teacher with a fondness for second-hand cars would become so engrossed in reading history that he sometimes forgot to come down to eat dinner.

Not then did Eileen decide to go to Wesleyan. She did not yet know about the key to the filing cabinet, the key that was waiting to be found, like a sword in stone, singing her fate in colors gold and gray. She thought she had suffered enough, but this ragged hole in her life where her father had been was only a prelude to a darker passage, the only one that would ready her to search for William Manchester.

Eileen knew that going to Wesleyan meant giving up Billy Parlon, her boyfriend of two years and the only one she had ever let touch her. Billy was a tall boy with a large head and large hands. She picked Billy because unlike so many of the boys she met he wanted to do more than simply go into his father’s business. Billy was a dreamer with a hard edge. Nothing would stand in his way. One night he asked her to come with him to the West Coast where he would learn to write screenplays. They were sitting on the back porch of her father’s house. When Billy called her away to California, Eileen felt the June air grow suddenly damp, like a calf’s tongue on the nape of her neck, and she pulled away from his embrace.

She had not yet decided where she would go, but she knew it would not be to California. She knew also that Billy certainly would go and that their first, ardent attempts to remain faithful would fade feebly until finally they simply would not write or see each other anymore. It had happened with all of her brothers, none of whom had married the girls they’d left behind. The same would happen with Billy. Maybe it was better not to drag out the inevitable. But Eileen couldn’t say the words, couldn’t make herself sever a connection so soon after her father’s passing.

“I want what will make you happy,” she told Billy, taking his hand. “I want what will make us both happy.” Billy left an hour later, and everything was set. Eileen would join Billy in the fall, after selling the house and settling her mother into a smaller place. In California, they would live together.

Later that night she wrote Billy a letter explaining why she could not go with him. “In all that I say,” Eileen began, “remember always that I love you.” She asked him to remember that she had to stay close to her mother, who needed her now more than ever. How could she leave? Would it mean they loved each other any less if she did not go with him? Eileen asked Billy to consider what he would do if circumstances were reversed. She closed by asking him to stay with her, to give up California for her.

Then she tore up the letter. When the time came, she went with Billy to Logan Airport to see him off to Los Angeles. She never told him she would not be coming out. She never said they would not be together. They both knew it during their final kiss before Billy disappeared down the corridor leading to his gate.

In the parking lot, Eileen peered up at what she guessed was his plane. Two roads diverged, she thought. It was the opening of her favorite poem. She knew it by heart, although this was the first time she could feel its terrible tenacity. The loss of Billy Parlon, like the pain of caskets and candles, numbed her until the shock faded and she was left desolate and desperate. She decided, after a night tossing and turning, that she could wait for Billy after all, would write to him and come to him, if he wanted.

Eileen did not decide to go to Wesleyan then because she had not yet had the future thrust at her in the form of a filing cabinet key. She had not yet unpacked her heart of the devices that made suffering a scourge of circumstance instead of a crucified rose blooming within. She was not yet a person, just a name attached to a body whose nerve endings recorded the duration of pain without measuring its depth. She was not yet worthy to search for William Manchester.

Two months after the funeral, Eileen and her mother sat down to dinner in the kitchen of the only house Eileen had ever lived in, eating the only meal she ever ate at home on a Saturday night, hot dogs and baked beans with brown bread. Her mother sat at the end of the table, with Eileen on the side. At the other end her mother had put out the place mat but not the plate or utensils.

The casserole sat on a trivet. Eileen removed the glass top. Molasses plumed over the table and bubbling beans jostling tanned circles of sliced hot dog huddled at the surface. All the hot dogs had been cut up. Her mother had forgotten to leave two of them whole. Eileen handed the large spoon to her mother, who stirred the beans and served herself. Eileen dished her own out in turn.

“I don’t want to sell the house,” her mother began. It was her mother’s habit to start up conversations from days or weeks ago and to drive them on as though no time had intervened. Eileen knew this conversation well, had ridden its many winding turns, and knew that all its byways led back to the same dead end.

Her mother needed to sell the house to have something to live on besides her father’s pension and the life insurance. But her mother would not sell the house, and so it would sink slowly into disrepair until one day it would be too dilapidated to sell. “I do not want to sell the house,” her mother repeated, a little louder.

“Then don’t,” Eileen answered. She put down her fork. “But you won’t be able to take care of it. Maybe you could rent it out and get yourself something more manageable.” Her mother resumed eating, chewing distractedly. Her mother always put too much food in her mouth, so that their conversations took place in the gaps between forkfuls of breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

“I couldn’t let strangers live in my house,” her mother answered. “The very idea! Besides, the one who took care of this place was me. Five kids, and me busier than a one-armed paperhanger. And why should the house start falling apart now, just because your father’s not here to fix it?”

Eileen let the question pass. Her brothers already had tried convincing their mother that the house needed more work than it did thirty years ago when it was new. They talked about roofers and plumbers and electricians, but their mother heard them say dry mops and dustpans and dishrags. Her domestic life prepared her to understand their words no more than instinct helped spawning salmon anticipate the shadow of a bear. Eileen did not want to argue, so she sat for a while in the silence of their communal chewing.

Eileen broke the spell by getting up to clear the table. She picked up the place mat in front of her father’s chair and put it away in the hutch. It struck her, as she came back to the table, that her mother had not cried during the wake or funeral, had maintained the same tight-lipped, stoic posture Eileen saw at the table. Perhaps her mother was being strong for her? The thought warmed her and she resolved to unburden herself, to talk, to be a daughter, to share her mother’s secret pain.

”It must be hard for you,” Eileen began, sitting back down, “living in a house with so many memories.”

“Yes,” her mother answered. “Sometimes the house seems so big.” Her mother shifted forward, settled her elbows on the table. “But then I have you, don’t I? In fact, I’ve been meaning to have a word with you.” Her mother grew suddenly calm as though waiting for something within her to finish coiling. “I know you have plans, and I’m sure they seem like good plans. But I don’t want you to be hurt. Why not stay here? Don’t run off chasing some crazy dream. Stay here. We could take care of the house together.”

Eileen sat very still. This road her mother was driving Eileen had not traveled before. She did not know what to say, what to do. The decision to leave or stay had always been hers to make. Eileen never imagined that there might not be a decision after all, that in the end her mother might try to make it for her.

Sitting at the table in the kitchen she knew so well, Eileen felt the bowels of the house shifting quietly beneath her, a tremor that translated to the walls a movement more subtle than a change of mind. Her face tingled and her mouth went dry.

“Why don’t you take these,” her mother said, putting on the table a set of keys she slipped from her pocket. Eileen recognized her father’s keys, the ones he used to throw into his briefcase when he came home. “You take the Olds,” her mother continued. “Get rid of that rattletrap of yours.” Her mother nudged the keys toward her. “Mind, I’ll need a ride now and then, especially on Fridays when the Sodality meets. I’d rather walk or take the bus anyway. It’s just that at night a woman needs to be careful.”

Her mother stood and stretched. “Early bed for me. We’ll talk in the morning.” Eileen accepted her mother’s kiss, a dry tickle on her cheek, and said good night. Her mother went up to bed.

Eileen pressed the keys against her neck so that their chill might rouse her from her trance. The walls resonated around her as her mother’s muffled footsteps faded along the upstairs hallway. She tossed the keys onto the table, two car keys and two house keys and one small key, all joined by a steel ring. If she kept them, would she one day vibrate with the walls, become part of the house, a function of its decay? And was that any worse than the life awaiting her in California, a promise that in a dark moment seemed to shine so brightly? Was this life’s mystery, that happiness depended on choosing the way she would be possessed?

Eileen tried watching television, but William Manchester stared down at her from the picture frame. She fidgeted with the knight her father had made into a table lamp. She pulled the chain, turning it on and off. From the living room couch she could see the kitchen table and its burden of keys. She got up, drawn by the glinting oddity of the one, small key. Its short, gray shaft protruded from a round head rimmed with gold rubber. Worn and brown, the letters “FC” were stamped on one side.

“Take me,” the key said. Eileen slipped the key off the ring. When she was sure her mother was asleep, Eileen mounted the attic stairs.

The key fit the lock on the filing cabinet’s bottom drawer. Eileen slid open the drawer and picked through the notebooks standing on edge with the Catholic Memorial knight on their covers. Behind them were manila folders. Eileen took out the notebooks. Her father had printed his name on each cover and labeled them one through seven in Roman numerals. Kneeling in the attic, with only the light of the desk lamp flowing onto the floor, Eileen opened the first notebook.

“I am not a writer,” the first entry began. “I am a chicken-footed clay scratcher, and my words are lost in the wind. I am a man who wants to paint, who has canvas but nothing to paint it with.” The entry was dated two months after Eileen’s seventh birthday and continued for two pages. Eileen read the next entry, and the next and the next.

“I am not a person,” began another. “I am a possibility. I try to write about a man who writes about men. I am the stillness in the air after the echo of thunder has rolled on. I am the shadow of midnight.” Eileen read the next entry, and the next and the next until her thumb pressed the final page moistly against the back cover.

The notebooks bristled front to back with the barbs of her father’s remorse, with his raw inadequacy in the face of William Manchester and his anguish over his inability to write as William Manchester wrote. Bent in the dim light, Eileen read on. An electric ache throbbed under her tongue and spread warmly into her ears and up to her eyes until she had to tilt her head to keep the tears off her face.

Eileen struggled on, absorbing her father’s sadness, all his brokenness and desolation, and put the notebooks down only when her shaking threatened to break her. Her father had not devoted himself to William Manchester. He had been possessed by William Manchester, been hounded, pursued, and driven by a demon he kept at bay only with the distractions of family.

In the folders Eileen found her father’s poems. She spread them out on the floor, more than a hundred. Some poems were ten or twelve lines. Many more were a page or two. The poems were written to and about her family. Some were addressed to her mother or brothers. Others marked an anniversary or a birthday. Eileen counted nineteen composed for her alone.

She read the first three before the stinging in her eyes boiled over and blurred the words. She wept in a way she could not have done at the funeral, in a choking, heaving abandonment her brothers would have marveled to see and her mother would have thought obscene.

Her mother was wrong. All these years there had been strangers in the house after all. Her father had rescued himself from the wreckage of his encounters with the demon of William Manchester by throwing himself into his poems. He wrote poetry for the same reason a thorny stalk flowers into bloom, because that was his nature, because he was exquisitely designed by virtue of temperament and cultivation to see truth and to weave words that captured that truth so that others also might see.

He went to the attic to write biography, and there prostrated himself before the scourge of William Manchester, and there the fury of his servitude found release in his poems. Suffering such as this Eileen had neither known nor seen, had not thought to look for in her father. Was this the dirty secret of adulthood, she wondered, that a man was just free enough to choose his own pain?

It hurt her to know that he had hidden his suffering.

Eileen lingered in the quiet of the attic, not wanting to leave. Her father had labored here, and here she felt him most alive. In the shadow land where light from the desk lamp dissolved into darkness, the dust motes danced around and down and over and under until Eileen lost herself within the delirium of their embrace. The motes swirled together, fell apart and rejoined.

From the flecks of light emerged an image, a vision of her father helmed and cuirassed, kneeling before a white altar, his sword drawn beside him on the ground, his gauntlets nestling a silver chalice to his lips. The cup brimmed with roses. They left crimson welts wherever the petals brushed his cheeks. Eileen put her hand on her father’s shoulder. He turned and looked up, and for one, brief shining moment Eileen fell into his gaze and was washed in the gray waters of his thralldom. Then the vision was gone.

William Manchester gazed at her from the creased newspaper photos tacked above the desk. Eileen unpinned William Manchester and touched his gray-white, receding hairline and broad forehead, arched eyebrows, long nose, and double chin. He looked almost kindly, with a hint of a smile in the wrinkles around the corners of his eyes. She folded the clippings and stuck them in her pocket, then stooped and gathered up the folders and put them back in the file along with the notebooks. She locked the drawer.

She knew now what she would do, where she would go. Her mother would call it running away. But Eileen knew there were many ways to run away. Staying home was probably the worst of them.

In the early morning, Eileen took her bag and left the house. She ran her hand along the hood of the Olds as she passed down the driveway. She popped the hatch on her Hyundai and threw in the bag. The house loomed darkly against the sky. Her mother was still asleep. Her letter would explain things, Eileen hoped, and she would call once she got to Connecticut. From there she would write to Billy.

She slid in and pulled the door shut, put the gearshift into neutral and released the parking brake. The car rolled down the drive and into the street. Eileen turned the key and let in the clutch as the car picked up speed. The engine coughed, faltered, then grabbed the wheels and pushed on toward Route 128 where she would pick up I-95 south. She wanted to get past Providence before the road became clogged with trucks and rush-hour commuters.

She was the daughter of Michael O’Brien, the English teacher and poet, and she would go to Wesleyan to learn to write, to impose upon herself the harsh discipline of discovering her own limitations. She did not know if William Manchester was still at Wesleyan or even if he was still alive. It did not matter. She would go to Wesleyan to see what her father saw, to feel what he felt. She would read all of Manchester’s books and invite the spirit of William Manchester to humble her so that she might be worthy of the quest.

Passing the Blue Hills, Eileen saw clouds blooming over the crest, catching the dawn in orange and early reds. She touched her pocket and felt the round-headed key wrapped in newspaper clippings. She drove on. She hoped the car would hold together. The trip would be long and the road hard. But this was the road she chose, and that would make all the difference.

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Robert Meade is a transplanted Bostonian now firmly rooted in New York. He and his wife Diane have three children and live in Westchester County, not far from Washington Irving’s house. He is an English teacher whose works have appeared in ‘zines like Bartleby Snopes, Apollo’s Lyre, and The New Flesh.

2 Comments
  1. Reply
    Roberta SchulbergGoro
    May 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    This extended glimpse into the trials and tribulations of a member of the Manchester family through her private diary is most prolonged.

  2. Reply
    Walt Giersbach
    May 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    It’s difficult for a writer to write about writing, and even moreso, about a writer frustrated by an inabiity to write, but Mr. Meade, i think you’ve carried “Searching” off very well.

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