How It Started: EDGAR ALLAN

EDGAR ALLAN was published in December of 1968, a long time ago.  Yet the book is still in print, still selling, still being read.

EDGAR ALLAN was my first novel — actually not, as in my case along with millions of others the “first novel” was too awful to publish.  The first review appeared in The New York Times and took us all by surprise.

“This is not a novel about prejudice or race relations or brotherhood, or anything so simple.  It is about parents and children, young people and older people, about love and failure, loss and discovery, coming to terms with ourself and others.  EDGAR ALLAN…is a work of art.”

Since that review, other books have been published and other reviews written.  But nothing equalled that send-off.

Many of you perhaps have not read this short book.  Here is an extended introduction to it, posted in the hope that it will not only entertain you but also make you want to read the remainder of the book.

1.

This is a story about my father, and about God.  Neither is very easy to understand.

My father, the Reverend Robert Fickett, is a very tall, very straight man, who looks like what King Charles II must have looked like when he grew older and stopped tearing about the countryside in old England. You can tell he’s had a lot of fun by the lines around his eyes.

Father has a sense of humor, but he can be serious when he has to be. And he can scare you sometimes if you’re listening to him during the sermon.

He and I used to do a lot of walking together, and he would do most of the talking.  Father would say that each man is made of small parts that fit together to make a “whole” man.  A “whole man,” Father said, could not divide his life into parts that were lived differently.

What this means, I guess, for me, is that going to school, playing around, doing chores, and everything else I do is part of the same thing.  For Father, it would be his church and his family and his life that have all to be lived in the same way.

When Father talked like this, I mostly listened.  It would have been easier if he had told me to be honest, or thrifty, or kind.  But Father thought he should treat each of us as though we were as old as he, which meant that he talked to us as though we could all understand him. Sometimes he would leave things out for us to figure out later; sometimes he would use words that made you want to go look up every other one in a dictionary.

About God I can’ say too much.  No one can, I guess.  But He’s important in our family, and not just because Father is a minister.

My mother, who is tall, too, and gray, likes to say that God is everywhere, and you can only hope to understand Him by seeing where He is and where He isn’t.  She thinks that where He isn’t is often more interesting, and tells us more about Him and His ways, than where He is.

Actually, my mother isn’t any easier to understand than my father.

It was last summer when all this began.  There were seven of us Ficketts then, including my parents.  First, there was my older sister, Mary Nell. We call her M.N. unless we’re mad at her.  She was fourteen then, and impossible.  I didn’t like her much, but maybe I was being too rough.  I’ve been told I’m a harsh judge sometimes.

She had a problem, Mary Nell.  She didn’t like being a minister’s daughter. She could be mean about it, too.  I suppose it’s because she felt her life had been ruined or something.  I never felt that way.

My name is Michael, plain and simple, and I’m twelve now.  I’m the only child in our family without a middle name.

The reason I never felt the same way M.N. did is that, while being a minister’s kid isn’t always fun, it does mean you get to do things pretty much on your own. You have to, because other kids never let you forget who you are, or what you’re supposed to be.  I mean, to them you’re something very goody-goody.  You can spend a lot of time trying to prove you’re not.

So, I spend a lot of my time alone.  That doesn’t mean I’m a hermit.  I just do’t always care for other kids, is all.  The only way I could ever be part of a gang would be by proving I’m really O.K. (which I really am) and to do the kinds of things I’ve been told not to.  I guess I never feel that mean towards my father.

I mean, take the way kids sometimes steal things. Nothing very big or anything, but just taking little things from shops for the fun of trying to get away with it.

Once, I think when I was ten, I went into a stationary store with some guys in my class.  One of them started talking to the old man behind the counter, and asked him for something.  Envelopes, I think.  Anyway, when the man bent down beneath the counter to get what we had asked for, four hands shot up and grabbed everything they could get a grip on.  It was sort of funny.

So I smiled and watched.  But I didn’t take anything.

Now, you wouldn’t think that not taking something would be the worst thing that ever happened.  But to these guys it was. I might as well not even have been there, they said, if I wasn’t going to be part of them.  I said I was, and they said how could I be when I couldn’t stop thinking dumb thoughts about right and wrong?  After all, they should have known, me being a minister’s kid and everything.

I told my father about this.  He said that sometimes it takes more courage to say “no” than to say “yes.”  I thought about that for a while, and then forgot about it.  I was maybe ten, then.

So what I do a lot now,  instead of not stealing, is read.  I’m sort of a nut on history, English history.  I know some things I’ll never even be able to remember.  This is mostly because I’ll never need to remember them.

After me comes Sally Ann, who is, now, nearly six.  Sally Ann stands for “Seven a.m.,” which is when she was born.  “M.N.,” Mary Nell, means “mid-might.  My mother thought of all this.

I have hopes for Sally Ann.  She’s smart and patient, and sort of scary about everything. She sees more of things than I do, and if she could, she’d probably write all this down a lot better than I will.  Because, though I try to remember as much as I can, there were a lot of other things going on in my life besides just this one thing, and I know I’ll forget some of them.  Sally Ann never would.

Which is to say, sometimes I think Sally Ann does have eyes in the back of her head, and I envy her.  Anyway, she’s my favorite.  Tiny, and bright-eyed, and funny because she doesn’t yet know how she looks to other people.

Next to last was Stephen Paul.  Naturally, that’s “Seven p.m.”  He’s almost four now.

There’s not much to be said for Stephen.  It’s too early.  So far, though, he’s O.K., and he doesn’t give anyone except Sally Ann any trouble.  And that’s only because she insists on trying to  teach him things.  I don’t think Stephen cares a lot about learning.

Last came Edgar Allan.  “E.A.” for Early Afternoon.  He was the youngest and was sort of, well, cute. He was black.

2.

It doesn’t say much, the word “cute.” But that’s all you could say about him when we got him.   He was.

The funny thing was we didn’t know he was coming.  Of course, it was last summer then, so maybe if he arrived today we would be smarter. I’m not certain.

We had heard some talk. Or really, what we heard was parts of talks between my parents. Our house, which is fairly big, has a study for Father off  the living-room, and that’s where he and Mother have their serious talks.  Because the study is so close to where we sometimes are, we can often hear what they’re saying.

Mary Nell heard it first.  She came to me, and we tried to guess what the few things she had overheard could mean.  (M.N. probably eavesdropped.  She was like that.)

We didn’t have much to go on.  “It would be good for the other children,” was one sentence she heard, but that could have meant almost anything. “The most important thing we could do,” was another bit, just as puzzling.

“It won’t be easy, especially later,” my mother had said.  “A probation period” meant nothing to M.N. or to me.  “We’ll cross those bridges when we get to them,” Father said once.  To which Mother replied, “I think we ought to cross them now.”  M.N. and I were very confused.

“Not just for us, but for the community and the church,” was the last thing M.N. had caught, from Father.  And then we heard nothing until dinner one night a few weeks later.

It was right after Stephen Paul’s third birthday, and he was sitting at the table in a regular chair for the first time.  It was a sort of graduation dinner, and Stephen’s high-chair was in the corner to remind him, I guess,  that he was now “grown up.”  Sally Ann had been coaching him all day on his table manners, but Stephen sat at the table playing with his food and looking around and ignoring all Sally Ann’s instructions.  I suspect Stephen had been over-rehearsed.

“We’re going to have a newcomer here at dinner soon,” Mother said.

“Oh?” said M.N., not paying much attention. “Who?”

“Your new brother,” answered my mother.

M.N. heard this.  So did we all, S.A. and me.  We just stared at her.

“But Mother!” M.N. said.  “You couldn’t have been…all this time without our knowing…I mean…!”

“M.N., what your mother means is that we are thinking of adopting a little boy,” Father said quickly. “We thought you might want to know in advance.”

“Having another child doesn’t mean any less attention for you children, or less love, you know,” Mother said to Sally Ann.  “It just means that we have so much, your father and I, that we though we could surely spare some for one more child.”

There was a pause, and then M.N. jumped right in.  “Well,” she said, “I think it’s just marvey.  It’s so much easier this way, isn’t it, Mother?”

My mother laughed.  “In some ways.”

“Four seems like a pretty good family,” I said.  No one paid any attention.

“How old is he?” S.A. wanted to know. “Will I be able to play with him?”

“He’s younger than you are, dear,” answered Mother.  “He would be younger, even,  than Stephen.”

“Good,” S.A. said.  “Then I care take care of him, too.”

“There is one thing,” Mother started to say, “that I think you ought to —”

But Father interrupted.  “Yes,” he said.  “We wondered if you by chance had any preferences,…like the color of h is eyes, or hair or skin, or shoe size.  Details like that.”

“Just as long as he can learn things,” S.A. said.

“It’s rather more serious than that,” Mother began again. “We have told the adoption agency that we would be glad to have a child who was…different.  A little boy who might be Chinese, or Negro, or Mexican.  Someone who might need help and a family like ours more than other children.”

“You mean you don’t actually know what you’re getting?” M.N. asked suddenly.

“Well,” Father said, “we think we do.  But we’re not certain, really, are we, dear?”

“No,” Mother said.  “We’re just hoping.”

“But when he gets here,” Father said, “and while he will be living with us, he won’t be really ours for a nearly a year.”

“Why is that?” I asked.  “Whose idea is that?”

“It’s  the way an adoption agency works,” Father explained.  “They want to be sure their children are happy in their new homes, and so they put everyone on a sort of test. At the end of the test, if all goes well, then they are happy enough to lose their children because  they know the children themselves are happy.”

“That’s reasonable,” M.N. said sharply. “You never know. You could make a mistake.”

“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Father.  “So we all have to be extra careful and on our best behavior for a while.  I know you won’t disappoint your mother or me.”

“I won’t,” S.A. said.

“When he arrives, your new brother,” said Mother, “if anything occurs to you, or you want to talk about him, please just promise you’ll come to your father of me first.  Try not to upset him.  He’ll be too young to understand, of course, but some children learn to hear well before they learn to speak.  None of us would want to say anything that might make him unhappy.”

“I don’t see how we could,” M.N. said.  “After all, he’s only a child.”

“I just hope he can learn things,” Sally Ann said to Mother as they both began to clear the table.

3.

Edgar Allan arrived about two weeks later, right on schedule: Early in the Afternoon.  And he was cute.

Sally Ann went out of her head for him right from the start.  Here was another pupil, nearly three years old, with enormous brown eyes in a clean, dark, shiny face, with the sort of  giggle that made you giggle back.

When I walked in, Edgar Allan, Stephen, and S.A. were all on the floor, on hands and knees, “learning.”  S.A. was “reading” to them from a picture book.

I think I just stood  there a minute.  I was surprised.  That was all.  Just surprised.  Maybe I never really expected exactly what we got.

The first thing I noticed, after I stopped being surprised, was that Edgar Allan and Stephen gave S.A. the same amount of attention and interest as far as learning things went.  That means, not a lot.  They were too busy with other things, like just crawling around.

“Well?” my father said to me.

“Well!” I said back, and though I don’t know why, I smiled.

He smiled, too, and nodded. “I thought so,” he said.

“What?”

“That you wouldn’t say anything right away.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I answered.  “I like to think first, sometimes.”

I turned back and passed  the three children on the floor, sort of sinking into a chair at the end of the room so I could watch them.

E.A. was so cute you wouldn’t believe it.  I think he was the cutest kid I ever saw in my life. Much more than Stephen Paul ever was, for example.  He looked just like any other little kid you’ve ever seen.

You couldn’t tell much else about Edgar Allan.  He was a little slow, I guess, in learning how to talk, and you never knew whether he was listening to you or  not.  He certainly didn’t give you much to work with.

So I just sat there a while, watching.  And I was still  there when M.N. came home.

She walked in the door, turned towards where the noise was rising every minute, and stepped into the room.

She stood  there.  Her mouth opened.  He face reddened. And t hen she walked out. Just like that.

“Mary Nell!” called my mother.  But M.N. didn’t answer.  She ran up the stairs to her room, and we didn’t see her until dinner.

4.

Dinner wasn’t much fun, for four of us.  M.N. wouldn’t say a word.  She wouldn’t look at Edgar Allan, who had Stephen’s old high-chair now.  An she ate hardly anything on her plate.

Mother tried to get her to talk about what she’d done during the day.  And Father tried to help.  But M.N. just sat there.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I didn’t do anything.   I watched M.N. part of the time, and Sally Ann, who was diligently teaching E.A. the difference between a fork and a spoon, part of the time, and wondered,

sort of.

When dinner was over, though, Mary Nell finally spoke.

“You asked us, Mother, to talk to you and Father first about him.  Well, I want to.  Tonight.”

M.N.’s voice seemed very old to me suddenly.

“All right, Mary Nell,” said Mother.  “We’ll meet you in the study as soon as we put everyone to bed.”

“Fine,” said M.N., and pushed her chair away from the table.  Without even offering to help clear, she left the room.

I looked at Father.

“Michael,” he said, “I’ve tried to teach you all to think first and speak later.  I thought M.N. had never learned that lesson as well as you. But I was wrong.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Listen to Mary Nell,” said Father.  “Listen, and try to help.”

“I don’t think it’s help she wants to talk about,” I said.

“No, I don’t think so, either,” said Father.

5.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Father at all Mary Nell wanted to talk to.  What made the whole thing a woman’s problem I don’t know, but Father was ushered out, not very politely, and could only turn towards the study door as it was closed in his face to say, “We’ll be in here if you need us.”

He was very quiet as he joined me in front of the television set.

We sat there a moment, and then we both realized the same thing at the same time.  We could hear everything Mary Nell and Mother said anyway, right through the noise of the set.  I was sort of glad, I admit, but I don’t think Father was.

So, in between “Coral Canyon,” which isn’t my favorite show anyway, we had “Mother and Mary Nell.”

“I just don’t see how you could do it,” M.N. was saying.  “A Chinese, or a Mexican, or anything else.  But not this! Without even asking us, Mother!”

“Mary Nell, your father and I don’t have to to ask you children about everything. Some things we do because we know and feel they are right and best for our family.  If we’re wrong, then we have ourselves to blame.  If we’re right, we try very hard not to say I told you so.”

“Marvey! Just marvey! That’s worked before.  But this is different, for Pete’s sake!  This is different. At least you could have told us as soon as you knew.  I mean, really told us, Michael and me.  We’re certainly old eough to be told.”

I gave M.N. five mental points for that.  I agreed.

“What would you have said, M.N.?” asked Mother.

“Well, I don’t know. Something.   At least we would have known exactly what to expect.”

“Why is that so important?  Should your feelings be any different?”

“That’s not the point, Mother,” said M.N. rather sharply.  “We would have had time to think, and to make up our minds what our feelings were going to be.”

“Sally Ann and Stephen had no more warning than you, dear.  Their feelings seem to be just as real as yours, and rather nicer.”

“You think I’m prejudiced, is that all?” M.N. asked, pretty close to tears.  (I could tell, even through the door.)

“What would you say you were, M.N.?”

“Well, honest, anyway!  Have you or Father even once stopped to think what will happen when he grows up? Can you imagine the look on my friends’ faces when I introduce him as my brother?  Don’t you know what they’re going to think to themselves, about you?”

It was quiet then, for a moment.   I think Mother was a little surprised.  I know I was.  But M.N. went on fast.  Once she has the advantage, she never loses it.

“It’s not enough that we’re your kids, is it?  That we have to prove that minister’s kids can be O.K. just like anyone else’s?  You have to give us something else to struggle with!”

“Mary Nell,” said Mother sort of slowly, “I don’t think you’ve given Edgar Allan an honest chan—”

“Mother, I am giving him the exact same chance he’s going to get with everyone else in this town.  He is black! It’s that easy.  He’s visible, and he’s different,and he is not ours! Michael and I have a bad enough time, but  think what this will do to Stephen.  They’re both about the same age.  They’ll always just be two oddballs together.  Is that fair?”

There was an awful long pause.

“Mary Nell,” said Mother more quietly. “Edgar Allan is going to grow up here with us.  He will have the same advantages and the same disadvantages all of you have.  Your father and I though we had a family wise enough and confident enough to be able to face the problems that frighten you so. Perhaps we were wrong.  Still, we are determined to give something to E.A.  And I suspect by doing so, we can even give you something.”

“What, besides more problems?”

“Integrity,” Mother said.  “It’s a lonesome gift, I admit.  But it’s a valuable one, nevertheless.”

“Swell,” said M.N. “That’s just swell!  Thanks a lot!”  And then she just walked out of the study and up to her room.

Father suddenly leaned forward, pretending to be fascinated by “Coral Canyon,” as Mother stood in the doorway to the study.

6.

About two minutes later, Father and I left the house for a walk.

It was still light enough so you could see mosquitoes rather than just hear them too late. And it was the first walk of ours I could remember when Father didn’t start right out talking.

We walked sort of slowly.  His hands were in his pockets; mine were behind me like Prince Philip’s always are.  After a while, when I realized that Father just wanted company, not talk, I began playing Prince Philip, sort of nodding to people who weren’t there as we walked the length of the longest throne-room in the world.

After a while, I stopped imagining I was in Buckingham Palace, and paid more attention to where I really was.

Our town is a funny sort of place.  Where we live, the houses are enormous.  There are lots of Spanish-type houses, with red tile roofs, and with doorways that open into little courts planted with cactus and ice-plants and ivy.  There are some houses that remind me of Norman castles in books, and some that are sort of nothing houses, just big and dark.

The streets are mostly evenly planted with big palms, and there eucalyptus trees every once in a while, set back from the roads.  These, and the flowers, combine at night to make the air so heavy with smells and so sweet you get sort of dizzy.  I like it.  It’s certainly better air than we used to have in Cleveland.

And we’re not far from the ocean either, which is sensational.  Father says I’m still too young to begin surfing, but whenever that day finally comes, I think I’ll probably leave home forever and just surf my way around the world.

One of the nice things about where we live is that our house isn’t right next door to the church.  It was that way in Cleveland, and it used to depress me sometimes.  That was before I discovered English history, though, and before I learned to organize life, sort of.  It wouldn’t bother me so much now.  Still, it was bleak waking up each morning, and going to bed each night, with a steeple staring you in the face.

One good thing about Father, though, is that he never quotes the Bible.  Or almost never.  He saves this for sermons, or for Sunday School, or maybe, once in a while, for his classes at the school our church runs.

Actually, it seems to me that Father does pretty much what any other father does, except, of course, on Sundays.  I mean, he gets up each day and leaves the house just like anyone else, and doesn’t come back until late afternoon.  He visits people who belong to our church, or teaches history at the school (where he’s also the principal), or sometimes works on committees around town that are always doing something good. And although most kids don’t have to sit still, and awake, and listen to their fathers talk about good and evil, and what to do and what not to do, every Sunday morning at eleven a.m. sharp, it really doesn’t do any harm.

I don’t go to the church school, and neither does M.N.  Actually, the church school isn’t just for kids of people who belong to our church.  It’s for anyone who can get in, I guess, and who can pay tuition, but it’s sponsored by the church.  Really, it’s just a small sort of private school, and since M.N. and I had gone to the public schools in Cleveland, Mother decided we should keep at it.  Sally Ann and Stephen could go to the church school when they were old enough,  she said, but she thought we would learn more of the world, I guess, if we were in a larger part of it, rather than in a small exclusive part.

I’m glad, because you can have more fun in a regular school than in a private one. Still, when I do something that displeases Father, he likes to scare me by threatening to send me away to a  miliary academy, which is a private school times two, so it would be twice as bad.

He never would, of course.  Send me away.

Because, really, though we get tangled up sometimes trying to say what we mean, we do sort of communicate pretty well.  And we find there are a lot of things we like together. From peanut-butter and sweet pickle sandwiches, to tennis and swimming, to English history.  And a lot of stuff in between.

Anyway, as I started to say a while back, our town is a funny sort of place.  Because it’s not really very real, if you know what I mean.  Most towns have tell buildings and rivers and a baseball team. Ours has no sky-scrapers, the ocean instead, and we have to cheer for San Francisco if we want to cheer at all.

Also, most towns have all sorts of people.  Our town doesn’t.  I mean, they don’t live here.  There’s no rule about it, I guess, but they just don’t.

We do have some people who come to our town to work, though.  We have Negroes, and Mexicans, and I once saw a Japanese man who was working in someone’s garden.  But I don’t think any of these people really have houses and families and televisions sets and lawns of their own to cut right here in town.

Which, I suppose, (all of this, that is) makes us sort of special.  Some people would say “better” instead, but I’m not exactly sure it is.  It’s just different, is all, and not very real — certainly not much like Cleveland where we had everyone in the world doing something.

But it is a nice place to live, and I like it much, much better than I did dull old Ohio with its snow and wind and ice in winter, and its dead heat in the summer.

So, I guess we were pretty lucky, right about up to the very minute Edgar Allan arrived.

“What are you thinking so deeply about, Michael?” Father asked me suddenly.

“I was thinking about Edgar Allan,” I said.

“What about him?”

“Why didn’t you tell M.N. and me about him?  I mean, that we were really going to get a Negro?  I thought you always wanted us to know everything.”

“Well,” Father said, “when we mentioned it, your mother and I weren’t really certain we would get him.  We had asked for a Negro child, but we just couldn’t be sure.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Do you think M.N. would have been so mad if you’d gotten someone different?”

“Why can say?” Father said.  “We suspected, your mother and I, that of all the children, if we had any difficulty at all it would be from M.N.  I suppose it might have been easier for her had we gotten someone else.”

“What does Mother think of all this?” I asked.

“About what?  M.N. or E.A.?”

“Well,” I said, “she’s stuck with M.N.  What does she think about Edgar Allan?”

“She’s delighted with him.  I’m sure she is.”

“But how can you be sure of anything like this?”

“Well, I just have that feeling, Michael.  Just like the feeling I have about adopting Edgar Allan in the first place   Our family is big enough, and so is our town, to do this. And if they aren’t, why then they ought to be.”

“Is Mother as certain of all this as you are?” I asked again.

“Oh, Michael,” Father laughed. “You know your mother.  She’s a worrier from way back.”

“What do you mean?”

“I love her more than I can ever say, but sometimes I think she thinks too much, Michael.  She wants to think, and consider everything first.  I want to act instead, and act now.”

“Oh,” I said.  I couldn’t think of much more to say.

Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I guessed I was like my mother.  I mean, if you can see things coming, you might as well be prepared for them, rather than just let them take you unaware.

Still, we’ve always been pretty lucky, so I decided not to say anything more, at least right then, to Father.

The thing is, that night for the first time, I got a feeling in my stomach of something about to happen that I wouldn’t like very much.  I couldn’t have told  you what it was exactly, but I felt sort of jumpy, and as we turned back towards home I half-expected to see Mary Nell sneaking out of  the house with Edgar Allan in a burlap sack, slipping into the bushes, and making a dash to the ocean.  Sort of like drowning kittens.

 

*************************************************

 

By now, I hope you’re caught up in the Fickett’s story.  It’s wonderfully easy to continue reading it.  Just go to Amazon.com, or directly to iUniverse.com, to order a new copy and find out what happens.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

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