Valerie Stauffer

Author

Remembering Capote

A HIGH SCHOOL MEMORY


A short story based on the life and style of Truman Capote

 

Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.[1]


The October flames of the oaks and maples, erupting in blazing burgundies and  citrons, are no more. By November, the leaves have burnt themselves into the  dank  debris matting the land and swirl  in gritty nuggets within my hair, my eyes, my  being. The branches now point like the tips of a catfish knife, searching for flesh to pierce, to  skin. Above hangs the sky – the  color of a dead moth – dirty wings of cold steel hooding this town  called Greenwich.


 The clock hands point to 11:48 AM, and I plan  my escape from this room.  My last class of the morning and perhaps my last class of the day if I choose, as I usually  do,  to head  toward  the  rowdy cafeteria  but continue beyond  it and out the back door to a life of my own. My teachers of geometry and social studies will mark a tardy notation  after my  name but will not be surprised to find that I have not bothered to attend another  discussion  of the logic or perhaps total illogic and  to me the utter personal irrelevance of the  Pythagorean theorem or to  hear the latest saga of the triumph of the virtuous Union Army  in battle to free the  Negroes, of whom my  teacher knows nothing, Greenwich being pretty  much an all-White society.  This English class is often the only  stop on my  meandering walks through the  peeling corridors, dripping flakes of dingy beige onto the speckled linoleum of the floors.


 Miss Catherine R. Wood stands before our class, perfectly groomed, as always, in  pearls, oh-so-proper  dress, and with  silvery curls, pushed just beyond her ears.She has taught  forever, the lines of those years etched in her powdery cheeks, but she is not old.  She prances before the blackboard in tiny, graceful steps and articulates each word as if she were on stage reciting Shakespearean verse.  I am not sure why I come to this class.  Diagramming  nouns and adverbs is an exercise in  futility;  spelling lists are tedious.  But Miss Wood has a way of reciting a sentence of Dickens, of  Thackeray, of Sigrid Undset  that makes my head churn with  wonder and delight.


“Truman Capote, would you please see me after class,” I hear Miss Wood say, or rather command, just as I am planning my exit from this room of tittering girls, bobby socks climbing out of their brown and white saddle shoes, their pointy breasts bulging within  too-tight cashmere sweaters signaling availability to football heroes on the loose.


 “Truman, your teachers have asked me to speak to you  about  your attendance at their classes.  We are all concerned when you leave school early. You have no interest in your studies.  Your parents will be upset to hear these reports.”


“Oh, they won’t care,” I reply, full of confidence, after three disastrous previous schools, one being a military academy run by a Napoleonic quasi-general-headmaster who met his match in my total disregard for any punishment he could inflict.


 “And you should know, Mr. Capote’s not even my father.  He’s my mother’s husband, her lover.  And my mother’s much too busy with her fancy-dancy  parties and hobnobbing with the society people to worry about my endless  failures. She just wants me in some kind of school. Any kind.  Kids are supposed to be in school in her opinion, although I don’t necessarily agree. The last  couple of schools were expensive, private kind of places.  They expelled me.  But Greenwich High  has no choice.”


“What do you  think about when you are in the classroom? You  seem to be in another world.”


 “You  know those bitty  lightning bugs that look so  pretty  on  hot, inky nights.  You catch  one, put it in a jar, cover it all over, and you  know  what happens?  It’s light  goes out!  That’s the way I feel, Miss Wood.  I’m trapped in these walls, and my  light’s gone.”


“Truman, I thought at first that all the teachers were correct in saying  you were dumb, no brains, no desire for education. 

Your grammar sheets are a disgrace,  and you do not turn in the required papers, but last night I read your story, your beautiful story, about your Cousin  Sook.  You are gifted, Truman.  You are a writer.”


“Oh, I know that, Miss Wood.  I guess I’ve always known that.  But you’re the first person who’s ever noticed.”


 “Let me help you, Truman.  I will try  to explain about you  to the other teachers, but you must make an effort.  Let’s try to find a place for you in this school.  Would you write a story forThe Green Witch?  Write about what you  know.  I read the story you wrote for the newspaper about the students at the high  school, but you  can  do better.  I know you  love the South – the people, the  way of life. Write about them. Will you try?”


 The next issue of The Green Witch publishes my story – my first important story  to be in print.   I sort of pretend that it means nothing to have my “Uncle Cabas” by Truman G. Capote in the literary magazine, but I know, and Miss Wood knows, that this tale of an old Negro, living his simple life in as a field hand in the South, marks the beginning of my writing career.


My  classmates continue to refer to me as a dandy, a sissy, a jerk, probably  all true, but even they know  that I can make my  words sing and flow and tell tales in poetry  in a way no one else in the school can.  Not even the teachers.


Miss Wood and I meet  in  her tiny cube of an office, spread my  latest efforts in scrawling pencil and ink-blotted paper over her scratched wooden desk. Within this cell of a room, I  know  that my light is glowing.  Some poems tumble out from time to time, but the best are the stories of the people I had known in Monroeville, Alabama. The sad lives of the people like crazy Sadie Hopkins and odd, old  Belle Rankin.  They are a world  removed from the Greenwich swells, those with too much money and too little person inside themselves.  Miss Wood changes a word here or there, but mostly  just is around to keep me writing, to help me ignore the  sneers of guys who label me a queer, a homo, a fairy.  “Never mind,” she says.  “Be yourself.”  Getting First Prize in The Green Witch was no big deal after I’d done it once, but when I get a Second for “Louise,” I am pretty  down.  Miss Wood, for once, has no sympathy and defends the prize order.  “Truman,” she says in her soft , refined tones, you know nothing about a girl’s boarding school. Take your stories back to Monroeville.”


Three years go by, the trees bud again  and then again  shed their  leaves, the  blasts of wintry air finally soothes each summer into the humid mugginess that is a part of my  past.  Bombs had dropped in  a faraway harbor and now the football brutes read the headlines,  listen to radio reports of strange lands with the  names Corregidor  and Stalingrad, and worry  that their field of combat will move from the fifty yard line to the hedgerows of France.  But my life is my writing, and my friend is Miss Wood.  For her, I burnish my  sentences into a prose  that makes us both proud.


And then one June day in 1942, she calls me to her office.  She has never been angry with me, even when I continue to refuse to turn in  the hated grammar sheets, but her face that day has a look of sternness and disappointment, very  close to wrath.  “Truman,” she says in a chilly, hard voice, “I understand you are leaving Greenwich High School.  You will not be here next year.” 


I mutter that my parents are returning to New York City and I will be going to school there.  I do not want to move.  I have begun to like Greenwich.  And then, for the first time, she hurls harsh  and cruel words.  What she can not forgive is my not telling her.  She had to learn about my leaving from other teachers. She thought that we are friends. Why had I not told her?


I turn away to hide the tears rising from my heart and slipping down out of  my  eyes.  Weeping like the sissy  I am. I try to tell her that leaving her is the tragedy of the coming move.  I will not be able to write, to keep my light burning.  I will lose my friend – only  my second friend in my entire life, counting as the  first my  Cousin Sook.  I couldn’t bear to  tell her. Please understand. Please stay  my  friend.


We plan a final day together.  Miss Wood suggests a dinner at  a restaurant, but we both know that is not our style.  I invite her to fly kites on the beach at the end of Steamboat Road.  This invitation must have been a first for her, but she resolutely stows her high heeled pumps and silk stockings behind a  rock,  and we stand together, squishing our toes around the oozing sand, tossing my home-made kites into the winds sweeping over Long Island Sound.  I tell her about  the times Sook and I made our kites and flew them over the Alabama pastures.  I only fly kites with best friends, I tell her.  “And you  know, it’s a funny thing, but my kites fly higher here in Greenwich than back in Monroeville.  Must be swifter currents rising over the Sound.”  “No, Truman, your kites fly higher because you have flown above us all here in Greenwich.  You have become a creator.”


When we leave the beach, I give her one of the kites and make her promise to fly it and remember me. She gazes at me with such  a look  of love and then wraps her arms about me, “Oh, Truman, you  are the son I never had.  You will become a writer,  I know it.  A brilliant and famous writer.  Promise that you will keep in touch with me.”


 And I do.


 I write to her about the good times and the bad.  I give her a subscription to the New Yorker when I become a copyboy there a year after leaving Greenwich. Even Miss Wood had agreed that college would do nothing good for me. And then, we celebrate by letter when my first book is published.Other Voices, Other Rooms makes her so proud She always knew  I would be famous but never guessed that I would produce such a book by the age of 23.  She is one of the only people I ever tell the truth about my mother’s alcoholic suicide in the ‘50’s.  And a year or so later I write to her that kind Joe Capote, who had always been nice to me even though I was a million  miles from being the son he wanted, had been jailed as an embezzler and sent up the river to Sing Sing Penitentiary, the place where  movie gangsters end up.


The years tumble by.  My books keep coming.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a movie.  We share these triumphs by letter.  In the ‘60’s, I  gain the cash to buy a chic apartment looking over the East River of Manhattan.  Miss Wood is getting pretty old, , but I send a car for her to visit  me at my apartment.


And we fly kites on my balcony that day – up and over the river, the tug boats, and United Nations Plaza.. The kites fly higher than even the day  in Greenwich.  And we hug once again and promise to be friends forever.

 But not long after, news of her death reaches me.  That evening I go out on my balcony …

 

searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.[2]


[1] A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote

[2] A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote


 Author’s Notes on A High School Memory

My search for the adolescent persona of Truman Capote led me through the cavernous Student Center of the high school of Greenwich, Connecticut, and then up a swirling staircase to the Media Center, depository of past issues of The Green Witch literary magazine.


Truman Capote, native of the South and later the enfant terrible of New York City cafe society of the 50’s, '60s and ‘70’s, lived, according to his biographers, in Greenwich  during the late 1930's. Local historians claim that his first published short stories appeared in The Green Witch.


From a shelf high within a Media Center closet, I took down a dusty box of battered, green cardboard.  The label read “1930s Green Witch”.  Eagerly I began to check the “Table of Contents” of all the issues. No mention of Truman Capote. Perhaps Capote’sGreen Witch involvement was a biographer's enhancement. But then in the final magazine, November, 1939, was “Uncle Cabas” by Truman G. Capote!


On a whim, I lifted out the Green Witch  box with issues from the 1940’s and struck more treasure. Poems by Capote in April, 1940.  In the June issue of that year, Capote received First Prize for his short story, “Swamp Terror.” Each successive issue through May, 1942, contained another of his stories or poems.


To gain insight into Capote’s life in Greenwich in the early 1940's, I perused past copies of the high school yearbook, The Compass, and a variety of books about Greenwich  and the life of Truman Capote. Photographs in The Compass provide clues to the personality and character of Capote’s English teacher, Miss Catherine R. Wood. This influential lady proved to be a compassionate mentor to a gifted young student known for his total disinterest in formal education and his alienation from the camaraderie of his peers.


Truman Capote wrote relatively few stories with teen-age characters. One of his first stories, published in 1939 in The G.H.S. News, titled “Lunch Period” was a rather pedestrian account of two girls in a high school cafeteria discussing a boy whom they mock until he joins them at the table and becomes the center of their attention. Most of his stories in The Green Witch are set in the South of Capote's boyhood and many have older men or women as central characters.  Several stories conclude with a character's death. One story deals with a young girl's machinations to incriminate a fellow student at her boarding school. For this story Capote received a Second Prize rather than his customary  First.


Capote's most famous work centering on  a male adolescent is "Other Voices, Other Rooms."  Published when he was only 23 years old, it was, according to Capote at that time, not autobiographical.  Years later, he admitted the personal aspects behind this story of a 13 year old boy's yearning for family, friends, and especially his father.  He stated, “Other Voices, Other Rooms was an attempt to exorcise demons, an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions of its being  in  any serious degree autobiographical.  Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable.”[i]


Capote's parents divorced when he was only six  years old.  He saw his father infrequently after that time; a fictionalized recording of  a visit to  his father is the basis of  "One Christmas.”  Capote lived during most of his early childhood in an eccentric household of one bachelor and three spinster cousins in Alabama. Soon after his mother remarried in 1932, seven-year-old Truman joined her and his Cuban  stepfather in New York City and adopted the name Capote.


To create a short story of his high school years, I decided that three “Capote-esque”  elements were mandatory – language, plot, and theme.  Taking as a model, "A Christmas Memory," I wished to write in the elegant, flowing prose characteristic of Capote, even when a teen-ager. I would use his years in Greenwich High School to develop a narrative. Building on "A Christmas Memory,” the story of young Capote's friendship with an elderly cousin, the theme would be based on his enduring and significant friendship with his English teacher, Miss Wood.  As Capote so expertly succeeded in accomplishing in his most famous book, In Cold Blood, I have sought to write a fictionalized narrative based on established facts.