The Lions Are Loose

Almost a quarter of a century ago, GEORGE H. FREITAGfirst broke into print in theATLANTICwith his storyUncle Horace.”Since then his work has appeared in our pages from time to time. Mr. Freitag, a sign painter by profession, is now teaching an evening course in writing at Pasadena City College.

IT IS a very desolate day. So many days when you are beginning to grow older and are dying inside seem very desolate, especially when all the young men and all the young women are laughing and making noises in the streets. When I was a boy, living on my father’s hundred-and-eleven-acre farm on the outskirts of Canton, Ohio, where the landscape was drab and infested with brick ovens and the land itself was sterile, my father used to say “the lions are loose” every time he watched the young people locked arm in arm going down the roads. I don’t know why I thought about that, but I was looking up at the sky just now, and for a full second I felt that I was listening to my father laughing, when all it was was the wild wind moving across the valley.

My parents at the time I am writing of were seemingly in a classification of timelessness and agelessness, and I was twelve years old and studying a correspondence course in cartooning under Carl Anderson, Sherwood Anderson’s brother. I was not, I suppose, ever going to be a great artist, heaven forbid, but I had an aunt, my mother’s sister, who believed that I had exceptional talent and paid for the full course. She also thought I had exceptional talent for the piano and would gladly have paid for a course in that too. In fact Aunt Sara felt I had talent for singing and law and trombone and priesthood and bricklaying; but I grew up long before I excelled in anything. So whenever there is weather moving around in the sky the way it is now, dreary and desolate and awesomely still, and the time of year is winter, I think of my mother’s sister and the sounds she made going through life. I think also of a twelve-year-old boy whose name was Eugene Noltie, who was in the same grade I was in at Cherry School in Canton, Ohio, and was a much better artist with the pencil than I ever was, and he did not have any kind of lessons to help him. I really do not know why, anymore, I continue to think and talk about Eugene Noltie. I don’t know why he comes to mind on the same wave of memory, for instance, that my mother’s sister does. But sometimes there they are, standing in the gentle gilded frame of memory, not close together, for they did not know each other. In fact one did not know that the other was alive; yet in the gilded frame they are enclosed in, they belong to the same sound, the same special music and palette of an area of time.

By the time Eugene and I were doing our homework on the kitchen table, my parents had already left the hundred-and-eleven-acre farm and gone into the town, and my father was working once more in the steel mill. He was getting smaller and smaller as the years went by; you could stand back and watch him shrivel, but he did not know it; he was just as puffed up and as alive as he ever was, and he used to look at Eugene on some of the evenings and say, “Well, young man, you will soon be one of the lions, you will soon roar in the streets.” But poor Gene did not know what to do when my father got into one of those moods. He just picked at a pimple or two on his face.

I never saw Eugene’s father. Maybe he left home. Some fathers can’t stay home, some are running back and forth, some are lost. My own mother knew where my father was because he used to bluster all over the sky at night, and my mother always said to me or to my dog or to the door or to the curtain at the window that she could keep track of my father better than any other woman. And that was literally the gospel truth; she could.

My Aunt Sara was living out in Los Angeles by this time and had invested a great deal of money in a vitamin company. She used to send us picture postcards of Spring Street looking north or Wilshire Boulevard looking west or herself mounted on a mule and wearing a large hat that practically hid her face, so that it could have been that she herself never was on a mule at any time. I used to show Gene the pictures of California while we were doing our homework, and brag about my aunt, and Gene said he could not remember a single instance in his life when he had a real aunt, and my mother would rush to him and throw her arms around his neck and tell him that he could use my aunt for an aunt if he wanted to, and Gene always said he would.

Eugene’s mother was a frail, skinny, birdlike woman with a very high voice and worked in a notions department of a large variety store and was always coming home after the day was ended, through the darkness and the snow; and Eugene began to study singing so that he could sing bass in a church choir. I don’t know. I could never get enough of Gene. I used to hear his voice in everything that made a sound. Sometimes it would just be a water sprinkler going along the streets in the summertime that I heard but it always sounded like Gene. Sometimes my father went down into the cellar to crack walnuts and chestnuts close beside the furnace, and the sound that the hammer made cracking those nuts sounded like something that Gene was saying. I swear I don’t know how to tell it. In fact I liked Gene so well that we used to play hooky from school and go to the library and draw pictures for each other.

“Here is a picture of a wagon,” Gene would say as he held up a beautiful picture of a wagon.

“Here is a picture of an Indian,” I would say, and I held up a picture of an Indian and Gene always pretended that what he was looking at of mine was really what I wanted it to be, but it was not most of the time.

Finally we were nineteen years old or so and we rented a room underneath a moving-picture theater. We were going to be sign painters. Gene had two or three brushes and I had two or three and a jar of red watercolor by the name of Carter’s and I don’t know what kind Gene had but we went into business. He lettered his name on the window and I lettered mine, with the middle initial thrown in because that was my father’s name. Eugene came to the room every day carrying a package of graham crackers and three bananas which he consumed at noontime.

But in a little while we were finding it difficult to pay the five dollars rent for the room, so we hurried out every day through that whole blizzard of winter, through the darkness in the sky and the sounds of automobile chains clanking on the fenders, and we hunted for just one more person who might want to be a sign painter, because we needed another name on our window to help pay the rent.

“I guess in a way this is the lions,” my friend Gene said.

And as we walked along in the deepening snow with our hands jammed deep in our overcoat pockets, I said, “We are the lions loose in the streets. We are the hungry lions loose.”

One time Gene and I broke into a little door that was in the wall of our sign shop and found that it opened up into a cellar of a candy store, and we stole a twenty-five-pound slab of Hershey’s chocolate, and Eugene had a lot more pimples on his face than I did and was skinnier than I was and I guess he ate the most chocolate for that reason.

Once in a while during the cold darknesses that were heavy upon the city of my birth Eugene came to our house to talk. We were getting very old now, probably twenty, and my mother would fix a dish of fudge or a dish of cereal and bananas because Gene liked bananas, and we would just sit there in that wonderful kitchen that belonged to my father and mother and sometimes we would do nothing but exchange screeches in the rocking chairs or sometimes we wouldn’t even do that, we would sit remembering. And then my father would go down into the cellar and stir the furnace fire and Gene sometimes said when you were least expecting him to say anything that he wished he had a father who could fix the fire in the cellar because when a woman went down to fix the fire you could tell by the kind of heat it made that the fire had been stirred by a woman. You could really tell, he used to say; and then the wind would blow again and my father would come puffing up the cellar steps and ask us to listen to something in the streets, whatever it might have been. “Listen to the noises,” he would say. “Hear how they cry and march!”

And the streetlight on the corner would swing back and forth where Struble Avenue touched Ninth Street, and my mother would get a cold in thechestand have to be rubbed with Musterole while my father brewed a potful of sassafras tea, and when Gene went home there was a fragrance of love in our house. Gene always said things that were good, always things that were positive, never anything dark. I don’t believe I ever heard Eugene say the word black.

But he is dead now. I don’t know when he died. I can’t remember anything that was connected with his death except that my Aunt Sara died the same year in a room of her own in Los Angeles, three flights up from the street. She had been sitting at a window looking out across the city. The company that she had invested in, the vitamin concern, fell into hard times and was liquidated and my aunt, in order to reclaim some of her losses, had asked to have two thousand bottles of the vitamins sent to her house, and she died with all those bottles unopened. They were stashed under her bed and in the medicine chest and in the bathtub and in the icebox and I guess she had given a bottle to everyone in the apartment for a Christmas present.

But there she was, wrapped in a blue shawl staring through eyes that were not focused on anything out across the expanse of Los Angeles, probably even having wondered how many people walking around down there were walking around and in good health because of those vitamins.

And Gene, I guess, is flying around somewhere now. Maybe he was the pigeon that just a while ago smashed into our television aerial or the robin redbreast that a neighbor boy killed with a slingshot that his father bought from a door-to-door salesman. The sky is just one even layer of gray. It is such a sad sky. I can pull back the curtain to it and stare at it a long time and even pretend that it can open up like a wave of wind and let the sunshine through, and let the rays of light shine down upon this house now and suck up the loneliness that is in it and the frettings and the unrest, but then I allow the curtain to fall back from my right hand because my left hand is on the keyboard of this typewriter and I look at my thin hands and hear the winds sing.

My father used to wear a sapphire ring on just such days as this. He wore it when he was proud of life and proud of living and proud of my mother. That was when he wore it, and he wore purple sleeve holders and black police shoes and strutted about smoking a ten-cent cigar all day Sunday and I thought to myself, what a wonderful achievement: to be grown up and wear a sapphire ring and purple sleeve holders. I wonder if Gene’s father would have done that.

Still, I remember my grandfather and grandmother sitting together, yet not together, on a hazy desolate afternoon in the dead of winter. They never even talked to each other; they just spoke through their presence. And the weather would be just as it is now: cold and dark, raw and desolate. So you don’t know, really.

Sometimes when I have forgotten to think about Eugene Noltie or my wonderful Aunt Sara, who would gladly have given me all her vitamins had she thought I needed them, I want to run out of my house and out of my existence and straight for a snowdrift and throw myself into it and never come out.

I wish I could do that. Sometimes I wish I had never moved away from where it snows in the wintertime. I always go back to the days when I used to walk in the freezing cold and smell my father’s cigar. One time, out here in California, I followed a man for five or six blocks just to inhale the memory of my father, just to remember freezing with my father, just to listen to Eugene Noltie chew graham crackers and sing bass in a church choir.

But I will bet you one single thing. I will bet you that over half of the loveliness of that childhood that I can recall on an instant’s notice is nothing but sounds and smells of shops and fire engines and things or the smell of hay or the dinner bucket that my father used to carry with a stale piece of jellybread in it. Maybe poor old Eugene Noltie is a vision of something to come. Maybe he or my art lessons or my beautiful Aunt Sara never existed. And yet this afternoon, looking out, hearing the lions, I feel pain.