Monday, December 26, 2011

Silent Night, Every Night

“...souls though dumb may not be kept apart.” --Don Quixote, Cervantes

 I first encountered Norman Thomas, named for the free-thinking six-time socialist presidential candidate, at a Trivia Night fund-raising evening held on behalf of the Bonne Terre Missouri Historical Society at Heritage Hall last winter. My team had had an impressively precocious start, leading in first place for the first three out of ten rounds, but we finished with a decidedly sub-par performance, somewhere around (below) the 65 percentile of correct answers. The Quiet Man was one that we blew, and we just seemed to lose steam after that. My bad for not knowing that Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal in Australia, but I did supply the correct answer—Leon Trotsky—to the question, What Russian revolutionary was assassinated via a pick axe to the skull in Mexico? After which all heads at my table turned as one in my direction for answers to subsequent questions on Marx and Lenin, both of which I slam-dunked—revolutionary Socialism was decidedly in the Bonne Terrean air.
My novel Cooperative Village was one of the silent auction items, and at the game's intermission Norman stopped by my table to warmly shake hands and say a melodious and welcoming hiya to a “local author.” An impassioned Dickens lover with a soaring IQ and an easy, breezy smile, a retired counselor with Iowa, Kansas and Missouri stamped on his personality's passport, he turned my head when he told me he was working on an adaptation of Little Dorrit to be set in gangland Los Angeles.  

Norman and I became fast writing friends, meeting at local restaurants or in each other's homes with armfuls of books and scribbled-upon notes from which we quoted to embroider our notional propositions. We'd routinely interrupt each other, heartily talk over each other, laugh and probe each other's thoughts so raucously that the owner of Mario's felt impelled to approach our table to ask in a reproving tone after Norm's wife of more than 40 years. Chastisers abound in the Bible Belt, ever generous with their stifling hints and remonstrances at the slightest crackle of intellectual eros. But we eschewed the party-poopers and, for a time, Norm—well and widely read, an informed and confident literature discussant, able to retrieve and recite from memory snatches of poetry or prose to bolster most any theme—was my literary lifeline. Until late this past summer when Norm was quite literally dumbstruck. “Massive” was the dreaded adjective attached to the infelicitous noun: massive stroke.

For the five month-period in which we were actively sharing our works-in-progress, Norman had put aside his screenplay to work with his brother John on a novel based on the lives of their parents—Ken and Rose—drawing from memory, imagination and boxes of onion-skinned sheaves of sermons their parson father had preached from his various pulpits. When Norman recovers his language-based abilities to speak, read and write, he'll present the work himself, on this blog or elsewhere, so I won't steal his thunder, but for this brief excerpt. The passage is from Chapter One, and is wholly representative of Norman's verbal facility, particularly his gift for economical description and characterization infused always with his keenly intelligent and oh-so wry, laid-back humor.
Kenneth woke in the December pre-dawn. He shivered out of the blankets' warmth and yawned in the moonlight reflected from the church windows. In the shadows he groped his way into his trousers and shirt. His slippers were a fortieth birthday gift from Mother. Sent from the May Company department store in Los Angeles, they were good steer-leather, moccasin-stitched and lined with red and black buffalo-plaid wool. “Nothing too good for my boy,” Ken muttered his mother's mantra. Pity she can't be here to watch me wear them to the basement to stoke the furnace. He shrugged into a brown wool cardigan, elbows holed, cuffs frayed. He called it his “holy sweater.”

He went down the 75-year-old plank stairs into the coal-dusty basement, opened the still-warm furnace door, unbanked the fire, shook the grate, shoveled out clinkers, and threw two shovels of coal into the furnace. He watched the new coal flicker into flame, ignited from red embers. Satisfied it would not need corncob kindling, he closed the furnace door and walked up the staircase into the kitchen. The coffee bubbled happily. Ken found a not-too-dirty mug, poured the first of his daily dozen cups and tested it with a cautious sip. “Where the hell's my Book of Discipline?” he asked himself aloud.

The time-frame for recovery from the kind of major neurological event Norman has survived is measured in years, not months. I had a fantasy that I would interview Norm even in his current aphasic speechlessness, and that he would respond to my questions with articulate vocalizations and eloquent gestures rife with meaning, and that I would be able to interpret or translate these utterances and pantomimes sufficiently to understand what else is lost and, if anything, gained when language is repressed. Does one find other pockets of grace in which to find and communicate meaning? Does one become more observant, more adept at reading sub-text and sensing or seeking the ineffable? Is intellect curtailed or does it find some other way to flourish, through listening to string quartets for instance, or some other discourse? I'd dearly like to know the words Norman would use to characterize his relationship to his own enforced silence. Norman, in your dreams are you again fluent or do you remain a silent actor? I'd like to know if speechlessness effects Norm's sense of time; specifically, has time slowed down while he works toward and waits for the new pathways he must forge inside his own brain to reach the motherlode of intelligible expression?
 In my fantasy, I tell Norm that silence can be profoundly counter-cultural in this society of constant blather. At Occupy St. Louis, some of the more stirring images were ones of protesters with dollar bills or bar codes taped over their mouths―symbolic affirmation that our right to free speech is increasingly cheapened and impoverished. I'll look forward to hearing his response to that. I bet Norman already knows the old joke about the 9-year-old presumed-mute boy who one bright morning complains to his mother about lumps in his oatmeal. "Why didn't you speak before now?!" the startled mother asks her son. To which he replies, "Until now, everything was alright."
But I know everything is not alright. I know by the two words that Norman can say, which somehow don't seem random—No and Really. There is so much that we humans do not say to each other, even though we can, even though we could. We withhold, at times, grotesquely. Is the opposite of “nothing to say and saying it” “something to say and not saying it”? Norman will have a field day with that one!
 In the new year Norman and I will be reading aloud the only Dickens he hasn't yet read, 785 pages of the comic masterwork Martin Chuzzlewit. We're in the process of working the logistics out as to where the readings will transpire. If anyone in Bonne Terre is able to tote Norm to Farmington, perhaps we could read in The Factory in the Written Word, Spoken Word booth, where others might enjoy the experience of watching me perform comical Dickens, and no doubt hearing Norman laugh, and laugh some more. Under normal circumstances I would never presume to speak for Norman. But in these abnormal ones I'm willing to venture that Norm—ever thoughtful, ever curious, ever welcoming—would also enjoy expanding our wild and wooly circle of lit-love. 


  1. I had no idea Mr. Thomas, one of my beloved library patrons, had suffered a stroke. We have had such thought provoking conversations in the past. I too would "dearly like to know the words Norman would use to characterize his relationship to his own enforced silence." Thank you for your posts. I do not have iternet at home, so I don't get here as often as I would like, but know that I am popping in from time to time.

  2. So good to know that you are. And guess what?-- you're not alone. I can hardly believe it, but there have already been 527 visitors so far this month!

    I'm so glad you value Norman too. I can't wait to tell him about your comment.


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