On Account of the Lamb Being Awkward*
by Ernest Troost
David Copperfield as a child: But why must I go away, Aunt Betsey? I want to stay with you, and Mr. Dick.
Aunt Betsey Trotwood: But you have to be educated, David, and take your place in the world.
--David Copperfield MGM 1935
While I was living at my parent’s house in between high school and college, a period when I was adrift and confused about what I would do with my life, I’d go for drives with no particular destination, just to be moving, to see the scenery changing around me. But the local country roads were too familiar. I’d memorized their curves and straights, rises and dips until they were no longer much of a distraction.
My parents were very patient and allowed me the time and space to sort myself out without a lot of pressure, though there were one or two heated discussions about my getting a job. I’d stay up into the wee hours of the morning watching old Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s. On those late evenings falling asleep on our flowered couch in front of the black and white 14” Zenith, films and life would become indistinguishable. I loved Mrs. Muir’s Gull Cottage in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Aunt Betsey Trotwood’s house in David Copperfield, and Windward House in The Uninvited. These cottages were fictions, black and white composites made from matte paintings and shots of the California coast, but they looked real, so perfect that I wanted to be there, with their ancient stone walls and nibbling sheep. I would hear the gulls and smell the sea.
Then one night I found myself walking on a path along the coast. Up ahead were a group of cottages built near the bluffs. I looked out to sea and saw the blurry image of the empty flowered couch and matching hassock of our TV room.
Victor Young’s beautiful Stella By Starlight floated around me like a gull feather caught in the breeze, and I found myself standing next to Rick, the composer in The Uninvited, as he reassured the housekeeper, Lizzie, that there were no ghosts in Windward House. Further up the path, Bernard Herrmann’s dark swelling orchestra in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir surged with the melodrama to come, and when the lecherous behavior of Uncle Timmy was revealed, I wanted to throw him off the bluff myself. Now, finally, Mrs. Muir could get back to writing Blood and Swash.
At the next cottage I visited Aunt Betsey’s character in David Copperfield and watched her throw David Copperfield’s sadistic stepfather out of the house. I agreed with her that the stepfather was one of the nastiest pieces of work I’d ever met. When afterwards she hugged David and told him he had a good heart and she would help him become educated, I felt she was talking to me.
That night I was still at the cottages when my father came downstairs for his nightly snack, and seeing the TV on in an empty room he turned it off. Suddenly, everything around me went dark. I stumbled along the coastal path till I came to a dead tree at the cliff edge in The Uninvited and there I waited. I admit it was a spooky spot. I sat and listened to the thunderous waves crashing below me, and fragments of distant piano music. After a while I became a little peckish. I wished I had brought some food with me. How long would I have to stay here with my legs dangling over the cliff?
The next morning my grandmother flipped on the TV and went into the kitchen to fix her lunch. When she came back I was sitting on the couch, and she sat down to watch her soaps. She had fried up eggs with onions and potatoes for her lunch and had brought a plate for me too. Without taking her eyes off the TV she handed me the dish and sat down. “Eat,” she said, “it’s good.” It was.
I needed some time to make sense of what had happened last night. Clearly, these films were taking up too much space in my brain. The characters in these stories strived to achieve great deeds, and by the end of the films they triumphed. Of course, these were classic Hollywood films, designed to satisfy and inspire a weary audience struggling after the Depression. In contrast, my life so far had had none of the same hardships, so why was I so inert? Was I so afraid of change that I feared to make a move?
I got a job sweeping the floors of a factory that made medallions and awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Huge presses with one thousand tons of pressure punched out medals for people who had achieved great things with their lives. My job was to keep the floor clean of scraps of gold and silver. I held the job for exactly three days. When I walked out I told myself I was meant for greater things. I needed more time to think about a future I had not yet imagined.
I began studying classical guitar and devoting all the daytime hours I could to it. My days were full of learning the fundamentals of this instrument and practicing scales and arpeggios.
A week later The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was once again airing at 2AM. I needed a plan. That night I made a salami sandwich the way my mother always made them for me, with provolone, lettuce, tomato, and mustard. I put it in a paper bag with an apple and added a flashlight, just in case. I sat down on the flowered couch and put my feet up on the matching hassock. I was dozing when I awoke hearing Lizzie say, “I’ll soon have it shipshape and Bristol fashion.” I was at once standing in front of Gull Cottage smelling the fresh salt air and looking over the monkey-puzzle tree, a species, I’m told, that’s as old as the dinosaurs. As I walked up the path toward Windward House I could hear the familiar melody of Stella By Starlight emanating from the second-floor music studio, and I wondered if I’d soon smell mimosa.
I looked out to sea and there in the fog was the blurry image of our TV room with the empty flowered couch and matching hassock. My father once again had come down the stairs to have some cookies and a cigarette. On his way back upstairs he switched off the TV.
This time I was ready. I flipped on my flashlight and found a place to sit on the stone wall in front of Aunt Betsey’s house. I ate my salami sandwich as the sheep bleated softly around my feet.
This is how I spent the rest of my summer. I practiced guitar all day and went to the English coast each night. With the help of my inspiring guitar teacher I started to see the possibilities outside my small parochial view of the world. It was like I’d been living in a dark room and he’d thrown open the shutters, filling the room with sunlight. Now I was listening to the music of Django Reinhardt and Edward Elgar, and there were new musical discoveries on my guitar every day. I took less frequent drives. Eventually I began to spend less time on the English coast at the cottages. The characters in these films were happy to carry on their scenes without me skulking around on the sets, and I started to get more sleep.
I would leave that fall to study music in Boston. I will always remember fondly my times on the bluffs in England with the seagulls riding the thermals and the cottages with their steep roofs and colorful inhabitants who let me share my summer with them, listening to their clever dialogue. I remember looking down the gently curving coastline as the sheep quietly grazed and the silvery sea threw up glittering handfuls of diamonds that tumbled to foam on the rocks.
When I left for Boston I packed my guitar and stuck a flashlight in the glove compartment. My mother gave me a salami sandwich for the long drive, made just the way I liked.
Mr. Micawber: So relentlessly pursued over aerie and housetop, and vice versa, I have thwarted the malevolent machinations of our scurrilous enemies; in short, I have arrived.
--David Copperfield MGM 1935
* Title taken from dialogue in The Univited Paramount Pictures 1944.