the practical heart

The Practical Heart


Aunt spent her last year in a rest home south of Evanston. Her two surviving sisters had died within ten days of one another. Family loyalty had become, of necessity, our tribe's low-cost form of recognized nobility. Muriel, the oldest of them, was miffed at being left behind and said so. But to whom? Only at the end did she reveal some of the outlaw mischief I alone had felt bulking there beneath her breath mints and "gay" violets.

A letter arrived in North Carolina for the executor of Aunt's trivial estate, my mother. It was from the home's director: "Muriel is fast becoming one of our all-time worst incorrigibles." "Well, high time, and good for her!" Dad laughed. Mother said, "Great, go on and chortle, you ox. But this is the third place, and if they chuck her out, she's on the street, Richard. Or, worse, down here with us." That sure shut Dad up.

See, Aunt kept running away. Armed only with her change purse and umbrella, she would leave a note on her good blue paper: "Food Dreadful. Consider This My Two Weeks Notice. It's Inadequate. Do Not Follow Me." Then she simply wandered out into traffic. Aunt either thumbed or stood there till the car of someone tenderhearted or citizenlike stopped. Muriel told strangers that the Presbyterian Home badly abused her; she said that Presbyterians were "secretly mostly prostitutes, Papist villains, and frequent doo-doo heads." "They hurt my wrists," she told me when I saw her last. Auntie sat there in bed, long fingers of her right hand braceleting the wrist of her left, rubbing, testing, till I almost believed her.

My parents, merciful, had given me plane fare. It was my first air trip alone. They themselves felt little urge to rush up here to see her. At our local arts center, I had just sold eight paintings from my first one-boy show. I was half sick with an adolescent's joy at recognition: I told myself I'd "done it all for her." It pleases many men to claim this of their wishes. Two newspaper notices were folded in my pocket. But Aunt hardly listened, she seemed restless, irked.

When I arrived, she'd confused me by asking if I had attended "the College of Cardinals." . . . This made an image of red birds wearing mortarboards. "I'm in junior high, Aunt. `The College of Cardinals'? That doesn't make any sense," I told her, plain, with the strength of love. I saw her suspect she'd revealed too much; she lowered her head, slightly ashamed at being caught.

To soothe her, I described the opening, catered by Mom mostly Aunt hinted, wasn't the show a bit too local to matter much? "It's not as if it were being held someplace real, inside the Loop," she, spoke while staring at the air vent over her bed. Inside my blazer, pocket, I clutched thirty photos of the opening I now feared I'd never get to show her. Strange, I hadn't thought to bring her a real painting-instead, just snapshots of the things hung on the gallery walls and quietly for sale. Her room could've used some help. It in a turret, had no windows, and was partly round, not much bigger than a hotel's entry breezeway.

After her last escape, the rest home took to tying her in a rocking chair. My parents had signed the release-"For her own protection, really." The one nurse strong enough to manage Auntie heavy young black woman. Muriel now complained about her. Oddly enough, she was named Muriel too. Aunt told me how, once both her arms had been lashed to the chair, once a shawl had been tucked around her so that others' visitors would not be disturbed by the sight of "restraints," Aunt's chunky jailer had bent over to pick up bedclothes mussed during the latest thrashing struggle. "Then, you see, by accident, she showed her whole backside to me, His Owl, and it just proved too much for resisting. My hands were bound but, you understand, she'd foolishly left my feet quite free. One good swift kick sent her flying face-first flat onto the floor. She made quite the undignified grunt, going down. Sounded a perfect pig, she did. Must weigh three hundred easily. `Uugahh!' like that. Rome will give me hell for doing it, but, oh . . . extremely satisfying, I must say. Then she was very slow to turn around but she looked back up at me, still tied. She said, `Does you really hate me so damn much, ole lady?' And I said then, `It's nothing personal. But I'm afraid I must admit that, dear me, yes. Yes, "Muriel." I fairly despise you.'"

I brought the topic back, of course, to me, my painting. Aunt acted peeved as some person tied up all day. I might have seen that I was asking for it.

"You know?" she started. "I expected you to get better at your pictures considerably faster, I fear. There's something terribly flat about your figures. It appears they aren't so much painted as carved. They seem to have no choice. No `inner fire.' " Muriel's brogue now sounded dense as some new immigrant's; her sentences flecked flying spittle. "Really?" I studied my long white hands. "Not enough `inner fire,' hunk?"

"Well-I believe back then I claimed that you were quite the little masterpiece, am I no' right? I'm saying that any lack of progress is not due to any lack of encouragement on my part, now, is it, now, Owl?" "No, ma'am," I agreed, but explained that I'd only just turned fourteen in June and, to be fair, the week before I'd made what?-$57.30 from my painting. "Now he's onto the money of it, is he? Because we lost everything, this generation thinks it's going to show-up in the cash drawer or none of it is real, am I right? Don't you dare bring money into this. You have no idea. Fourteen might sound young to some, but you're presently a-speaking to the per son who's been expecting something from you, and I mean daily. Now in he waltzes with cash receipts. We needed art, you little ribbon clerk!"

I knew this was meant as punishment. But even at that age, even considering the fortune my earnings seemed-I saw that no amount would ever make it up to her; I mean, the debits. I noticed with horror that her nightdress was misbuttoned, that she wore no underclothes. And just by sitting here, I'd have to see her flat tire of one breast and some portion of a nipple gray-brown and cracked-looking. She didn't know. She was pert and frazzled and she kept smiling. "Good you've come," she said now. I wanted to rescue her from this narrow room. I wanted to rescue her from History-so bad at assigning, so good at misplacing. Such a slob, really, History. Muriel's grandfather was asked to give crippling amounts (irretrievable loans) to the porky future King of England. Finders keepers, losers weepers .... Was there not some way to help her, even now? Some intuitive science, some practical bill-collector's art? The more cross she acted toward me, the more I felt I knew her, and the more unworthy I felt. I sat here, winded and confused, so glad they'd let me come alone. Nobody need ever know she'd scolded me like that for being too slow, for my mentioning the money. Nobody would know. She least of all. But, I didn't count on my own habitual remembering, a gift so enhanced in me by Muriel Evangeline Kilkairn Fraser.

"Was I wrong?" she asked, half aware she might've bruised my feelings. "No, ma'am," I said. "I don't know how to do portraits yet. They're harder than people realize. Portraits matter more than people think, I think." She nodded, but toward the air vent.

Aunt's white hair, tugged free of its bun, appeared a witch's, thin on top, wild wings out the sides. Her eyes seemed strained and blockish in their pouches. "But, what'd they do with your glasses?" I finally asked. She pointed to a drawer. I found them, lenses filthy Glad to be useful, I cleaned these, my own spit on the back strand of my first silk necktie (bought with profits from the show). "Can you see now?" I set them on her long nose.

"See WHAT?"

I was glad my parents hadn't found her like this. I believed they might hold it against me. Sitting here, I felt the first round of so1 strange guilt. The place smelled unclean. Staffers kept staring through Aunt's open door, all wearing glum expressions, as if expecting to find her on her hands and knees, or maybe strangling me. I touched her bedclothes and gave off my best guardian looks to the wheelchaired corridor. Even here and unattended, Aunt's clerical good-envelope-glue smell held on, as if baked into her by routine, a last gift. On the wall beside her pillow hung one framed girlish drawing of Sunnyside . . . a gate, a stone wall, the hollyhocks. On her bedside table, a brown celluloid radio, one side melted by tubes' heat; today it was set to a gospel station, spitting quiet static. Atop a bureau missing its oval mirror, a single favorite doll of hers still safe under one clear glass dome. Beside it, a Bible concordance published in Glasgow in 1840, but no Bible here. One dog-eared copy of Forever Amber a best-selling bodice-ripper historical romance from the forties, the nineteen forties. And, in its dainty silver frame, that brass plaque from International Harvester (now in Chapter Eleven) praising Muriel for saving the company so much bailing twine, "and for general excellence." -All the sixteenth-century homeplace's lore and trappings come down to this. The only thing still beautiful, her familiar battered black umbrella tilted against the curving wall, the umbrella alone somehow witty and intact.

I sat wondering, could I ever help make things up to this old woman by-at least-making things up? Whenever authorities caught the impenitent runaway, Aunt never seemed headed for Oak Park. The bungalow at 1200 Home Avenue was long since sold. Authorities always found her aiming for the lake. Maybe some memory of ocean? safety? true escape?

Now she interrupted my renewed saga of several good Carolina families who'd wisely added my oil paintings to their collections. "They hurt, they hurt me. They listen, too." She nodded toward the air-duct's grillwork, shreds of dust shuddering there. It did look sinister. I took her small rough hand. Turning it over, I found the bruises. Old ones fading greenish under newer navy-blue.

"You see now? My, but your face certainly just changed, it did. Well, good. Son, nobody ever listens to me anymore. The Presbyterians, I find after a lifetime's loyalty and tithing, turn out to be secretly `in with' the Pope. I see that now. Rome knows you're here. Everything we say, they keep it all in Gregg dictation. Once you're gone, they'll take it out on me. You could sleep in the chair. They won't try any further funny business with you in here. Please tell your mother, won't you? Oh, how they treat me. If you have spirit in this place, they monitor that. They'll monitor whatever little spirit the person has left in her, His Honor His Owl. Remember everything, son. How pretty you really are. There's no telling what trouble it'll get you into, being the kind of boy that looks like that. Where are the dogs? I've often thought a dog would help in here. It could go for things. Papa's did. You look like Papa in a portrait he had taken at your age. Such a voice did he have, the arias of an evening. I played well then. Even Mr. Ruskin was not uncomplimentary. They sold the piano. And the stool. For nothing. A song they got. I'd like a dog, would be nice. The director complains about it when I must go off places on my own. But I have been independent right along. -They take you down in shorthand. Then they use it on you, they send that, duplicate and triplicate, to Rome. -I can only go on like this, I think, because I HAVE gone on like this."

Then she laughed that wild spoilt-rich-girl laugh, she nodded once, placed her long forefinger vertical against her lips: "Shhh, His Honor." Aunt signed above the bed toward the humming heating vent. Next, midair, with one crabbed hand, she made a puppet gesture of human legs sneaking away, big slow comic tiptoe steps. Such a hoarse, aristocratic, likable whisper against my face: "I plan leaving again Tuesday, noon. They'll never find me this time. -Besides, Owl, tell me, what're they going to DO to me now? What's there left to DO to your wild Muriel?"


Call my earlier inventions a revenge on behalf of the smartest hen to escape a farm cart, only to accidentally enter a guillotine disguised, a door made out of mirror. History assigned. For my exaggerations of the real toward the beautiful, I will not apologize. Say I am getting even with those cowboy novels that led a man who should've known better to travel someplace new and dangerous, exposing his children (and great-grandchildren) to robbery. For years, I felt a snobbish shame at how the books that brought my people to America were not great literature but junky Westerns. And yet, would life have been made easier if Shakespeare had engineered my great-grandmother's appointment underneath the rutting streetcar? I did research to help my actual and would-be history seem more real to you (and incidentally to me). I discovered the following heartening passage about my half-blind German jewel-thief ancestor-in-art. This is verbatim from The Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction, by John Tuska and Vicki Pierkaski:


MAY, KARL (1842-1912) Phenomenally popular author of travel and adventure novels, many of which were set in the American West, was born at Hohenstein-Ernsttahl, Saxony in Germany. May's vision was impaired as a child because of malnutrition. He spent his youth in the shadow of the great famine that swept Central Europe in the mid 1840's and the economic dislocations which led to the tragic weavers' rebellion of 1844. But he was a gifted youth. The sacrifices of May's family and the largesse of the Church enabled him to finish school and enter a teachers' training college. Soon after graduation in 1861, however, he was arrested for stealing a watch and sentenced to a prison term which ended all possibility of a teaching career. May claimed throughout his life to have been innocent of this theft.. After several months' imprisonment, the depressed and bitter May swore vengeance on bourgeois society and began a life of fraud, swindle, and larceny which lasted twelve years and sent him back to jail for stretches from 1865-1868 and 1870-1874. While incarcerated, he read voraciously in the prison library, devouring travel memoirs and adventure stories of distant lands, particularly those about the Arab world and the American frontier.

The chastened May began his literary career writing village tales and cheap adventure stories for an unscrupulous publisher of family magazines and trashy short novels. Although he had never traveled outside Germany, he produced his first two books on the American "wild" West, "Jenseits der Felsengebirge" (Beyond the Rocky Mountains) and "In Fernen Western" (In the Far West). Over the next thirty years, drawing mainly from atlases, ethnological studies, and travelers' journals, May published a spate of similar books, the best and most popular of which was the trilogy "Winnetou" (1893--1910). Set in the plains and mountains of the West and Southwest at about the time of the Civil War, it chronicles the deeds of a knightly band of heroic "men of the West" surrounding a young German adventurer, "Old Shatterhand" and his blood brother, Winnetou, the noble chief of the Mescalero Apaches. In this band were "Old Firehand," "Old Surehand," "Sharpeye," "Old Wabble," and Sam Hawkens. Themselves men of untarnished integrity and valor, they are nevertheless constantly being vilified, double-crossed and ambushed by an assortment of white scoundrels and misled Indians. And yet, there are no truly bad Indians in "Winnetou," only angry and naive victims of the whites' cruelty and greed. May compared Winnetou to a "deer that . . . (now) sees and hears with its soul" and contrasted the Indian with white men who are as "docile domestic animals." Upon his death, Winnetou acknowledges Christ and requests that an "Ave Maria" be sung for him. Despite the gross lack of realism and moralizing sentimentality, these stories still abound in hair-raising surprises, outrageous comedy, unforgettable characters.

May's years of anonymous toil as a hack writer were followed by two decades of success which made him a bestselling writer in Germany, particularly among the youth. Responding in part to demands from his growing public, May gradually began to pretend that he was, in fact, characters from his books. He had photographs taken of himself in Western garb and Oriental costume which he signed and sent to his fans. But wealth and fame had the disadvantage of making his life a matter of public curiosity and malice. This led, in 1904, to the scandalous revelation of his early years of crime and imprisonment and to the even more damaging discovery that he had,] never been to the United States at all (much less experienced the adventures narrated in his Westerns).

The pose had been a relatively harmless fraud. But in light of his criminal record it appeared yet another episode of a to history of swindle and moral hypocrisy. Humiliated by these disclosures and his own attempts at denial, May made a threemonth tour of America in 1908 but traveled no further West than Buffalo, New York. In his last years, he wrote two justifications of his life which some critics consider his finest literary works. Abused in the press and defeated in the court in his suits for defamation of character, May died a broken man.

Until recently Karl May has been considered beneath contempt by most literary critics and historians. At best he was recognized as a master of juvenile adventure stories and a popular writer of escapist fiction for the common man. His novels were, for the most part, hastily written, uneven, and inconsistent; his stories, tangles of unlikely coincidence and improbable action .... Indeed the renewed interest in May's work is principally an outgrowth of contemporary interest in their symbolic element, their joyous outwardness, their religiose nearly dream-like quality.

May was praised by men as diverse as Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Albert Schweitzer, and Adolf Hitler. During World War II, Hitler sent 300,000 Winnetou novels to German soldiers as recommended tactical reading. Asked about early mentors, Einstein once commented: "My whole adolescence stood under his sign. Indeed, even today (May) has been dear to me in many a desperate hour." Hermann Hesse wrote, "His is a whole new kind of work. I shall call it The Fiction of Wish Fulfillment."

After May's death in disgrace, German readers and loyalists took up a large subscription and created a Museum in his honor. That Museum does not, however, directly concern this fantasist's unhappy biography. The Karl May Institute remains open today. It contains one of Germany's foremost collections of genuine Plains Indian weaponry, art, and religious artifacts. Many have seen this as the highest praise, perhaps even a belated exoneration, of an imaginative man pilloried for his popular falsehoods.


Insofar as I know, of course, my Great-aunt Muriel, though a very real person, a churchgoer (Second Presbyterian), and an excellent cook by all reports, showed no interest in Singer Sargent and was never painted by him. Despite being born in Scotland, she spent so much of her salary on Mama's drug bills, on her museum memberships and the National Geographic Society contributions, on her niece and then her great-nephews, Muriel never managed to feel quite rich enough for a return to the homeplace. Ethel discouraged her, having found Sunnyside's former orchard a development of cottagers' stuccoed houses. The stone homeplace was now a roadhouse; yellow placards advertising Kodak film were bolted to its front. I made up that other.

I've made so much of it up, you see. And then, having invented it, I transform the fiction into a curious pedigree. The story itself, the will to believe the best of my own-that becomes a credo. It's an article of faith I find that I can live by.

John Ruskin actually told my actual great-grandpapa, who, in turn, told his mute and practical daughters, "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion-all in one. The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to SEE something, and tell what it SAW in a plain way." If only somebody could paint Muriel, fancy and plain, both ways. In light, and in shade. As wished, and then as History merely assigned. But you don't get both, do you? Not in one frame. And, maybe for people like me, for clans like mine, the tender, the face-saving lie is our art form-our distinguished thing, at last. "I have taken the liberty of enlarging your hat brim. But only for compositional purposes. No criticism of the hat itself implied, you understand, Miss." My people's pose has been a relatively harmless fraud. In their economizing, find my actual inheritance. In kindness to each other, find one pure form of love. And in our lovely necessary lies-find the truest story of my life.

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Excerpted from The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus. Copyright © 2001 by Allan Gurganus. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.