At three o’clock in the morning on July 5, 1937, William Humphrey awoke to his mother’s urgent cry: “Get dressed as quick as you can! Your daddy has been hurt.” Rushing to the doctor’s office, mother and son arrived to find Clarence Humphrey battered beyond recognition: his chest crushed, his face bruised black and caked with blood, his teeth shattered. He soon drew his final breath.
In that terrible moment, thirteen-year-old William knew that nothing would ever be the same again: “I felt slip from me in that moment not only the certainty of my future but the fixity of my past. It was as if I had been wakened out of my childhood.” He moved with his mother to Dallas soon after, and although he set his classic novels, Home from the Hill and The Ordways, in his hometown of Clarksville, he would not return for thirty-two years.
A masterpiece of autobiography, Farther Off from Heaven is the fiercely honest, exquisitely crafted story of William Humphrey’s childhood and the sudden end of his innocence.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Humphrey including rare photos form the author’s estate.
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About the Author
A longtime professor of English and writing at Bard College and other schools, Humphrey was the recipient of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters.
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Farther Off from Heaven
By William Humphrey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 William Humphrey
All rights reserved.
"Son! Wake up! Wake up! Son, wake up!"
My mother's voice came to me as though through water. I could sense her urgency, but trying to wake was like trying to save myself from drowning—or rather, like having given up trying to save myself, surrendering to it. Consciousness shone dimly above me, like sunlight from under water, but after each effort to rise to it, my tired mind sank back deeper into the soothing dark.
"Son! Wake up! Wake up! Son, wake up!"
I felt myself being shaken, as one is when he is brought out of the water dying. I could no more wake up than I could come back to life.
I had been permitted to stay up late the evening before, and the evening before that, to celebrate the Fourth of July, and I was just turned thirteen. I had never before been wakened at three o'clock in the morning.
The Fourth of July fell that year—1937—on a Sunday. This, in a county town like ours, Clarksville, Texas, meant that there was no Sunday that week but rather two Saturdays.
Saturday in Clarksville was always a holiday, the day when everybody came to town—Sundays when nobody did. Children were free from school, and from Sunday's sanctimonies and restraints. The stores, with all their wares, their wonders, were open; and even when you could not buy, you too could look. Food forbidden to you all week you were allowed to buy from the street vendors who appeared that day. Stand for just an hour anywhere on the public square, and the tireless circling of shoppers and strollers brought round to you in turn all your kinfolks and most everybody you knew from all over Red River County. Miss somebody and it was cause to wonder whether something was wrong with him. The square, being nobody's dwelling place, was everybody's gathering place. Not even above the shops, on the second and third floors, did anybody live; up there were offices and storerooms. Not used much during the week, the square on Saturday became the town's reception room, its public parlor.
And on Sunday, strewn with paper cups, bags, popcorn boxes, hot tamale shucks, fruit peels, peanut hulls, the shops dark and the shades drawn, it was like a parlor the morning after a late-night party.
But that year, throughout the entire weekend just past, downtown Clarksville had been so clogged with cars and people that motorists passing through headed west toward Paris or east toward Texarkana on U.S. 82, which ran through the square, had been detoured around our festivities through residential streets.
On Saturday morning there had been a parade, with the high-school band and the local Boy Scout troop in their uniforms, veterans of three wars in theirs: bobbing along in the lead, our two surviving Confederate grays, like the last living pair of passenger pigeons, U.S. Army khakis from the Spanish-American and what was then called The World War, followed by merchants' and tradesmen's floats, on one of which I had ridden, my costume a suit of striped coveralls, a miniature of those my father wore to work, with the emblem of his and his partner's auto repair and body shop sewn on the back. I was so proud of those coveralls that for the rest of the weekend I could not be gotten out of them short of skinning me.
By noon that day no parade could have made its way downtown. Cars in the street moved as one, when they moved at all, like the linked coaches of a train. The square was getting to look, even on ordinary Saturdays, like the end of a Detroit assembly line. More and more cars appeared there weekly, and round and around they drove all day and into the night, the riders goggling out and being goggled at like goldfish in a bowl. Today every child out of infancy had been down on the square since breakfast—no fear of one's getting lost: everybody knew whose you were; now, their housework done, their mothers joined them. The tradesmen who could—unlike my father, whose busiest weekend of the year this was—shut up shop and came to swell the throng.
Meanwhile, from out in the country, farmfolks streamed in in greater numbers than had ever been seen there before, as though there had been an increase in their population. Increasingly motorized was what they were, and better able to get there, and, in 1937, they had something to celebrate. Nobody was saying any more that prosperity was just around the corner; but at least our regional troubles no longer compounded the depression for us: the long drought had been broken, the dust storms had blown themselves out, and just now, at just the right time for it, the prairies surrounding Clarksville were whitening a little more each morning with the cotton on which we all depended as though in the night fresh snow had fallen—snow in July being no more improbable to us, on whom it never fell, than snow at any other time of year. Things were looking up—one sign of it: during those two days I had been given no less than seventy cents by men on the square, not one of them under obligation of kinship to me, just friends and acquaintances who, moved by the holiday mood and the generally brightened outlook, and mindful of my reputation as a good boy, had stopped me in my play to ask, "Billy, how would you like to have a nickel?" With that money I had offered to pay a little on my large, long overdue bill at Athas's Confectionery, but my friend Jim, the owner and head kitchen magician, insisted on extending my credit.
There had been platform speaking on the shaded lawn of the courthouse, three blocks north of the square—one of that year's guest speakers the young Lyndon Johnson. On Saturday afternoon out at the Old Fair Grounds north of town, a baseball game; on Sunday, after sparsely attended church services (my own scheduled confirmation had been patriotically postponed), a barbecue and another baseball game out at the New Fair Grounds west of town, followed after dark by a fireworks display.
The summer days were long, and for the past two, time went uncounted, the chimes of the courthouse clock muffled by the daylong drone of motors, the cackling of horns, the burst of firecrackers, the blare and thump of jukeboxes in the cafes and the drugstores and the shouts of children playing around the Confederate monument in the center of the plaza and chasing one another among the parked cars.
That was my town square only somewhat livelier than I was used to seeing it, and as I had last seen it just hours earlier. Now at three o'clock on Monday morning, minutes after my mother had wakened me with a look of fear such as I had seen on her face just once before the square bore to that familiar and vivid image the relation of a photographic negative to the print—ashes to a fire—a darkened stageset after the play is over and the actors and the audience have left the theater. That other time, my mother had been afraid for my life. I thought that she was afraid for me now, and this made me afraid for myself. What was wrong with me?
"Get dressed as quick as you can!" my mother said. "Your daddy has been hurt."
One light shone from a second story window on the southeast corner of the square, and at the curb there sat parked the only car. That lone light, except for the corner streetlamps, was the only light we had seen burning on our drive downtown. We and whoever occupied that office were the only people awake. In that stillness, our car as we drove toward the light made a sound as loud, it seemed to me, as all the cars of Saturday.
Our presence there at that hour brought someone to investigate. We had parked beside the other car and gotten onto the sidewalk when, from around the corner, lancing the darkness, came the beam of a flashlight, footsteps, a man: the town nightwatchman. This local figure had always been a bit of a goblin to me. I thought of him as something like the town watchdog and imagined him as fierce and unappeasable, with a particular animosity toward boys. I had occasionally glimpsed him emerging at dark from wherever he spent the day, carrying, on a strap around his neck, the big nightclock which kept the curfew hours taken from us children and which we were given back just when we did not want them, when we were too sick or too unhappy to sleep. I thought of him whenever I opened one of the little lidded metal containers—and I never passed one without opening it—that were affixed to the walls of the buildings at the four corners of the square, and taking from it the chained key to his clock, each different in cut, by the use of which he established that he had faithfully made his nightly rounds. Actually to encounter him now in his element was as eerie as sighting a nightowl. For him it was even more startling than for us, for it was not unnatural that he be there, it was his territory, his accustomed hour. We skirted one another in passing like different species, the one nocturnal, the other abroad on some untoward errand.
Upstairs my mother and I entered the doctor's office, unfamiliar to me because he was not our doctor. I thought I caught a quick look on his face of suggestion, of warning, meant, though aimed over my head, for me. If so, it only made my mother grip my hand still tighter, and we were shown together into the room that gave onto the square.
What I saw stretched on the tabletop looked like a scarecrow thrown there. Its clothes, a suit of coveralls exactly like my own, were dyed with blood, stained with motor oil, ripped and slashed, and the entire body so swollen it seemed to have been stuffed into them. The legs and arms were splayed, twisted, limp. The chest on one side was crushed, forcing out the other side. It looked as if it had been hanged, trampled, like the defiled effigy of a man.
I had many times seen my father's face black with the grease of his trade; now it was bruised black, caked with blood, and so battered and lacerated that it was necessary for me to piece it back together from memory—so thoroughly disfigured that although it was just hours since I had last seen him, it was hard to recollect and reassemble his features. The right eye was gone. Above the empty socket was a deep depression in the forehead, above the other eye—puffed shut—a large bulge. The nose was cleft. The jaw hung open and wrenched awry, the lips were drawn back baring the gums, the gaps among the teeth—always so regular and so white—and the shattered ones, brown with blood, that remained.
His breathing had a sound known to me. It was the sound of a drowning person drawing his last breath. Only this was one drowning from inside, on his own blood.
I longed to be in my bed, where I was supposed to be—to sink back into that deep sleep I had been shaken out of. Or had I? Surely I must be asleep and having a bad dream. Only in dreams could so short a time bring so great a change in things. Everybody else was asleep; so should I be. Back in bed I would go over my plans for tomorrow and, hugging them to me, would drift off. Morning would come as it always had. Things would be as they had always been.
I heard the strange doctor telling my mother that the ambulance was on its way.
Things would never be the same for me again. Through the window above my father's broken, bloody body, in the darkness shrouding the town square, I could make out nothing. I felt slip from me in that moment not only the certainty of my future but the fixity of my past. It was as if I had been wakened out of my childhood.
It was in a car accident—if it could be called that—that my father had been hurt. The words I had heard my mother say to him many times came back to me now (I wondered if she was recalling them, too): "Clarence, you're going to kill yourself one of these days, and the way you drive, it won't be an accident." I worried instead that somebody else was going to kill him, and I had for two years, ever since he began carrying the pistol.
It was not a target pistol, not a sporting arm; I knew that, and I knew guns. Nor was carrying it concealed on him the way a sporting arm was carried. It was not, as .22's were promoted in the ads in the outdoors magazines, for "plinking." That pistol of his was a man-killer.
My father never explained what threat or what fear made him carry the pistol, a .380 Colt automatic in a quick-draw holster nestled in his left armpit, and so I did not know why—or rather, I did know, precisely because he did not explain it, and because I knew why the men in the movies carried them, as men in so many of the movies of that era did, especially the one who, in looks, build, bearing, attitudes, personality, even in his expressions, was so much like my father that watching him on the screen frightened me far beyond the intended scariness of his role, perhaps because, even so, I still found him appealing: I mean James Cagney—not the song-and-dance-man Cagney, but Cagney the gangster-film star. To me there was nothing unreal or even remote in those bloody gun battles, those ambushes and shoot-outs and careening car chases; to me they were everyday. In the talk on the streetcorners and in the barber shop and in my father's garage, in the newspapers I delivered each afternoon, the main topic was the exploits of desperadoes still on the loose and others only recently eradicated: Dillinger, Ma Barker's boys, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine-gun Kelly, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, as well as one local would-be badman, my own father's younger brother, caught not long ago in the attempted burglary of a cafe across the square from where we now sat waiting for the ambulance to arrive, and serving a sentence in the State penitentiary in Huntsville.
My father had the pistol on him now—I had seen the bulge. That second button from the top of his coveralls: it had not been torn open in the collision; it was always left unbuttoned for instant access to the pistol: his equalizer. For he was a little man in a place where men grew tall, sensitive about his size and thus ready, as my mother said of him admiringly, "to fight a circular saw," touchy, not to be trifled with, a pilot-light burning in him always, quick to flare into flame at any slight, any dare, any slur, mean when riled and a dirty fighter, as little men must be: a sawed-off shotgun of a man, that was what my father was—or had been.
A single switch seemed to have turned on the lights all along the street running west from the square as Clarksville was wakened by the wail of the siren like a household wakened by the cries of a child in the night. Wail followed wail breathlessly, rising in volume, mounting to shrieks.
So deep and so extensive was the silence of the night that the ambulance must still have been well beyond the outskirts when we first heard it; it swept downtown with the speed of a winter wind gusting in off the prairie. Through the window that looked westward and up the Paris road, I was watching for it, and saw the lights come on as though strung all on one wire. Our wait, measured by the spreading bloodstain on the sheet my father lay on, had been long; for Clarksville, county seat though it was, had no hospital, and Paris, site of the nearest one, was thirty-five miles away. Through it, my mother, who always cried easily, had not cried at all: proof to me, if proof had been needed, of the seriousness of my father's injuries. Only from time to time a whimper that she could not suppress escaped her, a catch in her breath became a sob.
In the empty bowl of the square the cry of the siren lingered on as though it was still going. We waited on the street for my father to be brought downstairs in the litter, and my mother squeezed my hand until it hurt. I endured it because I was afraid to draw her attention to it. She had always been a very protective mother, but now a new perception came to me through that link of our hands, one that took me at a leap into a new and unprepared phase of my life: my mother was clinging to me for support now, when never before had I felt so lost, so helpless.
Excerpted from Farther Off from Heaven by William Humphrey. Copyright © 1977 William Humphrey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- A Biography of William Humphrey
- Copyright Page