“There is nothing better than oblivion,
Since in oblivion there is no
“William Curtis Moore”
The Past, eternally unchanged and changeless endures absolute in its completeness. A vast library of Yesterdays where countless memories, experiences and images, some remembered while others long forgotten tread ever so closely like an unshakable moonlight shadow. This is the only image I ever made of my friend William Moore. The exposure was made in the cellar pool hall of Leduc’s Variety, a massive 19th century brick structure once housing the town meeting hall of Oakland R.I., now converted into the sole mercantile establishment of this once thriving New England community. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the village was alive with proud and prosperous old Yankee families and hopeful immigrant families whose dreams and expectations were close within their reach. Now, after generations of decline, the few remaining citizens had become as decayed and decadent as their mold eaten mansions and their long crumbling mill buildings. Barely eighteen and unsure of my place in the world, I was unaware of the horror lurking in this photograph, lurking within the very emulsion itself, a horror that in three years would change the direction of my life, abruptly changed like the cue striking the rack, a horror that would soon fully manifest within the personage of my friend, William Curtis Moore.
One tends to drift toward an environment that reflects the landscape of one’s own self-assessment. Recently divorced, prevented from seeing my infant daughter, aimless, uninspired and detached; I now found myself engaging in behaviors one could adjudge as scandalous when viewed through the strict lens of a traditional New England background. I did not return to school for the fall semester. Instead, I had taken a shabby one room flat in the Stillwater section of Smithfield, Rhode Island, a village whose whole atmosphere seemed redolent of the Great Depression of the 1930’s with its squalor and overall decrepitude. Of my residence I can say little except that the building maintained a pervasive unwholesomeness characteristic of the general community. The two story wood framed structure, once utilized as a factory outbuilding was, sometime before the Second World War, converted into four one-room flats served by a single bath. My second story chamber, reached by an impossibly narrow unlighted staircase, was a cheerless low slant ceiled enclosure. A tiny floor level window allowed no daylight other than a dim spectral glow and the lone bedside lamp, which reflected no light from the brown nicotine stained wallpaper, offered only the disquieting claustrophobia of premature entombment. My three fellow tenants, none of whom was less than double my own age, all reflected the same defeat of lifeless living. Once men with dreams and expectations, once men of potential driven by a sense of purpose now found that all their Yesterdays had led them to Today, dreamless, afraid, haunted and alone. I would see them come, I would watch them go, and I too felt resigned to this procession of misery.
It was Thanksgiving Eve. I arrived home just before Midnight retiring without undressing. Tomorrow afternoon I would join my family in giving thanks and celebrating the holiday together, however, this Thanksgiving Day would be like no other. As the youngest of 11 children having just turned 21 years, family tradition ordained that I, for the first time, would accept the honor of leading the family in grace. I lay in bed, the phonograph scratching out the Mahler 2nd but sleep was elusive, whirlwinds of harassed thoughts raced through my REM like the disordered chaos of Boltzmann’s particles. The “Resurrection” brought little comfort. Sometime after Midnight I must have dozed but was shaken awake by knocking that came suddenly and unannounced by preceding footfalls. Four loud knocks like Fate knocking on the door. “Who is it”, I called. “Billy Moore”, was the answer. It was 2:00 AM.
William Curtis Moore was a young man of singular character favored with clarity of thought, keen wit, and an acutely introspective intelligence. A man whose observations and perspectives regarding a multitude of topics were always delivered with authoritative conviction and articulately expressed in a measured deep tonal resonance. Severely reserved and never prone to foolish excitability, William processed such mindful sophistication so superior to his peers “that at times one could not think of anything to say to him that would not sound inane”. Despite this, or perhaps because of, dozens, many dozens counted William as “a good friend”. In truth, William counted but only four and it should be noted that temperament rather than affection formed the primary basis William employed in selecting this quaternity. We all enjoy that special inner circle of friends who, when calling, their visit is readily welcomed despite the hour or the circumstance of their call. William was such a friend. I opened the door. It was good to see Bill, in fact, I was grateful for his company. He explained that he did not want to go home that evening and asked if he could “crash” at my place for the night. As usual, our conversation was spirited and easy, discussing numerous topics while listening to LPs playing on the cheap stereo phonograph; three hours seemed to pass in an instant, and sometime before dawn, sleep began to assail me. Before falling off and as Bill wrapped himself in blankets on the chilly floor, I said to him that if he had no plans for Thanksgiving he was welcome to join my family for dinner this afternoon. He said he had no definite plans but suggested he “just might catch a ride” to my parent’s home at 3:00pm in time for dinner. I remember him saying in the dark pre-dawn hour, “Dennis, there’s some nasty little drafts swirling around this floor”.
I awoke just before Noon quickly noticing that Bill had already risen, neatly folded his blankets, and gone on his way. At 2:15 PM, I tied a Winsor knot, slipped into a black suit jacket and descended the impossible staircase. Only silence came from within the three other flats although I knew my wrenched fellow tenets were home. I thought perhaps I should call on each wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving but was certain my insincerity would succeed only in adding to their misery. I said nothing and walked out the door. At 2:45 PM, I entered the family homestead greeted with cheers and salutations; it seemed like my Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation were all rolled into one single day. Everyone was there. Everyone except my daughter. First my mother and five sisters hugged and kissed me in one collective expression of love and pride. Next my father and five brothers surrounded me with embraces and handshakes quickly followed by a horde of nieces and nephews yelling, “Uncle Dennis is here, Uncle Dennis, Uncle Dennis”. I knelt on the carpet greeting each of the twenty or so children in turn. I felt alone. At 3:00 PM, all took their seats at the appointed places. The children sitting at five small tables assembled especially for the occasion, the twenty adults at the long dining room table. I sat at the far end facing my father. This was my day. The room grew silent. All bowed their heads. My father smiled and slightly nodded his head. I began, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”.
The depth of an empty soul is deeper than the well of Democritus and no amount of self-indulgence can replace the void left by a fleeing spirit. I arrived at the Hotel Lounge around 7:30 PM. The Hotel Lounge, constructed just after the turn of the 20th Century, a three-story wood framed hotel with its street level barroom, held a somewhat colorful if not nefarious local history. This history, told and retold, in tales by the aged half- mad old-timers who inhabited the hotel’s upper floors, were of the most hideously unnerving sort. These tales, although exceedingly picturesque and outrageously fantastic, were not readily dismissed by those familiar with the hotel’s sordid past and rumors of hasty burials beneath the dirt cellar floor were rarely repeated above a whisper. The whole atmosphere maintained a certain reminiscence of its unhallowed past still observable in the character of its unwholesome patrons; a tangle of sinister transients, gangsters, mindless drunks, gamblers, drug addicts, ex-convicts, salacious hustlers, menacing thugs and the chronically maligned degenerates of every kind and sort. After three hours engaging in scattered, nonsensical and valueless conversation, a kind of ecstatic thrill slowly came about me, hardly perceivable at first, then suddenly and abruptly bursting forth in a torrent of panic fear as a horrific revelation manifested itself. I actually felt a sense of belonging and comfort in this noxious miasmic place of places. A hot bestial hand gripped my cognition. I could not breathe. My chest throbbed with unfamiliar pain. The room spun wildly with grunting and howling and scurrying and gibberish all around. Rat-faced imps appeared before me then quickly disappeared only to reappear again. The infernal cachinnations of some blasphemous chorus of lunatic corruption beckoned me downward into the leagues of the infinitely unclean. I reeled in and out of conciseness…Mercifully the fugue passed. I cannot say what the duration of this hysteria was or whether it lasted minutes or merely seconds. When clarity returned I found myself outside breathing in deeply the cool November air. I staggered to my auto, returning to my dismal flat around 10:45 PM. Tonight however was very different. I seemed to have overcome a great struggle. Minutes earlier, I stood on the precipice of oblivion when some unseen spiritual force guided me to safety. Could this unseen force be Hope? I could not say for sure, but maybe, just maybe the pit of my decent was not at all bottomless. Removing the black jacket, loosening the Windsor knot and while the cheap phonograph scratched out the Mahler 2nd, I, for the first time in many months felt a kind of renewed interest in life. Exhausted by my experience and buoyed by this new sensation, I dozed peacefully, but was shaken awake by loud urgent knocking that came suddenly and unannounced by preceding footfalls. Four knocks, like Fate knocking on the door. “Who is it”, I called. “State Police”, was the answer. It was 11:30 PM.
Detective Lieutenant John Divine stepped into my room without invitation; his partner Detective Sergeant John Neil remained stationed in the doorway. With his funereal countenance casting an aspect of ominous foreboding, he asked, “Dennis, are you a friend of Billy Moore”? A direct interrogative sentence by definition, or certainly by utility, is a sentence that seeks to discover a hitherto unknown fact requiring only a simple yes or no answer. Instantly a nauseating chill of countless anxious spiders assailed my consciousness with malignant anticipation, for Detective John Devine was well acquainted with both our families and he already knew I was a friend of Billy Moore. I studied his eyes. He studied mine. “Yes”. “Why”, I asked. “He’s dead”, he said.
In that grave vocal articulation common among law enforcement authorities on official business the Detective explained around 3:00 PM that afternoon a passerby discovered William’s broken body lying on a concrete slab at the base of the old water tower, which stands adjacent to the long abandoned Greenville Finishing Company. Inquiries at various locations about town had led them to me, the last known person to see William alive. What followed was a series of rapid-fire methodical questions typically asked in all circumstances regarding an unexplained death. I answered each question as rapid-fire as asked. What time did Billy arrive? What time did he leave? Did he have any enemies? What was his state of mind? Finally, the acutely blunt question that haunts me to this day, “Did Billy talk about killing himself”? With that and unable to provide any new evidentiary testimony of value aside from emotionally based conjecture, their investigation was complete. Suicide. The detectives left without ceremony. I stood alone in my room. It was 11:59 PM and with a single tick, Yesterday quietly became Today.
If the light that is in thee be darkness, the darkness itself how great shall it be! Matt.6:23
There is a darkness that grows within a man’s heart, not the comforting sort of darkness as the night slowly and silently arrives softening the rough edges of reality, but a terrible living black shadow that even the darkest night fails to conceal. A blackness that the sharpest rays of a new dawn fails to penetrate. The black shadow of Hopelessness.
Hours earlier, I prayed.
Bless us o Lord
As Billy stood before the water tower.
For Thee Thy gifts
As Billy climbed the rusty ladder.
From which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.
As Billy leapt from the platform.
Through Christ our Lord.
Ultimate horror tends to obscure reality in a merciful way; in contrast, ultimate horror can sharply reveal the true nature of one’s reality and the half-hidden threat to the integrity of one’s very own peace and sanity. I thought of my infant daughter and of my family. I thought of my place in the world. I thought of the procession of misery. I thought of the Hotel Lounge. I thought of the rat-faced imps and the infernal chorus. I thought about Detective John Devine. I thought of the “Resurrection Symphony”. I thought about Yesterday and Today. Most of all I thought about William Curtis Moore and for the first time I thought about Tomorrow, and I wanted to live. I decided to live!
Decades have passed since that awful Thanksgiving Day and every year on the forth Thursday in November I pray that Bill, through oblivion, found all his wishes fulfilled. I recall, when William recalled, during a single unguarded moment how, as a young boy finding his unconscious father dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He said that he did not fault his father for committing such a terrible act but he regretted that his father could not find a way to say good-bye before taking his life, thinking perhaps, the finality of saying good-bye to his son might have interrupted that moment of despair long enough to allow reason to supersede impulse. To this day, I wonder if, as Bill was leaving my flat on that long past Thanksgiving morning, he turned to his sleeping friend and said, “Good-bye, Dennis”, but somehow I don’t believe he did.
Dennis James Laux, 2015
"For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass."