Lester’s Prison of Glass
Lester Holcomb had spent a very pleasant hour staring at the reproduction of Edward Hopper’s painting “Gas” on the wall of his apartment located on the second floor above Joe’s Restaurant. For an agoraphobic like Lester, the painting was at once comforting and threatening. To the right was the small office of the gas station, a warm light behind the window facing the viewer, the same light spilling through the door and across the concrete to the foot of the gas pump in the foreground. The miniature “widow’s perch” on the roof was just an ornament, and so offered no chance for anyone to look out above the office, or beyond the dark trees on the left lining the road into town.
“The road to the market place,” Lester said with a smile. When he had first been diagnosed with agoraphobia at the age of ten–an early age for the affliction since it most often hits people in their late twenties or thirties–he thought the word “agoraphobia” had something to do with agriculture, “fear of the soil” or perhaps “fear of plants.” But Lester soon learned that at the root of “agora” was the Greek word for “market place.” Lester himself could not take Hopper’s road, or any road to the market place, even the short hallway from his apartment door to the steps leading to Joe’s restaurant below. Instead, he was confined to what agoraphobics call “the prison of glass,” his small apartment on the second floor, and here alone he felt moderately secure. He liked to imagine that, having never gone into town, Hopper’s lonely figure, the gas station attendant, was an inmate like himself, confined to his small station on the outskirts of town, envying but ultimately fearing to be like the customers who stopped for a fill-up before getting back on the road. Lester pretended that the middle-aged man with the bald head, neatly dressed in a vest, suit pants, and white shirt, had for years been confined to the office, a “Closed” sign hanging over the pump as a way of warding off customers. Then, with the help of a therapist–in Lester’s scenario, Dr. Newsome, his own physician who came for an hour every Wednesday afternoon–and with the various drugs for agoraphobia, the owner of the station had managed to leave the office and walk what Lester calculated were eight steps to the far side of the pump.
A kindly neighbor brought him food; the few customers on this lonely stretch of road provided a semblance of human companionship. But like Lester, like all agoraphobics, the station owner feared leaving the small area of the office he called “home” and the eight steps illuminated by the light spilling out from its door.
Joe, who brought Lester his lunch every day, had once, with the best of intentions, suggested that some day the man in the paintings might venture beyond the station and take the road into town.
Lester shot back in an uncharacteristically angry voice, “You’re talking about a paintings that doesn’t exit, Joe. The guy who runs the gas station–he’ll never go past the pumps.”
“Lester, get off it. It’s not your paintings. I can see in it anything I want.”
But Lester was not to be denied. “You’ve got no right to talk about what might happen. No right. You can’t do this to me. Some friend!”
“Lester. Lester, for Christ’s sake, I’m just trying to help!”
“Get the fuck out of here. It’s my paintings. I put it there. I understand it. You’re an ignorant bastard. Get the fuck out.”
The next day, when Joe came with lunch, Lester was all apologies, and Joe’s simple “I understand” was met with Lester’s “I know you were trying to help, Joe, I know. But–”
“I’m beyond help. I’m forty. I’ve been like this for almost thirty years. The doctors, the medications, self-improvement books–nothing helps. Like your brother in AA, I’ve got to admit that I’m a agoraphobic … always will be.”
Now Lester did not want for companions, someone to talk to, even friends. Joe came up every day at noon, and Joe’s head waitress Ethel brought Lester his dinner at six. The “regulars” at the restaurant never let a week pass by without visiting.
From his window, Lester could see Charlie on his lunch break cross the street. And just as regular, ten minutes behind him, his fellow teller, Ashley. Lester was the first person each told separately of their budding romance. On their wedding day he would send an enormous bouquet of flowers, with a card that said “Wish I could be there.”
For those already married, Lester served as an unofficial counselor. He sat patiently as Ben Feinswog rhapsodized about Parcheesi, an obsession which had ruined his marriage. Though she kept the secret from her husband, Brenda, wife of the undertaker Endicott Ball, would tell Lester of her affair with Mickey Sizemore. “My husband goes out to that damn Tabernacle of Snake Handling and Redemption every Wednesday night. Spends two hours there. So that’s when I meet Mickey. What a man!” And Endicott in turn had shared with Lester his love of snake handling. “Lester, I’m not sure I can explain it, the paradox, I mean–but being so close to death I feel really alive. And that’s something for an undertaker … I mean, a grief therapist to admit, right?”
One day, out of the blue, the retired schoolteacher, Tillie Sizemore, asked Lester, “Do you think I’m too old for love?”
“Never too old,” Lester assured her.
“And you, Lester?”
“I hope you’ll find someone to love.” But before she finished the sentence, Tillie realized she may have said the wrong thing.
Lester, as usual, relieved her of any embarrassment. “Tillie, I get lots of love. From people like you.”
To change the subject, she added, “I’ve got a bit of gossip for you, Lester. No one knows it but me. My brother Mickey’s having an affair with Brenda Ball–you know, the undertaker’s wife.”
“That’s a surprise,” Lester exclaimed, lying, but in doing so preserving the confidentiality which allowed his visitors to trust him, and so confide in him.
No, Lester did not want for friends. And they were his solace. The world came to him, through these people who, at first pitying him, wanting to be of help, soon became companions, willing visitors.
If Lester’s condition was unusual in that the agoraphobia appeared when he was very young, his was otherwise the classic case. From childhood he experienced the panic reactions that so often lead to the illness. Did he really shut off the gas on the kitchen stove? Despite trying the lock ten times, as he left the front door he had fears it was still open and that some criminal, while he was gone, would charge in and kill his family. Lester also feared being alone, stuck somewhere without help. There was always the possibility that on the three-miles drive from his home to school, the car might overturn, pining him in a ditch at such a steep angle from the road that motorists passing wouldn’t see the wreck. He could always count on his anxiety medicine being in the upper shelf of his medicine cabinet, but if he took the bottle with him to an all-day meeting, it might slip out of his front pocket–and then where would he be?
Gradually, from the first onset of those panic attacks to the present, his fortieth year, he clung increasingly to his prison of glass. For the first two months in his apartment, he could come down for lunch or dinner at Joe’s, but now, even trying one step outside his door, let alone walking to the top of the stairs a mere twenty feet away, sent him into a panic. Five years ago, on his doctor’s advice, he had attempted just four steps out of the apartment, but by the third step his hands became clammy, his heart started pounding, and if it had not been for Ethel’s arriving with his dinner, Lester would have fainted and fallen right there in the hallway.
He envied the bald-headed man in Hopper’s “Gas,” but for Lester those eight steps to the far side of the pump would have been an abyss even darker than that foreboding strand of trees along the road leading into town. The fact is that despite his friends, his hobbies, his books, Lester was miserable, deeply depressed, and on more than one occasion had considered suicide.
He lived frugally, supplementing the monthly disability check with Internet research for a small business of which he was the sole employee. He was healthy: a creature of habit, he exercised thirty minutes three times a day. And if he could not join the world outside, he could feel it, hear it, see it, and–sadly–wish it were his. The sounds and the smell of food from the lunch crowd pervaded his apartment. A symphony of glasses clinking and laughter, Ethel shouting instructions to the busboy Lefty, Joe with his booming bass voice schmoozing customers at the tables, an occasional plate clanking on the floor, the inevitable “Shut it–please” when a customer left the front door ajar on a cold day.
Thursday through Saturday nights, when Joe’s Place was converted into Ethel’s Place, a trendy nightclub, Lester did not mind the noise, though he found it bittersweet. For even as he imagined that he himself was there on the first floor, dancing, singing, drinking, making assignations, displaying that artificial but wonderfully human level of gaiety prerequisite for such occasions, he also knew that, in his case, it was just a fiction, held at arms length, something to be savored but from which he would forever be excluded. Around two, when Ethel’s Place began to close, he would go to the front window to watch the customers depart. Men with arms around the slim waists of their dates. Couples carrying their drinks out into the chill night air, and then, draining them, haphazardly tossing glasses toward the trash can at the end of the block. Some, Lester speculated, would return to empty apartments, like his own. Others would spend the night with a friend, a lover, possibly someone else’s wife or husband, their appetites aroused by an evening of festivity and drink, maybe whipping up a plateful of scrambled eggs before hitting the sack. By three, the street was deserted or as deserted as New York streets can be at any hour of the day. Then, only then, Lester could sleep.
Dr. Newsome, whose visits were paid for by disability insurance, saw Lester once a week. However, he came not simply for the money: Lester was part of Dr. Newsome’s “sample” for a study of agoraphobics who developed the illness earlier than normal. The doctor meant well as he analyzed Lester’s background.
“Your family, Lester, was the classic dysfunctional unit, held together by a love inseparable from hate, both of others and of the self. So it’s little wonder that you had those panic attacks so early, that your agoraphobia came while you were in your teens.”
Besides prescribing medicine for anxiety and depression, Dr. Newsome tried the standard therapies for the disease, resorted to all the usual strategies. Walking with Lester to the top of the stairs, after first imagining doing so. Once taking Lester blindfolded onto the street, a hat cocked low over his head so that people passing by wouldn’t notice. Lester only managed to walk a half block before panic set in. Having Lester draw pictures of winding country roads, of himself walking across the street to the bank. And then there were what Lester called Dr. Newsome’s “New Age tricks.” Paving the steps from the apartment door to the top of the stairs with rose pedals, before asking Lester to pretend he was in a fantasy land and that a path of magical flowers was beckoning him. Several times watching the yellow brick road sequence from The Wizard of Oz, with Lester’s projecting himself as one of the movie characters–anyone but the Cowardly Lion. Dr. Newsome even solicited Lester’s many friends from the restaurant to help, yet despite their best efforts, they too failed to lure him from that prison of glass.
On the street, in the restaurant, life swirled around Lester–various and beautiful and ugly, new and ever-changing. He took it all in, with the eyes and ears of an artist, for of late Lester was given to sitting by the large bay window and recording what he saw, making notes of the changes, most of them small, even comic, observations of the real world below that dwarfed, but also mocked his own. For his world remained that depicted by Hopper.
From that same window, Lester had seen a murder, a sudden act of violence that he felt helpless to stop and, indeed, was over before he could reach the phone. He also observed wonderful acts of human kindness and compassion. A bag lady offering her last apple to a little boy walking with his mother. The child accepted the apple graciously, as did his parent, and it was not until the old woman had moved down the block, out of their sight, that the mother tossed the apple into a trash can.
“It’s been four years now, Lester, that I’ve been coming up to see you,” Dr. Newsome announced one afternoon. “And we don’t seem to be making much progress.”
“What you’re saying is that I’m hopeless, doc?”
“No, I’m not saying that, but I feel–I feel that somehow I’ve failed you.”
“I was thinking the same thing–from my side.”
“Don’t misunderstand me–I won’t give up, of course. Hippocratic Oath and all that. But nothing seems to be working. The medication, the therapy.”
“I know … I know,” Lester returned in a somber voice.
“Why don’t we change these weekly visit to once every month? Maybe more time away from each other will help. Given a little space, something unexpected might happen.”
“If it’s any comfort, doc, you know that my life, such as it is, is not so terrible. I mean, my friends from the restaurant. Being able to help them, if not myself. I’m not on some desert island.”
“A desert island. You know, Lester, many agoraphobics would prefer just that,” Dr. Newsome said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“I’m happy here, for the most part.”
“It’s that ‘for the most part’ which troubles me,” Dr. Newsome replied.
As Lester saw him to the door, Dr. Newsome stopped. “You want to try a walk without the petals to the top of the stairs?”
“Not today, doc. I just don’t think I have it in me.”
That Wednesday, after the doctor had gone, Lester crossed to the big wing-back seat in the far corner of his room. How long could things go on like this?
As he sat in such gloomy contemplation, projecting his own life into Hopper’s painting, there was a knock.
“I’m Alice, Lefty’s girlfriend.”
“Of course. He’s told me about you. Come in.”
“I’ve been coming on Wednesdays to help Lefty. Being a bus boy, with just one arm–”
“It’s make things a little difficult, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. But he’s so grateful, we’re both so grateful that Joe gave him a job. I mean, how many–”
Again Lester completed the sentence for her, “How many restaurants would hire a one-armed bus boy?”
“They’re not so busy down there right now. No need for me, so Lefty suggested I come up and say hello.”
“Well, I’m glad he did. Come in. I have a pot of tea just about ready to serve.”
Within minutes, Alice was experiencing the same warm, humane understanding that everyone from the restaurant knew when they visited Lester. And so she spoke with ease about Lefty’s accident with the ax, about their meeting when she was his physical therapist, about their falling in love. About the family’s shunning her once they found out about him. About the jokes she and Lefty had learned to make about his condition, about how relatively unimportant it had become. And about how much she loved him.
“My god,” she cried, “I’ve spent all this time talking about me, telling you my life’s story and here you are–”
She choked on the phrase, but Lester comforted her with “Yes, and here I am.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“Alice, believe me, you haven’t hurt my feelings at all. You know about me, about my illness, and you still decided to come for a visit. That’s the important thing, isn’t it?”
“It is,” she replied, wiping a tear from her eye, at which point Lester promptly gave her a tissue from the box normally reserved for visitors who cried during a confessional or after sharing sad news with Lester.
“I’m a physical therapist, and so I know a bit about the body. But not much about … about–”
“The mind,” Lester interjected.
Embarrassed again, she drew her hands tight in her lap. “–what’s it like not being able to leave.” Then, after a long pause, she added, “How do you feel? I don’t mean to pry.”
“You’re not prying. It’s nothing I wanted. Or deserved. It’s just the way things are.”
Then Lester told her everything. About his childhood. The start of the panic reactions. The phobias. The slow, steady onset of the disease. Dr. Newsome’s despair about curing him. Having to construct his world within the four walls of the apartment. The failed attempts to leave the room.
Alice never took her eyes off him. She moved her hand toward Lester’s, grabbing it tightly as he spoke.
When Lester told her about sitting in front of his window, she got up and walked over to it.
As she returned to her chair, Alice looked toward the rear of the apartment. “Do you ever look out that back window in the kitchen?”
“Nothing much to see there. Just the run-down yard behind the restaurant. A few trees. Mostly weeds.”
Alice made her way toward the kitchen.
“You have a back entrance I see–steps leading down to the yard.”
“Yeah, but for me they’re just as impossible as the ones in front.”
“Ever think of trying the back steps?”
“Not really. As I said, nothing much in the backyard. Just the two trees, a fence, weeds.”
“Now in the suburbs,” Alice broke in, “where I grew up, back yards are everything.”
“Well, as my dad used to say, the front yard is where you greet the world. But the backyard, away from the neighbors, now that belongs to you, to the family. It’s where we had our barbeques, played tag as kids, grew our garden, built twig houses.”
“Twig houses?” Lester perked up.
“Yes, my brother and I used to spend hours making little miniature houses out of twigs and bark from the trees.”
“I used to do that too. I was an only child so kept myself busy making twig houses. Pretending they were somebody’s. A home with a bunch of kids.”
“A pretend home?”
“Yes, and to tell you the truth, it kept me from what was going on in my family.”
“You told me your parents were unhappy.”
“That’s where the tree house came in. I was in control. I could determine if it had two floors, or was a split-level, the number of rooms.”
“And what sort of family lived in those rooms?”
At that moment, Lefty called from below. “Alice, time to go if we’re gonna to make the early show.”
“Lester, I’ve got to hurry. No need to show me to the door.”
“I’ve really enjoyed your visit. Come again if you’d like.”
“I’d like that,” she said as she hurried downstairs. Without thinking, Lester took one step out the door. He could see her red hair bouncing up and down as she turned the corner.
Over the following Wednesdays Alice became a regular visitor.
“You’re easy to like,” she told Lester four weeks later. Then, after a pause she announced, “And I have a plan for you.”
Alice’s plan soon became clear–to convince Lester to go into the backyard behind the restaurant.
He had to admit her arguments were, in his words, “irrefutable.”
“It’s not the front yard, not where ‘the world’ waits for you. But the backyard. A closed world. It even has a wooden fence around it.
He added with some excitement, “No one can see me, and I can’t see anyone.”
“And what will we do when we get to the backyard, if we get to the backyard.”
“We’ll do just what we do here. Talk.” Then she added, “And something more, something we can’t do here in the apartment.”
“I’m stupid or something. What?”
“Make twig houses, silly,” she shot back, flicking her hair, then flashing her eyes at him and squeezing his hand.
Soon, Joe, Ethel, chef Bernie, Lefty, the other waitresses who came into the kitchen to unload dishes and pick up orders were all abuzz with the news, which quickly spread to the customers.
“He took five steps with her down the back stairs yesterday!”
“Holding his hand or not?”
“She held his hand. But it’s something, right?”
And later. “He went half-way by himself!”
“At the top of the stairs.”
A week later. “He’s in the yard! Alice’s beside him. Let me tell you, he looks like he’s enjoying himself.”
And finally. “They’re sitting at the bottom of that big tree.”
“What’re they doing?”
“They were talking for a while but now–you won’t believe this.”
“Looks like they’re building a little house at the foot of the tree, out of twigs and stuff.”
And finally “the day Lester took the giant step,” as Ethel called it.
“He’s out there by himself! In fact, I don’t think Alice came today. All by himself. Can you believe it?”
Customers raced from their tables, leaving Joe’s “special” half eaten and growing cold. The crowd, now excited, pressed their faces against the small kitchen window.
“I’ve got meals to prepare,” a cranky chef announced and was promptly ignored.
There was Lester, all by himself, having gone down the twelve back steps all by himself, sitting calmly as you please at the foot of the tree building a tree house.
Lester knew there is an art to building houses of twigs. The realtor’s motto, “Location, location, location,” applied here too, although in this case location didn’t mean a waterfront property or a gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn, but the base of an oak tree here in the backyard of Joe’s. That’s the best place to build a house of twigs, right at the base so that even the scrawniest of trees towers impossibly and magnificently over your own efforts. If there is a thick carpet of moss around the tree, so much the better, for that green moss can serve as a rug in the interior. And if you pull off the moss around the house, it can be used for the roof, so that the house itself stands on a brown platform, with perhaps pebbles as steppingstones leading up to the front door.
As he did when a child, Lester loved building these houses of twigs, taking a special pride in the fact that he never reshaped or cut a twig, but instead used just what nature provided. “A sort of artistic purity,” as he had told Alice. The walls were the easiest. All you had to do was push twigs vertically into the ground, making sure they all stood at the same height, thereby creating a level surface of support for a roof or, if you were ambitious, a second floor. Windows took some doing but he had long since mastered the art of bracing smaller pieces between the upright twigs of the wall to shape the square of the window. A flat roof either of leaves or bark was the simplest, but Lester preferred sloping roofs. “More graceful,” he announced to Alice one Wednesday as she put the finishing touches on an attached garage.
When completed, there was something comic about a twig house, a miniature structure pathetically dwarfed by a tree, a collaboration between man and nature, but with nature clearly dominant. The house served no purpose, except to be admired when it was finished.
It was now six months since that Wednesday Alice first visited him. Three months since that fateful Wednesday afternoon when she had launched her “plan.” That wondrous Wednesday afternoon.
Lester loved building these twig houses, then lying on the ground next to them, a supply of free natural building materials at his side, the sounds of the street in front of the restaurant muted, an occasional bird making its way through the top of the tree, or the wind flexing its upper branches.
With weeks he had built a series of increasingly strong houses all over the backyard, and what always amazed him was that, although some showed the effects of weather, all were still standing, at worst needing only minor repairs. A veritable village of tree houses, reflecting his progress from simple one-room structures, to his most recent, a mansion of four floors boasting twelve rooms, gabled roofs, chimneys, a swinging front door, moss carpets throughout, even a gazebo in a miniature backyard stretching from the house to the tree’s base. And the entire property surrounded by a wooden fence built to scale.
The house of twigs was, to Lester, what the bonsai garden is to the devout Buddhist, a little world into which one, perhaps tiring of the larger world, could retreat. And so today he lay beside his house of twigs, peering into the windows, running his hand lightly over its sloping roof. And as he did, he populated each floor with members of a happy family. In the spacious living room a riotous party was in full swing. The guests were the regulars at the restaurant, his visitors–Alice and Lefty, Joe and Ethel, the Balls acting like a happily married couple, Tillie and her brother Mickey, even Ben Feinswog forgetting for the time the game of Parcheesi waiting on the table at home.
On the third floor a young boy, lost in his thoughts, gazed out of the window, the sounds of the guests two floors below now dim. Above him towered the oak, the sky, and the cosmos beyond, occasionally visible when the wind parted the tree’s upper branches.
Here was his home.
Now content, Lester was falling asleep, there beside his house of twigs, but just before his eyes closed he said to no one in particular, “If only I had someone to live here in my house. Someone I love and who loves me. And, one day I will go to the front door, down the stairs, and onto the street. She’ll join me and together we’ll walk all over the city–across the Brooklyn Bridge, into Manhattan, and then share a picnic lunch in Central Park, before going south to wander through the Village, and then west to watch the sun set over the Hudson.”