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The Discovery of the Identity of Jack Kerouac's 'Watermelon Man'

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Friday, Sep 10, 2010
Who was the watermelon man of Jack Kerouac's great Lowell-fantasy novel, 'Dr. Sax'?
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Doctor Sax

Jack Kerouac

(Grove/Atlantic; US: Jan 1994)

For three years now I have been expanding my biography of Jack Kerouac originally published in 2005 and reprinted in 2007. This is because I and an assistant, Steve Roux, have been researching tons of unpublished documents of Jack Kerouac at the New York Public Library. This piece of research, however, was done with microfilm and Internet…


In 1932 the Kerouac family had moved yet again to 16 Phebe Avenue in Lowell’s (Massachusetts) Pawtucketville section. It was the address in which Kerouac’s remembrance of his childhood had become keener, more sensorial, and fixated on material objects like the family’s brown desk placed against the wall in the parlor, a room reserved exclusively for company. Beneath the desk were chalk marks made by Jack, Caroline, and the now-dead of Gerard who had passed on at nine-years-old, seven years earlier.
  
Kerouac had turned ten years old that March of 1932, and a new home was another chance to put his grim past behind him and begin anew with the prospects of summer softball games, swimming in the nearby Beaver Brook (Pine Brook in his Lowell novels) and the close proximity of Lowell’s downtown section with its numerous movie theaters. “I had learned to stop crying in Centralville,” he writes, “and I was determined not to start crying in Pawtucketville.” By the summer of 1932, it had become a season stained with death.


Regular walks across the Moody Street Bridge oftentimes conjured the dead that had passed there, most times brought on by old-timer recollections of old-timers and of recent words around the block. In July 1928, one man lost control of his canoe and tumbled into the filthy froth of the Pawtucket Falls and was dashed along the jagged sedimentary rocks lining the river bed at that juncture. A nine-year-old boy, Theophile Gagnon drowned in the Pawtucket Canal, gasping and struggling until he was silenced by oily waters closing over him.


Over the years, suicides were a constant. Surely, life in a textile mill conjured spates of utter hopelessness. More often than not, this occurred in the winter.


That winter, previous to the death of the watermelon man, the force of arctic blasts gusting from the north caused the city’s street department to construct elaborate fencing alongside the wooden bridge. Most times the gale force winds blew them down, causing regular but temporary closings of the bridge. During warmer months, the bridge was bustling with pedestrian traffic.


So it was that 11-year-old Jack Kerouac had reason to cross the Moody Street Bridge with his mother on 21 July 1932 after a pilgrimage to the Franco-American Grotto to walk the Stations of the Cross, each station documenting the stages of the Passion of Jesus Christ. This culminated in climbing the granite slab steps on one’s knees saying the rosary, until one arrived at the foot of a looming Jesus-burdened crucifix. From there one hears the river, the falls, but maybe not this time of year, for the river was customarily low and slow-moving.


They returned home, amid the smells of the summer-dank air and the nearby river rich with the perfume of ragweed and decaying vegetation at the river’s edge. On their way, mother and son passed the funeral home they would both be laid out in, respectively in 1973 and 1969. They turned the corner and began their way along the wooden-planked bridge.


Walking alongside before passing was a man, 68-year-old William F. Mulgrave from Mt. Hope Street in Pawtucketville, not far from the home of the Kerouacs. Mulgrave, according to the Lowell Sun, had been already been ill for some time. Some years before, he had been working for a bicycle shop and, riding a motor tandem with his boss, the steering mechanism failed and threw them both to the pavement. Mulgrave dislocated his wrist. A longtime member of the Pawtucketville community, he and his wife protested the construction of a hospital for infectious diseases in Pawtucketville. It was never built. Now his time had come.


Mulgrave, according to Kerouac in Dr. Sax, had a watermelon hoisted over one shoulder, surely a burden for someone with a questionable condition. He had at least another mile to go before he reached his home on Mt. Hope Street. Suddenly he fell to the planks, the watermelon rolling from his grasp. Though Kerouac states in Dr. Sax that it was a full moon that night, the apex of the moon had passed five nights previous. Two men crossing the bridge came to his assistance as Gabrielle stood there holding her son’s hands. 


Kerouac, remembering full well the ghastly scenario, incorporated it 20 years later into his great Lowell fantasy novel:


“Suddenly the man fell, we heard the great thump of his watermelon on wood planks and saw him fallen— Another man was there, also mysterious, but without watermelon, who bent to him quickly and solicitously as by assent and nod in the heavens and when I got there I saw the watermelon man staring at the waves below with shining eyes (Il’s meurt, he’s dying,” my mother’s saying) and I see him breathing hard, feeble-bodied, the man holding him gravely watching him die, I’m completely terrified and yet I feel the profound pull and turn to see what he is staring at so deadly-earnest with his froth stiffness—I look down with him and there is the moon on shiny froth and rocks, there is the long eternity we have been seeking.”


One of the men planned to fetch an ambulance from nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital. Jack asked his mother if the man was dead. Gabrielle’s resolve was grim, and she knowingly shook her head slowly as they watched the man’s last feeble struggle as a pool of urine began to darken the planks. “No, s’t’homme la est fini.


Whether in reality or part of pot-fueled hallucination (portions of the novel were written in pencil in a little notebook whilst Jack sat on William S. Burroughs’ toilet smoking weed at a rented flat in Mexico City), Kerouac writes that Gabrielle drew her son’s attention heavenward to glimpse the secretive “skeleton in the moon.”


To Jack it was plain, death was here too, as it was in Centralville. It was embodied in a helpless pool of piss, by Mulgrave’s glassy eyes, and by the river’s never-ending rushing onward to the sea, despite our personal tragedies and disadvantages. He was beginning to be old enough now to understand. He glimpsed mortality only hinted at by rotting summer river banks and the endless rows of funeral homes lining the street from the grotto leading to the hospital.


In 1962 he told Pertinax (a pseudonym for his future sister-in-law Mary Sampas) in her Lowell Sun column, “The Rambler”: “I love Lowell for St. Louis de France in Centralville where I was baptized and where my brother was buried in a coffin as a hundred little boys sang on a rainy day and we carted him off in a procession to Nashua, N. H. and when he was lowered in the ground everybody cried except me. I was 4 years old and I thought he was in heaven and what was there to cry about?”


Surely, in the light of a vast starry universe formed to forge these tender moments, what then is there to cry about?


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