With apologies to Ambrose Bierce
Lucius Nathaniel Calvin. “Luke” or “Lucy” to his friends. Good-looking boy with innocent sour milk breath. Dutifully unspectacular student. Never show-offy with hand-raising in class or sinister in the sophistication of his cheating. Reasonably popular within the limits of rural terms of popularity, which hinge on things like prowess with a hunting rifle. Unrealistically blue-eyed, farm-tall, short-lipped, with veiny hands and close-cropped, pale-wheat hair which he kept in a Caesarean haircut that only a perfect-eared boy would dare to. The grainy photograph showing up in all the papers on the same day was from his yearbook, of course. The kind of smile that everyone of a certain age knows is put on to mock the cheap-suited yearbook photographer.
Jennifer Paine. Jennifer Paine would later call Lucius, in all the interviews, on regional TV and local radio and for all the Midville newspapers, her fiancé. Lucius’ maternal grandmother (with whom Lucius had lived the first five years of his life, after his mother’s exit and before his father had gotten his accounting firm “off the ground”) claimed she’d heard of no such plans. She’d never said this in interviews for she was never interviewed. She always said it in a room featuring a television or radio on which Jennifer Paine was being interviewed, whether or not there were others in the room at the time. Lucius had caught his grandmother talking to the television before. “Dream on,” she’d say. Or: “As if.”
The kick of a rifle should increase with the size of the animal hit. The kick of the rifle should hurt. Then it would be fair.
Once, Luke said that the sky is a river.
“The sky. It looks like a river, doesn’t it? It’s like the sky is a river and we’re stuck on the bottom of a cloud looking down on the river and we could fall in it if we don’t hold on.”
Jennifer squeezed Luke’s hand. He recognized the gesture of concern. Her other hand was palm-up on the sharp tips of fresh-mown grass and her eyes were shut. “I guess.”
“No, seriously. Try.”
“Try and see it that way.”
“Because you’ll love it.”
“I guess I’ve heard that argument before.”
Lucius laughed. He loved it when she acknowledged their iffy sex life. They were using pregnancy as a method of birth control.
A bullet is also a message.
Civilians were still finding silver blobby or feathery black fragments from the space shuttle in their driveways and swimming pools. Portrait-sized flakes of ash were scattered across flat roofs. Jennifer Paine loved Mike and the Mechanics and Lucius Nathaniel Calvin did not.
Oh My Papa.
A big hit for Eddie Fisher. 1954. A very big hit. Fisher was of Russian Jewish descent but came off to many of his many fans as Italian. Being Italian had gone from acceptable to dreamy overnight and everybody wanted to know one and nobody knew why. What they called those dark good looks, which are always accompanied by a swagger. He thought he had it made. Died and went to Acceptance heaven. Fisher had a variety show called Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.
The unconscious smile on the old man’s flickering face as he stands in the doorway, angled against the jamb. Like, he doesn’t want to dignify that red-baiting network by sitting on the divan and taking the entertainment it offers like everyone else, as a responsible member of the audience. No, he’s making a statement, which, at this rate, it’ll take Ike approximately six thousand years to get the ambivalent message. But Debbie Reynolds is a different story. That he’ll watch. Eddie and Debbie duet.
-It wasn’t six million Jews, it was six thousand. It’s not six billion years, it’s six thousand. Is this a coincidence?
Three distinct strains of local rumor about Fisher that year (as though Midville has a plausible connection to either Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley) merge into one and hit Abraham Winters’ son with the force of an iron fastball to the temple on the suntorched baseball diamond he first hears it on, standing at first base with the kid who’d got there by bunting. The not-green grass of the diamond is patchy. The kid has a classic bowl haircut that reminds him of 1950. Maturity is measured in rectal thermometers. He caught himself thinking the word Ralston-Purina without anything attached to it.
“Hear about Fisher?”
“Hear what about Fisher?”
“You seriously don’t know?”
“Eddie’s a Hebrew queer who sucks colored cock like it’s going out of style. Pass it on.”
“You’re so full of shit your eyes stink.”
“Oh yeah? My uncle’s seen the pictures.”
“You’re uncle’s a drunk.”
There’s a line drive straight over the only other half-Jew on Winters’ team so he never gets the chance to finish the argument. Home is a very long walk away for the losers.
“If you looked any more like Eddie Fisher than you already do, your father would smell a rat.”
“Don’t say that, ma.”
“I thought you liked it?”
“Eddie Fisher’s a queer.”
His mother slapped him. Slapped Robert Algood Winters, Caucasian, 5’6″, brown eyes, 125 pounds, fifteen years old in December. Nicknamed Howdy Doody by the arresting officer. Apprehended in flight to Matoon.
The old man is shouldering the doorjamb in a plaid suit with the tie loose watching Channing Pollock saw a lady in half on Sullivan with a look on his face like he’s picking up tips. Like he’s matriculating. One hand balances a paper plate that’s way too shifty and bent and hot with baked beans while loud drunk relatives cavort in the gazebo. Speedy Gonzalez jokes and everything they imply, including the aunt with the bristle chin whom nobody can remember which relative by birth she used to associate with before he died and to ask now would seem insensitive. But the old man is mesmerized. Looks like Ray Milland in the cyanide-blue Sullivan light. The ghost-beacon that is midcentury television, guiding lost souls through the ether. The Ray Milland of interstate feedgrain sales. We’re talking about a magician that the old man quotes like a Winston Churchill.
-Happiness: a way station between too little and too much-Channing Pollock.
-No man in the world has more courage than the man who can stop after eating one peanut-Channing Pollock.
There were two main medical theories about masturbation and neither was flattering.You were either a homo or a werewolf. He had a two-handed technique that made him look like he was committing hari kari with a turkey neck. His father would curse under the window before trying to yank-start the lawnmower again. His bedroom walls would mottle with waltzing late-afternoon clock-gears of leaf shadow and he couldn’t help thinking of them as Jew walls; Jew leaves; the roar of the motor. Robert first learned the adult theory of the word pussy back in the fateful Thanksgiving of ‘53. This sparked an increase in the annual productivity of his jerk-off factory by an impressive 51% percent.
There’s a street in Midville, east of his house, with a colored on it.
The old man lectures him that he never touched his own self once before marrying your mother.
Midville isn’t even a proper name, but a description, as a teacher informed him, sadistically, because Midville is half-way between Decatur and Matoon. Mr. Schieble. Feeble Schieble. Is Robert a name or a description? She lives in a split-level with a two-car garage and her polio husband with two young unisex offspring, pretending to be Italian, doing that pinchy hand-gesture, but you can see the Mulatto of her at the end of every summer, when her skin is just a little too brown and the humidity of August brings the frizz back up in all the tawny hair bunched under the scarf and he pictures her on her knees in a pearl necklace and zip else, sticky as butterscotch, blowing Eddie Fisher and boom the earth moves and Robert sees stars and his junk hits the ceiling. He has trained himself in the art of not groaning. His mother’s Episcopalian, meaning he is not a Jew, an explanation he has polished to terse perfection in the relentless rehashing. Maybe Mrs. Schieble is an Octoroon, speaking of Robert’s favorite kind of cookie, a brand new unopened box of which on the dresser awaits him. 500 million sperm cells in the average healthy white male emission. 100 million on the ceiling alone. He does Jackie Gleason doing Reggie Van Gleason III, the imitation everybody says he should get paid money doing, saying, What do you think, old boy, shall we go another round?
The old man suddenly bangs the door open.
His Schwinn can do ten, fifteen miles per hour, easy, just cruising downhill towards the reservoir. He’s standing up on the pedals like a walk on the wind with a song at the top of his lungs and furious black smoke like a thunderstorm bottled up in the house behind him. But no more songs by Eddie Fisher.
I look you and everything forgiveness. You are unbelievable beautiful. I feel like wrecks compare myself but I’m think you choose me for be most beautiful also. I do not dare for looks in mirror to whispering of sentence for staring you with sleep for whispering loud to hear this make me strong. This is hope my letter is tell you.
Life is such in Europe city to require every for what my strength is. I know is choice of me with go was make to go is true. I for snapped him finger one by one to daring try is stop me leave for everything. What a terror is for getting on such plane! But so many terror are unbelievable thrilling. For terror you are comfortable make to misery live. So for consider blessings to what city for people say way of talk with uncomfortable stay to stay. So smell of walking sidewalk with careful not bumping not notice for people I’m walk here. So stay is food smell for make is remember carnival or such childhood of fair from childhood is happen. This fair in a longest driving city was far long going. I from do not think of fairs now more.
Sometimes I wonder so panics what you think when look me. For always fears I say with do wrong thing to see what loving turns with pity. Loving what impatient become is something else. I wonder such times if not for transitional emotion, love. Unstable by definition, connecting deeper more useful states like fear, disinterest, hatred? I mean maybe you can’t hate something until you have loved it first and maybe the capacity for hating something is so important that love had to be invented in order to making hate work?
You can tell your mother almost have go for college. She know is Somerset Maugham or Upton Sinclair or also Saki. She know is Pride and Prejudice for. As you can also tell she unbelievable mess. Remember you get the good and the bad with everyone. But look at you so perfect, beautiful, innocent, deserve everything good. I am looking at your slightly parted lips with that rosy space between them so unbelievable small like ghost of the finest watch-part. It’s like you are truly powered by some new kind of energy better than sunlight glowing through your cheeks and eyelids and the tips of your hair and warms your sweet breath. Or it’s like you’re made of this energy and I cannot believe it came out of me. They always called that the miracle of life that I finally understand, after thinking this was just flower talk for many years but I know it now something so pure can come out of a body so stained and dirty with a dark bubble of pain from this dirty body’s bloody mess.
I feel that you angelic is masterpiece of geometer to look at the spiral of the wax of its ear and the small fat fruit of each balled fist unfold in a flower. Exactly its dreams probably are made still of the numbers more of the one than words that are something more envy to because the life of its mother is words and nothing but. My dreams are words always mumbled or scream but remembering I used dream for mostly in smells. For remembering the smell of a man’s aftershave could make me sicker than dogs. I’d go in and out of the house with a handkerchief deliberately soiled with chickens–t covering my nose when he’s shaving. I don’t want to complain in this letter but I have had rashes you could read in the dark by plus problems of the lower body most doctors would kill to look at. And these are just a few of things I overcame to becoming your mother.
Today when you found your own seat on the tram and sat a little ways apart from me swinging your feet looking back to wave, I was so proud and crushed, darling. It made me so hopeful for future and for worrying. I thought about how today it’s your own seat on the tram, tomorrow it’s you talking with people I don’t know and bringing questions home with you. It all depends on how much I’ve unbelievable lie to you, which is not a lie for fun but for safety and pride and caring. This letter is my answer for one of those questions. I’m still not sure how I’m going to writing this.
You don’t have a father, but you will know that already, by the time you’re read this. Oh, and you’ll probably never know the sensation I just felt after writing the last dependent clause of previous sentence. It’s like seeing one’s name on a list of the dead. I’m write this from the other side of my extinction, in a way, since (and I guess it’s spookily significant that I was always unbelievable affected by plot devices like this in second-rate novels and third-rate films) I’ll have made the necessary arrangements that you’ll be reading this letter only after receiving whatever possessions you’ll inherit in the event of my etc. Well, corny as that sentence is, I just can’t bringing myself to write it all out.
Back to the thing about you have no father. That’s just the way it is, darling. I guess there’s a good chance I’ve already discussed this part with you (by the time you read this), but, in case the topic never came up, or I never had the nerve to be straight about the situation to your face: I wouldn’t recognize the man who inseminated me with you if my life depended on it. If your life depended on it, I’d make unbelievable effort, but, no. All I wanted was you, and I needed a man’s help to make for happen.
He was very good looking and intelligent enough (we chatted for quite a spell at the touristy bar I picked him up in because I wanted to make sure). It was a Friday night, warm out, crowds on a sidewalk. We held hands on the way to his hotel room, which is more important to me, now that I think back on it, than you can possible imagine. I’m sure he’s the father, because I’ve only had sexual intercourse with two men in my life and the second man followed the first by gap of fifteen years.
You’ve never seen America and there is a good chance we will never go there together. Maybe you’ll go on your own one day. It’s hard to believe that I wouldn’t have discussed Midville with you but truly it’s obvious that my method will be for balance your happiness with the truth for shift and evolve as you grow older depending where your interests develop and so forth, so, if it turns out that I’ve decided to inventing the city of your mother’s (me) birth and childhood I’m sorry. The truth is the place I’m from is called Midville in the state of Illinois which is know as part of the Midwestern part of the United States of America.
If I’ve invented my own exciting childhood in an urban metropolis for you, with rich parents and exotic friends: no. None of that is real and I hope I haven’t going too unbelievable far overboard to give you a mother with past you can to proud of. Again, I am very sorry if that was the case. The only difference between a working farm and the place I grew up on was that the place I grew up on was not working. I always felt I had a certain right to be bitter about the thriftshop clothing and chewed-on hand-me-down toys (shipped in crates from superior cousins I never met) but I always thought also even as unbelievable kid: what you expecting? The country’s ten times bigger than it was in the days that a farm was a livelihood… something more than the perfect place for the head of a family for hang himself. But your grandfather never hung himself.
No, he didn’t. But you’re going ask of me, one day, about your grandparents, and whatever story I will have made up to tell you when you ask, this letter is the final truthful answer.
“What a coincidence.”
“No such thing, my friend.”
“This is the last place I’d expect…”
“Paging Carl Jung… “
“A real live Midvillian. Pinch me, I’m dreaming. Remember the Dairy Queen? Everyone called it the Hairy Queen…?”
“I do indeed.”
“Bastards tore it down. What. Fifteen years ago. It’s a Planned Parenthood now. There’s an irony for you. When was the last time you were in Midville, anyway?”
“Honey, you wouldn’t recognize it. Even got ourselves a gang problem these days.”
“Inevitable clash of hierarchies.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Country clubs, Al-Qeada, the Black Panthers, Catholic Church, the military… they’re all hierarchies. That’s the first thing you get wherever two human beings or more shall gather together is a hierarchy.”
“That’s what people say when something isn’t.”
“No, seriously. Tell me more.”
“Well. You find yourself at the bottom of one hierarchy, what you do, any self-respecting ego, he invents one he can be at the top of. Say you’re some towel-head with a 5th-century education who couldn’t get laid if his life depended on it…”
“You invent, or situate yourself within, a hierarchy in which towel-heads…”
“Not the most politically correct member of the frequent-flyer club, are you?”
“Oh, I can do better than that.”
“I’ll bet you can. Let’s go back to your little hierarchy theory for a sec.”
“Are we a hierarchy?”
“Unless I’m missing something.”
“Who’s on top?”
“I guess I’m thinking what it would be like to put my cock in your mouth.”
“You smooth-talking devil.”
“Hey, what’s the rush?”
“You only live once.”
“A grab the gusto kind of thing.”
“Life is short, my cock is long.”
“Vita brevis, cockus longus.”
“You’ve been to college, I see.”
“That’s exactly what people say…”
“When something isn’t. Touché. You never answered my question.”
“I don’t recall it was phrased in the form of one.”
“Can I fuck the shit out of your ass?”
“My, we’re saucy this morning.”
“It’s been at least an hour since I jerked off. Look, I’m shaking. Hold me?”
“If you let me fuck you in the ass, I’ll let you clean the sweet shit off my cock with your tongue.”
“And people say the art of conversation is dead.”
“Now you’re being evasive.”
“Not evasive. You just haven’t closed the deal yet, honey.”
“You’re a treasure with a rusty lock.”
“Are you allergic to beautiful dick?”
“I think I hear my mother calling.”
“Hey, it’s called a layover.”
“Okay, okay. Have you ever heard of the name Paul Michael Swanson before?”
“Rings a bell. Are you telling me you’re a celebrity?”
The country was wooded everywhere except at the bottom of the valley to the northward, where there was a small natural meadow, through which flowed a stream scarcely visible from the valley’s rim. This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary door-yard, but was really several acres in extent. Its green was more vivid than that of the inclosing forest. The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such that from this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one could but have wondered how the road which found a way out of it had found a way into it, and whence came and whither went the waters of the stream that parted the meadow below.
Ambrose knelt on the bank of the stream, weighting his father’s poor pockets with stones. His father, Mordecai, inclined a torn face away from the boy’s activity as though shamed by it, despite all evidence, such as the blood caked everywhere and the bone of his skull exposed white as chipped flint, that his cares on this earth were now settled. Mordecai still clutched the hawthorn switch he’d meant for the beating of Ambrose, and Ambrose still clutched, between his teeth as he grunted in his efforts, the blade he’d used to forestall forever the beating. That the sun still flamed and birds still sang and nearby squirrels even frolicked, despite the terrible scene of not an hour’s coldness they’d all been witness to, helped Ambrose to nurture a grievance against the callousness of nature and the perceived insignificance of nature’s darkest bastard, which is man.