This forward is not currently available online.
While visiting Columbia, Missouri, this year Wally Lamb was talking with an audience about the nature of literary success. He told about something that had happened to him while he was on a promotional tour for his second novel, I Know This Much Is True.
[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]
Night on Lake Dallas in the Texas summer: the water gives back the starlight and his girlfriend is fifteen years old, freckled, and they await the magic of the moonrise. Over soft grass she spreads out a blanket, and the scent of her burns inside it, a delicate soapy ignition. The adults—her parents and their friends—drink out of bottles wrapped in brown paper sacks. Their laughter skims over the waves: signals to other campsites, to other family groups and to the sexual ache of the evening.
They stand on a rock ledge beside the shore, boy and girl, leaning together, their bare shoulders touching, as the adults unfold and arrange cots. Her father watches them as he sips from his bottle, though, and he knows what the night means. He calls the boy’s name—hey, Will, c’mere!—and the invitation is a command. The girl squeezes Will’s fingers as he leaves her side. When he’s gone the mother comes and places an arm around her daughter, whispering, and the lake whispers back, expectant, and through the giant cottonwood trees on the far shore an orange and lunatic moon hides in the branches.
The father points and says it plainly: if she sleeps over here, then put your cot over there. As they talk their faces are shadowed, and the moon rises larger than a fist, so crazy in its hallucination that it drives away the stars.
Later the father drifts off into drunken sleep as the nightbirds catch the moonlight in their frenzy. Over the moondark lake the picnic ground receives the noise of cicadas and the tin music of a distant radio as Will searches for the girl’s blanket, finding it, at last, in the deep blue shade of the trees. He calls out and hears Myla’s soft reply.
They wrap themselves in the blanket, in the darkness, and with a single economical movement she’s naked for him. Never mind the others, never mind anything, and their rhythms become a single rhythm as she guides him into her small body. Her virginal bloodshed mixes with the dried blood on his shirt, blood of the fish he caught in the afternoon, and suddenly they’re experts at this ancient act. He whispers, yes, keep me here, right here, take me and keep me, never let me go, right here in this place, and a voice deep inside her answers, please, yes, take me away, take me to all the places I can never go alone, get me out of here.
At a lodge in New Mexico they meet again.
They are students at different colleges on a winter holiday, and he boldly takes a seat across from her in the cafeteria on top of the mountain. They both wear rented ski boots and borrowed clothing, and as he takes his seat clumsily he bumps the table and spills a bit of everyone’s hot chocolate. Myla’s black ski bib shows off her figure, and her incandescent freckles part in a smile. His manner is all pretension: a forced laughter, too much talk, a boast that he edits his campus newspaper—a fact she already knows—and an awkward and boyish insouciance. Her girlfriends look on in smirking wonder as he tries to impress them all, but then suddenly he says, okay, time for another run, and he casually suggests that Myla should go down the slope with him. To the amazement of her friends she quickly rises, fumbles with her mittens, drops them, trips in her silver boots, groans with pleasure and goes along. They ski through bright powder for two hundred yards, then pull up breathlessly. Where can we go?
They enter the dormitory he shares with five other guys where they pull the goose-down coverlets off all the beds, steal all the pillows and fill up the bathroom with softness. It’s the only door they can lock, and they cushion the tile floor, the fixtures, and spare only the mirrors so they can become their own audience. Then feverish acrobatics and wild display: the mirrors say, yes, do that, go there, and later they emerge exhausted, a bawdy laughter sealing the old intimacy they’ve rediscovered.
At lunch in the Russian Tea Room they sit in bright leather booths, the New York literati conversing around them—or so Will imagines—as his new agent, his first editor and his new bride eat out of each other’s plates. Hm, try this! Myla insists, and they laugh and stab at morsels of food. His first book, a thin little volume of short stories, adorns the white tablecloth along with the wine glasses and heavy silver, but it is the young bride, not the young author, who wins all the attention. She throws her head back in a deep, genuine, womanly laughter, her eyes flashing, and where did the girl go, he wonders, and who is this? Overdressed matrons at the other tables stare with envy at her freckles, and the editor—a Harvard man wearing wide red suspenders and a bow tie—obviously craves to kiss her cleavage, her slender neck and her laughing mouth.
Afterward they stroll arm in arm, passing the galleries on 57th Street, then at the Plaza, in a room paid for by the publisher, they argue over the flowers. At his own expense Will has filled the room, encircling the bed with bouquets, and his extravagance annoys her, although the room swirls with color and the perfume addles their senses. Too much, she scolds him. We might want to travel on our own, spendthrift, big author, and what’ll we do for money? You’d better get a job and get an idea for another book quick, because we can’t eat roses, can we?
After this first of their many squabbles over money she sleeps at the far edge of the beflowered mattress.
The next morning at breakfast in the Edwardian Room he tips the waiter too little, she tells him, and with frustration he tosses a spoon into his empty plate.
They buy their first dwelling, a four-room cabin beside a Hill Country stream in Texas: screened porch, an arid magic in the evenings, an old Royal typewriter in the potting shed where he isolates himself to try writing another book. They sleep in the bed with rough tree trunks as posters, a corduroy chair beside it where she sits and reads.
Twice each week he lectures at a nearby college, commuting in their only car, an old station wagon, leaving her to stroll beside the narrow creek, to smile among the neighbors, to sew, to hate television and to prepare his supper. One day she walks up on a coiled rattlesnake and her pulse is still racing when he returns. They watch the night sky through their expensive telescope, learning the constellations as the cosmos wheels around them. Some nights they drive into town for movies and tacos, and month after month she waits, waiting on his talent, patiently hoping, and the book isn’t about anything he knows, but his confidence calms her.
Her parents visit, remarking on how poorly the cabin is furnished and appalled by the expensive telescope. Her father, drunk, argues with Will over politics. Later, his mother visits, nervous and apprehensive, and when she finds a scorpion the size of her thumb she bursts into sobs and soon departs.
At the end of each week Myla reads what he has written and believes each line. She doesn’t know where it comes from or exactly what it means or who he is, and tells him so. Yet she accepts with her innate practicality all these mysteries because, after all, the editor far away has sent hard cash, and someone else obviously believes, too, so Will can just sit out there in the potting shed with his imagination and his silences. At the same time she’s aware that he watches her hands as she peels potatoes at the sink and the slope of her naked shoulders as she sits reading in her bra and panties, so she wonders if he’s memorizing her, studying her and committing her to memory because somehow they’re going to leave one another.
One night he heaves himself into her open thighs, so that the bed transforms itself into a dark forest where they lose themselves, and as they finish and lie apart, bruised and dreamy, she whispers, there, feel that? Feel what, Will asks, and he thinks of earthquakes or the moon pulling at the tides and whispers back again, feel what? She sleeps, not answering, yet she knows: he has flowered inside her, she has conceived, and this cabin is suddenly a great castle, its rooms adorned with immense fireplaces in towers of rock, a stone bridge arching over their moat, tapestries hanging on the walls of the great hall, and this is a legacy, this place, for all who come afterward, children and grandchildren, and this is their moment in the silence of the universe, their tiny wheel within the endless wheel, stars surrounding them like fate.
From the shuttered windows of their hotel in Venice they gaze out toward a white immensity that the desk clerk insisted was Desdemona’s Palace. But Desdemona is a fictional character, Will argued, a creation out of Shakespeare, but, si, yes, scusi, that was her true palace, just there, no extra charge.
The Hotel Flora’s wide rooms are furnished with dusty antiques, and on the beds in the adjoining room their children sprawl out for afternoon naps, the freckled girl and the twin boys with their mouths open in exhausted sleep. Myla combs out her hair, arms raised before the oval mirror with its peeling frame, her naked breasts pulled high. In motherhood her beauty increases. A carton of Murano glass sits atop the stacked luggage: goblets destined to be lost. From the canals voices float up from the gondolas, and the odors riding on the breeze are jasmine and garlic.
She scolds him for spending too much money traveling and argues for settling down, for adding rooms to the house in Texas, for savings accounts, saying, think about dental bills, how about bicycles, if you hadn’t sold that short story we’d be flat broke, what about school clothes, this success wont last. He pulls her down on their bed to silence her with a kiss, and she says, quiet, don’t wake the children, shut the door, as he answers, c’mere, open up, there, and they both know the addictive truth: they’re sensuous nomads, inebriated with new places, stuck in some time warp of sexual passion with each other, giddy, dragging kids and luggage around in their ardent wake, wanderers, sending postcards from lost temples and exotic ruins in faraway jungles, and this is their only constant, this narcotic pleasure, this wet thrust, this.
They travel in Africa with another couple, his old school buddy, a journalist with assignments, and the second wife, a slender child bride with enormous breasts. In their shared suite at the old Norfolk Hotel they run around in their underwear drinking Salty Dogs, hiding in the gun closets, singing. Then they hire a driver and a rickety Hertz Land Rover, leave Nairobi and go up to Treetops. In the cold tiny room of the famous treehouse in the highlands Myla accuses him of paying too much attention to the friend’s bride, and he laughs, saying, right, I can’t get my eyes off those tits of hers, and he somehow laughs too long and too loudly over his confession.
In the middle of the night he gets out of bed and strolls onto the deck overlooking the lighted waterhole. A few other insomniac guests are out there to watch a herd of indolent water buffalo. Somewhere in the night—the suburbs are encroaching—he can hear a boom box. This elaborate tourist stop fails to inspire him, so he leans on the railing conjuring up another Africa, the primeval savannah, distant drums, lost myths.
When his name is softly spoken he turns to find his friend’s wife at his side. Myla calls her Bambi. Bambi begins to pay elaborate attention to the water buffalo, to the moonless night and to his face—wearing, he fears, an expression of goofy romanticism. She’s draped in a thick grey blanket and opens it to invite him inside. It’s warmer in here, she trills, and he sees that she wears only a lace teddy that fails to restrain her heaving chest. They suck in their breaths, both of them incapable of speech as her breasts flatten against his ribs, and then a movement catches their gaze, a great shadow at the dark edge of the water hole. A big male lion slowly circles that nimbus of spotlights: casual, haughty, watching the warthogs scatter before him as he makes his way toward the herd of buffalo; moving with a regal disdain. Will and Bambi watch mesmerized inside the blanket as their hearts pound together. Other guests accumulate around them to gawk at the lion, but by this time Will and the young wife stare into each other’s loony eyes, caught in the spotlight with all the other thirsty and rutting creatures of the night.
Simba, he says stupidly, and her nipples grow erect against his side. Her mouth awaits his kiss.
But then Myla, standing beside them, clears her throat.
The lion springs through the air, bounding off one sleeping buffalo, then another, scattering the herd, and with grunts and a roar the night explodes into action.
Minutes later Will’s back in that tiny room where Myla stands above him on the bed, screaming. Since the rooms at Treetops are jammed together—one can hear a cough from one room to the next—everyone shares in Myla’s rage. You shit, she bellows. Cheater. Fuckhead. When he urges her to quiet down, this energizes her. She screams, oh, that goofy look on your face, you were out there playing blanket bingo in front of everybody, rubbing up against those big bazookas of hers, and in the midst of her ranting Myla steps off the bed onto the nightstand, sending a metal washbowl to the floor. Her voice cracks and she begins to weep, and we’re in this awful place, I cant even call a taxi, and we’re trapped in this dumb marriage, and, oh, the poor children, and he feels trapped, too, for out there in the darkness is the wilderness, nyika, the unmapped and unexplored solitude, the nothingness.
A rented house in Hampstead: temporarily settled.
Their newly teenaged daughter cruises London with her girlfriends from the American School, all of them wearing capes, talking Cat Stevens, Harrod’s, hamburgers and movies. The pensive son learns the guitar, suffers asthma, rides the tube with his scrawny pal and talks to Will about writing while his twin brother bounces balls, dribbles balls, strikes balls and watches televised ball games. Look, see, I revise over and over, Will says about his writing. They crowd beside each other in the study, their knees touching, his sons peppermint breath on his cheek, a ball being thrown against some wall, and they study a page of film script from a project that will soon bring money and embarrassment: a delicate and somewhat experimental short story of Will’s soon to be transformed into an action movie with additional dialogue supplied by the stuntmen.
While Will revises again and again, Myla takes the children to the ballet at Covent Garden, to Windsor Castle, to the orchestra on the Embankment, to paintings by Gainsborough and Constable, to Stonehenge, and by mistake to the Rocky Horror Show. All of them dine at Simpson’s, at Veeraswamy and at a steamy little Chinese cafe in the neighborhood. In Highgate Cemetery they stand before the graves of Karl Marx and the inventor of Bovril. Will takes lunches at Pinewood Studio and on Saturdays escapes to a local pub and to Bernard Stone’s book shop in Kensington. Although her fingers ache with arthritis, Myla takes a weekly ceramics class. They stay busy distracting themselves—often from one another. And they sleep in their flannels, adream in goose down as winter howls around them and as the timbers of the old house creak and sigh.
Are we drifting apart? she wants to know.
It’s just suburbia, he tells her. And money. And this damned film script.
Every four or five days they fumble into one another’s flannels, searching for the old nakedness as the four-poster laments their soft proprieties. They touch with domestic formality, with a sexual courtesy, whispering, yes, please, more of that.
He stays in the bungalow down at the end of the walkway at the Hotel Bel-Air: a fancy address for the summer, bougainvillea, white swans gliding under the wooden bridge, expenses paid by the studio. He’s the California wordsmith, the glib fabricator, yet he can’t find the right combination of words to say to Myla—who won’t talk to him on the phone anyway. The script refuses to talk to him as well, and he suspects that he’ll be the first of at least nine writers on the project. Having behaved wantonly—and with some other Bambi, not the wife of his friend, never—he has come to rest in this luxurious prison, this fortress of the delicate summer, where in his discreet and lonely evenings at the bar he sits at the table behind the stubby palm tree and writes letters to his children. He remembers Myla at age fifteen in her short shorts, at age thirty in the yellow sundress, at age forty in her garland of freckles, naked, as she waded in the shallows of an Ozark trout stream.
Days turn into weeks. He has never felt so sorry for himself.
Then, wearing a white suit and manufacturing a smile, she appears at the door to his bungalow. She’s hungry, she says, and tired of eating alone. As he dresses for dinner he fumbles through an incoherent apology, then as they stroll toward the patio, violins playing, she confesses that she recently slept with her psychiatrist. Under his frantic questioning at dinner she reminds him of the doctor’s name.
The guy with the beard? The Italian? I call him bambino, she responds.
He covers up his sadness with anger. Totally unethical, he asserts. A woman should be able to trust her psychiatrist.
Copulation, she informs him, was just a form of therapy. That’s all it was, he assures her, for me!
They go through the agony of desserts: chocolate mousse for him and peaches flambe for her.
In the bungalow, later, they bathe themselves in white: the lilies at their bedside table, white silk sheets, her white suit thrown aside and the white liquids that oil their senses.
Beyond the big round bed in Malibu the French doors open onto the beach and surf. In these days his face melts away like wax; he takes blood-pressure medicine that cools his desire and watches her freckled skin turn into soft scales.
The children, finished with college, all have loves of their own. Myla and Will stroll the beach recalling the ball games, boyfriends and music recitals, and how on occasion each child seemed to speak in a mysterious poetry.
Will’s books now fill up a shelf: a novel with glowing reviews, another praised, others not. He reads only biographies and visionary works on astrophysics. Meanwhile, Myla makes lists: groceries, favorite movies, proposed holiday sites and even a list of her meager jewelry, items she intends to be distributed to children, grandchildren or friends on the occasion of her death. Also a list of things lost: the Murano goblets, a gold locket, one of the twins’ guitar, the fancy telescope.
In the circular bed they listen to the echoes of the surf in the room as he rubs ointment into her arthritic hands. When she compliments his touch he asks in his best Bogart tone if she wants to make out, and in their mutual massage, then, they reach for the old fever. The coals beneath the skin are slower to ignite, but afterward he holds her as she sleeps, listening to her breath, and he’s overcome by this soft warmth beyond orgasm, this calm, this metamorphosis into permanent afterglow. Then he wonders to himself, okay, will I ever write again and about what, about what?
With an assortment of senior cronies they visit the Great Wall, Buddhist temples, the Forbidden City and China’s terra-cotta warriors, but what impresses them most is a ninety-mile stretch of superhighway, six lanes, built by hand with thousands of workers mixing the cement in wheelbarrows.
In their compartment on the night train to Xian he feels restless and can’t sleep, but Myla grows sick and veers into delirium. He presses his palm against her burning forehead and listens as she talks in her sleep. She believes she’s on the Blue Train heading toward Cape Town or in a movie with Gene Hackman or somewhere in Oklahoma.
The train clings to the side of a mountain as below a dark valley pulls at them. Next morning in the city he devours a cheeseburger for breakfast in the hotel coffee shop, and while she continues to sleep he goes for a long walk. On the grounds of a temple with an ancient pagoda he finds a giant prayer bell. Its hammer is a teakwood log suspended on thick chains, and he pays ten yuan to swing it into the echoing bell. For Myla—always clearheaded and never ill—he prays the first prayer he has uttered in years.
Back at the hotel, amazingly, her fever has broken, and she suggests they might try a little cuddling. When he takes off his clothes and exposes his paunch, she smiles and tells him he has the body of a god.
Lord Buddha, she says. That god.
They join themselves like two expensive antiques: good fittings, a few creaking parts, good workmanship.
A mountainside in the Ozarks: their last house.
He enjoys lunches with his cronies: three reporters, the doctor, the psychologist, the librarian and an occasional visitor referred to as the designated listener. Some of them play golf on the weekends, but although most of them arrived in this place because of the fishing none of them actually go for the trout anymore. As a group they favor the written word, sports and gravy. Their consensus is that good reporting is superior to good or even great fiction. They speak to one another in anecdotes because they know that all ideas are untrue. One night after supper Will gets a headache, and the next morning he can’t remember the names of his pals. He doesn’t mention this to Myla.
Because their sleep turns restless, they sleep in separate bedrooms. In the springtime she goes skiing with their daughter, then comes back to renovate her workshop, where she takes up her old hobby, throwing clay pots.
One morning, shaving, Will notices his drooping eye; it looks as though it might slide down his face.
On a moonless midsummer evening Myla and Will sit outdoors in deck chairs gazing off into space: distant stars, the dark winds, galaxies beyond their vision that they agree they can feel. At death, she muses, their molecules will fly into the cosmos, blown around like so many dandelion particles. Her version of eternity sounds very much like the Grand Tour: visits to faraway constellations, to the great clouds where stars are born and to a view of how the pieces all fit together. Our personal Unified Field Theory, he says, and he somehow believes all of it. He kisses the bent fingers of his priestess. Molecules don’t die, she explains. I’ve been reading about it, she tells him, and they go on living, behaving quite a lot like little bitty brains with minds of their own.
In late November their sons move Will’s bed over by the big window so he can look out on the hills. Father and sons try a few hands of poker, but Will can’t keep up, so they listen to music until darkness comes and they can see their faces—so alike, so different—in the window’s reflection.
That night Myla comes to his bed and holds him in her arms. Tell me about the molecules again, he says.
From what we know, she answers, smiling, certain clusters of molecules attract each other. If you split these molecules up, according to scientists, they manage to find each other again. Some scientists—maybe the more religious ones—believe they get back together again in some sort of consciousness. So do I, she says decisively. I believe that, too.
Maybe some of mine and some of yours, he remarks.
After this the lights go out in Galway, along the Amalfi Coast, on Padre Island, at the Safeway store and in the deepest recesses of molecular memory. The stations of the body fade away: regions of the cortex, the distant toes and the bloody old heart. He can feel her close and detect that soft, soapy odor, the one that filled the blanket on the grass that night long ago on Lake Dallas. Then the new lights begin to appear, faintly at first: the glow of the North Star, faraway Andromeda and the galaxies beyond all imagination.
Interview with Diane Johnson
This interview is currently not available online.
Interviewer: I’m stuck by the sense of fun in your work, something I seldom see in contemporary fiction.
Johnson: I too find that quality strangely lacking — not true of authors we now think of as “classic,” like, say, E. M. Forster, or even James, who can be very funny. I have no explanation for the American lack, and it has even crossed my mind that a sense of fun can be a curse in the U.S., preventing readers from seeing the serious issues and thoughts that may find their way into a writer’s pages.
Interview with Jamaica Kincaid
Bonetti: Ms. Kincaid, in the novel Lucy, you give Lucy Josephine Potter one of your birth names and your own birthday. How closely do the facts of Lucy’s biography match your own?
Kincaid: She had to have a birth-date so why not mine? She was going to have a name that would refer to the slave part of her history, so why not my own? I write about myself for the most part, and about things that have happened to me. Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn’t admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence.
Bonetti: Your father, like Lucy’s, was a cabinet maker, and your own mother married a much older man with whom she had three sons several years after you were born.
Kincaid: Yes, that is true. But here’s an example of something that is true and not true: in “The Long Rain” the girl has an illness–a rite of passage, I guess you might call it–when she’s fourteen years old. I had an illness like that when I was seven years old, and I was writing about that illness. I root my fear of rodents in that time of my life. I used to lie on my bed and look up at the ceiling, and I saw hundreds of rats running around the ceiling. It must have been only one or two, but they seemed to go around like a merry-go-round. It must have been a hallucination. I was left alone, and like the girl I did get up and wash and powder the photographs, but some of the photographs described in the book could not have existed when I was seven years old. The confirmation photograph, for instance, did not exist. I don’t aim to be factual. I aim to be true to something, but it’s not necessarily the facts.
Bonetti: Where did the story of the green figs and the black snake come from?
Kincaid: That was a story my mother told me about herself, but the outcome of that story as it is in the book is not what really happened. I tried to write a story about my mother and myself, and there were incidents that I perceived as betrayal, at the time, though I don’t necessarily believe that now. In my writing I suppose I’m trying to understand how I got to be the person I am. The truth is important, but it’s a certain kind of truth.
Bonetti: Even though Annie John begins and ends chronologically, it’s not built on a linear model. A single one-time happening recurs in several episodes, taken from different points of view, within different contexts. Did you conceive of it as a novel or as a sequence of short stories?
Kincaid: I didn’t conceive of it as either one. I just write. I come to the end, I start again. I come to the end, I start again. And then sometimes I come to the end, and there is no starting again. In my mind there is no question of who will do what and when. Sometimes I’ve written the end of something before I’ve written the beginning. Whatever a novel is, I’m not it, and whatever a short story is, I’m not it. If I had to follow these forms, I couldn’t write. I’m really interested in breaking the form.
Bonetti: It is interesting that a story your mother told about herself as a girl–walking home with a bunch of green figs on her head in which a snake is hiding–becomes a parable that the mother tells the daughter in Annie John, to try to induce her to confess.
Kincaid: What did I know? I was writing this story and I had a lot of information about my family and their history, and I used it in this way. My mother used to tell me a lot of things about herself. It’s perhaps one of the ways in which I became a writer. Why I used that incident, I can’t really say. It was conscious and it was not conscious. A psychiatrist would see that it’s not an accident that I picked that particular one to speak of seduction and treachery. As we know, the serpent is associated with betrayal.
Bonetti: In Annie John, Annie is praised by her teachers, and she even holds them spellbound with her writing at one point. When you were a girl in Antigua, did you have teachers who encouraged you and thought that you were special?
Kincaid: Yes and no. I was considered a bright child. I was always first, second or third, and when I was third it was considered disappointing. But to say people encouraged me, no. No one was encouraged. Some of us might go off to the University of the West Indies to study, or to England, but then what would we do? There’s nothing in Antigua. I am from a poor family, and most of the girls who went off to university were from privileged families. Only boys could go off to university if they were from my background. If I had been a boy, there’s no question that I would have been singled out.
Bonetti: So it was that you were a girl, as much as anything, that narrowed your opportunities?
Kincaid: It was. I can see that now. The other day I was reading the newspaper from my home–the government is very corrupt–everybody’s always got their face in the newpaper for some terrible thing–and one of the pictures was a boy I used to go to school with. He and his brother once beat me up because I came in ahead of one of them in an exam. They thought that I had cheated; if I hadn’t come in ahead of them, whatever glittering prize–a book of poetry or something–would have gone to one of them.
Bonetti: You had to have cheated because you were a girl.
Kincaid: I had to have cheated. But what happened to him? He’s a member of the cabinet. There’s a girl that I went to school with who in fact is the “Gwen” character in Annie John. She was a brilliant, brilliant girl but nothing much happened to her. She’s a supervisor somewhere. There’s no question, if she and I were boys, that we would have fared much better. As it turns out, for me, it didn’t matter.
Bonetti: You grew up in the British colonial tradition, reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible. Are you conscious of the ways in which that kind of literature has had an impact on your work?
Kincaid: People have told me so, and when I read it out loud, I become aware of the influence of the things I read as a child– images from Christian mythology and Paradise Lost. All of this has left me very uncomfortable with ambiguity. My sense of the world is that things are right and wrong, and that when you’re wrong, you get thrown into a dark pit and you pay forever. You try very hard not to do a wrong thing, and if you do, there’s very little forgiveness. I was brought up to understand that English traditions were right and mine were wrong. Within the life of an English person there was always clarity, and within an English culture there was always clarity, but within my life and culture was ambiguity. A person who is dead in England is dead. A person where I come from who is dead might not be dead. I was taught to think of ambiguity as magic, a shadiness and an illegitimacy, not the real thing of Western civilization.
Bonetti: That’s the way you were taught, and so now that’s your inclination.
Kincaid: Yes, yes. The thing that I am branded with and the thing that I am denounced for, I now claim as my own. I am illegitimate, I am ambiguous. In some way I actually claim the right to ambiguity, and the right to clarity. It does me no good to say, “Well, I reject this and I reject that.” I feel free to use everything, or not, as I choose. I was forced to memorize John Milton and that was a very painful thing. But I’m not going to make myself forget John Milton because it involves a painful thing. I find John Milton very beautiful, and I’m glad that I know it. I’m sorry that the circumstances of how I got to know it were so horrid, but, since I know it, I know it and I claim every right to use it.
Bonetti: One book that seems to incorporate different cultural expectations and interpretations of the same events is Lucy. In one scene Lucy tells Louis and Mariah her dream. Their response, the western white response, is to look at each other and say, “Freud lives,” or words to that effect.
Kincaid: The people in Lucy’s society live for dreaming. They believe that waking life is informed by dream life. Where I come from some people act only on their dreams. All their non- sleeping actions are based on what happened to them when they were asleep. Louis and Mariah were in fact saying that her perception of the world was not valid, that she needed Freud.
Bonetti: My Milton professor once described the imagery in John Milton as being “highly visual, non-visual” imagery–because of Milton’s blindness. You couldn’t draw a picture of what John Milton describes, yet it is highly visual. Do you feel an affinity between that notion and the style of At the Bottom of the River?
Kincaid: One of the things that inspired me to write was English poets, even though I had never seen England. It’s as if I were a blind person too. When I was about ten years old I read Jane Eyre, and at one point she describes the evening as the “gloaming.” She’s describing something English, something I would never see until I was thirty-odd years old. I got stuck on that word, and eventually found a way to use it in At the Bottom of the River. Then I was free of it. It was important for me to have written those stories, because it freed me of an obsession with a certain kind of language. I memorized Wordsworth when I was a child, Keats, all sorts of things. It was an attempt to make me into a certain kind of person, the kind of person they had no use for, anyway. An educated black person. I got stuck with a lot of things, so I ended up using them.
Bonetti: So you see At the Bottom of the River as a kind of catharsis?
Kincaid: I would not have ever, ever been able to say, “You know, I really need to write this, I really need to get rid of these images,” but that’s what I was doing. A sort of desire for a perfect place, a perfect situation, comes from English Romantic poetry. It described a perfection which one longed for, and of course the perfection that one longed for was England. I longed for England myself. These things were a big influence, and it was important for me to get rid of them. Then I could actually look at the place I’m from.
Bonetti: And what did you find there?
Kincaid: In the place I’m from you don’t have much room. You have the sea. If you step on the sea, you sink. The only thing the sea can do is take you away. People living on a tiny island are not expected to have deep thoughts about how they live, their right to live. You can have little conflicts, disagreements about what side of the street to walk on, but you cannot disagree that perhaps there should not be a street there. You cannot disagree about fundamental things, which is what an artist would do. All they’re left with is a kind of pastoral beauty, a kind of natural beauty, and wonderful trinkets. They make nice hats. They catch fish in an an old-fashioned way. It’s all aesthetic, but it has no thinking it it. They cannot think. They will not allow themselves to think. They might have to change things, and they can’t bear it.
Bonetti: Was it necessary for you to leave Antigua to become a writer?
Kincaid: Oh, absolutely. It’s no accident that most West Indian writers do not live in the West Indies all the time. It’s the source of their art, but they can’t live there. The place is full of the most sewer-like corruption you ever saw. The ones who live there become obsessed with politics, and almost always stop writing. And you can’t blame them, you know. There is simply no way to stay there and write. People there don’t really read. They have cable television, thanks to America. You couldn’t make a living there, you couldn’t be supported economically, to begin with. But you wouldn’t be supported spiritually, either. These are not places that support people. I was attempting to do this thing that, as far as I know, no one in Antigua had attempted to do. Part of the reason I changed my name was so that they wouldn’t know I was writing. I was afraid I would be laughed at, though it would not have stopped me. Nothing has made me not do what I wanted to do.
Bonetti: So you changed your name to disguise yourself so that you could write. How did you pick the name Jamaica Kincaid?
Kincaid: It had no significance other than it was useful, to protect me from things. It was one of those things you do in the middle of the night. In those days we used to smoke marijuana or drink. I can’t remember which one we were doing. If someone should say, “Well, you know she used to smoke marijuana,” they should know that I don’t mind that anybody knows. I try not to have too many secrets.
Bonetti: You’re not going to try to get appointed to the Supreme Court?
Kincaid: Or become Secretary of Defense. Or marry the president. My husband is not going to be the president. It was just one of many things I was doing in my life to make a break with my past.
Bonetti: Perhaps I am identifying you too strongly with your characters, but Lucy talks about the fact that she realizes she’s inventing herself when she starts studying photography, and you too studied photography at a certain point after you got here.
Kincaid: I didn’t have the words for it, but yes, I was inventing myself. I didn’t make up a past that I didn’t have. I just made my present different from my past. How did I really do that? Just a few years off the banana boat basically, and there I was doing one crazy thing after another. How was I not afraid? The crucial thing was that I would not communicate with my family. Somehow I knew that was the key to anything I wanted to make of myself. I could not be with people who knew me so well that they knew just what I was capable of. I had to be with people who thought whatever I said went.
Bonetti: Do you feel like you were running for your life in the fiction by telling the mother/daughter story from different perspectives?
Kincaid: It was the thing I knew. Quite possibly if I had had another kind of life I would not have been moved to write. That was the immediate thing, the immediate oppression, I knew. I wanted to free myself of that.
Bonetti: It must have taken a great amount of focus and self- determination to become a writer.
Kincaid: I wouldn’t describe myself as someone with focus and self-determination. Those are words and descriptions I shy away from. I consider them, in fact, sort of false. I find ambition to achieve unpleasant. The ambition I have is to write well. I don’t have an ambition to be successful. I have an ambition to eat, which I find quite different from an ambition to be successful, though I think in America the two are rather bonded together.
Bonetti: When you came to the United States to be a maid did you have an agenda?
Kincaid: No. I did not know what would happen to me. I was just leaving, with great bitterness in my heart–a very hard heart– towards everybody I’d ever known, but I could not have articulated why. It’s a mystery to my family why I feel this way, because they see nothing wrong with what happened to me. If I had remained a servant, I would not have been surprised. I would have been in great agony, but I would not have been surprised. I knew that I wanted something, but I did not know what. I knew I did not want convention. I wanted to risk something.
Bonetti: You’ve done a very American thing. Like Huck Finn, you “lit out for the territory.”
Kincaid: What good luck it was that I did light out for American territory and not Britain. I do not think that I would have been allowed this act of self-invention, which is very American, in Europe–certainly not in English-speaking Europe. When I came to America, I came from a place where most of the people looked like me, so I wasn’t too concerned with the color of my skin. If I’d gone to England I could only have been concerned with the color of my skin.
Bonetti: More so than here?
Kincaid: Much more so. I was not used to American racial attitudes, so whenever they were directed at me I did not recognize them, and if I didn’t recognize them they were meaningless. I had no feeling about my own race. No feeling about my color. I didn’t like it or not like it, I just accepted it the way I accept my eyes. I’m sure people denied me things because of the color of my skin, but I didn’t know it, so I just went on. That was not my problem. I didn’t know that there were very few black people writing for The New Yorker, so I wasn’t troubled by that. I actually knew nothing about The New Yorker– its history, or its prominence in American literature–when I was taken to meet the editor. I was just a fool treading where angels feared to go.
Bonetti: You wrote “The Talk of the Town” column for about four years. How did this come to be?
Kincaid: How did I come to write for The New Yorker? George Trow befriended me–I think that is how I would put it–and was very generous and kind and loving. He thought I was funny, and he would take me around to parties. I was so grateful, because I was very poor. Sometimes the only meal I ate was those little cocktail things. He would write about me in “Talk of the Town.” He took me to meet Mr. Shawn, and I started to write for The New Yorker. I gave George my impressions of an event, and they appeared in the magazine just as I wrote them. That was how I discovered what my own writing was. It was just all a matter of luck, chance.
Bonetti: Were you George Trow’s “sassy black friend?”
Kincaid: I was his “sassy black friend,” which didn’t offend me at all. I seemed to be sassy, I said these things that he thought were sassy, and I was black.
Bonetti: How do you think the writing that you did for “The Talk of the Town” prepared you for the fiction?
Kincaid: It did two things. It showed me how to write, and it allowed me to write in my own voice. The New Yorker no longer has that kind of power, but at one time it could take any individual piece of writing, no matter how eccentric the writing was, and without changing so much as a punctuation mark, the piece became the standard of The New Yorker. It had such power of personality. So there I was, writing anonymously in this strange voice, and it looked like The New Yorker. It was a wonderful thing for me because I was edited by this brilliant editor, this brilliant man, Mr. William Shawn, who became my father-in-law.
Bonetti: Later. We have to say later.
Kincaid: Yes, he was very keen on not appearing to practice nepotism. Anyway, I had this wonderful editor and what I had to do to keep him interested was write clearly and keep my personality. And I did it. I could make him understand what I had to say. I doubt very much that I would have turned out to be the writer I am without him. He often bought my bad “Talk” stories, and didn’t print them, but paid me for them, just so I could have some money to live on. The New Yorker, you know, used to support writers. Sometimes it didn’t work out, but some of us kept on going. I wrote many very weird “Talk” stories that appeared in The New Yorker, very experimental “Talk” stories, and it was from them that I learned how to do the stories in At the Bottom of the River. Sometimes I was doing both; I was writing weird stories and I was writing At the Bottom of the River.
Bonetti: At what point were you Jamaica Kincaid, in “Talk of the Town?”
Kincaid: By the time I made the effort to write I had changed my name, so I was never anything but Jamaica Kincaid as a writer.
Bonetti: And “my sassy black friend” before that.
Kincaid: That’s true. But it would be “our sassy black friend, Jamaica Kincaid,” I was always named.
Bonetti: I read that there was a bit of controversy, at least among people privately, about the Louis character in Lucy being too close to an actual writer on the staff of The New Yorker. Did that surface in a public controversy at all?
Kincaid: I must say when I read that, it was a surprise to me. If it was a controversy among my friends, they didn’t tell me. Everyone likes to think that everything is really telling them something about someone, but I never write about other people. I’m not that interested in other people at all. The people that I really want to say anything about are people at home, and even so, I muddle up characters. The true characters in Lucy are the mother and Lucy. Apparently it’s the stock in trade of West Indian writers to write about their childhoods. Meryl Hodge’s Crick Crack Money is a wonderful book, and it’s about a Caribbean childhood, too, not unlike mine. It’s true that women sometimes fall victim to a kind of narcissism. Certainly it’s true in the West Indies. I went to a conference of West Indian women writers, very learned, brilliant women. Many of them said, “I know I should give my paper, but I’m going to tell you about myself instead.” It was at that moment I realized that my mother wasn’t that unusual. I don’t know if this sense of “here I am, let me tell you about me,” is universal to women, but it’s a very West Indian trait. Maybe it is because she’s confined to home and family that there’s a great love of self as an aesthetic thing among West Indian women. It must be said they’re very beautiful women.
Bonetti: The critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says that you, like Toni Morrison, “never feel the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world, or a female sensibility,” that you assume them both as a given.
Kincaid: That is very true. I don’t really write about men unless they have something to do with a woman. I was just reading an African writer who described black people as black. I couldn’t tell whether he meant it as race or skin color. I didn’t understand what he meant.
Bonetti: There’s also an acceptance of androgny in your books, a completely frank treatment of adolescent sexuality between girls. “Gwen and I will get married,” says Annie John. There it is, and no big deal is made of it.
Kincaid: I grew up with a great acceptance of female bonding. The greatest loves that I knew, and the greatest quarrels, the greatest enmities I knew were between women. I was very interested in feelings between these people, and I just wasn’t going to worry about whether they were homosexuals or not. If they are, well good for them.
Bonetti: Another thing that you do with absolute matter of factness is to take the imagery of patriarchal literature–God, we all know, is a man and so is Lucifer–and without any ado, God, by God, becomes a woman.
Kincaid: I am writing about power and powerlessness and I think that these things have no sex. They have only their nature. I have never met a man more impressive than my mother. When Ronald Reagan was announcing the invasion of Grenada, at his side was Eugenie Charles, the Prime Minister of Dominique. If you were from Mars, you would think that she was the leader of the powerful country and he was the leader of the weak country. My mother is like that–grand and impressive. I’ve never met any man with that sort of personal power.
Bonetti: You’ve talked about your mother and the stories that she tells as being a part of what makes you a writer now, and yet you’ve also commented that it would never occur to people like her to step back from their experience and create a work of art. Can you elaborate on that?
Kincaid: I started to write out of reasons that were I thought peculiar to me–I was lazy and I wasn’t really interested in being educated in a way that would suit other people. I was interested in knowing things that pleased me. For instance, I often read books on astronomy but it doesn’t interest me to go to school to study astronomy. I became a writer because I could live a life that pleased me. I liked to investigate my own life. I liked to talk about my mother, her family, my life, what happened to me, historically, in my childhood, and I could only get to them in this way. I do not know why I am able to step outside and look. I certainly don’t have more courage than they do, more education, more brilliance. My mother is an extremely brilliant woman. I do not know what it is that made, in me, the desire to do this thing and to seek satisfaction for that desire.
Bonetti: Have you come to the point in your life where you’re comfortable with the enriching things about you that come from your mother?
Kincaid: Absolutely. There are many things about her that I’ve consciously tried to adopt, that I love. Sometimes I only write in her voice. I think the voice of Lucy is very much her voice. Her voice as a piece of literature is the most fabulous thing you ever read or heard. She is a person in her own right, but careless with her gifts. That’s very painful to me to watch.
Bonetti: How do you mean that?
Kincaid: I perhaps am a writer because of her, in a very specific way. For instance, I love books because of her. She gave me an Oxford dictionary for my seventh birthday. She had taught me to read when I was three-and-a-half years old. There are many things that should have allowed her to free herself from her situation, and perhaps one of them would have been to have no children at all, including me. But you see her with these marvelous gifts and sense of self–people who have less of this than her have done things, ruled the world for instance. She’s in her seventies and she’s quite something. If she roused herself she could do quite a bit.
Bonetti: Have you ever felt that a part of why you write is to win your mother’s approval?
Kincaid: When I first started among the things I wanted to do was to say, “Aren’t you sorry that no greater effort was made over my education? Or over my life?” But as I’ve gotten older I am fairly sure that that’s not a part of my life anymore. I didn’t see her for twenty years, so the desire for her approval was greater in her absence. Then as we saw each other and spoke, I realized there was a certain chasm that could not really be closed; I just grew to accept her. I also wanted my children to know my mother, because whatever my differences are with her, I wanted them to feel a part of this person, and if possible to realize that some of the dynamics in my life were related. I didn’t want her to die without closing that circle.
Bonetti: If you suddenly won your mother’s total and unconditional approval, would you still be writing?
Kincaid: Now you’ve frightened me. I think it’s not possible, but I no longer really want that. We’re just two grown-up people living the life we chose to live. It would be nice if she understood certain things about me. On the other hand, she’s in her seventies, she needn’t make any new arrangements if she doesn’t want to, and perhaps, new efforts are beyond her. I really don’t look for that.
Bonetti: You’ve taken the facts of your biography and shaped them into fictions with universal appeal. When it comes right down to the bottom line, who do you think you write for?
Kincaid: I always assume no one will read the damn thing, you know. Not my mother, the person I really write for, I suspect. My great audience is this one-half Carib Indian woman living in Antigua. I imagine she doesn’t read what I write, but I’m quite surprised that people who are the exact opposite of her find anything in it. I’m really quite amazed.
Poetry Feature: Robert King
Featuring the poems:
- From the Book of Rope
- One of Those Days
- In the Neighborhood
to the businessman comparing business
each part a part of the whole.
flutes of light, cellos bubbling along
allegro–in rushes and deep swirling.
to a business, all its appropriate
toward singular goals, closing up shop
through a downturn of driftwood,
and backpaddle furiously in order
Someone knows how to do everything.
I mean some one person knows how
to do some one thing, and draw
a diagram, such as making a bomb,
etc., but in this case to cut
flower stems with a knife
underwater, what this picture means.
I could be in Russia with these daffodils
and know to cut them underwater
with a knife. So someone knew that,
and someone knows how to cultivate
varieties of daffodils. First, someone knows
there are different names. No,
each person knows one name apiece,
so it takes a lot of them to run
the daffodil company, and one to know
it comes from the Latin asphodelus,
the asphodel, flowers akin to Narcissus
said to cover the Elysian Fields although
no one remembers that species. I run the water,
cut with a knife, someone else knowing
why water runs, knives cut, only you knowing
what you’ll think of them when you arrive
down the one street someone built
and home into the marriage we have made,
both of us, in this case, knowing it, following
the instructions we momentarily concoct,
giving it whole varieties of beautiful names.
From the Book of Rope
First, there is love. Secondly,
the square knot, a perfect binding
of two equal loops, useful
for fastening gifts to each other
or, in the extreme, for closing bandages
over wounds, expected or not.
The sheet bend hooks unequal partners,
originally a rope to the twisted end
of a sail, something fastened against wind.
The bowline’s loop won’t close, good
for saving yourself in mountain climbing,
or, in general, being lifted up, lowered.
Hitches bind us to things, thwarting
our drift, boat to tree, a horse to any rail–
two half hitches, hundreds of half hitches.
In the book of rope, three tests
for every knot–is it easy to tie?
Will it stay tied firmly in use,
and will it be, finally, easy to untie?
Which knot have we chosen?
And what else sadly should we know?
One of Those Days
Each day I am in love
with something, in full
wonder at what’s given.
Yesterday, it was partly
some sparkling Mozart
but mostly, five minutes
earlier, the announcer’s remark:
“Mozart’s coming up
in five minutes.”
Today it’s the beginning
of a sentence in a book
about Tu Fu–“In the spring
of 761…”–regarding several
short songs, an ancient fresh breath.
I realize the museum next door
is chock full of bones and the perpetual
birthdays of rock, that millennia
shift only a few pebbles, and that mostly
everything is utterly forgotten,
but I’m enthralled with the spring
of 761, hold it in my arms all night.
Although Mozart dies young
and Tu Fu’s hopes turn out false
always, I can’t resist singing to myself
the knowledge of unknowable springs,
musical as arpeggios of cherry,
those immortal blossoms, and, above,
those particular clouds passing away.
I remember one aunt with long red hair
who laughed, at least that one afternoon.
The other, subject to some frailty I wasn’t told,
kept pillows on the phones to soften
any potential intrusion. So who’s to say
I don’t remember the aunt who shot
clay pigeons from horseback in Cody’s show,
grit flying up, the smock-smock of the rifle?
Or that I couldn’t remember the aunt
who wrote a long Victorian novel
or the aunt who married Lot
or felt afterward, she said, as if she had?
I remember the aunt with an aureole,
the aunt with an aura, the aunt colored
like an aurora with rings on her auricles
who walked au naturel through the forests,
leaves imprinting a network of lace on her flanks.
I remember the aunt who left no diary,
the one who did, the one the diary was about.
I remember the aunt who made night,
and the aunt who put the stars to flight,
the aunt who traveled into the darkness,
and the aunt who traveled with the darkness.
I remember the one who discovered gold,
the gold one who discovered death,
the dead one who discovered the light,
the light one who discovered electricity
and writing and hair and gunpowder,
and I remember the aunt who brushed her shining red hair
and laughed one afternoon in the pines of the mountains,
and the aunt in the city who moved gently and mysteriously
through dark rooms, none of the telephones daring to speak,
while I invented my families, darkly concocting myself.
In the Neighborhood
We are similar this spring
I see, walking a walk, all
our tulips splitting brightly
open, cups of sharp flame
lined in front of our homes
and, by our back fence lines,
dry stacks of limbs the size
of limbs, the little woods
standing and standing
in their regular pyramids.
After the tulips eat away
into ash, and summer,
that steady green hum,
and leaves flared and fallen,
we’ll go inside our white houses,
and set the houses of trees
afire into red and yellow petals.
We own our home, our tulips
announce. Nothing, the blossoms
hotly crack, nothing is forever.
This Company Died for Your Lawn, This Lawn Died for Your Company
SLIGO’S NEW IDEA WAS WEALTH, sudden gouts of cashola, the vaguely cheese-like scent of new bills. He viewed our current circumstance – technically, a circumstance of poverty – as the ideal substrate. There was always a friend of a friend; there was always TV and the shiny-paper versions of TV. Runts with messianic grins and the right creation myth were becoming zillionaires on the Net. What was it anyway besides wishful thinking? Wishful thinking is always the linchpin of a sustained and senseless prosperity.
Our economy of scale, Sligo’s and mine, involved chicken wings and hot-dog buns. We were members of the reflective poor, a couple of can-do palookas with dreams in our socks and so on and so on. Sligo was hemorrhaging with ideas: freelunch.com; makeadecision.com; alibi.com. The key was seed money.
The career counseling center at Grover Cleveland Senior High was pasted with literature from the armed forces, an enterprise ardently concerned with computer training and cross-racial hygiene. Before we could even reach the desk, a woman in lumpy slacks appeared. Her manner suggested the brisk loneliness of a parent volunteer. “May I help you?” came out more like Dear God, turn me into someone else.
“We’re looking for the job board,” Sligo said. “Are you all students here?”
Sligo wore army surplus cutoffs and a guayabera. His skull was massive, which wasn’t his fault but contributed to a sense of menace. I was the possibly-more-dangerous sidekick. My hair hung in ridiculous shingles. There was a tendency on my part to skulk. “We’re alumni,” Sligo said. “My name is Fortran Sligo. This is Michael McGlinchy.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” the woman said.
I wasn’t quite sure I understood either. We were college graduates, after all, with lovely, pointless degrees in philosophy. But Sligo insisted the best jobs, the quick cash numbers, were at the high school level. He urged me to consider the dramatic upswing in teenaged millionaires. His logic was relentless and opaque.
“Graduates,” he said to the parent volunteer. “We are graduates of this fine institution, though currently on the market, as it were, when considered – that is, us – from an employment perspective.”
The woman inspected Sligo. Her mouth was a rubberized message of doom. “I think you’d better leave.”
“I’m sure that’s not necessary,” Sligo said.
But already she was moving to the phone. This was a period of extreme paranoia concerning schools and school property, thanks to the series of deadly assaults by disaffected students. In Europe and Asia, disaffected students fomented revolution and swung heroically from tanks. In America, though, they were more or less in the business of slaughter. Someone was always going apeshit in America, and never for the right reasons. You read about it all the time. Sligo had a plan to capitalize on this: amuck.com.
Out on the sidewalk, Sligo showed me the three-by-five card he’d nicked from the job board. Big $$$ – Growth Field – Sales experience preferred! There were directions to an orientation session, to be held in the courtyard of a leafy community college outside Sheperdstown.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Wrappers tossed past on a soft breeze.
At last a guy in a sweater vest appeared. He checked his watch and frowned. “You the only ones?” His hair looked like one of those Rogaine ads. You could see someone was paying very careful attention to his hairline, some poor hairdresser named Trish or Linda. “How old are you guys?” he said.
“How old are we?” Sligo said.
“In our twenties,” Sligo said.
“Right around there.”
“Any sales experience?”
I could see Sligo start to sort of cock his fist.
“Okay okay okay,” said the guy. “I’m late already.” He introduced himself as Phil, though tentatively, as if he might have just settled on the name. He took our number and handed us a pamphlet. AAAA Lawn Service. The Company That Cares About Your Lawn. The Company That Would Take a Bullet for Your Lawn. The Company That Died for Your Lawn. We hollered these mottos back and forth, Sligo and I. We were staying in the same place at that point, one of the shitholes off Lee Street.
Phil elaborated at our second meeting, which took place at a Waffle House: “We only hit the plush neighborhoods. The key is getting in before the Spic crews come out from the city. Our deluxe aeration process allows a special fertilized formula direct access to the root system.”
“Aeration?” I said.
Something was smoking back in the kitchen. “Not to worry!” the waitress called out gaily. “Grease fire!”
“How much do we get?” Sligo said.
“Fifteen percent on every sale.”
Phil made his eyes into black yolks. Country ham salted his breath. “Do you know how many young men, groomed young men, are interested in this unique sales opportunity? All right. Settle down. Let me crunch some numbers.” Phil stabbed at his napkin with a fountain pen.
“Try to dress appropriately,” he said finally. “Pretend you’re Mormons.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sligo said. He had recently outlined plans for a website called killeverymormon.com.
“He’s saying you might frighten people,” I said.
“No tank tops, for instance.”
Sligo’s shoulders were starting to look like scar tissue from all the nicotine patches. Also: his tattoos.
The following Saturday, just a day before Easter, Phil drove us away from Winston-Salem, into what folks now call the country, which had once been a place where food was grown by rugged, somewhat naive families but had become, in the last decade or so, carefully parceled grounds where the rich retreated from their responsibility for the poor. Where had all the farmers gone? Near as we could figure, they’d been stockpiled in nonessential states.
“No more of this mock-Tudor shit,” Phil said. “No more fucking pipsqueak Doric column crap. Get psyched, sales force. Get psyched.”
Sligo was wearing the coat he’d worn for graduation; a camel-hair purchased many years ago by his mother. More than anything in our current lives – the drink, the flawed teleology – this coat doomed us. It assumed sophistication in all the wrong ways. Failure! it yelped. Yes! Me! And anything I touch! The temp hung around eighty.
“A true compassion for the customer cannot be faked,” Phil said. “You’re not just standing for the service, you’re standing behind the service. We’re about a lawn that lives forever.” He said he’d be back for us at the end of the day. Then he was gone, and our terror was briefly drowned out by relief.
Sligo took the north side of the street. I took the south. The driveways were vast black tongues, and the dogs were large, shepherds and barky huskies – reminders that one does not touch the property of one’s neighbor. Reclining on lots of pale cedar, the estates hummed the complicated music of matinees, violins and math. One sensed the proximity of buttery roasts and, possibly, vestal virgins. The lawns were majestic, incapable of want.
Everyone had intercoms. A typical conversation went like this: Me: Hello! It’s Michael McGlinchy!
Them: Aren’t you dead? Didn’t you ski into a tree headfirst?
Me: Ha-ha-ha. Good one, sir. Very sharp. Ha-ha. No, actually, it’s about your lawn, sir. With the summer months approaching –
Then there would be a loud pop, which (the bad news) was not me being shot.
Only the kids actually answered the doors.
Me: Is your mom or dad home?
Kid: (Aiming toy gun) Bangbangbangbang. You’re dead!
Me: Could you get them?
Kid: (Turning gun to a ninety-degree angle and firing repeatedly at my head) Dead!
Me: (Staggering) Oh, you got me! Better get your mom or dad before I die!
Kid: Shut up. You’re not dead.
The broad gutters were sprinkled with motes of yellow pollen. The sky was the pale blue of May, taped together by wobbly bands of heat. On days like this it was not uncommon to hear someone say, If God ain’t from North Carolina, how come he made the sky Tarheel blue? (The way it came out was Tahiil.) This was a reference to a college basketball team. Practically everything in the entire state was a reference to college basketball. People had died in defense of slavery, the glorious con of the bucolic. Now locals blithely pinned their hope to the fearsome rumps of giant leaping black boys.
The day kept going. On the proscenium of a gray, vaguely presidential home, I pulled out the tiny brown binder Phil had given me and illustrated the aeration process to a dazed young father: how the GrassMaster 2002, manned by a trained professional, would punch turd-like plugs into the lawn and spray a specially formulated fertilizer, providing direct access to the roots and encouraging a lush refurbishment of the grass’s natural defenses against the treacherous weeks of summer.
I wanted to believe. He did too, this young software magnate with sleep crusted on his brow and patchy whiskers. He wanted anything, anything, but to be within the earnest stranglehold of his life. How dearly he clung to my italicized bumbling. The problem was doubt. I didn’t manifest the obvious signs, the snarky cheeks or sour breath. This was something deeper, a private pocket of self-pity that had metastasized into a public aura of doom. I was not unlike Willie Loman. The harder I tried at optimism, the less believable I became.
Sligo told me he admired my commitment to doubt; it was a kind of ballast for him. He spoke of a website I could design: hopeless.com. But here, in the land of sales, doubt was the killer.
I could see Sligo tap-dancing down the front walks in his clownish coat, breathing sweet belief onto the lawns. “You got stuck with the tightwads, that’s all,” he told me. “The wads live on that side. We can work the rest of these joints together.”
He glanced at the tiered homes, beveled glass, rosettes, sconces, the dark tobacco fields beyond. “This country, Mikey. What it might have been. All this soil and sun. The fat of the land. It’s enough to kill an elephant, what the rich have done here.” He let his giant head loll. “Okay. Fuck it. Let’s go make a sale.”
We stood before a mansion, all square and wooden and cracked, a thing conjured from the land of Little Dorrit and Mr. Pumblechook. I had no idea what it was doing on this lane of parvenu, in the middle of our vaguely Southern state. Where was the livery stable? The family plot?
Sligo knocked and knocked. His line was Aristotelian at heart (he believed in a world delivered by the senses) but within a framework he termed viral consciousness. The idea was that self-knowledge, like any other virus, was in a steady process of evolution. Notions of truth and purpose were not fixed but continued to contract, expand, fragment. Theism gave way to rationalism, empiricism, relativism, existentialism; people found new names for doubt, each of which boiled away with the restless water of time. The only insoluble belief was an emotional apprehension of death – an idea in turn so absurd as to require magic.
The door swung, and a pale figure in a smoking robe poked its head out. You couldn’t be sure he wasn’t a shadow. He gritted his teeth tremendously. “When no one answers the door, the general protocol is go away.
“Good afternoon,” Sligo said. “My name is Fortran Sligo.”
The door went boom-chickee-boom.
“He can’t do that,” Sligo said.
Almost at once the door opened. “I’m summoning the police!” the man said. Neat little whiskers curled around each nostril, as if his nose were being quoted. It was the sort of mustache you had to be Muddy Waters to pull off.
“All we want-”
“I know what you want. You want to sell. Isn’t that it?”
Sligo let out a deflated breath. He was sweating with great plangency. “Jeez,” he said. “Howsabout you just, for a second, relax?”
Again with the door. That we could live with. It was the time left to us, three hours probably, before Phil would return to pick us up. We were halfway down the walk when someone cried, “Come back here!” The door opened, shut again, opened. A cane shot out from the crack, a silver-tipped cane. “You two! Lawn boys!”
Lawn boys. I’d never considered the idea.
“Come back!” The voice whistled and cracked, like wind passing through parchment. She was a wee thing, in the doorway, encased in a gigantic high-tech wheelchair. Her eyes seemed to have grown too big for the rest of her; they were as delicate as glass. The fellow in the mustache stood back from her and wrung his hands.
“Let’s have a look at you,” she said. “I can’t see a thing, you know. But I can still smell. There’s two of you, yes? What a dangerous musk! Starting at forty or so, the skin starts to turn. Chemically. Like old meat.”
“I’m sure these young men don’t need-”
“Oh, hush, Bob. These dears are here to pitch me. You are here to pitch?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sligo said.
She looked delightedly in the general direction of his face. “My first husband was a salesman. Red Wing shoes and hats, back in Missouri. An awful salesman, I’m afraid, but he looked terribly good in a waistcoat. We could only afford the one. I used to dab shoe polish on the stains before he went out on the road. That was the whole idea in those day:.dazzle them with wealth. No one wanted craftsmanship. What a tired old myth! They wanted glamour, an end to the dust and potatoes.”
She fingered the control panel on the right arm of her chair. The bones in her fingers clicked. “And his fedora. Such a rakish hat! Everyone wore hats in those days, of course. A man wouldn’t think to appear in public without one. There was something quaint in it, a certain humility. And all that pomade. I used to smell my father’s hat until I was ready to swoon. But when did that end exactly? World War II?”
Bob set his hand on hers. “Honey,” he said quietly.
“Yes, never mind all that. Sell me something, dears.” I looked at Bob, whose eyes were closed.
But Sligo was missing Bob’s reaction, the gift of his inattention rescuing him again. “What it is,” he said, “is a lawn service. Perhaps you’ve heard of aeration. The process is quite easy to understand. Mikey, could you show Ms…..”
“Kane,” she said. “Dorothy Kane. You may call me Dot.” I withdrew my brown binder and began scribbling.
“The problem with conventional lawn treatments,” Sligo announced, “is that they remain on the surface, never reaching the root system below. This is like pouring maple syrup onto your napkin. That doesn’t make much sense, does it? That’s not something you’d do if you wanted to enjoy a delicious breakfast of French toast. I don’t need to tell you that summer is just around the corner. A delightful time if you’re a child, but perilous for the concerned lawn owner. And why?”
Dot wheezed inquisitively. Her head looked like a raisin on a toothpick. “Because elevated temperatures allow a number of herbivorous contagions to gestate! These include stamaniscus, dropsy blight, stemwart, and, of course, lolligaganalia. All too often, these undergo spontaneous mutagenesis, which leaves your lawn vulnerable to new strains of killer weeds. But how to fight back? The only way is to nourish at the roots, allowing them to build up the necessary immune defenses. And the only way to do this – the only proven method, according to scientific study – is to aerate. In fact, a single preventive treatment is often enough to save the life of your lawn.”
Sligo had white specks in the corners of his mouth. I kept wishing he would take a breath. “The best thing,” he said, “would be if we took a quick look-see at your lawn.”
“Let’s not do this,” Bob whispered.
Dot thumped her cane against the oriental rug; her chair lurched down the small ramp that led to the front walk.
The lawn, hedged off by Juneberry, shone like a flag.
“Here, for instance,” Sligo said. He rubbed the blades between his fingers. “This color is usually predictive of a stinkweed infestation. Can I ask: Do you have a history of excess barium in your water supply? The reason I ask is because of the deracination patterns around the sprinkler heads. Either way, you’re going to be sod-stripped by July. Your neighbor, Mr. Packer, had a similar problem.” Sligo went on and on.
Dot interjected a question here, a doubt there, the exigencies of the shrewd buyer. She knew canniness was a part of the tango, a coy backing away that allowed for the delight of being pulled in again. They were elegant together, with Bob glowering from the front sill and the sun tilting through the long blue afternoon. After the proper ceremony, making as if to measure the lawn, Sligo named his price.
“But I couldn’t possibly pay that.”
“I can’t really go any lower.”
“It’s Bob I’m worried about.”
“All right. I’ll bend the rules. But I’m going to catch hell from my manager.”
“What about the backyard?” Dot said.
“Listen,” she said. “What if you take a look and give me a price for the backyard. Then come have something to drink.”
“Sure,” Sligo said. “We can package the front and the back together. That would give us an enhanced perimeter for discounting.”
The sideyard was impeccably kept, lined with peonies and snapdragons. Who would see them? Ever? Sligo lunged along. He looked as if he’d been shot between the shoulder blades. A sweat stain showed through his coat. His fingernails were bitten to the nubs. It was hard to imagine anyone buying anything from him. But people are often less callow than you’d think. Belief fortifies them.
The back lawn rose in slight knolls and did not appear ever to stop. “It’s like immortality,” Sligo said. There was a brand-new swing set in the foreground and the faint octagonal imprint of a gazebo. Otherwise the green was uninterrupted. “It just goes on forever, doesn’t it, Mikey?” Sligo said.
I agreed that it did.
Sligo tried a cartwheel and fell heavily. He whooped. “The old broads, Mikey. They’ve seen it all. Every little bit. I’d like to have sex with one of them sometime. I mean a real old one. Seriously, Mikey. I don’t mean something tawdry. It’s just how much they know, man, how much closer they are to checkout.” He went running straight out. We both went running.
A bell tinkled; a faint scratch of words floated back from the house. We legged it around to the front door and through a hallway lined with giant porcelain urns. The ceilings were high and filigreed like a wedding cake. “I feel like I should recite an ode,” Sligo said. He clicked his heels.
The door to a parlor stood open, revealing something of a set piece: Dot was enthroned on a red divan. A white shawl draped her shoulders. The air smelled of Bactine. The wainscoting was a lacquered wood, acacia perhaps. A pitcher of ice water stood sweating on the sideboard.
Dot held up her drink. “By all means.”
We drank and drank, and the lime I got immediately; the gin hit me later.
Dot peered at us, our swallowing throats. “Junelle used to make us toddies on the verandah. She put sprigs of mint in them. Mostly it was lime and sugar, though.
We’d sit on that verandah for hours, falling into our cups. The evenings passed at a more civil pace back then.”
We heard Bob stomping around in the room above our heads, his contribution to the conversation.
“That backyard,” Sligo said. “What’s with the swing set?”
“Bob keeps hoping the neighbor children will come play. I tell him, ‘There are no neighbor children here.’ He thinks we’re still living in Asheville.” The lamp behind Dot shone on her hair, which had thinned on top. She looked like she was wearing a little pink yarmulke. “How was the lawn?”
Sligo sighed heavily.
“Not so good?”
I excused myself to go to the bathroom and left them to the ecstasy of their haggling.
There were a thousand white doors, all of which looked freshly painted. The can was one of those special numbers with rails; beside it sat a bulging rack of mail-order catalogs. They had all been heavily annotated in shaky pencil, double and triple checks, exclamation points, questions: Available in hunter? Retracting blade?
I did my business and continued down the great hall. The booze had started to loosen my joints. I peeked into one of the rooms. Or, actually, I peeked into all the rooms. They were stacked with boxes on which the names of retailers were blazoned in hopeful fonts. But not a single box had been opened.
Then there was a refrigerator, out of nowhere, and I figured … you have to remember that we’d been banned from many of the local happy-hour feedings. We had become somewhat expert in the area of perishable theft. I envisioned a Dagwood sandwich: turkey, cheese, roast beef, bacon, lettuce, mayo, mustard. I swung the door open. The shelves were lined with bags and bags of plasma, dextrose, IV tubes coiled crosswise like bandoliers.
Behind me, Bob cleared his throat. His eyes were a soft gray. They looked tired and unsurprised.
“I was, I’m sorry,” I said. “I got sort of lost.”
He stepped forward, and the sorrow rose from him in uneven waves. For a moment, I feared he was going to embrace me, that I would be expected to hold him and say something heart-rending. He reached for my cheek but suddenly paused and pulled back his hand, which came to rest on the freezer handle. I couldn’t think of a word to say.
Back in the parlor, Dot and Sligo regarded me indulgently. The pitcher on the sideboard was empty.
“We should go,” I said.
“Fortran was telling me you boys are recent graduates.” Dot’s fingers clicked away. “Where were you, Fortran?”
“About the business plan?”
“What it is is an attempt to restore humanism to the Net. The original plan, remember, was to connect people, a kind of organic knitting of the nodes. But there’s nothing profitable in that, is there? They’d rather have people wanking off and buying sweaters all by their lonesome. Our idea is to create portals that respond to the profound feelings of dislocation and rage arising from late-model capitalism. An electronic map of our emotional neglect. Bereft.com. Freewill.com. Meaning.com. People aren’t as dumb as they’re treated, Dot. They want meaning in their lives. What matters? How much support do I need? What do I make of death?” His face looked like a pumpkin lit from behind “Timeandbeing.com. Fearandtrembling.com. Being philosophers gives us a sort of novelty cachet in the world of web startups. Like a horse that does math problems.”
Dot listened, though now you could see the toll it was taking. Her face kept losing color. The dull drum of pain measured each moment. An then, abruptly, she slumped to one side.
Bob rushed to the divan. Dot waved her arms weakly. “Don’t ruin this for me,” she said. “Please, dear. I won’t have you ruining this.”
She struggled to right herself. “Please don’t be alarmed, boys. All the Kanes get the same treatment. Nana took it in the belly at seventy-one. Mother, too. Seventy-one on the button. That’s all He gives us. That all we get. I try telling Bob, but he only blubbers.” She took a last slug of her toddy. “Some days I don’t know whether to shit or go blind.”
“Can’t you do both?” Sligo asked.
Something of her blood returned. “You’re an insolent boy,” she said. “I so appreciate that.”
Soon the light would peter out, and Phil would pull up in his fetid Corona and return us to a world made of tacky-tacky. And later still, we would read of Dot’s death and of her life as heir to a petroleum fortune bequeathed by husband number four, two before Bob – who had been for many years, her loyal chauffeur. Toward the end, we would learn, her sanity had been questioned, though she seemed terribly sane to me on the afternoon we met. To be human is to be lied to, consistently, ardently, from diaper to diaper. Dot understood this. The whole bus ness is a negotiation. All she wanted was the theater of struggle an belief, a decent lying-to before the next rake of pain.
“You.” She pointed at Sligo. “Sell me something else. Something nice.”
“Yes,” Sligo said tentatively. “Yes. Of course.” He could see now that she was dying. It was sinking in.
“Say something,” Bob whispered.
Sligo looked at Dot. For a moment, he resembled that single pale figure at the center of Goya’s The Third of May, his face alight with the to rible knowledge, the booted executioners squared before him, the dead laid out in a giant red yawn. To maintain poise in the face of such intense feeling! This was Sligo’s unique talent.
He stood and removed his jacket and laid it out on his arm for Dot to inspect. His fingers made a dainty flourish beneath the hem. “This coat for instance,” he said. “Not only is this a garment suitable for low-key dinner engagements, but it can be used to . . . ”
Dot smiled faintly. “Take your time,” she said. “There’s no great rush in this life.”
Sligo nodded. He took a few deep breaths. We could hear the angel of death circling the house, singing out his sad final melody.
Sligo began again: “This coat can reveal the future. Ma’am, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself. The future! If I were to rub the elbow pads, just like so, we could see the precise destiny of your lawn. This isn’t something I would do under normal circumstances, Ms. Kane. But in the case of a valued customer. . . ”
Dot nodded drowsily. She looked like a child fighting off nap time. “Certainly, one can imagine the nefarious ends to which such a coat might be put.” Sligo rubbed briskly at the elbow pads. The air thickened, and Dot Kane clicked her fingers, and the back lawn rose and washed against the windows with a green so beautiful and unrelenting that none of us, for a full minute, could breathe.
Poetry Feature: Jesse Kercheval
Featuring the poems:
- Saving Silence
- Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance
- Kurutta Ippeiji: A Page of Madness
“In an astonishingly short time—1895 to 1927, little more than thirty years—the silent cinema evolved into a unique, integral and highly sophisticated expressive form, and then, overnight, became extinct.”
—David Robinson, Foreword to Silent Cinema, An Introduction
Isn’t that the way of things—
where is Carthage now,
the Dodo? In archives
in America, Japan and Russia
there are as many feet
of nitrate film dissolving
as there are bones
in the catacombs of Paris.
Of one hundred and fifty thousand
silent films, eighty percent
are as lost to us
as the dust to which
our grandparents returned.
So why do I care? Because
my mother was deaf,
because I am tired after years
Because as a child, I once
rode the elevator
to the top of the Eiffel Tower
where, like God,
I looked down and
saw the whole world
at my feet—
rendered not motionless,
Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance
Impossible Is Not French,
in Gance’s epic silent film.
He shouts it to the gunners
retreating from English fire
at Toulon. A mere
lieutenant, who has only
just arrived from Paris,
he makes the men
roll their cannon
back into the muddy night
and nails a sign above his new post—
La Batterie des Hommes sans Peur.
I was born in France,
but I am full of fear.
For my children who walk around
with only pink skin
for the whole blue world,
watery as a tear.
I was never an optimist
but each year more seems
impossible. I am forty-five.
Napoleon was twenty-four
when he took Toulon
in a blinding storm
with only the hail
beating the snares
of his fallen drummers
to urge his ragged soldiers on.
I want to post a sign
of my own. This is
The House without Fear,
we live here, we French,
and honorary French.
In a time when the emperor
still pronounced his name
like a good Corsican,
more Italian than French.
Still, looking at him,
no one dared to laugh.
Or at least, that is how
Abel Gance saw
Abel Gance, maker
of this six-hour silent movie
with its three-screen finale
tinted blue/white/red to match
the French tricolor.
Abel Gance, un homme
sans peur, a man
Kurutta Ippeiji: A Page of Madness
“This experimental silent film was thought lost for fifty years until the director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, rediscovered it in his garden shed.”
—Le Giornate del Cinema Muto catalogue, 20th edition
An old man takes a job
as a janitor at an asylum
to be near his wife
who failed to drown herself
after drowning their infant son—
tiny squalling bundle.
This is Japan. The year 1926.
His wife lies on the floor
of her cell on her futon.
Her kimono disordered—
her hair a disgrace.
Her arms rise from her sides
as she sleeps, her hands open,
begging for forgiveness.
Or is she dreaming
of the moment
she let her child go?
In the next cell, a young woman
dances day and night
without stopping, leaving bare
bloody footprints across
the concrete floor. She is a goddess,
but only she knows it.
If the old man asked her—
she would give him back his son.
But the old man sees
only a mad girl
who once—he’s been told—
danced the May Dance
for Crown Prince Hirohito,
then found she couldn’t stop.
The old man unlocks his wife’s cell
with a key he has stolen
from the desk of the director,
in his other hand are sweets.
Their daughter, he tells her,
their only daughter,
has met a young man who’s asked her to marry,
to move north with him
to his home in far Hokkaido,
that wild frontier island.
When asked, their daughter
told this young man
her mother died giving birth
to a stillborn baby brother.
She understands clearly
if he knew where her mother was—
what she was—
even a boy from Hokkaido
would not take her home.
Your daughter, says the old man.
Remember you have a daughter.
And the wife does—
remembers the young hands
that kept her from the river,
the same arc as her baby.
If her daughter loved her,
she would not have stopped her.
Even now, years later, she can feel
ten ugly bruises
left by her daughter’s long strong fingers.
Even now, years later,
she still suffers with this living
her selfish daughter gave her.
Come, the old man tells his wife.
Your children need you.
Forgetting, at that moment,
only one is still alive.
He uses sweets to lure his wife
from her cell, down
the long stone hallway.
If only she would come home,
the old man keeps on thinking—
our daughter could have children
without moving to Hokkaido.
Children to replace the one
lost to the spring’s cold
He takes his wife’s pale hand
and leads her past the dancer,
who has paused for a moment
to rearrange her hair
in a mirror that is not there.
They make it to the front door.
He still has the candies, and his wife
—who, as a girl, was famous
for her sweet tooth—clearly wants them.
He won the sweets, he tells her,
this morning at the street fair.
This, he remarks, is our lucky day.
Outside, in the dark night,
a dog is barking and his wife
is frightened—she always
has been frightened.
Even before this place,
even before her children
began crying every night.
She is crying now
as she pulls her hand from her husband’s,
runs back down the hall
to her cell, throws herself, sobbing,
into the cold nothing that awaits her.
No daughter, nosey-no-good,
to stop her now.
The old man goes home,
falls to the floor exhausted,
sweets still in his hand.
He hears the music
of the May Dance
in a warm spring
and dreams, instead of candies
he won masks at the street fair—
smooth white faces
with smiling, wide red mouths.
In his sleep, he hands the masks
out to the mad ones
as he mops slowly
past their cells.
One by one the mad
put on new faces
and become as they should
always have been—
They laugh gently, stepping
freely from their cells—
come home at last
to their mothers,
His wife is smiling too.
White world, red life,
the goddess says,
and hands the wife a pillow
that, in an instant,
becomes a smiling baby.
Or did I dream
like the old man and dream
the end I wanted—
because I also had a mother
who happened to go mad,
though I failed
to catch her
when she threw herself away.
Because I too lost a child—
though she fell
from my womb and not my hands,
leaving the water
that was mebehind.
Still, I remember
the end so vividly—
how, in the silver light,
the dancing woman
with the old man and his wife,
the red-lipped inmates,
to form a perfect circle.
And the circle, I saw clearly,
was the world
and even I—and even you—
Poetry Feature: Rebecca Black
Featuring the poems:
- Hiding the Silver
- Stomp Dancing
- Bartram Among the Seminoles
- Bartram’s Ghost
Whitney forged Revolutionary nails
and hat pins, then muskets with changeable parts
when his gin patent was delayed.
Competitors arsoned his barn, stole
his plans. Still he wrote: “One man and a horse
will do more than fifty men without
throwing any class of People out
of business.” Thereafter, at the cotton mills upriver
which my ancestors oversaw,
counterfeit machines pressed
cotton into bales shipped to England. Seeds
moldered beside a great pyramid
of lint. Before the gin, a slave’s shoe-
full was a winter night’s work. Afterwards,
gin wheels churned like Ezekiel’s
and the night miller hummed
a sorrow song. “So the thirty thousand Negroes
of Georgia in 1790 were doubled
in a decade, were over a hundred
thousand in 1810, had reached two hundred
thousand in 1820, and half
a million at the time of the war,” wrote Du Bois.
This capital of Cotton built on our backs.
Dear Jesus, deliver us from the Egypt of the South.
Hiding the Silver
After my mother served coffee
from her reproduction Chippendale
seat, the silver service was deposited
in the sideboard with a tassled
key, or hidden in the bathtub
if we left town for a week.
This meat fork from the Colliers,
a chest of hollowware from the Kings.
Our ancestors conjured by their ritual
tools, as if we’d always know what
to do. But my brother bent
the bone-handled knife prying open
a jelly lid, and I floated
camellias in the gravy boat.
Silver from families with no daughters
was plundered–a woman got hold
of Uncle Collier before he died
and pawned Aunt’s dowry.
(She’d had no memory for years.)
We found the empty chest,
its red velvet crumbled
like dried blood in my hands.
At school, white girls wore
bracelets of silver spoons. Their wrists
blacked with tarnish, the metal
almost issued from their veins
as they collected toy trucks
and marbles for the Charity League’s
I read alone during lunch each day:
the moon and silver equal charity.
If I shined and polished
the silver service, my mother said,
my face convex in the sugar
bowl, working a rag over
the cream pitcher, cold water
beading the sheen, my fingers
aching a sooty blue, I could give
it away when I died. She wanted
me to earn the past, her things.
But I worked in the kitchen to hear
my grandmother’s stories:
Pearl’s mother would be damned
if she’d surrender a twenty-dollar piece
to the Yankee soldiers who comandeered
She hid the gold
in her mouth and gave the unbroken
pony back to the waxing moon, saying
“If you can catch it, it’s yours.”
My mother wore the collared, pearl-buttoned blouse
for teaching. After Caesar reached the Rubicon, alea
jacta est, she’d turn to the mysteries of Demeter’s sorrow.
The blouse, stained with the last of a scent called Joy,
went to Ruby, into the smoke and Schlitz
of a Calhoun juke joint where she was keyboards
Saturday night. She’d left the sewing factories to raise
her nephew in the country. She could write, but I
only saw her chalk requests for more Ajax, or pick out
a melody on our soured piano. She didn’t sing. Once
I left out pennies for her, but she dusted over the pile.
A thousand Lincolns wouldn’t change a goddamned
thing. When we drove twenty miles to visit – she
was sick – we took my mother’s old curtains made
from bolts of blue colonial chintz. I didn’t know
anything. We never spoke of more than how she took
coffee “black and sweet.” Ruby knew our secrets –
how the girl bloodied sheets in her sleep, how to hold
the mother after the dose of L-dopa. When I heard
Ruby turn the key in the lock, I’d huddle with a book
in bed until she called me to help with the towels,
to tear my father’s threadbare oxfords into rags.
Summers at Chehaw Park, Cherokees
returned from western reservations
for a festival. I’d watch the stomp dance
with my brother from the bleachers,
the beer company’s Clydesdale parade.
What change would dancing bring?
We bought turquoise rings, authentic
hachets, a T-shirt that read Trail
of Tears, while ants worked candy wrappers
and cola tabs into a mound, and the lone
buffalo at the zoo died of mange.
Our house tomb-quiet until I stomped in
past curfew, jammed out to the Wailers,
scripting silly thrillers with my Black
Warrior pencil. On weekends we’d argue
over the stereo: Dad’s tapes of native
chants, opera dubbed on the other side,
or my redemption songs. One summer
Choctaws raided the diorama at Kolomoki
for their ancestors’ bodies. They descended –
gods from the machine – to load boxes
of bones into a Winnebago airbrushed
with eagle wings. I stood very still
in lipstick and stirrup jeans next to the wax
figures of squaw and brave
and the archaeologists, who seemed
stunned at the dismantling. The opposite
of a ceremony. Working together,
my dad whispered, each man might
bear the dead weight of ten.
Bartram Among the Seminoles
The naturalist William Bartram traveled through south Georgia in 1775.
Men sit in the hot house until stacked
spirals of cane burn back into carbon–
they know the time when nothing’s left
to tell it by. There are drawings of men
with the heads of turkey and bear,
and drawings of animals with the heads
of men. In the granary, a mouse sleeps
in the jaws of a rattlesnake,
it has been so charmed. Bartram’s clearly lost,
dreaming on pine needles
where the swamp turns into a stream.
I think he crossed the River Flint
where magnolia leaves stiff as parchment
fall to asphalt in a small town I’ve come
to consider cursed, though I am not prone
to superstition, only the occasional lapse
into reason or sly embellishment.
Where city fathers drained municipal pools
so the races would not commingle,
the townspeople prayerful and ignorant.
And the most peaceable creatures
are flayed, each in its own season.
The hunting camp’s gambrel hook swings empty
like a new letter in the alphabet, a character
in a gothic syllabary. In the creek
beside the camp of red-necked augurs,
my father’s seen crawfish big as lobsters
feeding on guts. If anything keeps us
from spinning into chaos it’s the swamp
De Soto called “Toa” as he slunk through
in the 1550s. Mud can cure entropy–
I’ve plastered it on my chest and risen up
gargantuan from the pits. Once a rattlesnake
stretched clear across the road,
and I felt the tire-thump over its belly
in my own tailbone. The snake kept going
into the cane. Better not to have bones
if you’re in danger of being crushed.
Better to stay low and cultivate a presence.
The last time I was home there was a drought,
and really no reason for Oglethorpe Bridge,
so I drove back from where I’d come,
towards the smell of burning grass
in the new developments, where recent immigrants
rake embers on a lawn, paint melting
off the tines. From one window
there’s a dry lake, and my father sits
with his back to the scene, his fingers gnarled
into flower buds by a stroke. My description
is half hope, half irony. Bartram knew
that naming was a misguided enterprise.
No one’s sure where he was during 1774.
Likewise, this is an undocumented time.
The hornbeam is one long nerve between worlds.
If Bartram didn’t sleep in the woods
near my home what does it matter? No one told
the natives their enemy De Soto was dead,
his body loaded with sand and sunk
into the Mississippi, the “sire of many rivers.”
You’re invited anyway to fathom the publications
of this stream, the many lost volumes of mud
it took to call this land, “riverine.”
After Bartram crossed the flooding
Flint, he had to go on alone.
His rations were low during July 1775.
Though his hand shook with hunger,
he took great care to draw a crane
he’d never seen before. In this way we depict
what we devour and dream of our fathers.
The mouse writhes in the belly of fire.
Bartram was starving and took the bird’s
roasted flesh to his own, his hands
black with ink or ash–who’s left to tell?
The skies, they are beaten back,
Bartram the younger snagged in the briers
swarmed by gnats he’s termed Ephemera,
with hope. Yucca veins the borrow pits
(“borrow” a corruption of barrow)
like the tongue’s other side.
While he dozes under the hornbeam,
chokeberry pulp tissued firm as the heart
stains his ankles and knees.
The tail of the glass snake splinters
by a gentle stroke from a slender switch,
and another generates
as a word gone over and over
in the mind, tenetke, meaning thunder,
ruptures into letter. The next morning
he finds a downed roebuck.
The hunter appears, an Indian agent
who barters on the invisible, also
gunpowder and skins. Bartram
knows Creek, the patois for “stream.”
They share a draught
of sassafrass tea, venison and honey.
Under the jasmine, beyond the canebrake,
a settlement of Pleasure.
I’ve built a fort from the alphabet,
its scattered letters. The bulleted chamber
of the -ologists is locked, combination and chain
droop across dirt hard packed and rutted
since the last storm.
The borrow pit sleeps in blue tarp.
The hornbeam blurs into a stand
of planted pine, two hundred years.
Description makes the world
The mind conjures a field of feeding deer,
the sound of a stream
running through dagger palms,
Standing at the plate, fouling off pitch after pitch, I’m trying to give a place and a name to this lanceur. I remember vaguely that I failed him in the course I used to call “English for Intermediate Morons” before I realized that teaching English in France was no laughing matter. I can still hear him struggling with the s of the third-person singular, as if a crab louse had leaped from his scalp to his tongue and refused to be spit out. And here he is now, bearing down on me from the plaque du lanceur, revenge soaping itself up in his spitball, and me prevented from hitting one out of the park and teaching him a lesson in character by this lingering ache from my most recent prostatic massage.
Once again I swing and hear the umpire shouting “fausse,” while the ball skids back to the cercle d’attente des frappeurs, where the next batter waits impatiently. I’ve struck out swinging twice already, calling upon myself not merely the collective scorn of my students but the silent, head-shaking sarcasm of my colleagues, standing on the sidelines of what they like to call la troisieme base here in Provence, most likely wondering why I’ve chosen such a splendid day on which to make such an enduring fool of myself. And it won’t do any longer to brag at my students, as I have all week, that I was playing sandlot shortstop (sorry, arret court!) long before De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic—and probably before most of their parents were even conceived—because I haven’t had serious wood on the ball all afternoon and am showing myself to be, in effect, a seemingly lame connoisseur.
This morning, when I announced to my kine—my physiotherapist—my intention to accept my students’ invitation to play, her reaction was the familiar “Ah bon?” which harbors the most pregnant question mark in the French language and may equally stand for: “Do as you like,” “It’s nothing to do with me” and “Pull the other one.” With my legs in a leather brace above my head and my neck strained to its maximum in what Meziere physiotherapy calls “conscious spine-stretching,” I could well understand her concern. Would my back hold out? Would the chronic tendinitis return to my arm with every swing of the bat? This was not the Good Fairy looking out for the survival of her wayward boy so much as the unhappy prospect, for her, of adding to my already excessive therapeutic sessions on her floor mat.
I let this next pitch slide under my knees.
It takes me several beats to register this word. It derives from the verb prendre, to take. Une prise is also an electrical plug, which “takes” the full force of the current. You can have a prise de conscience for your moral well-being or prise de sang to find out if you’re carrying any microbes in your fleshy baggage. In 1789 there was la prise de la Bastille; cocaine can be snorted with benefit of this term, fish can be caught and your queen knocked off in a game of echecs.
But I’m hard-pressed here to fathom its connotation with regard to what is quite clearly call-strike three, and I turn my full force of skepticism on the arbitre, whom I remember from my intermediate class of last year. On her final oral exam she had broken down in my office, insisting that a sweatshop was a place that made sweatshirts, or what the French call “sweets,” and, when I demanded further clarification and precision, she began to bawl, telling me I was trop dur comme prof, that I couldn’t expect them to pronounce th’s after a mouth’s lifetime of living without them and that it was all a matter of tone, that French and English were spoken in differing frequencies and were fundamentally incompatible for ears on both sides.
I look at her now, behind her umpire’s mask, as if for the first time. She has one of those saccharine French names like Amandine or Capucine or Eglantine, and she is someone who will tell you to your face that your English is wrong because you’re an American and that French high school English teachers don’t recognize American English as a valid language, or that she once heard some Liverpool rock idol pronounce this or that word otherwise. She is also one of those who wears low-cut blouses and sits in the first row of your class, leading you to believe you are being coyly courted when in fact you are only being led by the nose by your own inflamed amour propre.
I sneer the obligatory sneer at her, surprising even myself in my rudeness. Still, I don’t argue the call. Nobody ever argues a call here. It doesn’t appear to be part and parcel of the esprit de jeu. They’ve turned it somehow into a gentleman’s sport, and I’m having a tough time swallowing this, despite the fact that everyone here knows me as mild-mannered and soft.
Time to play the field. I’m at premiere base, insisting as I have on the length of my stride, the extent of my arm’s reach, knowing full well it’s really because I haven’t the stamina to run after a hard-hit grounder to third and risk tendinitis throwing to first, much less chase a fly out there in le champ exterieur. I’m safe here on the right side of the infield, and I can still manage to catch a ball thrown to me. That much at least. And so far I’ve been lucky. There are no southpaws among these kids; their parents are of that modern generation that weaned them away from a natural use of the left hand, seeing it as a lifetime handicap. So there have been no sharp-bounding balls in the hole between first and second, no screaming line drives inside the baseline to leap at and prevent a right-field double, no, I’ve even once put the tag on some brat trying to sidle behind me at the limit of the foul line.
We’re getting trounced. Badly. The kid who’s pitching for our side doesn’t even go into a windup. He just seems to aim at the bat as if he were playing darts, and the others are circling the bases in a perpetual square dance. Between innings I’ve tried to wise him up, diplomatically, but he understands as much about pitching as he does about the past-perfect tense in English. These boys have soccer in their genes, let’s face it; it’s all in the legs, they’re brought up to flick a ball from one toe to the other. And to move constantly back and forth. They cannot follow a game in which you basically spend seventy-five percent of your time waiting at rest.
When I first arrived here twenty years ago they hadn’t even heard of baseball, didn’t know a balle papillon (knuckleball) from a balle tire-bouchon (screwball). Now they’re organizing national teams and planning to have a go at the Olympics. In all this time I’ve watched them slide down the gourmet ladder to the subterranean level of McDonald’s and lived to see them adopt and celebrate Halloween from early October until late November, but I’m at a loss to comprehend this French fervor for the diamond. It simply goes against nature.
Look, here’s the evidence. An easy double-play grounder, the shortstop takes his time tossing to second and then has to remind the second baseman to throw to me. Way too late. Safe at first. And so I’m yelling at these guys in French with a subliminal Bronx rage in my belly, and they stare at me like the extraterrestrial I have become since four o’clock this afternoon. But even this doesn’t faze them. No reaction. Zero. Nine innings without even once kicking up dust? In the middle of a soccer match their natural killer instincts are aroused, but they play baseball with an indolence I suddenly find downright indecent.
Here’s a pop-up, I gotit, I gotit. Or do I? Ever since my lower back began being disloyal, I get vertigo when I lift my head too suddenly. Added to that, there is this dazzling Provenal light blinding me even through my sunglasses. Van Gogh came a thousand miles so he could paint his sunflowers in it, but he never had to catch an infield fly, or rather, une chandelle interieure, on the foul line between first and home. And now I’m wondering: Why do they call a fly ball une chandelle? It’s the ancient word for candle in French, and it’s a lob in tennis or an up-and-under in rugby. But I can’t see what it has to do with the dynamics of a ball hit in the air that has not yet bounced.
In any case, I’ve lost it. It’s somewhere up there, where I don’t dare look anymore because my head is turning, and the pitcher comes crashing into me in order to bag it. I’m down on the turf, and he extends an arm to help me up. I’m not hurt, but my physiotherapist has made it plain: From a prone or sitting position I have to take my time getting up or risk tearing a disc cartilage again. Rock onto your knees, a few breathing exercises and slowly, ever so purposefully and with full consciousness of your spine, raise yourself to upright. To do all this now, with Eglantine the umpire staring down at me, would be the ultimate in trivial humiliation. On your feet.
I trot back to my position, as close to the bag as possible so that, in the event of a grounder between first and second, it will have to be the second baseman—the one who had to be reminded what a double play was—who chases it. It’s then that I notice that the runner from first has advanced to second, although the infield pop-up was eventually caught. I wave to him to get back, but he blithely informs me qu’il a rMssi une tentative de vol. He stole that base fair and square. When? During the pop-up. But the pop-up was caught by the pitcher. Et alors? Get back to first, buster.
He shouts to me that I should learn how to play the game before opening my trap. He also speaks like that in class, they all do in France, they talk back to their professors, talk openly and loudly to each other during the session and won’t hesitate to tell you what they think of you and your teaching ability. Twenty years ago I took this for the spicy, anarchic charm with which French arrogance is often confounded. 1 have always turned a deaf ear to it, not wanting to make waves; I’m in their country after all, and they are ultrasensitive to Americans coming here and imposing alien moral codes on them. But suddenly, inexplicably, I’ve had a spleenful of it, and I’m going for the kid. The others are calling me to get back to my position, they’re impatient to get the game over with and return to their glue-sniffing and unprotected sex, but I’m walking that baseline. Don’t know the game? Me? Listen: I was in the upper deck in right in the Stadium in 1955 when Mickey hit one 535 feet. Was I there? I caught it! (And dropped it, for some snotnose to steal under my feet.) This was my game before the Cosmic Spermatazoa even put you in their starting lineup, bub, I saw the Philadelphia Athletics play, the St. Louis Browns, even the Washington Senators, I saw Whitey Ford strike out Ted Williams (I think I did) …
Where am I going? Am I really walking toward this kid to strong-arm him back to first base? My colleagues in the Communication Department think I’ve lost it. They’ve never seen me like this before. Twenty years ago I was their token foreign English teacher, hired because sooner or later they had to stop pretending they could teach the language themselves on their obligatory fifty words and expressions.
But I never asserted myself in all that time, never flaunted even my natural superiority in speaking my native tongue, just made myself part of the drab French university system guided by remote control from Paris. These other teachers have never seen me flare up at a faculty meeting. I’ve never even complained that my status has remained “temporary” after twenty years or that I receive my paycheck six months after the teaching season has ended or that they find administrative ways to sneak a student through after I’ve failed him. I’ve become part of their languid landscape.
Yet the Jekyll of decorum is now stalking Hydian flesh in this Provenqal afternoon, transformed by the deadly potion known as Nine Innings of Baseball. Character traits long lost to decades of exile are revving up their ghostly motorbikes in my soul, preparing for wipeout.
I’m ready for you, jerk. Anytime you like, says the kid. He’s suddenly using the familiar “tu” form, unheard of in this country from student to professor, his way of reducing me to his level. I could fail him for this alone and no one would blame me, but I’m far beyond administrative solutions. I try to remember my last fistfight, somewhere up on Gun Hill Road, in the northeast Bronx, some forty years or so ago—although I cant be sure that this isn’t part of some well-amended autobiographical script I’ve been carrying around in my private luggage. How far apart are you supposed to place your legs? Do you strike knuckle-first or open-palmed?
Eglantine the umpire is standing between us, telling me to get back to my position or be ejected from the playing field. It’s come to this after a lifetime of serene academia. I have to explain to her that in the rules of baseball, as conceived and written down by Mr. Abner Doubleday, a runner may only advance a base on a flyout if he tags up and runs after the ball is caught, not before. She says I may have a point, which can be discussed by committee later on, but everyone is waiting for the game to progress. This is not a philosophical debating point, I tell her, this is Scripture. Perhaps this particular rule has not crossed the Atlantic, she proffers; maybe the guidelines have been adapted to suit our purposes here. Yes, I think, like certain English words—”parking,” “pressing,” “look,” “feeling,” “shampooing”—which are pale third cousins of the original in French mouths.
The chairman of the Communication Department ambles over to me. We’re not meant to rile the students, he tells me privately. Me, not rile them? Did you hear the way that punk addressed me? We’re supposed to ignore any provocation, I’m warned. Yes. I know. True, this is not quite yet an American campus, where a student can take me to court for a bad grade or a smug grimace, but the Minister of Education in his Parisian ivory tower has decreed that the accent this year is on liberté, egalité, fraternité.
So of course the next batter lines one up the middle (un coup en flèche), scoring the other little punk from second. I’m livid, but I’m exercising my sang-froid, as we like to say here, although ask me to translate that term into my private vernacular at this moment and you’d need to have your ears flushed with caustic lye.
Here’s the pause-exercise de la septième manche. As there is no real home team, I fail to see why the stretch tradition is respected here. Back in another life I would have yelled across the multitudes for a “boxa Crackajacks” and moved my limbs from left to right along with thousands of others, listening to the Hammond organ pound out its kitschy music, but in this context the period between the two halves of the seventh inning becomes like the obligatory pause between noon and two in Provence, an excuse not to work masquerading as a good health practice.
My physiotherapist is in the crowd. She threatened to come toward the end of the game if she could get away, not on my account of course but because her son is le receveur, the guy squatting behind the plaque de but, waiting for the ball to be pitched into his glove. He’s the only member of her family she ever talks about, and I’ve been subtly sounding her depths these past months to elicit the word “husband” from her, which, happily, my efforts have so far failed to produce. She’s about my age; no, let’s be clear, nobody is, but she’s not so young as to be indifferent to the potential of what is known in these parts as un homme mur. And she’s got hands of silk, which know how to hurt you just at the right moment. I must remember to greet her son warmly when it’s my turn to bat.
Which it isn’t. In fact, before me, there’s going to be a frappeur d’urgence, quite literally an “emergency batter,” “pinch hitter” being quite untranslatable into any language, English included. And, naturally, how would you expect these faraway people to integrate the notion of “designated hitter” (which, by the way, I’ve never accepted to this day), whose legal status even the two major leagues cant agree on? So they’re going to compromise and let Player B bat for Player A exceptionnellement, and Player A is going to take the field again in the latter half of the manche (literally “sleeve,” but it will have to do for “inning”) as if nothing had ever happened.
Not only that, but Player B turns out to be une ‘tappeuse” d’urgence, whom I recognise as my most ambitious student; she’s the one who proudly showed me a tourist menu she’d translated herself into English for her uncle’s local eatery, inviting one to dine on “goat’s cheese on his green bed” and a starter called “mixed crudeness” (the plate of raw vegetables we know and love as crudités). And us down five runs in the last of the eighth.
As I’m in the cercle d’attente (which is, lexicographically, just one short base from the dentist’s waiting room), I go up to her and try to indicate how it might help to put her two hands together on the bat, choke up rather than keep them twelve inches apart. And even as I do this, I know I’ve crossed into the red-light zone; alarm bells are going off in the eyes of my Communication colleagues on the sidelines, especially as I’ve got one of the girl’s shoulders in my paw. She just as quickly extracts herself from my goodwill grip and lets me know that we are not now in les cours d’anglais, that she is perfectly capable of batting for herself and that I have “deconcentrated” her.
Bien, I tell her, I’m sure she can hit as well as she can speak English and, if I’d stepped forward to slightly nudge her batting stance into acceptable posture, this was as well meant as if I’d been correcting one of her essays beginning with the phrase “I have been born in the year 1981.
Even as I’m swaggering back to my own bat, her two divorced hands spank a line-drive single to center field, and she’s bobbling down the first-base line, encouraged by the crowd, united in their special delight of seeing me proved wrong. Yet, as I move back to the emplacement du batteur, a.k.a. le rectangle, to take my turn and maybe even drive the girl in as a means of making up for my faux pas, I notice she is still running. Running toward second base in the same spirit of complacent adventure with which French motorists approach traffic lights, although the ball has long since come in from the outfield and sits in the glove of the second baseman, waiting with good-mannered patience to touch her gently on her shoulder—as if she hasn’t had enough of that already.
So instead of batting anyone in I’ve got to play the field again, and, I must admit, I’m bearing my cross in this Calvary mount toward first base. Never did nine innings seem so much like nine months of pregnancy. I look over into the crowd at my kiné and shrug smilingly at her, my innermost voice whispering: Take me home with you after the game and work my tendons till I squeal.
It’s almost over. Three more outs, one more at-bat and a hot bath with a rum chaser. On the third-base side, my head of department is staring at me, most likely imagining a replacement teacher for next semester. He’s seen a Me today who does not suit his timid notion of running an academic team. Up to this moment he’s been willing to tolerate my being his token foreigner precisely because I didn’t act like one, because I forced myself to fit in. But here, now, in the howling jungle of the Diamond, he’s seen the Goof-Off beneath the masquerade of le bon comportement.
Well, I’m giving him le bras d’honneur, a full-arm French version of the Finger, along with my insolent smile, surprising myself as well as him. I’m back in a thousand movie reruns, thinking the old one-liner: “You can’t fire me, I quit!” when, out of my depth of perception and the terrible crack of the bat, I sense a screaming liner making its supersonic run at my head. Someone has actually hit the ball to the right side, and I’m its sitting target. In a flash of self-preservation I’ve thrown my glove at the ball and thereby deflected it into the air, turning it into a lazy pop-up. Which lands just as inadvertently in my bare hand, outstretched in a gesture of mortification. I acknowledge the scattered applause at this feat with a thrust of my head, as if to say, that’s the way I’ve always done it, from sandlot on down: if the ball refuses to come to the glove, send the glove in hot pursuit.
The thrill of my accidental exploit is short-lived because this other team is piling up one run after another. What’s needed is surely a lanceur de releve, but we’ll have to wait for the next Marshall Plan before this alien thought crosses the French border. There doesn’t even seem to be a piste d´éhauffement where a spare pitcher, even if one existed, might warm up. And this is a massacre.
But why should I care? Why do I care? This is the nonevent of the decade. I shouldn’t even be here; I should be marking their essays (also a massacre) or just marking time. Going to the local Turkish baths or going into executive session with a bottle of cognac. Anything but this. And yet I’m acting as if career and ego and life and limb depended on it. It’s the chromosomes. Even in these circumstances, even in this meadow with the sun dropping its rainbow over Provence, even here, I cannot not take a ballgame seriously.
We’re finally at bat again, and for the last time. The other team has got about twelve insurance runs; nobody’s even counting anymore. Only good sportsmanship requires that we play the last of the ninth. I’m the frappeur de terrasse, waiting on deck while the opposing pitcher warms up. Moseying into place, I remember to greet the catcher and compliment him on his stamina, then quickly pop a glance at his proud mom. It’s as if I can still smell the tiger balm on her hands and feel them glide down the edge of the crevice between my moons. I dedicate this coup de circuit to you, Madame. Watch it go out of the park.
Eglantine is at it again. Every swing and miss is a revenge for this or that exam grade; every out is a triumph of youth over the dead weight of years. I’m not going to give her the pleasure. Or the others. Not again. Not this time. The game’s lost ten times over, but there is still the question of honor to be addressed. All I want to do here is start a rally, get on base, go around the bags when someone sacrifices me, and the ultimate: score. Touch home under the tag of baby-kiné, slide in there, make every last out count.
But I can scarcely lift the bat. My left arm has forsaken me altogether, and where would I find the legs to make it to base? I’m dreaming of a pinch runner from home to first, a new institution for geriatric sluggers who can still rip the ball apart while resting frozen in swing position like Greek statues. Let the slaves do the running.
This means “wrong” or “false.” Have I done “wrong” by fouling one off? There’s nothing “false” about not hitting the ball fair. Instead, savor the word “foul” with all its subliminal context of “putrid,””acrid,” “badsmelling.” To “foul” someone is to do him a soul-injury. To be “foul” of a boundary is to exceed a socially determined limit. This is serious business, it is not merely “false.” And so, after eight and one-half “sleeves,” I realize at last that the French have swallowed my game whole without tasting its poetry. Their translations are literal, descriptive, flat, terreà-terre. Where’s my “bullpen,” where’s my “dugout,” where are my lovely “bleachers,” a “balk,” an “inside-the-park-homer,” a “forkball,” a “switch-hitter,” a “squeeze play”? And the loveliest word in the whole baseball canon …
I’ve basically got one swing left and I know now what I’m going to do, even as the lanceur goes into his windup. These guys have the legs, they have the energy reserves, but I’ve got the Knowledge. They’ve brought me to this impasse with their vitamin-powered constitutions and left me to hang in it with their sarcasm. My afternoon is fast deflating in self-derision. And so they can scarcely believe their eyes when I incline my bat laterally at the fastball, slide my right hand out of the choke and lay one down, fair at my feet inside the third-base line. Silence. They think I’m joking, that this is some kind of imperial mockery, some arrogant assertion of long-lost copyright on obscure game rules or ultimate cynicism. No, les gars, this is a Bunt, an elegant gesture of dynamics for which there is no French translation and never will be. They are so perplexed by its wondrous mystery that not one single infielder has made a move, and I’m coasting to first like Icarus on the runway. Only the receveur, the physiotherapist’s boy, has finally made the connection and pounces on the dead ball. But I’m finding legs (I’ll pay for this tonight) and I’m going, I’m going, I’m gone. By the time he’s thrown his peg, and by the time the first baseman has understood the curious metaphysics of the moment—enough to cover the bag and receive the toss—I’ve crossed it.
Of course, no applause, only an awestruck undercurrent. As it should be. No gladiator’s triumph, this, only sleight-of-wrist. Subtlety flashing its teeth at Overbearing Might.
And suddenly, inexplicably, existentially, I’m bending over—ow!—and dusting off my cuffs—although there is nothing but grass beneath my feet—in a private gesture not one soul here can fathom, and which comes as naturally as hormones replenishing themselves in the face of the inevitable.
Poetry Feature: Brendan Galvin
Featuring the poems:
- Riffing Deciduous
- Mystery Squid
- A Buck’s Prints in Winter
- New Cop
Summer, old bore, though we love the ways
in a fall of soft tonnage, your stranglehold
from cranberry bog to hogback,
minium, not yellow but vitelline and those
in a nest like a straw handbag
precariously woven, the instinctive faith
the textures of fox sparrows will be
we’ll hear the groaning into being
the sound of a rubbed balloon
They say it lives miles down
in that wet obsidian
we crawled from, below
Martini’s Law, down where
things, if they can, create
their own light.
of its country is an accurate
reading of our own ignorance,
but in photographs that thing
looks like a blown-back
umbrella, handle and spokes,
fabric gone, until we
recall it’s twenty feet long,
the size of a tree uprooted and
drifting sidewise where
pressure of depth
has exacted stringency,
and its arms like ten sticky
branches trap prizes
yet to be named, blinks
and inklings, articulated wisps,
eclectic pulsings, a magpie
hoard where no magpie
can live, rhythms fleshed out,
tidbits on which this living
Where it moves with random
taillights toward memory’s
submarine canyons, our loneliness
is as much without meaning
as silence, our disbelief is only
the self-saving doubt of a fieldhand
witnessing a space shot: “That thing
ain’t going to no moon.”
A Buck’s Prints in Winter
Three weeks after deer season, and except for
an orange flare-up in the wood stove’s window,
the hoard of protective coloring is gone,
even that hunter’s gone who waited with
Death’s patience in leaf fall
and shadow of Gore-Tex on Bald Hill
over there, arrow notched, his miracle fiber bow
engineered to drive a steel tip through cement.
Another human season survived, and this buck’s track
is stamped like three-inch broken hearts
in roadside sand again. He has run coyote gauntlets
from the high pines all the way down to the river,
though nightly now that pack
petitions the hunter Orion with faltering cries
I picture flattening out like wood smoke on the air.
But the murder on my mind’s another
Sunday-night movie plot: sex, sad choices,
and money, that left a toddler
crawling a bloody floor and brought
the media ponies to town,
flexing their famous hair and backing us
to the wall with microphones, getting it all wrong
until the body and the story cooled,
all of it irreconcilable with that buck I’ve watched
drinking in the river, tutelary spirit
of a rain-fogged afternoon, and startled
sweeping downhill as I went to the woodpile,
antlered ghost crashing through brittle reeds,
cattails he burst in passing out of sight
the puffs I thought were gun smoke.
Barely a light at all,
and seemingly without source,
a fogdog comes one or none to a fog bank,
not a small deposit
the sun makes, but otherworldly pale
as a candle held aloft in a house
they floated across this bay
from Long Point or Billingsgate
two centuries ago, as if where droplets
and damps are working on shingles
and fascia boards in these
soft November days
someone were searching yet.
I could say this place
has been storied into meaning
by its humans, but these phenomena
are not metaphors: there’s a twisted
delta-class magnetic field
above sunspot 9715
that’s going to cause explosions
up there, and send gusts of solar wind
toward us around the first of next week.
A fogdog this morning
where the river at full moon
invades the flats back of Egg Island,
and a few days after the Leonid meteor storm
briefly connected all the dots,
a black cloud drove a rainbow before it
as I came to the top of Tom’s Hill–
that moving spectrum another first
in my weather annals.
Things out here on the edge
are traveling with their mysteries again.
Yesterday while I worried these events
the wind unleashed an answer
miles away down the beach and sent it
leaping like a tumbleweed over
to come wicketing past me
as a plastic bucket,
a cracked yellow human construct
churning out groans as it went.
He is waxed and polished, as streamlined
from crewcut to steel toes
as this new cruiser my taxes bought him.
If he’s Before, then I’m After,
creased and spindled in all the wrong places,
what he could become,
though I doubt he can imagine
letting his shirttail hang out like this
to indicate it’s one of his better days,
or growing a white beard until
it turns flyaway and his wife-cut hair
freaks whitely from an Orioles cap
as if at the first
tingle from Old Sparky.
Should I excuse myself by telling him
how I have to exercise this left hip joint,
or say I’ve been jogging
and walking this road right here for
a third of a century, so have a claim on it?
Who is this kid, anyway? Nobody
I’ve ever seen in this town of 1,500.
It’s suddenly damp and foggy,
and I’m feeling muskrat shaggy
and a little bagged off, like I just crawled
out of that marsh down there.
Are you a Baltimore fan? he asks.
No, I’m an oriole fan, I say,
the wrong answer because I can see
it’s scrambling his gestalt.
Not a good day for a walk, he says,
watching the eyes behind my bifocals
for the Vacancy sign, waiting
for me to ask when the Pope’s
going to get here with my tuna sandwich.