Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Grandfather's Books

                                                      One Christmas my father brought back from Laconia, his boyhood home, a mysterious crate. He put the crate on a pallet in a corner of the cellar. On stormy days in winter, while the family sat in the living room around the fire in the fireplace, I used to descend into the cellar to study Father's tools: the ratchet and socket set, the wood drill and bits, chisels, mallets and hammers, planes, tool-and-die set, and all the other interesting and serviceable devices. Now that the crate was also there, it was not long, of course, before I happened to look into it. 
   Most of the objects in the crate probably belonged to Grandfather Sinsac. I could not remember him because he was dead before I started remembering. But I had seen a photo of him holding in his arms a baby who my father said was me. Grandfather was wearing a white shirt and tie, his shoulders were broad, arms wiry and rugged-looking, wrists thick, hands knobby. His face was knobby and strong-featured, too, as if chiseled in dark, gnarled stone. He wore a goatee and glasses. His mouth was grave but I imagined a serenity there that amounted to happiness. Although he was a dignified and serious man, he was well known for being a great prankster and kidder. I wondered whether I should be snooping in this crate, in which was stuff belonging to whom I could not remember alive; but I snooped anyway. 
   On the top was a pile of six pair of leather boots, three pair of which were worn out and three pair almost like new. Under them in mothballs were a bowler hat and a suit of old, black clothes. There was also a shoe box full of tarnished silverware, and a sheaf of photographs of people whom I did not recognize; then a smaller crate made of rough pine slats, in which teacups were packed in wads of shredded newspaper. Stood up along the sides of this crate within a crate, as if for additional padding, were three dusty, ancient books. They were bound in sturdy leather, their type was large, clear, easy to decipher, and the paper was very fine and white, though stained here and there around the edges. In the margins and other empty spaces was much small, neat handwriting, some in English and some in Polish, a language I could not read. Two of these books were in English, the other in Polish. I could not resist carrying them upstairs to show my mother. 
  "Well, I'll be darned," she said, "these are your Grandfather Sinsac's old books. I have heard there is a crate of very deep and complicated books somewhere. I bet there are other things in that crate we should put out to make Grandmother Sinsac feel at home when she comes here to live. But these books will do as a start. Why don't you put them on your shelf beside your bed? I think Grandfather would be glad for you to have them. He often said that he dreamed an educated person might be in the family one day. You should ask your father about them. I bet he'll be able to tell you a good story." 
  One day after supper Father had a minute to sit and talk to me, and I showed him the books. 
"I'm surprised to see these books," Father said. "I had been wondering where they could be, and now you have found them." 
  Then he told me this story about them. 
  "Your grandfather used to keep these two books on the table beside his easy chair, and he'd read from one or the other of them every day. This book here is The Holy Bible. As you can see, it is written in Polish, a very ancient and distinguished language. Your grandfather loved to read this book. And this book is The Dialogues of Plato. And this last book here was written by Edward Kuk, your Grandfather Sinsac's best friend. 
  "Mr. Kuk worked side-by-side with your grandfather in the metal foundry in Laconia for many years. In those days the Polish worked at the foundry while the French Canadians usually worked in the woolen mill. 
  "He was an old bachelor who lived on the second floor in Sebastian Weiss' house. You remember Peter Weiss, the one who made the puppets and put on the puppet show that day you enjoyed so much? He's Saba's son. 
  "Well, it turned out Mr. Kuk was a great reader, and over the years he stacked books every which way in his little apartment, and he was apt to stay up all night reading and thinking. One day, after many years, Mr. Weiss was inconsiderate to Mr. Kuk. The problem developed that the weight of all the books in Mr. Kuk's apartment was putting on the foundation such a strain that Mr. Weiss was afraid his house would topple over into the lake. Also, it was reported that Mr. Kuk had ceased going to church, and he could be seen on Sunday morning fishing beside the lake. Mr. Weiss, therefore, demanded that Mr. Kuk get rid of some of his books. 
  "Also, there was talk of a careless and impractical life, Mr. Kuk holed up in the study of his books. 
  "It was not a good situation that developed, Eddie, the disruption Mr. Weiss had put upon Mr. Kuk's thinking at night. Mr. Kuk had no alternative but to put on Mr. Weiss a very complicated and intellectual curse. 
  “It was the talk of the whole neighborhood of Podgorny Street. Everybody was arguing about it. Fortunately, your grandfather, who knew everybody in the neighborhood, was able to work out a compromise. In his house and also the house of Chester Yablonski, the grocer, a large bookcase would be installed. On these bookshelves in each house Mr. Kuk agreed to store the greater number of his collection of books until such time when Mr. Weiss could shore up his foundations. In return, Mr. Kuk had agreed to lift off the curse with which he was threatening Mr. Weiss. So this was carried out. 
  "But it was not a completely satisfactory solution because it would often happen that in the middle of the night Mr. Kuk would feel the urge to look into one of the books in either our house or in Mr. Yablonski's house. Many a night there would be footsteps on the sidewalk and a rapping at the door. Your grandfather would let him in, throw extra logs in the stove, and Mr. Kuk would sit in a rocking chair in the parlor in front of his shelves of books and fall into deep meditation. 
  "As you might expect, your grandmother was dubious about this situation, but your grandfather on numerous occasions insisted that to interrupt a thinker in the midst of his contemplation was a mortal sin whose punishment was eternal damnation in the deepest fires of hell. To make it worse Mr. Kuk was something of a poet.
  "It turned out that Mr. Kuk's contemplation involved a book he was then writing. The book was about a man who, coming out of a distant country, visited a very strange land. It so happened that the inhabitants of this strange land were indifferent to the good and the beautiful. Although they were satisfied and happy if something worked, and they were good at making things work, they were mystified by the ultimate purposes of things. And the smartest people in this country were not interested in how to seek out purposes by going deep into the spirit. They had been taught to be satisfied by a few superficial tricks. Thus, they labored without purpose. And they were especially mystified by the good and the beautiful. In fact, in this strange land the good and the beautiful was considered to be an evil that was best avoided, as if a dangerous thing. 
  "It is a very complicated book. Perhaps you might one day understand it completely. Mr. Kuk spent thirty years writing and re-writing the book, and he finished it only because he became sick and was about to die. There, you see the last page? It ends in the middle of a sentence. As you can see, it is a very beautiful book. He had the printer make one-hundred copies, and he gave a copy to everyone who he thought would like to have one. It was a gift to the people in exchange for the life he had lived with them. Your grandfather extolled it and kept it near him always. He said it reminded him of a prayer. It is good that you have found it because now you can carry it on. Your grandfather told me many times that if you read The Holy Bible and The Dialogues of Plato and this book by Mr. Kuk, Strange Land, you would then know as much as the smartest people on Earth. 
  "So there, already you have every book you need for the rest of your life. Best to get started as soon as you can. Looks like there's a lot of reading there." 
  I went into my room and leafed through the scrupulous pages for hours in amazement. I did not allow Norma, my sister, nor anyone to lay upon these books a single finger, even though it was a sin not to share. In my room I studied the words, but I did not know what to make of them. On the overleaf was an especially interesting picture. A man was standing on a bluff, and in the valley below on one hand were houses clustered around a factory, while on the other hand were trees and farms. All of them, both factory and farm, were colored in warm hues of blue and brown and green. The book was sturdily bound, the paper thick and white, and the words were so neat, so perfectly put together that they seemed independent of the page on which they had been lain. 
  One day, I decided, these words must provide a message that would be necessary, but I'd have to wait. Though now it was winter, someday a summer would come in whose light and warmth I'd learn to understand. I was anxious; I did not want to wait long. But if it were summer all the time and all my evenings slept in quiet comprehension, I'd never sit in warm contemplation of Grandfather's exemplary books.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thomas Williams, Author

                           One day in 1966 I happened to walk into Thomas Williams' Freshmen English class at the University of New Hampshire. I was just a kid. I had chained my motorcycle to the tennis court fence in front of East Hall, and I was struggling to be a student. Tom was an expert writer with several published books, one of which Town Burning(1959), a novel, I always think of fondly, and he had collected some interesting shorter works in A High New House(1963). The centerpiece story that the collection was named from quickly became a favorite of mine and has remained so. Several other of these shorter works, such as toward the end in "The Skier's Progress", which was first published in The New Yorker (1963), suddenly launch themselves into a stratosphere of starry cadences of poetic prose so grand that to this day my delight in the reading actually hurts. Later on he wrote The Hair of Harold Roux(1974). He shared the National Book Award with Robert Stone that year—Dog Soldiers, a much inferior book. That a man as erudite as Tom was assessable to a frosh was a miracle of good luck, since I have never met anyone vaguely like him in my entire life.
  Now almost fifty years later, I often wonder why his works are not more often read. In the public library in Norway, Maine is a copy of A High New House that has not been checked out since 1998! And I took it out then, and afterwards I bought a copy to keep for myself. I have often felt that in places in that book such a strong light illuminates the words that the reader's first impression is analogous to embarrassment. The words are ripped out of the commonplace by the precision of their use, and worried into splendor. You must reach toward a higher level in life, so the initial impulse is an unpleasant humbling that you are habitually accustomed to avoid.
  Back in my kid days, although I had no idea about the rarity of this light or what it meant, I had a notion something unusual was going on that I had to take advantage of because I might never in an ordinary life be lucky enough to run across it again.


I wish I could find a picture of TW as I knew him in '66. He was sinewy and brown, as if he had just stepped out of a tree.

  Tom was forty, which in the opinion of the students of those days was OLD, but he didn't look old. There was no jolly extra professorial fleshing. He was lean and sinewy, nervously stoical, competent—a deer hunter, a New England Yankee. He had a facial tic (tic douloureax?). Now and then he'd scrunch his face nervously. But in general the look of him was encouraging to me because he acted like somebody you might be able to relate to, like a master you might become a disciple of. I was confused whether the master chose the disciple or the disciple the master. But since he was a teacher and I was a student, I dared to follow him around with all possible brass whether he liked it or not. I was further encouraged when I observed him riding a motorcycle. It was really just a Honda motor thing, not like a Harley. A big greasy Harley might have been off putting enough to save him some of the annoyance of my existence.

It is said by Mary Whipple that Tom rode a bike like this. It is a '75 550cc.  

This is probably similar to the Indian Pony in Harold Roux.

  I heard rumors that he was an outdoors' man. His hands were big and capable looking. Usually he wore jeans or workmen's khaki, serviceable boots and a dark shirt of checked flannel. When it rained he wore a green poncho. He didn't like being teased about the poncho. He knew many names of outdoors' objects, and he had performed with his own hands serious acts of carpentry. A reliable witness had testified to one act in particular and it was not a lie, as these things in academia usually are. It was obvious to me even then that he had gotten a lot out of books, but there were some things I doubt could be in any book. The ache between the eyes and the wrenching of the top of the skull that means thinking for yourself must be happening did not offended him. Also, he seemed very fond of young people. In his books he portrays young people that jump off the written page in a friendly lunacy.
  Then one day he was carrying around a manuscript, an amazing looking object of incredible thickness bound at the top, front and back, in brown manila. It was the manuscript of Whipple's Castle(1969), which he had just finished writing. He was acting a little odd that day and he was very protective of it. But it was an unforgettable experience for me. When it got published, I snapped up a copy. Long passages of the book stand up to more than one reading, and I have read in it quite a bit the last forty years. To think that I was one of the first people on earth to see it!
  By then, as I happened to run into this astonishing good luck, my thick notebook of stories, poems, essays, some typewritten, some handwritten, began to run over. I believed that small, nervous handwriting on a sheet of paper had meaning beyond the words' meaning. But whether handwritten or typed, the pages were very crumpled up, very disheveled. Arrows, notes, erasures, additions, explanations were every which way. My person and brilliance were not what the expert would term promising. I had BO, bad breath, my hiking boots were muddy and worn down at the heels, the professors' required reading put me to sleep. But I thought every word I wrote was important. It is another mystery how this belief came over me. In high school my parents had kept me too busy to think such a thing. Then suddenly I walked into Tom's class and that's what I thought. It was too hard that what I wrote was not worth anything, when I could show these writings to Tom!
  I began to bother him with my secret madness. That did not turn out to be a problem with Tom Williams because he never missed office hours. Isn't there a rule of life that creative persons tend to bomb the simple duties of life? Not Tom Williams! Even when he didn't have an appointment scheduled, you'd still find him in the office. Late in the afternoon I could catch him. He'd smile and put up with me. He'd even seem happy that I had come by. He was a teacher, too, though I was a student who'd try any teacher's patience. Tom may have thought, who is this numskull?, but he never let it on.
  But I had a problem with him, a serious problem. He had this weird high regard for Art. He believed that words could be fashioned in such a way that they ring true against time. The writer, he told me, must meditate about truth, and he must avoid insincerity, a natural inclination to falsehood of fact and feeling. He wondered whether what I was writing about really happened and did I really know what I felt about it. His opinion that Art should be truthful certainly was irritating. I wondered if he himself obeyed his own dicta. Why shouldn't a nice, pleasant enjoyable bullshit be Art, too? Art must be more arduous than I thought, yet I fancied myself an artist.
  The next few years I brought him everything. My works may have been quite laughable; and worse, they never seemed to end. But it was a happy time for me. I felt no loyalty at all to even the simplest conventions, such as that one should know the meaning of a word before utilizing it or that one should not mispell, either mistakenly or to be a punk. The subject matter was about drinking, puking, fighting, mashing, that kind of thing. One time he sat up and rolled his eyes backward, but he didn't say anything. There was what I called “purity” that I worried about that I didn't know the meaning of then and still don't exactly, though I think that over the years maybe, just maybe, I’m getting closer and closer to a meaning I can talk about.
  In neat, readable handwriting he wrote lengthy remarks in the margins and at the end of the manuscript. He must have known that what he wrote was often beyond me. When we are young, the roads ahead are many, and some are dark, and we walk along, whistling, and try to remember what we have been taught. It was later that I began to understand a few of the things he wrote about.
  That the student should "decide, decide" was his constant imperative to me. It was not about grammar or usage or composition so much as deciding what was important to be honest about. Vague antecedents do not ruin sentences; lies ruin sentences. He encouraged me to experience and to remember and to feel my way through what I remembered.
  "Those people you live with you'll write about one day," he said softly, smiling.
  "You're kidding," I replied, eyes blank and bleary.
  This exchange of a few seconds opened up in me a clear spring of sincerity, love and wonder that must be where Art supersedes craft and finally BEGINS. Although obvious, I suppose, nobody before or since has ever suggested to me that the foundation of Art might just be simple experience. They tell you write what you know about but they seem to define themselves otherwise.
  When I wrote about and told him stories from my family life, he listened with the rapt attention of a hound. Tom knew enough about what he was doing to know when another person was taking him honestly into their life. But he also knew when the motive was self-indulgence.
  One day he explained to me what I call the Tom Williams Doctrine of the Ten Thousand Choices.
  "Every sentence has in it ten thousand choices."
  "Ten thousand?" I said, suddenly nervous.
  "Yes," he said. "Sometimes it takes a long time to write a sentence."
  "How long?" I said. He had already convinced me to think about writing as a lifelong passion, and now what?
  "Oh, an hour or so. Sometimes maybe a lifetime."
  The lifetime thing was just too impossible, so I blotted it out of my mind. In horror of this latest bad news I said, "An hour! What can you be thinking about for a WHOLE HOUR."
  "There are lots of things. Sometimes I look up in the dictionary every word. Some words I like to know how the writers of the past have used them. And I like to think about new words, too. And there's a lot else, also. Might take a lifetime." Then he finished by saying, "Once you've written one good sentence, you can always write another. And then you can write a story or a poem or anything you want."
  I was silent, and I left and went for a long walk. Sentences that took forever, it seemed like, to put together tested my frail nerves. Armies of nouns and verbs and adjectives fought to the death on a dark plain.
  By now frustration and failure had worn me out. I had hoped for a clean up and massage of my works for instant success, but I ended with the simplest beginnings of a tradition to wrestle with.
  I did not finish college to my degree. I had some vague idea that I'd like "to go out and record what the common people say and do". I wasn't doing very well with Mr. Milton and Mr. Shakespeare, but I was doing all right with camshafts and crankshafts.
  Mr. Williams nodded and said, "Sure. You can always come back." Then he suggested a book or two I might take with me on my journey. He said "Fowler" in sort of a mumble. Now that was a convenient little book to amuse myself in life's way stations and toilets! In it are a thousand examples of good writing and bad from the mighty and the humble. I could work out the details on the American language later on.
  Soon enough my life waited on a job, which at any moment could twirl away into darkness, calamity, financial ruin. I walk on glass like lots of people. I have that tremulousness of gait that people have when they are trying not to break the glass and fall through into oblivion.
  A child of the sixties and a friend to this day, I became fascinated by the roads. I drove and walked here and there whistling tunes to myself and telling stories and trying to remember. I spent much time in the woods. I have seen the wilderness get raped. We, the land's children, think the land will support us no matter what we do to it. I worry about rape; it seems that many forms of it, some subtle, some not subtle at all, are around every corner. I try hard to keep my fingers out of my nose and mouth; but my jaw is slack and my eyes are dark and moist as if I were tipsy.
  I did not return to Tom Williams for another lesson. I had a very hard time with academia. I wondered what of value could come from the narrow confines of a school town. Thomas Williams' works themselves are proof that Art can come from anyplace. But perhaps that was not it at all. Perhaps I was embarrassed by the extremes of my youth. Perhaps I did not want another lesson. It was a memory that gave me pleasure and I did not want to gamble with it. Sometimes it happens that way: there is no going back.
  I have received over the last half century an amazing happiness in writing as Art. I swear Tom made me one of them weird foreign mystics. There's this heat under me in the very soil of the woody foothills of Maine, and then I work on my little pile of stories for hours without feeling cold. When I can't think of a single damned thing that I can defend against the darkness, I always return to the Ten Thousand Choices, and it gets light out again.

The American Grand Funk

                                 Our black (Hawaiian) president, just having got re-elected by a wide margin, who is honestly without fault, unlike his friend The Clint, is back at it with the Republican majority in the House. They show him only minimal deference. In fact they are quite chummy in a way that is almost hard to believe. It is hard to imagine anyone not already dead who is unwilling to defer to the great majority of the American Republic respectfully, I guess, if not with awe. And yet there are such souls, and President (whom they refer to as Mr as if nothing at all has recently transpired) Obama, being the faultless pol he is, knows that somehow he has to work with them. But the question of seeming to get anything done appears by-the-by. As if proceeding in confluence with nature—three hundred years of history, for they appear stubborn as General Lee's army at Gettysberg—, they waylay and disrupt, while at the same time denying responsibility. Sometimes it seems they are not even interested in getting re-elected.
  The question of secession from the union has come up. Texas has always wanted to secede; so they will secede from the southern tier of states, and not go with them on anything; that leaves the Pacific states, who will not go with Texas on anything; and it is hard to imagine Idaho and Washington going with California on anything. Is that the future of a once proud republic? Rather I can imagine the military stepping in. I am not sure America is strong enough any more to fight it off.
  So problems go unresolved, and important matters, untouched, proceed from bad to worse. A well run republic depends on the activity of its governors; if there is no activity there is no well run republic. This truth is so inescapable that the present funk must at some point be recognized and addressed. The question is when?
  One good example of the funk overwhelming us is our present sullen companionship with the NRA and their one love on earth—the assault rifle. Built for no reason, apparently, except to kill large numbers of individuals at a single bound, she has become their baby. Heaven be anything should happen to her! They are sold everywhere to anyone. They can use large capacity clips. And they are symbolic to me of the grand funk.
  Recently, a young man shot twenty babies in an elementary school in Sandy Hook. He was supposedly afflicted with Aspergers, but we all know how easily a rich family can get any diagnoses its little heart desires. No psychiatrist is going to say to a well-to-do parent: "He hasn't got anything, he's just a feelingless bastard." So since Autism is the present disorder of choice, the kid has Autism, and we go from there. Aspergers has not even been very well defined.
  Anyway, Aspergers or not, he shot his mother, gun owner and enthusiast, who encouraged in her little bastard a love of guns, and then he drove down the street to an elementary school. He still had plenty of ammo when he shot himself. The motive is a mystery, probably some personal hallucination. I am terrified to think how much worse it could have been. And could this be the new norm?
  These incidents are happening every other day, and they all involve these types of weapons. No amount of bloodshed will change their availability. The NRA will not let any bill restricting them out of committee, so we are stuck with assault weapons the same as we are stuck with the deficit and inadequate health care. Funny the deference given the NRA that is withheld from our black president from the great state of Hawaii. Aloha!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Waiting on Jack

                         This was before Nick Sampas started to get the booty. One of his jobs was running a dive beside the railroad tracks. It was just a working man's joint. Jack Kerouac, Nick's sister Stella's husband, liked to go there. By then Stella had given up trying to hide from Jack the five bucks he needed to get drunk. Some say she gave up too easily. But wives of drinking men will tell another story. Jack drank stone cold pounders. He always sat on the same bar stool. It was his bar stool. "This is where Jack used to sit," Nick said. They kept it as a place of honor, a shrine. I never dared to sit on it. Now the bar is more of a yuppie bar. I went by one day. The bar had been modernized; Jack's bar stool was no more. I am sad when a piece of contemporary history has been forgotten.

  I used to drive up to Lowell from Boston to make a day of it. I'd drive to the Edson Cemetery and park near Jack's grave marker, a square of marble lying flat in the ground. Admirers left beside it trinkets or blossoms or beer cans, poems, old rubbers. Somebody in the family now and then cleaned up the junk, leaving a small symbolic pile. By then I understood something about this Lowell kid's sacrifice. He had burned up his life to make Art. The alcoholism and Jack's early death disturbed me, and I said about that a prayer. I put together Jack's death and Plath's suicide, which created an awful, tragic vision for me to unravel. But the words on the grave marker were the most disturbing: "He Honored Life". I worried that the words might be a platitude. But aren't platitudes usually long winded? The words continue hollowly, and the people nod and drop asleep. The advantage of Jack's words was in their brevity. I thought that brevity was a master writer's strategy. Jack himself must have directed them. One day I said to Nick, "I think those words must have been there at the beginning." His eyes lit up and he nodded. They require that you put one foot in change and the other in changelessness, and also they speak as much to the head as to the heart. I worried about those words while I waited on Jack at the Edson. I worried that maybe I was dumb because I worried about them so much. While the important things, such as Jack's drinking, floated by me like a wisp of smoke, I wondered if I was worrying inordinately over a trifle. But was it a trifle?
  Then I'd start my beat up Honda and wander to the dive. There was always a crony. "Jack Kerouac! Yeah, I knew him. Jesus, that kid could bullshit!"
  The dive people loved him, and they were proud that he was one of them. He was always on their side. He understood that the poor endure and nothing ever changes. The poor say "fuckkit" or "oh well". That's how they understand life. They put up with the ceaseless mouth flapping of the politicians and the bosses. Jack was poor all his life, a fact that is often ignored. But his heart was pure. Thus, he became immortal. It was so simple. I doubt he thought about it much. The dive people wanted him to come back.
  Jack and Clara drank together many times. She was French Canadian, educated in the parish school. Somebody'd be down the dive. Jack hung out with Clara or Charlie or any one of the others.
  When someone stopped beside her, Clara always glanced down to check the polish on your shoes. A well polished shoe might endanger her privacy. Shoe polish is not my thing. Clara read everything. Either she never married, or she married too many times to care to mention it. She was a peculiar Catholic solitary reading nut, God's friend. "Did you talk to Jack about literature?" I asked.
  "Not much. He seemed to like to reminisce about our Lowell upbringing. He never talked about Buddha. It was the Pope, the Roman Catholic thing he worried about."
  And there was Charlie. Wacky Jacky traded insults all day long with him. It was Charlie who accused Jack of being a bullshitter. The first time I heard him describe Jack with that word I flinched. Jack wrote bullshit; Jack had bullshit dripping out his nose; Jack's blood was bullshit. Charlie did not smile often, but when he got a rise out of somebody supposed to be smarter than himself, then a big grin would flicker across his ragged jaw. They said that Charlie and Jack struggled against each other. This is the scene as I imagine it. Moonlight slanting over spectral Lowell sidewalks, gutters crusted with mud. Damp shreds of paper litter the curb. Two men are fighting in the street lamps' twilight. One man is cynical, the other credulous; one is angry, the other gentle. The one cannot throw down the other; each man's pale hands wrestle to throttle the other's head. "You lied; you smoked too much dope, and you blew it!" "No! I told true! I tried hard. I cared." There is a shriek of laughter. I imagine stinging blows, blood. It is because both men are poor, and truth is what has money behind it.
  Anybody can fill you in on Jack's drunkenness. He'd fall over dead drunk, sleep on the floor. Why go on? What was he doing in Lowell? He was on the cusp of fame! Why would he want to return to Lowell? And before that Florida! Even more nutty. He died in Florida. There is nothing to do in Florida. It is duller than Vegas. There is nothing to do in Vegas. Who's Jack Kerouac? Lowell wanted to know.
  (But one day not too many years after Jack died, Lowell's sons and daughters got educated. They threw out all the old mob and their "councilors". Like everything else that comes to good in this world it was a grass roots movement. The Songas family helped. These were the sons and daughters of Lowell, and they realized that one of their own was becoming immortal, so they built in his honor a really touching monument, and maybe it will endure. Every time I visit it, I am inspired.)
  What brought him home? Traveling as if in a great circle, he saw a good bit of the world. And, as if it had been decided at the beginning, he came home. He had not long since written Vanity of Duluoz, so he was working at a very high level. In fact, you'd swear something holy was going on. We know Jack was smart, but this? which seems so almost unreal? Compare it to Great Expectations, for instance, if you don't believe me.
  Charlie swore that Jack blew it through the sin of bullshit. That happens sometimes, even to people who are very smart. And it may have been that Jack lied. But never claim to me that you know a writer who didn't. Art is not always about factual truth, but it always is about wringing time out of experience, which makes a deeper truth than factual truth. When Adam noted that the apples dropped and rotted into the ground, he knew that he wasn't in Eden any more. Struggling with that observation is a simple, eternal human activity.
  Whether he really blew it or not, toward the end, after he started to get famous, he came back to his boyhood home. Nobody thought Memere had much to do with it. She was following Jack around by then. There was the drinking, his invitation to death.
  Clara said: "I think he just got tired of thinking. He never mentioned his own works. He was on to another thing, another mother lode of experience. So he was finished with all that. They say that is a hard time for a creative person, when they're onto something new. One day he was dead drunk and grumbling his way through 'Antony and Cleopatra'. He looked so unhappy! And I asked him about Japhy in Dharma Bums. And he didn't seem to know, he went blank, and then he went right back to 'Antony and Cleopatra'. I swear God was in his head and he couldn't shut off the voice. Eventually, it must hurt to live, and you fall out of love with it."
  One day Nick came in. He said to me: "I want to show you something. You mentioned 'He Honored Life'. That was one thing. So you're on the right track in my opinion. Another thing is this. Jack was great friends with Saba. I'm sure you know that. They wrote poems back and forth to each other. Saba worried about Jack, the life he was leading, and so on. Saba died at Anzio. Saba wrote Jack a letter from the front. When Jack read this letter, he went outside and cried and couldn't be consoled."
  So I read the letter. It was as if the words were alive some thirty years later and I didn't even know the guy. I couldn't focus my eyes. The words were more than words. And this is true, and I swear it on a holy thing. This happened in the dive beside a street of Lowell on the wrong side of the tracks. It was as if Saba had returned and he was standing beside me. Maybe it was Saba. Maybe Saba brought Jack home to patrol the streets of Lowell, looking for Art. Saba was waiting for Jack. And so am I.
  The immortals belong to everybody! There is no beating you take waiting for Jack. It is just waiting.

I love this picture. He was a great literary thinker, too. But not professorial.
  Thanks Photobucket!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Suddenly Something Happened

                       Everyone will have their favorite sporting events. I like to sift through my all time favorites. Some are private and maybe I'd have a hard time finding a soul to agree with me. Since I am a Boston sports fan, these memories tend to involve Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Orr or Larry Bird. But there are other memories that rise to a more common popularity. For instance, the 1976 World Series between the Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In the sixth game Bernie Carbo, the world's most unlikely hero, tied up the game with a three run homer. The Red Sox went on to win in the 12th. During this at bat Carbo later claimed he "was high on alcohol and drugs." There is Franz Klammer's freefall-without-parachute down the Patscherkofel in the 1976 Olympics. I might add the incredible violence of the home run swings of Bonds and McGuire in their juiced up years. (I thought juice, but how could I know till much later?) Or Abebe Bikela's marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics, which race he won running barefoot. But the greatest of all sporting accomplishments in my lifetime belongs to a colt named Secretariat. And not the famous Belmont race either, in which he thrashed the field to a thirty length victory and won the Triple Crown for 1973, the first to win the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948, but the '73 Kentucky Derby, one of the ten-thousand horse races I have watched in my life. That race has involved my imagination for almost forty years.

   Bill Nack in his book Secretariat draws from Jockey Ron Turcotte's testimony. Ron Turcotte, a sort of hillbilly Canadian outdoors man, a Québécoise, was the perfect rider for this gifted force of nature. I have watched the films over and over and read Bill Nack's book on the subject of Secretariat's Triple Crown races numerous times. Ron Turcotte seemed to me more peacefully ad-lib than forcefully pro-active. On the rides the difference is often exceedingly slight. On those few occasions that he showed Secretariat the whip it seemed to me the wrong time, but really it was the right time for Secretariat, a horse who just happened to know what he was doing. A lot of horses seem not to know. They know that they like to run, but they don't know anything about what is the purpose of it all. In short, Ron Turcotte gave Secretariat the lead for the most part. To see the '73 Derby go here

  Secretariat begins the race from the gate dead last, and he does not make any move till the first turn. When he is clear of traffic, Turcotte takes him to the outside, and lets him run. So off Secretariat goes dallying with the field. This happens quite often in racing. But having reached fifth or fourth or a little better than half way through the field, the horse begins to wilt, for now the horse has reached the real competition of the field, and the situation has become daunting. In the film above at the end of the first turn, as the horses enter the clubhouse stretch, Secretariat moved up to about sixth position, then he is fifth. Now you can easily pick him out by his checked blinkers. He has given up two, maybe three lengths in methodically circling the field on the outside where the distance to the front is greater. The cameras have not recorded this move to the front because they have been fixed on the leaders. My imagination has always dwelt in pleasure on the first part of this run when Secretariat was not on camera. I have always imagined him like an Eagle fluttering gracefully over a flock of Rabbits he has scared up. But now comes the part I have never been able completely to figure out. He has moved up to fifth. His stride adjusts momentarily as he changes leads, or something happens causing him to slow down ever so slightly. Still his strides, compared to the other horses, are huge and graceful beyond words. Turcotte seems hardly to move he is so securely (and peacefully) astride the horse. I think now Secretariat has done, he is shot. But an instant later, suddenly something happens. It is almost as if Secretariat were in league with the heavenly spheres, as if he would measure up the task, and he had chosen a fantastic trick to demonstrate to history that he is not of this world. And he takes off, and in a half-dozen strides, as if it were nothing, he is among the four leading horses. He becomes at this moment bigger than life, almost spectral. Then the lead horses, among them is Shecky Green, who has led a great part of the race, begin to fall away, and only Sham, a West Coast champion, is left to present a challenge. But wait, this is rather fun, Secretariat seems to think. I believe this is the only time Turcotte showed Secretariat the whip. Turcotte says he clucked once, twice, because it was time to go, and nothing happened.
  Secretariat had continued to run faster and faster. At the end he would beat the record time. But he seemed at this moment to be sizing up what was left of the competition, and in no hurry to continue his charge to the front. Nack points out how gradual and unhurried this whole move had been. Secretariat had given up much ground in racing outside the pack, but he had never seemed for even a moment hurried. As Secretariat began his encounter with Sham, still he showed no interest at all in sliding toward the rail, as if determined to avoid contact with the pack.
  So Sham has roared past Shecky Green. Laffit Pincay, riding Sham, did not seem aware that Secretariat was in nearby pursuit. At this point it was not a race Sham should lose. But Secretariat rocketed upon him. Turcotte says he "showed" Secretariat the whip, for it was time, and perhaps he did not touch him, and that is true. Secretariat did not move at all to the whip anyway. He had his own schedule, his own time. When his time came, Secretariat sped abreast of Sham as if he had found another gear. He seemed to lift himself forward literally as if to go airborne. Then the two horses were battling for the lead. As they came out of the turn toward the wire, Pincay seemed to be carrying on madly aboard Sham, but Turcotte was all pristine calm and patience. They hung together for about a hundred yards, charging toward the finish as if in unison. When Secretariat moved into the lead, he did not look back. Then he was moving away a length, and two lengths and moving to the finish effortlessly.


   I was working a Saturday afternoon double that day. The entire day had been time-and-a-half, so the crew was in a good mood, a big paycheck in the wings. Engle went to his car and dragged down a TV, and fired it up and fiddled with the rabbit ears, and in the harsh factory light and chemical dust the picture came through brightly. Suddenly there was before me something clean, or some years later I'd use the word pure. I still don't know exactly what I mean by that word, but it seemed to me bigger than life, and I'll let it go at that. One of the fellows said, "Look how that horse likes that guy! He's dancing with him!", meaning how serenely Secretariat and Turcotte worked in unison. It made a myth for me, as nature and man proceed one with the other in purity. I have often dreamed of riding outside the pack, not mucked up or befuddled, not drawn toward the rail in the mud where the infighting and the backstabbing are. No! In airy space, gliding toward the rosy completion like a Secretariat, like an Eagle. And thus I have been ever a dreamer. But is it really a dream when it happens once in a lifetime for real?

   For some great pictures of Secretariat go here.

  Thanks Steve for the wonderful pictures.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jim Bob's Story

                                                       It was not easy for me to feel sorry for Jim Bob. I was just starting out and he was just getting finished. Many years later when I was getting finished, what happened to Jim Bob was easier for me to understand, though even now I don't see it as a tragedy or anything near a tragedy. He married a good woman and they had a big family. One day at the annual company shindig at the Hilltopper I counted four handsome boys and two beautiful girls. Even John thought Jim Bob had been lucky other ways. When you've been lucky in family, for instance, why get beat up over an ambition that never came true? But how can you be sure what is important until you have finished, and you are almost dead?
  One day John More and I were sitting in Al's Family Cafe. Then Donald Tohey walked in. Tohey, a truck driver, hauls flat beds for Best Building Supply. He drives the trail, Interstate 80, to Cleveland as many times a week as he can without getting in a wreck. But he worked a long time in the column shed, where John and I work, and he didn't hold it against us. John Lally, who started Best, had made a small fortune pouring cement down metal pipes. The column shed was generally known as slumming it. You didn't have to be very bright, but you had to be physically strong enough to get through it. Tohey and John More had known each other long enough not to be friendly. Tohey was a church going man, and John was not. Their lack of friendliness toward each other was not so much about slumming as about church going, I think, and other stuff I didn't understand.
  John told me the story about the day John Lally retired. He thought John's retirement had a lot to do with what happened to Jim Bob. I felt that something bad had happened to Jim Bob. I usually listened to John More. I don’t know why. But I hadn't heard this story. 
  This is what John More said.
  "John Lally might have come in a little early that day. He seemed okay, maybe more grouchy than usual. It was a summer day, and it was starting to get hot. The cement mixer wouldn't start. Leonard cleaned up the spark plug, and he finally got it running, and we started to make the cement. Harold and I were lugging the pails of cement up the ramp, and Jim Bob and Booker were on top of the ramp pouring the mix down the tubes.
  "We had strapped up some specials day before, and stood the tubes up beside the ramp, and Jim Bob and Booker were pouring the cement, because John wanted to get them done first. The tubes were twelve footers, so Jim Bob and Booker were pouring from the very top of the ramp. It was a long climb to the top of the ramp. You can get pretty tired, so we were switching off so everybody could take a blow. Jim Bob and Booker were pouring the mix and tamping it down the tubes at the very minute Leonard went over to the fan to cool off his pits from shoveling. So John Lally picked up a shovel. Then he and Leonard were both shoveling. Then all of a sudden John throws down his shovel, and says, 'That's it. I retire. You be boss.' So Leonard was boss. Then John walked out the door of the shed, climbed in his car and left.
  "Now, Jim Bob knew what went into the mix, and John Lally was very particular what went into the mix. Jim Bob shouldn't have been up top helping Booker. Leonard should have been up top helping Booker. Then Jim Bob might have ended up boss instead of Leonard. On the other hand, if John Lally hadn't had the shovel to thrown down, he might not have retired at all. You never saw Jim Bob cooling off his pits at the fan. That was before the heart attack, and Jim Bob could keep up with the mix shoveling by himself, easy.
  "Nobody would have thought John Lally would ever get done. He never said anything. We all thought Leonard was just temporary, while John went out to lunch. We thought John would die on the job, throw one last bag of cement in the mixer and keel over. He liked to fuss about cars. He had a garage out back of the house, fancy sporty car and a boat. But that's no reason to retire, is it?
  "Anybody could see Jim Bob was hurt. The life was draining out of his face. It had been almost twenty years that Jim Bob and John had worked together shoulder to shoulder. Twenty years! It'd be almost midnight and those two would be getting ahead a load of specials. No lights on anywhere the whole block but the column shed, those two working in the hot or the cold. Leonard hadn't worked in the shed more than a year. Anyway, nobody thought John Lally had really retired. Booker shouted to John, 'See you after lunch time.'
  "But he didn't come back after lunch time.
  "Not that Jim Bob ever complained. He had raised six kids, put his wife through nursing school, paid the bills for twenty years working for John Lally. I figure John must owe Jim Bob something, and you can't talk me out of it. They wiped out the competition together! Tell me, who is making columns any more? Nobody! John and Jim Bob started in that shit box warehouse across the way where they do the retreads now. Jim Bob made more money for John Lally than a dozen Leonards. But here's the thing: what's to love about that shit hole? What's to dream about?
  "Anyway, it's Arnold's deal now. I believe Arnold kicked his father out. Arnold was an officer in the Marines. He wants to get into politics. Why should he care about the column shed when Bellini or Maxwell or that guy Tom Stone was calling him from uptown? Arnold has a big city mistress. Ask Jimmy in the mechanic's garage. Jimmy met her the other day. A tire on Arnold's Caddy went flat. Arnold couldn't even change a tire for himself! Arnold is a wheeler-dealer; old John never learned to think that way. In the end it was all money, and Arnold kicked the old man out.
  "John Lally? what should he care? I heard he's in Florida starting a boatyard. Arnold couldn't do that, not in a million years. Too hard work.
  "So what could Arnold know about his father and the load he was carrying? He couldn't know anything. And neither could Leonard. So you've got the perfect case of the blind leading the blind. They get along fine, and they're perfectly happy as they're sinking fast. Jim Bob couldn't do that; he wouldn't let that happen. What's happening, it must be hard for him to watch. But how could he explain it to Arnold? Arnold would just get mad at him.
  "One day Booker jumped up and collared Arnold in the parking lot, and Booker said, 'You can't make Leonard boss in the column shed.' And Arnold said, 'Why not? Leonard, that's who I thought.' Arnold didn't have a clue. That's what Booker said, though I didn't see it.
  "Right after what Arnold said in the parking lot got around, Jim Bob had the big heart attack.
  "Maybe he would of had the heart attack anyway. Now he's on a special diet, plenty of rest, no heavy lifting. You see the way he is.
  "Jim Bob had family. He wanted to show them something. Us drunken bums, how could we understand?
  "Leonard almost fired him the other day. Jim Bob was standing around, not feeling good. But Jim Bob went home sick, stayed out a couple of days, and when he came back Leonard wasn't mad any more."
  Now Tohey was six foot tall, a sturdy and rugged man. You could tell he didn't think much of what John had to say. So after a snort or two, he started out telling the story his way.
  "You're right about John Lally and Jim Bob working together. Back in them frigging days when John was just starting out nobody could have worked with him but Jim Bob. What a hellova man was Jim Bob! He was stronger in just his left arm than I am my entire body. A true black man! Nostrils flared, eyes bright. Never a handsomer man ever lived than him. No bitchin', no bullshit in his soul. Just a loud laughter. Him and John Lally was brothers, I tell you. They ain't money enough in this entire world to pay Jim Bob back. You can't pay him back with money. You pay him back with blood. John Lally must know that. But John Lally don't have any blood, nor does that useless son of his. That's the trouble with this world. No extra blood to pay anybody back with. They throw money at you and expect that to be the end of it.
  "You know what I remember? I remember them two fighting. They'd argue then sometimes they'd fight. Jim Bob was damned if he'd say a word untrue. Still in him if you listen. If there was one hundred fifty columns to ship, Jim Bob didn't give a damned if John Lally himself said there was two hundred. It was a good thing John's wife was working in the office. She'd come out, calm them down. Lord knows what went on when they were in there alone nights.
  "You want to know what caused Jim Bob to have that heart attack? I'll tell you. It was because he all of a sudden lost his best friend of twenty years. The man walked out without a word. You seen him the other day! John Lally comes up from Florida to visit for the holidays. Jim Bob's standing at one end of the shed, John at the other. Not a word did they speak. That's twenty years for you. And now all that work building that business is just getting pumped out Arnold's yin-yang.
  "You can talk about money all you want. That's all you ever talk about anyway, John More. Dreams? Bullshit! It was that friendship Jim Bob lost. He has been a dead man since that day John walked out.
  "So that's why he had the heart attack, and you can take it to the bank. Anyway, what the hell do you know, you drunken bum?"
  Then Tohey turned toward me and he said, "Why do you hang out with him, Paul Paris? He'll kill you with that shit."
  Then Tohey got up and went across the street to play the number.
  John took it very badly. He said angrily, "Tohey's a fool. Friendship! What a bunch of crap. That's the big cop out they give you when they don't want you to get what you deserve. Jim Bob wanted to get ahead. But how is there any getting ahead for people like us? Tohey, too! He has been lucky. Something happens, anything, an accident, a sickness and he's down the drain just like the rest of us. Friendship! Now I've heard it all."
  It was so hot in Al's, Al's forehead was red and small pale droplets of sweat clung there, but he refused to turn down the heat. The riggers and the junkyard men came in in a riot. Everybody came in and stripped off their coats and rubbed their hands together gleefully. The Bobcat drivers from the waste paper dump came inside from outside, where they had been working under a sky below zero, and the wind howling.
  Jim Bob came in. He had probably been chatting with his friend at the wrecker yard. The fellows at the bar made a space for him.
  John opened a newspaper and folded the pages back meticulously. While he read he underlined each line with a stubby war-torn fingertip. With my thumbnail I cleared the frost off a spot on the window. In the frozen iron-blue, heart-breaking sky was a pale star. Could that be the whirling hole in the heavens that hope gets sucked into? I was bothered by a foreboding that something similar would happen to me. And what right did I have to expect that it wouldn't?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Junker Driver

                                      Now, at the beginning of time, the '70's, I was a young man in love with the open road. I had just got out of the Army and I was following the rodeo all over the southwest. I just happened to be working for Donnie Jack, taking care of his horses. Donnie at that time was so high up in the rodeo I never saw much of him but his hairy nostrils. 
  One day he says to me, "'Mon Pablo, I wanna talk to you." He happened to be leaning against this weird looking car. "If ya wanna work for me, you gotta get around. This here old Dodge is ony got 70 grand on her. Keep oil in her and she'll last till you dead."
  "Ain't got no money, Donnie."
  "That's what I want to talk to you about. You're gonna get killed hitchin how you do ever where. So I'll make you a deal. You work for me ten weeks. I'll take fifty a week out of your paycheck. You should have enough to get by. You can bunk with Jim in the barn."
  There were two Jims: one was a horse, the other might as well have been. I liked the horse just fine.
  "Okay," I says, grateful. "Thanks."
  Once he stood up from leaning against the funny looking car, he says, "You do all right." 
  He signed over the title to me, and left me taking a long look at my first true Junker Tourismo (JT).

  It was a Dodge Duster that Donnie sold me. My father's car had been a '48 Studebaker Champion. Though more modern and boiled down the Duster reminded me of the Studebaker. The inline six cylinder engine, which powered both cars, though the Duster was technically a slanted inline six, was well known for crotchets, oddities, sudden skips of the engine, humping and bumping. The windshield wipers in the Studebaker ran slower driving up the hill and faster driving down the hill. But Father seemed to like the old boat; he kept it forever, and it ran lousy for a long time. It never quit completely; it slowed down, coughed and smoked, but forged ever onward. And the windshield wiper phenomenon impressed me strongly. Though a mechanical thing, it was imbued with intelligence and knew what's what.

  Like the Studebaker the Duster was a big, roomy sedan. Built like a truck the Duster was a great JT and it became the vehicle of choice for many junker drivers. In certain far away parts of the world the slant six engine is a tradition, a prized family heirloom passed on from one generation to the next. Lucky for me I ran into it and Donnie at an impressionable age. And thus as I became a grown up, I began to search everywhere for cars in the grand junker tradition like the old Duster.
  At first I wondered if I was in my right mind. But why would Donnie, a rodeo champion, jerk tiny, nothing me around? At first I was not impressed. The car was weak, rattley. I know of one Duster that on the first drive out of the dealership dropped the drive shaft on the road; it just fell out. But after the hundred-thousand mile break-in the Duster was a sturdy, gentle giant, an amazing road warrior. Modern cars aim for an astounding first impression; the sharp decline to an early rendezvous with the junkyard comes later, somewhat later, and sometimes not a very long somewhat later. A Junker Driver won't go motoring in just anything.
  Now, a childhood experience in which funds were limited will take you close, but an adulthood in which it was normal to be broke will actually get you somewhere in the junker world.
  I heard a lot about used Cadillacs. But even when the juice was 30 cents a gallon, how could I afford a Caddy? I fell in with other junker drivers—something Junker Drivers tend to do; they are like druggies in the way they run across each other. We agreed that rust was the enemy. A clean car without rust holes was in seventh heaven with God, but an old rusted out carcass was doomed to the junkyard beside Satan. A Caddy might skirt Satan's acquaintance for a good many years, threaten numerous times to fall. But they had thicker metal, or something. Eventually the engine vomited so much smoke that a rebuilt had to be installed. But once you put in the rebuilt, went through that desperate hassle, then a Caddy could be counted on for another long run. Even if you parked a Caddy outside in the weather, it resisted the deadly development of junker rust holes. It might leak in the cabin some on a long ride on a rainy day, but the water didn't spray in, soak your pant legs, irrigate your accelerator foot. But how could I ever afford a used Caddy?
  But I could afford Donnie's disgusting junker, which ran for over 200,000 miles on top of the 75,000 was already on it. Then one day it skidded on a snowy road in the Skagit, tires bald, dropped down into a big ditch. Wow, lucky! Wrecked, but she still ran fine, and I managed to drive her home all the way to New Hampshire, five gallon buckets of water in the back seat, stopping every twenty, thirty miles to load up the radiator. Then she gave up the ghost, turned into a big ball of twisted, tattered metal dropped down on flat tires, shreds of duct tape flapping in the wind. Oh my God, I thought, what next?
   Just so happened, previous to the Duster, I had lived in Germany. Everybody in Germany that I knew owned a Beetle. Beetles were a dime-a-dozen. The four cylinder opposed air-cooled engine was an absolute forty horsepower wonder. One man alone in a dark driveway could pull the engine, drag it up to the kitchen and overhaul it on the kitchen table. Once it was cleaned up and shining, it even made an interesting "ob-jec" to drink beer around. I got so I could do a successful overhaul, rather than just another crude patch job. In the long run hardly anything mechanical ever happened to them. Keep fresh oil in the engine, and the air cooler hat nicely adjusted—a little serious trick to it—and if you didn't beat on it, you could count on the little engine for most of a dog's lifetime. But watch out for body rot. Look around the door panels for dull grungy smudges. The Beetle had no defenses at all against body rot. It was like putting the lambs in with the lions. Once the body rot started, the little Beetle ended up in the junkyard fast. One poor innocent bought an old Beetle with a bad case of the rot, and he was driving down the road, went over a bump, heard a tearing sound and found himself scraping chair bottom at fifty miles an hour on the highway. Scared him plenty!
  The Honda Civic was a great improvement in technology. It was one of the first boxy front wheel drive hatchbacks. Honda sold the first few models for less than $2,000 new! Back then it was quite a stretch to the American eye to get past how tiny it was. But it had a surprising amount of room for the front seat passengers. The back seat was okay for two forty pound kids or one moderate sized family pet. But the hatchback could be used to load stuff in. Put down the back seat and you'd shoehorn in whatever you might need at college for a few weeks. They were always efficient, getting an honest thirty-five miles per gallon. A few models down the line, this was more than twenty-five years ago, they'd get fifty plus, highway. And the engine would hang on forever. This engine was a clever wonder. There have been several such extremely cleverly built and economical engines in the last twenty-five years. They had a successful run and mysteriously disappeared. I have my theory why, but you'd think I was crazy.
  Again, no protection in the Civic in an accident. In those days all the other traffic was BIG. But certain models became much coveted JTs. Among Junker Drivers you'll hear many an amazing tale.
  There were other good JTs: certain models of the Ford Mustang, or if you could get a used one reasonable, the T-Bird. You need duct tape and a pot of self-tapping screws for a GM, but most of the stuff on a Ford tends to stay put. An oddball, I'd almost say unimportant, mechanical device might fail on a Ford; a mystery might develop, which would be best ignored. Any good Junker Driver soon develops a powerful ability to ignore almost anything that doesn't stop the old boat dead.
  But for some reason in the mid eighties or so it became hard to find a good used JT. Old Shel tweaked the Dodge Omni. He called it GLH (Goes Like Hell--it really did.) But if you didn't beat on it too much it also lasted like hell. Datsun brought over a little four cylinder that was bulletproof. Some Junker Drivers stole the Iron Mike out of a TJ and dropped it in whatever they could find with minimal rust. Old Volvo fours were also much prized. Engine swapping became the unofficial automotive art of Junker Drivers. 
  I must admit I was rattled. I almost bought a Shelby Omni in '85. None of these cars were true JT's. If it was not rust, the engine was frail; if the engine ran strong, everybody worried about rust.
  I think I lost my mind. I bought the only new car I'll ever admit to buying in my life, an '85 Mustang GT, the year of a major redecoration by Ford. I have nothing bad to say about the car. It was worth every penny in fun and thrills. Hard to keep tires on her, though. That 305 loved to rev. It could really lay down the rubber. You couldn't kill the 305 if you tried. But it used too much juice. I got rid of the Mustang in '91. The market was glutted with little Asian cars, some of them pretty, but none of them were true junkers.
  Alas, soon enough I was broke again. Laid off. Big depression in Maine. Then I did the only thing I could do: not buy a truck. A good junker slaps you in the face. They are not trucks. A hound dog sniffs a hot trail; I sniff a good junker. I bought a...well, my wife liked it. It was never around the house long enough to do an oil change!
  I remember Donnie, whom I chat with all the time, though he's gone to the other world. "Damn," he'd say, "I couldn't even fit one big foot in that!"
  "Yeah! But Donnie, you keep oil in her and she'll last you till you dead."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Real Reading--Part 1

                                              If in life you safely arrive at an age when most of the gang is already dead, the desire to sum up is ineffable. I wonder, father and mother dead, two step-children, friends I once knew gone, and me gone too, conceivably, at a moment's notice, how did I grow up or did I grow up at all? Do I still live with the facts and theories I was taught in school? My mother bid me the usual principles—be kind to your neighbor, love your country—, and one I have always had a problem with: give until it hurts, then give a little more. Or have I progressed to something if not larger, different? Novel? More specific? More possible? What proof do I have that my StoryNoir was spent with eyes open, and not half dead shut? In short: what have I, pilgrim amid a life, honestly come to believe?
  Just recently with this topic in mind I spent a rainy afternoon picking out books I have lived with. What have I been reading the last fifty years, and why? My thought is: shouldn't that tell me what is, at least to me myself, really important? It is not uncommon to lose track, to become involved in unclear notions. Should not the books one reads tend to correct that?
  Of course I'm behind the times. Styles change, tastes change. A ten years younger book lover may not share my interests. Maybe, a young student of today won't know most of the books I've spent a good portion of my life wondering about. Do they still read John Milton in school? I was pretty much finished with school before Salinger and Kerouac and Fitzgerald became assigned reading. I remember clearly how wonderful it was to read On the Road and The Great Gatsby without anybody nagging at me. Milton, on the other hand, was shoved down my throat. It is only recently I have learned to look forward with pleasure to reading him again. Shakespeare escaped all that, as who gives a damned which pedagogue is looking over your shoulder when you are reading him? On the other hand, reading Shakespeare made textbook reading for me forever an insufferable chore. Though I may wonder what the kids are reading, once upon a time I was surely wondered about, too.  I do hope they will know who Jesus and Socrates are, though last I heard Socrates was a figment of Plato's imagination, in which case, I suppose, Plato at least must be real. The real Jesus seems to be holding his own, whether married or not, and I take it as divinity that his bones never have been found, move over Harry Potter.
You might not know where Pablo is, but you sure can tell where Pablo was.
  I must confess now, before I go farther, I am well past 60, and I wouldn't be doing this if it were not a rainy day. I'd be outside in God's nature because who knows how many days I have left.
  Anyway, looking out the window of my book lined man cave, I note the dark and dreary. In the wind the rain descends sideways. I am grateful to have a shelter that is paid for, hope it will stand straight till I am dead. So I begin to collect my most often read in books. I try very hard to be honest. I admonished myself not to include books I dreamed about reading, such as Joyce's Ulysses, but never did. Or books I thought I should read and did read mostly but not to the end, such as David Copperfield or War and Peace. On the other hand, books I read through and never thought much about again, such as Huck Finn, or read through once, thought about a lot but never read again, such as The Catcher in the Rye, I did include. Except that they have good names that had a nice sound—especially when combined with the blood red cover of my paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye—when they dropped in my life, all told I gave both books rather short shrift. Take Walden, I read it a few times—"Economy" was assigned in school—still nothing special, then for a long time I found a home in Thoreau's voluminous Journals. Out of respect for The Journals I included Walden, then I included both Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye because of their eminence as American books. Not so such very similar, well known books, such as Mailer's The Naked and the Dead or Heller's Catch-22 or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-5, this last of which I never did read. I have owned most of Vonnegut's books at various times in my life. I can't remember where they went. They are journalistic in style, in fact they remind me of newspaper work. I had a nice week or so with The Naked and the Dead, never finished Catch-22.
  Lots of books go straight over my head. I once had an Aunt I was very fond of, a sprightly little woman, whose every word flew like a dove high over my head and disappeared in a hurry. There are in this category many books, so many, I wonder that I am really a book lover at all: Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield—a book Tolstoy admired—Vanity Fair, Middle March, The Scarlet Letter, Winesburg, Ohio, The Great Gatsby, and so on. I have been chided and criticized for my lack of comprehension of William Faulkner. "These are books you should know!" They have insisted. Hemingway didn't think Faulkner was so great either. There are many meritorious books. I have tried Fielding's Tom Jones numerous times. Gatsby, supposedly a very vivid book, I remember in an haze. But since it was not a good enough book yet to assign in school I forged on alone. Who were these rich people? Why did they act that way? The Scarlet Letter struck more of a chord with my Roman Catholic upbringing. In fact the professor leaned on it quite remarkably, I thought. I studied the book, dug out a regular sink hole of details, and aced the test cold. Although the professor did not directly accuse me of somehow cheating, from his remarks on the test paper the inference was obvious. But these books, and others similar, such as The Red and the Black, went straight over my head, and the odds are against me ever having enough time to read them again. Their authors did not write them with me in mind. But I did make an effort to appreciate them, and I did appreciate them, but in the end I didn't care about what I was appreciating. These I did not include in my special book shelf. But the non-special bookshelf a few feet away on the other wall keeps them. Some day I will hide them away in boxes. Their constant presence accuses me of the possibility of a lifetime of gloomy ignorance.
  But some books I read more than once, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls. Fidel read it, claims to have learned from it, and so did Che. I read it three times, the latest about ten years ago, and I might just read it again before I die. Nobody has to remind me the mess of things a single person who happens to show up at the right place and time equipped with mighty modern firepower can make of things, since it seems to happen every day, no war necessary. Ernest Hemingway, the author of this book, has stuck with me over the years but not as a writer of long stories—I have yet to figure out what a novel is so I'll just call it a long story—rather more as a writer of short stories. I have spent many hours reading The Complete Short Stories and The Old Man and the Sea with edification and pleasure. I have also read various biographies, essays and so on about Hem with less edification and pleasure. It is nice to know that a writer that you have enjoyed reading over the years also lived an interesting life, but I don't think it is necessary for him to lead the interesting life or for me to have to read about it.
  Another great writer of short stories whom I have read quite often over the last forty years is Isaac Babel. He is a writer very similar to Hemingway, though in other respects very dissimilar. Hem, a doctor's son, a middle class American boy, who summered in Upper Michigan and was attracted to foreign wars, was nowhere or time similar to the poverty stricken boy whose youth was disturbed—this youth, incidentally, portrayed by several ravishingly dark and beautiful stories—by the anti-Jewish pogroms of Odessa, Ukraine. Isaac Babel was allowed a short, feverish lifetime to write in; he told the truth the best he knew it, and then the Soviets buried him. There is much else that can be said in comparing these two writers, but that is not my purpose here. I'll say this: while Hem has come to an erstwhile conclusion with me, Babel strongly soldiers on. I just read a few days ago a story by Babel entitled "The Beginning" and I suddenly realized that nobody I had ever read had written a story quite like it. The subject is almost too obviously common to write about. But Babel sifted it out of the darkness of the obvious and made it stunningly new. There is nothing in Hemingway to compare it to. Babel reached truths in the human condition that Hem also tried to reach. And what a youth he was, this Babel, who was dead before most men learn to think! Both writers have an exceptional understanding of the revolutionary zeitgeist that has drenched the 20th century and threatens in a cataclysm the 21st.
  Please indulge me: in the end I am a patriotic American. I never could figure out if Hem was really an American, and of course Babel was a Rooshian. In my opinion, you are whatever country you were born in. There's no switching in mid-stream; you become a man without a country. The new country will never accept you and the old one won't either. Henry Thoreau hardly ever left Concord. Why should Hem and the others, Pound, Fitzgerald, Eliot, and who else?, leave America and end up getting smothered in European cross purposes? Babel was always a Russian. He left Russia in order to stay alive, but he was in a deadly hurry to get home again anyway. Hem followed his whim of the day for whatever reasons. It made him famous, because Americans love anything foreign, but it hurt the spiritual growth. Everybody bitches about the lack of the spiritual in Hem. It might not have helped that he'd chase and kill anything that swum or walked or flew. Still when he finally got home in "Wine of Wyoming", for instance, the words practically jump off the page at you. These two authors are prominent in my special bookshelf.
  So these two I am sure of. But I have sifted out of my numerous, compendious bookshelves not just 48 others, to make up the 50 I have promised myself on this rainy day, but 75 others, all of which I have read more than once. I remember thinking in High School how unpromising little me could not expect to be taught to by an energetic hopeful master, therefore I must depend on a lifetime of self-education if I would ever attain a state I shyly referred to as wisdom. And beyond the 75 there are at least another 25! So this project of mine may take more than one rainy day. I was at once stuck in the dismal swamp of indecision but hopeful too, because the next rainy day may not be long in coming.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Barn Cleaning

                                                When Hercules diverted two rivers to clean the Augean stables, he never touched the stuff. Legend has it that it had been some time since a good cleaning had been done last. You can imagine the piles of manure, the workers obscured in clouds of the flies, their tie-dyed tees discolored damp brown. Whatever Herc had to go through to divert the rivers, in my opinion, his strategy was a miracle of efficiency. Since I don't have a river handy, I have decided that maybe it would be wise to hire a comrade worker.
 It is the end of winter and most of the larger pens in the goat barn are a foot deep in manure. Now the warm weather has arrived, this solid, dry hard-packed stuff should be disposed of pronto. Leaving it creates a perfect environment for hordes of flies. But pile it outside in the sun, it begins to smolder, breaking down everything, even the fly larvae. After a while flies circle the piles in a nervous frenzy. They do touch-and-goes. The barn waste is too hot even to land on. I should not dawdle; some summers past I have dawdled, and the flies were annoying both outside the house and inside. My wife hates flies. Flies in the house mean war, and not just war against the flies.
 The barn is a big space and a working class neighborhood. It's not easy these days to find a comrade worker with a strong back. I'm not kidding! Where did they go? America was built by steel workers, coal miners, sodbusters. The sodbusters are my personal heroes of all Americans. I harden myself to face the job alone, as I have usually in the past. I start out slowly, do two truck loads the first morning. At this rate I'll be finished in a couple of weeks. I have other work that I need to start. Then, as luck would have it, I ran into some parents. They have been married for thirty plus years. They have two boys and a girl. One of the boys works, but the other still goes to High School. You can easily tell a teenager who has both mother and father on duty from one who is getting by on just one or the other. Two parents will fuse together their moral force and impress upon a kid that if he wants to buy anything, he should go out and go to work. If the kid is seriously inclined toward purchasing something or other, he will learn to persist. This young man has muscles everywhere—he wrestles on the team in school. I usually get along pretty well with kids like that. We quickly make a deal. Now I am somewhat less daunted. I agree to drive to Bethel to get him for the day. I am hopeful. But one thing about work: you must show up. Quite a few young workers, I have observed, have troubles with that.
 The object is to finish the job in about six hours. It is an odd fact that two people are better than twice as useful (and ambitious!) as one. The one tugs on the other for their energy. That must have come from the same tribal associations as the imagination came from ten-thousand years ago. Both, sociability and imagination, are hard to explain. They can't be fully explained by claiming self-interest. They just happen.
 My fellow worker was ready to start as soon as we arrived. I didn't have to say anything. We started shoveling manure into the truck. I like to dump the stuff close to where the gardens are. Every year by Fall a pile of barn waste has been broken down enough to spread on my gardens. My gardens' soil is black. The plants are always large and fruitful, capable of fighting off minor ailments and bad weather, because I spend a lot of time preparing the soil. The animals play a necessary role in fertilizing the garden. Nothing is wasted. It is the ecology of Roughhouse Farm, an ecology also ten-thousand years old, as old as agriculture, as old as domesticated animals.
 It surprised me how quickly we filled the Dodge half-ton junker. The old Dodge is a dozen years old; thinking about it, ancient times come to mind. We took out truckload after truckload. I ran the pick to loosen the stuff, he ran the pitchfork. We shuffled the animals off to other pens so not to disturb our work. I thought we must finish in six hours.
 But after lunch our bodies began to rebel. I noticed that my comrade was sitting down. That must also be ten-thousand years old, I mean the sitting down after lunch. Most likely for that very reason Pharaoh did not feed his Hebrew slaves any lunch. For a moment the youthful worker looked at me beseechingly as if wondering whether perhaps he might come back tomorrow. Tomorrow we would finish the job. Do you think a sodbuster would put this job off till tomorrow? Absolutely not. When I chided him about sitting down, for his back would stiffen sitting down too long and make the work go twice as hard, he jumped up and became a good worker again. My wife irrigated his poor soul with Gatorade. Notice she did not Gatorade my poor soul; water would do for me. Then when we got more than halfway through, the work gathered steam, as we had arrived within a last hard push to the end. Where did the weariness go now the end was near?
 There truly is a beginning, a middle and an end to all things. You aren't tired yet, so the beginning is easier, but on the other hand it may require imagination to get started. Some people have a knack for beginning just as other people have a knack for slogging through the middle. Now for us the slogging through the middle was over. Some souls, especially those equipped with Gatorade, fight toward the finish better than other souls. The slogging souls, even those which Gatorade has energized, fall off, they slow down, they stop, and the finishers pick up the pace. They are desirous to get finished. No excuses. And by now has come into the brain lightheadedness. This and that are clear: we are put on this planet to suffer. And then once we are well suffered, we are dropped into a ditch with the trash. And from this hole our souls rise lightly to the great beyond, where we then are trapped in sweet yearning to be relieved from eternity and returned once again to God's vale of tears, this StoryNoir, our lives.
 Thus it was while barn cleaning with my comrade, at the very end when we were all but a single truckload from finished, and leg weary and sloughing along shakily, I came to a fresh understanding of the world. Isn't that amazing though; who would ever expect it, pitchfork heavy with clods of manure. I had always wondered where the souls came from to fill the new bodies born every day. I even made up a legend—soul factories run by entrepreneur angels. But my legend reminded me too much of life. So here I was in the yearly extremity of barn cleaning, my mind in the befuddled mood that precedes creativity—often befuddled as well as exhausted, I'm not kidding!—when it occurred to me that the souls must want to come back. That would explain everything. There's this tiny nut of sweetness in the middle of eternity, and, dammit, the souls want to come back to it. They all want to come back, but only some of them are allowed. The eternities must be well populated; so it is given. But now and then there are a few souls left over. And that is what the souls jockey for, a position in which they are among the leftovers, the ones who are allowed to come back.
 As we were jimmying up the last clod of manure, it all came clear to me. Then we were done. I returned my comrade worker to his mother and father. His mother was gathering eggs in the hen house. She came out to watch him cross the dooryard to go into the house, her young man, worker for a day. He was walking uncomfortably bent over. She laughed to see him. It didn't take me long to climb into bed that night myself. I thought I had it all figured out. But next morning it didn't seem half so clear. Alas, maybe next barn cleaning it might come back.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Easy is the Fall

                                            The Trailways bus drove out of Tallahassee in the darkest hour of the morning heading west. The bus's seats were full, so some quiet folk were standing. They were neatly dressed and faces clean on their way to work. The bus stopped here and there, discharging these slow moving, friendly souls in front of flat, elongated buildings, mostly without windows.
  Florian Obumsalin sat in the rear of the bus, in the back compartment, which was several feet higher than the front compartment: this bus was called a scenic cruiser. He was a long way from home, a long way from anyplace he knew about, and he was on his way in this bus to somewhere, he was unsure where. He was a young man, just twenty, and he was afraid that he had lost his way. In a time in his life, sometime, something had happened, and he had lost his way. He thought that somehow if he could find that time, and get back to it, he could right it, and find his way again.
  The bus slowly proceeded out of the darkness deeper into the countryside. A pungent dawn rose over the great flatlands. Piny woods, harsh and fervent, prickly as a porcupine's back, imprisoned the road. Hellacious little cabins, half broken in the morning but not quite broken, stood in the dark clearings. Grey headed black folk, sitting on porches stained white, but any color except white, watched this whizzing passing with grave indifference.
  Now only a few people remained in the bus. After awhile the motion of the bus drugged Obie's eyes so that the monotonous landscape slowly disappeared. Then the strong voices of two black women sitting in the next row behind him began their domination.


  "Now, you live down near the airport, don't you, Perl? That place they call Wildville?"
  "I do."
  "Then you must know Barney Slocum."
  "Sure. Who don't? What a wild bunch they are! A wild bunch from Wildville!"
  Laughter transcended the road noise.
  "Wasn't always so. Barney was once a nice fellow. So were Jed and Louis. I myself could never quite take to William, though. He went up north, Richmond or Raleigh, one of them. You could never quite pin him down like the other boys. He meant to please, but you always knew his mind was elsewhere, usually on himself, his next drink, his next woman; a slim to the hips boy with spindly little legs to stand on.
  "Now Barney, he could talk. He had the gift of it, swept you right off your feet. Ain't much at all like he is now, heavy mouth, face groaning. How he got that way and took to drink, I was once inquisitive. Lord knows, I was married then, four of my own, and about as slowed down as you can get without stopping. And my ways about town, as they say, were all in a different direction from Barney's for some years. But years do pass and mama gets out more, by-and-by. My husband, Eddy White, you know him, don't you? the electrician? Used to work for the water works?
  "Lately on Saturday nights Eddy and I have been inclined to tip a few at the Social Club? On Beach Boulevard? Eddy knows how to dance, that's why I married him, but back when my man Barney, Lord, he was put on this earth to dance! Jed, too, though not so much Louis and William. We weren't but old kids. When Barney would strut, usually with that little brown girl lived on the Crescent, Jamaican, I believe, Molly Lafleur, and myself on occasion I don't mind saying, how he'd light up the world! As if the strands tying him to earth were entranced to release, and all the hunger and joy flowed out. He had the joy and the light that was all his own, his own particular. Certainly that should protect you from whatever to come, that skill, that presence of being, shouldn't it? I mean, a holy man is always holy, isn't he? How could a man blaze the way he did, then one day cross the street an angry decrepit old fool, all closed in, not even seeming to remember what once was? So dead to what he used to be so feeling about?
  "He left home and wandered, Loo, didn't he?" Said the other woman, Perl. "Didn't one of them, besides William, leave home? Louis, Lord knows, has been around and kicking for since I can remember, but didn't Barney go up to New York or Boston for a time. I believe so."
  "Well, I sure wish it could be something simple. Left home. A squabble with the law. Ruined by the riots. Lost in love, that would be a good one. Something simple a person could explain to herself. Anyway, one Saturday night me and Eddy were down the Social Club. There was that little lady singing, Katy Gibb, you heard her? My, I'm proud knowing she came from my home town. Eddy and I were kicking our heels, when who do you think walks in, sits in the darkest corner? Left his usual haunts on Green Street near the overpass?"
  "Barney? Hard to imagine. They let him in?"
  "Oh, all cleaned up. Fresh out of the detox. He's sitting, drinking CoCola. What a surprise! So I turned over my Eddy to Marlene Randall, and I couldn't help myself to walking over, arid bones creaking. You know the way he is, I was more than a little worried about what he and I would say to each other. Well, he didn't look too bad; not like usual, not like a stray dog. He even smiled a little as I sat down. Surprising how, now he was sober, he could help me remember. Skinny dipping with Clyde Banks, teasing Bob Smith, the motorcycle man with the limp, Hank Bonney, and all the dancing and singing and playing guitar, especially dancing, Molly Lafleur, Mary Lou Banks, Duke Henry, Alice Carr. It was the life we had. We talked for the longest while. Still had his teeth, the faintest remembrance of the grin used to light up the empty spaces, and the colorful twang in his speaking voice which'd lift the worries off your heart. Lord, it was all almost there, but hollow, as if just a matter of habit. I can't tell you, I got surpassing curious. I don't remember he had any great attachment to anything growing up, not even beer. If he'd been on something, or truant that way, wouldn't I know about it? At least back then; before when he went away. I grew up with him! He was the strongest of us all! Didn't even like putting himself up to a boyish risk. Just straight and hardy. What happened? Why? I'll tell you what a desperate craving I had to ask him why. Why Dick True? Slowest, lowest, most lovelorn of all us poor souls is in the Legislature and not Barney Slocum? Why Ted Lovell, with two left feet and matching brain, owns the hardware store and the shopping plaza it's smack in the middle of? Frank Parsons, God, he sucked his thumb and drooled till he was near sixteen, who's on the TV every night now telling us, not me, I can tell you that, who knows him only too well, telling us what's true? Why? I wanted to ask, why not Barney Slocum? And now this man, still handsome, I ain't saying he wasn't, slim to the face and quick eyed, though generally more baleful, sort of, than I remember from before. Baleful, now, not glowering or mean like, more watchful, observant, oh, but still handsome, not with the pretty used to be, but grown up and keen.
  "We talked for the longest while, telling each other this and that. Turned out he had been married to a girl in South Carolina. Pretty little thing, younger than he was, but didn't work out. Said he spent fifteen years in the Marines, injured in Korea, hung out for awhile, then rotated out with a pension. That surprised me some, 'cause I couldn't remember a time when I didn't see him at all, maybe not often, but never not at all, or didn't seem like, and never once saw him in uniform. Never even believed him to be the type. But what does a mother know about these man goings on?
  "He'd traveled, been to Europe, Japan, Australia, Lord knows, places I don't know how to dream about. Alaska! But wouldn't that make a man happy, knowing he'd had some staying one place and some not staying at all? Certainly wasn't the end of his life, not this man sitting in front of me now, though not forgetting how many times past few years I had seen him squatting half asleep in a tattered pile of shit. How it burned in my mind! We continued to chat, but no way could I get myself up to ask him, 'What happened to the dancing man?' No way!
  "And just as I was about to give up, because the conversation had slowed, I was starting to notice my Eddy was dancing maybe a bit too close to Marlene Randall to suit me, all of a sudden he catches my eye and says, 'My soul got up and left me.'
  "Dumb as I am, how am I supposed to take that? I thought his wife left him, soul meaning an endearing sort of term for wife, because the real meaning was more distant and terrifying than I wanted to come upon just then in that place. I'd have chided him one way or another, 'Well, women being so fickle, some men might call that a piece of luck,' I might have said, or something to that affect, but his eyes were so sad and far away, finally I said, 'Soul?'
  "'Yes,' he says, 'my soul went away.'
  "'No,' I says. 'No such thing ever happened.'
  "'Yes. Sometimes that can happen, you know. You blow it. It can happen in a few days, a few minutes. I blew it. I went to New York, and I learned false steps. I knew they were false, but I learned them anyway. I was hungry and I wanted to make money. Then my soul went away. I couldn't do anything any more but the false steps. So I wanted to die, I  was so ashamed. I could not go home. I could not even kill myself.'
  "'But God wouldn't do that,' I says, 'would he?'
  "'I don't know about God,' he says. 'I only know about my soul, who went and left me. Oh, I felt so empty. There was nothing that could please me any more. And all the steps I did embarrassed me so because the falseness was in them. Still, the falseness is in me. I can't move a step without feeling it. I walk down the street false. I am banished from myself.'
  "Well, I was scared, Perl, wouldn't you be? Him looking at me so earnest like. I wanted to leave, and then I didn't want to leave. So I said to him, 'Won't He ever give you your soul back? If you are good?'
  "'I don't know, I am trying to be good.'
  "'But where did it go? Back to heaven?'
  "Imagine me asking a fool question like that? But I couldn't leave. I felt he'd be hurt. So I couldn't. But every fool question has a fool answer, and this was one I had to listen to.
  "'No,' he said, 'it fell in love with another body, a student of mine, who could not learn the false steps I was trying to teach him. He didn't refuse, he wanted to, he tried, he just couldn't. So my soul went into his body. I did everything I could think of to win my soul back. But it would not come back to me. It would not. This boy, whom I had been teaching was a thief, born without a soul. He was evil. He was scarred. He was full of revolt. I hated him because he had no style, didn't even know what style was, and yet I was empty, and he became full.'
  "By that time, Perl, I had fallen in about to my neck and sinking fast. What was I going to ask him next? What did it look like? He has to be rational enough to know he'd put a serious damper on things…"
  "But maybe he did see it," Perl said.
  "No, who knows why it is one man with problems falls while another man with even more problems don't. I tell you, it's a mystery to me. Fallin's easy."
  "But this soul business, going from one person to another and all that, if he actually saw it, that'd tend to set you back. Would me, anyway."
  "Oh silly! No man ever saw his soul, not even Barney Slocum, less he was crazy. Besides, if it did ever really happen, it would damn sure scare me into fear enough of the Lord I'd sure as hell straighten out than end up worse cracked."
  "You got no way of knowing, Loo. You remember Angela Berry up Harper's Well. She lost her oldest boy to pneumonia, I believe, the very glint in her eye, and she took to drink. She never drank before in her entire life. And you with four all growed and husband healthy as an ox. How would you know?"
  Loo carried on in a deep voice about the strength of her character, before she finally admitted softly, "I been lucky."
  Perl laughed, and said finally, "Thank God for you, girl."


The Trailways bus sped west on the road to Mobile. Obie listen to the women's soft whispers which slowly died out. His body became numb so that he could hardly move, hardly even lift a finger. But his mind roved all over his life. They were not dreams: memories changed, reduced, simplified; he was not so much asleep as in a trance. The dark fecundity of the coastal wetlands, the vibrations of the bus over the uneven highway entranced him. They were voices! Voices as if from a jukebox in a tattered cafe. A metallic arm slid up and down a stainless steel rail that snatched at random any record--he had no control which--, flipped it onto a turntable, and he must listen, he must listen. And there were voices played back, and he blushed in anguish.
  Oh God, I have seen cruelty, that I have seen; but greater than any cruelty, I have seen compassion, and so I was amazed.
  "Barney married again," said Loo. "Sweet little girl from Baton Rouge. Pregnant last I saw. Then one night beat her near death. When you fall, where's the stopping? When you falls, you fall."
  Both women got off in Mobile besieged by a human tide of happy family.