- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
“His ability to invoke wonder is inspiring.”
John Vernon's reclusive brother, Paul, died of an aneurysm in 1996, and having no wife or children or intimate friends, he left everything he owned to Vernon, even though they were not close -- Paul was 16 years older and, in Vernon's words, "strange." Nothing, though, had prepared Vernon for what he found inside his brother's house when he went to examine what he had inherited. The place was, almost literally, a dump.
It was littered with human and animal feces and the corpses of pets, along with all the usual detritus of late-20th century life: engine parts, cigarette butts, Pepsi bottles, food cartons, pornographic magazines and junk mail. In some rooms the trash reached the ceiling and garbage covered every inch of floor space. The stench was overwhelming.
Mixed with the filth were various items Vernon recognized: a framed photograph of their grandmother, the model airplanes and ham radio equipment that had cluttered Paul's boyhood bedroom, a letter Vernon had written him from graduate school. The scene precipitated powerful emotion and deep thought, as it would in anyone, and Vernon -- the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles -- responded as any writer in the late 1990s would: He wrote a memoir.
But it's a peculiar example of the genre. Instead of dwelling on the sadness, guilt and confusion that his discoveries gave rise to, he moves about between what he can remember of his brother, what he went through in managing Paul's "estate" and the history of the universe, in approximately equal parts. This approach turns A Book of Reasons into the negative of a memoir, a kind of anti-memoir: a book that concerns itself not with the author but with the rest of the world.
For example, when Vernon discovers that Paul's house doesn't have a working heating system, he consults his 80-year-old encyclopedia and a variety of other sources in order to tell us how central heating evolved. Other chapters cover the evolution of tools, the earliest study of the central nervous system, the history of embalming and interment and the science of human conception and gestation. Sprinkled among the science, history and history of science are small revelations about Paul and his life, as well as enough literary allusion, mythology, etiology and urban legend to satisfy any hungry mind.
While these excursions might be informative and enlightening to people who did not study the topics in college -- and even to those who did -- the best thing A Book of Reasons gives us is a glimpse into the workings of a writer's mind. When Vernon is nailing up a thermometer or digging cat shit out of his dead brother's kitchen sink, he is simultaneously searching for things to write about. Of course, since everyday events and objects and experiences are what our world consists of, more or less, they are the source of literary inspiration; here the lineage is simply a little bit more apparent. And A Book of Reasons is inspired work indeed.
I was driving to a Wal-Mart in southern New Hampshire to buy a thermometer the day the world grew unfamiliar. My mind unclogged, it seemed-as though whatever I'd previously known turned out to be some sort of a blockage in a drain. It started slowly, even coyly, with vague irritations: heavy traffic on Route 28, the bum air conditioning in the van my brother'd left me, the resulting open windows, the heat and humidity, the fumes from idling cars. I passed May's, where we'd ordered the flowers for his funeral, passed the mini-malls, Granite State Potato Chips, the rows of yellow construction equipment lined up like Tonka toys behind a chain-link fence.
The worst was over, I'd been thinking. I could indulge in a little complacency for a change. I'd be driving home soon, back to upstate New York. And I was heading toward a Wal-Mart, the ultimate sanctuary of choice in Emporium America.
A car behind me honked, but it barely registered. Stupid chatter began running through my head about the value of my brother Paul's house and his adopted state's 18 percent inheritance tax, which applied horizontally to siblings but not vertically to parents or children. How strange, I thought. A child has only half your genes, after all. This tax clearly favored hierarchies dimly remembered from English common law. I was explaining this to someone in my head, and explaining the fact that Paul had never married, when, of its own weight, a picture slid from a brain cell-jogged by these thoughts-of Paul as a boy holding in his hand the branch of an apple tree, half hung with apples. The rest, miraculously, had broken into blossom. Memory works in the brain like brachiated lightning unloading its contents in faded afterimages. The picture weakened but still, in a sense, I remembered the memory, then something else happened. A line shooting up through walls of tissue guttered and caught, bisecting me vertically. It pulled on my heart like a cord on a tent: the first ache of sadness for my poor brother. And just an hour ago I'd been stupid with joy!
He held out the branch with fading reluctance like a boy who'd been bad. Was he returning it to someone? Other images drifted in, visual analogs of overlapping whispers-the double and triple exposures of memory. It felt like spilling water on a newspaper and reading tomorrow's weather through yesterday's scandal. Through Paul and his branch I saw my grandmother's house, smelled wet ashes in her driveway, felt the warmth of the rose quartz sitting in the recesses, tall and narrow, beside her front door. Ghosts more solid than the honking world around me. Where had that picture of my brother come from? He'd lived with my grandmother in central Massachusetts when I was growing up, and my parents and I had visited every weekend. By the time I was a child Paul was past his teens, and I thought of him more as an uncle than a brother. An uncle with a hobby-through the walls of Grandma's house I saw Paul's room hung with model airplanes, each suspended on a wire from the ceiling, each pieced together from balsa wood and cardboard with X-Acto knives and small, precise fingers.
Then I remembered. The picture of my brother was literally that-a newspaper clipping I'd found in his house three months ago, after his death. For twenty years he'd lived alone in New Hampshire, and his sudden death left me in charge of his affairs, including the obligatory sorting of remains. Most of it was junk, overwhelming trash, but I thought my mother would want this clipping, and she did in fact gaze at it wistfully before putting it in a drawer to be forgotten. Now it came back with urgent clarity: nine-year-old Paul offering to the viewer his amazing branch, half blossoms, half apples. So he'd been a child too, though beyond my witness-this was six years before my birth. And he hadn't been bad, hadn't stolen or broken anything, he was just camera shy: head tilted forward, dark gash of hair slung across his brow, black reluctant eyes not unlike a cautious dog's. He held the branch up like Liberty's torch, though faced with a camera Liberty looked slumped, and the torch was no higher than Paul's sunken chest.
The car honked again. I must have been Sunday driving. Past all the malls, I was still creeping along at 20 miles per hour on the two-lane highway. The car pulled out to pass me on a curve-a lipstick- red Grand Am-and a teenage male on the passenger side flipped me the bird, in our zoological slang.
Fuck you too, I mumbled-my atavistic twinge. I couldn't really get angry, though. I felt dazed, numb, saddened by the loss of an older brother whose life had barely left an imprint on the world. He'd been a recluse and a loner in a throwaway society, and here I was bent on the same course, driving to a store to buy something I didn't need, a cheap thermommmmmeter. I maintained my granny pace. Like a needle reading normal, I sat with one hand on the wheel, poised between distractedly complacent and obscurely annoyed. The Grand Am had thumped past like a war machine, with those booming woofers heard first in the bowels, and even now the sound lingered. I felt miles and months behind everyone else. Spring had arrived-summer was imminent-but me, I was still adjusting to winter, still wondering whether I needed a jacket. Once again, the revolutions were outpacing me, the wheels forever spinning, the days and weeks scrolling, but flapping like shades glued to the slower roll of the seasons-the earth itself cartwheeling on its axis at a speed of 22,000 miles a day, and revolving around the sun at 18.46 miles a second . . . statistical Drano for sluggish minds. I smiled to myself. The cosmos is a giant flywheel, said H. L. Mencken-but at least we flies are permitted to think that the wheel was constructed to give us a ride.
What happened to that boy with the branch? Where do youth and potential go when a life unravels?
I tried conjuring more memories of Grandma's house. Wasn't there a Victrola in, of all places, the bathroom, and hadn't my brother taken it after her death? Possibly, but I hadn't seen it in his house, though it could have been buried under piles of debris. His remains were of the sort one might find in a cave. He must have had that Victrola - Paul, I knew, was especially attached to my father's mother. My parents were living with Grandma when he was born, having moved in with her after their marriage. But when Dad found a new job and he and my mother moved to South Boston, where I grew up, they left their seven-year-old fifty miles away in Wire Valley with Grandma. I'd heard various reasons. The prospect of moving frightened young Paul. Besides, he was cute, and Grandma loved him so much that she might as well keep him to relieve her solitude. Also, the new apartment was small, and my parents would visit every weekend, a practice that continued after my birth and throughout my childhood. Finally, this was 1937-the Great Depression-and many families split up to go where the work was. Or so I'd been told when I asked about those years. I realize now that no greater mystery exists than the time before our birth, always darkened by the shadow that we ourselves cast.
Later, when I was a zit-faced adolescent, Grandma died and Paul joined the army, then lived with us in Boston, sharing my room. He stayed there after I left home, never dating or marrying, until he purchased the house in New Hampshire for which I was now buying a thermometer.
In the Wal-Mart parking lot I found a slot, rolled up the windows, locked the doors. Outside, the knots of people drifting toward the entrance possessed the glow of families converging on a church. We searched each other's faces for signs of recognition, exchanging looks that said, I'm just buying an apron (or a thermometer), but isn't it indeed just, right, and meet? This Wal- Mart had been dropped beside an empty highway like a modern country Assembly of God; there was nothing else here, no other stores. Around it were pine trees and still naked birches, some returning to earth as though swung on by one of the boys in Robert Frost's poem, those too far from town to learn about baseball.
From Route 28 came the sound of screeching tires, but no crunch of metal. Robert Frost's farm, now a museum, was six miles up the road.
On the store's pale blue pediment, a sort of packaged, shrink- wrapped extract of sky, were the red words Wal*Mart, and at the apex, where the cross should have been, a yellow happy face. Jefferson was wrong, I thought: happiness is not a state to be pursued but an embalmed yellow decal to slap on buildings and T-shirts. In the twenty-first century we'll hold up happy faces to ward off vampires. I looked around for the Grand Am, mildly worried that the teenagers were here too, to stock up on guns, but not one car in the parking lot was red.
Inside, the store smelled of motor oil and popcorn. A kindly Saint Peter in a silly blue apron welcomed me to Wal-Mart. Behind him, the department known as Kids' Clothes resembled a landscape of dead bunnies. I was floating, not walking, still in a fugue state, past picture cubes, portable ab rollers, cylinders of cheese puffs, and bread-slicing "systems"-past curling irons, Jockey shorts, 101 Dalmatians toothbrushes, CD storage towers, and electric massage mats, looking for the thermometers. And I marveled at our long and complex human history, at our evolution of an upright posture and grapefruit-sized brains, at our discovery of fire and burial rites, our development of language and ritual and dance, our paintings in caves, our invention of tools and farming and jewelry, our beautiful material cultures, our ancient cities, our aqueducts and looms and solar calendars, our models of the universe, our invention of the telescope, our discovery of the calculus, our balloon flights and steam engines and space stations and computers, and at the maze of mental and psychological organizations that trailed behind or pioneered these mounting stages of the past, all leading to this, to 101 Dalmatians toothbrushes and slipper socks and Cats in the Sun calendars and boxes of talking Michael Jordan dolls.
Amid designer thermometers with the circumference of basketballs and nice paintings of ducks and reeds on their faces, I found a plain outdoor thermometer for $2.59 and headed for the checkout.
Then I remembered I didn't have a hammer.
"Hickory," I said to the clerk in Hardware. It was stamped on the handle. "I wonder where they make these things." I was hefting it as hammer buyers do, to feel its forward weight. The heavy iron knot on the tip of the shaft makes one's blow more powerful.
"Right there." He pecked the handle. He possessed the sort of broadax face that barely turns and boom, it's a profile. Sunken eyes and teeth. He was anywhere between forty and sixty, and had a hard time mustering the Wal-Mart smile.
"Taiwan?" "You want to buy American, try the Stanley, but it's more." "I like the idea of hickory." "They're all hickory." The hammer was only $8.39. We were just chatting. "I was reading in the paper. You know Richard Reeves?" He shrugged.
"Writes a column? He talked about buying hardwood furniture, early American, and it all turned out to be made in Malaysia. So he did some research and found out that Indonesia has thirteen thousand islands covered with hardwood, and they're all being clear-cut. I bet that's where they got the hickory." "They got it from the moon for all I know. Sir." I was tempted to tell him about the great cutover in Michigan and Wisconsin a hundred years ago-twenty-three million board-feet of lumber worth four billion dollars, clear-cut from the upper Midwest. They floated it down to Chicago and milled it for balloon frames to build the new America.
In Japan they mill the iron that makes the heads for hammers used to build the iron mills.
But he'd turned to tidy up the duct tape across the aisle. The large, small, and medium rolls each had their own horizontal skewer, and some rolls had been misplaced. "Look at that." He turned back and held out a box of allergy pills.
"Pharmacy," I said, then felt odd for saying it. "What's it doing here?" He showed me it was empty. "They take out the pills and leave the box behind." "Steal them, you mean?" He looked at me with no expression at all.
Back at my brother's house, I cleared away some thorn shoots beneath the kitchen window with a dull saw I'd found in the basement that morning. It was a crosscut saw made for carpentry, not brush, and didn't cut so much as mangle. My father, I'm sure, would not have approved of this misuse of tools.
The house was an older-style ranch, on one acre in Kingston. A dirt road forked behind the pie-shaped lot. The front door faced Twist Run Road.
Behind a field across the road were dozens of chicken sheds, all with smashed windows.
My brother's place was half boarded up where its windows were broken. Paul had lived in Boston with my mother the last two years, having abandoned his house to vandals and rats. It needed a new roof. The front-entry stairs were gone. The brown aluminum siding was in pretty good shape, though, despite some pits, perhaps made by hail. The trim everywhere-around windows, eaves, and doors-was peeling and rotten. And the landscaping surrounding the house consisted of weeds, shrubs, and thorn bushes. But the white pines towering over the place, also one spruce, were impressive. They might help to sell the property. And this southern New Hampshire town was rapidly becoming a bedroom community. A twenty-minute drive down Route 111 led to I-93, thence to Boston, a mere hour away.
Thorn shoots kept getting caught in my pants-why on earth was I doing this? At last I was able to stand on a chair I'd salvaged from the house to nail up the thermometer. Entering the house made me uneasy, because of the smell, so the prospect of returning the chair was not something I looked forward to, but it had to be done. The real estate agent was coming today, and I'd have to show him through. A cement truck drove past, heading for the new subdivision up the road, Kingston Estates. Bees flew in and out of the letterbox on the back porch, beside the lilac bush. I tore the cardboard backing off the plastic bubble and pulled out the nails and bracket for the thermometer. The nails had spiral grooves up and down their shafts.
Freeze the frame there. Why was I doing this?
I was doing it because my brother had died and left me his house, and I had to sell it. I was doing it because of the laws governing alienable property and inheritance in families in the United States and the state of New Hampshire, laws modeled on English common law and rooted in the end of feudalism and the rise of capitalism and the concept of property. I was doing it for money. What is money? A system of exchange. One pays $2.59 for a thermometer, $8.39 for a hammer, prices in America always end in nines. Money is a delicately balanced mechanism of credit and faith, a shared fiction made of paper and pixels of light on computer screens in banks.
But why was I doing this?
I hadn't been that close to Paul. It wasn't just the fifteen years between us. He was odd; some would say he wasn't normal, though he'd held down a job all his life and managed to function in a presumably normal world. By the time he retired, however, he'd withdrawn from that world's pervasive engine of arrangements and become a recluse. At his death, lacking his own family, he left me everything he possessed, and in sifting through this legacy I'd come face to face with the mystery of his life, and what I'd seen had frightened me. I'd thought about it a great deal since his funeral, and my thoughts had spread to include not only the way he'd arranged his solitude, but the way we all do-the strangeness of marriage or of living alone, of work and money, of the sorrow of possessions-the oddity of cars and streets and interstates, of owning houses, of central heating, of buying fast foods and paying bills and using hammers and selling property and nailing up thermometers outside kitchen windows.
I was doing it because we live in houses, having tried the alternative-living in caves-which didn't work. From caves and rock shelters we moved to pits, skin tents, brush shelters, cliff dwellings, thence to houses, villas, castles, and palaces. I was doing it because even beavers build houses, and snails carry them around. Because a house is a sign of our dominion over the earth. Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth. Moderate extremes. Manage nature, don't let it manage you. Live in warmth where it is cold and in coolness where it is hot, and don't live like my brother, who wound up fouling his own nest.
Inside a warm kitchen, boiling up some Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner, one reads the temperature outside and shivers not with cold but with a sort of frisson. "Let it freeze without, we are comfortable within," said Sir Walter Scott. This, I knew, was important in New England. In a word, it was homey. Who knows, it might even encourage a prospective buyer to become an actual owner. Although there was a hitch. One could not be cozy in Paul's house once winter came, nor boil macaroni in his kitchen, since neither the furnace nor the plumbing was functioning. No problem, I thought, some American do-it-yourselfer would fix them, someone who likes a bargain.
He might need a strong stomach, though. After the plumbing and heating stopped working, and the toilet became inoperative, someone began using the cold-air return in the living room as a urinal. The results of this practice were evident in the basement: the large rectangular duct of sheet metal leading to the furnace had been torn open by rust. And worse had been done. Since the floor grate covering the cold-air return was removable, this convenient repository in the living room contained human excrement as well. It must have been vandals, I told myself.
Yet everything I'd found in the house before having it cleaned-the enormous piles of trash, the scarred and splintered walls, the garbage, the twenty-plus years of utility bills and junk mail, the mildewed photos, the damp stacks of lurid magazines, the charnel house rot of a life in pieces-suggested it wasn't vandals, it was Paul.
And none of these things, not even the grate, was the source of the smell.
I held the bracket to one side of the window and nailed the first nail in.
Why was I doing this?
Copyright (c) 2000 by John Vernon. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
I. HEAT 1 II. TOOLS 37 III. BODY 83 IV. CORPSE 127 V. HOUSE 165 VI. ORIGINS 201 CODA 251
Works Consulted 259