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By Padgett Powell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Padgett Powell
All rights reserved.
I, Simons Manigault, did not go to Harvard, following my mother's Quentin Compson, nor to Sewanee, following my father's footsteps and hopes. The titans of parenting came to a sorry compromise: I matriculated at Clemson, took a degree in architecture, which I could foresee never practicing but which was agreeable in the extreme against the prospect of reading for critical purposes the literature my mother bade me consume as a child. When you have read of Hester Prynne and her A as a bedtime story, more or less, you are not prepared to be waked up—and it is fancied a heady awakening—with it in a classroom. No, you are not.
My mother waked me to sleep, and I take my sleeping slow, as the poet with plenty of lying topspin did not put it, and I am inclined to a life of perennial nod.
I had some promise, it is said. It is not specified who promised what, of what the promise was made, where it inclined, on whom it bade well. Its bearing, its speed, its content I deem never adequately specified before I broke it.
I have a prurient mind, inclined once to what is called promiscuity, inclined to what is called alcoholism, am insensitive to others' feelings, lack methods of self-preservation despite marked selfishness, am analytically slow, if not stupid, am badly undereducated, show evidence of moral and physical cowardice, and have a perennial spare tire about my soft gut. Beyond this there is not much wrong with me. I have all my hair and all my teeth.
The house I grew up in and lived to make much of as a child, with its surround of noises from the sea and its books—sand peppering the walls as I read my mother's bidding—is now, when I visit, a hot, dull, small place. My mother, for whom and for whose drinking I once had poetic locutions, is today a tired, ragged, happy drinker.
My old man goes every year for his prostate exam, to a doctor who is, of course, a childhood friend and Yacht Club colleague, and with whom he will have a drink not two hours after the fellow's latexed finger has been having a look. My father, it would seem, is notorious in the small ways that the prostate-vigilant can be: he will not wait for the doctor, who must remove his glove first, to procure him a tissue, but waddles hobbled to the stainless-steel box and grabs a handful of the coarse brown folded sheets and swabs out the scene and is buttoning up before the doctor's glove is off. My hallowed, vaunted heritage. I know the scene because the Yacht Club hears it once a year, instant replay—my old man wobbles for a napkin in the telling—and a story told once at the Yacht Club is told a thousand times in a thousand lesser places. On the issue of Jews, who are excluded from the Yacht Club, or the issue, specifically, of my having dated one, my father is a liberal: "All cats are black at night."
There you have it. A fellow as lugubriously sensitive as I was once alleged, and who may admittedly have served notice to that effect himself, would have killed himself. I suppose only familiarity with suicide poets—that I can thank my mother for—and in particular with young suicide poets, bred enough contempt that I declared the route invalid. I detoured into meanness. And into, I suppose it is fair to say, practicality. There is not going to be anything particularly horrifying about your old man talking about K-Y jelly and Jews and real estate in one breath, or your mother languishing of a broken literary heart, or your having your average career in venereal diseases and land-grant architectural programs. I avoid football games and do not make a point of fraternizing with members of other races. Other than that, I am properly collegiate in America. It is true that the proper do not know whom they have on their hands, but that is true, when you get down to it, of everyone. Or nearly everyone. Is it not?
Upon completion of my studies in drawing buildings, I put everything on the lawn of the dormitory and meant to set it on fire. Before I could effect this auto-da-fé, which was intended solely to reduce packing labors and those attendant labors at the other end, which are not simply unpacking labors but tasks of decision bearing on being itself—where to put this? Where that? Do I need these books regularly? There's only five plates. What sixth guest may I never invite?—a fellow came up and said he'd like to buy my drafting table (for a case of beer [$6.58], he did [table $298]); another got my hydraulic drawing stool ($6.58 for $342). A crowd gathered and drank the two cases of beer and absorbed everything I owned and sent me off hail and well met with my toothbrush in my oxford-cloth pocket, whistling those Henry Miller blues.
I was not the happiest man alive, but I was not far from it.
I broke into my girlfriend's apartment and worked all afternoon on Julia Child recipes, with more vigor jumping around to local radio rock-and-roll than even Julia on television, but drinking wine and cutting myself all the same, perfecting thereby my more sanguine meunière. I served Sheila seven subtle foods of the French cuisine and took my leave of her. I said something embarrassing to her. If you sing "Love Me Two Times" and "Light My Fire" all afternoon drinking all the Gallo without Jim Morrison's erection and scrutinizing when the chicken breast is springy and when it is not, you may deliver yourself of an embarrassing mot injuste. I said to poor Sheila, "Had I gone to another school, I might have met ... your wilder, worse sister." I meant by this that had I gone to Boston I'd have met a liturgical militant who scared me with things I don't know about, but I had, as a Clemson Tiger, met nice white-Jewish Sheila instead, who never did anything to me bad and whom I therefore was finally made too nervous by to hang around letting her take it—take all my inarticulate foggy incomprehension not directed at her or at anyone but simply swinging 360 degrees from a lofty tower in the unsympathetic goy fog. You see why I said only what I said to Sheila. She slid the door chain off gravely for me, and suddenly I had my toothbrush in the hall and I felt a little bad and a little real good.
I emerged onto a perfectly still, wet, wee-hour lawn, unlike Ted Bundy, not needing to run.
How I wish that I were a historian of The South. What not give for the opportunity to sit before documentary cameras in my cozy, musty Memphis study and relate lugubrious apocrypha about Rebel valor, with modest little tears in my wide delta face. There were twenty or so Union soldiers who had captured this one Southern boy, and they said, Why are you fighting us? He was not the sort, they could surmise, to be concerned with money or slavery. Because y'all are down heah, he says to them. Which I think is a pretty good reason. "Custer, a cap'n at the tiyeum," rode out into the Pickaninny River and "sat his horse and tunned and said, 'This is how deep it is, Gen'el.'" What not give?
But I am not a historian of The South. I am arguably his worst enemy. The weepy little sons of bitches. My father is better company than a person who believes in The South. I should say he believes in where he is, it happens to be The South. He does not apotheosize The Lost World, confident of discovering yet in it the last baby Confederate dinosaur alive. Or tell you about it—how the baby Confederate dinosaur they spotted could not be captured—with that tear in his eye. I am not a historian-archaeologist of The South, I am an architect of no distinction who has recently tried to burn his T square and not managed that. I bode to build no buildings. There are architects whose expertise lies in tearing them down.
The Wawer, the Wawer. They are right in longing for the Wawer, but they make a mistake in wanting the historical one: what we need is a new one, right here on this hallowed ground. Napalm on malls, uncontrollable Pampers looting. Can you imagine Ho Chi Minh offering to bomb us back into the Stone Age? His generals around the table slowly begin to chuckle. They may well have sufficient ordnance in the room.
After I got my useless degree and gave pointless pain to a good girl, I decided it was time to go home.CHAPTER 2
I expected going home to See Mother to be a maudlin, necessary affair. There would be no non-obligatory moves. It would be the kind of ordeal wherein everything you do or say for days feels scripted in advance, and somehow everyone else seems unaware there is a script and yet appears agreeable to the proceedings entire. You gradually get the sense you are not altogether sane in entertaining this "script" delusion, that everything is, as every rational index suggests, perfectly fine, and that you'd best just calm down. In my anticipation of all this—the Homecoming Ritual—I thought of jumping script by not going, but even that seemed to be on a programmed template.
What started me thinking of inescapable behavior was the local military news: they were "discovering" lesbians at Parris Island again and giving them a God-and-country hard time. They had two of them apparently staked out in the center of the base and everyone was kicking sand at them and throwing spitballs at them and they were not going to get to be soldiers anymore. It just gave me pause: the whole objection to women being in the service in the first place was—was it not?—that the defense of the nation would degrade overnight into a panty raid. It would seem that the military would have sought out women not interested in men; would, at any rate, once it had them, prize them above the dangerous, seductive others. And on a lower kind of logic: I've been in enough lesbian bars to know you want a platoon of them fighting for you, not a division of debutantes chasing the boys on the other side. So. My conclusion? Join the Marines. What else?
These things never work. You cannot walk into the service. Weeks, months could be required. The form-filling-out itself would be sufficiently dull and long for you to ask what was so wrong, finally, with going home and drinking with your mother all night for a few weeks, or months, or even years? What was so wrong with that? I heard an Elvis champion at school, in the presence of a discussion of Mr. Presley's alleged taste for prepubescent girls, challenge the group: "Just what's wrong with that?"
So I did not stop at the recruiting station, which was in a two-hundred-acre mall and would have taken two hours to locate, and I went ahead with the script, and pulled in at the Baby Grand knowing, knowing, knowing You Can't Go to the Baby Grand Again, but going anyway. You must ... you must try.
The reason you can't go home again is, of course, not that everything has changed but that almost nothing has changed. So Jake would not be absent, or dead; he would be at the bar, leg up and smoking, and he was. He would not not know you, or go into an I-declare and summon someone (a woman) who could second with a Lawd-have-mercy—no. He does not even bother to say, "Sim."
He comes up to me and I say, "A beer, Jake."
He stands there.
He gets it. It is a Magnum malt liquor. I look at it.
"You say any kind." Jake smiles. It is nice to know he recognizes me. He smokes some more, back at his station. He times me and gets another one, looking at me to see if I am receiving. I am. He serves me the second one. "You back?" he says.
"I hope not," I say.
"I heard that."
"How's the house?"
"Y'all still have that?"
"I think we do."
"I don't know."
"How it is."
I come to. My mother is not in the house. She is in Hilton Head. I have forgotten where my mother lives. The house I am going to see her in, going home to, is empty. I can go home again. It isn't home! What a pleasant surprise.
"Jake, how's your mother?"
"Your ... girl? I forgot her name."
"Got a new one?"
"Always got a new one."
He laughs a little here, a squarely cynical little chuckle.CHAPTER 3
So when I get there my mother will not appear coyly doe-eyed at the screen door and say, Oh, Son, come in—a drink? I will not accept one and lay myself out on a wicker sofa opposite her, on one like mine, where she does not recline as I, young man of the world, do, but sits on her legs, folded up to the side of her like a girl. She is half-lit by the conical play of lamplight from the end table on which sits her drink, her cigarettes, her ashtray, and her Charles Lamb or Richard Crashaw or Andrew Marvell, always a small, neat book with a good cloth or leather binding and set at a deliberate, pleasing angle to the drink and the cigarettes and the lamp. It is possible that we will not talk, or that we will talk of something altogether odd. This last is the preferred course, in lieu of nothing at all.
"The thing that worries me" she can say, if we go the odd route, "is not evil—you sufficiently explained that to me fifteen years ago—what worries me is opportunity."
I know exactly what she means. It worries me, too. It worries everyone except those with none of it, arguably the happiest people alive. This is why baseball is the national sport, despite its being slower, duller, longer, and deader than its rivals. In baseball, opportunity is quantized and specified and the players seize it or not and win or lose accordingly. If you have an opportunity to hit, you hit; to catch, you catch. Very relaxing spectacle, in the hands of professional opportunity seizers.
I look at my mother. She is not a professional opportunity seizer. She's on Thompson Time, for one thing. That she has seized. I am not a professional opportunity seizer, either. I am an amateur opportunity seizer; that case could be made, but only because giant quantities of opportunity have fallen on me and I have been unable to dodge the fallout entirely. Thus I am an architect today, for example, and I can tell it is Coleridge on her end table, and I know what Samuel has to say about the universe containing more things invisible than visible (and he's right, of course, but how could he have known that then?).
"I sufficiently explained evil to you when I was ... how old?"
"Pray tell." Oh. Already my drink is good to me, too. Thompson Time is good time. I'm back to the sideboard as she delivers the explanation.
"... and you said, 'Evil? That's an easy one, Mom. Without evil, dog wouldn't chase the cat, cat wouldn't climb a tree. Wouldn't be ... anything.'"
"What prompted this thesis?"
"I told you evil was what I could not understand in this world."
"Why did you tell me that?"
"At the time, I didn't understand it."
I have my new drink, and we toast each other silently from our positions, and we would be lovers were the biology not considerably in the way.
But none of this will happen, because my mother will not be in the house when I get to it. I will unlock it and go in, walking on sand and bug carcass and the poppy seed of roach leavings. Announce myself to the Hook Man, or his adult equivalent. A man was discovered in this house by my father's sister, Sasa, several years ago. He had broken in, drunk all the liquor, passed out on one of the sofas, and was lying there when my aunt found him "with a peter this big," as she phrased it, putting her thumb on the second joint of her little finger and holding it in the air. The unfortunate's name was Wishmeyer. Today, entering the house, I call, "Time to head out, Mr. Wishmeyer. Get dressed." He has not come back. The house is empty, still, and stale. The linoleum cracks underfoot like .22s, as if it's frozen. The sand is nearly in drifts. How does this happen?
Excerpted from Edisto Revisited by Padgett Powell. Copyright © 1996 Padgett Powell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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