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By Percival Everett
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2001 Percival Everett
All rights reserved.
My journal is a private affair, but as I cannot know the time of my coming death, and since I am not disposed, however unfortunately, to the serious consideration of self-termination, I am afraid that others will see these pages. Since however I will be dead, it should not much matter to me who sees what or when. My name is Thelonious Ellison. And I am a writer of fiction. This admission pains me only at the thought of my story being found and read, as I have always been severely put off by any story which had as its main character a writer. So, I will claim to be something else, if not instead, then in addition, and that shall be a son, a brother, a fisherman, an art lover, a woodworker. If for no other reason, I choose this last, callous-building occupation because of the shame it caused my mother, who for years called my pickup truck a station wagon. I am Thelonious Ellison. Call me Monk.
* * *
I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia and so the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race. Though I am fairly athletic, I am no good at basketball. I listen to Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder on vinyl records and compact discs. I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, hating every minute of it. I am good at math. I cannot dance. I did not grow up in any inner city or the rural south. My family owned a bungalow near Annapolis. My grandfather was a doctor. My father was a doctor. My brother and sister were doctors.
While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough. Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing. I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads. From a reviewer:
The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus' The Persians has to do with the African American experience.
One night at a party in New York, one of the tedious affairs where people who write mingle with people who want to write and with people who can help either group begin or continue to write, a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent told me that I could sell many books if I'd forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of black life. I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one. He left me to chat with an on-the-rise performance artist/novelist who had recently posed for seventeen straight hours in front of the governor's mansion as a lawn jockey. He familiarly flipped one of her braided extensions and tossed a thumb back in my direction.
The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it. I don't believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that's just the way it is.
* * *
Saws cut wood. They either rip with the grain or cut across it. A ripsaw will slice smoothly along the grain, but chew up the wood if it goes against the grain. It is all in the geometry of the teeth, the shape, size and set of them, how they lean away from the blade. Crosscut teeth are typically smaller than rip teeth. The large teeth of ripsaws shave material away quickly and there are deep gaps between them which allow shavings to fall away, keeping the saw from binding. Crosscut teeth make a wider path, are raked back and beveled to points. The points allow the crosscut saw to score and cleave the grain cleanly.
* * *
I arrived in Washington to give a paper, for which I had only moderate affection, at a conference, a meeting of the Nouveau Roman Society. I decided to attend out of no great affinity for the organization or its members or its mission, but because my mother and sister still lived in D.C. and it had been three years since my last visit.
My mother had wanted to meet me at the airport, but I refused to give her my flight information. For that matter, I also did not tell her at which hotel I'd be staying. My sister did not offer to pick me up. Lisa probably didn't hate me, her younger brother, but it became fairly clear rather early in our lives, and still, that she had little use for me. I was too flighty for her, lived in a swirl of abstracts, removed from the real world. While she had struggled through medical school, I had somehow, apparently, breezed through college "without cracking a book." A falsehood, but a belief to which she held fast. While she was risking her life daily by crossing picket lines to offer poor women health care which included abortions if they wanted, I was fishing, sawing wood, or writing dense, obscure novels or teaching a bunch of green California intellects about Russian formalism. But if she was cool to me, she was frozen to my brother, the high rolling plastic surgeon in Scottsdale, Arizona. Bill had a wife and two kids, but we all knew he was gay. Lisa didn't dislike Bill because of his sexuality, but because he practiced medicine for no reason other than the accumulation of great wealth.
I fancied occasionally that my brother and sister were proud of me, for my books, even if they found them unreadable, boring, mere curiosities. As my brother pointed out once while my parents were extolling my greatness to some friends, "You could rub your shit on a shingle and they'd act like that." I knew this before he'd said it, but still it was rather deflating. He then added, "Not that they don't have a right to be proud." What went unsaid, but clearly implied, was that they had a right but not a reason to be proud of me. I must have cared some then, because I was angered by his words. By now however, I appreciated Bill and what he had said, though I hadn't seen him in four years.
The conference was at the Mayflower Hotel, but as I disliked meetings and had little interest in the participants of such affairs, I took a room at a little B&B off Dupont Circle called the Tabbard Inn. The most attractive feature of the place to me was the absence of a phone in the room. I checked in, unpacked and showered. I then called my sister at her clinic from the phone in the lobby.
"So, you're here," Lisa said.
I didn't point out to her how much better So, you made it might have sounded, but said, "Yep."
"Have you called Mother yet?"
"No. I figured she'd be taking her afternoon siesta about now."
Lisa grunted what sounded like an agreement. "So, shall I pick you up and we can swing by and get the old lady for dinner?"
"Okay. I'm at the Tabbard Inn."
"I know it. Be there in an hour." She hung up before I could say Goodbye or I'll be ready or Don't bother, just go to hell. But I wouldn't have said that to Lisa. I admired her far too much and in many ways I wished I were more like her. She'd dedicated her life to helping people, but it was never clear to me that she liked them all that much. That idea of service, she got from my father, who, however wealthy his practice made him, never collected fees from half his patients.
My father's funeral had been a simple, yet huge, somewhat organic event in Northwest Washington. The street outside the Episcopal church my parents never attended was filled with people, nearly all of them teary-eyed and claiming to have been delivered into this world by the great Dr. Ellison, this in spite of most of them being clearly too young to have been born while he was still practicing. I as yet have been unable to come to an understanding or create some meaning for the spectacle.
* * *
Lisa arrived exactly one hour later. We hugged stiffly, as was our wont, and walked to the street. I got into her luxury coupe, sank into the leather and said, "Nice car."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked.
"Comfortable car," I said. "Plush, well appointed, not shitty, nicer than my car. What do you think it means?"
She turned the key. "I hope you're ready."
I looked at her, watched as she slipped the automatic transmission into drive.
"Mother's a little weird these days," she said.
"She sounds okay on the phone," I said, knowing full well it was a stupid thing to say, but still my bit in all this was to allow segue from minor complaint to reports of coming doom.
"You think you'd be able to tell anything during those five minute check-ins you call conversations?"
I had in fact called them just that, but I would no longer.
"She forgets things, forgets that you've told her things just minutes later."
"She an old woman."
"That's exactly what I'm telling you." Lisa slammed the heel of her palm against the horn, then lowered her window. She yelled at the driver in front of us who had stopped in a manner to her disliking, "Eat shit and die, you colon polyp!"
"You should be careful," I said. "That guy could be a nut or something."
"Fuck him," she said. "Four months ago Mother paid all her bills twice. All of them. Guess who writes the checks now." She turned her head to look at me, awaiting a response.
"Damn right, I do. You're out in California and Pretty Boy Floyd is butchering people in Fartsdale and I'm the only one here." "What about Lorraine?"
"Lorraine is still around. Where else is she going to be? She's still stealing little things here and there. Do you think she complained when she got paid twice? I'm being run ragged."
"I'm sorry, Lisa. It really isn't a fair setup." I didn't know what to say short of offering to move back to D.C. and in with my mother.
"She can't even remember that I'm divorced. She can recall every nauseating detail about Barry, but she can't remember that he ran off with his secretary. You'll see. First thing out of her mouth will be, 'Are you and Barry pregnant yet?' Christ."
"Is there anything you want me to take care of in the house?" I asked.
"Yeah, right. You come home, fix a radiator and she'll remember that for six years. 'Monksie fixed that squeaky door. Why can't you fix anything? You'd think with all that education you could fix something.' Don't touch anything in that house." Lisa didn't reach for a pack of cigarettes, didn't make motions like she was reaching for one or lighting one, but that's exactly what she was doing. In her mind, she was holding a Bic lighter to a Marlboro and blowing out a cloud of smoke. She looked at me again. "So, how are you doing, little brother?"
"Okay, I guess."
"What are you doing in town?"
"I'm giving a paper at the Nouveau Roman Society meeting." Her silence seemed to request elaboration. "I'm working on a novel, I guess you'd call it a novel, which treats this critical text by Roland Barthes, S/Z, exactly as it treats its so-called subject text which is Balzac's Sarrasine."
Lisa grunted something friendly enough sounding. "You know, I just can't read that stuff you write."
"It's my fault, I'm sure."
"How is your practice?"
Lisa shook her head. "I hate this country. These anti-abortionist creeps are out front every day, with their signs and their big potato heads. They're scary. I suppose you heard about that mess in Maryland."
I had in fact read about the sniper who shot the nurse through the clinic window. I nodded.
Lisa was tapping the steering wheel rapid fire with her index fingers. As always, my sister and her problems seemed so much larger than me and mine. And I could offer her nothing in the way of solutions, advice or even commiseration. Even in her car, in spite of her small size and soft features, she towered over me.
"You know why I like you, Monk," she said after a long break. "I like you because you're smart. You understand stuff I could never get and you don't even think about it. I mean, you're just one of those people." There was a note of resentment in her compliment. "I mean, Bill is a jerk, probably a good butcher, but a butcher nonetheless. He doesn't care about anything but being a good butcher and making butcher money. But you, you don't have to think about this crap, but you do." She put out her imaginary cigarette. "I just wish you'd write something I could read."
"I'll see what I can do."
* * *
I've always fished small water, brooks and streams and little rivers. I've never been able to make it back to my car before dark. No matter how early I start, it's night when I get back. I fish this hole, then that riffle, under that undercut bank, that outside bend, each spot looking sweeter and more promising than the last, until I'm miles away from where I started. When it's clear that the hour is late, then I fish my way back, each possible trout hiding place looking even more exciting than it did before, the new angle changing it, the thought that dusk will make the fish hungry nudging at me.
* * *
My mother had just awakened from her nap when we arrived at her house on Underwood, but as always she was dressed as if to go out. She wore blush in the old way, showing clearly on her light cheeks, but her age let her pull it off. She seemed shorter than ever and she hugged me somewhat less stiffly than my sister had and said, "My little Monksie is home."
I lifted her briefly from the floor, she always liked that, and kissed her cheek. I observed the expectant expression on my sister's face as the old woman turned to her.
"So, Lisa, are you and Barry pregnant yet?"
"Barry is," Lisa said. She then spoke into our mother's puzzled face. "Barry and I are divorced, Mother. The idiot ran off with another woman."
"I'm so sorry, dear." She patted Lisa's arm. "That's just life, honey. Don't worry. You'll get through it. As your father used to say, 'One way or another.'"
"Thank you, Mother."
"We're taking you out to dinner, madam," I said. "What do you think of that?"
"I think it's lovely, just lovely. Let me freshen up and grab my bag."
Lisa and I wandered around the living room while she was gone. I went to the mantel and looked at the photographs that had remained the same for fifteen years, my father posed gallantly in his uniform from the war in Korea, my mother looking more like Dorothy Dandridge than my mother, and the children, looking sweeter and cleaner than we ever were. I looked down into the fireplace. "Hey, Lisa, there are ashes in the fireplace."
"Look. Ashes." I pointed.
The fireplace in the house had never been used. Our mother was so afraid of fire that she'd insisted on electric stoves and electric baseboard heat throughout the house. Mother came back with her bag and her face powdered.
"How did these ashes get here?" Lisa asked, sidling up to the subject in her way.
"When you burn things, you make ashes," Mother said. "You should know that, with your education."
"What was burned?"
"I promised your father I'd burn some of his papers when he died. Well, he died."
"Father died seven years ago," Lisa said.
"I know that, dear. I just finally got around to it. You know how I hate fire." Her point was a reasonable one.
"What kind of papers?" Lisa asked.
"That's none of your business," Mother said. "Why do you think your father asked me to burn them? Now, let's go to dinner."
At the door, Mother fumbled with her key in the lock, complained that the mechanism had become sticky lately. I offered to help. "Here," I said. "If you turn the key this way and then back, it turns easily."
"Monksie fixed my lock," she said.
Lisa groaned and stepped down ahead of us to her car.
Mother spoke softly to me, "I think there's a problem with Lisa and Barry."
"Are you married yet?" she asked. I held her arm as she walked down the porch steps.
"You'd better get started. You don't want to be fifty with little kids. They'll run your tail into the ground."
* * *
My father had been considerably older than my mother. In June, when school ended, we would drive to the house in Highland Beach, Maryland, and open it for the summer. We'd open all the windows, sweep, clear cobwebs and chase away stray cats. Then for the rest of the summer we would all remain at the beach and Father would join us on weekends. But I remember how the first cleaning always wore him out and when it came time to take a break before dinner and play softball or croquet, he would resign to a seat on the porch and watch. He would cheer Mother on when she took the bat, giving her pointers, then sitting back as if worn out by thinking about it. He had more energy in the mornings and for some reason he and I took early strolls together. We walked to the beach, out onto the pier, then back, past the Douglass house and over to the tidal creek where we'd sit and watch the crabs scurrying with the tide. Sometimes we'd take a bucket and a net and he'd coach me while I snagged a couple dozen crabs for lunch.
Excerpted from Erasure by Percival Everett. Copyright © 2001 Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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