A story of an old man and an old womanbrother and sisterliving together on a farm in Vermont.
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By John Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Boskydell Artists Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The Patriot's Rage, and the Old Woman's Finding of the Trashy Book by the Bedside
"Corruption? I'll tell you about corruption, sonny!" The old man glared into the flames in the fireplace and trembled all over, biting so hard on the stem of his pipe that it crackled once, sharply, like the fireplace logs. You could tell by the way he held up the stem and looked at it, it would never be the same. The house was half dark. He never used lights, partly from poverty, partly from a deep-down miserliness. Like all his neighbors on Prospect Mountain—like all his neighbors from the Massachusetts line clear to Canada, come to that—he was, even at his most generous, frugal. There was little in this world he considered worth buying. That was one reason that in the darkness behind him the television gaped like a black place where once a front tooth had hung. He'd taken the twelve gauge shotgun to it, three weeks ago now, for its endless, simpering advertising and, worse yet, its monstrously obscene games of greed, the filth of hell made visible in the world: screaming women, ravenous for refrigerators, automobiles, mink coats, ostrich-feather hats; leering glittering-toothed monsters of ceremonies—for all their pretty smiles, they were vipers upon the earth, those panderers to lust, and their programs were blasphemy and high treason. He couldn't say much better for the endless, simpering dramas they put on, now indecent, now violent, but in any case an outrage against sense. So he'd loaded the shotgun while the old woman, his sister, sat stupidly grinning into the flickering light—long-nosed, long-chinned, black shadows dancing on the wall behind her—and without a word of warning, he'd blown that TV screen to hell, right back where it come from.
It might've been a tragedy. The old woman had shot up three feet into the air and fainted dead away and gone blue all over, and it had taken him close to an hour to revive her with ice-water. Though the TV was hers, the old woman—the puffy widowed sister who'd come here to live with him, now that her money'd run out—hadn't been so brave or so crackers as to try and get another. She'd dropped hints in that direction two, three times, maybe more, and so did all her friends when they stopped in and visited, chattering like magpies, their eyes lighted up like they had fire inside, but they'd never dared pursue it. He was a man of fierce opinions, meaner than pussley broth, a whole lot meaner than those bees he kept—he ought to be locked in the insane asylum—so his sister maintained, shaking like a leaf. But he'd known her all his life: the shaking was pure cunning. He'd told her right off, first minute she'd moved in, that if she wanted TV she could watch it in the shed with the tractor.
He'd been generous enough in every other respect, or so it seemed to him. He'd even been willing to hole up in his room like some drunken hired man out of the County Home when she had friends in—old Estelle Parks, who'd taught school many years ago and played "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "The Beautiful Lady in Blue" on the piano, or old Ruth Thomas, who'd been forty-some years a librarian. He'd done plenty for his sister, had walked his mile and a half and then some. But he had, like any man, his limit, and the limit was TV. God made the world to be looked at head on, and let a bear live in the woodshed, he'd soon have your bed. It was a matter of plain right and wrong, that was all. The Devil finds work for empty heads. "Did God give the world His Holy Word in television pictures?" he'd asked her, leering. "No sir," he'd answered himself, "used print!" "Next thing," she said, "you'll tell me we should only read words if they're carved on rocks." She had a crafty tongue, no use denying it. Might've been a preacher or a Congressman, if the Lord in His infinite wisdom hadn't seen fit to send her down as a female, to minimize the risk. He'd told her that, once. She'd preached him a sermon off television about the Equal Rights Amendment. He'd been amazed by all she said—shocked and flabbergasted, though he knew from magazines that there were people who believed such foolishness. "Why, a woman ain't even completely human," he'd said to her. "Look how weak they are! Look how they cry like little children!" He'd squinted, trying to understand how anyone could've missed a thing like that. She'd thought he was joking—he'd never been more serious in his life, Lord knows—and gradually he'd realized, his amazement increasing, that they might as well be talking different languages, he might as well be trying to hold conference with a horse. She'd seemed as astonished by it all as he was, so astonished to discover what he thought that he almost came to doubt it.
Well, fierce and foolish opinions they might be, but he'd held them for seventy years and more (he'd be seventy-three on July the fourth); he was hardly about to abandon them. Though he was never a great talker—certainly not in comparison to her, she could lecture your arm off—he knew a significant fact or two, knew, by thunder, a truth or two—as he mentioned to his grandson, grimly poking a crooked, cracked finger at him—a truth or two that was still worth getting out of bed for. Such knowledge was as rare these days as golden parsnips. He was the last, could be, that still possessed any real, first-class opinions.
The old woman, his sister, whose name was Sally Page Abbott—she thought she was royalty, her husband had been a dentist—was up there in the bedroom, furiously pacing, locked in the bedroom by her brother's hand, away from the boy, where her foolish ideas could have no influence. She believed in "changing with the times," she'd said—believed in, for instance, atomic-bomb power plants, since the Government claimed they was perfectly safe and eventually, one way another, they'd get rid of that waste. "Who knows about such things if not the Government?" she'd said, flustered and offended. She'd seen some program about "feeder reactors," hope of the universe. "Lies!" he'd said. From the look of her he might've been a Communist Chinese. Well, he knew what he knew, he'd told her, and smiled at her like poison come to supper. He was, he reminded her, a taxpayer. She wept. She believed there was no harm in mass production and business efficiency, even agribusiness; an opinion that lifted off his shingles. Agribusiness was the enemy of the nation, he'd informed her in no uncertain terms, thumping the arm of his chair for emphasis. Agribusiness was squeezing out honest small farmers by the thousands, making them go to work in pencil factories, stand in soup lines, turn into drunkards. He'd see them in hell, those tycoons of the ten-speed tractor, and that devil in a skin Earl Butz with 'em. The old man's cheeks twitched and jerked as he spoke; he was shaking head to foot, like a goat that's eaten lightning. She also believed in supermarkets (got that, too, from TV), and in New York City and Amnesty for the War Resisters, even believed it was society's fault when some crooked little snake committed murder. She was a cotton-headed fool who confessed, herself, that she had faith in people, though she was eighty years old and ought to know better.
The brother—"James L. Page is the name," he'd say—was never one to argue, except on occasion at a Bennington Town Meeting. He'd settled the business by driving her upstairs with a fireplace log, sister or no sister, and had locked her to herself in her room; let her think things over. "Insane, drunken devil!" she'd bawled as she retreated, stepping upstairs backwards, holding up her spotted, crooked talons for protection. "Insane drunken devil my ass," he might have said. She could thank her sweet Saviour he was a Christian and didn't care to pop her one. He was a patriot, and foolishness like hers was destroying this great country.
If James Page was crazy, as his sister maintained—and there were some on the mountain who'd be inclined to agree, to say nothing of all her friends—it was not for lack of study, not for lack of brooding over magazines and papers, or listening to people's talk. Except for his morning and evening chores, or patching up the barn when a board blew off, or shoveling through shoulder-high drifts now and then to let the milk truck up, and cutting ice from the roof, or sometimes sorting through potatoes in the cellar, culling out the rotten ones, squishy to the touch and more foul of stench than politics, foul as the bloom of a rat three weeks dead in the cistern, or Social Security—except for what trivial work wandered in between the second killing frost and sugaring time, James Page, for the length of the whole Vermont winter, did practically nothing but sit pondering books (his daughter in Arlington, mother of the boy, had joined him to a book club—history books—and subscribed him to four different magazines) or reading his newspapers—grimacing angrily, baring the upper front teeth in his foot-long, narrow head, leaning toward the window in his steel-rimmed spectacles, the brittle, dry-smelling, yellowed lace curtains softening just noticeably the mountains' light, white as his hair. Between times he'd drive to the village in his pick-up and sit with his hat on in Merton's Hideaway, nursing a Ballantine's and listening, full of gloom, to the talk.
She'd spoken of corruption. The best social programs in the world, she said—the powder-white wings of her nose aflicker—could be made to look bad by corruption; that wasn't the program's fault. She'd got feistier by the minute since the evening he'd shot out that TV. When he'd thumped his fist on his chair-arm she'd quickly pulled her chin back.
"I'll tell you about corruption, by tunkit," he said now, bending toward his grandson, squinting like an Indian, nodding his head, white hair glowing.
The grandson sat perfectly still, his hands, pale as alabaster, folded in his lap, his blue eyes as wide as two quarters. The black and white cat, curled up casually asleep under the old man's chair, was used to such commotion, as was the dog, watching sadly from the corner of the room. It would be hours, the boy knew, before his mother would come get him. He was nine and, as always in his grandfather's presence, he was terrified. His grandfather, the boy had heard people say when they thought he wasn't listening, had had a son who'd hanged himself and another who'd fallen off the barn and broke his neck when he was little. The one who'd hanged himself had been twenty-five and had a house across the road. It had since burned down. The boy had seen the graves at the cemetery in the village. That was why the boy wouldn't sleep in this house, or anyway not unless his mother was with him. He was afraid of the noises in the attic.
"Benjamin Franklin," his grandfather said, still bending toward him in a threatening way, "was a nudist. Used to walk around his house nights bare-naked. I bet they never leahnt you that in school."
The boy shook his head, smiling eagerly to save himself from harm, and shrank from the old man's eyes.
"Faddle's ah they teach," said his grandfather. "Bleached-out hoss-manure." He took a puff from his pipe, blew out smoke and said, aiming the pipestem at the middle of the boy's collarbone, "Sam Adams was a liar. Your teachers tell you that? When Sam Adams organized the Boston militia, he told 'em the port of New York had fallen, which was a damn lie. He was as bad as a Communist agitator." He smiled again, glinty-eyed, like a raccoon in the orchard, and whether he was feeling indignation at Sam Adams or at somebody else—the old woman upstairs, the boy himself, the gray-brown whiskey and specks of ash in his glass—it was impossible to tell. "Ethan Allen was a drunkahd. When he moved through these pots"—or perhaps he said parts—"with his roughneck gang of Green Mountain Boys, he got drunker at every house he stopped at, and that's God's truth. It's a holy wonder he made it up the cliffside, at Ticonderoga, him and his boys and them drunken wild Indians. It's a wonder he could remember the names of 'The Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress' when he told 'em to surrender."
He sucked at his pipe and grew calmer for a moment, thinking of Jehovah and the Continental Congress. He stared with nothing worse than a malevolent leer into the fireplace. "They was a rough, ill-bred lot, for the most pot, them glorious foundling fathers. But one thing a man can say of 'em that's true: they wasn't fat pleasure-loving self-serving chicken-brained hogs such as people are nowadays."
He looked at the ceiling, and the boy looked up too. The old woman had stopped pacing. The old man squeezed his eyes shut and lowered his head, then opened them, staring in the direction of his knees. He pursed his lips and sucked at his teeth, and his bushy white eyebrows were red in the glow of the firelight. Perhaps for an instant he felt a touch of remorse, but if so he got rid of it. He nodded in thoughtful agreement with himself. "They was a rough, ill-bred lot—'filthy rabble,' as General Geahge Washington called 'em—but there was things they believed in, a sma' bit, ennaway: a vision, you might say, as in the Bible. It was that they lied for and fought for and, some of 'em, croaked for. What will people lie for now, eh boy? Soap and mattresses, that's what they'll lie for! Coca-Cola, strip-mines, snowmobiles, underarm deodorants! Crimus! Thank the Lord those old-timers can't be hollered back to life. There'd be bloody red hell to pay, believe you me, if they saw how we're living in this republic!"
He groped for the glass beside his foot and chuckled, still full of lightning but maliciously pleased at the ghastly idea of the foundling fathers coming staggering from the graveyard—hollow-eyed and terrible, their blue coats wormy, musket-barrels dirt-packed—and starting up a new revolution. He glanced at the boy and saw that, hands still folded, he was looking up timidly at the ceiling. Not meaning it quite as an apology, though it was, the old man said: "Never mind, do her good," and waved his long hand. "She be asleep by now." He sipped his whiskey, and when he'd lowered his glass to the carpet beside his iron-toed shoe again, he discovered his pipe was out. He reached into the pocket of his shirt to get a match, struck it on a stone of the fireplace, and held it to his pipebowl.
The boy could not help understanding that the rant was serious, nor could he help knowing—though he couldn't understand it—that he himself was in some way, at least in the old man's eyes, in alliance with what was wrong. Staring at the flames, finding forms in the logs—an owl, a bear with its arms extended—the two were not seeing the same thing at all. The old man had been born in an age of spirits, and lived in it yet, though practically alone there, and filled with doubts. When the windows of his house, on a cold winter morning, were adazzle with flowers, forest-scapes, cascades and avalanches, he believed—except if he stopped to think—that Jack Frost had done it, best painter in the world, as James Page's sharp-eyed old uncle used to say. The grandson, who lived in a warmer house, had never seen such windows. The old man believed, except if he stopped to think, in elves and fairies, in goblins and the Devil, in Santa Claus and Christ. The boy had been told since he was small that such things were just stories. And in the exact same semidark level of his mind, the old man believed in that huge old foulmouthed bear of a man Ethan Allen, whose spectacles lay yet in the Bennington Museum, along with his account at the Catamount Tavern, which he'd lived next door to, the brown writing firm and unmythic as the writing of Jedediah Dewey, hellfire preacher, whose great-great-great-great-grandson Charles built fine eighteenth-century furniture for friends and could be seen here and there throughout New England with his matched black team and one of his buggies or his high, polished sleigh, sitting there grinning in the forty-below weather when cars wouldn't start. The old man believed—as surely at least as he believed in Resurrection—in Daniel Webster, who'd spoken to four thousand people once in a natural theater, a great swoop of valley walled in by green mountains, now a forested stretch on John McCullough's estate. He believed as surely in Samuel Adams, that angry, crafty old son of a bot, embarrassment to Franklin and the Continental Congress, indispensable as Death to the Sons of Liberty, and not much more welcome at an Easter party—believed in him as surely as he did in Peg Ellis of Monument Avenue in the village of Old Bennington, who had, by way of her late husband George, who had them from his grandfather, who had them direct from the addressee, faded copies of Sam Adams' letters, the few he'd been unable to get back, at the time of the Burr scare, and put to the torch.
Excerpted from October Light by John Gardner. Copyright © 1976 Boskydell Artists Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
John Gardner (1933-1982) was born in Batavia, New York, the eldest of four children. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher in the Presbyterian church, his mother an English teacher in the local schools. At age 12 he accidentally killed his brother Gilbert by running him over with a heavy farm machine (this tragedy surfaced many years later in the short story "Redemption"). He went on to become one of the most provocative and successful American novelists of his generation, garnering critical praise and a popular following for his fiction. Raymond Carver was one of his many successful students. The author of many novels, plays, and transliterations of medieval texts, Gardner also composed operas and librettos, as well as being a painter, he played the French horn. He died in a motorcycle accident in Pennsylvania.
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