Read an Excerpt
The Origin of the Brunists
By Robert Coover
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1966 Robert Coover
All rights reserved.
Clouds have massed, doming in the small world of West Condon. The patches of old snow, crusted black with soot in full daylight, now appear to whiten as the sky dulls toward evening. The temperature descends. Slag smoke sours the air. Only eight days since the new year began, but the vague hope its advent traditionally engenders has already gone stale. It is true, there are births, deaths, injuries, rumors, jokes, matings, and conflicts as usual, but a wearisome monotony seems to inform even the best and worst of them.
Schools exhale the young. Not yet convinced they care to take on the hard work of the world, most of them gather and disperse around pool tables and pinball machines, in drugstores and down at the bus station, or simply on corners. Basketball games are got up in schoolyards and back alleys. The members of the high school varsity work out briefly in the gym, then go home to rest up for tonight's game. Superboys wing cold-fingered through trees in the cause of justice while, below, slingshot wars are waged. Little girls play house or give injections to ailing dolls, while their older sisters pop gum, slam doors, gossip, suck at milkshakes, or merely sit in wonder at the odd age upon them. Gangs of youngsters fall upon the luckless eccentrics, those with big ears or short pants or restless egos, and sullen hates are nursed. Rebellious cigarette butts are lit, lipped, flicked, ground under heel.
Out at Deepwater No. 9 Coalmine, the day shift rise up out of the workings by the cagefuls, jostle like tough but tired ballplayers into the showers. Some will go to homes, some to hunt or talk about it, some to fill taverns, some to card tables; many will go to the night's ball game against Tucker City. In town, the night shift severally eat, dress, bitch, wisecrack, wait for cars or warm up their own. A certain apprehension pesters them, but it's a nightly commonplace. Some joke to cover it, others complain sourly about wages or the contents of their lunchbuckets.
On Main Street, shops close and soon highballs will be poured at kitchen sinks, cards dealt at the Elks or the Country Club. Business is in its usual post-Christmas slump. Inventories are underway. Taxes must be figured. Dull stuff. Time gets on, seems to run and drag at the same time. People put their minds on supper and the ball game, and talk, talk about anything, talk and listen to talk. Religion, sex, politics, toothpastes, food, movie stars and prizefighters. Fishing, horoscopes, women's clothes, automobiles, human nature. Circles and squares, whores, virgins, wives, daughters, time and money. Boredom and good times. Putting on weight, going steady, cancer, evolution, parents, the good old days, Jesus, baseball trades. Sadists, saints, and eating places. Tick talk tick talk. Smoking cures. The job, better jobs, how dumb the kids are, television, coalmining, the hit parade. Indigestion cures. Jews, Arabs, Communists, Negroes, colleges. Impotence cures. The Holy Spirit. The state tournament, filters, West Condon, West Condoners— mostly that: West Condoners, what's wrong with them, what dumb things they've done, what they've been talking about, what's wrong with the way they talk, who's putting out, jokes they've told, why they're not happy, what's wrong with their homelife.
Some of the talk, though not the best of it, gets into the town newspaper, the West Condon Chronicle, which now young carriers fold and pack militantly into canvas bags, soon to fan out over the community on bikes on their nightly delivery of the word, dreaming as they throw that they are aces of the Cardinal staff. Up front, publisher and editor Justin Miller, himself an ex-carrier, cradles the telephone, pivots wearily in his swivel chair, stares out the window, unwashed in fourteen years, on the leaden parking lot. It is scabby with dead weeds, gray ice patches. On the other side of the lot: colorless hind-side of the West Condon Hotel. His assistant, Lou Jones, hammers out copy for tomorrow at the other desk. He'd ask Jones to cover tonight's basketball game, but he knows Jones resents assignments that have anything to do with adolescents. Doris the waitress emerges from the rear door of the hotel coffee shop with slops, empties them into the incinerator, pauses there a moment to pick her nose. Miller wonders why Fisher, the old guy who runs the hotel, manages to find only these blighted moldering dogs to work for him.
Behind the window of an old gray weatherbowed house in the town's cheap housing development district, a former buddy and high school basketball teammate of Miller's, Oxford Clemens, stands staring out. Children in the dirt street outside push their game of kick-the-can into the gathering dark, shrieking full-grown obscenities in shrill glee. Clemens yawns, scratches his crotch, chances to be looking when the streetlight goes on, grins at it. He turns and reaches for a pair of pants heaped up on a chair. There is a large rip in the seat of his jockey shorts; the khaki pants are war surplus, limp and long unlaundered. At 5:12, one hundred thirty-eight minutes before game time, a blowzy postwar Buick dappled with rust rattles up in front of the old place, sounds its deep-throated Model T horn. Oxford Clemens shambles out, buttoning a yellow silk shirt up against the skin, carrying a leather jacket and his bucket. He piles in back with Tub Puller, who is snoring. "Evenin', ladies," Clemens greets as he pulls the door to. Pooch Minicucci who is driving says nothing, but Angelo Moroni, Clemens' faceboss at the mine, turns around and says, "Hey, Ferd, is that the only fucking shirt you got?" Clemens grins faintly, lets it go.
The short drive out to Deepwater No. 9 is dominated by Moroni who talks without cease. The subject matter is getting out of the mine, getting out of West Condon, getting out of this whole useless life, and getting into women. Oxford works his long arms into his leather jacket, accidentally jostling Tub Puller. Puller lashes out irritably with his stubby right arm, slams Clemens in the chest. Puller is an airdox shotfirer by trade, has a body and face the immensity and consistency of an iceboxful of bread dough, says next to nothing all day long. Moroni is a short muscular man with a cocky round face, wideset eyes that turn down smilingly at the corners, short upper lip, broad nose, and twenty-seven years in the mines. He wears a hat on the side of his head and has a habit of tipping it down toward his nose when having a drink or playing pinochle with his buddy Vince Bonali, or talking to women. Minicucci is thin, with a ridged Roman nose. He has a speech defect so that he cannot pronounce his "r's" and in the mine he is a triprider. Clemens is a timberman, tall with tousled yellow hair and narrow bloodshot eyes. At this moment he is coughing, a smoker's airy wheeze, doubled forward. "You cocksucker, Puller!" he rasps gamely through his teeth, leaning back. Puller unceremoniously whacks him again, squinting all the while out the window into the night, clearly disgusted to be awake. That's what a man gets who's born to be Ferd the Turd. Clemens lights a smoke. He's used to it, but that doesn't cheer him.
"They ain't no place to pouk," Minicucci complains, arriving at the mine.
"Go on up under the watertower," Moroni says.
"Gee, Ange, it's agin the wules. I don't—"
"Fuck the 'wules,' Pooch! You go park there and anybody asks, you tell them Ange said for you to, hear?"
It is 5:28. There is only one light burning in the front office building, more lights on toward the portal. The tipple is barely visible against the starless sky. The watertower, silver-bellied above them, is of course not obscured at all.
In the washhouse, Clemens removes his leather jacket, his yellow silk shirt, his loafers, and his khaki pants. He bends over, exposing the rip in his shorts, and a broad-chested man, dark with yet darker heavy eyebrows, smiles, takes aim, cracks his butt with a wet towel. Clemens yelps, spins and throws himself savagely on the man with the towel. Angelo Moroni and Tuck Filbert pull them apart. "You fatass catlicker wop, Bonali! I done licked you wunst, I'll lick you again!" Clemens' thin face is awry with his fury.
"Lick this, crybaby," says Vince Bonali, clutching his genitals with one thick-wristed fist and thrusting his round belly forward. He is laughing, but without humor.
At the gym, they'll be turning on the lights. Old Patch the janitor and a couple of the freshmen will be sweeping down the floor. Clemens can feel the polish, taste the hardwood, smell the sheer joy of it. He dresses and thinks about that, tries to forget about Bonali and Moroni and all the rest. He pulls on his stained bluish jacket, frayed at the cuffs, shoves heavy gloves into the pockets, picks up his bucket. For all his effort, tension still presses at his eyes and holds his jaws clamped. Bonali is dressed but is still horsing around, has just blistered the thin ass of a tall bony miner named Giovanni Bruno with his towel. Bruno says nothing, barely flinches, simply turns pale and stares coldly at Bonali. Several laugh. "Hit him agin!" cries Chester Johnson. "I think he likes it!" More laughter. Bruno's buddy and sole protector, Preacher Collins, has already gone below and Bruno is left alone.
"Hey, listen, you guys!" Bonali bellows in his deep-chested baritone. He waves a scrap of yellow paper. "I gotta give you bums a little cool-chur! Boys, I got a poem!" Bruno claws for the paper, but Bonali shoves him away.
Clemens pauses, returns to his locker, fishes in the pockets of his pants hanging inside, as Bonali reads: "My Mother!"
Now everybody is laughing and shouting. "Give me that!" Bruno cries, his voice strained like a child hurt in play, but three grinning miners hold him back, Johnson grabbing him around the middle, Mario Juliano and Bill Lawson pinning his arms back.
"From out of thy immortal womb—"
There is a roar of hooting and laughter, and all the men crowd around to see and hear. Bruno, encircled, is crying. Johnson pumps his fist in front of Bruno as though masturbating him. Clemens gives no least damn about Bruno, but he can appreciate his position. He lights a small firecracker and tucks it into Bonali's hip pocket, exits for the lamphouse, tag in hand.
The tag is brass. Stamped on its face is a small 9, a much larger 1213, and at the bottom the letters G.D.C.Co. All the tags have the 9 and the letters, but only Oxford Clemens' bears 1213. Like the numbers on basketball jerseys, it tells you who the players are. At 6:03, he hands it over to old Pop Hendricks and receives in exchange his lamp and battery, similarly numbered. Pop hooks the brass tag on a large board which schematically describes the mine workings.
As Clemens is fitting the lamp into the groove in his helmet his faceboss, Angelo Moroni, stomps into the lamphouse, steel-toed boots sounding off the dry wooden floor. Moroni is laughing still about Bruno's poem, but when he sees Clemens, he wipes away the laugh with a bunched flicker of his thick grimy fist, growls something about the cracker. "I oughta take away your fucking butts, Clemens," he says, but low, not loud enough for Pop to hear. Moroni and Bonali are old wop buddies.
Oxford grins, exhibiting a missing eyetooth, changes the subject. "Ain't seen Willie Hall?" Hall is Clemens' assigned buddy in the mine.
"No. Whatsa matter? Ain't he here?"
"Ain't seen him."
"Trouble is, he can't stand working with you, Ferd."
Clemens shrugs, grins again. Moroni hands his tag to Pop Hendricks. "Want me to wait for him, or—?"
"No, wait a minute," says Moroni. "There's a new kid here tonight." He takes his lamp and battery, clumps with them to the door of the lamphouse, cranes his head out. "Hey, Rosselli! C'mere!"
Unwanted dead or alive, that's how it always was with Oxford Clemens. They called him Ferd, Ferd the Turd, and either let him alone or let him have it. He didn't know his old man and his old lady wanted him croaked, wanted his Aunt Marge to kill him soon as he came out, but Aunt Marge never killed anything, not even cockroaches or chickens, for she believed in the peace everlasting and God's infinite mercy and eating the bread. And the teachers cracked his head with rulers and the kids at school, all younger than he, called him Bully and Ferd and Hayseed and threw rocks at him, ganged up on him. Only way they'd ever beat him. And they threw iceballs at him and tore up his books and threw spitballs at him and busted his tooth once with a bottle. That's how it was. He learned to take it easy and keep his eyes open. He stole himself a good gun, did a lot of hunting, caught squirrels on the run, then stomped their heads to stop them flopping around in the brush, but left them lie: people don't eat squirrels anymore. And he stole him some good line and a couple hooks, used grasshoppers, worms, plain old houseflies, and pulled bluegills out of the fat muddy streams on humid afternoons, setting world records till his arms got tired, and he strung them up on a piece of wire hanger, stuck them back in the water to stop them flopping around in the weeds, and left them there: nobody likes to clean bluegills. And he stole him a basketball from the high school one night after a ball game and, being tall and rough, he could bully the young boys at Lincoln School of an evening. He got fancy with his hands and hooked them in from thirty feet, but nobody would stick around long with Ferd Clemens hogging the game, so he'd say to hell with them and go on popping long ones by himself, setting world records until the sun was long since gone, and then he'd have him a smoke and drop by the poolhall, shoot him some snooker, an ace from the age of eleven, and cuss like crazy, making those old guys split their sides.
Tony Rosselli introduces himself, and Oxford grunts in reply. They board the cage together, take hold of the rings. Clemens now wears gloves, but Rosselli, without, flinches, not having realized the rings would be cold. Joe Castiglione, Mike Strelchuk, and a couple greasers named Cooley and Wosznik get on with them. They switch their lamps on and Castiglione trains his on Rosselli's new blue denims. "Hey, boys, who's the dude?" he shouts, and the others put their lamps on him too as the cage hurtles through blackness some five or six hundred feet to the bottom.
There, a half dozen miners are waiting for the mantrip, sitting idly on their buckets, and the arrival of the new man enlivens them. Foregoing their usual accounts of the arts of Ferd Clemens' sister, they turn instead on young Rosselli. Somebody suggests they maybe ought to initiate him. Rosselli grins awkwardly, full-faced brown-eyed boy of eighteen, maybe nineteen. Rare to see a young fellow like Rosselli starting in the mines these days: the assumption is that someone must have pulled strings to get him the job. Bill Lawson stares at the boy and stuffs a wad of tobacco in his cheeks. "Old Willie get fired, Ferd?" he asks, and spits through his teeth. Lawson pitches semipro ball in his off hours, and the tobacco is part of his style.
"Make room for the dude," says Juliano.
Oxford Clemens sits on his bucket and gazes dully at a far wall, nibbling a matchstick.
"Hey, kid, whose ass did you suck?" asks Joe Castiglione, whose brother has been out of work almost two years. "Who'd your little buddy suck, Ferd?"
At the gym, they'll be coming through the doors, filling it up with noise and color, waving, shaking hands, shouting at each other. Boys in aprons will be selling Cokes, and the cheerleaders, orange WCs on their black sweaters, will be bouncing up and down and clapping their hands, no matter what. Oxford can hear the buzzer and it makes his hands sweat and tingle. In that gym, one day his sophomore year, he was fooling around with a basketball when the team came in to practice. He was feeling hot, so he said to hell with them and just kept on shooting. A tall rangy kid with dark brows jogged up and caught the ball under the basket and pitched it back out to him. He popped another and the tall kid grinned and flipped the ball out to him again. It reached him going like ninety—that guy could really let go that ball. Oxford aimed and popped another. The kid pulled it out of the nets and walked out and said his name was Justin Miller, and he said his name was Oxford Clemens. Then Justin—well, his real name was Tiger, of course—Tiger introduced Oxford to Coach Bayles and he worked out every night with them after that. Tiger showed him how to rebound and tip in and jump shoot and bounce pass and they gave him a suit, and one day Tiger said, "Come on, Ox baby, pop one!" And after that they all called him Ox, he was skinny as a rail, but they called him Ox, Big Ox, and all year long he and Tiger Miller threw basketballs at each other and into nets. There was one night against Tucker City when Big Ox laid in 34 points and tied what was then Tiger Miller's high school record. It was the last minutes of the game and he and Tiger broke away with the ball and ended up a mile in front of everybody under the basket all alone.
Excerpted from The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover. Copyright © 1966 Robert Coover. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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