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A dazzling novel of ...
A dazzling novel of compassion and imagination, Prisoner's Dilemma is a story of the power of invalid experience.
The first indication that Pop had been seeing something more than heebie-jeebies for all those years came a few weeks before the end, when the old guy leaned over to Artie on the front porch of an autumn evening and said, distinctly, "Calamine." Father and son had come out after dinner to sit together on this side of the screens and see November along. They enjoyed, in silence, one of those nights that hung in the high fifties but could easily go ten degrees either way within the hour. Artie staked out the rocker while his father, as usual, exercised eminent domain over the kapok bed long ago banished to the porch because chez Hobson-a twenty-year repository of everything the family had ever owned—could not take one more cubic foot of crap without spewing it all through every doorway and window.
Silence had gotten them this far, and there seemed to Artie no reason to improve on it. He tried to chalk up his father's mumbled word to an involuntary spasm in the man's cerebral cortex, a first burst of verb salad accompanying the return of autumn. He hoped, for a moment, to hide from it, let the word fall to the ground and add to the November earthworm-stink and autumn. But Artie had no place to hide from Pop that the old man himself hadn't shown him. So he put his knuckles to the bridge of his nose, braced his face for what was coming, and asked, "Say what, Dad?"
"You heard me. Calamine. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I plan my work and work my plan. When the tough get going, the . . ."
"Got you, Pop." Artie preempted quickly, for once Edward Hobson, Sr., was let out of the verbal paddock, he could go all night without denting his capacityfor free association. After a quarter century, Artie knew the symptoms. In the man's present condition, it was pointless to ask him straight out just what he meant by the Word. Artie tried reconstructing: Calamine, zinc oxide, iodine-nothing in that direction. Dad's invocation was certainly not a medical request. Dad abhorred all medications. His sickness was nothing so trivial or topical as dermatitis, except that in crowds, for the express purpose of publicly shaming any other Hobson with him, he had been known to sing, "It's no sin to shake off your skin and go dancing in your bones."
Artie leaned back in the rocker, farther than safe. He cocked his hands behind his head and again tried to reverse engineer the train of thought behind his father's teaser. Calamine, Gal o'Mine, Our Gal Sal. Possibly. Probably. Who could say? In part to forestall the old man from clouding the air with additional clues, Artie announced, "Technicians are working on the problem."
He looked away to the far side of the screens. Under the rustic, ineffectual globes of small-town streetlamps, men of the 19th Precinct, scions of Second Street, used the unseasonably late warm weather to apply a last-minute manicure of preventions to their houses and lawns before the assault of winter. One or two broke from the routines of ownership to throw listless waves in the direction of One-Oh-Three, without expecting any return gesture. Neither father nor son disappointed them.
A snatch of Thanksgiving tune, "All is safely gathered in," flashed through Artie's head, so he sang the line out loud, buying time. Singing made him feel incredibly foolish. He knew a glance at the bed would show his father grinning victory. So he did the only thing possible given the situation. He sang, louder, the next line: "E'er the winter's storms begin. "
Artie thought that, with as little as De Kalb, Illinois, had to offer absolutely nothing except the claim of being the place where barbed wire was invented-there was nevertheless a stretch of fourteen days in fall when no better place on earth existed. Even given the immediate circumstances, he was somehow glad to be here. He paled at the prospect of scrapping his whole semester for nothing-increasingly likely with each new day he spent away from the law-school books. He could not really afford this unplanned trip back home. He had hoped to put the visit off until Thanksgiving, swing out for a few days, share some hormone injected turkey with the rest of the gene pool, maybe watch a football game with the sibs: engage, for once, in the simple holiday fare the pilgrims intended. But the old refrain had again surfaced, drawing him unwillingly back into the crisis of family: "Your father is not well."
Artie tried to imagine his mother saying, for once, "Your father is sick," or even, "Your father is ill." But he could not hear her voicing either. The woman had long ago caught from her husband the contagious part of his disease, the part Artie himself had inherited: the hope that everything would still come clean if you only sit still, understate everything, and make yourself as small a target as possible.
"Ah, Ailene," Artie mouthed, almost audibly. He wondered if Mom ever gave up waiting for the miracle cure. He probed her words the way one might test a newly twisted ankle. Not well. But Artie did not dwell on his mother's stoic refrain. He had a more immediate test at hand. His father, perpetual high school history teacher, unrepentant grand games master, had issued a challenge: Identify the following. And Artie swore not to budge until he proved more capable of making sense out of fragments than his father was of fragmenting sense.
He stole a look kapok-way, but Dad was waiting for him. Artie never had a very smooth motion to first, and his Dad was the greatest balk detector of all time. "Son?" Pop inquired, fleshing out the word with a sadistic, smart-ass grin. Artie filled with filial hatred, a familiar and quiet disgust at knowing that Pop always had been and would be able to see through the least of the thousand pretensions Artie needed for self-esteem…
Posted October 27, 2008
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