Ten-year-old Aaron Cooper has witnessed the death of his younger sister, Pookie, and the trauma has left him unwilling to speak. Aaron copes with life's challenges by disappearing into his own imagination, envisioning being captain of the Kon Tiki, driving his sled in the snowy Klondike, and tiger hunting in India. He is guarded by secret friends like deposed Hungarian Count Blurtz Shemshoian and Blurtz's wonder dog, Nipper, who protect him from the creature from the Black Lagoonwho hides in Aaron's closet at night. The tales he constructs for himself, the real life stories he is witness to, and his mother's desperate efforts to bring her son back from the brink, all come to a head at an emotional family dinner. Set in Indianapolis in 1957, The Swan is a fictional memoir about enduring love and the weighty nature of mortality.
About the Author
Jim Cohee is a freelance writer, based in San Francisco, who has written for Lonely Planet. The Swan is his first novel.
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By Jim Cohee
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2011 Jim Cohee
All rights reserved.
I ran the path around the swing set in the side yard, ran with pinwheeling arms, my mind gone in dreams of baseball triumphs, and I supplied the sound for my phantom radio, the exhilarated play-by-play and, behind that, the intergalactic whisper of amazed and joyful fans—a whisper, but huge. Pentecostal frenzies gripped the stadium when I snapped fly balls out of the air in right field and threw runners out at home. I also recoiled from the blows of boxers while I ran, then counterpunched and POW! I decked them and circled the ring with raised arms—my manager wept—while thousands in darkened halls stood and cheered.
I leapt from couch arms and crashed a million times better than anyone in the world. I could slide in stocking feet on floors farther than anyone, and I could skate on the ice at Holcomb Gardens in tennis shoes and play hockey with a broom. I could fold myself behind couches and under beds and never be found.
I rescued people. I fell through a million bolts of cloth into black space in dreams. I caught spies. I wrestled snakes. Drove dog teams. Sailed rolling shark-infested seas on my log raft—winds whined like electric motors in the shrouds. I shot leaping tigers out of black air at midnight while pitiful Indian villagers wept in fear. I persuaded a Greek goddess to rescue Christ while grasshoppers buzzed in Muncie cornfields.
I laughed at fate. I saved the world. I knew all about my double on another planet, whose name was Noraa Repooc.
After my little sister, Pookie, died in the car crash, I developed a weird astronomical theory about my family. They weren't mine—they were space-traveling actors.
I walked right to the edge of the White River, though my mother told me millions of little boys were buried there, drowned. I lowered myself on bridge piers to the landing and looked at cupped gray water. I talked to myself. Heard human voices in the hum of refrigerator motors and the ring of water pipes. Read messages in radio tower lights, whose imperturbable red pulse in Indiana night skies watched over all children and was wiser, more calming, and more kind than God.
I had two secret friends—protectors (though they slept when Pookie died) and spymasters invisible to my faux family—the ruined Hungarian count Blurtz Shemshoian and Blurtz's wonder dog, the miniature dachshund Nipper.
I stole ice cream from my brother, and he never knew.
The White River is channelized in Indianapolis, pokes along like sleepy pond scum in summer (bars of light fall on it, dragonflies dart across the light, zodiacs of yellow pollen drift through), flows south (the White) and west to the Wabash, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers, past Cairo Town, and on south by careened, rotted paddle wheelers and Louisiana moccasins to the Gulf, past Mexican oil derricks on the Atlantic filmy with yellow mist, past the mouth of the Amazon and short red Indians with painted faces and spears, 'round Cape Horn of leopard seals and penguins, then swings out west (the sea) like a chained hammer from the thrower's arms into the great Humboldt Current in the vast storm-tossed Pacific, runs with trade winds to palmy Polynesia, under the Southern Cross and squawky frigate birds to Indiana's sister isle, Tuamotu. (Hoosier and Polynesian are one there. "Buncha hooey" means "the four quadrants of the spiritual oneness" in Polynesian.)
The Creature was born in White River headwaters, in gloomy primeval swamps and corn bogs north of town. Around Muncie, I figured, where ancient pioneer Coopers are buried, who had once cleared forests, hunted bear, churned butter in wooden pails, built log churches and sang in them, and whose heirs now put up aluminum siding and drank beer and wiped sweat off their foreheads with red bandannas and grinned like crocodiles and sang "Whoo-eee!" The forests are now little copses on the horizon above a sea of corn. Swagged power poles guide you there.
I walked to the north porch of our house where my father sat in his white boxer shorts in the wicker chair by the Zenith radio (gray with a pitted speaker and gold spike that swept the dial like a clock hand). He tapped a Camel cigarette hard against his left thumbnail, then lit it with a paper match, shook the match out, and tossed it expertly into a large glass four-cornered tray. He exhaled from his nose and held the cigarette in his knuckled left hand by his cheek. His right hand robotically clapped and turned the matchbook on his leg. Beside him on the wicker table was a Schlitz beer can he had opened with a church key—two black triangular holes on the can top. He stared off. He scanned the yard and listened to Don Wells call a White Sox game on WCFL Chicago. White Sox misfortunes haunted my father's summer and made him moody. White Sox–Yankee games had a funereal weight to them.
He was slender with thick dark matted hair and dark beard stubble. He had jug ears like the farming folk he came from. Stalks and ears. His spine was slightly bent at the top, and it caused him to wince when he rose from his chair. He was pensive and had a knowing, unhappy face. His name was Major Cooper.
He was famous in our little house for his ability to add numbers—large numbers—quickly, which he did on command to amuse my brother, Mike, and me. He was skilled at card games and could not be defeated at gin rummy. He remembered the play, could figure out what you held, never gave you a useful card, and went down too fast. (We played crazy poker games too—spit in the ocean, baseball, low hole-card wild, deuces wild, everything wild.) Dad liked to read Contract Bridge Complete on the bus to work (he solved all the end-of-chapter problems, then started over), and he read bridge-tournament books with card-by-card scores. He read books on arthritis too (for cures) and books on his lawyer heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow, defender of Eugene Debs and John T. Scopes.
Though a loner and scoffer, he nonetheless "for professional reasons" was treasurer of a fraternal organization called the Order of Moose. The Moose had prayer breakfasts, though my father didn't pray; created networks for businesspeople, which my father eagerly joined; and raised money for charitable purposes. The money was kept in a box labeled "Feed the Jesus Fund. God loves a cheerful giver."
He drove a Pontiac Star Chief.
A man of biblical powers, my father loved to sit on the pot and smoke Camels and read the newspaper. Hair grew out of his ears. Hair grew out of his nostrils. He could urinate for six days without stopping. He scowled at Mom when they were bridge partners. He hated it when she fanned her cards on the table and began to gossip. He'd say, "You had the nine of hearts. Why didn't you play it?"
My father started to go off script in the summer of 1957. He started to forget his part as a space-traveling actor, and I could tell when he inhaled on his cigarette, then blew two, three, four smoke rings and a long plume through them, I could tell he was light-years from me and was getting tired of his Earth job. Squirrels hopped across his view. Maple leaves swung and swished in the air before him. He looked through it all and heard nothing. He didn't want to play anyone's father or husband any more. He wanted to go back to his home planet.CHAPTER 2
I liked Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, a Sunday afternoon puppet show Mom and I watched on a TV console, a small, soft-shouldered wooden box about three feet tall with a convex screen. I liked Ollie, the one-toothed alligator, a prankster. I liked The Honeymooners Saturday nights, especially about mid-show when Jackie Gleason would make a fist at Audrey Meadows and say, "You're going to the moon, Alice," and she would fold her imperial arms and stare him down. (How beautiful she was, and how helpless he was before her—just as I would be. I saved Audrey Meadows from drowning a million times in dreams.) I liked Wednesday Night Fights. I sparred alone on my bed and defeated hundreds of boxing opponents—they never saw the punches coming and BOOM! they went down with lame arms and legs like wrecked windmills. I liked Boston Blackie—it wasn't on, alas, in 1957—a detective who wrestled criminals on the tops of apartment buildings. His head hung over the roof ledge. Then he threw them off and they died. And I liked Ramar of the Jungle. I packed tall frosted Tom Collins glasses with ice, poured RC Cola over it—the foam hissed—and curled up in the overstuffed chair to watch the guy walk into the quicksand on Ramar. He struggled to escape, but sank with hideous slowness inch by inch—flailing arms clutching at nothing. His head went down, then his hands. Then he was completely gone. His pith helmet floated on the mire. Amazing and wonderful. The most beautiful and truest television show ever made. Quicksand is how we all die! I dreamed about the pith helmet.
I dived hands-at-sides like a seal into bed at night and slipped under my ratty safety blanket, an old cotton-batting quilt that was coming apart but that I would not surrender. You had to be careful not to leave hands or feet hanging off the bed because the Creature might be hiding under there, and if he saw your foot he'd take it with webbed bloody claws.
My mother's favorite word was "refinement." Life's main task was to get refined. Mike and I got refinement lessons every day. Handling silverware. Posture. Greeting people. How not to make a fool of yourself in restaurants. The importance of religious observances. Dressing appropriately. How to be nice to old people. Deportment around teachers so they wouldn't completely hate you. How to introduce people. How not to ask goofy questions or prying ones. The ones you wanted to ask. ("Did you rob everybody?")
For me, Mom had a special class. She called it Life Class. She cornered me in the bedroom and delivered little human empowerment talks. She sometimes pulled out cards, which she read and showed me. Sometimes she tacked them to the wall. Her name was Celeste Cooper.
One day she said, "Look at me, Aaron. You are very brave. Look at me, sweetheart. Remember that. You are very brave. You are not afraid of life's rude surprises, and you can come to grips and move on and have the life you want to live, OK? You understand that ... Aaron?" Her voice started to break there.
I nodded my head.
"We have to be brave," she said. "We are going to be brave, and I mean that, OK? I want you to say yes."
Mike, who was in high school and had a girlfriend—he wouldn't go to church any more, which Mom called unrefined—Mike said, "It's a bunch of crap. Forget it."
I scooped the ice cream for dessert for the family. I always gave myself a little more than I gave Mike. I figured that over the years that would add up to a few truckloads of ice cream. Sometime in the future, he would be in a hospital bed, really old and decrepit, his bony vibrating hands reaching to me as he told me how important my friendship and wisdom had always been to him, what a hero I was to him, how grateful he felt for my understanding and love. His unshaved mandible would start to quiver. That would be the time to say, "Sounds good to me. Let's talk about the ice cream."CHAPTER 3
My friend Dana was the Captain and first preceptor of the spy ring the Order of Rhinoceros. I was second preceptor and Exalted Horn. No one would ever find us. We had a secret sign. You stuck your lower jaw out and flashed your teeth. We met in Meeting Hall 2108, our garage. The Order received messages from the Department of Galactic Purification. Constellation shapes, origami ciphers, pings and static on the radio, winking doll eyes, message-bearing elm leaf shadows on clapboard at 2 am—all were communications from headquarters.
Dana and I spied on people and betrayed them to the police. What they bought. Where they went. We followed them into grocery stores. We followed them when they walked home from work. (We followed Dad's secretary, Basha Usakowski, home from work several times. She got off the bus at Meridian and 16th.) We wrote suspicious conduct reports about them and mailed the reports to the local police station. We turned in everyone. New kids in the neighborhood. Teachers. Baseball coaches. Enemy of humanity Kong Warthead. Dogs of various varieties. Basha recently of tragic Poland with her little boy, Paul, and her dogs. Shy and curious and bug-eyed and slow to talk, like me, was pitiful Paul. (Mr. Usakowski was gone. Bluto Usakowski, whatever. Russian tank driver. "He got tired of her," Dad said.) Mrs. Usakowski was not an American. She spoke French. Mom also spoke French. Refinement. Basha was Polish. The Department informed us that she was a Communist spy. First clue: she didn't wear lipstick.
I published my poetry in various avant-garde literary journals in Finland. (Chomi Chimi Chak Chung, for instance—"Forest of the Eternal Fount.") Blurtz subscribed to Chomi and despite the use of my nom de plume, Neptune Ullapool, he knew the poems were mine. He felt they were mine. He would read them, fold the magazine in those bear mitts of his, and weep. He would talk to me at length about my poetry. "You have astringencies," would Count Shemshoian say, "and your poetry is the martyred atrocity of Western literature, if I may, sir, and also, I mean this humbly, druidical. Something humbly and vastly quercidical about the dissonance and the stuck-horn incivility of this leaf-like and compacted verbiage. Your theme is bane and revanche."
He had been reading from my first collection, Rocky Ripple and Other Poems.
O captain! my captain!
O'er fruited plains of Evansville.
Let all the world in every corner sing, Amen!
If the right one don't get ya, the left one will.
Oh, when he sat at my bedside! His right hand held a cigarette in the crotch of the first and middle fingers—his fingers held his chin when he drew on that cigarette, the red ash signaled to me—the orphic smoke coiling up. I loved his weathered head with all those teeth set like tombstones in his jaw, his herringbone jacket and vest, slacks of red silk, black patent leather shoes. He could turn his head like an owl, that's how wise he was. Turn it one hundred and eighty degrees with a jerk and study the floor SNAP! He felt things so deeply, he had experienced life so fully, he had tutored so many literary celebrities and had so thoroughly mastered Western civilization. ("Oh that little Bonobuonocottilucci"—my rival in Italy—"he would creep up and whine at my toes! But he could never write this, Mr. Aaron, sir.")
Married the daughter of Americus Vespucci.
Got arrested for hootchy kootchy
Way down in Egyptland.
Dana and I had a cipher, Oweeyon, and a decoder ring.
Our favorite mark was Mrs. Schemler, who walked the neighborhood and looked at you furious and befuddled and (the Order of Rhinoceros found out) danced naked in her basement Wednesday nights with Negroes and drank whisky from jugs. Yet she braved every plate that fate threw at her, for her faith was like a wall, and fate's hopes and desires were dashed against her love of God, and she sang to the bats despite her timidity and lack of encouragement, "Oh yoi yo yuppa yo!" She was only sad, we learned later, after we imprisoned her for a million years.
"Dear Police Department. We saw suspicious conduct today from Mrs. Schemler at 419 Blue Ridge Road. She was sitting on her porch and snapped her fingers at us. Put her in jail. Bye. We do not live in Rocky Ripple. You will never guess who we are. Bye. Mr. X."
My favorite song was "Stranded in the Jungle" by the Cadets. "Stranded" is about a man who finds himself in a boiling pot in the African jungle; he seems to wake up there. He escapes and swims to America to search for his girlfriend in Lovers Lane, but in Lovers Lane another boyfriend is singing to her. The song's refrain, "Meanwhile, back in the jungle," became the refrain of our family. A taunt about non sequiturs and cluelessness. Dad's favorite song was "How High the Moon" by Les Paul and Mary Ford. Mike liked "Chances Are" by Johnny Mathis. He could dance close to his girlfriend, Linda Lavalliere, when "Chances Are" played at Shortridge High School dances. (She pronounced her name lava-leer.)
Mom liked "Lisbon Antigua," a chirpy violin-and-orchestra piece. "Lisbon Antigua" says Europe is a sunny and happy place. When you hear it you want to skip across Portuguese cobblestones and embrace your girlfriend by the family yacht. I also liked "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley. It's down at the end of Lonely Street. If you ever fall for somebody, you have to go there. And I liked Vaughn Monroe's "Ghost Riders in the Sky." Dead cowboys drive the devil's herd in high western clouds.
Excerpted from The Swan by Jim Cohee. Copyright © 2011 Jim Cohee. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
Part One — Smedley,
Part Two — The Chowgarh Tiger,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
It's all there: eloquence, comedy, a childhood effectively captured, seriousness, an eccentric intelligence. The Swan delights.
Lively, entertaining, funny, and often moving.
The Swan is a story of childhood and a family's tenuous hold on everything that once seemed solid to them. Jim Cohee's lyrical and expertly crafted prose weaves a tale that is enchanting, hilarious, heartbreaking, and uplifting. A young boy's fantasies and his resistance to the circumstances of his family weaves this story of loss and the transcendence of the human spirit. It reminds us how noble and resilient we can be.
Gorgeous and surprising.
The brilliant stutter-stepping and jump-cutting expertly mimic the mind of a ten-year-old, and the basic irony is stunningthat a verbally pyrotechnic book should be uttered by a mute boy.
Nothing short of dazzling.