Paul Hereford does not feel like someone who is coming home. As he turns onto the two-lane road leading into his hometown-Chouteauville, Missouri-he has no idea he is about to embark on a life-changing odyssey that will bring him both heartache and a redemption he didn't know he needed.
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The Vampires of Eden
By William M. O'Brien
Abbott PressCopyright © 2013 William M. O'Brien
All rights reserved.
I had been on the road for hours, crossing the Illinois prairies in my seasoned Chevy truck. On the last leg of my journey I fell into a sort of hypnosis. Everything blurred together. There was the same dull roar of spinning tires, the same empty, fertile fields laying in wait for spring, the same places to stop for fast, unwholesome food, the same monotonous tide of American motorists constantly racing about like those frenetic cells seen coursing in the bloodstream when viewed under a microscope. Strains of the healthy and the malignant were all bound inextricably together in a precious stream winding through endless time.
It was all very surreal. I did not feel like someone coming home. There was no longer any semblance of a home there, at the place of my upbringing. This was altogether a different sort of pilgrimage I had undertaken. On my way back from the east I took several detours to visit the birthplaces of famous, dead authors. Since my teenage years I had been especially drawn to the Lost Generation, and in St. Paul I read again The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Before that I had paced the forlorn Victorian streets of Oak Park, listening to church bells, and hearing in my mind Papa's spare, beguiling prose, tolling in the cold wispy air.
During the many hours on the road I listened to any 'oldies' station I could find, honoring the heart's reverence for the songs scored on my psyche during high school (I graduated the year before Nixon abdicated the throne). Those were wonderful years for pop music. You still hear these songs on the commercials that sell us the means of pursuing happiness. We used to call that selling out; now it is just selling; and we've apparently gotten comfortable with the notion that everybody is selling something or other.
When I heard Janis Joplin croon that freedom is tantamount to having 'nothing left to lose,' I vowed that I had had enough of freedom. I was longing to find peace. I did not expect too much beyond that, however, for I had come to believe life must disappoint; not because one is like Gatsby, besotted by his own colossal illusions, but because one cannot really know what lays beyond our own truths.
It seems like several lifetimes ago, when I finally turned onto the narrow two-lane road leading into Chouteauville. I found myself slowing down to stare at everything. The crooked line of telephone poles running before me seemed very picturesque. Big cities do not have such things. I drove my truck through the tiny village and down the slope of Maria Street to the river. I parked the truck and walked to the water's edge. I gazed across the massive gliding force of the river at the weathered limestone formations protruding from the bluffs on the other side. As a boy I had imagined these crumbling battlements and towers to be the ruins of an ancient civilization. The rocks were still bewitching, cast in the enchanting glow of a wintry afternoon.
I glanced around, whispering to myself, "What now?"
Turning away from the river—I had to yank each foot out of the muck to break the suction that held me fast—I trudged up the slippery path I had come down. I passed by my white Chevy and wandered like a ghost over the streets of my hometown. My shadow danced out in front of me, or swung off to traipse along (as a loony companion) at my side, or it disappeared altogether, wavering behind me as I walked directly towards the light.
On Labadie Road I passed by the only large houses in the village. I glanced down at the boats in the marina nestled in their slips behind a sheltering breakwater. All of a sudden there was a small dog accosting me; his hackles raised, baring his fangs, growling viciously.
"Get back, you little bastard!" I shouted, more annoyed than anything else at the ridiculous creature's effrontery.
I heard a man's voice summon the dog; it whirled around and scampered back to be snatched up into his master's arms.
The man looked familiar to me. The effects of money, I supposed, having been around those sorts enough in my younger days to now wish to cast them all together in a disposable lot. He was past the age of retirement, possessing a distinguished crop of closely cut, gray hair, a ruddy complexion and the refined, cautious aplomb one acquires from enjoying, over the years, the absolute security of money. It was a face expressive of that infinite reserve reflected from the Romanesque façades of many small-town American banks. He continued to stare at me intently. It was a little vexing. I was about to walk off when he addressed me.
"Sorry for the annoyance. I'm Chuck Derry." He approached me with his hand extended. The dog in his other arm glanced anxiously up at his master's face.
"Paul Hereford." I emulated the man's protocol of presenting the full name, as if reading from a program. His bearing, demeanor and the steely resolution in his eyes signaled that he belonged to the tiny gentry class of Chouteauville. "He's a real tiger," I offered in a congenial voice.
The man laughed hollowly in a practiced rite of good manners. "Well, my wife loves him."
I nodded amiably.
"Hereford?" He acted as if he recollected hearing the name somewhere; I surmised the cultured fellow must be familiar with my novels. "Do you live around here?" His curiosity seemed strangely forced.
"No. Or, at least, not yet. I grew up here. I used to live right over there." I pointed in the general direction of the squat little yellow house of my childhood. It was green now. "A long time ago," I added.
"Yes, yes." He began nodding his head eagerly; the riddle was solved. "I believe I knew your mother. Charlotte?"
"Oh. Yes." I studied his guarded eyes more closely. I was about to confess I didn't remember him, but it didn't seem to make any sense to articulate the obvious. She may have met him after I moved away to attend college, but then again, she may have known him before then. There's no reason why I should have known about him.
I fought the compulsion to say something more, to engage the man in polite discourse, now that a connection had arisen. I actually wanted to ask him how he knew my mother, but I was afraid to broach the subject.
The nervous dog trembled as he reposed in his master's arms, panting lightly, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. He drew his tongue in now and eyed me suspiciously, ready to go on a war footing any second should his master say but the word.
"I live right there." Derry pointed to an immense structure composed of blond wood and large panes of glass, reflecting the world's blank, envious stares. The whole edifice was wrapped around, on all three levels, by decks and elaborate stair structures. "I own the marina down there." His proud face seemed to censure his own boasting while yet addressing the necessity of affixing himself in this milieu where I had discovered him.
"Ah, I see."
"I remember your mother told me you were a writer."
"Was a writer," I laughed lightly. "That's about right." It had been seven years since I'd published anything.
Mr. Derry's mouth opened soundlessly as he grappled with my clumsy responses. He was merely striving to be sociable. I felt uncomfortable and just wanted to get away from him.
"You say you're moving back here?"
"Possibly," I said tersely. I was reluctant to encourage his curiosity.
"Well, it's good to meet you." Not wishing to detain me against my wishes he adroitly concluded the affair, much to my relief.
"Yes." We shook hands once more.
I strode off towards my truck, reproaching myself for having acted rudely to one of the locals, possibly the most prominent, when all he had done was offer the hand of friendship. Why had I brushed it aside? The dogged resilience of old habits, possibly, but it was rather distressing to see that part of me triumphing so decisively over the ephemeral good intentions I had lugged with me across so many state lines.
Unwilling to leave the land just yet, I kept walking, moving away from the village. It calmed my nerves to have the great river flowing along there beside me. The cottonwood trees became friendly acquaintances who had known me in my childhood. The land was unfolding, becoming more familiar to me, as an old face will do, after a long separation.
I stretched my legs along the verge of a fallow cornfield to the east of the village. After the long trip it felt good to be walking on the soft, forgiving earth, swinging my arms, feeling my heart pump my blood, seeing my breath pouring out in front of me as a palpable reminder that I was of the elements too.
Behind me the sun continued to slide away. A diffused golden radiance had, by subtle degrees, been added to the cobalt sky. The world lay before me enriched by an infinitude of golden tints.
I spent the night in a squalid little motel room watching television reporters gleefully poring over the results of the latest presidential primaries. It was early February. I saw many familiar faces spouting their propaganda, feigning conviction like the clergy of a state religion.
I had walked away from that life a long time ago. I had become an apostate. So I laid on the bed, pretending to exorcise the spirits of all my past loyalties, while sipping expensive Scotch out of a clear plastic cup, clicking from station to station, offering my own views to a reticent cockroach who happened to be clinging to the ceiling.
"Franz—do you mind if I call you Franz? Do you have a party affiliation? No? Me neither, anymore. It appears Hillary will regret not deploying her forces more strategically to fight in the caucuses. But, if you ask me, she never could have seen this coming. This new guy comes out of nowhere and half her camp deserts to the rebel flag. This is the stuff of Shakespeare's history plays."
I listened to the TV correspondents explaining everything through the prism of our two-party system (a rotten spoils system). It was rich fare because I happen to know how much these clowns know about the lives of the politicians that they dare not divulge to the credulous public.
I came of age with Hunter S. Thompson and Timothy Crouse, who, incidentally, revealed to us, in The Boys on the Bus, how the migrations of whores predicted the whereabouts of the Secret Service, and this in turn foretold the movements of the President.
Now, these high priests of the Media pretend to be appalled at the mere suggestion of such shenanigans. Our brave men in uniform are all impeccably honorable since the Infidels destroyed the Twin Towers of our Middle Earth. Yossarian is dead and buried.
I did my best to enjoy the spectacle of these court jesters, who must keep court secrets because they are paid princely wages to play the fool. The truth is, now that these Television News People are paid as handsomely as CEOs, or drug lords, it galls them that they have to do any serious journalistic work at all. They want to be honored as Tribunes of the people. They want to deliver oracles to direct the behavior of docile citizens. In truth, they have burrowed into the very marrow of what that defunct historian, C. Wright Mills, once called the power elite. They have obtained the power to transcend ordinary life ...
"What an odyssey for Hillary," I exclaimed to the unmoved Franz.
I recalled seeing Hillary on TV, in a coffee shop, fighting back tears as she pled for her candidacy; speaking from the bottom of her heart (if you can imagine those catacombs, after all that she's gone through).
I led myself, torch in hand, down those damp corridors, peering into the awful chambers where the medieval racks and wheels of our democratic process are operated by the henchmen of the media. I mused upon that handmaiden of Liberty, that raving madwoman, Ms. Demos, who had reduced Hillary to this bizarre act of supplication. Surely the chase after votes has become indistinguishable from grubbing after Nielsen ratings.
Had she only bled crocodile tears? Who can tell?
I had come home to resolve such issues for myself. I wanted to believe my past mistakes were more than shriveled dead things caught in the cobwebs of my dusty attic. I did not want to believe character was entombed in the tissue. I suffered a moment contemplating the improbable nature of what we call free will.
The next day, after sleeping soundly, I rose early, passed through the drive-through at McDonald's and hit the road, munching a delicious egg-and-sausage biscuit. I drove down a two-lane road at a casual speed while the drivers heading off to work tore past me with grim faces girded for battle. A strange way to start the day, I thought, glad to be going in the opposite direction.
The sun was just breaking free of her eastern moorings. I let my eyes rest on the broad glassy expanse of the river for a peaceful moment. Then I glanced over at a pub perched on a spur of high, rocky ground that jutted eastwards, over the cornfields to the east and south of Lower Chouteau.
As children, we established fortresses there amongst a colony of cottonwoods. We flung ourselves into imaginary roles, as fur trappers, Indian chieftains or cavalry officers.
I looked at the whorls of neon script adorning the face of the building, 'Michael Derry's Pub.' I surmised the proprietor was related to the man and the ridiculous dog I had met the day before. There was a large empty deck extending out over the bottoms, waiting for spring.
I let the truck creep (worn brakes squealing) down Maria Street, which serves as the boundary separating the higher plateau of Chouteauville proper, often called Upper Chouteau by the locals, from the wild, tangled, desolate bottoms of Lower Chouteau. The only active dwellings of Lower Chouteau were the ragged shacks, perched on perilous stilts, ranged along the marshy coastline.
Out in the bottoms, scattered amongst the cottonwood trees, one could see a good dozen abandoned bungalows moldering in a low, hovering mist. Monuments testifying to the last deluge. My eyes lingered on the derelict shells for a moment. Childhood friends had lived out there. I had not seen any of them since I left for college.
After ambling around for a while I found myself again climbing the steps of St. James church. The heavy wooden doors were unlocked so I pushed them open and walked in and sat down in one of the pews. A dim light penetrated through the stained-glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. The filtered morning light cast an eternal, dusty gloom over the empty interior. There was a solemn pall of latent feeling pervading the space around the altar, and floating in the nave, and diffused above the empty pews. Something utterly lost and forgotten lurked there, gathered about the meaningless forms.
More than light mantled down as I sat there in the ancient silence. Possibly it was a palpable sense of the hidden depths of our humanity, the absolute truths we incarnate in crude forms; an intimation of all that resides in memory, including the blood's memories, and even the hidden stuff of dreams, which always evades the false clarity of consciousness.
The ghosts of my childhood began to collect about me. I breathed in a rare emotional atmosphere, as intimate to my memories as the earth's oxygen was to my lungs. I became lost to my surroundings, remembering the friends of my youth and how I had moved away and forgotten them. But I never really forgot them, of course, and I could imagine them outside on these very church steps, inhabiting the vast panorama of all that has gone irrevocably into the past.
There was a lot of gaudy, holy bric-a-brac that was strange to behold across the valley of time. But then my eyes came to rest on the frail, emaciated hero nailed to the cross hanging on the wall above the altar. He was the same. His terrible dignity intact. His ribcage protruded starkly from his wasted flesh. He sagged from the nails in excruciating despair. How many hours had I stared at this tortured figure, mesmerized by this vision of heroism?
I rose and ambled out into the blinding morning light. I walked down to the river and cleared my head, watching sea gulls circling about, screaming about the joys (or terrors?) of being free creatures tethered only to instinctual imperatives.
I decided to take another look at the house where I had lived as a child. I was passing my old front yard when I noticed an object partially hidden in a wild patch of thorn bushes.
Excerpted from The Vampires of Eden by William M. O'Brien. Copyright © 2013 William M. O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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