Wednesday, December 5, 2007

can't win for losing

I should probably just quit pretending and rename this blog The Wire since that's all I seem to talk about. Well, after skipping work and locking myself in my freezing apartment for 13 hours yesterday to watch the entire fourth season, I can say this: David Simon has rendered all art a moot point. It is the greatest artistic achievement of all ever, and should be studied in graduate seminars ad infinitum.

The Playlist has some more details (including a track list) on January's two-disc soundtrack album. I'm excited about the obscure Baltimore hip-hop on disc two.

Big Screen Little Screen has details about the coolio prequel videos now showing on Amazon.com, which will supposedly close each season five episode. Young Omar? Bunk and McNulty's first encounter? Yes please.

In non-Wire news, Drowned in Sound continues its countdown of the best music of the year: 20-16, 15-11.

...and Passion of the Weiss begins its countdown of the 25 Best Hip-Hop Songs of 2007, with generous mp3 support.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy covers R. Kelly on his new EP, and it doesn't sound nearly as ridiculous as you might expect. In fact, it's awesome.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is henry just ignore this

Like a Horror Movie without a Monster

Real life from adolescence onward, or mine at least, has always seemed like a horror movie that is all beginning--a horror movie without a monster. Those beginnings, like when Rosemary's Baby is just about a young couple moving into a new apartment or when Nosferatu is just about some guy on a business trip, seem to have more in common with my life than anything else I've ever seen on film. They have the kind of ambivalent naturalism that audiences will not tolerate in any other context. The acting and writing are always horrible, but because these beginnings have almost nothing to accomplish in terms of plot or characterization, they flow with transcendental ease. And the audience watches patiently because they know that it's all just a big setup for when the monster shows up and things start to get interesting.
Eventually the monster comes, and a moment arrives when everything that has happened before is wiped from memory and replaced by something so sensational and thrilling and alive that what preceded it is reduced to a crusty shadow. I sometimes wonder if I'll spend the first twenty-five years or so of my life in an alternating system of phlegmatic office work and vacationing, and the last sixty years or so fighting a werewolf, since that’s the extended version of the formula that always seems to be at work in the movies. But no matter how patiently I wait, it seems that the monster will never come--that he is restrained elsewhere by forces even more powerful and sinister than himself. Strange as it sounds, I'm still a little surprised by it every day, and a little sad. I'm so used to the horror movie blueprint that a werewolf crashing through my door would actually make more sense to me than my humdrum real life. Her continued, conspicuous absence makes me feel a little abandoned.
With real people and real lives, in fact, it's just the opposite of the way it works in horror movies. In the beginning part of real life, childhood, life in the world is by turns fantastic, thrilling, and, most especially, frightening, just like a horror movie after the monster shows up. Then a moment arrives, at different times for different people, when a person realizes that life really isn't terrible in the sense of fangs and tentacles and bristling fur. Oh life is just as terrible as you imagined before, only in a different way. It's terrible in the sense of things like undercooked chicken and acne and foul weather.
It's tough to know exactly when this change happened to me, but I remember a few instances that seem like good candidates. One night when I was about six years old, I saw the Michael Jackson music video Thriller for the first time, and I did alright with it until it was time to go to bed. After about half an hour of lying there in the dark, I realized that it had frightened me so much that it would be impossible for me to go to sleep, so I got out of bed and went to my father, crying and trying to explain my predicament. Henry, he said, just think about it. If there really were zombies out there, anywhere in the world, don't you think I would have mentioned them to you by now, or that your mom would have mentioned them by now? This, as I thought about it, made pretty good sense. It made so much sense, in fact, that I could hardly believe how stupid I'd been about the whole thing, so I went back to my room. When I got into bed, though, I found that I was still afraid. I wasn't afraid of zombies anymore. I was afraid of something else, something completely different that I couldn't quite put a name to yet. But even then, I could tell that my new fear had something to do with the fact that there weren't really any zombies. I knew that this, somehow, was actually worse.
Fortunately, I managed to put it out of my mind for the next few years. Then, when I was about nine and my little sister Hannah was about three, my parents realized that my sister had somehow gotten the idea that people ate their relatives after they died. My mother was understandably upset by this and, just to confirm that she was understanding her correctly, asked my sister a very logical question: “So, are you going to eat me after I die?” My sister thought it over for a moment and then replied, simply and seriously, “Just your legs.” Though it was bloodier than the truth, it was also more comprehensible sort of terror than the formal clothes, dim regrets and soporific encounters with distant relatives that, I was already aware, really did follow a death in the family.
We ran into similar problems when my father tried to explain the story of the resurrection to her. After hearing what many people consider the most profound spiritual event in all of human history, she asked, “So, was Jesus a zombie?” My father thought about this for a moment, and then could only say, “Well, sort of...” Through these things, I began to realize that my sister was in some ways a much more fully realized human being than I was, or could be again. I knew this because of how silly and strange I felt her thoughts to be. They seemed like such giant mental leaps, but once you cut away the cultural fat, the idea that Jesus is a superhuman man-god who acts as the anchoring point for the human soul and zombies are a thing of Voodoo and B-grade horror movies, for example, they really became very logical and sound associations. They were so sound that I asked myself why I hadn’t made this connection myself, and why other people didn’t make it.
In fact, before we humans (or some of us, anyway) began our adolescence as a species in 1920 or so, religion actually served much the same role for us as horror movies do for a child today: they frightened us in a way that made us feel important, in exchange for a little money. Though my sister could still see this at three, I was blind to it by nine. I guess by that age I was already too far along in the socialization process to be truly creative, having lost a section of that unique power of childhood which allows the child to transform the world into place more gruesome but also more sensible than it really is. This must have been the reason that her weird association struck a chord with me. It made me imagine how different things might have been if Jesus had come out of his tomb stumbling with an undead lethargy and feasting on the brains of the living, instead of coming back all sparkly as he does in the popular version. I had a sudden vision of locks of hair and fingernail clippings being donated by rows of believers and those then being consumed in a sacrificial fire, or wrapped around the heads of dead saints, or swallowed up by the sea. Even this would still be preferable to the truth, of course, which is that the principals (or lack thereof) that govern our universe will not be mollified by tribute of any kind, even a part of one's self.
In any case, I can be absolutely certain that, by the time I was thirteen years old, I had wholly completed the transition I've described above. It was a Saturday morning, and I could not move. So, I stretched myself out in adolescent paralysis and watched television, and what I watched was Night of the Living Dead. As the movie began and I watched a brother and sister drive into a cemetery to lay a wreath on their father's grave, I saw, as I'm sure you can guess by now, something much like my real life had become. I don't mean, of course, that my father was dead. He was alive and is alive. I mean that there were complaints, aimlessness, obligatory drudgery, pointless arguments, a staticy radio, loneliness, an unstylish car, cheapness, unsentimentality, scrubby little trees, a woman not quite pretty enough to excuse her vapid personality, and a pale, gawky man whose dry sense of humor went unappreciated and who seemed overall to be wasting his time. This section of the film ends rather quickly, as the first zombie shuffles into frame after only five minutes or so. Since I wasn't afraid of zombies anymore by that age, I began to lose interest, but then a strange thing happened. I realized that the first part of the movie, the real-life pre-monster part, was still creeping in. And it was creeping in on accident.
When I watched the actors in Night of the Living Dead, I could tell that they were amateurs at best. Some had acted a little before and others, clearly, had not. And as I watched them get in front of the camera and do their best, I could view a sort of negative image of their real lives, because I could imagine all the things that they did during that time they had while they weren't practicing their acting: working unglamourous jobs, going out on dates with people they didn't like all that much, walking back and forth to the post office, etc. Whenever somebody got their inflection wrong or botched a gesture, it was like I could see a pot of beans they cooked one time, or a scratched up record they listened to years ago. It was as though there was a second movie, more real but less interesting, crawling along invisibly underneath the main one.
Similarly, in one scene in Night of the Living Dead, cowering townsfolk watch on television, as a government scientist discusses zombie-spawning Venusian radiation with a single reporter on a deserted street in an unidentifiable city. As I watched this scene, I was forced to wonder why only a single reporter cared to ask the world’s most renowned expert about this new global catastrophe. Then I realized that there were supposed to be extras in this scene, but there either wasn't enough time to find them or enough money to pay them. So, looking at this scene in a certain way, it told about more than just radiation and zombies. It told about how lonely a place the world is, and how difficult it is to get something to turn out the way you want it to.
There was something wrong with the blood too. All the blood in Night of the Living Dead was really just Bosco chocolate syrup. Since the film was shot in black and white, it isn't as obvious as you might think, but you can still tell that it doesn't look quite right. When I looked at this not-quite-right blood, I couldn't help but think of the poor guy they sent to the grocery store wondering how much he should buy, wondering what he was going to do with himself once the movie was over with, and wondering, I bet, if he'd get to take home whatever was left over after they slathered up the actors.
None of these things happened on purpose, of course. Horror movies are produced, in general, for the sole purpose of making money, and Night of the Living Dead is no exception. Artistic value is nearly irrelevant. Night of the Living Dead wasn’t even supposed to be in black and white originally. The first few days of filming where done in color, but that proved cost prohibitive and so the switch was made to black and white. But, the black and white stock gave the Night of the Living Dead the look of a much older and much more dignified film, combined with a low-budget documentarian gravity that it shares with home movies. It's appropriate because, in a secret way, Night of the Living Dead is a documentary. Despite intentions, it documents the mix of frustration, boredom, and pointlessness that adult lives and the beginning parts of horror movies are made out of.
Counter-intuitively, as I was lying there in bed at thirteen, seeing these things made me slightly happy. At the time, I thought it was merely cruel joy taken in the incompetence of others. Now, though surely cruelty was part of it, I think there was more to it than that. Over many years, I've come to understand that the inverse of this phenomenon is just as true. If you can look at a horror movie, which has been designed to be thrilling, in the right way and see twinges of shoddiness, laziness, and quotidian reality seeping up the curtains, then maybe if you look at real life, which as near as I can tell is dull and lousy in its lack of design, in just the right way, you can catch a glimpse or two of something thrilling or unique or even beautiful between the slats of a fence--a vestigial little chunk of that magical life from long ago that has slipped mistakenly into the present. I really believe that's the best excuse I've ever come up with for putting one foot in front of the other.
But that realization hadn't yet come to me at thirteen, and would not come any time soon. Despite the minor self-congratulatory tingle that I got from noticing the seamy underbelly of the movie, my dominant thought was that my future seemed hard to bear. From now on there would be no more vampires, only vanity. There would be no more werewolves, only waiting. There would be no more mummies, only malaise. I could tell that these new challenges were going to be harder to square up to than the previous ones, maybe because there was no scheme for defeating them. For anger and grief and ennui there is, as they say, no silver bullet. And I thought that if my situation had already become so grim at the age of thirteen, then I could only expect things to get perpetually worse with each passing year. Everything would keep getting blander and blander and blander, and then, one day, I'd be old.
And I thought to myself that maybe, in the end, once even the tiniest memory of the monsters has gone away, you find that the real monster is yourself. In a way, time zombifies everything. It doesn’t take radiation or voodoo at all; it just takes time. You just have to look at any elderly celebrity to realize that. Having been so long without the power to rearrange the world within their minds, the world has rearranged them. Their skin is loose and discolored. Their eyes are glazed. They walk slowly and strangely. They talk slowly and strangely. They have become a sad comment on everything that they once were. In fact, all elderly celebrities could play zombified versions of the characters that they played in their youth. Don Knotts could play a zombified version of Barney Fife. Instead of doing his usual act with the citizens of Mayberry, he would just try to eat their brains. Andy Griffith and whoever it was that played Aunt Bea would have to play zombies too, since they are just as old now. Actually, I think the woman who played Aunt Bea really did die, and didn’t come back to life at all. But, if it could be made to work, a project like that would be so encouraging. Because, for just a little while, people could forget about the fact that Don Knotts is so old and is probably going to die in just a few years. They could imagine that he was just pretending to be zombie. All of the spoilage of age would seem like makeup, and the audience could imagine that he would just rinse it all off when the cameras stopped rolling and be young again. But, of course, it wouldn’t be makeup. It would be real.
Eventually, I became tired again and closed my eyes, while the black and white light from my television radiated out into the room, and I shuffled motionlessly on toward adulthood.



The Last Straw


I was always vaguely aware that there was something wrong with me, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on exactly what it was until I was about fourteen. That was when I bought a weight bench and started trying to expand my eighty pounds. It didn’t work, but during the time I spent looking in the mirror, marveling at the extent to which it wasn’t working, I began to notice the growing asymmetry in my rib cage. The left side seemed about normal, but the right side had a significant depression. It looked like I had gotten punched with superhuman force, and the indentation had never popped back out.
Eventually, I convinced my parents to take me to the doctor. There, I learned that I had a deformity that was known in medieval times as Shoemaker’s Chest. Making shoes in those days, I now understand, required pressing iron tools against your ribcage over and over again. This pressure could eventually cause the sternum to buckle inward and deform, depending on the flexibility or rigidity of the shoemaker’s bones. I had developed this same deformity through a mutation rather than through shoes. I remember that, initially, I didn’t care for being described as deformed, even though the term was perfectly accurate. It sounded antiquated and unfair. I later learned that the more modern term for what I have is “congenital anomaly,” which I’m almost positive is also what they were always taking measurements of on Star Trek just before being attacked by the Romulans.
I looked up my condition, now called Pectus Excavatum, in our big green physicians’ desk reference when I got home. The entry I found had three lines: “Pectus Excavatum: a deformity of the sternum and ribcage resulting in a sunken or funnel shaped chest. There are no major medical consequences beyond below average cardiovascular function, but serious mental and emotional problems often result.” It is a confusing thing to read in a book that you are probably going to go crazy. Initially, I decided that I would just have to be careful about this. The more I thought about it, though, the more complicated the prospect of remaining mentally healthy became.
I began to think along these lines: A sane person can think clearly, and therefore a sane person can correctly recognize his mental state as either sane or crazy. However, such a person is already, by definition, sane. A crazy person, on the other hand, cannot think clearly enough to distinguish whether or not he is, in actuality, sane or crazy, and might therefore imagine himself to be sane. So, by that logic, there isn’t really any way to determine, as an individual, whether you have gone insane or not at any given point in your life. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t seem likely that a person would wake up one morning having gone stark raving mad, in the same way that a person would wake up with the flu. It seems more reasonable to expect that a person would go a little crazier every day over a long period of time and would eventual pass a sort of mental high-water mark at which they could be deemed “crazy”. Given this, it might be possible for a person, when he had gone about a third or a quarter of the way crazy, to realize what was happening and utilize the sane majority of his brain in order to reverse the process and restore normalcy. Taking this idea far enough, a person could simply wait to reach a state of, say, one percent insanity (ninety-nine percent sanity), and then correct that damage every time it popped up just like changing the oil in a car, and, in that way, maintain a constant level of nearly perfect mental health. But, on the other hand, isn’t that sort of fixation on a single issue, that sort of repetitive, compulsive attention, one of the hallmarks of mental illness? Obviously, I never came to any firm conclusions on this subject.
I eventually went to a pediatric surgeon to see what sort of treatment was available. Nothing is more horrifying than being a teenager and going to a pediatrician, especially one who decorates his waiting room with big, stupid trains made out of laminated construction paper. I was painfully aware that I was not going on a train ride. The thin saccharine fa├žade made the reality of the situation that much more grim. Even worse than that, the medical clinic had been described to me as “The Crippled Children’s Center.” It wasn’t much of a swell to my burgeoning masculinity to learn that, in the eyes of the same government responsible for maintaining the highways, I had been designated a ‘crippled child.’ The surgeon said that short of an expensive and painful surgery involving the implantation of steel rods, there was really nothing to be done. At this point, I was still busily throwing myself around in the “don’t go crazy” circle described above, so I didn’t really pay much attention. As years passed though, I felt steadily worse. My bones ached for normalcy.
Being deformed is a lot like trying to work one of those claw machines that sits in arcades and by the entrances of very bad restaurants. They look so easy. You stroll up to one and glance with sardonic amusement at a little stuffed bear clutching a little stuffed soccer ball and wearing a t-shirt that says “I get a kick out of you.” And you decide, even though on a cerebral level you know how silly it is, that you really want this bear. You decide, for whatever reason, that it is an important thing to have. So, you take out two quarters and go to work, but what you don’t realize is that when the claw machine stocker comes by to refill the machine, he smashes all the stuffed animals down in the bin so that they lock together. Even though the bear’s head and torso are within reach of the claw, his lower limbs are all twisted around those of two or three of his stuffed animal friends. Also, the claw doesn’t clamp shut with any real force; the metal fingers don’t really grip with any pressure at all. You can’t tell this sort of thing from looking though, and so you can’t understand why it is that even though you repeatedly position the claw directly over the bear, the claw simply slaps at bear ineffectually and returns to its original position conspicuously empty. But, because you’ve already made an investment, you keep trying. The quarters roll in, and the minutes roll by, and before you know it you realize that you’re broke. Your friends have left you and you don’t have any way to get back home. The only thing that you really want is separated from you by a thin sheet of glass, and the world is suddenly a sad place.
Eventually, for no specific reason, things changed. I like to think that somewhere, deep down in the arcade of my psyche, I finally stumbled away from the claw machine to find a more rewarding endeavor, like skee ball. Skee ball is pretty fair. These days, I mainly think that I look like a super villain; one that was caught in the middle of a nefarious world-breaking deed by a meddlesome hero and was dealt a grievous, warping wound, and has now withdrawn to his subterraneous lair to wait for the revenge that will one day be his. Perhaps, it’s even true. It may be that this deformity is a punishment for a grandiose crime that I committed in a past life or will commit in a future one or am currently committing in this one, day by day and hour by hour. My situation has received, at least in my own mind, a sick kind of glamour. There are also mundane things that I do now to make life easier. I’ve found that it helps to either wear a drab one-tone shirt, or to wear a shirt with something ridiculous like two dragons killing each other on it. That way, the eye is either drawn away from the chest area completely, or people just think, “Wow, those two dragons are really going at it. That blue one is probably going to win.” I try not to wear shirts that have portraits on them, because the face is always jerked in one direction, which produces an unsettling distortion of the features. Plus, thinking pragmatically, a person like me could make a fortune in the drug smuggling trade, and my first rock and roll album is sure to make millions of dollars, prompted by cover art featuring some ubiquitous supermodel drinking milk out of my chest deformity through a bright red straw.






4. Regicide

It was just before my first period calculus class near the end of my senior year in high school, and I had my head down on my desk. It was there a lot in those days; my typical mental state was the shuffling, perception-warping exhaustion that most people only experience when they get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. But despite my lethargy, I liked calculus. It had been a long haul from the green algebra of the body to the blue trigonometry of the mind and, finally, to the white hot calculus of the soul, but it was worth it. Calculus was realizing that something you had previously understood to be true in only a silly, facile way really had deep roots furled out underneath it that proved its worth and fireworks that shot up out of it too, newer and more complicated and more beautiful than what you had known before. And the roots and the fireworks talked to one another across the night air in a lyrical, sensible language. And assuming you did things as they were meant to be done, everything worked out perfectly. Except for imagining what it would be like if the high school exploded (which would have been spectacular, with smoldering, cinematic wreckage and rock and roll music playing in the background), calculus was my favorite part of the school day.
The intercom came on and the principal read through the pale jumble of daily announcements. Towards the end, he paused, as though something had been hurriedly scrawled at the bottom of the page from which he was reading, and then continued, saying that the elections for prom king that had been held the day before would not be counted. There would be a second vote, at prom. No explanation was given. Then he signaled the start of our state-mandated ‘moment of silent reflection’ and switched off the intercom. It was during that ‘moment of silent reflection’ that I realized what had happened: they were voting again because I had won. I felt in this moment, as anyone would, like a chump. Prior to this, I had imagined that my uncoolness was an insubstantial, translucent butterfly floating about in the social ether. Now it had freakishly birthed itself into the real world, complete with long, hairy legs and wide, leathery bat wings. Now it was enforceable by government institutions up to at least the municipal level.
For a while, I thought I must have been misinterpreting things or misheard the announcement, but I confirmed my suspicions with several other students. Years later, the girl who counted the votes told me that I did, in fact, win, but even at the time, it was obvious enough what had happened. We had voted the day before in English class, each group of seniors voting in a different class period. I had, on a lark, asked people to vote for me. I was debating whether or not to go to prom at all, since I didn’t really have anything nice to wear and finding a girl to go with me unironically was going to be a pretty tough sell. I thought that knowing I’d be prom king might give me enough confidence to buy a ticket. Most people in my class nonchalantly agreed to vote for me, and I asked the teacher if I could write a note on the board asking people in the next class to vote for me also. She agreed, but when I stuck my head in just before the start of the next class, I saw she’d erased it.
Of course, sitting there in first period calculus class having just learned of my dethronement, my first inclination was to ask the question that everyone always asks when they hear this story: WHY WOULDN’T THEY LET YOU BE PROM KING? That question turns out to be pretty tough to answer. It’s easier to say why it wasn’t than to say why it was. It wasn’t because I was a bad student. I made straight A’s all through high school; I wound up placing second academically in my class. It wasn’t because I was misbehaved. I had never gotten detention or even been spoken to harshly by a teacher. I had never taken any drugs or drunk a beer or smoked a cigarette. I had never told a lie or stolen anything or cheated on a test.
I wasn’t the perennial smart-ass I am today, either. In fact, I was so quiet that I was almost a mute. There were days when I didn’t say anything at all to anyone. My senior quote in the yearbook was: (silence), which I meant as a joke though I don’t think anyone understood it. I remember there was a poster in the guidance counselor’s office that read: It takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. Which is true enough, but it willfully omits a third, readily available option. At some point in my high school career, I discovered that, while it does indeed take more muscles to frown than it does to smile, it doesn’t take any muscles at all to just leave your face with a slack, vacant, expression. So, that’s what I did. I walked around in a natural, joyless stupor. This, along with an extreme economy of speech, was my principal characteristic. Most people interpreted this as shyness, but the truth was that I simply didn’t want to go to the trouble of arranging my lips and tongue into some sort of word-making setup. I can be sure it wasn’t something I’d said that kept me from being prom king, because I’d hardly said anything at all.
In fact, the cruelest aspect of this affair was that I never learned for sure what the problem was. Being forced to guess at what was so offensive about me was far worse than simply being told outright, since it meant my flaw or flaws were so deep, intractable and patently obvious to everyone else that there was no need in actually going to the trouble of pointing them out. So I sat there in my seat, mentally going over everything that was wrong with me the way you might go over what you were supposed to buy at the grocery store.
“Well, I’m ugly,” I thought to myself. Which I was, and which still strikes me today as the most likely impetus behind my removal. I hadn’t always been such a disaster. I had been, judging from pictures and what I’ve been told, an unusually beautiful child–the sort of child, at least, that adults petted and fawned over and that other children took an immediate liking to. I remember that when I was about seven years old, the other children, pleasantly confused by my unusual leanness, would walk up and rub my arms and legs. Having been dutifully instructed to report any unwanted touching to an adult, I always complained to my teacher about this, but the other children seemed more aware of the reasoning behind these restrictions and defended their actions intelligently. Sadly, this rubbing eventually stopped. Adolescence had been a disfiguring car wreck protracted out over six years, and by the end I was in pretty bad shape. I don’t mean that I was good-looking with only a little something wrong with me or that I was good-looking except that I wore big, goofy glasses. I mean I was ugly. I had a chest deformity which caused my sternum to buckle inward. I was so pale I was light blue. I had terrible posture. I had acne. I had what an orthodontist would years later call the worst overbite he’d ever seen in twenty years on the job. Despite being five foot ten, I weighed ninety-five pounds, and I hadn’t cut my hair in five years. I looked like the revivified corpse of a depression era farmer who had finally keeled over and died on a muggy dust bowl afternoon and then been carelessly reanimated by a passing Voodoo priestess.
Long hair, by the way, was absolutely inexplicable in Alabama at the end of the twentieth century. Any possible connections to psychedelia or heavy metal were long dissolved, so it more-or-less became a culturally unviable question mark. People were baffled. Frequently, someone would walk up and ask me why I had long hair. This, when you think about it, is like asking someone “Why are you wearing that green shirt?” or “Why are you eating that cheese sandwich?” Half of the time I said something like, “Yeah, I… don’t really know” and the other half of the time I said, “Yeah, I’m… in a cult.” This second option actually turned out to be fairly believable because people were also always asking me if I knew someone named Ron who worked at pizza hut. He, apparently, had long hair too. I guess people imagined that we belonged to a clandestine long-haired-guy association that met in the woods on the weekends and danced around. I never managed to actually meet Ron, so I don’t have any idea what he and his hair might have been like. I imagine, though, that Ron was probably a pretty nice, hardworking guy who wished, when he was kneading the dough, that things had worked out a little better for him. The other problem that long hair caused me was the intense mental strain of trying to select a conditioner. They all had frighteningly effeminate names like “Free Me Fresia” and “Tangerine Tickle”. In the end, I bought tangerine tickle and always made a point to pick up the bottle so that my thumb would cover up the “le” in “Tickle”. This made the bottle read “Tangerine Tick”. Somehow, this seemed better.
My long hair was the one odd element in the mix, in that it was something I could have changed without much effort or money. I guess I kept it long because I thought it looked nice that way, and I felt like people should do what they wanted to and not what other people would prefer. I’ve rethought this position over the years, though, and done an about-face. I realized that while every individual is basically forced into a relationship with himself (when you eat dinner in a restaurant by yourself, you’re sort of going on a date with yourself), other people have the option to refuse. So it’s other people you should be trying to impress. Being yourself can work if what you are happens to be something good, but if what you are is something lousy, then you should probably try to be something else.
I’m not as ugly now as I was then. A mix of posture-enhancing clavicular braces, haircuts, deformity-fighting breathing exercises, sunlight, orthodontia, more working out than I’d like to admit to, and the imprisonment and systematic abuse of innumerable dairy cows (drink a gallon on whole milk every day and you will gain weight) did me a lot of good. These days, I look more like an elfin creature who is just getting over a long, consumptive illness brought on by one piece of cursed fruit or another. But the fever will break, the coughing will cease, and I’ll be back up and about the forest glen, soon enough. Of course, it might be nice to look like something that doesn’t require a supernatural back-story, and neither dust bowl zombie nor tuberculous elf is really all that spectacular, but anyone would concede that the second option is much better than the first, or at least poses fewer problems regarding the dating scene. The distance from the dust bowl to the forest glen is far enough, at least, that I can tell this story now. If I still looked now as I did then, I wouldn’t be able to.
If it wasn’t the fact that I was ugly that kept me from being prom king, then it might have been the fact that I was poor. Sadly, I’m still too poor today to risk boring you, my audience, with much of a description of how poor I was then. Oh, the chilly hilarity of it all It’s no great loss, really. By the time I was a senior in high school my family had enough money to rob the situation of any real narrative interest: the sort of poverty that denies you stories rather than gives them to you. At any rate, there’s not much to write about poverty that hasn’t been written already–it’s a raw deal and boring on top of that. It lacks the hip minimalism that it's always associated with in the movies. In real life, especially in an Alabama high school, there is nothing fashionable about being poor. In fact, within a free market society like America, poverty is the one thing that can never become fashionable because to the extent that anything is fashionable it is also, to that same extent, profitable. While it’s true that I’m just as poor today as I was then, it’s due to a combination of my own artistic pretensions and my failure at several more lucrative career paths. On paper, there was a time when I was, for a young man, fairly rich, and I know that I could have made a reasonably good lawyer or banker if I had taken that route. My poverty today is something that, as near as anyone chooses anything in this life, I’ve chosen, and the difference between choosing it and being born that way is the difference between being a drunken style kung-fu master and just being a drunk. Similarly, the difference is enough to let me talk about it.
The third and, I think, least likely reason for the re-vote was that I was unpopular. While it’s true that I wasn’t the sort of person who got invited to a lot of parties, I was well-tolerated by the student body. People regarded me as a drab little anomaly that, although it couldn’t be enjoyed or communicated with, harmed no one and consumed few resources.
Whichever the case might have been, the message was clear: I was no good. It was such a horrible thing to think about, yet I couldn’t stop wracking my brain trying to figure out exactly how it had come to pass. A shadowy cabal of administrators was surely at work behind the scenes, cruelly scheming up the maximum possible woe they could inflict. Had they no regard for the public insult they’d leveled against me? I imagined the scene unraveling like this:

A gray, wraithlike figure peers through a window at the thunderstorm brewing sourly in the night. Two others sit nearby. As a fork of distant lightning licks the ground, he turns his head to the side and says, “It greatly disturbs me to report that, by the machinations of some heretofore slumbering god or devil, Henry Ronan-Daniell has been elected Prom King.”
Then the second figure checks his watch to make sure that time is till progressing forward rather than backward, and the third drops her keys to see whether they will fall down to the floor or up the ceiling. When these experiments are complete, the first figure turns from the window, his face obscured by darkness, and continues, “Surprisingly, there have been no observable changes in the basic functioning of the universe thus far, except for the fact that driving my car now produces gasoline rather than consuming it, which I assure you will be the only positive result of this recent debacle. Now, what’s to be done about Mr. Ronan-Daniell?”
“He’d be easy to kill,” the second volunteers, leaning forward and running his tongue over the edge of his incisors, “we could wring his neck like a chicken.”
Lightning strikes again, closer than before. The wind whips into a gale. The first figure shudders and spits out, “While I’d be interested to see the results of a genetic test, he’s probably human in the eyes of the law, so killing him might have legal consequences. What else?”
“Frankly, if there’s a cold snap he might not survive until prom anyway,” the third offers, scratching her long nails against the arm of her chair.
“That’s good,” the first agrees, “but a person can never count on the weather.” Outside, as if in answer, the rain pelts the ground harder, shaking the elaborately terraced fields of nettles and poison ivy which stretch out to the distant, crumbling facade of a thumbscrew factory partially obscured by a line of weeping willows. Gullies fill and overflow.
“Perhaps he could be shut away someplace–an attic or a boiler room would suffice,” the second suggests.
The first figure mulls this over for almost a full minute, grimacing as if tasting a foul medicine. “Closer,” he announces finally, “but I imagine there would be some logistical problems we haven’t yet thought of. I, for one, wouldn’t want him banging about overhead as I tried to shave and read and go about my life.”
The third gets a far-away look in her eyes, one pupil a bit larger than the other, and says, “What if we just let him be Prom King. It would only last for a few hours. How bad could it be?” Visible through the window, lightning strike a willow tree by the factory. A limb lies flaming on the ground but is quickly extinguished by the pounding rain.
“Surely, you jest,” the first roars, “Why, his gruesome visage would unsettle even the steeliest of constitutions We’d all be ankle deep in vomit before the end of the first song, and his tiresome poverty only conjures up the poverty of the human spirit into the minds of all men unfortunate enough to encounter him Prom is a time of joy and merriment. It’s no time for such dreariness as this.”
“You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking,” the third agrees shaking her head and coming to her senses, “I suppose we could simply vote again, in hopes of a less tragicomically improbable result.”
“Good. It’s settled,” the first says in summary, “now let’s turn to some more palatable line of discourse.” And outside, the storm recedes, leaving only quiet and dampness and stillness.

Had these people no souls? Were they without any sense of compassion or fairness? When I was filled to the brim with righteous anger, I began to go through the suspects in my head, but the strange thing was, they all liked me. I personally knew everyone who could have been responsible for the nullification of the vote, and none of them had been anything less than kind to me in the past. What could I have done to upset them? Then it struck me. “Oh,” I thought, “they think the other kids are playing a joke on me. They’re actually just trying to be nice–to keep me from being embarrassed.”
While you might imagine this made me feel better, it actually made me feel much, much worse. When I had thought they weren’t going to let me be Prom King out of spite, I mostly felt horrible about it just like anyone else would have, but I also felt a tiny bit good. There’s something about being so loathsome as to inspire universal abomination must be called thrilling. Think of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In his top-to-bottom repulsiveness he has a kind of coolness–even, in a subtle way, a kind of sexiness. It comes, I suppose, from his complete, dangerous freedom. No matter how well the creature from the black lagoon dresses or grooms himself, he’s still not going to be any sort of love object. So, he doesn’t try. He doesn’t float around polishing his scales and flossing his gills. Since his extreme ugliness renders any attempts at popularity and handsomeness (which comprise almost all of human activity) a mute point, he has nothing but time and energy to do anything he wants with, which he uses to kill people. His complete divorce from our concerns preserves something beautiful within his ugliness.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is poor too. He’s one of the poorest monsters, in fact. Dracula’s rich. Dr. Frankenstein’s rich. Frankenstein's Monster is middle class at least in terms of his parentage, if you average out all the people he's made out of. The Mummy was rich for awhile, though he’s gone downhill. The Invisible Man’s rich. The Phantom of the Opera’s rich. But the Creature from the Black Lagoon is as broke as they come. I guess that’s part of the same deal. He has little to lose. He can’t be blackmailed or bargained with, because there isn’t anything you can hold over him, and there isn’t anything he can trade with or anything he can trade for. He doesn’t need any money down at the bottom of the Black Lagoon, because there’s nothing to buy and no one to buy it from. He has no need for insurance or licenses of any kind. He pays no taxes. It’s just him and the algae and the murky depths.
Once I realized that my abdication was probably being forced for my own good, though, I realized that I was something far less menacing and far more pitiful than the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I was more like a stray dog that got crunched under a tire because of its own dumb refusal to stay out of the street and now lay twitching on the side of the road, blood all over the asphalt, waiting for some city worker to come by and put it out of its misery. There’s nothing cool about that, and precious few people (at least within the demographics I choose to associate myself with) would find it sexy. Plus, the Creature from the Black Lagoon doesn’t care that he’s ugly and poor and unpopular and won’t be allowed to be prom king, but I did care.
Hadn’t anyone even considered the possibility that I could have been elected unironically? After all, I was ugly enough, but I wasn’t the ugliest person I knew, though I was one of them. I was poor enough, but I wasn’t the poorest person I knew, though I was one of them. When I reflected honestly, though, the two were aligned so as to create a total eclipse of all desirability. I had never been on a date. I had never held a girl’s hand. I had never even talked to a girl on the phone. I had never gotten that feeling you get when you realize someone is looking at you for a little too long, or when someone’s acting a little strange around you and you realize they’re nervous because they want you to like them, or when someone you don’t know does some minor nice thing for you for no good reason. I had kissed a girl once, in the first grade. Her name was Jessica Gardner. She later became a cheerleader, and about a decade after our childhood romance I heard that her father had kept a picture of her and I together which he would take out and show to her as punishment whenever she annoyed him.
The choice before me was complicated. On one hand, not going to Prom meant acquiescing to the subnormal status that had been ascribed to me. On the other hand, perhaps it would allow me to salvage more of my dignity if I simply stayed home. Tickets were on sale until the end of the day, for ten dollars. I hadn’t known that it was the last day to buy tickets, so I didn’t have any money with me, but enough people were moved by my plight to loan me the ten dollars.
Money in hand, I got into line with the other people buying their tickets during lunch period, but when I was second in line, I stepped away silently and just ate lunch instead. I wish I could say that I had a noble reason for my decision, but the truth is I just didn’t much nerve in those days.
As I walked out of the lunch room, I bumped into Dr. Rhodes, my English teacher from the previous year. Apparently, he had already been told of my recent dethronement, because he stopped me and said, “Henry, are you going to Prom?”
“No.”
“You ought to.”
“Why? It’s been made very clear I’m not wanted there.”
“I don’t think that’s true. Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding. Anyway, you can’t be Prom King if you don’t go.”
“I can’t afford it anyway. I don’t have any nice clothes.”
“Well, I was about your size when I was your age. (He had told me this at least a dozen times before, once in front of a room full of people.) I’ve got a suit at home that will fit you. You could borrow it.”
The thought of putting on a suit that had been moldering away in Dr. Rhodes’s mothbally basement through Johnson’s tumid utopianism, Nixon’s grim Machiavellianism, Ford’s linebackerish solidity, Carter’s nutria-incensing malaise, Reagan’s ultraviscus trickle-down nonsense, Bush’s patrician scanner-amazement, and Clinton’s philandering welfare ‘reform’ struck me as undignified. Had I gone to Prom, I would have wanted to wear something at least as nice as what everyone else was wearing.
“Thanks. But I just don’t feel like going.”
“But why not?”
“Because, why pretend?”
Dr. Rhodes opened as mouth in reply, but then decided against it, nodded, and walked off.
The truth is, I never wanted to be Prom King. I wanted to be the sort of person that it would have made sense to elect Prom King, and I wouldn’t have been that no matter how many votes I got. You can get elected President or Prime Minister or even Pope, but to be a King, to really be a King, you’ve got to be born that way.


15. The Strange and Wonderful Story of My Birth and the Events Surrounding



Hundreds of years ago, when science was young, scientists thought life sprung forth of its own volition from inanimate matter. They called this idea spontaneous generation. These scientists did experiments which they thought proved their theory to be true: they took raw meat and left it out in the open air. For a while, the scientists would stand around and look at the meat while nothing happened, but then they would get tired and go home to eat dinner and spend some time with their families. While they were at home asleep, flies would fly into the rooms where the meat had been left and lay their eggs on it. When the scientists came back in to work the next morning and saw the maggots writhing around on the meat, they said, “Oh, that must be where maggots come from.” Eventually, the scientists figured out what was really going on. They realized that all animals come only from other animals of similar type. It would be more interesting, though, if spontaneous generation had turned out to be true; if someone could just put a deck of playing cards and a dead fish into a sack and then throw it behind a couch for a few days and make a baby. I think maybe it is true, in a way. It takes people to make a baby, that’s certain, but other things play their parts as well.


Thirty miles east of the Alabama-Mississippi line, there is a community, not nearly a town and not quite a village, that does not appear on any map, at least not on the sort of maps you can buy in stores. Even if you were walking right through the middle of it, in fact, there wouldn’t be any way to be sure if you had gotten there or you were still somewhere else. This community has many names, but my parents, who lived there for a decade, called it Romulus.
They had both been born in Alabama, but in a world apart. My mother had grown up middle class and my father wealthy. Both had gone to private schools and then on to college in a time and place when this was not a given. After college, they had begun living what some people would call a bohemian life, though that concept is mysterious to most Southerners. After a few years of desultory, post-collegiate travel and some time living with friends, they found themselves in Romulus.
The house they moved into was a little square with four small rooms. When they began renting it, it had no siding or telephone or heat. It had no foundation; it sat on concrete blocks. They didn’t go there intending to become subsistence farmers, but as they thickened in arable layer of soil of their five acres of land, other plans thinned and the world beyond Romulus seemed to stretch farther and farther away. They were growing most of their own food before long. What little the land wouldn't provide they got through painting houses, raking pine straw, and packing eggs into boxes as they rolled down a conveyor belt in the plant nearby. The rent was only two dollars a day, and there was little else to buy.
It would be nice to imagine the landscape happy with their agriculture, imagine it being a commensurate process in some way or another. But on the other hand, it could just as easily have been silently, judiciously wroth for their manglings. As a carrot grows, it becomes a kind of knife that stabs the earth, which is too big, you'd think, to care. But when one of those carrots is pulled out, is there, someplace remote in a cave, a small sigh of relief? Or does it like the feeling of it being in there, like acupuncture?
My parents also raised chickens for eggs and meat, and the give and take between them and the chickens was more obvious than it was with the vegetables. It became especially so one night when my father said to my mother, Come outside.
Why?
I've just seen the most bizarre thing. You won't believe it.
With the chickens, there were snakes–shiny black ones. They were eating the eggs with the chickens on top of them, and the chickens were sitting there as still as statues of other, more exceptional chickens. “Why do they stay there,” my parents wondered? “Unlikely courage? Love? Idiocy? Are they angry at the snakes for eating their children? Are they angry with us for doing it?”
Ethical concerns aside, I still take some pride in the story of their time in Romulus, mostly because of the difference between it and others of the same ilk. The way this kind of story usually goes, with the soft and uninitiated city folk moving to the country and trying to live off the land, the people flail and fail and finally drag themselves back home after a year or two, humbled and a little wiser. My parents didn’t do this. They endured through monotonous heat waves and even one freak ice storm which kept them sequestered on their land for a week. Eventually,” my mother remembers today, “people came with a chainsaw and got the power back on. It was these three black guys and one old white guy, who was of course being mean to them, but I was so glad to have the power back I didn't care. I’d have kissed him on the mouth.”
Though they were isolated geographically, my parents didn’t feel isolated socially. They made friends. One group of these friends, who they describe as ‘thrill-seekers’ would play a game using an electric lamp. Diogenese once used a lantern in the daytime when he was scouring Athens for an honest man. This group my parents knew used a lamp in the daytime to elucidate something of the human character as well. It wasn't honesty they wanted to find, though, it was endurance. They took the lamp apart and then one person grabbed the positive end of the electric current and a second person grabbed the negative end. The rest of the crowd arranged themselves in a chain between the two of them. When the lamp was switched on, the circle of people lurched in unison as swarms of electrons, eternal xenophiles, loathers of themselves and others like them, raced away from one another through the loop of bodies. After some trembling and stamping, someone gave up, couldn’t take anymore, and turned loose of the person beside them. Everyone tried to catch their breath while that someone, out of the game now, left the circle to lie on the grass. Then it would all begin again with a smaller circle, and so with a higher current. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It would repeat until it was down to just two people, the circle tightening up like a noose. Who would be the strongest? These final two grabbed hands and bore their teeth. They whispered and groaned and grumbled and roared, but they didn't let go. Their hair stood up on end, but still they wouldn't let go. Today, no one recalls who won these games, but my parents participated in them only occasionally and never advanced beyond the initial stages, a fact which I find strangely embarrassing today.
Despite the stories I’ve heard and my jumpcut memory of the place, most of people in this milieu are difficult for me to visualize, except for one of my parent’s friends named Bear. Because of his name, I imagine him being a bear–not a grizzly but a quizzical looking black bear like we still have in Alabama, and I imagine this bear acting out one of the two stories I always hear about him: it’s twenty five miles to the grocery store, so when he wants to take the edge off after a long hibernation he has to lumber into his car, hefting his ursine bulk into the too-small human space. He drives clumsily for his lack of thumbs, relying only on the friction of his callused paws. Rolling down the window is a weary labor without the ability to grasp, knocking the handle down and then up, over and over again. It can't be helped, though, because it is a hundred degrees in the shade and even hotter than that under the shade of a big fur coat. The engine struggles at the task of hauling all eight hundred pounds of him, a whole family just by himself. It's bad for gas milage to be so enormous, but it’s better now than it was before hibernation. Once he's in the grocery store, he walks inside and the storekeeper gets his beer for him to save him more fumbling than is necessary. He reaches into a pocket of his pants, sewn together by his wife from three human-sized pairs, and slaps the money down on the counter. Thank you, he says from deep down in his throat, and presses the six-pack between his paws, hugging it tight to his body. Once he and it are back in the car, he strips the top off the first one with one flick of a single non-retractable claw and pours in down his throat with both hands. By the time he's stopped to say hello at our house, he's already finished it all. Well, he says, I went to the store to buy some beer, but since I drank it all, I guess I'll just have to go back and buy more.
“Ok. Goodbye,” my parents say, “we'll see you soon.”
The second story is this: once, my parents left me with him, and when they came back and found him sober and reading the paper, they couldn’t believe it. “Imagine that ” they say. “ And at night Reading the paper We could hardly believe it. We’d never seen anything like it before. He must’ve really wanted to do a good job.” In my mind he is always either unexpectedly reading the paper, or driving back and forth in an unending trek to the grocery store. This makes him very wise concerning the local weather and politics, but also tired from having to be on the road all the time.
Of all the people my parents recall from their time out there in Romulus, only one frightens me. His name was Nathan Goodson. He had rats nailed up to the walls inside his house. They squeaked and scurried no longer. Heads, big animal heads, were thrown around his front lawn, filling up buckets and hanging from the trees. They watched you as you approached, twisting in the wind as though shaking their head to say “no.” He had a dog he took with him wherever he went. It couldn’t walk fast enough to keep up with him, because it was dead, so he drug it around by the legs. He named it Nikki when he found it down by the road, a little exploded. She was extremely well behaved and never too noisy, though she could be lethargic at times. I’m sure my parents were frightened of this fellow too, but they needed friends out there. They needed people they could depend on.
I don’t mean to imply that all people in the rural South live like this. I’m especially wary of giving this impression because I know some people imagine it much this way, but a difference of time has done for me what a difference of place has done, and continues to do, for other people. If I make them seem like a berserk, swaggering, drum-beating parade, it’s because the stories I’ve always heard about them concerned their single most grotesque activity and, in my mind, I broaden that maniacal spirit out into the rest of their lives until it usurps their true biographies about which I know almost nothing.
I don’t feel like they have any jobs, that they just sort of find things. I don’t feel like they have any parents, though some do have wives and children who are much like themselves. With a few of them, it seems like maybe you could take off their clothes and they’d just be a bunch of frogs and raccoons all tied up together under there. I know it isn’t true, but I’ll never meet them so that’s the way they’ll always be for me: Instead of driver’s licenses they all just share a– They don’t bathe in water, but in this purple– They don’t tell time with clocks or even by the sun, but by using a specially trained– They don’t have mailboxes, so the postman just leaves their mail in the care of the lank, bedraggled– They have to go to sleep with the lights on every night, because of those sneaky damn– They never lock any doors, because if you lock something out there, you’re only going to– The operate on an eight and a half day week, to the constant vexation of everyone else who works at the– They don’t go to church, because they’ve got their own religion based on the instruction manual that came with their– You can try to call them on the phone if you want to, but you’ll barely be able to hear them over all the barking and staticy– And on and on and on like that forever. Really, I bet they did these things in the normal way. Mostly, anyway.
And then it became clear one day, in the midst of all this, that I was going to be making my entrance into the world a few months down the road. My parents must have known even then that my arrival would be the end of their life out there. They’d been happy enough but couldn’t raise a child like this. Before that could be worried about, though, a more immediate problem presented itself. The hospital was eighty miles away, yet they had no working car. They borrowed one, but noticed that it was leaning aside in a clubfoot way onto a flat tire. Meanwhile, my mother was swelling up bigger and bigger every day. Remote, concerned individuals were persuaded to send them a tire, and then my parents waited around in the shade at the bus station. When the tire came, then bounced it off the bus and rolled it home. The car was sure-footed again when the due date arrived, but nothing happened. A week passed, and nothing happened. Two weeks passed, and nothing happened. Finally, on June 11th 1983, it was time.
A new problem: there was no gas in the car, and no money to buy gas with. Tomorrow was payday. My father called the hospital, hoping he could wait until the morning to come, but they told him that wouldn’t work. “You’re too far away for that,” they said, “you come right now.”
So he said to my mother, “I’ll be right back,” and walked down the road to their neighbor Norris Lavelle’s house. He was a kind man who had brought my parents food during the ice storm. My father knocked on the door, and Norris’s face appeared in the doorway, blinking and red-eyed with sleep but friendly.
“It looks like it’s time for the baby now, and I don’t have enough money for gas to the hospital. Can you help me?”
“I’ll be right back,” Norris said.
There indeed was Old Hickory's long, beaky mug. He was a lean man, Andrew Jackson, more gaunt even than Lincoln at six-foot-one and a hundred and thirty pounds. A native son of the Old South. A lawyer, a congressman, a killer of Indians and of the British and of the Spanish. A lover of Napoleon and blackberry jam. A container of bullets, so full by the end that he rattled.
One day, his enemies set a trap for him. They found one of the great duelists of the age, Charles Dickinson, who had by the age of twenty-seven had already stuffed twenty-six men down into hell. Twenty-six more red hot pokers to be forged. Twenty six more hooks to be joined onto the jolly sickler. Twenty-six more fathoms worth to be poured upon the eely tarn. Twenty-six more cells to be gouged out of the sulfurous loam. It will mean long hours of work–nights and weekends. Well, to tell you the truth Old Hickory, we don’t have any blackberry jam down here, but what we do have, and what we always have, is room for one more
They took this man, this unbeatable killer, and they convinced him to insult Jackson’s wife. “He’ll never survive,” they thought, “Charles is so fast, most men step up to the mark and realize he killed them two weeks ago. He’s so fast, he could read The Merchant of Venice by the time your hand touched the gun and still have enough time left over to kill you, and he still would.” The insult came, and of course the duel was arranged. Jackson, knowing he couldn’t match Dickinson’s speed, didn’t make a move when you duel began. Charles Dickinson, as fast as advertised, flung a bullet into Jackson’s chest, an inch away from his heart. Jackson didn’t go down. He stood there with the seventy caliber bullet inside of him, aimed his gun straight for Dickinson’s head, and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. According to the rules of engagement, the duel should have ended right there, but without even wavering, he re-cocked his gun and shot Dickinson dead. Sometimes there are more important things in life than your honor. Sometimes you’ve just got to get things done, and it doesn’t really matter what the rules are or what people will say about you.
Andrew Jackson and my father both weighed about a hundred and thirty pounds and loved their wives very much, and the two of them walked back down the road together that night, leaving Norris Lavelle in the quiet of his house again. For a while Norris waited, until he knew that my parents would already be in the car and on towards the hospital. Then he woke up his own wife, and they walked together down the road to our house. They went inside. It wasn’t locked–there’s nothing to steal. It was a wreck from top to bottom. So they began to clean, and they didn’t stop until every dish was washed and put away, until every floor was swept, until it was the sort of house you’d want to bring a baby into.
The labor lasted for thirty-six hours. My mother’s midwife is an epileptic, and the man who performed her epidural didn’t speak English. Eventually it became clear that needed to have a cesarean section. I was a big baby–eight and half pounds. The next day the doctor told her, “You know, some people feel bad when they try to have a natural childbirth, but they can’t make it work. But the thing is, there isn’t really anything that you could have done. If you had lived a hundred years ago, or even if you lived today in another place, you would have died. He would have died. They called it five day labor.” Whenever I cried as a baby, you could see the spot on my forehead where I had unsuccessfully tried to make my way out into the world.
I had already been there, squirming around for a few days already, when a nurse said to my mother, Ma'am, there's a strange looking man here. He says he wants to see you. I wasn't sure if I ought to let him in or not. And out there into the hallway she saw her friend Sam Trebin paused, standing there all wet and holding a fistfull of Queen Anne's lace that was all wet too and drip, drip, dripping away onto the hospital floor. It was easy enough for her to see what had happened to him while he was trying get those flowers. Queen Anne's lace grows everywhere in Alabama in June. There's hardly a roadside that doesn't have some. Anybody can get as much as they want and still stay dry. But there had been some, bobbing its head up and down slightly with the rush of the water as though in agreement at his nascent plan, perched at the fingertip of a rock in the middle of a stream, which had been somehow more perfect. So he thought to himself, That’s the one I have to get, and I think I can do it, and he inched up a little bit at a time until it didn't look like the earth would hold him anymore. Then he stretched out, reached out over the water, close enough to get the hollow of his hands on them and gently, gently began to pull back, but fell in anyway, down into the water. He'd come to the hospital straight from there. It's alright,” she my mother said, “I know him. Even though it wasn't really visiting hours, he got to come in anyway. She said to herself that he really was pretty strange looking.
I got these for you.
They're very nice.
“Where’s your husband anyway?”
“Oh, he just stepped out for a minute. He’ll be right back.”
Even today, she says it was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for her.
Back from the hospital, we discovered that three of our cats had had kittens, as if they all knew that I was coming somehow. When my parents counted them all up, they realized that they had more than twenty cats. I like to think about them each making separate romantic entreaties to another, with love triangles. The adults at that point were Flim and Flam, Maybe and Baby, and Lila, Lloyd, and Freud. Freud later had a Freudian slip and fell down the well. They also had a dog, Coon, who growled at me when I first showed up at the house. He must have known that he was on the way out at that point, because only a month later he got hit by a car in a curve in the road while trying to accomplish basically the same thing that my parents were during this period.
Babies are still the most charming little piece of machinery, and everybody came out of the woodwork to take a look. For weeks and weeks, people showed up to see, but eventually everyone had come and gone and the three of us were alone together for the first time. Then, there was a knock on the door, and it was their friend Bill Bennet, a surly man who hated children. After he stalked up into the house, she asked, “Henry’s asleep in the other room. Do you want to see him?” “No.” he said, “I don’t see any reason to do that.” “Oh, come on,” she tried again, “Why don’t you go look at him?” Then he walked off into the dark, other room where I was asleep. He stayed in there, very quiet, for longer than expected before he came back out and said, “You know, he ain’t half bad. Most of them look like little rats, but he actually looks ok.”
First, I slept inside a drawer, like a shirt can sleep in a drawer. Then I slept on the floor, like a broom can sleep on a floor. There was a light down there by the floor, I remember, which I would look at in the dark. And I was terribly afraid in the dark, because of how far away it all seemed. In the dark, everything would all recede backwards, jerking out a million miles to dizzy, treacherous infinity. And forever is the most frightening thing to look at, because so much can go wrong from here to there. There are so many hungry snares lying in wait along the long road. So, I would look there at the light because it was the only thing that wasn’t running away from me. It was the only thing that would hold still. Every once in awhile, there was another light in the bathroom. When it came on, the rooster crowed because of the tiny sun, smaller but faster than the real one, that has just risen inside the bathroom.
My other memories of the place are few: enormous carrots that were absolutely self-conscious in their orangeness, being held by an elderly, crippled black woman, and a tiny plastic gorilla with a pink face which was on my cake on my third birthday. We left around the time I turned four, never returning even for a day, and though my memories are few in number I think of them often.
Perhaps it’s because the beginning of things holds a special fascination. Or perhaps it’s because I was only a few years old, my mother had a dream about me. She was out on the water with me, and when she tried to look for me she realized that I had gone under the water. She searched around with their arms and pulled me back out alive, but I had come back up strange and changed. I had been under for too long. And after the dream, the week or so after it, people kept saying to my her:
Why don't you and Henry come out on my boat?
I'm going out to the lake tomorrow, you should come and bring Henry. He'd love it.
We're all going fishing if you want to come. Henry would have a great time.
Come with us.
It's going to be a nice day out.
Come with us.
Bring him.
Be sure to bring Henry.
Bring him down to the water with us.
Bring Henry down to the water with us.
“He should be with us.”

We're not going out there.

Why not?
It's silly.
Because of a dream?
Nothing will happen.
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Trust me.”

I won't go. He'll drown.

So we didn't go, but sometimes I think maybe it still happened while she was asleep and that's why I act the way that I do sometimes, or that maybe it partly happened and partly didn’t, or that I’m really still down there even today, under the water.