Sometimes he seemed like an old man, other times like a little boy. When she met him in her class—she was his teacher, he was thirty-five and she was forty-seven.
Daniel Price. He had not yet learned how to perform the university way of being. Class issues, she told him in bed, and he laughed and said he knew but he didn’t care. He was here for the books, not for some kind of finishing school. He read to her from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the only book he said that got the war right: Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.
Is that how it was? she said.
With his stump, he reached for her, then he pulled away.
I forget, he said.
You can reach for me any way you want, she said.
That’s not the way I want, he said. He reached for her with the hand he still had. This is the way I want.
Now, at seventy-seven, she was retiring. Her letter came by Priority Mail. The retirement lecture for Kay Ballard. His name and address in her neat, precise handwriting, in an envelope that smelled like her.
He opened it with the Swiss letter opener she had given him. There, above the typing, a small note in green ink: I want you to be here if you are able.
He thought about that for a while. He was able. Briefly he had remarried, but that marriage, like the others, didn’t take.
What is it you want? his therapist asked.
He was thinking about the evening she spread a series of reproductions of yellowed letters on her bedspread. She said, I found this one in an archive in Dayton, Ohio. This one at the National Archives, this one at the Library of Virginia, this one at Gettysburg College. They all tell one continuous story, she said. Would you like to hear it?
She remembered being afraid to tell him that evening. The story involved a Civil War amputation. Would he think she was telling him so she could somehow make use of the story to manipulate him?
This woman, he told the therapist, was quick on her feet, authoritative, a big presence in the classroom, larger-than-life in a big lecture hall. Students flocked to her. Wanted her attention. Wanted to be her. She could be warm, she could be funny, she could turn on a dime, be the most sober, serious, smartest person you’d ever met. The smartest person, really, in any room. She was a very good teacher, but she didn’t think of herself as a teacher. She thought of herself as a scholar. She only taught because that was the price of doing business. What she wanted to do, all the time, was sit in archives around the South and the Midwest. Medical records, business transactions, newspapers, diaries. Her specialty was letters home from Civil War soldiers.
My whole family is Catholic, she said. Are you Catholic?
My family is Southern Baptist, he said. I don’t believe in God, post-napalm.
You saw some of that? she said.
I was in the planes, he said.
She wanted to give him context, she said, about the project she was working on. The beliefs of certain 19th century American sects were strange. On the appointed day, the resurrected Christ would appear in the sky with an army of angels and from their graves.
That’s not strange to me, he said. That’s the story I heard my whole childhood. You had to be afraid when the sky turned red. That was the sign. Christ returning on a white horse, and if you weren’t right, if you weren’t ready, you couldn’t be raptured up with him. It was hell time for you. Seven years of hell on earth, the reign of the Antichrist, then after that the lake of fire.
This was not the first thing about him that had given her pause.
America, she supposed, was full of people who believed things like these, but usually they were smart enough to keep it to themselves.
He could tell he had said the wrong thing. I know that’s crazy, he said.
No, she said. What can you do about the way that you are raised? You receive what you receive.
But she seemed, now, to be sitting farther away from him on the bed.
I wanted to reel her back in, he told the therapist.
What did you say? the therapist said.
I told her about roofing, he said. I told her why I was in school. I told her about my family.
The year before, his grandmother had dropped dead, face-first, in her trailer.
By then I had already decided, he told her, to go to college. His feeling was that he’d completed a ten-year process of subduing his adrenalized body, which jumped, ready to flee or kill, every time a dog barked or a doorbell rang. And not just his body. A ten-year process of reclaiming his mind.
On Florida rooftops, residential, industrial, and commercial, working alongside his father, work that required a serious focus, especially for a person missing half an arm. Carrying a load of shingles up a ladder, balancing all day on a steep pitch, tracking the overhead power lines, minding the distance from every edge, taking care with the power cutter, the power hoist, the circular saw, the hot tar, sweating it out in the heat. And then, at night, the Russian novels, the omnibus histories, Churchill, Orwell, whatever seemingly elevated thing he could find next. He was reading haphazardly while trying to be systematic. If he found a writer he liked, he tried to read everything they had written in chronological order. He very pleasurably read all of Vonnegut this way, then, with decreasing pleasure, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster. He tried and failed a few times at Shakespeare and Homer, angered his father by taking a morning class at Palm Beach Junior College, Humanities Seminar, looking for some help, looking, he realized later, for some kind of sustenance.
He found it, too. In this class he learned about Tsar Nicholas I’s cruel mock execution order, a blindfolded Dostoevsky led in front of a firing squad in Petersburg Square, the messenger who arrived on horseback waving a white flag which meant the tsar was only kidding, he only wanted to terrorize Dostoevsky as punishment for his political letters, a scene he’d read fictionalized in The Idiot, but now informed by a real-life source. (Was this how it was done? The art was made from the life?)
For the first time he heard opera without rock—Mozart’s Magic Flute, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Verdi’s Rigoletto. At the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater he saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, Martin Sheen playing Randle P. McMurphy, whose infectious spirit of freedom could not be constrained even by lobotomy or death. In Husserl and William James he reckoned with the nature of time, the specious present, how we experience the past and the future. In the darkened classroom, by light of 35mm filmstrip, he learned how the Franco-Dutch War was hot and heavy outside the window, but Vermeer chose to frame and focus the light in his paintings on the women inside, instead: The kitchen maid pouring milk, the woman in blue reading a letter, most of all the girl in the yellow shawl, holding bobbins in one hand, putting pin to pillow with the other, making lace. It was as if, the gray-haired teacher said, Vermeer was talking about our own wars in our own time, showing us another way to think about them. As if he was saying it’s not the battles that deserve our attention. It’s not the generals that matter, or the governments, or the guns. It’s the domestic. The life in the home. The making of objects. The things we do to lift ourselves and others. The cultivation of culture.
He was pressing hard, trying hard. A man in his mid-thirties, slugging it out with kids fresh from high school, tending his deficits, exceeding them where he could. His primary goal was not a grade of A, but he was fighting for that, too. I was getting up early, he told her. Working, then going to class, then working. I was staying up late, reading, studying. Forgetting to eat sometimes. Getting pretty thin. Really trying to get up to speed. To comprehend. To understand. My father was ridiculing me at every turn. I made the mistake of trying to tell him what I liked about it. Like I was going to get him interested, like we were going to go down some new path together, build some life of the mind together. I was making good money roofing. He was making even more. He said he’d understand if I wanted to go to school to learn a trade. Become an electrician’s apprentice, a carpenter’s apprentice, a plumber. He said those things made sense, you could make a living at those things. If I wanted to give any of that a try, he’d pay. But what was “lit-ra-cha” going to do for me? What was looking at paintings going to do? History? Plays? And opera? Have you lost your mind?
Then, mid-semester, an exceptionally and unseasonably hot day on a tall roof. Good Samaritan Hospital, same building where he was born, and where, that day, he almost died. He had skipped breakfast, missed half the night’s sleep, put in a couple of slow hours working in the near-dark on the roof, suffered through an uneventful morning in the darkened classroom, a dry slide presentation on Victorian architecture, dragged himself back to the hospital, spaceheaded, all inertia, just doing whatever his father told him to do, rotely going through the motions. Roofing. Cognizant of no danger visible or invisible. Not thinking, he told her, about gravity, not thinking anything was really wrong with his body. One moment he was carrying a bucket of mortar not far from the roof’s edge, the next he was spinning into an overtaking blackness.
It was his father who caught him. Who saved him from tumbling off the fourth-story roof, who kicked the heavy bucket of mortar so his foot wouldn’t get caught in it as he fell, who held onto him, slid while holding him, dug into the roof with his back and his heels, bloodied his elbows, slowed them both to a stop half a foot from the edge. His father who slapped his face later with his open palm. Five, six, seven hard slaps. Talked to him, this grown son, this war veteran, like he was an errant adolescent child. You dumbass clown. You didn’t eat breakfast? You lucky, lucky, irresponsible fool. You didn’t get your roofing sleep? You almost killed yourself and me, too, and for what? To stay up late reading books? To get up early so you can waste half the morning at the junior college? To prance around like some kind of limp-wrist? Use some kind of three-dollar words when a nickel will pay the fare?
This was some new kind of mad, he told her. I hadn’t seen my father that mad since we’d had our go-rounds in junior high years. He stayed mad. Weeks, this went on. He hardly talked to me. Stopped calling me by my name. Once in a while, he’d say, give me the hammer, Junior College. Run the extension, Junior College. Get the shingles, Junior College.
And then one day my mother went to my grandmother’s trailer to pick her up and take her to get her haircut. She knocked on the door, but my grandmother didn’t answer. She was getting worried, she said. She kept knocking, but no answer, nothing. So she got the spare key from the fake rock under the bushes. Opened the door, went inside calling my grandmother’s name. Marie, Marie. Smelled natural gas. Smelled something burning in the kitchen. One of the stovetop burners was still lit. Baloney on the skillet, charred to almost nothing. Baloney ash. Black flakes. Looked around the corner, past the Frigidaire, and there she was in the hall, my grandmother, face down in the floor. Still warm. Heart attack, sudden onset. Dead in the hallway, spatula still in her hand.
My mother was wrecked, he said. Finding her like that. And my father was great about it, at first. Great with my mother. Took time off work, which he had never done before. Took time with her. I saw him do things he never did. He cooked dinner, cleaned the bathroom, the toilet. That first night, I saw him brush her hair. Just really tended her, took care of her, like it was her mother who had died rather than his. I remember she was upset one night, crying, because there was no money for a funeral. He said don’t worry, we’ll do a graveside service. We’ll do it right. I’ll pay for it. I’ll pay the extra, get the covered chairs, get the green tent. We’ll honor her the right way. I’ll make sure of it. I’ll give the eulogy myself.
When she thought of him in later years, when she tried to remember him, tease out some idea of who he was, who he had been, this was sometimes the first thing she remembered. This story about the graveside service. The hostility his father had shown toward him in this eulogy.
Only nine people attended the graveside service, family included. Forty felt-covered metal folding chairs under the tent for nine people. Scheduled opening remarks from the cemetery director, but his father shooed the man away. Come up front, he told the gathered. We can all fit in the first two rows here.
My father made us all be pallbearers, he told her. Everyone except my mother. I remember my shoulder was sore. My arm hurt. From carrying the casket with just one arm. Everyone else could cheat when they got tired. Put a second hand on the rail. I remember I wanted to rub my shoulder but it wasn’t the time to ask anyone to do it. The frustration of that. And then my father was up front in his shirt and tie and his Atlanta Braves windbreaker, smoking his cigarette, unfolding a piece of paper, looking at us in this weird way. Like he was trying to show how much he meant it. Like he had suddenly become the village wise man at the end of some old play.
Then he started reading from the paper he’d unfolded. Funerals are not good, he said. Death is bad. It is sad when we lose somebody. But it’s also a chance to think about what we are doing with our life. Where we are getting it right. Where we are pissing it all away. What’s important to us. Who is important to us. Who we listen to. How we live our life.
So far so good, he told her. I was starting to be proud of my father. He was rising to the occasion in his way. He was trying. I gave him a look of strong approval. That thing men do. Two slow nods. You’re on the right track. You’re doing good. But he didn’t give it back. No return nods from him. Not one, not two. Something icy came out of his eyes. Toward me. Just long enough to be meaningful. Just long enough so I’d notice. Then he got to the part of the eulogy he cared about. Everything up until now had been niceties. Prologue.
His father looked down at the paper. He read from it carefully, now. No improvising. My mother was a simple woman, he said. This is what was good about her, that she was simple. She never tried to think too much or too deeply. If she went to the beauty shop, she thought about her hair. If she went to the grocery store, she thought about how she would spend her money on food. If she drove a car, she thought about the road. If she watched Fred Sanford the junkman on TV, she thought about Fred Sanford, his junkyard, his son the dummy. If she ate a baloney sandwich, she thought about the baloney sandwich. If she went to church, she thought about her soul and Jesus. This is what made her good. This was the lesson of her life. This is what we need to think about while we are with her now beside her grave. Don’t make things too complicated. That’s what she would say to us right now. Don’t think too much or too deeply. Avoid the traps laid by those ivory tower eggheads. The useless wheel-spinning. Don’t be caught up in some foolish fake game. Know who you are. Work hard. Make your money. Don’t be selfish. Take care of your family. Don’t try to be special. Don’t try to be what you are not.
To read the rest of this story, please purchase a print copy of Story #5, Summer 2019